Monday, June 25, 2007

Comfort and Joy

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth
Starring Bill Paterson, Clare Grogan, Eleanor David, Alex Norton, Patrick Malahide
IMDB Entry

Bill Forsyth came on the scene in the early 80s with several quirky little films set in his native Scotland. Gregory's Girlwas a coming-of-age story of a teenage soccer player who becomes infatuated on the first girl to play on the team.  His best-known film, Local Hero, tells how a Scottish town reacts to the idea of building an oil refinery on their shores. His movies were filled with odd and endearing characters and a meandering but entertaining plot.

Comfort and Joy is just as wonderful.  Around Christmas, radio DJ Alan "Dicky" Bird (Bill Paterson, who later appeared in Truly Madly Deeply), depressed over his girlfriend leaving, sees what looks like a gangland attack and gets involved in a territorial dispute between two rival Italian families.

Over ice cream.

The two families are rival ice cream vendors, "Mr. Bunny" and "Mr. McCool" in a humorously cutthroat battle over territory (evidently based on some real events in Forsyth's Glasgow). Bird gets involved and tries to achieve peace between the vendors, eventually coming up with a way to put an end to the battles.

The movie is filled with the quirky humor that made Forsyth such a delight. My favorite was watching them record the snappy little "Hello, Folks" song.  All the characters are a little off-center -- recognizably human, but with traits that make them unlike anyone else on film

It is a Christmas movie, after all, so you know that Bird will figure out a way to end the feud. Paterson is excellent in the role as the depressed everyman who tries to make sense of a strange situation.

Forsyth's career stalled after this.  He made a film of Marylynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping and a few other films that never really made any impression, eventually resorting to a sequel to Gregory's Girl.  It's a shame that such a charming and unique talent has had so little recognition or success.

Look at all three, Gregory's Girl, Local Hero, and Comfort and Joy if you want to draw knowing chuckles and eccentric but logical characters.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Qian li zou dan qi)

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles(2005)
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Zhang Yimou (screenplay and story) and Zou Jingzhi and Wang Bin (story)
Starring: Takakura Ken, Zhembo Yang, Lin Qiu, Li Jaimin, Jiang Weng
IMDB Entry

Sometimes you pick up a film at random and are just plain blown away.  We rentedRiding Alone for Thousands of Miles on a whim:  we liked foreign films, and lately have been picking up a lot of very good Chinese movies.  This looked like an interesting one, so we decided to give it a shot.

We were familiar with the work of director Zhang Yimou -- and you might be, too.  He made two impressive martial arts films, Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, movies that had a great deal of depth in among the action.  However, we didn't recognize the name (all Chinese might not look alike, but Chinese names are often hard for westerners to grasp).  That might have been a good thing, since the film is much different, one that concentrates on character instead of plot, with nary a bit of violence.  In fact, everyone in the film is just so nice.  That's very refreshing.

Takakura Ken (I'm sticking with the Chinese tradition of putting the family name first, though he's also been billed at Ken Takakura) plays Mr. Takata, a man estranged from his dying son. The son was a documentarian, and, in a film he made, he talked about going to China to see a local singer perform the Chinese Opera that gives the film its title. Takata decides to travel to China to film the performance.  But there are problems. . . .

This is a film that is clearly an unfolding. Takata's journey takes him to a small village in Yunnan Province in southwestern China and a meeting with the singer's five-year-old son, Yang Yang.  In it Takata learns more about people, himself, his own son, and his life.

Takakura Ken is superb as Takata, a taciturn man who goes upon this journey to try to connect. The rest of the cast were not professional actors, but you'd never know it.  Especially good is Zhembo Yang as Yang Yang and Lin Qiu as Lingo, Takata's guide and non-interpreter.

The film also deals with an issue you rarely see:  language barriers.  Takata speaks no Chinese and is dependent on others to translate and understand others. Lingo (interesting coincidence of a name) knows very little Japanese and is always struggling to figure out what Takata is saying. It manages to work out with some strategic cell phone calls to a real interpreter, Jasmine (Jiang Weng). The barrier is constant, but Takata manages to work his way around the country.

The film is beautiful, with some amazing scenery as background. This is definitely a wonderful opportunity to see life in other cultures and the importance of family.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

God, the Devil, and Bob (TV)

Created by Matthew Carlson
Starring (voices): French Stewart, James Garner, Alan Cumming, Laurie Metcalfe, Nancy Cartwright.
IMDB Entry

God, the Devil, and BobIt's not uncommon to look at TV shows and ask "What are they thinking?" Usually, it's when a particularly stupid concept somehow makes it to the air. After all, network executive tend to err on the side of stupidity. But, every once in awhile, you ask yourself this even though the show is of high quality.  NBC had a history of showing things that were good, but which you could never understand why they'd expect good ratings from it (for instance, Dame Edna and Spitting Image).

God, the Devil, and Bob was clearly in this category. A cartoon show with God as a main character? At a time when the religious right was strong, and unlikely to look kindly on any irreverence?  This had to be either an All in the Family home run, or it would fail miserably.

In the show, Bob Alman (voice by French Stewart) is chosen by God (James Garner) in a bet with the devil (Alan Cumming) to perform good deeds in order to show that the Earth has some good in it so God doesn't have to destroy it.  No one believes Alman, of course, and God is little help, but he muddles along trying to do his best.

Bob is not a saint -- he watches porn, goes to strip clubs, drinks, and sometimes neglects his family (though he learns to avoid the latter). His wife Donna (Laurie Metcalfe) puts up with him, since he manages to keep the peace with her and their 13-year-old daughter Megan (voice by Bart Simpson . . . I mean, Nancy Cartwright), who's quite a handful (as God says, "I have them until age 12, then Satan gets them until they're 20").  Sometimes God gives Bob a specific task; other times, he just shows up. 

James Garner is wonderful -- the sort of laid-back God that's easy to like.  He makes everything sound so smooth and easy.  And Alan Cumming is hilarious as the Devil -- petulant, childish, and evil, and always trying to make things worse for Bob.

The show was heavily protested when it came out.  Religious groups (who, of course, never bothered to watch the show) didn't like the image of God as Jerry Garcia (there is some resemblance, but the image is mostly the old man with the beard image -- just a short beard and hair) or the fact he was shown drinking beer. The message of the show was fairly reverent, and Garner makes an appealing God, but when God is concerned, some people have no sense of humor.  The show only aired four times before the low ratings convinced NBC that it wasn't worth the hassle.

Luckily, all 13 shows are available on DVD.  It's well worth a rental.