Thursday, 10 June 2010

No Time For The Ol' In-Out, Love, I've Just Come To Read The Meter.

Many people still believe that A Clockwork Orange was in fact banned in the UK until 2000, but that isn't the case. It was released in early 1972, but withdrawn from distribution in 1973 by Stanley Kubrick, with him vowing it wouldn't be released until after his death. Apparently this is due to a number of death threats relating to the film that he and his family received - not surprising, really, considering the subject matter.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of his pack of 'droogs', a gang of violent social miscreants whose primary past-times involved getting high on milk-plus and engaging in a little of the in-out and ultra-violence. In the near future they wander the streets of London with little to fear, armed with simple weapons but incredible passion and enormous belief in their own superiority. Upon returning home, Alex will abuse his parents, engage in threesomes, and get himself motivated with some Ludwig van blaring through his state-of-the-art sound system.

Eventually, Alex gets nabbed by the police. After a couple of years and attempts to curry favour by getting close to the prison chaplain, a volunteer is requested for a new, experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique, and with the promise of being released in a matter of weeks, Alex puts his hand up. The therapy involved being straightjacketed in front of a screen, with his eyes being held open whilst horrible scenes are played to soundtracks while drugs are given to him to create a sickened reaction. Similar to the Pavlovian experiments, where dogs could be trained to salivate at the sound of a bell, Alex is being conditioned to have a physical reaction to acts of violence or sexual arousement. It also has the unfortunate side effect of conditioning him to be repulsed by Beethoven.

After his treatment he is pronounced as cured, though the prison chaplain protests that he has lost any free will he might otherwise have had. This point is all to quickly realised in the outside world when Alex comes across two of his former droogs, who are now police officers and therefore superior to their once abusive leader. The take Alex out to the country and set upon him, with Alex not only unable to fight back, but ill simply at the blows landing upon his body. His two former droogs finally release him, almost dead, and he crawls to the house of a man he assaulted some years before, who doesn't immediately recognise him. When he does realise who Alex is, however, he locks him in a room on the upper floor of his and begins to play Beethoven downstairs at high volume with the speakers pointed to the ceiling. Alex cannot take it and attempts suicide by throwing himself out of the window.

In hospital, in traction, the Minister of the Interior comes to Alex and apologises for their inhumane treatment, and Alex realises that his treatment has been reversed. As a sign of regret Alex is offered an important government job... but is it really a good idea?

McDowell is iconic in this role. He would never really go on to do anything approaching this again. The fact that, almost forty years down the track, he is still recognised for this role speaks volumes as to how well he got into the skin of this character. Patrick Magee has a supporting role as the man in the country initially assaulted by Alex who then drives him to suicide, heightening his performance to match the extreme nature of the film. Kubrick of course is Kubrick, fastidious Kubrick, incredible Kubrick. You can see and feel him in every scene, every shot, every line delivery. The look of the production, deisgned by John Barry, was beautiful, incorporating many artworks from Kubrick's current wife Christiane, and it was all captured beautifully once again by John Alcott. Kubrick again received three Oscar nominations for the film, for Picture, Director and Screenplay adapted from Anthony Burgess' source material. In addition Bill Butler received notice for his editing.

Violent, shocking, yes. But an incredible and everlasting piece of cinema as well. Sickening, maybe. But it goes far beyond sickening. The film is not sanctioning violence through Alex's actions, the effects of what he does are all too surely displayed. But curing violence is maybe not the answer. It may not even be possible. Removing the perpetrators ability to choose, crushing his own power to like or dislike, is only going to open him up to subsequent victimisation. Lock him away, sure, but rehabilitation can be a slippery slope. 5 stars.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Kiss Me, Boy, For We'll Never Meet Again.

Stanley Kubrick was nominated for three Academy Awards in one night on four separate occasions, winning only once for Best Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the other three occasions he went home empty handed, and on each of those occasions he was nominated in the categories of Best Script, Best Director and Best Picture. That's a pretty impressive nomination achievement, and a scandal that he never picked up on statue on those nights for one of his primary roles in filmmaking. Especially as he is such a groundbreaking and revered filmmaker.

The first of these three brilliant (yet unrewarded) trifectas was for his black and white Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. The second was for his controversial A Clockwork Orange (which I just remembered I watched a while ago and haven't written up - scandal! It'll have to come next.) His last triple nomination was for his epic period piece Barry Lyndon, which is the film we are all here to discuss today. (He did receive a final nomination for his last war film Full Metal Jacket in the Screenplay category, but still, empty handed.)

Where to start with Barry Lyndon? It's a good three hours long. It has the biggest aperture used in film history, utilising a lens developed for NASA to use with the Apollo missions to the moon. Any scenes where candles were meant to light the set were shot using only candlelight (hence the revolutionary lenses.) Many of the costumes were actual period pieces, bought at auction. Production had to be shifted from Ireland to England after Kubrick received work that his name was on an IRA hitlist for shooting a film in Ireland featuring English soldiers. The shoot went for 300 days. It was truly epic in so many ways.

Ryan O'Neal plays the eponymous character, who begins the story as lowly Redmond Barry, the son of an Irishman killed in a duel related to an argument about horses. As he grows up his mother refuses to marry, instead doting upon Redmond, who in turn falls in love with his cousin. Unfortunately, she is torn between Redmond and an army captain, who will bring fortune into the family. Redmond is discouraged from destroying their chance at wealth, but is angered and challenges the captain to a duel, believing he has killed the captain and subsequently fleeing for Dublin with the only money his mother has managed to squirrel away - twenty guineas. In fact, the captain has not died, as the fight was rigged. However, shortly after leaving Redmond is robbed by highwaymen of his money and horses, and is forced to walk the five miles to the next town.

