Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Best friends since high school Zack (Seth Rogen, the perfect voice for writer/director Kevin Smith’s vulgarity) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks, just gorgeous) live together in platonic poverty in a rundown apartment in icy Pittsburg. When the debts start mounting up, they decide to make a porn film to make some money with the help of eccentric friends and enthusiastic recruits. It’s a Kevin Smith film through and through – the dialogue is filthy and with Smith regulars Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson appearing, it might as well be Clerks III. As ever, Smith insists on being foul-mouthed and offensive, and yet ultimately he sticks rigidly to tried and trusted formulae. Taboos these days are few and far between so the assumption that characters shouting about anal sex and ‘arcing ropes of jism’ would shock an audience into insane laughter is a misconception. Strip away the layers of macho filth, and what you’re left with is a rather sweet love story with some moments of genuine tenderness. Sorry, if that’s giving away the ending somewhat but it was pretty obvious wasn’t it?
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
In 1960s America, Czech single mother Selma (Björk) works two jobs to save money to pay for an operation that will save her son from a hereditary condition that is gradually robbing her of her sight. But Selma’s cop landlord (David Morse) who is falling into debt gets wind of her savings, he tries to rob her. Selma takes refuge from her life of hell by imagining herself in a Hollywood musical. Lars von Trier’s handheld camerawork almost gives a home movie feel, until the odd bit of percussion (coming from everyday sounds such as the chugging of a steam train and pencils tapping on paper) give way to big colourful song and dance numbers. The supporting cast is impeccable – Catherine Deneuve and Peter Stormare are pure warmth and compassion as Selma’s best friend and would-be boyfriend respectively, and David Morse, as ever, manages to turn an honest man into a bitter monster with a single expression. But it’s Björk who really impresses – Selma is fragile, childlike, but full of responsible maturity, the very model of grim determination wearing a winsome, innocent smile. If you can stomach 140 minutes of such bleakness, it will be an immensely rewarding experience – an outstanding performance in the centre of a patient and intimate masterpiece.
Shame list total: 1,219
McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
Robert Altman toned down the manic energy of M*A*S*H for this ponderous drama about a businessman building a town in wintry northwest America at the turn of the twentieth century with the help of a brash madam with whom he opens a popular whorehouse. Warren Beatty is terrific as the titular entrepreneur, all bravado and no brains, but Julie Christie is even better as the cockney madam who walks it like she talks it despite harbouring a dark secret that we only discover in one scene. Tortuously slow and standoffishly cold, McCabe & Mrs Miller has solemn romance at its core – some of the more memorable scenes are of McCabe muttering to himself matter-of-fact statements of devotion as he pounds around his bedroom after a botched business deal, and Mrs Miller smiling fuzzily to herself as McCabe climbs into bed with her. Full of duality and contradictions – frozen landscapes cut to warm wooden interiors, Leonard Cohen’s sombre acoustic soundtrack rubs against light touches of comic relief, a desolate, patient narrative gives way to an exciting do-or-die third act – it struggles to find the right balance between bawdy and bleak, but its themes of endurance and survival give it the air of a prototype There Will Be Blood.
Shame list total: 1,220
Burn After Reading (2008)
I’m going to confess to something now, something that will surely make me seem particularly slow and devoid of any kind of artistic or critical savvy rather than the film fan that I am. For that reason, imagine I’m whispering it in your ear. Here it comes: I’ve never been a big fan of the Coen brothers. To me, there has always been something a bit knowingly cool and clever about them and I’ve always suspected those who put Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Though? and The Big Lebowski on a pedestal to be a bit (gasp) pretentious. If that makes me an imbecile, then at least I’m an honest one. However, it is starting to dawn on me that my critical faculties have over the past couple of years developed to the point that if I were to revisit their films (for I have seen most of them at least once) I would finally see what all the fuss is about. The reason for this is that I found Burn After Reading, which is by most accounts a necessary low point in the brothers’ career, really rather good.
