Thursday 23 December 2010

Top 10 Albums Of 2010 - Part 2

#6. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me
For her third album Joanna Newsom has pulled out all the stops. A three-disc, two-hour indie folk record, it's a multi-layered epic that just grows stronger on every listen. As a harpist and pianist her songs have a naturally melancholic beauty, and the instrumentation on offer is exceptional - although she describes the album as "me running around in my underwear, more or less." Most interesting of all are the lyrics, a choice excerpt from Go Long being "Will you tuck your shirt, Will you leave it loose, You are badly hurt, You're a silly goose." She's a poet, first and foremost, experimenting with almost Shakespearian verse, her old-world English complementing themes of bitter sadness. "Daddy Long Legs, how in the world am I expected to stay" she questions in Have One On Me, a sprawlingly heartfelt soul-searcher that gives the album its title. The album has moments of penetrating silence and surprising volume, but it always retains its own identity - Newsom may sound like Joni Mitchell on Good Intentions Paving Co. but album closer Does Not Suffice is completely her own.

#7. The National - High Violet
There are very few albums which start as strong as The National's High Violet. Terrible Love is a trembling, desperate journey through dark forests which explodes into a minimalist, distorted explosion by the finale. "It's a terrible love and I'm walking with spiders, It's a terrible love and I'm walking in, It's quiet company" sings Matt Berninger, as a chorus echoes over the troubling, crescendoing guitar and drums. "Your shiver bones" is a lyric that reverberates through the mind as cold, challenging imagery is painted. It's a commanding piece that, the first time I heard it, left me breathless. So, naturally, the rest of the album can't quite live up to that. Anyone's Ghost is more straightforward but just as attention-grabbing; quietly depressing but equally catchy. Bloodbuzz Ohio is another highlight, Berninger once again displaying his talent for capturing the heart, mind and soul of the listener. The vocals are drawling and thought-out, but the tune is brighter, poppier and intoxicating. "I'm on a bloodbuzz, I'm on a bloodbuzz, God I am, on a bloodbuzz." And so are we...

#8. The Besnard Lakes - The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night
They're what would happen if Pink Floyd and The Velvet Underground got together and decided to make dreamy shoegaze music. Album opener Like The Ocean, Like The Innocent starts out as a perfect compliment to the cover art - pink ocean aflame, the sky choking on destruction; nature at war with itself. The track trembles and wavers, the sound of impending doom. It's like the score to that scene in a war movie where the message comes over the radio that bombs are about to be dropped - and they are around the 4:00 mark when the track explodes into screeching guitar, solid drums and echoing vocals. It hurtles through stages of reflective quiet and commanding instrumentation. It's perhaps more accessible than anything on the ...Are The Dark Horse album but Albatross is a haunting, choral song that calls to mind a crow careering through the sky over collapsing cathedrals and ice cold water flooding cities. It's a beautifully tragic sight. An album of epic majesty and surprising emotion, ...Are The Roaring Night sounds like a 70s record made with a 00s sheen, and the styles are complimentary in unexpected and brilliant ways.

#9. Tamaryn - The Waves
More shoegaze now, with New Zealand-born, San Francisco-based Tamaryn, a dreamy art rocker who would be most at home at the top of a mountain, cranking her dream pop into the supernatural stratosphere. Choirs Of Winter sounds like The Cure with a sore throat mixed with The Raveonettes having a melancholic weekend in the Alps - but played through a distorted romantic daydream. To some the album may only have one tone, but tracks like The Waves gives proceedings a Jesus And Mary Chain/Death In Vegas vibe - the sort of song you'd listen to while taking a neon-lit trek into a Viking Cave. It's an album to be felt and explored rather than listened to for fun, but tracks like Love Fade are a bit more traditional in their structure and sound. It's not quite Radio One pop, but it is just as catchy and addictive. The smooth, misty vocals are the highlight here... an absorbing treat that precious few have heard of.

#10. She & Him - Volume Two
Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward reunite for their second collaboration after 2008's delightful Volume One, a whimsical folk-pop record with an indie/country sensibility - it was akin to the feeling of falling in love and this more mature, versatile record only makes the feeling richer. Lead single Thieves is a perfect place for newcomers to start. The sound of sunshine is met by a softly strumming guitar and Deschanel's seductively small-town vocals. It's a very simple song, but a truly beautiful one that leads into second single In The Sun, easily the catchiest song they've ever written. A simple piano line is met by Deschanel deepening her voice for a slightly more mainstream tune, recalling 60s dream pop. It's a bright album, just as before, but more intelligent and filled with some surprising hooks. Ridin' In My Car is nostalgic where Lingering Still is the song played before the morning of the school dance. It's just great track after great track. It's not overly new or innovative, but it's the soundtrack to next summer, no matter what else arrives in the next six months...

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Top 10 Albums Of 2010 - Part 1

This may seem unconventional for a movie blog, but there's been so much great music this year that if Uncut magazine can do movie reviews, I can count down by Top 10 albums and still sleep pretty easy with the day job. Unlike the Top 10 movies of the year (coming Friday) this will be counted backwards, listing my #1 album of the year first, and ending with my #10. Following tomorrows countdown finale there will be a list of five great songs whose albums weren't quite solid enough to get them into the Top 10. So, without any messing about, we'll begin...

