1 March 2014

Films Seen 2014: February

Films I saw in February 2014. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required — occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2014 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed as seen chronologically, viewed from bottom to top.

Manhunt (Patrik Syversen/2008) 4
Why do these slashers always start with an injured woman (blonde, doomed) running in a forest (dark, scary), filmed in ShakyCam™?

The Fan (Tony Scott/1996) 4
Blighted with baffling character decisions and plot implausibilities. The use of Nine Inch Nails equating DeNiro's mental instability is lazy and Seven-lite. Shoddy.

Ghost Ship (Steve Beck/2002) 5
It was kind of amusing, but rarely scary, and never actually thrilling. Not too many actual ghosts either, sadly. What was it with films around that time obsessed with diced and bisected people? (This, Cube series, Equilibrium, Resident Evil.)

Lake Placid 3 (G.E. Furst/2010) 4
It actually benefits from the fact that no one in it can act, or even attempts to. Especially as that's really the only benefit. My favourite bit was when a woman tries to get rid of a crocodile by throwing packs of mince at it.

Piercing Brightness (Shezad Dawood/2013) 1
Yikes. What the hell? (Not good 'what the hell?' either.) I was surprised — nay, stunned — that I made it to the end. True drivel. It forces ideas onto its imagery, when really it should've had solid ideas to start with, then conjured imagery from them. It does it all wrong. I think the term 'art wank' was coined solely for Piercing Brightness. It's inept, dull, pointless in its abstraction.

The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock/1956) 6
Possibly the most methodical Hitchcock. Eerie in its own unsettling way. Looks closely at one man to broadly stare at society.

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater/2013) 5
Sensitive direction, perceptive moments, gentle pace. I liked it as much as the previous two, which is, um, enough. It's a good-not-great film. It spent a big chunk of its 109 minutes on a couple arguing, which is only really interesting up to a point. It got frustrating. Loved the lunch scene. It's immediate, full of insight, effortless and the the best directed sequence in the film. Also (and I'll say it quietly) *shh* I don't really like Julie Delpy's character in these films *shh*

Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa/1950) 8
Kurosawa positions his camera exactly right to a) extract the best out of the story, and b) to conjure up crisp, powerful imagery. Also: Toshirô Mifune, always.

Her (Spike Jonze/2013) 5
Who knew that in the not-too-distant future all men would sport awkward shirts, unsightly high-waisted trousers and creepy-pervy moustaches? It's good if you like watching a lot of sad/cute chats between people who always seem on the verge of tears. I guess. Ace music and photography.

Static (Tod levin/2012) 5
Nice novel idea that plays on 'home invasion' conventions, but some sloppy decisions and overall execution stunt it somewhat.

The Station / Blood Glacier (Marvin Kren/2013) 6
It's basically The Thing/Alien on the cheap, but it's plenty of fun mainly due to the hysterical, wired cast.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Terence Fisher/1973) 7
Great fun and aptly icky. Has a truly perverse streak that makes it stand out. Cushing, Briant are very good.

Twixt (Francis Ford Coppola/2011) 5
Yikes, what happened there, especially at the end? There are some greatly inspired moments and some moments of real ineptitude. But it's very rarely dull. Though it's rarely coherent, either. Someone calls Val Kilmer's character a "bargain basement Stephen King," and the film's just that itself. Though, that's not necessarily a bad thing. But it's not a thing to be cheered too loudly either. I think Coppola has given up caring how he makes films. Is he now happy with a mess? Someone should give Kilmer a big ol' comedy lead soon; when he's daft in Twixt he's at his very best.

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée/2013) 5
Functional plot and uninspired direction make it average fare. McConaughey's fine, Leto's good, but I'm unnconvinced its high reputation is deserved. There's little about it that suggests it's no more than an average, award-baiting tale. It's well-intended, but made to measure.

The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes/2013) 8
Exquisitely framed and photographed, but not overly prettified. Its emotional heft is grounded with care. Performances are all on top form. DoP Rob Hardy's work is some of the best I've seen this year. Light and shadow are wonderfully captured with painterly compositions. Felicity Jones is A-grade, spectacular. She nails each scene with raw, moving tenderness. It's the best performance of the year so far. With so far just two films, Coriolanus and now this, Fiennes is proving to be a skilled and versatile director.

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes/2011) 7
Fiennes has a knack with "shaky" camera work, but he shoots for clarity too. The language and setting works. The photography creates mystery. Smartly made stuff.

RoboCop (José Padilha/2013) 4
RoboCopOut. Beige, vacant, personality-free. It has slickness, a retooled suit and aims for "street", but is just a lot of empty posing. Original had subversion, satire, smarts. Redo forfeits all that for, well, banal (and badly-edited) action and a dull pace. It has no bite. As ever, Michael Keaton was a joy to watch. He lorded it up, had real manic flair and strode through the film with a grin and wry wink.

No Man's Land: Rise of the Reeker (Dave Payne/2008) 4
A lot of random crap happens in this and very little of it allows for any kind of logic, order or, um, quality.

The Limey (Steven Soderbergh/1999) 5
Lovely photography and score, but I just wish it would've got on with being a decent, no-fuss crime flick. The editing stunted it. Can see that Soderbergh went for throwback vibe (Bullitt, Point Blank, Get Carter etc) but it felt like a slick, tick-list of tropes. Not sure that Stamp's cockney routine worked. It felt forced, unconvincing. The performance doesn't really go anywhere. It's just a pose.

August: Osage County (John Wells/2013) 7
It certainly has a lot of acting. A real lot. It's literally wall-to-wall. This really surprised me. Films with obvious histrionics often leave me cold, but this worked for me. The acting all-round was grounded. Streep's a pro. Of course she's good. She nails the tiny moments beautifully. But she's also the only one who goes large (and it felt like no one else would even dare go as large as Streep; maybe she dominated too forcefully; the quiet performances deserved more space, perhaps?). But this was the first time in years I've liked a Julia Roberts performance. She's a limited actress, in my view, and needed something open and refreshing like this. Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson and Chris Cooper all do superb work too. But the whole cast are fascinating and entertaining to watch. Also, the music (by Gustavo Santaolalla) complemented the script's emotion and never let it become indulgent. A lovely score.

Lone Survivor (Peter Berg/2013) 6
Good: Ben Foster, sound design, unrelenting nerve in trying to approximate battle experience, makeup, some semblance of balance, phot. Bad: portentous music/voiceover, it lays on its 'US War Dudes Rock' agenda a bit too thickly, strained Wahlberg close-ups, pace. It goes for the military fist-bumps a bit hard and with zero restraint (especially in the end credits — sheesh!). But there's some room for fine moments. The combat scenes compel.

World on a Wire

World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder/1973) 7
An experience like being slipped a brain-expanding pill in a flotation tank. It has an odd one-level sonorous vibe, but is visually smart. Klaus Löwitsch shifts and darts through it like a noir hero. His performance — body language, expressions, delivery — is magnetic.

Scars of Dracula (Roy Ward Baker/1970) 6
As ever, Christopher Lee's stare and body language are delectably fearsome. Great characterful support. Castle scenes often the best ones.

The American Friend (Wim Wenders/1977) 7
Leisurely thrills, lovely sense of place — Wenders is great at putting characters in a specific context and casually observing them. Muller's photography is stunning. Dennis Hopper's schtick starts to grate after a spell; his purpose loses focus. But it's Bruno Ganz's story. He's totally mesmerising.

