XSCAPOLOGY:Cinemadays(2):Brothers Grimm/Flightplan/Libertine/Broken Flowers/Exorcism of Emily Rose

The 50th CinemaDays : CineWorld cinema, Xscape complex, Milton Keynes (UK)

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DAY TWO (Fri 7th Oct)
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Terry Gilliam's THE BROTHERS GRIMM [5/10] : UK (UK-Czech) 2005 : 118 mins

   Elaborate gothic/larkish whimsy is the order of the day in this opulent-looking comedy/horror/fantasy, very loosely based on the real-life story-collecting Jakob and Wilhelm - here 'Jake' and 'Will'. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger gamely throw themselves into the enterprise, and English accents, with hearty gusto - and their genial company is a major plus over the course of a somewhat testing two-hour running-time. Ledger's half-strangulated, Hugh Laurie-ish tones are a particularly reliable source of delight.
   The grab-bag of a plot presents them as a pair of conmen in early c19th French-occupied Germany, gulling superstitious folk into elieving their locality is haunted/possessed/cursed – and that only the daring, valiant brothers Grimm have the know-how to rid them of their 'problem.' A bit Sleepy Hollow, a bit Van Helsing, but very Terry Gilliam, the default tone is one of cacophonous excess. Though the CGI is often ropey, the more gruesome and horrific moments work best – can it be a coincidence that the second unit director is none other that Italian horror maestro Michele Soavi?
   Soavi also fulfilled the same function on Gilliam's similarly imaginative/chaotic/overstuffed Adventures of Baron Munchausen, whose Jonathan Pryce once again gets to strut his stuff as a lispingly cruel French villain. His hamminess falls just the right side of camp – Peter Stormare, as a pantomime Italian henchman, comes down squarely on the other. 
   And while it's perhaps encouraging that an oddball maverick like Gilliam is still getting (relatively) big movies made – albeit after the usual nightmarish behind-the-scenes shenanigans – his OTT approach ensures that genuine magic and enchantment are disappointingly thin on the ground this time.

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Robert Schwentke's FLIGHTPLAN [6/10] : USA 2005 : 98 mins

   An absorbingly enjoyable old-fashioned thrill-ride is provided by Flightplan, a woman-in-airborne-peril paranoid drama with some intriguing, mildly subversive, darkly humorous post-9/11 flavours. Plausibility does fly out the window fairly early on and isn't oft-sighted thereafter, but German director Schwentke is a sufficiently safe pair of hands to ensure maximum tension is milked from a somewhat rickety script(co-written by Shattered Glass creator Billy Ray, spreading his 'wings' into a very different genre here)
   Jodie Foster is on fine, harrassed Panic Room form as a recently-widowed aircraft engineer (her speciality: propulsion) travelling from Berlin to New York with her dead husband (in a hold casket) and her traumatised young daughter. But when the moppet disappears as Foster naps, the evidence begins to mount that the child may never have been on board at all. Is the grief-stricken Foster losing her mind, or is something more sinister afoot?
   It isn't giving too much away to say that the latter option proves correct: the picture is a fairly straight cross between The Forgotten and Hitchcock's classic The Lady Vanishes ('The Little Lady Vanishes,' perhaps), with a touch of Bunny Lake Is Missing. Not as good as either of those forebears – the climax is decidedly ropey - but solid night-out-at-the-pictures multiplex fare all the same, half the fun of which consists of picking apart the numerous plot-holes afterwards.
   Coming so soon in the tailstream of Wes Craven's similarly daft/engaging planebound white-knuckler Red Eye, however, perhaps Hollywood's high-concept scriptwriters might profitably seek alternative settings for their next flight of fancy.

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Laurence Dunmore's THE LIBERTINE [6/10] : UK 2005 : 120 mins

