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Friday, 23 December 2011

My Christmas Schedule

Okay so it's finally the Christmas weekend and in between the food, the alcohol and the gifts, one must cram in some seasonal films.  Apparently UK television is particularly crap this year (although I wouldn't know, as I tend to not bother with it), so all the more reason to settle down with some great feel-good movies.  We all have our favourites, and here are the films I plan on getting through this year, and which I recommend as terrific Christmas films for you to check out as well, should you be unfamiliar with them.  It's time to put away your cynicism for a few days and enjoy:


That's right, what some might call Curtis' glorious cheesefest.  Quite apart from the fact that it actually isn't all that cheesy, it is simply a great film to watch at this time of year.  For any flaws you might see, at Christmas it simply makes me feel great; every thread of the story is either fun, heartwarming, bittersweet, or actually rather moving.  This film blends the reality of life's struggles with the fanatasy of how the world should be perfectly.  Forget realistic, this is the one time of year where a film as flawed as this gets away with it by overwhelming me with the warm fuzzy feeling.


Er, ok so you don't need to put away any cynicism  because....this isn't a Christmas film, right?  WRONG, this is a great Christmas film.  It is set a Christmas, it's about a man trying to spend time with his family at Christmas, it's about John McClane kicking some Christmas ass!  It also ends with a character wishing another a merry Christmas....what more do you want??  It's not a feel-good film?  Watch John McClane scream lines like "Welcome to the party, pal" and "Yippee Ki Yay, Motherfucker" and tell me you don't feel good.  End of argument.  Ok, seriously, it is simply a classic action thriller and it wins at any just seems oddly appropriate at Christmas, and I can't actually explain why.


Michael Caine playing a very convincing Scrooge alongisde all our favourite muppets?  Can't be off it!  EVERY year this is a must!  So many great scenes, so many great lines, and it even sticks to the story!  Also, if you can get to the end of this version and not feel a bit emotional, you have no heart.  I shall be watching the uncut version with Scrooge's song, which is clearly the only right way.  I still don't understand why it was cut, it makes NO sense!


Cutting edge when it was made, a great turn(s) by Mr Hanks in a film than sits nicely in the gap between asleep and awake, fantasy and reality; a film that intentionally blurs those lines and does it successfully without alienating the audience.  It carries the wonder of Christmas and reminds us why we loved (and should continue to love) Christmas in the first place.


One occasion where the remake outshines the original, partly because the ending is a better argument, and partly because....well, Sir Richard Attenborough IS Santa Claus.  Love it!


Okay, no idea how I'm going to get ALL of these in, but I have to include this, especially as I didn't get to watch it last year, which is a crime as it is CLEARLY the greatest Christmas movie ever made (not to mention quite a high movie on my Top 100 films of all time).  The beautiful, classic story, inspired by a simple Christmas card, of George Bailey, a simple man who loses his will to live and is shown what the world would be like without him.  James Stewart leading the cast with his usual brilliance in what was, by his own admission, his favourte film experience.  Moving beyond measure, it is an absolute must for anyone who wants a pick-me-up at this time of year.  Don't even touch 'The Family Man', the peasants' re-working of it.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Up And Running Again...

I have not written a blog for a ridiculously long time, and there are a few reasons for this, not least being that there was not a great deal to say, and I had begun recording my movie reviews (main reason for using this) on Youtube.  That has since stopped, again for a couple of reasons, and I am back to the old school of writing.  I must confess, I think I prefer this medium.

Anyhow, there is not a huge amount to say right now other than "I'm back!" and I will soon be writing something of greater significance and, hopefully, of some degree of interest soon.

It's good to be back :)


Sunday, 29 May 2011

Bonkers Miike puts the samurai film back on the map!

Seeing as we only receive a limited amount of cult icon Takashi Miike's work over here, and given that those films we do get easy access to are his most extreme, crazy ones such as Ichi The Killer and Audition, one could be forgiven for having him firmly placed in one bracket as a film maker.  The truth is this is a man who has turned his hand to many a genre and tone, not only the extreme gorefest and taboo-trampling satire, but also the family musical comedy!  He is a production line as far as movies go; by the time his newest release in the UK (a limited release, I should hasten to add!) is being raved about by those who have seen it, he will have already completed production on at least another film!  He is indeed a rarity, as the quality of his work does not even seem to suffer as one might think it should.

The release to which I refer is 13 Assassins, Miike's contribution to the samurai action genre, and though strictly speaking it is a re-working of an original, and though it has only received a limited release here with minimal promotion, it currently stands as the best film I have seen released since the Academy Awards, and certainly gives Kurosawa a little run for his money!  The movie clearly has its flaws, and it could be said I have enjoyed (in the popcorn-munching sense) at least one other film released this year more, but the flaws are not ones I imagine he is not already fully aware of, and as a piece of cinema it is without doubt the most accomplished work on the big screen right now.  All small issues I have with it aside, other film makers are going to be very hard pushed to achieve anything quite as jaw-dropping as the extended action sequence that constitutes the majority of the second half!

In truth, it is really the second half of 13 Assassins that makes it worth the price of the ticket; the first half sets up the story with minimum characterisation, although the characterisation we do get, and some of the dialogue driven moments are very well done, with a unique balance of nastiness and strange comedy typical of Miike, and the clash of philosophies among the Shogun is nicely examined, but in the end you walk away from the movie with one thing to talk about above all else: the action!  It is beautifully choreographed, well coordinated, nicely edited, and looks gorgeous.

For those who are a fan of samurai action, this is a must; for those who are a fan of Miike, this is a must, and for those who only know of the director because of his infamous, extreme work, it is most definitely a must, since you will see just how talented he is, and how restrained he can be.

13 Assassins - 9/10

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Half A Good Film

I thoroughly enjoyed "Saw"; it was suspenseful and fun; James Wan was almost Hitchcockian in his approach. To an extent I enjoyed its sequel, and this would be thanks to Leigh Wannell, who starred in them, but doesn't ever seem to receive much recognition for the writing. It should have ended there, but what are you going to do, the market is what it is, right? Given that "Insidious" sees the two guys back together, and after the rather lacklustre "Paranormal Activity 2" and the torture porn of late, I was looking forward to a film that would provide a rare opportunity to enjoy some intelligent and genuinely frightening psychological terror. To an extent, they succeed.

Credit must go to the film for some great casting; I'm a big fan of Patrick Wilson (see "Hard Candy" and even "The A-Team" for evidence of his ability) and Rose Byrne, who are great as this perfect couple, and very busy character actress Lin Shaye ("A Nightmare On Elm Street", "My Sister's Keeper" and "Snakes On A Plane" to name a few of many!) has great screen presence. The problem is they are under the direction of somebody whose intention with the film falters halfway through, meaning they find themselves either doing things that do not make sense, seem silly and absurd, or worst of all, they are wasted by being given very little to do; this is a particularly bad crime when you have someone in your film with as much to give as Barbara Hershey ("Black Swan").

Wan and Whannell spend pretty much the first half of the movie providing a haunted house setup; the initial haunting, the house move (not really a spoiler, given that the trailer TOLD us what the twist of the story is), and the events that take you to the pivotal point of the film are all done very slowly; some would argue a bit too slowly, but it's good to see him taking his time with the creepy setup. Not since "The Exorcist" has there been a horror movie I can think of that has been paced in this way; it causes a restlessness in the audience, and a desire to want the story to push forward, which of course heightens your anticipation and makes you more uncomfortable. Wan is very good at the classic vibe; he actually manages to do what "Paranormal Activity" did, but better. He tips his hat to many other classic of the genre, a bit too heavily at points, but it remains very solid and creepy.

This only emphasises the disappointment we feel when the film reaches the part of explaining what has happened, and sets up what will occur in the second half. Whether it was Whannell's choice to change gear, or instruction from on high to get away from the "Paranormal Activity" similarities (same producing team), we can't know, but whoever's it was, they should regret it. The explanation of things feels like a bad re-working of "Poltergeist", and the previously scary techniques are replaced with ham-fisted effects and dodgy makeup. Too much is shown, and due to the look of certain aspects of the piece, it starts to become a bit laughable; the on screen events becomes sillier and sillier, and we reach a point where the tone becomes one of "creepy computer game", rather than "scary horror film". There is an introduction of comedy into the film that is completely uncalled for and though genuinely funny, the jokes could not be more out of place; they ruin all the atmosphere that has been created, and you know it is going downhill. This is also the point where we have stopped being scared, and this is a problem for any horror film, hurtling towards its final act with the audience having been lost some time ago.

