Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Dangerous Method (2011)

Keira Knightley in a period drama. What a shocker! Although, that said, I've recently been convinced that she actually can act since seeing Atonement and Seeking a Friend so the period dramas she's in tend to be ok.

Knightley tkaes on the part of Sabina Spielrein, a patient turned  protégé and more of renowned psychiatrist of the early 20th century Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). As the two explore the world of psychoanalysis they both come into professional and personal relationships with the father of psychoanalysis himself Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Sex, suspicion and taboos become the name of the game as the "dangerous" method escalates quickly into fundamentally broken people taking advantage of what should be a professional relationship.

The trio deliver a sex fuelled and sex focusses story in an interestingly clinical way. With Freud who, literally everyone can agree, was totally obsessed with sex, it was the centre of his life's work and understandably it becomes part of his scientific profession. Fassbender and Mortensen are brilliant as the reserved psychologists who want to give the appearance of open books but in reality have their cards very close to their chest. Knightley on the other hand is fantastic as the broken but almost perfectly repaired pioneer of women in the psychology field. There's one scene particularly early on, where in the throes of her illness you see the image of the insane realising they're insane and it's truly heartbreaking. I honestly felt bad for the years of slating her, but thankfully Domino flashed up in my memory and I was at peace again.

David Cronenberg's film delivers three straight up strange characters who are all the best for the perfect casting choices made in production (once you get past Aragorn off of LotR being in an Austrian office). Stuck in the realms of reality, the story is bound by what actually transpired between these three pioneers but A Dangerous Method produces an interesting and often enjoyably uncomfortable dynamic between three physicians who themselves are so very wounded.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Super Troopers (2001)

A bunch of small town state troopers deal with the incredible boredom that plagues working in the middle of a place free from any real crime, and also face the prospect of their office being closed because of the lack of a real need for them.

Apparently not a massive success (but by no means a flop) when it first hit cinemas, Super Troopers took on a cult following in recent years thanks to the abundance of one liners and stoner-style comedy. Think Hot Fuzz meets Clerks.

It's by no means a great movie, but it's a good laugh and some of the more out there gags are worth enduring the slightly shit story. But, it's a comedy, so the story only exists as something you need to hang the jokes on and it makes a good jokerack. The comedy highlight is definitely anything that involves the troopers pulling someone over. The pranks and games they play between themselves showcase the talent the group behind the film (Broken Lizard) have for sketch and standup comedy. You could built a solid, solid sketch series around the troopers' antics.

There isn't really too much to say about Super Troopers. It's had massively mixed critical reception, tending to hover around 50% approval on every meta-critic site on the internet. You'll either love it for the humour or think it's just a bit shit. You might as well take a gamble on it though, it's only about 90 minutes anyway.

It introduced the word "Afghanistanimation" to my vocabulary too, which can't be a bad thing.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

*Just watched the entire trilogy in one sitting to celebrate the release of TDKR on DVD. No, I don't have a life, nor the energy to write anything about it, seeing as it's 3am. Luckily I do have some guff I wrote a while back about the brilliance that is the character arc of Bruce Wayne from when I thought I was doing a film module at university this year (it turned out to be about music in film).*

Rises is pretty much the perfect end to the trilogy. The arc of the League of Shadows is revisited and truly finished, Gotham is left in a state where it can take care of itself, and most importantly to me, Bruce Wayne finally deals with the idea of Batman: what it means to him and how it has affected him.

Bruce Wayne and Batman
The trilogy is very clearly cut into the three stages of Bruce's relationship with Batman. There are three clear stages of development for the character: Bruce Wayne the Child, Bruce Wayne the Batman, and finally Bruce Wayne the Adult. In Begins, Bruce's emotional development is halted with the death of his parents. He is incapable of dealing with it and runs away at the first opportunity (going to college), and only returns once he has what he thinks is an opportunity for closure: killing Joe Chill. When he's robbed of that opportunity he runs again, this time only to find a purpose he thinks will help solve his problems. He creates the alter ego of Batman initially to deal with the problem of the League of Shadows. Despite telling himself it's just for this problem, he retreats into Batman and Bruce Wayne the child doesn't return. We see a fake Bruce appear; taking supermodels out to dinner, massive parties and generally being a playboy. These aren't him it is the start of Bruce Wayne becoming the mask. Taking the joker card at the end is a signal both to the audience and Batman himself that he knows this isn't over, despite the LoS being dealt with.

In The Dark Knight, we see that Bruce is gone completely. His infatuation with Rachel exposes the lack of emotional development since his childhood. There isn't ever anything sexual suggested in their relationship, he is simply in love with her because she's the only connection he has left to his happy childhood, outside of Alfred. Not only does he want to go back to how it was, but he isn't even after an adult relationship with her. Rachel's speech on the balcony, and her letter to Bruce, demonstrate how much Batman has taken over. When she is gone the last shred of Bruce the Child is gone and there is only Batman and the mask he puts on for the public. When he finds out that Rachel was going to wait for him (having not got the letter) he tries to find redemption by giving up the Batman mantle by sacrificing himself to save Gotham, by taking the fall for Dent.

But once we reached The Dark Knight Rises we can tell that it didn't work for him. He is still Batman, it's just he's locked himself up. Once again, he tries to deal with the pain of loss (of Rachel this time) by running away, this time hiding in his house. The emergence of Bane and Selina Kyle (who is extremely important for Bruce/Batman's development) gives him purpose again and he leaps at it, once again allowed to be himself (Batman), and also to use his Bruce Wayne mask again. It's a very telling fact that, on track Kyle down to the masquerade ball, Bruce is the only notable character there not wearing an actual mask, because his face is his mask. This return to his old ways prompts Alfred to reveal the truth about Rachel, which is where the descent down the far side Mount Mental Health Problem begins and Batman starts to become Bruce Wayne again, but this time Bruce Wayne the Adult. From here everything dominoes, he loses everything that has previously defined him: he loses Rachel's love, he loses Alfred, he loses his money. With everything crumbling around him, he does actually manage to start something like an adult relationship with Miranda. It might not be the most mature relationship, but it's definitely a more adult attract than that of Bruce to Rachel, clearly signposted by the fact that Miranda and Bruce actually have some sort of physical relationship.

Many have said that TDKR feels like two films crammed into one, especially with two rebirths of the character. I'm not convinced. The first one, where he becomes Batman again, I think is just him being able to act on what he's wanted to for for 8 years. His true rebirth comes in the pit. Here, the seed is planted that the deathwish, his lack of fear, he's had ever since his parents died (prepared to throw his life away murdering Joe Chill and his readiness to die as the ultimate sacrifice as batman) is his weakness rather than his strength. Batman/Bruce takes this and uses his fear of seeing Gotham burn to escape the prison. But that's not the full lesson, he's still prepared to die for Gotham. But Selina Kyle saves Bruce from Batman, and it's she who finally splits Bruce the Adult from Batman.

When Talia literally stabs batman in the back, it's the final straw for him. The only thing he gained (Miranda) while losing everything else, is gone and there is literally nothing left in Gotham for him. He's knows that he can't stay, and more importantly that Gotham needs the Batman to leave, to serve the real role that the Harvey Dent lie did, to die for the protection of the city. He isn't needed any more because he has inspired Gotham: Gordon is able to stop the bomb, John Blake is able to rally the escape attempt from the island and stand up the the heartless cops on the bridge, and the cops were no longer living in fear of the criminals (as they were in Begins and TDK) and they actually charge fearlessly into gunfire to prove so. the only thing Batman is needed for is to get rid of the bomb after defeating Bane. He can't beat Bane that easily though, until Kyle turns up and blasts him away without difficulty, something he could never do (thanks to his rules). It's proved that batman isn't the only one capable defeating these guys, and also that he has inspired those who might seek selfish ends to rise up and do what's right. After that, he only has to get rid of the bomb. The kiss before he flies off seals the deal, even though she's been in his head since the "You've given them everything" scene. He realises the true lesson was not that he should have fear of failing, but that he should fear death because he can always take control of his life and be happy. If Kyle had never originally spurred him into action, or got into his head that he (the AdultBruce/Batman hybrid that returned from the pit) didn't need to give everything he probably would have fulfilled the fantasy that Alfred was so worried about. But instead he uses the autopilot and bails, runs away with Selina and finally becomes the happy adult that he deserves to be. Batman is finally gone: Gotham has been inspired and needs him only as a symbol as to what any person can do, and Bruce himself has moved on and grown up. It's a truly great character arc for the three stages of him and works really well to give Bruce the closure that he will never get in the comics (thanks to the nature of the medium).

