Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Best Films of 2013

I would normally write a lengthy intro to my favourite films of the year list. This is traditional. All pundits normally indulge themselves.

Something about the trends apparent in modern cinema. And how these confirm the declining standards of life as we know it. And how much at least two of; mobile phone use in the audience, or overlong running times, or the inedibility of modern popcorn make me want to go and live in the forest and not watch any movies at all, unless they're ones I've made myself with a camera made out of twigs (a la The Last Movie).

But this is all too angry... and kind of insane... and a 'Best Of' list should be a happy time... and I don't really know what I'm talking about anyway.

So let's get to the money! I mean, the movies...


In the wake of a massive, civilisation ending catastrophe (implied to be a meteor impact in the Northern hemisphere), residents of Perth, Western Australia face up to the end with varying degrees of stoicism. Perennial fuck up James (Nathan Phillips) wants to spend the day partying with his friends, but a chance encounter with a distressed young girl (brilliantly played by Angourie Rice), provides him with one last opportunity to show his good side. This terrific, low budget Australian film serves as showcase for talent on both sides of the camera, and provides moments of excitement and tension along with less expected elements of pathos. Echoing On the Beach (which, like this, played at this years Melbourne International Film Festival) but with a contemporary mentality, These Final Hours provides a particularly fine example of the sort of local film we don't see often enough. 


Thousands of kilometres above the surface of the planet, a small team of astronauts work to repair a malfunctioning satellite. When an unexpected catastrophe decimates the crew and leaves their spacecraft prone, two survivors - plucky but inexperienced Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and cocky veteran Matt (George Clooney) - battle the relentlessly hostile environment as they struggle to make it back to Earth. About as far removed from a conventional Hollywood depiction of space exploration as you could get, Gravity starts with a realistic depiction of the difficulties of life in space... and then things start blowing up. Once the plot is in motion, the film becomes an almost unbearably tense scramble against time, as oxygen, fuel and mental faculties start to run out. Director Alfonso Cuaron and his team spent three years in pre-production on this and it shows; the film's visuals are literally jaw dropping and among the most elaborate ever created (see it on the biggest screen you can, for maximum impact). The characters and dialogue are all cardboard, but its impossible to care much while this thrill ride is going. 


Most people have questions about themselves; where they came from, their roots, what their parents were like before they were born. Canadian director - and sometime actor - Sarah Polley's probing of these fundamentals provides the foundation of this documentary, but her personal investigation soon takes a number of turns as family secrets are unexpectedly brought to light. Utilising interviews with her extended family and friends, and carefully selected re-enactments, Polley creates a family portrait remarkable for its depth and candour, and distinguished by the range of emotions on display. Joy, pain, sorrow and love all have their place in this story and the film maker is most generous in allowing the audience to share these with her. The director's father, Michael Polley, has some of the finest cinema moments of the year, as he talks very directly about his late wife, a woman he was married to for decades but never quite figured out. An outstanding, heartfelt movie.


Towards the end of his life, famed entertainer Liberace seemed to have it all; money, mansions and a multitude of small dogs. To the public, this was a story of tremendous, flamboyant success. Behind the scenes was a lonely and isolated man, forced to hide his homosexuality - and jumbo sized libido - from public view. Enter Scott Thorson; a likable and directionless teenager who becomes the musician's lover, confidante, chauffeur and (thanks to plastic surgery) lookalike. Their affair rides a roller coaster of manic behaviour, torrid emotions and drug abuse, ending in court accusations and recrimination. For a story with so many scandalous elements, and so much capacity for overblown melodrama, it's remarkable that Behind the Candelabra also works so well as a simple love story. The connection between star and acolyte is believably established and their early times together are sweetly, gently depicted, which gives their downhill slide the weight of tragedy. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon give stunning, uninhibited performances and the production design and depiction of 70's Vegas showbiz is spot on. A remarkable, funny-sad movie.


Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nebbish trapped in a low grade nightmare; he has a dull job, a cramped apartment and a crush on a pretty girl who ignores him. He's unhappy, frustrated and trapped. And then he meets... James Simon (Eisenberg again), a visual doppelganger with a dramatically different personality. The two become friends, but Simon quickly realises that behind his double's breezy exterior some very dark things are at work. Up and coming director Richard Ayoade's (Submarine) second feature is an assured comic puzzle box. The drab, grey and brown production design radiates just the right tone of mild urban hell, the perfect backdrop for the escalating events onscreen, and the director deftly chooses his moments to ratchet up the tension. Surprises abound and you're never quite sure where the narrative will head off to next. Eisenberg clearly has a ball playing twin parts, and the impressive supporting cast features neat turns from Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor and Wallace Shawn. A darkly funny, highly original treat.


