Sunday, 14 October 2012

The week in brief (8 - 14 October)

Before I begin this week's blog post, just a bit of news for you - I'm going to be heading off on holiday in a few days time, so this will be the last update until the beginning of November. As I'm busy getting everything sorted before I go, I'm going to keep this week's edition of 'The week in brief' short and snappy.

This week's list of movies watched:

Skeletons (2010): 7/10
Stroszek (1977): 7/10
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986): 7/10
Shame (2011): 8/10
White Heat (1949): 8/10

A pretty solid collection of films, then, with two standing out as being particularly impressive. First of all, Steve McQueen's latest picture, Shame. A follow up to his previous (and similarly effective) collaboration with Michael Fassbender, it's a character study of a successful Manhattan executive whose life outside the office consists of a seemingly never ending string of unfulfilling one night stands. His already strained existence is made even more complicated by the arrival of his neurotic, unhappy sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose presence is an unwelcome reminder of a past he is trying desperately to escape. The film is a resounding success on both a technical level (with some beautifully composed cinematography, showing New York at night) and from an acting point of view (both Mulligan and Fassbender are excellent in their respective roles).

Secondly, I thoroughly enjoyed the classic 1940s crime caper, White Heat. The plot sees an intrepid federal agent infiltrate the gang of notorious criminal Cody Jarrett, in an effort to bring him to justice. Jimmy Cagney is incredibly charismatic in the lead role, portraying a character who is something of an enigma - on the one hand, he's a ruthless and cold hearted gangster - but on the other, he's a vulnerable mother's boy, whose mental health is constantly on the verge of collapse. Despite the film being more than 60 years old, it's still tense and gripping, with an explosive climax.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

The Blues Brothers (1980)
"Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?
Bartender: Oh, we got both kinds. We got Country and Western."

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The week in brief (1 - 7 October)

An interesting assortment of films watched this week; mostly tales of crime and punishment, but with a Japanese animated picture thrown in for good measure.

Deep Cover (1992): 4/10
Deja Vu (2006): 7/10
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985): 8/10
Howl's Moving Castle (2004) (Hauru no ugaku shiro) : 6/10
Killing Them Softly (2012): 8/10

Starting with my pick of the week, To Live and Die in L.A. is a crime epic from William Friedkin almost on a par with his finest film, The French Connection. It sees a fearless but arrogant Secret Service agent resort to increasingly desperate measures to bring down his nemesis, a ruthless criminal who is head of a massive counterfeit money operation. It wasn't looking too promising in the early going, as I noticed a number of McBainesque cop movie cliches - the hero's partner is killed at the beginning of the film, just three days from retirement, there are multiple run ins with a stubborn, desk bound superior officer; it's a miracle that at no point a detective is asked to hand in his badge and gun. However, as the action progresses, things really start to improve - for one thing, we see one of the finest car chase scenes I've ever witnessed, and as the film reaches its conclusion, it really transcends its origins with a number of shocking and unexpected twists. A strong cast, headed by William Peterson and Willem Dafoe, bring their respective characters to life admirably, and Friedkin's script and direction are both top notch. Mark Kermode rates this film as one of his top Friedkin movies, and I'm inclined to agree with him.

Also very strong was Killing Them Softly, an interesting film set in the world of petty crooks and low rent hitmen living in the grim, post-industrial parts of New Orleans. Most of the gangster films I've seen follow a fairly similar pattern - we get to see the protagonists rise through the criminal ranks, enjoying the spoils of their dirty money, before they get their inevitable comeuppance. This movie is quite different - as we enter the story, the majority of the characters are already well on their way down the downward slope, resorting to desperate measures just to keep their heads afloat. In amongst the unfortunates and incompetents we meet during the course of the film's running time, the cool, collected and professional hitman played by Brad Pitt is a rare exception. All in all, it's well worth watching. The dialogue is well written and surprisingly funny at times, director Andrew Dominik has assembled a very strong and diverse cast (which includes Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini) and in looking at the way in which the underworld has been affected by the recent economic crisis, it's a novel twist on a well worn formula.

