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."