Broke, horseless and still on the run, Redmond signs up with the British army, his only resort for survival. Whilst enlisted he is sent to Europe to fight in the Seven Years War, where he comes across a family friend, another captain in the English army who informs him of the rigged duel. The latter captain is shortly killed, leaving Redmond all the money he has, and Redmond soon deserts, impersonating a courier. He is, however, discovered by the Prussian army, and forced to either join their ranks or be tried as a deserter. He joins them and manages to save a Prussian captain's life. So, at the end of the war, he is offered a job working for the Prussian Minister of Police, the captain's uncle. There he is charged with infiltrating the confidence of one Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), a fellow Irishman whom the Prussians suspect of being a spy. They want Redmond to uncover his spying, but once in his employ his cover collapses due to his joy of being near a fellow countryman and the two end up working together. Ultimately they are forced to flee, and begin to travel Europe as professional gamblers, cheating the whole way.

Whilst on this jaunt they come across Sir Charles Lyndon and his wife, the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson.) Redmond sees in the Countess an opportunity for him to gain status and wealth, and when Sir Charles dies he is quick to marry her, assuming the title of Barry Lyndon. Sir Charles and the Countess have a young son, Lord Bullingdon, who does not approve of the marriage, but Barry and his new wife soon add a new child, Bryan. The marriage is not happy, however, and Barry's mother soon joins them and begins to worry about Barry's future - if the Countess dies, everything will go to Lord Bullingdon unless Barry can secure himself some true status of his own. He goes about lavishing money around to entertain persons of interest in the hope of currying favour and gaining a Lordship of his own, but after a very public confrontation with a now older Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), he falls steeply out of favour. Bullingdon has meanwhile left the family home. Bryan is thrown from a horse and dies, seeing Barry turn to drink and the Countess turn to religion, with Barry's mother taking over the management of the vastly reduced estate and firing the Reverend who has been the Countess' solace and the tutor for both Lord Bullingdon and subsequently Bryan. Upon hearing of this, Bullingdon returns and challenges Barry to the famous duel that occurs towards the end of the film, managing to wound Barry and seeing him lose a leg. Whilst Barry is recuperating, Bullingdon takes control of the estate and offers Barry an annuity of 500 guineas is he promises to leave England and never return, otherwise his creditors will soon be upon him and he will end up in jail. Barry accepts and returns to his previous life as a gambler, only with much less success - he never sees his wife again.

That's the general gist of the story. Actually, I think that fairly well runs through the plot, but my god it is damn hard trying to cut that down into a bite-sized synopsis. It is a wonderful and slow story, not told with any rush but, in Kubrick's manner, without really anything within it that doesn't add to everything else. O'Neal in the lead does very well, keeping his character together perfectly, giving him a cavalier attitude that accepts most of what comes to him with a certain stoicism that really makes you like him. The supporting roles are fantastic, particularly the large one taken on by Magee.

The noted costumes (which won an Oscar) are perfect, but this film is all about Kubrick and the Oscar-winning cinematography from John Alcott. Little can be said about Kubrick and his style that hasn't been said before, but the photography is brilliant. Inspired by certain artists of the time, the picture really does take on the form. The muted colours and broad external expanses and stunning, and when matched with the candlelit interiors that truly transport you into the world of the Lyndons and Barrys. The trickiness of shooting in such low light with such a huge aperture and the miniscule focal length that provides is never really a problem - despite what I'm sure must be extremely finicky direction and blocking to ensure that the action remains as much in focus as is possible (why does the focus puller not get an Oscar?), the action plays out tremendously naturally. Of course, much of it is seated, as one expects in period pieces of this time, but there never really seems to be a soft focus issue. (I'm sure if there was, Kubrick simply would have retaken and retaken until the problem no longer showed... driving many a person crazy in the process.)

It's a masterpiece, through and through. It is compelling throughout, beautiful to look at and perfectly paced. I'd put off watching it because, quite frankly, it always appeared to be kind of boring, but boring it most definitely is not. I will definitely have to reassess how I arrange my Kubricks in order of preference now (an almost impossible task in and of itself.) 5 stars.

We're In A Bit Of A Decadent Spiral, Aren't We?

To Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers getting it, we say yes.


Todd Haynes has a way of putting together exciting combinations. Firstly (well, chronologically speaking, in terms of this blog...) he gave us Patricia Clarkson and Julianne Moore in the same film with Far From Heaven. With Velvet Goldmine he's decided to throw McGregor, Rhys Meyers and Toni Collette together for a glam rock faux-biopic. Sure, Christian Bale plays a prominent role (I do think it interesting that Bale, the American, plays a Brit while McGregor, the Brit [or Scot, whatever] plays an American), but I actually didn't mind him in the film, for the first time in my Bale-watching experience.

Bale takes the central role of Arthur Stuart, a Brit living in the States working as a journalist, tasked with writing an article trying to find out whatever happened to glam rocker Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers), aka Maxwell Demon, ten years after he faked his own death on stage, a stunt that ended his career and led to him gradually fading from the spotlight. Arthur, who hides from his colleagues that he wasn't only a follower of the period, but that he was in fact at the concert in question, and had even partied with the musicians involved with the movement (in more ways than one, if you get my point, wink wink nudge nudge), wanders around interviewing various interested parties, from Slade's old manager to his ex-wife Mandy (Collette.) Through these interviews, combined with Arthur's memories of the time, we piece together Slade's rise from complete obscurity, track his influences, including Curt Wild (McGregor), and then enter his megalomaniacal and self-destructive latter stage, leading to his ultimate downfall as the ultimate icon of the times.