*And here's another load of guff that I penned at the same time, but this bit's just some innane ramblings specifically about the last film*

Other Thoughts

To focus more on TDKR, I was left a bit muddled on the whole politics of it. Nolan's trilogy's been very closely tied to the post 9/11 world and dealing with terrorism. The whole idea of "do the ends justify the means?" and and how far a man is easy to see in TDK with the cell phone thing, it's a massive invasion of privacy in the name of national security. It follows on into TDKR with the Patriot Dent Act: people are imprisoned without chance of parole and held in some super high security hellhole. Bane comes in and takes advantage of all this, exposes the establishment and its secret police (Batman) for covering up lies so that they can round up anyone who might even have a chance of being guilty of terrorism crime.

That all creates a very anti-establishment, pro-Occupy Wall Street/civil uprising sort of feeling y'know? It might not be what you agree with but that's how it seems. You might not agree with Bane's methods (the bomb that will be triggered if there is interference with the upsetting of the status quo), but his cause is kind of noble. But wait, it isn't because the bomb is going to go off anyway regardless and all the hope of social revolution was a lie. Couple this with the portrayal of this social uprising as incredibly violent against the 1% (kangaroo courts, dragging them into the streets to beat them) and the message becomes incredibly muddled. Are the those uprising righteous or not? The only message you can sort of make out is not to trust those who present themselves as ideological leaders: both Bane and the establishment (Gordon, Mayor Garcia, Harvey Dent and, by proxy, Batman) lied to achieve their aims. If any political message is there, it seems to be that moderation is key: go too far right and you get Batman police-state, and too far left and you have a similarly oppressive anarchist system with a power vacuum (ready to be exploited by the likes of Bane, or even Scarecrow).

Again Selina Kyle becomes the central figure in the argument. She's the only one who doesn't have an extremist viewpoint and is willing to change her mind. It's ingrained into the ambiguous nature of the catwoman character. At first she's all for the idea that "a storm is coming", but once it arrives she's wandering the wasteland lost and uncomfortable (looking around the wrecked apartment that "used to be someone's home"). She largely represents that the common, reasonable man can be just as powerful as those in power. She wears as mask, but doesn't hide behind it in the way others and she's far from a force of nature like all the other "super" characters in the series. She is the common man that eventually saves Batman and ultimately tips the balance in aid of the good side.

*Note: I'm happy to admit that my thoughts on the Selina Kyle character may be influenced by just how disarmingly pretty Anne Hathaway is.*

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Nowhere near as shit as the other two.

In light of Disney's recent buy out finally taking the Star Wars franchise out of George Lucas' hands, I decided to give the best of  the prequel trilogy a blast in an attempt to remind myself that the series can still be good.

.Everybody, myself included, likes to talk shit about the prequel trilogy because it's easy to do and makes it seem like you know what you're talking about. But, if you ignore The Phantom Menace (because it could have been so good and was so just not), they weren't actually that bad and frankly Revenge of the Sith is pretty good. Yes, Hayden Christensen still cannot act. Yes, the dialogue is still stilted. Yes, all the morals are so ham fisted you'd think Lucas had bacon for knuckles. But the story is a powerful tragedy of epic proportions.

It's all a little Macbeth in terms of Anakin's (Christensen) story arc. Here we have a guy with the perfect makings of an anti-hero. He loves his wife so much he is prepared to put himself through hell and sacrifice everything he has in order to save her. His love is so strong that he is willing to give up his masters, his friend and even his own humanity and subject himself to complete corruption just so that the centre of his world and the mother of his child(ren). It's pretty admirable in a fucked up kind of way. The ultimate tragedy (and Macbeth allusions) comes in the form of the self-fulfilling prophecy: Padme (Natalie Portman) dying is the reason he allows himself to be corrupted, but it's his corruption that eventually leads her to lose the will to live (because apparently in the SW universe just giving up on life kills you, apparently). Plus you've got the whole Obi Wan( Ewan McGregor) thing going on towards the end where he loses belief in Anakin being the chosen one even though its becoming Darth Vader that eventually does allow him to bring balance to the force all the way down the line in Episode 6.

On the less heavy side, Episode III is full of a lot of little details that bridge the two trilogies really well. Everything from the designs of the armour and equipment that the clone troops using gradually edging closer to the type that the storm troopers use later on, the first rebel ship from the original trilogy featuring heavily through to some shots being lifted straight from Episode IV, there's obviously a labour of love at work here from all the guys behind the scenes. That said, some things are a little forced and obviously just fan service, and some of those just flat out don't make sense. Chewbacca was apparently some big general in the wookie army and best buds with Yoda, so why, when a kid turns up who (I imagine) looks like Anakin Skywalker, is a goddamn jedi and has the last name Sky-fucking-walker, doesn't he pipe up and mention the fact that he's obviously Darth Vader's son? it's not like he wouldn't be able to put two and two together, he was after all a pretty high ranking officer. Same exact thing goes for R2D2, the shiny camp one has his mind wiped so fair enough, but you'd think the smartarse beepy one should probably have let Luke know what was what, especially when he was coming on to a girl who the beepy bastard knew was his sister.

So yeah, Episode III was the best of a bad bunch, and we'll just pretend EpI didn't happen. I'm prepared to forgive most people involved for the prequels, especially Portman and McGregor. Not Christensen though. There's a reason I've only seen him in Jumper since this came out. It's because he's shit.

(Jumper was also shit)

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Master (2012)

Not quite what I was expecting, but still... interesting. I guess?

The Master comes from the apple of the critical world's eye: Paul Thomas Anderson. Five years ago he gave us the incomparable There Will Be Blood; a tour de force courtesy of Daniel Day Lewis, impeccable direction and fantastic writing. The Master comes close to that legacy but falls slightly short of such a remarkable achievement.

Controversially "inspired" by the religion (or cult, depending on your opinion) of Scientology, The Master deals with exploitation of those who are easily impressionable or feel they have no place, self-delusion and the fears of paranoia and failure. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman lead the way and make the film the impressive piece that it is. Phoenix is a former seaman who's been left scarred by the second world war and is struggling to adjust back to civilian life, and Hoffman is the titular master who picks him up and gives him some direction in his life by taking him on as a muse and enforcer for his movement. A destructive and fiery relationship between the master and his new protégé ensues, filled with misplaced trust, fierce loyalty and bouts of explosive and violent anger both in service of the master and against him

The Master is very much a PTA film: it looks beautiful in its slow and considered state of sedate softness, it feels a lot longer than it is and it is filled with powerhouse performances. Unfortunately though, The Master suffers from a number of mis-steps that his previous works avoid. Incoherent at points, it feels as if there is a lot more going on than we see, and not in a way that leaves you feeling like the world created is very deep but rather that plot threads are opened only to be cut short. Characters are introduced, established to be important either to someone else or to the plot and then they just disappear. It might be a purposeful stylistic choice to highlight the isolation from society that occurs in cults, but it's almost too self contained. There are very minor and often insignificant references to how the larger world views the cult, and its insidiousness doesn't come to light in  a clear way.

That said, it's worth seeing because Phoenix and Hoffman give award-worthy performances. Phoenix's broken and self destructive portrayal of the lost and angry man who has nothing to live for is only matched by Hoffman's calm and collected, self-deluding man who needs to be needed.

If you've never seen a film by Paul Thomas Anderson though, gives The Master a miss and go back and watch There Will Be Blood instead and put the Master on the "Get around to watching sometime, eventually" list.

