Monday, 26 November 2012

The week in brief (19 - 25 November)

A much quieter week, this time out, with just three movies watched (which at least means that I'll be able to do a little write-up for all of them in this week's blog post):

Frenzy (1972): 8/10
Silver Linings Playbook (2012): 6/10
The Ice Harvest (2005): 8/10

Alfred Hitchcock has been the subject of a great deal of press coverage recently, owing to the fact that he is the subject of two interesting looking biopics - Hitchcock (concerning the production of Psycho) and The Girl (which looks into Hitch's obsession with Tippi Hedren). It's somewhat appropriate, then, that I started off my week with the great director's penultimate film, Frenzy. The film is set in an early '70s London which has now long since departed - and to be honest, without being an expert on that period in history, it seems more based on Hitchcock's impression/ recollection of the city that he grew up in, rather than being an accurate reflection of the way London was at the time. The plot is a mixture of two classic tropes from other successful Hitchcock movies - we simultaneously track the actions of an unrepentant serial killer (the "neck tie murderer") as well as an unfortunate chap who is constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time and is consequently the prime suspect for the killings. While it isn't quite Hitchcock at his absolute best (some of the acting is a little hammy), I still thoroughly enjoyed this one. The plotting works like a well oiled machine and there a number of brilliant directorial flourishes. I particularly liked the way that Hitchcock panned away from the scene of a murder, out through the front door, then held the camera on the everyday scene on the street outside. While the viewer is aware that something ghastly is taking place at that very moment, the passers by are completely oblivious - until the tranquility of the street is shattered by a terrible scream.  I'm going to continue to catch up on Hitchcock next week by watching the 1955 Cary Grant/ Grace Kelly picture 'To Catch a Thief".

Moving on to a new release which I saw at the cinema this week, David O Russell's latest effort, Silver Linings Playbook. It's a kind of strange hybrid of comedy, drama and love story, with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper playing a fetching, but mentally unstable pair who find themselves drawn to one another as they attempt to rebuild their lives. The film has attracted a large number of favourable reviews from critics in America, as well as quite a bit of early Oscar buzz - so I was intrigued to see whether it lived up to the hype. Although the movie had it's moments, I wasn't terribly impressed with it. For one thing, the balance of humour to drama was a little off. There are a few laughs here and there, but it never really gets going as a comedy, and equally, the humourous elements mean that it's kind of hard to take seriously as a drama. Though the two main characters are interesting and the film has strong lead performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, the supporting characters - including an NFL obsessed father, a wisecracking former mental patient and a wacky psychiatrist - all feel very artificial, which meant that it was difficult to care too much about the fate of the central characters.  Finally, the ending - involving a dance contest - was all very syrupy and predictable. Despite the above reservations, as I've mentioned, Cooper and Lawrence are both very good, so I wouldn't be too surprised if they received a nomination or two for their performances at the Oscars next year.

Finally, we have The Ice Harvest, a crime drama starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. It's a film in a similar vein to A Simple Plan, Blood Simple and Fargo - two unscrupulous characters hatch what they think is a simple plan to relieve a local criminal bigwig of a couple of million dollars. Sadly for them, they're stranded in icy cold Wichita on Christmas Eve, and need to wait until the morning before they can make off with their loot. As ever in this kind of picture, keeping hold of the cash is a tricky, bloody business, and the pair need to keep their wits about them to make it through the night. I'm a sucker for this kind of movie, and while it probably doesn't bear comparison with the Coen brothers' efforts in this genre (the supporting characters aren't as well drawn, and the script isn't quite as sharp or witty), The Ice Harvest is well worth a watch. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton both give solid performances as two very different men (Cusack's character is twitchy and conscience-stricken, while Thornton's is cold and ruthless), but for me, Connie Nielsen steals the show as the femme fatale who comes between them.

By the way, I'm aware that I haven't put a list together for a while - this is something which I'm aiming to rectify in the near future. However, I did see this interesting list at the AV Club today. I completely agree with them on their first pick - as I think I mentioned in my review of Cabin Fever the other week, Enter The Void is only a fair to middling film, but it has probably the best title sequence I've ever seen. It's a bit like being strapped to a chair facing a flashing neon advertising hoarding and then being repeatedly punched in the face - but in a good way.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Psycho (1960)

"Norman Bates: We all go a little mad sometimes."