#1. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Over the past couple of years Arcade Fire have slowly confirmed themselves as one of the best bands working today. Neon Bible found an even mix between U2-inspired foot-stompers (No Cars Go) and quietly reflective soul-searchers (Windowsill). Even when they're playing at a stadium level their music is uniquely heartfelt and stirring. The Suburbs is no exception to the rule - in fact it builds on it beautifully. The opening track, The Suburbs, is a bold, hot-summer inflected strumming song, and equally upbeat and heartbreaking. It's an incredibly mature song about living in fear, growing up amongst conflict and wanting to escape, and live while you're still young. As the lyric "we're still screaming" echoes over that beautiful guitar, recalling a sweltering day in the park, a tear slips down my eye. It's a masterpiece of songwriting and fifteen tracks later it's lost none of it's power. Empty Room is an urgent, classical, rocky scream of independence, Half Light II (No Celebration) sounds like a primal, electronic rave at the end of the world, and Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) is a stunning voyage into the multi-coloured unknown - and an uplifting vocal masterpiece. The perfect penultimate track to the tragic The Suburbs (Continued), a denouement that leaves the heart in a place of confusion. There hasn't been another album this year that has given me so much to feel, so much to think about and so much to experience. Absolutely stunning.

#2. Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM
As well as being a tremendous actress (see Antichrist, Lars von Trier, 2009) Charlotte Gainsbourg is also one of the finest female artists working today (despite the disappointing 5:55). This year saw her deliver her masterpiece - a soft, dreamy and sensual series of songs, instrumentally and vocally accomplished beyond what I had ever expected. On initial listens the first half of the album may appear stronger. The paranoid, robotic IRM is followed by the gorgeous Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes, which, sung in French, sounds like the the score to the hazy, midnight-set climax of a shoegazing espionage movie, directed by Godard. Lead single Heaven Can Wait is a lovely strumming song with a great piano line and Vanities has a swelling middle third that sounds like it comes from the same score as the Godard spy thriller. This time two lovers look over a neon-lit river, danger lurking on the other side. Their shadows are entwined, their fate uncertain. But on further listens the second half reveals itself to be a much more careful, ambitious affair. Trick Pony is the loudest song on the album, a seductively sexy tease that begins with the banging of a drum and ends with a quietly screeching guitar. Dandelion sounds like a long-lost Beatles song and Voyage like a companion piece to the existential monolith movie Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009). La Collectionneuse is a five minute epic, softly sung and evocatively stringed, it's another masterpiece of feeling that ends in a spoken-word French verse. If you haven't already, buy this one now.

#3. Jónsi - Go
The lead singer of Icelandic sensation Sigur Rós, Jónsi's debut album isn't as strong as the bands finest moments, but it's still an assuredly strange work of art. Lead single Go Do sounds like nature having a party - icebergs reflecting like crystals in the sunlight, butterflies swooping over burning, hallucinatory deserts, plants evolving at the speed of light - bursting into pastel greens, reds and yellows, the wind whistling through a forrest, fish plummeting to the magical, unknown depths of a mysterious ocean. It's like a day in the cycle of the Earth being watched from the misty, supernatural viewpoint of space. In a word; beautiful. Animal Arithmetic is another blinding exploration of nature and being - almost like a journey through life itself. I don't mean this to sound pretentious, but it's the sound of existentialism. Most tracks sound pretty similar to each other but Boy Lilikoi is the poppiest track on the album, slowly building up to an explosion of pure joy that rings through the ears and the soul. With nine tracks at only 40 minutes, Go Do might, at first, seem disappointing. But further listens will reveal that this is a uniquely beautiful album in its own right, and an experience that goes beyond what most albums could merely hope to achieve.

#4. The Chemical Brothers - Further
I've never really been a fan of The Chemical Brothers, or the electronic/techno/dance scene that they are a part of. I'm a huge fan of New Order, and I can tolerate Massive Attack, Underworld, Daft Punk and Moby in small bursts. But nothing has ever grabbed me in the same way as Further, an eight-track, 50-minute assault on the senses - both brash and beautiful, pulse-pounding and poetic. The best thing about this album is that every track has an accompanying short film, made specifically to match the tempo and beat. Lead single Escape Velocity is an 11-minute instant classic which spirals through different stages of dance, beeping like the countdown to a world rave. Second single Swoon, another instant classic, is an intoxicating reminder of love which crescendos into an electronic burst, calling to mind a bustling city of strobe lights. Third single Another World actually sounds like a heart beating in electronic skin, the soft female chorus echoing through the big beats. It fades out beautifully into album highlight Dissolve, a feel-good big-bang of tech groove, which recalls the end of The Who's Baba O'Riley (Teenage Wasteland) in its finale. The album ends on the transcending Wonders Of The Deep, a song that slips into your heart and won't let it go. An amazing record that everybody should own.

#5. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk
Isobel Campbell, ex-member of Belle & Sebastian, and Mark Lanegan, former Screaming Trees vocalist, couldn't have been a more unlikely collaboration. On paper it sounds like a failed experiment, but it comes out just as strong as Dance Hall At Louise Point and A Woman A Man Walked By, collaborations between PJ Harvey and John Parish. This is their third effort and lead single You Won't Let Me Down Again is perhaps their most mature work to date - the world-weary rambling and soothing dream vocals complimenting each other against a strong bluesy guitar and soft drum. It's three minutes of unabridged genuis and the highlight of an absorbing, emotional work. In conjunction Campbell and Lanegan have a way of creeping into your soul and taking you over. Snake Song could have been written by Johnny Cash or Nick Cave, but it somehow sounds captivatingly original. The whole album sounds like the score to a road trip across the vast desert - the sweltering sun scorching the land where strangers roam. Come Undone is a different beast - it's the sort of song you expect to be playing as a glamourous woman in black glides across a hotel lobby - in fact, it would be right at home on Gainsbourg's IRM, next to La Collectionneuse. Get Behind Me is a tougher, rougher, more rock 'n' roll track - again, nothing new. But it sounds fresh. Title track Hawk is a stomp through a bar brawl during lock-in and Sunrise would be right at home in a Tarantino Western. Classic.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Top 10 Of 2010: The Year In Review

Well, it's that time of year again. 2010 has been my most active film-watching year ever, as I have made my first stride into the world of professional film journalism, attending and reporting on the London Film Festival, an eye-opening voyage into world art cinema. Some of the films from this years diverse festival appear on this list, so you may not have seen them yet - but you should. This list is compiled of 2010 releases only - not 2009 releases that arrived on our shores this year. They have been added to last years list, which now looks drastically different. I already know at least one person who will have stern things to say about two films appearing here, but that's part of the beauty of lists. You'll love some and hate some. Whatever you feel, enjoy...