Pat (Bradley Cooper) has hit rock bottom; his wife has left him, he's lost his job and he's been confined to a psychiatric hospital after assaulting his wife's new lover. On release, he's forced to move back in with his parents - a colourful pair with problems of their own -while he tries to sift through the wreckage of his life. Distraction comes in the form of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), another train wreck barely functioning after the sudden death of her husband. This manic, acerbic twosome slowly - very slowly - bond over joint  participation in an amateur dance contest, while driving everyone around them slightly nuts. Romantic comedies are one of the foundation genres of cinema yet good ones have become increasingly rare, which adds another layer to the pleasure of this fresh, funny, deeply romantic film. No punches are pulled in the depiction of the main character's mental health problems, which raises the stakes considerably as they edge towards each other. Brad Cooper is simply a revelation as the well meaning, manic, Pat, but he is surrounded on all sides by a fine ensemble (Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jackie Weaver and Chris Tucker all shine) and director David O. Russell maintains the right tone and tempo from start to finish. One of the feel good movie experiences of the year.


Heading for home after an extended stretch at sea, the crew of a Norwegian cargo ship have their tedious routine shattered when they are hijacked by Somali pirates. Escalating events on the ship are compounded by the drama at corporate headquarters, where a controlling CEO (Soren Malling) takes personal charge of negotiations and quickly finds himself out of his depth. This taut, tightly directed thriller starts slowly and then cranks up the tension in the second half, particularly when focusing on the plight of the ship's easy going cook Mikkel (a superb Johan Phillip Asbaek). The film achieves a level of realism that is completely absorbing and gives a gripping depiction of different personality types cracking under pressure. Violence is only used sparingly, but powerfully, and is shown as simply one tool available to the tormentor. An utterly harrowing movie experience.


China is the world's most populous country and its economic miracle child; three decades of modernisation has transformed a rural, isolated backwater into a global powerhouse. But these rapid changes have not come without cost. A Touch of Sin shows life in contemporary China through four loosely linked stories, each depicting a central character struggling to cope with the unbearable pressures of their daily lives. Each day is a fight, a sprint, a wrestle, where nothing comes easy and everything hangs by a thread. In such a harsh, unforgiving environment the violence the characters resort to (taken from real life events) seems entirely understandable and eventually becomes just another element of the background noise of a hyperactive society. The importance of the individual is depicted as entirely secondary to that of the state, leaving the characters in a moral vacuum where they make their own survival rules. A powerful, thought provoking film, full of remarkable performances and indelible imagery, and one that manages to work just as well on a conceptual level as it does on a narrative one. Sure to be dissected for some time yet.


The Thief is a criminal who may have conceived the perfect crime. The Sampler is an outcast who observes the natural world around him. Kris and Jeff are victims caught between the two; robbed and psychologically damaged by the first, rescued but somehow trapped by the second. To reveal much more is almost certainly inappropriate... if not outright impossible, given the complexities of the plot. Independent American director Shane Carruth returns with his second feature, nine years after cult favourite Primer also proved difficult to summarise concisely. His new movie simply overflows with ideas, examining (among other things); relationships, patterns of behaviour, the essence of intelligence and man's impact on the natural world. As a kind of bonus, it also works as a tender love story, as two wounded souls connect and start to heal each other. A bold, at times outlandish, film that is in equal parts disturbing, funny, tender and tragic, but is never less than fascinating. A shot of intellectual adrenaline.


Frances lives, loves and laughs in New York, at least when she can afford it. A professional dancer a few years out of college, but a few years short of professional traction, she lives very much in the moment, one haphazard misadventure leading to the next. 

Over the course of a few busy months she breaks up with a long term BF, moves house, loses and regains her bestie, doubts her career, moves house, visits Paris, works at her old college, dances in the street, moves many more times and smokes a lot of cigarettes. Usually short of a buck, and always needing new digs, Frances rides the bumps of her existence with remarkable equanimity. 

She does get knocked down, but never for long. And her determination to carve her own path ultimately pays off, and gets her moving toward where she wants to be.

This warm, beautifully observed light comedy is centred around Greta Gerwig - in career best form - as the title character; funny, bold, quick witted and generous, as well as awkward, difficult, impulsive and petulant. 

In other words, utterly human, and so removed from the caricatures that often populate movie comedies. While the central performance is a delight, this is only one among many. The supporting players, cinematography, sets, dialogue and music (a particular treat for fans of Modern Love) are all first rate. The sum of all these parts is a movie that is laugh out loud funny and touching, moving and gregarious, something with a universal message. 

I may never have lived in New York, nor been a dancer, nor a woman but I felt like I could relate to much of what Frances experiences, which makes her eventual progress so much more rewarding. 