   Yet another attention-grabbing turn from the seemingly-tireless Johnny Depp – here displaying rather more range than normal as the real-life dilettante Restoration poet-aristocrat John Wilmot, 2nd Earl Rochester. His supreme literary talents (which we have to take on trust) lead him into the favours of King Charles II (John Malkovich in luxuriant wig and beaky prosthetic proboscis), who reckons Rochester might do for him what Shakespeare did for his predecessor Queen Elizabeth.
   Rochester's wildly self-destructive impulses (cf that modern-day Libertine, Pete Doherty) soon get in the way of such grand ambitions - but not before he's romanced actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton, affecting) and schooled her into becoming the most talented performer on the London boards. As in Stage Beauty (which the first half of The Libertine's plot strongly resembles), this means naturalistic acting - around 350 years before it actually developed. Dramatic licence, of course, but a bit of a stumbling-block for a production which otherwise strives so extremely hard for historical accuracy. 
   Mud, piss, shit, pus and various other assorted bodily fluids are suitably thick on the ground from start to finish. And our 'hero' himself oozes plenty of them, as he succumbs to syphillis with revolting results in the final act – giving Depp a rare chance to wallow in repellent ugliness. The Libertine is very much a showcase for this tireless star: the picture is bookended by a pair of to-camera monologues by the saucily licentious Rochester who, as well as making free use of the very "strong language" that is one of the picture's attention-grabbing trademarks, warns us that – despite his charms – we should know that he isn't bothered about being likeable.
   And the film, which unfolds at a stately, somewhat monotonous pace, is also much easier to admire than warm to. Not least because of its unremittingly gloomy look – unhygienically Stygian in its brown-heavy colour-palette and omnipresent miasmal fogs (the latter presumably deployed to mask the production's notorious and well-publicised budgetary problems.) 
   Interiors are (very) dimly candle-lit; exteriors are often even murkier – and with the camera permanently hand-held rather than steadily mounted on dolly or tripod, it isn't always easy to see exactly what's going on. But that's just one of the factors that make the picture perhaps the most believable screen vision of 17th-century England since Witchfinder General and thus a welcome, bracing antidote to the normal British run of deadeningly 'well-made' prestige costume-dramas.

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Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS [8/10] : USA (US-Fr) 2005 : 105 mins

   One of the year's most charmingly nuanced and purely enjoyable American releases, Broken Flowers is an uninflected, character-based moodpiece-cum-roadmovie, presenting a (largely) benign, off-the-beaten-track vision of modern-day suburban America. It represents a return to feature film-making after a six-year hiatus since Ghost Dog – The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch having in the interim concentrated on shorts, including last year's portmanteau compilation released as Coffee and Cigarettes.  Broken Flowers is similarly episodic in its informal structure: a prologue and epilogue bracketing four mid-sections of unequal length. 
   On the day that he's dumped by his latest girlfriend, laidback sixtyish lothario Don Johnston (Bill Murray) receives an anonymous letter from a woman who claims to be an ex-girlfriend from the mid-eighties. This missive informs him that (a) he has a son, now 20, and (b) the lad has absconded, perhaps with the intention of tracking down the father he's never seen. Goaded by his crime-fiction-devotee neighbour Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Murray reluctantly hits the road in search of four old flames – one of whom may well be the mysterious letter-writer. 
   This sets up a quartet of droll, deadpan vignettes featuring Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton as Don's "exes". Though laugh-out-loud hilarious at times (the Lange 'chapter' in particular), the tone is generally one of slowburning, observational calmness.
   The presence of Murray in the lead, and the story's quizzically picaresque mode may remind viewers of recent "indie" breakouts Lost In Translation and Sideways. But Broken Flowers (the title presumably an oblique echo of DW Griffith's silent classic Broken Blossoms) makes those pictures look even more overrated than they seemed at the time: a master American film-maker operating at the height of his powers, Jarmusch outclasses both Sofia Coppola and Alexander Payne in that he's equally skilled as writer and director. 
   And he achieves his effects with such minimal means – restrained cinematography and editing, spells of delicious silence, a lovely eclectic score, simple location shooting, abundant grace-notes in the visuals and dialogue – that the full extent of his talents only gradually creeps up on you, until you realise you're entirely subsumed into his subtle, sublime world. And in retrospect, the extent of Jarmusch's achievement becomes apparent: beneath the quiet surfaces, this is a film that tackles some big subjects: the dreams and dissatisfactions of American lives; age, responsibility and memory; second and third chances; beautiful things, lost things, nameless things…

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Scott Derrickson's THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE [rating – see below]* : USA 2005 : 120 mins

   Largely successful hybrid of courtroom drama and demon-casting horror - "based on a true story", as an opening title card loudly proclaims (perhaps inevitably, it's really rather loosely based on an actual German case). A Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) goes on trial for 'negligent homicide' after the death of a young woman (Jennifer Carpenter) – the latter having suffered from what he, she and her devout, farming family believed to be demonic possession.
   As the case unfolds – Laura Linney (agnostic) for the defence, Campbell Scott (Methodist) for the prosecution – we flash back to various episodes in Emily Rose's grim descent from bright student to tormented victim. At each stage her harrowing 'symptoms' are consistent with both explanations: mental/physical illness or an unwelcome intervention from Lucifer and company.
   Derrickon's direction amps up the creepy scares via a skilful deployment of well-worn fright-pic mechanics and visceral jolty shocks. But, as indicated by the presence of Oscar nominees Linney and Wilkinson in a notably classy cast, the script aims a little higher than the standard teen-oriented shocker. And, despite a couple of clunky scenes (and the unfortunate resemblance of the 'possessed' Carpenter to Matthew Lillard), the picture does manage to pull off a tricky balancing-act between the poles of skepticism and belief.
   There's no pat explanation, no "answer" provided – and while this may disappoint some viewers, it's encouraging to find a mainstream Hollywood thriller which serves up such a subjective viewing experience: whatever you bring to this Exorcism, you'll probably also take away. In any case, waking up at 3am will never be quite the same again…