Speaking of the final act, it is just absurd, and in thinking about the film afterwards, you begin to realise just how many loose ends there are, how many plot holes are left open, and then the question of whether it is all for the sake of a sequel comes to mind. Given that "Paranormal Activity" had one, it is hard to imagine them not pushing for one here, which is a shame, because this should have been the brilliant, one-off psychological terroriser the first half promised so heartily, and not the silly theme park walk-through it becomes.

All this said, James Wan has some talent, as he has proved, and I will not give up on him just yet. Worth seeing on the big screen, in a room full of people for some of the jump-scares, but otherwise, "Insidious" is one to rent.

Insidious - 4/10

Friday, 29 April 2011

Unsung Masterpieces: Entry 2

Okay, perhaps not quite a masterpiece, but certainly a film I cannot recommend enough, is "Tsotsi", the first feature from Gavin Hood.  I had not seen it before yesterday, to my shame, but seriously, if you have not seen it, do! 

Having seen Hood's "Rendition", which I very much enjoyed, I was not surprised to find his debut "Tsotsi" (African slang for a thug or gang member) is fully deserving of the international acclaim it has been given. An up-to-date rendering of a book written in the 1970's, it tells the story of a young African man, David, who survives rather than lives, understanding only violence and crime; a man who has no family, and clutches to bitterness as a way of getting on in a place riddled with disease and poverty. A crime he commits against a rich family brings with it an unexpected dilemma, and an unexpected obligation; the film is the exploration of the moral struggle he encounters and the discovery of his humanity. Ultimately it proposes that no matter how awful a person, no matter what our preconceptions, nothing is black and white, there is always an explanation (which is very different to an excuse) for behaviour, everybody is a human being, and as such, redemption should always be possible.

Hood has a real eye for photography, as he went on to prove again with "Rendition"; with "Tsotsi" he doesn't just display understanding of how to shoot something, but also the significance of a shot, of a composition, of a colour scheme; visuals regularly support similes and metaphors of the script and genuinely draw your eye, grab your attention, and make you understand things very clearly. He captures the landscape perfectly; there is both a beauty and a disgrace about this contemporary, disease-ridden Johannesburg; rich and poor are wonderfully illustrated, and there comes a point in the film where failure to understand the position and mentality of David and his gang is near impossible. Hood takes time to lay back-story gradually, building David's character through the film, so that by the final act we are completely with him. An intelligently used soundtrack emphasises this all the more.

The heart of the film is actually the central performance by Presley Chweneyagae, who is completely engaged, totally in the skin of David, and with every expression and slight gesture, portrays perfectly his emotional and mental state. By the end of the film you can see memory, longing and confusion in his eyes and movements, and etched clearly into his face by the tears he cries. The whole final act is masterful, so emotional, beautifully played, and with a very final shot that is haunting and iconic; a similar feeling is experienced to that which is felt at the end of "Full Metal Jacket", although perhaps a little more oddly positive.

"Tsotsi" does not have the surprise element Hood's next film would have, and in a way you can say it is quite a predictable story, but it is otherwise so sincere, so heartfelt, and so moving, that this complaint holds little sway. Any film that can setup a character one should not like and move the audience to the point of honestly caring about them, and understanding them better, is doing something right. 

I also have to reiterate that "Rendition", the film that followed soon after, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and which did not get much attention, is also well worth your time, especially if a political story that leaves you something to think about sounds up your alley.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Limited IQ at "Limitless"

It has been some time since I have experienced annoying, moronic behaviour at the cinema, but when you're going to enjoy movies at the Empire in Basildon your luck only lasts so long, and tonight mine ran out.  You would think, with it being a week evening we might be free of the kids but no, there they were, a group of the little darlings, with the bodies to get in to a certificate 15 but certainly not the minds, in our seats when we arrived.  A fairly empty screen, so we weren't too bothered about just sitting the other end of the row and avoiding what would only be inevitable hassle, but it was a precursor for what was lying ahead; belching and snide comments through the trailers, and as the film begins, more chit-chat.  You wouldn't mind so much if it was a buzz of excitement which they struggled to keep contained, but it wasn't even that; it was simply an inability to recognise and adhere to a social courtesy that dicatates, when the lights go down and the BBFC certificate is displayed, it is your cue to shut the fuck up.  Perhaps it is the relatively empty screen that makes them feel they can treat the place like their living room.

In any case, the film starts and the boy hasn't put his phone away, nor does he for the entire movie; not entirely sure why you pay for a ticket to sit in a cinema screen and text people the whole time....any thoughts?  As for the farting sounds, the rasberry blowing, the rocking of seats and the banging of your feet against the premium seat barricade, where the hell do you think you are?  More to the point, why are you here?  You've paid to watch a film, so please do so; if you don't like what you're seeing, leave, but stop ruining the experience for other people.  Then we have the shouting out and telling other people in the theatre, "that isn't funny"; who are you to tell anyone else their reaction to a film, and what's more, in case I didn't mention it before....shut up!!  What stops us complaining?  Well the lack of frequency these things happen and being too engaged with what is going on up there, on the screen, the thing they seem to be ignoring.  That said, once is too much and it wouldn't have taken a great deal more for somebody to have said or done something about it.

Rant over.  What did we see?  Answer's in the entry title.  A generally very arresting film with a surprising turn from Bradley Cooper, who shows he can carry a film quite nicely.  It has some thought behind it, and despite a couple of little holes I found myself picking at, and despite it feeling a tad overlong and dragging a bit in the middle, it was a great cinema experience.  And it has to be a cinema experience...see this film once at the cinema; it uses on a few occasions a technique that harkens back to Hitchcock, who I believe was the first filmmaker to use it at all.  I can sincerely say that I have not seen it used to such great effect before; in fact, speaking of Hitch, if you suffer vertigo, approach with caution.......See what I did there? ;)  The film's opening credits bring to mind "Fight Club", the film starts similarly to "Fight Club", it has the same sort of pacing as "Fight Club", a similar use of soundtrack as "Fight Club", and the narration style is akin to "Fight Club".......fair to say it reminded me of "Fight Club".

There has been a little talk about it having competition in "Source Code", the other hip thriller and second film from Duncan Jones ("Moon"), which I talked about in my last entry.  So, how do they compare?  Well, not that I am one for comparing different films, because I believe a film stands alone, and standing alone both movies are very good, but see my breakdown below:

Both films are far fetched; "Source Code" is a sci-fi with the same fundamental flaw as "Terminator", but if you accept it as it's presented, much like "Inception", the science is well laid  out.  "Limitless" falls a little flat and after providing you the basic idea, doesn't bother explaining any science.  You could argue it doesn't need to, but it does do that "we only use so much of our brain" thing, which is a little gripe of mine.

Cooper proves himself, but Gyllenhaal remains the better lead man in general

"Limitless" is the better-looking film, playing with the saturation of the photography and putting some creative trick shots to very good use.

"Limitless" wins, hands down.

"Source Code" is more precise in its writing, and has an almost perfect pace; "Limitless" is more broad, fun, less consequential, and could have done with a little trimming.      

My Lasting Impression: 
I enjoyed both films, but where "Limitless" was fun, exciting, and certainly more cinematic, "Source Code" left me with more to think about as I walked out, and was ultimately the slightly more intellectually satisfying movie.

Limitless: 8/10                                     

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Source Code: A Welcome Distraction

I was so close to not getting out last night, as only one person was really about and up for anything; I almost suggested leaving it and just staying in, but there was something about seeing just a tiny bit of "So You Think You Can Dance" on television that  pushed me out the door.  Aren't we just so excited about yet another cheap reality talent show, posing as great Saturday night entertainment, isn't this just what we're after?  Apparently so.  After all the controversy of rigged public votes, after all the years of boring repetition, after the inevitable sob stories and the oh so obvious scripted reactions, people are still into this shit?

"Why do they let them go on?" my mother asks, watching some idiot after her fifteen minutes of fame but who we all know is absolutely useless, as she struts her stuff like she's pissed at some wedding.  The answer is always the same, and surely at some point people will start waking up to it: It's good TV!  We love laughing at people, we love the cruelty; people have openly admitted the reason they watch the beginning of "The X Factor" is for all the hilariously crap auditions.  People don''t yet realise it's all a setup, a ploy?  We still don't recognise that the show's organisers, the people who pocked the revenue, could very easily prevent any pathetic wannabe getting on if they actually wanted to?  Of course they won't do that; we love watching it too much; we love watching people get so close, and then lose because, in reality, they were awful.  They gave us a month's entertainment though....ok, at the expense of people with genuine talent having to leave, but hey-ho, that's the way it works and if you're still going to put yourself forward for this sort of thing, seriously., you know what to expect, so stop moaning.  It is all a sham and I look forward to the day where we wake up and smell the coffee, demaning some good weekend entertainment on the box again, but until that day....I'm staying well away. 