There’s probably nothing in the film that hasn’t been done better in any of their other films. It’s got George Clooney (his third collaboration with the brothers) in the kind of wild-eyed lunatic role that makes him such a joy to watch. It’s got Frances McDormand doing her brash mumsy thing that won her an Oscar for Fargo. It’s also got a few newcomers to the Coen stable, including a slobbish potty-mouthed John Malkovich, perennial ice queen Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt as a hilariously stupid gym instructor and the ever brilliant Richard Jenkins as his pathetic boss. The plot is breathlessly twisty and it does err towards the zany which is perhaps why it hasn’t fared quite so well among critics. Admittedly it is about, as Mark Kermode put it, ‘stupid people doing stupid things’ but that’s what makes it so funny. The brothers Coen are a different breed to the brothers Farrelly, but isn’t ridiculing stupid people what makes Dumb and Dumber so brilliant?
The annoying thing about this little project of mine is that once I’ve seen a film I can cross a line through it in red biro and move onto another one. So when I’ve seen an established classic that I didn’t enjoy I have to just say ‘oh well, you can’t like ‘em all’ and leave it at that. But that won’t do. I thought Taxi Driver was merely average the first time I saw it (although I was probably too young to appreciate it) until I revisited it a year or so ago when its power suddenly dawned on me. I’m clearly going to have to do that with lots of other films too which is going to make the task so much more arduous. I remember enjoying The Hudsucker Proxy the one time I saw it in my teens, and I think Barton Fink is a fine piece of work, so perhaps it’s time I revisited the entirety of the brothers’ oeuvre. Of course, there is plenty of other people’s work that I need to see with fresh eyes, but it’s difficult to know where to start though.
The Producers (1968)
Struggling stage show producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) resorts to swindling old ladies out of money to put on plays. When jittery accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) knocks on his door to do his books, he realises that a flop could be more financially successful than a hit. Together they plan to put on the worst show ever seen hoping for it to last just one night, but the show they find, ‘Springtime for Hitler’, turns out to be unexpectedly hilarious. At once ironically taboo (as only a Nazi-glorifying musical can be) and warmly innocent, Mel Brooks’ debut is a comedy masterclass. Full of dazzling wordplay and chaotic characters, it’s refreshing to watch especially since what passes for brilliant comedy today is lazy plotting and an over reliance on bodily fluids.
Shame list total: 1,221
The Host (2006)
When teenage Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) is taken to the lair of a human-eating beast’s lair in the sewer beneath Seoul’s Han River, her family go on a quest to rescue her. By using Spielberg’s take on The War of the Worlds as a template by focusing on a single family’s point of view, co-writer/director Joon-ho Bong creates an emotional yet fast-paced atmosphere. An opening scene in which a morgue employee disposes of hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde by simply tipping them down the sink thereby creating the mutated behemoth, was based on a real event. However, Bong wisely doesn’t ram the environmental message home too heavily. Instead, he gives us an ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek caper, although it doesn’t quite scale the dizzy heights of, say, Tremors. Still, apart from the smooth direction and energetic performances, particularly from Kang-ho Song as Ah-sung Ko’s father, it’s worth watching for the quite remarkable creature, created with such loving detail that Bong apparently treated it like another actor and modelled its movements on those of a human. If only Hollywood treated its CG creations with as much care and attention.
Meet Walt Kowalski: an elderly Korean War veteran, living in a quaint house in a ramshackle neighbourhood in Michigan. Now that his wife has died, he has nothing in his life except his dog and his 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a car which he helped build when he worked in the town’s Ford factory until it closed. He doesn’t get on with his family (understandably since they’re all rude bastards), and begrudges the ethnic minorities that now abound in his hometown, seeing them as a representation of the dilution of the American dream.
Meet Clint Eastwood: an elderly screen veteran, directing himself in what has been intimated his last acting performance. If this is the case, it would be a fitting tribute to a life lived on screen. But Gran Torino is so much more than just a character study, it’s an insight into a dying generation, an almost obsolete way of life.
Eastwood, the actor, growls his way through the first half of the film, the butt of his family’s and neighbour’s jokes, perhaps with good reason. He’s a grumpy old sod who just wants to be left on his own. He resents his new next-door neighbours (a Hmong family from Laos) and it’s only due to sheer bloody mindedness that he rescues the son Thao (Bee Vang), a shy teenager, from the clutches of a violent gang led by Thao’s cousin. Thao’s family, so grateful for Walt’s bravery, begin to bestow him with gifts and kind words. Of course, eventually he relents, lets them into his life and starts mentoring Thao.