The film is a very thinly veiled take on the life of David Bowie, hence the title. It explores the free-wheeling sexuality of the time and the public response to it, as well as the overriding power of the pop icon - combined with the freedoms of the 60s, suddenly the idea of rock stars as role models is somewhat dissolved, being replaced by the notion that, as they are larger than life, they can do what they want without repercussion. Of course, this is what leads to the outrage at Slade after his stunt - by tampering with the emotions and the obsessions of his fanbase when he tries to fool themselves that he is dead, he instead turns them into a mob baying for his blood when it is revealed to be a hoax. Imagine Michael Jackson suddenly popping up and saying 'hey, just kidding!' There would be outrage from the majority, not relief. That is what is happening here. Sure, the decadent spiral is fun for a while, but in the end everyone has to get off, or else they will end up drinking beers alone in a seedy bar somewhere, much like what happens to Curt Wild. Or you're crying into a glass of something like Mandy. When enough is enough, you have to say so. No one needs another Lindsay Lohan.

Haynes pulls together a great cast, for many of them a few years before they would really get a great deal of international notice, and works them together well. It's not a flawless feature, but it is a solid mix of fun and dramatics, happiness and sadness, glamourousness and seriousness. How accurate an insight into the era I can't say, knowing very little about it, but it is at the very least an interesting escape exercise for those not in the know. And I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Christian Bale. He is shy for the most part, reserved, scared even, but there is a moment when he is lying outside half naked with Slade and Wild when he smiles and it is beautiful. McGregor is ok, but I think a lot of it for me always has to do with his accents - I don't think he ever quite manages to pull them off as well as we would like. Collette as well isn't at her peak - she just doesn't seem totally involved during the more emotional segments, and her brash American through the party years grates rather than endears. Rhys Meyers was definitely my standout, bringing brooding insecurity into incredible ego easily and gorgeously. He owns his Maxwell Demon character, brings it to glorious life.

Sandy Powell deservedly picked up her third Oscar nomination for the film, in the same year that she won her first for Shakespeare In Love. Haynes picked up a special Artistic Contribution award at Cannes, and was also nominated for the Palme d'Or, while uber-producer in the indie world Christine Vachon racked up her second Independent Spirit nomination with Haynes for Best Feature.

As I said, it's a fun film with faults, but it's definitely a nice way to kill an afternoon. The soundtrack is fantastic also - we love our films with kicking music. Check it out. 3.5 stars.

My Lips Are Pale Blue.

So, this one may be cheating a little, but I watched it, and I'm scrambling to make up some films, so we're all just going to have to deal with it, ok? Good. Besides, I've watched so many three hours films, that I'm sure the fact that this one doesn't quite scrape through to feature length shouldn't worry anyone. Well, it doesn't worry me. And at the end of the day, I'm only cheating myself, non?

Marry me. Immediately.

Go Quiet is the film on the bonus disc of Jónsi's limited edition release of his recent solo record Go. (Everyone should know by now that Jónsi is the lead singer of Sigur Rós.) Directed by the same man behind the band's 2007 film Heima (a beautiful documentary about a series of free concerts the boys gave in Iceland as a way of giving back to the island), Dean DeBlois (who apparently also directs films about training dragons, but that's just by the by),  Go Quiet features much of the same beautiful slow motion photography creating a sense of place rather than of story. The concept behind the film is that Jónsi wakes up alone in his messed up house after hosting a New Year's Eve party and retraces the night as he performs his songs acoustically and alone.

The album, as we know, is glorious. I was a little afraid, but it is truly terrific (bolstered by the incredible live show I saw last month - it was truly something special and would rate as one of the best live gigs I've been to.) And watching the truest love of my life, my ultimate future husband, number one of my list wandering his house barefoot, picking up instruments and singing so mournfully was breathtaking. Yes, I'm horribly biased, but there you have it. Take it or leave it.

If you're not a fan, it's still a very pretty film. As a film itself, it's not too bad. The narrative intent isn't strong enough, so it plays more as simply a live DVD - not a concert per se, but someone in their living room belting out some tunes. Were it not for the photography, it kind of could have been on YouTube. Not meaning to denigrate it, but there wasn't that much more to it.

So, it's a 3.5 star film. You can get it on its own, fear not, but it's pretty in the limited edition if you can get it. Plus, the album is terrific. Worth the buy.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

I'm Like My Mother. I Stereotype. It's Faster.

Ah, finally we're getting closer to today.

Up In The Air was the only major contender from last year's Oscar race the I didn't see (well, major in a sense. I have no desire to watch The Blind Side, for example. Besides, Up In The Air was nominated for a hell of a lot more Oscars than the Bullock helmer.) I spotted it a couple of weeks back and thought, what the hell. It looked like a nice easy-watching film to ease myself back into things post parental departure. So I grabbed it, and I was right.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney - no relation to the Oscar winning composer behind The Weary Kind - funny they both turned up at the same Oscars ceremony, hey?) is employed by a company that contracts out its services to companies too afraid or kind hearted or whatever to fire their own employees. Basically, Ryan flies around the United States firing people for a living. He sits across the table from them, tells them that they're fired, and then doesn't take any of their anguish home with him because he doesn't know them - their pain doesn't affect him on an emotional level because he has no connection with them outside of that office. Thinking about it, it actually starts to make sense in a twisted way. I don't want to be told that I have lost my job by anyone, but it doesn't really make a difference if that initial news comes from my actual employer or someone they have contracted in. The initial shock and upset is the same, so one may as well spare the employer from having to deal with it. I can always question my boss later and find out why, once the shock and anger has calmed a little, and it becomes true curiosity driving my questioning, rather than a quest to prove my boss wrong.