I do love that poster though.

In other news I've just ordered The Dark Knight Rises on DVD and I'm just gonna write off an entire day week after next (when it arrives) to watch the trilogy in one go because I am a sad, sad, sad individual.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Funny Games (2007)

 Following on from Hard Candy, we've got another intense and disturbing film, except Funny Games tries to be a bit more clever and falls a little short for it.

First off, this is a remake of an Austrian film. It is, however, written and directed by the same writer/director as the original and is essentially a shot-for-shot remake, just done ten years later, in English and in the US. With all these considered, my usual pretentious attitude of "Oh you should definitely watch the foreign language original to really appreciate it" doesn't really apply here.

The titular Games are played by a pair of polite yet incredibly sadistic psychopaths, Peter (Brady Corbet) and Paul (Michael Pitt), as they invade the holiday home of a happy family and take them hostage. Sadistic and cruel, the way the pair mess with and harm the family is meant to challenge the audience's reaction to onscreen violence and horror. A number of times Paul will break the fourth wall and address the camera directly with uncomfortable questions about things like "plausible plot development". In a way, the self-aware nature of Paul is what allows the film to break a number of the psychological horror conventions that craft a lot of these films into a predictable mould. these things do work well to a certain degree, especially in the final sequences of the film, but at other times it feels forced as if the director was playing with conventions just to point out that "Hey this is a thing that often happens!". Sometimes though, conventions become commonplace simply because they work, and one that is subverted with regards to the fate of a certain family member  kills a lot of the tension and pacing of the film about 2/3s of the way through. Pace does eventually get back n stride but it's difficult to ignore someone playing with a trope and it falling flat on its face.

As a visual essay on violence in film and how the audiences react to the portrayal of violence on screen, Funny Games works pretty well. Considering all the physical violence happens offscreen in such a way that resembles consciously holding your gaze away from something unpleasant, the film deals with a lot of violent acts and in particular their consequences. One death happens while we're seeing the mundane events occurring in another room, but we hear it and are exposed toe a very visual reminder of what happened for the rest of the time in that house. As a feature film though it's left a little lacking if you want to watch something purely for entertainment purposes, notably because of it's unsatisfying conclusion.

Funny Games is certainly a fan for film enthusiasts who know their way around a horror thriller and the associated tropes because you kind of need to be aware of them to realise the point the film is making. It's not like Scream or Cabin in the Woods though. Those two are different in tone (Funny Games isn't very funny) but also that they work well as films even isolated form their context, but FG without context is just an odd film about two psychopaths taking a family hostage.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Remember the Titans (2000)

Denzel Washington leads an ensemble cast through the trails of racial discrimination and sporting hardships in small town USA.

Based on the true story of Herman Boone (Washington), a black man who is brought in to coach the football team at Alexandria, Vriginia's new mixed race school. Tensions abound at all levels: Boone has replaced the much beloved Bill Yoast (Will Patton) much to the chargrin of the locals, especially the players' families, and at the larger scale there are protests by white famileis outside the gates of the new school, not the mention the race fuelled riots and lynch mobs that nearly reach full form at the start of the film.

Set against the backdrop of racial tension, Remember the Titans is about  a group of people learning about each other and growing as individuals and as a team. It's a little bit too "Disney" for my liking at times; the team go away together and essentially go on an extended Rocky-style training montage of overcoming adversity together and learning to accept each others differences and then they come back as if they'd been best mates forever and that racial tension had never been on the table. A couple of the supporting cast fill the necessary roles of "guy who doesn't change and makes it difficult for his friend" and "takes a long time to come round but does good in the end", but generally speaking everyone's an angel once the first act is over.

At the centre is the most interesting dynamic, the relationship Boone and Yoast.  It's not clear cut where either of the two stand with regards to each other for most of the film, and it's for the best. These two are the characters that feel most like real people, where the rest are one dimensional metaphors for social change. Washington and Patton sell the uncertain and confused relationship well, with a mix of respect and disdain that changes ratio multiple times through the course of the film, until it reaches the easily foreseen conclusion.

All in all, a great sports film that almost falls into the trap of being too neat and clean cut, but is saved by great performances by the central cast and some fantastic game sequences. The final game scene is visceral and carries a great weight to it that really sells the satisfying, if predictable, finale.

Hard Candy (2005)

Intense and unsettling as fuck. Like Requiem for a Dream, but without the valuable anti-drugs lesson.

To surmise the plot, I've got to give a spoiler for a reveal that comes about twenty minutes in, so if you're not up for that stop reading after the next sentence. If you don't want it spoiled just know that HC is not for the faint of heart: it's a psychological drama/thriller about a young teenage girl who's been groomed by an older man she met online and how reacts to him and his advances.

Still here? Cool. Basically, Hayley (Ellen Page) is a young girl who's been asked by Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a guy she met online, to meet up. Going along for coffee and eventually ending up back at his house, Hayley is quite aware of the danger she is in and turns the game around on her would-be predator in an act of youth and hate fuelled vigilantism.

With an uneasy opening, the tone and pace of the film starts off slow as Jeff's sleazy plays seem obvious to everyone but Hayley, but once the curtain is pulled back and the true balance of power is revealed the film's an intense thrill ride through vengeance and power. There are clear attempts to make both main characters dislikeable: Jeff obviously through his sick perversion, but also Hayley through her insane vigilantism and sadistic methods. But even with the best attempts at trying to hit a grey moral area, as the revelations come pretty quickly it's hard not to be completely on the girls side though the whole thing. Her methods are insane and sadistic, and she should really have gone to the police instead, but his crimes are unforgivable. Even in one particularly grizzly scene (well, it's implied. there's no gore or body horror) where you would be most estranged from her, the instant I remembered who exactly she was dealing with, the sympathy instantly evaporated.

As I said,HC is a lot like Requiem for a Dream: it's harrowing, intense and a very well made film where "enjoyed" might not be exactly the right word but rather "appreciated". It's not something I'll go running back to watch again and again (unlike Ferris Bueller, which I've now seen twice).

Definitely not a film for everyone, but it's certainly worth the time for those who don't mind seeing a murkier side of the world, especially so for people who like the idea of certain types of people receiving harsh vigilante justice. Ellen Page should be highlighted as exceptional for her performance too. At only 17 years old at the time (although playing a 14 year old) she manages to capture the intense hatred and disgust that Hayley harbours for Jeff, as well as her dark sense of humour in light of the circumstances she puts herself in.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Ridiculous. Unrealistic. A world where all adults are idiots. A rose-tinted view of teenage abandon.

Simply Fantastic. If you come out of Ferris Bueller's Day Off feeling not even slightly more happy than when you went in then you're just plain broken inside.

Ferris (Matthew Broderick) can see that the end of his last year in school is fast approaching its end and feels the need to take one last day off and make the most of it. Enlisting the help of his smitten girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) to break his depressed, listless friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) out of the self-pitying rut he's got himself into, the trio go on a day trip into Chicago in an attempt not to get caught.

Ferris and Cameron are the classic duo: the first is the confident and carefree type and the second the passsive worrier. Everyone knows a Ferris, or did in school at least. The Ferrises of the world just seem to be able to coast through life with everyone loving them and not a care in the world. They're the kind of guys who can come in from a thunderstorm dry as a bone and charm they're way past any security in their way. They'd do anything for a friend and they're exactly the sort of people that the Camerons of the world need to show them how beautiful life can be. Broderick is perfect as this sort of person. He has the charm and smoothness to get away with everything Ferris does, and doesn't cross the line into coming off as fake. You can believe that Ferris is really as good as a guy as he comes off to be. Hell, he's even got it 25 years later in this homage to the film.

It's one of the best highschool/teen comedies by far, and the quality shines through in the type of jokes it tells. It might be partly down to it being made in the 80s, but it's much cleaner than the teen comedies of today; it doesn't have to rely on the crutch of sex jokes or toilet humour. That's not to say Ferris and co are wholesome kids straight out of the 1950s, just that there's an air of youthful freedom that's enough to provide the humour.

