Sunday, June 22, 2008

Day Five: "Next stop: Edinburgh - the Athens of the North!"

Featured review of the day: Donkey Punch

Death Defying Acts

Okay, so I'm a sucker for many genres, but apart from being a sucker for time-travel movies, Scandinavian coming-of-age movies and competition documentaries, I'm also a sucker for films about escapologists / illusionists and films set in the 1920s. (I will be first in line if they ever make Carter Beats the Devil). Anyway, I was really looking forward to this and it didn't disappoint. Set in 1920s Edinburgh, Death Defying Acts stars Guy Pierce as legendary escapologist Harry Houdini, who offers $10,000 to any so-called psychic who can tell him his dead mother's final words. When Houdini announces Edinburgh ("the Athens of the North!") as the next stop on his tour, his offer piques the interest of sexy con artist Mary (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who makes her living as the scantily-clad psychic "Princess Kali" with her daughter Benji (Atonement's Saoirse Ronan) posing as her "Dusky Assistant". However, when Mary accepts Houdini's challenge, she finds herself unexpectedly drawn to him, even as she and Benji scheme to somehow find out the final words by trickery. Similarly, Houdini is charmed by Benji and captivated by Mary, not least because of her resemblance to his dear departed mother. Directed by Gillian Armstrong (which reminds me that I STILL haven't watched My Brilliant Career, despite buying the DVD months ago) does an excellent job of capturing period Edinburgh and some of the set design work (the elaborate stage acts; the luxury hotels) is superb. Guy Pierce is excellent as Houdini, brilliantly hinting at the tortured man beneath the bravado (although, in one scene, he does look disturbingly like Mark Wahlberg). There's also genuine chemistry between Pierce and a sensational-looking Catherine Zeta-Jones - I found myself actually holding my breath during a scene where they almost kiss. Apart from looking stunning in a series of fabulous frocks, Zeta-Jones also pulls off an extremely impressive Edinburgh accent and it's great to see her in a decent role for once. Someone please cast her in some more decent movies, because she's the closest thing we have to proper old-school Hollywood glamour these days. There's also terrific support from Saoirse Ronan, who almost steals the entire movie with a series of delightful little moments (e.g. handing someone a half-eaten toffee apple), though her voiceover begins to grate after a while. She also does a fabulous job of conveying the fact that Benji is jealous of her mother, without even properly understanding where her jealousy comes from. Begrudgingly, I will also admit that Timothy Spall was pretty good as Houdini's right-hand man and that the Spallness Factorwas low. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this, thanks to Armstrong's impressive direction (there are several striking scenes, notably one set high above Princes Street), superb performances from the leads and an emotionally engaging script. Terrific final scene too. Four stars.

Goodnight Irene

Portugese drama starring Robert Pugh as an ageing English actor who joins forces with a young Portugese man when their mutual friend disappears.

Robert Pugh stars as Alexander Corless, an misanthropic English ex-pat actor living a largely lonely life in Lisbon, who records travelogues for American tourists in a sound booth in his own apartment. However, when a beautiful artist (Rita Loureiro as Irene) moves into his building, she insinuates herself into his life by demanding that he let her paint his portrait and he gradually finds himself opening up to her. Then, without warning, she disappears and Alex is forced to join forces with a weird Portugese man (Nuno Lopes as Bruno) to try and find her. Directed by Paolo Marinou-Blanco, Goodnight Irene is beautifully shot throughout, to the point that it will have people booking holidays to Lisbon, assuming it receives a general release. It's nice to see one of our best character actors (see Master and Commander) in a lead role and Pugh really throws himself into it, though at times he overdoes it and is clearly channelling both Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton, espcecially during the travelogue readings. The problem is that Irene is a much more interesting character than Bruno (and the relationship between Irene and Alex is infinitely more compelling than that between Alex and Bruno) so it's hard not to feel short-changed when her character disappears. Similarly, Nuno Lopes makes very little impact as Bruno, to the point where, two days later, I'm struggling to remember his face. Essentially, despite Pugh's superb performance, the film is occasionally pretentious, occasionally overwritten and not as moving or as emotionally engaging as it thinks it is, thanks to the wrong character disappearing. Two stars.

