0216 | Only Lovers Left Alive

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Although 2005’s Broken Flowers was hardly a duff affair, the popular line is that Only Lovers Left Alive represents something of a return to form for Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker who has remained true to his indie sensibilities for more than 30 years and who retains the ability to surprise even his long-standing fans. This latest film has been hailed as the director’s best work since either Dead Man or Ghost Dog (The Way Of The Samurai), both released in the 1990s, and on first viewing it’s not difficult to see why: though this tale of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (regular collaborator Tilda Swinton) re-visits the vampire-as-junkie allegory of Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, combining heroin chic with tried-and-tested B-movie legends, crucially it has a fine script, two very good central performances and an intangible otherness that comes from the film’s constant fetishisation of an analogue, manual and earthy past. Which combine to make it a very enjoyable watch indeed.

In present-day Detroit Adam collects vintage musical instruments, recording equipment and other strange objects, which he surrounds himself with in his apartment. For centuries he has inspired musicians around the world while shunning the limelight himself, but as a result of his reclusive nature he is suffering from ennui to the point of being suicidal and has just one friend named Ian (Anton Yelchin) for company. He dresses in black, wears shades indoors and only ventures out at night to score blood, though rather than extracting it from the necks of victims he must obtain a purer supply – ‘the good stuff’ as it is referred to in Jarmusch’s screenplay – from a local hospital. Adam pretends to be a ‘Dr. Faust’ and picks up his fix illegally from a ‘Dr. Watson’ (Jeffrey Wright), as most human blood is now contaminated, and therefore of inferior quality.

A literary connection stretches halfway across the world to Tangier, where Adam’s lover Eve frets over her own dwindling supply, and scores with the help of the vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who apparently faked his own death in 1593. Eve becomes aware of Adam’s predicament during a Skype conversation and travels overnight (naturally) to Detroit, where the two rekindle their relationship and explore the run-down areas of the city together. It’s a short-lived respite, however, as Adam’s attempts to return to an even keel are hampered by the arrival of Eve’s wildchild sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) from Los Angeles (‘Great … zombie central’ deadpans Adam on behalf of Jarmusch), who is a little too carefree with the blood supply.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a clear love letter to the past, even though it still manages to embrace very modern concepts like videocalling and the ease and affordability of travel; as such Detroit and Tangier appear to be perfect locations for different reasons. The empty shells lining the streets of the former, visited at night by Adam and Eve, constantly remind you that the city’s boom years are sadly gone, with references in the script to its successful 20th Century associations with Motown and Ford forcing the point home. Even Jack White gets a mention in a somewhat self-referential move by Jarmusch, though crucially the couple visits the house White grew up in during one of their late-night sojourns, not where he currently lives; the musician – who appeared in Jarmusch’s film Coffee And Cigarettes – has relocated to Nashville.

Adam’s apartment is filled with old instruments, as stated earlier, but he has also amassed a significant amount of scientific knowledge and has built several contraptions to power his home and his vintage sports car. He spins vinyl and bemoans the lack of respect afforded to such historical figures as Nikola Tesla, while over in Tangier Eve has surrounded herself with thousands of old books that have been written in a myriad of languages and even keeps the company of a writer who later claims on his death bed to have ghosted most of Shakespeare’s plays. In her equally-dark apartment there’s a predominance of rugs and comfortable, worn furniture, and though she uses a smartphone there isn’t an e-reader or tablet in sight. When she packs for her trip to Detroit clothes aren’t an issue – she wears flowing white garments that make for a nice visual contrast with Adam – and instead she packs two cases filled with antique books. When Eve wanders the streets of Tangier at night it looks as if this city has changed little during the past hundred years or so, and it is key that both vampires have chosen to live in places that show few obvious signs of recent development, though Tangier represents stability where Detroit represents decline. Within these environments Jarmusch’s interior sets are like beautifully-decorated museums, and they certainly inform the feel of this movie – and its Luddite theme – considerably.

There is little in the way of plot, which isn’t a surprise given the director’s love for unhurried moodpieces; the story is merely driven by Adam’s depression and the characters’ need to score blood. The link with heroin is most obviously cemented by the scenes in which they drink miniature goblets of the ‘good stuff’, sinking back immediately into their sofas in a state of euphoria, oddly recalling similar shots in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. When they board planes Adam and Eve look like thin, pale, wasted rock stars, sporting the same leather-clad, zonked-out look adopted by David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop as they dropped in and out of Berlin in the 1970s. When they watch live music in Detroit (the band White Hills appear in one scene) their shades stay on all night long, though with dawn approaching there’s always an underlying reason for blocking out the sun.

The choice of music during the film is important, and carefully selected, as is always the case with Jarmusch. The director’s predilection for raw, stripped-back and uncompromising blues and soul enhances the various threads that deal with a kind of lost purity, while his own band, Sqürl, provide the experimental rock played by Adam in the film. With the Detroit setting this kind of music makes perfect sense, and yet oddly enough the decision to complement it with Jozef van Wissem’s experimental lute playing works well (hey, we all need a little experimental lute playing in our lives from time to time). When the story returns to Tangier near the end Jarmusch has his characters watch the Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, whose performance in a local cafe signifies a completion in terms of Adam’s recovery and apparently triggers a new-found lust for (eternal) life, or represents a fresh start. Earlier he appears to be non-plussed by White Hills, and the simple solution offered in the story is that he needs a change of scene and a shift in terms of the culture he consumes. Does Jarmusch feel this way, or did he feel this way in recent years? It feels like the filmmaker has put a lot more of himself into this screenplay.

Jarmusch’s more recent exercises in genre exploration have concentrated on the solo male protagonist – Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers and The Limits Of Control, for example – so it’s somewhat refreshing to see a couple featuring heavily here. Given the downbeat, languid, narcotic haze of the film it’s interesting to note that the core love story is actually quite upbeat, positive and uncynical. Swinton and Hiddleston have fine chemistry as the centuries-old lovers; their characters seem very well-suited, sharing a similar sense of humour and worldview.

It’s interesting to compare Only Lovers Left Alive with the recent New Zealand comedy What We Do In The Shadows; both feature vampires using Skype, enjoying local nightlife and, more generally, exhibiting degrees of frustration at having to deal with the modern world. The latter successfully mines the horror genre for its gags, spoofing films as diverse as Interview With The Vampire and Twilight, though it is far from reliant on the mockery of the works of others. While it isn’t a comedy, Jarmusch’s film also has its own kind of gentle fun at the expense of the huge number of vampire stories that have preceded it, yet there’s barely any horror in Only Lovers Left Alive; aside from one or two displays of superhuman speed the last shot of the film is the first to actually show vampires being vampires. Trust Jarmusch, a one-of-a-kind film school rebel, to make a horror film that leaves out the horror until the final frame. I completely slept on this movie earlier in the year, and in my rush to review a bunch of well-received 2014 releases before the end of December I’m pleased to have finally watched it; it is indeed one of the year’s better efforts, as well as being one of the more unusual. I really liked its woozy ambience.

The Basics:
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 122 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.5

 

0215 | Prisoners

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Prisoners is Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s first English language film, and the first he made following the critical success of 2010’s Incendies, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. A twisty tale of child abduction and abuse that frequently switches the roles of some characters from victim to offender (and vice versa), it’s an emotionally-draining film that features some magnificent cinematography and some fine acting from the ensemble cast. Beware, there are plot spoilers below.

In an unidentified, rainy, blue-collar Pennsylvania town, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are settling down for Thanksgiving dinner with their neighbours, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terence Howard and Viola Davis). Both couples have two children and before the day is out the two youngest members of each family, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons), suddenly disappear. The case is subsequently handed to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), but his investigation is far from straightforward; the prime suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was seen nearby in a suspicious vehicle prior to the abductions, has the IQ of a 10-year-old, according to his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). As Loki investigates further he discovers that several old cases of abduction and abuse in the town may be relevant, but the days pass too quickly for the frustrated Dover, who decides to take matters into his own hands.

Prisoners has much in common with two recent adaptations of Dennis Lehane novels. Ben Affleck’s highly underrated 1997 debut Gone Baby Gone also examined the short-term effects of child abduction on a community and its individual members, while Clint Eastwood’s earlier adaptation of Mystic River dealt to some extent with the long-term mental scars. Prisoners strikes something of a balance, initially appearing as though it will be concentrating on the fates of two clear victims before the story opens up considerably to show the effects of generations of abuse.

Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay repeatedly asks the viewer to re-think opinions about certain characters. At first Dano’s Jones appears to fit the bill of a guilty kidnapper or paedophile who has perhaps managed to outsmart the police, until the information surfaces about his mental age, which represents an early twist. Soon Jones is the victim of kidnap and torture himself, and in several scenes Jackman is intense as the desperate father who takes the law into his own hands. But the issue has become clouded now and it is difficult to apportion guilt: is Jones still culpable somehow? Are Dover’s actions just as bad? (He is effectively kidnapping someone with the mental age of his own abducted daughter, remember.) Meanwhile another man named Bob Taylor (David Dastmalchian) steps into the vacated role of prime suspect, and despite mounting evidence against him, the viewer is less keen to jump to conclusions for a second time.

Trying to make sense of all of this is Detective Loki, whose name (perhaps obviously) suggests that we should be wary of trusting the character implicitly, and must surely be considered in relation to the film’s cliffhanger, in which he is perhaps weighing up his own 100% record of crime-solving against a more ruthless rough justice. After a childhood spent in care Loki has become a dedicated (read: obsessive) cop, yet Guzikowski’s story makes an interesting link between Keller Dover’s illegal interrogation of Jones and Loki’s ‘legal’ interrogation of Taylor; there is excessive violence against the suspects in both cases, yet arguably the results of one interrogation are far worse than the other. Should Loki be culpable for forcing Taylor into the drastic action that ends with the suspect’s suicide? He is barely reprimanded at all by his Captain, O’Malley (Wayne Duvall), and at times it is the detective who appears to be in charge at the police station. In Prisoners everyone who apparently does wrong is punished somehow, with the notable exception of Loki, who for me is the most interesting character here.

This is a fascinating moral quagmire to wade through, and the principal characters are interesting to follow as they become ever more frantic and their actions become ever more unpredictable. The story, while generally believable, creaks a little when Joy Birch escapes from captivity and says ‘you were there’ to Keller in front of an assortment of family members. If Keller has worked out who is responsible for his daughter’s abduction at this point why doesn’t he just tell the police instead of running away from them? It’s a shame that disbelief needs to be suspended as the film reaches its climax.

Prisoners sees Director of Photography Roger Deakins add to his magnificent portfolio with some superb cinematography. There are plenty of attention-grabbing shots – the approaching Loki reflected in the wing mirror of Jones’s vehicle being my personal favourite – but there is clearly a degree of care on every single frame, even the numerous establishing shots of houses and driveways; see this post for a fascinating, in-depth analysis. Throughout the film Deakins uses a drained palette of browns, greys and washed-out blues, reflecting the seasonal weather first and foremost but also key in establishing the downbeat mood. Little wonder the Coens collaborate with him so often, the man’s work should be cherished.

As you would expect in a film about kidnapping there are many enclosed, creepy spaces, barely illuminated but for the occasional shaft of light. Villeneuve uses these to great effect, repeatedly putting the viewer in the shoes of the victim (especially in the case of Jones, where any initial outrage at the idea that the character has ‘gotten away with it’ gives way gradually to sympathy for his plight as he is forced to endure torture in an unfinished bathroom and, later, an even smaller space: a sealed-off shower). Meanwhile the town’s exteriors become ever more abstract, with shape and form becoming more blurry as the film wears on. The town’s roads and buildings are often seen through rainy / dirty car windows and by the end, with Loki executing a mad dash to the town’s hospital with blood trickling into his eye, it’s difficult to make any of it out clearly.

Despite the presence of a neat cliffhanger the final, twist-laden 30 minutes tarnishes the film, as the decision to identify and deal with a clear and unequivocal villain of the piece is at odds with the rest of the story, which is otherwise ambiguous, thought-provoking and unhurried. It’s a shame, as Prisoners is a visually-stimulating work that is at its best when challenging the viewer’s own notions of right and wrong, and daring to show us the sides of some characters that other films would simply not explore; this is an element of the movie that is still present at the end, but somewhat secondary to the barely-believable direction the case takes.

It’s also unfortunate, to say the least, that the black family plays second fiddle to the white family here, given that both have children snatched away. To an extent this is because Jackman’s character is more important than Howard’s to the story, and as a result the Dovers get more screen-time, but it’s still noticeable, even if the Birches are not completely ignored. Overall, though, it’s worth seeing. Villeneuve has a talented bunch of actors on board, and he gets some good performances from them. Gyllenhaal is very good indeed, and although Jackman’s ire and frustration dominates a little at times, it certainly increases the dramatic tension and adds to the sense of time running out. Dano, too, does well. With these performances, the provocative story and Deakins’ excellent cinematography this has all the makings of a great thriller, but it just falls short due to a few flaws: it’s still a very good one though.

The Basics:
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, David Dastmalchian
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 153 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 7.6

Classic Scene: Children Of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men, a box office disappointment but a critical hit back in 2006, famously incorporates a number of single-shot sequences at key moments in the story. It’s a technique Cuarón has used before and since, but a few of my favourites from any movie appear during this dystopian sci-fi tale about infertility and a crumbling society. There’s the opening, attention-grabbing one-shot take of a bomb attack that begins inside a cafe before moving outside to London’s Fleet Street (a scene that gives me the creeps whenever I see it as I have to walk past that very spot at least twice a day). Then there’s the superb finale, in which the film’s hero Theo Faron (Clive Owen) negotiates the war-torn streets of Bexhill-on-Sea, and also a scene in which the character Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) gives birth. But just as impressive is the following sequence in which Theo and Kee are attacked in a car by an armed gang while travelling with Julian (Julianne Moore), Luke (Chiwetel Eijofor) and Miriam (Pam Ferris). A special camera rig was invented specifically for the sequence and the car was adapted so that seats could tilt and lower actors out of the way as the camera turned; the windshield was also modified so that the camera could move in and out of the front of the vehicle. A crew of four, including cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, rode on the roof. (N.B. if you haven’t seen the film before the following clip contains a spoiler regarding the fate of one of the characters. Though I’m afraid YouTube have already given the game away before you even press play …)

0214 | Frank

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I saw Frank Sidebottom, the character created by the eccentric performance artist, comedian and musician Chris Sievey, on a few occasions in the early 1990s. Each time I felt like there was a huge joke being shared in the room that I wasn’t in on, such was the feverish mirth Sidebottom inspired in his followers, but I dutifully accompanied one of my friends – a huge fan – whenever Frank played my town anyway. By the third gig I knew a few songs and began to feel like I could be part of this most surreal of clubs, but my friend moved away and I never witnessed Sidebottom’s peculiar sound and strange brand of comedy again; Sievey sadly died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 54.

The writer Jon Ronson once played keyboards in Sidebottom’s backing band – he replaced former BBC Radio 1 DJ Mark Radcliffe, incidentally – and he drew on this experience to write Frank with Peter Straughan. Lenny Abrahamson has turned their screenplay into an engaging, likeable and inclusive film, and although the name ‘Sidebottom’ isn’t referred to specifically, it’s clear from the papier-mâché head worn here by Michael Fassbender that Sievey’s creation is the main inspiration. This ‘Frank’ is American, though, whereas Sievey was born and raised in the suburbs of Manchester; in fact once you get past the false head the character in this film mainly brings to mind US-based musical mavericks of yore: Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Brian Wilson, to name but three.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as a vaguely-nerdy young amateur musician named Jon, who steps in at short notice to play keyboards for Frank’s band, indie act The Soronprfbs (the unpronouncable name allows for a successful and amusing running gag). Like all the coolest bands they’re an odd-looking gang, managed by Scoot McNairy’s hip impresario Don, and including among their number Baraque (François Civil), Nana (Carla Azar, a drummer in real life) and the icy, psychotic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who  plays a theremin and threatens to steal many of her scenes). Jon ends up quitting his job and making an album with his new comrades, gaining a degree of social media-driven notoriety along the way, and forms a strong bond with the impressionable, enigmatic Frank.

The old tale of a band on the rise getting to grips with the demands of the music business is given a lo-fi, up-to-date spin, with an appearance at the South By Southwest festival in Texas representing something of a pinnacle for The Soronprfbs. Of course it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that matters, and along the way Jon acts as our narrator, guiding us through his early gigs and a prolonged recording process in rural Ireland before the inevitable disintegration on the road. As things go pear-shaped it becomes clear that Frank’s mental health isn’t as stable as it ought to be, and Ronson and Abrahamson commendably address this in a touching, mature and heartfelt fashion. The story also incorporates social media in an interesting way, with the popularity of Jon’s Twitter account reflecting the band’s growing stature in the eyes of clued-up music fans, and YouTube is used as the catalyst for Jon’s insistence that the band take a more commercial direction. The on-screen implosions over creative differences that result may be nothing new, but the Frank character is so intriguing that this band’s ups-and-downs resonate, and it’s nice to see the band’s internal issues given a 21st Century spin with Jon’s desire for more hits and followers.

Gyllenhaal gets to ham it up – a hot tub sex scene is one of the many highlights – while Gleeson nobly falls on his sword as the flawed, popularity-seeking protagonist who – in a nutshell – ruins everything by eventually tainting the band’s odd chemistry. Best of all is Fassbender, which is quite impressive considering the fact that he is wearing a false head for much of the film. It requires a very physical performance, with limbs and gestures making up for the fact that we can’t see his face, and in a strange way his appearance in Frank further cements his place as one of the better actors working today. Together – as a band – this group of actors are completely believable, and credit must go to the composer Stephen Rennicks for his original works here, which range from the amusingly-twee (‘Frank’s Most Likeable Song’) to out-there-somewhere psychedelic drone rock jams, with the show-stopping finale ‘I Love You All’ the clear highlight.

The director, writers and the cast and crew manage to distinguish Frank from the umpteen rags-to-riches-to-rags tales out there thanks to a healthy dose of quirk, made all the more apparent by the film’s refusal to acknowledge the outside world for long periods; we stay with the band throughout, and after a while their bizarre recording habits and Frank’s semi-cryptic utterances begin to feel normal, as if life with The Soronprfbs is completely balanced and it is in fact the rest of the world that is skew-whiff. This warm film champions the idea of the outsider artist, celebrates eccentricity and paints a somewhat romantic and bittersweet picture of the maverick flying in the face of public indifference; two other films I’ve enjoyed a lot recently, Lukas Moodyson’s We Are The Best and Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, do exactly the same. Frank is certainly the weirdest of those three, though, and highly enjoyable as a result.

The Basics:
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: John Ronson, Peter Straughan
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, François Civil, Carla Azar
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 93 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.9

0213 | Mr Turner

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This ambitious, blustery period piece by Mike Leigh explores the later years of the life of Joseph Mallord William Turner (played by Timothy Spall), covering a period from 1828 until the artist’s death in 1851, at the age of 76. Copying to an extent the typical colour palette of Turner’s own landscapes and with an attention to period detail that leaves countless Dickens adaptations trailing in its wake, Mr Turner is a visually-impressive biographical film and, at times, an intiguing dramatisation of the man’s later life.

Spall is on-screen for nearly all of the film’s 150 minutes, often delivering a guttural grunting noise as his Turner goes about daily business in London, by the sea in Margate and elsewhere. This expressive ‘grrr’ can, and does, mean anything during the course of the film: a dismissive snort, an acknowledgement of somebody else’s fine humour, an approval or an agreement, a ‘thank you’, a ‘no thank you’, and so much more besides. If you thought ‘I am Groot’ was 2014’s phrase of a thousand different meanings then I suggest you watch Mr Turner and marvel at Spall’s ability to turn a simple noise into just about anything. Not that you win the Best Actor award at Cannes for simply grunting for two-and-a-half hours, of course. Spall delivers the rest of his lines with just as much relish, and this is a triumphantly-vibrant performance full of verve and gusto; it certainly assists in evoking the hustle and bustle of Georgian and Victorian life in London at the tail end of the industrial revolution.

Leigh’s film begins quietly in the Netherlands, with Turner standing atop a hill, painting a nearby windmill. The colours of the sky, thanks to the light of the fading sun, are suggestive of the pastels the artist favoured during his career, and it is an early sign that cinematographer Dick Pope’s work is to be informed by Turner’s art; later on the connections are made a little more forcefully, with ethereal whiteouts and foggy seascapes awash with pale yellows, pinks and blues. Soon, though, we return to England, and during the next two hours we see several glimpses into the man’s private life in various houses, shops and other locations crammed with the typical fixtures and fittings of the age. He lives primarily with a loyal housekeeper named Hannah Danby (an equally-impressive performance by Dorothy Atkinson), who he uses for sexual gratification, and denies that he is the father of two girls with another woman, Hannah’s aunt Sarah (Ruth Sheen). For prolonged periods he relocates to the seaside town of Margate, where he enjoys another relationship with the landlady and widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who herself appears to be barely interested in Turner’s status and talent.

Turner’s bond with his father and studio assistant, William (Paul Jesson), dwarfs the other relationships. Theirs is a jovial closeness borne partly out of the sectioning and subsequent death of Turner’s mother, Mary Marshall, who passed away in 1804, and it’s worth noting that Leigh addresses both men’s deaths in a similar fashion, which seems to strengthen their connection. In this film Turner isn’t quite the same after his father dies, and there is a suggestion that the father’s death is the catalyst for Turner’s highly experimental later period, which causes much harrumphing at the Royal Academy.

The Academy scenes, incidentally, are great fun; they are filled with various highly-strung artists throwing hissy fits about the placement of their work on the walls, though it doesn’t seem to bother Turner himself when one of his landscapes is hung in an ante-chamber. Leigh teases us with a glimpse of Turner’s rivalry with that other celebrated British landscape painter of the era, John Constable (James Fleet), before cruelly dropping the thread after a minute or two. The lively and entertaining dialogue in the Royal Academy gives some insight into the prevailing tastes of the period: both Turner and Constable are credited with changing attitudes toward landscape painting within the snooty art world, elevating it to the same status as historical painting, although later we see Turner publicly mocked for his early brand of abstract impressionism at a ribald comedy show. The general public’s take on his work seems to bother Turner far more than the opinions of noted art critics of the day like John Ruskin, played here by Joshua Maguire, who invites Turner to an art discussion that bizarrely turns into a debate about gooseberries. Even comments by Queen Victoria (Sinéad Matthews), who dismisses his work as faulty on account of the artist’s fading eyesight, are merely met with a resigned shrug; you get the impression Spall’s Turner would grunt right in front of her if he could.)

As with many biopics the film is structured in a linear fashion, though the passing of time is mainly perceptible through encroaching illness and the sudden introduction of new technologies (Turner is intrigued by the workings of the camera, for instance, and even encourages the skeptical Mrs Booth when she dismisses the idea of sitting for her own Daguerreotype). The signs of aging are perceptible and the roughness of the diseases of the day allow for some fine make-up work by the team of Christine Blundell, Alexandra Joyce and Chris Lyons, with Hannah Danby’s skin in particular acting as a different, gruesome canvas. Keen fans of the artist will no doubt be able to chart the passing years by the paintings that hang or sit on the floor in his studio as well, I would imagine.

