Thursday, 1 August 2013

My Top Ten of 2013 (so far...)

As you may have noticed, it's been quite some time since I posted on this blog. For one reason and another, I've been really busy over the last month, so it's been tricky to fit in movie blogging. To be honest, I don't know if I will be able to continue with my semi-weekly movie reviews, but I am planning to continue to post from time to time with lists and other thoughts on all things movie-related.

Anyway, I thought it was about time I put up my list of my top ten films that I've seen so far this year. As usual, this is restricted to films which were released in cinemas and which I actually saw at the cinema in 2013 (It includes one film that I watched recently and haven't reviewed on the blog - The World's End). To be honest, it's been a pretty poor year, movie-wise. Other than the top two films, I don't think anything on this list would have made the grade on my last annual top ten, or even my halfway list from last year.

Here's my picks for top of the pops for 2013:

1. The Place Beyond the Pines
2. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Django Unchained
4. Side Effects
5. Stoker
6. The World's End
7. Compliance
8. Lincoln
9. Mud

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The fortnight in brief (10 - 23 June 2013)

These are the movies I've watched over the last couple of weeks:

Billy the Kid (2007): 7/10
Metropolitan (1990): 7/10
Sinister (2012): 6/10
Chariots of Fire (1981): 8/10
A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affaere) (2012): 7/10
Taken (2008): 7/10
Down Terrace (2009): 8/10
God Bless America (2011): 6/10

A fairly decent week, on the whole - I saw nothing which I'd regard as poor, plenty of very solid movies, and two very good pictures. My first choice for pick of the week goes to the 1980s classic Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of the Great Britain athletics team which competed at the Paris Olympics in 1924. It's primarily focussed on GB's two great medal hopes for the games; men from entirely different backgrounds, driven to succeed for contrasting reasons. Firstly, there's Harold Abrahams, a young man who has wanted for nothing and has been to the finest schools in England, but has always felt like an outcast due to his Jewish roots. He's running as a way of proving himself to the establishment. Secondly, there's Eric Liddell, a runner from Scotland of incredible natural talent, whose devoutly Christian faith is his inspiration for running, though also threatens to interfere with his ability to compete (as he refuses to run on Sunday). It's a gripping story, very well told. As I didn't know the actual results of the Olympic games in question, I genuinely had no idea whether the protagonists would succeed. The film features some fine performances, particularly from Ben Cross as Abrahams and Ian Charleson as Liddell.

My second selection for pick of the week is the brilliant Ben Wheatley's first picture, Down Terrace. Having absolutely loved Wheatley's more recent efforts - Kill List and Sightseers (my film of the year for 2012), I was extremely excited to discover that LOVEFiLM had sent me Wheatley's debut in the post. The movie tells the story of a small time criminal family from Brighton - as we enter the story, the father (Robert Hill) and his son (Robin Hill) have narrowly escaped going to prison for drug dealing. They return to their down at the heel family home determined to discover which of their low rent associates was responsible for grassing them up. In common with his later movies, we get to experience the same rundown British setting, the same realistic dialogue and the black humour and bloodcurdling violence which is Mr Wheatley's trademark. Though the plot is perhaps not 100% airtight, at least from my perspective - as it was never really clear exactly why certain characters were suspected of treachery - this never really gets in the way of the fine, understated comic performances and superb script. It's another success from one of my favourite directors.

Once again, I didn't see anything which I'd regard as being a turkey, but Sinister was just a shade above mediocre.  Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who takes the inspired decision to move his family into the scene of a horrific slaying, then becomes obsessed with a box of snuff movies which has mysteriously appeared in his attic. Needless to say, these choices backfire on Ellison pretty quickly, as he begins to fear that his own family may be the target of a (possibly) supernatural serial killer known as "Mr Boogie". Now, on the one hand, the film is a success on at least one level, as it's a horror picture which is genuinely scary in places. True, most of these scares are simply horrible things jumping out of the dark with an accompanying shriek from the film's score, but it still worked on me. On the other hand, I felt that a lot of the scary stuff on offer here has been seen before on a number of occasions. Creepy kids drawing weird pictures on the walls, a warning from the local Sheriff, psycho killers in masks, the protagonist running around in the house in the dark... these elements have all been done and dusted elsewhere. So, I suppose the movie scores fairly highly as on the terror scale, but loses marks for lack of originality.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Pi (1998)

"Sol Robeson: You want to find the number 216 in the world, you will be able to find it everywhere. 216 steps from a mere street corner to your front door. 216 seconds you spend riding on the elevator. When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere."


Monday, 10 June 2013

The week in brief (3 - 9 June 2013)

This week, I have been mostly watching...

