One mildly interesting nugget of information to note this week: I think this is the first time when I'd never seen any of the films I'm discussing before. Usually, there's at least a few in there that I'm rewatching, but this time, I went into all six of the films fresh. That was good on the one hand - it's definitely better to see something new rather than endlessly rewatching the same trusty favourites. On the other hand, the new films I watched this week were pretty mediocre on the whole.
Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
I've been on a bit of a nostalgia kick recently, watching a lot of films from the '80s, and the "suburbanites outside their comfort zone/ in peril" plotline seems common to quite a few of those movies (i.e. National Lampoon's Vacation, The Goonies, Gremlins, Poltergeist, Risky Business etc. etc.). In this case, the peril is posed by the big, bad city itself, as a babysitter (Elizabeth Shue) has to brave the mean streets of Chicago at night with her young charges (which include Dazed and Confused's Anthony Rapp). The plot suffers a little from something which I like to call 'The Mole Syndrome' (a syndrome I've just invented, named after the character in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut; a kid who wasn't about to grounded for anybody). These kids have little fear of being stabbed to death in a gang fight, murdered by a multiethnic gang of car thieves or climbing around outside of the upper floors of a skyscraper - but they are absolutely terrified that their parents might find out that they've been in the city without permission. This fear drives the kids into ever more dangerous and bizarre situations, which they could easily escape with a quick call to either their parent or the police. Still, Elizabeth Shue is likeable and warm in the title role and the rest of the kids are also pretty solid (Maia Brewton in particular). As a comedy, the movie is only partially successful - it's not exactly a laugh riot, but there are a few chuckles to be found here and there. However, it does teach a few valuable life lessons: for example, should you unexpectedly find yourself in a Chicago blues club, you can't leave until you've sung the blues. Also, you can get $5 off the price of your car repairs if you give the mechanic a plastic Thor helmet. Worth bearing in mind if I ever pay a trip to the windy city.
Lars Von Trier's latest picture stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as two very different sisters; Dunst's character (Justine) suffers from severe, crippling depression, while Gainsbourg plays Claire who is, on the surface at least, far more easygoing and level headed. The first half of the film concerns Justine's disastrous wedding reception, as her attempts to put a brave face on things gradually disintegrate. While having a certain similarity to the superior movie Festen (directed by Von Trier cohort Thomas Vinterberg), this part of the movie is very enjoyable. It's darkly funny and features engaging turns from John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as the sisters' divorced parents, who can no longer stand the sight of each other. Unfortunately, the second part of the film doesn't work nearly as well. The sisters are holed up at Claire's husband's country estate, waiting to see whether a planet called Melancholia which has apparently 'emerged from behind the sun' will hit Earth, or narrowly miss it. Despite occasionally impressive cinematography (particularly in the final scene of the movie), the second half really dragged for me. The action progresses at a glacial pace, and by the end, I was hoping that Melancholia would just wipe out the Earth already, so I could leave. Overall then, a film of two halves. I wouldn't say I was sick as a parrot about it, but I was hardly over the moon (or Melancholia) either.