20 February 2014

Films of 2013: Male Performances



Zero Dark Thirty was a bold film with many memorable aspects, but the one that stood out most for me at the end of the year was Jason Clarke (10) in a support role. He’s been building up quite a CV of great parts over the last few years and here he made an indelible impact as someone with perhaps a unique perspective on war torture. His part was brief, but he’s simply riveting. Paul Eenhoorn (9) gave an affable performance in low-key drama This Is Martin Bonner, and was quietly compelling as a man open to the needs of others before his own. He underplayed the role brilliantly and portrayed an example of a sheer unabashed decent guy on screen — something that's always worth investing in. Aaron Poole (8) did some fine solo work in the effectively creepy haunted house movie The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh. As the, by and large, sole cast member he carried the film. He had to intricately show every instance of fearful terror that the script dictated and he conveyed the isolation with casual skill. Leonardo DiCaprio (7) seems to have entered a more fun, entertaining phase of his career with a film like Django Unchained (something he's brilliantly expanding upon with The Wolf of Wall Street). After a raft of weighty roles, his turn as a despicable ranch owner was a thing to relish. His barely contained maniacal glee and clammy giddiness in the film added some newfound freshness to his acting.

A veteran of entertaining roles, Simon Pegg (6) brought the same energy and pin-sharp comic timing to The World’s End that he brought to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But he also allowed the film a sincere and wrenching pathos too. I think it's the best he's been in this loose comic trilogy. John Gallagher Jr. (5) was as good in Short Term 12 as his more (rightfully) lauded co-star Brie Larson. His role as a care worker for troubled teens is beautifully defined and played with just the right level of pluck and grounded thoughtfulness. His character doesn’t significantly alter his path or transform in the way Larson’s does, but that’s part of the beauty of his performance — the character needed to be the hard-wearing yet amenable sidekick to balance what Larson and the other actors were doing. It’s an unassuming role to be cherished. Drug War was a trememndous film for a multitude of reasons, and Louis Koo (4) was chief among them. He played a tricky role, one buoyed with a range of complex decisions and actions that were required to be carried out in just the right manner, with immense ease. As is always the way with Koo. His work with Johnnie To is always essential. Like DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz (3) brought the fun to Django Unchained. His second Oscar under Tarantino’s direction was well earned, maybe even more so than his first. After ten minutes on screen his place on this list was guaranteed; his deft, joyful and endearingly eccentric performance made the film for me.

Perhaps due to the fact that Steve Coogan (2) has played Alan Partridge for many years, and obviously knows the role inside out, meant that it could be seen as an easy, unchallenging performance for him to give. Maybe so, but it doesn’t change the fact he’s nigh-on perfect in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. It’s a good thing it’s effortless as it makes the acting here richer, entirely confident and comically honed, spot on. He’s terrific with both the bigger, broader laughs and the smaller, more intricate moments. Partridge may not be clever, but Coogan certainly is. Jack Reynor (1) was exemplary in What Richard Did. He’s a relative newcomer, but on the evidence here he's fast developing the professional ability of a seasoned pro. His role — at least initially — is very straightforward. But as soon as we discover what Richard indeed did, and how, as the titular character, Reynor navigates his way through, around and deep down into the particularly desperate circumstances, his performance reaches great heights. Reynor conveys a great deal about Richard best through moments of contemplation and silence; we can see what he’s thinking, how his situation is eating him up and how the toll is affecting him without much need for dialogue. But he’s equally deft at the, at times confrontational, verbal expressiveness required too. It’s a fierce, layered and fantastic performance from an exciting new talent.

11-20: Moises Arias The Kings of Summer / Sun Honglei Drug War / John Hawkes The Sessions / Will Forte Nebraska / Aniello Arena Reality / Armie Hammer The Lone Ranger / Luis Tosar Sleep Tight / Bruce Dern Nebraska / Matthias Schoenaerts Bullhead / Richmond Arquette This Is Martin Bonner

5 February 2014

Films of 2013: 10 Worst

Without fret or fuss, here are the 10 worst films I saw last year.

01. The Big Wedding: the best horror movie I saw last year. It's fucking terrifying. Seriously, I felt sick, clammy, nauseous. I shook. I perspired — was a quaking mess. I had to beg strangers to drag me out of the cinema. But really: it's awful. In the film one character is bathing their feet in a lake, and another character jokingly says, "Careful, we have a shark problem here." Well, if only. De Niro, Sarandon, Keaton, Williams, Heigl, Seyfried, Grace and Barnes — they all play beige assholes. Nobody is any good. Nobody.

02. This Is 40: This Is 40... Minutes Too Long. I was as close as I’ve ever been to walking out of the cinema. And I never walk out of films. I didn’t, but I came close. It was Paul Rudd's fault, he kept me rooted. That’s how much I like him. This smug, insular, overlong, turgid exercise in vanity was near unbearable.

Wrong

03. Wrong: a desperate insta-cult item. It looks and sounds slick — in purely visual-aural terms it works — but it's too in love with its own blank weirdness to pass muster in any other department. It gets tedious and exasperating fast. It has hints of Monty Python, Jonze/Kaufman, After Hours, Tim & Eric, David Lynch. But nothing here is as good or as original as any of them. It's all loaned-out oddness.

04. About Time: Richard Curtis has made his film again. It’s pure fantasy that's chiefly recognisable to a specific aspirational social set, so much so that it reminded me of a Waitrose ad. The script is fudged by a lack of wit; in its place are flustered asides. A late scene struck a sweet chord, but it wasn't nearly enough by then. Bill Nighy, Rachel MacAdams, Tom Hollander and Lindsay Duncan do what they do. We’ve seen it all before. I was more intrigued by Lydia Wilson's supporting character/plot strand, sadly sidelined. It’s innocuous, well-meaning candy, and its appeal will grab some folk, but the wall-to-wall Curtis-isms did absolute zip for me. It’s one for the middle-class ‘wank-bank'.

05. Movie 43: Why are all these actors doing this? Why did the script even reach these actors? In fact, why did I even watch this? Being a Julianne Moore completist meant sitting through it. But her segment wasn't even in it. It was a deleted extra. She lucked out; I didn't. Kate Winslet emerged unscathed. Griffin Dunne's segment was the most watchable. Everything else? It'd be nice to just forget about it and say no more about the horrid business.

06. The ABCs of Death: Did I watch The ABCs of Death, or The ABCs of Painfully Unfunny, Boring and Non-Scary Scatology? Where's the fear, the fright, the dread? Of the 26: 9 are ok-ish (A, C, N, O, R, S, T, U, X); eleven are bad (B, D, E, G, H, J, P, V, W, Y, Z); 5 are awful (F, I, K, L, M); and 1 isn't too bad (Q). Either it was directors saving the best stuff for their features or a general dearth of decent ideas, but this is dispiriting, tiresome horror.

28 Hotel Rooms

07. 28 Hotel Rooms: full review

08. Bachelorette: A bunch of awful, charmless people doing a lot of awful, charmless things. Excruciatingly unrewarding. A comedy charisma vacuum. It strained, crawled and dragged itself onward — like my will to stay and continue watching. Jokes were deflating everywhere. Performances were mugging the thin script of any remnant of appeal. It was matrimonial carnage. It gets wrong what Bridesmaids and Girls got right. It's just as inept and mean-spirited as its male-centric template, The Hangover.

09. Trance: full review

10. Pain & Gain: The Three Stooges pimped up by David LaChapelle… but without much fun. It’s clunky, ugly, shiny, vacant. Bay's empty vanity case. Although it was utter tosh, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie put valid effort into it, whilst Mark Wahlberg does the same old routine (Tony Shalhoub did most of the hard graft.) It comes on like it has Things To Say (failed, wild American dream!), but there's nowt to it. It's just Bay doing a sweaty Coen bros act.

3 February 2014

Films Seen 2014: January

Films I saw in January 2014. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required — occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2014 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed as seen chronologically, viewed from bottom to top.

I, Frankenstein (Stuart Beattie/2013) 4
It's hilarious. Not that it was meant to be. It should've been an intentional comedy, as the gag potential was overflowing. It just took itself far too seriously. It could've been a witty treat as in, say, Buffy or Angel, but it went for strained importance. No idea why a miscast Aaron Eckhart affected Bale's Batman voice. Bill Nighy gave one of his three performances.

Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer/1945) 7
The polite Britishness of it, the (then) novel concept, the intense creepiness at the edges... until the creepy fully emerges. It's great that a film from 1945 still has the power to be truly scary — i.e. when, near the end, Hugo Fitch stands up and walks. Brrr. Some films' ability to scare can diminish over time, and with imitation, but some fully retain a lasting power. Dead of Night works wonders.

Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas/2012)
Aptly wired, skittish. Story grips, though loosely. But emotive music and performances stand out: Radcliffe and DeHaan are both very good.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh/2013) 4
Junior Bond. It's tidy, serviceable, formless. I was whelmed with averageness. I've forgotten most of it already.

Big Ass Spider! (Mike Mendez/2013) 5
Exactly what you think it is... then a bit more fun. More Infestation than Eight-Legged Freaks. Thankfully. What's with the limited Lin Shaye, though?

Breaking News

Breaking News (Johnnie To/2004) 7
One-Take Shoot-Out On Hong Kong Street Orchestrated By Johnnie To Stuns Film Viewer. Rest Of Day's Action Equally Stunning.

I'll Always Know What You Did last Summer (Sylvain White/2006) 4
Cheap and belated. "He" knows what they did last summer, but I very much doubt he gives a shit.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen/2013) 8
It's a great film to have around, to be in the immediate vicinity of, to call on for a slice of quality sound and vision. Perhaps one of their best? 

Center Jenny (Ryan Trecartin/2013) 8
Creates a horror show from trash elements and invented moments. Imagine the imagery of the nine imaginary hookers from Inland Empire + the Jersey Shore gang + every John Waters heroine all hastily edited in a blender and oured into a film frame. Trecartin makes Gregg Araki look like a nun. It's all elegant degeneration, weaponised ear-muffs and nano-magic.

Blind Chance (Krzysztof Kieślowski/1981) 6
KK questions fate in elusive yet assured fashion, but maybe it was done better via the Three Colours trilogy. A Mesmerising performance from Bogusław Linda.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese/2013) 7
Drool. Ludes. Ass candle. OTT speeches. Leo up to 11. Reiner phone accent. Benihana. Sick world satire. Badfellas.
(It's the second film I've seen this year so far, after 12 Years a Slave, in which all the performances are remarkable. It's great filmmaking. 100% solid. But I didn't feel much, despite an overall appreciation. It left me numb. But maybe that's enough, a good, good thing.)

The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh/2013) 7
A creative reply to past horror. The model/stock approach gives it an emotive, powerful heft. Film used as sly combat.

How to Make a Monster

How to Make a Monster (Herbert L. Strock/1958) 5
Plenty of fun for its slim duration, but a bit rushed, a quickie. It has a great premise, though. Worth seeing. It's decent, not great, but ideal for a redo as there's so much potential. If I had the money and the rights, I would love to remake it.

I'm So Excited! (Pedro Almodóvar/2013) 3
I'm surprised I made it to the end. Visually drab, tonally awry. Barely a laugh in it. Pedro's flat-farced self-imitation.

Fast Five (Justin Lin/2011) 5
Even the occasional subtitle zips fast across the screen. Vin Diesel's voice is so deep and low through my speakers that when he spoke it measured 9.5 on the Richter scale. Although I haven't seen Fasts 1-4 or 6 (with or without the Furious and/or other words), this worked as a stand-alone film. Just about. There's almost as much carnage as Man of Steel. Basically, Vin D and The Rock compared penises for 2 hours. Then they sped up their penises. Then they swapped their penises. Then discarded their penises as scrap.

The Apparition (Todd Lincoln/2012) 6
Follows the laws of cheap horror fare to a T. But some inspired ideas/images dotted throughout add a dash more to it. Enjoyable.

Last Vegas (Jon Turteltaub/2013) 5
Had a fun watching it; some hearty chuckles to be found. Freeman and Steenburgen were both good. There's something charming,and inclusive here — take that, The Hangovers!

Child's Pose (Calin peter Netzer/2013) 6
Very much felt Arthouse by Numbers. Familiar approach, beats, feel. Been here before. Good enough, with ace work from Luminita Gheorghiu.

Nobody's Daughter Haewon (Hong Sang-soo/2013) 4
Seeing the characters veer from charming to interminably dreary was a huge shame. Same goes for the film itself. Sadly, a big old Meh.

The Kings of Summer (Jordan Vogt-Roberts/2013) 7
An absolute delight. Charming and funny in almost every way.

Drug War (Johnnie To/2012) 8
Beautifully streamlined, expertly cut, directed with expert flair. Every scene was essential, fun, a visual treat. To on top form.

The Railway Man (Jonathan Teplitzsky/2013) 5
Dull, painfully worthy. Firth and Kidman give go-through-the-motions bland performances. Often prettily framed, but overall very inert. The opposite of Saving Mr. Banks is true here: the flashbacks are better then the present-day scenes. Irvine and co. were very good. Something about the way the plot inveigles viewers into a certain reaction, then to oddly change its stance, was a bit off. It's hard to say more without spoiling narrative developments, but a lot of its plot turns seemed shaky, awkward and baffling. Also: exactly how much was true?

Lust for a Vampire

Lust for a Vampire (Jimmy Sangster/1971) 4
Not the best Hammer. A bit too on the Mills & Boon side. Could've done with being Jean Rollin-ised. Nifty castle though.

Reality (Matteo Garrone/2012) 6
Celebrity critique is balanced well with its involving chars. Arena is great in the lead. Choice camera moves sharply catch key moments.

The Sessions (Ben lewin/2012) 7
Thoughtfully focused on good folks doing good things. Director Lewin has a fuss-free visual approach. Hawkes and Hunt are both riveting and restrained. Anne Hathaway won an Oscar for her close-up sing-crying in Les Miserables last year... it really should've gone to Hunt for this. She wasn't just leagues better than Hathaway though, she topped Jackie Weaver, Amy Adams and Sally Field too.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen/2013) 7
A study in suffering. Framed like a boss with impeccable acting from all (though Ejiofor rightly shines high). A fine work.

Man on Fire (Tony Scott/2004) 3
Yikes, it's awful. Crass, portentous, full of overwrought and unearned sentiment. Everything is FUCK YEAH! WREAK ALL REVENGE!! It  has the same showy, jittered aesthetic that made Domino a cack experience. Denzel's dull performance keeps it flat and the script's plain naff. An all-round tedious, dispiriting film. Though, the photography (by Paul Cameron, who knows how to make action scenes work) was first rate.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Alfred L. Werker/1939) 6
Some high grade Nigel Bruce here. Rathbone's stellar too. Nice early Lupino role. Music adds an eerie quality. The shadowy, fog-shrouded London streets/sets are key in how evocative it is; so much atmosphere aroused simply.

Open Five (Kentucker Audley/2010) 2
The precious/tenuous/casual just-idly-hanging-out Mumblecore relationship drama is tired. This has very close to nothing to say.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Christopher Landon/2013) 5
It was more of (exactly) the same, but, er, had 100% more 'Marked Ones' involved. Whoever the hell they were. That's not to say there weren't some fun bits. Though it wasn't especially scary like Paranormal Activity 3, which is still the best of the bunch by a long shot.

Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta/2012) 7
How refreshing to see a film about thinking, and that isn't dry or pretentious or laboured. It's fronted by a cracking, committed performance from Barbara Sukowa.

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski/2013) 8 rewatch
Like it every bit as much as I did at the cinema. Ballsy fun. Action staged and directed with marvelous control and flair.

I-Be Area

I-Be Area (Ryan Trecartin/2007) 8
Trecartin explores shifting identity like it's a pop culture nightmare. Its limitless absurdity is cracked, compulsive, wry.

Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul/2012) 8
A place of guests and ghosts. A film of loose ideas. An experimental sketch. A small thing of beauty. Above all: amazing images.

American Hustle (David O. Russell/2013) 5
Plot's a tricksy trifle, but the performances drive it in entertaining fashion. Direction isn't perhaps not David O. Russell's best, but it's all sprightly fun. The gals were best in show. Adams: great, one of her best performances. J-Law: all wrecked mania and cheek; a brilliant risky treat. Nice to see Bale in a (kinda) comedic role. He was good, as ever, but all I could hear was I Am Acting when he was onscreen.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer/1949) 8
Splendid stuff. Darkly witty, stunningly photographed, directed and acted with flair and precision. Dennis Price was horribly, perfectly demented; a great performance. Alec Guinness' eight-role act was a marvelous triumph.

