25 October 2013

TFE: Top Ten Horror Movies Before and After THE EXORCIST

I was asked to contribute to two polls at The Film Experience recently: top ten horror films both before and after The Exorcist. Below are my submitted top tens for each poll and my allocated write-ups for Eyes without a Face and Halloween.

My ten picks before The Exorcist:

01. Psycho (1960)
02. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
03. Eyes Without a Face Les yeux sans visage (1960) *
04. Daughters of Darkness (1973)
05. The Haunting (1963)
06. Carnival of Souls (1962)
07. The Mask of Satan Black Sunday (1960)
08. Night of the Demon (1957)
09. Les Diaboliques Diabolique (1955)
10. Hour of the Wolf Vargtimmen (1968)

Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face is grand, eloquent, horrible and dark. Real dark. Dark dark. It looks at the base experience of human depravity and the deeply pained and sacrificial provision of life that a father is willing to bestow upon his daughter. Oddly, it’s the pursuit of life, not death, that drives the film. The inherent terror and harsh beauty of Eyes is contained in its desperation. The film is filled with memorable, desperate acts. It’s brimful of tense and horrifying moments that prod us to feel both disgust and compliance. It’s sly, clever, engrossing; the trajectory of the plot never feels stable. That’s Georges Franju’s genius. He serves up both victims and perpetrators as fascinating, pitiable characters (and in horror these are the kinds of characters that thrill us the most). Eyes compels and disquiets in an austerely grandiose fashion. It has Alida Valli adding dark night work in a headscarf and pearls like a demented femme fatale who’s long traversed the wrong path. It also has an ethereal Edith Scob, lost and curious about the world, commanding both dogs and doves in a tragic symphony of release. And that music, cinematography and direction! Fifty-three years on, everything about Eyes without a Face is perfectly tuned to unsettle and undermine complacency with horror cinema.

My ten picks after The Exorcist:

01. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
02. Halloween (1978) *
03. Alien (1979)
04. The Thing (1982)
05. Session 9 (2001)
06. The Brood (1979)
07. Audition Ôdishon (1999)
08. Pulse Kairo (2001)
09. The Vanishing Spoorloos (1988)
10. Inferno (1980)

Along with Psycho, John Carpenter's Halloween is the horror film I’ve probably seen the most. For this reason, it is one of my favourites and, what I consider, one of the most effective made. As with the Hitchcock film, I’ve watched it roughly once a year since I first saw it in 1987. (Not always on October 31st, though it does help, and not always all the way through.) Sometimes, especially if I’m alone, it freaks me out too much to carry on watching. Even now. It’s a film with real staying power. The first time I watched it I was alone, it was late, on Halloween, and in a dark house not entirely dissimilar to Annie Brackett’s (Nancy Loomis). Oh, how I had trouble sleeping that night. Its power truly resides in what it leaves in your mind. It’s that music. The sense of dreadful expectation. The half-glimpsed “shape” of a man in a bad William Shatner mask and a boiler suit just standing there in the garden, in the street. It, He, Michael Myers, even has the balls to appear in broad daylight, allowing for no avenue of next-day escape; watching it in the daytime doesn’t ease the situation — it often makes it worse. The way Carpenter plays horrible, clever games with screen space and ominous pause — suggesting in the emptiness of Haddonfield just what lurks in the darkest corners of our imaginations — is tinged with just a dash of sly, knowing genius. But it’s those shots near the end that make the fear resoundingly concrete. The camera returning to the locations of Myers’ kills after he’s... vanished. The once familiar but now-empty areas visited by death. It’s the potent horror of these snapshots of sheer terror that I remember most. Thanks for eternally terrifying me, Mr. Carpenter.

1 October 2013

Films Seen 2013: September

Films I saw in September 2013. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required — occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2013 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed as seen chronologically, viewed from bottom to top.

The Terror Within (Thierry Notz/1989) 3
So much "lifted" from Alien(s) that the TDA should have a gander. Monster is clumsy, hilarious. Actors fret in jumpsuits. 

The Initiation (Larry Stewart/1984) 4
Vera Miles. 1980s sorority hair. Iffy acting. A sanatorium. It was 50% pure camp, when it should've been full Joan Crawford.

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen/2013) 8
Short: (Dis)illusion(ment), blitzed etiquette, dimmed sheens. A scrutinous, mostly coherent look at failure and appearance. A+ acting. Blanchett, with each sad drift into the past and sharply-pitched line delivery, was ace. A manic jag of uneasy pain. Career best?

Long: Woody Allen likes illusion (Scoop, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice), and I think this is possibly his best examination of it — or, more precisely, disillusionment — so far. It's all about blitzed etiquette and dimmed sheens (and, alongside it, the slippery structure of class). Cate Blanchett, with every perfectly fussy and sad drift into Jasmine's past, and each sharply-pitched line delivery, was exemplary. Her manic jag was painful and awkward — and at times oddly cathartic — to watch, but she played it with sheer ease. It's probably the best work she's done yet. Also, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale were excellent too. It doesn't perhaps achieve the full-on heights of many of Allen's older films, but it is a successful and coherent look at failure and appearances. He wasn't afraid to just get on with scrutinising his leading character's life, without the support of many gags, and offered his ideas on the subject of illusion, or lack of it, without excessive deliberation. It feels like him moving toward something quite new, in a small way, and is especially cheering after some recent solid clunkers. He's of course prolific, with wildly varying results, but I hope he moves further down this path.

The Silence / Das letzte Schweigen (Baran Bo Odar/2010) 5
Fitfully gripping, but the mystery thread is a dash too obvious. Characters are mostly sketchy. Felt like it was on autopilot.

Welcome to Pine Hill (Keith Miller/2012) 4
Spare moments are affecting, but it doesn't say a great deal overall. An Integral spark was missing. Average, sadly.

Parker (Taylor Hackford/2013) 3
Confused, scatty and full of fudged set-pieces. Sloppy direction's not helped by rash editing. Impressive cast, but no one's any good. At all. Best Bad Wig: Jason Statham. Best Unintelligible Growl: Nick Nolte. Worst Overuse Of A Female Character Fumbling With A Gun: J-Lo.

Simon Killer

Simon Killer (Antonio Campos/2012) 5
Paced and structured with a chilly kind of verve, but it only starts to get compelling halfway in. Then it, er, runs dry of ideas. Brady Corbet can be very good, but his character's a flaky, dull blank and his neurosis was often funny when it should've been consuming. Much more interesting is Mati Diop, who is superb. I would've preferred more of her (better-defined) character's story over Corbet's, to be honest. It was a more satisfying film than Campos' Afterschool, though — less in strict awe of Haneke. Plus, the music and photography are generally splendid.

White House Down (Roland Emmerich/2013) 6
The height of daftness. All patriotic panic and anguished aides. C-Tat sweats. J-Foxx smirks. This and that explode. Some fun. I liked Jason Clarke most. He's clearly having a ball, snarling, shouting and shooting the place up, enjoying all the hokiness. There's a raft of risible lines and preposterous plot swerves, of course. Hard to take any given scene remotely seriously.Thankfully.

Movie 43 (various directors/2012) 2
Why are all these actors doing this? In fact, why did I watch this? Being a Julianne Moore completist meant sitting through it. But her segment wasn't even in it. It was a deleted extra. She lucked out. I didn't. Kate Winslet emerged unscathed. Griffin Dunne's segment was the most watchable. Everything else? It'd be nice to just forget about it.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (James Wan/2013) 5
A few nifty plot turns, but the lack of fresh ideas makes it often dull work. An unfortunate step down from the original. Byrne, Hershey and Shaye are sadly frittered for the most part. Wilson has some sly moments. Makers obviously (too) fond of Kubrick, Lynch, Craven.

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua/2013) 6
It was absurd, showy, ridiculous and often crass. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the shit out of it. Leo was the one actor in it who added some emotion and weight to her character, giving a fiercely moving performance with limited screen time, and showing just how good she can be in anything.