Of Gods and Men (2010)
In which monks who inhabit a monastery in North Africa are faced with a thorny dilemma. When the area is overrun with terrorist insurgents, should they stay put in solidarity with the local people who they've grown to respect and love (but risk death at the hands of the fundamentalists?) or should they admit defeat and go back to France? This movie won last year's Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and received rave reviews from a number of critics who I respect, so I was expecting great things. While it was definitely a decent film, it didn't really match up to the expectations I had going in. Although the acting was strong across the board, and the film showed the monks' bravery in facing up to a near certain death through their faith, I was never completely engaged with this film. Call me a philistine (no, please, call me a philistine...) but I felt that the pacing was a little slow, and my interest levels had started to flag a little by the end. Basically, The Clash discussed the same issues that this movie covers in just over three minutes, so there's no need to spend two hours debating it... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqH21LEmfbQ
David Cronenbourg's foray into the world of video gaming is as weird and stomach churning as you might expect from the director of The Fly and Dead Ringers. It features Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller, a game designer who has to go on the run from a terrorist group which holds her responsible for making an increasing number of gamers lose touch with reality. Jude Law plays a low level corporate flunkey who is dragged along on her journey. Unlike certain other '90s movies about technological advances and that newfangled 'information superhighway' that all the kids are talking about, Existenz hasn't really dated too badly - largely due to the way in which Cronenbourg has incorporated his own personal obsessions into the way the technology is presented in the film. Rather than the clean, shiny, metallic devices which have come to dominate today's marketplace, in the world of Existenz, advances have been made in biotechnology. Therefore, in order to take part in Allegra's virtual reality games, you are connected via a 'bioport' (a hole which has been bored into the bottom of your spine), which is hooked up to a fleshy looking cord into a pink, organic game system, which looks rather like some sort of internal organ. The movie is simultaneously disgusting and fascinating. It's also a little like Inception in the way that there are games within games, so you are never quite sure whether anything you are witnessing is reality. (In fact, Cronenbourg has come up with the perfect excuse for any failings in the movie - if an actor's accent sounds off, or the special effects don't look realistic - these are just glitches in the design of the game...) This is the one film of the week which I would recommend wholeheartedly. It's an engrossing thriller which some very memorable images (such as a fleshy looking gun which shoots teeth as bullets), strong performances from the leads and a witty script.
The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)
Before I go into this review, I should probably point out that conditions weren't really in its favour. I watched the film on a cold, wet Sunday afternoon in October in a mostly empty cinema, so it was hardly receptive to having a laugh. Having said all that, for me, this movie was a bit of a let down. How on Earth did this become the second biggest grossing film of the year in the UK? I'm a fan of the TV series (though I felt that by the time the third series came along, it was running a little short on inspiration), but watching the movie, it felt to me that they had about enough ideas for an average twenty minute episode of the show, and tried to stretch that material across a feature length running time. The plot involves the four friends finishing six form and jetting off to a tacky destination in Greece for a lads' holiday. Jay is predictably interested in experiencing some 'sun, sea, sex, sand, booze, tits and booze', Simon is attempting to get over the end of his relationship with Carli D'Amato, and Will and Neil are along for the ride. The gang have to put up with a decrepit hotel, aggressive and holiday reps, horrendous hangovers and their own increasingly bizarre behaviour. Despite all this, they still manage to hook up with four attractive young ladies who are inextricably drawn to them. As I've mentioned, I was disappointed with this one. The humour felt broader - less based on character humour and a witty script and more slapstick - and was far more hit than miss (though there were still a few laughs to be found here and there). The characters, who were previously generally likeable if extremely socially inept, have been taken to such extremes that it seems highly unlikely that the four girls would put up with them for more than a few minutes, let alone getting together with them. The big box office numbers might mean that the gang are all back together again next summer, but if the results are the same as this time around, I think it might be time to call it a day.
The Strangers (2008)
Well, I still haven't got around to watching the French horror movie 'Ils' (Them), but I have now watched its American equivalent. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman play Kristen and James, a couple who have just returned to their isolated home after having attended a wedding reception at which James' marriage proposal to Kristen was rejected. However, their relationship woes are put on hold when they get a knock at the door at 4am, shortly followed by the entrance of three unwanted guests wearing creepy masks... For the most part, this is a well made and effective little chiller, even though all it really consists of is a protracted 'stalk and slash' scene (with the emphasis firmly on the stalking, rathr than the slashing). I have to admit I was pretty scared during the first two thirds of the film, as the strangers gradually make their presence known in the house. First time director Bryan Bertino builds the tension very well, allowing us to glimpse their shadowy figures and unnerving masks in the background. Unfortunately, after a while he seems to run out of steam - the tension starts to dissipate a little once we get a good look at the three villains, and the ending of the film is rather abrupt and unsatisfying. Still, I'll probably stick around for the sequel which is due out next year, and will definitely have to summon up the courage to watch the French original now.