Sunday, 31 January 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: District 13: Ultimatum

District 13: Ultimatum

I’ll keep it quite brief. There’s not an awful lot to say about this, even if I try. Let the review just wash over you in much the same way as the film itself. ‘More of the same’ is very much the order of the day in this sequel to the French free-running action flick.

Firstly, I’ll lay this out for the record; I find parkour amazingly impressive. Who wouldn’t? This is clearly going to colour my enjoyment of the film. The problem is that parkour, as impressive as it is, has had its day in the sun. It’s been devalued by its overuse. Casino Royale I’ll let slide but was it needed in Die Hard 4.0? It’s been bolted on to so many action films that it’s the modern equivalent of the proliferation of wire-fu and bullet-time ten years ago.

The biggest problem here, in a film so reliant on it, is that it’s underused if anything. There are some good examples of it, but they’re few and far between and have that ‘seen it all before’ quality. When the lead actors are renowned for their athleticism, and not their acting ability or charisma, it leaves a pretty big deficit at the heart of the film.

As a result of the fast-moving nature of the discipline, the film-makers are faced with three options for their key stunts; show the feat as-is and risk it being too quick, show it in slow-motion and lose the impact of it, or just repeat it immediately from a marginally different angle. They choose the latter, which proves infuriating. For the most part, the rest of the action is made up of, admittedly well-choreographed, punch-ups. Gimmicks such as cross-dressing and the use of a priceless van Gogh as a weapon show a deft comic touch which gives it a Jackie Chan-esque likeability.

Critiquing the script in an action film is a bit like having a go at the Dalai Lama’s dress sense. That said it is pretty dire (the script, not the Tibetan guru’s togs). It actually takes a brief respite midway to recap the plot so far, complete with flashbacks, in an atrocious exposition scene that spells it out for those who may have been slow on the uptake.

All said, it’s enjoyable hokum with a modicum of socio-political relevance concerning the ghettoisation of the French underclass. As such, it resonates as a more realistic dystopia then much of its cinematic ilk.

It’s no masterpiece, even within its own sub-genre, but it’s by no means awful. When taken as nonsense around which a series of mainly impressive set-piece action scenes are hung, it’s hugely entertaining – which is really all you need sometimes.

(Middling) 2/5

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Today's Viewing & Reviews: Precious + Bad Lieutenant

Precious (Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire)

A hard-hitting abuse drama, starring Mariah Carey. That’s not a summation that inspires confidence. It comes with preconceived ideas and expectations of an insipid ‘inspirational’ struggle against the odds. However, it’s garnering plaudits aplenty so I figured the majority can’t be that far wrong. They weren’t. Precious (to use its colloquial title) is a very fine piece of work indeed.

The home-life of Claireece Precious Jones is pretty harrowing; twice pregnant to her father, emotionally and physically abusive mother, impoverished. Add to that the fact she’s severely overweight, illiterate and bullied. Prospects don’t look good. That’s where the film wrong-foots you, it’s not necessarily about overcoming adversity and the plight of this poor girl. It’s about an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances, enduring supreme hardship. It’s not constantly trying to ram a message down your throat. The fact that there are probably numerous Preciouses out there isn’t a cause for a crusade. As an audience, we’re not being held accountable.

Precious herself is not a character who requires our pity. Sure, she’s got a pretty awful life but she’s choosing to do the best she can to get herself out of that. It may not present her as happy with her lot but it never presents her as lacking in spirit and prone to conceding defeat. In that way, she is inspirational. The performance of newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is at once naturalistic and utterly compelling. The scenes of her bonding with new classmates seem entirely legitimate with a sense of authenticity lacking in other films which tread the same ground.

Although inevitably erring towards it at times, the film tries its utmost to avoid the clichés which plague the genre. The music is never downbeat even as misery upon misery is heaped on. Even the bleakest scene is underscored by the most uplifting (often gospel) music. It’s decidedly low-key and avoids becoming too overblown. The scenes of abuse never become ‘misery porn’ and the flights of fancy which take place in Precious’ mind when faced with extreme hardship have the opposite effect, merely foregrounding the juxtaposition of dreamworld idyll and harsh reality.

Director Lee Daniels has a keen eye and every scene is imbued with interesting visuals and kinetic cinematography – but never to the detriment of story or character development. Mo’Nique is the most pantomime of the characters as Precious’ vile mother, although later scenes reveal a depth that wasn’t seen in the earlier acts. The appearances of Mariah Carey and cock-rocker Lenny Kravitz, while momentarily distracting, are not ostentatious and ol’ leather trousers actually provides one of the films only true moments of levity. It’s not entirely without shards of light among the murk. It takes a brave film to present such uncompromising hardship yet still have the time (and audacity) to include a throwaway scene making light of Precious’ malapropian misnaming of ‘incest’, without appearing tasteless.

At times more horrific than many horror films, it’s not a film which offers easy answers or easy solutions – which wasn’t what I expected from it. At all.

(High) 4/5

Bad Lieutenant

Put the controversy to one side which, from today’s perspective, is pretty inconsequential anyway. For anyone unfamiliar, this is a character study. Harvey Keitel is the unnamed dirty cop of the title, but his dirtiness goes far beyond typical depictions of police corruption; he smokes crack, commits sex crimes, gambles, boozes hard, extorts money and pilfers cocaine from crime scenes. As if that weren’t enough he couldn’t care less about his role as a protector of society. He’d rather discuss sports fixtures than investigate a double murder and is entirely happy with letting criminals go free if it meets his own needs.

