Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Best Films of 2012 (so far...)

I'm going to be away for most of the next week or so, so I'm not sure whether I'll get the chance to do one of my regular weekly updates on Sunday (and to be honest, I'm not going to have much time to watch movies in that time anyway). So, to keep things ticking along, I thought I'd do a post with my top ten pictures of the year to date. In order to qualify for this list, a film simply needs to be a new release which I've seen in the cinema during 2012.

Looking back through my reviews since January, it's been a good, but not great year so far. I still haven't had reason to dish out a perfect 10 to any new releases (much like the trophy in Pointless, a score of 10/10 from Kirk's Movie Blog is a coveted prize), though there are a number of near misses towards the top of my list.

A few movies were on the verge of making my top 10, but just missed the cut. These include David Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Avengers Assemble, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! and Prometheus.

Anyway, here's the list, together with links to my original review of the movie in question:

1. Margaret
2. The Raid
3. Headhunters
4. The Muppets
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene
6. Young Adult
7. Snowtown
8. Moonrise Kingdom
9. The Artist
10. Chronicle

So, Margaret's top of the pile for the time being - but will it remain there at the end of December? There's going to be some tough competition from the likes of The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, The Master, The Great Gatsby and Killing Them Softly. I guess you'll just have to watch this space to find out.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The week in brief (11 - 17 June)

A fairly busy week, in which I watched the following films:

A Perfect Getaway (2009): 6/10
Dead Snow (Dod Sno) (2009): 4/10
Mona Lisa (1986): 8/10
What Lies Beneath (2000): 6/10
The Last Detail (1973): 8/10
Incendies (2010): 8/10
Cosmopolis (2012): 7/10
Blow Out (1981): 9/10

Three films have the distinction of being my joint 'picks of the week' this time around - they're all very good in their different ways, so I couldn't really separate them. First up, we have Mona Lisa, in which we find an ex-convict (Bob Hoskins) who has just served a lengthy prison sentence and on his re-emergence into society asks for a job from one of his former cronies (a sinister individual played by Michael Caine). He is given the task of driving a high class prostitute to and from her assignations at expensive West End hotels, but things get complicated when finds himself developing feelings for her... It's one of the best British pictures I've seen in quite some time, taking a look at a seedy, unpleasant side of London which rarely makes it onto film. Hoskins is excellent in the lead role, playing a man with rough edges but a good heart, but his performance is matched by that of Michael Caine, who plays his exact opposite - a man who has a polished surface but is quite monstrous underneath.

I was also very keen on The Last Detail, a film with a remarkable pedigree - it stars Jack Nicholson in his '70s prime, was directed by Hal Ashby (also responsible for Harold and Maude), and was was scripted by Robert Towne (who also wrote Chinatown). The plot sees Nicholson and Otis Young as a pair of sailors who are charged with taking a young recruit from their base in Norfolk, Virginia to a naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but get distracted en route. It's really funny, brilliantly scripted and just seems true to life, and Jack Nicholson is as charismatic as ever.  If you keep your eyes peeled, you can also catch a glimpse of a young (and very beautiful) Nancy Allen talking to Jack in a scene set at a party in New York. It's a shame that Hollywood doesn't make many pictures like this any more... (Speaking of Nancy Allen, I rewatched Blow Out this week  - I reckon it's the best film of Nancy (and Brian De Palma)'s career.)

My third recommendation for the week would be Incendies, a French Canadian movie which sees a pair of twins from Montreal head to the Middle East in a quest to uncover details about their mother's past. It's beautifully shot, heartbreakingly sad in places and masterfully plotted - the viewer is gradually given small pieces of the story (told in flashbacks) until the horrifying truth is revealed in the powerful climax. (This one was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, but lost out to In A Better World.)

Only one real stinker this week, though to be honest, I wasn't expecting too much from Dead Snow from the outset. How good can a Norwegian film about zombie Nazis (or should that be Nazi Zombies - it's kind of like the Pirate Ghost/ Ghost Pirate question) really be? The answer is: 'not very' - while some of the gore effects work was pretty decent, the story didn't make a whole lot of sense and the film couldn't decide whether the zombies were the fast running undead of 28 Days Later or their more traditional lumbering counterparts. There was also far too much use of bad Norwegian pop music for my tastes. Not one I'm likely to return to in the future.

