The only film I watched this week was Unbreakable which was so much better than I remembered having only seen it once before on its original cinema release. I remember thinking that the twist wasn’t as good as that of M. Night Shyamalan’s previous hugely successful film The Sixth Sense. However, focusing purely on the twist is doing the film an enormous disservice – it’s a solid piece of drama with two very interesting characters and some fascinating themes. Plus while the twist of The Sixth Sense is clever (I certainly didn’t see it coming back in 1999), it does reveal some gaping plot holes in the film. The ending of Unbreakable, on the other hand, ties the film up nicely without forcing you to rethink absolutely everything the previous 100 minutes. (4/5)
Incidentally Unbreakable was the first film I saw at a UK cinema, having had to make do with what little Guernsey had to offer. This means that I hadn’t experienced decent seating or large arm rests with cup holders until I was about 20, which, for a film fan, is regrettable, almost unforgiveable. Nothing I can do about that now though.
OK, it’s been a while, but I’m back with loads more films in a four-weekly update. Last week’s will follow shortly along with a few cinema reviews too.
From the shame list:
THX 1138 (1971)
Six years before Star Wars made George Lucas a household name, he made a feature length version of the student film that won him first prize at the 1967-68 National Student Film Festival. The human race lives in a tightly controlled underground society where emotions are kept in check with medication, people pray to a painting of Christ and are entertained with holographic image of sex and violence. THX (Robert Duvall) becomes a fugitive when he stops taking his meds and falls in love with his roommate LUH. Lucas was borrowing heavily from George Orwell’s 1984 but not unsuccessfully – it’s a classic dystopian science fiction premise and Lucas shows his flair for stunning visuals, if not for dialogue. (4/5)
Wall Street (1987)
Released bang in the middle of the 1980s, Oliver Stone’s ‘money makes the world go round’ drama is the perfect artefact of The Decade That Taste Forgot. Michael Douglas earned his only (so far) acting Oscar as Gordon Gecko, as slimy as an oil slick. It’s the kind of drama that nobody would dare make anymore (although the theme is just as relevant today, if not more so). Rarely has there ever been a film been quite so much of its time – the smoke filled offices, the trenchcoats, the big hair, large eyeglasses and enormous mobile phones. It’s almost as if Oliver Stone went forward 20 years, asked people what was funniest about the 80s, and then went back and made a film based on his findings. (4/5)
Shame list total: 1,200
I Love You, Man (2009)
What happens when audiences get bored of regular romantic comedies? Make the central relationship about the heterosexual relationship between two men. It’s not entirely new territory (the ‘buddy’ subgenre is burgeoning) but in this man-meets-man-com here it’s a little off kilter. Peter (the ubiquitous but enjoyable to watch Paul Rudd) gets engaged but can’t pick a best man as he has no male friends whatsoever. Fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones) suggests that he goes on some man-dates to find one. He meets and befriends cocksure, brutally honest Sydney (Jason Segel) but, inevitably, their growing friendship starts to have an effect on Peter’s relationship with his fiancée. It’s full of the kind of throwaway quirks you see in this new wave of Apatowesque man-child comedy – Peter and Sydney bond over an unlikely shared love of rock band Rush (who were presumably bigger in the States than in the UK) and there’s a pointless sub-plot in which Peter (a real estate salesman) struggles to sell one-time TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno’s house. Paul Rudd is a great comedy performer and gets the most out of an underwritten role, but the film belongs to Segel, perfect as the laid-back lunk. Overall it’s a bit empty and forgettable but worth watching just for Paul Rudd’s comic talents. (3/5)
If released at the same time, Push and Jumper would be a great head-to-head battle the like of which we haven’t seen since Armageddon faced off with Deep Impact. Both films have science fiction themes and ideas which are far better and more interesting than the plot. People born with a variety of special powers are pursued across the world by a shadowy company called Division. ‘Mover’ Nick Gant (Chris Evans), ‘Watcher’ Cassie (Dakota Fanning) and ‘Pusher’ Kira (Camilla Bell) – three of the many people born with special abilities – are pursued across Hong Kong by Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a dangerous agent of shadowy company Division. Basically it’s basically a cut price version of X-Men, or Heroes: the movie. The special powers are nothing new and the clumsy plot meanders about without enough decent set pieces to hold your patience, leaving you focusing more on the Hong Kong scenery than anything that’s going on. (2/5)