Although you don’t want her to leave when the credits roll. The reveal of the meaning behind the title is probably my favourite movie moment of 2013, but there are so many great moments ('I'm really happy for you', is another) that I want to watch the whole movie again... right now! 

Brilliant stuff.

Also Very Good...

- Drinking Buddies

- Omar 

- Fruitvale Station

- Lincoln

- The Punk Singer

- Inside Llewyn Davis

- Computer Chess

- Blue Ruin

- The Past

- A Field in England

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Worst Films of 2013

This list comes with a few provisos:

a) There were lots of movies that I didn't see this year;

b) I don't know that much about movies really;

c) I don't know that much about anything.

With that in mind then, an otherwise definitive guide to the worst films of the year.


South East Asia is a nice place to visit. And an even nicer place to spend Christmas, at least if you're white, Western and loaded enough to hire your own private plantation replete with army of dark skinned servants. Shame that a big wave had to come and spoil the fun. But, if you've not seen this, you can rest easy knowing that the wealthy white folks get away safely, ensconced in their own private plane while the grubby natives look on disconsolately from behind a barbed wire fence. Sucks to be them! This film was rightly lauded for the special effects that re-created the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, but unfortunately this only lasts for about 5 minutes. The remainder of the running time is taken up with fatuous melodrama, which is offensive when it isn't mundane. The only thing they didn't show was Naomi Watts stepping on the head of some local nobody, as she sprinted for the getaway plane.


This wasn't the worst zombie movie of the year (see below) but nevertheless, problems remain. Fans of Night of the Living Dead, for example, will be surprised by the lack of scares. And fans of the popular novel this is based on will be surprised by how it’s no longer set in the future and told from multiple points of view. And fans of entertainment will wonder how $200 million could be spent to produce something so devoid of any entertainment value. This film has a few good moments and Brad Pitt tries his best as a hackneyed everyman, but it’s mostly just overblown, silly and dull. Humanity's central defence against zombie takeover – they won’t attack people who are injured – also means that pretty much everyone alive on planet earth today would be safe from them (who hasn't had an injury or two), thusly negating the film’s existence. Which would have saved everyone a bit of time, if nothing else.


JJ’s first Star Trek reboot was a lot of fun; New Spock and New Kirk took to their roles with relish and quickly established some chemistry that seemed set to power the franchise. And the preliminaries on this follow up could hardly have been better; a thunderous trailer and Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain (yay!). This good feeling lasted through the pre-credits sequence – a vigorous run through the jungle on a primitive planet – but began to fade about the time a mysterious set of tubes were entrusted to the Enterprise’s crew. 


‘That’s right, tubes Kirk. Tubes!’ 

The tubes contain… bodies? Which were put there because… not too sure. But the bodies themselves had come from a failed experiment of some sort, conducted by someone, somewhere else. The ship’s cute new lady engineer then shimmies down to her undies to try and work out what’s going on, by which time I was looking around the IMAX trying to see if anyone else’s mouth was hanging open. The whole thing wraps up with a bizarre re-telling of the famous ending from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, only with the principal roles reversed… for some reason. This made squillions and was liked by Trekkies (for the most part) but for me, was the worst tent pole of the year.

7. THIS IS 40

Pity Pete and Debbie; they live in an enormous mansion, have tonnes of disposable income, two cars, four laptops, 8 TV’s, 16 i-Devices, live in the richest country on Earth and have never wanted for anything in their entire lives. Wait… What was that thing at the start? Oh right, the pity thing. Oh, yes, well, it seems that both of them are getting a bit older. And Pete spent $25000 on a neon sign for his business which he should have given to his dad. And one of the employees at Debbie’s hobby homewares shop is hotter than her and makes her feel a bit dowdy. It makes your eyes moist to think of it all, to be sure. While this bloated, mid life crisis comedy is technically well made and has some fun with the supporting characters, there’s something utterly obscene about watching these wealthy, spoilt brats bemoan their lot. Do the makers of this have no idea what’s going on outside the gates of their privileged, fortified compound? History will tell you that they never do, until the mob forces the gate and puts them to the sword.


AKA, When Great Directors Go Bad. Pedro Almodovar has found late career lustre with a string of rapturously received comedy-dramas (Talk to Her, All About My Mother and Volver chief among them) but his last two movies have died terrible, tawdry deaths. But if 2011’s The Skin I Live In was merely trashy, exploitive junk, this dismal, wannabe provocative comedy set on a doomed airliner ups the ante by adding more adjectives; insipid, boring, unfunny, tired and pretentious among them. What may have seemed fresh and lively when Almodovar was making films in the 70’s and early 80’s has long been gazzumped by a shift in taste: The Farrelly Brothers moved jokes about semen into the mainstream a decade ago and this sad attempt by the director to return to his X rated roots falls resoundingly flat. Embarrassing.


