Monday, November 14, 2011

Lots of buzzing moths


For anyone that enjoyed Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold now brings you a revisionist Wuthering Heights, with lots of buzzing moths and a black Heathcliff. Those who have seen it tell me it also features anachronistic swearing and genuinely traumatised dogs, in what context I can only guess. But I can confirm that it has the most pretentious trailer in film history.
So, sadly, the Bath Film Festival is an almost total waste of time. I left London mainly to get away from Ken Loach; now the loony old bastard shows up here. And the films on offer are, in the main, all too deserving of his patronage.
Apart from a few meagre reissues - increasingly the sole purpose of film festivals for me - I only left the house for The Awakening, a ghost story with a twenties setting and Rebecca Hall from Vicky Christina Barcelona. It's that one again: the one that starts with the uncompromisingly rationalist ghostbuster disrupting a fake seance, then shows them going to a spooky old pile on their next case in the same confrontational frame of mind, only to have their certainties overturned after a few encounters with the other world, before a poignant resolution reveals a) their own personal involvement in the hauntings, and b) the fact that some of the people they had been interacting with throughout were in fact ghosts from the start.
It probably wasn't all that original when James Herbert wrote it up as Haunted 25-odd years ago, and a lot of M. Night Shyamalan has flowed under the bridge since then. (The film they made of Haunted with Kate Beckinsale was even more similar, being set, unlike the novel, in the twenties too.) This one's by Stephen Volk, still plugging away; the usual meticulously maintained period atmosphere and settings knowingly undermined by proudly deliberate anachronisms of characterisation and dialogue, a few good scares, and a made for television look to it. Still I suppose we'll have to get used to stark, camcorder visuals and sound recording now that they're not making movie cameras anymore. Another miracle advance of the digital age we're all so proud of.

The new Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method, is a dramatisation of the 'Anna O' case, that made a superstar of Freud and condemned the twentieth century to understanding the mind via a totally fraudulent and irredeemable set of schema and assumptions. That's Keira at the London premiere in the photo. Good to see she's still doing herself up to the nines and coming out for these premieres, even in winter, when she must know the films she gets cast in are always headed for nowhere. Cronenberg hasn't made a really good film since The Brood in 1979, and if this film presents the story in terms even vaguely flattering to Freud, as certainly appears to be the case from the trailer, then I fear this is yet another back door-bound Keira epic I'll nonetheless trot along to regardless: no other actress in history has so consistently rewarded unconditional support with such relentlessly duff movies.
They rarely make any money either, but somehow the next one always comes along: Keira, like Garbo before her, is clearly understood to be one of those commodities for whom actual box office take is largely irrelevant. It's like their films were/are seen as future investments, that will pay off when the appeal is retrospective.

Does the same apply to Jennifer Aniston? Has she ever made a hit movie? I ask only for information, implying no blanket dismissal of her cinematic output. For reasons I explained here, I’ve actually seen an ungodly number of her movies, and some of them are quite good, some of them not so good, a couple are very pleasant indeed, and The Good Girl registers the full Clockwork Orange on the universal crapometer. But none of them, so far as I can see, went over wowsville at the big B-O. And yet she seems to be one of those subsidised stars who always gets a second chance, whereas others can be killed by just one flop, and still more are never given the big chance in the first place.
When you look at the golden age, you sometimes ache to see more of a particular star, but you can’t, because they were at a studio that only had room for them in B’s or support, while the kings and queens got all the plums. Odd thing is that even without a studio system, much the same thing happens today.
At any given time, a vast list of well known names toil in quickies or pop up only now and again, while a select pantheon take home all the cherries, even those to which they are far less suited than many another contender. I mean, I like Anne Hathaway a lot, but does she have to be in everything?
And because all the stars do the publicity rounds, keeping their faces as fresh as possible in chat shows and premieres and fashion shoots; because therefore at the moment you're just as likely to open a magazine and see Anna Faris as Anne Hathaway, you tend to forget how long it's been since you saw Anna Faris in an actual movie, and you get the illusory feeling that there's work enough for them all, and they're all busy beavering away out there under the plastic rainbow. It takes a generation to get a really true sense of what the pecking order was.
This is more obvious the further back you go, and is just coming into focus now for the film stars of the 1990s, my first fully adult filmgoing decade. To anyone who went to the movies regularly then, it is interesting to see that more recent generations of moviegoers know exactly who Sharon Stone is, for example, but may be a little hazier on Madeleine Stowe or Virginia Madsen, regardless of how many films they've seen with each of them in. We thought of them as equal contenders, but of course they weren't really. Longevity, like stardom itself, is a surprisingly hard thing to predict, and the mood of the moment is no help, as anyone who picks up one of those F. Maurice Speed Film Review annuals from years past, and looks at either the 'Top Ten Box-Office Stars' or 'Ten Most Promising Faces' section, will realise in a sobering moment.

