Thursday, 20 September 2012


You may not have heard of this (I hadn’t), and I’m not sure whether to recommend that it’s worth watching. Certainly the film achieved a lot of awards and critical acclaim, and is rated 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it left me feeling largely unmoved. A teenage boy in Long Island in the 70s struggles to come to terms with the tension between his parents, being bullied at school, and his love for his next door neighbour’s daughter. Meanwhile, lyme disease is spreading in the area, and so is the subsequent paranoia. It is supposed to be ‘darkly comic’, although I hardly noticed this. As you can tell, the plot is not exactly revelatory and lyme disease doesn’t really play a prominent or meaningful part of the film. It is merely an incidental aspect of the story. Rory and Kieran Culkin are both very good as the brothers – natural and easy with each other (as you’d expect). Alec Baldwin, despite apparently having the role written for him, really feels a bit flat here (perhaps I’m too used to his character from 30 Rock, though). The film is shot with that certain filter that makes things look older and richer in tone than they really are – otherwise you’d hardly notice this was actually set in the 70s. The father’s ambitions to sell plots of land on a housing estate appears to be meaningful, but ends up revealing nothing, much like the lyme disease. This film, really, is profoundly anti-climactic – perhaps someone’s description of it as ‘darkly comic’ is just another way of saying ‘not really funny or serious’. Culkin’s relationship with the girl is rather predictable (even though she dates an older boy, she likes him really), and the ending of the film doesn’t resolve any of the important issues, but rather starts new ones. Overall, this film misses its marks in several areas and yet it would be a shame to disparage it completely, as there is value here, and the director, Derick Martini, surely has promise.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Before Sunrise

A young American meets a French girl on a train passing through Europe. They strike up a conversation and he convinces her to get off the train with him at Vienna, spending the day together before he leaves the next morning on a flight home. This is a beautiful, poignant film and if you’re not on the verge of tears by the end, you must have a heart of stone. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are the stars. He is rather irritating, but then that is perhaps what makes this movie work. They very much feel like real people. Delpy herself is brilliant. We spend almost the entire time with them alone – one long first date as they discover this strange city. The conversations they have are rather student-like – philosophising, setting the world to rights – and it seems they disagree in a lot of ways (he is pessimistic, she optimistic). It’s a simple film but brave because of that, and the only obvious directorial statement comes at the end, which I won’t ruin. The back stories are not perhaps greatly convincing, but that doesn’t matter. They have the day together, and that is all. They explore the city and learn about each other, falling helplessly in love as they do so. At times it takes a bit of patience to put up with what is essentially an hour and a half conversation between two strangers, but you’ll be rewarded by the end as you realise how involved you’ve become. I would’ve liked to have seen this film before they made the sequel in 2004 (called Before Sunset), because the ending here is open. Now, however, we know the ending is in some way closed (unless we ignore the sequel, which is possible). As it stands on its own, this film will strike anyone who’s ever been young and in love (which must be most of us), and anyone who’s ever felt the inevitability of something special ending (ditto). I’m not sure if I could bear to watch it again, though.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Written, directed by and starring the artist Miranda July, this is one of the most astonishing films you’ll ever see. To say that it is quirky, quaint or off-beat I think is to demean it. Likewise, to simply describe the plot does not do it justice at all: a woman falls in love with a recently divorced man; a young boy talks to an older woman in an adult online chat-room; a man develops a perverse, but ultimately innocent relationship with two teenage girls on his street. All the characters are connected in one way or another, whether they know it or not. As I said, though, this is hardly a good description of the film. It has a language of its own. The scene with the goldfish on the car roof is extraordinary, and perhaps would better encapsulate the nature of this movie. Likewise the young girl with her hope chest, the man setting fire to his hand, or the tapping of the electricity turning on every morning. It is not impressionist, or predominantly visual, although there are certain tableaus that remain fixed in your mind. The characters speak with a simplicity that is at times shocking. It’s a naivety, however, that belies the complexity of the film. It is like a piece of installation art, except with a plot. The whole thing ends before it feels like it has been tied together, some of the dialogue seems stilted, and the characters’ actions are implausible at times, but then this was never a film that was going to give easy answers or solutions, or offer an accurate picture of real life. It is funny, disturbing, shocking and revelatory. A highly original, breathtaking movie that you won’t forget in a hurry.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Near Dark

