Saturday, 26 March 2011

Film Roundup ~ Dvojka (‘Twosome’)

2009 Czech Republic. Director Jaroslav Fuit. Starring Kristyna Novakova & Jakub Wagner
This was the fourth and final FACT instalment of the Czech Film Festival package which seems to be 'touring' the country in March and April. I don't know if there is only one reel available of each – whether this one was wound up, packed in a box and posted off to Edinburgh, but I quite hope so – in the interests of quaintness I think that would be for the best.

If true, the contents of the box in Dvojka's case will be far less charming than the process it is being transported by. Harshly filmed, road-trip gone bad, relationship-turned-sour, featuring three pretty unlikeable characters, with a glumly inconclusive and uncathartic ending, set in wintery Scandinavia.....although it has plenty of admirable qualities, attractiveness is certainly not one: Quaint It Aint.

The film is extremely modern in most ways, and the sparse, unfinessed camera work (the whole film has an 'untreated' look to it, similar to the lack of sheen you get on Deleted Scene features) and this dovetails very well with the grey, washed out buildings and scenery that make up the backdrop to a couple who have been together for five years ill-fatedly deciding to take a holiday together to attempt reinvigoration. The crashing boredom and over-familiarity which necessitates this is very well demonstrated in the opening ten minutes. Jakub Wagner as Michal works alone in a soullessly bland office, spends his money on a new TV and Playstation for his similarly ascetic flat, where his girlfriend Veronika (Kristyna Novakova) mopes aloof and frustrated – their only interaction being her acting as selector (by shouting 'stop' at random) of which team he is going to play as on Fifa.

As they lay totally disconnected in bed later on, with her asleep we can see the cogs in Michal's frustrated mind turn as he lies awake and comes to the decision that this is a crisis and something must be done. The next day he wittily uses the same method as earlier to have Veronika unknowingly choose the destination for the holiday which both unspeakingly realise is make-or-break for them.

Sweden picked as the destination, Michal hurriedly books & pays online for accommodation and after bland discussion over how many pairs of boxers should be packed, hopes and spirits rise fractionally and they set-off in her dad's car to catch the ferry. Predictably, but believably, the journey is doomed from its inception – a knowing quip by the would-be-father-in-law about a "roomy" backseat nixes Michal later on when he feels uncomfortable and unable to have sex in the car. Before they get to that point, more mishaps strike: A tyre bursts and Michal is unable to fix it – assistance has to be sought from a trucker, to irritation all round; the last ferry of the day has already left when they arrive; and disastrously when they arrive at their destination he realises that his hurried internet booking has only resulted in fuelling a scammer – and the sizeable sum he has paid is lost. With nowhere to stay and Veronika mocking him for his ineffectiveness, she goes to sleep in the back of the car. Michal then for the second time briefly steps and takes charge of the situation (driving through the night to re-start the break in Copenhagen) only to again undermine his good work (acting the misery-arse, whining at her for buying postcards, and being a sulky idiot).

She leaves him alone to mope into his "not good" kebab and can of Coke, then trudge back to the white-washed motel, whilst she goes off to enjoy herself – latching on to a group in a seedy bar, treating stranger to drinks on Michal's credit card and flirting with a 'cool' fellow Czech, who returns Veronika, senseless with drink, to the motel. He then uses his "streetwise" nous to wangle payment for the taxi, room for the night and, eventually, a ride in the car for the directionless next stage of the twosome's expedition.

The best way of describing Simon, the drifter, is as very much in the Super-Hans tradition. His vices and general behaviour (constant drinking, shop-lifting, denouncing Michal's choice of music as "wanker's tunes", general lasciviousness and sudden switches in character) are all very similar. In fact, you wonder whether the director has followed Peep Show – at a push the entire picture could be seen as a film version of Mark taking Sophie on a doomed excursion, and the bleakness of the situation leading them to unwisely pick-up Super Hans (Simon is too unlikable and cynical to be Jeremy) .
The next few days are slow torture for Michal, as his flaws are exaggerated by the new-comers flighty, capricious approach and he is made to look square, impotent, fussy and old in comparison. Simon takes them all to a beach-house, deserted at this time of year and belonging to an associate. Bike trips, swimming, visits to the nearest town are all just further opportunities for Michal to look worn-out and a lost cause. Simon's ascendency is hardly unchecked: he very murkily almost overseas the robbery of their car, arranges a meeting in a dive where Veronika is harassed, inexplicably is found to carry a gun ("gunny"?), and confesses to "sucking off a horrible, smelly Turkish truckdriver" to get a ride in the past.

