It's part of the human condition that we yearn for the unattainable. We wish for peace on earth. We pray for a solution to world hunger. We keep going to Steve Martin films in the hope that he might make just one more watchable one before he dies. Novocaine isn't perfect, but it's his most enjoyable film for a while.
Martin plays a dentist, Frank Sangster. He's engaged to his hygenist Jean (Laura Dern), has a successful practice, and life seems to be just peachy right now. But when Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter) walks into his surgery demanding dental work and suspiciously high quantities of drugs, things start to fall apart. Shortly after she turns up for - ahem - a late night filling, the entire contents of his narcotics cabinet goes missing. Suspecting Susan of being involved in the theft of the drugs, Frank tries to track her down, and ends up in a messy web of infidelity and murder...
...as you do. Because Novocaine is basically an old-fashioned noir comedy thriller, with some flashy scene transitions as the only concession to the 21st century. A femme fatale walks into a man's life, he tells one small lie in an attempt to win her, and in no time at all he's in rapidly escalating trouble. Unfortunately, there are only so many ways the plot can twist before the end, and it doesn't take the viewer too long to mentally work through the permutations. And some of the plotting here is incredibly clunky: the opening monologue by Sangster about his new micro video camera and the fireproof safe it's stored in could scarcely be more obvious if it had been read by Basil Exposition himself.
But the ride is an entertaining enough one while it lasts. Martin captures the escalating panic of Sangster without overplaying the comedy too much, and Bonham Carter does an amusing reprise of her Fight Club role. Still, it's an uncredited cameo performance that gets the biggest laughs of the movie, and to find out who it is you'll just have to watch the film for yourself. (Or look it up on the Internet Movie Database, actually.)
4.00pm: And Your Mother Too
Afternoon matinees at the LFF don't sell out. It's the rule. Maybe one big film a year will have queues waiting around the block in the early afternoon - Crouching Tiger last year, Being John Malkovich the year before - but obscure Mexican films don't. At least, that's what I believed until now. And Your Mother Too has been admittedly a huge hit in its home country, but for some reason the LFF audiences have really taken it to heart: I only got into this screening after an hour or so of standing around in the freezing cold outside the Odeon. Good job that the movie made it worthwhile.
And Your Mother Too is based around two teenage friends, Julio (Gael García Bernal, last seen here in Amores Perros) and Tenoch (Diego Luna). While their girlfriends are off touring Europe for the summer, they're left back home chasing anything in a skirt, with little success. So when they meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a party and attempt to chat her up with the promise of a road trip to a beach they've just invented, it comes as a shock when she takes them up on the offer. In true Wonder Years style, following this trip Things Will Never Be The Same Again.
On paper this just looks like a Mexican variation on the American teen movie: Dude, Dónde Está Mi Auto? perhaps. But as director Alfonso Cuarón said at the post-screening Q&A, it's not just a question of watching the three main characters discover themselves during their formative years: he considers Mexico as a whole to be a teenage country, and the film's also to some extent about his homeland discovering itself too. In case that sounds like a massively pretentious thing to say, be assured that it's also incredibly funny. The two lead actors are apparently childhood friends just like the characters they play, and it shows in their almost telepathic rapport and their continuing attempts to out-gross each other. And Maribel Verdú's performance as the girl gives them something worth arguing over.
Following up with my disappointment over Jan Dara yesterday, I wondered if there was a market for a movie where lots of people have wild sex and nobody particularly suffers for it. Thankfully, this film comes pretty close to doing that. The erotic misadventures of the characters here are a joy to watch, and even the slightly bittersweet coda at the end emphasises that rather than trying to take it away from us. With some intriguing quirks of style (including heavy use of voiceover), a fine source music score and funny, touching performances from all concerned, this and Ten Days Without Love have made it a very good year so far for Spanish-speaking cinema.