Bugsy (1991): 6/10
The Purge (2013): 5/10
Sullivan's Travels (1941): 8/10
In the Name of the Father (1993): 8/10
Your Friends & Neighbors (1998): 7/10

Starting off with the only movie which I saw at the cinema, I'm sorry to report that The Purge wasn't any great shakes. It's a shame too, since I loved the premise of this film. It's set around ten years time, in an alternative version of America in which for one night of the year, all crime, up to and including murder, is legal. The 'New Founding Fathers' of this brave new world are constantly on the television, trumpeting their achievements in establishing a place in which the ability for the masses to let out their basest instincts in an annual cathartic bloodbath, thus minimising violence for the remainder of the year. However, aside from the state sanctioned propaganda, it's clear that 'the purge' isn't really solving any problems - those rich enough to pay for protection are able to shelter for the night, whilst the poor and homeless are soft targets for the angry and the sociopathic. So, like I said, a very intriguing premise. Sadly, the director doesn't really delve into this world in any great depth, instead presenting us with a fairly ordinary home invasion thriller, in which a family is under attack from a group of rampaging 'Purgers'. The tension is built up pretty effectively, and I was generally enjoying things until the point at which the doors blew off and the house was under attack - after which the film collapsed in on itself like a deflated balloon. The 'Purgers' act in such an idiotic fashion that any sense of threat from them soon dissipates, and all of the action scenes are shot in an irritating shakey-cam style, meaning that it's hard to gather any sense of what's going on. It's all a bit of a shame, as there must be a brilliant movie which could have been made with the same premise - unfortunately, The Purge isn't it.

My pick of the week goes to In the Name of the Father, a powerful movie which examines the Guildford Four case, a famously tragic miscarriage of justice. Beginning in the early '70s, we follow the life and times of Gerry Conlon, perhaps the most famous of the Four, a petty thief from Belfast who was framed for the IRA Guildford pub bombings and remained in prison for a total of 15 years despite evidence clearing his name being available to the police. If it wasn't true, it would be hard to believe that something like this actually happened - but it seems that the desire to catch somebody - anybody - for the pub bombings led the police into a position in which they flagrantly abused their powers. It's a shocking story, but very well told, and features some splendid performances from Daniel Day Lewis (fantastic as usual), Pete Postlethwaite (as Gerry's father, Guiseppe Conlon) and Emma Thompson (as the crusading lawyer who brings the truth to light).

 (In mentioning my favourite film of the week, I should also make a very quick shout out to the Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan's Travels, which was apparently a great influence on the Coen brothers, and remains very funny 72 years later...)

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Sleeper (1973)

 "Miles Monroe: I'm not really the heroic type. I was beat up by Quakers."

Monday, 3 June 2013

The fortnight in brief (20 May - 2 June)

I've been away on my hols for the last week or so, meaning that I haven't had too much time to spend catching up on movies. Nevertheless, I did see the following films over the last fortnight:

Premium Rush (2012): 7/10
Bananas (1971): 8/10
Sleeper (1973): 7/10
Dredd (2012): 6/10

Two Woody Allen movies make their mark as my joint picks of the week: Bananas and Sleeper. The first sees Woody playing a typically nebbishy character named Fielding Mellish, an unsuccessful product tester who finds himself in the centre of a revolution in the fictional Latin American nation of San Marcos. Seeing an opportunity to impress his ex-girlfriend in New York, Woody embraces an opportunity to become El Presidente of the banana republic. The second of the two films (which I found marginally less amusing) has our hero waking up from a two hundred year sleep to find himself in the distant future, where his 20th century attitudes are roundly mocked by those around him. Again, Woody blunders his way into the path of a group of rebels who stand in opposition to the evil tyrants running the country, and once more he becomes a hero despite himself... I'd never previously seen any of Woody Allen's early pictures before, but I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. There's less of the therapy speak and (slightly creepy) pursuit of much younger women that you tend to find in his later film, and much more in the way of slapstick, hilarious one liners and self deprecating humour. As a result I found myself laughing throughout both of these movies, which is definitely a good sign. Previously, my favourite Woody Allen movie would have to be Hannah and Her Sisters, but Bananas gives it a damn good run for its money.

Once again, I didn't see anything which I'd regard as an out and out turkey, but I wasn't completely convinced by Dredd. The plot plays out in very similar fashion to last year's brilliant Indonesian movie The Raid: Redemption, with Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and his psychic sidekick Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) trapped in a tower block, massively outnumbered by a gang hell bent on killing them. It zips along at a good pace, so I can't say I was bored by the movie, but for me, Dredd suffers in comparison with The Raid, in a couple of areas. Firstly, the action scenes just aren't as well choreographed or as compelling as the astonishing martial arts work on display in The Raid. Secondly, Dredd is an almost inhuman killing machine, in stark contrast to the Indonesian film's more vulnerable, human protagonist - this meant that I never found myself caring too much whether or not the Judge succeeded. While it's welcome to see a darker, more adult take on the superhero genre, Dredd isn't in the same league as films like The Dark Knight or Sin City.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Bananas (1971)
"Fielding Mellish: I was a nervous child - I was a bed wetter. When I was younger, I used to sleep with an electric blanket and I was constantly electrocuting myself..."

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The week in brief (13 - 19 May 2013)

This week's list of films I've watched...