Yes, it’s an unlikely scenario. People generally don’t change, particularly xenophobic pensioners who are stuck in their ways. It’s because of this that the first half of the film is so funny: Walt isn’t Harry Callaghan in retirement, but Victor Meldrew with a rifle. He communicates through a series of grunts and, save for a few scenes of gun-toting menace, he’s essentially an honourable and honest old git.
Eastwood’s star power drives the film which is lucky since much of the supporting cast aren’t up to the task. Gang leader Spider (Doua Moua) is a cardboard cutout of overegged swagger, while Vang plays the shy Thao well, but struggles with his character’s newfound confidence. Ahney Her, however, is a revelation, managing to imbue Thao’s older sister Sue with a disarming confidence as she casually bats away Walt’s front porch racism.
It’s not until the final act that Gran Torino begins to walk it like it talks it when the slow-paced drama dips its toe into revenge thriller territory. It does jar slightly with the hokey sentimentality that has gone before it, but it gives way to a gripping and moving finale. For all the film’s numerous faults (poor acting and occasionally clunky script are just two), it’s ultimately a satisfying experience and at least it has something to say about ageing, family and friendship.
The cumbersome title alone is enough to make you fall asleep, especially when it’s a line of dialogue from (wait from it) an episode of Sex and the City. That just a single, and frankly not very good sentence made a best-selling book is bad enough without having to go and turn it into a two-hour (that’s right) movie.
He’s Just Not That Into You wants you to believe it’s the Magnolia of rom-coms – it has a classy ensemble cast, all the different characters are linked in some small way and it is all theme, no plot, the theme being the lack of effective communication between men and women. We have Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston slumming it as a couple who split up over an ongoing disagreement about the point of marriage, Scarlett Johansson as a sexy struggling musician luring a married man (Bradley Cooper) into bed and Jennifer Connelly as his super-serious wife. And that’s just for starters.
And the worst thing is that it’s not even funny. The trailer may make it out to have a knockabout energy to it, but ultimately it’s just two long hours of telling men off for being so rubbish. It’s more depressing than Requiem for a Dream. Thankfully the only thread that could be considered central is the best – a sweet double act between confident bar manager Alex (Justin Long) and ditzy Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin). The other stories could have easily been jettisoned without damaging the film whatsoever. Even the strongest links (Connolly, Aniston, a barely there Drew Barrymore who can rom-com in her sleep) jar horrifically – they’re just too good for pap like this. It’s like hiring Sir Ian McKellan to perform in a school play.
Far too serious, preachy and dizzyingly unfocused, He’s Just Not That Into You tries to be both sprawling madcap comedy and tough agenda-driven drama, and ultimately fails at both.
The main problem with director David Fincher’s epic tale of the backwards-ageing Button can be summed up by its tagline: ‘Life isn’t measured in minutes, but in moments.’ What does that even mean?
Some of cinema’s most significant films have been based on short stories. The Shawshank Redemption and Brokeback Mountain, for instance, were fleshed out beautifully from shorter works. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, however, was little more than an idea in the first place, and although it has certainly been fleshed out, there is little meat on its bones.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), admittedly an ugly baby, is born in New Orleans on the last day of World War I, and is instantly rejected by his father. He meets a variety of people throughout his life, all of whom seem to understand but rarely voice his predicament: his mind ages in the same way as the rest of us while his body ages in reverse. That’s the idea, and that is also the plot.
Benjamin Button shares a writer with Forrest Gump and it’s easy to see the overlap between the two: both films tell the life of a unique individual via using 20th century American history as a backdrop. But film critic Mark Kermode calling this ‘Forrest Gump with A-levels’ is a generous distinction. The fact that Benjamin ages backwards should give him character, but he has no more depth or intelligence, and gleans even less from his experiences than Tom Hanks’ big hearted dimwit.
For a film that concerns itself so much with the passing of time, it has trouble finding a theme. At least Forrest Gump told us something (that you don’t have to have brains to make something of yourself). It’s not until the closing moments that you realise that the simple passage of time may be the theme. It just feels like a wasted opportunity: where are Benjamin’s musings on the nature of mortality? Where is the amusing scene of a teenage Benjamin discovering his wrinkly body for the first time? Instead you get Benjamin working on a boat (so?), having a brief dalliance with the English wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British diplomat in snowy Russia (who cares?) and riding a Harley down an open road in the 1950s (zzzz).
