Sunday, 29 November 2009

Smells All Right, I Guess.

Adapting novels to the screen is always tricky business. What do you cut? What do you leave in? How do you portray in vision what the writer can take pages to describe in words, freezing time as they focus on the tiniest little detail?

Then again, adapting a novel where the overriding theme relates to another sense, smell, is always going to be even trickier. How on earth do you portray smell? Heighten colours? Really hammer home the production design? Introduce smell-o-vision into hundreds or thousands of screens?

Tom Tykwer (who did the fabulous Run, Lola, Run) decided to tackle the Patrick Süskind's book Perfume (co-writing and directing), where the main character is primarily notable for his incredible sense of smell and his desire to create the one greatest perfume. It is an admirable attempt. I liked the book when I read it a few years ago, I really felt that I could smell what the lead character (Jean-Baptiste Grenouille) was smelling, seeing, feeling. It was beautifully written to really wrap you up in the odours of the environment surrounding him.

Kudos to Tykwer, but it didn't really happen. And I think the biggest problem is that inability to truly affect any senses other than the optical and aural. You can't portray smell, and without the descriptions of the smells and what they are doing to Grenouille you just can't really get absorbed in his story. Ben Whishaw plays Grenouille admirably, really doing everything he can to put into his face, his voice, his actions everything Süskind had hours to do on paper. Intellectually, I think you can, in a respect, understand what Grenouille is going through, but it doesn't hit home emotionally because you just. Can't. Smell. Film. You can't. And that was always going to be the failing.

Look, it looked good, it sounded good, the performances were pretty good (and whilst I did just praise Whishaw, I felt his performance sometimes hammed up and caricatured a little - but then again, maybe if you could have smelt him it wouldn't have been necessary), but it just didn't feel. It didn't feel.

I do, however, respect the valiant effort. I think they did as well as anyone really could have done. But I also think maybe nobody should have tried. You can make a film about how, say, the touch of velvet against the skin can drive someone crazy, because we all pretty much know what velvet feels like. Even if it doesn't drive you crazy, you at least have a launching point. When Grenouille talks about the smell of glass, however, no one out there can touch it (no pun intended.) Glass? Smell? Nope. Hits nothing inside me. Sorry.

Having said that, I was never bored, but I also think that may be because I might be developing a crush on Whishaw (who I saw only a couple of weeks ago in Bright Star.) It wasn't that bad. It just wasn't that good.

Points for trying. 2.5 stars.

Good Lordy.

Weekend box office figures for the States have just been published over at Box Office Mojo and they were a bit surprising.

Firstly, Twilight II plummeted. Plum. Met. Ed. If estimates hold up it dropped 70% from last weekend. With such a big opening it was always going to drop big - The Dark Knight dropped over 50% and Spider-Man 3 dropped over 60%. But that's still a steep drop for something with this exposure. Still, a mammoth hit.

The Blind Side, the new Sandra Bullock film, grew over the Thanksgiving holiday. Quite significantly. It was her biggest opening ever last weekend, and added 17% this weekend to cross $100mil in ten days. That's pretty damn good for her. As in, it will probably become her highest grosser by a long margin.

Precious continued to do well. I don't know what expansion plans there are, but I imagine they'll be rolling out a little wider to bump it back up in the rankings - its screen average is good enough to warrant.

The Fantastic Mr Fox opened fairly poorly, I reckon, in a decently wide release.

The Road finally went out on only 111 screens, and pulled in an ok crowd, logging almost $14k per screen. I actually thought the divisive reviews would kill this, but it might just end up pulling through all right. I really want to see it.

By far the most astonishing feat, however, was the newest Disney 2D animation effort. The Princess and the Frog opened in two theatres and pulled in (wait for it...) over $700k. That's over $350,000 a site! Seriously, in terms of per site averages, that's the third biggest on record after The Lion King (which did close to $800k per. site.) and Pocahontas. And we all gasped for air when Precious did its $104k/site on 18 (which is still impressive, because no film has ever done that kind of money per site at that many theatres.) Holy Gemini.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Some Thoughts On The Big 4.

I just finished listening to a podcast from InContention.com where they touched on the 'Big 4' yet to drop in a serious way on the world, which have been variously considered possibilities of major Oscar news. They are, in no particular order, Nine, Invictus, The Lovely Bones and Avatar.

First, Nine. There have been some press screenings, with various elements of embargo in place, but people are talking about it. They're saying kind of what I anticipated, which I didn't really go into earlier, probably because I was tired. I think it will look incredible - just see the trailer and I'm sure everyone would agree. Rob Marshall knows what he's doing here - he was responsible for Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha after all. But, like Chicago, I don't expect it to be a film that I'm head over heels in love with. I'm sure it will be entertaining to an extent, and the line up of talent means that surely it can't really go wrong (apparently Kate Hudson is the weakest link here - who would have thought?) But I just don't think it's going to hold up to some of the more powerful films of the year. I think it will be flashy, pretty, and fairly well irrelevant. That kind of seems to be what people are saying after these screenings. Its craft representation will be strong and in a pool of ten Best Picture nominees that might see it pull through, but I don't think it's going to pull of the heights that Chicago did with 6 of the pretty gold men including the big one.

Invictus. That's Clint Eastwood's new film. As I mentioned it only needs to be good to show here, I think. Early word on the film (embargo, embargo, embargo) seems a little mixed. Though generally what I've heard is that it is kind of flat, not Eastwood's best, not quite what it could have been. And that Matt Damon is out at a Supporting Actor shot, and Morgan Freeman is fine and perfectly cast - but will that be enough. Generally, it seems that the expanded Best Picture slot will be the film's saving grace, as it doesn't actually have a great deal else going for it. I think it will be a hit (and with the rugby setting, it could play bigger overseas than at home in the States), I think the reviews will generally be at worst kind of lukewarm, especially from the influential players, and I think it could be happy with a couple of noms. Whether it can play into the major category I just don't know. I wouldn't be surprised though. I mean, it's Clint Eastwood. Everyone loves him. Even if he does leave you a bit... cold.

The Lovely Bones dropped in London with a Royal Gala screening earlier this week, and has been doing some other press screenings (embargo again!) I personally think the trailer looks stunning, but it also looks like a whole film of that could be a bit over the top. Word is, again, mixed. Quite decisively mixed. And it seems to be lacking a major rave anywhere. People are saying Stanley Tucci and Saorise Ronan are very good, and apparently they put more Susan Sarandon in because the test screenings liked her character. People are also having different reactions based on whether or not they have read the book - I have not. This is Peter Jackson, and I think he has a fair bit of respect, so I think ultimately if the film plays well it could be in the picture. I think if the public like it it could just sneak in there. I definitely don't think it will win the majors (in fact, from what I'm hearing I don't think either of the three mentioned so far have a shot of upsetting the current favourites) but it may just sneak through with more than people anticipate IF the public get behind it.

Lastly, Avatar. No one has seen it yet. Except, apparently, for about forty people who James Cameron invited to see it because he wanted their opinions, because the film has not been tested at all. Word of one of these (this is coming from Anne Thompson on IndiWire) is the the film is fantastic. It's a really tough one to call. There are a few elements at play here. Firstly, let's not forget that Cameron's last feature film won eleven Oscars and is the highest grossing film ever (when not adjusted for inflation.) Obviously, the man can do that right. Secondly, the anticipation on this film from the filmmaking community is running white hot. How revolutionary is it? Can Cameron pull it off? Just what the fuck is it all about? Thirdly, will it make money, or at least pull in enough to not bankrupt people along the way. This is the toughest call. Apparently the tracking for it isn't great. I really want to see the film, but I haven't booked tickets yet. I figure I'll see it when I see it. I can't imagine the anticipation levels of my parents are particularly high - they're going to need people to say 'oh my god it's incredible you have to see it' before it registers enough for them to go out to it, I think. Younger people, sure, they'll see it. Families? Maybe. How dark is it looking? Too dark to take your kid to? Cameron said they can't afford to have a target audience (remember, word on the street is putting total costs for the creation and marketing of the film, including ancillary events, at close to half a billion dollars) and that they're banking on it playing to eight year olds and eighty year olds. Really? You really think an eighty year old is going to put this high on their list of things to do for this week? It'll open big (I don't think it'll open Twilight II big, but inflated Imax and 3D screening ticket prices might push it up there - though I still don't think so), so ultimately it comes down to word of mouth. If it holds around (as Titanic did, though that was in a very different box office era) then it'll be in for a shot. If this gets people talking it could be a formidable contender. I think the only shot this film has at being anywhere near as big in the Oscars as Titanic was is if it is spectacular. Groundbreaking in the truest sense of the word. Just merely being very good is not good enough. In fact, it'll hurt it. This film literally needs to lock its lips around yours and suck the air out of your lungs for the three hours I expect it will play for. You need to leave the cinema feeling like you have just witnessed the birth of christ. Without that, I think you can count it out of majors, though not the craft categories. Anything beneath leaving you in a state of hysteria will mean that the film, the buzz, the hype, everything Cameron has been telling you will fall short of expectation, and no film can survive that. Even if expectation is so damned high that it could still be an excellent film.

