Wednesday, 27 April 2011

That was the week that was (18 - 24 April)

Well, here we go - part 2 of my weekly movie diaries. A little later than last week, as I was working on that Coen brothers list over the weekend.

Fascinating nuggets o' fun for the week: I didn't catch any films this weekend, as I've been away for Easter. I was a bit worried I wouldn't be able to catch Scream 4 in the cinema as I had to work late on Wednesday, but thankfully was able to escape a little earlier on Thursday and had the chance to see it. Anyhoo, here's my round up of all the week's movies.

The Sure Thing (1985)

I was surprised by how good this film was - I rented out expected some kind of '80s sex romp hijinks along the lines of Porkies or American Pie, but instead I got a slight, but highly entertaining love story. I suppose the confusion was easy enough to understand; the title of the film might be a little more classy than something like 'Meatballs', but it's still a rather obvious double entendre, and the cover displays a saucy picture of a scantily clad bathing beauty. Still, I've always liked John Cusack (particularly in Say Anything) and my faith in him was definitely rewarded. Cusack plays a desperate freshman at an East Coast college, who is lured out to California with the promise of meeting a girl who he's informed is a 'sure thing'. In order to get there, he has to hitch a number of lifts with fellow student Daphne Zuniga, who is as uptight and neat as Cusack is uninhibited and slobby. Will these two opposites attract? Although the way the story is going to pan out is pretty obvious from the start, the way we get to that destination is a journey well worth sharing. It's also very funny, with some really great scenes - particularly one where Cusack saves Zuniga from being molested by a lonely driver with some of his patented fast talking craziness. Overall, well worth seeking out.

Rating: 8/10

Scream 4 (2011)

I'd be waiting to see this movie for almost a year, ever since it was first announced that there would definitely be a third sequel to Scream in the pipeline. I was a huge fan of the first movie when it came out in 1996, enjoyed the second movie a year or so later and then endured the horrors of third movie in 2001. It was probably a good thing to wait so long to make Scream 4 - I'd pretty much obliterated all memory of Scream 3 by the time I took my seat in the cinema, and was hoping the new sequel would be a return to form for Craven, Williamson & co. In a way, the film does return to the themes of the first movie, as Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to her hometown of Woodsboro, only to face a similar pattern of murderers by killer(s) wearing the traditional Ghostface costume. Despite going a little far with the self referential meta humour, I was generally enjoying the film until the killer(s) were revealed. At which point the whole thing just fell apart - really, they could have just put the names of all the characters in one hat, a list of obvious cliched motives in another, and picked out a handful of paper, and it would have made as much sense as the actual ending of the movie. Actually, perhaps that was how they decided who was under the mask this time... Not as good as the first two, and just a hair or two better than the disastrous Scream 3.

Rating: 5/10

Head-On (Gegen die Wand) (2004)

A German movie, which tells the story of a pair of second generation Turks living in Hamburg, both of whom feel conflicted in trying to reconcile their strict upbringings against the freedoms of modern day Germany. Cahit is a down at the heel, fortysomething former punk, who winds up in a mental institution after attempting suicide by deliberately driving into a wall at breakneck speed (which provides a literal translation of the original German title of the movie). While inside the asylum, he meets Sibel, who has also attempted to kill herself rather than live under the roof of her ultra orthodox father and brother. Sibel suggests that Cahit enters into a sham marriage with her - she will cook, clean and pay her way as long as Cahit doesn't mind her going out and picking up men whenever she feels so inclined. However, as the pair begin to feel a mutual attraction to one another, the situation becomes considerably more complicated (to give too much away here would ruin the surprises of the plot). I rented this one out having really enjoyed another of the director's movies, The Edge of Heaven - and while I don't think Head-On quite matches up to that film, it definitely wasn't a wasted couple of hours.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 25 April 2011

Listorama! Ranking the Coens

From the mightiest Pharaoh to the lowliest peasant, who doesn't enjoy a good list? I was considering making this post my top 10 films of all time, but it proved a bit tricky to arrange my favourites in order. I am instead taking on a rather smaller project - listing the Coen brothers movies from best to worst.

