Sunday, 26 August 2012

The week in brief (20 - 26 August)

Right then, a quick recap of what I've been watching over the last seven days. This week's list is as follows:

Rampart (2011): 7/10
Midnight Run (1988): 7/10
Total Recall (1990): 8/10
Aguirre, Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes) (1972): 7/10
The Warriors (1979): 6/10
8½ (1963): 7/10
Vanishing Point (1971): 8/10

Starting with my favourite films of the week; it's a two way tie on this occasion. First up, we have Total Recall, which I previously reviewed here. Rather like Father Larry Duff, it's always tremendous fun. Secondly, I really enjoyed the '70s car chase picture Vanishing Point. The plot is so simple you could write it on the back of a postage stamp (heroic driver leads the police a merry dance en route from Denver to San Francisco, becomes counter-cultural hero), but with a film as exhilarating as Vanishing Point, that doesn't really matter. Although some of the politics and ideas on display are very much of its era, the cinematography (with stunning views of the Western United States) and stunts haven't aged at all.

Most of the other films I saw were all much of a muchness this week, achieving the 'good but not great' grade of 7/10. Two of those movies stood out for me as being complete opposites of one another: firstly, Rampart, based on a screenplay by a writer I really admire, James Ellroy. It's the story of Dave Brown, an LAPD officer who's a classic Ellroy character - a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, he's a violent, racist thug who is perfectly happy to break the law to bring a suspect to 'justice', but on the other hand, he's also a highly articulate, intelligent and well read individual who is doing his best to keep his family together. Woody Harrelson is excellent in the central role of Brown, and the film builds up to a intriguing climax as he finds himself under investigation for the (somewhat provoked) beating of a motorist, with his superiors wanting to use the incident as a pretext to kick him off the force. However, just as the film reaches a crescendo, it suddenly and without warning stops, which left me feeling completely frustrated. I'm not averse to an ambiguous end to a movie, but in this instance, it almost felt as if the filmmakers had run out of money during the production and decided to just end the movie fourth fifths of the way through. It's a real shame, because otherwise, it's a movie I would highly recommend.

Secondly, a film which I found to be the polar opposite of Rampart - Werner Herzog's historical drama Aguirre, Wrath of God. Now, I've seen a couple of documentaries by Herzog, but I believe this is the first time I've seen one of his fictional pieces. At first, I wasn't overly impressed; the story of the search for 'El Dorado', the lost city of gold, by the Spanish conquistadors is a potentially fascinating one, but I found the placing to be a little slow for my tastes for the first half of the film. However the ending to the picture rather changed my mind as to its merits. (Potential spoilers ahead). The way in which the leader of the group, the villainous Aguirre, becomes increasingly unhinged is built up steadily through the course of the movie and leads to the fantastic final scene. We find Aguirre cut adrift on a raft on the Amazon, surrounded by his mostly dead crewmates and an army of howling monkeys. It's a bizarre, fitting and highly memorable finish to an uneven movie.

Just one film which was on the lacklustre side this week; Walter Hill's The Warriors. This tale of urban punks fighting their way back to Coney Island to the Bronx was fun, if a little silly. It's hard to take a movie too seriously when the various gangs of 'street toughs' resemble back up dancers at a Prince concert from the 1980s.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

(This week's quote of the week has been chosen to celebrate the fact that Stanley Kubrick's best film (IMO) is going be re-released in UK cinemas this Halloween with an extra 21 minutes of footage. I can't wait!)

The Shining (1980)
"Delbert Grady: Your son has a very great talent. I don't think you are aware how great it is. That he is attempting to use that very talent against your will.
Jack Torrance: He is a very willful boy.
Delbert Grady: Indeed he is, Mr. Torrance. A very willful boy. A rather naughty boy, if I may be so bold, sir.
Jack Torrance: It's his mother. She, uh, interferes.
Delbert Grady: Perhaps they need a good talking to, if you don't mind my saying so. Perhaps a bit more. My girls, sir, they didn't care for the Overlook at first. One of them actually stole a pack of matches, and tried to burn it down. But I "corrected" them sir. And when my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty, I "corrected" her."