That was a bit of an Avatar rant, really. But they're my thoughts on the matter. Other things that could affect any of these films showing in the big ten are whether the voters take this opportunity to reward lesser known indy films because they feel the widening gives them that duty. They may think putting precious at the top of their list is enough, but they may also start to go with films like Crazy Heart, The Last Station etc. Basically, these films that could have been locks if they had lived up to anticipation are now maybes like everything else. When the embargoes are lifted and the public starts to get a feel for the films we'll know for sure, but at the moment... it's all get set for the last one to hit next month.

Friday, 27 November 2009

How P.C.

The Idiots (Idioterne) is quite possibly un-P.C. I'm not entirely sure on the political correctness of referring to those with mental difficulties as 'idiots', or of imitating them and referring to it as 'spazzing.' But Lars von Trier has never really been known for holding back on offending people.

The Idiots is the second installment of von Trier's Golden Heart Trilogy, the preceding being Breaking The Waves and the subsequent being Dancer In The Dark. This trilogy is referred to as such due to their dealing with a central female character who remains naive throughout the story. It is also his entry into the Dogme 95 doctrine, following a set of rules for a movement co-founded by him. Films certified had to follow the Vow Of Chastity, ten rules I won't go into now, but which can be found here. Other notable Dogme 95 films are Thomas Vinterburg's Festen, Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy and Lone Scherfig's Italian For Beginners.

Von Trier's entry (Dogme 2 - where is that hash key???) centres around a group of people who live together in a borrowed house and regularly go out in public as these 'idiots', 'spazzing' their way around as a way of connecting with, ultimately, simplicity. A big deal is made of when someone finds their 'inner idiot', when they naturally and spontaneously discover within themselves this aspect of their personality.

The film is quite shocking in some ways, but quite peaceful and sweet in others. The members of the group do seem to, generally, care for each other a lot. They are just trying, in their own way, to be happy and to discover themselves, and quite often seem to be entirely content. The performances are solid and the confrontational is limited and muted for von Trier once you get past the fact that they are imitating (some might see it as mocking) those with sometimes severe mental difficulties. Even the gang-bang scene (more real sex, as dictated by the rules) seems quite sweet and an extension of the group's goals and aims.

The Vow Of Chastity means that the film can never look particularly good. Everything has to be natural and diegetic (though there is some non-diegetic music in the film, something for which I'm sure von Trier had to write a confession) so the films are not, generally, that beautiful to behold. But it is an effective trick to ground the film in reality, which otherwise this film may have failed with.

Ultimately, it's not the best Lars von Trier film out there. I'm generally an enormous fan of him for daring to tread where many filmmakers would not (all of this other films I have seen have been incredibly confronting, with the only real low note being Manderlay) but this film does not quite live up to the rest of his catalogue. Still, it has its moments. 3 stars.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Film Count

I do believe I'm 16 from 17 days - so one behind. I've watched The Idiots and have to write it up tomorrow, hopefully getting in two more films to get me back to even.

So, off to a flying start. Have to get a bunch more in over the next week before I head off to Iceland for a holiday, however... or it'll see me a solid week behind after only a month.

It is a bit of a struggle, I'll give you that, but it's also a lot of fun! Hard fitting in a full-time job and a social life, but we'll manage.

Where Am I Again?

This Is England is a very personal film, from what I have read. Writer/director Shane Meadows has stated much of what occurs is autobiographical, but you don't need to know this to feel it coming off the screen. The way he plays in flashbacks of news footage of the Falklands War (conflict, whatever) just feels personal. He obviously has a strong tie to the subject matter, like his young subject, Shaun (Thomas Turgoose.)

Shaun is a kid (literally - 12 years old) who lost his father in the War in question. Picked on at school but with a bully's spirit he joins up with some self-styled skinhead punk teenagers who take him under their wing and show him a good time. Whilst they're destructive, these kids (led by Woody (Joe Gilgun)) are pretty nice people. Their destruction is limited to abandoned homes and messing around with each other, and their life-view is to chill out, have fun, smoke some weed and drink some.

When the much-older Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from a few years in prison, where he apparently took the fall for Woody for a crime that never comes to light, the dynamic of the group completely shifts. Combo is a strident nationalist (something that resonates quite strongly with the current rise of the BNP here in Britain) who takes the younger skinhead's mischief to violent and threatening extremes. Shaun chooses staying with Combo rather than Woody and becomes involved in the racism and tragedy it brings. Woody, meanwhile, tries to continue without involvement. In the end, after a nasty confrontation between Combo and one of the original members of the pre-Combo gang, Shaun discovers in himself what England really means to him.

It is a powerful story. Turgoose is extraordinary, carrying the film. Not a bad feat for someone so young. All of the supporting cast is similarly in tune to the requirements of their characters and the mood of the film. Nothing in the film is frivolous: it's all necessary and all treated as such. Meadows (who had been making successful features for a decade before This Is England hit) deftly guides all of the younger performers through the minefields of possible over-performance and lets the older ones let loose with all of the gusto they can manage. He massages the themes of childhood, adolescence and the social and political fallout of wars such as the Falklands (playing out again now in the Middle East) into a moving and powerful narrative with economic expertise.

This Is England is a great film that has grown in my esteem over the two days since I actually watched it. I came out of it impressed but a little nonplussed, but the 48 hours in between have embedded it further in my mind. 4.5 stars, and I'll be looking for some more Meadows flicks to bolster my list.

Not A Hat In Sight.

It's always kind of disappointing when you watch a film with the word 'cowboy' in the title and don't see a single person dressed up in the uniform. We all love cowboys, right?

Drugstore Cowboy did, however, foster an appreciation of Matt Dillon that I hadn't previously had. Gus Van Sant (who also put Dillon in his 1995 film To Die For) crafted this adaptation and pulled out a stellar performance from Dillon that put him on the map critically, well before his Oscar nom for (vomits on shoes) Crash in 2004.

Dillon plays Bob, a small-time thief married to Kelly Lynch's Dianne. They're both hopeless drug addicts, hanging out with Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham) with whom they put on elaborate melodramas to distract pharmacy (or drugstore - get it?) clerks whilst they sneak into the dispensary and nab whatever they can to get high. Run out of town by police officer Gentry (James Remar - it bugged me all through the film that I couldn't work out where I knew his face from, and a quick IMDb placed him as Samantha's long-term on-off lover Richard Wright in the Sex And The City series) they head cross-country and repeatedly get more than they bargain for. Eventually, Bob decides to go clean, something Dianne doesn't want - they break up, Bob reconvenes with an old friend Tom The Priest (William S Burroughs - hilarious) but still can't make it all work out for himself.

It's a different examination of addiction and what drives it, because it is not dark. These people aren't depressed. You don't often see them jumpy and pining for a fix. They like their drugs, they steal them, and they generally live happily ever after. It's surprisingly upbeat for the most part, unlike many other drug films (Oz titles Little Fish and Candy come to mind - and I'm not saying that downbeat drug films are bad. I quite like those two titles, especially the first. It's just... different.)

This is a very confident Gus Van Sant laying the foundations for a constantly eye-opening career with only his second feature (after the rarely-seen Mala Noche four years before.) You can feel him preparing for My Own Private Idaho, and even much later films such as Elephant, but he practices far more restraint precursing his more 'mainstream' product such as To Die For and his recent Milk. His specific stylings are evident, but they do not overpower the films.

All round, a very good film. There isn't a lot to criticise in it, except probably the fact that it doesn't quite hit you in the face like much of Van Sant's other work. It's still a 4 star effort, however.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

It's Official.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon just had the third biggest opening weekend on record in the States, after The Dark Knight and Spiderman 3 - provided estimates hold up, but I strongly doubt they'll be out by US$5mil. It held better over Sat and Sun than its predecessor, but still took more than half of its gross on opening Friday.

It definitely won't hold on to the US$500mil+ take of TDK, but if it holds as well as the first one (and I'm not totally sure that it will - I think expectation will result in it being significantly more frontloaded) it would have have a shot of eclipsing Spidey 3's US$336mil final.

Regardless, global estimates are up over US$250mil for the weekend, which is pretty exceptional.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

For The Record

I quite like our dearest Queen Betty the Second. I think her existence is... nice. Truly. I like the tradition and the formality and the fact that, in reality, there is no true point to her. I like that. Like Victoria Beckham, but with more longevity and probably a bit more poise. (Though don't get me started on Victoria Beckham - mostly I'm in love with her because she just shouldn't exist. And the fact that she does is hysterical.)

But this is not the point. The point is that I've added The Queen to my ticked off list of films that I have watched in the early stages of this marathon.