When I say worst, of course, it's a comparative term - I don't think the Coens have ever made a bad movie, but the bottom two films on the list are dangerously close to mediocrity. As for the rest, it was tough to choose between them. I'd say there are four tiers of Coen brothers movie - the unbelievably good (roughly numbers 1 - 5 on my list), the excellent (numbers 6-10), the very good (11-13) and the fair (14 and 15).

Anyway, here's the list. It's been done by far wiser, better informed personages than myself, but nevertheless, I present the Coen brothers, from top to bottom.

15. The Ladykillers (2004)

As close as Joel and Ethan ever got to making a bad movie, this remake of the classic Ealing comedy just doesn't come off. It certainly isn't terrible, and has a number of funny moments (many of which involve Tom Hanks as a scheming Southern professor), but the comedy is rather broad and the film as a whole is very uneven. As this movie followed the film I've ranked as number 14 on my list, I feared that the Coens might have lost their touch. Fortunately, they bounced back (as Alan Partridge has proved, people can bounce back) with a brilliant return to form in No Country For Old Men.

14. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Another broad and only sporadically amusing comedy. George Clooney stars as a sleazy, unethical, smooth talking divorce lawyer who meets his match in Catherine Zeta Jones' beautiful gold digger.  To be honest, there isn't much to choose between this movie and The Ladykillers - they both represent the Coens at the their most uninspired. As this one's based on an original idea it gets the edge.

13. Burn After Reading (2008)

A big step up from the previous two films, I liked this one a lot more than numbers 14 and 15 on my list. A farcical spy caper involving the memoirs of a disgruntled former CIA agent falling into the hands of two moronic employees of 'Hardbodies Gym', played by Brad Pitt and Mrs Joel Coen, Frances McDormand. The bungling pair attempt to blackmail the CIA man in order to pay for McDormand's 'surgeries', with disastrous results.  The movie is a little lightweight compared to the two films which preceded and followed it (No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man), but it's still a lot of fun. Bonus marks are awarded for the shock reveal of the very special chair which George Clooney's character spends a good portion of the film working on.

12. Blood Simple (1984)

The Coens' very first movie, featuring many of the motifs which the brothers came to be known for: a dark atmosphere, snappy dialogue, a double cross or two, and an odious villain. I first saw this film in VHS format with quite a bit of background noise (which made it hard to pick up what was being said and to follow the story), and I remember not being too impressed with it. However, on second viewing I was able to see (and more importantly hear) what the fuss was all about, with excellent performances from a young Frances McDormand as the dame in peril and M Emmet Walsh as the sinister private detective on her trail.

11. Raising Arizona (1987)

A madcap comedy starring Nicolas Cage as a former criminal who marries a policewoman, then kidnaps the son of a furniture salesman. To be honest, I haven't seen this one for a long time, and maybe it would have come a little higher if I could recollect more about it than Nicolas Cage's quiff and a chase sequence involving a demonic biker. From what I recall, very funny and a little bit crazy.

10. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Despite being known for being a big box office flop for Warner Bros, I rate this one very highly. Tim Robbins stars as a naively optimistic graduate from the (not so) prestigious Muncie School of Business who is plucked from the postroom at Hudsucker Industries by Paul Newman's unscrupulous executive. His meteoric rise attracts the attention of a hotshot investigative report played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose speech patterns are based on the fast talking dames of '40s comedies. Though it runs a little out of steam in the second half, the film features some great characters and brilliant cinematography. Also scores highly for Tim Robbins' confusingly simplistic hula hoop design. "You know, for kids!"

9. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

In which George Clooney leads two other chain gang inmates to freedom, stopping off en route to record a hit song, evade the Ku Klux Klan and get through a lot of 'Dapper Dan' pomade. I really should say that despite being in a comparatively lowly position on my list,  I think this movie is great - the 30s soundtrack is spot on, and it features brilliant performances from a number of actors who regularly feature in Coen brothers movies (Clooney, John Goodman, John Turturro). Why, then, hasn't this film charted higher? I suppose it's just the overall tone of the film - it's generally very light and breezy, and all played for laughs. I think when the Coens are really firing on all cylinders, you get that unique mixture of the very dark and the very funny, which puts a movie like Fargo up to the very top of the tree.