8.45pm: Ichi The Killer
Barquing of Film Unlimited recently saw Ichi The Killer at a press screening, and wrote a one-word review for the site. It consisted of a capital letter 'e' followed by 149 'w's. Having seen it, he may have a point there. It's the second film this year from Japanese director Miike Takashi, following his Dead Or Alive 2: Birds on Sunday afternoon. The buzz always suggested that the earlier film would tone down his trademark violence a little, and this one... wouldn't.
Ichi is a slightly soft lad who's been moulded into a professional killer by hypnotic suggestion: his mentors make him associate various Shinjuku crime lords with the kids who bullied him at school, and then let him loose. As a result, many local gangland haunts are coming to resemble butcher's shop windows. Lots of people are keen to track Ichi down, most notably Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), the S&M fetishist with the Cheshire Cat grin (resulting from his mouth having been razored open by a couple of inches either side).
Ichi The Killer is adapted from a manga comic, and its sheer OTT violence is pure comic-book stuff indeed. Unlike Thursday's The Piano Teacher (the other examination of sado-masochistic impulses in this festival), this film revels in equal opportunities offensiveness: Miike's careful to include something to disgust absolutely everybody, which has the curious effect of making it more acceptable. But for my part, the scenes of violence towards women are a real problem, probably because they're the few bits of the movie that aren't specifically played for laughs.
Apart from those, every other major shock moment has a gag associated with it. The scene early on where Kakihara slices off his own tongue with a knife is virtually unwatchable, but it's followed seconds later by a hilarious bit where someone calls him up on his mobile. It's tempting to do what a lot of reviewers have done, and just resort to listing the atrocities visible in the film, but that would be self-defeating: this is one of those movies that literally has to be seen to be believed. If you can take it, you'll be rewarded with half-a-dozen or so of the most appallingly funny sequences you'll have seen for ages. But be prepared to feel very, very uncomfortable in between them.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - Still rather miffed at having missed out on what I imagined to be loads of tit and bum in yesterday evening’s The Pornographer, it was tempting to go through today’s programme with a fine toothcomb and pick out those films which hinted at offering the same. I didn’t, but you probably won’t believe me with this choice. Encouraged by Spank’s review from the previous evening (the phrase “heaps of shagging” in particular caught my eye), and leaving aside those films due for a general release later, this looked the best of the rest. And a near-full NFT1 on a Tuesday lunchtime told me that I probably wasn’t wrong.
This film had a lot of publicity in Thailand, because of the sexual nature of some scenes, very explicit by Thai standards, in much the same way that Intimacy was hyped over here. (Now I don’t know about you, but I thought Intimacy was a strong, gritty film despite the sex, which was tedious and unnecessary, not because of it.) Anyway, Jan Dara proved to be a much more integrated and whole film, in that the bedroom scenes were necessary to explain the protagonists’ various problems and illegitimacies, and enhanced the overall storyline. This storyline starts more-or-less coherently, with flashbacks to help outline Jan’s situation, with a few subplots as well. Jan develops a close friendship with the teenager Khen, and a more tender relationship with a demure local lass whom he sees after her evening school. However, into this harmony comes Kaen, a daughter of Jan’s father and aunt, who proceeds to upset things as she turns out to be scheming bitchiness personified.
The problem with this film is that after an engaging start, it jumps around too much (in time) as it tries to explain away the various liaisons. Films which leap ahead so many years need to pull their strands together strongly to avoid losing coherence, and unfortunately Jan Dara doesn’t really manage this. It’s like a number of barely-related stories, rather than one whole one. It’s a pity, because it’s a worthy effort. The period details, and the sumptuous clothes (especially the women’s), make it a film you want to enjoy. Star rating: two-and-a-half.
Dark Blue World
Old Lag - Directed by the Czech Oscar winning director Jan Sverak, Dark Blue World is
one of the most polished big films of the festival so far. It probably
explains why the showing is sponsored by a big American Bank and there is an
equally big collection of limos outside at the end to take people to a
party. The film concerns the Czech heroes of the Second World War, who came
on the fall of their country to the Germans to fight first in Poland and
France and then in England.