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013): 6/10
Amour (2012): 7/10
Blowup (1966): 6/10
Miss Bala (2011): 6/10
American Movie (1999): 8/10

I'll start out with Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is top of the UK Box Office charts this week, and has received some extremely positive reviews from a variety of reputable sources. The film sees Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise pick up where they left off after J.J. Abrams' reboot of the series in 2009. On this occasion, our intrepid heroes are up against threats both internal (an unscrupulous senior officer) and external (a superhuman foe with a grudge against mankind)... Now, despite all of the rave reviews for this picture, I never really found myself fully able to suspend my disbelief and go along for the ride. I suppose my complaints are threefold: firstly, the action screams along at a breakneck pace - there's barely time to draw a breath before you're thrust into the next set piece. Whilst this has the benefit of keeping you on the edge of your seat, after a while it just proves to be exhausting. Secondly, while I could appreciate that Abrams is keen to provide some nods and winks to the series' loyal fans, I think he may have gone a bit overboard with this - as somebody who isn't entirely au fait with the Star Trek universe, quite a few of these in jokes went way over my head. Thirdly, and I say this as fan of Simon Pegg, his Scottish accent really doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, to the point where I found it quite distracting. Similarly, Anton Yelchin (playing Mr Chekov) provided another source of earache with his high pitched cod-Russian whining. Notwithstanding all of that, there's still quite a bit to enjoy here. Despite my gripe about the relentless nature of the action scenes, I have to admit that the special effects for those sequences are absolutely top notch. Finally, it's definitely worth mentioning Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in this movie as the villain of the piece. He's absolutely top notch, head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, and serves as a continuation of a fine tradition of British dramatic actors playing the baddies in Hollywood movies.

Other than my trip to the cinema, it hasn't been a particularly memorable week, though it was salvaged by the film I saw today, American Movie. This documentary looks into the life of Mark Borchardt, a part time filmmaker, part time janitor and full time dreamer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As we enter his story, Borchardt is attempting to raise the funding for his great work, a feature length examination of the lives of the American working class in the Midwest - but it soon becomes apparent that this project is going to be too ambitious to ever see the light of day. Instead, Borchadt and his gentle, good natured best friend, a recovering alcoholic named Mike Shrank, decide to make a horror short as a way of financing his magnum opus. However, we get to appreciate that it's damn hard work trying to finance and make a movie on a shoestring budget. Borchardt spends a good portion of his time borrowing money from elderly relatives and arguing with utility companies about overdue bills, not to mention the hours he spends coaxing performances out of his troupe of (very) amateur actors, manually cutting and editing the reels of film and scouting locations. However, when his project finally hits the silver screen, it all seems worth it - as we, the viewer have spent time watching the various pieces slowly come together, it feels like a triumph when it all comes together. It's a mark of the impact that these characters made on me that after watching the movie, I immediately checked to see how Mark had fared after the documentary was made. I'm happy to report that he's done fairly well - though he's worked primarily as an actor since 2000, his first full length movie as a director seems to be in progress and is scheduled for a 2014 release.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

The Sting (1973)

"Johnny Hooker: Hey, where's June?
Loretta: She quit. I'm filling in for a couple of days, 'til I can get a train outta here.
Johnny Hooker: Yeah? Where you going?
Loretta: I don't know. Depends on which train I get on."

Monday, 13 May 2013

The week in brief (6 - 12 May 2013)

This week's list of movies I've seen over the last seven days:

Ill Manors (2012): 6/10
Troll 2 (1990): 2/10
Mud (2012): 7/10

As I only caught a few films this week, I should have time to do a little write up of each of them. First of all, we have UK rapper Ben Drew (aka Plan B)'s first foray into the world of filmmaking, with his London crime drama Ill Manors. Set in a deprived part of East London, the movie looks at the lives of various residents of the area in a non linear fashion, with the storylines of various characters intersecting with each other at certain points. It's difficult to convey just how bleak and depressing this movie, but the free form word association exercise in the following sentence should give you a flavour of it ... High rise, grim, grey, drugs, violence, degradation, pimps, prostitutes,  squalor, guns, knives, thugs, concrete, desolation, hatred.... Despite all of the misery, I never really found myself drawn in by this picture. I'm not normally a person who needs to emphasise with the lead characters to enjoy a movie, but on this occasion, the sheer unpleasantness of actions of nearly everyone involved means that it's hard to care too much if those same characters meet a grisly end. Drew certainly has talent as a director, adding some interesting visual flourishes, but he's let down to a certain extent by a number of mediocre performances and a rather contrived, overly melodramatic ending.

Moving on, I finally got the chance to catch the infamously terrible Italian/ American horror movie Troll 2, and it was pretty much as bad as the hype suggested. The nonsensical plot involves an all-American family unit spending a little quality time on holiday in a strange village called 'Nilbog', a place with a dark, terrifying secret which is a mystery to everyone unable to read place names backwards. Yes, as you may have guessed, its residents are a group of vicious goblins, hell bent on tucking into some sweet, gamey human flesh. For some reason (possibly because the people behind the movie really hated vegetarians), the goblins need to convert their prey into vegetable form to consume them. To do this, they must first tempt the humans into eating goblin food, which apparently has the power to turn people into a mushy green pulp. Only a plucky young boy and the spirit of his beloved (but sadly deceased) Grandpa Seth can save the family... It's not all that often that I go in to watch a film knowing (and in fact hoping) that it will be truly terrible, but this was one such occasion. The movie didn't disappoint -  the acting is laughably bad, the special effects are atrocious and there are some scenes which are just indescribably bizarre and have to be seen to be believed... . Having now seen two of the three movies which constitute the holy trinity of 'so bad it's good' cinema, I will finally get to complete the set when I get to see 'The Room' next month. I can hardly wait...