10. The King's Speech (Tom Hooper)
The King's Speech was, far and away, the best mainstream film of the London Film Festival. It's been nominated for seven Golden Globes and you can bet your life it'll sweep the BAFTA's and Oscar's too. Not that these awards mean anything, but it would be a rare example of the establishment getting it right. The King's Speech may seem familiar on paper - and yes, we've been here before. Period British dramas have taken off in the past couple of years but Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) is little more than window dressing and The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009) hit familiar notes with no particular distinction or flair. Hooper's riveting film is steeped in fascinating historical detail and has one of the sharpest scripts of the year, which is wonderfully played out by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Their therapeutic sessions are the backbone of the film and they are played out under Hooper's controlled eye, and seamlessly shift between sly wit, laugh-out-loud one liners, subtle character development and outright emotion. Some have already labeled it as Oscar bait, but such underhanded attacks are unfair. Perfectly paced and beautifully performed, The King's Speech also has wonderful set and costume design. Despite his spot-on accent, the only weak point is perhaps Guy Pearce, miscast as King Edward VIII.

9. Restrepo (Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger)
Last year The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) was celebrated as the most realistic war film of all time. Tense and emotional, it put you into the shoes of a soldier - specifically bomb disposal expert William James (Jeremy Renner), who found it hard to readjust to life after the warzone. Everyone will remember the heartbreaking scene in the grocery store - blankly staring down the cereal aisle, his family life fails to engage him. Restrepo follows a year in the life of one platoon in Afghanistan's deadliest valley. The difference? It's all real. American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photographer Tim Hetherington spent a year in the Korengal Valley, a terrifying wasteland where the enemy always has the upper hand. They document the platoon taking hold of an outpost that they name Resptrepo, after the platoon medic who was killed earlier in the mission. The footage has an incredible rawness and the battles an intensity that no work of fiction could hope to match. One solider declares that a firefight occurs "at least once a day." This is a film that presents the horrors and realities of war unedited and uncompromised - and they turn out to be one and the same. Never before have I held such respect for the fighters holding their own, feeling deserted and isolated. Never before has the edge of my seat been so unwelcome - the action is nail biting because real lives are on the line every time. In Restrepo when somebody gets shot, a family loses a son, husband or father. And the to-camera confessions of the men, talking of their experiences, their losses - their inability to readjust. That's what makes this a truly important work. Astonishing.

8.) L'illusionniste (The Illusionist) (Sylvain Chomet)
The spirit of Jacques Tati lives on in this gorgeously heartfelt animation, a UK/France production, that captured me on limited release earlier in the year. A magician named Tatischeff is struggling to compete with 60s swing and the birth of rock 'n' roll music - specifically Presley/Bowie combo Billy Boy And The Britoons, who seem to follow him to every venue, but draw twice the crowd. While performing in coastal Scotland Tatischeff draws the attention of young Alice, who falls under the spell of his magic. It is utterly charming, but also drawn with an underlying sadness. For all its pastel colours and beautiful nostalgia, L'illusionniste is ultimately a depressing work. An alcoholic ventriloquist provides a sub-plot suggesting the fate of the entertainer - a fate that draws pity from Alice, but a terrifying realization for Tatischeff. Alice believes that magic is real and for the duration of the film, Tatischeff indulges in her whimsy - as does his grumpy white rabbit, who resents being pulled from a hat. The films theme is of time, and the message of place. Time, sadly, is ticking away, and by the end Alice, Tatischeff, and the ventriloquist must find their place in the world. A message left on paper proves a devastating conclusion, and I was wiping away tears for the final ten minutes. There are moments of astounding beauty, such as windswept feathers giving the illusion of delicate snow, but this mature, sensitive masterwork has much more to offer than pretty visuals. I can't wait to see it again.

7. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
It's come under a fair amount of scrutiny but Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006) follow up is much more than a Lost In Translation (2003) clone. For one, it's Coppola's most personal film to date. Even from the age of 17 she showed an attachment to hotel rooms - a place where one suspects she spent most of her childhood - when she wrote her father's segment of the flawed portmanteau film New York Stories (1989). She understands that they are a place of isolation and loneliness - so what better place to set her latest feature than the Chateau Marmont? Even fans of the film have called lead character Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff, career best) unlikable, claiming him to be cold. Unable to attach to him, many critics have noted an unease in eliciting sympathy for a man who has it all. But as stated in my initial review, just because you have a mansion in the hills, doesn't mean you're happy. Johnny's despair comes from a deeper, more personal place - he's clearly unsatisfied with the glamours movie star life, which is portrayed as empty and shallow. Enter daughter Cleo, perfectly played by Elle Fanning, who comes into her own with one of the strongest child performances I can remember seeing. Her delicate portrayal of Cleo is the beating heart of the film and every scene she and Johnny spend together is a pleasure to watch. Some of the metaphor may be a little hammered home, but with a soundtrack by French pop-rockers Phoenix, the ending was note-perfect for me. Shame this one didn't get a wider release, I was eager for a re-watch.

6. Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
The one thing better than a much-hyped movie living up to its promise is a film you know nothing about absolutely blowing you away. I went into Meek's Cutoff elated (I'd just seen my #2 of the year) - but having seen no advance material on this minimalist Western, I didn't really know what to expect. The first ten minutes didn't capture me, and I admittedly felt myself nodding off. But then, out of nowhere, it captured me. The vast, open landscape of Reichardt's mostly silent feature is a place of uncertainty and distrust. A guide named Meek is taking travelers to their destination - where he has come from and where they are going we don't know. But we get the impression that he is as lost as they are, and has a darker intent of his own. Struggling for food and water, the danger of the situation escalates when the group diplomatically decide to keep alive a Cayuse man, who Meek would rather execute. Andrew O'Hehir at Salon described the film as "a thriller or horror movie in extreme slow motion" and that's about as accurate a description as you're going to get in words. For all the analysis I could write about this Malick-like fable there's really nothing like sitting in a silent theatre and just experiencing it. A wagon accident and genre-styled face-off ramp up the action a little but the films ends on an ambiguous note that absolutely leveled me. It's one of the best endings I've ever seen, accompanied by one of the greatest closing lines of all time. Next time, I'll be paying attention from minute one.

5. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
Noah Baumbach is rapidly growing in my estimations as one of the finest filmmakers working today. His honest, intimate, literate dramas recall the 70s work of Eric Rohmer, one of my favorite directors who is a cited influence for this New Yorker. With a washed out style of cinematography and a dreamy yet anxious score by James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem fame, this is his most accomplished work yet. Ben Stiller is astonishing as Roger Greenberg, turning in a career best performance that turns down the volume and slows down the tempo on his normal squeakily gurning comic stylings. He uncovers a troubled depth and brings it to the surface, finally embracing his age and maturing as a performer. Watching comic actors in dramatic roles is always interesting as Robin Williams and Adam Sandler have proven before, and Stiller makes a more than worthy edition to that canon and, for my money, deserves an Oscar nomination. Greta Gerwig is the real revelation here though - utterly lovely, you never feel like she's acting, such is the naturalness and complexity of her performance. She sinks into the skin of Florence, and makes every smirk, scowl and frown count. Like Cleo in Somewhere, she lends heart to a film that could have got a little lost in the selfish plight of its central character. For all those who say that Roger is unlikable however, I argue simply, so what? He's not meant to be likable. But Baumbach is an observational filmmaker who, by providing a detached lens through which to view his characters, allows us - not him - to judge them. And we're allowed to because, given the chance to look back through the lens, Roger would judge us too.

4. The Social Network (David Fincher)
When David Fincher announced that he was making a film based around invention of Facebook the Internet community had a collective chortle at the possibility of the filmmaker torching his career with an idea so bland, so unnecessary, so... boring. But The Social Network, a film that defines our times like no other, has gone on to become one of the best reviewed films of the year, a front-runner for Best Picture and currently at the centre of comparisons to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Only the test of time will reveal how fruitful those comparisons are but this furiously intelligent, darkly emotional and dryly funny motor-mouth of a movie is really unlike anything else you'll see this year. Jesse Eisenberg turns in the performance of his career so far, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake are hugely impressive and Fincher shows a masterful handling of the material. Dank greys, cold interiors, brooding atmosphere - the photography and music of The Social Network mark us into typical Fincher territory, as well as the central theme of male mechanics and aggression - this is Fight Club (1999) Part Deux. Best of all though is the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, spoken at lightning speed by the actors, which is not only steeped in character and insightful in its observation, but is also endlessly quotable. At least two viewings of this bleak masterpiece are in order, and when the DVD arrives on February 14th, I'll be the first in line.

3. Loong boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Equally intimate and epic, Loong boonmee raleuk chat is something of an existential art installation - but one that you can step into, and bathe in. In my LFF review I stated that the film "exists in a place most other filmmakers dare not touch - a place of furious intelligence, exasperating ambiguity, dazzling imagination, artistic ambition and quietly affecting honesty." In a way I have nothing else to add - like Meek's Cutoff, Loong boonmee is a film to be experienced and debated, rather than lectured about. But a final word must be given for how utterly immersive and unique an experience it is. There are shots of breaking dawn and closing dusk, each taking place over a mystical forest of monkey spirits - red eyed creatures that evoke horror, but transcend in their actual beauty. There are shots of ghosts emerging; lives lost inviting themselves back into the land of the living. There is the much-talked-about scene between a princess and a catfish - a moment of arresting power and confusion, that has an almost religiously hypnotic quality. There's no score to Loong boonmee raleuk chat, but the sound design is haunting. Weerasethakul's understanding of mise-en-scène has allowed him to create not so much a film as an invitation to a place between life and death - a world where the viewer may ask questions, but not necessarily receive answers. Questions arisen through symbols that propel you through universes, it may be a sometimes frustrating place, but it's a truly unforgettable one. The following two films are in the top spots for personal reasons but for artistic integrity, bravery, imagination and fascination, this is the film of the year.

2. Waste Land (Lucy Walker)
Like Loong boonmee, this uplifting documentary was also in my LFF round-up in early October, but is still sadly in need of distribution. The film follows Brazilian born artist Vik Muniz, who travels to Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill site in the world, which receives 7000 tonnes of waste per day, principally from the city of Rio De Janeiro. The people hired to work on the site live in squalor - they deserve to be the unhappiest people in the world. But Waste Land is an extraordinary testament to the human spirit because these people - poor and mistreated - greet every day with a smile. They each have dreams and fantasies - wishes of a different life for their kids. But until Muniz - a man caring enough to allow them to help themselves - came along, they were gracious enough to accept circumstance and work to support their families. Artists have a reputation for being snobbish and pretentious, and some modern art (toilets? really?) leaves me cold, but Muniz is a true heart of gold who wants to help the world with his art. Rather than throwing money at the people of Jardim Gramacho, and foolishly thinking that it could solve their plight, he proposes that he make portraits of the workers, sell them, and give the money back to the people. Documentarian filmmaker Walker is smart enough to spend time with the people of the site rather than Muniz, so that the payoff has a greater emotional weight. Any sentiment that does exist in the film is unedited and non-manipulative - Waste Land comes from a place of genuine truth. I cried three times in the last half hour of this life-affirming film. An extraordinary achievement, lets hope it gets distributed soon.

1. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
It was #1 from the second I saw it, and three viewings later this masterpiece has lost none of its charm and power. It's rare that a sequel betters its predecessor, but Toy Story 3 makes the 1994 original look like child's play (pardon the pun). Easily Pixar's most technically accomplished work, the slick animation is met by the most detailed environments from the studio yet, and some beautiful lighting. The scene where Woody is catapulted through the air into a ray of light, from the soft blanket of a young girl, is heart-melting. But what's really special, aside from another excellent contribution from Randy Newman, is how much heart these characters retain after so long. The script is spot-on in its character observations, something the second entry significantly lacked. That was more of an extended action sequence and while Toy Story 3 starts on an equally exciting note , it has much more humour and heart than the last installment. It's utterly perfect in every regard. I wish I could write more, but I'd just be here forever, gushing over the smallest detail that, at this point, nobody reading cares about. So I point you back to my initial review, and assure you that if I were to write it again now, every word would be the same...

Honourable Mention
Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn)
One of the most pleasantly surprising films of the year, Kick-Ass was almost one of the most controversial, largely due to the instantly iconic Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), a 4ft whirlwind of death - foul mouthed and with a penchant for ice cream, she's handy with a knife, pistol, grenades and four-letter C words. She's the comic book equivalent of Mathilda (Natalie Portman) form Luc Besson's 1994 masterpiece Léon (also a controversial work which remained cut until earlier this year). Also to be commended is Nic Cage doing his best Adam West impression as Big Daddy, and Mark Strong hamming it up as central villain Frank D'Amico. Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn created a spiky, sarcastic screenplay which not only deconstructs the superhero movie, but also has a whip-smart sense of humour and blistering pace. The colour scheme and exuberant score give the film a vibrant, edgy flavour and the raw violence is never more powerful than in the breathtaking scene where Hit-Girl attempts to rescue Big Daddy. Truly an astonishing work.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) DVD Review

First of all, lets get any notion of this being original out of the way. Anime, slashers and porn have all got in on the idea of entering dreams before Inception did. A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987), Dream Master: The Erotic Invader (Jackie Garth, 1997) and Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006) are the imagineers and none of them turn into a Bond inflected heist movie halfway through. For all the talk of Inception being a blockbuster with brains it's really just an efficient construction of style masquerading intelligence with complex exposition, and the final hour is more of an extended action sequence than an exploration of theme. I wasn't expecting an art movie going into Inception but I was expecting something a little more than talking heads playing with sleepy time. But with the absence of Jonathan Nolan as a writer, that's exactly what Chris delivers...

Which isn't to say that Inception is bad. Shot by Wally Pfister, the film is technically impressive. Reliant on moody shading (grey and blue), the colour scheme evokes the same kind of intensity as Nolan's previous work and the lighting captures most of the locations beautifully. Hans Zimmer may be recycling the Dark Knight's (Nolan, 2008) score, but he's doing a damn good job of it - underscoring all of the action beats with pulse-pounding aplomb. The central problem with Inception is that it impressed me more than it engaged me. At the moment where I needed to be on the edge of my seat, fearing for the fate of a character, I was wondering how Nolan and co. technically achieved the gravity free fight sequences or the demolition of a snow bound communication centre. None of the characters have a background, a future or even a detectable personality. Their relationships are left unspoken of, their pasts with each other unexplored. It's to be taken for granted that their connections are real and hold weight, because there's far too much mechanical jargon to be discussed. Even the over-extended and frankly absurd subplot of Cobb's (DiCaprio) wife is surrounded by techno-speak of how she's trapped in a dreamworld decades old. The emotional axis of the film is merely further exposition - rather than acting as a romantic character, Mal (Cotillard) is an easy way of explaining what happens inside a dream. She's not a real person. She's a walking plot device. The same can be said of Ariadne (Ellen Page) who at one point literally asks "wait, whose subconscious are we entering?" That's not entrusting an audience with intelligence, it's reminding them to keep up.

At the time of Inception's much applauded release, many began comparing Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. In terms of innovation and mastery of craft, there is nothing but hyperbole in these statements. There is, however, a point worth making. It could be said that Hitch made twenty identical films and twenty films that were different - but they were the same twenty. What I mean by this is that most of his films were different stories based on the same theme - that of identity, and ordinary men being thrown into extraordinary situations, and left to deal with it. Most of his acclaimed works are variations on that setup - the theme of identity taken from several angles. In the same way, Nolan has always made films about memory and obsession - and the lengths people will go to for the sake of them. Inception is no different and this is his most epic excursion into that theme yet - the typical setup taken from the angle of subconscious and invasion. The difference between this and Following (1998) is about $160,000,000.

All of this sounds like I'm just slagging Nolan off, but I'm not. I love The Prestige (2006) and enjoyed The Dark Knight (2008) and it excites me that he's at least trying to do something different and be visually interesting. But I do feel that this film has recieved praise in areas it does not deserve and this review was an attempt to highlight them, and provoke discussion. The influence of James Bond, especially in the opening set-piece and the snowy finale, is undeniable and while this makes for an exciting ride (thankfully for that overlong running time the film has a breakneck pace) it also deviates from the central idea that is apparently so well presented. The shootouts are efficiently handled and well shot, with Nolan finally getting a firm grip on the mechanics of action cinema (which Batman Begins, 2005, failed to do). It's a slick, polished ride with some exciting set-pieces but in almost every other department it falls a little short. DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt, Cotillard and Murphy are all great actors, but they are given woefully little material to work with here. The best performance by a mile is delivered by Tom Hardy, who is hopefully one of the emerging stars of our time. A knockout in Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008) and TV series The Take (David Drury, 2009), he's a charismatic and controlled screen presence. Nolan has apparently cast him in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) which, frankly, can only be a good sign...

