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.