Carrying on from yesterday’s half of this week’s coverage, today’s 18 titles comprise perhaps an even finer selection of cinematic treats, with further classics from the Roger Corman stable, a one-two punch of Bruce Willis sci-fi, moving dramatic documentaries, more ventures into the wild world of Woody Allen, and classic genre outings aplenty. If none of that suits your tastes… well there might just be no hope for you.
Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s breakthrough novel has both the courage and the sense to not just act out the story on screen, but to translate it to cinematic language, filtering Murakami’s much-beloved prose and entrusting the bulk of the narrative’s emotional engagement to Tran’s imagery. Spectacular imagery it is too, Tran’s use of snowfall in his landscapes calling to mind the work of Park Chan-Wook in the Vengeance Trilogy. The story of a young man torn between two loves in 1960s Japan, Norwegian Wood is a powerfully immersive capturing of an adolescent mindframe, beautifully rendered in the performances of its three leads. There is an overwhelming lugubriousness to the idea of reaching 20 that seems almost to paralyse them; it is, in essence, the first fleeting glimpses of mortality and the truth of life. Embittered yet joyous, pained yet passionate, Tran’s is a film of visual lyricism, a magnificent screen rendition of a truly great tale. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Considered by many to be Leone’s magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in the West arrived despite the director’s insistence that he had said all he needed to say with the western genre, proving that statement not entirely true. An iconic examination of the boundaries between good and bad, its casting of noted good guy Henry Fonda in the role of a callous villain is but one of Leone’s many strokes of genius, toying with the viewer’s perceptions in the vein of the finest revisionist westerns. Fonda is as brilliant as ever, as too is Charles Bronson in the role of an eerie harmonica-wielding gunslinger out to exact an unspecific revenge upon Fonda’s amoral murderer. An impeccable sound design makes for agonisingly calculated tension throughout, Leone utilising the palpable unease of near-silence with as much effect as the typically exquisite Morricone score which passionately heralds the panoramic vistas of Monument Valley in all its jaw-dropping glory. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Coming just months before Ben Stiller’s breakthrough hit with There’s Something About Mary, Permanent Midnight sees the comedian playing it a good deal straighter as heroin-addicted television writer Jerry Stahl, whose memoirs form the basis of the screenplay. Stahl’s is a sad story of Hollywood excess and the emptiness of a flashy existence, seeing him wed an executive so that she can gain a green card and he the favour of her influence. For all the interest of so candid a glimpse behind the working of the studios in the 1980s, though, this is an oddly self-serving work, making Stahl the hero of his own tale despite the despicability of his actions. Writer/director David Veloz has Stiller play Stahl as a cause for sympathy, but it’s hard to come down on the side of a man who shoots up while supposed to be taking care of a young child. Never managing to overcome its protagonist’s awfulness, Permanent Midnight struggles to retain much relevance. SO-SO.
Just the third of Allen’s films to not count him among its cast (he narrates), Radio Days is a nostalgic odyssey through his Jewish upbringing and the radio-centric family life of ‘30s and ‘40s America. A sweet-natured story positively beaming with the fond warmth of Allen’s happy memories, it tells several parallel and slightly interwoven stories of contemporary life and the magical escapism of music and radio serials. Like with so much of Allen’s ‘80s work, Mia Farrow and Diane Wiest are the standout performers, respectively playing a wannabe star and an unlucky in love aunt. Seth Green does a commendable job as the childhood Allen character who stumbles through his youth by way of school crushes and adventure shows. As funny as the best of Allen, Radio Days stands out among the finest of his canon courtesy of the delightful pleasantry of these reminiscences, making it impossible not to be utterly charmed by its embrace. RECOMMENDED.
The Coen brothers’ sophomore feature could hardly have been more different from their jet-black debut three years prior with Blood Simple. Replacing the neo-noir sensibility of that great movie with comedy as light as it comes, Raising Arizona is a rambunctious and zany kidnapping story following the sprawling chaos that ensues when a paroled criminal and his new policewoman wife steal one of the five newborns of a local businessman. The Coens quirkier sensibilities are one full display with a typically manic Nicolas Cage at the helm, leading to scene after scene of irritatingly overblown pastiche occasionally interspersed with literally explosive action comedy. It’s a film that might have made for some frenetic fun, yet the young filmmakers effectively throw the potential out the window with their unrestrained hysteria, never pausing to let the story breathe and just heaping yet more lunacy atop a mound of overbearing silliness far too self-assured to be anything but annoying. AVOID IT.
A director as known for the events of his personal life as for his filmography, Roman Polanski’s notorious arrest for the alleged drugging and rape of a 13 year old girl in 1977 continues to shadow his career to this day. Marina Zenovich’s documentary delves behind the media circus that enshrouded the case and, in interviews with the attorneys for the prosecution and defence, unearths no shortage of shocking revelations of professional misconduct and pre-decided verdicts. Testimonies reveal a judge—now deceased—more concerned with media attention than justice, a bizarre secret plea bargain between sides, and the real reasons that led Polanski to flee the United States, to which he has never since returned. It’s something of a problem that Zenovich spends so much time on the troubled past of Polanski, portraying his Holocaust-shadowed childhood and the murder of his wife in such a way as to make him seem compassionate, but the film’s insight into the case itself is invaluable. RECOMMENDED.