Honestly, it's just great. Some critic described it as a "suicide prevention film". That seems a bit of a dark idea to bring into the mix, but it is apt. For the Camerons of the world, Ferris Bueller might just have the power and the clout to shake them out of their narrow world view and learn the films biggest lesson: Life moves pretty fast, if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

True Romance (1993)

The best Tarantino film that Tarantino never did. The best film that Tony Scott did.

An ensemble cast orbit around two central characters, Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama* (Patricia Arquette), who find themselves caught up in a whirlwind romance and a massive cocaine heist. Only able to count on each other in their remarkably sweet duo, the pair make their way across the country and dodge all manner of pimps, crooks, cops and burnouts who aren't looking out for their best interests, all in an attempt to offload a sizeable amount of drugs so that they live out their planned early retirement.

Tarantino's story and script, combined with a Tony Scott (of Top Gun, Man on Fire and Enemy of the State fame) gives True Romance a unique feel. All the bombasticness and larger than life characters and turns that are characteristic of Tarantino are there and they're directed by a man who really knew his way around action and lent the production a blockbuster sheen that Tarantino has never chosen to embrace. The result is a colourful, exciting and charming piece of work with two oddly adorable people madly in love right at the eye of this storm of craziness.

You'd be forgiven for thinking the film's more Romance than anything else near the start. It does take a while to get going. If the endearing characters of Alabama and Clarence can hold you over until it really hits its stride, you'll be in for a great time.

One more notably endearing part of the movie is the soundtrack. Hans Zimmer, now known for the grand orchestral pieces that make films like The Dark Knight Rises and Inception feel like they're straight out of legend, gives an offbeat and endearing tone to the film with pieces like "You're So Cool" (which appears numerous times)
*Apparently the very same Alabama that's referenced in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Small universe, eh?

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Departed (2006)

It seems I've got a bit of a thing for Boston Crime Movies, and for some reason there also seems to be a shit load of them (The Town, Gone Baby Gone, Boondock Saints etc). Not to mention the general amount of films set there like Moneyball, The Social Network, Good Will Hunting etc. Good area for film I guess. Must be a lot of tax breaks.

Anyway, The Departed. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio cover both sides of the undercover informant dynamic between the police and the mob. Damon is the man making sure the mob is always coincidentally out of the way at the right time, and DiCaprio is constantly trying to trap them from the inside. A fantastic supporting cast fills in the rest of the roster: Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone and Vera Farmiga all feature heavily. Such is the lure of a Martin Scorsese production.

It's Scorsese through and through too. Many of his, now signature, directing trademarks appear: location and thematically appropriate pop/rock music tracks soundtrack the film (Rolling Stones and Dropkick Murphys most notably here), heavily ambiguous main characters (it's easy to forget who's the supposed "good guy" in The Departed) and high strung tension wrought with guilt throughout. The Departed is a rollercoaster ride with twists and turns leading us down the rabbit hole of who's really playing who, who's ratting on who and the lengths people will stretch their morals to to save their own skin.

The deft hand of Scorsese is what takes what would have been an okay crime thriller done by anyone else to a modern classic (pretty much like everything that he touches). He might not be the most exciting director right now, but he's by far one of the most important, if not the most important person in modern cinema these days. Not only is he responsible for features like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York and Shutter Island, his passion for the medium has lead him to found The Film Foundation and the World Cinema Foundation, both of which are dedicated to preserving and resoring the finest examples of cinema. He's done a four hour long documentary just on American cinema. The man has a devotion toe the medium and the craft that goes far beyond just the creation of great movies and beyond the simple appreciation of them. It's that dedication that elevates Martin Scorsese from a great director to a true icon of the film industry.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

In Bruges (2008)

Hell is being stuck in the fairytale town of Bruges for eternity.

Martin McDonagh took to film like a Belgian to chocolate with this, his debut feature film. A black comedy starring Colin Farrel as Ray and Brandon Gleeson as Ken, two hitmen who've been told to lay low in the boring and bit of a shithole/beautiful and quaint (depending which one you ask) town of Bruges as they await further orders from their boss Harry (Raplh Fiennes).  As is the case with all black comedies, things don't exactly go as planned and a bit of bloody chaos comes to the quiet town in the shape of guns, drugs and a dwarf starring in quite strange film.

Taking a wealth of experience from writing plays for the stage, McDonagh knows his way around writing a script. In Bruges jumps flawlessly from the hilariously ridiculous to the sombre and depressing without missing a beat inbetween. Most of the laughs come from the dialogue between the three criminals as they seem to be operating in a world completely divorced from the town that they're actually in. Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes play off each other incredibly well, particularly in one scene with a stalemate in a stairwell culminating in one of the strangest conversations that'll ever be had in the middle of a shootout.

Put simply, if you enjoy your humour a bit darker you'll love In Bruges. If you're not one for jokes revolving around people who've lost their heads or the ethics of killing innocent children (albeit by accident) you might wanna give it a miss.

Also worth noting is that McDonagh's second film Seven Psychopaths (apparently much in the same vein as In Bruges) is out pretty soon and look just as weird and wonderful.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Enter the Void (2009)

(AKA How I Learned I Definitely Am Not Epileptic)

A surreal and psychedelic journey through death, drugs and reincarnation. The experience of watching Enter the Void is difficult to properly articulate.

Slick and stylishly produced, ETV might be a little hard to follow at times but the initial confusion gets ironed out as the movie goes along. It tells, in a non-chronological order, the stories of an American, Oscar, who has moved to Japan with his sister and the friends they make there in the seedy drug and sex fuelled underworld of Tokyo. Oscar meets his end at the hands of the city's police and we go from seeing the world literally through his eyes to following his less well defined experience of his memories and the journey of his soul as he observes his friends and associates as they deal with his passing.

The series of bad decisions made by the sometimes bad people of the drive the plot through the drugged up hallucinogenic hazes and bright neon lights of Japan at night. People have fucked up childhoods, become fucked up adults and some of them fuck up at the end of the line.

But honestly, as I said above, it's difficult to accurately surmise what watching Enter the Void is like without getting too technical and abstract, but it's a film the likes of which I've never seen before. Right from the off with the seizure inducing opening credits (which were a great influence on Kanye West's video for All of the Lights, by the way), it's an interesting and otherworldly experience you're unlikely to see many imitations of any time soon. A never ending procession of light and colour take you through the impressive runtime (2hr40m) from the very start to the, well, quite memorable, end sequence.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

[•REC] (2007)

 Visceral and engaging, Rec takes the horror of the zombie film and the claustrophobic tunnel vision of the found footage genre and combines them to powerful effect.

Blair Witch meets 28 Days Later would be my poster quote for this film. Zombie films often rely on grand set pieces to get by; there's a reason "horde" is one of the most common terms used to describe the undead. Counter to that, found footage films tend to have the monsters go unseen for most if not all of the movie. Two conflicting ideals that successfully walk a tightrope in this independently produced piece of work.

Rec is set almost entirely in a Barcelona apartment block (and as such the film is in Spanish, by the way). Television reporter Angela and her cameraman Pablo are filming a "night in the life" of the local fire crew when they go on a call out to help out an old woman who has fallen in her flat. Things go from mundane to horrific as Angela gets the spectacle she wanted when the government unexpectedly seals the building and starts a biological containment program. infections and tempers flare up as the residents and rescue workers struggle to escape and to even just stay alive.

Rec follows a standard set by the outstandingly authentic Blair Witch Project in 1999 and gets on the list of where the first person perspective works as an integral part of the ensemble and isn't just a gimmick or a crutch like it is in so many cases (I'm looking at you Diary of the Dead). It makes sense in the context: this is some college kid who's suddenly got a noble sense of "the world needs to see this" but reporters whose job it is to cover what goes on around them, and as such grants them some use of proper equipment and technique rather than just crazy shakycam that any old punter with a a camera could get.