As I said at the beginning, a friend and I spent time at the cinema, watching something that somebody actually took seriously while making, something far more worth my time.  Duncan Jones is treading a slightly different path to his father, but is proving to have inherited the gene for creativity; I adored his debut "Moon" (see previously on the blog), and though perhaps not quite as good, his follow-up feature "Source Code", is a very enjoyable movie.  To say it is not as good as "Moon" is actually not saying much, considering that it would have taken another materpiece to have stood up to such an unexpectedly brilliant debut (with which pretty much everyone agrees).  "Source Code" is not written by Jones, only directed, and is far more a balls-out thriller, but interestingly it still explores some similar themes and questions as "Moon".  The slightly higher budget has been put to good effect, although Jones is one to prove that big explosions and incredible CGI effects are nothing without a brain, and that good filmmaking is more fundamental than those things; even in today's hi-tech, fast-moving world, a film still needs to do more than look pretty.  Just as with its predecessor, "Source Code" sets you up with ideas you have seen explored elsewhere; where you could find the roots of "Moon" in "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Solaris", "Source Code" has closer kin in the likes of "Speed" and "Inception".  In the case of both movies, though, what marks them out as great is what they then do with those ideas and how much heart they have.  Granted, "Source Code" was not quite as surprising as "Moon", but it still proved to be an intelligent, challenging piece.  Another thing I like about his films is the science of them; they do not skip over explanations, and he works hard to lay what some might consider complex ground work for his audience, ala Nolan.

Despite some small quibbles with the movie, such as the fact Clint Mansell would have scored it better (I mention this  because I know it was only timing and circumstance that prevented Jones working with him again), and the film actually having room for a bit more development in the central location (it is rare for me to say I feel a movie would have benefit from being longer), I still very much enjoyed myself and recommend it as a cinema trip!  Jake Gyllenhaal continues to prove himself to be a terrific lead actor who can carry a film, and if Duncan Jones just keeps doing what he is doing, staying ambitious and not becoming lazy, I see good things ahead for him, and I see myself being a big fan!

"Source Code" - 8/10

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The War On Smokers....The Wolf In Sheep's Clothing?

So the Government has performed an unprecedented, but not altogether surprising U-turn, on the idea of scrapping a law that would have seen all cigarette vending machines and shop displays banned in the UK this year.  They propose now that as of April next year, all large stores will have to keep the product out of sight, with the same rule imposed on smaller shops three years later.  One assumes the decision to stagger this is to work as a gesture, acknowledging the probable loss of around £250,000,000 to newsagents and corner shops?  I'm sure the small shop owners are very grateful for the reprieve, just as the pub mangers were grateful for the smoking ban a couple of years ago.  This was a decision that pulverised the "end of the road" local pubs, with over 1000 closed since the ban was brought in; I am not pulling figures from the sky, feel free to check it out for yourselves.  The greatest side-effect of this legislation was the inevitable rise of the large pub-come restaurant, and the trendy wine bar (fine if you like wine, I guess), which whilst cheap and cheerful, are generally vacuous shells that only work as a meeting place before moving on to more interesting events.

The local pub, with the great jukebox, the good ale, the darts and pool, the live music, and the cosy, relaxed atmosphere is still dying, a casualty of Labour's lack of foresight and rigid regulation; they provided absolutely no choice to the licensee: no vote, no proposal of an alternative, no introduction of any idea such as a smoking licence, simply stop smoking in your pub and watch it crumble.  Despite the fact that there exist such things as extraction systems, the manufacturers of which we must also remember are losing out, despite that there could have been an option for smoking areas to be designated (not outside under a shelter, thus effectively creating a boundary between people who want to enjoy each other's company and ostracizing the smoker), and despite the fact that other countries prove this to be completely effective, the Government still considered a straight-out ban to be better for everyone's health and better had nothing to do with the economic investment any of the above would have required.  Whilst the last point would be vehemently denied by any official, we all know it to be a good one, but how stopping people smoking inside a pub or club is a good idea is beyond me.  It is a major culture shift preventing many of the older generation, otherwise good-paying, long-time customers, from going out and spending money; they prefer instead to stay inside and have friends round for a good time....NOT spending money.  Surely in a time of economic downturn, this is a bad thing, or is it just me?

One might think this is no big deal; people still have the freedom to head outside for their cigarette, which they can do together, and if they are the only smoker in a group, they may be able to head out with a friend who has no issue providing company for five minutes.  What about in the freezing winter?  Well, they can just wait for their cigarette if they are that much in need of their fix, as after all, it is nobody else's vice, and it is not fair to ask the non-smoker to sit around smokers when they do not want to be subject to the second-hand smoke.  Okay, this is a fair argument, but a couple of points:

First, the "fact" that second-hand smoke is significantly damaging to a human being in today's world is one I am deeply suspicious of.  I often picture with amusement an obese, white-collar gentleman on his lunch break in London, sat outside the Wetherspoon's on a hot summer's day, happily drinking his pint of lager amidst the smog of the traffic, the asphalt thrown into the air by the changes forever being made to the city's architecture, asking the person sat across the table from him if they wouldn't mind putting out their fag because "the second hand smoke isn't good for me".  As for this argument not holding water when applied to more rural areas (beside the fact that there should not have to be an exception to the rule in the first place), I would ask what all this worry is about global warming?  Sorry, it's "climate change" now, isn't it?  It does affect....everywhere, right?  Or is that a scaremongering myth too?  Can't have it both ways, Mister.  Let's say you don't agree that second-hand smoke is a physical issue, but rather is just something you want to avoid on the basis that it smells bad, or you don't like it on your clothes.  Grow up and stop being a baby!  For years and years and years smokers and non-smokers have communed together quite happily, and until someone started pointing out how awful smoking is, I don't think anyone ever really gave a shit.

Isn't all of this just misdirection?  The point is everybody has rights!  Yes, you have the right to not smoke, but that does not negate smokers' privilege to have their drug, just as it is a drinker's privilege to have theirs.  Personally, I do not disagree that smoking is an activity that should be illegal in certain situations: where food is prepared and people are eating, where there is public performance in an enclosed space, theatres, cinemas, cars, etc. but that is partly due to the fact it infringes on the right of the non-smoker I was just referring to, as there is no avoiding it, it can be off-putting, distracting and unsafe!  But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water; if something bothers you that much, learn to wash your clothes, vet people before committing to a friendship, or do what people have done for as long as man has had the ability to think.....get over it!

We begrudgingly bowed to this ruling, even the smokers just get on with the situation, but now we have this proposal of banning shop displays, vending machines, and even a move to make packaging plain and uninteresting.  Okay, let's break this down.  Vending machines I agree with; I have no issue with the complete removal of machines, as they do indeed provide easy access to young people, and according to the Government Health Minister, one of the drives for this decision is to safeguard young people's wellbeing, to ensure that only those old enough to make a real, informed choice have even the possibility of gaining access to cigarettes.  Phasing out shop displays for the same reason?  Have we heard of ID?  Shall we phase out all games and movies with a certificate higher than a "PG"?  Shall we remove all alcohol from the shelves just because we can't be bothered to enforce the control shop-owners and governing bodies provide to employees?  Young people see smokers...smoking....quite often it's their parents, or it's in films, or TV (until representation of smoking in art becomes illegal!).   Surprise, surprise, people smoke!  This does not automatically encourage young people to want to be a smoker, it is not an ambition; in most cases it is an experiment, a testing of the water, part of growing up, just as it is with other drugs and sex; in most cases it will pass.  All of that aside, how about good parenting and education, or are we not going to bother relying on that at all now?  As for any other reason we are phasing out displays....the people who want the product will still know it is there, this is not "out of sight, out of mind"; an addict is an addict, and regardless of whether you have it on the shelf or not, they will still buy it.