You're Next

You're Next (Adam Wingard/2011) 5
Pretty good, but a tad overpraised? Not half as fresh or daring as reports said. Some iffy performances and dialogue. Vinson was great in a decent part; the real standout element of the film. She was operating on a slightly elevated level from the rest of it. But, for home-invasion horrors so far this year: Home Sweet Home > You're Next. By a mile. Also: scary animal masks = the new scary 'old potato sack' masks.

Any Day Now (Travis Fine/2012) 6
Sincere social angle gives it pleasant, admirable heft. Fine performances from Cumming and Dillahunt give it zeal. Decent, worthy work. 

About Time (Richard Curtis/2013) 3Curtis does his 'thing'. Again. Pure fantasy; chiefly recognisible to a specific aspirational set. It reminded me of a Waitrose ad. Script's fudged by a lack of wit; in its place are flustered asides. A late scene struck a very sweet chord, but it wasn't enough by then. Nighy, MacAdams, Hollander and Duncan do what they do. Seen it all before. I was more intrigued by Lydia Wilson's (limited) supporting character/plot strand. It's innocuous, well-meaning candy, and its appeal will grab some folk, but the wall-to-wall Curtis-isms did absolute zip for me. If I can be crass, I'd say: one for the middle-class 'wank bank'. 

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay/2013) 3
The Three Stooges pimped up by David LaChapelle. But without much fun. Clunky, ugly, shiny, vacant. Bay's empty vanity case. Although it was utter tosh, Johnson and Mackie put effort in, whilst Wahlberg does the same old routine (and Shalhoub did most of the hard graft.) It comes on like it has things to say (failed, wild American dream!), but there's zip to it. It's just Bay doing a sweaty Coen bros act.

Blood Runs Cold (Sonny Laguna/2011) 3
Overfamiliar frosty horror. Awkwardly direction and shoddy in terms of acting and dialogue. But some atmospheric moments stand out.

4 September 2013

Short Cuts (1993)

July's poll question at The Film Experience was: What Are the Biggest Awards Season Flops? I was given Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993). My full ballot is below.

What was the reason Short Cuts only gathered one Oscar nomination? (A well-deserved Best Director nod for Altman was all it snagged.) This is a film with 22 great roles played by one of the best groups of actors (and a few singers) Hollywood had ever seen. Just have a gaze at these names: Anne Archer, Matthew Modine, Jack Lemmon, Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe, Fred Ward, Julianne Moore, Peter Gallagher, Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Davison, Chris Penn, Andie MacDowell, Tom Waits, Huey Lewis, Annie Ross and Lili Taylor and Lily Tomlin. That’s a roll call which should’ve reeked of gold. At least at the time. Why no nods for anyone in this line-up? Maybe the Academy was split as to exactly who to nominate. Perhaps the performances were too subtle, too real and too intuitively conveyed. There were no big, gesture-based scenes of showboat-style speechifying. Everything in the film was too relatable. It wasn’t movie-movie enough, perhaps. But, really, no one here could be easily defined as either lead or supporting. The performances bridge that gap. They all feature intermittently throughout the three-hour running time, each giving us their own slice of LA life. They are a true ensemble, given equal weight and time to show us the length and breadth of a collection of ecstatic, troubled, funny, confused and vibrant Los Angelenos. Maybe they all went under the radar by being collectively exemplary? They won a special ensemble acting award at the Golden Globes two months prior to the 1994 Oscars and won the Special Volpi Cup at Venice, along with three other awards, the previous year. Maybe The Academy should’ve taken note and created an ensemble award just for experiences like Short Cuts. Altman was, as we know, the king of improvisational, ensemble-based organic filmmaking and all his actors and crew here pooled their immense talents in service of telling the stories of Raymond Carver’s people. A sole nod simply wasn’t enough; it required at least 22 more.

1. Short Cuts
2. Zodiac
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
4. Bright Star
5. Blindness
6. Do the Right Thing
7. The Duchess
8. Hoop Dreams
9. The Ice Storm
10. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

1 September 2013

Films Seen 2013: August

Films I saw in August 2013. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required — occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2013 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed as seen chronologically, viewed from bottom to top.

Vampires (Vincent Lannoo/2010) 5
Belgian vamp mock-doc. Lovely idea with some choice grim laughs, but it runs dry of inspiration after a spell. Good for TV?

The Haunting of Whaley House (Jose Prendes/2012) 4
It fudges each potential decent scare with atrocious acting at every turn; this often makes it very hilarious.

Battledogs (Alexander Yellen/2013) 3
CGI Werewolves in New York. Cheaper than a car-boot sale. Hilarious, inept, taxing. Cast looks bored. But better than Sharknado

Our Idiot Brother (Jesse Peretz/2011) 6
Nice to see a film daftly pride sincere warmth and pit itself so charmingly averse to cynicism and faux social nicety. Sweet. Sometimes it just takes the beaming, unabashed face of Paul Rudd as he greets a dog called Willie Nelson to raise spirits.

I Give It a Year

I Give It a Year (Dan Mazer/2013) 7
Better and funnier than its dreary reviews said. When the comedy works (which is often), it's hilarious. Loaded gags give it oomph. Saw it for Olivia Colman (who never disappoints); also got a funny, endearing Rafe Spall perf thrown in. Comic timing spot on.

Jurassic Park 3D (rewatch — Steven Spielberg/1993) 8
Everything you always wanted from Jurassic Park. Now in 3D! Dinosaurs! Dinosaur attacks! Dinosaur close-ups! Dinosaurs! 

What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee, David Siegel/2012) 6
Sweet-sad tale of a yo-yo childhood. Maintains a distinct tone, but is never truly riveting. Great performances, especially lead Aprile. 

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp/2013) 6
Expert design/FX. Some sequences induce wonder. It's oversimple, but overriding message is to be cheered. Bizarre Foster, slipshod Copley, bland Damon. Liked a fair bit about it, but it could've done with some expansion; it probably could've worked better as a six-part 'event' TV series. There's a lot of compelling content, but it all felt too compacted, hasty. Wanted to explore its ideas, characters and world more. Foster's and Copley's are harebrained characters, not entirely successful, but was glad they did what they did. I quite liked their ballsy, pitch-it-all-in approach, even if they were variable in terms of accent and overall tone.It's a stunning film visually, however, and worth seeing for the impressive design.

We're the Millers (Rawson Marshall Thurber/2013) 6
A few belly laughs, several sweet moments, but some iffy aspects. Cast does well. Great end credit outtakes. Enough fun. 

Lost in New York (Jean Rollin/1989) 6
Stock Rollin blank-face vamp-women wandering about without aim. But his ragged, empty '80s NY imagery is rather haunting. 

The Double (Michael Brandt/2011) 5
Spy-thriller business as usual. OK intro. Some nonsense. Surprise reveal! Oh. Iffy edit. *Bored face* Twist! Ooh. Dull end. Oh. It's lit in such steely-blue fashion that both Richard Gere's and Martin Sheen's grey hair is made to look like a blue rinse throughout.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Michael Haneke/1994) 8
Haneke's pieces accrue power; they hit hard when they fit. Prudent, sharp direction is its driving factor.

Mr. Bean's Holiday (Steve Bendelack/2007) 5
There are only so many faces Atkinson can pull. But situations are often amusing. Some laughs; last stretch works best.

This Is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan/2013) 8
Beautifully played dual character study. Tender, unassuming, full of regard for people. Warm and restrained. A real gem. Paul Eenhoorn and Richmond Arquette are both wonderful. Characters like theirs are rare. Worth relishing how good they are.

What's Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich/1972) 9
Why have I lived my life until now without What's Up, Doc? in it? It's an utter joy. Rapid wit, nimble direction, game cast. Wall-to-wall delight. Streisand's a sly cat, O' Neal's an adorable plonker. Script fills every possible moment with something cleverly funny. Scores points visually, too. It's also one of two films (that I can immediately recall) where I wanted the courtroom scenes to be longer; Liam Dunn's judge is hilarious. (The other? The Verdict). 

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan/1954) 8
A beautiful film about desperate folks. Fogged cityscapes, grey dawns and quiet roofs evoke a concrete sadness. Compelling. The scenes with Brando (an open wound) and Saint (all delicate rage) were some of On the Waterfront's best. Malden's grit and ire were captivating.