Stephen Frears' 2006 film gave the Helen Mirren an Oscar for her titular role, and was, in its own quiet and very British way, a little controversial in its examination of the week following the death of the people's princess, Lady Di. Mirren's Betty II and family (James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, Sylvia Sims as the Queen Mother) decided to treat the untimely and enormously publicised death as a private matter until her popularity plummeted and, at the behest of Michael Sheen's Tony Blair (newly elected as PM of the ol' UK), decided to return to Buck Pal to make a statement and appear with her people.

I think the real appeal of this film was the fact that it delved into the protocol of the Crown here in England. Dealing with the death of a former royal was 'unprecedented.' The royal family (I'm sure that's meant to be capitalised, but it looked funny so I changed it) didn't see it as appropriate because she was no longer a royal, despite the fact that she was the mother of the third (and, I assume, fourth) in line to the throne. The Queen wouldn't even let Prince Chuck take the royal plane to Paris when Di was in hospital because it wasn't a matter of state. (Please note that all of this is based on what happened in the film - I'm not sure what was fudged.)

However, dear Betty was, technically, correct, I imagine, in saying and behaving the way she did. In terms of protocol. What she had failed to realise is that Di was at the forefront of massive celebrity culture around the world. Coins were minted in the honour of her wedding back in '81. She was followed relentlessly by paparazzi. And she died tragically, suddenly and unexpectedly at the height of another scandal.

This is what the film portrays. A monarch who at that point had been on the throne for 45 years, and hadn't managed to keep up with the way the public were now behaving. Protocol be damned! Put up the standard at Buck Pal and then lower it to half-mast, goddamit, because that's what we want! And then the tabloids keep going and going, running it until the public is at near breaking point.

Mirren does dear Betty very well. Not much of what you imagine (or hope) must be inside the real person escapes in any large fashion, but glimpses are allowed through her incredibly stoic exterior to give an almost humanising portrayal of one of the biggest closed-books I know of. Sheen was an amazing support (almost lead... almost) with his Blair portrayal, coming up against party politics, his young relationship with the Queen as her appointee to lead the country, and against his own wife's differing opinions.

I did, however, find myself at the end of the film without a great deal to say about it. It was a nice film, anchored by a couple of great performances and an interesting story that I remember vividly, but it just didn't seem to... do anything. Which was fine. But I think it was ultimately a piece designed around the exploration of a character who can't really be explored that deeply without making things up - obviously, that wouldn't have gone down well.

Frears has made some better films, I think. His previous, Mrs Henderson Presents (with her TRUE highness, Judi Dench) I adored much more than The Queen. It was a nice film, similar to the Queen's existence, but I'm not ranking it much higher than that. 3 stars.

Meanwhile...

...early estimates for the opening day of the new Twilight film (officially - The Twilight Saga: New Moon) put the take for the day at a little under US$73mil from the States alone. Keeping in mind that the previous biggest was for The Dark Knight at slightly over US$67mil.

Now, this Twilight picture won't, I don't think, have the same sort of staying power over its opening weekend as The Dark Knight had. But this kickoff could see it as a challenger to the biggest opening weekend of all time, a record currently held by TDK with US$158mil over three days. Seeing as that is only a little more than double Twilight's one day gross, I think it might have a chance.

I don't think it has a change of reaching the US$533mil that TDK did in the States alone. Twilight will be horribly more frontloaded. But still, Summit will be loving it. I don't know how much this one cost to make, but the first was something like US$37mil and grossed freaking heaps globally. This one is going bigger, and can't be a US$100mil film.

Laughing. All. The. Way. To. The. Bank.

Sad for TDK, though. I liked that film. Haven't seen either Twilight, but don't think they'll be capable of holding much of a candle.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Don't Worry. I Promise. I'll Take Care Of It All.

Or not.

Chilling, chilling, chilling. Hard Candy is particularly disturbing film. Disturbing because the characters are completely reversed from your standard thriller scenario. This isn't Saw. The traditionally-termed 'victim', the person undergoing the physical and psychological torture, is actually the monster by character, and the aggressor, the perpetrator of said torture, is representative of the true victims and the morality (in a sense) of wider society.

Ellen Page (of Juno fame) plays Hayley and stars alongside Patrick Wilson (Globe nominated for Angels In America and not related to Luke and Owen) - Jeff - in this tale of vindictive redemption. Page's breakout sees her playing a 14 year old girl who meets up with a much older (32 by my count) man played by Wilson after they befriend each other in an internet chat room. She flirts with him and him back with her, and they end up back at his house. He is a photographer, with photos of young models lining his walls - his work is his studio, when questioned by Hayley. However, he also has a dirty, dirty secret... and Hayley knows it. She subdues him, ties him up and tortures him as she extracts various confessions over the course of the day, and some of her torture is quite gruesome. Eventually she leaves him with the option to take his own life or face the wrath of the law and public humiliation.

This was the first performance to put Page front and centre on the map, and my god was it a blinder. A teenager (as she was when the film was released) couldn't really have hoped for a juicier role, and she grabs hold of it at attacks it with gusto. You don't know whether to love her or hate her - what relationship does she have to Jeff's secret? Why does it fall to her to be the vigilante? Why does she care enough to put herself on the line and take the risks she does? Whatever the case, the lesson is clear - don't fuck with Ellen Page. Actually, the real lesson is not to do the terrible things Jeff did, because otherwise your conscience will win out and exact an appropriate punishment.

Wilson provides fine support, but Page is the true standout in a very confronting film. The film also looked beautiful, with colours that looked just heightened a little bit to make everything seem a little clearer, a little more extreme. And I think that is my only major problem with it - it didn't feel quite real. While the story and Hayley's actions don't feel entirely believable either, the heightened visual nature almost pushes it over into disbelief. I think a grittier reality portrayed behind the actors might have allowed their extremes to play out a little closer to the truth, but instead it didn't hit home in the emotional way I think it could have - it felt a little distant at times.

So I'm going to give Hard Candy 3.5 stars. An astonishing performance from the young Page and the twisting of the standard characterisation are definite plusses. I'd put this fairly high on a list of films to see from this decade.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

I've Never Really Liked Children Anyway

Look, I get naturalism. It's fine. I quite like it sometimes. But this, this just didn't do it for me. I'm sorry.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (or the Dardenne Brothers, as they are often referred to) are one of only six filmmakers to have twice won the Palme d'Or at Cannes - the others being Alf Sjöberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Shohei Imamura, Ermir Kusturica and Billie August. Their two wins are also the only two wins for Belgium, ever, at the festival. The Child (or L'enfant) was their most recent win, in 2005.

It's the story of Bruno, a petty criminal, who has a baby with his girlfriend Sonia. He seems to have no qualms, no shame, and no real sense of morality, but for all intents and purposes he seems likable enough. The couple seem very young (at a few points they seem to act as little more than children themselves), but they seem very happy until Bruno does something rash, selfish, greedy and incredibly stupid regarding their new baby, Jimmy. One thing leads to another, but still nothing much seems to happen - naturalism, remember.

That, I think, is what doesn't quite work for me here. What is the film trying to say? Crime doesn't pay? Never heard that one before. Naturalism works for me when it is emblematic of a bigger picture, when by saying little it is actually saying volumes, and I don't get that from L'enfant. I really don't. It just seems to happily muddle its way through a nice little story without really drawing you in or putting you off, and ends up with something kind of meh. Yes, Bruno grows in the film, but in a very cliched way, and still, I feel, in a selfish way. I ultimately just don't care about him, and I don't know Sonia enough to care that much about her either.

The elements of the film were all fine. The actors did a fine job with their characters, I suppose. It looked how a naturalistic film should look. It sounded how a naturalistic film should sound (there was absolutely no non-diegetic music in the film.) But it just. Didn't. Do it for me. I'm not sorry I watched it, but I'm leaving it with 2 stars, and putting the Dardenne's Rosetta on my list of films to watch.

Stop-Loss

The term 'stop-loss' in the American military refers to fine print a serviceman's (or servicewoman's) contract allowing for them to be recalled past their discharge date, involuntarily, should they be required by the military. It is this clause, and the repercussions on three Iraq war veterans (Iraq War the Second, Jr's war, not Snr's) and one girlfriend that form the titular premise of this film.

There's something about war movies directed by women. Not that there are many. Or, really, any. The shamefully unseen by me The Hurt Locker is really the only other one I can come up with off the top of my head, and that is, by all accounts, exceptional.

Kimberley Peirce's film (her first since her Oscar-winning debut, 1999's Boys Don't Cry) doesn't really tackle war, however. There are scenes in Iraq, both battle scenes (which are very accomplished) and behind-the-scenes scenes (wow, that's an awkward phrase) of the boys playing around, sending letters home, all that jazz. And they all look great. The primary thrust of the film, however, is dealing with this stop-loss notion.

The cast is fairly exceptional. Ryan Phillippe plays the Staff Sergeant who is stop-lossed (stop-lost?), Brandon King, with Channing Tatum (the weakest link, I think) playing his best friend Sergeant Steve Shriver. My future husband and the incredible Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Private Tommy Burgess, and our dear friend Abbie Cornish plays Shriver's girlfriend Michelle - King and Michelle have known each other pretty much their entire lives.