It’s a virtuoso performance from Keitel, from his pained primal yelps to his narcotic-induced stupor. Never afraid to take it to extremes and, even for an actor previously uninhibited in this area, is unafraid of airing of his old fella when it’s needed. The depictions of his drug-addled haze are well-realised and inventive each and every time they regularly appear. The film never departs from the central character for more than a few seconds and the camera is unwavering as it focuses on Keitel. Long static shots add to the sense of discomfort as he goes about his routine. Even the contrasting scenes of his family life have a pervading sense of menace which could erupt at any time.

For all cop films, as irregular as this or otherwise, there’s a central crime which the film is hung around. Here, co-writer/director Abel Ferrara almost childishly chooses the most provocative crime in a deliberate attempt to foreground the film’s controversial nature; the rape of a young nun. The religious complexion of this crime allows the film to introduce themes of redemption and a constant ramming of ecclesiastical iconography, which is overplayed, but then the entire film is caricatured to the point of excess. Despite never appearing to tacitly chastise the character and his actions, there’s only really one possible outcome for the Lieutenant and even an epiphany may not be enough to prevent it.

Ferrara’s direction is visually wondrous with particularly extravagant lighting and a measured, precise movement that allows the film room to breathe. With no score to speak of this combines with, and adds to, the level of unease the film creates. There’s a baseball subplot which runs through it, with sports commentary occasionally replacing music cues as a by-proxy means of manipulation.

Despite a few leery scenes, it’s not quite the controversy magnet it’s made out to be (highlighted by the fact it’s now an unlikely franchise). Abel Ferrara’s excessive manner at the least ensures that it’s creatively uncompromised with a distinct arthouse sensibility that’s liable to disappoint anyone looking for a laddish thrill-ride.


Friday, 29 January 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Factotum

Factotum (A Man Who Performs Many Jobs)

Firstly, let’s make this clear, I’m coming to this from a standpoint of being unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Charles Bukowski. I can just about muster up some knowledge on the general themes he deals in, but I’m not well-versed by any means.

A factotum is a man who works many jobs, as the full title helpfully informs, and that sums up Hank Chinaski (Bukowski’s alter-ego, played by Matt Dillon). What this soubriquet doesn’t tell us is that his general demeanour and hard-drinking means that each position tends to be short-lived.

Through the constant fug of chain-smoked cigarettes lies a pretty sparky script at its heart; full of bitterness and despair at the human condition, laced with pitch-black humour. Dillon’s red-faced, crumpled Chinaski embodies the struggling writer and his narration lends the film an authentic voice, holding it together as it takes massive progressive leaps and writes-off vast swathes of plot in voiceover. The laconic drawl casts the character as near-emotionless when interacting with others - which fits perfectly with the constant, quietly inebriated state. The film never opts to preach to us about the pitfalls of such an existence. Aside from losing the odd job, Chinaski is a functioning alcoholic. As impassioned and tortured an artist as he may be, it’s his inherent personality which makes him dislikeable and not the fact he’s plied with booze.

Other characters come off less well. Lili Taylor (the go-to girl for this sort of thing, looking like Evangeline Lilly’s older sister after a particularly rough night) and Marisa Tomei (beginning her unofficial late-noughties, chest-baring trilogy of indies) get nothing to do with their thankless ‘girlfriend’ roles, merely acting as brief ciphers through which we can see Hank’s character.

Considering the fairly squalid existence it portrays, the film has a glossy digital look which is bright and crisp, making it distracting and ill-befitting. The look, and feel, of it never seems to capture a real sense of booze-soaked excess. As a film, it’s hard to warm to. It’s not biting enough to succeed as a cult curio (à la Withnail & I or Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas), but not conventional enough to relate to on a facile level. Despite generally good direction from Norwegian director Bent Hamer, a solid script and fine central performance, it’s too segmented to consider a complete success. The momentum of constantly moving from job-to-job and character-to-character robs the film of any consistency and leaves you ultimately uncaring.

It was certainly an entertaining watch but it seems to be a deliberate attempt to create a film with instant cult appeal, failing to get the balance right and misunderstanding the very nature by which films gain this status.


All-Time Top Ten - The Agenda

Duking It Out For A Place

It would be entirely fair to say that, more often than not, I have films on my mind and it is a truth universally acknowledged that I’m nothing if not a stickler for an upholding of order when it comes to film-viewing.

A question every serious film fan has to face at some point is “what’s your favourite film?” or “your top ten films of all time?”. I normally skirt around this by saying it’s impossible to narrow down and that the best I can do is maybe a non-committal top 30-40 without any real ranking order. A lot of these films I think of as my favourites, but are they due a reassessment? Am I being honest with myself? Is tokenism or longstanding (possibly outdated) opinion all that’s keeping them in? Are they just there because they've always been there? Are they due a cull? Let’s see if I can narrow this down.

As I don’t want to this blog to be solely about lists and fetishistic ranking, here's the proposal: I’ll try to flesh this out a bit by way of a(n ir)regular series of sporadic postings where I’ll take each film of these 30 or 40 in turn, rewatch them, mull them over, write up my thoughts fairly fully and attempt to hammer this out for good. I'd expect this process to take place over the next year, or more.

This kind of thing is always going to be subject to fluctuation. There’s clearly a lot I’ve never seen and so it’s wide-open for new additions at any time. A top ten can never be a fixed thing. I'll refrain from posting the longlist for the time being, instead revealing each film one-by-one.

One of the most important aspects of this is going to be invoking a discussion with you, dear reader. It will hopefully stimulate and spur my own internal processes and I'll be challenged to come up with decent counter-arguments for their inclusion. Or not. While I definitely welcome, and wholeheartedly beg for, comments this is my list so I’m not really looking for judgement being passed on what is, or isn’t, on the longlist. Just your thoughts on the films as they come.