Considering the majority of the film and the plot is relatively original and entertaining (as original as you can get in the zombie genre, at least) it does take a disappointing, almost cop-out style take on resolving the infection at the end, but it's not so bad as to ruin the rest of the film.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth, aka "This is how you do a dark fairytale, Tim Burton", is a wonderful film on numerous levels. Visually, it's breathtaking. Conceptually, it's interesting. Metaphorically, it's powerful.

Set in Spain during the fallout of the Franco civil war, Pan's Labyrinth is the story of a little girl named Ofelia. Ofelia's mother has remarried after her husband was killed in the war, her new lover is a Captain in Franco's army tasked with cleaning up rebel resistance in the mountain forests and he takes the girl and her mother to live with him at his outpost. Faced with being in the middle of a guerilla war and the contempt of her new stepfather, Ofelia retreats into a fantasy world that may or may not be true.

Guillermo del Toro makes easy work of blending the fantastical world into that of the real one, and uses the creatures monsters of the fairytale world to shed light on the more conspicuous monsters that look just like us in the real world. Some of the political metaphors may be a little heavy handed (Spoilers: fascism is bad, who'd have guessed?) but in the context of the film it's easy to live with.

It's the attention to detail in both sides of the coin that makes Pan's Labyrinth a beautiful movie to look at. Del Toro has put as much effort in bringing alive the disparity between those fascist enablers in the form of the Captain's soldiers and the resistance/civilians as he does the magical world. He could have easily made the film about just the fallout of the Spanish civil war and it would be praised just as much for its aesthetic. The fantasy side is gorgeous though: people formed out of the very earth and bark that they inhabit, monsters that sit as silent guardians until opening their eyes in particularly unique ways and a world that looks like Narnia had a bad experience on acid bring the film to life.

Pan's Labyrinth topped a lot of lists in 06/07, and sits in the top 100 for many publications'/critics' all time lists. I'm not so sure I'd rank it that highly myself, but it's a must watch for everyone at some point, if only so you can see what someone like Tim Burton could be capable of if he put some real emotion behind his work other than "I look like a depressing goth but I'm actually pretty nice".

Oh, and just so you know, it's filmed in Spanish so if you're one of those people who absolutely refuses to watch anything with subtitles (because you're lazy) give it a miss. To be fair though, Guillermo del Toro penned all the English subtitles personally, so there's absolutely zero hits taken by the script when you're not a Spanish speaker.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Not the first, but certainly the definitive movie of the "found-footage horror" piece that's picked up pace over the past few years with the likes of Paranormal Activity, Rec and Cloverfield.

The Blair Witch projects opens with a simple title card stating how in 1994 three amateur documentary makers went into the woods looking to make a film about the local witch legend, and how their tapes were all that was found a year later.

It's hard to go into too much depth without spoiling the film, but suffice to say that it's the film embodiment of the saying "less is more". It clocks in at only 78 minutes, there's little-to-no-gore and there are only three actual characters and no fancy sets. All these facets combine in a way that makes a film scarier than any amount of body horror or disgusting monster can, because they make it actually feel real. These guys are just in the woods. It's not some ridiculously dense forest where the leaves blot out the sun even at noon but it could be the woods anywhere. There are periods of time in the film where the screen is just black with a little picture-noise going on, forcing you to listen to the audio carefully, because they're filming in the dark and they're kids without lights or fancy night vision.

The subtlety and grounded nature that these thing instill in the film do make it honestly scary. It genuinely left me a little jumpy and I'm not bothered about admitting it because it means this is a good film.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

The end of days approaches and induces not only widespread rioting, killing and depression but a pretty generic if slightly dark rom-com.

That said, it's not particularly bad, just a bit uninspired. Dodge (Steve Carell) is a guy who'd played it safe through his entire life and finds himself inadvertently alone following the announcement of an unstoppable asteroid coming to slam into the planet. By coincidence it's only now that he runs into his neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley), a free thinking, slightly bohemian young woman whose circumstances have conspired to find her alone and cut off from her family as the apocalypse looms. They set off together on an impromptu roadtrip to try and fill their respective voids before annihilation: him, a highschool girlfriend who he regretted breaking up with for his whole adult life, and her a way back to England to see her family one last time.

Predictably, things don't go exactly to plan and this allows us to go through a number of quirky scenes in a sort of safari of how we all deal with impending doom differently. An ex army bunker stocked with videogames and redbull, a guy running from the hitman he hired in a very elaborate suicide and a restaurant turned drug fuelled love in are just some of the stops on the cross country journey of self discovery.

Only when the credits rolled did I realise why I felt like I'd seen it before, because I kind of already have. It's written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, writer of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and it pretty much dances to exactly the same beat, just with characters who are 15 years down the road. So if you want Nick and Norah with less indie music and more dark humour, Seeking a Friend should be right up your alley.

The humour kind of peters out after the first act and takes a bit of a backseat to the development of Dodge and Penny's relationship, and is pretty much gone by the time we reach the final conclusion in favour of more emotional drama. Honestly I think it's weaker for it, but the drama is still solid and enjoyable, except for one arc dealing with Dodge's father. Without spoiling too much it spits in the face of anyone who has had major issues with an absentee father by suggesting the whole thing can be resolved and buried in fifteen minutes. Ignore that bit, and you probably will do if you're not one of those people, and you're golden.

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford's title itself is a good representation of the film. It's long and it's wordy but its apparent clarity is not all that it seems. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does not necessarily do what it says on the tin. Yes, Jesse James is killed, and yes it's Robert Ford who does it, but who is the real coward, or if there's only one coward, isn't so clear cut.

Jesse James tells the story of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) and some of his friends and family as they meet and work with the infamous Jesse James (Brad Pitt), who had been a childhood hero of Ford's. As James enters the end game of his criminal enterprises he becomes increasingly paranoid, sometimes justifiably and sometimes less so, that his former gang members are out to turn him in dead or alive for the hefty bounty that has been placed on his head.

Jesse himself is a character that Pitt was born to play. He is charismatic and conveys a sense of insight and authority among those around him, but it's offset by a psychotic and dangerous sense of spite and mistrust. Pitt, alongside Affleck, does a phenomenal job of confusing viewers about who the real hero of the story is. His charm and presence, not to mention the derision of his dispatcher in the title, make James pretty likeable despite his nefarious deeds. But as the plot progresses the cruel streak in him, presumably the same one that lead him down his path, becomes apparent and the outlaw becomes truly scary. He becomes one of those people that you just can't get a read on: is he joking or is he serious? It can be a very important decision to make, especially when he's roaring out the same unhinged and over the top laugh that Pitt's Tyler Durden of Fight Club let's out after having his face caved in by a bar owner.

Dancing opposite Pitt's James in the waltz around who's going to pull the trigger first is Casey Affleck's production of Robert Ford. Affleck is as effective in giving us the wide eyed wonder of a kid who finally meets his hero and jumps to carry his gear as he in being the pensive and weary man not sure how to move forward with his life. Ford is scared and uneasy in 90% of the film, and Affleck sells it. Some of the motivations of his character, particularly around the middle of the film, are a bit murky as to why he has his change of heart so suddenly, but it's carried off in a way that's believable through the character even if not necessarily through the plot. The pair bounce off each other with great aplomb, they both knew exactly how each character would play out their side of any conversation and did it wonderfully. There was some sort of connection betweent he two where they just got it.

The film is definitely a slog though. Checking in at 2h40m, I think it's a lot like a long workout: it's going to take a while, you might lose interest during some of the lulls and it's probably a little tiring, but its worth seeing through to the end. The rapid decline of Jesse and the numerous evolutions of Ford (especially those after he does the deed) require a long running time. Despite its setting and title character, this isn't 90 minutes of bank jobs and horse chases with gunslingers. This is much more about Jesse James and Robert Ford the men, than Jesse James the outlaw.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

A film about Banksy that's not really about Banksy but turns out to be by him about a guy who was making a film with Banksy in it. Still with me? Right. Exit Through the Gift Shop was sold as "The incredible true story of how the world's greatest Street Art movie was never made" and it kind of holds true.