Something about this lame, unappealing zombie rom-com recalls the South Park episode where AWESOME-O pitches new Adam Sandler movie ideas to Hollywood execs… ‘Adam Sandler is trapped on a desert island and falls in love with a coconut… Adam Sandler inherits a billion dollars but first he has to become a boxer…' So, we've had low budget zombie movies and big budget zombie movies, zombie action films, zombie sci-fi films, zombie comedies, a critically acclaimed zombie TV show and films where the zombie-ization has been caused by space rays and aliens and solar flares and viruses and radio waves until… Well, how about zombies in space? Zombies at Spring Break? Hold the phone I’ve got it, zombie rom-com!! Suffice to say that this film struggles from the opening voice over but then, much like the subject matter, fails to properly die, limping on through 98 more excruciating minutes. Not something John Malkovich will highlight on his CV.


I had very much enjoyed 2012’s The Sound of My Voice, about independent journalists trying to debunk a suburban cult leader, so was eager to see this re-team of that film’s writers, director and star (Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, sharing duties). And their scenario here had potential; a young investigator (Marling) is assigned to infiltrate a secretive enviro-terrorist group and write an expose of their activities. But from the moment the established members of said group show up to breakfast wearing strait jackets and then feed each other without using their hands, this film quickly throws off any claim to credibility it may have had. Even worse, the plot devolves into a malnourished will-she won’t-she scenario, as our heroine tries to decide whether to stick by her dorky new terrorist boyfriend or stay loyal to her boo-hiss evil corporate boss. ‘Isn't there a third option?’ you want to demand on her behalf. Cliched scenarios, dialogue and characters abound, as the film plods slowly to an obvious finale. The biggest disappointment of my movie year.


This movie could serve as some kind of guide to creative casting: Zak Effron as a shy, backwards type; Nicole Kidman as a trashy southern sexpot; John Cusack as… a crazed, red neck, croc hunter!!! Woo hooo! That each of these ideas is sillier than the last (although Effron is pretty good actually) points you clearly in the direction of the mindset of this ludicrous thriller, which starts out in a middling fashion and then quickly heads downhill. As the plot unfolds in a way that is probably meant to be serpentine, but is actually just plain daft, the bizarre sights and sounds pile up like cars on a highway at the start of a Final Destination film; Nicole Kidman urinating on Effron’s leg, Matthew McConaughney revealed as a BDSM freak, baccy chewin’ Cusack coming on a like a tough old bubba while a rubber alligator hangs from a tree behind him. This last was so absurd that it gave me a good laugh, which is probably not the idea when characters lives are meant to be at stake. Still, at least it was a rare moment of levity, on a night otherwise better spent in front of HBO. 


With the plethora of Superhero and Comic Book movies that have filled multiplexes of late, here is a concept that no one had thought of yet; take a well known superhero, remove them from their normal genre and dump them in an entirely different type of movie. So, in this case, we have Wolverine taken out of his usual context battling other mutants and plonked at the heart of a Yakuza/Asian crime saga. As an idea, this feels like the random garbage that comes out of a late Wednesday afternoon spitballing session, and as a movie it works about as well as watching Superman go to the old West or Batman join an interstellar space mission (the latter, admittedly, a pretty awesome idea). That the Yakuza/Asian crime drama Hugh Jackman’s earnest hero finds himself in here is also an overwrought, dreary mess clearly doesn't help. And neither does the feeling that nothing happening on screen really means anything much, beyond the Wolverine Happy meal tie in at Maccas.


There are always questions around remakes. Why? Being the main one. With this unbearably mediocre rehash, another would be ‘How do I remove all trace of what I just watched from my brain?’ Lacuna Inc? But perhaps the makers of this version were always on a hiding to nothing. The 1976 Brian DePalma original is a favourite of many, and not just from the horror-cult fanboy community. But everything that makes the original work seems to have been sucked right out of this; it’s neither scary, nor funny, nor populated with crazy-awesome 70’s hair and clothes. And Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek are enormously large shoes to fill, even for the well credentialed replacements that have been brought in. Ultimately, this Carrie just feels amateurish and the pointlessness of its existence is enough to require French terminology to describe it. Carrie is... The worst film I saw this year.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Noah: 5 Alternate Tag Lines

You may have heard that Russell Crowe is playing Noah in a big budget new bible epic. And if you haven't heard about this, get ready, because the marketing campaign that has to sell this turkey is about to swing into the sort of overdrive that will make you wish for a civilisation ending flood.