So, that's the plan. I'll try to start on this quite soon, running concurrently with the yearly challenge and keeping up with the review-writing. However, it is also a truth universally acknowledged that I’m nothing if not lethargic, so my nature may put paid to these machinations. We shall see.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Eaten Alive

Eaten Alive

I’m not really sure how much there is to say about Tobe Hooper’s sophomore film, about a serial killer and his crocodile. To say it doesn’t match the raw, visceral splendour of The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre is an understatement but it’s still quite a fun watch. The slight premise revolves around a backwater hotel where the owner picks off anyone who turns up and disposes of their remains with the assistance of his scaly cohort. It’s so bare-bones as to have no discernable subtext and follows a formulaic structure throughout; guests arrive, soon depart (in parts).

Quite why Hooper chose to follow up on his first horror opus with an inferior carbon copy eludes me. Swap the sun-scorched Texan wilderness for the steamy bayou and add a hungry reptile, but keep all other elements startlingly similar. Present are the hardy heroines (again played by Marilyn Burns), bloodied but not beaten, who long-outlive their male counterparts. Present is the dissonant soundscape of shrill screeches which permeated Hooper’s previous film. Present is the remote location and brutal but bumbling killer with no discernable motive. Present (at times) is the vérité cinematography but never with the same degree of success. A woodland chase scene with the killer, flailing around wielding agricultural equipment, pursuing his bloodied prey is shot in such a similar way it’s hard not to think of it as a parody.

However, missing is the brutal brilliance and genuinely sickening, pulse-racing, drawn-out ordeal meted (meated?) out by Leatherface and family. Most notable by its absence is the finesse (for lack of a better word) with which Hooper handles the horror. Here, every jolt is so clearly plotted out in advance and often ruined by a clumsy mechanical croc which makes the shark in Jaws look like the Na’vi.

To pick it apart’s not really the point though, is it? It’s a trashy slash-‘em-up with a few great moments including a giallo-esque, crimson-hued night scene. The mumbling sociopath is well played and creepy enough, with a Nazi allusion even thrown in for good measure. There are some savagely efficient deaths, it's solidly shot and the location is well realised. The caged, dying monkeys are a nice touch.

It’s perhaps unfair to spend the review comparing it (unfavourably) to the director’s previous work but the similarities are plain to see, just nowhere near as well executed.


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Diner


The world is a changed place, not only from 1959 Baltimore where this is set but also from 1982 when it was made. Diner occupies a particular strand of (usually male-dominated) films about the last flush of youth before an enveloping of adulthood and the responsibilities which come with that. It sits in esteemed company alongside stuff like Dazed & Confused, American Pie and, to some extent, Swingers.

It’s a film chiefly about banter. Six early-20s (as best I can tell) guys in various stages of college meet-up to trade quips and place spurious conquest-based wagers. It’s odd seeing the old pre-mangled Mickey Rourke and it’s easy to forget how effortlessly charming he was. A fact made all the more apparent when placed alongside a cast of ‘oh, I’d completely forgotten all about thems’ (Daniel Stern! Paul Reiser! Steve Guttenberg!) and Kevin Bacon. The problem with such a banter-based reliance is that the banter has to zing – and this rarely does. The script’s just not funny enough and gets mired in nostalgia-invoking pop culture referencing that must have already seemed like a lifetime ago by the time the film was made. When the banter works, such as in the aftermath of Mickey Rourke’s attempt to perform the popcorn trick (in the film’s most famous scene), it really is quite good. Perhaps a lot of the problem lies with me and my cynical modern eyes. Even the more ribald repartee appears tame and sweet-natured. Not to say this is how I’d prefer it but it’s hard to imagine the aforementioned snack-based faux pas passing with such little incident (and bodily fluid) in a modern comedy.

The film’s biggest problem is that it resides in the most awkward of sub-genres; the comedy drama. It’s lacking in sufficient dramatic weight and the characters are so loosely sketched that it all appears of such little consequence. Add that to the fact it’s not funny enough to be an all-out comedy and it’s stuck in this uncomfortable middle ground. This is particularly exemplified by the ending which performs an about-face tonal shift that jars no end. I just found it a totally unmemorable experience, unworthy of the near-classic status that seems to have attached itself to it.

It’s clear to see the film’s legacy though. In many ways it was ahead of its time. If it looks at all derivative, it’s because its influence is writ large in films featuring a young, all-male cast – although stopping well short of developing into a bromance. The beats it hits and the rhythm of some of the verbal sparring is really noticeable in stuff like Swingers.

That’s the film’s greatest achievement; the other, better works it has inspired.


Monday, 25 January 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Heaven


With a weight of expectation heaped upon it for being based on a script/treatment co-authored by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, it will always be destined to struggle to match or, Heaven forbid (pun intended), exceed those expectations.

Playing out like an exercise in veneration and legacy-building, it feels very much like ‘Hollywood does Euro arthouse’, somehow lacking the ring of authenticity. Despite a healthy European pedigree, the hands of the Weinsteins and co-producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack rest heavy on its shoulders. It seems to want it both ways; to be taken as seriously as Kieslowski’s other work but be accessible to a global market.

It opens strongly with a jolt-inducing opening act of terrorism and Philippa’s (Cate Blanchett) dawning realisation of the consequences of her actions is well-handled and profoundly moving. The decision to cast Giovanni Ribisi as her foil is the perfect example of the lack of commitment to getting it right. Set entirely in Italy with the majority of the dialogue spoken in the native tongue, the lead Italian role goes to an American of Italian origin, ostensibly to sweeten the pill of it all becoming too European. That’s not to say he’s not passable in the role but it screams of half-measures.

