Rob Pearson’s Film Picks of the Week

March 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Features

The Fifth Element – Saturday, 10pm, FilmFour

This is what happens when you give a French guy $80 million to make a film – you get a sci-fi action number set in New York, 2263, with costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier, a crazy blue alien techno opera singer, a bad guy called Zorg (Gary Oldman, clearly having fun) and a divine hero called Leeloo Minai Lekatariba Lamin-atchai Ekbat Desebat (Milla Jovovich, doing a bit of a Bjork impression if you ask me). Bruce Willis is our ex-special forces, taxi driving hero (aren’t they all?) , looking suitably bemused at the startling production design and art direction. Very imaginative stuff, and rather love/hate, but there’s plenty of bang for those 80 million bucks as director Luc Besson certainly brings an agreeably Gallic flair to proceedings, and doesn’t skimp on the ever-enjoyable explosions. If you can handle Chris Tucker presence as the de facto intergalactic annoying radio c*ck, Ruby Rhod, this is a real treat.

Goodbye Lenin! – Saturday, 11.55pm, BBC2

Hailing from Germany, this flick starts in what was the tumultuous time of 1989. Alex (Daniel Brühl) lives with his sister and his mother in East Berlin. Mum has a heart attack, falls into a coma, and – check it out, here comes the plot – while she’s out for the count, lying on the hospital bed, the wall comes down. East Germany is no more. Some months later she reawakens, and the doctors tell Alex that any further shock could cause another, potentially fatal, heart attack. So begins the construction of an amusing, pathological tapestry of lies, as Alex must hide the reunification from his ma. As contrived as that sounds, the film really works – it’s cute and sad and funny and touching all at once, with strong performances and thoughtful take on some of the fine accomplishments of western civilisation (porn and Coca-Cola, seemingly). It drags its feet occasionally, but the soundtrack by accordion-wielding cheese-muncher Yann Tiersen (famous for his Amélie tunes) absolutely hits the mark, and keeps tenderly tugging away at the old heartstrings, just like the film.

The Departed – Sunday, 10pm, Channel 4

Spare a thought for Martin Scorsese’s trophy cabinet – he had it made up all the way back in 1976, a dead cert to win the directing Oscar for Taxi Driver, surely. The ceremony came and went, and the cabinet lay fallow, lonely. Then there was Raging Bull – surely that would grab him the gong? No dice, Marty. The Colour of Money. Goodfellas. Casino. Nope, nope, nope. Gangs of New York. The Aviator? Come on, that’s clutching at straws. Then, a full 30 years after Taxi Driver, comes The Departed. The film that finally won director Martin Scorsese his Oscar, and put an end to his cabinet’s years of sorrow and darkness.

Better than Taxi Driver? Probably not, no. But was it worthy? Hell yes. Propelled by three great central performances, this story of cops and gangsters in Boston is breezily enjoyable, in spite of travelling down some deep, dark canyons of bloody mob drama. The central concept is one of those ‘why has nobody thought of this before?’ plotlines – a cop goes undercover as a mobster, and a mobster goes undercover as a cop. Oh, but it has been done before. The Departed is a remake of the excellent Asian gangster flick, Infernal Affairs (the entire trilogy of Infernal films are showing this week, late nights on FilmFour). This time, though, the remake actually manages to outdo the original, brimming with flair and dark humour – not to mention wonderfully written characters.

Firstly, you’ve got Jack Nicholson ripping it up as Frank Costello, the ageing mob boss with a God complex: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me.? Then there’s Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as cop and mobster respectively. Both are startlingly good, shaking off any lingering doubts about their pretty-boy images. These guys lie, not for their jobs, but for their lives. No surprise then, that the love interest is a police psychologist – a love interest that bucks the usual trend and doesn’t feel tacked on. The supporting cast is just as good, especially when Wahlberg and Baldwin are going full steam as smart-arsed, potty-mouthed cops. Ray Winstone (intimidating as Costello’s right hand man) proves yet again that he has the Connerylike ability to pull off only one accent: his own. Sorry. That’s a minor, petty criticism – but one of the few that can actually be levelled at the film. For all the talent on show here, however, the script is the real star – William Monahan has crafted a thing of violent beauty that, even clocking in at 2 hours 30, flies by.