Last, but definitely not least, we come to my pick of the week, Mud. It's an old fashioned kind of adventure/ thriller, with Matthew McConnaughey contuing his recent career renaissance by offering a very creditable performance as the charismatic title character. He's a fugitive who's hiding out from the law (and a gang of vicious local gangsters) in a boat which has been abandoned halfway up a tree in the wilds of Arkansas. When a couple of teenage boys come across him, the three of them strike up a friendship - but with the authorities closing in, it's going to be difficult for him to stay free... Although I wouldn't say I was dazzled by this movie, it's definitely enjoyable, with some interesting characters and some strikingly beautiful shots of the Southern American wilderness. It's just good to see an American picture during the summer which isn't a big budget remake or sequel - so I'll keep my fingers crossed that Mud does well enough at the box office to give the director (Jeff Nicols) another crack at the big time.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

 Taxi Driver (1976)

"Personnel Officer: How's your driving record? Clean?
Travis Bickle: It's clean, real clean. Like my conscience."

Monday, 6 May 2013

The week in brief (29 April - 6 May 2013)

This week's list of movies watched:

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012): 9/10
Airplane! (1980): 8/10
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012): 5/10
Frankenweenie (2012): 7/10
Gremlins (1984): 9/10

Starting out with my pick of the week, we have the excellent The Place Beyond the Pines. It's director Derek Cianfrance's second picture and sees him moving in a completely different direction from the low-key relationship strife drama of Blue Valentine. Set in the small upstate New York town of Schenectady, it tells three interconnected stories - the first the tale of a former motorcycle stuntman who turns bank robber to provide for his son, the second an examination of police corruption and the third, set some years after the first two stories, which examines the ways in which the sins of the fathers are revisited upon their sons. It's a gripping, tremendously well acted movie (with fine performances from Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Dane DeHaan), featuring some stunning cinematography and tense set pieces. It hasn't been a vintage year to date, but The Place Beyond the Pines moves straight in at number one on my running list. (Nudging just ahead of Zero Dark Thirty).

Moving on, I caught up with a couple of old favourites this week - having seen both Gremlins and Airplane! on numerous occasions, I can confirm that they stand up to repeat viewings. Both are highly amusing, but in different ways; Airplane! offers up a madcap, gag-a-minute style of comedy that never fails to crack me up. Even though a few of the references in the movie are a little dated now, there's still a huge amount to enjoy here. Gremlins is darker, but more subversive, setting up an idealised version of the American small town so beloved by Ronald Reagan, then getting a hoarde of vicious, chain smoking, anarchic little critters to tear that town to pieces.

The one real disappointment this week was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a high school drama in which a lonely outcast finds his niche as part of a group of artsy, theatrical students. I suppose I'm too far removed from my teenage years to really appreciate this kind of movie now, but I just found the central characters too precocious by half. As a group of hyper articulate, massively self confident and hugely photogenic geniuses, they certainly didn't resemble any of the outcasts and losers I came across in high school in real life. That's not to say that the film is worthless - the acting isn't too bad, and there's a decent collection of songs on the soundtrack - but if I want to relive my adolescence again, I think I'll stick to watching Dazed and Confused or reading The Catcher in the Rye.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Airplane! (1980)

"Dr. Rumack: What was it we had for dinner tonight?
Elaine Dickinson: Well, we had a choice of steak or fish.
Dr. Rumack: Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagne."

Monday, 29 April 2013

The week in brief (22 - 28 April 2013)

This week, I have been mostly watching...

Trick 'r Treat (2007): 5/10
In the Company of Men (1997): 8/10
The Angels' Share (2012): 7/10

Not a particularly busy week, with just 3 movies seen, so I should have time to do a quick review of each of them. First up, we have the moderately entertaining anthology horror picture Trick 'r Treat. Set during Halloween in a small town in Ohio, we follow a series of interconnected stories involving such horror staples as werewolves, vampires, serial killers and ghosts. Despite the appearance of a number of fairly big name actors (Brian Cox, Anna Paquin and Dylan Baker), I had a few complaints with this one. My biggest gripe would have to be the tone of the movie - there is humour on offer here, but it's pretty crude and seems to be aimed at middle schoolers. However, this type of humour doesn't really gel with the sporadic outbursts of gory violence. For all of the blood and guts on display, it's never particularly scary. I suppose I just caught this movie at the wrong time of year - if I'd actually been watching it on Halloween night, I might have found myself getting into the spirit of it a bit more, but as it was, I felt decidedly unimpressed. No treat for you.

Second up, we have my pick of the week - Neil LaBute's debut picture, In the Company of Men. This was one of a number of films which I've found as a result of reading the AV Club's informative (and sadly, now discontinued) feature, The New Cult Canon. It's a nasty, cynical but very sharply scripted movie, in which two unpleasant executives decide to toy with the affections of a blind woman, just for sport. The movie is worth seeing just for Aaron Eckhart's terrific central performance as the instigator of the plot, an alpha male who uses his superficial charm and gift of the gab to destroy the lives of those around him. He's a memorable and unrepentantly vicious villain, two faced and without a shred of compassion.

Finally, we have The Angels' Share, which was written and directed by the prolific British filmmaker Ken Loach. It's a story set in various depressed areas of Glasgow, with the protagonist a troubled young man named Robbie. As we enter the story, he narrowly avoids a prison sentence for his part in a brawl, and is warned by the judge that any further infractions will see him go behind bars for a lengthy stretch. As he has just become a father for the first time, he's desperate to avoid that fate - but with a number of enemies out looking for him, it won't be easy to avoid resorting to violence. He sees his potential financial salvation in stealing from a near-priceless cask of whiskey, but pulling the heist off won't be easy... Despite the serious social themes which run through the film, Loach keeps things surprisingly light-hearted and amusing, and it's obvious he has a lot of affection for his cast of Glaswegian characters. I was never completely blown away by this one, but it provides for a diverting hour and a half.

