Sunday, 29 August 2010

Films on a Plane 2

Date Night
dir. Shawn Levy

I hadn’t been interested in this film before but it begins with The Ramones singing Blitzkrieg Bop so I decide it can’t be all bad. Claire (Tina Fey) and Phil Foster (Steve Carell) have well-paying jobs they hate (he’s a tax lawyer; she’s a real estate agent) and kids they love, but they come home and they are so exhausted all they want to do is collapse in a mini-coma.

To try and keep the romance alive they have date night once a week but they go to the same steak house, eat the same food, talk about their children’s friends’ birthday parties, and make up stories about other couples at other tables whose lives are clearly more interesting than their own. They are afraid they are not a couple any more – just very good roommates who know each other too well and end up doing stuff in the marriage that they don’t really want to – Claire does all the housework and cooks all the meals; Phil reads the dreadful books (‘about a girl getting her period in the desert’) for his wife’s over-emotional book club.

In an attempt to spice things up they try to have dinner at an exclusive restaurant in Manhattan, but they can’t get a reservation and the staff and maitre‘d are exceptionally snotty. Tired of waiting at the bar, they steal the reservation of a couple who fail to show (an absolute crime in New York) – that and the fact that they toast with empty glasses (terrible bad luck) sets of a ridiculous train of events that becomes increasingly complicated. The couple they are pretending to be are involved with ransom notes, prostitution, blackmail, and hitmen with big guns, and the bumbling, terrified Fosters get mistaken for them and drawn into the intrigue.

It works because they are real people catapulted into an extraordinary situation. They play a variety of roles (which Tina Fey and Steve Carell do very well) and discover things about each other which emerge when put under pressure. Their clutzy, clumsy running into things shtick is light and entertaining, and there are also some original action sequences – a tug of war between two interlocked cars; domestic squabbles in the middle of a gunfight; and perhaps the funniest pole dancing you’ve ever seen.

Cold Souls
dir. Sophie Barthes

Billed as a ‘weird comedy’, this is really just weird. Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti (although not quite himself) as he searches for his soul in his life and his self. Apparently you can store your soul (in New Jersey if you want to for tax evasion purposes – although no one does) because everything becomes much simpler when you separate the soul.

Paul Giamatti is rehearsing for Uncle Vanya and feels he is becoming the character with his mix of frustration and ennui. He goes to see the soul doctor (Doctor Flinstein played by an over-earnest David Strathairn imbued with pseudo-science and cracking walnuts in a pristine office) who separates his soul from his body and stores it in a grey steel locker like a morgue. Paul claims that he now feels hollow, light, empty and a little bit bored (didn’t he before?) and ponders, ‘How can such a tiny thing feel so heavy?’

Meanwhile, the soul storage company is importing souls from Russia. It’s not exactly a black market because the industry isn’t regulated yet, but the souls are collected by spurious means from people who might wish to do such a thing – failed Russian ballet dancers; the military; bored office and factory workers; people in hospital beds – and smuggled into America by a mule such as Nina (Dina Korzun) who works for Dimitri at the collection company.

Paul transplants his soul with that of a Russian poet, but when things don’t improve he requests it back, only to find that it has been appropriated by Dimitri’s beautiful but vacuous girlfriend who ‘stars’ in a soap opera and wants to be a proper actress; she wanted the soul of Johnny Depp or Robert de Niro, but Paul Giamatti was the only actor listed. He tracks her down in St Petersburg and attempts to take it back (worried that she may have somehow sullied it) in a scene that is empty, bleak and soulless.

There are issues of philosophy – Paul Giamatti asks his wife (Emily Watson), ‘If I were a different me in the same body, would you still love me?’ to which she understandably responds, ‘What are you talking about?’ The navel-gazing, self-obsessed, neurotic, whiny, cynical, fed-up, depressed and depressing New York element is funny in a Woody Allen sort of way, if you like that sort of thing.

Artistically it is clinical and intense – the difference in cleanliness and modernity of the Russian and American surgeries is frequently highlighted – and the minor details are lovingly filmed; drying a Russian hat beneath a hand-dryer; a pack of dogs racing down the street in height order.

How much of your personality is comprised of the soul? From where do our memories come? Why would you even want the soul of another person? The actors discuss pronunciation of English and Russian words; they say the same lines in different ways; perhaps we are all just playing along and Dr Flinstein and his glamorous assistant (Lauren Ambrose) are merely the catalysts in the business of wish fulfilment.

Wild Target
dir. Jonathan Lynn

The stellar cast prevents this predictable rom com/ art heist thriller from becoming stale and turgid, but it is still full of obvious gags and unlikely coincidences.

Victor Maynard (Bill Nighy) is 54 and works as an assassin. He is scrupulously fastidious, ironing his socks and trimming his bonsai trees. He executes his targets with ruthless efficiency (his mother, Eileen Atkins, is proud of his work and collects clippings in an album for him) with his sole regret being his lack of heir or apprentice.

Rose (Emily Watson) rides in on a bicycle in a red coat to a gallery where she blithely steals a Rembrandt against a Regina Spektor backtrack. She is slovenly, wild, unpredictable, aggressive, annoying and a kleptomaniac. No prizes for guessing what comes next.

