Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Monday, 29 March 2010
Sunday, 28 March 2010
Friday, 26 March 2010
Thursday, 18 March 2010
If you had to nominate one film as ' The Best 80s Movie The 80s Never Made', what would it be? I can't think of many contenders for the title (perhaps Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, 2002) but for my money it's got to be Grosse Pointe Blank. Why? Because its themes of coming home, facing your demons, re-connecting with the love of your life and staying alive long enough to see it all come together are ageless, and here they're all wrapped up in the form of a wickedly dark comedy. The film explores the significance of making (and rediscovering) our roots, and at the same time allows us a unique insight into the day-to-day life of a hitman (prozac and protein it would seem).
Comedy is arguably the hardest genre to get right (which makes its frequent Academy snubs all the more annoying). To illustrate my point, take the horror genre. Horror mainly relies on direction and editing - the way a shot is composed and then revealed to an audience. Drag Me To Hell is a film that has frenetic, inventive camerawork and terrifying use of sound and sound editing - but name me one horror film that has Mamet quality writing, and is the high point of that film? You could argue that it's not the point, but consider the earlier work of Sam Raimi. Evil Dead II has hysterical writing, but what do you remember first? "Groovy!" or the flying eyeball? The same can be said for action movies - Wanted, one of the most enjoyable films of recent years, has plot holes you could drive a bus through, but remains an absolute blast. Drama needs a great script and actors but the direction and editing doesn't need to be anything special to enhance our enjoyment of the film - for example the back-catalogue of Mike Leigh. He writes some of the finest dialogue in the business and works with actors in a spectacular way but his direction and editing is simplistic, to allow those elements to shine. So, onto comedy...
Comedy needs a funny script, guided actors to bring it to life and editing that will allow the timing of the gags to be pitch-perfect. Grosse Pointe Blank is my textbook example of the theory. It's a movie that was great in pre-production, great in production, and great in post-production. The intelligence and wit of the script shines, John Cusack is the best he's ever been under the direction of George Armitage, and the editing is exemplary. For an indication of what i'm talking about, see the scene below:
It's a perfect scene. Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) is at his 10 Year High School Reunion with Debbie, the woman of his dreams (literally) who he abandoned on prom night a decade ago. Martin is a man with no commitments - he packs light and travels fast, his only connection to the real world his shrink (Alan Arkin). Up until this moment he's been a conflicted character - his exterior is of a cocky, confident hitman trying to reconnect with a girl - but he's really trying to reconnect with a life he probably thought of as belonging to someone else. It's a tender, layered performance and it's at its best in this scene - where life, the thing he takes for a living, is placed in his hands, and we realise who he truly is. It's a perfectly scripted event, landing at just the right time to have an emotional impact, and Cusack plays it perfectly. The look of wonder and fear that plays on his face is captured in the most effective shot reverse shot i've ever seen. As the backing song slowly stars to crescendo, we recognise it as the Queen/David Bowie track "Under Pressure" (perfectly summing up Martin at this point in the movie) and it becomes overpowering. An understanding is made between a baby and the man who never grew up. The lyrics: "why don't you give love, give love one more chance" and "this is our last dance" reflect the entire point of the film. It's mise-en-scene personified. And you still want to know why it's a masterpiece? Okay...
There are few heroes more tragic than Martin Q. Blank. Throughout the movie he has questioned himself - his path in life and the decisions he made. It's a movie full of existential doubt, but it never, crucially, surpasses actual character. Cinema has a strange obsession with asking us to relate to hitmen (in the last decade The Whole Nine Yards, The Matador and You Kill Me) but none of them are rooted in the most important of issues - who you are, and where you came from. Up until the actual reunion Martin doesn't know these things. Gradually, by coming home, he reconnects with himself, but this scene shows just how sad and alone he is. Gun in hand, head held low, Grosse Pointe's lonely soul proclaims "this is me breathing". Killing is all he knows. It's more a part of him than anything else. Like I said, few heroes are more tragic than Martin Q. Blank.
Even ignoring Martin, the film is still a masterpiece. It's a film that takes place in the details. For example...
