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 Chloƫ 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.