The film follows the street art inspired adventure of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant living in LA who made a living buying cheap old clothes and turning around selling them as designer and vintage to the hipsters of the city of angels. Guetta spent his life chronicling everything in his life through his video camera and when he falls in with some of the world's most prolific street artists, by chance really, they take an instant shine to him and his camera.

He travelled the world under the guise of being a filmmaker, following around the biggest names in guerilla art telling them that he was making a film to make permanent an artform that is at its core ephemeral thanks to its relationship with the law. Then he ran into Banksy.

Banksy, probably the most famous street artist, both loved and hated by the community in the scene (check out his feud with Robbo for the latter), inadvertently inspires Guetta to become an artist himself after he finally gives in and produces a film. It's from here that things get a little... strange.

Guetta goes on to piss over everything that street art is, or is supposed to be. There's little to no effort made in working his way up and actually creating art of his own, but he just buys his way into the scene. In a perverted Andy Warhol style he creates pieces of work that are collages of seemingly random bits of pop culture chopped up and stitched together. It's like what a fifteen year old who's "really mature for their age" would create if they were trying to channel Banksy. There's a lingering sense throughout the second half of the film that, if someone had just held off picking up their pay-cheque for a second and asked "Why?", this whole thing would have ended very differently.

Nevertheless, the people of LA and beyond eat it up. Thierry makes a boat load of money and sells a hell of a lot of merchandise and thus sets the film up to be interpreted as less than the truth. There's been a lot of speculation over whether Guetta (or as he later names himself: 'Mr Brainwash'") is genuine or a fabrication of the notorious Bristolian himself. Once the idea's been planted, it's pretty hard to shake. I only heard all the conjecture after I'd seen Exit for the first time, and watching it again now everything seems to line up a bit too perfectly to send a message.

In the film, Banksy describes meeting Guetta as a catharsis: "After trying to keep everything under wraps for so long, to just let someone in and trust them was a bit of a release". But following all the criticism Banksy's (rightly, I think) received for selling out to the mainstream and the gallery shows it's hard to imagine that the creation of Mr Brainwash wasn't the real catharsis. It smacks of an artist addressing the fact that they're successful in a field where being poor and working literally on the street is a bonus to your credibility, or even the entire point. With Mr Brainwash Banksy, and to a lesser extent his partner in crime Shepard Fairey (of Obey and Obama 'Hope' fame), there's a statement being made that says "Yes, we're successful and we've made money off this, but we did it the credible way. This is how we'd have done it if we were actual sell outs".

Whether or not you want to buy into the hoax theory, Exit Through the Gift Shop is worth a watch if you want a well produced documentary looking at the nature of art and credibility.  great opening montage of amateur footage of street art in action, Thierry's guerilla shaky cam antics with world class artists and the slick production applied by Banksy and co later on creates an eclectic mix that reflects nicely on the changing landscape of the street art scene as it moves kicking and screaming gradually into the gallery from the gutter.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Homeland (TV) (2011)

Is he a terrorist or am I crazy?

Okay, so it's  TV programme and not a film, whatever. It's till great.

I haven't been into a TV drama series like this in a long time. The fourth season of Lost really burned me and I've never really wanted to commit that much time to something that could eventually just turn out to be the work of someone who's clearly making it all up as they go along. Mad Men came and went, but by series 3 (I'm starting to think I might have an attention span problem, actually), but even with its beautiful cinematography and slow burning  grounded drama, I just needed something to start actually happening. You can only stare at an oil painting for so long. Shows like Breaking Bad or True Blood are tempting, but I'm not sure I want to commit to anything with so much to catch up on.

Then there was Homeland. I can't believe I didn't get into it from the get go just over a year ago now, after falling so in love with a previous series that Homeland's co-lead, Damien Lewis, was in: Band of Brothers. Now, Homeland is good, but it's not Band of Brothers. BoB is something truly special that everyone should check out. A ten part series following the real events and lives of the men of Easy Company in WWII, BoB is essentially ten hours worth of Saving Private Ryan level WW2 drama. I've never met anyone who's seen it and done anything less than love it.

Clearly Damien Lewis' agent knows what they're doing. Even if he's not exactly a household name, every time he's top of the bill something gets knocked out of the park (another example being Stolen, a one-off BBC drama about child trafficking in which Lewis plays the cop in charge of stopping a ring of traffickers). As does Claire Danes', the star of this series playing opposite Lewis. The two play off each other outstandingly throughout the series.

In Homeland, Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a CIA intelligence officer who was recently told by a trusted informant that an al-Qaeda cell had successfully turned a US prisoner of war to their cause. Soon after, Damien Lewis' Sergeant Nicholas Brody is found alive. He and his scout sniper partner had been captured in Iraq eight years ago and assumed dead until Brody was unexpectedly rescued during a US military raid. Upon his return, Brody is hailed as an American war hero, an asset to the government as a symbol for why these wars are worth fighting, but Carrie is concerned as the only known American prisoner returns home and acts somewhat suspiciously. The central conceit is whether Carrie is being crazy or if there is something to her claims. Either way, it's clear that there's a storm coming, it's just where it comes from that she needs to find before it's too late.

It'd be easy for the series to fall into the pratfall of constantly faking out on Brody's true colours, but Homeland only has a handful of bait-and-switches and they tend to filter out quite early on. Lewis takes us on a magnificent journey with Brody: he is a complicated and conflicted man that it's almost impossible to get a read of. Some of the twists and turns the character injects to the series leave you raise questions about just how jumpy we might be bout terror and what judgements society is quick to make, the very obvious one being that Muslims, especially those who convert to Islam are instantly under more scrutiny than the rest of us.

Claire Danes deserves just as much, if not maybe more than Lewis, for her role as Carrie Mathison. Carrie is a brilliant and driven hard worker with some hefty emotional baggage as well as certain other difficulties that become apparent as the show progresses. Danes gives us a woman who is certainly unstable but manages to keep herself upright by applying more speed and pushing headlong into any and every piece of work that she gets. Her gradual descent as she struggles to prove something she knows to be true, not just to be right but to try and save her country's people, is profound and emotionally draining in the best way possible.

The fantastic writing collides with the two impressive leads to produce something great. Homeland is written in such a way that it takes a long time to see the true colours of everyone involved but it's done in such a way that you don't feel messed around. The truth comes out slowly but surely and everything is accounted for. Going into the final few episodes of series one, everyone's footing is clearly identified, but the waters are clouded with a number of sympathetic but conflicting motivations. By the end of the first series there aren't clear cut good guys and bad guys, and that's what makes it feel so real and intense. It's no 24, where all-American hero Jack Bauer saves the day and punches middle-eastern (which in that shows equals 'evil') people in the face for a couple of episodes.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Marc Webb's film is sold time and time again as a romantic comedy. It's not. It is a film about a romance, and it is funny, but putting (500) Days of Summer into the RomCom category would be like asking for strawberry ice cream and getting chocolate: it's still full of sugar, it still tastes good and it'll still mess with your head, but it's not exactly what you wanted.

(500) Days flits back and forth through the year and a bit of the entire relationship between greetings card writer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the new-to-the-office Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Their different ideas about love and how the world works clash, and create an interesting and realistic picture of how people aren't always perfect together, unlike in just about every other film like this.

JGL sells the insecure and emotionally immature Tom perfectly. Gordon-Levitt has a certain quality that I can't quite put my finger on, but he has such a range that he can play your everyday, moderately successful  late twentysomething as convincingly as a time travelling hitman. He's like that kid that was in your class at school; you knew them pretty well and they fit in perfectly fine, but everyone knew they were destined for something better than the people around them. I'm more than prepared to go on the record and say that JGL will go on to be something truly massive.