In the 'fair to middling' category, we have Deja Vu and Howl's Moving Castle. The former is a far fetched, but entertaining combination of science fiction and action, which sees an intense ATF agent (played by Denzel Washington) use a wormhole in fabric of space and time in an effort to prevent an act of domestic terrorism. The latter is another animated picture from Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki and another voyage into a strange and fantastical world - though I found it to be a bit of a let down after last week's brilliant Spirited Away. The animation was still beautiful and highly imaginative, but the storytelling seemed rather muddled and incoherent on this occasion.

Finally, the only real candidate for 'turkey of the week', Bill Duke's Deep Cover. As can be deduced from the title, the movie's plot follows an undercover cop working his way inside the belly of a South American drugs cartel who are the chief suppliers of narcotics to Los Angeles. Where the film falls down for me is in its glaring lack of realism. I think I've been spoiled by watching brilliant (and highly realistic) TV series like The Wire and The Shield - which as well as being superbly acted, scripted and plotted, are notably well researched and true to life. In the case of Deep Cover, we're supposed to believe that the undercover officer is able to work his way up from street level crack dealer to being a close adviser of the cartel's leaders in a matter of months. What's more, when he decides to cross them, he's able to terrify this supposedly intimidating criminal outfit pretty much single handedly, backed up only by a bug-eyed, coke sniffing lawyer and a rather camp elderly gentleman. Though Laurence Fishburne offers a committed performance in the lead role and he's generally well supported by Jeff Goldblum (on wild-eyed form as the sleazy lawyer) it's not enough to make up for the massively implausible plot. Thinking about it, I suppose it's more that the film sets itself out to be a gritty, true to life examination of life on the street that makes its lack of realism all the more glaring. Obviously, the plotline of a picture like Deja Vu is also pretty out there - but that film never sets out to be a true crime story.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Ghostbusters (1984)

"Dr. Egon Spengler: There's something very important I forgot to tell you.
Dr. Peter Venkman:
Dr. Egon Spengler:
Don't cross the streams.
Dr. Peter Venkman:
Dr. Egon Spengler:
It would be bad.
Dr. Peter Venkman:
I'm fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, "bad"?
Dr. Egon Spengler:
Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
Dr Ray Stantz:
Total protonic reversal.
Dr. Peter Venkman:
Right. That's bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The week in brief (24 - 30 September)

This is a historic post: my 100th update on this blog. To be fair, a number of the early editions of That Was The Week That Was were split into two parts, so arguably I should have to wait a few more weeks before properly celebrating my century. All the same, it’s pleasing to have reached the landmark. I’ll just take a moment to raise my bat to the pavilion before continuing with my usual weekly round up.

Aside from this being the 100th post, it’s been a fairly busy week for me, with 6 films watched:

Revenge of the Nerds (1984): 4/10
Texas Killing Fields (2011): 5/10
Carancho (2010): 7/10
Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi ) (2001): 8/10
Christine (1983): 6/10
Looper (2012): 9/10