The first sneak peaks and poster for this thing were up online today and among the many things wrong with it all is the insipid tag line that they've gone for:

'The end of the world... is just the beginning.'

I mean, really? Will the film be delving into what he did after the flood subsided. Fuck me, I hope not. In any case, surely they could have done better.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Six Films From The London Film Festival

I was lucky to be in London this October and so was on hand to catch a few movies at the 57th London Film Festival. And to catch a serious dose of celeb-paparazzo fever! For there were clearly a few players in the business who were happy to take up the offer of a free junket holiday in the UK, as some of world's most famous directors and actors were on hand to mumble incoherently about the films they'd help produce.

A brief recap of what I saw.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Thousands of kilometres above the surface of the planet, a small team of astronauts work to repair a malfunctioning satellite. When an unexpected catastrophe decimates the crew and leaves their spacecraft prone, two survivors - plucky but inexperienced Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and cocky veteran Matt (George Clooney) - battle the relentlessly hostile environment as they struggle to make it back to Earth.

As far removed from a conventional Hollywood depiction of space exploration as you could probably get, Gravity seeks to provide a realistic representation of life and work in a zero g environment;  the difficulties, the frustrations and the amazing view are all given their due. And then things start blowing up. Once the plot is in motion, the rest of the film is an almost unbearably tense scramble against the tightest of time frames, showcasing some of the most amazing visuals ever seen in a cinema. Director Alfonso Cuaron and his team spent three years in pre-production on this and it shows. See it in 3D on the biggest screen you can find and then pick your jaw up from the floor afterwards. The characters and dialogue are all cardboard, but its impossible to care much while this thrill ride is going. A unique cinema experience.

Where: BFI Imax; a spectacular, cylindrical building near Waterloo Station.
Celebs?: Cuaron introduced the session and politely thanked everyone for coming.


Rates:  *  *

Laura (Scarlett Johansson) is a recently arrived alien on an inscrutable mission; she drives around northern Scotland in a panel van chatting up horny young men, luring any she deems suitable back to her lair (a succession of run down tenement houses), where she traps them in a kind of viscous substance before heading back out on the hunt. But an encounter with a tragically disfigured sad sack breaks the pattern; Laura feels some pity for this man and lets him go, then has to flee her own alien co-conspirators who are clearly displeased with this deviation from plan. On the lam, Laura gets to experience a little of everyday human existence.

Nine years after his last feature film, lauded independent director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) returns with this highly stylized, but disappointingly empty, piece of cerebral sci-fi horror. The imagery that Glazer has conjured up is frequently striking, and his reserved tone is effective for a while in creating a sense of mystery, but it is quickly apparent that the slim story is not really going anywhere. The abduction scenes in the first half of the film become repetitive and it is difficult to connect with Laura's emotional awakening in the second half. Her character's motivations are entirely withheld from the audience and with them goes any chance that what she experiences in the latter scenes will have any resonance. Johansson does her best and the film is odd enough that it may find a cult following, but this would have to rank as a major disappointment.

Where: Odeon, Leicester Square; a stock standard, chain cinema.
Celebs?: Glazer introduced the film and then returned for an earnest Q and A after.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nebbish trapped in a low grade nightmare; he has a dull job, a cramped apartment and a crush on a pretty girl who ignores him the same way as everyone else. He's unhappy, frustrated and trapped. And then he meets... James Simon (Eisenberg again), an exact doppelganger who's diametrically opposite in every behavioural way. The two become friends, but Simon quickly realises that beneath James' breezy exterior some very dark things are at work. In short order, James finds himself sucked into an escalating battle to defend his life and sanity.

Based on Dostoyevsky's story of the same name, up and coming director Richard Ayoade's second feature is an assured comic puzzle box. The drab, grey and brown production design radiates just the right tone of mild urban hell, the perfect backdrop for the increasingly obtuse events onscreen, and the director deftly chooses his moments to ratchet up the tension and spring surprises. Eisenberg clearly has a ball playing twin parts, and the impressive supporting cast features neat turns from Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor and Wallace Shawn. A darkly funny, highly original treat.

Where: Hackney Picture House; a funky set of cinemas in east London, with some of the best cinema seats I've plonked myself in.
Celebs?: None.


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a talented mess; a singer songwriter with a sweet voice and a short temper who lives to play music and is otherwise barely able to function. Davis is right at home in the East Village of 50's New York, where he is just one such character among many doing the rounds; crashing on a rotating series of couches, cadging favours, ignoring responsibilities, playing in underground dives for whatever the crowd offers afterward.