 Kirk's Quote of the Week

 Adaptation (2002)

"Charlie Kaufman: The script I'm starting, it's about flowers. Nobody's ever done a movie about flowers before. So, there are no guidelines...
Donald Kaufman: What about "Flowers for Algernon"?
Charlie Kaufman: Well, that's not about flowers. And it's not a movie.
Donald Kaufman: OK, I'm sorry, I never saw it."

Monday, 22 April 2013

The fortnight in brief (8 - 21 April)

Here's a list of the movies I've watched over the last couple of weeks:

The Raid: Redemption (2011): 9/10
Bug (2006): 7/10
Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos) (2011): 6/10
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011): 7/10
Citizen Ruth (1996): 8/10

The best film I saw since my last update was The Raid. Even on the small screen, it's still a tremendously lean and well executed martial arts picture. However,  as I've already covered that movie a couple of times on this blog (here and here), I'll move swiftly on to my second pick, Citizen Ruth. Alexander Payne's debut feature finds a slow witted young homeless woman named Ruth Stoops (played brilliantly by Laura Dern) caught in a tug of war between two groups of activists fighting a pitched battle over the life of her unborn child. The die hard Christian group wants her to keep her baby, the Right to Choose lobbyists are keen for her to get an abortion, but all she wants to do is huff solvents and maybe make a little money on the side... Although the movie is a little unpolished compared to Election or About Schmidt, it's still a very sharp and biting satire, tackling a controversial issue in an unusual way. Payne doesn't come down on either side of the abortion debate - instead, he portrays the activists on both sides in a negative light. Both groups are far more interested in scoring political points than in Ruth's welfare. When I reviewed his most recent movie (The Descendants), I felt that Payne had moved too far towards sentimentality - but here we find the director at his most cynical, taking aim at just about everyone, with barely a sympathetic character in sight. While it's unlikely to win him any Oscars, I think I prefer him that way.

I didn't see any terrible films this week, but Juan of the Dead was probably the bottom of the pile. Billed as "the first Cuban zombie comedy", it takes the concept of a zombie apocalypse and moves it to Havana. Our (anti) heroes are Juan and his friends, a bunch of small time crooks who decide to follow the example of Lionel Hutz and cash on on the tragedy, by offering their services as freelance zombie killers. Though there are a few attempts at political satire/ humour here and there (for example, the zombies are referred to as 'dissidents', the plague seems to have emanated from Guantanamo Bay), on the whole the movie is content to play out as a sort of low key comedy/ horror. It's all well and good up to a point, but I had a couple of problems with the picture. Firstly, the protagonist and his posse are a pretty dislikeable bunch, who have no problem in leaving innocent people to die at the hands of the zombies if it means they can steal their possessions. The lack of a sympathetic character makes it hard for the viewer to care when the group gradually gets bumped off by an ever growing zombie horde. Secondly, some of the better moments in the film have been lifted wholesale from other, better films. Finishing the movie with a pre-credits rendition of "My Way" by Sid Vicious would have been a nice touch, but it's already been done (at the end of a far better picture) by Martin Scorsese. Similarly, having a zombie killing priest with the catchphrase "I kick ass for the Lord" could have been fairly amusing, until I realised that the same idea also featured in the (superior) Peter Jackson movie Braindead. If I was to rank the gimmicky comedy zombie movies that I've seen, Juan of the Dead is significantly better than Dead Snow, but not even close to it's near namesake, the brilliant Shaun of the Dead.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Sideways (2005)

"Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot.
Miles Raymond: No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!"

Monday, 15 April 2013

Listorama! My Top Five Philip Seymour Hoffman Movies

As I only managed to see just one solitary film during the course of last week, I thought it would make sense to wrap that particular film into next week's round up. Instead, I've decided to do another list, as it's been a while since the last one.

At first, I was planning on preparing a list to compliment my friend Colin's selections for his top ten actresses and actors. However, on close reflection, that all seemed like a bit too much hard work. As Homer Simpson famously said, "if something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing". Putting that piece of life coaching into practice, I've instead knocked together something short and sweet, a rundown of the finest performances from perhaps my favourite actor of all time, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Big Phil's been in a diverse range of movies, but I've concentrated on the pictures where he's had a leading (or at least a major supporting) role. This means that sadly, I've had to eliminate The Big Lebowski from the running, even though it contains possibly his funniest performance as Brandt, widely regarded as the sycophant's sycophant. For similar reasons, I wasn't able to include his small but significant performances in movies like Almost Famous, Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

Anyway, that's enough of a preamble. Here's my list:

5. Doubt (2008)

The movie: Set in a Catholic school in the early 1960s, Doubt sees a popular young priest and teacher accused of abusing one of the boys in his care by the chief Nun at the neighbouring girl's school.

The performance: PSH was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in this picture in 2009. It's a movie which is driven entirely by its fantastic cast, and Hoffman's performance brilliantly compliments that of Meryl Streep as the suspicious nun.

 4. Capote (2005)

The movie: A biopic of the famous American author, Truman Capote, the film focusses on the period in his life in which he wrote his defining work, In Cold Blood. In researching the book, which was based on a sensational true crime story of a family who were murdered in their farmhouse in Kansas, Capote forms a close relationship with Perry Smith, one of the killers.