So will our children know much about Jennifer Aniston? Not sure.
Here she is in a film I only watched last night, but try as I might, I just can't remember the title of.
I had to go to the shelf to remind myself in order to Google for this photo, and I'm now going to have to go to the shelf again - and we're talking less than ten minutes later - to remind myself again in order to write the title here.
Ah, yes. It's called Just Go With It. Ask me to remind you at the end of this post and I'll doubtless have to go and check a third time. A suicidally unmemorable title, I'd say.
Originally sat to Jen's right in the picture is Adam Sandler, a light comic actor whose true level of popularity I've never quite been certain of, but who also keeps working away, in films that seem to do consistently well-ish but rarely smash (or bomb). I've only seen him in The Wedding Singer and Fifty First Dates. He gatecrashes when we invite Drew around. (Even Winona couldn't hold my attention too long into Mr Deeds.) He's showing his age in this one; getting a bit stocky, and it looks like he's dyeing his hair now. Comes to us all, I suppose. Quite a nice little actor, albeit not one I would have picked from the chorus line personally.
A few good laughs here. Not too bad. It's not really a pure pink film but a kind of couples movie that strives to appeal to both sexes equally, and full of references to contemporary popular culture, of which I understood just enough to realise how much of the rest of it went careening over my head. And even when they're not punchlining about tv shows and pop groups I've never heard of, they're talking very quickly, often at the same time, and with a lot of ambient noise. And I know this is supposed to be a golden age of sound recording, but to me at least a lot of the dialogue reached my ears like this:

Adam: Dgfgf rhrhhr jjytuwpq shdh?
Jennifer: Kf Lotrgfcd ghtyr!
Adam (unimpressed): Thf hghr jkupzcmght agde.
The blonde cutie Adam's trying to pull: Wqryr hghfde slpu.
Adam's dorky brother: Aw, come on! Retss fgfhr hjyt!
Jennifer (in comic triumph): Ghjfkjtye puytrew!!!

Two surprises: first, when Nicole Kidman shows up half way through in a funny but basically nothingish guest star supporting role (the best bit, actually, is the hula contest where she and Jennifer try to upstage each other) and then at the end, when I found out it was a remake of Cactus Flower (which I've never seen). This latter surprised me, at least, because the plot seems so entirely typical of contemporary comedy: an utterly and desperately absurd premise that must be swallowed whole and uncritically if the ensuing shenanigans are to have any comedic value. Loose remake is my guess. Presumably the original didn't have Ingrid Bergman indulging in bikini rivalry with Goldie Hawn.