The story concerns two such friends Franta (Ondrej Vetchy) and Karel (Krystof Hadek) who leave Czechoslovakia and join the RAF as Sergeant Pilots. Despite their experience they are put through a training course of English language and methods and are left kicking their heels very much in reserve. They should have no fear as the attrition rate of pilots is huge. The bulk of the film is made up of their adventures and relationships with other Czech pilots and their attempts off duty to date women. In the end their relationship is broken up over a woman. Romance is a snatched affair in war and Franta loses this love on the return of her missing presumed dead husband. Likewise at the end of the war he returns home to find his sweetheart has married on thinking him missing presumed dead. He proves to be an honorable man and walks out on both relationships. There is no hero's return to Czechoslovakia. The Russians intern all the returning fighter pilots in labour camps until 1951. It is feared that they are dangerous and will fight for independence. A rousing and moving film with fantastic fight sequences, some based on out takes from the film Battle of Britain.
Afternoon Of A Torturer
The Cineaste - The kind of title you’d expect would attract fans of violent, Oriental films. [Why wasn't I informed? - Spank] Well, unfortunately for them, this film concentrates on a particular angle of the main character’s memoirs, rather than the actual deeds themselves.
This really is an intriguing cameo of a film. At first glance the plot-line is extremely simple, almost non-existent, as a reporter (for whom? for what?) asks a former torturer about his deeds from fifty-odd years ago. Gradually other elements are introduced: the torturer’s childhood, its effect on his “profession”, his thoughts and reactions. He’s now settled in a run-down shack in the country, a bee-keeper, making honey. But, fifty years afterwards, is he afraid of retribution? Will his past come back to haunt him? And there really isn’t much else. This film ran at a very gentle pace, and wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Three or four rows behind me there were snores; and the couple right next to me walked out. I found it strangely captivating. Star rating: three.
Old Lag - A moral tale of Banking corporate greed. A Big Swinging Dick, Simon O'Rielly (Anthony LaPaglia), in the bank is under pressure to boost profits having already sweated money by closing small branches and accounts. Enter Jim Doyle (David Wenham) a brilliant post Doctorate mathematician. He brings with him a computer program for predicting the progress of the world's stockmarkets, particularly when it will crash. The relationship between the two men as the program is developed is to test each other's nerve, moral fibre and the culture of greed. When the twist comes it is very surprising. The truth comes too late to allow the real tension of a thriller to come through, but as a story a very interesting one.
The Cineaste - Well I was very pleased that yesterday’s combat training debacle had been sorted out, and things had returned to normal. Thankfully, because this evening was a full house, and we could have had a situation resembling international It’s A Knockout, with the Italians playing their joker.
I’d just like to start by repeating my comments about Australian films, with added emphasis today in the light of this film. Because this really was a stunning and classy thriller. The level-headed development of the plot, the high interest level maintained throughout, the characterisation, the twists at the end, all add up to a staggering effort. The world of corporate banking may not be particularly exotic, but don’t let that put you off. This film deserves a very wide audience. Jim is a brilliant mathematician, hired by a large banking firm to predict the stock market, and thereby enable the bank to ruthlessly squash its competitors. He develops a unique computer programme, gets paid zillions, and develops a romantic interest with one of his work colleagues. So far, so straightforward. But then developments happen. Is his love interest a plant to keep tabs on him? How do a young couple and their son fit into the picture? Why is someone trying to put a court order on the husband? What is the significance of the occasional flashbacks to Jim’s childhood? These issues are all drawn together skilfully.
Anthony LaPaglia gives a fine performance as the slimy head of the bank. Jim’s character is refreshingly normal, neither a nerdy stereotype, nor an ultra-trendy hipster as over-compensation. Apart from one or two rather implausible situations towards the end, overall this is a marvellous effort. If you’re reading this around Wednesday lunchtime, and can get to the 15.30 matinee (OWE), then go. And that’s an order. Star-rating: four-and-a-half.
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