But I digress. Ryan. Fires people for a living. He is constantly in the air, has no close family, no friends. He has so many frequent flier miles it hurts. On one of these trips he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), someone in the same position as him - always on the road (or, ba-doom, up in the air), and the two begin a complex, schedule-defying affair. Just sex, right? Around the same time, Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) takes on a new employee, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who proposes to revolutionise the company by keeping the employees grounded - they can fire people using telephone and video hookups - wham. The boss tasks Ryan with showing Natalie the ropes on the road while they set up the new system, against Ryan's very strong wishes. He is happy on his own, with his solitary time in airport lounges and in hotel rooms. He mentions that he is in the air, what was it, 320+ nights a year, which means he has to spend a lousy and miserable 40-odd nights a year in his apartment. He gives lectures on how to construct your life so that it will quite literally fit in a suitcase, so you could life it on your back - get rid of those loved ones! Who needs possessions?

While on the road Natalie is dumped by text message by her long-term boyfriend, whom she had uprooted her life and moved to Nebraska for, passing up numerous great job offers. She is devastated, but shortly Ryan and Natalie are called back to the office as the remote firing system is about to be put into effect. Ryan doesn't go straight back, instead heading to Wisconsin to go to his sister's wedding (played by Melanie Lynskey - Melanie Lynskey fest!) where he begins to realise that his life isn't all it's cracked up to be - his family is happy to see him, but only in the sense that they figure they should be. He's like a distant relative you only see at weddings and funerals, but you don't really know. The sister even has someone else, a family friend, organised to walk her down the aisle, since her father has passed away.

Back in the office, one of the employees fired remotely has killed themselves, turning Natalie into a wreck who resigns and goes home and putting a stop to the wireless business plan. Instead, Ryan is back on the road - but does he really want to be? Has he maybe realised that the life he is living isn't really a life at all?

There are hints of great George Clooney in the film, but only hints. The depth shown in that final scene of Michael Clayton, for example, wasn't really on offer here. He is, however, eminently watchable in anything he does. He has great charisma, so really all he needs to do is show up and it's fine. Sure, it's nice when he puts his back into it, but he doesn't really have to. Kendrick and Farmiga both shine in their respective roles, Alex as the emotionally cool older woman who knows the deal and Natalie as the fresh-faced girl with hope bursting out of every pore. And the excesses discussed are timely (flukily timely) considering the whole bad money business going on over the last couple of years - within the context of the financial crisis and subsequent near global recession it managed to function not as a reminder of better days, but a reminder of what unmitigated greed can inspire us to do.

Writer-director Jason Reitman is good at making easy-going, watchable films. Much like George Clooney. Juno was a terrific little film, and Thank You For Smoking was a good debut. This, however, just felt a little too cold, a little too distant. I enjoyed watching it, but I felt absolutely nothing for Ryan, and very little for Natalie. Surprisingly I felt for Ryan's sister and also for Alex, but when the two dominant characters are so distant from the audience emotionally, it makes it hard to buy into it. You can watch it, you can laugh at it, you can even shed tears in it (not that I think this is a cryable film, I'm just saying you could if you wanted to), but that doesn't mean you actually care. The situations can be quite sad. But you're still not crying for the people.

Ultimately I didn't feel Ryan's character arc. I saw it, I understood it was there, but I didn't feel it. Which has a little to do with Clooney and a little to do with Reitman, I think. The film didn't warm, to speak in a spurious fashion. Those cold lines and tones didn't soften. It held you at arms length to start with, and then kept you there. And so, whilst I don't regret watching it, I know I'll never see it again. Like Julie & Julia, that doesn't make it a bad film, but here especially I was hoping for something more. 2.5 stars.

Fuck This Shit, I'm Getting The Bazooka.

I'm not sure how long ago I watched this, because it suddenly struck me the other day that I had forgotten to include it in my list of films to write up (which is shrinking! It is! There are now thirteen films left on it! Oh, wait, fourteen. I remembered another film I forgot to add last night. Shit.)

There was a lot of attention for Kick-Ass (based on the comic series), mostly related to the foul-mouthed young girl Hit Girl (memorably played by Chloe Moretz.) Really, though, it wasn't that controversial. Yes, it was foul-mouthed, but I've heard worse at work. I've said worse at work. To my boss. Let's be honest, we're all a little over the top when we want to be.

Kick-Ass centres around the young Dave (Aaron Johnson, looking a solid three or four years younger than his already young nineteen - seriously, he looks like he could pass as a developed twelve year old.) Wondering why no one ever tries to become a super-hero, he takes it upon himself to be the first real, masked, costumed super-hero, altering a diving costume to suit his purpose and naming himself Kick-Ass. His first attempt ends with him in hospital, but his second attempt becomes a YouTube sensation, leading him to set up a site to attract business, as it were. A girl at school whom Dave has a crush on, and who is convinced Dave is gay, a ruse he is more than happy to play up to if it means he gets to spend more time close to her, is being harassed by a drug dealer, and Dave convinces her to contact Kick-Ass, but when he goes to confront these crooks he finds himself in a world of trouble, only to be saved by Hit Girl, who is being watched over by her father Damon, or Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage in a terrific role for him.) Hit Girl and Big Daddy later contact Kick-Ass to tell him that the three could work together.

Big Daddy is an ex-cop with an axe to grind with a criminal mastermind, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), whose son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) forms a ruse to pose as a superhero, Red Mist, to win Kick-Ass' trust and lure him into a trap. Hijinks ensue, with some casualties, some funny lines, and the inevitable set up for a sequel.

I remember walking out of the film pleasantly surprised by Matthew Vaughn's third directorial output. Johnson didn't overly impress me, pulling out that gawky charm we see in far too many American films, where the loser becomes the winner. He was fine, but predictable. Moretz and Cage were both terrific, highly caricatured but very entertaining. Mintz-Plasse was kind of irritating. I know the point was to not like him, but I did find myself wanting to punch him in the face from the outset. Maybe, if I see him in another film, I'd like his performance for it, but at the moment I just think he's kind of frustrating.