Having established that their rhetoric on shop displays is tripe, let's look at the other point, the packaging.  If removing adverts from TV, providing helplines for those who want to quit their habbit, and slapping big, boldly printed warnings like "SMOKING KILLS" alongside pictures of black lungs is not stopping somebody smoking, what is a plain package going to do, exactly?  I'm really curious. We know the risks, they are made very clear....a smoker is not a moron!  What they are is an adult who should be trusted to make a decision based on the information provided, and offered help if they want to stop.  Perhaps they're working on the logic that green ketchup didn't sell; it looked different so it didn't do very well?  No, it looked disgusting, so it didn't sell; people still bought the red ketchup.  Making cigarettes look less interesting is a ridiculous and pointless move; NEWSFLASH: People aren't interested in what it look like, they want what is inside

I would have more respect for this battle being fought if they were to just come out and be honest; I said at the time of the ban that I would have appreciated it more if they had simply said smoking is illegal.  Sure, people wouldn't have been happy, but from my perspective, at least the sound bite that it is out of concern for the nation's health would have been a believable one.  Of course the reality is that it is hypocrisy, another cog installed in what could be a Nanny State, and it makes me angry.  How can we take seriously the claim that this is all about the damage to our health, when we see a McDonalds on every corner, spending on junk food is encouraged every five minutes on TV and radio, and alcohol is still our friend?  The fact is tobacco provides too much revenue for the coffers, and why remove such a terrific money horse?  Of course, they want to have their cake and eat it, pocked the money, chastise the customer; in what other form of business would this not be disgustingly immoral?  The fact that Mr Cameron told The Publican back in 2008, "I don't like smoking bans, I'm just not a banner", makes it all so much worse; at best it emphasises just how useless a coalition Government is, and at worst, sadly, it illustrates his ability to lie effectively.

This is really just the second step in a rather badly disguised move to ultimately make smokers the bad guys, to make smoking some awful, immoral act, with anyone who partakes in the activity made out to be somebody with whom one would not want to associate.  If one does not believe this, listen more carefully to the tactics used in the manipulative NHS adverts, which attempt to guilt-trip smokers.  Apparently smoking is now a strain on the NHS (and illegal immigration isn't?); oh no, the NHS have to treat people who are ill, what shock and horror!  If someone is sick, someone is sick, and they are entitled to help; the day they prove, without shadow of any doubt, that smoking caused the cancer of the patient is probably the day the patient will be more than happy to cough up for treatment (oh yeh, I made a pun).  This won't happen though, and do you know why?  Because it will always be refutable; the point of something being proven is that the rule has no exception, and how do we account for the thousands of smokers, who have smoked forever, who are living perfectly fine, happy, albeit perhaps not particularly healthy lives?  The answer is...we ignore that bit.  If you want further evidence that this is a ploy to ostracize the smoker, and perhaps the most damning kind, look at Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who is quoted as saying about the moves that they are attempts to "change social attitudes towards smoking."  The sad part is, it seems to be working, there does appear to be a shift in the view of smoking, with it turning up as a questions in some job applications now, alongside other things that don't matter, like sexual orientation and religion.  Look, if you don't want to associate with a smoker, that is your choice, your right, although I must say you are probably going to miss out on some great friendships if you base such a decision on something so flimsy.

I speak as a non-smoker, as someone who does not have any interest in smoking, but also as someone who believes in a free society, where everybody has the right to do as they please without being singled out, outlawed and embarrassed.  The barefaced lie of all of this gets right under my skin, and in a country where violent crime is high, police numbers are low and could be reduced further, immigration remains unaddressed, teenage drinking and the spread of sexual disease are major issues, and whose international news bring home stories of a dictator openly killing his own people, the fact we are focusing resources on something so pathetic seems.....well, pathetic.  I urge anyone who is pushed to the same point as me, or who agrees that this is not right, to do your research, write to your MP, or even better the Health Secretary, and make it clear that whilst we like to read his stories, we are not happy to see George Orwell as a prophet!

Monday, 7 March 2011

Good People Exist

So there we were, having ventured out at about 11.00pm in my sister's car in order to aid her boyfriend, whose Fiesta's tyre had punctured...the spare tyre, that is!  With us we took a pump, in the vague hope that it would be a slow puncture, and with him living only ten miles or so away, it might at least get him to the next garage where he could fill up on the free air properly, and get safely home.  No such luck; both cars pulled into the slip road outside a locked garden centre, hazard lights on, the car jacked up and him pumping away, it quickly became clear that it was useless.  Next option was my sister's spare; we pulled it from the back of her car, hoping against hope that the size might be the same, but of course it wasn't.  Next thought was his mother's tyres; perhaps they would be the same and we could arrange a swap?  No chance.  The only thing left was to call the recovery people, at which point he has a spiky conversation with the operative; we find ourselves thinking, there they are, sat in a warm room in a comfy chair, being all funny about the fact a spare tyre hadn't been it's so much more fun to break down on a cold night, interrupt this bloke's game of Pacman, and sit around for hours waiting for assistance than it is to be in bed! 

Upon confirmation that there will be a charge, despite being a paying member of this particular service, we decide it's an idea to move my sister's car round in front of the broken down Fiesta, giving room for the service man when he arrives.  Oh how ironic that I had been thinking only an hour earlier that all we need is for this car to break down as passing, you know?  What happens?  Dead battery!  So we push the car round to get it jump started, only to find the thing sparking.  In sheer disbelief at our bad luck, we decide it's best to leave it and wait for the aid to arrive, at which point we can ask.  We stand on the verge, nicely away from the cars; we give a wave to the police who drive we're not committing any major drug deals out here, and we're perfectly fine, thanks for stopping and checking....we give the obligatory finger to the chavs who speed by honking their horn at us...and we wait.

Perhaps half hour later, what is this, a car approaching us...coming the wrong way up the carridgeway, a siiver car!  Shit, the way our luck has been so far, we just know this is trouble; they've come back to humiliate us further at best, at worst beat and rob us!  I was only thinking earlier in the day that it had been a rather quiet, uneventful weekend, and had wished that something interesting would happen.  This is not what I had in mind, God!  The two of us guys are up and running  back to the two broken cars, my sister is ready with her phone....and what is this, one man in a grey tracksuit emerging from the car, and a girl in the passenger seat?  A different silver car.....a bloke asking what the problem is.  Very nice of him to go to the effort, but we figure there can only be one result here: "Can't do anything for you, mate, sorry and hope you get it sorted."  But no....he is driving a Fiesta...he has a spare...he is a second hand salesman who happens to deal with these cars?  Pretty freaky, but excellent news.  Can he offer the use of his spare?  Of course! He gets the spare from the back of his car, he removes his tools, he jacks the car up, changes the tyre.  How much for it?  Nothing, he says....simply return it?  Fair dos.  There's a look on the girl's face that says she's used to this; does this guy drive around late at night, looking for broken down cars to fix?  No, he just happens to have been to Southend for a one-off job, saw the hazard lights, and decided it would be fun to turn around, drive the wrong way up the road and offer his free assistance.  I start to wonder where his cape is, given that before even looking at changing the tyre on the Fiesta, he offers a jump on my sister's car as well.  Where does he come from....about 15 minutes away, and what should we do about my sister's dodgy battery, which is clearly shot, since it dies after having hazards on?  "Pop it round when you get the tyre back to me, get a battery and I'll do it for you".  So, no cash wanted, no rush on getting the tyre back?  Not at all.  And why all this effort on his part?  Because he has been in our situation and figured he could help.

Safe to say we were stunned by the way a whole load of bad luck became one giant dollop of good luck in the form of one gentleman who just happened to be passing, and out of nothing but the goodness of his heart, performend a bit of magic and got us of a horrible, cold spot within ten minutes.  Incidentally, during this time the recovery service have called and are trying to find our location; I feel slightly bad for the driver, who does not yet know that Mr Magic Car Repairman here has come along, sprinkled some magic dust and fixed everything before he has even been made aware the job has been cancelled.

A man who would not have been driving that stretch had he not had a one off job that evening, who deals with Fiestas, who is driving a Fiesta, who has a spare, jumper cables and tools, who turned around and came back the wrong way, who lives on our doorstep, and who wants nothing for any of this?  It's almost enough to make me believe in a God.  Proof people: there are good people around, they exist!  This particular good person restored some of my faith in humanity on this cold, quiet night.

Monday, 28 February 2011

What are you up to, Oscar?

