Another week, another overdue VOD column. But then, isn’t it better to be late and comprehensive than on-time and under-researched? Apologies are due at any rate, and are always easier to offer when they come together with such a fine platter of viewing material. We stretch across 90 years of film history this week as Netflix have another start-of-the-month influx, though one less bulky than most we’ve seen before. Still, there’s plenty in the way of great movies below, and even two titles that might be called masterpieces. A fine showing of Irish cinema is the icing on the cake.
A filmmaker often as criticised for the recognisable stylistic aspects of his movies as he is celebrated for them, Tim Burton brings the perfect amount of personality to Big Fish, a fantastical film in the vein of Forrest Gump that presents the highly subjective life story of Edward Bloom as he reconciles with his alienated adult son on his deathbed. Played in youth by Ewan McGregor and old age by Albert Finney, Bloom is a colourful creation whose inventive storytelling captivates us as much as it frustrates his son; Burton presents his eccentric life with trusting dedication, making us privy to the vast fables he conjures for anyone who will listen. Episodic by nature, its slight inability to neatly bring everything together is an issue for Big Fish, though not so significant a one that it detracts from the movie’s immense charm, or the genuine father-son emotion that underlines it. WORTH WATCHING.
Black Snake Moan
The second film from writer/director Craig Brewer after the success of Hustle & Flow (also released, though not reviewed, this week), Black Snake Moan sets itself in the world of Mississippi blues, where a religious farmer attempts to cure a young woman of her nymphomania. A strange plot makes for an interesting one, though in Brewer’s hands this tale quickly turns turgid, with the marketing not the only exploitative aspect of the film. Pedestrian biblical references are among the more evident of the script’s many, many weaknesses. Redeemed only in the quality of the performances from Samuel L. Jackson—who seems here almost uncharacteristically interested in his character and his arc—and Christina Ricci—who does her futile best to remain dignified in a rather thankless, arguably demeaning role—Black Snake Moan is a confused mess of a film that might seem offensive if it wasn’t so clearly clueless as to its own intentions. AVOID IT.
David & Kamal
Beginning with an interesting allegorical setup, whereby an insular American boy becomes involved with a street-smart Arabic kid in Jerusalem after the latter steals the former’s rare collectible coins, Kikuo Kawasaki’s David & Jamal rapidly loses all traction courtesy of the staleness of the material, which never manages to make anything interesting of its central relationship. Additionally afflicted with a weak subplot concerning David’s father’s attempts to track the boy, it’s perhaps an idea that would have better suited a short film, feeling stretched even at only 78 minutes. The casting of first-time actor Yoni Rosenzweig against comparative veteran Abdallah El Akal sadly only accentuates the former’s inexperience; already hampered with a directionless plot and disinteresting dialogue, the central duo’s lack of chemistry is the final nail in the coffin of a film that seems as clueless as to its intentions as its viewers will be. AVOID IT.
Frankie and Johnny
An unassuming romantic comedy from the director of Pretty Woman, Frankie and Johnny transposed the success of Terrence McNally’s play to screen in 1991, casting Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer as the titular pair, an ex-con short-order cook and the waitress with whom he attempts to become involved. Genially exploring the genesis and teething problems of this middle-aged relationship, it’s a cute story to which Marshall brings little beyond McNally’s script, leaving it to Pacino, Pfeiffer, and a colourful supporting cast to bring the story to life. Both performers do a perfectly fine job of enlivening their characters, making passably believable the tension of this relationship in its earliest stages, though it’s Pfeiffer who makes the deepest impression, Frankie’s prior subjection to domestic abuse making hers the more engagingly sympathetic character. Rather light, somewhat trite, and ultimately rather forgettable, Frankie and Johnny is engaging entertainment while it lasts, but not for long after. WORTH WATCHING.