At times Leigh’s Mr Turner is a lurid, bawdy biopic and at others the writer-director successfully engages with more highbrow subjects that remain relevant today, such as the commercialism of art and the influence of changing technology on artists. He approaches it all with a masterly confidence, creating a broadly-focused and unhurried biopic that reinforces his status as the finest British filmmaker working today. Spall has delivered his best work to date here, and considering his excellent performances in the earlier Leigh films Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy, that’s saying something. Highly recommended.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jeeson
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 147 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.0

Trailer Thursdays: Vanishing Point

They – whoever ‘they’ actually are – don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Which is a shame. I’ve been on a bit of a road movie kick this week despite not actually watching any road movies, which admittedly is a little strange, but here’s the trailer for one of the greatest ever made. Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point is a fine film, and one that isn’t just adored by autophiles; this trailer contains some cool footage and makes good use of gravel-voiced voiceover mumblings, as well as dialogue from the film by DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who narrates the crazy speed-fuelled Denver-to-Colarado race against time performed by Kowalski (Barry Newman). Hopefully I’ll never discover that Jeremy Clarkson is a fan as this is one of my favourite road movies … but what are yours?

0212 | Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

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David Lynch’s recent announcement that he and co-writer Mark Frost would be returning to the town of Twin Peaks, Washington for a limited series of nine episodes was met with excitement by the show’s fans. This new third series is scheduled to appear in 2016, 25 years after the original two season run finished, and it will re-unite most of the original cast members. Some journalists have expressed their hope that long-held questions regarding the fate of Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and others will be answered, though the cinematic output of Lynch and the previous incarnation of Twin Peaks on TV both suggest that further mysteries should be expected rather than the neat resolutions of old plot threads.

Though it initially concentrated on the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Twin Peaks ended up as an entirely different beast after declining ratings in the second season famously resulted in studio pressure to reveal the identity of Palmer’s killer early; Lynch didn’t want to do this but his hand was forced, and he had little involvement with the bloated second-half of that season as a result, briefly returning to direct the show’s extremely weird finale (though it must be said there are a handful of good episodes in the second half of season two, and many of the directors involved also worked on the acclaimed first season, so there was some continuity).

The second season accentuated the fact that, at its heart, Twin Peaks was a spoof of daytime soap operas, but as it wore on the mix of unsettling darkness and comic farce became ever more jarring and extreme; the balance between the two disparate styles is something that Lynch, Frost and several other directors handled masterfully in the first season and the first third of the second season, and ultimately it’s a real shame that Twin Peaks spiralled out of control near the end, looking towards several new and previously-minor characters for inspiration in a desperate fashion.

Lynch decided to ditch most of the humour when making the disturbing prequel / epilogue film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which mainly focuses on Laura Palmer’s interactions with friends, family and acquaintances in the days leading up to the murder.Gone are several key characters from the TV show, such as Michael Ontkean’s noble sheriff Harry S. Truman, Joan Chen’s doomed sawmill owner Jocelyn Packard, Sherilyn Fenn’s teasing teen Audrey Horne and Richard Beymer as her unscrupulous father Ben. Also missing is Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Laura’s best friend Donna Hayward in the original series; her part is played here by Moira Kelly. The absence of Fenn and Flynn Boyle – who apparently didn’t get on during the filming of the TV series – was originally attributed to schedule clashes, but the latter claimed a few years later that she and other members of the cast were left disillusioned by the lack of involvement of Lynch and Frost during the filming of the second season. Kyle MacLachlan, so integral to the TV series, was also uninterested in working on the film for the same reason; his Dale Cooper appears in Fire Walk With Me in a reduced role that required only five days’ work.

Instead of a reliance on old favourites the film features a lengthy FBI-centric prologue featuring cameos by David Bowie, Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland and Harry Dean Stanton, and although all four tap into Lynch’s peculiar blend of oddness successfully, none of the new characters are actually crucial to the plot; that said, this is an interesting early example of the story-within-a-story structure that Lynch would later develop to such acclaim in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Lynch and Frost always favoured using the law enforcement agencies as outlets for the show’s quirky humour, though, and that happens again here: the director even reprises his role as the hard-of-hearing FBI chief Gordon Cole, replete this time with a bizarre dancing sidekick called Lil (Kimberly Anne Cole), though there is sadly no place for David Duchovny’s cross-dressing agent Dennis/Denise Bryson.

It’s a lighter opening act with one or two sinister moments, but after half an hour or so of FBI-related activity the film’s tone changes dramatically when Lynch relocates to the town of Twin Peaks itself. The production design is essentially the same as the TV show: drawing heavily from the 1950s with occasional reminders that we are actually in the 1990s, although Lynch keeps it simple by using a few key locations: the school, the roadhouse and the Palmer household, primarily. At first sight the town is representative of a clean and safe small-town America: it’s respectable, with pictureseque surroundings, everyone knows each other and you can picture Jimmy Stewart wandering down the high street carrying a pile of Christmas gifts. But like the TV series one of the main concerns for Lynch and Frost is duality, and the town’s name doesn’t contain the word ‘Twin’ for nothing.

This is actually one of Lynch’s darkest movies to date, and possibly even the closest he has come to making a straight-up horror / slasher film, as Palmer’s life spirals out of control and sinister forces close in on her. There are substantial roles in this section of the film for Ray Wise (Leland Palmer, Laura’s father) as well as James Marshall and Dana Ashbrook as her two strung-along boyfriends James Hurley and Bobby Briggs, while the characters Leo Johnson (Eric Da Rae), Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz), Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) and Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) also return from the TV series, as do several characters associated with the show’s supernatural Red Room and Black Lodge settings.

The scenes where Lynch focuses on the strange, ghostly figures of the Black Lodge are the most unnerving here, although the sequence in which Palmer’s murder takes place is particularly gruesome, with more than a hint of cheapo 1970s exploitation cinema about it. The decision to focus on the supernatural aspect of the story rather than the various sub-plots that exist across the town ensures we get to enjoy the director at his most macabre: there’s a great section, for example, in which Leland and Laura are accosted while driving by the character Mike, the one-armed man portrayed by Al Sobel, which is utterly chilling; additionally the regular appearances of Mrs Chalfont (Frances Bay), her ghostly grandson and The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) are as unsettling as they were in the TV show. Critics disagreed, suggesting the film was too grotesque and downbeat, and it became the 20,000th film to be booed at Cannes since records began, with Lynch receiving a chorus of hisses from immature journalists when he walked into a press conference after a screening.

After the film was widely (and unfairly) panned Lynch didn’t seem to be keen on taking Twin Peaks any further. He and Frost had already fallen out by this point, although that issue now appears to be resolved, and it’s good news that they are both about to return to their fantastical creation. Watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me before seeing the TV series would be a mistake, as knowledge of the show’s plot and the background of the characters is essential to understand what is going on here (not that that will ensure that you understand everything in Fire Walk With Me, of course: some of it is as perplexing and hard to decode as you’d expect); this doesn’t work as a standalone film and that’s possibly the main reason for the negative reviews it received at the time of release, but it’s a worthwhile companion piece to the TV series and fans of Lynch’s ability to creep-out and wrong-foot his audience will find much to enjoy, even if it is somewhat unbalanced here.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch, Robert Engels
Starring: Sheryl Lee, Moira Kelly, Ray Wise, Kyle MacLachlan, Harry Dean Stanton, Frank Silva, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Isaak, David Bowie
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 135 minutes
Year: 1992
Rating: 6.7

Covered: Esquire

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Laurie Bird in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Esquire, April 1971

Esquire went a little bit crazy back in April 1971, hailing Monte Hellman’s low-ish budget road movie Two-Lane Blacktop as the film of the year and publishing the screenplay in its entirety before it was actually released. It was an unusual commitment to a new release, especially considering the fact that films like Klute, The French ConnectionMcCabe & Mrs Miller, Carnal KnowledgeA Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show, to name but a few, were also released in the same year. ‘We were more than a little premature’ Esquire stated later. Still, it made for a pretty cool cover nonetheless, and in the magazine’s defence the movie has become a cult classic since.

0211 | Calvary

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John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is the kind of film that stays with you long after the credits finish, partly because of its gut-punch ending, partly because of the strength of the acting, and partly because of the successful way in which it examines a broad variety of linked subjects with a fresh, modern sensibility. With a well-judged blend of heavy drama and black comedy the Irish writer / director has built on the promising success of his debut film The Guard with this fine study of faith, predetermined fate, forgiveness, fatherhood, abuse within the Catholic Church and the breakdown of traditionally-held values.

In The Guard Brendan Gleeson played a police officer in Ireland’s Garda Síochána who drank and used drugs while on duty. Here in Calvary the same actor delivers a strong performance as a threatened priest, a similarly-flawed character working for a huge institution that must keep a firm grip on matters of society in order to justify its existence and retain the same relevance it held in the past. In both films McDonagh appears to be questioning how organisations that are charged with keeping a traditional moral order can remain valid or respected when they are made up with fallible, imperfect humans dealing with their own personal struggles.

The opening sets the tone and the scene: Gleeson’s Father James, a rural priest in a parish on the west coast of Ireland, is talking to an unseen parishioner during a confessional. The parishioner discusses the childhood sexual abuse he received from another priest and tells Father James he intends to kill him the following Sunday as retribution, as the abuser has since died and the Catholic Church is more inclined to sit up and take notice if a ‘good’ priest pays for the acts with his life. Father James – who knows the identity of the man who threatened him but refuses to say who it is – has a week to contemplate whether he should defend himself from the forthcoming attempted murder or trust in his own faith and ability to change the would-be killer’s mind. The aggressor’s identity is kept secret from the viewer, however, and the town appears to be full of potential suspects: could it be Aidan Gillen’s angry atheist doctor, Chris O’Dowd’s wife-beating butcher, Isaach de Bankolé’s adulterous mechanic, Dylan Moran’s arrogant and materialistic rich businessman, or someone else entirely?

This is much more than a mere who’sgonnadoit, though, and the town isn’t simply depicted as a depressing haven for Ireland’s most resentful, bitter citizens. Even among those four Gillen’s character is a doctor, and his role in society is to help sick people; O’Dowd’s character is genial, friendly and apparently a much-liked member of the community, despite his actions behind closed doors; and Moran’s businessman donates huge sums to the church, even though it is a thinly-veiled method of assuaging his own guilt. Father James interacts with all of these figures during his weekly rounds, and many more besides, including M. Emmet Walsh’s ailing writer, Domhnall Gleeson’s unrepentant convicted murderer and Killian Scott’s socially-awkward Milo. He exerts a positive influence on various people even when he is merely acting as a sounding board for their disgruntlement with religion and Catholicism in particular; as he travels around various homes and workplaces the priest must keep his calm and his sense of perspective when threatened, insulted and irritated, and must struggle with his own faith and willingness to forgive when acts of violence begin to reach him long before the Sunday deadline. The return home of his London-based daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) following an attempted suicide does not make the week any easier.

While McDonagh treats these characters and their respective issues with the respect they deserve, he also weaves some fine humour into the film, with a number of amusing lines ensuring a rounded, honest look at modern Ireland as well as lightening the mood on occasion. With its rural, coastal backdrop – wonderfully shot by Larry Smith – it’s hard not to think of the great Catholic-baiting sitcom Father Ted from time to time, such is the sharpness of the writing (though in fact it is the citizens here who are jabbed by the nib of McDonagh’s pen, by and large, and not the Church itself). Calvary has a wicked comic edge and lines like ‘I think she’s bipolar, or lactose intolerant, one of the two’ had me chuckling away, temporarily forgetting the rather sad and grim nuts and bolts of the story.

Despite the comic flecks there is a steadily-building ominous tone as title cards for each day of the week remind the viewer of the impending day of reckoning. Weighty themes like temptation, forgiveness and sacrifice hang over the film throughout as well: Father James sees forgiveness in particular as underrated, and claims there is too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues; nearly all of his tête-à-têtes with other people involve the subject of forgiveness in some way. Yet despite his commitment to the teachings found in scripture he too finds it difficult to forgive at times: his visits to Domhnall Gleeson’s incarcerated and unrepentant murderer leave him feeling particularly frustrated (and, incidentally, Brendan Gleeson is so convincing in his role it only occurred to me afterwards that I’d been watching scenes that were acted by a real life father and son). Meanwhile the temptation to protect his own life as the Sunday deadline approaches grows ever stronger, and Father James’ status as a sounding board / punchbag for disgruntled, resentful parishioners pushes him closer and closer to violence.

Gleeson is the film’s rock, and Calvary contains fine acting by a man who should now be seen as one of Ireland’s greatest character actors. His Father James is entirely believable, with the actor subtly building signs of internal conflict into the performance alongside quiet, restrained dignity. The support is very good, with Reilly, de Bankolé and Moran all impressing in particular. My only gripe with regard to the cast is that Aidan Gillen is a little over the top as the doctor who hates the Catholic Church; his accent is similar to that of his character Littlefinger in the more recent seasons of TV’s Game Of Thrones and sounds very forced as he repeatedly snarls away at Father James, which is strange given the fact that this is a film set in the actor’s native Ireland.

This is a balanced and mature view of faith and the church, simultaneously recognising its historic failings – particularly the shameful abuse issue – while also acknowledging the quiet, positive influence that an essentially good man like Father James or a concept such as forgiveness can have on an individual or a community. The problem here is that he is a mere mortal: he cannot influence everyone and many of the characters he comes into contact with, for different reasons, can’t be – or don’t want to be – reached. In this story there is a serious threat to a religious man’s faith in God, and watching his dignified week-long struggle makes for fascinating, mature drama. Calvary is a satisfying and stimulating work and Gleeson’s performance in particular is superb.

The Basics:
Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Written by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé, M. Emmett Walsh
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 100 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 8.3

Casting The Net: Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes

Here’s Jon Ronson’s fascinating 2008 documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s vast personal collection of memorabilia related to his various films. Ronson was invited to Kubrick’s house by his widow, and when he arrived at the house he found that it was filled by over one thousand boxes, each containing snapshots, newspaper clippings, film out-takes, notes, and fan letters which the director used for research towards each of his films. Well worth a watch!

0210 | Lucy

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Luc Besson’s career as a director, writer and producer has been packed with films that feature beautiful female leads and, nine times out of ten, the characters they play have a propensity for kicking arse (or ‘ass’ as I believe it is widely-known elsewhere). Since Anne Parillaud and Nikita at the turn of the 1990s the director has also been paired with Milla Jovovich (twice), Rie Rasmussen, Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz and Zoe Saldana, among others. The latest entry in Besson’s growing list of femme fatales is Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular character in Lucy, an energetic sci-fi film about the untapped power of the human brain.

Just under 90 minutes long, Lucy is Besson running at around 90% frivolity and silliness (The Fifth Element, by way of comparison, is Besson at 150%), and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on your tolerance for throwaway, mindless action sequences or the kind of ultra-camp villainy that was all the rage in the 1980s. There’s certainly a market for the Frenchman’s lurid brand of brightly-coloured sense-whammery – $400 million profit and counting, it says here – and I found this to be much more fun than the similarly-themed Limitless, although Johansson isn’t exactly stretched and at times it resembles a showreel for some of the more memorable special effects ideas that have appeared elsewhere during the past 15 years.

Lucy is an American student in Taiwan. We don’t find out much else about her life or personality – Besson has rarely embraced characterisation, back story or character development and his disdain for such passé ideas has increased as the years have trundled by – except for the fact that she has a mother, a flatmate back in Paris and a dodgy drug-dealing boyfriend called Richard (Pilou Asbaek). When Richard asks Lucy to deliver a suitcase containing a valuable synthetic narcotic called CPH4 to a Korean mob boss named Jang (Choi Min-sik) she is kidnapped and forced to act as a drugs mule, with a bag of the mind-blowing substance forcibly sewn into her abdomen. After one of Jang’s henchmen – this gangster has an endless supply of black-suited charges in his employment – beats her up, the bag splits inside Lucy’s body and the drug floods into her system (with psychedelic-looking effects copped from Fight Club’s synapse-crackling title sequence).

Consuming the drug in such a quantity enables Lucy to access previously untapped mental abilities. As this is a Luc Besson film the character doesn’t use this new-found super intelligence to rid the world of its various problems and instead Lucy focuses on exacting revenge for her kidnapping by dishing out a punishing hour’s worth of bottom-whoopery. In short she becomes super-human, with title cards telling us exactly how much of her brain’s capacity she has accessed: at 20% she is hyper-intelligent and supremely alert, with incredible strength and speed, and as this figure increases she develops further abilities – time manipulation, telepathy, telekinesis, ability to transform appearance on a whim, total control of feelings and nerves, and so on. She locates from Kang the whereabouts of three other drug mules carrying similar packages, but infuriatingly refuses to kill her enemy when she has the chance, despite happily offing dozens of his underlings.

As Lucy’s capacity for doing quite incredible things develops rapidly the action shifts to Paris, where she is joined by Morgan Freeman’s scientist-by-numbers Professor Norman and Amr Waked’s Pierre, who fulfils the duel functions of ‘cop’ and ‘utterly spurious love interest’. While in the City of Lights she must gather all of the remaining CPH4 before (a) Kang and his small nation of henchmen can get hold of it and (b) Besson flips out entirely on a kind of wacky psychedelic plot wave. She manages to do this, although (b) still happens.

Besson is very much in magpie mode here. As well as the thematic similarities with Limitless and Akira there’s Matrix-style bullet-time aplenty as Lucy’s mental powers increase and some gravity-defying scraps that bring Christopher Nolan’s Inception to mind, but this film is rarely as inventive as any of those and it’s disappointing that with an infinite number of possibilities available the director falls back on the old tried-and-tested staples of car chases and Uzi-heavy goodies vs baddies shootouts. Lucy is not completely without its very own ‘wow’ moments though, which is as it should be: Industrial Light & Magic worked on over 1,000 effects shots, and very few of these stay on the screen for long. One of the best scenes sees Johansson’s character literally coming apart at the seams on an aeroplane as her own cells attempt to escape her body, and her final metamorphosis into a kind of plastic-y blackness is just as striking. (It also makes for a nice link to her more notable sci-fi work this year in Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin – even down to the minimal white background.)

It’s pointless to bemoan the lack of character development or even memorable dialogue in a Besson movie, as by now you know what you’re likely to get; he may have hated the association with the ‘Cinéma du look’ movement (Nikita, Subway and Le Grand Bleu being three key works) but he has always favoured style over substance and despite the occasional left-turn (2011’s Aung San Suu Kyi biography The Lady, for example) there has been an even greater emphasis placed on frothy freneticism recently, with the Taken, Transporter and Taxi series dominating the past 15 years of his career, albeit as a writer and producer.

Like those films Lucy does feel a little too action-heavy; all trousers and no mouth, as it were. I’m not sure what to make of a film that puts forward the suggestion that we have it within ourselves to become ‘gods’ without effectively questioning what that would entail for the human race or our planet; as Lucy grows ever-grander in scale Besson keeps half of his focus on the relatively unimportant matter of a Parisian gunfight, which seems like a waste of valuable time to me. The film’s token scientist just looks puzzled when Lucy hits 100%, as well he should, but even Besson doesn’t seem to know what to do with his heroine at this point and just tries to dazzle his way out of it with fancy time travel efffects and pretty pictures of the universe. Why bother with examining the idea at hand in any great detail when you have bullet-time and the good people of ILM at the end of the phone line, eh? Instead of any serious philosophising there’s just a little wink-wink scene that’s tacked on to the overblown finale. It’s flaky, to say the least.

Moaning aside, although some of the effects are facsimile versions of shots that you have seen before elsewhere, there’s something undeniably enjoyable at times about the director’s carefree breeziness and his predilection for stylish action set pieces. The Onion‘s Tobias Scott once pointed out that Besson’s slick Hollywood-style films were ‘so interchangeable—drugs, sleaze, chuckling supervillainy, and Hong Kong-style effects—that each new project probably starts with white-out on the title page’ and Lucy does nothing to suggest that the criticism is false. At times you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve overdosed on M&Ms while watching it, but ultimately Lucy is fun to watch, which is itself mind-boggling when you actually start to analyse it: Choi Min-sik’s character, for example, could have been lifted straight from a mid-80s Schwarzenegger movie or an early-90s Seagal affair, while some of the fight scene moves hark back to early 90s Chow Yun Fat movies. And he was only using 10% of his brain.

Ah whatever. It’s over-the-top, brightly-lit nonsense, but enjoyable over-the-top brightly-lit nonsense all the same.

The Basics:
Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 89 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 5.8

Trailer Thursdays: While We’re Young

A lot of the quieter trailers out there at the moment have been overshadowed by the bigger, louder forthcoming releases. There has been so much fuss regarding the trailers for the new films in the Terminator, Star Wars and Jurassic Park franchises that poor old Noah Baumbach – with his quaint refusal to incorporate special effects or to turn his films into trilogies (at the very least) – deserves a bit more time in the spotlight. So here’s the trailer for his forthcoming comedy While We’re Young, which looks like it could be decent.

Top Ten Blog Lists Of 2014

Yes sirree! We are well and truly into the month of December, a time when most of us like to take a step back from violent consumerism in order to reflect on things like sprouts, how much Chanukkah gelt has been trousered and what the best films of the past year are. Oh yeah … the end of the year is very much a time for lists, but there are so many out there it’s hard to know which ones are really worth your valuable time. Well, during 2014 I’ve enjoyed lots of the list posts that have appeared on other blogs I follow, so I thought I’d collect a few of my favourites here for your delectation.

10: Top Ten Harrison Ford Roles In Which He Wears An Iconic Hat Of Some Description
I really enjoyed this entry by Dobbin of Dobbin’s Clickety Clickathon, even though I didn’t actually read it. I made sure I hit that ‘like’ button about sixteen times though.

9: Top Three Movies From Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy
A controversial list over at Chunderblog which saw the outcome of Blue, Red and White (in first, second and third respectively) disputed by many in the comments section. Marie of Chunderblog has been missing from the blogosphere ever since the 341st comment appeared that pointed out Three Colours Red was actually the best.

8: The 500 Greatest Charlie Chaplin Lines
Unfortunately Ronald over at Ron’s Dirty VHS Cave ran out of steam with this one, but it was a fun ride while it lasted and I definitely agreed with pretty much all of it, whatever it said.

7: Five Films About Cats That Were Overlooked By The Academy
Archie at I Like Cats doesn’t actually cover movies all that often, but this was an interesting post way back in February in the run-up to the 456th Academy Awards ceremony. Almost as useful was his follow-up a month or so later regarding famous cat-like directors to have missed out on the prized Grand Prix De La Zut Alors award at Cannes. Essential.

6: The Best Trailers Of 1968
Over at Screenfelch it was interesting to see the hot favourites to win this particular list – the 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet Of The Apes trailers – beaten into second and third place respectively by the John Deere All-purpose MP130 Car and Tractor Trailer. It was a leftfield choice but it certainly made me look twice and I’m pretty sure I have the winner queued up on Netflix somewhere as a result.

5: Jennifer Lawrence’s Shopping List, 6 July 2014
This illuminating list was found and posted by Ricky, the brainy hacker behind Lists! Lists! Lists! Featuring memorable entries like ‘Baked beans (tin)’ and ‘Frazzles multipack’, this level of insight into the lifestyle enjoyed by the rich and famous and artistically wonderful made the annual price of subscription to the blog well worth it. It was a shame to see a lack of fruit on Ms Lawrence’s personal list, but it’s not really my place to comment.