Ping Pong – Monday, 10.30pm, BBC4

BBC4 are beginning with a season about Japan, and so we’re given the chance to see this cute little film about, yep, you guessed it, Ping Pong. Adapted from the manga of the same name, and following through with an exaggerated style, this film livens up the sporting proceedings with fantastical elements, snappy editing editing and welcome splashes of CGI.

As for the film itself, it’s a gentle comedy, a coming of age film centred around the fates of two young ping-pongists ping-pongers table tennis players, ‘Peco’ and ‘Smile’. Best friends since childhood, Peco is Smile’s hero, the cool kid, the ping pong maestro at school… But Smile secretly has the talent to be the best. He never smiles, though (clever, eh?), and lacks the necessary killer instinct to reach the top: he’s only killing time with ping pong, and wants Peco to do well.

Playing with sports movie clichés that are somehow more fun when put in the high school setting, Ping Pong feels fresh. Minor characters are all well-defined, such as ‘China’ (who failed to make it in his homeland, and is over in Japan to play the schmuks of this lesser ping-ponging nation) and ‘Dragon’, whose style is pure discipline, and is the bad guy of the piece, if there is one. You can tell because he has a black shirt. Clever, that!

While the film doesn’t quite go as far as, say, Shaolin Soccer (I mean, Shaolin’s guys in black shirts are actually called ‘Team Evil’), it is a much more complete film. The major players are caricatured, yes, but they never slip into the trap of being simplistic, even with the constant, nudging humour. Snazzy though they are, this isn’t just an excuse for snazzy table tennis matches – the characters matter. The OTT, stylised approach to the sporting scenes helps tackle the overriding theme: what is a hero? There are occasional stumbles, though, and you might be left twiddling your thumbs when another match is broken up by the endless breaks in the action to accommodate dramatic monologuing, or the players taunting each other, kung-fu style. But with bits of those kung-fu, manga and Rocky influences all sloshed up together, Ping Pong is thoroughly enjoyable mix.

Airplane! – Tuesday, 9pm, FilmFour

One of the finest spoof films of them all, Airplane! went far and beyond the standardised rate of gags per minute required for a comedy, and is generally genuinely completely awesomely excellently good. If you don’t find it at least moderately amusing, there’s quite possibly no hope for you, and you should probably, like, I don’t know, give up watching films and donate your body to medical science, or something. Airplane!‘s creators later gave us the likes of Naked Gun and Hot Shots, which in turn spawned the evil progeny: Scary Movies 1-4, Epic Movie, Date Movie and the none-more-aptly-named Disaster Movie, leading one to wonder whether or not Airplane! actually did more harm than good. Horrifying, yes, but a world without Airplane! doesn’t bear thinking about.

Kind Hearts and Coronets – Wednesday, 1.20pm, Channel 4

The phrase ‘black comedy’ doesn’t quite do this justice – this is a positively sinister film about a serial killer with pristine, gentlemanly manners. Dapper Dennis Price stars as Louis, a chap with an axe to grind. His mother, you see, was a member of the D’Ascoyne family – but was cut off from the Lords and Ladies for marrying a commoner. Louis, who is still a part of the D’Ascoyne family tree, vows revenge: he will kill everybody in his way, until he rightfully inherits the family’s land and title. And so, we follow Louis as he goes about his joyfully nefarious deeds, systematically offing each member of the family (each of them played, legendarily, by Alec Guinness – yes, even the women). It’s still amazing to think that a film that so revels in the art of murder could’ve been made back in 1949, and this remains one of Ealing’s, and England’s, most enduring, gentle comedies.