The Details (Jacob Aaron Estes/2011) 6
Involving, well-made examination of privilege, mistakes and acts of kindness. The good life as fucked-up karma. Fine cast and photography. Dennis Haysbert, Laura Linney, Ray Liotta and Elizabeth Banks all put in fine work. Tobey Maguire, in the lead, has to work hard to match 'em. A shame The Details didn't get a full release. Guess introspective dramas aren't 'in' (odd as it has shades of American Beauty, though is better).

 The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski/2013) 8
A solid romp. Has a wry, joyful sense of adventure. Superbly directed and paced with expertly measured thrills. Hammer trumps Depp. Big fun. It's (soon to be) Hammer's time. Reckon he needs an Out of Sight-style caper and a Coen brothers comic lead and he'll surely cement his star status.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (Jon M. Chu/2013) 5
Flimsy military-fondling twaddle. Dialogue's a dull ear-thud, but a few action scenes (Ninja Mountain!) perk it up.

Donner Pass (Elise Robertson/2012) 2
Inconsequential horror; rote as a wheel. A decent premise, but it gets wasted on wonky execution. Plus some truly blank performances.

Sharknado (Anthony C. Ferrante/2013) 3
It was exciting*, emotional**, executed with flair***. (*naff **emotional ***balls.) Bring on the second one! Or don't! If it contained thrice the amount of 'experimental' edits it already did, you might be able to legitimately call it an art film.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach/2012) 7
Works like a charm. Funny, warm, awkward enough. Script a joy, editing's perfect. Gerwig nails the grey area between goofy and needy with ease.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney/2013) 8
Loved it. Perfectly and consistently funny in both broad and subtle ways. Coogan's comic timing is spot-on, exemplary.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley/2012) 7
Tone is neatly balanced as a cringe-comic high-wire act. Laughs induced by sharp script, great performances. Tragic dimension near unbearable.

Erased (Philipp Stölzl/2012) 6
It's a "my life's been taken from me" thriller exactly like all the other "my life's been taken from me" thrillers. Just with Aaron Eckhart. There's really scant discernible difference between this and Taken, Unknown etc. Some conspiracy flap, some kidnap, some gunplay. Some groans. Erased isn't a particularly good film, but I kept watching it. The trail of human carnage Eckhart leaves seemed to hark back to an '80s sensibility. Not sure why Taken etc received proper releases and this got a STV slot. Found it slightly more coherent than those Neeson action flicks.

Munger Road (Nicholas Smith/2011) 5
Was watching this — a generic yet fun and spooky horror — and just as it was coming to an end the words 'To Be Continued' pop up... What gives? No closure, no resolution. No mention of a sequel. It just... ended. Like that. All a bit cheap and disappointing. But pretty decent fare before that.

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

The Last Will and Testament Of Rosalind Leigh (Rodrigo Gudiño/2012) 7
One actor. An old house. A prowling camera. Clever voiceover. Eyes in the dark. Subtle. Scary. Brr!

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas/2012) 4
Can a bluffer create poetic imagery? Is wilfully showy abstraction enough? Does it have to mean that much? Why the rugby?

The Conjuring (James Wan/2013) 6
Enjoyable. Effective spooky parts, sharp use of sound, nice period detail. But it didn't fully swerve the same-old scare tricks. Taylor and Farmiga stand out; both give it oomph. Wan instills a decent eerie vibe. Atmosphere is solid, even if the script veers at times.

The Heat (Paul Feig/2013) 7
McCarthy-Bullock team-up works wonders; both add spark and show their adept comic skills. Gag rate's solid. Decent direction. A real joy. Script slyly builds in gender points with charm, though is just a hook. But it could've all been random skits and I'd still be happy.

Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn/2013) 8
A high-styled vacuum steeped in moral grime, but Winding Refn's control makes stupefying work of it. A bold, grisly puzzle box. It's a world of posing; everything is gesture. Svelte plot's a mere thread for sound, score and photography to queasily snap senses. Gosling is all doleful expressions and gripped fists. Scott Thomas glides like a waxy serpent; a horrible, compelling monster. A dash of humour — surreal or otherwise — would have been welcome, but its world is so deliberately empty of placeable humanity, it would've perhaps felt entirely incongruous. (It, er, missed a trick by not including One Night in Bangkok on the soundtrack though.)

Five best new (2013-release) films:

Only God Forgives
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
This Is Martin Bonner
The Lone Ranger
Frances Ha

Five best older films seen:

What's Up, Doc?
On the Waterfront
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance 
Jurassic Park
Lost in New York

7 August 2013

Films Seen 2013: July

Films I saw in July 2013. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required — occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2013 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed as seen chronologically, viewed from bottom to top.

In the House (François Ozon/2012) 7
If Sirk made a sitcom of Theorem. Sharp, playful study of the value of fiction, desire, art. Everything's composed with style.

Apartment 4E (Russell Leigh Sharman/2012) 5
An initially involving but gradually draining two-hander. Obviously stagy, but the central plot isn't well sustained over 90 minutes. Best thing about it is Nicole Behaire. She covers the A-Z of actorly tics, but does so with style, and is captivating presence. It shows that Behaire should be getting first dibs on all the decent roles around at the moment.

State of Emergency (Turner Clay/2011) 6
Zombie apocalypse films are currently in overkill, but this one is a nifty enough number. Well shot, tense, low-key, good fun.


Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan/2011) 7
Parts of it are riveting and aim with precision for an urgent response; other parts overcook it and needlessly draw out its main thesis. Writing is generally exceptional. Interaction between characters feels painful, penetrating, right. Words carry weight. Performances are wholly excellent. Some of the narrative padding made me waver on it and I'm unsure it warrants the 'near genius' tag. But it raises some very pointed ideas. Anna Paquin is career best so far. J. Smith-Cameron and Jeannie Berlin are highly memorable. Janney's role was a gut strike; simply unforgettable.

The Wolverine (James Mangold/2013) 5
I give this five Topless Jackmans out of ten. Action bits were fun, but the all-too frequent pauses for boring talking notsamuch. (At the start Hugh Jackman is grizzled, bearded, cast out and desperate. I did wonder if he'd stolen a loaf of bread.)

I Didn't Come Here to Die (Bradley Scott Sullivan/2010) 2
I didn't watch it to be bored. I did watch it to see something; alas, grubby photography made that a lost pursuit. It's like an Outdoor Safety Training video. But wth lower quality acting. And a low entertainment threshold. And little actual point. Essentially the "horror" here comes from characters having UNFORTUNATE ACCIDENTS. It's like a really crap, clumsy Final Destination.

The Collection (Marcus Dunstun/2012) 4
*eye-roll-a-rama* Yet more sub-Saw silliness. Too daft to bemoan; too derivative to hit home. Not a total washout, though.

Lay the Favorite (Stephen Frears/2012) 5
It's an odd one. Flits between comedy and drama in unsure fashion. Potential there, but script is wayward — stuff to like, however. Rebecca Hall works hard to lift it. Catherine Zeta-Jones had some nice moments. Vince Vaughn surprised. But Bruce Willis was the weak, lazy link.

Monsters University (Dan Scanlon/2013) 6
This was fun. It chugged along with enough charm, humour and fine voice work. Maybe not Pixar's very best, but I had a good time.

Straight A's (James Cox/2013) 5
Bafflingly, there's more lens flare in his quirky Ryan Phillippe and Anna Paquin comedy-drama
than in both of JJ Abrams' Star Treks. It's also so awkwardly edited (and titled) that it's often frustrating. A shame, as there are a few affecting moments dotted throughout.

The World's End (Edgar Wright/2013) 7
It's both a logical and an obvious step on from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But that's fine, as I liked both of those. I laughed. My favourite thing about it was the wittily choreographed fights. Pure joy. Wright knows how to instill charm into action scenes. The build up and use of repeated and extended verbal/visual gags works really well. As does the subtle, creative sound design.

The War Game (Peter Watkins/1965) 7
A mock report like a long blank stare. Think the worst case scenario... then triple it. Inordinately scary, even now. *shudder*

Army of Shadows / L'armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville/1969) 8
Between J-PM's perfect framing, Pierre Lhomme's twilit photography, Simone Signoret's scams and a wondrous score, there's so much to savour.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster/1948) 6
Lancaster. Fontaine. Foggy Lundun. Fists of fury. Lovers in a bind. Best stuff: empty streets, desperate faces.

