Monday, 24 September 2012

The week in brief (17 - 23 September)

This week's list of movies watched:

The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992): 6/10
Lawless (2012): 8/10
Fletch (1985): 6/10
Wild Bill (2011): 8/10
Ring (Ringu) (1998): 8/10
Anna Karenina (2012): 6/10

I'll start off with a review of the new films I saw in the cinema this week, then move on to a quick recap of everything else.

Lawless is the latest picture from Australian director John Hillcoat. I was a big fan of his previous effort, The Proposition, and am pleased to be able to report that this one is similarly successful. Set in the rural American South during the Prohibition era, it's the story of the Bondurant brothers, who have been manufacturing moonshine for some time with the tacit co-operation of the corrupt local sheriff. That all changes when a cold eyed Special Deputy named Charlie Rakes moves into town, demanding a cut of the profits for himself... There are no real 'good guys' in this film - just about every character is morally compromised to some extent - but next to the cold and sadistic Rakes, the Bondurant brothers are veritable saints. The movie is beautifully shot, with gorgeous cinematography showing the changing seasons of Franklin County, Virginia. There's also an impressive cast, including the likes of Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Shia LeBeouf, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowka. Nick Cave, who provided Hillcoat with a brilliant screenplay for The Proposition, comes up trumps again here with another strong script, whilst also providing a number of songs for the soundtrack. Just a couple of minor quibbles; firstly, Gary Oldman's character, a Chicago gangster, is introduced in grand style, but is then pretty much absent for the rest of the film. Secondly, I wasn't completely convinced by the climax to the movie - I felt that for such a memorable villain, Rakes doesn't really get the send off he deserves.

Anna Karenina sees director Joe Wright team up with lead actress Keira Knightley for the third time in their respective careers, with a slightly unusual adaptation of the classic Russian novel.  I have to confess that I'm not normally a huge fan of costume dramas/ classic literature adaptations, but having awarded Wright's previous film the prestigious title of 'Kirk's Film of the Year', I thought I should check this one out. The twist that Wright puts on this adaptation is that a significant proportion of the film has the actors appearing on stage in a theatre, but this technique was only used for certain scenes in the story - at other times, the action was shot in open air. While this was an interesting idea, I wasn't 100% sure what the director was getting at by doing this. I also felt that the film to be slightly over long, and I found that it started to drag a bit towards the end. Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Domnhall Gleeson and Matthew MacFadyen all turn in good performances, though I was less impressed with Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Moving on to the best of the rest, I saw two movies this week which were both up there with Lawless as contenders for my pick of the week. Wild Bill was an unexpectedly moving debut feature from Dexter Fletcher. The story of an ex-con returning to his home in East London and determined not to reoffend, the film has a lot of heart, some believable and memorable characters, and fine performances from Charlie Creed-Miles (as Bill) and young actor Will Poulter (as his eldest son). Also very good was Ringu, the Japanese version of the hit Hollywood horror film The Ring. As I'd already seen (and enjoyed) the remake some years ago, there weren't any massive shocks or surprises in watching the original. However, I reckon the Japanese version is a slightly superior film - the start and finish of the movie are very tense, there's a consistently creepy atmosphere throughout and the soundtrack is eery and unnerving.

In the 'good, but not great category', we have Fletch, a Chevy Chase comedy vehicle from the '80s which is very much of its era, though there are still a few laughs to be found. Finally, I watched The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, a competently made cuckoo-in-the-nest thriller about a vengeful nanny. It gains marks for Rebecca de Mornay's performance as the plausible but diabolical villain, but loses them for a rather embarassing turn from Ernie Hudson (the fourth ghostbuster himself), who plays a simple minded handyman in much the same way as Ben Stiller's character in Tropic Thunder played 'Simple Jack'. To me, what's more interesting than the film itself is the career of its director, Curtis Hanson. He helmed one of my all time favourite movies, L.A. Confidential, which I think is an absolute masterpiece, but other than that, his resume is decidedly spotty. Other than Wonder Boys and 8 Mile (both of which I would regard as solid, but not amazing films), most of his other stuff is pretty mediocre. It just makes you wonder why it all came together for him so wonderfully on that one picture, and why he was never able to fully replicate its success elsewhere.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Halloween (1978)

Dr Samuel Loomis: "I met this six year old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply evil... He's been here once tonight. I think he'll come back. I'm gonna wait for him."