'Live and Let Die' (the Guns N' Roses version) is playing on the car radio. Martin exits his car and the song once again crescendos over his puzzled expression, after seeing the Ultimart where his home once stood. And after entering the store, mid guitar, the song changes to the sort of recycled, synthetic elevator music that seems to be everywhere we go. Martin storms up to the kid behind the front desk demanding: "What are you doing here?" to which the kid simply replies "I'm doing a double shift, what does it look like?" It's probably the first glimpse of real life Martin has seen for a long time, and it's planted where he grew up.
Everything in this scene is perfect - the script, the direction, the editing. And it just carries on throughout the whole film. It's witty, perfectly played, nostalgic, honest, romantic and very violent. Most action movies, let alone comedies, are afraid to show people actually getting hurt, but in Grosse Pointe Blank the bruises are on the outside as much as the inside, as this third and final clip demonstrates:
It's probably one of the most brutal fight scenes ever filmed (of course cinemas best fight scene belongs to John Carpenter's They Live). Every kick is heard and felt. When a punch is landed we see both men bruise and bleed and by the time the fight is over Martin is left knelt on the floor, bloody pen in hand. "It's not me" he says. It's just another scene where the tragic hero may be in an outside conflict, but the real fight is inside.
If you haven't already, stop off at Grosse Pointe as soon as possible. It's something really special and if you've already seen it, hopefully this article has spurred you on to watch it again. Either way, it's the best 80s movie the 80s never made. And if you take a deep breath you'll realise...it's also one of the best films ever made.
Wednesday, 17 March 2010
1.) Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
After being delayed for re-shoots (the studio thought it was too scary) Spike Jonze finally delivered his much anticipated adaptation of Maurice Sendak's book in December of last year, and did not disappoint. Co-written by Jonze and Away We Go scribe Dave Eggers, it's a beautiful, honest study of childhood and family. Max (Max Records, in a stunning debut performance) is an ordinary kid - confused, lonely and attention-seeking. He cries and has tantrums and it's to the young actors credit that we still want to stay with the character and see where he goes. And where he goes is the beautifully shot land of the Wild Things (captured by Lance Acord, who did a great job on Lost In Translation). Here, Max's emotions are personified by creatures of all shapes and sizes. We first meet leader Carol when he's smashing all the Wild Things houses in a temper. He fits the personality trait that Max feels the most so they make an instant connection and instead of eating the boy, Carol persuades the Wild Things to crown him King. Of course, during the building of a fortress, Max's now external emotions fight with each other and become jealous. The intricate, layered screenplay ensures that the film will appeal to children but also challenge them and adults will connect with a part of themselves that they probably considered lost. The soundtrack by Karen O and Carter Burwell is also wonderful and by using loud clashes, upbeat riffs and the sounds of children's laughter and screams, perfectly suits the tone of the film. It's also a beautiful, tender record in its own right and its nomination snub at this years OSCARS is a real shame. Jonze has crafted his finest film yet, further displaying why he's one of the most interesting, original talents of his generation.
2.) Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino, one of the most talked about filmmakers of the last twenty years, blasts back onto top form in his best film for twelve years. That's not hard though, as it seems he's been contractually obliged to make rubbish for the past decade. He turns down the endless movie referencing to tell a story that we can take seriously (well, not too seriously) and invest ourselves in. It's his best looking film (cinematographer Robert Richardson is a veteran of Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese) and also his richest, dialogue wise. The opening scene, capturing the French countryside beautifully, is the best thing Tarantino has ever written (even he thinks so) and from then on it's an unforgettable, exhilarating, hilarious and bloody journey, punctuated by interesting soundtrack choices and superb performances. Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger impress as beautiful, deadly and cool women...typical Tarantino? Yes, but they actually sound like people we care about. The show belongs to Christoph Waltz though, as the incredible Col. Hans Landa, who keeps the whole thing together. Is it a little too long? Yes. Do a few of the scenes still feel like filler? Yes. But is it the best thing the talkative auteur has ever done? By far...