All three servicemen are on leave and partying hard. Shriver freaks and starts digging bunkers in his front yard when drunk, Burgess gets kicked out by his new wife... the only one who seems to have it together is King. They go out to the ranch, they shoot things up. King is meant to be being discharged, but when he goes to sign it all out he is told to report back later that month. He disobeys the direct order (yelling 'with all due respect, fuck the president', something I'm sure we all wanted to say back in 2007) and is arrested, only to escape and go on the run, with Michelle agreeing to drive him out of Texas.

What follows are attempts to bring him back, explorations of what options he has (there are none, apparently), and tragedy striking. The notion that you can sign up to serve for a certain number of years, do your time amid the horrors and trauma of war, want to get out and then be called back against your will is terrifying, and the cast pull it off for the most part. Ryan Phillippe has been proving himself to have chops of late, and after my Bright Star review regarding Abbie Cornish, this is probably my favourite role of hers so far - I believed her entirely. Joseph Gordon-Levitt can do absolutely no wrong in my eyes, but I don't think anyone would say his performance was anything but grand. Channing Tatum, though, can't hold his own against this cast with so much talent behind them. He's not terrible, but you do notice that he is weaker.

Peirce explores this injustice with anger. It shows that this law pisses her off. She doesn't like it, and she's wearing that quite apparently on her sleeve, and maybe that's why the film wasn't particularly successful. I think it's a terrible clause, and i think more people should know about it, and I congratulate her for taking up this cause. Iraq films haven't been working in the States commercially anyway, so you may as well ram your point home.

I'm glad I finally watched Stop-Loss. I've been meaning to for a while, and missed it last year at the Sydney Film Festival where it played in their inaugural competition. It's a bold piece of filmmaking, and here's hoping that Peirce doesn't have to wait the better part of another decade to let us know what's pissing her off now. 4 stars.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

And Lastly for Right Now

This is a nice chunk of change, really. I wouldn't turn it down.

That's Nine From Nine

Yep, I'm nine days into my 365 and I have watched nine films. Yay for me. Only 356 to go.

Whose idea was this again?

3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510

Ooh yeah, when math is sexy enough for a post title.

It doesn't take a genius to work out what I just watched - that heading is π truncated to fifty decimal places. At least, it is according to Wikipedia... I've never quite been convinced that Wikipedia is the mother of all internet knowledge.

But on to π. (Shall I keep calling it π? Or shall I switch it to the more commonly rendered when written Pi? I'm going to stick with the character, because that is how it appears on my DVD cover.)

π is the directorial debut of Darren Aronofsky, who went on the make the incredible Requiem For A Dream (one of my favs), The Fountain (which I'm yet to see, but still really want to despite mixed critical response) and most recently The Wrestler, which is most definitely a major departure from his first two films, and I expect also from The Fountain.

Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a genius mathematician, intent on seeing math in everything around him. His pet project to start the film is to unravel the pattern in the stock market - he asserts later that he doesn't care about the money, he is just interested in unlocking the pattern, and I believe him. As his search continues, however, the search narrows to trying to unlock a 216 digit number, to which end he is stalked both by a strange Kaballah cult and an investment firm, both intent on finding out what the number is. But it's what the number means that matters.

π is a bold and audacious debut from the filmmaker. Filmed in black and white and featuring pretty much one guy all the time, with little in the way of support, the film decides to hammer home a point and doesn't stop. Entering the pathological mind of Cohen is what it's all about - Aronofsky introduces his trademark rapid-fire repetitive cutting and hounding score from the brilliant Clint Mansell (his debut film also, and how thankful I am for it) to make sure you never forget how crazy Cohen is, but how focused and driven he is also.

It's definitely not his best film, but it's his first film and, as mentioned, it is damned impressive. The questions you find yourself asking at the end about the reality of Cohen's purpose are interesting, but ultimately I never quite empathised with his character. I watched, was intrigued, but didn't feel. Though at no point was I bored or wanting to turn it off. Cerebral rather than visceral. 3.5 stars, but I may revise that up or down over coming days, as I have a feeling it may stick with me. Though I might be wrong.

Christopher Walken is a genius.

Well, he did the following, which is hysterical.



And reminds me of this, following, which is fantastic.



I'm expecting Where The Wild Things Are to be about three times as cool as that video, which is why I fear I may be upset. Because that video is already super-cool.

I'm bracing myself and removing everything sharp from my room.

Bigging up City of God - Again

Paste Magazine (via) has just ranked the incredible City of God at the top of their Top 50 of the decade list. Wham. Told you it was good.

Everyone's talking about O Brother, Where Art Thou? on their lists, so I think I'm going to have to suck it up and see it again. The concept actually fills me with dread. I hardly remember the first time I saw it, but I do remember not liking it.

I should also add Half Nelson to the list, I think.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Let The Right One In

Sweden done good with this one, making this blogger happy at two good films in two days.

Let The Right One In (I'm not going to attempt the original title) has swept up the world over the last couple of years (it's been a looong international roll-out for the film), with audiences and critics alike praising it as not only one of the best horror films of late, but quite simply one of the best films full stop. And they're not too far off the mark.

I'm not convinced it's one of the greatest films of the decade (would it make my top 100, however? Possibly) but it is damn good. Horror film? Meh. I had a couple of tense moments, but I wouldn't really say I was scared.

I think that is the beauty of the film. Ostensibly, it's a childhood love story. I'd call it a coming of age story, but I don't quite think the children are old enough for that. They don't even really lose their innocence. They're just kids, after all, doing as kids do - exploring their emotions, their limits, their feelings and each other.

The horror aspect comes from the fact that one of the 'kids' is a vampire - or, as she says when directly asked the question, she lives off blood. This doesn't make her dead, but it does make her allergic to sunlight (and she does also say she's not a girl, but I'm going with that pronoun to make life a little easier, and because I think referring to her as 'it' sounds ugly.) It does mean she will drink the blood of the first thing she sees when she's hungry. It does mean she can't really resist lapping up blood when she sees it. But it doesn't mean she can't control herself.

Set in winter in Sweden, the film starts with Eli moving in with her so-called Papa next door to Oskar. They meet in the courtyard as Papa goes hunting on Eli's behalf (it's worth noting Papa is not a vampire, but appears simply to be charged with her care) and Oskar falls in love, despite Eli informing him that they cannot be friends. After bonding over a Rubik's Cube their friendship is sealed, and they even start going steady. It is, really, a classic story of young love that cannot be, fraught with difficulty - Romeo and Juliet without the meddling parents, but instead a pesky habit of randomly killing and exsanguinating otherwise innocent people. And it's quite beautiful. It looks beautiful, with wintry exteriors and long, dark nights allowing for gorgeously textured visuals (has anyone else noticed that all indy films have started to share a similar beauty and shooting style? Not a complaint, yet, but watch for it...), the kids are beautiful in their own intriguing ways (probably their innocence), and the story is beautiful.

Speaking of the kids, much has been made of their performances, and quite rightly. Our two leads were playing twelve year olds, and must have been about twelve when the film was made. And they are pretty much the entire film. The adults are few and far between, and even most of the supporting players are kids of a similar age. For them to hold down a film like they did at that age is nothing short of extraordinary. And not even merely hold the film down - the completely owned their characters and made you feel for you. Rarely do children get an opportunity to take such dominant lead roles in significant films aimed at adults because, quite frankly, kids aren't generally the best actors when called upon for (almost) every single scene. These two do, and with style, grace, and a completely unfair amount of talent. Possibly the primary downside to the film - unless you were acting like this at twelve (ie unless you're Anna Paquin), you will feel like a desperate underachiever.

I'm going with 4 stars for this one. Maybe my expectation was too high after all that I have heard (and I have heard nothing but rave after rave after rave), but it didn't quite drag me in as deep as I was hoping. A fantastic film no doubt, but that je ne sais pas... maybe if I go back in a few years fresh it will lure me deeper. But still highly recommended.

While I'm Here...

I've decided to issue myself a challenge. That is to watch and blog 365 films in 365 days from the launch of this blog, and to try and include in that figure as many films from the previous list I published as possible, plus as many previous Best Picture winners I can lay my hands on (easily...)

By my count, I've ticked off City of God from the list (and I've just watched Let The Right One In, which I'll write up shortly), as well as Platoon from the Best Picture list. Which gives me 57 from the List (as it shall now be known), and a whole bunch from Oscar.

For the record, I'm running at eight films over eight says (including LTROI), so I'm off to an appropriate start.

Oh, and note that these posts aren't really real reviews. I'm not editing them, I'm not really reviewing them, I'm just writing them. For the most part they're coming moments after the film is viewed. So don't expect Ebert-esque masterpieces. Just the random ramblings of a random rambler. Don't like it? You know what to do.

I Don't Need This Shit! I Am Reality!

Platoon is probably the best war movie I've seen yet. Oliver Stone's incredible break-out success as a director (he had previously won a screenplay Oscar for Midnight Express, but this was his big directing success - according to Box Office Mojo it took over US$130mil from a US$6mil budget...back in 1986) netted him a directing Oscar and the film a Best Picture statue, amongst six other nominations.