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The week in brief (12 - 18 November)

After a glut of brilliant movies last week, it was down to Earth with a bit of a bump this time around, with a solid, but hardly outstanding selection of films:

Asylum (1972): 7/10
Slaughterhouse-Five (1972): 8/10
The Changeling (1980): 7/10
The Master (2012): 7/10
Stripes (1981): 6/10
Weird Science (1985): 5/10
The Illusionist (2010): 8/10

Two films stood out for me in particular this week. Firstly, George Roy Hill's very respectable adaptation of one of my favourite novels, Slaughterhouse-Five. A movie which incorporates a variety of different genres (war film, science fiction, comedy, romance, comedy, drama) into a surprisingly successful whole, it tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American everyman who has 'come unstuck in time', meaning that he experiences various phases of his life in a seemingly random order. One minute he's in Dresden as a POW during the Second World War, the next he's a successful family man and optometrist in Ilium, New York. Before long, he skips back to his childhood, then his wedding night and then forward to a strange future where he's a middle aged captive in an alien zoo on the planet Trafalmadore (we're never quite sure whether this section of the story is actually just taking place within Billy's mind). This cycle repeats on a loop, meaning that both Billy, and the viewer is constantly in a state of passive confusion, never quite sure where the story is going to flash forward or back to next. Although the film never quite touches the heights of Kurt Vonnegut's wonderful novel (I guess because a great deal of the magic is contained within Vonnegut's prose style), it's still a fascinating way of looking into the trauma caused to a generation whose lives were profoundly affected by their participation in a terrible and bloody conflict.

Secondly, we have the French animated film, The Illusionist (not to be confused with the Edward Norton picture of the same name). The plot concerns the life of a Tatischeff, an aging French magician in the late 1950s, who takes a trip to Scotland in an effort to find steady work for himself. Whilst there, he meets an innocent and charming young woman, who seems convinced that some of the tricks he has performed are real; he decides to devote his life to ensuring that her belief in magic never wavers. Above all, the film brilliantly portrays the great change in society which took place in that era, as Tatischeff and his fellow stage performers (including a troupe of acrobats, a ventriloquist and a very depressed clown) become increasingly aware of their own obsolescence, and are forced to make way for a generation captivated by television and rock and roll. Although I found the film a little slow at first, as the story reaches it's conclusion, I found myself feeling deeply moved by Tatischeff's plight. It's also an absolute treat to look at - with some of the most beautiful 2D animation I've ever seen.

The only movie I saw at the cinema this week was Paul Thomas Anderson's latest effort, The Master. The film examines the charismatic leader of a Scientology like cult (known as 'The Cause'), and his efforts to mould a troubled young man named Freddy Quell, an alcoholic drifter who wanders across his path. I'm a huge fan of PTA (as he's known to his friends), so I'm sorry to report that in my opinion, this one doesn't quite measure up to the likes of Boogie Nights, Magnolia or There Will Be Blood. It's kind of a perplexing movie in many ways, because there's so much about it which is fantastic. The cinematography is breathtaking, the score (from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) is superb, and the two lead actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, are both brilliant. Phoenix's performance, in particular, is amazing - playing Freddy Quell, he is able to create a sense of the character's tragic history just through his awkward, ungainly mannerisms and unpredictable outbursts. Having said all that, I don't think I can rate this film too highly, because I really had no idea what PTA was getting at. The plot moves at a leisurely pace, but by the end of the picture, it seemed to me that very little of of note has actually happened to the two main characters, despite the film's substantial running length. Possibly a second viewing will enable me to get something more out of this movie, but for now, I'm going to have to label it a misfire - albeit one with significant plus points.

Moving on, a couple of movies which were a little disappointing. Exhibit A:  Stripes (6/10), a movie which sounded (on paper, at least) like it couldn't fail. Bill Murray! In his prime! Up to no good during army training! In practice, while the script contained a high number of gags, it was a very hit and miss affair, content to coast on Bill Murray's laid back charms. As far as Bill Murray movies go, this one was closer in quality to Garfield than to Groundhog Day. Exhibit B: Weird Science (5/10). It seems a bit redundant to complain that this type of raunchy '80s comedy is extremely dated, but this film feels like something which should have been locked in a vault in 1989 and never re-opened. The two teenage boys who are the protagonists of the film were so irritating that I found myself rooting for the school bullies (one of whom was played by a young Robert Downey Jr, btw). Definitely not one of John Hughes' finest hours.