I only saw one new release this week, which was David Cronenbourg's latest effort, Cosmopolis. It's a rather inert, stagey film, which comprises a series of lengthy conversations between Eric Packer, a billionaire financial wizard (played by Robert Pattinson) and a number of his employees and hangers on. Nevertheless, there were certain sequences which were very impressive - particularly a segment in which Packer discusses economics with his 'Head of Theory' (Samantha Morton) in his limo, completely ignoring a full scale anarchist riot which is taking place in the streets outside. Pattinson, who appears in almost every shot of the film, is much better than I had expected - he plays an emotionally detached New York businessman almost as well as Christian Bale in American Psycho. On the whole, like Prometheus, it's a film I might need to see again before I can decide whether it was a success or a failure.

No list this week (again) - I'm still trying to put together a top ten comedies, which is taking rather longer than expected. As I'll be out of the country next Sunday, it might a week or two before that list sees the light of day.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Ghost World (2001)

"Enid: You know, we need to find a place where you can go to meet women who share your interests.
Seymour: Well maybe I don't want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests."

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The week in brief (4 -10 June)

This week, I have been mostly watching...

Another Year (2010) 8/10
The Page Turner (La tournese du pages) (2006) 6/10
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) 8/10
Laura (1944) 7/10
Goon (2011) 6/10
Prometheus (2012) 7/10
The 'Burbs (1989) 7/10
Innerspace (1987) 7/10
My Week With Marilyn (2011) 6/10
Almost Famous (2000) 8/10
The Ace of Innocence (1993) 7/10
Boogie Nights (1997) 9/10 

In terms of films I was watching for the first time, Another Year is probably my pick of the week. It's a low-key drama from Mike Leigh (a director who's been responsible for a number of films I've enjoyed, including Naked, Happy Go Lucky and Vera Drake). A simple story of the year in the life of a happily married middle aged couple and their rather less than content friends, the film feels incredibly true to life and contains a great script and strong performances from the likes of Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen (and in particular) Lesley Manville.

Also very good were a pair of vintage films: Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Laura. The former is Frank Capra's classic tale of a smalltown idealist betrayed by political corruption in the American Senate, a film which is notable for inspiring a Golden Age Simpsons episode. The actual movie didn't have any corrupt lobbyists attempting to drill for oil in Teddy Roosevelt's head, but it's still pretty damn entertaining. The latter picture was lent to me by my Grandma and concerns the investigation into the murder of a beautiful femme fatale played by Gene Tierney. I didn't find it to be quite up to the standards of my favourite film noirs (such as Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep), but it's nevertheless well worth a watch.

There were two other brilliant movies which I caught for the third time this week: Almost Famous and Boogie Nights. The themes of both films share a strong connection; both are set in the '70s and concern a young man running away from his parents to join a surrogate family. In Almost Famous, this family is made up of a rock band (and its associated hangers on) - in Boogie Nights, the family unit is made up of the cast and crew of adult movies. Anyway, both are great, great films with excellent soundtracks. Paul Thomas Anderson (who directed Boogie Nights, as well as Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood) is returning later on this summer with his first film for five years. It's called The Master, and explores the shadowy world of Scientology. I'll be waiting on tenterhooks until the movie's UK release date.

I didn't see any movies this week which I would regard as 'bad', but there were a few minor disappointments. The Page Turner was a French cuckoo-in-the-nest thriller which built up the tension very effectively, but was rather marred by a dull, anti climatic ending. Goon was a surprisingly sweet comedy about an ice hockey enforcer in the Canadian minor leagues, but I couldn't stand the idiotic, foul mouthed supporting character played by Jay Baruchel. My Week With Marilyn was a bit of a non event as a movie, but was brought up to 'slightly above par' by a great lead performance from Michelle Williams.

That just leaves me with Prometheus, Ridley Scott's prequel to Alien. It was a film which left me with rather conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it's a really ambitious, intelligent picture which at least attempts to do something interesting with its big budget (unlike a large number of other recent major Hollywood productions). I was impressed with some of the acting - Michael Fassbender, as David, the ship's android, and Noomi Rapace, the closest thing we have to Ripley in this film, Dr Elizabeth Shaw were both very good. On the other hand, the film was full of plot holes, unresolved plot threads and things that just didn't make much sense. These included (potential spoilers ahead) - why weren't the crew informed of the nature of their mission before they went aboard? Why would the ship's biologist attempt to pet a dangerous looking space snake? How exactly did the black goo create a super size facehugger? I feel like I should try to watch the film for a second time so that I can resolve my feelings about it, but until that point I'll have to give it the middling grade of 7/10.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

American Psycho (2000)

"Waiter: Would you like to hear today's specials?
Patrick Bateman: Not if you want to keep your spleen."

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Listorama! My Top Ten Scorsese Films

Having covered one great American director in my last list, this time I thought I'd move on to another of my favourite filmmakers, Martin Scorsese. This list was a little trickier to put together than my Stanley Kubrick top ten - while Kubrick only made a total of 13 feature films throughout his career, Marty has been much more prolific. Since 1967, he's made a total of 23 full length movies - and that's not including the shorts, documentaries and TV work he's done in that time.