4: The 200 Greatest Interstellar Reviews Of All Time
This one, by WordPress’s’s’s ‘Reader’ was heavy going at times, but it was great to see all those Interstellar reviews collected together in one place. Who will ever forget where they were when they first clapped eyes on their 183rd review of Interstellar, or that feeling they had when they read about the scene in which McConaughey’s kids age in front of his very eyes for the 113th time? Not me. This rounded off a great year for WordPress , with the summer list ‘1,000 Reviews Of Guardians Of The Galaxy Later, The Internet Explodes‘ being another Reader highlight.

3: Ten Jason Statham Films Re-Imagined As Effete BBC Costume Dramas Co-Starring Dame Judi Dench
Whoah! This one by Bonkers Brian over at I Graduated From The University Of Mars was a little bit ‘out there’ to say the least, but it provided us all with a lot of fun as the winter nights drew in. It was nice to see “Crank re-made with Statham in a wig and sporting a ruff in 18th Century Austria” get first place for the third year running.

2: The Worst List
Intriguingly-titled, ‘The Worst List’ was a big hit over at Colin’s Pink Waffles, with readers and fellow bloggers encouraged to submit whatever the hell they wanted as entries; the only criterion was that it had to be ‘the worst of something’. There was surprise success for ‘Jon Voight’s stance circa 1982 or 1983′ and ‘Michael Bay, and oppression’, among others.

1: The 50,000 Greatest Films Of All Time
This mammoth list by Gracie at Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film Film (Film?) is a quite staggering achievement, especially when considering the fact that it was completed in one single day back in March. Ultimately it’s hard to dispute any of it, although I was disappointed by the decision to place mid-1970s Bollywood epic Sholay at 19,311, one place above 1983’s Urusei Yatsura: Only You. That should have been the other way round, but otherwise it was spot on.

So there you go folks. Ten brilliant lists for you to chew over like feral, rabid dogs as we enter the festive period (if ‘sitting on my backside watching repeats of Freaky Friday and Digby, The Biggest Dog In The World with a turkey leg hanging out of my mouth’ counts as ‘festive’, of course). Make sure you click on all the links and send those people some much-needed traffic!

0209 | What We Do In The Shadows

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Though I haven’t seen it yet, Jim Jarmusch has been widely praised this year for breathing new life into the vampire horror sub-genre with his film Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the undead bloodsuckers are apparently credibly portrayed as a bunch of louche hipsters.  Presuming Jarmusch’s film is every bit as good as critics make out, this has been a good year for the be-fanged, as the writers of Flight Of The Conchords have made a vampire-related film that – for my money at least – is the finest comedy of 2014. This frequently hilarious horror spoof / mockumentary, which does for vampires what Shaun Of The Dead did for zombies, lampoons and references films as diverse as Bram Stoker’s DraculaTwilightInterview With The Vampire, The Lost Boys and Nosferatu with a sharpness that hasn’t been seen since Edgar Wright’s inventive and much loved 2004 ‘zom-rom-com’.

Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement and Jonathan Brugh star as Viago, Vlad and Deacon, three vampires who live together in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand along with Petyr (Ben Fransham), an 8,000-year-old bloodsucking colleague who dwells in their crypt. The conceit here is that this odd bunch of housemates is being filmed for several months in the run-up to a monster masquerade ball by an unseen documentary crew, and the assembled footage enables us to witness a number of their petty squabbles and normal day-to-day occurrences as they struggle with the various perils of modern life. They must also try and incorporate irritating new colleague Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into the fold, who comes as a package with his mortal best friend Stu (Stu Rutherford), an IT professional and the film’s surreal take on Twilight’s Bella Swan.

As you’ve probably guessed this is no ordinary, dark tale of bloodsucking and vampire hunting. The documentary’s style recalls MTV’s long-running reality show The Real World, and as well as the occasional blood-feast we see the creatures as they attempt to get into nightclubs (pleading with bouncers to invite them over the threshold), argue over washing-up rotas (the sink is full of blood-stained goblets and plates), use their flying ability at home to hoover those hard-to-reach areas and squabble with a local gang of polite werewolves (sample quote: ‘We’re werewolves, not swearwolves’).

As always with a comedy based around a single idea there’s a danger that the premise is actually funnier than the execution, but What We Do In The Shadows keeps the laughs coming thick and fast, and it never looks like it’s about to run out of steam. The deadpan comic delivery of the actors is spot on, and although it’s basically a series of linked sketches, there’s a cleverness to the way it mocks the camp vampire legend that puts it head and shoulders above the Scary Movie series or the mid-90s Leslie Nielsen crapfest Dracula: Dead And Loving It. When they are getting ready for a night out, for example, the fact that they can’t see themselves in mirrors sets up a smart gag in which the core trio must produce sketches of each other to judge whether they look good enough for Wellington’s clubs. Later on we see them cooing in awe while watching videos of sunrises on YouTube. It’s very well-observed comedy, at times surprisingly touching, and the jokes rarely fall flat.

The flatmates are very different from one another and a lot of the fun comes from the personality clashes that arise during their frequent conversations. Viago is a romantic dandy and self-appointed boss of the house, Vlad is a fan of torture and Viago, at just over 100-years-old, is the baby of the bunch, prone to childish strops. Meanwhile newly-undead Nick brags in public about his new-found status as a vampire, much to the chagrin of the older hands, who tell him to keep it a secret. In their interviews and solo moments with the documentary crew we gradually find out about their diverse histories, from lost loves to ill-judged stints as part of Adolf Hitlers’ Nazi vampire army, which provides an adequate amount of character depth when factoring in that this is an 80-minute comedy.

Throughout there’s a pleasing DIY feel, with cheap but passable special effects adding to the knockabout charm and plenty of retro horror blood squirting all over the sets. The fake documentary idea may be a little too familiar nowadays but there’s no denying its usefulness in allowing us unguarded access to supposedly-private moments and, in truth, it’s hard to imagine the film working as well with a different premise. We never see the documentary makers – who the vampires have agreed not to kill – but they’re never forgotten about either, with occasional glances to camera by the actors and references made to the film crew.

In summary this is a fine comedy, with a strong sense of its own identity and plenty of astute comic writing. I laughed out loud quite a lot and was inwardly amused most of the time; while comedy is extremely subjective this seems like the kind of film that will should have a broad appeal, even if its low-key release and the lack of big names in the cast mean it’s likely to achieve cult classic status sooner rather than later. There’s not much of a plot, but when the laughs come as thick and fast as this, who cares?

The Basics:
Directed by: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
Written by: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
Starring: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Rhys Darby, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 85 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.4

0208 | Vi är Bäst! (We Are The Best!)

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After receiving mixed receptions for his past three films, two of which are decidedly experimental in nature, Sweden’s Lukas Moodyson has returned to the lighter formula that first earned him national and (later) international acclaim with his latest work Vi är Bäst! (We Are The Best!). Revisiting some of the themes first examined in Fucking Åmål (retitled Show Me Love internationally) and TogetherVi är Bäst! is a warm and energetic offering about three teenage girls who form a band in Stockholm in 1982, based on a semi-autobiographical comic by the director’s wife Coco Moodyson.

Two of the girls in question, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), are punks and best friends. Bobo, sporting glasses, is quiet and occasionally sullen, while Klara is an irrepressible back-chatter, and together they make a fine double act. They are mocked at school by popular kids and at the local youth club by heavy-metal fans for their taste in music, haircuts and clothes, but this unpopularity seems to feed the bond between the two and give them the resolve required to carry on ploughing their own idiosyncratic paths. Despite being told by their peers that punk is dead they decide to form their own band, partly out of spite and partly so that they can write a song to voice their anger at having to take part in PE classes (‘Hate The Sport’, which includes the fantastic line ‘The world is a morgue / And you’re watching Björn Borg’). With enthusiasm in spades but a lack of ability holding them back they decide to seek help from Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a classical guitarist who is also an outcast at school as a result of her religious beliefs.

Part of the joy of watching Vi är Bäst! comes from witnessing the slight improvements that the band makes after Hedvig joins, and the way that the strength of Bobo and Klara’s friendship fluctuates at the same time. The musical steps that are taken are very small during the course of the film, and by the end the band is not much better than the unlistenable two-piece racket we see and hear at the start, but there are improvements. The practice sessions are like cinematic punctuation marks, occasionally reminding us that time is moving on and their ability is improving while also subtly showing that the bond with Hedvig is growing. There’s a great scene in the practice room in which two older youth workers try and impress the girls after purchasing a new electric guitar for the youth club, only for Hedvig to show them up with her superior musicianship, but otherwise there’s no Hollywood-style road-to-greatness achieved during the course of the film; by the end the trio is just about capable of playing a short set for a small crowd of kids in a rival youth club in the suburbs, although that performance descends into a delightfully uproarious mini-pop riot when the girls insult their hosts for being out-of-towners.

Moodyson chooses to film close to his subjects and often uses a sole cameraman with a hand-held camera, ensuring a fairly lo-fi, ramshackle feel that suits the subject matter well: this is a film about teen spirit and youthful rebellion, and the director’s techniques certainly add to the energy and the general sense of chaos. And there is a kind of non-serious and pleasing chaos everywhere: at school talent shows, in the practice room and at home, the three girls exhibit a reactionary, anarchic streak as well as a certain daftness, which is reflected in the behavior of their parents. As with Moodyson’s earlier films the grown-ups here really don’t have it all together despite being in their 40s and they often act like children. Bobo’s mother (Anna Rydgren), for example, is recently divorced and appears to be on a rollercoaster ride with her current boyfriend. Her life is seemingly awash with parties and boozy nights out and she has become so distracted by it all that at one point she fails to notice that her young daughter isn’t home. Meanwhile Klara’s father (David Dencik) is engagingly silly, insistent on playing along at the girls’ practice sessions with his own array of instruments, but his immaturity has a negative side and he and his wife are seen arguing about trivial matters like chores like squabbling teenagers. Meanwhile Hedvig’s mother (Ann-Sofie Rase) is emotional and reactionary, threatening at one point to take Klara and Bobo to the police when they give Hedvig the requisite punk haircut.

The story includes a few coming-of-age genre staples, but thankfully there’s a freshness in the way that Moodyson and his wife address these, particularly the subject of innocent youthful romance. (Might it be because we are seeing things entirely from the point of view of teenage punk girls for a change, rather than mopey teenage boys?) There’s an affecting ‘gooseberry’ moment, for example, in which Bobo experiences the feeling of being abandoned by her best friend for the first time, and there are also a few charming scenes where the same character phones fellow punk Elis (Jonathan Salomonsson) but struggles to make conversation.

The performances – particularly by the girls at the heart of the film – are terrific, and hopefully we’ll see more of all three in the future. It certainly helps that their characters are extremely well-written and realistic, and credit must go to Coco Moodyson for the story and Lukas Moodyson for the screenplay, which captures the spirit of adolescence very well indeed; it’s also something of an achievement, considering the fact that the film is made by a man in his mid-40s, that Vi är Bäst! never once feels patronising toward teenage Swedish girls. Moodyson’s film is sincere, honest, intelligent and funny; it’s a well-acted and joyous ode to the defiant misfit that is well worth anyone’s time.

The Basics:
Directed by: Lukas Moodyson
Written by: Lukas Moodyson, Coco Moodyson
Starring: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 101 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.2

Your Questions Answered, With Don Logan

Dear Don,
Hi, I’m hoping you can help me. I’m working on a major new film to be released next year that has the word ‘Wars’ and ‘Star’ in the title and I’m having to deal with a lot of outside interference. For example just the other day we released our first teaser trailer and less than ten minutes later I had the creator of the series on the phone – let’s call him Lucas George for argument’s sake – telling me he was disappointed by the lack of CGI and talk about trade embargoes and senate committees. He phoned me fifteen times on Saturday night alone requesting that I add an extra three blades to our fancy new lightsaber shots. Uh … I mean ‘generic sword’ shots.I told him I wanted to go back to the original feel of this series but he won’t listen. He’s supposed to be retired. Can you give me some advice as to what I should do without offending the guy?
Many thanks,
JJ, Los Angeles

Dear JJ,
Shut up, c***. You louse. You got some f**kin’ neck ain’t you. Retired? F**k off, you’re revolting. Look at your suntan, it’s leather, it’s like leather man, your skin. We could make a f**king suitcase out of you. Like a crocodile, fat crocodile, fat bastard. You look like f**king Idi Amin, you know what I mean? Stay here? You should be ashamed of yourself. Who do you think you are? King of the castle? Cock of the walk? What you think this is the wheel of fortune? You think you can make your dough and f**k off? Leave the table? Thanks Don, see you Don, off to sunny Spain now Don, f**k off Don. Lying in your pool like a fat blob laughing at me, you think I’m gonna have that? You really think I’m gonna have that, ya ponce. All right, I’ll make it easy for you. God knows you’re f**king trying. Are you gonna do the job? It’s not a difficult question, are you gonna do the job, yes or no?
Hope that helps,
Don

Dear Don,
Look, I’ll keep this brief. People have been ridiculing me for years because of the number of explosions in my films. But if I’m going to leave out the explosions what the hell am I supposed to put in there instead? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Best,
Michael B, Los Angeles

Dear Michael,
Not this time, Gal. Not this time. Not this f**king time. No. No no no no no no no no no! No! No no no no no no no no no no no no no! No! Not this f**king time! No f**king way! No f**king way, no f**king way, no f**king way! You’ve made me look a right c**t!
Hope that helps,
Don

Dear Don,
I can’t really name names but this elderly Jewish New Yorker keeps phoning me and saying that he’s got the perfect script for me. The trouble is whenever I actually read the script in question my character always seems to be kissing other women. I don’t have any problem with other people doing that but I’m heterosexual and it just seems a little creepy to me, like the part has been written simply for this old guy’s titillation, you know? And then there’s the locations for these films – it always seems to involve a protracted five-month shoot in some lushly-romantic part of Europe. I keep telling him I know what Europe’s really like, he should come with me to the UK, where they just eat chips and dodge pigeons, but he keeps prattling on about Tuscany and Paris and Rome. Should I go ex-directory?
Yours warmly,
Scarlett J, Los Angeles

Dear Scarlett,
I f**ked Jackie. Dirty cow. During what we were doing, she tried to stick her finger up my bum. I nearly hit the roof, you can imagine. I mean, what have you got to think of a woman who’d want to do that?
Hope that helps,
Don

DonDon Logan is a syndicated columnist and member of the British Association Of Agony Uncles. His advice column appears in 26 weekly periodicals.

0207 | Ida

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When a film arrives in cinemas that has been lauded on the international festival circuit as a modern masterpiece it’s tempting to think there’s something wrong with your own personal taste if you don’t fall to your knees to kiss the floor at the end of a screening. I’m not alone, of course: the Guardian newspaper website has recently been running a series in which its writers assassinate several popular cinematic sacred cows, and all involved seem joyously relieved to finally have the public platform on which they can state their disagreement with the masses. Sometimes, it seems, it’s healthy to go against the grain if you feel like you need to, even if there’s just a slight amount of friction as a result.

Ida arrived in the UK a couple of months ago, though it first appeared in festivals a year earlier, to the exact kind of unanimously-positive huffing and puffing that I’m talking about: the kind where reviewers will use the word ‘haunting’ and ‘mesmerising’ with abandon without ever actually being haunted or mesmerised by the film in question (hey, I admit I’m not above a spot of hyperbole myself). Newspaper reviews praised the work of UK-based Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski as well as that of cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Łukasz Żal, and every review I read at the time went wild over the performances of the two lead actors, Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza. It’s enough to make you feel like a cultural leper for thinking that the film is merely ‘good’, as opposed to ‘great’.

It’s not that I’m utterly oblivious to the artistry at work here: For starters Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are indeed impressive. The former appears in her first major role here as Anna (though her real name is later revealed to be Ida), a novice nun in 1960s Poland who is sent by her (mother) superior to visit her family before she completes her vows. The latter is utterly convincing as Ida’s only living relative, An Aunt Called Wanda, an imposing, heavy-drinking former judge and prosecutor with ties to the country’s earlier Stalinist regime who has suffered a demotion to the level of magistrate. Both of their performances are often understated and meticulous, with the two actors intelligently and intuitively allowing the other space and time in the majority of their scenes together. I’d like to see more of both of them in the future.

Nor am I ignorant of the difficulties associated with holding an audience’s attention during a slow-paced film, which is something Pawlikowski (who co-wrote the story with the British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz) manages to do, though admittedly this is the kind of work that will probably only attract a certain type of patient viewer anyway. Ida is a short film – just under an-hour-and-a-half – and it is measured, with occasional quietly-delivered revelations relating to Ida’s Jewish ancestry and the fate of her family during the Second World War affecting the characters and propelling the story forward. The filmmaker also manages to successfully juggle subjects that are essentially very different, analysing the actions of Polish citizens during the war rather than those of the Nazis, for example, while simultaneously exploring the sexual desires and psyches of two women of different ages.

Wanda looks to be in her mid-to-late 40s, and thus has lasting memories of the Holocaust and Nazi collaborators, as well as direct experience of the bitter, acrimonious period that followed. She is understandably cynical, lonely and somewhat disillusioned by the wartime actions of her countrymen, and she is understandably unable to move on from the past, while Ida has a more youthful innocence and a developing hunger for new experiences: this is shown most obviously by the way a young jazz saxophonist named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), himself representing a mildly-exotic brand of western freedom, rejects the advances of the confident, aging aunt and shows greater interest in her young niece. Ida’s first sexual experience with a man is shown as a poetic, sensual experience, while in an early contrasting scene Wanda is unromantically-pictured with a house guest who has clearly outstayed his welcome. Where Wanda is permanently wed to the country’s history through her profession, Ida is part of the first generation of Polish people without specific memories of their own about the mass slaughter that took place in the 1940s. Despite her ties to the Catholic church the young nun is able to make choices of her own free will in the final act, and it’s easy to associate the character with a more optimistic, forward-looking outlook, even though the ability to exercise such freedom has clearly come at a price for Poland and the majority of its people.

While the subject matter is fascinating, watching Ida is like watching a film that has been manufactured by sinister focus groups intent on wowing the festival circuit and the film world’s most earnest critics. Shot entirely in black-and-white, it feels so formal, so rigid, and so calculating in the way it looks that I began to long for a rough edge or two way before the end was in sight. The cinematography, while initially impressing, begins to feel contrived after 20 or 30 minutes or so. Of course all cinematography is contrived, if we’re going to split hairs, but shot after shot here seems too perfectly-constructed or over-thought to me. It may seem churlish to raise such a criticism, or to suggest that a film is ‘too perfect’ in the way it looks, but several framing techniques are used far too much and they tend to feel gimmicky after a while as a result. Subjects are often small and nearly always in the same position of the frame, appearing in the bottom 25% of the screen. With the outdoor scenes in this 6 x 7 aspect ratio – redolent of medium format photography – this means a lot of sky: does the filmmaker want to constantly remind us about the presence of God? I’m not entirely sure; if that was the intention then it’s arguably a very creative move, but if it isn’t then the minimal look, with all that empty space, is selected far too often for my liking for no good reason.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. It’s impressive that two different DoPs were employed and that the second – Żal – managed to carry on the work of his predecessor when promoted from camera operator duties. As detailed by the director in this fascinating article things weren’t clicking with regular collaborator Lenczewski, who left the project early on, and Żal had no previous experience of shooting feature films. For a first-time effort this is certainly striking, and voices of dissent like mine are in the minority – the cinematography has been praised elsewhere, as mentioned earlier.

Ultimately Ida has plenty of substance to back up this flood of style, and after weeks and weeks of watching films primarily about male protagonists its core femininity – albeit cold and distant at times – makes for a welcome change. It’s an involving, interesting story that is well-acted and although I have some reservations about the cinematography I appreciate that it’s distinctive and can certainly see why so many people have been bowled over by it. Despite the heavy subject matter – guilty consciences, suicide, gravedigging, property theft – the film has a lightness of touch that recalls the New Wave films of the decade it is set in, and there is as much tenderness in the story as there is bleakness. The subject matter is confidently addressed by Pawlikowski and Lenkiewicz, and although I don’t quite share the enthusiasm of others I do think it’s very good indeed; a total of 54 awards (to date) suggests that I’m being overly-critical and should be shouting from the rooftops, but I can’t shake the feeling that Ida is almost too meticulously-designed and icily still at times, despite its many qualities.

The Basics:
Directed by: Paweł Pawlikowski
Written by: Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Paweł Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 82 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.9

Trailer Thursdays: Spaceballs

Even as a long-term Star Wars fan I’m not really sure what to make of the hype surrounding an 88-second teaser trailer for a movie that isn’t actually released for another year (in case you’ve been under a rock for the past few days apparently the teaser for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens will be shown to the public tomorrow). I’m even less sure what to make of people suggesting that they’ve bought a ticket for a random movie just so that they can see this particular teaser and will leave before the main feature actually plays. But I guess I’m just an old fashioned curmudgeon who thinks the hype machine has been cranked up way too much of late, and that things like trailers shouldn’t have this level of fuss attached to them. So despite the fact I’m one of the millions of overgrown kids that’s looking forward to seeing a minute’s worth of footage from JJ Abrams, I’m posting the trailer for the 1987 parody Spaceballs here today. Y’know it’s a shame Mel Brooks retired twenty years ago, especially when you consider that Spaceballs is actually the third best Star Wars film after Empire and A New Hope.

0206 | SoulBoy

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In the late 1960s a new music and dance movement emerged out of the mod scene in northern England, the Midlands and parts of Wales and Scotland. Dubbed ‘northern soul’ because northern English football fans were buying particularly obscure American soul singles on their trips to London, most of the scene’s important dance clubs were located in the north-west of England, and it proved to be so popular that some of these venues remained packed every weekend right through to the early 1980s, with revellers travelling from afar to experience the unique all-night atmospheres. The likes of Manchester’s Twisted Wheel and the famous Wigan Casino were the clubs with the highest profiles, though the scene flourished for years without ever becoming commercialised and without attracting much interest from a media obsessed with glam rock and, later, punk. Northern soul fans championed scores of unheralded American artists that were influenced by the Motown sound (though the more popular Motown hits themselves were largely ignored) and record stands in the clubs sold hard-to-find gems by the likes of The Steve Karmen Big Band, Al Wilson, Gloria Jones, Jimmy Radcliffe and The Marvelettes. Meanwhile the DJs with the best and most obscure sounds were worshipped like pop stars, and many would go on to be key figures in the music industry in the UK.

With northern soul the style of dancing was a key element: the music was fast and uptempo, and the moves on the dancefloor reflected this, becoming ever more athletic as the years wore on. High kicks, spins, drops and flips were the order of the day, and interestingly many similar moves would later surface in both disco dancing and breakdancing. The sweaty all-night club sessions also dictated the attire of northern soul fans: the tighter, sharper suits favoured by the mods gave way to loose-fitting clothes that allowed for more freedom of movement, such as high-waisted baggy Oxford trousers and vests, while club-goers would rarely be without essential accessories like talcum powder (which was thrown on the floor before dancing to help dancers to glide across the surface).