Looking forward to movies coming out over the next month or so, there should be plenty to keep me occupied until the end of the year. The following, in particular, look like they might be worth a watch:

21 November: Silver Linings Playbook
23 November: End of Watch
30 November: Sightseers
5 December: Seven Psychopaths
7 December: Gremlins (re-release)
13 December: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
20 December: Life of Pi

Kirk's Quote of the Week

The Master (2012)

"Freddie Quell: What do you do?
Lancaster Dodd: I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you."

Monday, 12 November 2012

The week in brief (5 - 11 November)

A pretty impressive selection of films watched this week, with no fewer than four movies achieving a mark of at least 8/10 and Kirk's Movie Blog official seal of approval (a seal only given out to films which meet the high personal standards of Kirk van Houten). This week's list:

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006): 7/10
Cabin Fever (2002): 6/10
Inside Job (2010): 8/10
Read My Lips (Sue mes levres) (2001): 8/10
Argo (2012): 9/10
The Grey (2011): 8/10

Starting with my pick of the week, a film which came dangerously close to getting an almost unprecedented mark of 10/10, Argo. Set during the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s, the film tells the story of an audacious attempt by the CIA to free six escaped US embassy workers who have been hiding out in the Canadian ambassador's house in Tehran. Affleck (who also directs the picture) stars as CIA operative Tony Mendez, who devises a plan to free his countrymen by having them pose as a Canadian film crew, scouting for Middle Eastern locations for a science fiction movie called 'Argo'. Just about everything to do with the film works wonderfully well - it's excellently scripted (with some very funny Hollywood in-jokes), there's a very strong cast (including the likes of Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston) and Affleck's direction is assured throughout. For me, the most impressive scene in the entire picture is the recreation of the storming of the US embassy, which is incredibly tense and immersive, putting you in the shoes of the panicked Embassy employees as the swarm of protestors gets ever closer to penetrating the inner walls of the building. With this film, Affleck proves that his earlier success with Gone Baby Gone and The Town was no fluke - and in fact, even though I liked both of those films, I reckon Argo is a big step forward for him as a director. I know it's still early days, but I'd be surprised if Argo isn't a major contender at the 2013 Oscars. As I've mentioned above, I opted to give the film a mark of '9' out of 10, but if I enjoy it just as much on second viewing, I might be prepared to bump it up to a 10.

Also very good was Read My Lips, a film which I saw at the cinema as part of the Watershed's recent programme of Jacques Audiard films. The film has a rather unusual premise - it concerns the relationship between Carla, a deaf woman who works as a downtrodden secretary for an estate agency firm and Paul, the young ex-convict who she hires to be her assistant. As office outcasts, the pair grow close to one another, and ultimately hatch a plot to rob a former criminal associate of Paul's. The director (also responsible for the brilliant The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet) works his magic again, delivering a movie which is both a compelling and gritty crime drama and an unconventional romance. Both of the lead actors (Vincent Cassel and Emanuelle Devos) deliver impressive performances, creating well defined, believable and nuanced characters. My only minor criticism with the film would be that the pacing isn't perfect - there is a bit of a lull in excitement around the halfway point in the film - but it isn't long before the movie picks up steam again, as it reaches a bloody, breathtaking conclusion. Mr Audiard's latest film, Rust and Bone, has recently come out so I'm looking forward to seeing whether it stands up to the rest of his consistently excellent back catalogue.

Moving on, I'd like to give a quick, Roger Ebert style 'thumbs up' to two movies which I saw on DVD this week. Firstly, the excellent documentary Inside Job, which provides some fascinating insights into the causes of the recent banking crisis. What's even more impressive is that it does so in a way which makes all the financial shenanigans easily comprehensible, even to a simpleton like me. Secondly, I (somewhat unexpectedly) thoroughly enjoyed the Liam Neeson wilderness survival thriller, The Grey. The plot of the film follows the survivors of a plane crash in Alaska as they battle the elements and a pack of wolves in an effort to reach civilisation. It's a film as bleak and coldly beautiful as the Alaskan landscape.

Oh, and one final thing: I should also mention that I watched Eli Roth's tongue-in-cheek Deliverance style horror debut, Cabin Fever, this week. The film itself was just about OK, but it is notable for a couple of things: (a) the movie's excellent and highly creepy credits sequence, in which the backdrop to the names of the actors starts off as a white sheet and gets progressively more mouldy as the credits roll by (this is much more effective than it sounds); and (b) this scene, which I'm linking to without any comment or context, other than to say that it's probably one of the most bizarre sequences I've ever seen committed to celulloid.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

25th Hour (2002)

"Monty Brogan: [raising a toast] Champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends."

