Monday, 25 February 2013

The week in brief (18 - 24 February 2013)

This week, I have been mostly watching...

The Queen of Versailles (2012): 8/10
Dark Horse (2011): 6/10
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012): 6/10
Inside (A l'interieur): 7/10
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998): 8/10
The Big Chill (1983): 7/10

To start with, just a few words on last night's Academy Awards ceremony. When I say a few words, I mean it - I don't have too much to say about the Oscars this year, as I felt that justice was generally done all round. (There was certainly nothing as aggravating as seeing Drive overlooked in favour of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as was the case last year). I was very pleased to see Argo getting the nod for Best Picture, as it was my clear personal favourite of all the nominated films. While I had mixed feelings about The Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, I can't deny that the visuals in the former were spectacular (and clearly deserving of recognition), or that Jennifer Lawrence was very impressive in the latter. At the risk of sounding like a snivelling sycophant, I'd like to say very well done to the Academy. You've earned your opulent gift baskets from Harvey Weinstein this year.

Moving on to films I've seen recently, my pick of the week goes to the excellent documentary The Queen of Versailles. It's a look into the lives of Florida timeshare magnate David Siegel and his family, both before and after the economic crisis. As the film begins, Siegel and his wife Jackie are in the process of building America's largest house. Modelled on the Palace of Versailles, it was intended to have something like 30 bedrooms, 20 bathrooms, a grand ballroom, baseball and tennis stadiums and a separate wing for the Siegels' 8 children. Of course, when the downturn came, the fortunes of the Siegels were severely impacted, and the need to make cutbacks across their business led to the colossal new house being left as a derelict, half built husk. The family found itself needing to adjust from living a life of obscene, untapped wealth to a comparatively normal existence. It's a fascinating story, very well told - and what's most impressive is that the film doesn't seek to demonise the Siegel family, who would be easy targets for mockery. They're simply presented as they are - as flawed human beings, but certainly not monsters.

Once again, I didn't see any films which I actively disliked, but there were a couple of minor let downs. Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of a community living on the Mississippi delta who are forced to evacuate their homes in the wake of the impact of Hurricane Katrina. It's a film which has been critically lauded, but for one reason or another I never found myself engaging with the adventures of young Hushpuppy or her dysfunctional family and friends. Though the picture clocked in at a lean 90 minutes, it felt considerably longer. Dark Horse is the latest film from New Jersey miserabilist Todd Solondz, once again taking aim at the sad, unfulfilled lives of middle class Jewish families in the suburbs. While I loved Solondz's first two films (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), I've never been as impressed by his more recent efforts - and this feels distinctly like a later period Solondz picture. Though things get off to a promising and amusing start, the film goes completely haywire at around the halfway stage, with the effect that you're never quite sure whether what you're seeing is reality, or simply a daydream from the fevered imagination of its depressed, schlubby protagonist. A bit of a wasted opportunity.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

"Raoul Duke:  Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. A normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side. This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop heart. Make the bastard chase you. He will follow."

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The week in brief (11 - 17 February 2013)

A very busy week, in which I watched 15 films. I think that's the highest number since my record breaking week in May of last year...

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): 9/10
Hitchcock (2012): 6/10
Flirting With Disaster (1996): 6/10
The Cell (2000): 7/10
The Deep Blue Sea (2011): 5/10
Ruby Sparks (2012): 8/10
Days of Glory (Indigenes) (2006): 6/10
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982): 8/10
Twelve Monkeys (1995): 8/10
The Shawshank Redemption (1994): 9/10
Timecrimes (Los cronocrimines) (2007): 7/10
Young Adult (2012): 8/10
Diva (1981): 6/10
Back to the Future (1985): 10/10
Back to the Future, Part II (1989): 8/10

I spent about half of my time this week watching some old favourites, including Back to the Future, the Shawshank Redemption, Twelve Monkeys and The Silence of the Lambs - all of which are classics which I can return to time and time again.  In terms of new films, there wasn't too much to shout about - for the most part, these ranged between films which were completely forgettable (The Deep Blue Sea, Flirting With Disaster) or interesting but flawed (Diva, The Cell, Timecrimes).

Only one movie which I saw for the first time really stood out for me. Ruby Sparks is an interesting comedy drama from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, scripted by Zoe Kazan, who also plays the title role. It's the story of a neurotic writer (Paul Dano) who is shocked to discover that the idealised dream girl he has created in his latest novel has come to life and moved in with him. This concept isn't wholly original - I've seen aspects of it before in films like Adaptation, Weird Science, Secret Window and Stranger Than Fiction. However, it is a rather interesting spin on the idea, with Dano finding to his horror that attempting to alter aspects of his dream girl's personality can cause her to suffer great pain.  With this type of quirky comedy drama, I find that it's necessary for the actors, directors and screenwriters to have a particularly delicate touch to pull it off. Get it right and you've got something sweet and whimsical on your hands; overdo it and you're left with something sickly and nauseating, likely to be found on the next edition of Nathan Rabin's MPDG list. Fortunately, on this occasion, the collaborators behind the film have worked a minor miracle and made a funny, touching and quietly moving picture.

I saw just one new release in the cinema this week - it was Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi's biopic of the master director's attempts to bring Psycho to the big screen. In adapting such a controversial book, Hitchcock was forced to go outside the studio system and finance it himself, something which put a great strain on his marriage to long suffering wife, Alma. Although this is an interesting idea in theory, in practice it's rather mundane. There isn't much jeopardy here - we all know that Psycho is going to be a great success, and that Hitch isn't going to find himself financially ruined and blacklisted in Hollywood after its creation. Although the movie doesn't depict Hitchcock in the most flattering light, it seems to be pulling its punches; his obsession with his leading ladies is hinted at, but never really properly explored. Anthony Hopkins (as Alfred Hitchcock) and Helen Mirren (as Alma) both provide solid performances, but fail to inject much life into the film.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

"Ron Burgundy: I don't know how to put this, but... I'm kind of a big deal.
Veronica Corningstone: Really.
Ron Burgundy: People know me.
Veronica Corningstone: Well, I'm very happy for you.
Ron Burgundy: I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany."