Despite this less-than-stellar CV, Veronika is so disillusioned with her long-term partner's relentless glowering that the attraction between her and Simon quickly escalates. Things reach a nadir when Michal – who has constantly chided his girl-friend for her partiality to alcohol – is driven to take his "first drink for a year", and, after downing bottle of vodka, produces a master-class in self-embarrassment. He slurs insults at the other two, swears, sings, sweats and shows himself up to the extent that he jumps on the couch pulls his pants down and encourages Simon to repeat his Turkish truck driver's treat. Finished, spectacularly, he retreats to bed and for the first time the growing magnetism between the other two moves up a level, and they have sex and fall asleep intertwined on the couch.
Michal comes down the next morning, sees what he must have feared to be inevitable, and realising he had fuelled it with his pathetic display the night before takes himself off to the sea. Waking up Veronika is regretful, dismissive of Simon's suggestion that they take-off together and the sense of emptiness for all concerned is overwhelming. Simon slopes off to presumably move on to the next free-ride, and the other two head back silently, resentfully, bleakly bound for home and a division of their belongings – she is to move out.

No redemption and no 'new direction', just a glum drift apart. This was though, a very enjoyable 90 minutes with glimmers of humour and tenderness flecked amid the overall drabness. It was very realistic, with moments especially when Michal's constant awkwardness made you want to scream "mate, stop being such a dick" at him. He is too easily duped into letting the chancer into their world, initially against his girl-friend's advice ("I don't feel comfortable with him around") – but they both seem to dread being left alone together so much that he is grudgingly allowed to become a permanent third-wheel. Veronika doesn't cover herself in glory, sleeping with Simon even after ridiculing at his flagrantly insincere pre-sex patter, drinking like a fish throughout the whole film and nit-picking and sniping. Simon is a terrible man, espousing a vacuous 'go with the flow' approach to life ("don't think of it as stealing – tell yourself you're just borrowing the shop's stuff") and fleaseing everyone he meets.

As I said, not much in terms of a hero in the characters, although the director Fuit deserves to be seen as something along these lines for keeping the intrigue and authenticity up throughout such a depressing chain of events. The white/grey, sanitary, hand-held camera tone is perfect for the story, and the sound-track is great too – although I haven't been able to track down any details. However I did find out this:
According to the Reflex magazine's Jan Hřebejks annual survey, this debut was declared the third most successful new Czech feature film of 2009.
And what higher praise could there be?

Film Roundup ~ Love and Death

1975. Director Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen & Diane Keaton.
I remember at one of my infrequent gatherings at my humble, some would say less than swelteringly hot, flat, someone complaining once that the Woody Allen book in the bathroom was a bit creepy. It would be better if I could remember who/when it was, as it would sound a lot less like just a contrived recollection to work in as an opening to this entry, but it did happen – and is revealing as to a prevailing attitude and ignorance about the Woodster.

From the first reactions of some people, you'd think his litany of films should be filed under 'adult' and treated as a bit of an exception – a niche, semi-pornographic anomaly that would be of no interest at all to the majority. You get the impression that he wouldn't mind that and would probably actually take it as a perverse compliment – as he would the fact that someone would find a photo of him on the cover of a book a bit too repellent to go about their bathroom business.

It's odd that his kind of stock-in-trade romantic comedy (he arguably invented the entire genre of 'relationship films'), which he can turn out to a decent standard in his sleep, are exactly the style of movie that plenty of people are happy to watch ream upon ream of witless facsimiles of, without wondering what the market leader is like – like eating every type of Dairylea, processed Kraft or Babybel but never being tempted to go for a real piece of cheese.

This in fact isn't one of the 'template' genre ones – it's very difficult to say what this film is actually going for – and because of that reveals one of the qualities he has , which may be more praiseworthy than all the usual epithets lobbed at him ('wry', 'observational', ' nihilistic' etc) and that is: He does not give a fuck.
What was he thinking putting out a 90 minute, virtually plotless, period piece that is basically a loose through-line for him to get as money one-liners and smart-arse quips in as possible and have he and Diane Keaton dress up in some fantastic Russian costumes? Was there ever any focus-group, 'what do the public want?'-style think tank that produced a pitch remotely like this:
"Parody of classic literature. In czarist Russia, a neurotic soldier and his distant cousin formulate a plot to assassinate Napoleon. With Marx Bros/Chaplin-esque slapstick vibe"

Sonja: Judgment of any system, or a priori relationship or phenomenon exists in an irrational, or metaphysical, or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.Boris: Yes, I've said that many times.