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Neil Young
7th-11th October, 2005

The other days at CinemaDays October 2005:
Day 1 (Thursday) including Corpse Bride, Nanny McPhee and The Proposition
Day 3 (Saturday) including Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Murderball and Mad Hot Ballroom
Day 4 (Sunday) including A Cock and Bull Story and The Matador

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* [nb : I initially rated The Exorcism of Emily Rose at 7/10. On reflection I downgraded this to 6/10. I then now revised my opinion again to 6+/10. I saw the film at a very late screening, and basically need to see it again before I can settle on a rating. Apologies.]

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POSTSCRIPT: A SECOND LOOK AT THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE [7/10]
public screening, Cineworld Sunderland (UK), 25th November 2005

   I'm still not 100 per cent sure about this film, but will force myself to come to a decision and say that it is a superior mainstream movie, worthy of a rating of 7/10. It takes two very old-fashioned genres, the courtroom drama and the exorcism-themed horror, and plays both entirely straight. It doesn't break any new ground on either side, but by bringing them together, and largely doing so successfully, there is something distinctive and different going on here.
   As a courtroom drama, the film forces the audience to think – credit to the writers, and to Laura Linney and Campbell Scott (both of whom represent the viewer's surrogate at different moments), while Mary Beth Hurt deserves perhaps rather more praise than she has generally received for her performance as the judge.
   As a horror movie, meanwhile, Emily Rose gives us the willies: even though I'd seen it before, I did actually hide my eyes at one particular shock moment – a very rare occurrence in my three decades' experience of fright pictures. And I could feel a genuine tension at certain sequences which seemed to transmit itself through a busy first-night audience primarily composed of couples in their late teens and early twenties (the odd, inevitable giggle here and there didn't break the "spell" to any significant degree).
   That said, there is a lot that's ridiculous about this picture: the 3am shenanigans and talk of "demonic witching hours"; an ill-advised, cumbersome period halfway through involving a doomed expert-witness medic (though his death scene has a pleasing Night of the Demon vibe about it); the 'BVM' climax which feels like it's strayed in from a completely different movie. It isn't hard to find fault, and the picture has come in for flak from broadsheet British critics (one of which seems to think it's called The Exorcism of Mary Rose, a title suggesting devilry aboard the famed Tudor vessel).   
   Having seen it twice, however, once with an audience of cynical reviewers and once with the popcorn-munching youth of Sunderland, I have to say that on reflection my objections should really be overruled.
                          26th November, 2005
  

M   A   L   K   O   V   I   C   H   I   S   M

A John Malkovich filmography (as actor)

1984   Places in the Heart           1        30
          The Killing Fields              2        

1985   Eleni                               3        31

1987   Making Mr Right               4        33
          The Glass Menagerie        5       
          Empire of the Sun            6       

1988   Miles From Home             7        34
          Dangerous Liaisons          8
      
1990   The Sheltering Sky           9        35

1991   Queens Logic                  10       36
          The Object of Beauty       11

1992   Shadows and Fog            12       37
          Of Mice and Men             13
          Jennifer Eight                  14

1993   Alive                              15       38
          In the Line of Fire            16
      
1995   Beyond the Clouds          17       40
          The Convent                   18

1996   Mary Reilly                      19       41
          Mulholland Falls               20
          The Ogre                        21
          The Portrait of a Lady       22

1997   Con Air                           23       42

1998   The Man in the Iron Mask 24       43
          Rounders                        25
      
1999   Ladies Room                   26       44
          Time Regained                27
          Being John Malkovich        28
          The Messenger                29
      
2000   Shadow of the Vampire     30       45
      
2001   Savage Souls                   31       46
          I'm Going Home               32
          Hotel                              33
          Knockaround Guys            34

2002   The Dancer Upstairs          35       47
          Ripley's Game                  36

2003   Johnny English                  37       48
          A Talking Picture               38

2004   The Libertine                    39       49

2005   The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
                                                40   50
       
05/07  Art School Confidential       41      
          Color Me Kubrick               42
          Klimt                               43
          Savage Grace                   44
          Drunkboat                       45
          Eragon                            46
          Beowulf                           47