Phil Spector (David Mamet/2013) 3
Mamet's writing perhaps not up to previous standards. Not sure the angle it came from was that compelling. It's lit with both noir-inspired and neon-hued photography; it looked sharp and striking, but there wasn't an entirely concrete reason for it. Helen Mirren was mostly Jane Tennyson with a cold. Al Pacino appeared to be playing Spector wearing an Anne Robinson wig at one point.

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home (David Morley/2013) 7
Tired of home invasion films? This sneaky little horror number perks 'em up. Simple. Elegantly made. Full of dread. It uses slow-build tension to near unbearable levels. Sharply photographed, directed with precision — a real gem. Read some "this is booooring" type comments. It's perhaps not perfect, but it's never dull. I was too wracked to the hilt to be bored. Probably 2013's best horror so far.

Wolf of New York (William C. McGann/1940) 4
A jolly kind of '40s crime film. A bit drily directed, but moves with verve. Edmund Lowe gives a smooth performance — its chief joy.

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro/2013) 6
Behemoths fighting fist and claw. del Toro's sheer affection for monster movies is present, cheering. The words clunk, but hey: FUN! Its emotional core is embedded with corniness, but characters serve a broad purpose. The well-designed smash of spectacle works effectively. It ploughs a path between a throwback to '80s style adventure blockbuster (and Godzilla etc refs, obviously) and current tech-blitzed tentpole. I liked the Jaeger names: Gipsy Danger...er, Bootsy Collins, Topsy Kretts, Crystal Waters, Mitzi Gaynor and Strident Fingerlonger. Or something.

Nothing Sacred (William A. Wellman/1937) 6
Quality '30s daftness. Frederic March cocks an eyebrow with style; Carole Lombard's elegantly scatty. Surely a Coen bros favourite?

The Bay (Barry Levinson/2012) 5
It gave me Shivers! I now have a case of Cabin Fever! Creepily gripping but the 'found footage' trickery is variable. It veered between flat and vomitous.

Now You See Me (Louis Leterrier/2013) 6
Everything everyone does is so elaborate and over complicated it became exhausting. But it was also fun, for the most part. However, I have to admit I didn't see its big reveal coming at all. Leterrier certainly directs like he's on a mission. It rarely pauses for a moment, not even to establish proper characters. I think Eisenberg's big trick here is to try to convince the world he's not just playing a smugger version of The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg.

The Men (Fred Zinnemann/1950) 6
Debuting Brando smoulders and gives it brawn. Full of great characters given due scenes (especially Sloane's Doc). It perhaps required a dash more depth, grit.

A Field in England

A Field in England (Ben Wheatley/2013) 5
There's genuinely, curiously strange and then there's wilful, for-the-sake-of-it strange. This marches right down the centre. Some films achieve an organic cultishness, even early on, and some seem to 'build it in'. Got the feeling A Field in England fits the latter. Some striking imagery to relish. Shearsmith and Glover are great. Sound, photography and editing are all good. Not sure I felt much throughout though. Either way, it's cheering that a lot of folks were excited for an experimental, B&W film set in 17th c. Civil War England.

Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald/1947) 7
Bad Babs! Stanwyck suffers with gritty abandon. Sterling Hayden sweats manfully. Meaty script delivers complexity. Bold direction.

The Day (Douglas Aarniokoski/2011) 6
A bit aimless and limited by an average script, that it tries to compensate for with a mean heart. Looks like it's filmed through a wet ashtray. Best thing about it is Ashley Bell (the demon girl from The Last Exorcism), who gives it character and brass. She'd make a great action star. Actually, The Day does with Bell's character what Stake Land should've done with the Kelly McGillis character.

'R Xmas (Abel Ferrara/2001) 6
Ferrara's unruly whims — OD on dissolves, wayward direction — instill a push-pull value on the senses. Drea de Matteo is solid. Ferrara is rarely dull, even when it seems he's bored with his plot. He always allows actors to go 'off-piste' and adds scuzz to his surfaces. 

Witness to Murder (Roy Rowland/1954) 7
A fine noir. Stanwyck sleuthing Sanders. Stark photography (by John Alton) and swift direction from Rowland work wondrously in tandem. Stanwyck's asylum stay was a highlight. Claire Carleton and Juanita Moore have five minutes to establish characters; they manage to evoke whole lives. Rowland doesn't hang about: fuss-free segues, judicious with visual information, actors and sets are framed for maximum elegant effect.

Five best new (2013-release) films:

The World's End
Home Sweet Home
In the House
Pacific Rim
Monsters University

Five best older films seen:

Army of Shadows
Witness to Murder
The War Game
Crime of Passion

3 July 2013

Catherine Deneuve

July's poll question at The Film Experience was Which female figure in filmmaking most deserves an Honorary Oscar? My full ballot is below; I was given Catherine Deneuve to write a paragraph on.

Catherine Deneuve is called the Doyenne of French Cinema for a reason. There is of course Leslie Caron, Jeanne Moreau, Fanny Ardent and Isabelles Huppert and Adjani. All exemplary. But Deneuve is Deneuve. Her work is her life is her work. She’s a solid gold bona fide star; an actress, a singer, an icon with a magnetic presence. She adds 100% more robust glamour and sultry skill to all her films — whether with Buñuel, Vadim, Demy or Truffaut or countless other notable filmmakers. Hey, not too many internationally-renowned actresses can say they sang with Joe Cocker, dated Clint Eastwood, speak four languages and design greetings cards. Pretty busy and eclectic, eh, particularly for someone with 100+ film appearances over 50+ years and her face on every key fashion magazine since, like, year dot. At 69 she looks as remarkable as ever. At 69 she performs as magnificently as ever. Look at Belle de Jour, Repulsion, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Place Vendôme, Tristana and— after feeling the Denevue delirium — furrow your brow at her lack of an Oscar among her achievements. Then look at Un Flic, Hustle, The Hunger, The Last Metro, Ma saison préférée, Dancer in the Dark, 8 Women, Kings and Queen, Time Regained, Indochine and furrow your brow into infinity. Admittedly, she got a nomination for that last one. She won an Honorary Golden Palm from Cannes. At the very least she deserves an Honorary Oscar. Really, she deserves a couple.

1. Diane Ladd
2. Gena Rowlands
3. Jeanne Moreau
4. Chantal Akerman
5. Catherine Deneuve
6. Lily Tomlin
7. Edith Scob
8. Ruby Dee
9. Kim Novak
10. Julie Harris

30 June 2013

Films Seen 2013: June

Films I saw in June 2013. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required -- occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2013 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed seen chronologically (as viewed) from bottom to top.

Midnight Son (Scott Leberecht/2001) 7
Nice to still see a fresh, fascinating take on the (kind of) vampire movie. Cramped, cold, stifling and with some queasy blood work. It fits with Nadja, Martin, The Addiction and Trouble Every Day in terms of tone and grue. Maybe not as great as those, but it is very good.

This Is the End (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen/2013) 5
It's brimful of confidence and is certainly sure of itself. A handful of good gags work. Not sure it's as funny as it thinks it is. *Wafts the air* Phew, a lotta gay panic up in here (though I guess the makers are all too aware). Kinda wish gags varied more. Craig Robinson (dry), Jay Baruchel (daft), Michael Cera (drunk) and (one specific vocal gag from) James Franco were best in show. Pretty sure it was after a Ghostbusters vibe. However, it managed more of a cross between a Ghostbusters II and an Evolution vibe.