I must say it was a refreshing take on a superhero film, not sugar-coated for a teenage audience. Christopher Nolan's two Batman outings were very good, very dark, not really kids films, but they still had a hell of a lot in them for the mid-teen market, whereas I doubt many mid-teens would have been able to get into Kick-Ass without sneaking in (though I'm dead certain that the rating on the film would not have stopped the majority of those wanting to get their hands on it from witnessing it somewhere - more than likely illegally on the internet, little bastards...) The film seemed made more for the latent teenager in all of us, with all of the swearing and ridiculous suits and screwed-up attack plans. I mean, who doesn't harbour a little bit inside of them strongly desiring to don the latex and be the good guy? Or the bad guy? Whatever, just give me the ab-suit Batman wears so well. Sure would save on the gym.

But, I've pretty much forgotten the film now. I had to look it up to remind myself what it was all about outside of the general, vague notion. Granted, it did come back to me as I read the plot outline, but I really had to prompt myself, because it just didn't stick with me. It was a lot of fun at the time, but it didn't even have the hangover that a few bottles of wine may bring. I don't recall thinking about it once after it finished. Yes, I watched it a solid few weeks ago, but I can remember most of the other films I've put up over the last week, which were all as far back, if not more. But Kick-Ass stayed with me not at all. I think it had a fun soundtrack, but I couldn't even tell you if that was accurate, so little has it stayed in mind.

That isn't necessarily a terrible thing, mind. It fulfilled its purpose for me, which was an evening's entertainment. It properly entertained me a lot more than I thought it was going to, which is a positive. If there had been something more that made it stick with me, I would have been well surprised, shocked even. All I'm saying is that I don't think it's cinema for the ages. It's cinema for right now, and it's fine in that role. What will surprise me most, however, is if people remember it in a decade. 3 stars.

I Have To Murder And Dismember A Crustacean.

Meryl Streep is a strange beast. My father loves her, he thinks anything he touches is golden. He does like watching films, but he is particularly picky and it is almost impossible to pick what he will like, but you put Meryl Streep in anything and he'll go off and watch it. I think she is a very good actress, but a lot of her more recent output makes me think of Katherine Hepburn's comment about her, about seeing the cogs behind her eyes working (to paraphrase the great Ms Hepburn.) There are, of course, fantastic exceptions. I loved her in Adaptation, and I thought her turn in The Devil Wears Prada was genius. And I've loved her in many, many movies over the years. I've probably seen her in more movies than any other actresses, which may have to do with the fact that she is, incredibly, always working. Enormous respect does have to be bestowed on her, love her or hate her, for the fact that, at 61, she is not only still a big movie star, but a huge box office draw. Sure, she very rarely headlines a film entirely on her own, and many of her roles put her opposite younger stars with significant appeal, but she's always at the top of the list. Her films manage to bring in an incredible crossover audience. I mean, according to Box Office Mojo, she has had three $100mil+ films in the last five years, with this film, Julie & Julia, getting damn close (and giving her another Oscar nomination.) There aren't many actresses full stop who can achieve that, and none that I can think of at her age. In fact, the only actress I can think of who might have more box office clout than Streep at this point is Sandra Bullock, and even then, I think a lot of people kind of go into Bullock films thinking they're going to be average, and possibly being surprised, whereas no one goes into a Streep film excepting anything less than great. I was reading, I think over at The Film Experience, some very early 2010 Oscar predictions, where they had her down as a Best Actress contender even though she is not slated to appear in any films this year, simply because she's Meryl Streep - and I don't think it's too farfetched. 

Moving on. Julie & Julia. The film is based, ostensibly, on the blog and subsequent book of one Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a young woman who, in the early days of the internet, started a blog chronicling her attempts to cook all 500 odd recipes in the iconic Julia Childs' (Streep) Mastering The Art Of French Cooking in 365 days. The blog turned into a bit of a sensation, and Powell then published the book based on the experience. Rom-com queen took up the challenge of turning the exercise into a film, merging and paralleling the travails of Powell with those of Childs. Running Childs' move with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), a diplomat, to his post in Paris alongside the drudgery of Powell's life with husband Eric (Chris Messina) and her challenge to herself, Ephron works them into a nice little single narrative thread. 

Childs finds herself in Paris, loving the food, but unable to find a French cookbook in English. She takes up one class to find it entirely remedial, and so enrols herself in a course for professionals, initially being scorned before setting her stubborn mind to it, practicing like buggery, and proving herself entirely capable. With a couple of friends she sets up a school, and after a while the three decide to write a book. Initially struggling to find a publisher, she eventually scores a deal back in the States, and the book is still printed to this day.

Powell is working in a cubicle in post-9/11 New York, fielding calls from people looking for compensation. The job is heartbreaking, not least for all of the tears and emotions she deals with on a day to day basis. Plus, her friends are all super-successful, and she has all but abandoned her hopes to become a writer. Craving inspiration after she and Eric move from Brooklyn to Queens (if my memory serves me correctly), she sets about writing about her attempts to cook all of these recipes, some of which are very complex, whilst still working and trying to keep her marriage stable. As the year progresses she finds herself followed by more and more people on the internet, and becomes quite a public phenomenon, leading to said book deal.

Streep does a good job of trying to step into Childs quite large shoes (she was 6'2 in real life, whereas Streep is 5'6), but I don't think she quite gets there. She seems a little awkward, and is a little too larger-than-life for me to really get into and feel her character. On the other hand, I really liked Adams as the younger, modern, more vulnerable Powell. She struggles through all of the issues related to trying to maintain her goal and her job and her life and her marriage, and as the year progresses she finds the mere task of finishing the project more of a motivation than a specific desire to actually cook the food. (I think I can relate to her a little with this project...)