In putting together my list, I had to exclude a fair few films on the basis that I haven't seen them (Who's That Knocking At My Door, Boxcar Bertha, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, New York New York, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence and Kundun). Of the others, I can't say that there's ever been a Scorsese film I haven't enjoyed to some extent, but there are a few I've seen which didn't quite make the grade (this category includes After Hours, The Color of Money, Gangs of New York, The Aviator and Hugo).

Here's my Scorsese top ten - a collection of fantastic movies from one of the greatest directors of all time.

10. Cape Fear (1991)

The first of many movies on this list featuring the dream team combination of Scorsese's direction and Robert De Niro's acting, this remake of the '60s classic is a gripping thriller with a scarily committed De Niro on fine form as the psychotic Max Cady. In my opinion, it never quite reaches the intensity of the original film, but it's still highly entertaining; I suppose its one major flaw is the lack of a scene in which Cady repeatedly steps on a rake...

9. Bringing out the Dead (1999)

Martin Scorsese working with Nicolas Cage? It happened - though this was back in 1999, when Cage was still a credible actor instead of the gurning lunatic - putting out five films a year in order to pay off his massive debts - that we know and tolerate today. This film is another collaboration between Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the genius screenwriter behind two films which will feature later on in my list, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. While it doesn't quite measure up to those two masterpieces, BOTD is an excellent picture in its own right, a nightmarish vision of New York as Hell with Nic Cage's paramedic as your tour guide.

8. Shutter Island (2010)

The most recent film on this list, Shutter Island is proof that Martin Scorsese is still more than capable of putting together something brilliant at this late stage in his career. Leonardo Di Caprio, who has taken on the mantle of Scorsese's leading man from Robert De Niro, is the star of this one, and plays an exhausted FBI agent investigating the mysterious disappearance of an inmate from an isolated mental institution. Though I'm not entirely convinced that the big twist at the end of the movie stands up to close scrutiny, Shutter Island is a successful attempt by Scorsese to try his hand at the horror genre. It's tense, atmospheric and creepy, with a number of terrifying moments.

7. Mean Streets (1972)

As I mentioned when I reviewed this one a few days ago, this early Scorsese picture serves up a statement of intent about a number of the key themes that he would examine time and time again in his movies: Catholic guilt, violence and criminality. It also contains two other elements which can often be found in the best of Martin Scorsese's work: a thrilling lead performance from Robert De Niro and a brilliant soundtrack. Fans of Goodfellas and Casino will definitely get a kick out of this movie too.

6. The King of Comedy (1983)

Possibly Scorsese's strangest film, The King of Comedy takes a look at the darker side of fame. De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a deluded wannabe comedian who kidnaps his idol, a talk show host played by Jerry Lee Lewis. Watching this one is often an uncomfortable experience, but it's one of Scorsese's most interesting films and is remarkably far sighted about the celebrity obsessed culture in which we live today.

5. The Departed (2006)

The film which finally won Scorsese the Best Director Oscar he'd deserved for a long time (probably since Taxi Driver was beaten to the punch, so to speak, by Rocky in 1976). It's a brilliant tale of greed, ambition and revenge in the Boston underworld, and has a whole series of unexpected plot twists that keep you guessing right up to the end. It's also one of the few Scorsese films to have inspired an episode of The Simpsons; though The Debarted is no Bart the Murderer or Cape Feare, it's definitely one of the better recent instalments that I've seen.

4. Casino (1995)

A sort-of sequel to the massively successful Goodfellas, the action is moved from the tough streets of Brooklyn to the glitzy boulevards of Las Vegas, but again looks into the lives of mid level mafia operatives. This was De Niro's final film with Scorsese (to date), and he goes out with a bang, putting in stellar work as Casino boss Sam Rothstein. However, he is arguably outshone by Joe Pesci's portrayal of Nicky Santoro, a gangster with an insatiable appetite for gambling and a volcanic temper. The picture is perhaps a little flabby in places, and suffers a little in comparison with Goodfellas, but it's still a terrific mafia movie.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

We now move into the realm of absolute, stone cold classics - possibly the greatest film ever made about boxing (and about man's capacity for self destruction), Raging Bull follows the career of legendary middleweight Jake La Motta. We are taken from the fighter's roots in the Bronx, through to his time as a world champion and then on to his post boxing days, working as a shabby nightclub comic and trading off his former glories.  Once again, Scorsese draws a wonderful performance out of De Niro. He plays Jake De La Motta at various stages in his life and is equally is convincing as an angry, violent young man and as the flabby, washed up failure he became in later life. If nothing else, this film has some of the most astonishing fight scenes ever committed to film - watching La Motta fight, you can almost feel every punch he takes to the chin.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