The performance: Hoffman achieved the highest honour in his career to date in winning the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in this movie. He does a tremendous job of mimicking the speech patterns and movements of the effete, loquacious Capote, and brings him to life on the screen.

3. Happiness (1998)

The movie: An ensemble drama about the lives of a group of unhappy residents of New Jersey, with each character perfectly miserable in their own way. Provided you've got a sufficiently dark and twisted sense of humour, it's bitingly sharp and witty.

The performance: PSH has never been shy about playing oddballs, nutjobs, loons and crazies - and this movie features possibly his most pathetic character of all. As Allen the obscene phone caller, he displays an admirable lack of vanity in playing a character utterly crippled by his neuroses.

2. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

The movie: Sidney Lumet's final picture is an absolute treat, with a brilliant script, a fine cast and a plot which twists and turns in unexpected directions. It involves a scheme hatched by two brothers to rob their parents' jewellery store. As is always the case in this type of picture, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong...

The performance: A comparison of Hoffman's performance in this picture with that in Happiness gives a clear demonstration of why he's such a wonderful actor. While in Happiness, he plays a wretched, introverted weakling, in Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, he's quite the opposite, paying a brash, aggressive, domineering bully. The fact that he's so completely convincing in both roles is a testament to PSH's abilities as a true chameleon.

1. Synedoche, New York (2008)

The movie:  When theatre director and hypochondriac Caden Cottard is awarded an arts grant, he decides to spend it producing a play which is as real and true to life as possible: a constantly running, endlessly rescripted production that comments on his life as he moves from middle age towards death.

The performance: As a film which entirely revolves around its central character (and frequently takes place within his head), it's a movie which is a terrific showcase for Hoffman's talents. PSH gives a tremendous performance as a man struggling to come to terms with his mortality and inadequacies as an artist.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The week in brief (1 - 7 April 2013)

This week, I have been mostly watching...

Psycho (1960): 8/10
Trance (2013): 6/10
Back to School (1986): 5/10
Paranorman (2012): 6/10
Wake Wood (2011): 7/10
The Wizard of Oz (1939): 8/10

Before I begin with the weekly round up, I'd just like to say a few words about Roger Ebert, who sadly passed away last Thursday, aged 70. I remember reading his reviews when I was a teenager (I used to spend quite a bit of time checking them out on Cinemania '95), and he steered me towards many movies I might otherwise never have heard of. I've consulted his views on many occasions since then - it was obvious that he genuinely loved cinema, and even if I didn't agree with him all the time, I always respected his opinion. He was one of the most popular, passionate and articulate critics around, and he'll definitely be missed.

I returned to the cinema this week after a short absence, catching Danny Boyle's latest picture, Trance. Set in modern day London, it's a dark crime drama involving a stolen Goya painting, an alluring hypnotist, a gang of thieves and a bad case of amnesia. The casting of the three lead actors here is interesting. I'm pretty sure that James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson haven't worked together before - they seem to move in different Hollywood circles - so it was quite a unique experience to see them share the screen.  Despite generally being a fan of Mr Boyle's movies, for me, Trance doesn't rank alongside his best works. Although the movie is beautifully shot and looks absolutely stunning, the plot doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny. At around the halfway stage (as the film starts to spend most of its time inside James McAvoy's character's head), the film starts to collapse in on itself, and the ending is wildly implausible. It's certainly not a failure, and it made for a moderately entertaining evening at the movies, but I can't really see myself returning to this film in the future.

In terms of the movies I saw on DVD this week, the best of the bunch were a couple of oldies but goodies. For one reason or another, I'd never seen The Wizard of Oz before. Watching it for the first time was quite a strange experience. As it's such an influential picture, and it's been parodied and referenced so much elsewhere (for example on the Simpsons, with Mr Burns' flying monkeys), I had a distinct feeling of deja vu. It's also the kind of movie which is hard to assess when you see it for the first time as an adult. I'm guessing that at least part of the reason why The Wizard of Oz is so loved is that it's associated with fond childhood memories. Still even without that warm nostalgic glow, I could appreciate the quality of the songwriting, the wonderful use of colour and the lavish production values. A personal highlight for me was the performance of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion - he's absolutely hilarious.

Secondly, I thorougly enjoyed watching Psycho again; I think this would be either my third or fourth viewing of the picture. After being very disappointed with The Birds last week, it was good to catch up with one of my favourite Hitchcock pictures.  It's an tremendously important movie in the world of horror cinema, paving the way for classic slashers like Halloween (and not-so-classic slashers like Friday the 13 Part V). By now, much of the shock value of seeing Janet Leigh (the female lead) bumped off inside half an hour has gone, but there's still much to enjoy in the movie. Anthony Perkins gives a wonderfully creepy performance as the crazed Norman Bates, the score from Bernard Herrmann is superb and the famous shower sequence is a masterpiece of editing.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

"Cowardly Lion: You're right, I am a coward! I haven't any courage at all. I even scare myself. Look at the circles under my eyes. I haven't slept in weeks!
Tin Woodsman: Why don't you try counting sheep?
Cowardly Lion: That doesn't do any good, I'm afraid of 'em."