The venerable Tucci plays opposite Streep again fantastically - he is seemingly bemused by Childs' dreams, but entirely supportive in a reasonably distant way, and at the same time the tones of fear at his own collapsing career come through enough to keep us in the loop without overpowering the primary narrative intent. Similarly Messina supports Adams' character well as the suffering husband who can see the end in sight but still thinks his suffering too great when confronted by the exhausted hysteria of his troubled wife.

Ephron knows what she is doing with a film like this, and she does it well. The laughs are there, the tears are there, she manipulates her audience without it ever really feeling like she is manipulating you. She's talented, especially with good material, and here she proves it. Her script also shines, deliberately overlapping lines and sentiments between the two chronologically removed stories to hit her point home, but doing it well so it never felt hamfisted or cloying.

That being said, it is just a nice film (scored wonderfully by someone named Alexandre Desplat - never heard of him.) It's not a great film, it's not one I'd watch again, probably, simply because once is enough. There's nothing really drawing me back to it. The characters were nice, the performances were good, it looked good, it flowed well, but there was no shazam. It never kicked me in the guts. Which is perfectly fine for a romantic comedy. They can't all have the heft of Notting Hill. See it for some light entertainment, but don't expect it to rock your world. 3.5 stars.

Monday, 7 June 2010

And Here Ya Are, And It's A Beautiful Day.

I'm already on record with my feelings regarding the brothers Coen. With two films since this all started, no less: here and here. As with all rules, however, there is always an exception, and for me that exception is Fargo.

Joel and Ethan's 1996 black comedy was, I think, the first of their films I ever saw, and it is hilariously fantastic. I watched it again recently in order that I could confirm that I did, in fact, enjoy it, and my memory did not disappoint me.

This. Scene. Killed me.

Set mostly between Minneapolis and the titular Fargo, North Dakota, the film centres around Jerry (William H Macy), in financial straits and needing to come up with some cash, fast. He is married to Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), whose father Wade (Harve Presnell) is the wealthy owner of the car dealership Jerry works for. Jerry organises for criminals Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, planning to get the $80,000 ransom money from Wade and keeping it half to himself. However, after being stopped by state troopers with Jean in the boot, the plan goes awry. Marge (Frances McDormand) is the police officer in charge of an investigation that starts with looking into the results of this plan gone awry, but in the process she begins to unravel the whole mess, all the while seven months pregnant.

There are a lot of terrific characters in the film, and they are all played perfectly by the excellent cast. Macy is suitably neurotic and panicky, digging himself deeper and deeper in an attempt to get himself out of the horrible situation he has got himself into. McDormand is a terrific highlight, somehow bringing incredible humour into her character in the most god-awful circumstances. Her deliveries, combined with killer lines from the Coen's, are so deadpan and serious despite the ridiculous circumstances, and her pregnant waddle simply adds to the humour. However, her character is so clued in and sharp, and so self-deprecating in its own special way. It is a genius character, perfectly pitched. Buscemi is at his manic best, matched by the almost silent Stormare, who seems happy to sit on the sidelines until such a time as a sudden verge of perhaps unnecessary violence is called for.

The bevy of characters blend seamlessly together to create a fluid and coherent story, completely unambiguous as it weaves across state lines and back again. Some of the set ups are ridiculous when taken alone, but in the context of the film work wonderfully. The Coen's picked up their first screenplay Oscar (to go with McDormand's Best Actress trophy), and definitely deserved it for this highly original and entirely compelling film. For me, this is them at their absolute peak. They hardly needed the beautiful work in snow (which I understand is particularly hard to shoot in) of their trusted and long-time cinematographical companion Roger Deakins. But the pretty pictures never go astray.

5 stars.

You'd Give Him A Flower, He'd Keep It Forever.

Most people know Terrence Malick for his prolific output. 


Oh, wait. He's released, what, four films in 37 years. I must have been thinking of someone else. What Malick has going for him, however, is that they're all pretty much fantastic (though I haven't seen his most recent release, The New World, which I've heard mixed reviews ranging from average to excellent - must get on that.) In 1978 he released his second feature Days Of Heaven, five years after his debut Badlands and a solid twenty years before his next film, the acclaimed The Thin Red Line.

Days Of Heaven is about a man, Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his little sister Linda (Linda Manz.) Bill is working as a manual labourer in Chicago when he knocks down a supervisor, killing him. He flees with Abby and Linda, with Bill and Abby masquerading as siblings in order to not attract gossip. They end up in Texas working as seasonal labourers on a farm owned by a gentle, unnamed farmer (Sam Shepard.) The farmer is sickly though attractive, dying of an unspecified disease, and when he falls for Abby, Bill encourages her to enter into a relationship such that they can receive his inheritance when he passes, all the while remaining on the property as her brother. The ruse, however, is soon discovered, not helped by the fact that the farmer does not seem to be deteriorating. Eventually, the farmer confronts Bill, who kills the farmer in self-defense, before being killed by the police in a manhunt. The film ends with Abby dropping Linda in an orphanage and locomoting it out of there.

This is thematically a very simple, gentle film. It is incredibly striking, however. Thinking back to it I remember the colours, the pictures, the images. Néstor Almendros was credited as sole cinematographer, though Haskell Wexler took over when the film ran well over schedule and contentiously missed out on credit and Oscar despite claiming to have shot over half of what ended up on screen. Almendros (and Wexler), and Malick, shot the film using very little artificial light, and a great deal of the film was shot at magic hour, whether internal or external, meaning the film has an incredible golden tone to it that burns itself into your memory and never leaves. Every frame is like a painting, a beautiful painting. And there is not a great deal of spoken dialogue - the narrative is primarily driven by the narration from the young Linda, piecing together elements that might need explaining. But for the most part the images on screen speak almost entirely for themselves, and they do it simply, subtly and effectively.