Based on the true story of New York mafioso Henry Hill, Goodfellas is up there with the Godfather Parts One and Two as the greatest films ever made about organised crime. While Coppola's movies look at the pressures faced by those at the top of the mafia food chain, Scorsese takes us into the lives of three workaday gangsters in Brooklyn. Spanning thirty years (from Hill's induction into the mob in the '50s up to his eventual arrest in the early '80s), we see the highs and lows of the criminal life. It's an absolutely fantastic film, with dozens of memorable scenes, a brilliantly quotable script and a sensational soundtrack.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

(Previously reviewed here). To be honest, any of the top three films on this list could have grabbed the top spot, but I had to make my choice, and probably because it's the one I've seen most recently, Taxi Driver comes out as numero uno. Robert De Niro is, once again, superb in this film, playing an alienated loner who takes a job driving taxis on the streets of New York as a way of working through his crippling insomnia. While on his nightly rounds of the city, he dreams about taking violent action against the pimps and drug dealers he sees on his travels. It's a powerful examination of isolation, loneliness and violence, with a tremendous script from Paul Schrader, an outstanding score from Bernard Herrmann, but possibly the most important element is the cinematography; New York has rarely looked so beautiful and yet so menacing at the same time. The best film Scorsese has ever made? I think so.

Monday, 4 June 2012

That was the week that was (28 May - 3 June)

Only a couple of films watched this week, so I reckon I should give them a proper TWTWTW write up. Just like the old days...

Win Win (2011)

This is the kind of film which I find particularly difficult to write about. By that I mean that it was pretty decent, on the whole, but there was nothing particularly distinctive or memorable about it. It's the story of Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a forty something lawyer with a wife and young daughter, who moonlights as a wrestling coach for the local high school in his spare time. Into his life comes the young grandson of one of his elderly clients, a sullen teenager with a tremendous gift for wrestling. Flaherty takes him into his home and encourages to get involved with the team, but pretty soon, the boy's ex-junkie mother arrives on the scene, which spells trouble for everyone... Now, as I mentioned above, it's a solid film, which succeeds in making wrestling (a sport which I had always regarded as a bit of a joke) seem exciting. Giamatti turns in a fine performance as always, and Amy Ryan (who I remember best for playing Beady Russell in The Wire), is also on good form as Mike's wife, Jackie. Bobby Cannavale is less successful in the role of Mike's best friend - he seems manic and frantic at all times, wildly mugging for the camera, and is generally a bit of an irritant. As a comedy drama, it's partly successful; the dramatic side of the story is quite engaging, but as a comedy, not so much - it raised a few chuckles every now and then, but wasn't exactly laugh out loud funny. Still, for Giamatti's performance alone, I'm going to be generous and award this one a '7'.

Rating: 7/10

Mean Streets (1973)

For this week's list (coming up in the next couple of days), I'm going to be doing my top ten Martin Scorsese pictures. As homework for that assignment, I thought I'd revisit one of his earliest films - and his first collaboration with Robert De Niro, Mean Streets. To be honest, the first time I saw this picture I didn't think too much of it, but that had more to do with the very low quality of the VHS tape I was watching, which rendered the majority of the dialogue inaudible. This time around, I was much more receptive to the film's merits (and due to watching a DVD, was actually able to understand what the characters were saying). The plot follows a number of low level gangsters living in New York's Little Italy in the early '70s. Foremost among this rogue's gallery we have Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who has been brought into this life by his mafioso uncle, and feels a tremendous sense of guilt about it all. The other key character is Johnny Boy (De Niro), a reckless, wild eyed gambler who owes money all over town, and seems hell bent on self destruction. Though the film looks into the themes of male violence, criminality and Catholic guilt that Scorsese would return to again and again in his career, it feels a little raw compared to a movie like Goodfellas. Nevertheless, there are a couple of magnificently directed scenes which are early indicators of Scorsese's genius. The first is a wonderfully chaotic scene, following Charlie on a drunken bender at his favourite bar, all set to the tune of Rubber Biscuit by The Chips. The other tracks a similarly inebriated Johnny Boy, as he staggers through the streets of Little Italy, desperate to avoid a meeting with one of the many loan sharks to whom he owes money. Though it's a fine film, I'm not quite sure how high it's going to come in my upcoming top ten - I guess you'll just have to watch this space to find out...

Rating: 8/10

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Heathers (1988)

"Veronica Sawyer: Betty Finn was a true friend, and I sold her out for a bunch of Swatch dogs and Diet Coke heads."