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Listorama! My Top Ten French Films

Well, I'm back with another list.

Initially I was thinking of just doing a list of my top ten favourite foreign language films, but I realised that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. Instead, I'll be doing a series of different lists - starting with this one, on French language films, then moving on to one on Spanish language pictures, and finally a list of my top ten South Korean and Japanese movies.

As ever, there were a few films which came close to making the final cut, but just missed out. These include Mesrine: Killer Instinct/ Public Enemy #1, Au Revoir Les Enfants, A Very Long Engagement, Time Out, Hidden (Cache) and the City of Lost Children. Close, but no cigar gentlemen.

Right then, without any further preamble, let's get on with the list...

10. Anything For Her (Pour elle) (2008)

This gripping thriller sees the life of ordinary family man Julien (Vincent Lindon) thrown into disarray as his wife (Diane Kruger) is arrested, and then imprisoned for the murder of her boss. Feeling that she has been the victim of a terrible injustice, Julien resolves to do everything he can to bust her out of prison. The film was recently remade as the Russell Crowe vehicle 'The Next Few Days', but I'd be surprised if the remake comes close to the tension or excitement of the original. It's cracking entertainment from start to finish.

9. The Diving Bell & the Butterfly (Le schaphandre et le papillon) (2007)

A tremendously moving and unique film which tells the amazing story of Jean-Dominique Bauby in his own words. Formerly a high flying magazine editor, Bauby suffered a  terrible stroke, which left him almost completely paralysed and only able to communicate by blinking his left eye. Despite this handicap, he resolves to write a book telling the story of his life. As well as being tragic and poignant, the film is also unexpectedly amusing, and Bauby is remarkably candid about himself, showing both the good and bad sides to his character. It's a mark of the film's success that it won or was nominated for numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic (including at the BAFTAs, Cesars and Oscars).

8. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon couer s'est arrete)  (2005)

The first of two mentions on this list for genius director Jacques Audiard. This brilliant but highly unusual movie has leading man Romain Duris torn between following his father into a life of crime and pursuing his dreams of becoming a pianist. As an entirely tedious aside to this list, I used to have these film on DVD, but foolishly chose to swap it for a copy of Pan's Labyrinth. Now, Pan's Labyrinth is a fine film in its own right, but I still feel that I may have got the short end of the stick. To translate this film's appeal into a simple mathematical equation, Jacques Audiard + Romain Duris = awesomeness.

7. The Class (Entre les murs) (2008)

Proof that you don't always need big name stars, a high concept premise or a huge budget to create a brilliant film, The Class documents a year in the life of a teacher at an inner city comprehensive in Paris. While that might not sound like the most thrilling set up for a movie, there's more tension, intrigue and excitement in this one classroom than in any number of lame Hollywood thrillers. What's even more remarkable is that the cast is largely made up of non professional actors, who improvise together brilliantly. Formidable!

6. Switchblade Romance (Haute tension) (2003)

This French take on the slasher genre is one of the best horror films I've seen in recent years. Tough young student Marie (Cecile De France) arrives at her friend's house in the country for a weekend getaway, but finds herself pursued by a remorseless lunatic wielding a straight razor. Try as she might, she can't seem to shake the killer, and her flight from him puts everyone in her path in danger. One small downside: for some reason, when the film was released in the UK, it was under the uninspired title "Switchblade Romance", instead of the original (and far cooler sounding) "Haute Tension". But that's hardly a major problem. It's grim, scary and thrilling, with a controversial twist at the end.