It does have moments of greatness though. While possibly slightly too neat, the bookends are at least satisfyingly done. Blanchett, as ever, delivers a fine performance with a near-faultless English accent and it’s nice to see Ribisi can play something other than wild-eyed creep.

The greatest asset is the stunning cinematography, helped along by sweeping aerial shots across the russet-toned landscape. Tom Tykwer is a solid and, dare I say, exciting director with the occasional misfire (The International) but an otherwise solid body of work across different genres. I can’t tell if the fault lies with the script or the direction but despite the story being told at such a meticulous, measured pace it takes huge leaps in both logic and character motivation. What takes place across a mere few days is filled with characters who make snap-judgements on a whim as if they’ve been in each others’ company for a lifetime. But maybe that’s the point. To me, the core relationship never felt developed before gradually subsiding into a pensive lovers-on-the-lam picture.

It’s difficult to say what this could have been without a Hollywood connection. It would presumably offer even less answers than it does in its current state but would maintain a purity which is lost in this cross-cultural muddiness.

(High) 2/5

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Today's Viewing & Reviews: Toy Story 2 + All About Steve + Brothers

Toy Story 2 (3D)

I won’t dwell on this. We all know how good it is; The Godfather Part II of animated sequels. It’s a step up on every front from the already masterful first entry in the series. While it’s not enough to warrant a subtraction from the rating, not only is there absolutely no benefit to seeing this in 3D, it actually detracts from the overall experience as a result of the finely honed colours being muted and deadened in the process.


All About Steve

I realise the reaction I’ll get to this is ‘why did you bother in the first place?’ My response to that would be that I’m not snobbish; I’ll give most flicks a chance. Every film deserves a fair trial and all that.

It’s almost a futile exercise picking a film like this apart. Almost. It’s so rare that a film gets it so wrong and so misjudges everything from the comedy, to the romance to the expectations of its audience.

Sandra Bullock (who I’ll admit I find entirely watchable and will further happily admit that I quite liked The Proposal) plays Mary, a crossword compiler(!), who struggles to find a man let alone hold one down. That’s why her parents set her up on a blind date with the titular Steve (Bradley Cooper). Within minutes she’s already exerted a number of character traits which mark her out as an annoyance of Purgatorial proportions. It’s de riguer for a romcom to have a zany lead female, it goes with the territory, but Mary’s quirks are borderline socially subnormal. She’s so ‘hyper-intelligent’ that she has seemingly lost all rational sense and displays enough cautionary tics that I’m pretty certain a psychological assessment would deem her certifiable. The film seems fixated on the fact that she incessantly wears red knee-high boots as if that were somehow more indicative of her maladjusted mental state than the fact she stalks a guy who she’s only just met across the country. It says a lot about her character that even when she’s in allegedly mortal danger, her parents watch her plight on telly from the comfort of their sofa.

For a romcom to succeed it requires at least one of the leads to be in some way likeable (preferably both) but here even the straight co-lead is so intensely detestable and dull that any potential emotional investment in the film falls by the wayside.

I’m giving the benefit of the doubt that the film is attempting satire on some level, otherwise lurching from 'extra-appendaged infant' to 'deaf children trapped down a mine' sub plots is as peripherally psychotic as its protagonist. An attempt to crowbar in a rival news reporters motif cries plagiarism, if nothing else, and a crossword metaphor-laden narration is a constant irritant.

From start to finish this is risible. When even a ‘don’t rape me’ gag levelled at a helpful stranger fails to get a rise, you know you’re in stormy waters indeed.

5 Down (5-3-4): metaphor for this film; complete canine faeces.



If there are two drama sub-genres more likely to make me instantly lose interest they are ‘dysfunctional family with a side of sibling rivalry’ and ‘The War On Terror’. It’s not damning with faint praise to say that Brothers managed to not only hold my interest but actually made me care about the characters.

Sam (Tobey Maguire) is the marine about to return to Afghanistan, coinciding with the release of his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), from prison. When Sam is presumed KIA, a romance of sorts blossoms between Sam’s wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and his sibling.

The film is more successful when it’s rooted in glacial New Mexico than it is during the Afghanistan segments but it’s not without its faults. For me, the main fault which kept taking me ‘out of’ the film was the casting of the three central characters. There comes a stage in every juvenile actor’s career where they have to make the transition from playing youngsters to playing proper, grown-up people. I’m not sure this was a success for any of the triumvirate in that respect. Tobey Maguire in particular never convinces as the hard-bitten marine or family man. There’s even a script acknowledgement of this in saying that he looks incongruous as a former high school football star. There’s an overriding sense from the leads that they’re playing dress-up rather than convincing as fully-rounded adults with their own families and failings. When Natalie Portman’s character says “I’ve loved you since I was 16 years old” I couldn’t help but think ‘how many weeks ago was that?’

To be completely fair the performances weren’t a dominant problem, just a niggling doubt which kept reappearing to remind me that this was all a contrivance. It works best when it’s a quiet, low-key drama before it errs towards the slightly bombastic. Two particular scenes set around dinner tables stand out as some of the most believably nerve-racking I’ve seen in a while. Never has the bursting of a balloon been wrung for so much tension.

The film’s ably handled by Jim Sheridan and, as is usually his way, never spectacular or grandiose. It’s workmanlike but it does the job. However, I have to hold him personally responsible for the nationalistic nepotism shown to U2. Not only does a new track get its own opening credits billing, and play out over the end credits, but an entire poignant scene is completely non-ironically constructed around the merits of listening to the Gaelic rockers.

I fear I may have come across too negative towards the film when I really did like it. It was more than I expected it to be and certainly more than the sum of its parts.