Monday, 11 February 2013

The week in brief (4 - 10 February 2013)

This week's list of movies watched:

Pet Sematary (1989): 6/10
A Separation (2011): 8/10
Zero Dark Thirty (2012): 8/10
Holy Motors (2012): 7/10
The Dictator (2012): 6/10

Beginning as usual with my pick of the week, and we have a two way tie for the award this time around. Both of the favourite films this week were stories set in the Arab world, though they were movies with vastly different perspectives. Zero Dark Thirty is Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, and until recently looked set to be a major contender at this year's Academy Awards. However, following some controversy regarding a number of scenes in the film which portray CIA operatives torturing detainees, it appears that ZDT is likely to lose out to less divisive pictures such as Lincoln and Argo in the major categories. This is a shame, really - whilst watching the film, I thought Kathryn Bigelow took pains to avoid making the film either pro or anti the use of torture in these circumstances; it was simply presented as something which took place in the course of the CIA's investigation. In any event, this is an excellent film, and definitely worth a watch for anyone who enjoyed The Hurt Locker. Bigelow throws the viewer straight into the deep end, with some of the more gruesome and unpleasant scenes taking place right at the start of the picture. Once we move past that section, we're left with an extremely gripping thriller, with the CIA running down various red herrings and suffering numerous setbacks in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Jessica Chastain is on fine form as Maya, the lead CIA operative on the case. She's implacable and relentless in her pursuit, and it is her insistence that the way to Bin Laden is to track his most trusted courier that results in the US government finally locating and killing the world's most wanted man.

A Separation was a winner at last year's Oscars (for best Foreign Language film), and in my opinion, the award was definitely merited. The set up involves a court case following a domestic incident in the homer of Nader (Peyman Moaddi). He has been accused of killing the unborn child of his father's carer Nazieh (Sareh Bayat), by pushing her down some stairs. Nader denies the charges; though he admits that he pushed Nazieh, he maintains that he wasn't aware she was pregnant. As different sides to the story are presented in front of the judge, we gradually discover the truth behind the incident. The central message of the film is that almost every character is compromised - nobody is telling the whole truth, though each character has a valid reason for keeping certain aspects of their story secret. This is a very interesting film, which sheds some light on class tension and other aspects of day to day life in Tehran. There are highly naturalistic performances across the board, with Moaddi and Leila Hatami (who plays Simin, Nader's estranged wife) particularly good.

There was nothing which I saw this week which I'd regard as being particularly bad, but neither Pet Sematary, nor The Dictator will live long in the memory. Pet Sematary is a fair to middling adaptation of one Stephen King's most interesting novels. While the book examines the effects of grief in grieving parents, and the fear of death and decay, the movie simplifies things, focussing on the book's basic premise of an Indian burial ground which can bring the dead back to life.  It's a reasonably effective horror flick, with one or two genuinely unsettling moments. Still, a killer zombie toddler isn't a particularly scary foe, so the ending of the movie is a little weak. The Dictator, Sasha Baron Cohen's latest vehicle, sees hated despot Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) stripped of his power and forced to rely on his wits on the streets of New York City. It's a real hit and miss affair - Cohen throws out a lot of lowbrow jokes, and though most of them fall flat, on occasion I found myself laughing out loud.  It's nowhere near as consistently amusing as Borat, but still decidedly better than the atrocious Ali G movie.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

"Clarice Starling: If you didn't kill him, then who did, sir?
Hannibal Lecter: Who can say. Best thing for him, really. His therapy was going nowhere."

Monday, 4 February 2013

The week in brief (28 January - 4 February 2013)

Films watched this week:

Lincoln (2012): 8/10

Just the one film to report on this week, but fortunately it was rather good. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is one of the favourites at this year's Oscars, and from my point of view, that position is well deserved. Rather than presenting the life of Lincoln as a whole, Spielberg has decided to focus on the period at the beginning of his second term as President, during which the controversial thirteenth amendment, outlawing slavery, was made to the US Constitution. While it took me a while to tune in to these 19th century political shenanigans, I soon found myself gripped by the story, which demonstrated that sometimes it is necessary to engage in underhand means to achieve something which is fundamentally good. Two of the actors (in a generally strong cast) stand out for particular praise - Daniel Day Lewis gives a terrific performance as Abraham Lincoln, establishing a character who is strong, principled yet not overbearing, using his ability to tell stories to change the minds of his political opponents. Tommy Lee Jones was also wonderful as the angry, outspoken abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who realises that it will be necessary to compromise in order to achieve his goal. It's a fine picture and a welcome return to reform for Spielberg after last year's disappointingly saccharine War Horse.

By the way, I'd recommend that any Coen brothers fans who haven't seen this trailer head over to Youtube and check it out. It's always a pleasure whenever John Goodman works with the Coens and after a few projects where the Coens have worked with adapted source material, it will be great to see something which is wholly original. Inside Llewyn Davis is probably the film I'm most looking forward to this year.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Withnail & I (1987)

"Withnail: Monty used to act.
Monty: Well, I'd hardly say that. It's true, I crept the boards in my youth. But I never really had it in my blood, and that's what's so essential, isn't it, theatrical zeal in the veins. Alas, I have little more than vintage wine and memories."