Friday 3 December 2010

LFF #7: Of Gods And Men (Des hommes et des dieux) (Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

Films that directly deal with the subject of faith are few and far between. Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955), Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) and Wings Of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987) could be counted among the better entries on the topic, but the problem is that most filmmakers don't have the courage to speak on such a challenging subject - let alone question it. In recent years we have become much more cynical about religion and films like Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008) and Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, 2006) have highlighted some of the hypocrisy, inconsistency and danger of organised religion in contemporary society. I myself am an atheist but religion and faith has always been an interesting subject to me, which is why this 'new wave' of ideas-based films, which can only be the result of a more liberal and free-speaking world, are so refreshing. Many would cite Letters To God (David Nixon, Patrick Doughtie, 2010) as the leader of this 'wave' but I would prefer to look further away from the American mainstream. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2009) is probably the most powerful faith-based film I have ever seen - the story of Christine (Sylvie Testud), a wheelchair-bound woman who takes a trip to the Pyrénées mountains, to the famous site of pilgrimage, looking for a cure to her helpless situation. Much like Des hommes et des dieux, Lourdes is a film of subtlety, sensitivity and repetition. A lack of score and an ambient tone provide the perfect lens through which to view the struggle with faith in the modern world - can it really cure Christine? There is also an ambiguity to the film that assures it never preaches or shifts beyond the realms of possibility.

Des hommes et des dieux, shot by Caroline Champetier (Ponette, Jacques Doillon, 1996) is a beautiful and meditative essay on the strength of faith. It tells the story of a group of Cistercian monks whose community is challenged by violent fundamentalists in 90s Algeria - where they were forced to make a life changing decision. Many scenes take place in either conference or choir. There are several tense scenes of the monks debating their place in the Tibhirine monastery, when faced by violence. Will their faith begin to waver when faced with martyrdom? They know the correct thing would be to stay with their people, who are engaged in civil war (1991 - 2002, against Islamist rebel groups). It is this question, of faith in the path of adversity , which echoes through the silences of Des hommes et des dieux. The choir sections are powerfully harmonic, and provide the moments of peaceful salvation in the film. Although the film is delicate (most actors seem to speak in a whisper and the natural use of sound is lovely) there is an air of impending doom that makes the monks decision all the more troublesome. The pace is incredibly slow and although it does meander somewhat, the performances are terrific (Michael Lonsdale delivers his finest work in years) and it's very easy to feel for the plight of the characters.

There is one false note that threatens to bring the film down. The monks spend a final evening together (obviously allegorical of The Last Supper) and the camera slowly observes each of their faces. Had this scene been played in silence, it may have made the tragic denouement all the more powerful. But as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake swells over the images of the men, the naturalness is interrupted by a woefully misjudged moment of Academy begging sentiment. The music crescendos over the one scene in the film that just had to be underplayed. It's laughable, frankly, and suddenly reveals that Beauvois doesn't have as confident a grasp on his material as was initially hinted. It's a step down from which the film never fully recovers, despite the brave ending. I applaud Les hommes et des dieux for its beauty, intelligence and honesty. I applaud it for its delicate and non-judgmental handling of difficult subject matter, and for not backing down from questioning faith. Most will be put off by the fact that it's in a foreign language (French) but you only need be wary of that final false step which distances rather than draws closer it's viewer - at the most crucially important point.

Friday 26 November 2010

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) Review

There's a famous story concerning the censorship of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) that goes a little something like this...

Hitch, aware of the trouble the MPAA would have with the film, had a cunning idea up his sleeve. The censorship board consisted of five members - upon first viewing three members insisted that they had seen a nipple and knife penetration in the infamous shower scene, but in fact the scene contains nothing of the sort, as recognized by the remaining two members. Hitchcock sent the print back the very next day, unchanged, and the majority approved the scene to be suitable for audiences. The two remaining members however, who has previously passed the scene, this time saw nipple and knife penetration. The point Hitchcock was making is that often the mind can see what it wants to see - the idea of fear can often work as a more powerful stimulant than a film containing supposedly explicit material. The board knew of the films reputation and had simply imagined the more lurid content. In many ways this simple story says everything we need know about the dangers of cinema as a voyeuristic tool, and the ability it has to implicate an audience member with a fantasy not happening onscreen, but in their mind. It indulges us.

On the other side of the pond, British treasure and filmmaking legend Michael Powell was about to lose everything over a voyeuristic masterpiece named Peeping Tom - another spectacular case of mind over matter, that this time put those very board members in the frame. Basically reversing the formula of Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Peeping Tom sees the killer with the camera and the victims as helpless citizens. Psycho was a roaring public success because it allowed the viewer to enjoy a dark slice of the macabre from an outsiders perspective. But Peeping Tom was one of the most controversial films of all time because it put the audience in the place of the voyeur (killer). The opening sees a P.O.V. shot from a concealed camera as Mark (Karlheinz Böhm) picks up a prostitute on the street. The camera is hidden in his coat and we see the event unfurl from his depraved eyes. In this scene Powell places the audience in the shoes of a man about to commit murder. The camerawork in this scene is hugely inventive and innovative - we slowly move towards the victim who crawls backward, terrified - until she lets out a piercing scream (above image). The scene is soon replayed in Mark's studio, through his projector. The murder film plays out in black and white and Powell's camera zooms out of that image, enlarging it, while Mark - comfortably sitting in his seat admiring his work, is made smaller. As Roger Ebert stated in his Great Movies essay, this shot "shows us a member of the audience being diminished by the power of the cinematic vision". Mark is as much a member of the audience as we are - except he suffers from scopophilia, a form of voyeurism that finds the 'looker' gaining sexual pleasure from peeping at erotic objects...