The eagerly anticipated new film from the Coen Brothers has just the barest thread of a plot, but this is enough for them to hang much rich detail on in this entertaining character study. The production design, cinematography, sets, costumes and (especially) the soundtrack are all of the highest order and work together to create a fluid, absorbing world. And Oscar Isaac has produced a charismatic lead performance (and lovely singing) that will undoubtedly make him a star. It's a little disappointing then, that all of this fine craft is in the cause of a movie that meanders and, ultimately, seems to have little overall point. The details are intoxicating, but the eventual whole left me unsatisfied. A movie of many fine elements that just misses.

Where: Odeon, Leicester Square.
Celebs?: Overload! There were hoardes of people and many aggressive photographers outside trying to get a peak of... Ethan and Joel Coen! Oscar Davis! Justin Timberlake! Carey Mulligan! JOHN GOODMAN! They all came on stage for a Q and A after the screening (when the ushers advised that there were no microphones on the top level and that people up there would have to come down to ask a question, Goodman roared 'Don't let them screw ya!').


Rates:  *  1/2

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are well meaning ideologues who have decided to turn words and sentiments into action. Together they plan and execute a minor piece of eco-terrorism, but their satisfaction at a job well done soon gives way to doubt and fear when they learn of their act's tragic consequences.

American director Kelly Reichardt has dazzled the festival circuit with her last two features - Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy - and her latest represents an effort to marry the nuance of her earlier films with a more narrative driven story. Reichardt's previous movies had a loose structure that allowed her character's plenty of room to move as she slowly teased out the key elements of their personalities. While she tries this same approach in Night Moves, the plottier story clashes with the introspective tone and the film ultimately feels unrealised in both respects; it is neither exciting enough to work as a thriller nor insightful enough to work as a character study. While Reichardt deserves praise for trying something different, unfortunately her effort to carve out some new artistic territory just doesn't work. The actors try hard, but the movie seems stuck in first gear from the outset.

Where: Odeon, Leicester Square.
Celebs?: Reichardt and Eisenberg were on hand for a Q and A afterwards, with the director fielding 95% of the questions and finding it almost impossible to talk coherently about any subject. From her answers you would have thought she wasn't clear why she had made Night Moves, what it was about and whether she thought terror acts in the greater good were justified or not. Puzzling.


Rates:  *  *  1/2

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a straight talking foreman and happily married family man, content with his life and about to oversee a particularly important piece of construction work. Out of the blue, he is contacted by a former one night stand, who tells him she is pregnant with his child and about to give birth. Obeying his instincts and trying to uphold his principals, Locke gets in his car to drive to the woman's side for the birth, trying to manage the other threads of his private and professional life via a series of phone calls en route.

Tom Hardy is the whole show in Locke, onscreen for the film's entire running time and the only character seen throughout. He offers a stoic, focused performance (and a slightly iffy Welsh accent) and does a mostly successful job depicting a man who has a lot of inner turmoil beneath a calm facade. Although how interesting you find his plight is probably a matter of taste. The film itself is more of a concept than a fully fledged movie experience. It deserves some praise for originality, but this is not enough to overcome the static nature and limitations the idea imposes. Being stuck in a car with this odd, pedantic character for a hundred minutes is finally more wearying than anything else.

Where: Odeon Leicester Square.
Celebs?: Hardy and writer-director Steven Knight took a Q and A after the screening, and the smartly dressed Hardy enthusiastically posed for photos with people while they were leaving. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Every Woody Allen Film Ranked in Merit Order

Upper Elite Tier

Stardust Memories
Crimes and Misdemeanours
Annie Hall

Elite Tier

Broadway Danny Rose
Sweet and Lowdown
Hannah and Her Sisters

Upper Quality Tier

Bullets Over Broadway
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Deconstructing Harry
Purple Rose of Cairo
Love and Death

Quality Tier

Midnight in Paris
Husbands and Wives

Upper Solid Tier

Blue Jasmine
Radio Days

'Check mate you little potza!'

Solid Tier

Whatever Works
Match Point
Another Woman
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)
Take the Money and Run
Vicky Christina Barcelona
Everyone Says I Love You

Upper Marginal Tier

Small Time Crooks
Hollywood Ending
Mighty Aphrodite
Shadows and Fog
What's Up Tiger Lily

Marginal Tier

To Rome With Love
Melinda and Melinda
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

The Pits Tier

Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Run For The Exits Tier

Cassandra's Dream
Anything Else

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Second Movie Syndrome: Five Follow Up Features That Died

To start with, I loved District 9. It was one of the best films of its year and one of the most original sci fi movies for some time. Its young South African director, Neill Blomkamp, established himself as one of the world’s most exciting film makers with one audacious stroke. Expectations for his follow up were high...

