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.