Friday, March 22, 2013

Flick of the Day: Nine Queens / Nueve Reinas

Since I first started writing this blog, I have always made an effort to label the leading actors as a way of tracking old posts and films. It was a surprise then and perhaps a testament to the talent of the man when I noticed that today's flick of the day would be the third to contain the talents of Argentine actor Ricardo Darin, the previous films being the excellent The Secret in Their Eyes and the equally compelling Vulture. One of the biggest names in Argentine cinema, he is a superb talent has only begun to be appreciated over the last decade outside of his own country.
Nine Queens is the tale of two con artists who meet in a supposedly random fashion on the streets of modern day Buenos Aires. Marcos, played by Darin, is the older wiser head of the two with an eye for a quick buck wherever it can be had regardless of the effect on his relationships with friends and family. He is quick, sharp and charming when he needs to be. Juan, played by Gaston Pauls, is the earnest and naive younger man who needs to raise money to get his father out of prison. The pair meet in a petrol station one night when Juan is caught attempting a scam and Marcos manages to talk him out of it. He offers Juan the chance to work with him foe one day as his partner has split town. Juan is hesitant at first but eventually agrees. They set off into the busy streets of the city to hatch money making schemes as and when they present themselves. Their focus soon turns to a wealthy Spanish businessman who is staying at a nearby hotel and has a passion for collecting stamps. They plot to sell him fake copies of a rare German stamp much to the annoyance of Marcos's sister who as well as being an employee of the hotel has also fallen out with her brother when he attempted to rob her inheritance. A tense and entertaining crime drama, one begins to feel early on that the protagonists are attempting to con each other and that all is not as it seems but who is the true master con artists and who is the mark?
Ricardo Darin is excellent as the sleazy yet likeable Marcos, a man who survives and thrives on the strength of his own wits. He is the focus of the movie and carries it at times. His fellow compatriot Gaston Pauls also gives an entertaining as the supposedly naive young thief Juan. He is the perfect foil to Marcos, helping the old hand out of a few tight scrapes as the film heats up. 
Director Fabian Bielinsky makes the most of his tightly written script and allows the actors performances to flow. The story such as it is could not be accused of being too original and if you are the kind of movie goer with a penchant for seeing twist endings before they announce themselves then you will probably see this one coming a mile off. That said, the film moves along at a breezy base and there is enough humour to keep you entertained. While none of the characters involved are nice people, let us not forget they are all some form of con artist or scam artist, they are entertaining portrayals and it makes for an enjoyable ride.
Ricardo Darin's career has gone from strength to strength over the past decade and though the number of Argentine films which make it to release in European cinemas, even art house cinemas, is still low with talent like this on show the future is bright.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Flick of the Day: Robot and Frank