22 January 2014

Films of 2013: Female Performances

 
 
I saw The Sessions relatively late in the year, but I’m glad I squeezed it in as Helen Hunt (10) gave a great, subtle performance in it as a sex surrogate. Out of all last year’s Best Supporting Actress nominees she was easily the standout and deserved to win. She evinced the sensitivity within a deceptively complex yet affable and just plain decent character. Cosmina Stratan (9) was quietly devastating in Beyond the Hills. Watching her observe the troubling events in the film, take part in them, and be at the centre of them, was a huge part of the fascination of the film. The exact same goes for Amy Seimetz (8) in Upstream Color. She showed her grip on a lead role is just as secure as it is on support roles. She played Kris with delicacy, focus and fire. Greta Gerwig (7) was on this list last year for Damsels in Distress and she’s made it again for Frances Ha. Well, she does keep on being naturally captivating, full of goofy charm and wonderfully precise with her comic timing. Sandra Bullock (6) gets a place for giving her all to Gravity. She’s in almost every scene and carries the film effortlessly and near totally weightlessly. She shows every terrifying or euphoric experience as a complex range of emotions. It’s further proof that she can do drama just as well as she does comedy.

War Witch was a compelling film and, in the lead, Rachel Mwanza (5) gave a bold, heartbreaking performance. It’s truly her film and this young actress rises to the role with immense skill. She is leagues better here than many of the more seasoned actresses were in their films last year. More people deserved to see Price Check, chiefly for Parker Posey (4). Her near-perfect performance, in which she nails the division between quirky and awkward that many a MPDG type misses, is a sheer delight. She’s unlikeable yet endearing and shows a great amount of cheeriness and vulnerability at opportune moments. It was one of my favourite comedy perfromances of the year. I'd like to see a spin-off TV series fronted by Posey. Barbara Sukowa (3) as Hannah Arendt was, at various times throughout the film, intense, impassioned and as staunch as can be. Her lecture toward the end of the film is a masterclass in performance control (for the character and for Sukowa). Every piece of drama leads up to this point and Sukowa commands the screen without undue fuss. Amazing work.

Brie Larson (2) in Short Term 12 was a sheer revelation. I’d only seen her in small parts in a handful of films before, but this lead role should confirm her status as a seriously vital new talent. The subtlety and vigour with which she performs is enthralling. She hits each beat, each moment with a rare kind of emotion. I believed, and believed in, her character. A great acting achievement. Ultimately, though, no one was quite as good as Cate Blanchett (1) this year. In Blue Jasmine she stood out as giving the very best female performance of 2013. The cracks in Jasmine's glacial composure, the thread of despair that unwinds more and more as the film goes on (as her life gradually spirals into a personal oblivion), and the balance between spikiness and fragility that she manages with utter ease — Blanchett was commanding, assured, perfect. For proof, just watch her closely when she delivers the line: “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown — there's only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.” It's acting that thrills.

11-20: Kristin Scott Thomas Only God Forgives / Jennifer Lawrence American Hustle / Nicole Kidman The Paperboy / Ann Dowd Compliance / Emma Thompson Saving Mr. Banks / Melissa McCarthy The Heat / Tashiana Washington Gimme the Loot / Sharni Vinson You’re Next / June Squibb Nebraska / Maeve Jinkings Neighbouring Sounds

16 January 2014

Films of 2013: 10 Disappointments

Here are 10 disappointments of 2013 — the same deal as with the 10 surprises posted the other day. These are films that I perhaps had some element of expectation for prior to watching them, or films that I'd heard about and was, to some degree, excited about, but which turned out to be not quite the films I'd hoped. However, as with the nature of this category every year, I could easily revisit any one of these films in future and see untapped pleasures within them that elevates it in my mind. This often happens. But as it stands, all 10 films below were worth watching despite the disappointing outcomes. The titles below are in no specific order and all — as per my yearly lists — released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2013. There may be what some may call discrepencies, as I include UK premiere releases on formats other than theatrical releases (DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, TV movies etc), mainly because I feel any and all films should get a shot at being represented in year-end lists, not just the main, wider releases. But the dates above are the general rule around here.

Side Effects

Side Effects (dir: Steven Soderbergh) Because: of the films that I thought of as disappointments this past year, perhaps this was the most disappointing. It started well, brilliantly even. Soderbergh set up some well-judged suspense. The cast was a coup. There was some kind of deviously fascinating game plan to all the pharmaceutical shenanigans. But then, at the last stretch, it suddenly became a mid-nineties erotic thriller. A bad one at that, one with a particularly regressive tone that left a nasty aftertaste. Two questions regarding the main issue that turned it sour for me. Could Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character have feasibly been written as male? And, if so, would it have altered the outcome at all? For me it’s yes and no. Psycho Lesbians Who Get Their Comeuppance For Betraying Poor Men as a thematic thriller filler should have been left in the nineties. The Soderbergh antipathy doesn’t end there unfortunately because…

... Behind the Candelabra lies age-old showbiz ugliness? This was a lot of gilded faff that said very little. It was as all a bit basic, thin, limited. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were very good, but I never felt I understood or discovered what made Liberace and Scott do the things they did, beyond what was obvious. There was scant evocative connotation or intelligent stimulation and little vivid context beyond the glitz and the made-up faces frozen in a terrifying sheen of distrust. Some of the meaty content was there, but a lot was merely cloaked by the glimmer. The ‘drug haze' scenes in Killing Them Softly in 2012 received many moans of "cliché", but I wonder if folks will apply the same to those in Candelabra? Here, they bordered on embarrassing. I’m guessing many folks will take it on trust that the scenes here are sound and just because Soderbergh is a highly favoured, and now retired, filmmaker.

Black Rock (dir: Katie Aselton) Because: it was a bad day at Black Rock... (full review)

This Is the End

This Is the End (dir: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen) Because: although it's brim-full of confidence and is certainly sure of itself — and a handful of good jokes work — I’m not sure it's as funny as it thinks it is. And, Phew, *wafts the air* there’s a whole lotta gay panic up in here (though I guess the makers are all too aware, but it does tip into some baffling, in-jokey, areas). I did wish that the gags varied just a dash more though. Craig Robinson (dry), Jay Baruchel (daft), Michael Cera (drunk) and (one specific vocal gag from) James Franco were best in show. A shame it was less than the sum of its parts.

You’re Next (dir: Adam Wingard) Because: it was maybe a tad overpraised? It wasn’t a bad film by any means, but the hyperbole for it was in overdrive upon its release. I can’t see that it’s actually half as fresh or daring as reports said. It was an average home invasion horror and little more, although Sharni Vinson was great in a decent part — the real standout element of the film, she was operating on a slightly elevated level from the rest of it. Also: scary ‘animal –face masks’ are clearly the new scary 'old potato sack' masks.

Simon Killer (dir: Antonio Campos) Because: though I was underwhelmed by Campos’ Afterschool, the story here piqued my interest. I was intrigued enough to give it a go. However, it was all just too much hand relief for Haneke. Just like Afterschool. Its main issue was a consistently directionless tone and general structure that seemed to imply some kind of foreboding significance yet resulted in little thrill or satisfaction. It was paced and structured with a chilly kind of verve, but it only starts to get compelling halfway in. Then it, er… runs dry of ideas. Brady Corbet can be very good, but his character's a flaky, dull blank and his neurosis was often funny when it should've been powerfully consuming. Much more interesting is Mati Diop, who is superb. I would've preferred more of her (better-defined) character's story over Corbet's, to be honest. There was a lot of artful posing going on, though at least it was photographed and scored with inspiration.

