BYZANTIUM, I’M SO EXCITED, THE LOOK OF LOVE and YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET



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Byzantium is the new vampire flick written by Moria Buffini and directed by Neil Jordan.   Neil Jordan also did that other vampire flick, you know the one, uh, Interview With the… something or other.  Let’s just say that he’s come a long way since then.
The story is about two women, mother and daughter, trying to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as vamps are wont to do these days.  But because of the relative times in which they turned, the two masquerade as sisters.   They are on the run from a brotherhood who want to eliminate them because women are not allowed to be vampires (yes, Gloria, the whole thing has a somewhat feminist slant to it; not only are they female vampires in a male vampire world, the mother takes over a group of prostitutes from a twitchy, male pimp).   The daughter is played by Saoirse Ronan, who played the title role in Hannah, and her mother/sister is played by Gemma Arterton, who played Gretel in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Both are more than quite good (Ronan is especially riveting) and are quickly gaining a reputation for playing characters you would not want to meet alone in a dark alley…or in broad daylight on a public street for that matter.
They are backed up by a slew of British B listers, including Daniel (Made in Dagenham) Mays as a hapless, shaggy dog looking motel owner;  Sam (Control) Riley, as a sympathetic vampire (giving a much better performance than he did in the recent outing, the somewhat embarrassing On the Road); Johnny Lee (Elementary) Miller as a woman hating cad; Tom (In the Loop) Hollander as a well meaning teacher; and Maria Doyle (Orphan Black) Kennedy as a fellow teacher.   All provide much more than adequate support.
To say Byzantium is a poetic mood piece is an understatement.   It lives, breathes and exults in its moodiness.  It’s filmed with dark, muted colors.   The scenes always feel overcast, even during the day.  There’s a menacing atmosphere in every shot set as it is against a fun fair, the dark streets of a coastal city and an ominous looking deserted, broken down pier.    And it takes its moody time in telling its tale.  Of course, there’s the rub.  How you react to it will probably depend on how you feel about the pacing.  If you like it, you will probably think of it as deliberate.  If you don’t like it, you will probably think of it as sloooooooooow.  I loooooooooooved it, so that’s that.
Writer/Director Pedro Almodovar’s new film I’m So Excited opens with a wonderful Saul Bass like set of titles that felt like it had that perky and fun feel so often associated with an Almodovar film, especially, to quote Woody Allen, the early, funny ones.  Unfortunately, that was the last wonderful thing about it.   The movie never gets off the ground.
I know, I know.   That was a really groaner of a pun.  But I think I’m more than in the right since the whole movie is sort of one big metaphorical groaner of a pun type thing.  The basic premise is as fabulous as the three gay flight attendants that serve everyone’s needs (everyone’s).  A commercial airline has taken off for South America, but when one of its landing gears won’t work, they must make an emergency landing.  But to do so, they have to find an appropriate airport.  This requires them to go around and around and around…and around, in circles, not getting anywhere.  On top of that, the flight attendants have drugged everyone in second class so they won’t cause any trouble, leaving the first class passengers wide awake to deal with their personal soap opera like problems.  Yes, indeed.  The whole shebang is a metaphor for Spain today as it tries to grapple with their disastrous economy, beset by a variety of scandals.
But to reiterate: it’s a fabulous idea that, very sadly, just doesn’t work.  And it’s easy to see why, and in a “if it was a snake it would have bitten you” way.  Almodovar begins the whole rigmarole in the middle of act one.  There’s no set up for the characters and their conflicts and much of what set up there is takes place off screen (like the drugging of the second class passengers).  Because of this, we have no idea who anybody is or why their actions matter or why their actions are funny (everyone seems terrified of one particular passenger, but why is unclear until almost half way through the movie).  And though the movie is suppose to be about the passengers on board, at a couple of points, the whole movie stops to go back down to earth to follow the actions of the lover of a famous actor who is also on the plane.  The screenplay has no focus, no shape, no discipline.  Normally, that would be positives for an Almodovor film; but here, I’m afraid it’s not—it actually takes focus, shape and discipline to create a satisfying lack of those.
With Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in cameos for some reason as unclear as most of the plot.
The movie The Look of Love (written by Matt Greenhalgh and director Michael Winterbottom) also opens with a wonderful title sequence, this time one that seems inspired by James Bond films.  But also like I’m So Excited, that’s just about the last wonderful thing about it too.
The Look of Love is the based on the true story of Paul Raymond who became Britain’s richest man by building up an empire of erotica (not pornography as he has to keep telling people who for some reason, just don’t seem to believe him).  The movie gives us the facts of his life; it gives us the fashions and styles of the various periods; it gives us erotic sex, including such oddities as a British farce Raymond produced that has as part of its set a swimming tub inhabited by naked women who have nothing to do with the play’s plot (it was a huge hit).  What it never gives us is a reason why anyone wanted to tell this story. 
And like I’m So Excited, it’s also incredibly clear (see snake comment above) why the movie doesn’t work.  By the time you get to the end, it becomes apparent that the movie was supposed to be a study of Raymond’s relationship with his daughter (played by Imogene Poots) who died from a drug overdose.  But since half the movie doesn’t deal with this relationship (especially the half before she’s even born), the movie never seems to be going anywhere or to have any real purpose to its existence. 
The cast does what it can with the material.  Steve Coogan, as Raymond, who was excellent in the recent What Mazie Knew, is as bland and dull as his character is written here.  But the movie does better in the supporting area, including Simon Bird of The Inbetweeners, almost unrecognizable in Sgt. Pepper hair and mustache, as the jingle writer who marries Raymond’s daughter; Chris Addison from In the Loop, also unrecognizable as Raymond’s right hand man and photographer; James Lance as Raymond’s attorney; and David Walliams of Little Brittain in a witty performance as a randy vicar (Matt Lucas can also be seen in a blink and you’ll miss him scene as Divine). 
At one point, the movie has a scene between Raymond and the illegitimate son (Liam Boyle) he’s never met.  It’s a painful study of awkwardness and suggests everything that the movie could have been, but wasn’t.
You Aint Seen Nothing Yet is the latest from legendary director Alan Resnais.  It’s about a stage director who dies and in his will invites a number of the legends and soon to be legends of France’s acting community to an isolated mansion (including Mathieu Amalric, Hippolyte Giradot, Michel Piccoli, Sabine Azema and Lambert Wilson).  There the director’s attorney shows them a new production of a play the director staged many times, Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice (though the play seems to be a combination of two of Anouilh’s stage works).  All the invitees have at some time been in a production of this play under this director’s direction, so as they watch the play they begin to act out the parts themselves.
This is actually the most interesting aspect of the film, watching the way different actors would say the same lines; seeing actors who are far too old for the parts (since they originally played them when they were younger) still giving convincing performances; seeing the setting switch from the director’s home to modified sets.
But this movie never quite comes together.  I suspect whether it works for you will depend on what you think of the play within the play they are performing.  As was said, it’s a combination of two of Anouih’s works (adapted by Resnais and Luarent Herbiet) and though it starts out well, it eventually becomes almost incomprehensible until you lose all emotional connection to Orpheus and his doomed lover. 