Deschanel doesn't disappoint either. I've gone on about her way too much regarding how she plays the same character in anything she's involved. She is pretty much the postergirl for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. But, it works here. (500) Days of Summer isTom's take on the world and we only see it how he does. With a bit of help from his sister and friends, Tom eventually starts to hook up with reality and Summer shifts away from Jess in New Girl to Clementine in Eternal Sunshine and we get a real person and not someone where  "many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind".

It should be noted too, that this was Marc Webb's first feature film after making a name in music videos. He takes a deft hand and uses it to position a great number of stylish and sleekly directed high concept scenes and weaves them seamlessly into the otherwise grounded film. In particular, a scene with a splitscreen take on expectations vs reality plays out astoundingly well. Coherent, immaculately paced and emotionally engaging, the splitscreen scene is something any director would be proud of and for a newcomer to pull it off shows some true talent.

(500) Days isn't a standard Rom Com (it certainly isn't like Nick and Norah from the other day), especially not in how the end game plays out, but anyone who's a fan of the genre has to check it out as soon as possible, and it should definitely be on everyone's watchlist eventually.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

Boy, if you like predictable rom-coms, pretentious indie bands and Michael Cera playing an awkward but ultimately nice guy, have I got the film for you! Thankfully, although maybe not one to publicly admit it, I do like all those things, and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist has them in abundance. Not to mention a starring role for one of the coolest people on the planet: Kat Dennings (AKA literally the only redeeming thing in that awful, awful show on Ch4 called 2 Broke Girls).

Cera plays it safe with a role that he's done a million times before. If you've seen Superbad, Juno or Arrested Development, just imagine any of his characters in those but in New York and in a band. With a web of coincidences that only happen in movies like this, Cera's Nick runs into Dennings' Norah at one of his gigs where she asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend for 5 minutes and kicks off an hour and a half of crazy exes, a search for both a drunk blonde girl and a publicity shy indie band, and a host of well written gay characters.

It's pretty much an inoffensive and probably pretty forgettable rom-com, but it's one of the better inoffensive and probably pretty forgettable rom-coms out there. Dennings and Cera have a believable and endearing chemistry on screen, even if the story does follow the tried and tested "they like each other, they're falling for each other, shit now they're angry with each other, oh wait it's okay they're in love again" rollercoaster that we've all ridden many times before. One thing they both get right that's often a pratfall for films with a centre on music is that you can actually believe that these people are into these bands and their music. The soundtrack compliments this pretty well, with bands that may have been slightly more underground at the time than they are now; Vampire Weekend, We Are Scientists and Band of Horses all feature to some degree and give the film an authentic feel of a New York "real music" scene.

You won't be left behind in the world of important cinema history if you don't catch Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, but if you want to spend an hour and a half on some not terrible, fluffy romantic comedy you could do much, much worse.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

In short: Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson (just like with The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr Fox).

Moonrise Kingdom is the story of two young children who run away together on a small New England Island in the 60s, and how the community around them deals with it. It's typical Anderson territory: a comedic drama with a lot of innocence and whimsy on the surface, doing a not so good job of hiding the more depressing things going on in the background. He's very much the inversion of Tim Burton. Burton's films are typically dark affairs with stark contrasting colours that are visually quite dark and gothic but thematically are uplifting and positive. Then you get Anderson's warm, subdued palettes covered in yellows, tans and pastel reds and blues within childlike characters with deep seated issues.

Moonrise Kingdom is very much an ensemble cast. At the centre are the surprisingly talented Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the runaway couple. Honestly, I usually hate child actors because they're (understandably) shit, but Gilman and Hayward here are easily on par with Natalie Portman in Leon and Chloë Moretz in Kick Ass. They're surrounded by talent too, though. Edward Norton (who still doesn't seem to have aged since Fight Club) and Bruce Willis are charged with the operation to find the kids in their respective roles as Sam's Scout Leader and the island's police chief. Both are fantastic in their similar characters, both are downtrodden men with happily mundane lives who are hit hard by Sam's disappearance, as well as revelations about the boy's situation. As with the last six Anderson productions, Bill Murray makes an appearance too, as the girl's frustrated and angry father who's trapped in a rut with his wife and kids.

At it's heart, the film is a love story. Considering the ages of the characters though, it's difficult to come down and say if it's childlike or not though. There's all the "seriousness" that kids who think they're in love have, but there are some moments where some real maturity shines through and often leaves you questioning who it is that really has their head on right, the kids or the adults? A number of sub plots, including a ragtag bunch of scouts channelling a 50s biker gang, a cheating wife and a physical embodiment of Social Services, all add to the whimsy and charm of the film as a whole.

A special note should be made of the excellent soundtrack (showcased pretty well in the trailer, below). It lends the film a certain feel of adventure, while still instilling an air of safety that runaway kids these days would most definitely not have.

Moonrise Kingdom might not be Wes Anderson's best film (that honour blatantly goes to Fantastic Mr Fox. George Clooney as a charming animated fox, what could be better?) but it's certainly a great watch and a beautifully crafted, funny and touching film. But watch FMF as well.Seriously, it's amazing.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky might not be the best technical director, he's no Spielberg, but he is incredibly talented in crafting powerfully moving emotional pieces. Aronofsky will make you feel something, whether it's the disillusioning power of love in The Fountain, pity for a man who is clinging to a life he has long outgrown in The Wrestler, the detrimental effects of chasing a perfection you don't even want in Black Swan, or the soul crushing depression of addiction in Requiem for a Dream.

Requiem really is the best traumatic film I've seen. It's a well produced piece of work, but you might be a little less than satisfied when the credits roll. Across the Summer, Fall and Winter of a particular year four people find themselves in the grips of drug addiction for a number of reasons. Three heroin junkies (Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans) find themselves going from user to dealers in the hopes of elevating themselves from their respective gutters and becoming respectable people, only to find themselves trapped by more than getting their next fix. Across town, the mother of Harry (Leto), played by Ellen Burstyn, battles a weight-loss triggered amphetamine dependence. The four fall victim to a myriad of different effects of a hard drug habit, from the disgusting physical transformations, through the degrading personal sacrifices to the disturbing psychological disruptions caused by copious amounts of body chemistry altering substances.

Aronofsky takes some quite brave steps with regards to structure and how the film plays out. A frantic, MTV style of editing lends itself to montages made up of little more than snapshots well, giving the drug and psychosis induced hazes and hallucinations a jarringly real sense of what a bad trip can be like. Heavily stylised, many scenes take place with different parts of the shot playing out at different speeds, with lenses that distort and nauseate at times. Clearly split up into three arcs, the summer, fall and winter, it's pretty easy to see where the fates of the central characters ultimately lie, and if you've been paying attention it should come as no surprise that Aronofsky doesn't follow the typical mold where a big problem appears about 2/3s of the way through the film and the final third is where everything is made okay with the world again. A very clear progression makes itself known pretty early on, and despite how much you want it to stop, it continues on all the way to the anti-hollywood finale.

If you're a fan of authentic, frenetic filmmaking and don't mind feeling a little bit blue absolutely terrible at the end, Requiem for a Dream has to go on the 'Must Watch' list. Chances are it'll only be there once though.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Cabin in the Woods (2012)

(Poster by Mondo)

The Cabin in the Woods is 2012's answer to 1996's Scream. It manages to be a tongue-in-cheek take on slasher movie cliches and a straight up horror bloodbath at the same time. If you're not aware of the tropes and archetypes that make up the recipe for a modern horror flick, you might miss out on a couple of the jokes and references but you'll still get a tense, bloody and hilarious death-fest. 

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have written what is about as formulaic as a slasher movie as you can get.  A bunch of young, pretty people decide to go for a trip away to a cabin (in the woods no less!) where there's no cell phone reception, no internet and only one road in and out. It's like these people want to die horrible deaths in isolated wilderness. But Whedon and Goddard's writing knows how obvious this is, and has a lot of fun with just how stereotypical it is to start with through a repertoire of references, in jokes and parodies. One early scene in particular is  a duelling banjo away from being straight out of Deliverance, one of the first in the isolated-in-the-woods-being-hunted-by-hillbillies genre.