This film by Shimmy Marcus – at times a fairly bland and predictable love story, at others an energetic clubland comedy-drama – attempts to recreate the early-ish days of the northern soul scene as well as the sense of boredom and the bleak outlook faced by unqualified school-leavers in the early 1970s. Highlighting the need at the time for such musical escapism, it is mainly set in the towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent (and filmed entirely on location in that area), and Marcus manages to capture the sense of euphoria associated with clubbing as well as in any film since Human Traffic, and will no doubt leave old soul fans misty-eyed with its portrayal of the scene.

The likeable Martin Compston plays a teenager named Joe with an uninspiring 9-5 job delivering potatoes; his weekends revolve around a dreary looking pub called the Purple Onion until he stumbles by chance upon the northern soul scene when he follows hairdresser Jane (Nichola Burley) into a local record store … and then on to Wigan. Amid all the dancing and the pining that follows there’s lightweight and unobtrusive support from pre-Game Of Thrones Alfie Allen, playing Joe’s best friend Russ, Pat Shortt as Joe’s colleague Brendan, and Felicity Jones as Mandy, the ‘invisible other girl’ who seeks the leading man’s attention. There are also cameos for Huey Morgan, DJ and singer with the act Fun Lovin’ Criminals – don’t give up the day job, Huey – and Bruce Jones, better known to UK readers as Coronation Street’s Les Battersby.

Despite some of the characters offering light relief, Marcus and writer Jeff Williams also attempt to inject some gritty drama into the film with a couple of sub-plots: one kind of revolves around the drugs scene at the Wigan Casino (Craig Parkinson, a reliably impressive supporting actor who has appeared in Control, Brighton Rock and Four Lions, plays ace face / dealer Alan with menace) and the other focuses on a local chip shop owner’s abusive relationship with his wife (Brian McCardie and Jo Hartley, whose performances clash when McCardie is required to ham-it-up in the pantomime villain tradition).

There’s a commitment to balancing humour and blossoming romance with the darker side of life in SoulBoy, but unfortunately it does at times feel very studied, perhaps even forced; all black-and-white with no shades of grey in between. The ‘bad’ characters are utterly unsympathetic, the ‘good’ characters shown almost entirely in a positive light, although the interesting exception is Joe himself: ostensibly the hero of the piece, we’re first introduced to him as he robs items of clothing and jewellery from a lock-up, though even this is legitimised somewhat by the fact that the man Joe is stealing from is a wife-beating bully.

The film only really explodes into life during the largely excellent scenes filmed at the re-created Wigan Casino (the original club was closed down in 1981 and later bulldozed to make way for a shopping arcade, so a venue in Stoke was used for the purposes of this film). The slow-mo moves of the dancers look great, and the extras – presumably those who ‘keep the faith’ with regard to northern soul today – do a tremendous job in helping to stage a typical 1970s soul all-nighter. Presumably these were filmed during the day, but it’s utterly convincing as a snapshot of a sweaty, amphetamine-fuelled club at 4 or 5 in the morning. Compston’s Joe doesn’t really experience a fabled ‘hallelujah’ moment, though, and instead he develops a love-hate relationship with the Casino and the scene in general: he is wise enough to sense that something special is happening, but his own dancing limitations and the antics of Russ hold him back from becoming one of the key faces. Joe repeatedly leaves the club (in fear, in anger and in embarrassment before he is eventually thrown out by the staff), but he keeps on returning, unable to let it slip out of his life, and by the end he has practiced enough for the inevitable dance-off against Alan.

Just over a decade ago a director named Justin McArdle made an enjoyable short called Function At The Junction, a 17-minute film that centred around a dance-off at a northern soul club in the 1970s. Concise and to the point, Function At The Junction manages to successfully establish the same sense of excitement around northern soul as SoulBoy while the earlier short’s dance off – a competition that the promoters attempt to rig – is a tad more enjoyable. Similar themes and soundtrack choices mean it’s likely that Marcus watched Function At The Junction at some point, and while watching SoulBoy it’s hard to shake the feeling that McArdle got there first and was more concise, although Marcus has more time in which to develop his characters and keep other threads going. (A new film about the scene by Elaine Constantine, Northern Soul, was recently released in the UK with some success.)

Ultimately, while Marcus’s film is at times enjoyable, it’s a relatively straightforward exercise in coming-of-age nostalgia that is always moving towards an obvious, and very predictable, conclusion. The problem lies perhaps with the romance contained in Jeff Williams’ screenplay, the main crux of which will be way too familiar to the majority of film fans, though in fairness the darker side to the writer’s story almost makes up for it. Still, Compston is a likeable star, there’s plenty of energy in the dancehall scenes and the director does justice to the northern soul legacy, no doubt pleasing the legion of fans that have waited decades to see their youth enshrined in such a way.

The Basics:
Directed by: Shimmy Marcus
Written by: Jeff Williams
Starring: Martin Compston, Felicity Jones, Nichola Burley, Alfie Allen
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 82 minutes
Year: 2010
Rating: 5.1

Photo Essay: The Future Of Superhero Movies

Recently Marvel set out Phases 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14-27 of its post-millennial movie output at some Comic Con or other, while arch rivals DC set out Phases 1-3 of its ‘Let’s Do What Marvel’s Been Doing, Only With More Seriousness’ plan. So what does this all mean for fans of superhero movies? Well, thankfully it’ll result in your average 10-screen multiplex dedicating all of its screens to superhero films from May 2015 onwards, with occasional one-day breaks in the schedule to cater for the arthouse set whenever Tom Cruise has a new blockbuster out. But with so many superhero films on the horizon, even the true believers out there may be a little confused as to what is coming next. It’s time for Popcorn Nights to step into the breach and provide a handy little guide to the treats that lay ahead …

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Pow! After the 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 re-boots of the Spider-Man franchise starring Daniel Radcliffe, Nicholas Hoult, Jack O’Connell and Ben Whishaw respectively as Peter Parker / Spidey, it has been confirmed that 2019 will see outside bet Tobey Maguire taking on the role with Sam Raimi confirmed to direct. ‘We’re really intending to go back to basics and really show the origins of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin’ said an excited Raimi, who claimed he hadn’t felt like this good since ‘about 2001 or 2002′.

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Bam! This exclusive storyboard is lifted from the planned 2021 movie Avengers: Age Of The Dawning Of Infinity, in which the intrepid heroes must take on a whole host of supervillains in order to save the Earth. It has already got Marvel fans chattering thanks to Joss Whedon’s announcement that A:AOTDOI will incorporate 131 cameo appearances by characters from the other Marvel movies. ‘Unfortunately it means we’re going to have to cut Thor’s time on screen down to 3 minutes, while Hawkeye’s only going to appear after the end credits’ said a pale-looking Whedon. Robert Downey, Jr, meanwhile, appeared to be smirking when a reporter at Comic Con asked him how much he was set to earn for less than 3 days’ work.

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Shazam! The real star of DC’s forthcoming Batman vs Superman vs The Flash vs Wonder Woman vs Batgirl vs Robin vs Catwoman vs The Flash vs Superman vs Batgirl vs Batman vs Robin vs Wonder Woman vs Catwoman: Armageddon is the little-known villain He-She, who may well end up being the most offensive baddie we have ever seen on screen. Early drafts of the script were rumoured to include the line ‘Holy gender re-assignment Batman! He just spent eight years turning into a woman before our very eyes. I mean she turned into a woman.’

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Kaboom! This superhero may not be familiar to the general public, but The Fence-eater has long been a favourite of comic book fans, and he’ll be getting his own movie in 2024, after being introduced in a supporting role in the first eight Suicide Squad films (plus any unplanned spin-offs). The Fence-eater’s main rival is Construction Man, who builds fences by shooting wire out of specially-adapted wrist guns before leaving his work unfinished and ignoring the subsequent phone calls from irate customers. Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Day-Lewis have been pencilled in for the two starring roles.

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Splakooooowwwwieeee!
Marvel turned a few heads when it announced that the next X-Men film would be a mind-bending time-travelling movie specifically designed to annoy anyone that wasn’t left confused and irritated by Days Of Future Past. ‘We can’t give out too many details at the moment,’ said a spokesman at Comic Con, but we’re quite excited about developments and we will be introducing 17 new mutant characters’. Rumours have already circulated that the plot sees Storm and Wolverine travelling back in time to 1971 to pick up younger versions of Magneto and Mystique before returning to even earlier points in the past to try and save Cyclops and Kitty Pryde from a different version of Mystique who has arrived from even further in the future. The entire group then travels forward together to 1984 to engage in combat with another version of Magneto, who has travelled back in time in order to start a new military program that will wipe out the X-Men for good. Afterwards the two Magnetos and the two Mystiques join force and travel back to the present, where Professor X’s brain has started to hurt as he tries to figure out what the fuck is going on.

0205 | The Bourne Legacy

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There are few movie franchises that are able to sustain audience interest as far as a fourth instalment, and although The Bourne Legacy manages to pack in the same amount of excitement and action as the three recent movies based on Robert Ludlum’s signature character Jason Bourne, the occasional feeling of déjà vu makes you wonder whether a semi-reboot like this was really necessary at all (though Tinseltown’s bean counters will argue that $270 million dollars says it was extremely necessary). Still, considering the behind-the-scenes events during the initial stages of the movie’s development, it’s something of an achievement that the film itself is fairly enjoyable even if it doesn’t pull up any trees.

After the director Paul Greengrass decided he wanted to move on from the franchise Matt Damon, who played rogue CIA special agent Bourne in the previous three films, also stated that he did not wish to return for The Bourne Legacy. With a script already in development since late 2008 this was something of a blow for Universal Pictures, but Tony Gilroy – who co-wrote the earlier Bourne screenplays – was employed to develop a script with his brother Dan, who has himself recently been in the headlines due to the success of his film Nightcrawler. Eventually Tony Gilroy was announced as the director of ‘Bourne 4’ and Jeremy Renner was cast as a rogue CIA agent named Aaron Cross, whose story bears some similarities to that of Bourne.

While the public announcements made by Greengrass and Damon in order to distance themselves from the project hogged the headlines, the largely-unreported move to keep Tony Gilroy involved was a shrewd one, and both his writing and direction successfully continue the themes, traditions and tone of the earlier films; he manages to simultaneously dissociate the new story from the three prior efforts while keeping some background continuity that ties The Bourne Legacy to the earlier Greengrass and Doug Liman movies. The steps that are taken in a new direction are clearly tentative, but Gilroy and his cast and crew have kept the franchise alive: both Damon and Greengrass have confirmed they will return for a fifth film, though Renner will not appear in it; however a second Aaron Cross-related film is still in development.

The plot will seem familiar to Bourne fans, although The Bourne Legacy actually bears little resemblance to Eric von Lustbader’s 2004 novel of the same name. Cross, who is part of a covert black ops team of special agents collectively known as ‘Operation Outcome’, is first seen training in Alaska while events depicted in the previous film, The Bourne Ultimatum, play out in the background. That earlier movie ended with several high flying CIA staff – played by Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Scott Glenn, all of whom return here briefly – facing investigation after the illegal adaptations of two covert CIA operations named Blackbriar and Treadstone were exposed by Bourne. In The Bourne Legacy a YouTube video ties Operation Outcome to the already-compromised Blackbriar and Treadstone and the director of the former, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), decides to shut down Outcome before it can be investigated. Naturally ‘shut down’ in this series is CIA shorthand for ‘cover your tracks by killing everyone involved’.

What follows is basically a re-tread of the earlier trilogy with a few added bells and whistles: Cross must go on the run while the CIA attempts to locate and kill him, though the main difference here is the presence of experimental pills, called ‘chems’, that the agent must take in order to enhance his physical and mental abilities. Where Damon’s Bourne grappled with on-going amnesia, Cross must fight his addiction to the tablets, and Renner’s junkie-style desperation is convincing, although it’s a side of his performance that eventually gets lost amid all the flying fists. Eventually the agent hooks up with a travelling companion, a biochemist involved in the Outcome programme named Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who has also become a target of the Agency.

The Bourne Legacy globe-trots like its predecessors, with the action shifting from Alaska across the USA and finally ending up in the Philippines, where Cross and Shearing are targeted by a chemically-brainwashed CIA sleeper agent (played by Louis Ozawa Changchien). The main problem with the film is that aside from two or three very well-executed set pieces much of it looks utterly familiar, and at times while watching the film it’s a bit like having amnesia yourself, with vague misty memories of the earlier movies occasionally becoming clear thanks to repetition here. There’s yet another high-octane rooftop chase scene, for example, and a cat-and-mouse fight at a rural house that recalls the showdown between Clive Owen and Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. A car and motorbike chase finale – despite being as thrilling as it is technically impressive – also brings to mind the similar feats of driving in the earlier films, and when the movie concludes on the exact same note as The Bourne Identity it’s hard not to feel a little short-changed.

Still, as action films go, this does have a lot going for it: the chases may be overly-familiar but they’re still good, the quickfire hand-to-hand combat remains pulsating, and there are a few early moments that suggest there’s a bit of life in the franchise yet: Oscar Isaac shines as a cautious super-agent early on, there is some exciting footage involving a military drone and there is a gripping scene involving a pack of predatory Alaskan wolves. The Bourne Legacy even manages to genuinely shock with a disturbing cold-blooded massacre sequence, a sequence that trumps the surprise death of a major character in The Bourne Supremacy.

Unfortunately, though, it looks as if Gilroy ran out of ideas when it came to the CIA. Following a host of duplicitous characters and back-stabbing incidents in the other films it’s hardly a surprise to witness further ruthless behaviour by high-ranking Agency officials as they seek to wipe out all traces of Operation Outcome, and sympathetic CIA figures are notably absent here. Norton is fine, as is Stacy Keach (playing a retired Navy admiral), but there’s a seemingly endless supply of those panicky, pressure-cooker control room scenes where orders are barked and reports arrive that reveal Cross has once again escaped with his life. After a while they all blend into one another and it’s too easy to tune out as the dialogue spoken barely matters at all.

As a cinematic spy hero Jason Bourne has often been compared with James Bond, despite the many differences between the two characters, and the success of Damon’s original effort with Doug Liman, The Bourne Identity, is famously credited as being the reason for the subsequent tougher change of direction in the Bond franchise. It would seem that the Bourne series now has its own equivalent of the 1967 version of Casino Royale, or the return of Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again, an oddity that sits apart from everything else but remains enjoyable enough nonetheless. Despite the fact it regurgitates old ideas and characters The Bourne Legacy is a decent action thriller, but when all is said and done … can you imagine a James Bond film that doesn’t feature James Bond? That’d be pointless, right?

The Basics:
Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Written by: Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Stacy Keach, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 135 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 6.1

Classic Scene: Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tale of LA’s porn industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is very much a two-sided coin: the film has a much lighter, upbeat first half while the darker second half, which begins with the turn of the decade, is ushered in by a double murder and a suicide.

Here, in the build up to the film’s tonal switch, assistant director ‘Little’ Bill Thompson (William H. Macy) discovers his wife, an aging porn actress played by real-life ’80s adult video star Nina Hartley, having sex with an unknown man on a driveway in front of a group of onlookers. Even within this ridiculous premise there are further moments of absurdity: first she chastises her husband for embarrassing her, before the cuckold is accosted as he walks away from the scene by colleague Kurt Longjohn (Ricky Jay), who wishes to discuss the finer technicalities of a future video shoot.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and Anderson’s composition here, keeping the watching crowd in the background between the mouths of the two characters in dialogue, is a great move. It accentuates the fact that Kurt is oblivious to Bill’s simmering fury, and allows for two great comic payoffs at the end: first Bill getting the words ‘cock’ and ‘ass’ mixed up, and then Kurt’s nonchalant decision to join the watching party at the end of the conversation.

Scenes like this one highlight Anderson’s commitment to the relatively-minor characters in Boogie Nights as well as his ambivalence to sexuality during the film. The movie is full of well-drawn, interesting characters like Bill, and they all have different problems to grapple with: unfortunately he isn’t able to deal with his wife’s ongoing infidelity too well…

(Warning: due to a little bit of swearing the video is NSFW.)

0204 | Much Ado About Nothing

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This low-key adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing caught plenty of people off guard when it appeared in film festivals a little over two years ago, primarily because of director Joss Whedon’s association with a string of fantasy, sci-fi and comic book-related hits on both the small and the big screen. A black and white take on one of the playwright’s more joyful comedies is one of the last things I would have expected from the man behind The Avengers and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, too, but thankfully the surprise is a pleasant one: Whedon has a keen ear for Shakespeare’s jokes and oversees an enjoyable and energetic cinematic translation.

A light, humorous play with occasional flashes of darkness, Much Ado About Nothing focuses on the burgeoning relationships between squabbling lovers Beatrice and Benedick, as well as the impending nuptials of Beatrice’s cousin Hero and Benedick’s companion Claudio. Benedick and Claudio are travelling with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and are staying at the residence of Leonato, Beatrice’s father, for a week. Various characters connive behind the scenes to engineer a romance between Benedick and Beatrice while Don John, Don Pedro’s scheming bastard brother, attempts to sabotage the other couple’s wedding plans for his own nefarious and spiteful reasons. Much of the humour in the original work arrives courtesy of the character Dogberry, a constable and a favourite among fans of Shakespeare thanks to his ability to fashion malapropisms out of thin heir.

The director calls upon regular colleagues from his previous excursions in TV and cinema to act in this film: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz and Nathan Fillion will all be familiar to Whedon’s fans and each is given a prominent role, while there are also smaller parts for the likes of Tom Lenk and Ashley Johnson. The cast’s familiarity with each other (as well as the two-way link with the director) is evident from the off, with excellent chemistry between the actors and, it would seem, a general sense of collective ease with the aims of the project itself; perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising given that we are essentially watching the TV/film equivalent of a theatre company that has worked together for many years, but there is a sense of togetherness here that is worth mentioning. The chemistry between Acker (Beatrice) and Denisof (Benedick) is particularly enjoyable, with flirty insults traded throughout much of the film before their fabricated love takes on a more serious edge. It’s also interesting to note the assured performance by Jillian Morgese, who was employed as an extra on The Avengers as a waitress fleeing a typical scene of utter carnage, and was picked out by Whedon for the important role of Hero here.

Whedon shot the film during a two-week break from The Avengers in 2011 (he had finished filming Marvel’s hit-in-the-making but had yet to begin work on the post-production). Increasing the sense of familiarity for all involved, and perhaps ensuring a welcome dose of relaxation, Whedon used his own Hollywood mansion, built by his wife Kai Cole, as the location for the adaptation; its open spaces and beautiful exterior double for the Sicilian city of Messina, and it never feels for one second as if the film is an extended brag of the couple’s wealth and status, or an ill-judged episode of Through Ye Olde Keyhole.

In fact the incongruous choice of location works very well indeed. The kitchen is packed with modern equipment, while amusingly the characters of Benedick and Claudio (Kranz) must sleep in a young girl’s bedroom, replete with dolls and other toys (naturally they are oblivious to their surroundings and actually interact well with them). The garden and outdoor pool area are large enough to stage the story’s grand parties, while the director’s knowledge of the best spots in and around his house for light ensure that the contrast is crisp when needed; every time the duplicitous Don John appears, watching over events inside the house, the chiaroscuro is redolent of that used on criminals or during dramatic moments in 1940s and 1950s crime thrillers, but the blacks are never crushed.

Despite being performed in the original English the play is set in the modern day, so the suits and cocktail dresses reflect sharp, current fashions while the guests drink tequila and nonchalantly use modern technology (a list of soldiers returning from battle is checked on a smartphone, for example, while laptops are also employed). In one scene a couple of characters even share a joint, but importantly these glimpses into the good life enjoyed by Hollywood A-listers actually feel natural, and the use of such props does not dominate or come across as being gimmicky. In fact at times it is easy to forget that the house interiors and fashions are from the 21st Century, such is the cast’s poker-face ability to speak their lines in a natural and convincing way whilst ignoring the fact that the language they use doesn’t tally with their surroundings.

Whedon’s direction is sure, and he coaxes good performances from the assembled cast; the lines are delivered and captured clearly, and as a result it’s quite an easy adaptation to get into, even if you are unaware of the plot beforehand or if you (like me) find Shakespeare’s dialogue tough to follow. There are exaggerated moments of farce here that still remain funny today, an incredible feat given such scenes were written over 400 years ago, and Whedon captures the intended spirit very well. Occasionally the director’s background in TV drama shows through – a quick prologue hinting at a one night stand between Beatrice and Benedick that falls outside of the original story, for example, is informed by countless cheesy jewellery adverts as much as anything else – but again much of his input is welcome, and the task of staging the play so that it is accessible to a modern audience (particularly one that may not be too familiar with Shakespeare) is one that Whedon clearly approached with relish. He even went as far as scoring the film as a result of budget constraints, creating modern versions of two songs Shakespeare included in the play that are performed by his brother Jed Whedon and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen with ever-so-slight hip-hop stylings.

It’s hard to think of a more successful recent cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, certainly out of the ones that I’ve seen anyway; I’d have to go back as far as Baz Luhrmann’s camp and extravagant MTV-style take on Romeo And Juliet if I wanted to find a better film, though this is like an earnest mumblecore effort by comparison. Shot crisply, engagingly-performed and creatively-staged, this is well worth a try if you’re a fan of Shakespeare (or even just Bard-curious) and a sign that Whedon may have started down an interesting and broad mid-career path. The production company he shares with his wife has already made and distributed this year’s low-budget paranormal rom-com In Your Eyes, so it’s nice to see the huge sums of money generated by The Avengers series trickling down to smaller, personal projects. Much Ado About Nothing appears to be a good example of it, too.

The Basics:
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: William Shakespeare, Joss Whedon (screenplay)
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Jillian Morgese, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 7.1

Trailer Thursdays: Every Which Way But Loose

“Hey babe, what do you think of Clint Eastwood?” “Mmmm…I think about him a lot…”

A classic trailer this week – here’s Clint in Every Which Way But Loose, that finely-plotted tale of a man, his fists, his addiction to country music and his pet orang-utan. For some reason the trailer includes a couple of people discussing Clint and the things he gets up to in the movie. “What do you think of Clint confiding his deepest thoughts to an orang-utan?” asks the man, before qualifying it with “it’s Eastwood as you’ve never seen him before”. You’re not wrong there, cocker.

0203 | Interstellar

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Seeing as this is the millionth review of Interstellar to appear online it’s highly likely that you won’t bother reading past this first paragraph. In fact it’s entirely possible you may have read the word ‘Interstellar’ and mentally switched off straight away, which means you’re not even reading these words even if you think that you are. Confused? Welcome to the high-concept world of Popcorn Nights. And if you are actually still here – and I must at this point assume that you are – perhaps I should state my feelings about Christopher Nolan’s latest high-concept film as quickly and as succinctly as possible, just in case your reaction to the word ‘Interstellar’ is delayed and you do end up clicking away to somewhere more pleasant after the first paragraph: it’s overblown, overlong, overhyped, overly-sentimental and occasionally-confusing horseshit, but as horseshit goes it certainly looks pretty good.