8. True Grit (2010)

The most recent Coen movie, and a fine addition to the collection. As with a number of their more recent movies, the Coens have adapted another author's work for the screen, rather than writing an original screenplay. Hallee Steinfeld is excellent as 14 year old Mattie Ross, a girl seeking revenge for her father's murder in a lawless town in the American West. In doing so, she enlists the services of the drunken, short tempered Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and is also assisted by a pompous Texas Ranger (played by Matt Damon). I have to be honest and admit that I haven't seen the original version with John Wayne as Cogburn, but I'd be very surprised if it could top this movie, a really gripping (and gritty) Western.

7. A Serious Man (2009)

Probably the Coens' most autobiographical film (though they refuse to confirm just how true to life it is), this dark comedy is set in a Jewish enclave in 1960s Minnesota. The film tells the tale of Larry Gopnik, a Maths professor who goes to a number of Rabbis for advice when his life begins to unravel. Pitch black, but very funny, this one has a great soundtrack, some really funny lines and a number of highly unexpected moments. As with No Country for Old Men, it ends on an ambiguous, inconclusive note. As the father of one of Mr Gopnik's students tells us, perhaps it's best to "accept the mystery".

6. No Country For Old Men (2007)

Probably the Coens' darkest film, this movie is an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy's novel, a sort of modern day Western set in West Texas in the '80s. Trailer park resident Josh Brolin comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad in the middle of the desert, and decides to take away a suitcase full of money from the scene. Unfortunately for Brolin, the psychotic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is soon on his trail. Chigurh is probably the scariest villain in any of the Coen brothers' movies - a relentless, murderous man with a terrible haircut, and a penchant for his bolt gun, he's somebody you really, really don't want chasing you. This one comes just outside the top 5 for me as it is just so bleak, but was definitely deserving of the Best Picture Oscar.

5. Miller's Crossing (1991)

At this point in the list, all the movies are fantastic, and it's pretty much impossible for me to separate them. But it would be a bit of cop out to have a five way tie for first place, so almost on a whim, Miller's Crossing comes in a number 5. The Coens' take on the gangster genre is set in the prohibition era, and features Gabriel Byrne as sharp witted right hand man of local mob boss Albert Finney, who is caught between loyalty to his boss and to the advances of his crass rival (played by Jon Polito). The film features it's own fascinating brand of made up '30s slang ("giving me the high hat, Tom?"), a plot which twists first one way and then the other, with Byrne trying to stay in control, and a tremendous scene in the woods in which the weaselly Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) begs Byrne to spare his life. Top notch.

4. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

A beautifully shot film noir pastiche in black and white, Billy Bob Thornton turns in the performance of his career (with the possible exception of Sling Blade) as the taciturn barber Ed Crane. In trying to raise some start up capital for a dry cleaning franchise, Crane attempts to blackmail his wife's lover (James Gandolfini). In the best possible noir tradition, this simple plan works out disastrously for all concerned (with the exception of Tony Shalhoub's sleazy lawyer), but with every twist of fate, Ed remains laconic and tight lipped, narrating his story in a deadpan drawl.  Some Coen fans don't rank this movie too highly, but for me it's nearly perfect and the more times I see it, the more I love it.

3. The Big Lebowski (1998)

In which a laid back slacker gets embroiled in a world of trouble when trying to get compensation for a soiled rug. What can you say about the movie so quotable that it's created a cottage industry of festivals, Dude impersonators, and an endless stream of hilarious quotes and in jokes? I have to confess that the first time I saw Lebowski, I didn't really get it. Sure, it was entertaining enough, but it seemed a little too wacky for my tastes. On repeat viewing, however, the genius of the film begins to reveal itself. So many fantastic characters, so many brilliant lines... The film really gets into your head, to the extent that sometimes a Lebowski quote will pop into my head when I'm in public, and leave me grinning to myself like an imbecile. Definitely the Coen's funniest film, it also provides a definitive answer to the question, do strong men also cry?