World War Z (Marc Forster/2013) 6
It aims big, but achieves a middling result. Auto-Pitt. Erratic dir. Set-pieces mostly thrill, but country leapfrogging is the (lazy) script — which makes for a generally deflating time between the intense moments (though it perhaps relies heavily on these instead of on characterisation). For a film with huge potential, it's disappointing that it's only decent enough, but what it gets right works pretty well cinematically. Pitt isn't really dynamic enough for sole lead duty. Other characters deserved elevation (Enos, Badge Dale, Mokoena) for more variety. If I'm honest I got a bit bored with the book after a spell. It had erratic highs/lows, was diverting and had occasional 'ooh' moments. Both work ok; neither reach spectacular heights.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland/2012) 4
Sharp surface style, but that's it. Plot empty, dull. It's all mysterious posing with very little to say. Disappointing (on first watch, anyway). For a film about sound, its use/design was typically good. Nice photography added mood. Yet all was in service of a dreary dread. Many films influenced by Lynch over last 25+ yrs, but some elements of Berberian were a bit too familiar (Inland Empire especially). Shame I didn't take to it as I loved Katalin Varga, to the tune of a #2 spot on my 2009 year-end list.

Supporting Characters (Daniel Schechter/2012) 5
Shows that too much Alex Karpovsky can be tiring; more Tarik Lowe would be a treat. Self-involved but has some charm.  

What Richard Did

What Richard Did (Lenny Abrahamson/2012) 8
Cold and despairing, but with a keen regard for its characters. It's astute, demanding filmmaking. Great lead performance from Jack Reynor.

Agatha Christie Marple: Nemesis (Nicholas Winding Refn/2007) 5
Where a Danish cinematic bad boy meets cosy Sunday night telly. More tea than blood. Diverting, but low on mystery. It seems as if this Marple: Nemesis TV film prompted the title for Winding Refn's latest: at one point Marps says, "It's God who forgives."

Branded (Jamie Bradshaw, Aleksandr Dulerayn/2012) 5
Russia. Burgers. Marketing. Cosmetic surgery. Cows. Max Von Sydow. I had no idea what's going on here, but I couldn't stop watching. It is an ungainly mess, and then some, but oddly watchable. There's occasionally technical skill, but no conceptual coherence. A real spilt pot of ideas. Branded scores high on the Unique + Different + WTF! scale. But even higher on the Clumsy + Bafflement + Pick an Thought, Will Ya! scale. With films like, say, Cloud Atlas and Holy Motors the oddness was enticing, urgent; with Branded (cf. Mr. Nobody) feels like an untidy MINDBINGE.

Being Flynn (Paul Weitz/2012) 7
Nicely paced with well-judged use of voiceover and structure. Characters feel, by and large, vital. It's far better than reviews say; shame it passed by unnoticed. Plot elements are reminiscent of the recent A Bag of Hammers and has a fair kinship to very good 1993 film The Saint of Fort Washington. Paul Dano is excellent; De Niro is good (better here than in his recent Oscar-nominated role in Silver Linings Playbook, too). Top cast all round: Julianne Moore, Lili Taylor, William Sadler, Dale Dickey, Olivia Thirlby, Wes Studi. The photography (by Declan Quinn) is one of its strengths. Clear, vivid lighting and a great use of muted palette. He's one of the best DPs working.

Flypaper (Rob Minkoff/2011) 5
Tonal wobbles and a script dotted with gay panic gags (yawn) aside, it's a breezy enough Agatha Christie-riffing bank heist yarn. Good cast. The script was written by the writers behind The Hangover films, so that explains the lame gags then. Best thing about Flypaper: nice to see Ashley Judd and Patrick Dempsey as leads. Both often very good with comedy; both deserve better material.

The ABCs of Death (various directors/2012) 3
Did I just watch The ABCs of Death, or The ABCs of Painfully Unfunny, Boring and Non-Scary Scatology? Where's the fear, the fright, the dread? Of the 26: 9 are ok-ish (A, C, N, O, R, S, T, U, X); 11 are bad (B, D, E, G, H, J, P, V, W, Y, Z); 5 are awful (F, I, K, L, M); and 1 isn't too bad (Q). Either it was directors saving best stuff for their features or a general dearth of decent ideas, but The ABCs of Death is dispiriting, tiresome horror overall.

Silent Hill: Revelation (Michael J. Bassett/2012) 3
Manky wallpaper. Michelle Williams look-a-like. Fog. Sean Bean-and-gone. Old crone. Toblerone-head in a huff. Ash. A thing called The Seal of Metatron? Some more fog and ash. Malc-ham McDowell. Tears. Mange-faced vagrant. Confusion. Spider made of doll heads. Flimsy guy. Foggy ash. Bendy bubblegum-head nurses. Where's the crone? More mank. End.

To Live and Die in L.A. (rewatch — William Friedkin/1985) 9
Red spells danger. Unsparing with a sulphorous weight. Point-blank editing, expert action. One of my favourite Friedkins. To Live and Die in L.A. was the second ever VHS I saw. It's still a great, hard, awkward, thrilling film. Late shock scene remains harsh. William L. Petersen is fantastic; he's all swagger masking a sad demeanor — but pushy, ragged, visibly toughened by life. Read a comment on To Live and Die in L.A.: "It tried to be Manhunter, but it's essentially Michael Mann-lite." However, Manhunter was made a year after L.A. Manhunter filmed September 1985; L.A. filmed December 1984.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder/2013) 7
Fluid, entertaining, does what a big loud blockbuster should. Required some humour, lightness here and there maybe, and clarity at times, but I admired the approach. I liked the Zod Squad, especially Urs... Faora-Ul. Shannon gave good shout  and snarl (and crap hair). Krypton insect-ships a design treat. Didn't see most of the bad stuff that others had moans about. What do folks expect from a gargantuan studio film? Face value: it was fine. It hit its big notes with some flair. It's not perfect, but I didn't go into it expecting sheer perfection, but it knew how to work momentum into a sense of event. "Big" sci-fi often gets heavily scrutinised these days. The reasons why are surely vast and various. I mostly enjoyed Cloud Atlas, Oblivion, Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man Three and now Man of Steel this year — all of which recieved a high level of scrutinous commentary. Whatever: "Release the World Engine!"

Oliver Sherman (Ryan Redford/2010) 5
Good lead role showcase for Garret Dillahunt, who's very good. Donal Logue is even better in a fine support role. Molly Parker's solid too. It required a bit of leeway with its rigid solemnity to allow the characters to flourish, but it's a decent enough post-war stress drama.

Soldier (Paul W. S. Anderson/1998) 6
Kurt alert! The plot is balls, but does make way for a ripe helping of ridiculous space action. Direction is clunky but rigged to thrill. Soldier's good for fans of: snake wrangling; Kurt Russell being low on words, high on biceps; scores that sound like Aliens; space soldiers.

Revolt (J. Sheybani/1986) 5
So tinny and ropey it should be sold at B&Q. It's hilarious. No one knows what's going on and there's a shoddy fistfight every two minutes. There's a synthesiser theme and a moustache in nearly every scene; when there's not, there's a tetchy villain and really shite dialogue.

Mundane History

Mundane History / Jao nok krajok (Anocha Suwichakornpong/2009) 5
Has a quiet charm to start with, and is nicely directed, but its veer into vague, showy territory clouded its amiable tone.

Adventure in Manhattan (Edward Ludwig/1936) 5
Some good playing from Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, but for a '30s screwball it's low on pep and snap. More one-liners!

After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan/2013) 4
It isn't a particularly great movie (some harebrained direction and plot decisions abound), but it's already down, why kick it some more? Reading the many (vicious) reviews has been akin to seeing one lot of people hold Shyamalan down whilst another lot deliver the kicks. What I liked: the part-old/part-new set design that tried something different; creature and gadget SFX; Peter Suschitzky's photography. However, Will Smith was tasked with playing the dullest movie character since Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect and Michael Fassbender in Shame. Everyone talked about an "Ursa" — "Ursa" this, "Ursa" that — so much that I kept expecting a scowling Sarah Douglas in a jumpsuit to pop up. Of MNS's films, I appreciated more than his previous five, so that says where I am overall with it. (Although some moments/images in all of them have been on the whole commendable.)

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh/2013) 4
... lies age-old showbiz ugliness? A lot of gilded faff to say so little. All a bit basic, thin. Douglas and Damon are very good, however. Something I thought about: the 'drug haze' scenes in Killing Them Softly received moans of "cliché!", but I wonder if folks will apply this derision to the very same thing in Behind the Candelabra?