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The week in brief (10 - 16 September)

This week, I have been mostly watching...

Slap Shot (1977): 7/10
Boiler Room (2000): 8/10
Fitzcarraldo (1982): 7/10
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001): 6/10

A pretty quiet week, all in all, so I should be able to do a quick run through of each of the above movies:

Having seen Goon a few months ago, it now seems clear to me that the movie either borrows heavily from (if you're feeling generous) or rips off (if you're not) the classic ice hockey comedy Slap Shot, which I saw for the first time this week. Struggling New England hockey team? Check. Violent tactics and thuggish enforcers brought in to the team to sell tickets? Check. Romantic entanglements off the rink? Check. However, whereas Goon was a vehicle for Seann William Scott, Slap Shot has significantly higher star power at its centre, with Paul Newman playing the team's player manager. Possibly because I have a fairly limited familiarity with the world of ice hockey, I didn't get all of the jokes and references to the sport, but due to Newman's excellent comic performance, I enjoyed myself all the same.

My pick of the week goes to Boiler Room, a film about the grubby lives of a group of unscrupulous New York stockbrokers. The script and some of the acting performances don't quite measure up to the heavyweight pictures in the 'ruthless businessmen' genre (I'd put Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross and Michael Douglas in Wall Street at the top of the pile here), but on the plus side, there's an excellent hip hop soundtrack and an endearingly odd lead actor in Giovanni Ribisi. I'll watch just about anything with Ribisi in it, whether it's a great movie like Lost In Translation, or a not so great movie (like Suburbia). Anyway, I think it's a positive sign that Boiler Room actually makes all the financial shenanigans seem exciting.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a Werner Herzog film in which a group of Spanish conquistadors get lost (and go a little crazy) in the South American rainforest. Fitzcarraldo is a Herzog movie in a similar vein, though set a few hundred years later (during the early twentieth century). On this occasion we follow Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (known as Fitzcarraldo by the Spanish speaking locals) as he attempts to access a previously inaccessible area of the forest in a bid to make his fortune as a rubber baron. Unlike the irredeemably greedy Aguirre, Fitzgerald is a more sympathetic character: he's a dreamer and wide-eyed optimist who decides that he can best achieve his goal by dragging a steamship over a large hill. I was a little confused by the ending of the movie, but I did enjoy Klaus Kinski's lead performance and the beautiful cinematography, which includes some stunning shots of the Amazon.

Finally, we have The Happiness of the Katakuris, a movie which I would describe as a sort of Japanese take on the early films of Peter Jackson, or (perhaps more accurately) as Shallow Grave: the musical. It's a bizarre film which really has to be seen to be believed. At the time, it was a bit of a departure for director Takashi Miike, who until that point was better known for his ultraviolent Yakuza pictures. Although it's a bit of a mess (in particular during a number of poorly animated stop motion sequences which fail to hit the mark), there are some genuinely hilarious moments amongst all the craziness. It's also one of the very few horror films you can sing along to.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Goodfellas (1990)

Stacks Edwards: What time is it?
Tommy DeVito: It's eleven thirty, we're supposed to be there by nine.
Stacks Edwards: Be ready in a minute.
Tommy DeVito: Yeah, you were always fuckin' late, you were late for your own fuckin' funeral.
[Tommy shoots him]

Friday, 14 September 2012

Listorama! My Top Five Tennis Films

To celebrate Andy Murray's brilliant maiden Grand Slam win on Monday night, I thought another list would be in order. This time, I'm doing a countdown of my favourite films which feature tennis prominently. (My lists of Spanish language and Japanese/ South Korean movies are on hold for the time being, but I promise that those lists will be appearing on this blog in the near(ish) future.)