Welcome to Pine Hill (dir: Keith Miller) Because: it failed on similar points as Simon Killer, above: keen promise was there, then it was hastily dashed. Its feel of sad dislocation, of life melancholically off balance, was aroused nicely. But Miller didn’t take it anywhere interesting. Its intentions were commendable, but the journey of the main character was ultimately a feeble stumble where it needed to attain moving heights. Proof that evasive, mysterious endings don’t always work.

Post Tenebras Lux

Post Tenebras Lux (dir: Carlos Reygadas) Because: can a bluffer create poetic imagery? Is wilfully showy abstraction enough? Does it have to mean that much? Why the rugby?

A Field in England (dir: Ben Wheatley) Because: there's genuinely, curiously strange and then there's wilful, for-the-sake-of-it strange. This marches right down the centre. Some films achieve an organic cultish edge, even early on in their lifespan, and some appear to 'build it in'. I got the feeling A Field in England fits the latter. It’s knowingly pre-constructed weird cinema. There’s some striking imagery to relish and Reece Shearsmith and Richard Glover are great, as are the sound design and editing. But I didn’t actually feel much throughout though. I wasn’t seduced, flummoxed or alert by the arcane devilry onscreen. I was mainly indifferent. Regardless, it was entirely cheering that there was real excitement for an experimental, B&W film set in 17th century Civil War England. That doesn’t happen every year — kudos to that.

The Purge (dir: James DeMonaco) Because: potential: yea big *spans arms out*. Execution: yea big *holds thumb and forefinger apart* A shaky polemic, all told. At times an erratic mess, but not easy to write off, The Purge has apt points to make but it’s dismaying that it feels the need to underline them in muddy fashion. File under: eh? Or: better luck with the sequel.

Next: Worst, Female and Male Performances, Best of 2013.

15 January 2014

Films of 2013: 10 Surprises

Here are 10 surprises of 2013, films that I had little or no knowledge of prior to watching them, or films that I'd heard about and held no particular expectations for, but actually turned out to be decent, worthwhile fare. Although I couldn't say that all of the films below are truly great films exactly (though Home Sweet Home is certainly the very best of the bunch and deserves to be more widely seen), they are all worthy of some consideration and attention; they were all better than their largely indifferent, negative or meagre reviews suggested. The titles below are in no specific order and all — as per my yearly lists — released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2013. There may be what some may call discrepencies, as I include UK premiere releases on formats other than theatrical releases (DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, TV movies etc), mainly because I feel any and all films should get a shot at being represented in year-end lists, not just the main, wider releases. But the dates above are the general rule around here.

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home (dir: David Morley) Because: it was probably one of the most fascinating, slick and crisply directed horrors I saw last year. Home invasion films are ten-a-penny these days, and whilst last year's most notable entry, The Purge, tried yet failed to fully invigorate the sub-genre with a novel conceptual-social angle, Home Sweet Home went for a no-frills, intense and pared down approach and bettered it by a mile. It’s elegantly made, full of dread and uses slow-build tension to near unbearable levels. Sometimes pause and patience can create the best cinematic fear.

Bait (dir: Kimble Rendall) Because: as a retro mid-level b-movie it tapped into the precise stuff that makes retro mid-level b-movies insanely enjoyable. It was ridiculous, joyfully cheap and took itself just serious enough to achieve the desired result yet it was clearly stupid and it knew it — as much fun as its premise (sharks in a supermarket) promised. I'd gladly watch parts 2, 3 and 4. Probably drunk. Likely with a roomful of friends. And the fact that it wasn't an utterly tedious waste of time, a title without a film to back it up, meant it was instantly leagues better than Sharknado. Clean up, aisle 3!

Apartment 4E (dir: Russell leigh Sharman) Because: a small and seemingly innocuous two-hander, this had a touch more vigour and acidity than I first assumed. The film's two performances were pitched well for intimate drama, especially Nicole Beharie, who is a captivating presence and took hold of her role with gutsy abandon. (It shows that Behaire, so good in Shame in 2011, should be getting first dibs on many of the decent roles for women around at the moment.)

Being Flynn

Being Flynn (dir: paul Weitz) Because: it’s well paced with a deftly-judged use of voiceover and structure. The characters feel, overall, vital. Reviews were mostly negative, which meant it passed by largely unnoticed. Some plot elements are reminiscent of the recent A Bag of Hammers and it has a fair kinship to the 1993 film The Saint of Fort Washington — both great underrated gems. Paul Dano is excellent; Robert De Niro is better here than in his Oscar-nominated role in Silver Linings Playbook. It has a top cast all round: Julianne Moore, Lili Taylor, William Sadler, Dale Dickey, Olivia Thirlby, Wes Studi all support. The photography by Declan Quinn is one of its strengths: clear, vivid lighting and a great use of muted palette. He's one of the best DPs currently working.

I Give It a Year (dir: Dan Mazer) Because: although mostly panned I thought it worked effectively enough. I can’t entirely fathom why it received a thrashing, however, as it’s just other contemporary British rom com, and is better and funnier than its dreary reviews said… and was an infinitely better attempt than the mostly better-received, though awful, About Time. Rafe Spall was appealing and deserved more credit for his shrewd comedy and the supporting cast performed well. When the comedy works (which is often), it's very funny. Its loaded gags give it oomph. The main reason to see it though is the small, perfect cameo from Olivia Colman as a marriage counsellor. She never disappoints.

Sleepwalk with Me (dirs: Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish) Because: it was a breezy little comedy by and about an amiable loser-type, thinly masked as a character, who knew how to impart the best and most amusing aspects of his personality to glean laughs. Mike Birbiglia shows he can be as gleefully watchable as Paul Rudd and has the sad-sack elements of Ben Stiller’s more dramatic turns. I had a good time watching this. More of this, cheers, Mr Birbiglia.

The Giant Mechanical Man (dir: Lee Kirk) Because: although it had all the signs of being another in the long line of quirky-for-the-sake-of-it romantic comedy-dramas (a shy, silver-face-painted mime artist on stilts has a furtive/awkward love affair with a meek zookeeper— see what I mean? I'm surpprised I didn't hit walk away during the opening titles), it rather heroically managed to avoid most of the usual genre pitfalls. Chris Messina and Jenna Fischer were good romantic leads. What a nice change from either the Zack Braffs, the Zooey Deschanels and/or the Gerard Butlers and the Katherine Heigls of rom-com-dom.


We're the Millers

We’re the Millers (dir: Rawson Marshall Thurber) Because: instead of being just another laborious entry on the corny comedy concept carousel that come around all too often, it used its concept capably (whereas something like, say, Identity Thief didn’t) and avoided any undue fussiness. It had some genuine belly laughs and a sprinkling of sweet moments. OK, there were some iffy aspects too (the Aniston pole dance, the roadside cop), but they were mostly kept to a minimum. The cast work well and there were some actually great end-credit outtakes — which alone raises it above other similar comedies.

Any Day Now (dir: Travis Fine) Because: a sincere social angle gives it pleasant, admirable heft. It could’ve been a worthy TV-movie-like study of obviously contentious social-issue chestnuts (gay parenting, disability), but it plays well as solid, unabashed rather old-school drama. Fine performances from Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt give it commitment and zeal. Both are given a lot more to do here than in many of either actor's other recent work. This is a fine film with some thoughtful things to say.

White House Down (dir: Roland Emmerich) Because: really, it’s the height of action-movie daftness. All OTT patriotic panic and anguished aides. C-Tat sweats. J-Foxx smirks. This thing here and that thing over there explode. There’s plenty of brain-dodging fun to be had with it. I liked Jason Clarke most. He's often the best thing in his films and he's clearly having a ball here, snarling, shouting and shooting the place up, enjoying all the hokiness just like I did. There's a raft of risible lines and preposterous plot swerves, of course. And it’s hard to take any given scene remotely seriously, thankfully. I wouldn't have it any other way. Olympus has What?

Next: Disappointments, Worst,  Female and Male Performances and Best of 2013.

1 January 2014

Films Seen 2013: October, November, December

Films I saw in October, November and December 2013. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required — occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2013 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed as seen chronologically, viewed from bottom to top.