Stone, himself a Vietnam vet, wrote this powerful story centring on the beginnings of a year-long tour by Chris (Charlie Sheen), though the incredible standouts came from Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger as Sergeants Elias and Barnes respectively. Their relationship was heated, confrontational and deadly in many ways, exacerbated by the horrible nature of the Vietnam War and their equivalent rankings. Their completely different takes on right and wrong, and the influence they had on the men in their command, affects the viewer's morality in unnerving and uncomfortable ways. We'd all like to be the compassionate liberal portrayed by Dafoe, but a part of you understands the trauma and torment running through the veins of Berenger's Barnes. And they completely nailed their performances.

Sheen's Chris, however, left me wanting. I've never been a Charlie Sheen fan, in anything (though I've never seen Two And A Half Men, so maybe all the awards mean something), and I'm not a fan here. It might just be a personal dislike, but his actions and motivations fail to ring true throughout the film. His character develops, on paper, but I don't see him going through the journey - I see him saying the words, and pulling the faces, but I don't believe it.

Nothing, however, can take away from Stone's masterful and harrowing direction, not even Sheen's sub-par contribution. Some monumentally iconic and memorable shots, scenes and words pummel you from the screen. A few points had me audibly gasping. The score fell together perfectly (and while the repeated use of Barber's Adagio For Strings did start to grate through the film, it did become a warm blanket by the end), all of the other performances were fantastic (brief yet incredible turns from Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon and Forest Whitaker being particular highlights), stunning scenery captured perfectly - it all blended to make a war movie that felt powerful and triumphant whilst simultaneously deriding the war and the politics at hand. I think that only a veteran of the war could truly undermine it in such a way whilst holding the soldiers who fought in it up as such heroes. The film is telling us that, like it or not, war happens. And in war, shit happens. And some of that shit is really, really bad. Some of the things people do are really, really bad. But, for the most part (though not all), respect must be given to those who fight them because when you're out there you just don't have a choice.

Platoon has a new relevance now, with much of the Western world embroiled in a couple of sagas that seem to be heading down the same route as Vietnam (when can we stop with the rhetoric and just admit that Afghanistan and Iraq are unmitigated disasters?) The film looks at the futility of going in against an enemy (who are, for all intents and purposes, unjudged in the film - they are treated as the enemy, but in much the same way as I imagine the Na'vi will be treated in Avatar. There is inherent racism, but it is also a one-sided look at the war) who know the lay of the land so much better, who are much more knowledgeable about the jungle and what it holds, and who are willing to risk everything to hold on to what they have. And doesn't that sound like something going on right now?

4.5 stars for Platoon. That the film overcomes the weakness of the lead to the extent that it only loses half a star is testament to the combined power of the other elements.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Beautiful Corpse.

Such is the mantra of one of the protagonists of The Living End, Gregg Araki's 1992 feature. Feted at Sundance as part of wave dubbed New Queer Cinema, it follows two gay men, one a hustler, the other a freelance journalist. Jon (journalist) runs into Luke (hustler) quite literally after an incident with homophobes in a parking lot, and Jon agrees to Luke staying the night after Luke tells him he is 'between places right now.'

Of course, this is 1992 in America, and the hot news when it comes to homosexuality is the AIDS crisis. Jon tested positive that afternoon (possibly explaining his irrational behaviour in letting this person into his house) and tells Luke just before they have sex, to which Luke responds 'Join the club.'

Arguments ensue over the next few days as their different attitudes towards life clash, but they are thrust back together when Luke ends up again in Jon's house after a run-in with the law. The two hightail it for San Francisco, and, for all intents and purposes, this is a standard fleeing-the-cops affair. Superficially at least.

Dig a little deeper and you see the truth, however. These two aren't running from the cops. Luke especially couldn't give a damn about the police - he'd probably shoot them as quickly and easily as he seems to shoot anything else. Jon hasn't even had time to come to grips with what, for him, would be seen as an effective death sentence in his diagnosis. What they are running from is AIDS. It's a response to the hysteria at that time surrounding the disease (though I'm sure calling it a disease is completely inaccurate - it's a syndrome, hence the name, but I'm going to run with the disease tag because it seems to flow better) at the time. They're terrified of it because the world is terrified of it. They're not dealing with it openly because the world isn't dealing with it openly. In the same way that the homosexual segment of society seems to currently want to deal with their 'difference' through the rampant use of drugs and sex, the two are figuring both 'what the hell, we're going to die, who gives a fuck' and 'what the hell, we're already on the fringe, who gives a fuck.' The film plays as an allegory for today's woes as well as yesterday's.

Moving on from yet ANOTHER queer themed rant, the film has a lot of resonance with a number of other filmmakers who were really making their names at around that time. The doses of abstract surrealism struck me as particularly Lynchian (coming off Blue Velvet a couple of years before, and running through Twin Peaks directly before this film), while the stylisation of many of the scenes reminded me strongly of the little I know of Hal Hartley, who was up with Simple Men at Cannes in 1992 and had hit up Sundance the year before with Trust. The idea of both of those seems often to be unsettle and distance the audience, allowing a perspective that can aid a suspension of disbelief to let the viewer deeper into the less believable elements of the narrative and characterisation, and Araki does use this to let you sympathise more with Luke and empathise more with Jon.

The Living End is a bold movie, wearing its heart and politics on its sleeve - the film is dedicated to 'the hundreds of thousands who've died and the hundreds of thousands who will die because of a big white house full of Republican fuckheads.' (The film was made through the reign of George Bush the First...) I'm oscillating between 3.5 and 4 stars, and I'm in a good mood today so let's go for 4 stars. For where it sits in the lexicon of profiled queer cinema, for it's courage, and for the fact that it's success allowed for Araki to continue making films, including the incredible Mysterious Skin, which we'll save for another day.

He came. He skated.

And then he shot himself.

Such is the beginning of Ken Park, Larry Clark's 2002 feature. I've been wanting to see Ken Park since the Office of Film & Literature Classification refused to give it a certificate for release in Australia, even stopping the Sydney Film Festival from screening the film (ordinarily, festivals have been given fairly free reign to screen whatever they want, especially the majors, presumably because they're not about to show blatant pornography.) The fiasco almost got the venerable Margaret Pomeranz arrested, after police shut down a highly publicised screening of the film she was involved with at, if my memory serves me, was at the Balmain Town Hall. (And here's a little article about the controversy...)

Again, if my memory serves me correctly, Ken Park was refused classification not because if contained actual sex (something that was quite controversial for a while in Australia, and saw much campaigning on both sides), but because the characters having this actual sex were under-age, even while the actors may not have been. The sex, however, is not particularly erotic - the first sex scene is a teenager performing cunnilingus on his girlfriend's mother, seems more educational to the young male. Ultimately, the entire film is about the home life of the teenagers, and the sex (of which, really, there isn't much of) is another facet of their immaturity and their growing up. None of the sex acts (until the final threesome scene) occurs without risk and danger involved - the risk of a parent, or a husband, or a lover walking in. The repercussions of these acts are often brutal and traumatic. In the end, three of the teenagers find happiness in uncomplicated sex with each other without the risk of discovery or judgement, and it's actually kind of beautiful.

Sex aside, the film is fine. It's not a spectacular work of cinematic genius or anything. It's just a film that kind of tries to muddle its way through the ideas of teenage isolation in a post-angst world, and, to some extent succeeds, though its success is somewhat flat, possibly because of the apathetic world of youth it takes place in. This isn't 1995, remember, when Clark made his debut with Kids, a searing work with much better commentary - probably because, right then, we're looking at the years before the internet when escape for teenagers was through music and the year before Kurt Cobain had dies. Possibly an overly simplistic take, but I think this is the world that Clark and writer Harmony Korine inhabit. Ken Park is set in the naughties - does anyone really care?

To this end, though, it does capture it. The character of Shawn doesn't overly care that he's carrying on an illicit affair with his girlfriend's MILF. The character of Peaches lies to her dad simply and keeps doing what she wants to do on the sly. Claude is probably the most dramatic, but he too takes the easy route out. So, yeah. It probably does capture that apathy. But that just makes it kind of hard to care.

Look, it was a decent film. I don't think it was tight enough, though it of course looked beautiful (with Ed Lachman lensing and co-directing, it would be disappointing if it didn't.) I'm going to give it a middling 2.5 stars, because I think it was that kind of film. The controversy, however, will keep it in the minds of Australian cinephiles for much longer - epic fail on the OFLC front.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Laramie Project

A little over eleven years ago Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. A 21 year old gay man, he was taken from a bar, beaten horribly and repeatedly, and left tied to a fence in the middle of the night, for no less than 18 hours in fact, before he was finally discovered. He lived a few more days in hospital before finally dying.