Ageing is only very rarely dealt with in cinema and even rarer still is for it to be looked at in any kind of positive light. To lose one's faculties is to lose ones grip on reality or the ability to lead any kind of reasonable life or so the movies would have you believe. Today's flick of the day, Robot and Frank, is that rare event and while not detaching itself entirely from reality manages to be funny, charming and sad. 
In the near future, Frank Langella is an ageing cat burglar who is beginning to lose track of his thoughts on a regular basis. He finds himself wandering through his remote up-state New York home not quite sure of where he is. His house is a mess and he has begun to miss meals and misplace his children's names. He spends his days wandering into town to visit the library to pick up books to read and flirt with the librarian Jennifer, played by  an excellent Susan Sarandon. His son Hunter, played by James Marsden, comes up with the ingenious idea of an expensive next generation robot who has been programmed to look after Frank and keep his memory from deteriorating further much to Frank's irritation. Alone in his rambling old house with his new robot nurse, Frank initially rails against this electronic interloper. However gradually as he gets used to the rhythm of life, he becomes attached to the robot. He soon realises that his new friend can be used for more nefarious means and the possibility of one last big score presents itself. He trains Robot to pick locks and case potential robberies. Frank is determined that together they will pull off another job despite the best efforts of his free spirited daughter Madison, played by Liv Tyler, who attempts to remove Robot and move in with Frank in an attempt to assuage her own guilt.
This film is very funny at times, finding humour in many of the little foibles of Frank's life without ever seeming to laugh at him. His self involved children are perfectly drawn characters and the story is relevant to us all given the way we all try to hive off ageing and the aged into a particular corner of society. However, the real joy and pathos of the film is the relationship between Frank and Robot, voiced by the talented Peter Sarsgaard, while Robot continues to remind Frank that he is not human, Frank begins to develop a friendship with him and as they spend more time together, he becomes increasingly protectful as he begins to rely on Robot and by the end of the film does not wish to part from him regardless of the cost.
Langella gives a wonderful performance as Frank, a man unwilling to comes to terms with effects of getting older. He is nuanced in how he handles the ups and downs of the script and displays perfect comic timing. It is at times a master class in how to act a part with subtlety, wit and a sly charm. Kudos also to Sarsgaard whose voice of Robot brings the character to life and gives him a presence on the screen. 
The film is full of laughs but yet is possessed of a great heart and can only leave you feeling wistful at the end for Frank and Robot. A genuinely unexpected triumph, I urge you to see it if you get a chance. It shines a light on ageing and memory loss without being trite or overly sentimental yet gives you two characters whose company you will delight in.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Flick of the Day: Witness for the Prosecution

Charles Laughton is one of the greatest actors ever to grace the silver screen and yet he is not anything like the kind of household name of a Brando or DeNiro or in receipt of the same plaudits as Olivier or Gielgud. A versatile talent he worked until his premature death in 1962 from liver cancer with starring roles in classics such as Mutiny on the Bounty and Hobson's Choice. A fine entry in his later career work is today's flick of the day, Witness for the Prosecution, an adaptation of an Agatha Christie play of the same name from writer and director Billy Wilder.
Laughton fills the role, in every sense of the word, the role of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, an eminent barrister and legal scholar who at the films open is recovering from a recent heart attack despite his own best efforts to the contrary. He is determined to return to his legal practice despite the opposition of his nurse Miss Plimsoll played by Laughton's own wife Elsa Lanchester. However a most interesting case soon falls into his lap, that of a down at heel inventor named Leonard Vole, played by Tyrone Power as an Englishman with an inexplicable American accent, who has been accused of the murder of a wealthy widow. His only defence is the alibi of his wife, an immigrant whom he rescued from the ravages of post war Germany played by the excellent Marlene Dietrich. Sir Wilfrid is immediately suspicious of Vole's wife and of her willingness to appear in his defence though there is no doubt in his mind that Vole is an innocent man. He launches himself into a new trial putting his health in danger to defend an innocent man whilst investigating the machinations of Vole's supposedly loving wife.
Billy Wilder could easily lay claim to being one of the great director's of Hollywood's golden age with a filmography to rival anyone including highlights such as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. He is on top form here, carefully weaving the various strands of the tale into a suspenseful legal thriller. Of course it helps when the cast is as strong as that on offer here. Laughton dominates the screen both with his immense bulk and his deep booming diction, a performance perfectly suited to that of a barrister. Dietrich and Power are equally strong with Power giving one of his final performances before his untimely death while filming Solomon and Sheba in Spain.
Wilder was always a director who could turn his hand to any kind of film and in this case, he manages to transcend the genre of courtroom thriller to make a film that is enjoyable and thrilling in equal measure. It doesn't really have any weak elements and would have surely swept the board at the 1958 Oscars were it for the stiff upper lip juggernaut that was The Bridge on the River Kwai. He deviates from Christie's play by inserting humour into the script where it can bare it such as the verbal back and forth between Laughton and his put upon nurse. 
While the ending might stretch the believability stakes in an attempt to keep the film from falling foul of the Production Code which stated that crime must not go unpunished, it is an entertaining drama all the same. If for no other reason then to admire Laughton at somewhere not even near his best, this is a film worth seeing.

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