Among the last of what Allen would later in Stardust Memories dub his “earlier, funnier movies”, Sleeper is at once a silly sci-fi pastiche and a loving homage to the slapstick comedians of yesteryear. Utterly ridiculous from beginning to end, it sees Allen play a 1970s New Yorker frozen and sent 200 years into the future, where he poses as a robot butler to Diane Keaton’s wealthy socialite as part of a rebellion against an emergent dictatorship. As perfect a screen couple as ever they were, Allen and Keaton have a great time enacting the farcical romp, everything from flying machines to oversized fruit entering at one point or another to join the fun. Playing it all for sight gags, it hasn’t quite got the same dialogical sharpness of other Allen films, making it perhaps more appealing to a different variety of comic taste as his usual outings. Unashamedly nonsensical, it’s a fine point of refuge for anyone seeking a good laugh. WORTH WATCHING.
Exploitation cinema might by its very name seem only a crass capitalisation on current tastes and trends, but part of what I love so much about it is the deceptively complex issues explored beneath the violence and nudity. Nobody better demonstrates this latent intelligence than Roger Corman, whose stamp is all over Sorority House Massacre despite his presence only as an uncredited producer. Writer/director Carol Frank concocts a story that might well seem meaninglessly murderous at first glance, but to dismiss it as such would be to ignore the incisive glimpse she gives of burgeoning sexual identity. The recurring images of waking to blood; the idea of duality as expressed by a fraternal killer; subtle undercutting of traditional gender roles: here is a film far more ideologically astute and thematically complex than the title might suggest. Low production values unfortunately hold it back from being a great work, but given the expectations it conjures, it’s hard to imagine a bigger payoff. RECOMMENDED.
A franchise Warner Bros have been decidedly unsuccessful thus far in their desires to resurrect, Superman first flew into theatres all the way back in 1978, the first major superhero movie there ever was. Its legacy is indisputable, the origin story structure it implements replicated to this day by just about every new comic adaptation that arrives on the scene. It’s not just for its originality that it still manages to stand above most of its modern equivalents, though; Richard Donner’s film is a comic romance first and foremost, a tale of Earth’s mightiest hero second. With the heavyweight acting pedigree of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman among others behind him, relative newcomer Christopher Reeve dons the iconic red cape and truly becomes his character, the crystal clear definition between his Superman and his Clark Kent making it all the easier to understand how even his friends might not recognise that a pair of glasses are all that really separate the two. RECOMMENDED.
Vadim Jean’s second venture into Pratchett’s Discworld sees him combine the series’ first two novels into one bumper adventure, a move that makes The Colour of Magic feel a little more rushed than Hogfather behind it. Perhaps it’s due to the strength of the central character—Rincewind, the bumbling amateur wizard who happens to have one of the most dangerous spells ever dreamed up trapped in his brain—that this adaptation is nonetheless the better of the two. Avid Discworld readers will likely be unconvinced by the casting choice of David Jason as Rincewind, but he does at least bring a certain charm to the role that sees the character’s cowardly shoes filled in mannerism terms, if not entirely in physical ones. Sean Astin is a nice addition as Twoflower, a tourist who hires Rincewind as his guide to the great city of Ankh-Morpork, and his constant companion as their entertainingly madcap adventures spiral entirely out of control. WORTH WATCHING.
Casting Dominic Cooper as both Uday Hussein, Saddam’s notoriously unhinged son, and his body double Latif Yahia, The Devil’s Double goes behind one of the world’s most infamous modern dictatorships to bear witness to the most sadistic of crimes therein committed. Cooper received a good deal of praise for his dual role, but it seems to me that people were simply impressed at his taking two characters rather than taking them well. His efforts at retaining an Iraqi accent range from noble to embarrassing, his voice sometimes slipping for moments at a time back to his own British accent. It’s troubling enough to see an Iraq-set drama filmed entirely in English, all the more so to see the Iraqi lead character speaking as though he were born and bred in London. He plays Uday as essentially a hyper cartoon character; juvenile and stupid though the film around him may be, it’s way too over the top to ever seem even remotely realistic. AVOID IT.
Gleefully over the top, garishly saturated, and absolutely ridiculous, Luc Besson’s 1997 science fiction film made for an interesting different follow-up to his prior film, the character-driven thriller Léon. Wisely keeping on Gary Oldman from that film as villain, Besson casts him here as the evil industrialist hired by an alien race known as the Mangalores to foil the plans of the benevolent Mondoshawans to save the earth from destruction. With Milla Jovovich playing the titular “divine one” and Bruce Willis the taxi driver who becomes her guardian, it’s a story crammed with gobbledygook and gibberish, yet so knowingly silly in its nonsensicality that it functions as a whole lot of fun. Chris Tucker is a problem as a screeching talk show host whose act wears thin within seconds, but his shtick aside the patent silliness of the screenplay offers plentiful fun to be had amid an explosive orgy of effects-laden action. WORTH WATCHING.