But I hated Elysium. Blomkamp’s long delayed second movie was muddled, illogical and bloated. And oddly plodding, considering how busy it was. I took a lot of residual goodwill into Elysium, but left very disappointed.

And so Elysium provided a fine example of 'Second Movie Syndrome,' where a lauded debut feature is followed by a turkey. Today’s list highlights 5 of these difficult follow ups:

5. John Singleton

1st Film – Boyz ‘n  the Hood

Follow Up – Poetic Justice

From this distant point in the future, it’s hard to remember the impact that director John Singleton’s first movie, Boyz ‘n the Hood, had. But this frank, bleak drama of young African American men struggling to cope with the violence inherent in their environment was one of the most talked about releases of its time. Roger Ebert called it ‘One of the best American films for many years’ and Empire magazine raved that it was ‘masterfully crafted and nothing short of amazing.’ This was the sort of movie that became part of the atmosphere; people discussed it earnestly over water coolers, and sketch comedy shows did ridiculous parodies of it in prime time. With one film, Singleton (who was only 26 when he wrote and directed Boyz) seemed to have established himself as a fresh new voice in African American cinema, like a West Coast version of Spike Lee.

Two years after Boyz he returned with Poetic Justice, a limp romantic drama largely notable for the novelty casting of Janet Jackson in the lead. 

Jackson plays Justice, a shut in single mother who also happens to be a poetry genius (the poems are supplied by Maya Angelou, so are either brilliant or a bit fruity, depending on your taste). She’s wooed by Tupac Shakur, who plays a tough postie with a heart of gold. Both have tragedies in their past, which are revealed to anyone who can survive more than an hour of this movie’s leaden pacing, and everyone learns a thing or two by the end. The contrast between the uncompromising approach of Boyz and the cliched scenarios of Justice could hardly be more pronounced.

4. Kevin Smith

1st Film – Clerks

Follow Up – Mallrats

In 1994 a schlub from Jersey maxed out a dozen credit cards and sold his comic book collection so he could make a feature film. The result was Clerks, an ultra low budget, crass, uninhibited comedy about a couple of dudes wasting their lives working McJobs in the service industry. The unexpected critical and commercial success of Clerks gifted Kevin Smith a directing career and, perhaps even more improbably, made a minor star out of Jason Mewes. This was one of the first movies I can remember seeing at an ‘art house’ cinema (the wonderful La Luna, in Leederville, Western Australia) and it was an instant favourite of mine, and everyone else I knew. People quoted this movie to each other at parties and you saw the poster on the walls of share houses. It was our lives on screen and it looked like any one of us could have made it. 

Seemingly only a minute later (actually the following year), Smith was back with Mallrats, a film with a similar conceit to Clerks but sporting a much bigger budget.

But where Clerks was witty and sharply observed, Rats was dumb and obvious. And where the satirical elements of the earlier film had balanced the dick and fart jokes, there were now… more dick and fart jokes, cranked to 11. The Clerks were likable if aimless slackers but the Rats were kids you’d probably want to run over if you thought you could get away with it. Despite a few laughs and some (Smith trademark) funny dialogue, Mallrats was as unlikable a follow up as you could imagine. A big comedown, in every respect.

3. Richard Kelly

1st Film – Donnie Darko

Follow Up – Southland Tales

Unlike the other first films on this list, Donnie Darko did not have an immediate impact. In fact, director Richard Kelly has stated that his metaphysical time travel funhouse was close to going straight to DVD, so puzzled were prospective distributors by what he’d produced. But Newmarket Films gave it a limited release in 2001 (after Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films had helped fund the production) and the films reputation began to grow; slowly, incrementally, by word of mouth. When this lead to a wider theatrical run, Darko caught fire in a way that has left an enduring imprint much larger than the modest film that spurred it. There were positive reviews, sure, but there are also Darko fansites, fan fiction, chatrooms, t-shirts, conventions, social network pages, clubs, acolytes and obsessives and a reproduction of the phony book (The Philosophy of Time Travel) that drives part of the plot available on Amazon. To say nothing of the graphic novels that the director himself helped produce, to flesh out the story's ideas. 26 year old Kelly was hailed as a visionary (Variety called him ‘a natural born film maker’) and when it was over he had not only created a cult phenomenon but his own private army of dedicated fans.

Following all this up was obviously going to be a tough task. In 2005Kelly wrote and directed Southland Tales; a post-apocalyptic, serio-comic satire with a multi-narrative structure and a three hour running time. 