So, the 2011 Oscars have been awarded, and as I have mentioned previously, it is nice to have an award season in which one is so spoilt for choice!  2010 saw some terrific cinema in all categories and competition was always going to be close this year; it is an honour for all film makers to be recognised for work done, and winners are able to feel they had competition.  Dustin Hoffman once pointed out that there are so many people involved in the making of a picture, so much heart and soul going into something these people love, that it is impossible to recognise everyone; in an industry where true success is creating something you can be proud of, nobody who succeeds in this goal has truly lost, and awards are simply a bonus.  I do not disagree with this notion, but while the Academy are voting and those golden statues are being placed in grateful hands, there will always be the chance for people (and specifically film lovers) to debate.  I am no expert in fringe categories, such as "Short Film" and "Foreign Language", partly due to not being able to access all the films nominated in time for the awards season, but it is great that these categories are always present.  With all that said, here are my thoughts on all the major category results.....for what they're worth ;)

Best Picture - "The King's Speech".  I have seen seven of the nominated films in this category, and of those seven, I cannot say I agree that this is the winner.  I really enjoyed "The King's Speech"  a lot; an important story, told well, and a film that will undoubtedly find its way into my collection, but ultimately quite a straightforward movie that is primarily a performance piece.  When all said and done, though this result did not surprise me because there is a fawning over any story about royalty, I do think Oscar was blinded somewhat by some great performances and the hype.  My choice: "Inception" / "Black Swan"

Actor In A Leading Role - Colin Firth.  Anyone surprised?  Completed deserved.  Regardless of my love of Jeff Bridges in general, and despite the fact Jesse Eisenberg was surprisingly captivating as Mark Zucherberg, the dedication Firth gave to perfecting King George VI's speech impediment, and a very balanced delivery of the emotional beats in this role meant there could be no other contender. Well done, Mr Firth.

Actor In A Supporting Role - Christian Bale.  I have seen three of the five, but crucially not the winner's performance yet, so I cannot give a balanced argument.  I do not mind Ruffalo, but find it hard to picture him ever winning anything when put alongside heavyweight actors.  If Bale really is as good as they say in "The Fighter" then I am sure it is well deserved (he is, after all, famous for being rather dedicated to a role), but I must say I am sad to see Geoffrey Rush miss out, as he is just as big a part in "The King's Speech", and is just as deserving.  I also think Jeremy Renner was outstanding in "The Town", and please see my previous entry about Ben Affleck for my views on that film, as it never garnered enough attention.  Of what I have seen, my choice: Geoffrey Rush

Actress In A Leading Role - Natalie Portman.  Very similar response to this as for Colin Firth, and oddly, for similar reasons.  She had a strong contender in Jennifer Lawrence (again, see my previous entry about the Oscars for my thoughts on her), and she is one to keep an eye out for....she will win this award one day. Nevertheless, well deserved by Portman!

Actress In A Supporting Role - Melissa Leo.  Again, I have not seen the winner, so cannot say much.  What I will say is people need to stop going all stroppy over the fact Bonham Carter missed out; a great performance yes, but check out "True Grit" to understand why my choice, again of what I have seen, was Hailee Steinfield.

Art Direction - Alice In Wonderland.  ????????????????????????????????????????????????????  Where, may I ask, was "Black Swan"?  My choice: "Inception" / "The King's Speech"

Cinematography - Inception.  All starting to go a bit wrong, isn't it?  What's with awards going to great films for the wrong reasons?  My choice, without a second thought, and I will add that I am shocked it didn't win: "True Grit"

Costume Design - Alice In Wonderland.  I really did not like this film, but as much as I thought the costumes for "The King's Speech" were superb, I will concede this one......fair dos.

Directing - Tom Hooper.  Okay so Christopher Nolan, a director who created unarguably the greatest Batman incarnation, who otherwise has never made a bad movie (even his no budget debut is impressive!), and who, most importantly, created the smartest, most challenging summer blockbuster for a long time, is snubbed for this category?  Fair enough, so of those who did get a nod, one assumes the winner will be one of the best....directed films....seeing how this is a category for....director?  Ok, let's give it to Tom Hooper for "The King's Speech" :/  My choice: David Fincher / Darren Aronofsky

Film Editing - The Social Network.  Once again, "Inception" doesn't even get a nod....something's up.  Still, the winner is a good job, and the behind the scenes features really do open your eyes to just how good.  Well done, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter
Original Score - The Social Network.  I'm just happy "The King's Speech" didn't take it, the most notable music for this film is not original.  As for the other nominees, it was a toss up; one of those rare occasions where you simply cannot make a choice.  Both top contenders' score worked perfectly and I enjoyed both equally.  I would have also been happy with  "Inception".

Sound Editing - Inception.  Not much to say, the other nominees did not stand much of a chance.

Sound Mixing - Inception.  So here I do have a problem.  Once again we're seeing awards go to good films for the wrong reason.  There is no excuse, and as far as I am concerned no other contender; my choice: "The Social Network"

Visual Effects - InceptionJust yes :)  "Alice In Wonderland" did not look good, so don't even start thinking it.

Adapted Screenplay - The Social Network.  No other contender, Sorkin is the definitely the man!

Original Screenplay - The King's Speech.  Oh, they were doing so well there, weren't they?  Given the fact he was snubbed for "Director", I would have thought Nolan would take this one at least.  This means that the clever, challenging, exciting blockbuster of the year was not the best film, was not best directed, and was not best screenplay.....I'm starting to wonder what everyone liked about "Inception" so much, really ;)  It will come as no shock that I think the winner was: "Inception"

 So, 9/16.  I guess it could have been worse.  In summary, I am glad that the year gave us so much to enjoy, but sad that some of these major decision were probably swayed a bit by hype, meaning certain people who should have walked away with a little golden man, did not.  Though I have not seen it myself, I am surprised that "127 Hours" was completely blanked, although that said, Boyle had his fair share of glory with his last film.  I am sorely disappointed for Mr Nolan, who really deserved more recognition; to not even be nominated where David O. Russell is is a huge crime.  Still, these controversies happen all the time, and I do not doubt Nolan will just keep doing what he does well, and knock all our socks off again with a near-perfect "Batman" movie.  Perhaps then he can come back with a nice little romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston, and clean up at the Oscars next time round ;)

Bring on another year like last one; if cinema was of this quality all the time, I would be a happy man.




Monday, 21 February 2011

Unsung Masterpieces: Entry 1

It occurred to me I should use this blog as an opportunity to raise awareness of things that I personally feel never received the attention they deserved.  This does not necessarily have to apply to movies, although as this is the nature of my blog you can expect it to be the focus the majority of the time.  The idea is that with these "Unsung Masterpieces" entries, I take two or three films, artists, albums, books, etc. and talk a bit about them.  It is nice to think I'm doing my part to bring to light works that were, or are overlooked, and perhaps introduce people to works they would be otherwise unfamiliar with.

Let's begin with the 1996 Barry Levinson movie "SLEEPERS".  I recall the controversy this movie caused when I was at school, the most common adjective used by my male classmates at the time (who were all too young to have seen it, I should point out), I believe, was "disgusting".  This reaction really only illustrates all the more why they should not have been seeing such a film.  "Sleepers" is a well-adapted, epic, and supposedly true story of four boys' incarceration at the Wilkinson Home For Boys, for a childish prank gone wrong, how their innocence was brutally snatched away during their time there, and the subsequent revenge that took place so many years later.

Perfectly paced, it is a long film whose length is never an issue; exciting courtroom drama, realistic sense of time and place, gritty yet stylishly shot, and convincing performances from a cast that is actually to die for: Jason Patrick, Billy Crudup ("Big Fish") Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon, Minnie Driver and Brad Pitt in the same movie; it is a rare line-up of stars, none of whom are afraid to go to horrible places as performers for the sake of the story.  Kevin Bacon, in particular, shows once again a bravery that is uninhibited by his place as an A-List actor; something he would continue to do in films such as "Mystic River", "The Woodsman" and "Frost/Nixon".  This is not to mention the young leads, who are completely convincing in heavyweight roles.

Leading the pack was Brad Renfro, whose passing in the same month as Heath Ledger was sadly less marked, and is still a shock, for some, to learn of!  If one is to go back and watch not only this film, but "The Client", "Apt Pupil" and the indie hit "Ghost World", one can see another River Phoenix, another talent that was perhaps not as widely recognised as that of Ledger, but just as unfairly snubbed short, and just as worthy of our recognition.

Barry Levinson puts together a film here that could easily be mistaken for a Scorsese work, and that may be the only criticism, if it is even that!  Well drawn characters, electrifying, often emotional drama, the story never in a rush but never feeling laborious, this is an overlooked work of perfection.