Friends with Kids (read our full review)
Taking inspiration from the changing face of her own personal life, Jennifer Westfeldt makes her directorial debut with the self-penned Friends with Kids, starring herself and Adam Scott as platonic best friends who decide to have a child together and thus prevent parenthood from ruining a romantic relationship. There’s a certain irony that a film given to exploring a seeming inevitability of maturation should revel so excessively in toilet humour and adolescent attitudes toward sexuality; indeed, perhaps this is Westfeldt’s intent, but that doesn’t make it any less unfunny when Scott, sprayed with “explosive diarrhoea”, talks about his penchant for large breasts. Where Westfeldt finds some success, however, is in her dramatic writing: paired with a fiery supporting performance from Jon Hamm, she reaches some impressive moments of genuine tension which salvage the otherwise paltry and procedural plot, though simply not enough to make Friends with Kids anything of very much insight. AVOID IT.
I Went Down
The quintessential Irish gangster movie—well, okay, tied with The General—Paddy Breathnach’s beautifully shot comedy I Went Down sees ex-con Git forcibly paired with the bad-tempered Bunny and sent down south to escort another man to an increasingly shady-sounding meeting. It’s a convoluted setup designed with little more than laughs in mind, and laughs it certainly gets: as Bunny, Brendan Gleeson gives one of his finest comic performances, spouting the clever quips of Conor McPherson’s excellent script with resounding success. Less entertaining is Peter McDonald as Git, though it’s not long before Peter Caffrey joins the fray and makes a hilarious three-hander of the film, the three between them more than enough to gloss over the hiccups of some misguided romantic subplots. Breathnach makes the most of the local scenery, wisely framing these characters and the ugliness of their actions against the natural beauty of the Emerald Isle. RECOMMENDED.
Already something of a failure on release, Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation of Tomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon had its fate sealed just five years later, when Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of that book’s sequel swept the board at the Academy Awards, earning Anthony Hopkins eternal recognition as the definitive incarnation of Hannibal Lecter. While Hopkins’ honour may be entirely justifiable, Demme’s film’s perceived superiority is far less so; Mann’s is arguably the more effective movie, its immersive atmosphere—born of Mann’s highly stylised, colour-coded aesthetic—and comparative weirdness blurring the lines between good and evil and contributing an unsettling ambiguity to the film’s characters. They—FBI profiler Will Graham and, in this incarnation, “Lecktor”—are played by William Peterson and Brian Cox, who brilliantly incarnate the battle of wits between the men, both embellishing Manhunter with an intensity that makes it every bit the film that The Silence of the Lambs is, if not even better. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Marriage Italian Style
Vittorio De Sica takes full advantage of the highly sexualised personas of stars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianno in Marriage Italian Style, a bawdy comic romp concerning a wealthy industrialist and his lover of 22 years, who schemes to become his wife when he abandons her in favour of another woman. Though certainly a lesser film than its 1961 namesake Divorce, Italian Style, largely viewed as the initiator of the cycle of sex comedies which dominated Italian cinema in the ‘60s, De Sica’s is a highly entertaining spot of fun that doesn’t let its accentuated antics get in the way of the serious underlying issues it attempts to address. Making of Loren’s a genuinely sympathetic character whose plight highlights the inherent sexism of the day’s society, it’s a surprisingly critical work, if one that never fully exploits its potential for prime social commentary, preferring instead to focus on an effective delivery of cracking adult comedy. RECOMMENDED.
Pretty in Pink
Released the same year as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink could never claim to be among the very strongest of John Hughes’ work, yet its simple story of love and friendship in the dying days of high-school has seen its characters and their relationships endure for over a quarter of a century. They are, primarily, Andie and Duckie, best friends whose closeness is threatened when the former’s attraction to a rich kid only deepens the latter’s unrequited love for her. Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer are ideal in their respective roles, but it’s James Spader who steals the show as an unflinchingly arrogant exemplar of the worst of the wealthy. Great too is Harry Dean Stanton as Andie’s father, theirs an underplayed interaction that serves as an emotional foundation of the film, its strengths standing firm as the film moves ever closer toward its disappointingly unadventurous conclusion. WORTH WATCHING.