Christopher Nolan’s biggest blockbuster to date has been out for a couple of weeks now, and is one of those rare films that feels like an unstoppable juggernaut, a devastating and uncontrollable force of marketing that has convinced all of us feeble-minded fools to pay and see it regardless of any reviews carried out in its name. It has received the kind of push that makes the marketing campaigns of other blockbusters – let’s say Transformers: Age Or Revenge Of Something Or Other – look as if they are designed to appeal to miniscule collections of polo-neck-sporting Werner Herzog enthusiasts. This is studio promotion at its most aggressive and in-your-face, and it’s hard to be objective when advertising alters the way you feel about a film two or three times before it is even released. If you haven’t obeyed the marketing directive to go and see Interstellar by now you’d best be looking over your shoulder with a worried expression on your face: do you think Paramount and Warner Bros pay out this kind of money to suffer your disobedience?

There comes a point when debating whether something is good or bad (or neither good nor bad but somewhere in the middle) becomes pointless. Interstellar is such a ‘thing’ and its release into the wild is such a ‘point’: it’s not a film, it’s a big hovering blob, a new friend or relative in your life that you suddenly see lots of before they skip out after a month or so, a moneysucking vampire, a Rick Wakeman keyboard solo, a fake con of an instant cultural monolith, a giant 5,000 ft long floating wotsit with Matthew McConaughey’s face cheerily whistling away at one end. All those things and more. It’s not a film cast out for public analysis and judgement in the way that, say, Nightcrawler is a film cast out for public analysis and judgement. Yet here’s even more pointless public analysis and judgement that will, unfortunately, affect nothing.

The individual parts are, as you would expect, all present and correct. Let’s take the performances first. Event movies this big rarely include performances that mesmerise or delight, but the assembled talent is (mumbles, stares at floor) sort of OK, I guess. I mean I don’t know what the cast earned for their work. $50 million, collectively? More? What does a McConaughey get paid for an Interstellar in 2014? And how do you judge the value of these acting performances against such ridiculous, inflated sums anyway? Does the remuneration they receive actually matter? If you don’t think so, perhaps we should instead be questioning why we’re living in a world where a bunch of actors can charge such huge amounts and the question of whether that money is well spent or not doesn’t actually matter.

Hmm. McConaughey is certainly fine as Cooper, the honest everyman farmer-dad of the future who just happens to be the greatest test pilot NASA ever had (oh please, come the fuck on), but this certainly isn’t his finest work and it certainly isn’t his worst either. Anne Hathaway is his lesser (and compliant) space partner, her role simply to support / enforce Hollywood’s bullshit age-old ‘leading man leads the leading lady’ hierarchy. She is given 1% of the backstory time that McConaughey’s character is afforded, an imbalance which stands out in a film of this length. Hathaway is also fine, but this isn’t her best or her worst work, either. Same goes for Casey Affleck – Cooper’s grown-up son, Jessica Chastain – the grown-up daughter, Michael Caine – the perennial Nolan father figure and Actor X in the ill-judged cameo slot. Actor X gets the best deal of all: he’s on-screen for about ten or fifteen minutes and he doesn’t have to establish his character at all, except to give out a couple of signals about the state of his mental health. In fact I think that we are supposed to be impressed by the mere appearance of Actor X’s face here, as if it’s some kind of momentous 21st Century ‘I was there when…’ happening. Why not give the part to a capable actor who needs the money or who needs the big break? In fairness Actor X’s emergence from a plastic bag is one the finest emergences from a plastic bag that I’ve ever witnessed, so maybe it will stay in the minder longer than … nope … it’s gone.

Together this handful of characters represents humanity, along with Ellen Burstyn and John Lithgow as old people, Mackenzie Foy (good) and Timothée Chalamet as young people, and a couple of lesser known adult actors thrown in as death fodder. Hollywood’s propensity for filtering the end of the world through the perspective of a tiny number of Americans is something that irritates me immensely, and it’s a device that usually patronises people who happen to live in rural areas by portraying them as simple, unlikely heroes, although I should point out that the writers who have chosen to do this are both English (Jonathan Nolan, the director’s brother, penned the script with his sibling) and we’re not exactly talking Randy Quaid in Independence Day here. There are shades of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, though, in the way that we only get to see how a global event  – a crop blight, in this instance – affects the inhabitants of a farmstead who appear to be miles from the nearest town or city. For a film purportedly concerned about the future of the human race there’s a very narrow focus here on the make-up of it.

Interstellar bursts into life when Cooper and co are launched into space along with the film’s most interesting character, a blocky and witty robot that goes by the name of TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin). Their task is to boldly go where no Nolan plot has gone before, which is basically to the backyard of bonkers and back again (via Saturn, that most picturesque of planets). The plan is to find other explorers who have ventured out there before them and / or to locate an inhabitable planet that can be colonised before we perish on our own ravaged, ruined Earth. To exit our own solar system the group must travel through a wormhole that has apparently been left for us by an alien civilisation; this hole leads to three planets closely orbiting the giant black hole Gargantuan.

Interstellar may be big and brash from here on in, but it is not completely devoid of restraint. The crew visits two planets and I dare say the Nolan brothers may have considered the introduction of alien life forms into their story at one point or other, or some other fantastical crowd-and-studio-pleasing aspect, but instead the writers stay with the nature thread and it works well. The decision to use the landscape of Iceland as a double for these distant planets pays off and the country’s unusual, spectacular geography ensures that any CGI that is incorporated on top of it – giant waves, frozen cloud structures – looks believable. Thankfully when there is a human-on-human fight in the film Nolan is equally restrained; the scrap is fairly exciting but it isn’t milked for every last drop of dramatic tension, and gravitational concerns ensure that it resembles two drunks fighting in a bar rather than two overly-choreographed Hollywood heroes.

Much hoo-ha has been hoo-ha’d about the involvement of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as an Executive Producer and technical advisor, and certainly all of the detailed, complicated exposition sounds grand, realistic and impenetrable to these lay ears (although the script is often abruptly simplified to the level of “So if we go here, and travel through here, we’ll end up here? That’ll work!” while one actor or another earns their rationed corn by staring intently at a doodle pad or whiteboard). Let’s not get carried away though: there’s a ‘fiction’ in the phrase ‘science fiction’ for a reason, and without wishing to diminish the considerable achievements of Mr Thorne I’m pretty sure he’s only involved in the scientific exposition side of the movie, so let’s not lose sight of the fact that he and the Nolan brothers have the same amount of experience of travelling through wormholes and into black holes as you and I. Nolan therefore has as much creative freedom as he imagines outer space as the many other sci-fi filmmakers that have ventured into the great beyond before him, and his take on it looks good; as a result I personally don’t care whether his images or his characters’ expositions are scientifically-accurate or not. Interstellar successfully brings to mind both the beautiful abstractions of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the more recent ‘cor, wow’ footage of spinning space station parts in Cuaron’s Gravity, though I should add the caveat it is not as awe-inducing as either of those films. Scientifically-speaking, it gets your endorphins all jiggy without ever blowing your pickle.

This aspect of Interstellar – the exploration of our galaxy and others, plus all the attendant hopes and fears and ideas about time and space and things that can transcend space and time, such as love – I enjoyed. The film distances itself from the less-cerebral sci-fi blockbusters out there and clearly aims for those lofty peaks once scaled by Kubrick and Tarkovsky, even though it does fall disappointingly short. For much of the film there’s an admirable balance of action, philosophy and emotion, even if the more gut-wrenching family moments (for example when Cooper is relayed twenty-odd years’ worth of messages from his kids) are typically heavily-delivered and somewhat cynical by design. The presence of these forced teary interludes and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, distracting ‘this-one-goes-up-to-eleven’ score failed to completely ruin my sense of blissed-out awe and wonder, but please add my name to the growing list of traditionalist squares that likes to hear what the characters are actually saying to each other. (It’s a shame that reviewers have fixated on the volume and lack of subtlety of this music, though: I absolutely agree with the criticism, but it’s also worth mentioning that Nolan’s film has some beautiful silent moments too.)

I think a lot of the good work carried out in the middle section of this film is undone by the extended, occasionally-baffling ending. Parts of it feel rushed and parts of it feel like a step too far, the unexpected test of the audience’s faith that occurs near the end being a case in point, which is included to neatly tie the story together. I also have my reservations about the use of the gravity-defying effects that were previously seen in Nolan’s excellent mind-bender Inception, the last of which feels awkwardly shoe-horned in here despite the fact that the movie has been building to such a scientific leap forward all the way through. The least said about Jessica Chastain’s shrieks of ‘Eureka!’ the better.

At the end of the film I sat in my chair for a few minutes, trying to make sense of the experience, wondering if I could look at the work objectively given the fact that I was sick to death of hearing about Interstellar (and of seeing many of the film’s best images) by the time it actually arrived in my multiplex. By ‘experience’ above I don’t simply mean the near-three hour running time of the movie itself, but also the months and months of trailers and hype and interviews and advertising; I left thinking that the film industry needs saving from itself … it needs its own equivalent of the 1970s punk rock scene, something that comes along with the intention of blowing away all the pompous, self-important, bigger-and-louder-and-longer-is-better noodly prog rock-esque bullshit like this. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate the film – a solid five-out-of-ten-er, with a bonus mark for effort – but it is overlong, overblown and overhyped, and I hate the forced sense of its release representing some kind of life-changing event of international importance. Stop building this shit up so much, it’s just a bloody film.

The Basics:
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, Timothée Chalamet
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 166 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.0

Casting The Net: Orson Welles

A triple Tuesday treat for any Orson Welles fans out there. First up is a brilliant BBC documentary from the 1980s about Citizen Kane that includes interviews with the filmmaker / actor conducted in 1982 and 1960, as well as Pauline Kael, who wrote this famous article on the film.

The second video below is a 45-minute documentary Welles made for the BBC in 1955 called The Land Of The Basques, which examines life in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country). Welles has a pleasant, jolly interview style and speaks to a bunch of locals in this film. It’s fascinating.

Last, and this one is really for the hardcore Welles fans out there, is a 50-minute talk given by the director and writer Peter Bogdanovich before a screening of Touch Of Evil at the Indianapolis Museum Of Art in 2012.

0202 | Rounders

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John Dahl’s Rounders has picked up a cult following since its release in the late 1990s, primarily among poker enthusiasts, but even if you don’t know your flop from your river there’s still some enjoyment to be had from this over-the-top modern noir.

Dahl’s reputation as one the most overlooked American directors of the 1990s is really due to the quality of two other films he made during that decade, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, but Rounders is a reasonably captivating finish to this trilogy of noirs. (Dahl also made the ironically-named sci-fi flick Unforgettable in 1996, which was a commercial and critical flop, and the director returned to his preferred genre afterwards with apparent alacrity.) The Last Seduction and Red Rock West are excellent twisty, turny crime thrillers that feature – at the heart of each story – two different types of anti-hero with some shared characteristics: a hangdog ex-forces drifter and a calculating city dweller on the run; both have dubious morals and both are looking to make some quick, easy money.

The same can be said of the two rounders (expert players who travel around seeking out high stakes games) that are central to this film’s plot of. The squeakier, cleaner one is Matt Damon’s Mike, a brilliant (yeah, whatever) law student who is also a well-known face (yeah, whatever) in New York’s high stakes underground poker scene; the other is a fast-talking card shark named Worm (Ed Norton in what was accurately described at the time of release as ‘the Sean Penn role: … hideous shirts, screw-you attitude’ by the critic Owen Gleiberman). Childhood friends and long-time poker buddies they may be, but the straight-playing Mike is tiring of bailing his old cheating pal out of trouble, and their friendship is tested to the limit when Worm runs up a debt of $15,000 to John Malkovich’s ludicrous Russian gangster Teddy KGB via a sleazy pimp named Grama (Michael Rispoli). Conveniently for everyone involved Mike agrees to help Worm raise the money in a race against time, as he also wants to get one over on the arrogant Teddy: the Russian beats the prodigy during an illegal poker match in the film’s opening scene and pockets his savings of $30,000. Thus much of the film plays out in the classic sports movie style we’ve all seen countless times before: the hero is beaten at the beginning of the story, spends the rest of the time getting back up to his former level (with a few ups and downs along the way) and then gets another shot at the reigning champ at the end. If it was boxing rather than poker we’d be watching Rocky. If it was arm wrestling we’d be watching Over The Top. And so on.

Though the story is set in the modern day, Damon’s narration – which helpfully explains some of the finer points and manoeuvres of the poker matches that are shown on screen for the uninitiated – is straight out of a Dalshiel Hammett hard-boiled detective novel. It certainly helps Rounders to stand out from the pack, but as a stylistic device it’s nowhere near as convincing as the dialogue of, say, the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, a film that was partly inspired by Hammett’s work and crucially set in the relevant era. Several years after Rounders was released Rian Johnson attempted something similar with his idiosyncratic debut Brick, with greater success, though in fairness Damon does pretty well with the lines he must read. Unfortunately it jars a little with the way the character interacts with others in the story; narration aside Mike is a distant cousin to Damon’s Will in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, so the sudden impersonations of Bogart on the soundtrack feel a little incongruous, and forced.

Unfortunately Rounders is fairly predictable fayre, and the most disappointing aspect of the story is the number of one-dimensional characters, which begin to stack up like poker chips. Poor old Gretchen Mol is given little to work with as Mike’s long-suffering girlfriend Jo, a fellow law student whose sole duty in the film is to express her disappointment and frustration with his poker-playing ways: he insists the game is a skill and luck isn’t involved, while she rightly points out that losing $30,000 on one hand isn’t very skilful at all (and bizarrely when she does eventually leave him it’s because he bails on a study group, as opposed to fact he gives up a small fortune to someone called ‘Teddy KGB’ in an underground Russian gangster-sponsored poker game).

Famke Janssen fares even worse in a role that could have easily been a much more interesting femme fatale type (especially given that Dahl had previously made films that included fascinating characters played by Linda Fiorentino and Lara Flynn Boyle). A cashier / manager at one of Mike’s regular poker haunts named Petra, Janssen’s performance seems understandably lethargic, and she is given almost nothing to do until the entirely foreseeable lunge at the leading man’s lips. It’s a shame that the screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien doesn’t really offer much in the way of interesting female roles.

Elsewhere John Turturro pops up from time-to-time as Mike’s friendly poker mentor Joey Knish, appearing regularly in poker clubs and university canteens to dispense sage-like advice which is rarely followed (this despite him being introduced as a wise man who has been there and done that in the narration). Martin Landau plays the film’s most sympathetic male character, an elderly law school professor and father figure who is so kind he even lends Mike $10,000 for a poker stake at one point with very few questions asked.

The villain of the piece – Malkovich’s mobster – isn’t really in the story all that much, appearing in two long scenes that booked the movie, although given the actor’s scenery-chewing here perhaps that is no bad thing. If you thought Malkovich was over the top in Con Air as ‘Cyrus The Virus’ then you should watch his performance in Rounders: with nothing but stacks of Oreo cookies and poker chips to work with he takes ‘I am the designated bad guy here’ signposting to new, previously-unseen levels, all unsubtly underlined with a terrible accent: ‘Mr. Zon ov a bitch, letz play some cardz!’ will give you a rough idea of what to expect. It is fun, though.

For the most part the film focuses on the bromance between Mike and Worm. Although both leads have been better they do supply the requisite energy (Norton) and charisma (Damon), and they have some good scenes together (although both over-do the ‘let’s establish the strength and longevity of our friendship by trading insults and reminiscing about some casually-tossed in names from back in the day’ moments). Neither character is particularly believable: Damon just about convinces as a high-stakes poker player but looks out of place in the city’s sleazier joints and the actor struggles with the supposedly easier boyfriend / law student duties, whereas Norton’s Worm never strays far away from being one of those typical smart-arses that only exists in the movies. The pair suffer occasionally from poor writing at times, though: a scene in which Worm is waved out of prison by tough-looking fellow inmates and later describes the experience to Mike as ‘a piece of cake’ is truly awful.

So far so bad, but overall Rounders is an enjoyable film to lose yourself in, and that’s primarily because of the poker scenes. Here the writing is better and Dahl’s direction lets us in on the plays: we get to see what the hero is holding, the bluffs and surprises in single games feel like genuine mini plot twists and we get a good sense of what this whole underground scene is like. The glitz and glamour of Vegas is far away, and the speakeasy dives where games take place aren’t particularly pleasant, but they do make for interesting sets populated with interesting-looking extras. With definite winners and losers the matches are actually quite exciting to follow; little wonder the film is liked by so many poker fans. The one shame is that the film’s best scene – in which Norton attempts to rip off a bunch of off-duty cops – comes just before the final high stakes game between Oreo-snapping Teddy and legal eagle Mike.

This may be Dahl’s most commercially-successful movie to date but it isn’t anywhere near the quality of his best two. The noir elements are implemented with genuine affection for the genre but unfortunately they don’t translate smoothly to late 1990s New York in this instance. As such Rounders never quite feels right, never feels as though it has fully kicked into gear, but there are enough regular blips of action in the poker sequences to warrant a viewing. Decent throwaway fun, and that’s no bad thing.

The Basics:
Directed by: John Dahl
Written by: David Levien, Brian Koppelman
Starring: Matt Damon, Ed Norton, Gretchen Mol, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Famke Janssen, Martin Landau
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 121 minutes
Year: 1998
Rating: 6.1

Trailer Thursdays: Men, Women & Children

The popular line at the moment with regard to Jason Reitman is that the young Canadian director has lost his way a little bit since 2009’s Up In The Air, although both Young Adult and Labor Day did receive some good reviews. Reitman’s new film Men, Women & Children has already opened in the US with heavy criticism, but I like the look of it and will probably give it a whirl at some point. My interest has been piqued this week by the second of the two trailers above, which kind of emphasises the social media / disconnect angle of the film. I’m not sure if that’s actually misleading, but I thought I’d include both trailers for purposes of comparison. The second one is definitely the more intriguing.

(I know it’s Friday today, but just pretend it’s Thursday, OK?)

Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt III

Continuing the completely pointless countdown of 50 underrated movies of the 1990s – the decade that pretty much defined the space between the 1980s and the 2000s – here are the final 10 entries. If you want to see the previous posts click here for 50-30 and here for 29-11.

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10. Bound (1996)

The 1996 debut film by Andy and Larry (later Lana) Wachowski is a magnificent crime thriller that tanked at the box office. One of the best modern day noirs around, Bound follows the blossoming lesbian relationship of plumber Corky (Gina Gershon) and her client Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who just happens to be married to mob boss Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). The two lovers hatch a plot to rip off Ceasar but, naturally, things don’t quite go to plan. Interestingly, the Wachowski’s used Frank Miller’s Sin City comics as inspiration and employed a sex educator and feminist writer, Susie Bright, to assist with the sex scenes.

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9. Election (1999)

Alexander Payne’s amusing allegory of the US political system features excellent performances by Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon: she is the monstrous political wannabe running for school president while he is the teacher determined to stop her. A cutting satire that – in the opinions of many – reflected events in the following year’s real life presidential election the, Election makes fine use of freezeframes, flashbacks and voiceovers to tell the story, with Payne delighting in piling the misery on Broderick’s hapless vote-rigger.

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8. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

No list of underrated movies is complete without reference to Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers’ slow, masterful take on the gangster film genre set during the prohibition era (the setting is never revealed in the movie, but most of the filming took place in New Orleans). John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand make their 95th, 84th and 71st appearances in this list respectively, which is mightily impressive. I was going to pick Barton Fink for a change – which is also underrated and should really have been included on this list somewhere – until I realised it also stars John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand and began to weep. Still unappreciated despite everyone spending the past 20 years repeatedly saying that it’s unappreciated.

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7. Nil By Mouth (1997)

If it’s laughs you want, then you probably ought to give Nil By Mouth a miss. Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, which he also wrote, is a gritty, uncompromising look at a tough subject, focusing on abuse in a working class London family. Ray Winstone’s Ray piles the misery on his wife, Kathy Burke’s Val, in this relentlessly downbeat, depressing but incredibly powerful film. Nil By Mouth was critically acclaimed but made only $270,000 against a budget of $9 million and Oldman hasn’t made a film since, although he has recently announced his intention to direct the 2016 film Flying Horse, a biopic of pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

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6. The Last Seduction (1994)

Linda Fiorentino should have won an Oscar for her performance in John Dahl’s noir The Last Seduction, but she was disqualified after it was shown on HBO before the ceremony. Booo! It’s a shame her work hasn’t been recognized, as this is a terrific turn as the manipulative and calculating Bridget, who first rips off her drug-dealing doctor husband Clay (Bill Pullman) before wrapping Buffalo boy Mike (Peter Berg) around her little finger as she hatches a scheme to get even richer. One of those films where you can’t help but root for the villain, brilliantly directed by Dahl.

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5. The Straight Story (1999)

David Lynch veered into unfamiliar territory with this biographical film about Alvin Straight’s journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. A slow, meditative treat the reflects the vehicles 5mph top speed, Richard Farnsworth earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Alvin while there is excellent support from Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton, two magnificent talents that seemed to be marginalised throughout the decade. Straightforward, sentimental and moving, The Straight Story is one of Lynch’s finest films, though oddly unlike anything else he has made.

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4. Lone Star (1996)

Though a box office success of sorts, as well as a critical smash, Lone Star seems all but forgotten today. It’s a real shame, because this is John Sayles’s masterpiece: a long, meticulously-paced examination of abused power and murder in Texas that includes magnificent cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. Chris Cooper is the sheriff investigating the death of his brutal and corrupt predecessor, portrayed in flashbacks by Kris Kristofferson, while there is solid support from Clifton James, Matthew McConaughey and Elizabeth Peña. Deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as No Country For Old Men.

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3. Red Rock West (1993)

Another John Dahl film in the top ten; this was written by Dahl and his brother Rick, but unfortunately suffered at the box office as it appeared several times on TV after an initial run through the festival circuit. Another excellent modern film noir, Nicolas Cage stars as a drifter looking for work in the small Arizona town of Red Rock, where he is mistakenly identified as a hitman by a feuding couple played by Lara Flynn Boyle and JT Walsh. This straightforward tale of double crossing sparks into life when the real hitman – played with psychotic verve by Dennis Hopper – shows up in town. A great thriller.

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2. A Simple Plan (1998)

Sorry horror fans, but this is Sam Raimi’s best film to date, bar none. Raimi asked his friends Joel and Ethan Coen for tips on shooting in the snow when making this Minnesota-based tale of greed and betrayal, and the result is a fine work that does not suffer when compared to that duo’s more celebrated Fargo. Billy Bob Thornton is on terrific form as an idiot savant, while Bill Paxton excels as his increasingly pressured brother. Along with their friend Lou the pair find a crashed plane and $4.4 million of unmarked bills in the woods, but it doesn’t take long for the owners and the police to come looking for the money. A lost classic.

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1. Naked (1993)

Mike Leigh won Best Director at Cannes for Naked, a fascinating tragi-comic study of Mancunian anti-hero Johnny as he rants his way around London, essentially hiding in plain sight after raping a woman in Manchester. It’s a tough ask to sympathise with such a character, but David Thewlis’s remarkable performance of this scattergun manic depressive is outstanding, investing the character with occasional flickers of warmth and kindness amidst all the spat out vitriol and self-loathing. A kind of post-punk, post-Thatcher, permanently-damaged version of Alfie, Johnny is a well-educated fatalist and arguably the most interesting of all Leigh’s characters to date. You can’t take your eyes off him in this brilliant, hugely underrated masterpiece.