The Kreutzer Sonata

Danny Huston reunites with Ivansxtc director Bernard Rose for another Tolstoy adaptation, in which Huston plays a philanthropist who becomes maniacally possessive of his beautiful wife (Elisabeth Röhm).

The Kreutzer Sonata reunites director Bernard Rose with his Ivansxtc actor, Danny Huston, for yet another Tolstoy adaptation, this time adapted from a scandalous story that Tolstoy wrote in response to the titular Beethoven piece. Huston plays wealthy philanthropist Edgar, who becomes insanely, pathologically jealous of his beautiful wife, concert pianist Abby (Elisabeth Röhm, from Angel). Huston is perfectly cast in the lead role and his delivery of the voiceover (most of which is direct from Tolstoy's story) is so good that you'd happily listen to him read War and Peace. There's also strong support from Elisabeth Röhm and a delightful cameo from Angelica Huston as Edgar's sister. The film is brilliantly directed throughout and it often feels as if Rose is letting the Beethoven soundtrack dictate what we see on screen. Certainly, the soundtrack is used brilliantly throughout, particularly during scenes involving sex (of which there is an awful lot) and violence - indeed, the sequence of Abby and would-be lover (Matthew Yang King) playing the Kreutzer Sonata is the most sexualised music scene since Elisha Cook Jnr's drum solo in Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady. There are some extraordinary scenes here: the sex scenes are both powerful and extremely intimate, yet seem more naturalistic (Röhm is flushed with a convincing post-coital glow) than any Hollywood sex scene I can recall. Similarly, the violence -which you spend the whole film dreading- is utterly shocking when it finally happens - one moment in particular made the entire audience jump. However, perhaps the most shocking thing about the film is Tolstoy's own writing (the book was an instant scandal and banned for many years), not just because of the sexual jealousy and violence but because it dares to voice ideas such as the fact that children are not necessarily a blessing (Abby has severe post-natal depression; Edgar denounces the idea that children are automatically wonderful as "a fucking lie") and that even sex itself isn't all it's cracked up to be. I really want to see this again. Four stars.

There was also an excellent Q&A afterwards, which I'll post later, along with some rubbish photos.

The Connection (Shirley Clarke)

Part of the excellent Shirley Clarke retrospective, The Connection is a one-set drama about a group of New York junkies waiting around for their dealer to show up.

First, a confession: since I was 14, I've been obsessively ticking off films in a book called Danny Peary's Guide for the Film Fanatic. Normally, I forget to go through the book and look up the films in Edinburgh's retrospective seasons, only to kick myself when I get back and find that I've missed something crucial. This year, however, I remembered in time, so I'll also be seeing Clarke's The Cool World and three of the Jeanne Moreau films. However, the confession is that I probably wouldn't have gone to see The Connection if it wasn't for Peary's book and I'm so glad that I did, as it was excellent. The plot is simplicity itself - adapted from a play by Jack Gelber, it features a group of New York junkies as they sit around an apartment building, improvising jazz and waiting for their dealer (Carl Lee as "Cowboy") to show up. However, the film is also presented as a documentary, with a director and cameraman present at all times and the cameraman (Roscoe Lee Brown, the only actor I recognised) only occasionally coming out from behind the camera. This was astonishing on several levels: the language (surprisingly frank for 1962), the onscreen depictions of drug use (so thisis what "underground film-making" really means), the superb camerawork and the impressive performances. However, what really stood out for me was Warren Finnerty as Leach, who was the spitting image of Steve Buscemi and spoke and behaved in exactly the same way as Buscemi does. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a) Finnerty turned out to be Buscemi's dad or b) Buscemi had based his entire career on Finnerty's performance here. Honestly, it's uncanny. On top of some terrifically twitchy performances and some great "beat" dialogue (the programmer called The Connection the first truly "beat" movie and it's hard to disagree), the film also has a fabulous jazz score, courtesy of Blue Note legends Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd. I really want to see this again.

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