The murder, as it became, was international news. Around the States there were vigils for his survival. News crews swarmed Laramie as people took stock and came to terms with what happened - and, it seems, not so much with the fact that someone from their town had been so brutally murdered, but as much with the fact that the people who committed the atrocity were their neighbours.

The Laramie Project began life as a play. Director Moisés Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theatre Company went to Laramie and spent time collecting hundreds of hours of recordings, interviews with the members of the community, both those who knew Matthew (or Matt as he apparently always want to be known) and those who did not. They then turned these interviews into a play, documenting in their words the aftermath the atrocity forced upon the town. In turn, this became a movie along the same lines, also directed by Kaufman.

I've known the story of Matthew Shepard for years, since I was lead to it in university in line with something I was working on at the time. I was probably slightly too young to recognise the gravity of what was going on when it happened, but it is something that, since I discoverd it, has always drawn me back. There are few events in recent history that seem to have galvanised the queer community the same way Matthew Shepard (as an incident now, not a person) did. One thinks of Stonewall, forty years ago. All that portrayed in last year's Milk. Matthew Shepard falls in there. And then we end up with Proposition 8, and you realise how little progress has actually been made.

I found the film The Laramie Project extremely moving. I wish it had been a documentary, but I also recognise that it probably would have been impossible to get the people who told their stories to a cassette tape to say the same thing on video, especially with the same emotion, clarity, truthfulness and brevity. I think then that maybe it should have featured people less well known so that you weren't constantly going 'oh, there's Laura Linney. Oh, there's Peter Fonda. Oh there's Steve Buscemi.' And so on. But then by the end of it I didn't care about that. Structurally I do think it wasn't amazingly impressive, but then again I'm assuming with HBO behind it, especially back in 2002, it was a made-for-TV film, which I guess would work somewhat better - I don't know why, considering that I watched it on a small screen the same way I do so many films, but for some reason I always find watching something in the context of it being on Television, as opposed to on a television, makes it seem different. It seamlessly blends old news footage into the story, and also believably turns dramatised footage into news footage. And I found myself close to tears at many points throughout the film - from an archival snippet of Ellen saying she did what she did to try and stop things like Matthew Shepard happening, to such said-before queer melodrama as a local saying it made them so afraid because somewhere inside we all know that it could happen to us sometime. It all, in the end, worked.

Ultimately, I think my own closeness to the story makes it hard for me to judge the film based on its specific merits. Though maybe that means I should judge it amazingly effective, if it made me feel that the specifics of its construction and execution are irrelevant to my opinion.

All I keep coming back to is that this happened only marginally more than a decade ago. Since then there have been things to possibly signal a change may be in the air. Brokeback Mountain, to bring out a truly flogged horse, was a mammoth success - also a story set in Wyoming. (And such a bizarre coincidence that the original story by Annie Proulx was first published almost exactly a year before Shepard died.) Brokeback really, I think, broke a lot of ground, in terms of visibility, though my issues with the film remain - by setting it retrospectively it allows people the ability to say 'Sure, it was bad then, but we're not like that now' when we clearly are like that now. But that's a rant for another day. (Also worth noting - Good Machine, the production company behind the film, was co-founded by James Schamus, who produced Brokeback.)

Then again, Prop 8 was defeated. Gay marriage (or civil partnerships, whatever - don't get me started there either) is still illegal in my home country. Maybe The Laramie Project is much more relevant now that we'd like to think. I don't think Matthew Shepard died in vain, but I'm not entirely convinced what should have come of it has come it. And maybe that makes this film more important now than it was seven years ago when it was made, and this story more important now than when it was created eleven years ago.

I'm not going to rate this film out of five because that seems crass. And here's a link to the foundation founded by his parents.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

I'm Thirsty

Meanwhile, it's raining out, and as Channel 4 On Demand (or 4od to those in the know...) is my friend, I'm going to watch the latest episode of True Blood.

So there.

God Indeed

Yesterday evening, post nap and pre sleepy-sleep time, I took it upon myself to raid the DVD collection sitting in the living room and belonging to my housemate in the hope of finding something entertaining that might kill those couple of awake hours inevitable between bouts of rest. There were a number of titles that elicited a reaction, but ultimately that which won out was the incredible City Of God (or Cidade de Deus to all ye purists.)

It's a film I have seen before (once? Twice? Does it matter?) and remember from the first instant loving. The first Fernando Meirelles film I saw (and can somebody PLEASE tell me how to pronounce his last name - I'm quite sure I've spent the last seven years fucking it up in an almighty fashion) grabbed me by whatever was hanging loose and pulled me rudely. It's an incredible film, truly. I'm not making this up. The IMDb Top 250 ranks it at number 16 (where is the hash key on a British keyboard? It's taken me 9 months to realise I know where it is...), it was nominated for four Oscars (Director, Editing, Cinematography and Adapted Screenplay - why it didn't receive a Foreign Language nomination is baffling) and is one of those films everyone who has seen it seems to truly admire.

It's the story of the slums of Rio de Janeiro, the rise (and fall) of the leader Lil Zé, and the escape of eventual photographer Rocket, apparently based on true events. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes this story fantastic. The narrative timeline cuts around as Meirelles and writer Bráulio Mantovani tell different people's stories, all linked by an otherwise linear voiceover from the aforementioned Rocket - it's almost an exercise in stream of consciousness digression - but does not in any way jar or confuse the viewer. It's an expert manner of communicating the story, vastly different to that used by, say, Guillermo Arriaga in 21 Grams, which seems to want to alienate the viewer, and even his Amores Perros, where the three interlinking stories to not actually directly combine. The individual characters and storylines are strong independently, but also when interlinked. The performances (primarily from non-actors or unknown actors) and stunning, considering.

VIsually it is much more than a feast. It's a Heston Blumenthal feast. It's all of Heston Blumenthal's feasts, twice, with all of the hottest people in the wold serving you. Naked. The way the camera zooms quickly on shots; the way it is unafraid to focus on something otherwise not the focus of the shot; the colours and light; the way it neither raises up the slums and the City of God as an alternate paradise, nor degrades it so that pity the residents for its mere physicality (rather you pity them for the goings-on). Everything works. You even start to admire the trigger-happy Lil Zé (like, seriously, trigger-happy. No first person computer combat game can match the trigger-happiness of Lil Zé) for the control he manages to exert.

I don't know how I can even go on praising this film. It is, pure and simple, one of the best films I've ever seen. Even though I don't think I'd seen it in the better part of six years, it was still a film that I would frequently rattle off as very high on my list. Now, I think, it shall be one of the first films that I rattle off, rather than one I tack onto the end.

5 stars. I want to give it 6, but I think that would just make my whole rating system farcical. And I think it's too early on to start doing that to myself.

GO AND SEE IT!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A Little Slower In Love

I just kicked on over to the iTunes Store (which involved me finally updating my details to reflect that I live in the UK now - wham. Only 9 months late...) and FINALLY bought Antony & The Johnsons version of Crazy In Love, which is awesome and incredible and awesome and incredible. I love it like I love your mother. Seriously. And I do love her. (YouTube the song. I'm sure there's a good live clip out there somewhere, but I can't remember where and all that I can find are pretty crap, really, so I don't have a strong desire to link to them.)

Whilst I was over there I thought I'd send those crazy kids at Warner Bros some early love as a THANK YOU for not releasing Where The Wild Things Are yet in the UK. (An earlier rant on said delay can be found at the end of here, should you feel an urge to feel more wrath today.) So I also paid 99p (as opposed to 79p for Crazy In Love - wtf?) for Karen O's All Is Love, from the film, and something a lot of people are calling a Best Original Song hopeful - we'll see. I remain to be convinced. I like the song, but I don't think it has what the Academy wants.

That is all. Check out Crazy In Love and you can hear All Is Love in its entirety on the WB For Your Consideration site - just click on the Wild Things poster and make sure the sound is on. Too. Easy. And don't forget: illegal downloading is wrong and bad. Truly. Pay the fucking pennies to download it legally. Or I'll be there in your room while you sleep with a knife and three garbage bags, because that is how many my mental arithmetic tells me will be needed to stuff in your bloated bits, you fat bastard. (Joking of course... haha... haha... ha.)

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Ask Angela Lansbury

I have literally just walked in the door from seeing The Men Who Stare At Goats. For some reason I was quite looking forward to this film. I don't know why, it might have simply been the ridiculousness of the title. The cast is pretty good (Clooney, Bridges, Spacey, McGregor) and it's a pretty cool name for anything.

I'm quite gobsmacked by it. Either something went waaaaay over my head, or everyone involved with it was drinking water spiked with acid (that's an in joke you'll get if you see it... and that's not something I'd really recommend.)

Ewan McGregor plays a journalist who is posted to write a story on a local man claiming he was part of a secret US military division who were developing superpowers - as in, we can walk through walls and predict things, rather than Russia and the USA during the Cold War. After his marriage breakdown he goes to Iraq to try and prove himself a man and rather fortuitously happens across George Clooney in a bar, who was once a part of this division. We learn through McGregor retelling what Clooney told him about the history of the corp, the people involved (Jeff Bridges founded it, Kevin Spacey undermined it), and the ultimate downfall of the unit. But in Iraq some strange things happen and maybe McGregor starts to believe...