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Three weeks in brief (15 October - 4 November)

Well, I'm back. Since I last posted on this blog, I've been away to Japan on holiday, but I've also had the chance to watch a few movies along the way. Here's what I've been watching over the last three weeks:

The Five Year Engagement (2012): 6/10
Wanderlust (2012): 7/10
The Raven (2012): 6/10
Paper Moon (1973): 7/10
Dr. No (1962): 8/10
Room 237 (2012): 8/10
Skyfall (2012): 6/10
The Shining (1980): 10/10
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944): 8/10
The Stuff (1985): 5/10
The Howling (1981): 7/10

I'm largely going to gloss over the movies I watched on the way to and from Japan - I saw them a while ago now, so it's hard for me to remember too much about them, and I'm generally too freaked out while flying to pay much attention to whatever film I've got on the in flight entertainment system.

However, I did catch one movie in a Japanese cinema (The Raven). The picture itself wasn't particularly interesting, but even though a multiplex is largely the same the world over, there were one or two interesting nuggets to be gleaned from the experience. As Vincent tells Jules in Pulp Fiction, it's all about the little differences. For one thing, the tickets for the cinema in Japan are really expensive - it's getting pricy enough to watch a movie in the UK, but over there, you're talking around 1800 - 2000 yen to see a film in the evening, which works out at around £14 - £15. On the plus side, there are far fewer adverts for products, yet far more trailers. I think they got through about ten trailers before the film proper started - but the trailers were shown in condensed format - about one minute each. One final plus point - no annoying Orange advert just before the movie begins.

Having returned from Japan, I've done my best to catch up on my movie watching this week, packing in three trips to the cinema and three DVDs. As it's Halloween week, there was a bit of a horror theme to this week's selection; this included a trip to see the extended (American) version of The Shining, which was re-released into UK cinemas for a limited time only. The Shining is one of my favourite films of all time, and it was great to see it on the big screen for the first time. I believe the print has been restored, and it looked and sounded even better than ever. It's one of those films which you can watch time and time again - each time you see it, something new jumps out at you. This was particularly the case for me on this occasion, as I've also recently attended a screening of Room 237, a documentary which showcased a number of wild theories about Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece. Although the majority of the ideas were pretty far fetched (one guy believed that The Shining is an admission that Kubrick directed faked footage of the moon landings, largely based on the fact that Danny Torrance wears an 'Apollo 11' sweatshirt in a pivotal scene in the movie), there were some also some brilliant insights into the picture, the kind of thing you wouldn't notice on your first, second or third viewing of the film, but that only occur to you when you've seen it hundreds of times.

Aside from revisiting The Overlook Hotel, I saw a two or three other horror themed movies - of these, the best was probably Arsenic and Old Lace, a knockabout farce from Frank Capra, with Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, a recently wed dramatic critic who discovers that his family has more than a few skeletons in the closet. Although it's a little stagey, it's tremendous fun, with a sharp witty script and great comic turns from Grant, Peter Lorre (as a diffident doctor) and Raymond Massey (Mortimer's psychotic brother). The worst would have to be The Stuff, a lacklustre B movie directed by Larry Cohen. There's the seed of a brilliant concept here - the plot involves a weird, highly addictive yoghurt like substance which is marketed to every household in the US. Once you're hooked on it, it eats you up from the inside until you're nothing more than a drooling zombie. The idea of a product that actually consumes you could have made for a brilliant satire on modern day capitalist society, but unfortunately the acting, special effects and script here are all distinctly second rate. For a more effective version of this idea, I'd recommend John Carpenter's They Live.

I also saw the new James Bond picture, Skyfall. Having seen a number of gushing reviews proclaiming it to be 'the best Bond ever', I felt a little let down by the movie itself. For me, it's just a decent, unremarkable Bond film, a little better than Quantum of Solace and the last few Brosnan movies but certainly not on a par with Casino Royale or the best of the Connery pictures. Although Javier Bardem has received a great deal of praise for his performance as the exceedingly camp villain, I much preferred Tom Hollander's take on this type of character in Hanna. I remember watching Die Another Day and thinking that Bond had become too glib and flashy, with no real substance, but Skyfall goes too far the other way, with Daniel Craig's version of 007 appearing as a neutered shadow of his former self - hesitant, off colour and distinctly lacking in wit.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

"Mortimer Brewster: Look I probably should have told you this before but you see... well... insanity runs in my family... It practically gallops."