Blancanieves (Pablo Berger/2012) 8
Quite something! All the filmmaking aspects — visual, aural, thematic etc — converge with spellbinding effect. Lovely and moving.

Machete (Ethan Maniquis/2010) 4
It was watchable yet entirely forgettable. Don't know why it stopped the faux scratched-up film effect after 10 minutes, but glad it did. (Fake exploitation nostalgia got tired quick; give me the real deal any day.) It mainly proved that 90% of what De Niro's done since 1995 has been utter dross and that Lindsay Lohan really isn't any kind of actress.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Adam McKay/2013) 5
Scores well with many of its dafter gags, but misses with several others. It stretches itself thin at 2 hours. Cameos were fun enough.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola/2013) 4
Slim on ideas, short on interest. Coppola coasting. Unsure it delivers its argument well. The most vacuous film of the year.

47 Ronin (Carl Rinsch/2013) 6
Plot nowt to shout about, but I enjoyed the demons, beasts and witches. Good swordplay too. Enjoyable romp, but with perhaps a few iffy edges.

My Name Is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis/1945) 7
A breezy smalltime noir, compact and swiftly paced. Nina Foch suffers well. Each plot turn is effective and gripping.

Whistle and I'll Come to You

Whistle and I'll Come to You (Jonathan Miller/1968) 7 short/tv
Michael Hordern does the stuffy prof role with ease. Director Miller nicely ekes out the ominous mundanity. Frightful.

The Signalman (Lawrence Gordon Clark/1976) 7 short/tv
There's something in the way Denholm Elliott merely speaks that unnerves, but The Figure, his face and the tunnel ratchet it up.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller2013) 6
It's like a two-hour 'inspirational' camera advert, but has lovely moments of affecting pause and playful ad lib.

The Tractate Middoth (Mark Gatiss/2013) 7 short/tv
Stuff  Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Midwifemarch or whatever, I'd like to see more period TV (short/mini films) like BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas. They should be seasonal — weekly even. This was beautifully, tautly directed and expertly acted. It looked great. Simple shots of swirling dust particles and slow-creeping shadows were turned into terrifying images. And at 38 minutes it swiftly got the job done.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder/2012) 6 rewatch
Noticed just how handsome Henry Cavill is. I noticed it the first time around, but it's a fact worth repeating.

Alice in Wonderland (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske/1951) 5
Great inventive animation. The colour was vivid, wonderful. Didn't fully win me over though.

Cremaster 2 (Matthew Barney/1999) 8
Sound, image, theme, pace are at their strongest (so far). Its near insoluble nature is fascinating. Could watch it on a loop.

Leviathan (Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor/2012) 8
The dark grit of an industry artfully conveyed (yet not overtly so) via a unique viewpoint. There's a grand, hard beauty here.

Alice in Wonderland (Jonathan Miller/1966) 6
Well doused in strange sixties British cultishness. Part inspired, part flat. Great atypical score by Ravi Shankar.

Cremaster 5 (Matthew Barney/1997) 6
Must admit the testicular focus is lost on me, but I'm not sure it dents the enjoyment of these deranged films. Ursula Andress!

Cremaster 1

Cremaster 1 (Matthew Barney/1996) 6 short
Visually strong, use of colour exceptional. A vast, monumental ode to crazed invention. Not quite as thoroughly engaging as 4.

The Spider Woman (Roy William Neill/1944) 4
Amusing, but slight and a dash boring Sherlock Holmes quickie flick. More of a filler between other, better SH adventures?

Cremaster 4 (Matthew Barney/1995) 7 short
Immediately curious, captivating. Something indefinably and genuinely weird to it. Barney's mind is a tricky and beguiling place.

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton/1951) 7
Slocombe's gorgeous B&W photography and Guinness' expert characterisation stand tall. Fitfully funny, plenty of daffy charm.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov/2012) 4
Looked gloomy/ropey as all hell. Iffy plastic FX. Cast looked bored. Bekmambetov's best so far — which is worrying.

Drawing Restraint 9 (Matthew Barney/2005) 7
Björk, a whaling ship and petroleum jelly. Barney's curious strange actions. Avoids longueurs w/ mesmerising diversions.

Piranhaconda (Jim Wynorski/2012) 3
I really don't think Michael Madsen cares any more. Someone needs to tell him he doesn't have to do every script he receives.

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock/2013) 5
An exercise in self love, Disney style. The plot's a wispy biscuit; flashbacks are saccharine intrusions. Though there are some moving scenes. Thompson's such a pro, she could do roles like this asleep. She's precisely good, hits every beat with ease, very controlled. Hanks is every bit as assured as Thompson. He's obviously having fun, but he nails an underlying solemnity in the part very well too. The best scenes are the small moments between Thompson and Paul Giamatti; I partly wished that it was the story of Poppins and Her Driver (but with the overt sentimentality on show elsewhere, that film could've become very Driving Miss Daisy-like.) The score was erratic and a real mess. It coated most scenes in forced jollity or a dreary weepy tone. And I usually like Thomas Newman.

A Foreign Affair

A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder/1948) 7
One of Wilder's sly comic delights. Dietrich sings and smirks like a surefire star. Splendid B&W photography gives it shine.

Virus (John Bruno/1999) 6
Despite bad reports, I enjoyed it. It's flawed with ropey aspects and dodgy decisions, but it has a great premise and some exciting moments. Donald Sutherland's Oirish-accented sea Cap'n is awful. Rare he gives a duff performance, but he's on the lowest rung here. Jamie Lee Curtis was good. The central sci-fi idea has oodles of potential. There's lots of fun to be had despite the iffy bits. I liked the 'alien presence' and how the (mostly practical) special effects were used. It's also a rare film that would absolutely benefit from a good overhaul. I'd love to see it remade and reckon the best person to remake it would be Chris Cunningham. I'd like to see him take it on, rewire and retool it and make it his own.

Stuck on You (Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly/2003) 5
Amiable and has its heart in the right place. Some giggles, but few big laughs. Cher and Streep are game. Perhaps one of the better Farrelly flicks?

Kiss the Girls (Gary Fleder/1997) 6
It's obvious who the killer is from go, but it's fun enough snooping along with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd (both very good). Generic but decent.

The Butler (Lee Daniels/2013) 6
Schmaltz sheen alert!... But it doesn't fog its inherent views. A rotary name cast add their tuppence-worth with starry pep. 'Twas ok. A lot of it was ripe and ready for awards from the first frame, but there was an agreeable sincerity to it. Sly editing made the strongest points. I'm not sure which Oprah Winfrey I liked best: drunk Oprah, 'old lady makeup' Oprah or Oprah in a shell suit.

Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton/2013) 8
Bold, warm, moving, full of wonderful human interactions. Deftly directed. The whole cast are outstanding, Brie Larson especially. An exemplary film.

Scrooge (Brian Desmond Hurst/1951) 6
Economic and well-paced; a great version and a great ghost story. Alastair Sim's performance is an absolute joy. Framing is great.

Nebraska (Alexander payne/2013) 7
Lonely, folksy America painted in becoming, poignant strokes. Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb are all stellar. The elegant photography stood out. Some kind of wonderful.

Carrie (Kimberley Pierce/2013) 5
It has moments that work, but it's a pretty pedestrian affair. Anonymous bullies, Carrie miscast, limited fresh angles. It's... ok, unremarkable. Julianne Moore's creepy religi-nut mum worked well, as did Judy Greer's sincere teacher. The score felt off and the editing a dash hasty. Why no risks taken? I reckon the filmmakers could've changed more, pushed it into new territory: B&W? Dogme95-style camerawork? OTT 3D may have even worked.

Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn/2012) 8 rewatch
Tough, harsh, it burns cold and is often barmy to the nth degree. It's all wall-to-wall blank despair. I'm a fan. As a slice of murky hell, a glimpse at reprehensible figures, it succeeds wonderfully/horribly. Some films are ok being just that. On second watch, the slick-dank visuals, aural assault and all its vulgar merits intensify. Still one of 2013's strongest films.