Saturday, 23 January 2010

Today's Viewing - Still With Reviews!: The Boys Are Back + The Hide

The Boys Are Back

You know what you’re in for as soon as you even consider seeing it. A widower struggles to raise and connect with his sons while coping with the loss of his wife. Not the most rousing subject especially when burdened with the apocryphal, disheartening ‘inspired by a true story’ motto.

I’ll confess that I’m a sucker for a weepy if it’s played right and this manages on a base level – although it will always struggle to rise far about the distinctly average. All that marks this out from a hundred other similarly-themed lachrymose melodramas is the Australian backdrop (perfect for tortured walks, endless driving scenes and shoehorned-in kangaroos). To give it credit, it doesn’t dwell on an initial lingering death scene but just about everything else plays out with somewhat banal efficiency. There’s the vaguest attempt to keep this topical with a Skins-esque problem party subplot that comes from nowhere and disappears just as fast. Clive Owen’s character has a filmically prerequisite, typically interesting job (sports journalist) which requires him to sound knowledgeable about the contemporary tennis references which litter the film – as well as be away from his family a lot. Groan.

It is nice to see Clive playing something requiring a semblance of characterisation despite him always struggling to hold my interest, even when using a carrot as an offensive weapon in brainless stuff like Shoot ‘Em Up. His vacant, (almost) emotionless performance at least delivers here as a character drained of sensation and seemingly void of any spirit. The children are about as annoying as is to be expected, ticking the boxes of adorable, long-haired moppet and issue-plagued teenager, played by Rupert Grint’s wet clone.

Sure it’s earnest and predictable and life lessons are learned but it stands as a pretty decent example of this kind of thing. If that is sort of thing you like.

Winsome, lose some.

(Just scraped) 3/5

The Hide

In the realm of the low-budget Britflick the dialogue-heavy, two characters/one location drama is a standard fallback response to financial constraints and can be brutally efficient. The Hide is just such a film. Set entirely on the marshes in a clapped-out birdwatching hide, two dissonant characters meet and the talking begins.

Roy Tunt (Alex MacQueen - best known as The Thick Of It’s blue sky maestro, Julius Nicholson) is the fastidious, fairly one-note twitcher visited by a haggard stranger (Phil Campbell), all tattoos and booze-slugging. As the two tentatively try to suss each other out, the conversation takes in grammatical correctness, Scotch eggs and ornithological procedure. There’s humour to be had from this minutiae and the mismatched pairing never seems overplayed. MacQueen’s performance holds the film together and his Middle Englander ruing the disruption to his routine, while never groundbreaking, proves well nuanced and seemingly second nature. It’s an interesting choice not to have his character turn to simpering fool when faced with a tense situation, instead trying to take control through simply carrying on as normal. There is a power struggle at work but it’s underplayed, with the priggish Roy seemingly more aghast at the lack of social grace displayed by his compadre than concerned with who’s in control.

The film has the washed-out, muted palette favoured by low budget filmmakers (to mask deficiencies?) but it looks great and the location is suitably weather-beaten and atmospheric.

The film’s biggest problem, and it is a big problem, is that this genre relies upon an inevitable twist and this particular set-up only really presents one viable option. In its attempts to lead you in a particular direction you instinctively stray in the opposite and hit upon the crux. It all gets a bit silly towards the end but the build up is pretty masterful.

Very much in the same mould as stuff like Exam, its dark humour and fine performances mark it out above other comparable works. Above all else, it taught me a few fine facts about our avian friends.

A taut, tense thriller likely to make you twitch. (Sorry).


Friday, 22 January 2010

Today's Viewing - Now With Added Review!: The Fisher King + Tokyo Drifter

The Fisher King

This might be, and most probably is, old news to those who’ve seen it but this is probably the best film I’ve seen so far this year, and it’s bloody ancient. I struggle to fathom why The Fisher King has eluded me for so long. Irrespective of the 18 years already passed since its release, it has sat on my DVD shelf for well over a year without ever prompting the desire to watch it. I can’t grasp why that is as I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam. I would wager the main reason I’ve been put off watching it is attributable to an assumption of over-sentimentality, personified as about 5’8”, long of nose and with hair on his upper torso like an adult, male Silverback. The ‘former-shock jock turns his life around with the help of a deranged homeless man’ synopsis does nothing to allay that fear.

I’m glad I have now watched it. It’s probably Terry Gilliam’s most well-rounded film. It would be easy to say it was because it was his most mainstream, or at least most accessible, but it still does have the unmistakable feel of A Terry Gilliam Film. He reins in his sensibilities just enough to let the movie play out without collapsing under the weight of the fantastical elements which, when left unchecked, can overbear/derail his films. Those fantastical elements are still there in abundance but they never dominate at the expense of character.

The Fisher King contains (and this is high praise indeed) some of Mr Gilliam’s most striking visual images. The train station dance and, in particular, The Red Knight as it rampages by firelight on snorting steed through NY’s streets (and Robin Williams’ mind) is both astonishing to look at and a heartbreaking metaphor all at once. Gilliam’s trademark unorthodox camera angles, set design and wondrous practical effects are all present and correct and it’s so refreshing to look back on a time when a film set in the Big Apple was actually filmed there. An authentic sense of place really does make a difference.

Jeff Bridges (who I could watch pluck his nostril hair, and still sit fascinated) is equally at ease as the arrogant asshole as he is the soul-searching schlub. Robin Williams adopts a slightly more dramatically heightened version of his then-contemporary shtick – and it works. Even when prancing, basked in moonlight, with his chap out he never becomes an irritant. The massively underappreciated and all-but-forgotten Mercedes Ruehl does the spunky Noo Yawk broad thing better than any other, staying just the right side of going all Rosie Perez.