Finding new plots for these romantic complication movies is a problem, of course. There are only so many ways boy can meet girl, lose girl over some comic misunderstanding or girl can realise that boy she took for granted is really boy of her dreams. Perfectly understandable if the desperation shows.
If (re-check and insert title here before publishing post) has a plot that seems to lean on the absurd side, Failure To Launch is just plain ludicrous. Possibly the silliest idea for a romantic comedy I have ever encountered, and not helped for me by the lead presence of Matthew McConnaughey, by no means a man without any rightful place in our cinematic wonderland, but surely one whose stock company villain's wolverine face positively screams 'Don't cast me as the lead in a romantic comedy'.
But the plot's the real snag: it would defeat any chemistry. Never mind Matthew McWhatsisname and her off Sex and the City, Cary and Audrey would lose a gallon of sweat each trying to keep it greased. It really is crazy. From the big central premise to the most peripheral subplot (Zooey Whatshername trying to get rid of a noisy nightingale) via just about every scene and set piece, all of it plays like someone telling you about the weird dream they had last night. And when you think of the number of screenplays being written that never see the light of day, and how many frustrated writers there are out there, the fact that this one got greenlighted and then went all the way to the screen, that a major studio had and never lost faith in it from draft to premiere... well, that's why I'm not a studio executive, I expect.

Our other pinkie this month was Morning Glory, seemingly a star vehicle for Rachel McAdam, of whom I had not even heard whispers, until we saw her, being very good, in Woody Allen's new one. I was also attracted by the elder supporting pairing of Diane Keaton, always good in anything, and Harrison Ford, an annoyingly underused actor who could have been a kind of modern Gary Cooper and second lieutenant to Clint (who in this movie he resembles quite a lot, especially vocally) if only he hadn’t got so rich so early, chasing robots down white corridors and Nazis through underground tombs. A handsome and likeable actor on the rare occasions he set his sights on appealing to adults – excellent in Polanski’s Frantic – he has proved wilfully elusive for most of his career. He’s nice in light comic roles, and here, though underused (as is Keaton), he's very funny indeed.
It's from the writer of Devil Wears Prada and has the same weird narrative arc: in the first a bright and talented girl takes a job on a fashion magazine she rightfully considers beneath her but comes, somehow, to love and share the superficiality of its worldview; now here a respected news journalist is forced to take a job on morning television, initially holds out against its banalities but comes, somehow, to learn respect for it, happily taking part in cookery demonstrations and forced banter with the co-host. Despite this cockeyed take on the subject the film, like its predecessor, is good fun.

This post is already too long, so here's just a brief rundown of what we've seen lately on Italian Night (see here for explanation):

Bread and Tulips: Delightful romantic comedy with the kind of wonderful actors with wonderful faces that only Italy seems to find, not like film stars at all, just fascinating-looking people: witness Licia Maglietta in the lead and Giuseppe Battiston as a hapless private detective. Audaciously happy: always a plus.
Marriage, Italian Style: Lovely, glossy De Sica trifle from his triumphant post-neorealist betrayal period; Marcello and Sophia halting the decline of the European film industry.
Malena: Monica attempts to revive the European film industry by walking down the street and having all the young men follow her, just like in those old Sophia movies. I just wish she only made Italian films, instead of naff European and Hollywood things like Shoot 'em Up and Irreversible. Always interesting to see an Italian perspective on World War 2; this is from the Cinema Paradiso fellow.
Summertime: David Lean unleashes his magic camera on a fifties Technicolor Venice: the smile takes a few hours to fade, though the scenario would have needed big print to fill the back of an envelope. Technique, and mood, are all.
Lights of Variety: Critical restraint dies when you love Fellini, so let's just call this a sink-your-teeth-in feast of magnificence. Actually, once colour and reputation got the better of his imagination, he became a unpredictable speculation, but he rarely lets you down when he's in black and white. Second case in point:
I Vitelloni: We set aside an afternoon on our honeymoon in Florence to watch this in our hotel. Granted, a film would have to be pretty bad to fail with that kind of build-up (Argento's Giallo managed it, though), but coming to this now, for a second time and just over a year later, it seemed if anything even more impressive: that 'can't quite catch it in your fingers' atmosphere, a concoction of photography, music, location, performance (all the cast are magnificent) and that extra spell Fellini waves over it all somehow.

Now I'll leave you with a couple more pictures of Keira looking fandabidozi at the Cronenberg premiere. As premiere outfits go, I'll give this one ***.
It's the only fair way to judge her movies.