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow twenty years before her big success recently with The Hurt Locker, you’d find it very hard to see any similarities. This is a dark, fairly brutal vampire film from the late 80s, rejecting the comedy or light-hearted, mainstream nature of thrillers that had gone before it (like Fright Night or The Lost Boys). In fact, the word ‘vampire’ is never mentioned – hinting almost at an embarrassment, or an attempt to dissociate itself from other movies. A young man in an American Midwest town meets a girl and offers her a ride home. When he leans in for a kiss, she bites his neck.  Both actors are unknown, and you think at first they won’t last much further than the first act, but they are in fact to be our main characters. As the man begins to turn into a vampire, he is picked up by the girl and her sinister gang (including a very creepy kid who has stayed young despite being very old). As with most vampire literature, the vampires here represent the dangerous underside of society – here a biker gang of punks/rebels. This is highlighted when a policeman interrogates the young man about what drugs he’s taken, or by his father’s concern that he’s dropped in with the ‘wrong crowd’. Likewise, as with a lot of vampire movies, time seems to advance very quickly (either during the day so it can be night, or during the night so it can be dawn). This is generally due to poor script-writing, but in a certain sense just can’t be avoided. The scene in the bar is exceptionally brutal, especially the shocking moment where the reason for the spurs becomes evident. It is undoubtedly Bill Paxton who steals the show throughout. There is also great music by Tangerine Dream, which is much emulated. Unlike most other vampire movies, however, there is a cure – although this is never explained or fully justified. As you can guess this film has a huge cult following (and deservedly so), and is worth watching now to catch up on the history of Bigelow (note the cinema showing Aliens in the background of one shot), especially as her next film about Bin Laden seems set to make a lot of headlines.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Ned Kelly

I’m not sure when seeing Heath Ledger on screen will stop being moving. His role here is particularly poignant in retrospect: Ned Kelly died when he was about 25, only a few years younger than Ledger. This film is directed by Gregor Jordan, the man who made the very strange Buffalo Soldiers - so don’t expect a ‘straight’ version of the story. There are lingering shots of the Australian landscape and wildlife, along with a dreamy narration by Ledger. Indeed, the film is based on the book ‘Our Sunshine’, which purports to give us the internal monologue of the man. The problem is, there are certain facts about Kelly which can’t be ignored, and which this director seems to play down. If we were to take this film as truth, Kelly was an innocent man, abused and persecuted by the police until he was eventually forced in to becoming an outlaw, reluctant to hurt, kill or rob anyone. A quick Google will tell you this was not true at all. There is so much information about his life, in fact, that Jordan seems to have taken the position of giving us an impression only of the character of Kelly. It certainly does that, although the inclusion of a love interest (played by Naomi Watts), should have been avoided. Ledger, at times, seems too soft for the type of man Kelly was. As with all films based on real life, it is hard for the director to detract from the interest of the story to impress upon us how he’s told the story. I expect if you already know the history of Ned Kelly there are few surprises or points of interest in this film. The accents are variable, especially from Orlando Bloom, and of course the story is told with a modern, humanistic perspective (when the man himself was probably far from it). The ending is something of an anti-climax – there is no great vindication or real showdown, no great speeches. Kelly just seems to give up, and the resignation of his last line is thought-provoking in its way, but deflating. It feels like Jordan was compromised between his attempt to film an impressionistic movie and a historical one. The result is consequently ambiguous.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Father of Invention

What is Kevin Spacey doing? It feels like he’s not making many films, spending all his time at the Old Vic, but actually his work rate is the same as it’s always been (in 1999 he made one film – American Beauty). Perhaps the films he’s making, then, just aren’t as good as his old ones? Or the roles he’s taking in them are minor? In Father of Invention, from 2010, he plays a disgraced inventor, who has spent ten years in a federal prison, trying to restart his life and career. It’s a comedy that’s not really funny. He manages to convince his daughter to let him live with her while he rebuilds his life. Her flatmates, I assume, are supposed to be quirky and funny (they’re not). The film plods along fairly ordinarily, but it is enjoyable enough. Probably the funniest character is the man now sleeping with his wife, played by Craig Robinson, who is secretly his biggest fan. Johnny Knoxville also makes an intriguing distraction, even if not especially funny, as the supermarket manager. The music video at the end is a weird aberration, not really in keeping with the rest of the movie. The world of the film is not as well crafted (people and places come and go randomly) as it could’ve been. You won’t be surprised to learn that Spacey’s character manages to restart his career and rebuild his relationship with his daughter, whilst learning what is truly important in his life, and possibly beginning a romantic affair with one of her flatmates. The context and the characters might be new here, but the premise isn’t, and the writing isn’t good or funny enough to pull it above the rest of the films competing for your attention at the moment.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Big Lebowski