Sherlock Jr. (read our full review)
The year was 1924, the feature film was barely two decades old, sound had yet to come to the cinema, and Buster Keaton appeared to have uncovered the very essence of the medium. Sherlock Jr. is his great masterpiece, a film that’s at once silly, slapstick entertainment and serious, self-analytical art. Ostensibly the story of a daydreaming projectionist whose sights are fixed firmly on a beautiful girl, it’s really a metatextual treatise on the powerful potentiality of cinema, showcasing the communal joy of the viewing experience as well as its ability to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. Brimming with Keaton’s typical assortment of death-defying stunts, jaw-dropping trickery, and rib-tickling gags, it’s an absolute essential where comedy is concerned. There are those who maintain the art of cinema peaked in the silent era. It’s people like Buster Keaton, and films like Sherlock Jr., that make this claim truly difficult to contest. MUST SEE.
It’s not just for being Russian that Silent Souls should be compared to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky; this astonishing film, at just 75 minutes, shares the great Soviet auteur’s consummate understanding of the power of cinema, director Aleksey Fedorchenko exploiting each explicit strength of the medium in his construction of a paralysingly poignant take on love and death. Following two descendants of a forgotten Slavic race as they adhere to the ancient burial rites of their forebears when the wife of one passes, it’s a stunningly cinematic experience, Denis Osokin’s laconic script deferring the bulk of emotional expatiation to Fedorchenko’s hypnotic camerawork and the wearied crags of his performers’ faces as they move, solemnly silent, through increasingly expressive locales. As tender and sensual in scenes of lovemaking as in those where the men prepare the deceased for her final journey, Silent Souls is a masterpiece of profound reverence, silently sad but never sentimental. MUST SEE.
Stella Days (read our full review)
Blending the familiar formula of Irish screen comedy with a stark crisis of faith that echoes Bergman—specifically Winter Light—Thaddeus O’Sullivan constructs a film of surprising strength in Stella Days, its subtly subversive construction upon established conventions the understated key to its brilliance. On the surface a fey tale of a progressive priest keen to establish a community cinema in the 1950s amidst protests as to the medium’s corruptive capabilities, its slight story gradually gives way to a striking consideration of faith and its place in wider Irish society, the importance of the questions it raises to the contemporary context only emphasising their still-unanswered status in the modern day. The genius of Antoine O’Flatharta’s script earns half the credit for this unlikely excellence; the rest belongs to Martin Sheen, who delivers a performance that stands not only as a highlight of this late period of his career, but of his filmography as a whole. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Brink’s Job
Hot off the disappointing underperformance of Sorcerer, his big-budget adventure follow-up to the back-to-back success of The French Connection and The Exorcist, William Friedkin turned his attention to quaint crime caper with The Brink’s Job, a lively adaptation of “the crime of the century”, in which 3 million dollars was stolen from the titular security company in 1950. Handled with a savvy sense of physical comedy and Friedkin’s typically assured direction, it’s an effortlessly enjoyable movie as meticulously executed as was the crime it portrays. Ably supported by a cast including Peter Boyle and Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk is a spectacularly smart-talking centre to the film as the mastermind behind the heist. Spanning the years from the onset of the Second World War to just after the caper itself, Friedkin masterfully invokes both the look and the feeling of the period, deftly weighting the drama with the difficulties of contemporary society. RECOMMENDED.
The Runway (read our full review)
Casting Demián Bichir in the strictly Hispanophonic role of a South American pilot who crash-landed in a small community in the south of Ireland in 1983, Ian Power constructs with his Spielbergian debut feature The Runway an engaging tale of the desire to be able to communicate, the heart-warming friendship that arises between the pilot and a fatherless young boy who encourages the town to help him forming the emotional and narrative centre of the film. It’s in the understated parallels Power draws between the contemporary representation of Ireland and its current economic situation that the film finds added strength; the similarities between the wider financial contexts imbue The Runway with an uplifting sense of esprit de corps, seeming to suggest that the very community spirit that saw the country pull through tough times in the 1980s is precisely what needs to be regained to see it through those of the present. A quiet comic delight. RECOMMENDED.