It actually starts out all right. It all seems very far-fetched, but as McGregor's character (and what is with his accent? It's fine for a lot of it, but, particularly at the beginning, it falters quite noticeably quite a few times) warms to it so do we. But it does completely lost the plot. I'm not sure whether it was trying for some sort of I Heart Huckabees existential commentary, an anti-war film, a pro-war film, a supernatural film... whatever it was trying for, it completely missed. It's a mess, especially towards the end (and the ending - WTF? Seriously. W. T. F.), though it does look quite good. Clooney also produced, so one must assume that he saw something in it that tickled his funny bone (and there are some funny parts, with the funniest being the line marking the title of this entry) and now has enough might to pull together the US$25mil to make it. Director Grant Heslov is a dual Oscar nominee for his writing and producing credits on Good Night, And Good Luck, but he also has over 60 credits on IMDb as an actor. This is his debut feature as director, and possibly having the writer of How To Lost Friends And Alienate People as the adaptor of this novel didn't help matters. I think the script needed some serious work, especially that ending. I'm not going to go into too many details, but seriously. Seriously.

I don't know how many stars to give this film. It was so diabolical as to get one, but two seems a little generous, so I'm going to run with 1.5 Stars. I rate out of five. So that a 30% score. Head out and see it, however, if it sounds interesting, because I'd definitely be interested to know if I just missed something amazingly important somehow. It has boggled my mind.

Bright Star Again

I was reading over at In Contention about how some reviewers have been singling out Paul Schneider for his supporting work in Bright Star, and I realised I had completely missed discussing his work in my write up yesterday.

I think his performance was good, playing the best friend of Keats who supports him through so much and then lets him down right at the end, if not a little histrionic. Whilst his temperament for the most part reflected and heightened the mischievousness aspects of Whishaw's performance, there were a few moments that did leave me wondering if he weren't overdoing it.

Basically, if we're discussing it on the basis of his hope for an Oscar nod (which is what In Contention is all about) then I think he will only pull through if the rest of the film pulls through in a fairly big way (I'm talking film, director, everything.) He needs to ride groundswell, and I just don't feel there is enough there behind the film to carry him through.

Meanwhile, hopefully today I'm going to see An Education. Here's hoping.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Bright Star

So, I was going to go and see An Education this evening, but was distracted and missed it, and took myself instead to see Bright Star. I wasn't entirely convinced this would be a good idea - I was quite tired and I thought a period drama, no matter how good, may have put me to sleep. I was proven wrong, however.

Jane Campion's latest, her first feature since 2003's In The Cut, bore some semblance in the striking cinematography from Greig Fraser, a relative newcomer of considerable talent (this is only his third feature after The Caterpillar Wish, where I first noticed him, and Out of the Blue, both 2006 titles.) While his lensing has strong similarities to that of the similarly exceptional Dion Beebe (and I shall note that they are both from Down Under) in its use of focus, his work on this film is simply stunning, letting the design, story and acting speak for itself when it needs to, but adding a certain beauty to lift all elements beyond their own individual merit and into something particularly stunning. His work in this film deserves to be noted - as always, from his shorts (which I'm more familiar with), he tends to make me wet in places one shouldn't talk about publicly.

Abbie Cornish is someone I've always found to be a strange one. Something about her eyes makes me not trust her, and there were a number of points in the film where this rang true. She does, however, shine and shine strongly in many points throughout the story, which is indeed one of simplicity, beauty and tragedy, something you might expect. It is the story, ostensibly, of Cornish's character Fanny Brawne, and her relationship with the young John Keats in the lead up to his untimely death at the age of 25, a period when he was writing to no acclaim or fortune, despite the esteem in which he is held now. Of course, love conquers his poverty and all social obstacles standing in the way (including the rubber-armed Kerry Fox as Fanny's very abiding mother, a good performance though I was not entirely enamoured with her accent.) Their love cannot, however, conquer the illness that eventually proves Keats' downfall.

Whishaw's portrayal, which is not really being spoken of, is one that I found quite disarming, not to mention surprising. He brought a graceful levity to the intensity of the poet with quite simple movements and actions - a cheeky, flirty glance up here, a simple fleeting smile there. His humour resonated and lifted the entire film, without it ever feeling like he was trying to bring down the stakes that propelled the story. Fun-loving, loyal, but ultimately a romantic, Keats' poetry felt entirely real and natural coming out of his mouth. While I understand that my reservations about Cornish may be mine alone, and are not limited to this film, Whishaw, for me, was the brightest star (oh yes I did.) Though it should be noted that the two did play off each other perfectly - while I feel he was the character I was more drawn to, he never overplayed Cornish, and I can't imagine the one without the other.

While these elements, with the total design of the piece, were generally perfect, I did struggle with some aspects of the handling of the narrative, with some of the beats in the film and general direction. There were occasional jarring transitions, and moments that I think could have been handled better. So it was definitely not Campion's best work (her oeuvre includes The Piano, after all), but all in all a fine film. The final scene was understatedly powerful, and Keats' words over the closing credits kept everyone in their seats, and I must say that I feel it is worth the film if only for that, though there is a lot more to find in the two hours preceding.

Another? Already?

So, having scoured the Times and the Telegraph's 100 films of this decade (the Times' was their 100 best, and the Telegraph's was the 100 defining movies, whether or not they were the best) I now have a list of 59 films to either watch for the first time, or watch again because it has reminded me that I liked them/was undecided on them/must have missed something with them.

For your viewing pleasure, they are as follows. If anyone knows of any I should definitely miss or definitely see, or any other additions to the aforementioned lists that may be of interest, please let me know. (These are in alphabetical order, and there are various accents etc missing from people's names because I just can't be arsed. Don't take it personally, but it's a lot of effort to go through that process. And I'm tired.)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - Cristian Mungiu

Amores Perros - Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

An Inconvenient Truth - Davis Guggenheim
Antichrist - Lars von Trier
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner - Zacharias Kunuk
Atonement - Joe Wright
Battle Royale - Kinji Fukasaku

Borat - Larry Charles

Capote - Bennett Miller

Children of Men - Alfonso Cuaron


City of God - Fernando Meirelles

Etre et Avoir - Nicolas Philibert
Gommorah - Matteo Garrone

Hidden - Michael Haneke

Hotel Rwanda - Terry George
House of Flying Daggers - Zhang Yimou
Hunger - Steve McQueen

In The Loop - Armando Iannucci


In The Mood For Love - Wong kar Wai

In This World - Michael Winterbottom
Irag In Fragments - James Longley
Lagaan - Ashutosh Gowariker
Le Grand Voyage - Ismael Ferroukhi

Let The Right One In - Tomas Alfredson

Man On Wire - James Marsh

Me, You and Everyone We Know - Miranda July


Memento - Christopher Nolan

Michael Clayton - Tony Gilroy
Monsoon Wedding - Mira Nair
Moolaade - Ousmane Sembene
Munich - Steven Spielberg
Oldboy - Park Chan-wook
Russian Ark - Aleksander Sokurov
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance - Park Chan-wook
Syriana - Stephen Gaghan

Talk To Her - Pedro Almodovar

The Brown Bunny - Vincent Gallo

The Child - The Dardenne Brothers

The Class - Laurent Cantet
The Consequences of Love - Paolo Sorrentino
The Gleaners and I - Agnes Varda

The Hurt Locker - Kathryn Bigelow

The Orphanage - Juan Antonio Bayona

The Queen - Stephen Frears


The Royal Tennenbaums - Wes Anderson

The Son’s Room - Nanni Moretti
The Squid and the Whale - Noah Baumbach

This Is England - Shane Meadows

Time and Winds - Reha Erdem

Together - Lukas Moodysson

Touching The Void - Kevin Macdonald
Tropical Malady - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Under The Sand - Francois Ozon
United 93 - Paul Greengrass
Uzak - Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Wall-E - Andrew Stanton
Waltz With Bashir - Ari Folman
Yi Yi: A One and a Two - Edward Yang

Let's cut to the chase, shall we? Yes. Let's.

This may end up being a little long, but we're all grown-ups.

It's the beginning of November. In the States this signifies the beginning of the Oscar season, in real and expensive terms. I thought I might just run my mouth off a little about what I think sits where in terms of this particular awards ceremony, in order that those participating in workplace sweeps and the like can start their planning. I'm only going to go over some of the major categories right now, because... that's what I'm going to do. It's worth bearing in mind that, due to my lack of media pass and living on the other side of the Atlantic, I haven't actually seen many of these movies yet. This is all based on what is being said in various forms from around the world. And I'm going to link to a trailer wherever I can. Because trailers are pretty.

First up, let's kick off with some supporting players, shall we?