The performances are very good all round, though Shepard stood out for his upright, seemingly uptight but ultimately kind and caring employer. Manz also does terrifically in her precocious role. The score, by the one and only Ennio Morricone, is of course wonderful, lifting the film in its joyous simplicity and tranquility, soaring through the mundane, the happy, and the sad.

An excellent second outing from Malick, though watching his films always makes me cry 'more! more! more!' and I know I'm never going to get it. Well, I'll get The Tree Of Life at some stage in the next couple of years, presumably (it was meant to be out last year, but now has a vague '2010' release date), but he's not the kind of guy to churn out four films a decade. From some directors, you definitely wish for quality and quantity. Malick is one of those. 4.5 stars.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

We Don't Stop Here.

Ok, so in moments of tiredness and laziness I tend to fall back on ol' favs. Hence returning to R + J just recently. I also went back to one of my favourite films of the noughties, Mulholland Drive.

David Lynch is a genius. Let's just get it out there. And Mulholloand Drive is, quite obviously, the work of a genius at the peak of his nutcase powers. I am yet to see Inland Empire (bad me), but I understand it is also quite cray cray, so I'm going to assume that he's still at his peak. And Blue Velvet and Lost Highway were damn fine pieces of cinema, so he's been at the peak for, what, pretty much his entire career. We all love Twin Peaks. Sure there have been some minor misfires (we all remember what I thought of Wild At Heart), but in general I pick up a David Lynch film I know I'm at the very least going to be in for a wild ride. (On that note, I simply MUST check out The Straight Story, because it just sounds too different to miss.)

Meanwhile. Mulholland Drive. It started out as a pilot for a new television series, which wasn't picked up, but some people chucked some more money at him and asked him to make a film out of it. That film I saw back in the break between high school and uni in 2001/02 (it was late one year or early the next - I forget which.) I remember the film ending, and me turning to the two friends I was with and saying 'I have no idea what that was about, but I know that it was brilliant.' A number of years and many viewings later, I think I have some idea, but I don't know how much I will go into it for fear of ruining the experience for anyone who may stumble across here without having experienced the full magnificence of the film.

Naomi Watts scored her breakout role here as Betty/Diana. As the film begins, she is a young ingenue in from the mid-West, staying at her aunt's house in Hollywood while her aunt is out of town shooting a picture. Randomly, one evening, Rita/Camilla (Laura Elena Harring) is in a horrible car accident on Mulholland Drive and stumbles down to collapse, concussed, in the front yard of the aunt's building. The next morning, she wakes to find the aunt leaving - what a coincidence, she manages to sneak into the apartment that Betty shall soon occupy. Betty's good nature means that she only wants to help Rita, and the two become friends, even though Rita is not her real name and she has no idea who she is or what happened to her. So begins a long and twisted tormented journey into what may or may not be really going on - is the reality of the beginning a fiction brought on by Diana's own failings and jealousy at Camilla's success? The lesbian undertones are alluded to with the addition of director Adam (Justin Theroux), a presumably talented man who sells his soul to get his film made. Cowboys, man speaking care of tubes and spat out espressos are all too common in this fable about Hollywood, and anything is possible in a world where Ann Miller is the landlady of an apartment complex that once housed a prized boxing kangaroo. Hell, even Billy Ray Cyrus pops up.

This is an absolute tour de force. The mind that came up with it (that would be our dear friend Mr Lynch) should probably be hospitalised, but that would be such a waste to all of us waiting with bated breath for his next move. Watts' performance made her a star, literally overnight. Her audition scene, going from sweet and naive to sultry and malicious was and remains stunning, an incredible indication of the turning point that will send the movie spiraling into insanity (or reality.) And the Spanish performance of Roy Orbison's 'Crying' by Rebekah del Rio never fails to move me to tears in its power, beauty and the trick of falsity.

There is so little to say about the film outside of the fact that it will go down as one of the most unique pieces of truly compelling filmmaking in the history of cinema. Watching it goes past a must. 5 stars.

My God Hath Seen.

Back when I was still a lowly uni student, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Equus, the play, to read, as she felt that I would like it. And I did. Very much. Peter Shaffer's play is fantastic, though the only time I have ever tried to see it on stage, we got the wrong day. Silly us.

It was, however, with some hesitation that I approached Sidney Lumet's 1977 production. I kept walking past it in my local DVD store, thinking about getting it out but never actually doing it. On a particularly tired afternoon, however, when the thought of the stairs to the basement containing so many, many more films was too much to bear, and all of those titles staring at me from the shelves were making me somewhat nauseous, I pulled it out blindly, recognising the title, the director, and the lead actor and thinking, what the hell, it can't be that bad, right?

Peter Firth is TOTALLY hotter than Daniel Radcliffe...

It wasn't, either, though I do think it pales in comparison to the play itself. I think what the play (and, I assume from my previous experiences with the stage, a performance of the play) has that the movie doesn't is that ability to delve into something entirely surreal without losing believability. You can put impressionism bluntly on stage and you don't entirely divorce from reality because there is an understanding from the audience that said impressionism (or expressionism, or Brechtianism, or any other form of unrealistic ism) is necessary due to the constraints of where you are. You can't cut from a therapists office to a field, you can't bring a horse on stage and gallop it around, and so you have to make do, you have to give the idea that you are in a field, or riding a horse, and these leaps of faith flow into the psyche of the character, particularly in the case of Equus and Alan Strang.

