30 March-31 May 2009 – nine week roundup

June 7 2009 at 2:30 pm (The list)

Since I have failed to update my blog for nine weeks, I thought that rather than doing nine separate posts, I’d do one big round up which takes this blog past its first birthday. Starting, then with the shame list itself:

 

Being ThereBeing There (1979)

When simple gardener Chance’s (Peter Sellers) elderly boss dies, he is forced to leave the house he grew up in for the very first time. He stumbles upon rich Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine at her most sexy and enchanting) who becomes infatuated with him. When his off-the-cuff speeches about gardening are taken as Zen-like wisdom, he becomes a national celebrity. Chance gave Sellers the role that summed up his life, so it was fitting that it was one of his last performances. ‘I have absolutely no personality at all,’ he once said. ‘I am a chameleon. When I am not playing a role, I am nobody.’ He imbues that level of blankness in Chance beautifully – a simple man raised by TV (like a cross between Forrest Gump, Truman Burbank and Jim Carrey’s cable guy), he is disarmingly polite, smart, softly spoken, honest. The misunderstandings create wonderfully absurd comedy, but Being There is so much more than just two hours of people talking at cross purposes – it is both gentle and foreboding, with a soft autumnal feel making it a richly rewarding journey, even if the controversial ending does give the film an unnecessary other dimension.

 

Rating: 4/5

 

poster_Forbidden_Planet_posterForbidden Planet (1956)

It’s easy to see why Forbidden Planet is so influential. In sci-fi terms, it’s got it all – pioneering special effects, lavish sets, great costumes, robots, monsters, action, romance, laser guns and flying saucers. A spaceship travels to the far reaches of space to investigate a mysterious planet only to find that one of its two inhabitants has a dark and scary secret. While fairly slow paced until near the end when an invisible threat attacks, it’s a wonderfully immersive experience.

 

Rating: 5/5

 

The Wild BunchThe Wild Bunch (1969)

Sam Peckinpah’s violent balls-out Western is lauded as being one of the best of its genre. While certainly a great story (a bunch of ageing outlaws plan ‘one last job’), it’s a long slog punctuated with lots of clichéd drunken cackling and thigh slapping. Still, the dialogue zings, the performances are spirited and there are some great scenes including a train hold up and the final shoot out.

 

Rating: 4/5

 

Once Upon A Time...Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) 

After The Wild Bunch, I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of another long Western. I needn’t have worried since this is one of the best films I’ve discovered in the past 12 months. Charles Bronson is captivating as the mysterious ‘Harmonica’, Henry Fonda plays against type as utter bastard Frank and Claudia Cardinale is just gorgeous as Jill McBain, the widow whose late husband’s money provides the MacGuffin for a tale of greedy bandits and honourable gunslingers with a score to settle. Long and slow it may be, but every shot is so piercing and intense, that I wanted it to go on longer.

 

Rating: 5/5

 

Seven-Samurai-19297Seven Samurai (1954)

In 16th century Japan, farmers in a small village hire seven samurai to fight off a group of dastardly bandits intent on stealing their crops. A great story filled with comedy, tragedy and action, but it’s frankly too bloody long.

 

Rating: 4/5

 

the-virgin-suicides-movie-poster-c10079791The Virgin Suicides (1999)

In 1970s Michigan, a group of male friends become obsessed with five sisters who struggle against their oppressive mother and all commit suicide. Based on the debut novel by Pulitzer prize-winning Jeffrey Eugenides’, The Virgin Suicides suffers from literary adaptation fever – so many directors adapting ‘worthy’ novels inevitably resort to using an annoying and lazy voiceover. There are some great performances particularly from James Woods as the girls’ disconnected father, and it builds up tension in a strange, woozy fashion aided by a dreamy soundtrack by Air, but it ultimately fizzles out. Thankfully, Sofia Coppola’s direction is distracting enough to rescue the film from its narrative failings – the soft feel is closer in tone and style to Marie Antoinette than the superior Lost in Translation, but it makes for a surreal and unique teen film.