It’s been pretty tough to leave some films out of this list, so I’m going to list a bunch of worthy mentions that just missed the cut: Ulee’s Gold, To Die For, Career Girls, Chasing Amy, Affliction, Pi, American History X, Topsy Turvy, Ghost Dog (The Way Of The Samurai), Barton Fink, Once Were Warriors, Pecker, Human Traffic, Spanking The Monkey, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Slacker, Cry Baby, Crumb, Jungle Fever, Pump Up The Volume, Go and Jacob’s Ladder were all considered as good underrated films of the 1990s but quite a few of these films were critically acclaimed at the time and did OK at the box office. My rules for choosing weren’t really set in stone, though!

A little bit of research has also led me to four films that are repeatedly mentioned online as underrated that I have never seen: One False Move, Following, Exotica and Citizen Ruth. I’ll be checking them out in the future.

So – there’s bound to be something I’ve left off – what’s your favourite underrated movie of the 1990s?

50 Underrated Films Of The 1990s Pt I
50 Underrated Films Of The 1990s Pt II

0201 | Nightcrawler

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It should not be a surprise that Jake Gyllenhaal has turned in a performance of this quality, given the consistency he has achieved throughout his acting career to date and his penchant for seeking out unusual stories, up-and-coming directors and interesting roles. His Lou Bloom – a petty thief turned freelance news cameraman who is as ruthless and determined as he is morally and ethically bankrupt – is a memorable and repellent sociopath, and Gyllenhaal’s work here will probably be described as ‘iconic’ in the future. It reminded me at times of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle – an angry outburst in front of a bathroom mirror suggests that writer-director Dan Gilroy also makes the connection between the two characters – while Nightcrawler more generally recalls the early-hours otherworldliness of Taxi Driver and another Martin Scorsese / Paul Schraeder collaboration, Bringing Out The Dead.

There’s a powerful creepiness to Bloom that completely dominates this picture. His appearance is as ghoulish as his intrusive camera footage, the latter the product of his unflinching persistence at freshly-minted crime scenes: all close-ups of bullet wounds, dying faces, crushed car crash bodies and other grisly sights. Gyllenhaal lost 30lb for the part, leaving him with a haunted, skeletal look that accentuates his big doe eyes and leaves him looking like Andy Kaufman playing the Grim Reaper. Though not quite as emaciated, his thin frame and wired demeanour also bring to mind the insomniac Trevor Reznik, as played by Christian Bale in The Machinist. The pale-skinned Bloom also looks like he is starved of the vitamins provided by fruit, vegetables and direct sunlight, spending his days researching online and his nights out and about instead of enjoying the California weather.

The performance, however, isn’t just about the appearance: Gyllenhaal’s delivery, gestures and reactions all add to the character’s considerable oddness, as does Gilroy’s penchant for having the character recycle lines from self-help books and online business courses. At the beginning he is a small-time (but apparently violent) criminal, mainly operating through the night as he robs and sells anything from scrap metal to watches and bicycles. He is, however, keen to find employment, but his persistence alone is unsettling – an appeal to a scrap yard manager for gainful employment ends with Bloom being told that his status as a thief renders him unemployable, a point which he accepts with a brief, strange laugh that suggests some recognition of his failings. By chance he drives past a recent accident scene and becomes instantly fascinated by the actions of and footage obtained by a news cameraman named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton): to Bloom it looks heroic, and instantly he sees a way to bring a new sense of purpose into his life. After selling stolen goods he is able to purchase a cheap camera and police scanner and sets about finding footage of his own, picking up the basics fast. ‘I’m a quick learner’ Bloom states as a thinly-veiled warning to TV news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who is happy to buy his shocking, lurid captures while batting away the ethical and legal concerns of her colleague Frank (Kevin Rahm).

Bloom sells more ratings-bumping footage to the TV network, and upgrades his car (to a Dodge Challenger) and equipment with the proceeds; he also takes on a desperate, low-paid assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), who he exploits. In order to increase the ‘quality’ of the material, and therefore his pay and his profile, Bloom begins to tamper with crime scenes: first shifting pictures of a family on a fridge so that they appear closer to some bullet holes and later arriving at a crash scene before the rescue services have been able to respond and moving a body for a better shot. At this point it is apparent that he has no moral code, no sense of ethical responsibilities, and no interest in the welfare of the victims of the crimes and accidents he chases across the city at night. After a while it also becomes clear that anyone who gets in Bloom’s way is going to be in serious trouble.

The character’s relationship with Nina is absolutely fascinating, and Russo’s supporting turn is very good. In one gripping scene, after pressuring the producer into a date, Bloom proceeds to try and blackmail her into the sack while they have dinner. Understandably she appears repulsed at first, but he is remarkably astute, and the film later hints that his methods have been successful without ever showing their relationship being consummated. Bloom approaches the subject of sex as if it’s just another business transaction, and he employs the same techniques with Nina that he uses to negotiate over the sale of his footage or Rick’s wages. Gradually the dynamic between Lou and Nina changes: at first when they discuss the price for Bloom’s footage Nina is firmly in charge and Bloom, who knows nothing about the industry, has no power and holds no cards; later on this is flipped, and he establishes a sinister kind of dominance, using information he finds out about Nina’s employment contract to leverage better terms for himself and more money. Despite the fact her position gets worse each time Nina accedes to Lou’s demands there is a suggestion that it turns her on to be beaten in negotiations, even though there’s a more publicly-stated reason for obtaining the footage (it increases the network’s ratings). Gradually it becomes apparent that Nina’s own moral compass is almost as skewed as Bloom’s.

Nightcrawler echoes the criticism of the media in Sidney Lumet’s Network, where anything goes in the quest for viewers. The buck stops with ratings and the channel’s interests come first, much to the irritation of the police and rescue services, who physically must move Bloom out the way at first before his obstructions become even more cunning and dangerous later on. What is apparent here is that he only has his own self-interest at heart. After arriving first at one murder scene the detestable Bloom films a number of dead bodies before it transpires, later on, that there was a survivor inside the house: perhaps this person didn’t attract Bloom as it would have ruined his video footage, or perhaps the information is revealed to show that Bloom simply doesn’t care whether these strangers live or die. Information about his character is gradually drip-fed to reveal a man that is completely lacking in remorse and compassion.

The beautifully-lit shots of LA by night by Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit recall his earlier work on Magnolia as well as Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography on Drive, and add considerably to the film’s overall stylishness. Dan Gilroy’s screenplay is fresh and clever, while his direction is sure: the performances of the cast are excellent, the tempo is well-judged and the decision to occasionally slip into the visual lexicon of early 70’s road movies like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop lends his film an air of American cool. My only issue with his story – and my main problem with the film, in fact – is a misjudged and unnecessary coda that offers a kind of forced resolution to the story (although at least the final line of the film is in keeping with the overall creepiness). Other than that I do not have much criticism to offer: if I was feeling churlish I might add that it’s pretty obvious that all the supporting characters exist simply to highlight Bloom’s sociopathy, but they are still interesting enough despite the fact. This is a fantastic movie, and one of the year’s best by a country mile: dark, unsettling, gripping and with a point to make. Gyllenhaal dallied with summer blockbusters a few years ago, but throughout his career he has been consistently impressive when taking on challenging roles. For me this depiction of a well-written sociopath has elevated him even further, a leap forward by a prodigious talent, and a career high point to date. The performance gets the film it deserves, and vice versa.

The Basics:
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Written by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 117 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.1

Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt II

Yesterday we counted down from 50 to 30 in an utterly pointless list of underrated films from the 1990s, and today we continue that utterly pointless list by counting down from 29 to 11.  (Yes, I should have stopped at 31 yesterday, but rank amateur blogging is the proud calling card of this website and will continue to be so for some time.)

See also:
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt III (10-1)
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt I (50-30)

Without further ado and for your consideration…

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29. Hard Eight (1996)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut has been revisited by many of his curious fans in the interim years, but it only made a paltry $200,000 when it was first released at the cinema, despite the presence of some very big names in the cast. Those who have bothered to check it out have discovered a compelling gambling crime drama, with terrific lead performances by Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly. Gwyneth Paltrow shows up as a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a prostitute, while there are also roles for Samuel L Jackson and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Worth seeing if you like the director’s subsequent work, even though he is finding his voice here.

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28. Darkman (1990)
Sam Raimi’s dark superhero story is miles apart from his later Spider-Man efforts, which sit more comfortably with the rest of the ever-growing sub-genre. Unable to secure the rights for Batman or The Shadow, but keen to create an homage to Universal’s horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, Raimi set about creating his own superhero: a mentally-unstable burns victim whose hospital treatment accidentally gives him enhanced strength and stops him from feeling physical pain. Liam Neeson dons the … er … mask, beating Gary Oldman and Bill Paxton to the role, while Frances McDormand provides the love interest.

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27. Clubbed To Death (1996)
This French film, also known as Lola, follows a young girl (Élodie Bouchez) as she ditches her upper class Parisian neighbourhood for the techno clubs in the down-at-heel banlieues on the edge of the city, entering into a love triangle with two small-time criminal brothers. The clubbing scenes are shot beautifully, moving from the thumping techno of the Chemical Brothers to the dreamy soundtrack by Rob Dougan and Philippe Cohen-Solal, while Béatrice Dalle vamps it up as a patriarchal club dancer. A little too dreamy at times, but it is juxtaposed interestingly with a tough, urban edge.

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26. Smoke (1995)

Yet another mid-90s Miramax indie with a stellar cast, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s Smoke was a box office success, spawning a sequel of sorts (the less impressive but decent Blue In The Face). Largely revolving around Harvey Keitel’s Auggie, the proprietor of a Brooklyn tobacco shop, the film follows a number of locals as they drop in and out of Auggie’s days, and it’s a well-written character piece that gradually weaves together their collected stories into a snapshot of a community. William Hurt, Giancarlo Esposito, Stockard Channing, Forest Whitaker and Ashley Judd drop by.

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25. The Opposite Of Sex (1998)

This well-written and sharp comedy drama contains an excellent performance by Christina Ricci, playing the smart-mouthed pregnant teenage runaway DeDee Truitt (Ricci’s narration is just as good as her on-screen work) as she wreaks havoc in the life of half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan). A character-driven piece with some stinging lines, The Opposite Of Sex also features a terrific supporting turn by Lisa Kudrow, successfully showing that her range extends further than ‘Phoebe from Friends’.

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24. Brassed Off (1997)

Mark Herman’s stirring comedy drama about a colliery brass band during the miner’s strike of the 1980s is based on the struggles of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band during the same period, and the real life band provide the foot-stomping soundtrack. There’s a light touch as Ewan McGregor sets about wooing Tara Fitzgerald, while the film’s darker side – ill health, poverty and attempted suicide feature just as heavily as the feelgood moments – is very well-judged indeed, and extremely moving. Stephen Tomkinson and the much-missed Pete Postlethwaite add depth to this vibrant riposte to the policies of the Thatcher government.

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23. Fearless (1993)
Rosie Perez was Oscar-nominated for her turn as a plane crash survivor in this drama by Peter Weir, but Jeff Bridges was perplexingly overlooked by the Academy for his brilliant performance, which counts as one of the best of his career. Bridges plays an architect named Max who believes he is invulnerable to death after he also survives the accident, leading doctors and family members to assume he is delusional, and the film’s delicate storytelling covers the traumatic aftermath of such an incident in a fascinating way. Benicio del Toro appears in an early role, Isabella Rossellini is excellent as Max’s wife Laura, and John Turturro pops up once again, reinforcing the fact that he is one of the most underrated actors of the decade.

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22. Waiting For Guffman (1997)
An excellent companion piece to Living In Oblivion, Waiting For Guffman kickstarted a great run of Christopher Guest mockumentaries that continued into the next century with Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Unfortunately it fared badly at the box office, but that’s no reflection on its finely-constructed humour and wry, observational style. Much of the cast that would continue working with Guest is present for this witty examination of small town amateur dramatics, including Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey. A gem that seems all but forgotten about today.

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21. Pushing Tin (1999)
Mike Newell had moved from Hugh Grant-starring romcoms to Donnie Brasco in the space of around three years before he made Pushing Tin, a box office failure from the late 1990s about two rival air traffic controllers obsessed with out-doing one another in order to prove their masculinity. Difficult to market, Pushing Tin received mixed reviews from critics but is well and truly ripe for re-appraisal thanks in part to the performances of charismatic performances by John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, who are ably supported by on-screen wives Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie. Unfairly dismissed at the time.

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20. The Day Trippers (1996)
Greg Mottola’s indie debut is so good it’s perplexing as to why he wasn’t given another film to helm for over ten years (his next effort was Superbad). With a simple plot covering a family’s road trip as Eliza (Hope Davis) attempts to get philandering husband Louis (Stanley Tucci) to confess his infidelity, it focuses more on the characters and the dialogue is razor sharp. Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber shine, while the hugely underrated Campbell Scott also excels.

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19. Big Night (1996)

Around the same time as The Day Trippers, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott made Big Night, a warm comedy-drama about two Italian brothers in 1950s New Jersey who try to make a success of their failing restaurant by seeking out loans and the patronage of Louis Prima. The film’s exploration of the cultural differences faced by immigrants, as well as the importance of identity and belonging, is thorough and – at times – thought-provoking. Tucci is magnificent.

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18. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Leonardo DiCaprio announced himself to the world with this Oscar-nominated performance (the first of many) as Arnie, the mentally-handicapped kid brother of Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp). A bittersweet and beautifully-shot drama set in small town Iowa but primarily filmed in Texas, it ruminates on absent father figures and depression but avoids falling into the trap of being too dreary and downbeat. Critical acclaim, yet again, did not translate into huge box office takings. Fun fact: director Lasse Hallström made nearly all of Abba’s promo videos.

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17. Beautiful Girls (1996)

Scott Rosenberg wrote this cracking tale of a high school reunion in small town New England while waiting to find out whether Disney intended to use his script for Con Air, and it’s also notable for being one of the few films made by Ted Demme before his death at the age of 38. Tim Hutton is Willie Conway, a fairly unsuccessful New York-based pianist, who returns home and befriends 13-year-old Marty (Natalie Portman, very good indeed). The men dither and moan about their lot in local bars while several female characters tell them to stop their dithering. and their moaning. Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman and Rosie O’ Donnell are among the stars.

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16. The Last Days Of Disco (1998)
This sardonic, witty Whit Stillman film examines Manhattan’s disco scene in the early 1980s, with Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale playing two Ivy League graduates who spend most of their spare time in New York’s more exclusive clubs. Stillman’s film is based on his own experiences of the scene and is notable for its excellent screenplay, which contains a believable group of self-important and serious characters. Released in the same year as the hacked-to-pieces 54, this is in a lower key but knocks spots off the competition. Guess which film made the most money?

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15. Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
Heading up an excellent cast of oddballs in this luminous gangster film is Andy Garcia as Jimmy The Saint, a smooth-talking ex-con forced to take on the age-old ‘one last job’ by vindictive mob boss The Man With The Plan (a superb Christopher Walken). Unfairly lumped in with the post-Pulp Fiction rush of average and quirky crime films, Denver is much more fun than most of its contemporary crime thrillers and writer-director team Scott Rosenberg and Gary Fleder manage to create a well-realised, vaguely cartoonish world that sporadically explodes with violence. Incredibly it only took half a million at the box office despite great turns by Treat Williams, Bill Forsythe, Steve Buscemi and Christopher Lloyd, but it now has the status of being a cult classic, much loved by those that have seen it.

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14. Secrets & Lies (1996)
In a career filled with high points, this kitchen sink drama may be one the highest of them all for Mike Leigh. It seems silly to be including a film here that won three awards at Cannes, especially given that it was also nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), but today mention of ‘Secrets & Lies’ will cause a lot of people to think initially about the admittedly very good Australian TV series. A magnificent, heart-wrenching melodrama about adoption and family relationships, it features standout performances by Timothy Spall and Brenda Blethyn.

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13. Palookaville (1995)
Hands down one of the best films of 1995, but finding people who have actually seen it is like finding a needle in a haystack; if you get a chance to track down this comic crime caper it is well worth any time and effort invested. At the heart of it is a trio of inept crooks and their dysfunctional families, but it’s also a heist film, and an original one to boot. Includes a breakthrough role for Vincent Gallo and two fine performances by Frances McDormand and William Forsythe.

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12. The Ice Storm (1997)
More dysfunction! A box office flop for Ang Lee but a critically-acclaimed film, The Ice Storm is a fascinating look at two families in the 1970s who collectively struggle with social and political change and use sex, booze and key parties as a means of coping. Based on Rick Moody’s excellent book, this is one of the great ensemble performances of the 1990s, with Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Elijah Wood, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci all excelling. Slow and meticulous, it sucks you in and holds your attention throughout.

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11. Croupier (1998)
The film that launched Clive Owen’s acting career internationally, Croupier is a fine neo-noir by Mike Hodges, the man who directed Get Carter (and, er, Flash Gordon). Atmospheric, moody and gripping, casinos have rarely been this thrilling outside of a Martin Scorsese film, but unfortunately the movie could not be considered for the Academy Awards in 1999 as it had been shown on Dutch TV. A shame, as it may have been in with a shout for a couple. Owen has rarely been better.

Interested to see what makes the top 10? Tune in tomorrow for the final few.

Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt I

The 1990s. You remember them, right? The Rubik’s Cube, flares, The Grateful Dead, prohibition, the gold rush … it’s the decade that you’ll never, ever forget. It’s also the decade that gave us Titanic, Forrest Gump, Armageddon and Batman & Robin – four movies that were almost certainly released at one point or other. But what about the underrated gems of the decade? Here are 50 of the very best that the 1990s has to offer, spread across three posts, of which this is the first. Some of these may well be critically acclaimed, some of them have even had Oscar nominations and wins, but they’re in this list for a variety of reasons: Miller’s Crossing, for example, remains one of the most well-regarded of Coen Brothers movies by their fans but it’s still little known and probably their second most underrated film (the first being 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, a brilliant two hours of slow-burning noir that people still ignore today).

See also: Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt II (29-11)
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt III (10-1)

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50. Rush (1991)
The prospect of watching a film about a tough undercover narcotics officer who is paired with a recent police academy graduate may have you reaching for the ‘off’ button, but Rush is a fine example of a gritty, uncompromising crime story. Jason Patric is the cop in question – he would go on to play a similar role a decade later in the underrated Joe Carnahan film Narc – while Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in a very impressive performance as the new partner who takes her undercover act a little too far. There’s also good support from the gravel-voiced Sam Elliott and, bizarrely, Gregg Allman as a drug lord.

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49. That Thing You Do! (1996)
That Thing You Do! was a moderate success at the box office, probably due to the fact that Tom Hanks was the biggest movie star in world when he directed it (he also wrote the film and appears in a supporting role). This tale of a one-hit-wonder band who enjoy fleeting success during the early 1960s pop explosion is rarely mentioned today, however, but it has a warm, feelgood spirit and the cast – which also includes Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Isaak, Steve Zahn and, fleetingly, Bryan Cranston – exudes charm.

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48. Mallrats (1995)
Kind of a prequel to Kevin Smith’s low budget indie breakthrough Clerks, Mallrats bombed upon release, recouping barely a third of its $6 million budget. Incorporating some characters from Clerks, Smith’s comic-referencing tale of slackers TS Quint (Jeremy London) and Brodie Bruce (a terrific, hyper-charged Jason Lee) and their attempts to woo back their girlfriends while avoiding brutal fathers and stoic mall security guards is actually great fun, with plenty of killer lines and a lot of amusing daftness. Smith apologized for it a year later, with tongue very possibly in cheek.

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47. Living In Oblivion (1995)
Tom DiCillo achieved some acclaim in the 1980s as a favoured cinematographer of Jim Jarmusch, but his career high point is arguably this superb satirical tale of low-budget filmmaking, made with a fine cast of 1990s indie regulars: Steve Buscemi excels as the intense but frustrated director trying to appease prima-donna cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), unconfident actress Nicole (Catherine Keener) and angry, embittered dwarf Tito (Peter Dinklage). James LeGros is fantastic as Chad Palomino, a major Hollywood star slumming it in order to gain a little indie kudos. When pressed on why he has accepted the role he wails ‘because I thought you were tight with Quentin Tarantino!’.

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46. Night On Earth (1991)
A collection of short stories revolving around taxi rides in which driver and passenger bond at night, Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth is a globe-trotting indie featuring an array of diverse but excellent performances. It’s also very amusing indeed, and incorporates a standout soundtrack by Tom Waits. Winona Ryder, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Isaach De Bankolé, Roberto Benigni and Matti Pellonpää are the drivers (LA, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki respectively) while there are fine turns by Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez and Béatrice Dalle as some of the passengers. Benigni steals the film.

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45. A Midnight Clear (1992)
Without doubt one of the most perceptive and well-acted war films of the 1990s, A Midnight Clear was sadly a failure at the box office, despite the fact it featured an ensemble cast of then up-and-coming names and an excellent script. Set near the end of World War II, the story follows a small squad of American soldiers who must occupy a deserted chateau close to the German border during the Battle Of The Bulge. They come into contact with a similar group of weary German soldiers who are keen for a truce, and this well-observed and soulful tale of the mental pressure caused by war largely eschews brawn for brain as the two groups attempt to make peace.

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44. Land And Freedom (1995)
Ken Loach’s tale of a young Liverpudlian (played by Ian Hart) who travels to Catalonia to fight fascism as part of the POUM militia is a gripping work, part war film and part political and social drama. The film explores themes of idealism, collectivism and belonging and has been likened by many to George Orwell’s novel Homage To Catalonia.

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43. Cop Land (1997)
Although another moderate box office success, arguably Cop Land should have been a big hit, especially when considering its cast included Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Peter Berg and Janeane Garofalo. Stallone piled on the pounds to play a local New Jersey sheriff taking on corrupt forces within the NYPD and turns in his best performance in years, but the film’s slow-ish pace and bleakness put a lot of people off at the time of release. A shame, as Cop Land stands up as a mature, brooding drama today.

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42. A Very Brady Sequel (1996)
I could have easily picked The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) instead; both that film and this sequel are surprisingly smart comedies that gently poke fun at the raft of 1990s movie remakes of classic TV shows of yore, and both Brady efforts are far funnier than you’d expect them to be. Placing the wholesome 1970s family in a 1990s setting and milking the resulting culture clash for all it’s worth, this second instalment has some great drugs and incest-related gags and well-judged tongue-in-cheek performances from Gary Cole and Shelley Long.

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41. Grace Of My Heart (1996)
Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging) became another successful independent director who struggled to achieve mainstream success when given a larger budget to work with. Grace Of My Heart – another movie about the 1960s pop music industry that starts off in New York’s Brill Building before moving across to LA’s singer-songwriter scene – sadly only made $600,000 at the cinema, but it’s a solidly-made romantic drama with some fine performances: Ileana Douglas stars as a Carole King-style songwriter, Matt Dillon plays a character apparently based on Brian Wilson and John Turturro is excellent as the wild, driven producer that is Phil Spector in all but name.