Psychotherapist Claire (Anne Hathaway) is assigned to help a group of survivors of a plane crash including Eric (Patrick Wilson) who doesn’t seem as traumatised by the event as he should be. As Claire gets closer to Eric, strange things start to happen. To say any more would spoil things which is the problem with ‘twist’ films like this. They’re designed to keep you guessing from the outset – can you really call it a twist when you know from the start that what you’re being shown isn’t what’s really going on? Still, it’s not a bad little twist and it makes for a fun ninety minutes of guessing games before the big reveal and a fairly satisfying ending. (3/5)
Seven Pounds (2009)
Ask anyone whether who’s seen Seven Pounds whether it’s any good will probably give neither a positive nor a negative opinion. The adjective that immediately springs to mind is ‘depressing’. IRS agent Ben Thomas (Will Smith) with a secret attempts to change the lives of seven strangers and falls in love with one of them (Rosario Dawson). To say more would be giving the game away because it maliciously uses sleight of hand to make you think one thing and then reveal another. It’s not actually as depressing as many people make out, but it does feature another Oscar- baiting performance (he didn’t even get nominated though) from Will Smith who spends a lot of the time looking very serious and at one point goes for a run in the rain – the mark of a good drama. (3/5)
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)
That this film is even watchable has nothing to do with Matthew McConnaughey. The man’s acting talent comprises just two facial expressions: smug pervert and confused goldfish. Plus from out of nowhere, he’s developed an unusual tic of squealing like a parrot when his character is in trouble: watch the wedding cake scene. Based fairly loosely on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, three ghostly figures take McConnaughey’s glamour photographer on a journey into his past, present and future in an effort to change his womanising ways and see that big-chinned beauty Jennifer Garner is the love of his life. Of course, the fact that the film is actually fairly enjoyable has more to do with the quality of Dickenss tale than some Texan pretty boy. Oh and it’s got Michael Douglas as a dead playboy. Every film should star Michael Douglas as a dead playboy. (3/5)
So zippy, so sparkly, so hugely entertaining that I fell asleep. The bits I stayed awake for (I estimate about 40% of the film) were actually not bad. If only I could have timed my naps so that I saw all of Paul Giamatti’s and Tom Wilkinson’s performances and none of Clive Owen’s. (An estimated 3/5)
Fireflies in the Garden (2009)
If there were a competition for the meanest screen father of all time, Willem Dafoe would score highly. Well, he would if this film was more well-known. As it is, it’s a typical family drama with all the charm and warmth of a dip in the North Sea in February. It is saved by an all-star cast (Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Emily Watson to name a few), not because they’re all good (most of them are on auto-pilot) but because they’re all there. Viewing the film is punctuated by gasps of incredulity – ‘Oh my god is that him from Fantastic Four?’ is followed by ‘That’s that bird from The Matrix, isn’t it?’ – which only goes to show that star power is nothing compared to an engaging story. (3/5)
I also watched Full Metal Jacket for only the second time in my life, and Eyes Wide Shut for the nth time. Man, that Kubrick fella was good.
In my first week back from holiday, I more than caught up by watching a whole bunch of films.
The Right Stuff (1983)
This was supposed to be the first in a new top ten of science fiction films but due to poor research on my part it fell into the category of science fact. The story of the Mercury program – America’s first human spaceflight program – it is a compelling drama with great performances and superb cinematography. However, at over three hours it is too long and has a little too much ‘God Bless America, let’s stick it to those damn Commies’ jingoism. Still it’s good to see early screen performances from Fred Ward, Lance Henriksen, the never-ageing and impeccably cast Ed Harris (look up John Glenn on Wikipedia and you’ll see what I mean) and Dennis Quaid, who has apparently always looked like someone has successfully mated Jack Nicholson with Harrison Ford.