It is to Powell's credit that we both loathe and sympathize with this man. We do not sympathize with him as a sociopath or a murderer, nor do we derive erotic pleasure from 'looking'. However, we do see the events of the film through his eyes, and I didn't turn away. I was drawn into this seedy world. The experience of watching murder through Mark's eyes was an interesting one. A captivating one. So, what does that make me? The fact that I understand this mans desire to look in private places? That's essentially the deal you strike with a film upon entering the cinema. For a short while you'll be invited to spy on the lives of people you'll never meet, never know, never truly understand. You'll watch them in their most intimate of moments. We, as a collective audience, do not suffer from scopophilia. But we do have a desire to watch and, in the 21st century, be watched. Cameras record our every move it seems, and reality TV is bigger than ever. George Orwell was right and films like Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006) express the danger of 'looking' with an all too relatable eye. That film, as much as Michael Haneke's Caché (2005) forms a fascinating companion study to Peeping Tom. Whenever a filmmaker challenges our desire to 'look' (also seen in Haneke's Funny Games, 1997) we must step back from the experience and attempt to understand it. Powell did this better than anyone. The film (photographed by Otto Heller) has a saturated, pornographic colour scheme. It indulges itself in blood reds, dank greys and haunting blacks - as well as blinding whites and spotlight greens. It is this use of colour that also draws us deeper into the film, and somehow makes it more appealing. A key scene sees Mark persuade an extra (Moira Shearer) to stay behind (Mark is a focus puller at a movie studio) and shoot some of her own scenes. At first he lurks in the shadows, turning spotlights on her as she uneasily looks for a sign of Mark. She calls out his name, frightened, as the bright lights illuminate her, in vibrantly different shades. The Technicolour works beautifully in this scene. It is perhaps the most colourful of all the sets in the movie - the most aesthetically pleasing, inviting, exciting, alive and captivating. The scene is incredibly tense and as Mark edges towards his victim, unsheathing the blade that hides in the leg of his tripod, we begin to see fear write itself across her face. We stare at her, unable to look away. We are about to witness another murder. But will we look away?

It is later revealed that Mark put the body (a brief cutaway would hint he chopped her up) in a blue box - comically, the prop for a scene in the morning shoot. Mark claims that the most frightening thing in the world is fear itself. He finds pleasure in people feeling it. He finds more pleasure in photographing them feeling it, and showing to them their own fears, before they die. Perhaps that was Powell's point all along. Perhaps in a twisted way he was Mark, sat in the directors chair - showing us fear, so that our fear may be recorded. It may not have been photographed visually, but the record of the films controversy stands as testament that it was fear that terrified us most of all, back in 1960. Peeping Tom is as unnerving, terrifying and engaging as it was the day it was made. If anything, it's more relevant. Because now there are security cameras in every shop, train station, street corner... we are never, ever alone. There's always someone spying on us when we walk home, do the shopping, fill in the paperwork at our jobs. Maybe somebody, somewhere, is watching you a little closer than you care to imagine. You may loathe that prospect, like you loathed Mark. But could you live without it? Could you live without the prospect of wandering into the cinema to spy on somebody's life, all the time being watched by somebody unknown to you? A voyeur? Do you sympathize with that need or emotion? Funny thing is... I think you do...

Friday 19 November 2010

LFF #6: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat) (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives has already recieved some coverage on the blog. It was my second favorite film of the festival after Lucy Walker's Waste Land (2010) and it hits select (arthouse) cinemas in the UK today.

The controversial winner of the Palme D'or at this years Cannes Film Festival, Uncle Boonmee is now within a fair shout of a Best Foreign Film Oscar nod. It probably won't win - Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010) is much more 'worthy' - but the nomination would definitely provide a bigger platform for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul to play on. Not that he needs it of course. His films may be small in budget but they are huge in scope. Along the lines of Tropical Malady (2004) this finds him in the realm of the jungle dealing with spirits, life and death - with a good deal of the action taking place in shadow. Of course that film was a tender drawing of gay romance, whereas Uncle Boonmee, from portentous title to existential denouement, is about reincarnation and the worlds of and between life and death. What's remarkable about Uncle Boonmee (and this is true of all of Weerasethakul's oeuvre) is how unique it is. The press notes proclaimed that there are things in this film you've never seen before - universes to be explored. Truly this is a totally unique and captivating experience that will likely stay with you forever. And depending on your tolerance for snail paced painterly pondering, that will be a good or bad thing.

Cannes is famous for making unpredictable, left-wing decisions when it comes to awarding the Palme D'or and Uncle Boonmee recieved some scathingly negative and reactionary complaints at the time. French critics were less than kind to the film, proclaiming it hopelessly boring and a failed experiment. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw has rightly given the film 5 stars, calling it "mysterious, dreamlike, gentle, quiet, magical". In many ways, that's as accurate a summary as you're going to get because the content of Uncle Boonmee can't really be described in words. I gave it a bash in my brief write-up two months ago, when I said that the film contains "questions arisen through symbols that propel you into universes - the visual language of Weerasethakul's cinema is extraordinarily assured, personal and poetic. It's a deeply spiritual film; an existential film that explores the literal and metaphorical boundaries between the worlds of life and death". I stand by these statements and also by the fact that the catfish scene, the source of some amusement for the films detractors, has an almost religious, hypnotic quality. It's certainly the bravest move I've seen in a film for years, perhaps only equalled by a scene in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999) where the entire cast begin to sing along to Aimee Mann's 'Wise Up'. And that's my favorite film of all time.