After the play is over there are a couple of surprise endings that aren’t that surprising and aren’t that interesting.  Perhaps it’s best to say that the whole thing just went over my head.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON: Reviews of Broken Embraces and Me and Orson Welles


Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorite filmmakers working today, so I am sad to say that Broken Embraces simply didn’t work for me. It’s lush and melodramatic (at times) and has a wonderful, Hitchcock like music score (by Alberto Iglesias), but the story was just a bit too much of a mess. It’s about a movie director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar) who was blinded in a car accident, an accident that also killed his lover Lena (the lovely Penelope Cruz). The events leading up to this crash revolve around a triangle with Lena’s husband who was also producing the film Mateo was directing with Lena as the star. When Mateo and Lena ran off together, Lena’s husband stopped the film and Mateo thought it was lost forever; then in a deus ex machina ending (not satisfying emotionally for me), Mateo’s assistant reveals she had the film all the time; all the sturm and drang over Lena’s death for nothing. There’s also a subplot concerning the gay son of Lena’s husband that has no pay off, gets in the way and just confuses the situation (the gay son also starts out as an effeminate mama’s boy and then reappears years later as an ultra-macho tweeker, a change never explained or commented on). The sexy Penelope Cruz, who is wonderful here, is the main reason to see the film; at the same time, since she is the catalyst and the character that drives the action, she may actually not be in it enough. There is an odd ending; Mateo is editing the film he and Lena were working on when she died. It seems to either be inspired by Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or actually a recreation of a scene from the movie (I don’t remember Women… that clearly); this little scene is the best part of the movie and proves just how good the original Women… was if it can have the same effect years later with a different cast.

Me and Orson Welles is a real hoot most of the time, even though it doesn’t quite work as well as it might. The main problem is the Me in the title, a 17 year old high school student, Richard Samuels, played by Zac Efron (who is getting a little long in the tooth to play this age that convincingly anymore). In addition, he’s probably the most unconvincing 17 year old I’ve seen in some time. It’s not his fault. The authors Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr. are brilliant at bringing every real person in the cast alive, but fall short when it comes to the fictional characters; not just Richard, but also Sonja Jones, played by a too skinny Claire Danes. Both seem constructs of the writers, mainly there to get the job done more than to exist in their own right. Richard, on a fluke, gets cast in Orson Welles’ legendary production of a fascist Julius Caesar. He’s supposed to be one of these reactive characters (formerly called passive) through whose eyes and reactions the audience knows how to feel about everything going on. But Richard never seems to react to anything; he takes everything in stride as if he’s been a member of this acting troupe for years; nothing surprises him, nothing throws him off course (until he starts losing Sonja to Orson). It’s hard to say whether this is Zac’s fault or not; he walks through the role with a certain blankness to his face, but I’m not sure the authors really helped. Danes has a different problem; her character never really makes sense. She’s suppose to be an ice princess who refuses to bed anyone in the cast unless she can get something out of it (she beds Welles because he promises to introduce her to Selznick); but suddenly, she just ups and beds Richard for no discernable reason. Is she a wise woman who is using her femininity to get what she wants, or is she an idiot who doesn’t understand being a slut is just that: being a slut—the authors are unclear. The additional problem here is that since Sonja does meet Selznick in the movie, but we know from history she never went anywhere, she comes across more as an idiot. Well, enough about that. I’ve gone a bit overboard there, because in spite of these two characters, the film is still a must see. The main reason is Christian McKay as Welles, who not only looks like the young Orson, but fully embodies both the monster and artistic genius at the center of his personality. This is where the Palmo’s excel. Their creation of Welles is almost as monumental an achievement as the original persona himself. They even go more than one better by also creating very believable renditions of other real people, like a callow Joseph Cotton, a tortured George Coulouris, a fun Norman Lloyd and a fusty John Houseman (played by an almost unrecognizable Eddie Marsan, the driving teacher from Happy Go Lucky). The period detail is excellent and the recreation of the production of Caesar is also a remarkable achievement (here, kudos to director Richard Linklater). For awhile, based on the rehearsals, I was wondering what was so special about this Shakespearian production. But come opening night, the full force of Welles’s vision is revealed and makes one wish one could have been there to witness the whole thing. Linklater even effectively recreates the death of Seneca the Poet, a scene often thrown away in many productions of Caesar, but in Welles’s version became a key part of the production, showing what can happen when fascist rule breaks out. The movie may falter at times, but it’s more than well worth seeing.