 

Rating: 3/5

 

Shame list total: 1,213

 

Also watched over the past nine weeks were:

 

eden-lake-teaserEden Lake (2008)

A young couple go camping at the titular lake only to be terrorised by a gang of young tearaways. High in concept and tension, this provocative and deeply unsettling British thriller is all the more terrifying for the fact that this kind of thing actually does happen all the time. The film succeeds in that it doesn’t ram its politics down your throat – the social commentary is implied, never forced. With that level of responsibility bestowed, nay pushed on the audience allows writer/director James Watkins to be as brutal as he wants. The camera mercilessly shows you everything – knives on flesh, broken glass in necks, people on fire, a sickening Stanley knife scene – and each horrific scene gives way to one even more hideous and cruel. Characters this shockingly realistic are a testament to the quality of both the screenplay and acting. Rather than allowing the audience to adopt a lazy ‘fucking kids’ attitude, the film puts as much blame on irresponsible, ignorant adults, and ultimately it lets you make up your own mind.

 

Rating: 4/5

 

littlechildrenposterLittle Children (2006)

Brad (Patrick Wilson) is married to Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). Sarah (Kate Winslet) is married to Richard (Gregg Edelman). Brad starts an affair with Sarah. Both couples have kids and creepy sex offender Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) lives nearby. The plot revolves around those key facts, but despite its meandering story, Little Children gets by on a few great scenes (including ones set at a public swimming pool, a book group and a shocking scene in a parked car) and some excellent performances, especially from Jackie Earle Haley as the troubled mummy’s boy, and a surprisingly good turn by Noah Emmerich displaying complex fragile machismo. The direction is inconsistent (the tone shifts between American Beauty, When Harry Met Sally and Desperate Housewives) and there’s an annoying, unnecessary voiceover which marks it a little too obviously as a literary adaptation. It builds slowly and doesn’t quite deliver the big ending, but it’s ultimately a satisfying story until the voiceover ruins it by ramming home the message that you’d already worked out.

 

Rating: 4/5

 

kung_fu_panda_posterKung Fu Panda (2008)

Lovable chubby panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) unexpectedly becomes the mythical Dragon Warrior and is trained by wise red panda Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) to defeat evil snow leopard Tai Lung (voiced, improbably, by Ian McShane). It may sound like lightweight kiddy fare, but Kung Fu Panda is easily the best animation that Dreamworks has produced since Shrek, maybe surpassing even that. The voice cast really shines, although having never seen Deadwood, I still can’t get past the idea of Lovejoy playing a nasty piece of work. What really impresses, though, are some great training and fighting scenes, and stunning visuals. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for kids.

 

Rating: 4/5

 

The EscapistThe Escapist (2008)

If prison movies are a sub-genre, then prison breakout movies are a sub-sub-genre. The Escapist is what happens when you take The Shawshank Redemption to England, give it a shot of adrenaline and a cast of kick-ass character actors with an Italian Job-style caper feeling of camaraderie. Twelve years into a life sentence Frank Perry (Brian Cox) discovers that his estranged daughter is ill. Determined to make his peace with her, he recruits a bunch of cons to help him escape. Director Rupert Wyatt confidently cuts between two timelines – the planning which often feels like a good old-fashioned caper, and the exciting escape itself. Wyatt manages to get real drama out of every shot, thanks largely to his superb cast. Brian Cox is, as ever, electrifying as world-weary Frank and Joseph Fiennes (yes, pretty boy Shakespeare) is believable as a hard-as-nails mentalist, but the real joy is Damian Lewis as head screw Rizza – softly spoken and terrifying. Despite the action that precedes it, the surprisingly moving twist ending does not feel out of place.