3.) Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
The latest controversy baiter from Dane auteur Lars von Trier set Cannes alight last year, when Charlotte Gainsbourg took home the Best Actress award and audiences spat their popcorn out over her mutilation scenes. It's not an easy watch, that much is certain, but it's deep, intelligent and atmospheric. There are two characters in the film, named He and She, and after the death of their son they travel to a place called Eden (typical von Trier humor, much like the meaningless title) to grieve. The film owes a lot to other horror films, and this much is clear by now - Evil Dead, Don't Look Now, Possession...they're all part of the mix, and von Trier also owes something to Tarkovsky style wise (the film is also dedicated to him). The actual study of grief is brilliantly acted with minimal dialogue. It's harsh, raw and emotionally powerful - and then it becomes something else entirely. Eden is a strangely beautiful place (Anthony Dod Mantle, take a bow) but what happens there is anything but. To say any more would be to give it away, but Antichrist is a screaming harpy of a movie - it grabs you by the jugular and then really gets to work. By the end of the film you'll be confused, offended, mesmerised and you'll rush to the sink to wash the blood off your hands.
4.) Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Zack Snyder proves himself as a director, making "the unfilmable" look effortless, creating a comic-book movie so intelligent, dark and epic in scope that it makes The Dark Knight look like Batman & Robin. From the prologue to the epilogue every frame is perfection, echoing the graphic novel and also feeling like its own creation, welcoming newcomers into the bloody, complex world of the Watchmen. Multiple story strands lap over each other as the fraternity team back together to discover who's "picking off costumed heroes". It's a drama, a detective story, a parodic period piece, a superhero movie, a revenge story and above all, a character piece. It's like Old School with buzzsaws. It's rare for a movie of this type to have as much brains as brawn but this story balances them in a way to make you think they were never apart. From the cinematography (Larry Fong) to the soundtrack (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix) to the performances (Jackie Earle Haley, perfect) an era and feeling is captured beyond what the fans could have ever expected. It twists, turns and above all, impresses. If there's any justice (and here's a movie that proves there often isn't) superhero movies will never be the same again.
5.) Moon (Duncan Jones)
Inspired by the classic sci-fi of his youth, Duncan Jones' thoughtful debut homages Silent Running, Outland and 2001: A Space Odyssey, managing to mix an original plot and evoke feelings of nostalgia. Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, at the end of a three year contract on the moon. After an accident in a moon buggy he is confronted with the idea that he's perhaps not alone, and his robot companion GERTY (a direct nod to HAL) isn't particularly helpful. Of course, there's a twist involved, and it's an absolute blinder, but the real joy is in watching the story unfold so carefully, really taking time to understand character and present some back-story. The score by Clint Mansell (a modern master) is set to become an all-time classic. It's ambient, haunting and beautiful. It echoes loneliness, at times sounding almost mechanic, but at the same time lulls you into a sense of security...and home. Minimal CGI adds to the experience and the smooth direction by Jones is remarkable for a first time director. The main event though, is one man show Rockwell, absolutely outstanding in the lead role. His slow transformation is really something to behold...every blow, physical and metal, is implanted onto his body. He shuffles around, more paranoid by the second, frantic and bloody. And then there's the other side of him...if you haven't done so already, be sure to stop off at Moon sometime soon.
6.) (500) Days Of Summer (Marc Webb)
Probably the most lighthearted, charming, funny and re-watchable movie of 2009, this reinventing-the-wheel rom-com makes a nice change of pace for my so-far so-dreary list. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the best actor of his generation, see Mysterious Skin) and Zooey Deschanel (criminally underrated, see All The Real Girls) strike sparks with each other, easily convincing with a chemistry years in the making (they first worked together on the underrated Manic in 2001) and it's this that makes the film so likable and so real. This isn't to slight the wonderfully heartfelt script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber though, which is clearly drawn from real life experience. By presenting the 500 days of their relationship in non-linear order and using editing to create sequences such as 'Expectation vs. Reality', the film definitely feels fresh and it's these little tricks that will make you come back again and again. You could describe it as nothing more than a story written into a music video and the ending might a little too sickly for some, but if you're not charmed by it in some way, you're likely not human. And it's a sign of a great film if you can, when listening to the soundtrack, not only remember every single scene the songs went to, but also exactly how you felt at the time.