It’s a tale of redemption without ever resorting to tropes. The chemistry between Bridges and Williams is what sets this film apart, never quite leading you where you expect it to. The quirky/kooky romance between Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer surely serves as inspiration for a lot of the indie romances propping up the screens today.

Twelve Monkeys notwithstanding, this is maybe Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece.


Tokyo Drifter

Swinging sixties Japan is a combination of time and place I’ve never visited, film-wise. The criminal underbelly of it, even less so. As such, Tokyo Drifter is my first foray into that particular subculture. It’s very much a product of the 60s and its legacy is apparent throughout. The colours are, as you would expect, vibrant and enliven the film to no extent. The music is all crashing cymbals and horn sections. The eponymous balladeer is caught between rival gangs and spends the film lurching from one action set-piece to another but I just never found myself particularly drawn-in. There’s a lot to like but something just wasn’t quite there for me.

Visually effervescent but never quite compelling.


NB – These are straight-off-the-bat, get-‘em-out-there, not-fully-considered reactions. They’re more initial responses than full reviews.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Today's Viewing

The 2010 Challenge Presents Itself?

After weeks of questioning and a distinct lack of an answer, I think I've finally hit upon this year's challenge.

This will likely be subject to change, or at least refinement, at some point throughout the year and, to be honest, it isn't particularly exciting. For all intents and purposes it's basically the same, albeit with the primary aim of topping the 407 of last year (with an unofficial eye on 450).

I never entirely felt like I was pushing myself last year and, as such, I need to spice things up a bit. While it's still pretty much about hitting big figures, the slight tweak to the format is borne of last year's statistical noodling. The new factor is that I need a hard-and-fast, solid, minimum of 80% of 'em to be first viewings (ie. films I've never seen before). So, less of falling back on the old reliables.

As ever, I'm still counting multiple viewings towards the overall total but, obviously, not all as first viewings.

Clear? Good. Any questions?

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Top Ten Films Of 2009

As I’ve trumpeted on about for some time now, I was aiming to view (at least) a total of 400 films this year. I broke through that and comfortably reached a final total of 407, which I think (although can’t say for certain) is the most I’ve ever watched in a year. Some have commented that this includes repeat viewings within the year as well as films I've seen before. This is true and it doesn’t really concern me. I was really just looking to record the amount I watched and a film watched is a film watched, whether or not I’ve seen it before. For the record 323/407 (practically 80%) were films I watched for the first time.

So, a bit of housekeeping first by way of a brief refresher of my self-imposed (and somewhat lax) rules. I’ve tightened them slightly this year as I’m now classing a ‘Film Of 2009’ as one on general release in that year. So, if I saw it at a film festival or preview and it wasn’t on general release in 2009, I can’t include it. However, if it was released in every other country across the globe in 2008 or earlier but didn’t hit the UK until 2009, I can still include it. This should go some way to redressing anomalies like ‘Let The Right One In’ and 'Slumdog Millionaire' appearing last year when few people here had heard of them - and subsequently being absent from this year’s list.

I’ve struggled more with this list than previous years but I can’t really fathom why. It generally seems to have been a pretty good year but one that, for some reason, doesn’t seem like it was. Although I’ve managed to compile this list, it doesn’t really seem there was a true standout film amongst them, which is why I’ve possibly wrestled with this more than other years.

Anyway, from 10 to 1:

10) Avatar - Every inch of me is telling me this shouldn’t make it to the top ten. There’s a lot ‘wrong’ with it from the hackneyed story to the cringeworthy scenes to the neon wonderland. I’m maybe even convincing myself as I write this that it doesn’t deserve a place but, against all my better judgement, it is going in – and that’s entirely down to the fact I was completely carried along with the film. 162 minutes flew by and I almost felt I had battled and flown and gasped a lungful of Pandoran air. I was willing to overlook a lot of the misgivings I felt afterwards because for the duration of the film I was gripped and gawping at the world in front of me with unblinkered awe. Do I think it’s the ‘game changer’ we were promised? No. Do I think this has proven that 3D can provide more than a cheap effect? Probably. Did I enjoy it? Yes.

9) Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee - No-one could accuse it of being epic at a mere 71 minutes but, in spite of its slightness, it manages to maintain a decent laugh ratio from the mostly-improvised script. This tale (actually, ‘tale’ is maybe overselling) of Paddy Considine’s roadie trying to get his protégé a support slot for the Arctic Monkeys is something I’ve been looking forward to for years since seeing the early Donk shorts and knowing this filmed way back in summer 2007. It’s great to see that Shane Meadows seems able to turn his hand to most things, all the more so seeing as this was filmed over just 5 days.

8) Star Trek - Having never been a big Trek fan or particularly well-versed in Starfleet lore (aside from the obvious elements of which everyone with even the most cursory awareness of pop culture must surely be aware), this served as a fine hors d’oeuvre to what I hope will be more adventures in this final frontier. All the cast seemed well suited to the roles, particularly the cocksure Jim Kirk and especially Karl Urban’s crotchety ‘Bones’. Was I the only one who thought that, despite not being accurate, there was a ring of authenticity to Simon Pegg’s turn of phrase as Scotty? I enjoyed it a lot; breezy, fun and exciting – probably the most overall satisfying blockbuster of the year.

7) A Serious Man - This is one which still has me stumped. Sure, I understood it but I’m equally sure I’d get even more from repeat viewings. The Coens show scant regard to goys with their immersive take on a Minnesotan Jewish community and a man struggling with the fact that he’s seemingly ‘doing nothing’. I’m a massive fan of the Coens and this is among their more personal films, closest in spirit to some of the tales from Ethan Coen’s 1998 book, Gates Of Eden. The ending is absolutely blinding.

6) Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L'instinct De Mort) - Vincent Cassel has long been a favourite actor of mine and it’s a joy to see him finally get a meaty role which depends upon him carrying the entire film. Biopics have never been my favourite genre but true-life criminals (Henry Hill, Chopper, Bronson) seem to be the one exception to this loathing, maybe because their lives seem so removed from anything approaching my concept of reality. This is an energetic rise through the ranks of France’s underworld of the 50s and 60s. Treating this as separate from Public Enemy No. 1, part one of the two was marginally the better film, dealing with Jacques Mesrine’s ascent before the inevitable fall and relative shoe-gazing of part two.

5) Fish Tank - I thought Red Road was great and I thought this was just as good. What, on paper, reads like a bog standard council estate drama is elevated by great direction, cinematography and performances from Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender. It really is hard to define but there’s an uplifting core among all the foreboding grime.

4) Inglourious Basterds - Tarantino completely wrong-footed me with this. For all the pre-release ‘QT does The Dirty Dozen’ hype and focus on Brad Pitt’s macho drawling mumble, it really was more talky than I expected – and all the better for it. I really shouldn’t be surprised at a dialogue-heavy film from him but it really shocked me how little action there was in what I assumed to be Tarantino's take on the action film. It does play out as more a series of vignettes than anything else, without even the interweaving narrative device he’s relied upon before. However, the scenes all have satisfying arcs within themselves and the tension is palpable. ‘La Louisiane’ stands as possibly the finest scene he’s ever done. All in all, I’d say it’s a bingo.

3) The Wrestler - Who’d have thought that Mickey Rourke would ever give a performance that actually touched on an emotional level? It really is a film based pretty much on performance alone and, much as it looks good and I admire him, I don’t see a lot of Darren Aronofsky in it. The tale of this ‘one trick pony’ seemed to allow Mickey to draw from his own time in the wilderness so that I was able to overcome some of the film’s clunkier shortcomings and really feel for this character.

2) The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) - Certainly the best looking film of the year. The digital black & white cinematography lends an eerie contemplativeness to the measured way in which the film plays out. Set in 1913 rural Germany, the villagers of a baronial estate are plagued by mysterious tragedies but being a Michael Haneke film this isn’t the starting point for an investigative thriller. The performances are uniformly excellent and the evocation of a time and place I’m completely unfamiliar with is completely alien and austere. I’m still not sure I fully understand it but I’m looking forward to re-watching this and completely immersing myself in that community again.

1) In The Loop - Some may argue it’s not particularly cinematic but I watched this 5 times throughout the year at fairly regular intervals and I never began to grow weary. It does ramp things up a bit and the scope is certainly more grandiose than its televisual counterpart. Endlessly quotable and more-and-more rewarding with each viewing, it masterfully balances the profane outbursts of Malcolm Tucker with the pathos of Simon Foster stuck between trying to make a difference and crushing inevitability. I’ve not seen a more flat-out enjoyable film this year despite the harrowing feeling that it’s also depressingly accurate.

These are the next ten, in roughly ascending ranking order. The first two here were in strong contention for the top ten proper. Honourable Mentions: Doubt, Coraline, Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, Moon, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Gran Torino, Drag Me To Hell, An Education, Antichrist

As it says on the tin, and in no particular order, Worst Films Of The Year: Lesbian Vampire Killers, Halloween II, Seven Pounds, Marley & Me, Fast & Furious, Tormented, Doghouse, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, The Time Traveler's Wife, I Love You Beth Cooper, Gamer, Couples Retreat, The Fourth Kind, Dead Man Running

A new category. In no danger of being in contention for ‘best of the year’ these were, despite expectations otherwise, pretty good. Biggest Surprises: Orphan, Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, Last Chance Harvey, Adventureland, Julie & Julia, Triangle, Me And Orson Welles

These aren’t necessarily awful, or even bad, films but they certainly disappointed me on some level whether it be due to previous respect for the talent involved, a love of the source material or generally just not living up to the hype. I think most controversially, something I could never have contemplated has happened. The latest Pixar film was only my 4th (!) favourite animated film of the year. After a wondrous opening act, I just never bought why people were quite so enamoured with it – above even its other (in my opinion, far superior) stablemates. These are the Biggest Disappointments: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Public Enemies, The Invention Of Lying, Up, Watchmen, Terminator Salvation, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Brüno, Sherlock Holmes

In the interests of full disclosure, below is a link to the full list of the year's films with a rudimentary mark out of 5 for each. Feel free to take issue with anything contained within:

An Appetizer - Part 2: Top Ten Films Of 2008


So, a few days later than planned comes the retrospective jam reaped from the fruits of my year's film-viewing. The following represents the top ten of the year, gathered from 367 films seen over 366 days.

Firstly, I suppose it's worth making mention of the flexibility of the self-imposed selection criteria for what constitutes a 'Film Of 2008'. After much humming-and-hawing, I've pretty much decided to go with films I've actually seen in 2008. This does come with a limiting proviso (again self-induced) which adds the 'within reason' coda. In other words, I can't include 'The Innocents' or 'The Third Man' (which I only saw for the first time in '08) as the timeframe clearly isn't due to regional wrangling. So that allows the inclusion of films shown selectively, or in other parts of the world, which I've seen in advance at film festivals and the like while also allowing films which were released elsewhere in 2007, but the UK in 2008. Essentially, I'm making this up as I go along to include the stuff I want rather than wait until this time next year, or have them fall between the cracks of this year and last.