 

Rating: 5/5

 

changeling-poster-454x670Changeling (2008)

If anyone asks why Clint Eastwood the director is as prolific and respected as Clint Eastwood the actor, just show them Changeling. In 1928, single parent Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) who returns home from work to find her nine-year-old son missing. After five months of searching, the LAPD announce the return of her son, but she insists that the boy they find is not her son. Fraught and emotional, she harangues the police only to wind up in a mental institution. With help from Pastor Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), she takes on the whole of the LAPD and continues searching for her boy. Those that criticise the film for its length are missing the point entirely – that Eastwood manages to condense the unbelievable true story that spans seven years into less than three hours without ever losing the film’s focus is no mean feat. Because true stories seldom fit a narratological pattern, Eastwood picks and chooses from different genres: one minute it’s a conspiracy thriller, the next it’s a courtroom drama, the next a hardboiled noir making room for some stunning visuals. Jolie is hugely impressive as Collins as slowly transforms from loving mother to steely crusader, her politeness gradually wearing down into grim determination. Malkovich is as intense as ever as the no-nonsense reverend, and Jeffrey Donovan is perfectly oily as the LAPD captain J. J. Jones – it’s the kind of role that Guy Pearce would play with relish. Presumably he was busy.

 

Rating: 5/5

 

eagle eyeEagle Eye (2008)

D.J. Caruso is going to have to work hard to shake his Hitchcock copycat reputation. After virtually remaking Rear Window for the iPod generation, he brings back his leading man of choice (man of the moment Shia LeBeouf) to the kind of wronged- man-on-the-run thriller that Hitch did so well. So it’s a bit like North By Northwest, only not as good. Jerry Shaw (LeBeouf) comes home to his flat only to find it full of the kind of weaponry that requires three UPS trucks to deliver. A phone call from a mysterious woman tells him to exit his apartment immediately. So begins a cat-and-mouse rollercoaster that sees him team up with fellow victim Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) to run from FBI agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton). There are also a lot of car chases, helicopters, explosions and guns. The film has been accused of making no sense but because it’s a 21st century techno thriller, it verges on the sci-fi which means there’s also a lot of shiny high-tech gadgetry and smoothly flowing screens that have somehow wandered in from the set of Minority Report. So of course it doesn’t make sense – does it make sense that HAL tries to kill Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Its biggest sin is in being half an hour too long and guilty of further typecasting its star LeBeouf – who is born for the screen – as a loveable wretch. Better to switch off your brain, let the ridiculousness of the plot wash over you and enjoy the overblown, brainless fun.

 

Rating: 3/5

 

american_gangster_posterAmerican Gangster (2007)

How many gangster films set in America have there been? Loads. How many of them are called American Gangster? One. Despite its arrogant title, Ridley Scott’s true crime epic is a gangster film, not the gangster film but at least it’s the real deal. In the 1970s, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) becomes the biggest importer of heroin in Harlem by buying directly from the source in Thailand. While he’s busy becoming king of New York, Newark detective Richie Roberts, the one honest cop in a city of corruption, is put in charge of a task force to stop major drug trafficking. They may be real people but they’re still recognisable cookie-cutter characters – Washington plays Charismatic Badass (see also Training Day), while Russell Crowe plays Shabby Maverick Hero (see also The Insider). Scott, however, tells the story with his trademark panache even if the final showdown between these two Hollywood heavyweights falls somewhat short of expectations.

 

Rating: 4/5

 

During these nine weeks I also watched You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, but I slept through most of the second half (I wasn’t feeling well), so I cannot make an informed judgement. I enjoyed what I saw of it though.

 

At some point during this time I also re-visited Pan’s Labyrinth and Seven – and both are just as good as I remembered them.

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1 Comment

  1. Damian-Lewis.com said,

    […] Damian during the May 29, 2009 broadcast of NewsNight Review on BBC Two. This viewer’s 5 star review of The Escapist says “…but the real joy is Damian Lewis as head screw Rizza – softly spoken […]

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