7.) Coraline (Henry Selick)
Much like Antichrist, Coraline focuses on a small house in the middle of nowhere and sends its female protagonist through hell at the expense of a loved one. Of course, being a kids movie, it doesn't feature any arty penetration shots, but Coraline is definitely a movie with a dark side. The idea of having buttons sewn into your eyes isn't what most would consider PG material after all. The stop-motion style works a treat here and gives everything a really cold, eerie atmosphere, and the fact that Coraline is followed/haunted by a doll (and we know how Coraline herself is made) gives the film an even more nightmarish quality. But for a film with a colour scheme of mainly blacks and grays Coraline is strangely beautiful, especially the wonderful scene where she sees the flowers in the Other Father's garden form her face and light up. It's a wonderful moment of juxtaposition, and is repeated in the warm, inviting Other Mother's kitchen. It's rare for a kids movie to place its young lead character in a world so gothic, uncompromising, psychologically challenging and, well...scary. Everything from the soundtrack by Bruno Coulais to the voice work by Dakota Fanning is pitch perfect and Selick has proved himself as a master storyteller.
8.) State Of Play (Kevin Macdonald)
Based on the British TV series of the same name, and harking back to the classic journalism/procedure thrillers of the 70s (All The President's Men), Macdonald has struck gold with a thriller so tense you barely have time to breathe through its two hour running time. The script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Billy Ray and Tony Gilroy (undoubtedly the screenwriter to go to for intelligent thrills) is tight as a drum and allows for characters to develop through the plot, as they make their latest discovery. Of course, the plot twists and turns every couple of minutes and as every character gets deeper and deeper into a mess they didn't see coming, it seems less likely that they will ever find their way out. Russell Crowe turns in his best performance in years, growing more determined by the minute but slowly deteriorating before our eyes. It's a performance of physical and mental power and we get a true insight in what it means to be obsessed. He keeps working until there's nothing left but the case. The scene where Crowe follows a lead to a suspects apartment and is confronted by the possible killer is perhaps his greatest moment yet - as the smooth, cocky reporter suddenly turns white and realises he might not get out of there alive. It's claustrophobic, engaging and has several scenes that will have you gripping your seat. It's the best thriller since Zodiac, and, most importantly, ranks among the best thrillers of all time.
9.) The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson)
Peter Jackson's ambitious adaptation of the 2002 novel of the same name is one of the best cinematic achievements of the year. James Cameron promised us a unique, all new world with Avatar but it's Jackson who really creates the visual experience of 2009. How seriously you take this world will depend on your belief of the afterlife, but on a technical level it's a stunning achievement with particularly impressive lighting. There are elements of the book sadly missing (the affair) and some parts aren't as prominent as others (the grief of the family and police procedure is terribly underplayed) and even people who haven't read the book may be left wanting more. The elements it does focus on though, are brilliant, especially the portrait of a serial killer, played by the underrated but impressive Stanley Tucci (earning an OSCAR nod). It's a performance that proves he's one of the best actors of his generation and in a year without Christoph Waltz, I think he would have won. The soundtrack by Brian Eno is also a thing of beauty and captures the feel of Jackson's heaven perfectly. If a few of the books elements had been kept intact this could have been a masterpiece, but as it stands it's just very, very good and a cinematic achievement beyond the worlds of Cameron.
10.) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson brings his unique, literary style to his first (loose) adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic. It's probably more Anderson than Dahl (a family unit falling apart, existential doubt, hip soundtrack and panning shots) but enough of the feel of the original book is kept to make it feel magic. The lush greens of the British countryside are abandoned for a warm, orange glow that feels more at home with the story than would be initially imaginable. George Clooney is perfect as Mr. Fox (Anderson wanted to search for the modern day Cary Grant) and his usual band of cronies including Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray turn up and provide the vocals that the witty, literate script requires. It's not 100% loyal to the book but the changes that have been made liven the story up and make for a much more cinematic experience - the action sequences are handled well and are very inventive (soap and cotton wool for fire and smoke). Even where the dialogue doesn't exactly play to kids, there's something happening on-screen to keep them enthralled. Wes Anderson showed an interest in stop motion with The Life Aquatic, but here he fully realises a wonderful, natural world, that I could have happily spent another hour in.
Thursday, 11 March 2010
If you're going to have expectations for a movie, it's probably best to set them towards the lower end of the spectrum. Quite often our overall judgement can be misguided by the preconceptions we went in with, and all film fans can agree that it's better to be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed. Never is this more true than in the case of an adaptation. So, we come to The Lovely Bones. Based on Alice Sebold's 2002 novel of the same name, it was always going to be a challenge to fit all the elements of this emotionally complex 323 page novel into a two hour film. Combining studies of the supernatural, a family torn apart by loss, the psychology of a serial killer and a police investigation is not something that will sit well for the younger members of the audience that Peter Jackson has toned his vision down for. So, it's with some disappointment that I have to report that Jackson only really succeeds in two of these categories. But when he gets it right, he really, really gets it right.
The first half an hour of the film is masterpiece material. The narration from dead girl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) sets the tone for the rest of the film and stays loyal to the book. She takes us on a whirlwind tour of her life as it was - her playful relationship with boozy grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and the crush she has on British senior Ray (Reece Ritchie). The evenings spent with her father working on model ships and the underdeveloped but significant ties to her mother and siblings. It's perhaps too much of a whirlwind, sketching a family rather than exploring it, but as exposition, it works a treat. Things really get good when Susie encounters Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci, earning that OSCAR nod) on the way home from school and he tempts her into the underground murder den he has built (in a remarkably fast time). The scene that unfolds here is the most tense of the whole film...never has the opening of a coke bottle carried so much tension. It's also here that Tucci comes into his own, displaying why he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation. The way he shuffles uneasily around the den, displaying little ticks, always thinking about what to say next is wonderfully unnerving. He's plotting her death and at the same time trying to impress her. It's a brilliantly subtle but terrifying performance that remains the high point throughout the whole film. Susie eventually tries to escape her captor, but fails. The sequence that follows is a sort of in-between nightmare that hurtles Susie through the eerie, empty streets of her home town. The nightmare ends in a bathroom scene that pushes the boundaries of the 12A rating. Harking back to Jackson's horror roots, Susie treads through a bloody bathroom with Mr Harvey soaking in the centre. The scene escalates in the most terrifying way leaving the audience shocked, gripping their seats. It's the best scene Jackson has directed for the last decade. And then it all loses its way a bit.
Of course, what follows will instantly divide audiences depending on your belief of the afterlife. It's the one thing we have no idea about, and certainly no clue to what it would look like, if it does exist. This gives Jackson complete creative control, allowing for some visually stunning and emotionally powerful sequences (the crashing of ships) and some completely redundant ones (a cringeworthy fasion/photo-shoot sequence). Suspend your disbelief though and you'll be rewarded with a deep, gorgeous setting unlike anything else you've seen before. It's one of two aspects that Jackson gets just right.
The second part is the serial killer study. Of course, this is mostly down to the aforementioned performance by Tucci, but it's also down to the script. Mr Harvey doesn't really get a lot to say and some of scariest scenes are the ones with him just sat in a chair, contemplating his crimes. The script knows exactly which buttons to press when it comes to his character and his development is the axis of the film. In fact, calling him a supporting actor hardly seems fair, given how much screen time he has.
Which leads to one of the biggest problems of the film. With so much emphasis placed on the afterlife Susie finds herself in and the man who put her there, precious little time is actually spent with the family. Their grief seems almost non-existent. There are a few scenes of Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz) crying, but nothing that actually constitutes any development. Most of the scenes based around the family deal with Jack investigating the case on his own and sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) becoming suspicious of Mr Harvey. It's an opportunity wasted. Abigail still leaves in the final third of the film, but her infidelity (a powerful emotional blow in the book) is disregarded here and she instead leaves when Jack's investigations become too much to handle. Her replacement? Susan Sarandon, in a comic relief musical montage. Gritty drama this is not.
The other problem is the investigation itself. There are a few scenes of questioning and a crime scene here and there, but any sign of an actual investigation is missing from the film. It's no wonder that Jack takes matters into his own hands, such is the apparent lack of interest from every officer involved. It's an element that would have bogged the film down had it been too much of a focus, but it still feels like an opportunity missed.
All of this criticism makes the film sound bad, but it's really not. It's an inventive, brilliantly directed and photographed film, with some stunning performances and a great soundtrack from Brian Eno. On a cinematic level it's an achievement worthy of attention and a re-watch will surely uncover even more depth. But it's a film that could have done more with such brilliant source material. Had the family drama and police procedure been as developed as the other elements of the movie, it could have been a masterpiece. But a few too many of the books elements are fiddled with or not tackled at all. It's actually a film that could have benefitted from an extra half hour on the running time.
So, newcomers to the universe of The Lovely Bones are in for a flawed treat, fans of the book are in for a disappointing but solid drama/thriller. But, if you set your expectations low, you might be very, very pleasantly surprised.