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth/2012) 8
If I'm honest, I wasn't as in love with Primer as many were. But... Upstream Color is splendidly, inexplicably mesmerising. Full of strange rhythms and linked existences, technically astute and seductive filmmaking. It synthesises many genres and forms something quite marvelous. Edited to the beat of perfection and, aptly, what colour! A film beautifully crafted with sensitive mystery; an intoxicating brain worm. Along with Shane Carruth's deft multi-tasking, the sound dept. deserve unbridled praise. Plus: Upstream Color worked the audio To. The. Hilt.

Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering/2011) 5
Tonal slippage and an overeager soundtrack mar the whole, but a handful of affecting scenes lift it. Nice lead perf and photography.

Chained (Jennifer Lynch/2012) 3
It took an already well-explored horror theme... and then explored it all over again. In depth. In tedious fashion. For 90 long minutes.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström/2011) 4
It proves you can make a film about anything. From a baffling premise a flimsy, innocuous piece of fluff emerges. Hallström's insipid direction doesn't dampen a lively perf from Kristen Scott Thomas; she's its chief joy. Generally nicely shot.

Image of Relief / Befrielsesbilleder (Lars von Trier/1982) 6
Early LvT. War, love, woe. Vague and impressionistic — certainly indebted to Tarkovsky. Rich in aural detail, atmosphere.

The Big Wedding (Justin Zackham/2013) 1
The best horror movie I've seen this year. It's fucking terrifying. Seriously, I felt sick, nauseous. I shook. Perspired. Was a quaking mess. I had to beg strangers to drag me out of the cinema. In the film someone's bathing their feet in a lake, and someone else jokingly says, "Careful, we have a shark problem here." Well,  if only. De Niro, Sarandon, Keaton, Williams, Heigl, Seyfried, Grace and Barnes — they all play beige assholes. No one is any good. No one.

 The Hidden Face

The Hidden Face / La cara oculta (Andrés Baiz/2011) 7
Definition of a moreish mystery. There's a key, a question and a ripple in the water... Best not to know any more than that. Original language title for The Hidden Face is 'La cara oculta' (the dark side); it also has another title which may as well be called Spoily-Oily-Oi, and is best left unknown. Just avoid all trailers and watch it; it's immense fun.

The Purge (James DeMonaco/2013) 5
Hey, that's a novel idea. Potential: yea big *spans arms out*. Execution: yea big *holds thumb and forefinger apart* Shaky polemic. At times an erratic mess, but not easy to write off, The Purge has apt points to make but underlines them in muddy fashion. File under: eh?

I'm the Angel of Death: Pusher III (Nicolas Winding Refn/2005) 5
Well, a film hasn't made me feel sick in a while. So there's that. Nausea + intrigue + bafflement. Plus. Pusher III best as character study: Milo is part unsavoury, part pitiable; compelling, yet only to a degree. Fits of GRINDNOISE! rends the mood.
Five best new (2013) films:  

Upstream Color
The Hidden Face
What Richard Did
Man of Steel
Being Flynn

Five best older (non-2013) films:

To Live and Die in L.A.
Image of Relief
Oliver Sherman
Mundane History

My Own Private Idaho's Campfire Stopover

I wrote about the campfire scene in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) for The Film Experience's 'Great Moments in Gayness' Pride celebrations.

The open road and the “messed-up” faces along the way are what haunt lost hustler Mike (River Phoenix) most in My Own Private Idaho. In Gus Van Sant’s seminal 1991 gay road movie Mike trips through narcoleptic encounters with both male and female clients, Wizard of Oz-style barns crashing to the ground, talking porno mag covers, tableaux vivants sex scenes and Shakespeare’s Henry IV. His is an eventful, hardscrabble life filled with grit and longing. Each scene arouses memorable moments that every Idaho fan — gay, bi, straight or whatever it takes to have a nice day — surely still carries with them...

Read the rest here

4 June 2013

A Few Thoughts on OLDBOY (Park Chan-wook/2003)

The first rule of Oldboy is: don’t watch it on an full stomach. The second rule of Oldboy is: there isn’t a rulebook. Park Chan-wook’s brilliant film is perhaps the most atypical adaptation of a comic book yet filmed. It’s a curiosity and a novelty within what normally typifies comic book-derived filmmaking. It’s brutal, hard toned and unsavoury on a variety of levels — fierce, compulsive viewing brim full of striking vibrancy. It stands up and stands firm: takes the lead from its lead, Choi Min-sik. It harnesses the excess and imagination on the page and throws it in searing, pounding images across the screen. (Oldboy is best seen in the biggest, darkest, loudest auditorium you can find.) It exhibits wholly pugilistic power. But it hammers on the heart too. The soul-crushing and so-unfortunate-it-hurts sadness is every bit as impacting as the full count of body blows. That revelatory sting in the final stretch delivers thrice the amount of poison deemed healthy for any viewer. Everything hurts by the end. Oldboy is ink-raw cinema.

(From The Film Experience's Top Ten Greatest Comic Book Adaptations of All Time.)

31 May 2013

Films Seen in 2013: May

Films I saw in May 2013. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required -- occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2013 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed seen chronologically (as viewed) from bottom to top.

East of Eden (Elia Kazan/1955) 8
A beautiful film about mournful, cruel, wonderful, desperate people. Faultless cast. Dean's alive, searching eyes are the key. (And the sheer exquisite craftsmanship of Elia Kazan's compositions.) Elia Kazan + Jo Van Fleet = sublime, fierce, soulful, harmonious (see also: Wild River). Wondrous first meeting between Dean and Van Fleet is at Eden's core: a mother-son relationship is defined, refined and glibly cemented in 10-or-so minutes. Dean as Cal: "You're a businesswoman, ain't ya?" Van Fleet as Kate: "One of the best, son." Innate connection via sass talk says far more than any 'sorry' or 'I love you'. Dean's best performance: all full-strength magnetism and playful looseness. More definitive than Rebel without a Cause. More open then Giant.  

Teddy Bear (Mads Matthiesen/2012) 6
It's all mum, muscles and emotional tussles. Subtly moving and unassuming. Doesn't reach great heights, but good performances and sensitive direction.

Frankenweenie (Tim Burton/2012) 6
A sweet film with some endearing horror nods (Shelley the turtle, Bride of Frankenstein poodle). Wonderful use of B&W photography. Burton to Nth degree.

The Hangover Part III (Todd Phillips/2013) 2
Gags shouldn't end in silent, flat, awkward ellipses... But the ones in this do. Practically all of 'em. It's actually quite baffling. There's no boom mic gaffes, but you can see a producer's hand in each shot waving a document with 'Contractual Obligation' on it. It isn't quite as bad as Part II, but then that's like saying a puke sandwich isn't quite as bad as a shit sandwich. OK, there are 7 funny words over 100 minutes of script. Also: 15 yawns, 6 eye-rolls and 27 time-checks. (But that was just me.)

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (Ben Shapiro/2012) 6
A few nice insights into GC's methods, if a dash perfunctory in its execution. Great to see his process.

Neighbouring Sounds

Neighbouring Sounds / O som ao redor (Kleber Mendonça Filho/2012) 8
Sounds of social spaces. Crisply composed, allusive as all hell and suffused with an eerie calm. Bold, riveting filmmaking. Reckon it's one of the best films of the year so far. Still early days, but it might even currently snag the top spot. Also, the sparsely used music was fantastic. Particularly this: Setúbal by DJ Dolores.

Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon/2012) 7
A charming, warm-hearted mini marvel. Coasts along in fine, refreshing style. One of the year's most pleasurable films so far. Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson are endearing, unaffected and smart as the leads.

The Moth Diaries (Mary Harron/2012) 4
It gets by on the barest minimum of scenes. Has Olympic level leaps and jumps in narrative. No one seems to care. Oh, Harron. Lily Cole sports caterpillar-like eyebrows (which, incidentally, give the best performance). Unfortunately they don't turn into moths. There's such a dearth of learning and so many "mysterious accidents" at the school in The Moth Diaries that it'd be fucked in an Ofsted visit. DISCLAIMER: no actual moths wrote no actual diaries in the making of this film.