2. Barton Fink (1991)

Though it wasn't the kind of R rated movie that Bart Simpson and friends were looking for, in all other aspects this is a truly brilliant film. John Turturro plays the our eponymous hero; an earnest New York playwright who suffers a severe case of writer's block after he is sent to Los Angeles to work on a wrestling picture. The Los Angeles of the '40s shown in this movie begins to resemble hell, with Turturro trapped in the stifling confines of his cheap hotel with only cheerful salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) for company.  The film features some brilliantly snappy dialogue and some of the Coen's most memorable  characters - including Steve Buscemi's chipper bellhop, Michael Lerner's deranged studio boss, Tony Shalhoub's disillusioned producer and John Mahoney's soused novelist. A vision of the dark side of Hollywood which I can watch time and time again.

1. Fargo (1996)

So, to the very top of the list. While it was touch and go between the final few films, Fargo just has a bit more heart than the rest. The reason for that is rooted in Frances McDormand's wonderful central performance as heavily pregnant cop Marge Gunderson, who is called in to investigate a multiple homicide in a quiet Minnesotan community. As is often the case with the Coen brothers, the plot revolves around a seemingly simple plan - in this case, the plan to ransom the wife of the financially troubled William H Macy, which soon escalates into tragedy. McDormand's quiet domestic bliss is beautifully contrasted against the seedy lives of the low rent criminals played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, and the grasping desperation of car salesman William H Macy. A brilliantly plotted, scripted, acted and directed movie which is perfect in just about every way.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

That was the week that was (April 11 - April 17)

This will be my weekly round up of all the movies I watched during the previous week, with a score out of ten plus a few comments if I feel so inclined.

Fascinating fact: I intended to see The Lincoln Lawyer this week at the cinema, but was thwarted by the fact that none of my friends or acquaintances had much interest. I may have to wait for Matthew McConnaughey's long awaited 'second good performance' (after Dazed & Confused) when it comes out on DVD.

Week One:

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Peter Bogdanovich's bleak tale of the trials and tribulations of growing up in rural Texas in the 1950s.

I'd heard that this film was one of the best movies of the new wave of Hollywood cinema in the 70s, but for one reason or another, never got round to seeing it. While I wouldn't rate it as highly as say 'The Godfather' or 'Chinatown', I'm glad I saw it. I was particularly impressed with Timothy Bottoms as Sonny, who is the focus of the movie, but there are also strong performances from a very young (I didn't recognise him) Jeff Bridges as Duane, Sonny's best friend, Ben Johnson as 'Sam the Lion' (owner of the Picture Show of the title) and Ellen Burstyn.

The plot moves at a rather leisurely pace, following the lives of a group of teenagers in a dusty, inhospitable town which is too hot for comfort in the summer, and where tumbleweed blows through the streets on windy winter days. As friends and co-captains of the local high school's awful football team, Sonny and Duane start the movie happy with their lot in life, but are driven apart by the beautiful but manipulative Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). Sonny's struggles are echoed by the death of the small town itself; after the death of local benefactor Sam the Lion, the town's cinema and pool hall close, leaving the town devoid of anything to interest its residents.

The movie is beautifully shot in black and white, and Bogdanovich expertly recreates small town life in the 50s.

Rating: 8/10.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

I think in many ways, the easiest films to assess are horror movies and comedies - ultimately, whether the film is successful or not boils down to a single question - was I scared, or was I amused? Unfortunately for the original Amityville Horror, I can't recall being frightened in the slightest, and I say that as a person who is routinely terrified by fairly tame horror films.

The plot involves a family moving into a house with a terrible past; the opening scene of the movie shows a former resident of the Long Island residence in question shooting the other members of his family. Into this delightful abode comes Margot Kidder, with her three kids - a pair of twins who barely feature in the movie, and youngest daughter Amy, who makes a new, invisible friend named 'Jody'. Stepfather James Brolin has married into this family unit, and is the person who is most affected by the evil aura (or whatever it's supposed to be) that is emitting from the basement in the house. Brolin starts off the movie looking like Grizzly Adams, but increasingly resembles Charles Manson as the film progresses.