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40. Gonin (1995)
Considering that Quentin Tarantino ripped off Asian crime cinema with his debut Reservoir Dogs it’s perhaps fitting that Japan’s Takashi Ishii took his own revenge and made this hard-boiled tale of a heist gone wrong that captures a little of the Dogs flavour. An occasionally-brutal thriller that eschews the ballet and bullets of Hong Kong cinema for a bleaker, more realistic violence, it’s still a stylish and at times a surreal film. It was misleadingly marketed as a Beat Takeshi movie when it was released (though Kitano does have a small role) but even that hasn’t stopped it from slipping into obscurity.

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39. Dead Presidents (1995)
The Hughes Brothers made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society but this follow up did well, despite earning mixed reviews. Following New Yorker friends Larenz Tate, Chris Tucker and Freddy Rodriguez as they graduate from high school in the late 1960s and head to Vietnam, the first half of the movie examines the brutality of their time at war while the second half concentrates on their return to the USA, where they find gratitude and help from both the government and their loved ones in short supply. Part heist movie, part family drama, part war film, it’s a little mixed up at times but well worth a watch. Great soundtrack too.

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38. Mystery Men (1999)
The anti-superhero comedy Mystery Men is another of this list’s box office bombs, only making back half of its estimated $68 million budget, but it’s a decent spoof that deserved better. A wry take on comic book cliches, part of the problem is it tries to shoehorn in too many famous faces, with Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, William H Macy, Claire Forlani, Tom Waits, Paul Reubens and Janeane Garofalo among the names competing for space on the screen. That said, it hits the mark more than it misses, and there are plenty of laughs to be had at the array of pointless superpowers on display.

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37. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
One of two 1990s Coen Brothers movies on this list, The Hudsucker Proxy is certainly worth a watch if you have never seen it before. A warm homage to Frank Capra, screwball comedy and 1950s cinema generally, it features some great production design and some inventive, retro-looking special effects, plus some fine observations on the machinations of big business. Tim Robbins is the star, Paul Newman the overacting corporate bad guy, and Jennifer Jason Leigh excels once again as a fast-talking reporter.

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36. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Though admittedly not without faults, The Basketball Diaries is worth watching for the performances of a young Leonardo diCaprio, playing the real life poet and writer Jim Carroll, and Mark Wahlberg as his friend Mickey. Together the pair gradually lose focus on basketball – they begin the film as members of a seemingly-unbeatable high school squad – and descend into the world of drug addiction, which leads to a spell in Riker’s Island for Jim. Carroll’s real life story is turned into a straightforward tale of descent and redemption, but it has its hard-hitting and gritty moments.

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35. Pleasantville (1998)
Gary Ross is better known today as the director of The Hunger Games and Seabiscuit, but this late 1990s debut is an underrated gem, and one of the best movies of that year. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play a bickering teenage brother and sister who are magically transported into the world of Pleasantville, an idyllic 1950s sitcom. Gradually their actions begin to influence this black-and-white town, and Pleasantville and its residents slowly burst into colour; Ross uses this to play around with the idea of a perfect, innocent America and highlights the country’s recent history of racism in a subversive, inventive way.

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34. Trees Lounge (1996)
Written by, starring and directed by Steve Buscemi, this low-key, blackly-humorous indie also features a fine cast that includes Anthony LaPaglia, Samuel L Jackson, Debi Mazar, Mimi Rogers and Chloe Sevigny. Buscemi’s character Tommy is an alcoholic and a permanent fixture at his local bar (the ‘Trees Lounge’ of the title), and the actor’s performance has been widely praised as one of his best; Roger Ebert suggested that it ‘is the most accurate portrait of the daily saloon drinker I have ever seen’.

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33. The Cable Guy (1996)
Ben Stiller’s odd black comedy suffered as a result of being marketed as a typical Jim Carrey vehicle, which it most certainly wasn’t, but it still cleared the $100 million mark at the box office (Carrey pocketed a then-record $20 million for his work on the film). Though it is well-known I’d argue that this smart and subversive movie is critically underrated, with many reviewers bamboozled at the time by the mix of slapstick goofiness and Lou Holtz Jr’s dark script, which went through four drafts before producer Judd Apatow added a few final flourishes. Stiller apparently shot a ‘light’ and ‘dark’ version of every scene, but the studio was happy with the bleak results and violent ending. Matthew Broderick turns in a good performance as the straight foil for Carrey’s buffoonery.

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32. Buffalo ’66 (1998)
If you listened to writer-director-star Vincent Gallo at the time of its release, you’d think this indie tale of an ex-con who kidnaps a young tap dancer (Christina Ricci) was an even greater achievement than Citizen Kane. Hyperbole aside, it is a solid and convincing drama, and there’s little evidence on screen of the rows that flared up when the cameras stopped rolling: Gallo reportedly fell out with co-stars Ricci and Anjelica Huston, who he later accused of sabotaging the film’s chances at Cannes, and claimed the praised cinematographer Lance Acord ‘had no ideas, no conceptual ideas, no aesthetic point of view’. Ouch.

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31. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Despite huge critical acclaim Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel failed to attract a big audience when it was released. Perhaps the subject matter – the story focuses on the aftermath of a tragic bus accident in a small town in British Columbia in which several children die – put a lot of people off, which is a shame as it is a profound, moving and beautifully-filmed tale containing excellent performances by its two leads, Ian Holm and Sarah Polley.

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30. Quiz Show (1994)
It seems bizarre to be ending this part of the list with a film that received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but Quiz Show seems to be all but forgotten twenty years later. Why? Robert Redford’s film is a masterful, sprawling take on a TV game show scandal that acts as a metaphor for an entire nation’s loss of innocence. It features sterling acting performances by John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield and Rob Morrow, but surprisingly it’s yet another box office bomb. What the hell is up with you people?!

So. That’s 50-30. Yes, it’s a pointless list, but I’ll post 29-11 tomorrow (hopefully) and then 10-1 will either be Thursday or Friday, depending on time. There are some killer films to come…

0200 | Idiocracy

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In the mid-2000s Mike Judge could be forgiven for wondering what he had to do in order to get a film released properly. Fox dumped his excellent workplace satire Office Space in the late 1990s, but it became a huge hit on DVD, and was one of the studio’s biggest sellers in 1999. When he made the follow-up, the sardonic sci-fi comedy Idiocracy, the studio decided to ignore the previous success and released it in just 130 cinemas in the US, without any promotion or screenings for critics. Fox didn’t even bother with a trailer or print ads, either, and the film went straight to DVD in other territories.

Perhaps their reaction to Idiocracy can be understood in relation to the film’s content. In the present the distinctly average army clerk Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is frozen by the military. The experiment is forgotten about and he wakes up accidentally 500 years later, in 2505, to find that the intelligent and educated have been massively out-bred by stupid people. IQ levels have plummeted, TV appeals to the lowest common denominator (the top-rated show is The Violence Channel’s ‘Ow! My Balls!’ while the Masturbation Channel proudly proclaims it has been ‘Keepin’ America ‘batin’ for 300 years!’) and corporations have devolved at a similar pace: Carl’s Jr has changed its slogan to ‘Fuck you! I’m eating’, Starbucks offers handjobs as well as coffee and a Gatorade-style drink called Brawndo – ‘The Thirst Mutilator’ – has even replaced water. ‘It’s got electrolytes!’ proclaim happy consumers who have long lost the desire and ability to question what that actually means.

Naturally Bauers is shocked by what he finds. Thanks to dysgenics doctors in the future talk like Bill and Ted and are unable to offer any valuable medical advice while others communicate with a mix of grunts and hip hop slang. The President (Terry Crews) is an ex-wrestler and porn star who rides around on a giant customized Harley Davidson and wins debates in the ‘House Of Representin’’ by firing a machine gun in the air to silence critics. And in this world of digital clocktowers, Costco wholesale outlets that appear to be the size of small cities, and falling buildings tied together for support, the distinctly average Bauers is actually the smartest person on the entire planet (although it initially causes him a lot of trouble – people do not take kindly to the fact that he ‘talks like a fag’). Before long he is tasked with solving the USA’s most serious problems, from failing crops to nuclear meltdowns.

It’s a shame, although completely unsurprising, that Fox got cold feet as a result of Judge’s acerbic anti-corporate, anti-consumerist message; most of the organisations targeted in Idiocracy, if not all of them, buy lots of advertising time or space from the many subsidiaries and divisions of News Corp in real life and pissing them off in such a way could have proven costly. By distancing themselves from the film, though not quite burying it, Fox could stay in bed with the likes of Starbucks and Costco while still recouping some of the money they spent on the movie and fulfilling a contractual obligation to release it in cinemas, albeit two years after it was completed.

It has been suggested that the studio stiffed Judge repeatedly in terms of funding and, as a result, the director had to call in favours for some of the special effects shots in order to finish his film on time; Robert Rodriguez is one notable name who answered the call-to-arms. In a wry and witty act of revenge the TV news channel that is still most prevalent in Judge’s dystopian, ultra-dumbed down future is Fox News – a move that will have presumably angered the studio further, despite Fox’s history of allowing fun to be poked at its expense in The Simpsons.

When Judge really lets loose his satirical attack on modern day America, made through a cheaply-rendered futuristic vision, is absolutely spot on: we are currently living in a world where corporations are attempting to take over as many walks of life as they can, both private and public, and the exaggeration of this aggressive mode of operating highlights just how far these companies are currently going today. We laugh along knowingly because deep down we all know that Starbucks – or any of the other corporations that come in for a pummelling here – probably would offer handjobs to increase its profits if it could legally do so.

Our reliance on over-complicating automated systems also comes under fire, with a confused Bauers renamed ‘Not Sure’ at one point when a machine tasked with establishing his identity takes his answer to the question ‘what is your name?’ literally. And throughout the movie Judge’s favourite target, stupidity, gets both barrels. He delights when lampooning mob rule and general incompetence, and in one fantastic scene the newly-incarcerated Bauers convinces a dumb prison guard that he should in fact be released as he mistakenly joined the queue for new inmates.

It’s often very funny, but unfortunately the film runs out of puff, as most of the laughs come when we are first introduced to this dumb future and the initial potency of the gags gradually diminishes. After a while the overall dimness of our planet in 2505 begins to grate, while the presence of just a handful of mega-corporations doesn’t logically make much sense; even though it is less than ten years old the targets chosen by Judge are dating the film rapidly and there’s a distinct feeling that Judge’s true savagery has been tempered. The final act hinges on Bauers being able to save the country’s crops from failing, which leads to a tedious finale in which our hero must survive a monster truck arena battle against a Chuck Norris-esque character called Beef Supreme (Andrew Wilson) while an unconvincing love story with Maya Rudolph’s fellow defrostee Rita plays out.

It’s a shame that Rudolph’s character – the only female role of any note in the film – is a prostitute. Rather than betraying a hidden sexist agenda the job choice is merely a device to enable Judge to make some fairly weak jokes about pimps and pimping, but it isn’t really necessary and those gags don’t help the film at all. Judge has a predilection for including female characters that are little more than (stereo)typical male fantasies (see also Office Space and the patchy Extract), which is unfortunate when considering his apparent sharpness as a writer.

Still, Rudolph and the rest of the cast are committed and energetic, and they just about carry the movie over the finish line. The ever-likeable Wilson gets the tone just right – his frustrated character Joe constantly surprised at the stupidity of the world during an hour of scathing satire before gamely settling down for an odd life in the future at the end. The main problem is this final third drags, and generally the jokes fail to hit the heights of the early part of the film, but Idiocracy is still worth watching for its angrier, caustic moments and it’s remarkable enough that Judge sustains vitriol for an hour. The cheaply-rendered sets and effects give it a retro-cheesy Total Recall-style charm, too, and although it hasn’t quite attracted the same cult following as Office Space it does have a number of devoted fans … despite the best efforts of 20th Century Fox.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mike Judge
Written by: Mike Judge, Etan Cohen
Starring: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepherd, Terry Crews
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 83 minutes
Year: 2006
Rating: 6.7

Cinematography Spotlight: Murder, Inc

Ten shots from Murder, Inc, a 1960 gangster film by Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg. The film is based on the real life story of the Murder, Inc gang in Brooklyn, who operated during the 1930s, and was a remake of sorts (albeit with a few less bells and whistles) of The Enforcer, which starred Humphrey Bogart.

(Credit for the screencaps to the excellent Visions Of Light.)

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0199 | The Talented Mr Ripley

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Though atmospheric, rich in visual style and containing some excellent acting performances, the late Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley is not without its critics. A thriller that attempts to flutter its eyelashes at both mainstream cinema audiences and the arthouse set, it probably disappoints both crowds equally, although there is still much to admire in this tale of forged identity and murder.

While it isn’t Minghella’s finest hour, it is perhaps his most striking: mention of the film’s name instantly conjures up images of the glistening azure Tyrrhenian Sea and the sun-kissed towns that overlook it, as well as opulent Roman and Venetian interiors and the oft-seen touristic locations of those cities. The grandiose and wealthy young characters are all kitted out with ivy league clothes, but many have a stylish Italian twist, and the costume design earned Ann Roth and Gary Jones an Oscar nomination. There are smoky jazz bars, café terraces with sweeping views and scooter-filled streets that recall the nighttime buzz of La Dolce Vita. Put simply, the film looks very good indeed, its style timeless: the preppy mid-20th Century Mediterranean look has even made a comeback in the UK in recent years.

Tom Ripley is the villain / anti-hero of the piece, a New York sociopath whose main talents are forgery and impersonation. A misunderstanding by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) lands the deceitful Tom (Matt Damon) the job of tracking down Herbert’s wayward son Dickie (Jude Law), who has based himself in Italy with fiancée Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow). Herbert, mistakenly believing that Tom knows Dickie from Princeton, pays Tom’s travel and expenses and offers him a further $1,000 – a hefty sum for the 1950s, the decade in which The Talented Mr Ripley is set – if he can persuade Dickie to come back to the USA. (It’s interesting to note, given everything that subsequently happens, that Ripley’s mission requires him to develop a certain duplicity in the first place, which is enhanced by Herbert’s encouragement.)

As he arrives in Italy Tom meets Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), another young wealthy socialite, and tells her that he is in fact Dickie Greenleaf, stating later that it is ‘better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody’. Before long he locates Dickie and Marge and lies to them, suggesting he met the bemused Dickie at college, before using ingratiation to befriend the pair; soon enough he ends up living comfortably at Dickie’s expense as a guest. Dickie’s friendship blows hot and cold, as does his devotion to Meredith, and the relationships between the three are sometimes strained as a result, especially when Tom begins to develop feelings for Dickie and Marge begins to resent Tom’s presence and the lack of attention she receives. Suspicion surrounding Tom’s motives increases, particularly when Dickie’s astute and confident friend Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) shows up.

Ripley does not naturally fit in with this crowd, and Minghella focuses on the character’s awkwardness, which is particularly well-realised in a scene where Tom is forced to sing along onstage to a song he doesn’t know very well (if at all). The threat of discovery, of being revealed as a charlatan, hangs over Tom at all times and it provides nearly all of the film’s tension. However, gradually he learns how to behave and how to carry himself around this perma-holidaying bunch, and when the opportunity presents itself he assumes Dickie’s identity in order to enjoy the lifestyle of a wealthy young man in Rome himself. As the net closes in on him, though, he is forced to take extreme action in order to keep his secret.

After the production design, the second most striking element of The Talented Mr Ripley is the cinematography. Minghella incorporates a number of shots that help to establish the film’s themes of hidden secrets and dual personas, and I lost count of the amount of mirrors that appear, which often highlight the fragmented nature of the main characters (and not just Tom Ripley, either). In one scene Dickie catches Tom trying on his clothes for size and the embarrassed Ripley dives behind the rear of a mirror to protest his innocence, with only his head visible and the reflection of Dickie’s entire body in plain sight. ‘I wish you’d get out of my clothes,’ says Dickie, blissfully unaware of the fate that awaits him. (Later on, when the net is closing in on the murderous Ripley, there is another striking image when we see his reflection in a piano; as he leans back the reflection splits, which tells us in no uncertain terms that Ripley is shedding the ‘Dickie’ persona he has been using and is returning to being Tom and Tom alone in order to evade capture. There are many ingenious shots like this in Minghella’s film.)

The photography by John Seale, who also worked with Minghella on The English Patient (and, after this, Cold Mountain), manages to maintain a focus on the principal characters even though they are often framed with glorious backgrounds in plain view. His work here is impressive, especially with regard to the gradual shifts of the colour palette and the lighting, moving slowly from sun-blasted blues and beiges to a washed out, grey-skied sunless ending.

By this point the character Ripley has supposedly fallen in love with – Jack Davenport’s Peter Smith-Kingsley – is also keeping his true nature hidden, with his sexuality very much a private matter (none of the men in Highsmith’s story are what they seem; Miles must also keep his sexual preferences under wraps, Dickie is having a secret affair and has impregnated a local Italian woman and Herbert’s success as a businessman masks his own failure as a father). While Peter’s musical tastes are more in line with Tom’s own than Dickie’s were, the relationship between the two never really convinces, perhaps because sufficient time isn’t allotted to its development. As such the film’s ending feels botched, lacking the dramatic impact it is clearly supposed to have. Similarly, Meredith’s infatuation with Tom never quite feels right, despite the best efforts of the talented Blanchett. The credibility of the story gradually slips away the longer the film goes on as a result.

Damon, who is onscreen for most of the film, plays Ripley well enough, his glances and false smiles effectively revealing the character’s complexity to the audience, as well as the presence of an inner thought system that we can but guess at. Ripley knows how to act in the situations he finds himself in – or learns very quickly – and Damon is very good at suggesting that the character isn’t genuinely feeling any of the emotions or thoughts he publicly expresses.

Unfortunately his thunder is stolen by the magnetic Law, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year thanks to this breakthrough performance. A head of steam is built up while Law is on screen, and when his role in the film ends there’s a considerable gap in The Talented Mr Ripley that isn’t subsequently filled. Damon’s character, however, is presumably far more difficult to get exactly right. You could argue that Jude Law benefitted to an extent from the fact that Dickie is the more attractive part, the character who is wired into the jazzy 1950s Italian playboy lifestyle, whereas Damon is forced to jar with everything in order to portray Ripley accurately: the other actors, the setting, the idyllic lifestyles lived by rich, carefree youth and the flow and rhythm of Italian life. It’s as if the character is at odds with his own story, and if that was actually the intention Damon’s performance should be viewed in a new light.

This is a good ensemble cast – most of them promising actors at the time as opposed to the established names of today – and Paltrow also impresses as Marge, unleashing more and more (plausible) histrionics as her frustration surrounding Dickie’s appearance – not to mention her suspicion of Tom as a killer – grows. Her charitable warmth towards Tom at the start is convincing, as is her coldness and hatred at the end. Meanwhile Hoffman, that great, great lost talent, dominates his few scenes with such presence that even the charismatic Law must play second fiddle when they are on-screen together.

Plenty of elements come together successfully in Minghella’s film that point to a successful suspense thriller: the acting, the production design, the cinematography, the plethora of loaded lines in the screenplay that cause a wry smirk or ten; yet there’s something intangible missing, and I can’t quite decide what that is. It may be the pacing, as the film sags a little in the middle and the ending feels rushed. Its critics feel that Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon), the original adaptation of Highsmith’s novel that starred Alain Delon as Ripley, is the better film, wasting no time as it begins with Ripley and ‘Philippe’ Greenleaf as established friends. Highsmith’s novel differs from both adaptations, containing an ending where Ripley ends up inheriting Dickie’s fortune thanks to a forged will, but the character feels a greater sense of paranoia and is concerned about the future. Damon once suggested he wished Minghella’s film could be made again with the same cast but as a faithful adaptation of Highsmith’s novel. Maybe that would have been better, but this is still a well-made thriller with an intriguingly creepy villain who, unusually for mainstream cinema, gets away with murder.

The Basics:
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Written by: Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Minghella
Starring: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 142 minutes
Year: 1999
Rating: 7.1

Competition Time: Guess The Film

OK, this is the first competition on Hyperfilm, and depending on how many responses I get it could well be the last. Listed below are ten very poorly-written haikus – purists will be frankly disgusted by the lack of references to nature – each of which refers to a particular film. Can you guess them all? Some of them are obvious, one or two of them less-so, but I’m sure discerning readers of this blog will be able to score maximum points.

The winner will receive an entire year’s subscription to the Hyperfilm blog FOR FREE (usual price: also free) and also gets to enjoy bragging rights as the most knowledgeable film buff on the entire Internet. So without further ado, guess the film…

1.
Crazy man abseils
Just as lightning strikes tower
Grey hair is upright

2.
Hitman at college
Rekindles old eighties flame
While dodging bullets

3.
She is a lady
Ah but is she though?
Johnson evident

4.
Hiding in closet
He watches a creepy man
Inhaling gases

5.
Man blocks forward path
He wields sword expertly so
Doctor will shoot him

6.
It is cold outside
Inside Jack types at a pace
Going crazier

7.
Little bear fighter
Helps win forest moon battle
Removing shield

8.
In land of haiku
Two are unhappy until
Hotel solace found

9.
Lady in diner
Is moaning out loud but what
Did she order

10.
Lone officer fights
A corrupt institution
In millinery

Put your answers in the box below!

Trailer Thursdays: Chinatown

OK unfortunately I haven’t got much time this evening to post, but I wanted to keep the Trailer Thursday tradition (which is all of four or five weeks old, so it isn’t really a tradition) going. This trailer for Chinatown caught my eye recently – for the 1970s it’s actually put together quite well; a lot of trailers around the same time are sloppily-edited, to say the least. And a nice, warm voiceover…

Classic Scene: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Robert Altman’s anti-western McCabe & Mrs Miller is one of the most underrated films of all time, despite the fact the late, great Roger Ebert had it in his own personal top ten and referred to it as a ‘perfect’ film. A haunting, poetic look at the old west and the struggles of those who settled in the more unforgiving terrain, it stars Warren Beatty as professional gambler McCabe, a man who sets up a saloon and whorehouse in the town of Presbyterian Church and quickly becomes the richest man in the area. Julie Christie plays the madam running the brothel, and McCabe falls in love with her when she challenges his intellectual superiority.

This is the final scene. At this point McCabe has turned down generous offers for his land, which is rich in zinc, from the Harrison Shaughnessy mining corporation. In order to remove this stubborn obstacle the company sends three bounty hunters to kill McCabe. The cat-and-mouse fight rips apart the myth of the noble western gunslinger, and McCabe is mortally wounded. He struggles to make his way through the deep snow for help and the rest of the townsfolk are preoccupied with a fire in the local church anyway; meanwhile Mrs Miller lies semi-comatose in an opium den, far away.

The scene is indicative of the overall sadness of the film. Where most western heroes grow in courage or strength, McCabe goes the opposite way, gradually losing the power and confidence he has at the start of the film. He does not receive a hero’s death: the character slowly grinds to a halt with a lack of fanfare, has no final, poignant words, and doesn’t get to die in the arms of his lover. There is just the sound of the wind, and then Leonard Cohen’s plaintive voice, before Altman ends his movie with abstract visuals. This is a very well made movie and Altman’s refusal to bow to western conventions are evident here.