The American

The American (Anton Corbjin/2011) 7
Nicely paced with a tone that seeps through and sneaks up on you. The cinematography is top-drawer; direction and score equal it. A great Clooney performance. It felt like an 'off-hours' Bond film with a distinct Euro sensibility. Fascinating to see Clooney intricately think and reflect on screen. Had I seen it in 2010 it may well have been on that year's Best Films list.

X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner/2006) 5
It never truly lifts off — it needed more oomph — but some of the action entertains. More could've been done with the characters. All three of these first X-Men films had same effect on me: ok, diverting, didn't wow me, but perfectly watchable, nicely average. Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut very nearly sank the film. Awful. Painful. Luckily, he just sank his own (gladly brief) scenes. Considering it was subtitled The Last Stand, it was odd that no one really had any fight in them. They lacked conviction.

Robocroc (Arthur Sinclair/2013) 3
A metallic crocodile named Stella, a member of Boyzone straining to act and a £2.50 budget — it was glorious* (*soul-destroying).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence/2013) 6
Fun, snappy sequel. Steps up what was good in the first one. Impressive cast. Liked the various game hazards.

Suspect Zero (E. Elias Merhige/2004) 4
Messy, try-hard direction makes a dithering time of it. The shadow of Seven is long and overpowering. Kingsley good; Eckhart wired.

D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté/1950) 6
Decent enough noir, but the novel concept overcomes the plot; it's all just a stagger to an endgame. Good performances, solid direction.

Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt/2013) 5
Far better as it goes along; drama aspect had more conviction than the comic. Nicely edited, full of confidence, but no real spark. I wasn't sure if the mostly broad characters were deliberately heightened for effect or just sketchily drawn (not enough time with some of them?). I may well be biased but Julianne Moore was excellent and had the best scenes/character. Scarlett Johansson was very good too. Gordon-Levitt's surety worked well enough.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón/2013) 8
Lots of gasping, plenty of tears (ain't denying) and all the wow. Bullock exceptional. A feat and a feast of great, detailed filmmaking.

Thor: The Dark World (Alan taylor/2013) 7
Thor upped his game. Honed quips, a vitality to the action, design details solid. Some plot fluffs but, pah! I had a ball. You know, I'm not so fussed about tube station inaccuracies when elsewhere there are inter-dimensional gods and monsters.

Philomena (Stephen Frears/2013) 5
Froth coats the painful themes, but all is well intended and nicely performed. Plot turns are too easy. Dench good, Coogan better. Script's twee and some of it felt slightly fudged, but moments of unforced emotion work. Direction is largely free of flair or surprise.

The Passenger

The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni/1975) 7
Curious study of escape, identity. Slyly obscure, tricky to pin down. Occasionally infuriating, often great. Those landscapes!

War Witch (Kim Nguyen/2012) 8
Perceptive and harsh. Beautifully directed with a clear sensitivity. A cracking performance from Rachel Mwanza. Such vivid imagery. Brilliant.

Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman/1930) 8
Groucho's face, bodily contortions and rapid one-liners. Harpo's harp playing. Chico's cheek. Dumont's foil. 97mins of happy.

Under Still Waters (Carolyn Miller/2008) 5
Paranoid love triangle done cheaply, but accrues intrigue. Lake Bell and Jason Clarke give fine performances. It's no Dead Calm.

Visiting Hours (Jean-Claude Lord/1982) 7
Rough, slightly loopy and overwrought slasher with a chilling edge. But that's what made it stand out, what I liked about it. The feminist angle, evident in a string of ways, gives it a fresh slant. Great performance from Michael Ironside. Choice direction, score.

Wrong (Quentin Dupieux/2012) 2
Looks and sounds slick, but it's so in love with its own blank weirdness. It gets tedious and exasperating fast. A desperate insta-cult item. It has hints of Monty Python, Jonze/Kaufman, After Hours, Tim & Eric, David Lynch, but nowt here is as good or as original as any of 'em. It's all loaned oddness.

Self Storage (Tom DeNucci/2013) 3
Torture yawn. A bit of a sloppily-edited mess. Dull characters yacking for an age makes for a low-thrill watch. It's diet horror.

Kill Theory (Chris Moore/2009) 5
Generic Slasher Alert! No one asked for Saw based on the premise of Touching the Void, but here it is. Ropey fun. Lacks theory.

Bait (Kimble Rendall/2012) 6
Clean up, aisle 3! Stupid and knows it. As much fun as its premise promises, but not much more. I'd gladly watch parts 2, 3, 4... The fact that this wasn't an utterly boring waste of time meant it was leagues better than Sharknado.

A Haunting in Salem (Shane Van Dyke/2011) 3
Re horror scares, the 'less is more' rule doesn't apply when there really isn't anything there to induce fear. Awful. This is so laughably bad (acting, script esp.) that it's actually oddly entertaining. That's when it's not just incredibly boring. All the main characters are so disparate and thrown-together that none of them appear credible or convincing as family members. It felt like the actors were assembled 5 minutes prior to filming. Ditto the script. Ditto the concept. Rushed and fudged filmmaking.

Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh/2012) 5
Occasionally funny, often strains for cleverness, sometimes questionable. Has a severe case of Tarantino/Coen bros envy. Rockwell (dynamic, brash), Walken (dry, coy) are best in show. Women get the short straw, but OH-SO-META-COMMENT. *eye roll* It has a cake-and-eat-it approach: go for offence, then reference it. Not too convincing. The lively/moving moments were better.

Upside Down (Juan Solanas/2012) 5
The only film ever to feature both antimatter and anti-wrinkle cream? Nicely designed, if too ornate and CGI-heavy. Never really lifts off. Also: wot no Diana Ross theme tune? Looks and feels like a blend of Richard Curtis, Tim Burton and the Wachowskis. Love story's a bit drab, which is an issue in a love story.

Five best new films:

War Witch
Blancanieves
Gravity
Short Term 12
Leviathan

Five best older films:

Visiting Hours
Animal Crackers
Cremaster 4, 1, 5, 2
The American
A Foreign Affair

25 October 2013

TFE: Top Ten Horror Movies Before and After THE EXORCIST

I was asked to contribute to two polls at The Film Experience recently: top ten horror films both before and after The Exorcist. Below are my submitted top tens for each poll and my allocated write-ups for Eyes without a Face and Halloween.

My ten picks before The Exorcist:

01. Psycho (1960)
02. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
03. Eyes Without a Face Les yeux sans visage (1960) *
04. Daughters of Darkness (1973)
05. The Haunting (1963)
06. Carnival of Souls (1962)
07. The Mask of Satan Black Sunday (1960)
08. Night of the Demon (1957)
09. Les Diaboliques Diabolique (1955)
10. Hour of the Wolf Vargtimmen (1968)


Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face is grand, eloquent, horrible and dark. Real dark. Dark dark. It looks at the base experience of human depravity and the deeply pained and sacrificial provision of life that a father is willing to bestow upon his daughter. Oddly, it’s the pursuit of life, not death, that drives the film. The inherent terror and harsh beauty of Eyes is contained in its desperation. The film is filled with memorable, desperate acts. It’s brimful of tense and horrifying moments that prod us to feel both disgust and compliance. It’s sly, clever, engrossing; the trajectory of the plot never feels stable. That’s Georges Franju’s genius. He serves up both victims and perpetrators as fascinating, pitiable characters (and in horror these are the kinds of characters that thrill us the most). Eyes compels and disquiets in an austerely grandiose fashion. It has Alida Valli adding dark night work in a headscarf and pearls like a demented femme fatale who’s long traversed the wrong path. It also has an ethereal Edith Scob, lost and curious about the world, commanding both dogs and doves in a tragic symphony of release. And that music, cinematography and direction! Fifty-three years on, everything about Eyes without a Face is perfectly tuned to unsettle and undermine complacency with horror cinema.