Compiling this list has proved to be rather more difficult to do than I had initially anticipated. For some reason, tennis doesn't feature in the movies that often, and you can count the number of mainstream films which are primarily concerned with the sport on the fingers of one hand. This was a bit of a surprise to me - from the number of movie stars you see attending the latter stages of the Grand Slam events (including Kevin Spacey, Sean Connery, Will Ferrell, Matthew Perry etc.), it's obvious there's plenty of love for the game within Hollywood. You'd have thought at some point, these people would have at least discussed the idea of a making a wacky tennis comedy, a tennis biopic (adapting John McEnroe's autobiography would be a good idea), or hard-hitting tennis drama, but as far as I can see, no such movies are in the pipeline.

Before we get down to business, I should mention that I consulted this excellent online resource when putting this blog post together. Strangely, my number one pick was missing from their selection, but  it otherwise provides a far more complete picture of tennis on film than I could ever hope to achieve with this list.

As ever, there were a number of movies which just missed the cut. These films aren't necessarily any worse as movies than numbers 4 or 5 on my list, but I just felt that their connection to tennis was too tenuous to be included here. Films in this category include Clueless (brief tennis scene in gym class), Lucas (the object of the hero's affection is introduced practicing her ground strokes against a brick wall) and Dial M for Murder (the killer is an ex-professional tennis player, though I don't think a game ever actually takes place during the movie).

5. Wimbledon (2004)

Synopsis: Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) is a jaded British tennis player on the verge of retirement. He's given a new lease of life when he falls for Lizzie Bradbury, an beautiful up and coming American player (Kirsten Dunst). Will the power of love provide him with the impetus to win the Wimbledon title? (Spoiler: yes. Yes, it will.)

Anyone for tennis?  If the list were solely based on the amount of actual tennis played over the course of the picture, this movie would clearly come out on top. There are plenty of scenes featuring the sport as both Peter and Lizzie make their way towards the latter stages of the tournament. Unfortunately, I couldn't in good conscience list this film any higher than 5 on my list. It's a mediocre, predictable comedy which is pretty short on laughs.

4. Match Point (2005)

Synopsis: A film from Woody Allen's British period, this one sees Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a recently retired player who takes up a job as a coach at a swanky London club. He worms his way into the favours of an upper crust family, seeing both a wealthy socialite (Emily Mortimer) and her brother's fiancee (Scarlett Johansson). When everything starts to unravel, Meyers decides that the only way to maintain his position is to stage the perfect murder...

Anyone for tennis? As is common with every film on this list, it features a tennis pro as a central character. There's a tennis lesson at the start of the movie, and Allen uses a recurring motif of a tennis ball hitting the tape on the top of the net to symbolise the role chance plays in our lives. Unlike Wimbledon, I do like Match Point - it's a really well plotted thriller, though it is rather let down by Woody Allen's script, which establishes that the old guy really doesn't understand the way that English people speak nowadays.

3. Strangers on a Train (1951)

Synopsis: Alfred Hitchcock's psychological thriller (based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith) has tennis star Guy Haines meeting a fan named Bruno Anthony during the course of a train journey. As the pair strike up a conversation, both men reveal that there are people in their life who they'd sooner do without. In Haines' case, it's his unfaithful wife Miriam, while Anthony wishes to see the back of his father. Anthony suggests a plan ("Criss cross!") under which each man could commit the other's murder - as neither of them will have the motive for committing the other murder, the police will never suspect them. Haines shrugs the conversation off as a distasteful joke - but when Miriam is murdered, he finds that Anthony is deadly serious...

Anyone for tennis? A pivotal sequence in the movie has Guy rushing to finish off a tennis match so that he can beat Bruno to the scene of the crime (you can see it on Youtube here). We also get to see Guy walking on to a practice court under the unflinching eye of Bruno Anthony. There's no doubt that this is a great tennis film, but even without the tennis, it's still terrific - one of Hitchcock's best, in my opinion.

2. The Squid & the Whale (2005)

Synopsis:  This partially autobiographical comedy drama from Noah Baumbach looks back to his childhood in 1980s Brooklyn. During his parents' messy divorce, eldest son Walt Berkman takes the side of his pompous intellectual father while his younger brother decides to back his mother, who has been seeing a laid back tennis pro on the side.