A big, challenging, ambitious film. The post production was lengthy and Kelly, unwisely, submitted a rough cut of Tales to the Cannes film festival in 2006. The critical response was ferocious; The Observer called Tales ‘one of the worst films ever presented in competition at Cannes,’ and’s critic dubbed it ‘the biggest, ugliest mess I’ve ever seen.’ On the back of this, the American release was delayed while the film was re-edited and new special effects added. Southland Tales eventually received a limited release late in 2007, having sat in post for more than two years, but there was no word of mouth to resuscitate the film this time. The critics remained almost universally hostile, and Tales recovered only a few hundred thousand of its $17 million dollar price tag.

2.  George A. Romero

1st Film – Night of the Living Dead

Follow Up – There’s Always Vanilla

In the zombie saturated era in which we live, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the living dead as we know them aren’t even 50 years old. In 1968, TV cameraman George Romero and his friends cobbled together enough money to make a feature length horror film, which introduced the world to the stumbling, flesh eating creatures we now know so well. Shot in classic DIY, underground film fashion (real locations, amateur actors, black and white) and utilising untold gallons of Bosco as fake blood, Romero’s seminal horror classic achieved a level of tense realism often missing from mainstream horror films. Audiences around the world were riveted and disgusted in equal measure, but the notoriety that soon sprang up around the film undoubtedly furthered its popularity, leading to a string of sequels, remakes and rip-offs. Romero had not just made a stunning first movie, but had invented an entire genre.

Many of NOTLD’s sequels would be directed by Romero himself and he quickly became identified as strictly a horror director. Less well known is that his follow up to his zombie classic was a film of an entirely different sort, a melodrama about a troubled love affair called There’s Always Vanilla. 

Chris is an aimless young man who hasn’t found any direction since he was discharged from the Army. Lynn is an older, but equally restless, woman who Chris meets by chance at a train station. They have an affair, Lynn falls pregnant and Chris ponders the meaning of things while his father tries to bully him into working in the family business. A film further removed from zombies attacking an isolated farmhouse is hard to imagine. Which was a deliberate move on the part of the film maker; Romero chose the project specifically to move away from horror in the hope of expanding his range. But ultimately he was disappointed with the result. In interviews he has described Vanilla as ‘his worst film’ and ‘a total mess.’ Barely released in 1971 and largely unseen for decades, the film has found some sort of an audience among Romero completists, and a copy of the movie is included as a bonus on a couple of his DVD packages.

1. Dennis Hopper

1st Film – Easy Rider

Follow Up – The Last Movie

Everyone involved was wary of putting Dennis Hopper in charge of Easy Rider. The bit part actor and wannabe film maker was notorious in Hollywood for his hard living and violent temper. Many of his contemporaries thought he was nuts. But, in a different way, giving Hopper control of this movie made perfect sense; who better to helm the ultimate counter-culture statement then someone whose very way of life was an affront to the establishment. The shoot was predictably chaotic; plentiful drug and alcohol consumption fueled a spontaneous style, minimal planning and a lot of improv, along with many fights, both verbal and physical. What emerged from this madness was, astonishingly, a bona fide classic; a funny, entertaining, even melancholy take on contemporary America. But words are almost inadequate to describe the effect this movie had on the film industry in the US; when it simply exploded at the box office (taking a then staggering $19 million in 1969 alone) the entire structure of Hollywood was turned on its head. The old way of making films was never going to produce something like Easy Rider so the old way was re-jigged. Long observed traditions were gone, overnight. Old rules were torn up. The era of the auteur and The New Hollywood had arrived.

It was inevitable that the unlikely instigator of all this would let his sudden status go to his head; after a decade of bit parts in negligible films, Hopper found himself lauded as an artist and a pioneer. 

He could have done anything for his follow up project, but decided to return to a complex idea he had hatched earlier in the 1960’s, and even pitched to the studios unsuccessfully, before Easy Rider hit big. With a working title of Chinchero, Hopper’s new film featured himself as a movie stuntman, attached to a shoot in South America that has a bizarre effect on the native population. Hopper took a million dollars of Universal's money (Easy Rider had cost about a third of this) and decamped to Peru with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances for an extended location shoot/party. After filming for nearly 12 months, Hopper then returned to his ranch in Mexico with thousands of feet of footage and began an obsessive editing process while in the grip of an alcohol and drug frenzy. It would be another 18 months before anyone saw the finished film, now prophetically titled The Last Movie. Then Universal Studios head Ned Tanen recalls his first viewing, 'We called it a catastrophe  Not a disaster, a catastrophe. This was a full blown earthquake on level nine. There was nowhere to run.' Hopper had produced not an Easy Rider sequel, but a difficult, abstract, non linear treatise on the nature of reality. Movie took the top prize at the Venice film festival but sunk without a trace in the States, ignored by audiences and patronised by critics. It lost so much money that it would be ten years before Hopper could get another directing gig, and 17 years before he was trusted to direct another script of his own.