Shame list total: 1,202
Revolutionary Road (2009)
Post-war sun drenched New England suburbia – the perfect setting for some bitter marital hatred. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are relentlessly nasty to each other at a variety of different volumes. Sam Mendes directs his wife and her one time co-star with the same panache for which he won an Oscar, but despite the pretty leafiness of the setting, this is jet-black drama of the most depressing kind.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2009)
Or ‘Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Kooky Indie Rom-Com’ – the perfect antidote for Kate and Leo’s yelling. Nick (Michael Cera) is the straight bassist in an otherwise gay indie band, and is still hung up on his princess bitch ex-girlfriend Tris. After a gig, he meets quirky, sarcastic but otherwise perfectly nice Norah (Kat Dennings) and his mates attempt to get them together. Their banter plays out over the top of their quest to locate Norah’s drunk friend (who gets most of the laughs) and a secret gig by their favourite band Where’s Fluffy? It’s as indie as a stripy beanie hat and bobs along at a decent rate, and despite an unfortunately trite ending, it is a perfectly adequate way to spend 86 minutes of your life.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
I’ve always found Wes Anderson to be somewhat overrated. His brand of offbeat comedy has been a little too muted for my tastes. I even found the universally lauded The Royal Tenenbaums to be too subtle to hold my attention. However, I approached The Darjeeling Limited with an open mind, willing to have my opinions changed. Sadly, it was, for me, another ambitious misfire. Brothers Francis, Peter and Jack (played respectively by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzma who co-writes) who haven’t spoken to each other in years get together following the death of their father on a spiritual journey across India on the titular train in order to bond and become family again. The joke, however, is that none of them have a spiritual bone in their body and all too quickly their journey runs out of steam… a bit like the film. Anderson’s constant camera panning rapidly ceases to be inventive and becomes instead annoying, and, like the brothers, the film seems to lack direction. However, there are some nice quirky touches including an escaped rattlesnake, matching luggage and Francis’ head being bandaged up for most of the film.
I also watched The Shining for the umpteenth time. It’s still awesome.
Since I was on holiday for a couple of weeks, the only thing to report is that I watched The Proposal in which a Canadian literary editor’s visa expires and she persuades her long-suffering assistant to pretend to marry her so she can continue to live in New York. The perennially wholesome Sandra Bullock fails to convince as a powerbitch leaving Ryan Reynolds to carry the film almost by himself. There is some moderately entertaining fish-out-of-water stuff but it is largely a predictably dull comedy.
Thankfully I also fed my slowly growing obsession with Stanley Kubrick by revisiting A Clockwork Orange (as well as watching the DVD extras) and being reminded how great it is, if only for Malcolm McDowell’s smug lopsided grin.
Let The Right One In (2009)
The average human adult has seen approximately 68 films about or including vampires. Although that statistic is completely made up, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true. But unless you’re the moustached, tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, vampire obsessive who lectured at my university, you’re unlikely to have ever seen anything quite like Let The Right One In.
For starters, it goes against the conventional thinking that vampire films have to be horrors. While understandable, it’s a mode of thought as outdated as the idea that all animated films are just for kids.
Of course, vampire films and the whole vampire myth are all about sex, although Mark Kermode considered vampire teen romance Twilight to be all about angst. If you consider Let The Right One In to be Twilight with 12-year-olds, then it’s really all about puberty.
Blackeberg, Stockholm, 1982: Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a shy 12-year-old boy living in a block of flats with his mum. He looks like a cross between Thom Yorke and Steve Clark, the late guitarist in Def Leppard. He’s quiet and a bit weird which is why he is being bullied. When he meets his mysterious new ‘12-year-old’ neighbour Eli (Lina Leandersson) one night they strike up an unlikely but very sweet and totally believable friendship.
Amazingly this story of two creepy adolescents sharing an unusual nocturnal friendship does not court controversy, since it’s so agonisingly beautiful. The film is shot through with powerful scenes of agonising sadness – Eli is interrupted mid-attack, leaving her female victim alive but inevitably changed. Hospitalised and desperately hungry, she knowingly asks her doctor to open the blinds in the middle of the day.
Director Tomas Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) sensibly don’t play too much with vampire mythology, instead delivering it as matter-of-fact reality. Apparently vampires actually can enter your house uninvited, but just watch what happens when they do.
Despite the carnage that she brings, it’s easy to sympathise with Eli. She relies on drained blood that her father retrieves from the people he hunts for her, in some probably unintentionally hilarious scenes of ineptitude. In the end, she is left to fend for herself and we are reminded that despite being a creature of the night, she is still just a child. As such, it is as much a film about growing up as about unquenchable hunger – Stand By Me meets Dracula. When Eli finally steps in to help Oskar with his bully problem, you realise how strong their bond is and you’ll want to spend forever in their company.
I decided to celebrate finally being up to date on this blog by having a week off watching films. Instead I read the September issue of Empire before it had even reached the shops (I subscribe) and watched the excellent if repetitive extras on disc two of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Eagle-eyed readers (if there are any out there) may have noticed that I’ve stopped using italics when refering to films. This is partly laziness and partly because none of the other good film magazines use italics so why should I?
Evil Dead II (1987)
In 2008, Empire magazine’s readers voted Evil Dead II the 49th best film of all time. While this may not be true, it’s certainly an improvement on the original. Writer-director Sam Raimi was unable to secure the rights to use scenes from the first film as a recap so he just re-shot it and stuffed it into the first ten minutes. This being the case, Evil Dead II is much faster than its predecessor. It’s also as much a slapstick comedy as it is a horror – when Ash’s (Bruce Campbell) hand becomes possessed and throws him around the room, Raimi reveals his love of the Three Stooges. The documentary that accompanies the film on the DVD shows how creative Raimi and his cast and crew were with a restricted budget. It’s certainly more inventive than most of the horror comedies that are made today. Groovy.
Shame list total: 1,203
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Generally regarded as one of Ealing’s best comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets is both subtle and audacious. In Edwardian England, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price, a picture of posh calm throughout) is upset about not taking his rightful place in the D’Ascoyne family when his mother, who married into the family, dies. Both to avenge her and to become the Duke of D’Ascoyne, Louis picks off the surviving members of the family one by one. They don’t make comedies like this anymore – subtle humour, well-crafted plot, killer dialogue and great performances, especially from Alec Guinness as all eight of the D’Ascoyne family.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
In 1940s Sicily, young Salvatore ‘Toto’ Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio) is a cheeky little scamp who spends all his free time at the town’s cinema and befriends father-figure projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). It is from Alfredo’s passion and teachings that Toto eventually leaves the town and becomes a famous film director. He returns to the town for the first time in 30 years to attend Alfredo’s funeral and remembers what he left behind. This tale of friendship, love, finding yourself and the magic of cinema is heart-warming and heartbreaking in equal measures. Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore soaks the film in wistful nostalgia with sweeping music and beautiful camerawork.
Shame list total: 1,204
I recently bought the Stanley Kubrick box set – five films I have seen before, some not for a long time and one which didn’t make much of an impact on me on first viewing. I thought it fitting, what with the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, to make a start this week with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which I watched for only the second time. I remember when I first saw it as a teenager I found it quite boring and painfully long. I’m starting to believe that when I was a teenager I was a moron. It is simply breathtaking. To encompass the evolution of human achievement in the space of two hours and twenty minutes is an ambitious project, but it was nothing that Kubrick couldn’t handle. Although a film of ideas and theories, about science and philosophy, 2001 is also uncomfortably tense. HAL 9000’s motionless red eye is chilling, and that voice manages to be both soothing and sinister. It whetted my appetite for going to see Duncan Jones’ 1970s-esque Moon, a review of which I’ll post shortly. Honest.
Original ‘idiolescent’ rating: 3/5 (I seem to recall)
Revised ‘mature, learned, moderately well-read, more culturally aware 29-year-old’ rating: 5/5
Amores Perros (2000)
Massively depressing but that’s what I’ve come to expect from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of Babel and 21 Grams. Like those other two, this is a jigsaw in a movie that sees one event (a horrific car crash) shatter the lives of three very different people, with each character’s story ending somewhat bleakly. Still it’s powerful cinema and worth watching if you can stomach the harrowing dog-on-dog violence.
Shame list total: 1,206
The 39 Steps (1935)
Much as I’d like to, I can’t tick this off the list because I saw when I was in my mid-teens. However, as with most films I’ve revisited since then, it’s infinitely better than I remember. It’s so well paced that you can’t believe how much is crammed into it’s short running time and still leave room for some great dialogue between Robert Donat as man-on-the-run Richard Hannay and Madeleine Carroll as stubborn love interest/sparring partner Pamela.
I also rewatched Little Miss Sunshine, convinced that it couldn’t possibly be as good as I remember it… and it was. The story may be episodic and the characters may be unconvincing stereotypes, but the dialogue zings, the cast is on top form and the ending makes you all warm inside without coming across as too saccharine sweet.
I was just about to sit down and watch The Visitor (which I eventually did watch – see below) when I had a phone call inviting me to watch Gummo. I’d heard the name but knew nothing about it, so I thought it might be fun. It turns out that in watching it, I’d ticked another film off the shame list – it appears in The Guardian’s 1,000 films to watch before you die. Writer/director Harmony Korine (a guy) shows a warts-and-all picture of life in Xenia, Ohio, a poor town that has never fully recovered from a tornado in the 1970s. Virtually plotless, it’s made up of a series of gritty and often surreal vignettes (a couple of youths make money by killing cats, an adolescent boy runs around wearing only shorts and pink rabbit ears, two teenage girls practice becoming strippers) that make for quite uncomfortable viewing. Although the characters are fictionalised, the grubby houses in which Korine shoots are left untreated. With brutal realism, he shows the weirdness and alienation of one of the poorest parts of America.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
While escaping from creditors, struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself at the rundown mansion of has-been silent movie star Norma Desmond (a demonic Gloria Swanson) who keeps him in the lap of luxury so that he can rewrite her screenplay, but it comes at the expense of his freedom. Scathing and bitter, but it also contains real heart as Joe desperately tries to get out of his situation and Norma just as desperately tries to make him stay. Sunset Boulevard is one of the best movies about the movies – a masterpiece in which screenplay, direction, acting and plot are all pitched perfectly. I could go on and on about how great it is, but I won’t. Instead, I plan to watch All About Eve very soon – if there was a film released in the same year as Sunset Boulevard that beat it to the Best Picture Oscar, I need to see it.
Shame list total: 1,207
The Visitor (2008)
Thomas McCarthy is a prolific if not a particularly famous actor. He’s also starting to carve himself a nice little career as a writer and director of intelligent, heartfelt films about loneliness, belonging and the human need to connect to others. He followed the extraordinary The Station Agent with this, the tale of lonely Connecticut college professor Walter Vale who travels to his second home in New York that he hasn’t been to in a long time only to find refugees Tarek and Zainab (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira) living there. Taking pity on them he decides to let them stay for a while and becomes friends with them. But American foreign policy soon turns things nasty when Tarek gets arrested and Walter tries to help his new friend. Richard Jenkins has long been a terrific character actor but here he excels himself, giving Walter real heart as he opens his home to these strangers. While more depressing than The Station Agent, this is a wonderful film about reaching out to others when you both need it most.
I also watched Jaws for probably the first time since I was a child. It’s amazing how well I remembered it but also how much of it was a surprise – having probably never seen it through adult eyes, I actually paid attention to the plot rather than just the shark scenes and found it more rewarding than ever before. Spielberg’s direction is superb – the fact that you don’t even see the threat until half way through underlines the fact that it’s not about a shark at all, but a tale of obsession and fear, in which one man tries to make a difference. Plus Richard Dreyfuss is awesome, just for that crazy nasal laugh of his.