Dragon / Wu Axia (Peter Chan/2011) 6
Lively plot, slick direction. It gets to it in style. Crafted with a sense of mirth. Handful of solid fight scenes are swift, kinetic delights. Takeshi Kaneshiro works it like a sad and sexy Poirot and Donnie Yen creates a world of wonders with a sly smirk and a lack of gravity.

McCullin (David Morris, Jacqui Morris/2012) 7
Expertly crafted war photography documentary. The man himself is an amiable oasis of insight. Nicely shot; sharp use of imagery and sources. Riveting.

Premium Rush (David Koepp/2012) 5
Totally vapid yet just enough fun. Plot's a no-show, but no matter: zippy bike hijinks make the time pass in amusing fashion. Like BMX Bandits for the cool city courier set. Michael Shannon was all levels of ridiculous as Bad Wired Cop; Joseph Gordon-Levitt was atypically personality-free as the lead. Enjoyed roaming NY streets.

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann/2013) 5 Full review

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen/2012) 2
A dull, overlong mess. Awful. Woody, it's time to give up these tourist board romance doodles and have a break of your own. It has maybe three gags? The rest is leftovers. Botched editing, a slipshod tone and directionless actors make it hard, tiring work. Parts were smug, others egregious. But mostly it was baffling, strained and repetitive. One of Woody's absolute worst, sadly.

Mud (Jeff Nichols/2012) 6 Full review
Conjures a wistful tone with a near tangible sense of place. Grime and regret are evoked well, but the plot peters out. Solidly shot and acted.

Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake (Jane Campion, Garth Davis/2013) 8
Top of the Lake properly put through the wringer. Brilliant, compulsive storytelling. Grim, gripping, smart. Jane Campion's (along with co-director Garth Davis and co-writer Gerard Lee) deft handling of the plot maximised character, tension, mystery. Over its 5¾ hours there's an abundance of solidly written female characters; all of them are fascinating in a multitude of ways. Elisabeth Moss is spectacular in the lead. One of the best performances I've seen this year. Great to see Geneviève Lemon (Sweetie) back working with Campion again too. I'd probably rank Top of the Lake up there with Bright Star, Sweetie and An Angel At My Table as one of Campion's best.

Shadow Dancer (James Marsh/2012) 5
Full of simmering tension and restraint, but oddly slight. Admirable, but rarely fierce or gripping. Riseborough is very good. The very best thing about it, though, is DP Rob Hardy. Amazing work; no surprise, he did Boy A, Whistle and I'll Come to You and Red Riding 1974.

Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams/2013) 6
A fun barrage of charm, shiny surfaces and ballistic action. Rapidly put together and well played. I think, at this early stage, I may have enjoyed it more than the 2009 film. Orally, Cumberbatch was amazing. He has one of the most captivating, watchable mouths in film; his diction and delivery were splendid. He was the all-round standout in the cast; I was mesmerised watching his scenes. Rest of cast were good, all working to their strengths. Lens flare overload in 3D does play havoc with your eyebags, however. Restraint, Jeffrey Jacob Abrams! Less is more!

Price Check (Michael Walker/2012) 7
Decent drama; even better comedy. Parker Posey does career best work. She fully nails every manic aspect. It's her Young Adult. (Seeing Parker Posey rule here points to just how wrong the makers of Superman Returns were for not casting her as Lois Lane. And she was right there in the cast already.)

House at the End of the Street (Mark Tonderai/2012) 3
Starts well enough, but collapses into iffy plotting, baffling character motivation and tried and tested ideas. Yawn. It really required a plot revamp. Too much familiarity; same-old set-up and scares. Tonderai did more with less on debut Hush.

The Statue of Liberty (Ken Burns/1985) 6
The Statue of Liberty as art, symbol, icon, joke, gift, idea. A concise, yet thorough, and fascinating documentary. Ken Burns has the goods.

A Bag of Hammers (Brian Crano/2011) 8
Amiable, very funny and with some incredibly moving moments. Made with a great perception of life. It's a real heartfelt gem. The assured subtlety of the filmmaking is a joy. Great performances from all the cast.

Shark Week (Christopher Ray/2012) 3
I'm glad I watched it, mainly so I can use it as a Quality Movie Barometer from this day hence (in that anything else is of a higher quality). The actors in were amazing at... looking a little bit sad and fed up at ill-defined CGI fish shapes just out of shot.

Iron Man Three (Shane Black/2013) 6
I quite enjoyed TONY STARK'S WORLD OF EXPLODY-THINGS 3. Certainly the most entertaining Iron Man film: briskly paced, fun set-pieces, lack of fuss. Smug tone was in effect and some stuff was annoying (I wasn't quite as enamoured with Kingsley as many were, though I liked the novelty aspect inherent in his performance), but the good outweighed the iffy. It's a blockbuster that works well. I kind of wished Whedon were involved in the script, as he can write good female characters (Black can't — well, with the exception of 50% of Geena Davis' character, the Charly Baltimore half, in The Long Kiss Goodnight) and it missed what made Avengers Assemble so great. On the whole, and by a process of elimination, it's probably the most ridiculously enjoyable thing Shane Black's produced so far.

Note (with SPOILERS!): the film wasted Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen. She was a surprise second-/third-tier villain, of sorts, as it turned out. But when things started to get a bit more interesting for her character, she was killed off — by the eventual top-tier villain, Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian. Why not switch it up further — further than with the false villainy of Kingsley's Mandarin — by having Hall suddenly kill Pearce instead? Wouldn't that have made for a bigger and better surprise and more intriguing last act? Especially as there was scope — particularly in regard to Paltrow's resulting superpowers (that the film squandered, then dismissed too readily; she deserved more than her meagre allowance of action scenes) — for extending the film's overarching concern of what constituted a villain and why and how Tony Stark figured into it? What Pearce did in the last act wasn't anything that Hall couldn't have done. The character traits given to Killian could easily have been attributed to Hansen, with a tweak here and there, thus rendering Killian a superfluous character. (Hansen had potential to be a n all-round stronger, more fascinating character; Killian was the same-old vengeful wannabe.) But I guess it's strictly Iron-man-on-Iron-man fisticuffs that reap rewards in Shane Black's eyes.

Wild River

Wild River (Elia Kazan/1960) 9
People and place wonderfully captured by Kazan. Photography, score, whole tone infused with melancholic undertow. A beautifully made gem. Montgomery Clift (charming, humble), Lee Remick (poignant, bright) and Jo Van Fleet (staunch, heartbreaking) give amazing performances.

Salvage (Laurence Gough/2009) 6
She Beast in Brookside close, basically. Cheap but resourceful. A few iffy turns, but jumps, gore and sense of isolation work well.

Photographic Memory (Ross McElwee/2011) 7
It examines memory, family and history in a heartfelt and humble way. A sheer joy to see where McElwee takes his camera.

John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli/2012) 5
In-built cultishness was slightly lost on me, but its unpredictability was a treat. It became more fun as it went on.

Gayby (Jonathan Lisecki/2012) 6
An easy watch. Good comic timing, breezy editing and a likeable cast make it a treat. Plot's a cinch; it's the actors that make it work. Gayby shares a general tone — and a few cast members — with Girls. Also: talented, atypical female lead who does the rom and the com with ease.

Five best new (2013) films:

Top of the Lake
Neighbouring Sounds
Gimme the Loot

Four best older (non-2013) films:

Wild River
Photographic Memory
A Bag of Hammers
The Statue of Liberty
East of Eden

28 May 2013

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann/2013)

Per his familiar dazzle-fuelled plot template Baz Luhrmann starts The Great Gatsby with an anachronistic whiz-bang — all rejigged Jay-Z jazz steps and twenties décor in an MTV Cribs style — but then lets it agreeably coast with only intermittent party-popper bursts of liveliness, before it eventually fizzles out, halting to its crestfallen finish. It’s 143 variable minutes that contain some pep and pockets of emotion, but is weighed down by a handful of taxing plot turns that only amount to part-time fun part of the time. It’s Luhrmann’s way. He again offers his signature plot trajectory, as with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and Australia — though he missed out all the fun bits in that last one.