My pick of the week goes to Rian Johnson’s new sci-fi picture, Looper.  I remember being highly impressed by Johnson’s first movie, Brick – a kind of mash up of the high school and film noir genres – but I was rather disappointed by his follow up, The Brothers Bloom, a decidedly twee affair. With that in mind, I’m pleased to be able to report that Looper is excellent. The movie is set in Kansas in the year 2042, an era in which a wealthy minority with futuristic gadgets co-exist with a growing number of the poor and the desperate. (Sort of like our own time, I suppose). Joseph Gordon Levitt continues his fantastic recent run of form in playing the part of Joe, an assassin (or ‘Looper’), whose job is to kill and dispose of targets who are sent back in time by an organised crime syndicate some 30 years further in the future.  Loopers are highly paid, but they know that at some point, they will be required to kill a future version of themselves, giving them 30 years to spend their loot before the mob comes for them. However, when Joe finds himself with confronted with his future self (played by Bruce Willis), he freezes for just a second too long and allows his older version to escape. Giving too much more of the plot away would spoil the fun of seeing the film for yourself, but if I had to choose three films to compare it with, I’d pick Primer, The Fury and The Dead Zone.  (It was also a little reminiscent of the hilarious South Park episode “My Future Self ‘N’ Me”, but I’ll gloss over that for the purposes of this review.) It’s a highly imaginative film, borrowing ideas from various different types of science fiction, with time travel thrown into a mix also including flying motorcycles, telekinetic powers and some good old fashioned gun battles . Johnson’s direction is excellent, combining a deft hand with the action scenes, together with an ability to draw strong performances out of each of the major players. As well as establishing a believable, lived in version of the future, I felt that Looper really came into its own in a fantastic finale – it was a breathtaking climax which left me completely stunned. One very small quibble – I found that the CGI/ prosthetics work used to make Levitt look like a younger version of Bruce Willis were at times a little artificial looking – to me, it would have been sufficient to have Levitt aping Willis’ mannerisms and expressions, without the need for any additional assistance . Other than that minor defect, Looper is a winner all the way.

Another film which comes highly recommended is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. I have to confess that I haven’t seen too much Anime in the past (other than Akira, which I watched earlier this summer), but despite the fact that I may not have picked up on everything which was on screen, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It’s a beautifully animated, highly inventive picture, which sees our young heroine Chihiro take a wrong turn in the forest and take a trip to a strange world ruled over by an unscrupulous and avaricious witch. The film grounds the fantastical world (which is brilliantly realised) in a simple, but moving story of a girl needing to grow up fast in order to save the lives of her parents. I’d put it up there as one of the best animated films I’ve seen over the last few years – up there with the likes of Pixar’s Up, Ratatouille and Toy Story 3. I’ll definitely be seeking out some Miyazaki’s other work, starting with the similarly well regarded Howl’s Moving Castle.

Moving on to my selections for ‘Worst Film of the Week’:  a couple of films stood out for all the wrong reasons. Firstly, we have Revenge of the Nerds, a pretty mediocre comedy in which a group of outcasts at a Californian college decide to take drastic measures to gain some respect from the sports heroes who have the run of the place. For starters, the whole thing is all a bit predictable, with only a few minor laughs here and there and no real depth to any of the characters. It probably isn’t wise to examine this kind of film too seriously, but if I was to do so, a few criticisms spring to mind: (a) the actions of the nerds in taking their revenge were pretty cruel, and in one particular instance, the revenge skirts dangerously close to a serious criminal offence; (b) This is a common complaint with Hollywood high school/ college films, but the majority of the cast looked far too old to still be at university. A few members of the gang looked like they were closer to 40 than 18. For some reason, a couple of very good actors appear in minor roles in this picture – John Goodman and James Cromwell. I’m guessing they were just there for the pay cheque. Apparently, the film was a big hit in the ‘80s and spawned three sequels, but I can’t see myself continuing my journey with the series any further than the first instalment.

Secondly, we have Texas Killing Fields. On paper, it looked like just the sort of film I would enjoy – a police procedural, based on the real life investigation into a notorious serial killer. There’s a very respectable cast (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Graham, Chloe Grace Moretz), and Michael Mann on board as a producer to oversee the work of his daughter Ami, who directed the picture. In practice, however, the film just doesn’t come together. The story is presented in a confusing and disjointed manner, the actions of certain characters don’t make a whole lot of sense, and a major plot thread is left unresolved. What’s more, the identity of the murderer is fairly obvious from the first moment you encounter him, meaning that the movie is a total failure as a whodunnit . Some of the cinematography is fairly impressive, but other than that, this movie offers slim pickings to fans of the genre. My advice would be to watch Zodiac again, rather than wasting your time with this one.

Kirk’s Quote of the Week

 The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Ed Crane: He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. And then he said the facts had no meaning. It was a pretty good speech. Even had me going, until Frankie interrupted it.”