If you can find a cinema that's playing Uncle Boonmee you should take the time to watch it. It's frustrating, confusing and breaks most filmmaking rules, but that's exactly what makes it so captivating. It consists of long static shots and ambient natural sound, yet retains a quality that is epic and distinctly cinematic. A shot of the sun going down over a dense, mystical forrest inhabited by spirits is beautifully evocative. The red penetrative eyes of a monkey spirit and the emerging ghost of Boonmee's dead wife are quietly haunting. The ending will leave you with more questions than answers but as the perky pop music begins to play over the most conventionally shot and lit scene of the film, which could be existing anywhere, you'll be glad you came. To end I'll quote another 5 star review, from The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu... "It's barely a film; more a floating world". Uncle Boonmee certainly exists in a place that most other filmmakers dare not touch - a place of furious intelligence, exasperating ambiguity, dazzling imagination, artistic ambition and quietly affecting honesty. That a film like this should even exist in the 21st century is a miracle - so lets savor it. It's a bewildering, life-affirming experience and you're either going to love or loathe it. But that's what cinema is all about. Right?

Thursday 18 November 2010

Wild Grass (Les herbes folles) (Alain Resnais, 2009) DVD Review

Wild Grass, the 18th film from 88-year-old nouvelle vague director Alain Resnais, is that strangest of things: a genre film without a genre. It's a romantic comedy, but it's not. Or is it? You will ask yourself this and many questions like it while watching Wild Grass. Scenes come and go with seemingly no purpose. Flashbacks intercut at inappropriate moments, or are they flashbacks at all? Perhaps they're more trickery, like the narration - what purpose does it serve? Who's perspective are we seeing the film from and why do characters randomly butt into the dialogue? If you're looking to this review for answers, you won't find them. I'm baffled. I'm baffled by the characters, the colour palette - hell, even the direction! Resnais is clearly playing with film form again but is Wild Grass a self conscious experiment (an in-joke with all involved)? Or is it an avant-garde genre piece? A waking dream designed for analysis but working on a much simpler, more human plane of existence? Why do scenes fade to black at the moment they provide answers? Georges (André Dussollier), a troubled soul who believes he has (and may well of) committed a murder, fears the police. An officer named Bernard (Mathieu Amalric) is suddenly struck with recognition, when looking through the bright blue gates at Georges. Cut to black. The same can be said of the films ending, or whichever of the three scenarios you choose to be the ending. The classic Hollywood embrace, set to the 20th Century Fox theme? The possible plane crash, hinted at from the opening frame? Or the 30 second closing shot of a mother - a writer? - being asked by her daughter "When I'm a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?" These are people we've never seen before. I've never been so unsure of a movie, so how can I review it? It would be dishonest, borderline pretentious, to propose insight that I don't have. So don't think of this as a review. Think of it as a discussion board. If you want to know what I think of the film, it's fantastic. It's deceptive, dangerous, magical, whimsical, funny, exciting, romantic... everything you could want from a film is here and Resnais directs it with the imagination, energy and vigor of a man half his age. The colour palette - alternatively soft and vibrant primary colours - is stunningly evocative, at times ethereal. The camerawork is fluid, invasive, stylish, secretive, observant and confusing - the camera placed at unusual angles, including a high angle shot of Georges entering the police station. The performances are terrific and the film is bursting at the seams with dazzling invention and playful eccentricity. It's a fairytale alright, but a (sur)realist one, a cineliterate one, and one brimming with an untold darkness.

So here's what I think it means. Resnais' has toyed with the ideas of memory and dreams before in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year At Marienbad (1961), which are both also about relationships - one is forbidden and one is ambiguous. The relationship in Wild Grass between Georges and Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) is both of these things. They meet through a seemingly random incident - Marguerite has her handbag stolen and Georges finds the wallet from inside it. Both of these sequences are quite surreal. One shot focuses on the yellow handbag flying through the air in slow motion, a soft, radiant light illuminating it as if this were a dream. Georges finds the wallet (red) in a car park and when two women walk past, the narrator tells us of how he thinks of strangling them for bad taste. "Thinking about that again?" his interior monologue goes. Georges is clearly a dreamer - he begins to obsess over Marguerite, sending her endless letters and phone calls, until one day he goes too far and slashes her tyres. Or does he? Perhaps he's just a sick fantasist. He also obsesses over the fact that the police will recognise him - perhaps catch him for a previous crime. When they come to his house to question about the tyres he's panicked. But the police don't blink an eye. Or do they? The significance of Bernard's sudden recognition is unknown. Maybe I even imagined it. The film certainly never touches on it again. In fact, the police never make another appearance. Marguerite and Georges begin to meet, at first outside the cinema at a screening of The Bridges At Toko-ri (Mark Robson, 1954) and a casual, non-sexual affair begins to emerge. At this point the film takes a strange turn as Marguerite begins to obsess over Georges and starts phoning his home. Perhaps this is all part of Georges' imagination? Perhaps in his mind she is madly in love with him (when they meet face-to-face for the first time Georges says "so you do love me?") and is stalking him. Perhaps that's what he wants. Marguerite's best friend, Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) is suspicious of both their activity and accompanies Marguerite, Georges and his wife Suzanne (Anne Consigny) to the airfield (Marguerite is a pilot). This is where the three-way ending comes into play, and I'm not sure that they are meant to follow each other in a narrative sense, but are rather three possible outcomes to whichever plot you have been following - dream, fantasy or surrealist reality. The loving embrace seems to make the most sense but is far too simple a conclusion for Resnais. More than a film, Wild Grass is like a box of magic tricks, all competing to tell the same story. The second ending would also make some kind of sense were it not followed by the dark, actually quite scary surreal trip through a forrest, graveyard and rocky mountain. What does that mean? The music (Mark Snow) is eerie and operatic, like the beginning of a crescendo from a horror movie. And then there's the final ending. Who is the woman at the chair? It's possibly Josepha. The camera swoops past her so fast it's impossible to tell and this is, of course, exactly the point. The girls line, "When I'm a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?" is a nod towards the idea of reincarnation. Would it be too much to think of her as the deceased from the plane accident, if such an event happened? Or is it just another rabbit out of a hat? I don't know. But I do know that Resnais has crafted one of his finest films and at 88 shows no signs of stopping...