Gatsby’s front-loaded with a trio of stars: Leonardo DiCaprio (as Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (as Old Sport) and Tobey Maguire (as Old Sport). DiCaprio is suitable casting as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s young pretender. He brings a dash of his Howard Hughes twitchiness from The Aviator, a few love-blind blinks from Revolutionary Road and, at several points, the soaked-through shiver of his Shutter Island dupe. Mulligan occasionally puts the flap in flapper, but only when she’s not out-demuring herself in the demurest-of-them-all stakes. Maguire employs the smugly bemused expression he wore during his awkward Spider-Man 3 dance sequence for the duration — only slightly dulled by the fact that he appears unsure whether he’s playing Carraway as the gooseberry or not. I could have done with a hike in screen time for Isla Fisher’s Old Sport (think Betty Boop-meets-Lil-from-Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), but a 30% reduction of the clammy, cardboard characteristics of Joel Edgerton’s Old Sport.

The film works best when it focuses on what’s strictly happening in its more self-contained scenes than when it’s hastily careering through sequences in an attempt to cram in every snazzy edit and camera somersault this side of Man with a Movie Camera. The chaste date between Daisy and Jay in Carraway’s house, full-to-overflowing with pastel-perfect flowers and tinged with light farce, succeeded in being a singular moment of lively delight. And the juicy social awkwardness of the Plaza hotel scene adds some shimmery gristle to the latter part of the film. (This is where all the characters present — everyone, that is, apart from one female hanger-on who spends the entirety of the film either chaise longue-slouching in the background or teeing off in flashbacks — get hot under the collar and go ‘full Jeremy Kyle’ by revealing their petty flings and lifelong jealousies to one another in a hysterical display of verbal tennis.)

For all the new 3D visual eccentricity Luhrmann thrusts upon Fitz’s classic, it perhaps clings a bit too close to literary fidelity and succumbs to narrative fatigue after the early, headier highs. I did wonder if it could have been made in another, more daring or daft mode: a full-blown comedy (National Lampoon’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby!), a low-key silent/not-silent movie à la Tabu (2012) or even in a Todd Haynes’ Superstar style with everyone played by dolls toing and froing on intricately-fashioned mini sets — and still in 3D! Or, why not let’s have a different Fitzgerald story: the man wrote a stack of short gems (perhaps his best 43 stories were gathered in the 1989 collection The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald); each one has just as much glorious cinematic potential as Gatsby. David Fincher tried something different with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on Fitzgerald's novella, and showed an audacity more venturesome than Baz does here. But Gatsby 2013 is certainly slick and stylish, with editing akin to a speedy flick through a bumper edition of Vogue, and is immaculately designed to within an inch of its beautiful existence. But, like Gatsby himself, it’s all a bit soggy in the end.

20 May 2013

Mud (Jeff Nichols/2012)

It’s clear from the first images of Mud that we’re in for a heady swill of hardened Southern not-quite-gothic drama and coming of age tale. Arkansas tides ebb, trees sway, youths venture out on rickety row boats; everything is lightly unsettled, a gritty life lesson is imminent. There’s an apparent literary influence in Mud — more pronounced than in either of director Jeff Nichols’ prior features Shotgun Stories or Take Shelter — and a helping of emotive substance that goes into well-grounded melodrama, albeit one with the potential for ill deeds, nicely alluded to in both Adam Stone’s sombre photography and David Wingo’s spare score.

It feels very much like a Flannery O’Connor short story set a few states over and peopled with the descendants of Mark Twain characters. It’s a Boys' Own adventure story loosely invaded by the spirit of Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell. Mud’s aura may not chime in strict geographic accordance with either Twain or O’Connor — there are minor hints toward Carson McCullers and William Faulkner too — but thematically it contemporarily evokes a humid and almost solitary tone familiar to those writers’ worlds. It acknowledges the grand, grimy sweep of renowned Southern writing, doffs its hat, nods and goes about its business with a knowing charm.

What it’s about is: two teenage boys Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan, from The Tree of Life, and newcomer Jacob Lofland, both very good), who spend their days lolling around a down-at-heel backwater town, chance upon a friendly yet mysterious stranger, actually a fugitive criminal called Mud (Matthew McConaughey, building well on a recent gold streak), on a nearby depopulated island whilst scoping out a recently stranded boat – which now functions as both tree-house home and possible getaway vehicle for Mud. McConaughey’s earthy interloper enlists the boys into helping him repair the boat and to assist in his rekindling of past love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, nailing broken dejection with ease). There’s a gangster element on the horizon, parental problems and the usual pains of growing up. The autumn days don’t exactly get easier.

Mud is an engaging yet drawn-out film. It ekes out its slim plot nearly to the point of labour but allows for some poignantly choice moments of introspection. A slow sense of impending dread, of sure incoming calamity, infuses everything with an ominous pull of the most laid back variety: bad things will happen, but there's a long wait before you get there. (At 130 minutes Mud wades along with a casual swagger.) As hardscrabble and heavy-hearted as it is, instances of light humour play well: Michael Shannon’s (as Neckbone’s slobbish lothario uncle) retooling of his diver’s helmet with better search lights that makes him look like a discount store Iron Man; the running gag of McConaughey seemingly only scoffing on one particular brand of stolen tinned beans.

Mud is mostly men, most of the time. The three key female characters aren’t as expansively drawn as the menfolk. Witherspoon’s Juniper is the trailer trash Eve to McConaughey’s anti-heroic Adam (snake imagery is rife, too), but her scenes are essentially limited to being saved from a beating, some motel room moping and a light shop for ‘bits’ at the local Piggly Wiggly. Sarah Paulson makes a soft impression as Ellis’s mother, though isn’t afforded quite the screen time or characterisation allotted to Ellis’ father, played by Ray McKinnon, and she’s given short shrift in the final stretch where McKinnon isn’t. And Bonnie Sturdivant as local girl May Pearl courts Ellis’ attention and then quickly besotted by another lad, in an unfortunate bit of prescriptive scripting that suggests women shouldn’t perhaps always be trusted (Mud seems to counteract this, but only late on in the film and all too briefly.)

It’s a shame that Nichols’ female characters don’t receive the same attention as the male characters, as some balance would’ve certainly expanded the central theme of how boys become men and how men become fathers into something with both socially and emotionally complex layers. Women are primarily the cause of sadness and disruption here. In Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960) Montgomery Clift didn’t satisfactorily solve his moral quandary without the complicated affection and existence of Lee Remick. And the time Stacy Keach spent meaningfully cosying up to Susan Tyrell in John Huston’s Fat City (1972), only to be separated later on, could be detected sadly slouched across his face in the final shot. Nichols sidelines the crucial impact of women even when they’re essentially the film's motoring force.

Nichols conjures a wistful tone with a near tangible sense of place. Being an Arkansas native he surely knows the habits and rhythms of the people and their ways of life. He supplies an authenticity, free of typical establishing shots and over-familiar music cues, to the way the story eases forward. A dirt-choked melancholy air permeates Mud; grime and regret are evoked easily and stand as signifying anchors. But the plot peters out roughly around two-thirds in: where events should build with fascination and then converge with accumulative resonance, they actually chug through a series of hasty scenarios, including one or two odd late resolutions that feel slightly shoehorned in as if Nichols is making deliberate moves into full mainstream territory. There’s a sliver of the supernatural to Mud that begged for expansion: when we first see McConaughey he literally emerges from out of nowhere; is he something “other” than a mere man? This tantalising aspect could’ve been further expanded in an enigmatic way.

Without revealing late key plot points, a stronger and more, well, untidy final stretch may have more fully complemented the power of its earlier convictions to show its teenaged protagonist that the path to adulthood is as strange as it is full of hope, yet still strewn with tough complications. But it is a strongly shot, acted and photographed film. Nichols is an extremely talented and estimable filmmaker who so far confidently mines his own highly atmospheric groove yet isn’t afraid to acknowledge influence as he does so. His camera tracks his characters with fond scrutiny and justified care. His everyday folk bleakly, quietly toiling through their often mundane, sometimes grand experiences have a broad, congenial appeal. They often come with an unwritten but observable backstory of the kind that good short Southern fiction dictates. Before you know it, you’re wrapped up in the lives of his lost people living their agreeably solemn lives.