When duped into buying a fake painting (a copy of the Rembrandt Rose has arranged) a wealthy art dealer (Rupert Everett) takes out a hit on her and hires the best – Victor Maynard. Victor declares she is ‘completely out of control’ but he admires her duplicity and despite his reputation being at stake, decides to protect her instead. (He has a soft side after all and, although he declares, ‘My dear, I’m not a gangster, but I was in real estate for 20 years. I stop at nothing,’ he is affectionate towards the cat.)

Everett hires the second best assassin (Martin Freeman) to finish the job, and the couple go on the run with the unlikely accompaniment of Tony (Rupert Grinch) who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but may just show enough promise to be Victor’s successor.

If that sounds like a rather slim plot, it’s because it is. The constant bitching and bickering between the leads assures us they will end up together – for that is comedy convention – even if the lack of chemistry and extreme age difference make this less than convincing. A mini chase around the streets of London and a set-piece hide out in a rural idyll (where Tony sees a cow for the first time) break the action into a modulated film with peaks and troughs, but it’s really nothing to write home about. Has a romantic comedy ever made a great film, or should we expect nothing more from them but light entertainment?

Scontro di Civilita per un Ascensore a Piazza Vittorio (Clash of Civilization Over a Lift)
dir. Isotta Toso

Any film that has ‘lift’ in the title has got to be good, right? Well, probably not necessarily, but this one is.

We are introduced to the occupants of an apartment building – Marco Manfredini (Daniele Liotti) a ‘two-bit lawyer’; his girlfriend Guilia (Kasia Smutniak) who is a photographer compiling a portfolio of pictures for an exhibition entitled Clash of the Civilizations; Marco’s little brother Lorenzo (Marco Rossetti) aka the Gladiator who quotes Jim Morrison, fights dogs and runs an illegal boarding house for immigrants; Mrs Fabiani (Milena Vukotic) who is mean-spirited and caustic to everyone except her precious little dog Valentino until he disappears; Maria Cristina (Kesia Elwin), an illegal immigrant from Ecuador who works as a live-in cleaner to support herself and her daughter, Penelope, in preference to being out on the streets; her so-called boyfriend, Dandini (Francesco Pannofino) who works on a garlic stall and promises her a family but prevaricates over marrying her; Leo (Massimo De Santis), the owner of a station café who cares only about Roma football team; Iqbal Allah Amir (Lamine Labidi) who is pressured by the authorities with a permit to arrest an Allah Iqbal and who buys the apartment in which Lorenzo was hiding his illegal immigrants; Nurit (Serra Yilmaz) who has a permit to stay but wants refugee status from Persia – she is loud, obnoxious and frequently drunk; Professor Marini (Roberto Citran) who cares for Maria Cristina and Penelope but is gay so Dandini has no reason for his jealousy; Amedeo (Ahmed Hafiene) who seems to be the group’s spokesperson and appears calm and collected but may harbour a secret identity; and Benedetta (Isa Danieli) the caretaker constantly grumbling about immigrants and lack of respect.

All of these people are connected (quite literally) by the elevator in the heart of the building which is ‘the barrier between barbarity and civilisation.’ ‘To disrespect the elevator is an offence to Enlightenment.’ Grand words indeed, but there are rules for its use (no smoking or spitting, although Bendetta loathes Lorenzo for peeing in the elevator and littering the floor with cigarette butts) which are meant to harmonise this disparate society.

There is even conflict over who is allowed to use the lift. When outsiders come to steal Giuilia’s camera which contains all her work and some incriminating evidence, there is a fabulous chase sequence filmed from above as they descend the stairs before racing through the streets of Rome – the sanctity of the elevator denied them. Lorenzo shouts ‘Italy to the Italians’ and thinks non-nationals should be forbidden it, thrown onto the street and forced into prostitution which he demonstrates by attempting to rape Maria Cristina when she rejects his advances.

Here is one of the themes of the film – to be Italian is to have privileges denied to others. We make assumptions about people (usually imagining we are superior) based on their ethnicity and outsider or ‘other’ status. Nurit argues that ‘when you have no voice, you have no identity.’ She should know; she is found with her mouth sewn shut.

When Lorenzo Manfredini goes up in flames in the lift, Comissario Bettarini (Paolo Calabresi) is called in to investigate. He soon finds things aren’t’ straightforward and no rapid conclusions can be drawn. Marco (the only one to walk behind the coffin) also attempts to find out who murdered his brother and why. Giuilia feels that Marco has ruined his life to look after Lorenzo and there is a Cain and Abel influence to the story. ‘Who is right? We have little time, there is no room for neutrality. Cut out your tongue and run.’

Like an Italian Agatha Christie drama it seems everyone had a motive for murder (ranging from hating someone’s dog or being a Lazio fan to always causing a disturbance or deep-seated political differences) which they intone in voice-overs throughout the film. In a clever twist to the sophisticated drama Marco proves himself none too shabby as a lawyer and concludes a thought-provoking and memorable parable about integration and unity.

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