I would also like to bring attention to one of my favourite films of all time, second only to David Lynch's "The Elephant Man".  It is a Peter Weir film from 1993 called "FEARLESS".  I recently became aware of the fact that Peter Weir may be one of my favourite film makers; a strange situation of loving a lot of his movies, but not immediately recognising the fact they are all his, so unassuming is he as a man, and so absent is any real signature from his work.  This sounds like it is a bad thing, but all I mean by this is that he famously, and successfully, puts the importance of any story he is telling before any stylistic choice, the result being that you cannot spot a Peter Weir film at first glance.

"Fearless" is A CRIMINALLY unknown film, which not only stars Jeff Bridges in what I believe to be one of his finest roles, but also boasts star turns from John Turturro, Isabella Rossalini, and Rosie Perez, the latter of whom received an Oscar nomination.  Everybody is on top form in this perfectly executed, beautiful meditation on what it is to be a human being.

To explain all the subtext of "Fearless", all the symbolism, the various layers of allegory, would be an essay in itself; safe to say this is a film that sends you away reeling, thinking and talking about life for a long time.  It sounds melodramatic, but when you see it, it makes perfect, serious sense.  I understand "Fearless" received standing ovations when it premiered, and rightly so!  Many have said in the past, and I will say it as well, that the final ten minutes of this film is pretty much the most powerful cinema I have seen to date; Jeff Bridges nails it, and I find myself inexplicably in tears each time.  Trying to explain the reason for such reaction is tough; it speaks to something fundamental in you, and is truly life-affirming, if you choose to listen.  A film that proves that on occasion, when image, performance, music and meaning are meshed perfectly, cinema is able to convey what nothing else can.

Sadly, the movie is a very tough find in the UK (I am lucky enough to have tracked down a copy), and not even a movie that is referenced much in conversations with the director, but if you can find some way of catching it, please do; it is a film that must be seen!


Monday, 14 February 2011

Ben Affleck....And Other Surprises

Isn't it a strange, terrific buzz when you get to experience something, not just in film but in any sphere, that you genuinely were not expecting, something that completely knocks you sideways because you did not see it coming?  An example might be Justin Timberlake successfully making the crossover from music to film, and becoming a serious actor with a potential future, most recently portraying Sean Parker in "The Social Network" with some panache.  Another, Robin Williams portraying the killer in "Insomnia", or achieving the highest level of creepiness in "One Hour Photo", whilst in both cases keeping them completely earthed and human.  People are concerned about the supposed casting of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in the next "Batman" film, but quite apart from the fact that when doing something worthwhile Hathaway is perfectly fine, have they already forgotten that the last time Chris Nolan made an unusual casting choice, it stunned every naysayer into shocked silence?  I would like to talk a little about another couple of people whose best work is of unprecedented quality, and yet almost unrecognised!  I'd like to start with Ben Affleck.....yes, I did just say that name.

Apart from winning the writing award with friend Matt Damon for "Good Will Hunting", it is no surprise that Affleck's early career is viewed lightly, even as a joke by harsher critics; not a good actor, a man who kinda plays himself a lot, and in roles that never really amounted to much.  For the most part he either got on your nerves, or at best you simply did not care for him a great deal.  In fact he has recently been overshadowed, on the acting front, by his little brother Casey, whose performance in "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" (doesn't it just flow off the tongue, eh?) won him overnight attention, an early success he has strangely been unable to least for now, as it is by no means because it was a fluke, he really is that good.  We had seen the guy in roles before, even alongside Ben in the aforementioned "Good Will Hunting", but he's that guy who, now looking back you say, "Oh yes, there he is!"

I had actually recognised Casey's ability in a film I had seen before "The Assassination....", and it is the film that also highlighted for me the directing talent of.....Ben Affleck!  "Gone Baby Gone" is his first feature, and given his reputation at the time, you can imagine what one would expect, for his first time directing to be just as wobbly as everything else, right?  Well, apparently our Ben had been hiding his talent under a bushel; after seeing "Gone Baby Gone" I found myself genuinely hoping he would stop wasting his time in front of the camera, and get his arse behind it more.  I am not exaggerating, if you have not seen this film, check it out; this applies all the more if you are a fan of Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River" and "Shutter Island"), as it is once again a morally challenging, exciting piece of writing.  Affleck managed to get together a stunner of a cast (Casey, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, as well as numerous other familiar and superb character actors) and put together an intelligent, well-shot, well-paced, very mature film that does not let you down; from the opening scene to the closing moments it is completely gripping.  It retains the thoughtfulness of the book; it is divisive and controversial, and it completely blew me away.  If you did not know you were watching Ben's first feature film, it is not an exaggeration to suggest you would place it happily alongside the work of Eastwood or Scorsese.

Affleck followed this up recently with a second Boston based film (he really hates the place!), and this time one that is completely of his own making.  This probably explains why "The Town" is not on the same level as his debut (he is no Dennis Lehane), but I must say that although you have seen it all before and it is a pure "nuts and bolts crime thriller" (although there is an interesting love story element to it that creates a "Heat"-like playoff between the criminal and the man), for what it is he still displays great talent; Ben can write, shoot, and put a film together well.  "The Town" even managed to get a BAFTA and Oscar nomination for Jeremy Renner in the category "Actor In A Supporting Role".  On top of this, Ben steps back in front of the camera to lead on this one as well.  This could have been a big mistake, but to my shock, he seems to have re-invented himself in this regard also; gone are any of the traits that annoyed us, gone is any lack of conviction.  What he has shown me with his two films so far is not only that he is a very efficient film maker, but now a good, strong actor.  It might be a while before we see him up on that Academy stage in the capacity of director, but I have to admit....I would not put it past him to be there one day!

Next up, Colin Firth, an actor we all have a fairly solid view of, and who has recently garnered much deserved attention for his role in "The King's Speech".  What is interesting is how people are talking about his acting being knockout, and the role being so different from his usual performance, and so surprisingly good.  I take objection to this; yes the acting is knockout, but why do they say it with such surprise, as though Colin Firth is somehow a better actor now than he was before?  I have always known he was great and it didn't shock me one bit that he turned in remarkable work here.  So, good yes, surprising not at all!  As for being different, is it really that much different?  He's British, socially disabled, awkward and of high class....being royal, of course.  I am not taking away from the study he must have put in, nor am I trying to detract anything from his success; I am merely making the point that he really only did what any leading British actor would have done.  Yes, leading British actor.  Not totally convinced about Firth's abilities by "The King's Speech"?  Let me tell you about a film that was recently recommended to me, in the same way and for the same reason I am now going to do so to you.  It is a 2005 film from Marc Evans ("My Little Eye" and "Snow Cake") called "Trauma"!

"Trauma" is about Ben, a man who suffers a car accident with his wife Elisa, and upon emerging from his coma, discovers she is dead. His accident coincides with the death of the famous singer Lauren Parris, who we discover was connected to Elisa. Ben moves back to his apartment, is befriended by a neighbour named Charlotte, and proceeds to try to get on with his life with the aid of sessions with a psychiatrist. Unfortunately he is haunted by visions and a growing feeling that there is something wrong, that he is missing a huge piece of a puzzle he seems to be part of.

This is a film that suffers from various problems: a rather unremarkable turn from Mena Suvari (American Beauty) as Charlotte, Naomie Harris and Brenda Fricker being given fairly little to do, and a sense that Richard Smith, the writer, was so intent on telling a strange story, he perhaps lost his way with some of the finer details. All that said, Marc Evans brings it in at 90 minutes, and manages to create a tense, exciting experience, if not a wholly satisfying one. It seems to be an issue for a lot of people that there are more questions than answers, and that the film is unnecessarily confusing. The thing is, though I do agree it is flawed and certainly not technically on the level of Evans's previous work, I don't think the direction is as unruly and ill-disciplined as these people believe.

"Trauma" is not supposed to be a story with a beginning, middle, and an end where you get all the answers; it is not a story where everything is crystal clear, which once finished you can then forget about. To me, it became clear that it was Evans' intention to tell a very subjective story, through the eyes of our protagonist. The hook of it is exactly that question of doubt about Ben, and the questions you have to ask, some of them questions that even he has himself: Is he a victim of some game, is he really missing a bigger picture, is he paranoid, is he losing his mind through grief, is he schizophrenic? Evans's use of tone, editing, and pacing, and his ability to blur the line between reality and delusion really do put you in the piece with Ben. You are not supposed to go away fully understanding it all, but rather having experienced the character's fears and possible delusion for yourself, having been dragged through the film, regularly as confused as Ben is. In this regard I would draw a comparison to David Cronenberg's "Spider", though this does play out as a thriller rather than a drama.