My ten picks after The Exorcist:

01. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
02. Halloween (1978) *
03. Alien (1979)
04. The Thing (1982)
05. Session 9 (2001)
06. The Brood (1979)
07. Audition Ôdishon (1999)
08. Pulse Kairo (2001)
09. The Vanishing Spoorloos (1988)
10. Inferno (1980)



Along with Psycho, John Carpenter's Halloween is the horror film I’ve probably seen the most. For this reason, it is one of my favourites and, what I consider, one of the most effective made. As with the Hitchcock film, I’ve watched it roughly once a year since I first saw it in 1987. (Not always on October 31st, though it does help, and not always all the way through.) Sometimes, especially if I’m alone, it freaks me out too much to carry on watching. Even now. It’s a film with real staying power. The first time I watched it I was alone, it was late, on Halloween, and in a dark house not entirely dissimilar to Annie Brackett’s (Nancy Loomis). Oh, how I had trouble sleeping that night. Its power truly resides in what it leaves in your mind. It’s that music. The sense of dreadful expectation. The half-glimpsed “shape” of a man in a bad William Shatner mask and a boiler suit just standing there in the garden, in the street. It, He, Michael Myers, even has the balls to appear in broad daylight, allowing for no avenue of next-day escape; watching it in the daytime doesn’t ease the situation — it often makes it worse. The way Carpenter plays horrible, clever games with screen space and ominous pause — suggesting in the emptiness of Haddonfield just what lurks in the darkest corners of our imaginations — is tinged with just a dash of sly, knowing genius. But it’s those shots near the end that make the fear resoundingly concrete. The camera returning to the locations of Myers’ kills after he’s... vanished. The once familiar but now-empty areas visited by death. It’s the potent horror of these snapshots of sheer terror that I remember most. Thanks for eternally terrifying me, Mr. Carpenter.

1 October 2013

Films Seen 2013: September

Films I saw in September 2013. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required — occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2013 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed as seen chronologically, viewed from bottom to top.

The Terror Within (Thierry Notz/1989) 3
So much "lifted" from Alien(s) that the TDA should have a gander. Monster is clumsy, hilarious. Actors fret in jumpsuits. 

The Initiation (Larry Stewart/1984) 4
Vera Miles. 1980s sorority hair. Iffy acting. A sanatorium. It was 50% pure camp, when it should've been full Joan Crawford.

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen/2013) 8
Short: (Dis)illusion(ment), blitzed etiquette, dimmed sheens. A scrutinous, mostly coherent look at failure and appearance. A+ acting. Blanchett, with each sad drift into the past and sharply-pitched line delivery, was ace. A manic jag of uneasy pain. Career best?

Long: Woody Allen likes illusion (Scoop, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice), and I think this is possibly his best examination of it — or, more precisely, disillusionment — so far. It's all about blitzed etiquette and dimmed sheens (and, alongside it, the slippery structure of class). Cate Blanchett, with every perfectly fussy and sad drift into Jasmine's past, and each sharply-pitched line delivery, was exemplary. Her manic jag was painful and awkward — and at times oddly cathartic — to watch, but she played it with sheer ease. It's probably the best work she's done yet. Also, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale were excellent too. It doesn't perhaps achieve the full-on heights of many of Allen's older films, but it is a successful and coherent look at failure and appearances. He wasn't afraid to just get on with scrutinising his leading character's life, without the support of many gags, and offered his ideas on the subject of illusion, or lack of it, without excessive deliberation. It feels like him moving toward something quite new, in a small way, and is especially cheering after some recent solid clunkers. He's of course prolific, with wildly varying results, but I hope he moves further down this path.

The Silence / Das letzte Schweigen (Baran Bo Odar/2010) 5
Fitfully gripping, but the mystery thread is a dash too obvious. Characters are mostly sketchy. Felt like it was on autopilot.

Welcome to Pine Hill (Keith Miller/2012) 4
Spare moments are affecting, but it doesn't say a great deal overall. An Integral spark was missing. Average, sadly.

Parker (Taylor Hackford/2013) 3
Confused, scatty and full of fudged set-pieces. Sloppy direction's not helped by rash editing. Impressive cast, but no one's any good. At all. Best Bad Wig: Jason Statham. Best Unintelligible Growl: Nick Nolte. Worst Overuse Of A Female Character Fumbling With A Gun: J-Lo.

Simon Killer

Simon Killer (Antonio Campos/2012) 5
Paced and structured with a chilly kind of verve, but it only starts to get compelling halfway in. Then it, er, runs dry of ideas. Brady Corbet can be very good, but his character's a flaky, dull blank and his neurosis was often funny when it should've been consuming. Much more interesting is Mati Diop, who is superb. I would've preferred more of her (better-defined) character's story over Corbet's, to be honest. It was a more satisfying film than Campos' Afterschool, though — less in strict awe of Haneke. Plus, the music and photography are generally splendid.

White House Down (Roland Emmerich/2013) 6
The height of daftness. All patriotic panic and anguished aides. C-Tat sweats. J-Foxx smirks. This and that explode. Some fun. I liked Jason Clarke most. He's clearly having a ball, snarling, shouting and shooting the place up, enjoying all the hokiness. There's a raft of risible lines and preposterous plot swerves, of course. Hard to take any given scene remotely seriously.Thankfully.

Movie 43 (various directors/2012) 2
Why are all these actors doing this? In fact, why did I watch this? Being a Julianne Moore completist meant sitting through it. But her segment wasn't even in it. It was a deleted extra. She lucked out. I didn't. Kate Winslet emerged unscathed. Griffin Dunne's segment was the most watchable. Everything else? It'd be nice to just forget about it.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (James Wan/2013) 5
A few nifty plot turns, but the lack of fresh ideas makes it often dull work. An unfortunate step down from the original. Byrne, Hershey and Shaye are sadly frittered for the most part. Wilson has some sly moments. Makers obviously (too) fond of Kubrick, Lynch, Craven.

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua/2013) 6
It was absurd, showy, ridiculous and often crass. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the shit out of it. Leo was the one actor in it who added some emotion and weight to her character, giving a fiercely moving performance with limited screen time, and showing just how good she can be in anything.

You're Next

You're Next (Adam Wingard/2011) 5
Pretty good, but a tad overpraised? Not half as fresh or daring as reports said. Some iffy performances and dialogue. Vinson was great in a decent part; the real standout element of the film. She was operating on a slightly elevated level from the rest of it. But, for home-invasion horrors so far this year: Home Sweet Home > You're Next. By a mile. Also: scary animal masks = the new scary 'old potato sack' masks.

Any Day Now (Travis Fine/2012) 6
Sincere social angle gives it pleasant, admirable heft. Fine performances from Cumming and Dillahunt give it zeal. Decent, worthy work. 

About Time (Richard Curtis/2013) 3Curtis does his 'thing'. Again. Pure fantasy; chiefly recognisible to a specific aspirational set. It reminded me of a Waitrose ad. Script's fudged by a lack of wit; in its place are flustered asides. A late scene struck a very sweet chord, but it wasn't enough by then. Nighy, MacAdams, Hollander and Duncan do what they do. Seen it all before. I was more intrigued by Lydia Wilson's (limited) supporting character/plot strand. It's innocuous, well-meaning candy, and its appeal will grab some folk, but the wall-to-wall Curtis-isms did absolute zip for me. If I can be crass, I'd say: one for the middle-class 'wank bank'. 

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay/2013) 3
The Three Stooges pimped up by David LaChapelle. But without much fun. Clunky, ugly, shiny, vacant. Bay's empty vanity case. Although it was utter tosh, Johnson and Mackie put effort in, whilst Wahlberg does the same old routine (and Shalhoub did most of the hard graft.) It comes on like it has things to say (failed, wild American dream!), but there's zip to it. It's just Bay doing a sweaty Coen bros act.

Blood Runs Cold (Sonny Laguna/2011) 3
Overfamiliar frosty horror. Awkwardly direction and shoddy in terms of acting and dialogue. But some atmospheric moments stand out.