So, with the housekeeping out of the way, here’s what constitutes a top ten from what I thought was actually a pretty decent year in terms of great films.

10) The Mist – Much has been made of the bleakness of this and, as a result, I went in expecting it not to live up to expectations in this department. It more than delivered. A pretty chilling indictment.

9) The Fall – This came from straight outta leftfield. Who would have thought the director of The Cell could return at all let alone let rip with such a disarmingly charming, vibrant yarn? Tugs on the right strings of recognition from films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Princess Bride and Tideland, all the while steadfastly refusing to surrender to CGI.

8) In Bruges – Delightfully un-PC with a solidly blue script tailored to the Gaelic potty mouth of Colin Farrell and the usually stoic, playing-against-type Ralph Fiennes.

7) The Wave (Die Welle) – A few minor niggles in terms of compressing of timescales and the speed events played out but I thought this was fascinating and thought-provoking, straying slightly towards exaggeration but never to the real detriment of the message.

6) Cloverfield – Don’t believe the naysayers. This delivered on almost every front; its ‘found footage’ aesthetic, slow-burn build-up, decent monster, genuine pulse-racing shocks. A few grating characters but, hey, mostly they don’t last very long.

5) Choke – Chuck Palahniuk fandom notwithstanding, this was all I could have hoped for from an adaptation of one of my favourite novels. Maintained the sentiment but changed just enough to make it play.

4) Let The Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In) – One of the aforementioned film festival screenings which sneaks into this year’s list. Easily the best horror film of the year. Innovative kiddie-vampire drama in a nostalgic (albeit Swedish) setting with a woolly, wintry ambience, low key scenes of violence and an evocation of the kind of horror film you remember being creeped-out by as a nipper.

3) Somers Town – A 180° about-turn from the ominous presence of This Is England. Very funny, liberating culture clash comedy-drama deftly proving why Shane Meadows is the most exciting force in British cinema. Could so easily have been mishandled by lesser talents but all concerned make this the feelgood film of the year.

2) The Dark Knight – Perfect? No. A few trims here and there and a bit more genuine menace from Two Face wouldn’t have gone amiss but definitely sets a high watermark against which all future comic book films will be measured. Proving that just because someone’s gallivanting around in cape and cowl or smudged facepaint, a summer blockbuster can have an intellect and aim for loftier standards than the lowest common denominator ethics that have blighted the biggies of the last few years.

1) There Will Be Blood – So, technically released in 2007, it didn’t come out here until February and I’ll be damned if this is getting waylaid between years’ lists. A bonafide classic from opening sonic soundscape to “I’m finished”. This’ll be up there with the greats some day, I tells ya. To crowbar in a laboured finish, if this film were a dairy beverage I’d drink it up. I’d. Drink. It. Up.

Honourable Mentions: The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters, Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, Iron Man, Wall●E, Man On Wire, Burn After Reading, Waltz With Bashir, Changeling, Son Of Rambow, The Orphanage

Worst Films Of The Year: Donkey Punch, The Happening, The Cottage, 10,000 BC, Pathology, Fool's Gold, The Love Guru, 88 Minutes, Mirrors, Max Payne, The Children, My Best Friend's Girl, AVPR: Aliens Vs Predator - Requiem

Finally, a new category, Biggest Disappointments. Not so bad as to feature in the worst films list but certainly a waste of the talent involved and, in the final example, a spirit-crushing, shattering, deflating footnote in the legacy of a once-great series: Be Kind Rewind, The X-Files: I Want To Believe, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Quantum Of Solace, Tropic Thunder, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

An Appetizer - Part 1: Top Ten Films Of 2007


I'm sure many of these choices will come as little surprise to most people.

10) Ratatouille - Another pretty much perfect dish from Pixar.

9) Black Book - A smutty war film; need I say more?

8) Superbad - I've never been overly impressed with any of this new comedy collective du jour's stuff yet, but this had me cracking up.

7) Death Proof - I liked it.

6) Hallam Foe - Mining a Catcher In The Rye/disaffected youth vibe which seems to really strike with me. And it's in Edinburgh.

5) The Darjeeling Limited - Perfect balance of the sentimental and mental.

4) 2 Days In Paris - More than just Before Sunrise/Sunset Redux. Has a lot to say and has some extra resonance for me dealing with intercultural relationships.

3) No Country For Old Men - Not technically released in the UK in '07, but I saw it in NYC and I'll be damned if I'm waiting until this time next year to include it.

2) This Is England - Tense at tiimes, funny at others. Full of 80s nostalgia without resorting to kitsch.

1) Hot Fuzz - for sheer fun and endless re-watchability.

Honourable mentions: The Bourne Ultimatum, The Science Of Sleep, Eagle vs Shark, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, The Lives Of Others, Babel, Planet Terror, Into The Wild, Sunshine, 3:10 To Yuma

The worst of the year would certainly include: Sleuth, Good Luck Chuck, Outlaw, I Want Candy, Across The Universe, Halloween, Rise Of The Footsoldier, St. Trinian's, Transformers

Statement Of Intent

Not entirely sure what my intentions are for this blog. Really, I suppose, its initial intentions are to provide a home for any writing I may or may not do throughout the year as well as host top tens and the like which are too long for Twitter and unavailable to all but my Facebook friends.

Hopefully something more will come of this as I embark upon this year's film challenge, whatever it may be. Suffice to say it somehow has to involve topping 400.

Most of the writing on here is liable to be film-centric but I'm sure it will also prominently feature TV, books, music and news. Basically all the ten-a-penny stuff that everyone else with a computer and two hands (or even one, or even voice recognition software) is jabbering about.

Nothing lofty will come of this.