Your Questions Answered, With Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

Dear Gunnery Sergeant Hartman,
I think I may be addicted to adrenalin rushes – in fact you might even say that I regularly feel the need … the need for speed – but as I get older it’s becoming more and more obvious that I’m trying too hard to prove myself in front of actors and directors that are half my age. Just the other day, for example, I decided to stand outside of the door of a military plane as it ascended to 5,000 feet, even though the studio heads repeatedly told me that experienced stunt actors were available and keen to try it out for themselves. In the past I’ve dangled from the world’s tallest building, I’ve run over the top of cars that are actually moving and I’ve even leapt around like crazy on a chat show couch, but I’m concerned about where all this is leading. Am I going to attempt to jump over an active volcano crater? Will I end up walking a tightrope line suspended between the twin Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur? Am I going to be deemed ‘too crazy’ to even play Evil Knievel in the inevitable Evil Knievel biopic? I’m worried, and need some advice.
Best,
Tom C, Los Angeles

Dear Tom,
The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle. It is your killer instinct which must be harnessed if you expect to survive in combat. Your rifle is only a tool. It is a hard heart that kills. If your killer instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not kill. You will become dead marines and then you will be in a world of shit because marines are not allowed to die without permission. Do you maggots understand?
Hope that helps,
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

Dear Gunnery Sergeant Hartman,
As a maker of tough, uncompromising and critically-lauded films about American military operations during the war on terror – as well as, er, surf-crime dramas with Keanu Reeves – I’m often on the lookout for advice from those who actually have current ties to the army. What I’d really like if possible is some inside information as to which country we’re going to … visit … next, so that I can start my research early. I’ve heard rumours that it’s going to either be North Korea or somewhere in South America. We haven’t been there in a while, I guess, but have you heard anything specific yourself?
Sincerely,
Kathryn B, Los Angeles

Dear Kathryn,
Today… is Christmas! There will be a magic show at zero-nine-thirty! Chaplain Charlie will tell you about how the free world will conquer Communism with the aid of God and a few Marines! God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see! He plays His games, we play ours! To show our appreciation for so much power, we keep heaven packed with fresh souls! God was here before the Marine Corps! So you can give your heart to Jesus, but your ass belongs to the Corps! Do you ladies understand?
Hope that helps,
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

Dear Gunnery Sergeant Hartman,
I may well be paranoid but I think the Academy has it in for me. I’ve been nominated for four Oscars now but each time I’ve been beaten by complete hacks like Tommy Lee Jones, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx and now fucking McConaughey. I mean, come on. The McConnaisance? Five years ago he was that Texan doofus from the Kate Hudson films that Linklater occasionally took pity on. And to cap it all I had to let him steal that scene from me in The Wolf Of Wall Street. And look, it’s not just recent years. If you want to go way back look at Titanic. 14 Oscar nominations and I’m the guy who misses out on one? Anyone would think it’s a conspiracy. Got any advice for me pal?
Warm regards,
Leo DC, Los Angeles

Dear Leo,
Are you quitting on me? Well, are you? Then quit, you slimy fucking walrus-looking piece of shit! Get the fuck off of my obstacle! Get the fuck down off of my obstacle! Now! Move it! Or I’m going to rip your balls off, so you cannot contaminate the rest of the world! I will motivate you, Private Pyle, if it short-dicks every cannibal on the Congo!
Hope that helps,
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

imagesGunnery Sergeant Hartman is a syndicated columnist and fellow of the American Guild Of Agony Uncles. His advice column appears in 74 newspapers daily and he has a war face.

0198 | Reefer Madness

ReeferMadness_14

Times have certainly changed since videos like this excitedly warned the masses about venereal diseases such as ‘Sex Madness’, the contraction of which apparently results in young women taking a fancy to each other at burlesque shows. Such public service education-exploitation films were commonplace following the adoption of the stricter version of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, and today we can look back on many of these pre-war films with more than a little embarrassment, while some of them cause us to chuckle away knowingly. However it’s worth bearing in mind just how powerful and dangerous they were when they first appeared; the more extreme efforts, such as this one, failed to educate and in a different climate – where such relationships were illegal – these films probably caused as much indirect pain and harm as direct amusement.

The most notorious of all, of course, is Reefer Madness, a hysterical tale from 1936 about the dangers of marijuana use and over-exposure to jazz. Also known as Tell Your Children, The Burning QuestionDope AddictDoped Youth and Love Madness, it often comes a close second to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space in lists that attempt to identify the worst films ever made. It’s certainly has more than its fair share of cringeworthy moments, but is it actually that bad?

The Parisian director of Reefer Madness, Louis Gasnier, has avoided the notoriety of his angora-loving American colleague – no Tim Burton film for him –but like Wood he led an unusual and interesting life, and was far more prolific. Working first in France and later in the US, Gasnier was a member of the ‘Vincennes School’, a group of early French filmmakers which also included Gaston Velle, Georges Hatot, Lucien Nonguet, Lépine, Andre Heuré, Georges Monca and Albert Capellani, any one of which could possibly be the Martin Scorsese of his day, such is my knowledge of early 20th Century French productions. (For what it’s worth my money is on Monca.)

Gasnier was employed as a theatre actor and director in Paris before embarking on a long stint as a contracted filmmaker for Pathé. He made his name through his association with the silent era comedian Max Linder, and it has been suggested that Gasnier made over 100 films between the years of 1909-1914 alone, with the director failing to receive credit for a number of early works made in France and Italy. In 1913 he agreed to move to New Jersey to head-up Pathé’s new US production facility in Fort Lee, and the widespread acclaim he received as the co-director of the successful 1914 series The Perils Of Pauline (and the similar The Exploits Of Elaine) propelled Gasnier to the position of executive vice-president within the American division.

A couple of years later Gasnier resigned from the position in order to set up his own production company, and used his ties with Pathé to secure distribution for his new films. His career peaked during the following few years, and by the early 1920s he was well-known for his adventure serials set in exotic locales and as a purveyor of social melodrama. However things took a turn for the worse in the mid-20s and Gasnier had to file for bankruptcy, subsequently finding employment under a division of Paramount, where he guided the young Cary Grant through a couple of early roles. In 1935 Paramount decided they wouldn’t be renewing Gasnier’s contract, and after a long period without work he decided he would have to take the first picture that was offered to him. That was Reefer Madness, although at the time it was known as Tell Your Children.

Financed by a church group with the intention of educating parents concerned about cannabis, Tell Your Children was originally produced by George Hirliman, but shortly after completion it was purchased by the exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper, who inserted a number of salacious shots and released it on the exploitation circuit. Films about marijuana were particularly popular around that time because of hysteria surrounding the Marihuana Tax Act, which was published in 1937, and as well as Tell Your Children other notable efforts included Esper’s own Marihuana and Elmer Clifton’s dramatically-titled Assassin Of Youth. The film was given different titles for different regions of the US, and the New England title of Reefer Madness eventually stuck after more than a decade of screenings. Neither Esper nor Hirliman bothered to protect the film’s copyright, and 30 years later Keith Stroup, founder of the pro-legalisation of marijuana group NORML, bought a print from the Library of Congress archives and began showing it on California college campuses. It came to the attention of Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema in New York, who noticed an improper copyright notice, and he began distributing it nationally – making a small fortune for the company. Since the 1970s re-release the film has been considered a cult classic, a camp production often described as being ‘so bad it’s good’ as well as routinely being referred to as the worst movie of all time (or at least one that runs Plan 9 pretty close). It has been adapted for the stage and a TV remake of the musical appeared in 2005 featuring Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell, and a colourised version has also appeared.

Reefer Madness is a fairly simple film, primarily revolving around Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young), a couple – living in sin, to use the parlance of the day – who sell marijuana to local people; Mae prefers to sell to customers her own age, while Jack is happy selling to teenagers. Their apartment is home to a seemingly-continuous (but fairly tame-looking) party in the lounge, where jazz is played and mind alteration is practiced. However all usage of the demon weed by those who visit leads directly to various serious incidents: one man mows down a pedestrian in his car after smoking joint. Another couple, Blanche (Lillian Miles) and Bill (Kenneth Craig) start an affair while round at Mae and Jack’s. A guest named Ralph (Dave O’Brien) attempts to rape a young, stoned girl which leads to a fight and, eventually, the accidental killing of the woman in question. Ralph goes insane, which is attributed to his marijuana use, and then tells everyone he is going to the police to explain what happened. It gets worse. Jack attempts to kill Ralph, but Jack is instead beaten to death. The police arrest Ralph and Mae. Blanche is a witness, but instead of testifying she jumps out of a window, and falls to her death. By the end Mae’s fate is unknown while Ralph is sent to an asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of his life. And all because of a toke or two.

Obviously no-one should take Reefer Madness seriously. The depiction of the effects of marijuana here is ludicrous, and it looks as though no-one involved with the production ever thought to actually try the drug first. As such nearly all of the film’s events are so outlandish it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought this was an educational film; one of the funniest scenes, for example, sees Blanche playing the piano in order to take everyone’s mind off the terrible events – her playing becomes so fast it’s almost cartoon-like.

The acting is universally bad, the dialogue is awful (screenwriter Arthur Hoerl was responsible), and once you’ve had one or two giggles at the sheer ridiculousness of the plot it quickly becomes very boring indeed. But second-worst film of all time? Not a chance. At least the people making Reefer Madness were trying to make a decent film, even if they got it horribly wrong. I’d much rather watch this for an hour than any of those modern, cynical and noxiously ironic attempts at making a bad movie (hello Sharknado my old friend). Still, let’s be clear: I’m not about to argue that Reefer Madness is in need of a critical re-appraisal; it’s pretty dire, and even if you get completely baked it still isn’t very funny.

As for Gasnier, he continued to work with Hirliman, finishing out his directorial career with a couple of features at Monogram Pictures before retiring at the age of 65. He lived for another 22 years, and in a late interview he revealed that he was practically destitute; to make ends meet he returned to acting, in small parts, in mainstream features, usually playing an elderly Frenchman. Of all the hundreds of films he made, he’s remembered for the one he would have least liked to have been remembered for. Dude. What a bummer.

The Basics:
Directed by: Louis Gasnier
Written by: Arthur Hoerl
Starring: Kenneth Craig, Dorothy Short, Lilian Miles, Dave O’Brien, Thelma White, Carleton Young
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 66 minutes
Year: 1936
Rating: 0.8

Casting The Net: Elia Kazan

Though this blog contains its fair share of pointless piffle, from time to time there will be serious posts; in fact there have already been a couple. Anyway, although this doesn’t really require much work on my part, I thought I’d start a new series called ‘Casting The Net’ in which I will highlight interesting interviews and video footage that I find online. First up is this fascinating 1982 documentary examining the life and career of Elia Kazan. Enjoy!

0197 | The Act Of Killing

the-act-of-killing

Universally praised since its release in 2012 (it was named film of the year for 2013 by both Sight And Sound and The Guardian), Joshua Oppenheimer’s riveting and disturbing documentary The Act Of Killing is one of the most unusual releases I have seen in some time. Oppenheimer, an American filmmaker based in Copenhagen, gained the trust of several Indonesian politicians and gangsters (and some who you’d describe as having a foot in both camps) who were directly involved in the country’s purge of 1965-66, ostensibly an anti-communism drive that resulted in the extortion and killing of more than half a million people.

The main subjects here are Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, two men who were both small-time gangsters when Suharto overthrew Indonesia’s first President Sukarto in 1965 in the wake of a failed coup. Congo ran a successful black market movie racket at the time, but was promoted by Suharto when he gained control of the country, and subsequently led North Sumatra’s most powerful death squad. It’s suggested that he is personally responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 people, mostly by strangulation with wire. And yet here is, on-screen, in the exact place where the killings were carried out, dancing a little jig and extolling the virtues of a little marijuana, a little alcohol, a little ecstasy, all of which helps him to carry on with life as if nothing had happened.

At Oppenheimer’s invitation, Congo and Koto re-enact their involvement in this brutal history, staging increasingly bizarre recreations of the genocide which they themselves appear in and film, all filtered through the styles of their own favourite movie genres: gangster films, westerns, musicals and more. The suggestion that they do this may be both sensational and ridiculous but it appeals to the vanity of these arrogant, unrepentant killers, as well as their own love of the movies. Given a budget and creative freedom, Congo, Koto, their friends and neighbours begin by dramatising torture sequences before their delusions of artistry get the better of them; by the end of The Act Of Killing they’re indulging in a quite staggering musical rendition of ‘Born Free’ under a waterfall with a bunch of dancers who have walked out of the mouth of a giant fish. The victims appear at the bottom of the waterfall before thanking their killers for sending them to heaven. If that wasn’t surreal and ludicrous enough in itself, the despicable Koto – who we see extorting money from Chinese businessmen and setting out his corrupt money-making plans if elected onto a building committee during the documentary – is dressed in drag.

It’s difficult not to laugh at their garish and heavy-handed attempts at filmmaking, though any amusement resulting from Congo and Koto’s strange efforts is quickly tempered by the contemplation of their proficiency at cold-blooded murder. For much of Oppenheimer’s film few of those involved in these large-scale organised killings show any sign of remorse; only one journalist seems to be aware of the potential damage that this documentary could cause, though his protestations that he didn’t know about the genocide when it was happening right under his nose are unconvincing and ridiculed by his friends. When the men look through their own rushes they are more concerned with the detail than the gravity of their actions; Congo is horrified to see himself on-screen in white trousers. He’d never have worn them in real life because of all the blood, he says, without a hint of self-awareness.

Talk of the International Criminal Court in The Hague is scoffed at, and due to their links to the existing right-wing paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila – which grew out of the death squads – Congo and Koto appear to be beyond punishment within Indonesia. Pemuda Pancasila includes high ranking government ministers among its most senior members, and they are open here about the organisation’s involvement in genocide, corruption, election-rigging and more. With friends in high places Congo can even afford to appear on a national TV chat show and discuss his role in the brutality. The way the killings and other crimes are discussed matter-of-factly is extremely disconcerting.

As the film wears on, as a result of his experiences re-creating the actions of his death squad, Congo is visibly moved and apparently haunted by the memories he has of the events of the mid-1960s. The narrative suggests that his genial all-singing, all-dancing bonhomie supposedly hides an inner torment, but is he truly horrified by what he did as a younger man? His guttural retching as he re-visits one death site suggests so, but in an earlier scene he watches his own recreation footage and is less convincing when he tells Oppenheimer that the penny has finally dropped. “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?” he asks. “I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed, and then fear come, right there and then. All the terror suddenly possessed my body. It surrounded me, and possessed me.” Oppenheimer calmly disguises his own disbelief when responding: “Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse, because you knew it’s only a film. They knew they were being killed.”

Oppenheimer has been criticised for not giving enough historical context, and no relatives of the deceased are interviewed in the documentary, but this documentary really is as unconventional as they come. I don’t think it’s necessary to hear such voices; we can probably guess what they would say, although it’s also likely many would turn down the opportunity to speak out for fear of recriminations anyway – there are 49 crew members listed in the credits here as ‘Anonymous’, which speaks volumes. By giving those involved in the genocide this platform Oppenheimer provides plenty of rope with which they gleefully hang themselves: they are more than capable of doing so on their own. The role of foreign powers in funding or supporting the killings is subtly highlighted by the director, too: a revolving McDonald’s logo at the start reveals that the US in particular had a lot to gain if the Indonesian market was opened up. The film provides plenty of context in my opinion.

Incredibly, Oppenheimer’s relationship with Congo, Koto et al appears to be the same as it was before The Act Of Killing was released. A companion documentary, The Look Of Silence, opened at the Venice Film Festival in August and will receive a wider release in the near future, although it is apparently a more conventional and confrontational work. I am keen to see it as this initial installment is as fascinating as it is original, as harrowing as it is shocking.

The Basics:
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 122 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 9.0

Reading List 31.10.2014

I didn’t actually post one of these last week, so this is a selection of articles, reviews and the like I’ve read and enjoyed during the past fortnight. Obviously today is Halloween and it seems as if nearly every blogger I follow has been writing about horror films recently, so there are quite a few links to reviews in the list below. While on the subject be sure to check out and bookmark Tyson Carter’s new site Talking Horror if you’re a fan of the genre; he has assembled a crack team of writers for the gory venture. (Caveat: at the time of posting this there’s no content on the site yet … so if it turns out to be dreadful don’t blame me.)

I’m kidding. It’ll be good.

If you have the time please give a few of these links the once-over!

0196 | Fury

Brad Pitt

Considering Fury is a film that clearly sets out to deglamorize war, and to a certain extent is successful in doing so, David Ayer’s tale of an American tank crew at the end of World War II spends an unfortunate amount of time attempting to attract a mainstream cinema audience by offering flashes of brightness. For every grim, troubling sight here – and there are many – there’s a gratuitous shot of Brad Pitt showing off his muscular torso or contemplating the square-jawness of it all while staring off thoughtfully into the middle distance (framed, of course, to accentuate his good looks). For every scene in which the characters played by Jon Bernthal and Michael Peña do or say something startling or morally questionable, shortly thereafter there’s another that paints them in a more sympathetic, reasonable light. For every captured, unarmed, ordinary German shot brutally in the back there’s an act of unexpected kindness by another SS soldier. And when the chips are down and the odds of survival must surely be in the tens-of-thousands-to-one, there is of course hope for the film’s heroes and a (slightly) happy ending, all scored with the kind of uplifting strings that make you want to punch the air and shout ‘GIT SOME’ (before realising that barely an hour earlier you were contemplating the courage, heroism and death of the masses who actually did fight in these battles … none of whom required an orchestra to make their lives appear more dramatic).

While you can certainly argue that an attempt to balance the dark of truth with the light of entertainment isn’t the worst of all cinematic crimes – and hey, first and foremost, I appreciate that the $68 million outlay has got to be recouped somehow – it unfortunately ends up costing Fury ever so slightly; when Ayer’s film is entirely focused on the harsh realities of combat it really is a powerful and gripping work, bringing to mind the intensity of the dramatisation of the Normandy landings in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the relentless tension of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and the claustrophobic, impressive technicalities of Samuel Maoz’s less-well-known Lebanon. When it occasionally succumbs to the temptation of being A Brad Pitt Vehicle the film suffers by comparison, though I wouldn’t for one minute suggest it’s anywhere near as bad as escapist propaganda like, say, The Green Berets.

Not that Brad Pitt is at fault. Now in his sixth decade, he has gradually developed from a good actor with that movie star x-factor into a performer with more than enough gravitas to carry serious films like Fury, and he displays the requisite amount of troubled stoicism to render his character here believable. (He can’t help the fact that he still looks good even when he’s caked in filth and make-up artists have presumably spent hours trying to make him look as normal as they possibly can.) My cinema was packed, and undoubtedly some of the attendees were there because of the leading actor’s name, but at least he justifies the interest on a regular basis.

Pitt plays Staff Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a tank commander involved in the final push at the end of the war, his regiment running into heavy resistance in Nazi Germany. The crew of his lightly-armoured Sherman M4 – christened ‘Fury’ – are battle-weary and hardened by their time together in the North African campaign. In any other scenario these men probably wouldn’t give each other the time of day, and even here their relationships constantly threaten to buckle under pressure, but time and circumstance has ensured they have developed the strong bond necessary to carry them through the war; despite the relentless gravity of their situation they enjoy the usual soldier-to-soldier camaraderie, their traded jokes and drawled insults spilling out like an impenetrable slang or patois.

The film begins as it finishes, in the aftermath of a skirmish; we first see the crew of Fury, exhausted, catching their breath in a battlefield in which they appear to be the only survivors. Smoke rises from burnt-out vehicles and corpses all around them. They have lost their long-time gunner and friend in the battle, and he is replaced by a wet-behind-the-ears soldier named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who acts as our eyes and ears. Norman – a trained typist – does not want to kill and is understandably scared and horrified by what he sees amid the chaos of Hitler’s last stand. He is quickly and cruelly brought up to speed by the experienced Collier, whose extreme teaching methods are deemed necessary due to the dangers associated with hesitation. Collier needs all of his charges to be mentally strong, desensitized to the sights that greet them, and the crew is too small and the stakes too high to carry a passenger in this respect. Thus Norman’s initiation job is to mop up the remains of his predecessor inside the tank, and before long he is forced into other depressing acts, first shooting an unarmed prisoner of war under orders and secondly bedding a young German woman named Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), an act which requires much less duress.

As the tank trundles on from one muddy path and field to the next, permanently short on supplies and low on ammunition, Ayer incorporates an array of surreal, harrowing images that show just how grim and unpleasant a battlefield can be: corpses are piled up high by vehicles; there’s the sight of a bride in full gown among a group of refugees; the tank drives over a dead body in the mud which pops out again after the vehicle moves on. Every now and again the crew of Fury comes up against a platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers or some other force, so there’s little let-up in the action, which is fine as Ayer’s battle sequences are very good indeed. When the Allies roll into one town, the opposing force – mostly children conscripted by ruthless SS officers – quickly surrenders, enabling the Americans to enjoy some much-needed R&R. Yet even here the tension doesn’t magically disappear; the threat of rape hangs over the German women of the town, and one extended and magnificent scene around a kitchen table shows that, really, there’s no true downtime to be had. (Incidentally, I’ve seen this scene come in for criticism in some places for being overlong, but I thought it was very well acted by the principal cast members; the threat of an explosion of violence hangs in the air and I was on the edge of my seat during it. So there.)

The action sequences are intense, the fighting is bloody, and each small victory is met with knackered, mud-caked relief rather than triumphant celebration. A battle with a fearsome German Tiger tank across an open field is one highlight, with Fury and two other Allied tanks desperately trying to scuttle round the back of the more powerful enemy, while an attack on an anti-tank post and trenches is equally suspenseful. Unfortunately all the hard work is undone by a final act in which the soldiers of Fury take on several hundred Waffen-SS soldiers, lifting the concept of ‘defying the odds’ to new and unrealistic heights. Credibility is tested even further when it transpires that the supposedly experienced crew have left all of their spare ammo sitting on the outer rear of the tank, and must courageously pop outside to stock up during the firefight, despite having some time to prepare for the incoming enemy. Hmmm. At least the stupid oversight makes for some exciting on-screen derring-do, and it also enables Ayer to focus on a few pre-battle clichés – a swig of booze for every crew member, a rousing show of loyalty to the man in charge, a general acknowledgement that they’re all doomed, etc. etc.

I don’t wish to be too harsh on Ayer, or his film, as frankly it is one of the better (best) war movies in recent memory. It’s relentless, downbeat (and rightly so), moving, and when it felt realistic to this inexperienced viewer it really did hit the mark. Unfortunately there are a few predictable elements that just linger in the memory afterwards. When Norman reads the palm lines of Emma, for example, and tells her that she’ll have one great love in her life, we can guess what’s in store for the young German. Then there are the war film clichés that seem unavoidable: a young recruit lumped in with the veterans, a noble officer hiding his true feelings of fear and, by the end, the age-old assumption that every American soldier is able to mow down 50-100 Germans before any returned fire troubles him … although, to be fair, they are in a tank for much of the firefight.

In summary, there are good performances by Pitt, Lerman, Bernthal, Peña and Shia LaBoeuf, who plays a religious member of the crew (religion is as prevalent in Fury as the mud) who believes he is doing the work of God; the rest of the support is also impressive, though it is at times difficult to distinguish one grizzled senior officer from another. Despite one or two faults Ayer has made an impressive, action-packed war film that is at its best when it is pulling no punches. It is a nerve-jangling movie with a heavy, trundling, tank-like rhythm.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBoeuf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 134 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.0