Monday, 1 April 2013

The fortnight in brief (18 - 31 March 2013)

Well, as Jack Torrance says to Lloyd in The Shining, I've been away, but now I'm back. Apologies for the lack of an update last week - I was travelling last weekend, so didn't get the chance to post my reviews for last week's films. Anyway, I've had a pretty busy Easter period, film-wise, watching the following movies:

Lady in White (1988): 6/10
Delicacy (La delicatesse) (2011): 7/10
Ted (2012): 7/10
Compliance (2012): 8/10
King of New York (1990): 5/10
This is Spinal Tap (1984): 10/10
American Psycho (2000): 9/10
Drive (2011): 8/10
Catfish (2010): 7/10
Multiplicity (1996): 7/10
River's Edge (1986): 7/10
Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953): 6/10
The Shining (1980): 10/10
Fargo (1996): 10/10
Four Lions (2010):  8/10
The Birds (1963): 5/10

It's been a bit of a mixed bag, on the whole. While I caught up with a number of my all-time favourites - including The Shining, Fargo, Drive, This is Spinal Tap and American Psycho, very few of the films I was watching for the first time left much of an impression.

An exception to that general rule was the disturbing but fascinating Compliance, a film based on a horrifying true story. The premise of the picture (and the real life events which inspired it) involve a hoax caller ringing a fast food joint and pretending to be a police officer. The caller informs the manager of the restaurant that one of her members of staff (in this case, a young woman named Becky) has been accused of theft, and must be detained so that the police can make an arrest. Once the member of staff has been taken away from public view, the caller uses his assumed authority to pressurise the manager into treating the detainee in an increasingly degrading manner. Where this film is so strong is that all of the events are presented in a straightforward manner, without any form of sensationalism; the true horror of the events speak for themselves. Special praise should go to the acting performances of Ann Dowd (the manager of the fast food restaurant), Dreama Walker (Becky, the detainee) and to Pat Healy, who plays the hoax caller as a sinister and inscrutable individual with an icy detachment from the mayhem which he is creating at the other end of the phone. It's not an easy film to sit through, but it is absolutely compelling nevertheless.

Two candidates present themselves for the dubious honour of the worst film of the week. First up, we have Abel "Bad Lieutenant" Ferrara's King of New York. It's a violent gangster picture in the vein of Carlito's Way, with a former mobster returning to his former life after a lengthy prison sentence, determined to get even with those who wronged him while he was away. Despite a typically wild-eyed and captivating lead performance from Christopher Walken, the plot of the film is all over the place, the fashions and music on display have aged horribly and it bears little or no resemblance to real life.

Secondly, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, probably the most disappointing picture I've seen from the master director. I guess the main problem from my perspective is with the special effects Hitch used to create the illusion that a gang of irate seagulls had descended on the unsuspecting townsfolk of Bodega Bay, CA. It's obvious that the actors were never in the same room as the swarms of birds, so I was never really scared by any of the numerous scenes of avian attacks.  (Obviously, the effects are still roughly six million times better than the animated GIFs you see in Birdemic: Shock and Terror). Compounding this problem is that I was rather bored by the tedious romantic subplot involving Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Possibly because Hedren is no Grace Kelly - and Taylor is no Cary Grant - I never found myself warming to these characters, and I never felt like I had anything invested in their fates.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Fargo (1996)
"Marge Gunderson: So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."

Monday, 18 March 2013

The week in brief (11 - 17 March 2013)

Normally, I start off proceedings by dishing out my coveted 'Pick of the Week' trophy. None of the producers of those films have collected these trophies - I have a whole bag of them at home, just waiting for their rightful owners to come and collect them... Anyway, this week, no-one gets a trophy. I'm casting a disapproving stare in the general direction of filmmakers behind the following pictures:

Logan's Run (1976): 4/10
V/H/S (2012): 6/10
Parker (2013): 5/10

The best of a pretty bad bunch was V/H/S, an anthology of found footage horror shorts from various directors. Each of the shorts purports to be a real video tape in which one or more of the protagonists meets a grisly end. The stories cover a variety of horror subgenres, including an encounter with some kind of succubus type creature (Amateur Night), a send up of slasher movies (Tuesday the 17th) and a haunted house/ Satanic cult scenario (10/31/98).  My favourite segment, "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" chronicles a series of live Web chats between a girl and her boyfriend, with the girl attempting to persuade him that supernatural intruders have been creeping into her flat at night. One of the benefits of this form of horror movie is that you rarely get the chance to get settled or used to a particular villain, so the potential for consistent scares is higher than with a 'normal' horror film.  However, I found that although there were some genuinely scary moments, most of the characters involved in the shorts, from the horrible frat boys in Amateur Night, to the idiotic college students in Tuesday the 17th, were either insufferable or just really boring.  V/H/S is a real mixed bag, and not entirely successful. Still, at least it held my interest for a couple of hours, so it's better than the next two films in this week's round up.