It's easy to read CitW as a satirical criticism of modern horror films. The pacing in particular is exaggerated in such a way that the slow building tension of the first half ramps up exponentially and reaches a fever pitch later on where there is no time for build up, you just get horrific image after horrific image. CitW does it in such a memorable and bombastic fashion that it is clear that these guys weren't simply following the recipe, but taking the piss out of it. Some of the subversions  are misses though, and it'll be a fifty-fifty split on whether the ending embraces the "traditional" horror film ending or if it avoids it.

Laughs and lacerations abound in Cabin in the Woods. Even if you think everyone who tries to point out all the obvious things about horror films (see "The Rules" scene in Scream) is just being pretentious and self important, you'll probably be able to garner enough enjoyment out of Cabin in the Woods as a normal slasher film that just takes a few unconventional turns.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Take Shelter (2011)

Critically acclaimed but largely unheard of, Take Shelter is one of the best smaller films of last year.

From the opening shot of Curtis LaForche standing in an oil filled rain, Michael Shannon gives a phenomenal performance as a man plagued by apocalyptic visions. Curtis becomes the victim of vivid hallucinations and terrifying dreams that follow him through his waking and sleeping life. Shannon sculpts a masterpiece performance and shows us a man who is truly, deeply scared and even more embarrassed by his fear. As he tries to sweep his increasingly erratic actions away from friends and family he can't shake the nagging fear of his dreams and what is happening to him. Is he descending into a hell of mental illness or are his visions a warning of a coming storm?

Shannon's performance goes hand in hand with Jeff Nichols' direction and some spectacular special effects to create a real sense of dread from start to finish. Take Shelter isn't a scary film in the same way as a traditional horror film, because it's not one, but there is a constant undertone of unease and that this peaceful world could come crashing down in every scene. Whether it was the spectre of mental illness or the possibility of the storm ever coming, something ingrained in Take Shelter just had me tense throughout, in a good way. It's impossible to pin down why that is, but all the subtleties and different elements combine into a perfect storm or angst and fear for Curtis' safety, and his family's safety from him.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Atonement (2007)

Costume dramas with Keira Knightley come by the bucket load, but few come as crushingly sad as Atonement. Based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, Atonement tells the story of how the romance between the bright young groundskeeper/Cambridge graduate Robbie (James McAvoy) and the daughter of a wealthy English family, Cecelia (Keira Knightley) is ripped apart by unfounded accusations from her younger sister, the harsh realities of the second World War and a sprinkling of the gulf between the classes.

Joe Wright does everything right here. The film looks especially beautiful in all its locales. the stately homes in the English countryside are lavish, bright and suitably saturated in the hazy colour of late summer and the dirty streets and hospitals of a mid-war London are suitably tarnished and covered in a bleak dusting of hopelessness. One set in particular stands out, and not just because it was shot down the road from me at Redcar beach: Dunkirk. Wright took on the monumental task of creating an almost purely practical set for the scene, and documents the desperation, pain and occasional glimmers of hope of the evacuation in one extended tracking shot that includes near enough 1000 extras from the local area.

The story unfolds with a number of flash forwards, which are quickly rewound to see how we got there, and it paces the film magnificently. Central to the major rift that separates Robbie and Cecelia is a moment where both the audience and Cece's sister are left unsure of what they've seen, and telling the story with quick darts forward in time leaves enough room for contemplation as to what you've seen and what you explicitly didn't see. The flash-forward mechanic is powerful. It'll smash you right in the emotions and really leave you questioning whether the instigator of all these problems has really atoned for their actions.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are outstanding as the troubled couple, with the former establishing himself as one of Britain's biggest upcoming things (he's since starred as the lead in XMen First Class and Wanted) and the latter continuing to mature into her roles and mold her craft into something fantastic. Joe Wright's direction and storytelling is something to be envied, with set design, shooting technique and direction clearly signposting the descent from the hazy otherworldly dream of the stately home to the dirty and real world where everything doesn't end up perfect. The visuals alone tell a story of heartbreak, regret and resentment. In particular, Wright should be proud that he manages to deliver the most powerful wartime beach scene this side of Saving Private Ryan.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Tron Legacy (2010)

A Disney production through and through, Tron Legacy is a predictable, yet ultimately satisfying and visually stunning experience.

Tron Legacy picks up 30 years after its predecessor (Tron (1982)), both in terms of what it delivers and in plot. It's pretty standalone storywise though, so there's no need to be too apprehensive if you haven't seen or can't remember the original. Legacy is set in a world where the Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) of the original has been missing for twenty years after establishing an astounding successful computer/software company. His son, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), receives a message that might help him find his father, and leads him down the rabbit hole into the alien computer world of The Grid.

The world Sam finds himself in is fantastically realised: a digital world where everything is made up of clean, angular lines, bright neon lights and computer programs in human form. Everything is beautifully crafted. The world created for Tron Legacy is elegant and ethereal, where the lines between solid structures and constructs made of pure light aren’t so clear. The CGI and set design sell this universe in a way that makes the film feel as cutting edge as its predecessor was back in its original release.

My only gripe with the performances given by the cast is with respect to the alien world of The Grid. Sam, played by Garrett Hedlund, is dropped here unexpectedly and is seemingly nonplussed by the entire place. Sure, he’s a bit concerned about why he has to fight for his life, or how he’s going to save the world, his father and his new friend Quorra (Olivia Wilde) but the fact that he’s seeing what cyberspace looks like or that he’s able to walk on solid goddamn light doesn’t seem to even cause a blip on his radar. For all the other characters its either the only world they’ve known, or they’ve been there long enough for it to become normal but Sam should getting blown away by everything that he looks at but just isn’t. On the flipside, Jeff Bridges and Olivia Wilde are entertaining. Bridges as the jaded old man who is reluctant to act and Wilde as his young and enthusiastic apprentice. Both are aspects of Sam’s personality. It’s just a shame that the most interesting parts of him are represented by other characters.

The story plays out pretty much how you expect it to, there isn’t really anything that surprising. But that tends to be the way Disney movies go. What you’re here for is how it’s told. The magical visual design, the thumping electronic soundtrack provided by robot DJs Daft Punk and some interesting performances from the supporting cast are all reasons to see Tron Legacy.

Domino (2005)

In light of the recent death of director Tony Scott, one of the few good things to come out of Teesside, I decided to check out one of his less appreciated works. I'm not going to sugar coat it because he recently died: Domino is pretty terrible and nowhere near as good as the man's other work.

The problems with this film could probably be explained if you imagine what the production meeting must have been like: a litter of ADHD afflicted labrador puppies hopped up on coke flinging ideas at the wall just to see what sticks, in the mid-90s. Everything wrong here is a result of having no attention span and trying to cram way too much in. It tries to shoe-horn so much plot that you see scenes play out, only to be told later on that "Oh wait, it didn't actually happen like that at all but happened like this instead" in the most boring case of using an unreliable narrator I've ever seen. All of this done through scenes that ended up being responsible for more cuts that any My Chemical Romance album.

A completely unnecessary romantic sub-plot (to use that word loosely) appears out of nowhere right when the film should end, before going on for another half hour. It is completely forced and unnecessary, especially during a tale that, I thought, was supposed to showcase a woman who could handle herself just as well as a man in the world of bounty hunting, but you just get her eventually falling back on a supporting male character for help and validation.

Domino Harvey, of the title role, is played by Keira Knightley. Domino is a British ex-model turned bounty hunter in the US. Did I mention she's British? Because, holy shit, she will definitely make sure you know it. I know Knightley is English and apparently born and raised in London, but her accent here is so exaggerated it pretty much comes full circle and sounds like a bad impression of an aristocrat. The only redeeming thing I can say about her performance is ultimately shallow, but she does look pretty damn amazing as a grungy, shorthaired delinquent considering she pretty much exclusively does period costume dramas these days. It’d be nice to see her do something a bit more adrenaline fuelled now that her acting skill is allegedly more mature in her past few films, e.g. Anna Karenina.