To just fancy doing something like this, do it, put it out and not pander in any way to audience maximisation or any such nonsense is a fairly brave thing to do. It's absolutely unimaginable to think of any comedic celebrity nowadays coming up with anything within a million miles of such an unusual and non-commercial idea.
Five years before this, he was still writing jokes for other people and doing stand-up sketch shows on TV. What is the likelihood that , say, by 2015 Michael McIntyre will write, direct and star in a totally individual feature-length film simultaneously celebrating and satirising the key figures and literature from the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Current would-be peers of similar stature do indeed tip-toe into the film milieu – but the way in which for arguments sake, Russell Brand & Ricky Gervais have done it is so much more cynical and planned to the most small detail.

Both are very clever and funny, and you'd imagine both do have fairly interesting opinions and thoughts, but if you compare the safeness and predictability of the roles they've taken in 'Hollywood' to the type of film I'd guess they'd like to be associated with in an ideal world, the conclusion would have to be that they're either not ambitious & brave enough - or more worried about doing something alternative that flopped than following their own instinct.

Part of his lack of concern for critical reception I think must come from the decision to just keep on ploughing his own path and have almost decided that barring exceptional circumstances, he's going to put out a film every year regardless of reaction to the previous release. This taps into a much bigger truth that is not often mentioned in critical assessments, maybe because it's very simplistic: artists are more interesting the more they put out, erreors, mis-steps and all.
Invariably, when a band takes four years working on an album it's a huge let-down. It must be difficult when you're the person actually charged with creating something, and the temptation to over-do it and the desire for everything to be 'perfect' is understandable, but when you step back and look from an uninvolved perspective, the folly is frustrating.
REM put out their first 8 albums in nine years, and two stone-cold five star classics in successive years (91&92). If they'd spent three years making sure every single note on Automatic For the People was "perfect" (e.g. taken out the off-script laugh on 'Dr. Zeus' in Sidewinder... etc) it wouldn't have had the same feel at all.
In the 70s alone Woody Allen released ten films, and clearly there were bits and pieces that he could have re-done, agonised over nuances and fretted over. But the pattern of constantly moving on seems to produce a far better overall cannon , and you end up with the progression from Play It Again Sam (my favourite out of all his films) to Annie Hall – the first being effectively a dry-run to be learnt from and improved upon for the Oscar winner.
Boris: I have no fear of the gallows.Father: No?Boris: No. Why should I? They're going to shoot me.

Segments of Love & Death make absolutely no sense and a smattering of the gags bomb completely, but because its done so honestly it just emphasises the smartness of the ones that do worked – helped his a co-star, described by the NY Times at the time as "Miss Keaton, a wickedly funny comedienne" building on what must be the most consistent on-screen chemistry pairing ever ("There are dozens of little moments when their looks have to be exactly right, and they almost always are").

t looks sensational throughout, spurns some of the most quotable lines he's ever managed and manages to mix references to classical literature seamlessly with knockabout nonsense – as Roger Ebert put it, it's a great film "because it's been done with such care, love and lunacy"

"Sex without love is an empty experience. But as empty experiences go, it's one of the best."
To finish on a trite point – haters gon' hate, and they will find plenty to dislike about Woody Allen if they want, but they shouldn't. Get past, if needs be, being 'creeped out' by the cover of the book and read some of it:
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Thursday, 24 March 2011

Film Roundup ~ Then She Found Me

2007. Director Helen Hunt. Starring Helen Hunt, Colin Frith, Mathew Broderick, Bette Midler.

‘B-side & Rarities’ albums are usually split down the line between songs that are fantastic & baffling as to how the band overlooked them for wider exposure, and those that, to use a Q/Mojo album review staple: “are B-sides for a reason”.

The same divide can probably be used for ‘Films bought in CEX, used and costing less-than-£3’, some are great and a really good discovery – whilst some are, um, ‘pre-owned for a reason’.

This, apparently Helen Hunt’s directorial debut, is firmly in the latter camp. It’s not quite an absolute atrocity, but .....well, if a case can be made that Bette Midler gives the most consistent, realistic to a point, role....then you have to worry.

It starts off at breakneck pace, with plotlines coming in from right, left and centre, but none of them are given any lasting attention at all or appropriate focus.

Having seen the whole film, one of the opening scenes is a microcosm of the bigger picture: Mathew Broderick is home, waiting for his wife to get in from work (it turns out they work together, it seems like in a uni, but it’s not, it’s a junior school) pondering the best way to confess he’s had an affair with another teacher in the same corridor, at the same school (this is never mentioned again), Helen Hunt comes in, somehow manages in about five seconds to change and put on lingerie under her work coat, and brace herself to reluctantly hear his confession of infidelity.