5. La Haine (1995)

A dark, disturbing look at the side of Paris which you don't see on postcards, this gritty urban drama from Mattieu Kassovitz examines the lives of three young residents of one of the outer arondissements in the aftermath of a riot. We spend a day with the level headed boxer Hubert, wisecracking Said and the tightly wound, unpredictable Vinz, all of whom have different views on their lot in life. The film seems eerily prophetic in view of the widespread rioting which has affected both London and Paris over the last decade, and finishes with a powerful, haunting climax. This was the first French film I ever purchased on DVD, and remains one of my all time favourites.

4. Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) (2001)

Moving on from something dark and gritty to a light and delicious concoction. Ameleie is the complete opposite of La Haine, painting a rosy picture of the lives and loves of a number of residents of Paris' Montmatre district. Audrey Tautou is superb as the eponymous heroine of the story, a shy young woman who seeks to improve the lives of the eccentric but loveable people around her. The film has been criticised for painting a misleading and unrealistic picture of modern day Paris, but I think these criticisms are missing the point. The film isn't supposed to be a true to life representation of the modern world, it's a kind of fairytale, an idealised version of reality. Above all else, it's astonishingly beautiful to look at - director Jean-Paul Jeunet has a wonderful eye, and the production design on the movie is absolutely top notch.

3. Les Diaboliques (1955)
Based on a bestselling novel by Boileau-Narcejac, director Henri-Georges Cleuzot apparently swooped in at the last minute to gazump Alfred Hitchcock in the battle for the rights to make the story. Having done so, Cleuzot proceeded to make a thriller as full of tension and suspense as the very best films that Hitchcock made himself. The plot sees the wife (Christine) and mistress (Nicole) of a cruel schoolmaster teaming up to arrange a seemingly perfect murder. Despite the plan appearing to have gone off without a hitch, Christine's nerves are set on edge as she keeps seeing visions of her late husband. Meanwhile, a suspicious detective is hot on the trail of the culprits... It's just a superb, gripping movie, with fine performances all round and a plot with a brilliant twist in the tale.

2. Delicatessen (1991)

A second appearance for director Jean-Paul Jeunet on this list, this time in partnership with Marc Caro. As with Amelie, the film is a treat for the eyes, and though it's still funny, things are taken in a far darker direction this time. Set in the near future, we see a vision of a post-apocalyptic Paris in which food is in terribly short supply. The inhabitants of a run down tower block have arranged a devilish scheme to get their hands on some grub; they advertise in the paper for a new handyman, then after he's arrived, settled in and fixed a few problems, he's turned into cuts of meat and eaten... As is typical with Jeunet movies, the block of flats are populated by a host of eccentrics, from the fiendish, charismatic butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), his timid, shortsighted daughter, a man who lives in soggy flat full of frogs and of course, the ill-fated handyman, a former clown played by the rubber faced Dominique Pinon. I believe this was the first French film (or indeed subtitled film of any sort) that I ever saw, and it's always been dear to my heart.

1. A Prophet (Un prophète) (2009)

Imagine a French take on the HBO series Oz, add in a dash of Goodfellas and a hint of The Shawshank Redemption, and you've got A Prophet. An astonishingly powerful and gripping story, this movie takes hold of you from the very first frame and never lets go. In many ways, it's a damning indictment of the French prison system; young inmate Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) comes into prison as a naive, illiterate petty thug. After he is taken under the wing of coldblooded Corsican gangster Cesar Luciani (the brilliant Niels Arestrup) and trained as a killer, he emerges from his sentence as a fully fledged criminal mastermind. I remember being absolutely blown away by this film when I first saw it at the cinema; in all honesty, I don't think I've seen a better movie since then. Still, Jacques Audiard is returning with a new picture (Rust and Bone) in November, so I'll have to see if he can top this masterpiece.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The week in brief (13 - 19 August)

This week, I have been mostly watching...

Repo Man (1984): 7/10
Brave (2012): 7/10
The Caine Mutiny (1954): 8/10
Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren) (2010): 6/10
The Getaway (1972): 7/10
Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) (1953): 5/10

My pick of the week goes to the classic '50s picture, The Caine Mutiny. It works as a character study, as an interesting insight into the lives of sailors during the second world war, and, towards the end of the film, as a gripping courtroom drama. However, for me it is probably most noteworthy for featuring a fascinating lead performance from Humphrey Bogart (just three years before he died). Bogart is an actor I associate with playing wise-cracking, anti-authoritarian types, but in The Caine Mutiny he takes on the role of Lt. Commander Queeg, a rather pathetic man whose personality is a mixture of arrogance, officiousness and cowardliness in the face of danger. I'm not sure whether the movie is a match for the classic Simpsons episode The Canine Mutiny (for one thing, there's no Chief Wiggum singing Jammin'), but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I made my first trip to the cinema for a while, watching Brave, the latest animated film from Pixar. Set in medieval Scotland, we see feisty young princess Merida seek to defy her parents' wishes that she get married, as she instead seeks to forge her own path. The fairytale nature of the storyline means that it perhaps isn't quite as engaging for adults as a number of other Pixar releases (my personal favourites being Ratatouille, Toy Story 3 and The Incredibles). Still, it's beautifully animated and quite touching and is all in all a very solid effort. (By the way - I'm aware that I mentioned last week that I was planning to see The Bourne Legacy this week - that's been put on the back burner for the time being, but I'm hopeful I'll get around to watching it soon.)

Moving on to disappointments for the week - first of all, Yasujiro Ozu's highly regarded Tokyo Story. This is becoming a bit of a recurring theme for this blog, but as with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Of Gods and Men, I find myself having to justify my reasons for giving a critically beloved film a mixed or negative review. So here we go: I could appreciate that there were some interesting themes discussed in the movie - the way in which we treat our elders in society, changes in Japanese society after the Second World War, facing our own mortality - but the pacing was just far too slow for me, and I found myself clockwatching at regular intervals. Ultimately, getting through the film was a bit of a chore. I suppose I'll just have to be honest and admit that I'd much rather watch something like Pulp Fiction -  a big delicious cheeseburger of a movie - than an Ozu film, which is more akin to a formal twelve course dinner.

Also a little disappointing was the Scandinavian found footage horror film Troll Hunter, in which a group of student film makers discover that trolls are real - and are living in the forests of Northern Norway. It isn't terrible by any stretch of the imagination, and works pretty well as a promotional film for tourism in Norway, with plenty of footage of beautiful scenery in remote Nordic locations. Still, for a film which is nominally billed as a horror movie, it doesn't really deliver any scares.

Next week is a bank holiday weekend here in the UK, and I'm very conscious that I haven't put together a proper list for a while. I'll aim to rectify that situation shortly with a list of my top ten French films.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Repo Man (1984)

"Miller: The life of a repo man is always intense."

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The fortnight in brief (30 July - 12 August)

I'm going to try and keep this week's round up pretty brief. I have three (fairly) good reasons for this:

1. My intensive regime of Olympics watching over the last fortnight hasn't given a great deal of time to spare to the world of movies.

2. Only one of the films I've seen recently really stood out. The rest were just fair to middling, with little for me to say about them.

3. I'm about halfway through Jon Ronson's brilliant non-fiction book "The Psychopath Test" and I'm very keen to finish it off tonight.

Anyway, having said all that, here's the latest list of movies watched:

Naked Lunch (1991): 8/10
Carnage (2011): 6/10
The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au velo) (2011): 7/10
Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di bicyclette) (1948): 6/10
Cyrus (2010): 6/10

I'll start with my clear 'pick of the fortnight' - David Cronenbourg's crazy adaptation of William Burrough's (apparently) even crazier novel, Naked Lunch. It's pretty much impossible to capture the madness of this movie in a few sentences, but it concerns the life of an insect exterminator who accidentally kills his wife and is forced to flee to a North African haven for criminals known as 'Interzone'. Whilst there, we get to meet secret agents, giant insects who literally talk out of their backsides, junkies who inject ground up caterpillars into their arms and disgusting fleshy typewriters. While I can't say I ever completely understood what was going on, I loved Peter Weller's central performance as William Burroughs' surrogate, and I can safely say that I was never bored.

If only the rest of the films I saw this week were as memorable. Carnage is Roman Polanski's latest - a comedy of manners, set in an upper-middle family's home in Manhattan. It's occasionally drily amusing, but feels very stagey - more of a play than a movie.   

The Kid With A Bike came out to a great deal of critical praise, and concerns a troubled young boy growing up on a housing estate in Belgium. I felt that this one was well made and well acted, but it's rather a low key affair - there's never too much at stake. On a similar theme of bicycles and poverty, I rented Bicycle Thieves on the basis of its consistently high showing in the Sight and Sound Top Ten list. I have to be completely honest and admit that I was really exhausted as I was watching it, and kept drifting off to sleep. From what I saw, there wasn't too much to be excited about, but I should probably give it another try when I'm a bit more wakeful.

Finally, we have Cyrus, which is kind of like what Step Brothers would have been like if it had been made by the Duplass brothers. It takes things in a more thoughtful, talky direction than Step Brothers, but for a film billed as a comedy, it largely neglects to include any laughs. What's most astonishing about the film is that Marisa Tomei was 45 years old when it was made. She must have access to a time machine or some sort of elixir of eternal life, because she looks about half that age.

Right, that's all I've got time for this week, but I shall return with a more comprehensive round up next Sunday. There isn't too much out at the cinema at present, but I feel a trip to see The Bourne Legacy might be in order...

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

"Blake: We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize?
[Holds up prize]
Blake: Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired."

Friday, 3 August 2012

Listorama! My Top Five Arnie One Liners

I'm off this weekend to watch a bit of the Olympics, so won't have time to post my usual weekly update (instead, I'll do a double edition on Sunday week). To keep things ticking over, and to mark the upcoming release of the (probably terrible) remake of Total Recall I thought I'd put together a quick list of Arnold Schwarzenegger's best one liners.

Back in his prime, when he was content with merely taking out swathes of faceless goons on screen rather than governing California, Arnie could always be counted upon to deliver a few laughs along with a generous helping of mindless violence. It got to the point where he couldn't dispatch a bad guy without serving up a comical put down, delivered in an Austrian drawl. This trend reached it's pinnacle with his awesome(ly bad) performance in Batman and Robin, where pretty much every word out of his mouth was a cheesy pun of some description.

Choosing a top five wasn't easy, but this hopefully should give you a flavour of the great man's work...

5. Total Recall (1990) 

The Set Up: Douglas Quaid (Arnie) has just commandeered the wheel of a futuristic taxi, driven by an incredibly irritating autopilot (Johnnycab). Johnnycab has the cheek to ask Quaid for his taxi fare.

The Line: "Sue me, dickhead!"

4. True Lies (1994)

The Set Up: Harry Tasker (Arnie) has just had a protracted fight in a public toilet with a couple of terrorists. When he finally gets the better of the second of the pair, he flushes a urinal on the unfortunate fellow's head...

The Line: "Cool off!"

3. The Running Man (1987)

The Set Up: In the evil gladiatorial games of the future, Ben Richards (Arnie) is fighting for his life on live TV. Along the way, Richards cuts one of his pursuers in half with his own chainsaw.

The Line: "He had to split!"

2. Last Action Hero (1993)

The Set Up: As one of the finest dramatic actors of his generation, it was inevitable that Arnie would get the chance to play the Dane at some point in his career. Here is his interpretation of Hamlet's most famous scene.

The Line: "To be or not to be? Not to be!"

1. Predator (1987)


The Set Up: Arnie nails a guy to the wall with a knife. What more can I say?

The Line: "Stick around!"

If that's whetted your appetite for some vintage Arnie one liners, there's a whole load more of them here...