So it may look good but does it really have to last nearly three hours? The answer, sadly, is yes, which is why Fincher has really shot himself in the foot. For the gimmick to work (and it is little more than an extended gimmick) it’s simply not enough to see parts of the life, but the life in its entirety. Anything less would leave the audience feeling short-changed. It’s a nice story but little else, and maybe that’s what Fincher was going for. After all, why do we need a theme to tie a film together? Can’t it just be a very long nice story?
Either way, it is, at least, a very good-looking story. This is the closest thing that Fincher, the master of creepy rain-sodden suspense, has ever got to a sweeping romance but he hasn’t completely forgotten his shadowy roots. At its heart, it’s still a dark film – the whole story is told by Daisy’s (Cate Blanchett) daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) as she reads her mother’s diary to her while on her hospital deathbed as Hurricane Katrina rages outside.
Pitt carries the film well, and Blanchett is as radiant as ever, but it’s the make-up and visual effects that are truly jaw dropping. Scene by scene, Pitt subtly and seamlessly grows slightly younger and Blanchett slightly older, making you feel like you’re catching up with a friend you haven’t seen for just a couple of months. Or in Pitt’s case, that you won’t see for a couple of months. Or something like that.
Still Benjamin Button is a film about surfaces; the fact that all the work has gone into perfecting the physical appearance of the characters underlines the fact that beneath the glossy sheen, it’s ultimately an empty experience.
Jamal (Dev Patel) is about to win the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, but instead of being patted on the back by the show’s producers he is tortured and interrogated. How could a boy who grew up in the slums possibly know the answers to these increasingly difficult questions? By way of explanation, Jamal tells his life story revealing that intelligence is no substitute for experience.
Following the Coen brothers’ sober No Country For Old Men, it’s nice to see an uplifting film win Best Picture at the Oscars. What makes Slumdog Millionaire such a worthy winner (certainly one of the most deserving in recent memory), is the remarkable way that it manages to please everyone – uplifting enough to wow audiences, poignant enough to impress critics and important enough to convince judges.
The word uplifting is thrown around a bit too carelessly, especially with regards to this film. There’s precious little optimism for most of the picture – Jamal’s harrowing story is filled with fire, rain, dust, gunfire, bloodshed, greed, death, poverty and, quite literally, shit. And yet for a film that seldom glorifies life in the slums (Boyle directs with the same kind of relentless courage with which he showed the brutal realities of the life of a junkie), it still elicits smiles throughout. To say the film is uplifting gives away the ending (the title and poster alone do that) is to take away from the fact that it’s about a journey, and not a destination.
In fact, there’s so much to admire that to quibble over the admittedly coincidental nature of the plot (as Salman Rushdie unexpectedly did in an article in The Guardian) is unfair, simply because it’s best viewed as a fantasy about destiny than a drama about poverty. Yes, the answers to each of Jamal’s questions happen to occur chronologically throughout his life; in lesser hands this fact would make this tall tale tediously, but necessarily, episodic. But such is Boyle’s verve that nothing jars, from a wonderful montage atop a series of trains to AR Rahman’s energetic soundtrack to the sneering game show host (played with sinister glee by Anil Kapoor).
But the praise cannot be plonked on Boyle alone. While none of the actors were even nominated this awards season, it really is an impressive ensemble cast picked from the streets of Mumbai. 18-year-old fresh faced Dev Patel (who has only made this film and teen comedy-drama series Skins) might look like a fish out of water but that just gives Jamal an appropriately everyman quality.
Given that the film had trouble getting released and even made, one can forgive the saccharine-sweet finale and Bollywood dance number over which the end credits play. Its status as the little film that could perfectly mirrors its protagonist’s rags to riches tale. The film’s massive success at the Oscars has been hailed as a British triumph, something which has not gone down well in India. But, there is something defiantly British about the film – the original novel Q&A did not feature a specific show, so to infuse it with a hugely popular TV show that originated in Britain gives the film a certain degree of patriotism. Still, whichever country the film belongs to, it remains a well paced and superbly shot fantasy.