They then have sex on a table, he gets up and – I might have got this wrong, but I’m sure this is what happens – gets a bag and says “I’ll see you at work”. But its dark and she’s just come home from work. And they work together remember. But ‘the next day’, there’s no sign of him, leaving the class he’s teaching to merge into her puipils, casuing uproar. All very hectic.

A recurring fault is that you don’t really get any clear sense of how long this rift - or anything else - has been brewing: you see them get married, “ten months” is bandied about as to how long they’d been together when he decides he “doesn’t want this life”, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether the film is set over, say, a couple of years – or a month or so.

Helen Hunt is still somewhat baffled – and fair play to her, as director she shows no vanity in filming her character, there’s only one scene where she looks anything better than dishevelled, super-stressed and gaunt – by the speed of events, when she in the maelstrom of the two groups of young kids being put together, sets eyes on Colin Firth, there to drop one of his two children off.

In another line that could be used against the entire film as indictment and evidence of it trying to pile in as much ‘intrigue’ as possible she fends him off by saying “I split up with my husband nine hours ago! Can you control yourself for five minutes!?” Well, quite.

The pattern of the film ends up being like an unsatisfying 50 over cricket innings – gung-ho, hectic start with hit-and-miss “big shots” and then a reprise of the frenzied action at the end where everything simply must have a conclusion within the fixed timeframe, but with a meandering, attention diverting miss-mash in between. Uneven and unfulfilling.

To ramble on, something like Reds on the other hand would be a good Test match, flowing and steady. Periods of drift, very lengthy, no rush, an audience unfriendly interval, and after all this, an unclear, slightly unsatisfactory result. 5 Days for a draw. Colin Frith, incidentally, could play Andrew Strauss , easily. No idea what the plot would be. But the role is his for the taking.
Sage reminder of the up-and-down fortunes of actors provided by Firth in this film too. It’s an almost self-parodic role as a love-lorn, hard-done-by, neurotic English gentleman. He certainly seems an awful long way from an Oscar-winning comeback three years hence in his worryingly moist-eyed, fanatical, choked-throat declaration of admiration to Hunt in his interview on the DVD extras.

In keeping with the baffling tone of the whole project, these bonus-features strike totally the wrong note; Helen Hunt unwisely draws attention to the fact that this was ten years in the making, Firth is on the brink of tears as he salutes the project's bravery, beauty and brilliance – and Broderick leads people to believe its a laugh-a-minute comedy in which he has more than three scenes (0ne of which, admittedly, does have a decent if generic joke).....bizarre.

> Within the first ten minutes there’s been a wedding, an affair, a passionate reunion, a job crisis, the beginning of another affair, a funeral (her adoptive mum dies), and then a reconciliation with her blood mother – once more, indecently rushed through: a messenger arrives at the school whilst Helen is still poking herself frantically in the f’head to try to fathom her first encounter with this 'frosty but cute' scene we’re in a restaurant for the meeting.

This introduces Bette Midler, playing a caricatured, loud-mouth, sex-pot US chatshow host. Hopefully that will put my early mention of her being the solidest character into context- nuanced it aint – but it is reasonably amusing in its own way.

One of the review comments I’ve seen says “Hunt knows when to rein in the Divine Miss M instead of allowing her to go into full Kabuki mode”, which as well as being one of the campest things ever committed to record, is with all due respect, total bollocks. It is a very OTT performance but it is believable. This is the trailer <. It basically covers everything (and more, there are very important bits that are alluded to here that are skipped over pretty much without mention in the actual final cut). And what it covers is a a total miss-mash, with potentially intriguing angles (the re-attraction and pull of her husband, the adopted child v natural child battle for love) being briefly brushed over whilst anodyne filler (Colin Firth’s insomnia, the main character’s religious doubts) being relatively dwelt on and indulged. The nadir is probably the scene two-thirds through when Frith, on discovering she’s briefly returned to her husband (via a very lazy plot/prop device), gives his essay at Clive Owen’s infamously sour rant at Julia Roberts in Closer – ending by saying he hopes she loses her baby (she does, unfathomably informed of the miscarriage by a cameo-ing Salman Rushdie as a doctor...) and that his own kids can “go fuck themselves”. It’s a limp tirade, and fittingly, is totally ignored as they end up together at the end anyway, although (as queried before) whether these multiple U-Turns have happened over a reasonable period or (as it seems) a couple of weeks is difficult to grasp. And its clumsily thrown in at the very end that they've adopted a Chinese girl. Of course.
Plus points; it is original, can’t think of anything it’s lifting from, and the mix of stars is doesn’t work but....the casting is intriguing.
Overall, it is just not a good film – but worse, it becomes infuriatingly bad quite often.
Look out for it in a second hand shop near you soon!
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