At the very bottom of the pile this week was Logan's Run, a '70s sci-fi flick which is now really showing its age. What's particularly frustrating is that the movie is based on quite an interesting premise, yet isn't able to build upon it. It's set in the year 2274, in a futuristic city whose inhabitants live a joyful and hedonistic life until they reach the age of 30. At this point, the fun has to end, and they are vapourised in a ritual known as 'the Carousel', though the belief amongst the cityfolk is that this process enables them to be 'renewed' in the form of a newborn baby. Logan 5 (Michael York) works as a 'Sandman', which is to say that he guards the city, preventing anyone nearing the age of 30 from escaping before they meet their final judgment. However, after he's tasked with a top secret mission - finding and destroying a base for escapees known as "The Sanctuary" - he's required to pose as a runner, and in order to do so, he seeks the help of Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), an idealistic young woman. As he goes on the run with her, he finds himself accepting her ideas and questioning the preconceived ideas of the society in which he lives... Anyway, all of this is fine up to a point, but there are a number of massive, glaring plotholes that are revealed as the story progresses. For example (big spoilers ahead) - at the very end of the film, Logan has turned against his former employers, and decides to bring down the government of the city. In order to do this, his grand plan is to re-enter the city, shout some slogans about the Carousel being "a lie", and hope eveyone immediately changes their mind. Though this doesn't work and he's immediately captured by another group of Sandmen, his plan pays off anyway. During his interrogation by the computer which runs the city, he succeeds in confusing it, and for no apparent reason, the whole city just immediately blows up! It's as if the screenwriter came up with the initial concept, but had no idea about how to follow through with a decent story. That's not the only problem with the movie. The sets, costumes and special effects look very dated now, Michael York is rather hammy as the eponymous hero and the second half of the movie feels both drawn out (our heroes spend about half an hour having a boring conversation with an old man, born free in the outside World) and anticlimatic. Pretty poor.

Finally, we come to Parker, the latest vehicle for cockney hardman Jason Statham. He plays Parker, a professional thief who is doublecrossed by his partners in crime after a successful heist - and left for dead at the side of the road. Of course, old Parker isn't going to take this lying down, so he decides to take revenge against those who have wronged him. Now, if the plot had been as straightforward as the explanation I've set out above, I think this could have been a pretty decent picture. I'm not a huge fan of Statham, but he's effective as an action hero, and had the movie been a simple matter of: "1. Parker is wronged; 2. Parker gets revenge; 3. The End", I think it would have worked  (that's basically the plot of Payback, which isn't a bad film).  Unfortunately, in order to pad out the running time, we take a lengthy and tedious detour in which Parker dons a Cowboy hat and a bad Texan accent and slowly and laboriously stakes out the movements of his former partners as they plan a new job in Florida. This section of the film seems to have been sponsored by the Tourist Board for Palm Beach, as it consists of a number of guided tours of the many fabulous mansions of the area, together with various speeches on the fantastic lives of high society folk in the area. Jennifer Lopez makes an appearance as an estate agent who helps out Parker, but her character doesn't make much of an impression, and could easily have been jettisoned without much of an adjustment to the story. I suppose I wasn't really expecting great things from this picture and ultimately, it was only slightly worse than I had anticipated.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Fight Club (1999)

"Tyler Durden: If you could fight anyone, who would you fight?
Narrator: Shatner. I'd fight William Shatner."

Monday, 11 March 2013

The week in brief (4 - 10 March 2013)

This week's list of movies watched:
Ordinary People (1980): 8/10
Stoker (2013): 7/10
Silkwood (1983): 6/10
Side Effects (2013): 8/10

For the first time in quite a while, I went to the cinema twice in a week. Reviews for both of those movies coming up...

Stoker is the first English language film from the brilliant South Korean director Chan Wook Park, who previously helmed Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Thirst. It's a mixture of horror film, gothic drama and mystery, focusing on a wealthy but dysfunctional family who live in a grand old pile, somewhere in the Southern US. We enter the story at the funeral of Richard, the patriarch of the Stoker family, whose passing paves the way for the entrance of his suave younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode). While Richard's estranged wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) welcomes his attentions, his strange, withdrawn daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) suspects that something isn't quite right about her uncle... Now, I had mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, while the plot is set up intriguingly, the pay off towards the end of the picture is a little anticlimactic. Mia Wasikowska is impressive as India, but neither Kidman (who appears to be struggling to emote through a heavily botoxed face), nor Goode are quite able to match her performance. On the other hand, the film looks fantastic. Park has retained his incredibly stylish aesthetic and has edited the picture in a deliberately jarring way, creating a constant sense of unease for the viewer. Not perfect, but a promising Hollywood debut from Mr Park.

As Chan Wook Park makes his entrance onto the scene, we have to bid farewell to Steven Soderbergh, as Side Effects will reportedly be his final picture. Thankfully, he's left us on a high note. The plot hinges on the violent death of a disgraced former stockbroker, stabbed to death in his high rise apartment by his former wife. She claims that her actions were the result of a side effect of a new form of anti-depressant she was taking - she was sleepwalking during the attack, so had no control over her actions. Her psychiatrist decides to fight her corner, but as he delves deeper into the mystery, he finds his life start to fall apart... This is a really interesting, intelligent thriller which seems to be taking you in one direction before lurching off to entirely different place towards the end. Jude Law and Rooney Mara provide strong performances in the lead roles and are ably supported by Catherine Zeta Jones, who seems to be making a bit of a comeback recently. If this is Soderbergh's last film, it'll be a real shame - he's had a diverse career, directing the likes of Traffic, Out of Sight, The Limey, Haywire, Contagion and Ocean's Eleven. Still, he was also responsible for one of the slowest films of all time (Che), so maybe it's not all bad news...

Kirk's Quote of the Week

 A Mighty Wind (2003)

 "Terry Bohner: There was abuse in my family, but it was mostly musical in nature."