Every time I see this film I like it more - except for last week. Last week, having enjoyed most of the length of the film, I reached the end somewhat disappointed. Why is this? The film is strange in more ways than is obvious. The narration by Sam Elliott which bookends the movie, and his brief appearance in the middle of it, is one of the more bizarre aspects. The film could easily exist without it. Yet it is a narration which purposefully tells us nothing, and does so from a explicitly biased perspective. We the audience are not supposed to relate in any way with the Texan. Is he voice of authority, morals, the outsider or society? It was something he said that left me disappointed, but I’ll get to that later. The Dude, Jeff Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges, is assaulted by two men who have confused him with another Jeff Lebowski – a far richer and more important one: ostensibly the ‘big Lebowski’ of the title. From this confusion, The Dude becomes involved in a supposed kidnapping and ransom demand. All he wants, really, is a new rug. He has little to no ambition or intentions. He is just trying to get by, or, as he says: the dude abides. It feels, however, that he is a private detective in a plot from the 1940s (something like Chinatown). The actual private detective that he meets spells this out: he’s playing one side against the other, in bed with everybody, including the beautiful woman. This couldn’t be further from the truth, of course. The Dude has virtually no idea what’s going on. It is a brilliant performance by Jeff Bridges, but we shouldn’t forget John Goodman and Philip Seymour Hoffman (compare him here to his role in Mission Impossible). The music is excellent and the dialogue is a perfect example of the surreal-deadpan style of the Coen brothers. What happens, though, at the end? The Texan’s narration closes the film off, and it was this remark in particular that perturbed me: ‘things seemed to have worked out pretty well for the Dude’. Did they? When you look at it, he is actually worse off than he was at the beginning: one of his closest friends has died, he lost his rug, and didn’t get paid anything by Lebowski. Perhaps the comment is ironic, perhaps the Dude is happy because he can go on bowling, living his life his way with no disturbance. It would feel wrong if he suddenly was given a lot of money, or found love. Something here feels wrong. Can the film be ended satisfactorily? Did the Coen brothers do the best they could with the character and the plot they had created?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Jacket

A soldier in the Gulf War is shot in the head, but somehow survives. He suffers from amnesia and blackouts, which leads to him being sent to a mental asylum when he can’t remember how he ended up on the side of a road next to a dead policeman. The chief doctor in this asylum has developed a particularly brutal treatment for some of his patients (those whom he believes are criminals): he feeds them drugs, ties them up in a straight jacket, and puts them inside a morgue drawer for several hours. Inside this drawer, the ex-soldier, played by Adrien Brody, suffers from vivid, painful flashbacks. However, he soon realises that as well as flashbacks, he can also have flash-forwards. In fact, these are not so much memories from the future, but actual visitations in that future. He can interact with the people there and change events. As you can tell, the concept makes little or no sense. You either go along with it or you switch off (which, given the film’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I think a lot of people did). It is intriguing, but the acting, especially from Keira Knightley, is heavy handed. Brody, usually excellent, is a little vague and uninteresting here. His character is doomed from the start, so it’s hard to get behind him or engage with his character much. What’s more, many of the other characters (played by some well-known actors) do not resolve their stories in any meaningful way – Daniel Craig, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kris Kristofferson all seem wasted here. As with any time travel story, the logical flaws are hard to overcome. It reminded me in some ways of Source Code. The coincidences of the story seem to override the logic. He just so happens to visit a point and a place in the future where he meets someone crucial to his life. This would be ok if the dilemma of the main character is at all compelling or interesting, but unfortunately it isn't. Why is he never vindicated for the murder he didn't commit? We leave the film somewhat confused and disappointed.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Pretty Bird

I found myself watching this film late the other night. Unable to stay awake, but intrigued, I recorded it to watch later. It is a strangely alluring film, but one that makes little sense in the end. Billy Crudup is a man with an idea – an idea to build a rocket pack. He ropes in an old friend as investor, and an out-of-work engineer (Paul Giamatti) to do the actual science, whilst he tries to market what they’ve got. This is a comedy, in case you’re wondering, but its humour is subtle and weird. The ‘where would we be if Oppenheimer hadn’t invented the nuclear bomb?’ speech is brilliantly dark. We’re never quite sure if Crudup’s character is a genius, mad, evil or stupid. When they realise they have actually invented something that works, things start to get weird(er). It should be the point where they start to make money, but instead their friend/investor goes bankrupt and Crudup disappears with the rocket pack. This is based on a true story, which makes it even stranger, and perhaps explains its lack of dramatic completion at the end. In real life, the belt can never be found – in drama/film, however, it has to be. We need some sort of completion to the cycle of the action. So the film ends, and we are as puzzled as we’ve ever been about human behaviour. Crudup is exceptional, and the film never tries to be anything that it isn’t. It reminded me of Primer in many ways – quietly brilliant and disturbing.

The Hateful Eight

Tarantino has said he'll only make ten films, and then retire. I don't know if he still stands by this statement, and if he does we ...