Those who sneer at the name of Roger Corman as a purveyor of lowly exploitation thrills would do well to take a look at the film of which he claims to be most proud, and rightly so. The Intruder stars William Shatner as a self-described social reformer who arrives in the American South on the eve of integration to decry the mingling of different races. With striking monochrome photography capturing the burning crosses and ominous hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, it’s a film that portrays in no uncertain terms the lingering bigotry in American society, showing in its comparisons of Shatner’s character to Hitler an unrestrained view of the reality of segregation. A difficult work that builds towards a denouement of staggering truth, The Intruder may well be the single most important film from one of American cinema’s most undervalued social commentators. Unfortunately, it’s also noteworthy as the only one of Corman’s 400+ productions to make a financial loss. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Those of my own generation may well remember with fondness the first cinematic outing of Nickelodeon’s most famous babies. The Rugrats Movie stands in my memory as one of the earliest films I can remember seeing in cinemas, and it’s nice to see it hold up as a perfectly decent and entertaining kids’ movie. Seeing the gang lost in a forest also home to a family of escaped circus monkeys, it’s got all the cheap poo gags you could want from a movie with so young a cast of characters, plus an added dash of heart as Tommy comes to terms with being responsible for newborn baby brother Dil. Very loosely borrowing the plot of The Wizard of Oz, it does well to expand the 20 minute show to a feature film, the animation richer and more detailed than usual and the sense of drama enough to warrant the extended runtime for the story. WORTH WATCHING.
The debut feature from Blue Tongue Films, an Australian production company whose shorts have won them heaps of deserved festival praise, The Square was written by Joel Edgerton and directed by his brother Nash. A pitch black neo-noir thriller, it concerns the affair between Raymond and Carla, neighbouring lovers eager to flee their respective loveless marriages and elope together. Spying the opportunity to earn enough money to do so when her criminal husband stashes a bag of cash in their house, Carla convinces Raymond to steal the money and burn the home, after which a chain of devastating events naturally follows. The plotting gets a little too convoluted for its own good in the process, detracting from the emotional core that is the central relationship and undermining its importance. Even so, David Roberts and Claire van der Boom were born for the lead roles, and the film succeeds despite its flaws on the sheer strength of their ineffably real performances. RECOMMENDED.
A follow-up of sorts to their unexpected worldwide success with Once, this low-key documentary follows musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the wake of their Oscar win for “Falling Slowly”. Going behind the scenes as they tour America, and taking in interviews with Hansard’s family, The Swell Season is a remarkably candid film that examines, at its heart, the inability of two alien personalities to truly connect. Hansard is an unrelenting pessimist, Irglová a happier sort perplexed by his inability to be content with life. It’s funny that their real-life relationship should be more involving even than their on-screen one; in many ways The Swell Season is a more engaging, more interesting, and ultimately more meaningful film than Once was, feeling so real as to be almost personal to the viewer too. The overabundant focus on Hansard, less likeable, is an issue, but this is an engrossing documentary that speaks to the stark incompatibility of different minds. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Our second journey with Bruce Willis into the realms of sci-fi this week, Terry Gilliam’s 1995 feature is a strange story of time travel and revolution as Willis plays a jailed man in an apocalyptic future where humans have been driven underground by a deadly virus. Sent to various points in the past to stop the titular terrorist organisation from unleashing the virus in the first place, he gradually falls for a compassionate mental institution worker as he tries to gather further clues on the bio-weapon’s origin. Gilliam’s typically manic direction adds a fine sense of personality to somewhat typical story, as does a madcap and Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt as the leader of the Twelve Monkeys. Willis is on top form, his character haunted by recurring visions from an unsure past or future, a hero devoid of the typical toughness he would normally come armed with. Labyrinthine but never convoluted, Twelve Monkeys is smart sci-fi done right. RECOMMENDED.
A documentary look at the outbreak of AIDS in 1970s San Francisco, We Were Here is a humbling and powerful remembrance of millions of lost lives from those who still remain. Presumably drawing from a larger pool of interviewees, director David Weissman focuses on the testimonies of just half a dozen speakers who tell heart-wrenching tales of lost lovers, horror stories of inundated medical wards, and give infuriating accounts of hatred and prejudice born of basic intolerance. The virus was an unprecedented blow to the thriving gay community at the time, the vast majority of whom—in rebellion to the lack of acceptance in society—boasted unfettered sexual promiscuity. It’s difficult not to be deeply moved as survivors tell the stories of those no longer here to share their own, the film acquiring by way of these proxy reminiscences a striking sense of tragic loss. Weissman has delivered a documentary of immense importance; these people were there, and we all should know it. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.