Anyway, back to the original point.  Whether this sounds like your sort of thing or not, there is one reason above all else to watch "Trauma", and that is Colin Firth! He said himself the film jumped out immediately; amidst the numerous proposals landing on his mat to play the next romantic lead, it is easy to see how.  "Trauma" is your rare chance to see him playing a man who is dangerously damaged; it is a performance that goes to a shockingly dark place; it is surreal to see him as closer to Norman Bates than Mr Darcy, but if anyone needs convincing that Firth has range as an actor, this would most certainly be it. The film was completely overlooked, but see it; his performance alone makes it a worthwhile experience.  

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Four Performances In A Row!

Each of the last four movies I watched feature lead performances that have been rightly recognised by various institutes.  First up was Natalie Portman in "Black Swan", for which I have little doubt she will win the Academy Award.  Her year's study of dancing alone is enough for a nod, let alone her intense performance as a young woman rapidly cracking under pressure.

Now don't get me wrong, I do not begrudge Portman the accolade, and think it is very much deserved, but since her shadow looms so large over it, and it is assumed she will take it, I would like to do my little part in drawing attention to somebody in the same category, who is equally as worthy of the win.  Her name is Jennifer Lawrence, the film is "Winter's Bone".  Whilst I think the film was too small a release to garner any major attention, I would say that if Portman was going to lose to anyone, it could only, and should only be to this girl.  She would have been barely 18 when making "Winter's Bone", but she carries a screen presence and an ability to convey and emote that can match the likes of Annette Benning or Meryl Streep.  Lawrence takes on the role of a girl who is bringing up her young siblings, in lieu of a disabled mother, and who, upon discovering her waste of a father has put up their land for his bail only to disappear, sets out to find him.  Along the way she is met with hostility from family and friends, and no matter where she turns or what she does, she does not appear to be able to break the silence over his whereabouts.  The story is a heavy character piece, and the film very much relied on the audience buying Lawrence as this hard-nosed, stubborn young woman, who is old beyond her years out of necessity.  Whilst the film was not perfect, I found numerous scenes where I was hugely impressed with Lawrence's delivery of sharp, hefty dialogue, and the range of dark emotions she was able to convey, whilst remaining completely understated throughout the entire film.  If there is one reason for you to watch "Winter's Bone", it is her, so please do; the film may be a bit of a slog, but the joy of watching this actress work makes it worthwhile.

Just recently I had the privilege of finally seeing "The King's Speech".  At last people get to see what some of us have probably known for some time; Colin Firth is a formidable actor.  Although I am a little aggravated that other members of the cast seem to have been overshadowed, such as Geoffrey Rush, whose character the story is as much about as the King, I will not deny that Firth is brilliant.  Whilst the focus is of course on his speech impediment, Firth's mastering of the infamous stammer, making it appear to be so natural, is only part of the great performance here.  Along with the stammer he has managed to in fact alter his way of speaking almost entirely, the mispronunciation of his R's, and the royal cadence in his delivery, never faltering.  Add to that the fact that he manages to be completely believable as a Duke terrified of his inevitable position and responsibility, a point that the majority of the film's emotion relies upon, and it can safely be said that he deserves his award, which he is sure to get (No doubt he is quietly thankful that Daniel-Day Lewis has not had any work out in time for this awards season).

The final performance is sadly not one that was ever recognised by the Academy, even in the form of a nod , which is quite shameful.  "Moon" is a fascinating, low-budget sci-fi film, independently produced, and one which genuinely surprised me, as I think it did many; it is fast becoming a cult favourite for people, sci-fi fan or not!  Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, a contract worker who has been mining the moon for helium-3, the solution to Earth's energy crisis.  He has been doing it for close to three years, which is his contracted time, and he is excited about getting home; for so long his only company has been that of video messages from his wife and child, photographs, and the on-board computer Gerty.  Upon visiting one of the mining stations, Sam has an accident and finds himself waking at base under the care of Gerty.  What then unfolds is something which cannot be easily described without spoiling the things that make the film so good, but it is fair to say that on more than one occasion, due to a lot of the sci-fi tropes seeming so familiar, I believed I knew where the film was going.  I didn't.  It was refreshing to see this sort of film take more than one turn along the way and become a movie I really was not expecting.

Sam Rockwell may well be becoming one of my favourite actors now, a man who seems able to manifest actual physical transformation from one role to the next without the aid of effects; put Rockwell from "Frost/Nixon", from "Iron Man 2", and from this film alongside each other, and you could almost believe they are different men!  This film really does illustrate most just how complex and real a performance he can give, and despite the other things about "Moon" that I love (Clint Mansell's gorgeous score, for one), it is ultimately Rockwell the film's success hinges on.  This is literally a one man show; even Gerty was only voiced by Kevin Spacey after the man himself had seen a rough cut and was so impressed by the actor.  This fact is not only testament to the quality of work from first time film maker Duncan Jones, but also to just how impressive Rockwell is.  This is the performance that in time to come, people will likely look back and think, why didn't he get an Oscar nomination for this?

I am so happy to be able to say that four films on the trot have provided me genuinely astonishing performances from these great actors.  I wish all the luck to Portman and Firth, not that I think they need it, and I advise anyone who has not seen Jennifer Lawrence or Sam Rockwell in action to do so; they deserve everyone's attention!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A Bit Demented!

So this week I saw a couple of movies that treated my brain like an egg, dumping it in boiling water until cooked rock solid, only to be thrown to the floor and stomped into tiny pieces.  Yes, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself!

First up, the new and hugely praised Darren Aronofsky film "Black Swan".  It takes the terrestrial story of a ballerina desperate for the role of the Swan Queen in "Swan Lake", a part requiring her to dance both the white and black swan, and turns it into a psychosexual, brooding and horrific descent into a personal Hell.  Aronofsky does clearly have a taste for the theme of a personal descent or journey; in some way or another the idea has been the subject of every film he has made so far.  This could be a complaint about him being "samey", but he does it with such verve every time, each film so vivid and unique an experience on its own, it is impossible to moan.

Upon seeing "Black Swan" the first time through, I found myself rather numb; the film is so vivid, I knew what I had seen was good, but it was hard for me to discern whether I had actually enjoyed it.  Having seen it twice now, I can confirm it is a masterpiece; it moved me far closer to tears on a few occasions the second time through, and is my personal favourite of Aronofsky's work so far.

What is fascinating about the film is that a lot of the ideas are long-held penchants of foreign art house and horror.  Indeed, I take a rather sadistic pleasure, as a fan of the director, from the thought that a lot of people walking into the film, believing they are getting an average thriller, might be rather shocked by the unexpected elements.  Once over the standard setup, the film rapidly takes you on a trip into a world of competition, obsession, self-harm, duality, sexuality, violence, psychosis and body-horror....oh, and overbearing mothers!  We watch the whole thing through the eyes of Nina, played with ridiculous dedication and power by Natalie Portman, whilst the pressure of the role and obsession with being perfect ruins her mind, splits her personality, and drives her to ever-worsening degrees of paranoia.  On the point of performances, I also give praise to the always-overlooked Vincent Cassel, whose acting I recognised, on second viewing, to be far more precise and thoughtful than I first gave credit for.

Anybody familiar with his previous efforts, "Pi" and "Requiem For A Dream", will already know how well Aronofsky can put the broken psyche on screen, and anyone who has seen "The Fountain" and "The Wrestler" will understand how ambitious, daring, and emotional a filmmaker he is.  With "Black Swan" he manages to inject all of those elements into one piece of cinema; it is intense, emotional, dark, upsetting, intimate and beautiful, haunting and bold.  The colour schemes, the staging of scenes, Clint Mansell's original score, the editing and sound; everything is so well-orchestrated, with nearly every scene being essay-worthy, that although not always hugely original in his techniques with this one, Aronofsky has made a film so startling, so hard to forget, it is impossible to not be in complete awe by the time the credits role. (10/10)

On recommendation, I unearthed a film called "Possession".  Now please don't make the mistake of thinking I am referring to any film other than the 1980s "video nasty" by Andrej Zulawski, starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani.  In reading about it, I came to understand it is quite a cult classic, and the only English language film by the director.  It is essentially a horror film, which is about, in the director's words when first pitching the idea, "a woman who fucks an octopus".

As a fan of David Lynch (which means I have seen "Eraserhead"), and not being somebody unfamiliar with experimental cinema, I can honestly say this is the most demented film I have ever sat through.  It would be easy to think that means it makes absolutely no sense, is about nothing, and is essentially a host of ridiculous imagery edited together, much like the previously mentioned Lynch piece, but that is not the case. "Possession" is a film that actually appears to be about something, and does apparently follow that through to its logical, if by the point of the finale, completely twisted conclusion!  It is the fact that on some level, you are aware it is following a story, that makes what you are experiencing all the more insane.