Alan (Peter Firth) is a seventeen year old boy, brought up by an opinionated father who cowers meekly in the face of his hyper-religious wife, Alan's mother. He is brought into a psychiatric facility run by Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) after blinding six horses. And Alan is crazy. He talks in riddles, he tries to play with tired Martin's mind, he tries tricks and diversions, and he screams. But Martin has seen it all before. He takes Alan on as a favour for a friend who feels he will be intrigued by the case. And as it progresses, he is. Martin is drawn into Alan's psychosis and forced to examine himself, slowly following along the same, crazy path.

Burton does well, looking every one of the fifty-odd years he was when the film was made. He looks as tired as his character, as exasperated, and finally, as intrigued, and as insane. Firth is scary as the young man at the centre of the drama, speaking little (though sometimes volumes) as he parades around, and pulling off a terrific psychotic scene completely naked - a terrifying feat for anyone who might ever have acted. Shaffer's adaptation of his own source material feels very stagey, something Lumet does very little to discard. Much of the narration comes from behind Martin's desk, something that could very well have been lifted out of a proscenium arch and transplanted on a studio set. But the words remain as clever and as powerful, the story as strong. Nothin could take that away from the original. Fittingly, Burton, Firth and Shaffer were all Oscar nominated for their roles - and they are probably the only elements that deserved such attention, for there was nothing particularly striking about anything else within this picture. Sure, everyone else executed their roles competently, but what could have been a great film became only a little more than mediocre. 3.5 stars.

You Kiss By The Book.

Oh, what can I say about Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet? I first saw it many moons ago, back in, what, late 1996 or early 1997 when it was in cinemas in Australia. I must have been twelve at the time, almost thirteen. To me, then, Shakespeare was a name I knew, someone we had to study in English class at school. Strictly Ballroom was somewhere on my radar. Titanic was still a year away, but we all knew Leonardo DiCaprio as hot, though no one really knew who Claire Danes was except that she had done that angst-ridden TV show a year or two back. And then, suddenly, Shakespeare for the MTV generation. Sharp, tense, violent, bloody, young, glossy, pretty. It wasn't Shakespeare as we had envisaged, as we had seen in telemovies or on stage. This was Shakespeare for us, and my, it was glorious.

This film is still my favourite Shakespeare adaptation. I think you would struggle to find many people between the ages of, say, 20 and 35 who would disagree. Especially when it comes to a faithful(ish) adaptation, one using the Bard's original words, phrasings, dialogue. Luhrmann, with co-writer Craig Pearce (who also pitched in on Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!) dissected and reworked this most classic of love stories into a modern setting without losing the meaning, the love story, and so many of the classic elements. The billboards in the background speak Shakespearean, the guns are inscribed with the names of swords. The wealth is opulent, over-the-top, outrageous. The parties are debauched, the clothing glamourous, the feuds brutal and long-running.

And the performances match. They have just the right level of camp melodrama to play into the anti-modern words and the far-fetched setting, without ever taking them too far. DiCaprio and Danes are in love, John Leguizamo as Tybalt is menacing and angry, Harold Perrineau is tragic as Mercutio, Pete Postlethwaite is concerned but conspiratorial as Father Lawrence, Paul Sorvino and Brian Dennehy are impotent as the Capulet and Montague heads respectively, even Paul Rudd is pathetically naive as Paris. Everyone pitches in to lend a hand in the stunning spaces created by Catherine Martin and her crew. And of course, the inimitable Jill Bilcock pieces it all back together seamlessly, beautifully, strikingly.

If you don't know the story, sort your life out. If you haven't seen it, sort your life out. Maybe my opinion is somewhat skewed by the time in my life in which I saw it and the memories associated with it, but for me it is, and always will be, 5 stars.

We're Not In Therapy Anymore, We're In Real Life.

We do like Laura Linney. And we do like Philip Seymour Hoffman (as noted here, here and here.) And we did like they're 2007 collaboration on writer/director Tamara Jenkins' The Savages.

Wendy (Linney) and Jon (Hoffman) are single siblings suddenly brought back together by the death of their aging father Lenny's (Philip Bosco) long term girlfriend. The two had previously signed a non-marriage agreement (effectively a pre-nup for those who don't tie the know) meaning that Lenny receives none of her possessions, meaning that he is now homeless. To make matters worse he is showing signs of dementia - the siblings decide that the best way forward is to put Lenny, whom they are both reasonably estranged from, in a nursing home.

Wendy is having an affair with an older, married man, while Jon is in a relationship with a Polish woman whose visa is about to expire unless they get married, something 'nobody is ready for.' They are both emotionally stunted, and it is implied that this is because of the upbringing they were subjected to. Still, they are forced to spend time together, away from their entirely unfulfilling lives, as they struggle to agree on where to put Lenny - Jon just wants to shaft him away somewhere close to both of them while Wendy is driven by guilt to try and find him somewhere that won't depress her. As they go on, driven by these guilty feelings that turn back into familial love, they grow and adapt and mature, becoming the adjusted adults we always hoped they would be.

It's a great script (Oscar nominated), very well acted by both leads (and the supports, though the focus is so strongly on Wendy and Jon.) Linney picked up another Oscar nomination for her turn, though Hoffman missed out - hey, you can't nominate him every time, right?

It's a superficially simple film with wonderful complexities lying underneath. A basic premise is richly delved into by Jenkins to mine all of the dramatic and emotional possibilities without dropping into melodrama or making the film overly depressing. She has a very light touch, helped by the skills of Linney and Hoffman, which allows the film to remain comedic whilst moving and challenging both the characters and the audience. I haven't seen Jenkins' first film (1998s Slums Of Beverly Hills), but as a sophomore outing The Savages is very strong. 4.5 stars.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

White Material

I can't WAIT to see this next month. Isabelle Huppert is quite possibly my god. Quite possibly.