The appearance of the house from the outside is possibly the best thing about the film, with the two upstairs windows glowing like eyes in a menacing face.  Unfortunately for a film based on special effects to show off he supernatural forces at work, most of the effects are pretty laughable - I suppose the flies which torment the priest who has come to bless the house have something of a gross out factor working for them, but the eyes which appear outside the window and the bleeding walls look a little ridiculous. The film's climax is possibly the weakest segment, with Brolin/ Manson venturing into the haunted cellar to save the family dog, and rather than being devoured by demonic forces, merely gets a bit dirty when he encounters the black tarry devil slop which lies beneath the basement.

Compared with similarly themed horror films from the era, such as The Shining and The Exorcist, Amityville comes up well short.

Rating 4/10

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

I've been a huge Edgar Wright fan since Spaced, so when Scott Pilgrim came out last summer I was really looking forward to seeing it, despite some pretty lukewarm reviews from the critics. In the cinema it really worked for me -  I loved the classic video game references, most of the jokes hit their mark and the action sequences were suitably over the top.

However, I wasn't quite so keen on it second time around. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed the movie, but I just didn't find it as amusing this time, and I suppose the splashy special effects using during the battle sequences just work better on the big screen.

Michael Cera deploys his usual George Michaelesque persona as Scott Pilgrim, a nebbishy bassist in a Toronto garage band aiming to win a battle of the bands competition at the same time as Scott is seeking to win the heart of the violently coiffed Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Unfortunately for the eponymous Mr Pilgrim, he first has to battle Ramona's seven evil exes in a series of battles based on classic video games.

Probably my favourite scene involved Chris Evans as obnoxious film star/ skater Lucas Lee. As Lucas says on receipt of a text message "that's actually hilarious". I'd agree with Lucas as far as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World goes. For the most part anyway.

Rating 7/10.

The Social Network (2010)

As with Scott Pilgrim, I really enjoyed this movie when I first caught it in the cinema last year, and this time, I liked it even better on second viewing. Make that Jesse Eisenberg 1 Michael Cera 0.

The film tells the astonishing story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and shows how he went from designing a website comparing co-eds at Harvard to running one of the world's biggest companies in under a decade. 

On the face of it, the founding of Facebook doesn't sound like it would make for a particularly compelling movie but instead of showing Zuckerberg and co spending hours in a darkened room coding away, it looks into the boardroom intrigue and backstabbing that went on behind the scenes. As the movie poster famously said, you don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies. In this case, Zuckerberg steps over both his (former) best friend, Eduardo Saverin and two campus jocks (the Winklevoss twins) to get to the top, and both bring multimillion dollar lawsuits against him.

Jesse Eisenberg is terrific as Zuckerberg, a man whose intelligence, creativity and ambition are counterbalanced by a lack of tact and social skills. Andrew Garfield (as Saverin) and Justin Timberlake (as Sean Parker, the founder of Napster) both lend strong support.

Rating: 9/10.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

In which a group of Chicago high schoolers learn a few life lessons during Saturday detention.

I hadn't watched The Breakfast Club for a long time, and was wondering how it would hold up now that I'm that many more years removed from adolescence. On the whole, it's still a fun movie, but it works better as a comedy than as some sort of manifesto for how teenagers should treat one another. I enjoyed the funny moments far more than the occasions where John Hughes tried to teach me some kind of profound lesson about how we're all the same on the inside, man. Still, the fashions and dance moves of the 80s are always amusing to look back on.

The film also raises a number of important questions, such as:

Can the athlete, the princess, the brain, the criminal and the basket case remain friends after their weekend of personal epiphanies?

What kind of makeover makes you look far less attractive at the end of it?

Why does Judd Nelson need to wear so many coats at the same time?

Rating: 6/10

Monday, 18 April 2011

The first post

Welcome to Kirk's Movie Blog. I shall be returning shortly with opinions, reviews and lists on all things movie related. Watch this space!