The story is pretty much a precursor to the Lars Von Trier film "Antichrist", the main differences being that in the case of "Possession" it is not grief over a lost child that is destroying the couple's relationship, and that "Possession" is the better, if more messed-up piece (seriously!)  Mark returns home in the knowledge that there is something wrong with his wife Anna, and it quickly becomes apparent to him that she is unhappy with their marriage and that she has taken a lover.  Once past this point, the film appears to become a much larger, extremely metaphorical piece, which goes far beyond these two people's relationship.  My impression is that the characters you are watching become political archetypes, dialogue and onscreen events often not making any sort of literal sense, but rather begging you to read between the lines.  This impression is backed up quite firmly, I believe, by the fact that it all unfolds next to the Berlin Wall, the monstrosity often in frame, if not being shot as a central character at points; the fact that Adjani is clearly playing two roles, and that the lover Anna has hidden away for her private sexual encounters is in fact a monster...literally!  Talking of the monster, Carlo Rambaldi, the man responsible for the "Alien" creatures and E.T, is the person behind this, and he still does not like to talk about this film.

There is some complaint that a lot of what happens between these character seems very stagey and false, but that is not how I saw it.  Given my previous impression, I believe that we are being taken up close and personal in this surreal play, often far too close for comfort, as these people scream their conversations hysterically, and we plunge into the madness.  The "stagey" feel comes from the fact it does seem to play out as a theatre production,  but we are put right on the stage with them (again, something Von Trier would later visit in his work).  It is clearly intentional that everything be surreal and strange, adding to how unnerving the whole thing feels, but the performances are undoubtedly superb.  Adjani did, in fact, win an award at Cannes for her performance, despite the film being banned!  You need no explanation as to why, other than watching the acting; to see her give this grotesque, shrill, hyper performance is truly uncomfortable, and her notorious "miscarriage" scene is totally distressing and completely bizarre.  The fact Sam Neill stands his ground through all of this is testament to his prowess and presence.

You walk away from "Possession" completely dumbfounded and unsettled, with an inexplicable desire to watch it again; either that or you will simply despise it.  Whatever happens, and whatever one makes of it, its power to alarm is still top-notch (9/10)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Thoughts on Oscars

Ok, so my first proper entry, and it's about exactly what the blog title primarily suggests, and as promised in my first entry.  We have all the major buzz going on with awards season approaching (that's the real awards, not the pathetic Golden Globes, which don't believe in animation as real filmmaking, it would seem, and think it perfectly fine to suggest "The Tourist" and "Burlesque" as serious considerations for any award at all, even more unbelievably as considerations for "Musical and Comedy"....what the hell!!)  So, here are my thoughts, bearing in mind I have not seen all the nominated films myself; I am aware "127 Hours" is getting a lot of recognition, though having not seen it I cannot pass comment, and for all I know, it could storm the whole thing.

Best Actor - Colin Firth.  End of.  I am aware James Franco is a big contender, and loved him in "Milk", so perhaps....I doubt it though.

Best Actress - Hmmmm...let me think....will be VERY surprised if it doesn't go Portman's way....just for the time and effort put in!

Best Support Actor - Would actually love to see Rush get some recognition, cos it strikes me he is just as big a part of that story, and is clearly a genius, but apparently Bale actually STEALS "The Fighter" from under Wahlberg's feet, so I can't see this award getting away from him.  As a sidenote, I take the oppurtunity to sing the praises of Vincent Cassel, who was not nominated for his performance in "Black Swan".  Whilst this might be understandable when compared to the other entrants, I still wish this man would get a bit more recognition than he seems to.  This is not the first time he has missed out, and even if a lack of nomination for "Black Swan" is acceptable, the Academy's fawning over Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" whilst completely ignoring Cassel was a criminal oversight!

Best Support Actress - Apparently Hailey Steinfield is a phenomenon in "True Grit", but I see Carter in with a good chance, due to it being a high profile part, and of course being a departure from her few recent Burton outings.  Plus....Queens do well ;)

Cinematography - As my sister put it, due to the competiton this year, "people might die!"....Any of the four main ones for this one, I think!  Possibly "Social Network" for me actually.

Music - Oooh....I've only seen a couple of the entries, but Zimmer is a hard man to beat.....Reznor and Atticus did a great job with "Social Network" though; just like "Inception" the music really worked well.  Could be either for me, though this is a category where a "surprise win" for "Black Swan" or something really left field wouldn't....surprise me

Best Editing - If it were down to me, it would be for "Inception", simply on how much of an effort that was

Best Director - Nolan, Fincher or Boyle (my money would be on the former two)...Aronofsky did a wonderful job and I love the bloke, but I don't think the Academy will go that way yet, especially given the competition this year (which is great to see!) and of course there's a bit of politics in there.  It's similar to how Scorsese didn't win for most of his life....I think Aronofsky has that same "anti-award" feeling about his will happen eventually, but not this time.

Best Film - Inception; Arthouse Hollywood Blockbuster, who would have thunk?  And by the guy responsible for the best Batman incarnation...can't see anything else taking that, even though I would point out the nominations are AMAZING this year!. It's great to see some quality cinema coming out!  Also...nice to see "Toy Story 3" is actually considered a real film, rather than just an animation (fuck you, Golden Globes!)  If "The Social Network" takes it, I won't be upset, and it's possible!

All of that is obviously just gut instinct on the buzz at the moment, but I'm hoping I'm on the money for at least some of if.  We shall see.

Next entry: Discussion of "Black Swan" and "Possession", the 1980's video nasty!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

What's This All About?

So here I am heading into yet another weekend for which nothing is really planned, beyond reading more of "The Swan Thieves" (which it was agreed this evening would make an odd but exciting band name), having finished Steig Larsson's "Millenium" trilogy, which I will be blogging about at some point.  So apart from reading a bit, I'm not sure what to do with myself.  I guess I may be nipping out for drinks tonight, and perhaps, if I'm lucky, some jukebox hijacking (the local pub has a rocking one), unless of course there's some sort of entertainment there; the word "entertainment" is used very loosely, as it does tend to be pretty pants.  Beyond reading and going out for drinks with some mates and rocking the pub with some choons, however, who knows....  There is the fact that on Sunday I shall be seeing Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" (very excited...and it occurs to me there are a lot of swans entering my life at the moment....wonder what that means?) having dinner and then going out for more drinks in the evening.  But apart from reading, going out for drinks with mates, seeing "Black Swan", having dinner, probably at Nandos, and partying it up with some weekend is due to be pretty unexciting.

I figure I should type up my first blog.  Knowing how to start a blog, the very first entry, the one you're reading, is a toughie!  Do you just go straight into a topic and hope people just find you interesting?  Will people find anything I have to say about film and whatnot interesting?  Am I simply writing this to myself?  I guess it doesn't matter; I enjoy it, though of course it would be nice to think somebody will stick with me, as I stick with others.

I feel I should say thank you to my friend Sam, who is also a blogger here; she text me her URL, I found the idea fascinating, and almost on impulse found myself designing this.  It sounds silly, but I almost feel bad, as it looks like I'm playing copycat and just ripping off what she did long before me.  Truth is she inspired this decision, and I thank her for letting me read her blog.....I simply had not thought about it until now. 

They say write about what you know or love.  Well thankfully both of those requisites apply to film...but why write about film on here when you have IMDB ("Internet Movie Database" for all you uncool kids not in the know)?  Well, I suppose it's the freedom; I do enjoy reviewing films on there and linking them to those people who are interested, but the freedom of a blog to write about whatever take your fancy, not being limited to one topic, was appealing, and as I do have interests outside of cinema (not that you'd know it sometimes), like music.....and films, I embraced the notion.  I just hope those people who are interested in my reviews on IMDB are willing to keep an eye on my blog.  God, the fear is to be boring, to not have anything to say....still, I shall aim for about two entries per week, or as things come up that I really want to talk about (even if it is ultimately to myself). 

Some people blog by video, some people keep things more personal by writing in a diary.....and some people have a life and don't do this sort of thing at all, preferring to spend their time out with friends.....real ones!  We can but dream.  Still, I'm a geek, and I hope to draw all the other geeks to me, by the thousand, simply by the power of words.....If the pied piper did it, I can do it....and I won't be drowning anyone in any sea, setting anyone on fire, or encouraging any other type of mass suicide, so that's got to be a bonus, right?