Anyone for tennis? The division between the family is made clear in the very first scene, a tennis match which pits the family against one other (Frank's first line of the movie: "Mum and me versus you and Dad.")  Tennis is also the flash point for an argument between Frank and his father, as a highly prized Vitas Gerulaitis poster goes missing. This one comes highly recommended - it's one of my favourite comedies of recent years, with a tremendously witty script and brilliant performances from the likes of Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Jeff Daniels.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Synopsis:   This quirky comedy takes a look into the lives of the dysfunctional Tenenbaum family. An unconventional upbringing offered by their roguish father Royal has led to the three Tenenbaum children achieving early success in different fields: Chas was a financial whiz kid, Richie a champion tennis player and Margot a published playwright. Unfortunately, as the narrator of the story puts it: "All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster." When Royal returns and announces that he has only a short time to live, will the family manage to pull themselves back together?

Anyone for tennis? The film features what is definitely my favourite tennis scene of all time - in flashback, we see former champ Richie Tenenbaum's final match. Realising that he will never be able to be with the love of his life (his adopted sister Margot), he loses all hope in life and tennis, taking off his shoes and socks on court and slumping towards an unprecedented 0-6, 0-6, 0-6 defeat. It's a sad, but strangely amusing moment in a brilliant ensemble comedy, one of Wes Anderson's absolute best.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The week in brief (3 - 9 September)

My list of movies watched over the last seven days:

Lucas (1986): 6/10
Terror Train (1980): 5/10
Post Mortem (2010): 6/10
Kamikaze Girls (2004): 7/10
Arlington Road (1999): 7/10

I'm going to keep it short and sweet for this blog post - to be honest, I'm not sure I've got too much to say about this week's generally uninspiring selection of films.

Nothing really stood out as being outstandingly good, though a couple of films this week were fairly entertaining. Kamikaze Girls is the tale of two best friends from entirely different Japanese sub-cultures. Momoko is obsessed with Rococo era France, and spends her days waltzing around her town wearing elaborate, frilly dresses. and carrying a pink parasol, while Ichigo is a tough biker girl, kind hearted but short tempered. What could be have been a pretty standard coming of age story is raised up a notch or two by some highly inventive direction from Tetsuya Nakashima. He floods the screen with an explosion of colour, adds in some amusing animated sequences, and successfully brings to life a variety of dream sequences from the perspective of Momoko.

Arlington Road is a solidly watchable conspiracy thriller, starring Jeff Bridges as a college professor who becomes convinced that his new neighbour (played by Tim Robbins) is a potential terrorist. It takes a while to get going, but the movie draws successfully from a number of real life instances of domestic terrorism in the US during the '90s (such as the Oklahoma City bombings and the Ruby Ridge siege), and the film finishes with an unexpected (but satisfying) twist.

There were three candidates for worst film of the week, but in the end, Terror Train was the obvious choice. The title says it all really - it's about a murderer working his way through a group of dimwitted college students on board a steam train. Now, it certainly isn't the worst slasher movie I've ever seen - for one thing, in Ben Johnson and Jamie Lee Curtis, it has a couple of actors who are far better than the material they're given here - but it's definitely not a patch on the likes of Halloween, Black Christmas or even the original My Bloody Valentine. The director is never really able to create any real fear or suspense during any of the numerous killings, and the film is only notable for featuring a bizarre extended cameo from the magician David Copperfield. Only a better than average face off between the Final Girl and the killer raises this movie up to a relatively respectable mark of 5 out of 10.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. Looking at the line up of new cinematic releases for September, it looks like there will be plenty to keep me occupied for the next month

7 September: Lawless, Anna Karenina
14 September: ParaNorman, Premium Rush
21 September: Killing Them Softly
28 September: Looper

Following that, I'm eagerly anticipating the re-release of The Shining at the end of October, and there's still the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie (The Master) to look forward to. All potential candidates for my end of year top ten list.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Boyz N The Hood (1991)

"Furious Styles:  Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children."