Best Supporting Actress

The only name that really rings in this category right now is Mo'Nique for the cumbersomely titled Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire. She's been hot favourite for this category literally all year, since she snaffled a Special Jury Prize for her performance at Sundance. From what I've been hearing, every single notice for this film is ranting and raving to the high heavens about her performance. There has been talk lately of the fact that she's not doing any promotion for the film, which traditionally has hurt people in a campaigning sense, and there have been whispers of diva-style antics. But fuck it. If the performance is even half as good as what I'm expecting, she'll be a shoe-in. I think this film is actually going to be hard to kill in a backlash, and she along with it, but we'll get to that. At the moment, I'm putting her as the actress to beat. And that's probably going to be an impossible feat.

Also-rans would include Julianne Moore for her role in Tom Ford's debut A Single Man; any one of all the girls in Rob Marshall's Nine, though my personal hopeful is Judi Dench because she is actually my god; and Maggie Gyllenhaal (be still my beating heart) for Crazy Heart now that it is getting a release. Some people are bigging up Anna Kendrick for Up In The Air, but I'll get to that film later.

Best Supporting Actor

I'm throwing Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds and Matt Damon for the unseen (by anyone) Invictus at the top of my list. Waltz for obvious reasons. Everyone's talking about this performance, and have been for months. He's not as strong a lock as Mo'Nique in her respective category, but he's still probably the one to beat. Damon... look, I've never been a major Matt Damon fan. But there's something about him this year, the props he's getting for this (where I think, if the film turns out all right, should at least net him a nom) and that he received for The Informant!, which actually bombed a little at the box office and will probably not pan out to a second lead actor nod (after that which he received for Good Will Hunting back in the day.) This is a film by Clint Eastwood, about a major recent historical figure, with allegorical ties to the current American administration (both black, both reconciling a country, both trying to make up for past wrongs etc) with Morgan Freeman in the lead - I think it will be a formidable contender, and the trailer looks fantastic.

Also-rans: Christopher Plummer for The Last Station (why can't I find a trailer! Waaah!), which I'm not really feeling, especially since it feels a little like category fraud, though that didn't stop the Winslet win last year. Not that I'm complaining about Kate Winslet winning - I think she's incredible. But still. Where were we? Oh yes. Anthony Mackie for The Hurt Locker because I don't think anything can kill that film and he'll pull through with ground support.

Best Actress

This category is a little all over the place. Gabourey Sidibe is hot right now for Precious, but I think she will have to content herself with a nomination. Come on - she's a non-actor who, granted, may be pulling off a stunning turn, but until people actually know that she can indeed act in anything else, they're not going to give her a naked gold man to play with. Carey Mulligan is running hot for An Education, but she's very young... Helen Mirren is getting attention for the aforementioned The Last Station, but she just won one and this isn't The Queen. People are talking Meryl (of course) for It's Complicated or Julie & Julia, htough probably the former. There is also still lingering sentiment for Abbie Cornish for Bright Star. None of these, however, are slam dunks. I think Mulligan and Sidibe can count themselves in for a nod, but that's about it. I'm not willing to speculate any further until I've seen some more.

Best Actor

It kind of looks same-old, same-old in here, a kind of Best Of of the last forty years. With Crazy Heart being pushed into this season, Jeff Bridges seems to have overnight solidified himself as the front runner, almost four decades after his first nomination. He's never won the man, so I'll pay it. Plus, his performance is meant to be extraordinary, meaning he can get this deservedly and not be forever talked about like Michael Caine - a career-achievement award wearing the plaque of a Best Performance award. He looks set to beat Colin Firth for A Single Man, for which he won the Volpi Cup in Venice and has been receiving a lot of notice for. George Clooney is looking like a nominee again for Up In The Air - who would have thought he'd be such an Oscar darling when we were drooling over him on E.R.? I think Daniel Day Lewis may make a showing with Nine, Morgan Freeman may turn up with Invictus, Damon may turn up with The Informant!, I think Jeremy Renner will turn up with The Hurt Locker. This is a mighty strong category this year, with a lot of product still to come. I think it's Bridges' trophy to lose at the moment, however.

Best Director

This year has been touted as the year of the woman in film. Kathryn Bigelow is hot here for The Hurt Locker. Jane Campion has cooled somewhat but is still a possibility for Bright Star, though not a strong one. Lone Scherfig is looking likely for An Education. So that's three, which is a fair number. Lee Daniels has to be thought of for Precious, but it actually wouldn't surprise me if he didn't get it. There's a bit of a backlash against him personally for kind of taking the credit for the direction of Monster's Ball (which he produced) and for just generally appearing to think that he is god. So he might drop out of the race, probably controversially. I don't think you can count James Cameron out for Avatar. If the film is actually any good, I think it will redefine a number of these categories. And obviously Clint Eastwood for Invictus. If Eastwood is working, he'll get nominated these days. There are a number of other strong contenders, but I think it will look like being amongst these people at the moment, with one or two being replaced by any number of others. So let's leave it at this until it clears up, shall we? Yes. Lets.

Best Picture

This is the biggie, and now the hardest to make any sort of call in, as they have widened it to ten nominees. I'm just going to run through a few that I think will be in, and maybe a couple of others.

Precious is a gimme. Seriously. If this film doesn't end up in contention I'll buy a hat, and then eat it. (Please note that I reserve the right to not actually buy a hat, or eat it. But I don't think it will come to that.) It's the only film to ever win the Audience Award at Sundance and Toronto. It's an Important Film. It's a black film. It's backed by Oprah. It is receiving kudos from around the world. And it opened over the weekend to an estimated USD$100,000 per screen on 18 screens, the highest screen average for any film playing on over 6 screens, ever. This film is going to be big. While most people whose opinions I've heard say that it's a hard slog of a film, and that going into second viewings they have trepidation, winning those two big audience awards says that, difficult though it may be, it is pushing buttons with viewers.

The Hurt Locker is more than likely going to hit home here. Most critics are calling it the film of the year. It is at a disadvantage because it was an early release, though it is not unprecedented for a film to hit cinemas in the States early and go on to major glory - just look at The Silence of the Lambs. I don't think it will manage to trump any major awards, really, but I think it will heavily feature.

Up In The Air will probably feature. I don't know what I'm thinking about this film. I think the widening of the field to ten nominees will pretty much assure it a place, but there's something about the trailer... it all looks to easy. People are loving it from festival appearances, and Clooney is on the campaign trail and well liked so that won't hurt its chances, but for me, he kind of looks like George Clooney in it. There must be something bubbling under the surface, but it's just not ringing with me. I liked Jason Reitman's Thank You For Smoking as a debut, I really liked Juno as an entertaining piece of cinema, and this is meant to be much bigger, better, deeper, metaphorical, all that stuff without doing away with the entertainment aspect. People have been comparing Reitman prematurely to someone like Billy Wilder. The must be something to this film, but I'm just not gagging for it like so many others seem to be. It looks like the kind of film I'll go and see, really enjoy, and then forget about when it comes to crafting a best of 2009 list. This is totally judging a book by its cover, but there you go. That's my feeling. If there is going to be one major upset this year, it wouldn't surprise me if this is it. I don't think it will be, however. I think it's a nominee lock in this category. But don't expect it to be lifting the trophy.

Invictus. It's Clint Eastwood. It's Morgan Freeman. It's political. It's everything they want it to be. Unless the film is a pile of crap, expect it to show up here. If it's good, I'd even be calling it a shot at a Precious upset. There's really not much more to say about this one.

Up is going to be the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. Deal with it. It won't win, but there you go.

Avatar - it's too early to call for sure. But, like I said earlier, you can't count Cameron out of the race. Remember Titanic? The movie we all love to slag off? It's still one of the highest grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation, it's still one of only three films to win 11 Oscars. He's a powerhouse of blockbusters, and the Academy will want to show that they appreciated diversity, even if it means saying hello to a major CGI film from the director of Terminator. This is groundbreaking stuff. If the film works thematically, expect it to be here.

Nine? Maybe. It'll depend on how it plays. A Serious Man? I'm not an enormous fan of the Coen Brothers, but a lot of people are. It could show up here. It's not going to pull a No Country For Old Men, however. The Lovely Bones? Again, don't count Peter Jackson out, but it is WAY too early to tell. Anticipation runs from white hot to totally cold. An Education will probably pull through because of the bigger list. But really, I think the major contenders here are Precious, The Hurt Locker, probably Up In The Air, probably Invictus, and that's about it.

I know I haven't seen it yet, and I am totally aware of the lukewarm critical and commercial receipt it is getting, but I really want to call Where The Wild Things Are a contender. It's easily my most anticipated film of the year. And if that isn't just one of the best trailers ever... But I don't think it will be. I'm DYING to see it, and I can't believe I have to wait another MONTH to see it when it has been out for WEEKS in the States and it is a HIGHLY ANTICIPATED MOVIE that they really should be releasing DAY AND DATE across the globe. But there you go.

So they're my major thoughts right now. It will of course change over time, and I'll probably update bit by bit as I get around to seeing the films mentioned. But it's a bit of an overview of what you should be watching out for should you be interested in all this jazz.