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The week in brief (27 August - 2 September)

This week's list of movies watched:

The Bourne Legacy (2012): 8/10
The Last Boy Scout (1991): 5/10
Get Him to the Greek (2010): 7/10
The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009): 7/10
Possession (1981): 4/10
Shadow Dancer (2012): 8/10

As it turned, my two picks of the week for this edition of the blog were the two new releases I saw at the cinema: The Bourne Legacy and Shadow Dancer. The Bourne Legacy was an unexpectedly enjoyable experience - my desire to see the picture had been somewhat diminished by a number of unfavourable reviews, but from my point of view, the movie was about as good as it could possibly have been, given that this latest installment in the franchise was lacking previous director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon. Tony Gilroy (who has written the scripts for all of the Bourne movies) makes the step up to director very succesfully, broadening the scope of the story from the exploits of just one man to reveal a massive operation of Bourne-like super spies. As we join the story, Bourne's actions in the previous movies have threatened to expose the CIA's top secret programme, and the Agency decides that the only solution is to eliminate all of its remaining operatives and any other loose ends. These loose ends include agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) and scientist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who are forced to go on the run from their former employers. All in all, the movie feels like one of the better episodes of The X Files, dealing as it does with a conspiracy which reaches to the highest levels of government. Renner steps in the shoes of Matt Damon admirably, and he's ably assisted by Rachel Weisz and Ed Norton (as a senior CIA director). It's definitely up there with the best of the Hollywood movies I've seen this summer.

Shadow Dancer is a similarly tense tale of secret service operations, though told in a rather more low key manner. Andre Riseborough stars as Colette McVeigh, a failed IRA tube bomber who is persuaded by an MI5 officer (played by Clive Owen) to turn informant against members of her own family. The movie is notable for the convincing portrait it paints of Belfast during the Troubles, with a particularly impressive scene set during the funeral of an IRA assassin. Above all, Riseborough gives a fantastic lead performance as a haunted young woman living in constant fear of being revealed as an informant and of being betrayed by different factions within the British intelligence community who are operating at odds with one another.

A couple of films this week stood out for the wrong reasons. Firstly, The Last Boy Scout, a pretty lame action thriller with Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans. It seems that idea was to transplant the wisecracking private eye routine of Philip Marlowe into early '90s LA, the execution of the idea isn't carried out too well. Shane Black's script goes through just about every cop movie cliche in the book - the mismatched partners, angry police chief, slimy and sadistic villain - and attempts to hide the fact that he's got nothing new to say by adding in plenty of explosions, gunfights and foulmouthed children. I'm going to be fairly generous, and award the film half marks, as some of Bruce Willis' one liners (particularly in the early going) were fairly amusing. Still, I can't see myself returning to this one in a hurry.

Secondly, we have Possession, which has to be the strangest film I've seen in months. I don't even know where to begin in describing this one - all I can say is that it's an exploration of the breakdown in the relationship of a married couple, played by Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani. After a relatively sedate opening forty five minutes, the movie jumps into full-on bizarro mode as it is revealed that the reason for the marital break down is that Adjani has been sleeping with a weird human-octopus hybrid type thing on the side. This octo-man apparently has a strange hold over her, as she becomes compelled to kill anybody who will stand in the path of her disgusting new love affair. At least, I think that's what was going on; the final half of the film was almost entirely incomprehensible to me. Now, I've been known to enjoy a crazy, inexplicable film in the past (see, for example Naked Lunch and Inland Empire), but being confusing is the least of this movie's problems. The script seems to have been fed into Google translated Norwegian and back out again, as nothing anybody says over the course of the two hours comes even close to resembling human speech. Subplots in the movie drift in and out, apparently at random and the actors all seem to be having a competition as to who can act in the least naturalistic manner (for the record, Isabelle Adjani wins). Despite all of the above problems, I wouldn't say watching it was a complete waste of time - there are some highly memorable and macabre images within the film which will stay with me for a long time. It's just a shame that the director wasn't able to create a coherent structure in which to fit those images.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

"General 'Buck' Turgidson: Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks."