Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Happy Birthday, Christopher Walken!


After posting my essay on The Island this morning, I was about to sit down and watch some daytime television. Before flicking through the channels however, I decided to quickly check the IMDB homepage, to see what articles were doing the rounds today. While I was there I stopped off at a frequent section of interest - the birthdays. And who did I come across, at the ripe old age of 67? None other than the much-quoted cinema legend that is Christopher Walken. Unfortunately, Walken hasn't had many great roles over the past few years (zany cameos and campy villains since his 2003 Supporting Actor nod for Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can), so I wondered to myself when I would get the chance to write about this fine man again. And it didn't seem to be anytime soon. So here I am, at the laptop once again, about to profile one of the all time screen greats...

The son of a Scottish window dresser and a German baker, Walken was raised in a Methodist family. He originally trained as a dancer, occasionally appearing as an extra on TV shows (including The Colgate Comedy Hour, where Jerry Lewis inspired him to enter show-business). He eventually worked his way up to a career in film and his first notable role came in 1977's OSCAR winning comedy Annie Hall. He would eventually be loved by critics and audiences alike, known for his odd speech structure (a lack of commas), eclectic hairstyles and the fact that he tries to work a dance routine into every role. Here's the hilarious scene (in arguably Woody Allen's finest) that got him started:


Walken really cemented his reputation the following year however, in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, for which he won the 1979 Best Supporting Actor OSCAR (and surely delivered one of the shortest speeches in the history of the Academy). The film followed three friends in an industrial American town, whose lives are changed forever when they are shipped to Vietnam. You've probably all seen it, and will remember the classic Russian roulette scene (brilliantly parodied a few years ago in a Revels advert: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XIa3C4a2Lw) - but this article is really to highlight a few of the Walken films you might not have seen...

He re-teamed with Cimino for the disastrous 1980 Western Heaven's Gate, one of the biggest flops in movie history, which has developed a more dedicated following over time - and most of the actors involved speak highly of the project.

The same year Walken followed up his OSCAR glory with Dogs Of War (John Irvin, poster to the left), based on the 1974 novel by Frederick Forsyth. It tells the story of Jamie Shannon, a mercenary for hire, who works as part of a team to dispose of the President of 'The Republic Of Zangaro' (fictionalized for the movie). It features, like The Deer Hunter, a restrained performance from Walken and is a sadly forgotten war movie. For the most part it's a well presented, character-driven film about nations, and it has a hugely exciting all-action finale.

In 1981 Walken starred in Pennies From Heaven (Herbert Ross), which focuses on a sheet music salesman (Steve Martin) in depression-era Chicago. It's another sadly forgotten flick that deserves to be remembered for this wonderful sequence alone (one of Walken's many on-screen dances):


In 1983 (the 1980s were easily Walken's most prolific and interesting decade) Walken starred in Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull), a fascinating sci-fi that explores memory and death. Sadly his co-star, the excellent Hollywood icon Natalie Wood (West Side Story, The Searchers, Splendor In The Grass) died before the film was released, but it gives the film an even more chilling and powerful core, and it features stunning visuals (Trumbull worked on the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and a great performance from our lead. It's hard to know what to say about Brainstorm without giving too much away, but it truly is an extraordinary piece of work, way ahead of its time and features an interesting take on heaven itself. Sadly only available on Region 1, the trailer provides some insight here:


Next up Walken gave a stunning performance in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (also 1983). He plays Johnny Smith who, after a car crash, wakes from a five year coma and realises he can see a persons future by coming into physical contact with them. The police eventually convince him to use this power in a murder case and its not long until Johnny sees a future that could destroy all mankind, and has to take drastic measures to stop it. It's a brilliant piece of work, but also atmospheric and incredibly creepy, with another dedicated performance from Walken, relishing in some of his finest dialogue "Your house is burning! There's still time!" It's also one of the rare examples where an adaptation (of a Steven King novel) truly surpasses its source material.

In 1985 Walken played Max Zorin, an eccentric millionaire with a plot to cause earthquakes in San Andreas. It sounds crazy, but it's the plot to the 14th James Bond movie, A View To A Kill (title song by Duran Duran, very underrated). It's not the best Bond, but it does have some fun moments, especially when we're focusing on Zorin and his blimp. It is also, of course, the film where Bond shows his softer side...and makes a quiche for Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts). The final showdown is also impressive - a fight on top of the Golden Gate Bridge, a nightmare for anyone who suffers with vertigo.

The next few years were interesting but uneven for Walken. In 1988 he was in the awful animation Puss In Boots (Eugene Marner), playing the title role of Puss (trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi3348955417/). In this tale, Puss carries out a plan to bring riches to his owner, having a typically adventurous journey involving dragons. Walken's voice work is amusing, but it's probably a film he would choose to forget. The same year he played Mickey Rourke's promoter in Homeboy (Michael Seresin, from a script written by Rourke). It was a small but effective role in a sadly forgotten showcase for Rourke, which bears a great similarity to his 2008 comeback hit The Wrestler (the main difference being that Homeboy focuses on wrestling).

Arguably the definitive Christopher Walken performance came in 1990, with Abel Ferrara's King Of New York:


Fresh out of prison, Frank White (Walken) aims to clean up the streets, and save a hospital - his way. His way being to kill all major competition and reclaim his town. It's a truly wired performance, the modern day Robin Hood dancing, shooting and monologuing his way to glory. It's a flawed film saved by an actor at his best, playing on the eccentric elements he had become known for and the dark character explorations he was awarded for. In one scene, after bursting in on a rival gang playing a card game he declares "From now on, nothing goes down unless i'm involved. No blackjack, no dope deals, no nothing. A nickel bag gets sold on in the park, I want in. You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street. Now it's my turn." It really is a shining performance in a role that should now get more acclaim.

In 1992 Walken played another franchise villain in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (the definitive Batman movie). Max Shreck (corrupt businessman) is the centerpiece of the movie - he creates Catwoman and campaigns to make The Penguin mayor, with only his own interests at heart. Batman fights the two main villains, but the actual antagonist of the piece is Walken, on truly eccentric, silver-haired form. In a gothic getup he slinks around the extravagant sets, at one point proclaiming "Mayors come and go. Blue bloods tire easy. You think you can go fifteen rounds with Muhammed Shreck?" It's one of his finest performances, another in a long line that have been overshadowed over time - with Chris Nolan's Batman entries now becoming some of the biggest box office hits of all time.

In 1993 and 1994 Walken took small but pivotal roles in two Quentin Tarantino movies, True Romance (which Tony Scott directed) and Pulp Fiction (Tarantino's second directorial effort) respectively. In the first film he played Vincenzo Coccotti, a mobster after Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), the films loved up protagonists. The latter film saw him as Captain Koons, a war veteran who gives young Butch his fathers watch. Some will say that these roles revived Walken's career (a trait that seems to come with Tarantino), but I say it didn't need reviving.

The rest of the 90s saw the actor take on a number of roles - from the angel Gabriel in the awesome cult film The Prophecy (1995), a disabled mob boss in Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead (1995, unfairly dubbed 'a Tarantino knock-off) and a crazy Exterminator in Mousehunt (1997).

1995 also saw the release of the brilliant Wild Side, of which there is more than one version. It was directed by Donald Cammell (Performance), who committed suicide after the movie was drastically recut against his wishes. Cammell was a true visionary, who pushed boundaries in his films, and Wild Side was supposedly recut because of its lesbian love scenes. It's pure speculation however, and the film was restored in 2000 and released to critical acclaim. It is the last sign we have of the directors genuis and sees Walken as Bruno, an underground boss and money pusher, in one of his most out-there roles.

He would play another villain for Tim Burton in 1999 - the headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow. In 2003 he recieved his second OSCAR nod for Catch Me If You Can (mentioned in the opening), where he played the father to Leo DiCaprio's con-man Frank Abagnale Jr.

The 2000s weren't as good for Walken, although he had plenty of roles. The highlights have been Man On Fire (re-teaming him with Tony Scott) and the 2007 musical Hairspray, which saw him on fine singing and dancing form.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest screen actors of all time, Walken has made his mark in most genres, acting with some of the finest in the business (Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper, Johnny Depp among them) and stands as a totally unique presence in modern cinema. His talent lies not only in acting but in dancing, as he has proven in many roles, but never better than in the video to Fatboy Slim's 2001 single 'Weapon Of Choice'...enjoy...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7Ky5R-vxns.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Can Movies Be Irredeemable?


After watching The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo's 2003 controversy baiter, pictured left) last week, I began to wonder about films of the past that have caused a stir with the media.

The obvious place to start is with 'The Video Nasties' but instead, lets travel back to 13th January 1972...the UK release of A Clockwork Orange.

On the back of the heat caused by Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), Stanley Kubrick's now acclaimed masterpiece was not recieved well. Upon release many reviewers complained about its depictions of violence and sexual violence. The film was seen as morally corrupting - Mary Whitehouse wanted it to be banned, on the grounds of "criminal influence." Whether or not A Clockwork Orange was to blame for an outbreak of crime is debatable - but there is enough evidence if you want to see it. Teenagers dressing up in white overalls and bowler hats, murders and rapes (including a gang of Droog-styled teenagers attacking a nun) all hit the headlines. Despite outcry it was allowed to continue for a few more years - and the film was popular in America - but Kubrick had to withdraw it from the UK in 1974, due to death threats he and his family recieved.

Of course, A Clockwork Orange was not the first major outcry caused by a film. Tracing way back to the 1930s Tod Browning's Freaks (1932, which will be essayed next week) caused mass hysteria - and was eventually banned for 30 years. Similarly Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) was banned in Kansas and had to receive cuts in a major sequence, where the monster accidentally drowns a little girl.


Now fast-forward to the 1980s and we have the 'Video Nasties' - a group of films deemed so morally corrupting, without any value or substance, they should be banned from the public. This came about through the invention of VHS and home-viewers ability to watch films in their living room. One of the genres on offer was horror - uncut, low grade horror, packed with violence and gore. Many groups shouted out about films such as Last House On The Left, I Spit On Your Grave, Antropophagus: The Beast, The Evil Dead (which kicked the whole thing off) and Cannibal Holocaust (pictured left). Once again, a leading figure was Mary Whitehouse, and she eventually got her way when the 'Video Recordings Act 1984' was passed in...1984. This meant that all the aforementioned films and plenty of others featuring gore, mutilation, torture, rape, graphic nudity or animal cruelty were banned. Of course, people still tried to get hold of them and some underground theaters would show the films (as happened with A Clockwork Orange). Eventually, these films have been released one by one on DVD, in cut or uncut forms, depending on the film. It's guaranteed that they have the potential to shock, and some people will surely be outraged, but often it's context we should be looking at.

For example, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) - is it shocking and horrifying because of the violence, or because there is no reason for it? There are plenty of films more violent, more bloody, more gory than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which actually features very little of these things) - some war or action films for example. But there is no moralising, and no reason presented for the terror that ensues - it's just unrelenting and presented with a pitch black sense of humor. And on the other side of the coin, there are plenty of critics today who view the bloody, gory, often hard to watch Cannibal Holocaust as a social commentary, instantly giving it meaning.

If we move forward through time, past the moral outrage of David Cronenberg's Crash (1996), a thriller which depicted a group of fetishists who become sexually aroused by car crashes, and David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), which was condemned for its brutal acts of violence, we arrive to 2003 and The Brown Bunny.

The Brown Bunny centers on an emotionally detached man named Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo), driving to California, meeting girls along the way, who he connects with and then abandons. It's an incredibly slow moving, arse informed film, with no real character or substance - until the final third where he meets up with Daisy, a girlfriend from the past. As soon as the film seems to pick up it presents an unsimulated scene of oral sex, which drags it all right back down to the gutter. Of course it caused outrage and controversy when it was released, but after Gallo apologized and the film generated poor box office, the outcry soon faded away. To this day, it still causes anger among some film fans, but there are others who can proclaim it art, and to an extent, looking at the mise en scene of the film, they are right.

So, taking all of that into account, can a movie be irredeemable? I've found it hard to come up with an answer myself, but eventually I have. And the film is Slave Of The Cannibal God (Sergio Martino, 1978) - which might be under a different title depending on your country.

It stars ex-Bond girl Ursula Andress in a pointless plot that takes her through a series of unimaginative and badly shot scenarios involving rape, torture and animal cruelty. It offers no real reason for the exploitation and is a terrible film on top of it - offering no reward on a cinematic level. The image is grainy, sound awful - there's no sign of any real direction behind the camera and the acting makes most B-movies look OSCAR worthy. So, as well as being the worst film I have ever seen, is Slave Of The Cannibal God irredeemable? I suppose it would have to depend on your definition. I don't see it as art, and the film doesn't provide context. It's just a shallow presentation of everything the 'Video Recordings Act 1984' was invented for.

So my question to you is this. Is there a movie you know of, possibly one mentioned in this article, that is irredeemable?

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Up: Great Film, Bad Title?


After re-watching Pixar's latest last night, I remembered a big problem I'd encountered in my first viewing.

I should first say that I wasn't as big a fan of Up as everyone else but, admittedly, i'm in the minority. And anyway I had problems from the start...

Not with the film of course - we'd only seen a poster at the time my problems began. My issue was with the title itself. Up. Innocent enough you may say? Well yes. But every cinema buff will know that Up is also the title of a very different type of film. It is, in fact, the title of a 1976 sexploitation film by Russ Meyer (King Of The Nudies).

Meyer was a famous American filmmaker in the (s)exploitation genre - he wrote, directed, produced, photographed and edited most of his films and they focused on strong-willed, big-breasted female protagonists. He also collaborated with film critic Roger Ebert on a number of features including their 1970 classic Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (which Ebert wrote, from a story they devised together). His films often contained absurdly comic situations, strung together by acts of violence (red syrup) and soft-core pornography.

The son of a policeman and a nurse, his cinematic career began in 1959 with the feature length The Immoral Mr. Tea. He rose in skill and popularity through the years, mixing styles and genres - the work gradually got crazier, sexier and cooler. He released his true masterpiece -Faster Pussycat...Kill! Kill! (a big influence on Tarantino's Death Proof) in 1965, and the film is now regarded a true cult classic. The quintessential (but not very good) Meyer film though, is the 1966 documentary Mondo Topless, which is a study of strippers in San Francisco. It's a pure exploration of Meyer's key theme - the female form, and even though the film tells us practically nothing about San Francisco and its inhabitants, it gives us a great look into the mind of its creator. Over the next ten years Meyer kept experimenting, making the first two films of his Vixen trilogy along the way, in 1968 and 1975. So, now we come to 1976, and Up!



Up! starts with one of the greatest opening scenes in cinema history.

Hitler (under the name Schwartz), fresh from a leather-clad, bisexual orgy, retires to a bubble bath, only to be greeted by a mysterious, well-endowed woman who releases a piranha into his bathtub.
Yes. You heard me.

The rest of the film plays out in a similarly mad way. Kitten Natividad plays a one-woman Greek Chorus (nude of course) who narrates the events (because it makes pretty much no sense) and soon bizarre and sexy plot twists pile one on top of each other. So, it's not exactly kid friendly material.

A key scene in the movie sees hitchhiker Margo Winchester (Raven De La Croix) and cafe owner Paul (Robert McLane) having typically wild Meyer sex out in the woods - on logs, in rivers, halfway up a tree - while cutting back and forth to Sheriff Homer (Monty Bane) in a similar situation with Pocahontas (Foxy Lae) back at his cabin. There's no indication of where she came from, but she's not there for long. After reaching up to pull on the lightbulb that hangs from Homer's ceiling she electrocutes the pair of them resulting in one of the funniest, weirdest slapstick shots you will ever see. And this is before the bare breasted, bloody chainsaw finale...

Even the films original tagline - 'If you don't see Up!...you'll feel down!' brings to mind images of balloons.

And the icing on the cake? The film opens with the declaration "no fairytale...this!'
So, next time you sit down with the family, to watch the latest Pixar 'classic', think of me. Because when you're watching the tender, real relationship between Carl and Ellie play out...i'm imagining Hitler being devoured by a piranha...

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Price Of 3D

Breathtaking. Immersive. Amazing. Game Changing.
These are just a few of the terms you may have heard bandied around in the last couple of months regarding James Cameron's record breaking Avatar. No doubt all of you will have seen it by now and have an opinion on it - and most of you will have an opinion on 3D itself too. But here's the thing. One of my biggest problems with 3D so far is the expense. Is it really worth the extra money to have a film essentially turned into a theme park ride?
So far it seems the answer to that question has been yes, especially in America, where the masses flocked to Avatar for months, making it the most successful movie of all time. But now Hollywood has caught onto their new form of exploitation. Since the release of Avatar every mainstream blockbuster from Alice In Wonderland to the upcoming Shrek Forever After has been converted into 3D, to become more appealing to audiences. Now, firstly consider the fact that James Cameron has actively spoken out against the conversion of films into 3D, stating that if you're going to do it - do it properly. These movies obviously aren't what he intended when he set off the 3D craze. Also consider the failure by the Academy to award it in anything but the technical departments at this years OSCARS. But I think there's another, bigger factor just thrown into the mix that could well see a drop in 3D attendance in the masses, even if it doesn't fall off the map completely.
In a recent article on Yahoo Finance (original article here: http://finance.yahoo.com/bankingbudgetingk/article/109177/higher-prices-make-box-office-debut?mod=family-love_money) 'The Wall Street Journal' revealed the increase in 3D ticket sales, that takes effect as of today in the US. For those of you that want to get down to the numbers, here's how it works:

The increases will vary from cinema to cinema, but lets say as an average, each 3D ticket costs $13.00. That price will now rise to roughly $16.00.
The average Imax cinema will rise 3D prices from around $16.00 to $19.00.
Now, if this is successful there's no doubt in my mind that these ticket prices will travel overseas into your local UK multiplex, so here's how it will work there:
Standard cinemas will rise 3D ticket prices from £8 to £10, more depending on what you're already paying (I think that may be a little generous for the larger chains).
And for the full Imax 3D experience, you can expect to pay up to £12, £2 more than the standard £10 (again, slightly generous).
So, on average, a family of 4 in the US is paying between $64 - $76 and if it does travel overseas (which it will) we will be paying between £40 - £46. And remember, this is still, in my opinion, being a little generous.

So my question to you is this:
Despite what you think of 3D, love it or hate it, is a trip to see the 'breathtaking, immersive, amazing, game changing' Avatar really as good as a trip to an actual theme park?
I'll leave you with the trailer to the upcoming Clash Of The Titans, to help you decide...

Thursday, 18 March 2010

For Your Consideration... Grosse Pointe Blank

Martin Q. Blank: "They all have husbands and wives and children and houses and dogs, and, you know, they've all made themselves a part of something and they can talk about what they do. What am I gonna say? "I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How've you been?"

If you had to nominate one film as ' The Best 80s Movie The 80s Never Made', what would it be? I can't think of many contenders for the title (perhaps Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, 2002) but for my money it's got to be Grosse Pointe Blank. Why? Because its themes of coming home, facing your demons, re-connecting with the love of your life and staying alive long enough to see it all come together are ageless, and here they're all wrapped up in the form of a wickedly dark comedy. The film explores the significance of making (and rediscovering) our roots, and at the same time allows us a unique insight into the day-to-day life of a hitman (prozac and protein it would seem).


Comedy is arguably the hardest genre to get right (which makes its frequent Academy snubs all the more annoying). To illustrate my point, take the horror genre. Horror mainly relies on direction and editing - the way a shot is composed and then revealed to an audience. Drag Me To Hell is a film that has frenetic, inventive camerawork and terrifying use of sound and sound editing - but name me one horror film that has Mamet quality writing, and is the high point of that film? You could argue that it's not the point, but consider the earlier work of Sam Raimi. Evil Dead II has hysterical writing, but what do you remember first? "Groovy!" or the flying eyeball? The same can be said for action movies - Wanted, one of the most enjoyable films of recent years, has plot holes you could drive a bus through, but remains an absolute blast. Drama needs a great script and actors but the direction and editing doesn't need to be anything special to enhance our enjoyment of the film - for example the back-catalogue of Mike Leigh. He writes some of the finest dialogue in the business and works with actors in a spectacular way but his direction and editing is simplistic, to allow those elements to shine. So, onto comedy...


Comedy needs a funny script, guided actors to bring it to life and editing that will allow the timing of the gags to be pitch-perfect. Grosse Pointe Blank is my textbook example of the theory. It's a movie that was great in pre-production, great in production, and great in post-production. The intelligence and wit of the script shines, John Cusack is the best he's ever been under the direction of George Armitage, and the editing is exemplary. For an indication of what i'm talking about, see the scene below:



It's a perfect scene. Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) is at his 10 Year High School Reunion with Debbie, the woman of his dreams (literally) who he abandoned on prom night a decade ago. Martin is a man with no commitments - he packs light and travels fast, his only connection to the real world his shrink (Alan Arkin). Up until this moment he's been a conflicted character - his exterior is of a cocky, confident hitman trying to reconnect with a girl - but he's really trying to reconnect with a life he probably thought of as belonging to someone else. It's a tender, layered performance and it's at its best in this scene - where life, the thing he takes for a living, is placed in his hands, and we realise who he truly is. It's a perfectly scripted event, landing at just the right time to have an emotional impact, and Cusack plays it perfectly. The look of wonder and fear that plays on his face is captured in the most effective shot reverse shot i've ever seen. As the backing song slowly stars to crescendo, we recognise it as the Queen/David Bowie track "Under Pressure" (perfectly summing up Martin at this point in the movie) and it becomes overpowering. An understanding is made between a baby and the man who never grew up. The lyrics: "why don't you give love, give love one more chance" and "this is our last dance" reflect the entire point of the film. It's mise-en-scene personified. And you still want to know why it's a masterpiece? Okay...



There are few heroes more tragic than Martin Q. Blank. Throughout the movie he has questioned himself - his path in life and the decisions he made. It's a movie full of existential doubt, but it never, crucially, surpasses actual character. Cinema has a strange obsession with asking us to relate to hitmen (in the last decade The Whole Nine Yards, The Matador and You Kill Me) but none of them are rooted in the most important of issues - who you are, and where you came from. Up until the actual reunion Martin doesn't know these things. Gradually, by coming home, he reconnects with himself, but this scene shows just how sad and alone he is. Gun in hand, head held low, Grosse Pointe's lonely soul proclaims "this is me breathing". Killing is all he knows. It's more a part of him than anything else. Like I said, few heroes are more tragic than Martin Q. Blank.


Even ignoring Martin, the film is still a masterpiece. It's a film that takes place in the details. For example...

'Live and Let Die' (the Guns N' Roses version) is playing on the car radio. Martin exits his car and the song once again crescendos over his puzzled expression, after seeing the Ultimart where his home once stood. And after entering the store, mid guitar, the song changes to the sort of recycled, synthetic elevator music that seems to be everywhere we go. Martin storms up to the kid behind the front desk demanding: "What are you doing here?" to which the kid simply replies "I'm doing a double shift, what does it look like?" It's probably the first glimpse of real life Martin has seen for a long time, and it's planted where he grew up.


Everything in this scene is perfect - the script, the direction, the editing. And it just carries on throughout the whole film. It's witty, perfectly played, nostalgic, honest, romantic and very violent. Most action movies, let alone comedies, are afraid to show people actually getting hurt, but in Grosse Pointe Blank the bruises are on the outside as much as the inside, as this third and final clip demonstrates:



It's probably one of the most brutal fight scenes ever filmed (of course cinemas best fight scene belongs to John Carpenter's They Live). Every kick is heard and felt. When a punch is landed we see both men bruise and bleed and by the time the fight is over Martin is left knelt on the floor, bloody pen in hand. "It's not me" he says. It's just another scene where the tragic hero may be in an outside conflict, but the real fight is inside.


If you haven't already, stop off at Grosse Pointe as soon as possible. It's something really special and if you've already seen it, hopefully this article has spurred you on to watch it again. Either way, it's the best 80s movie the 80s never made. And if you take a deep breath you'll realise...it's also one of the best films ever made.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Top 10 Movies Of 2009


1.) Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)

After being delayed for re-shoots (the studio thought it was too scary) Spike Jonze finally delivered his much anticipated adaptation of Maurice Sendak's book in December of last year, and did not disappoint. Co-written by Jonze and Away We Go scribe Dave Eggers, it's a beautiful, honest study of childhood and family. Max (Max Records, in a stunning debut performance) is an ordinary kid - confused, lonely and attention-seeking. He cries and has tantrums and it's to the young actors credit that we still want to stay with the character and see where he goes. And where he goes is the beautifully shot land of the Wild Things (captured by Lance Acord, who did a great job on Lost In Translation). Here, Max's emotions are personified by creatures of all shapes and sizes. We first meet leader Carol when he's smashing all the Wild Things houses in a temper. He fits the personality trait that Max feels the most so they make an instant connection and instead of eating the boy, Carol persuades the Wild Things to crown him King. Of course, during the building of a fortress, Max's now external emotions fight with each other and become jealous. The intricate, layered screenplay ensures that the film will appeal to children but also challenge them and adults will connect with a part of themselves that they probably considered lost. The soundtrack by Karen O and Carter Burwell is also wonderful and by using loud clashes, upbeat riffs and the sounds of children's laughter and screams, perfectly suits the tone of the film. It's also a beautiful, tender record in its own right and its nomination snub at this years OSCARS is a real shame. Jonze has crafted his finest film yet, further displaying why he's one of the most interesting, original talents of his generation.



2.) Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino, one of the most talked about filmmakers of the last twenty years, blasts back onto top form in his best film for twelve years. That's not hard though, as it seems he's been contractually obliged to make rubbish for the past decade. He turns down the endless movie referencing to tell a story that we can take seriously (well, not too seriously) and invest ourselves in. It's his best looking film (cinematographer Robert Richardson is a veteran of Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese) and also his richest, dialogue wise. The opening scene, capturing the French countryside beautifully, is the best thing Tarantino has ever written (even he thinks so) and from then on it's an unforgettable, exhilarating, hilarious and bloody journey, punctuated by interesting soundtrack choices and superb performances. Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger impress as beautiful, deadly and cool women...typical Tarantino? Yes, but they actually sound like people we care about. The show belongs to Christoph Waltz though, as the incredible Col. Hans Landa, who keeps the whole thing together. Is it a little too long? Yes. Do a few of the scenes still feel like filler? Yes. But is it the best thing the talkative auteur has ever done? By far...



3.) Antichrist (Lars von Trier)

The latest controversy baiter from Dane auteur Lars von Trier set Cannes alight last year, when Charlotte Gainsbourg took home the Best Actress award and audiences spat their popcorn out over her mutilation scenes. It's not an easy watch, that much is certain, but it's deep, intelligent and atmospheric. There are two characters in the film, named He and She, and after the death of their son they travel to a place called Eden (typical von Trier humor, much like the meaningless title) to grieve. The film owes a lot to other horror films, and this much is clear by now - Evil Dead, Don't Look Now, Possession...they're all part of the mix, and von Trier also owes something to Tarkovsky style wise (the film is also dedicated to him). The actual study of grief is brilliantly acted with minimal dialogue. It's harsh, raw and emotionally powerful - and then it becomes something else entirely. Eden is a strangely beautiful place (Anthony Dod Mantle, take a bow) but what happens there is anything but. To say any more would be to give it away, but Antichrist is a screaming harpy of a movie - it grabs you by the jugular and then really gets to work. By the end of the film you'll be confused, offended, mesmerised and you'll rush to the sink to wash the blood off your hands.



4.) Watchmen (Zack Snyder)

Zack Snyder proves himself as a director, making "the unfilmable" look effortless, creating a comic-book movie so intelligent, dark and epic in scope that it makes The Dark Knight look like Batman & Robin. From the prologue to the epilogue every frame is perfection, echoing the graphic novel and also feeling like its own creation, welcoming newcomers into the bloody, complex world of the Watchmen. Multiple story strands lap over each other as the fraternity team back together to discover who's "picking off costumed heroes". It's a drama, a detective story, a parodic period piece, a superhero movie, a revenge story and above all, a character piece. It's like Old School with buzzsaws. It's rare for a movie of this type to have as much brains as brawn but this story balances them in a way to make you think they were never apart. From the cinematography (Larry Fong) to the soundtrack (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix) to the performances (Jackie Earle Haley, perfect) an era and feeling is captured beyond what the fans could have ever expected. It twists, turns and above all, impresses. If there's any justice (and here's a movie that proves there often isn't) superhero movies will never be the same again.



5.) Moon (Duncan Jones)

Inspired by the classic sci-fi of his youth, Duncan Jones' thoughtful debut homages Silent Running, Outland and 2001: A Space Odyssey, managing to mix an original plot and evoke feelings of nostalgia. Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, at the end of a three year contract on the moon. After an accident in a moon buggy he is confronted with the idea that he's perhaps not alone, and his robot companion GERTY (a direct nod to HAL) isn't particularly helpful. Of course, there's a twist involved, and it's an absolute blinder, but the real joy is in watching the story unfold so carefully, really taking time to understand character and present some back-story. The score by Clint Mansell (a modern master) is set to become an all-time classic. It's ambient, haunting and beautiful. It echoes loneliness, at times sounding almost mechanic, but at the same time lulls you into a sense of security...and home. Minimal CGI adds to the experience and the smooth direction by Jones is remarkable for a first time director. The main event though, is one man show Rockwell, absolutely outstanding in the lead role. His slow transformation is really something to behold...every blow, physical and metal, is implanted onto his body. He shuffles around, more paranoid by the second, frantic and bloody. And then there's the other side of him...if you haven't done so already, be sure to stop off at Moon sometime soon.



6.) (500) Days Of Summer (Marc Webb)

Probably the most lighthearted, charming, funny and re-watchable movie of 2009, this reinventing-the-wheel rom-com makes a nice change of pace for my so-far so-dreary list. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the best actor of his generation, see Mysterious Skin) and Zooey Deschanel (criminally underrated, see All The Real Girls) strike sparks with each other, easily convincing with a chemistry years in the making (they first worked together on the underrated Manic in 2001) and it's this that makes the film so likable and so real. This isn't to slight the wonderfully heartfelt script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber though, which is clearly drawn from real life experience. By presenting the 500 days of their relationship in non-linear order and using editing to create sequences such as 'Expectation vs. Reality', the film definitely feels fresh and it's these little tricks that will make you come back again and again. You could describe it as nothing more than a story written into a music video and the ending might a little too sickly for some, but if you're not charmed by it in some way, you're likely not human. And it's a sign of a great film if you can, when listening to the soundtrack, not only remember every single scene the songs went to, but also exactly how you felt at the time.



7.) Coraline (Henry Selick)

Much like Antichrist, Coraline focuses on a small house in the middle of nowhere and sends its female protagonist through hell at the expense of a loved one. Of course, being a kids movie, it doesn't feature any arty penetration shots, but Coraline is definitely a movie with a dark side. The idea of having buttons sewn into your eyes isn't what most would consider PG material after all. The stop-motion style works a treat here and gives everything a really cold, eerie atmosphere, and the fact that Coraline is followed/haunted by a doll (and we know how Coraline herself is made) gives the film an even more nightmarish quality. But for a film with a colour scheme of mainly blacks and grays Coraline is strangely beautiful, especially the wonderful scene where she sees the flowers in the Other Father's garden form her face and light up. It's a wonderful moment of juxtaposition, and is repeated in the warm, inviting Other Mother's kitchen. It's rare for a kids movie to place its young lead character in a world so gothic, uncompromising, psychologically challenging and, well...scary. Everything from the soundtrack by Bruno Coulais to the voice work by Dakota Fanning is pitch perfect and Selick has proved himself as a master storyteller.



8.) State Of Play (Kevin Macdonald)

Based on the British TV series of the same name, and harking back to the classic journalism/procedure thrillers of the 70s (All The President's Men), Macdonald has struck gold with a thriller so tense you barely have time to breathe through its two hour running time. The script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Billy Ray and Tony Gilroy (undoubtedly the screenwriter to go to for intelligent thrills) is tight as a drum and allows for characters to develop through the plot, as they make their latest discovery. Of course, the plot twists and turns every couple of minutes and as every character gets deeper and deeper into a mess they didn't see coming, it seems less likely that they will ever find their way out. Russell Crowe turns in his best performance in years, growing more determined by the minute but slowly deteriorating before our eyes. It's a performance of physical and mental power and we get a true insight in what it means to be obsessed. He keeps working until there's nothing left but the case. The scene where Crowe follows a lead to a suspects apartment and is confronted by the possible killer is perhaps his greatest moment yet - as the smooth, cocky reporter suddenly turns white and realises he might not get out of there alive. It's claustrophobic, engaging and has several scenes that will have you gripping your seat. It's the best thriller since Zodiac, and, most importantly, ranks among the best thrillers of all time.



9.) The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson)

Peter Jackson's ambitious adaptation of the 2002 novel of the same name is one of the best cinematic achievements of the year. James Cameron promised us a unique, all new world with Avatar but it's Jackson who really creates the visual experience of 2009. How seriously you take this world will depend on your belief of the afterlife, but on a technical level it's a stunning achievement with particularly impressive lighting. There are elements of the book sadly missing (the affair) and some parts aren't as prominent as others (the grief of the family and police procedure is terribly underplayed) and even people who haven't read the book may be left wanting more. The elements it does focus on though, are brilliant, especially the portrait of a serial killer, played by the underrated but impressive Stanley Tucci (earning an OSCAR nod). It's a performance that proves he's one of the best actors of his generation and in a year without Christoph Waltz, I think he would have won. The soundtrack by Brian Eno is also a thing of beauty and captures the feel of Jackson's heaven perfectly. If a few of the books elements had been kept intact this could have been a masterpiece, but as it stands it's just very, very good and a cinematic achievement beyond the worlds of Cameron.



10.) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson brings his unique, literary style to his first (loose) adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic. It's probably more Anderson than Dahl (a family unit falling apart, existential doubt, hip soundtrack and panning shots) but enough of the feel of the original book is kept to make it feel magic. The lush greens of the British countryside are abandoned for a warm, orange glow that feels more at home with the story than would be initially imaginable. George Clooney is perfect as Mr. Fox (Anderson wanted to search for the modern day Cary Grant) and his usual band of cronies including Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray turn up and provide the vocals that the witty, literate script requires. It's not 100% loyal to the book but the changes that have been made liven the story up and make for a much more cinematic experience - the action sequences are handled well and are very inventive (soap and cotton wool for fire and smoke). Even where the dialogue doesn't exactly play to kids, there's something happening on-screen to keep them enthralled. Wes Anderson showed an interest in stop motion with The Life Aquatic, but here he fully realises a wonderful, natural world, that I could have happily spent another hour in.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009) Review

If you're going to have expectations for a movie, it's probably best to set them towards the lower end of the spectrum. Quite often our overall judgement can be misguided by the preconceptions we went in with, and all film fans can agree that it's better to be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed. Never is this more true than in the case of an adaptation. So, we come to The Lovely Bones. Based on Alice Sebold's 2002 novel of the same name, it was always going to be a challenge to fit all the elements of this emotionally complex 323 page novel into a two hour film. Combining studies of the supernatural, a family torn apart by loss, the psychology of a serial killer and a police investigation is not something that will sit well for the younger members of the audience that Peter Jackson has toned his vision down for. So, it's with some disappointment that I have to report that Jackson only really succeeds in two of these categories. But when he gets it right, he really, really gets it right.


The first half an hour of the film is masterpiece material. The narration from dead girl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) sets the tone for the rest of the film and stays loyal to the book. She takes us on a whirlwind tour of her life as it was - her playful relationship with boozy grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and the crush she has on British senior Ray (Reece Ritchie). The evenings spent with her father working on model ships and the underdeveloped but significant ties to her mother and siblings. It's perhaps too much of a whirlwind, sketching a family rather than exploring it, but as exposition, it works a treat. Things really get good when Susie encounters Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci, earning that OSCAR nod) on the way home from school and he tempts her into the underground murder den he has built (in a remarkably fast time). The scene that unfolds here is the most tense of the whole film...never has the opening of a coke bottle carried so much tension. It's also here that Tucci comes into his own, displaying why he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation. The way he shuffles uneasily around the den, displaying little ticks, always thinking about what to say next is wonderfully unnerving. He's plotting her death and at the same time trying to impress her. It's a brilliantly subtle but terrifying performance that remains the high point throughout the whole film. Susie eventually tries to escape her captor, but fails. The sequence that follows is a sort of in-between nightmare that hurtles Susie through the eerie, empty streets of her home town. The nightmare ends in a bathroom scene that pushes the boundaries of the 12A rating. Harking back to Jackson's horror roots, Susie treads through a bloody bathroom with Mr Harvey soaking in the centre. The scene escalates in the most terrifying way leaving the audience shocked, gripping their seats. It's the best scene Jackson has directed for the last decade. And then it all loses its way a bit.


Of course, what follows will instantly divide audiences depending on your belief of the afterlife. It's the one thing we have no idea about, and certainly no clue to what it would look like, if it does exist. This gives Jackson complete creative control, allowing for some visually stunning and emotionally powerful sequences (the crashing of ships) and some completely redundant ones (a cringeworthy fasion/photo-shoot sequence). Suspend your disbelief though and you'll be rewarded with a deep, gorgeous setting unlike anything else you've seen before. It's one of two aspects that Jackson gets just right.


The second part is the serial killer study. Of course, this is mostly down to the aforementioned performance by Tucci, but it's also down to the script. Mr Harvey doesn't really get a lot to say and some of scariest scenes are the ones with him just sat in a chair, contemplating his crimes. The script knows exactly which buttons to press when it comes to his character and his development is the axis of the film. In fact, calling him a supporting actor hardly seems fair, given how much screen time he has.


Which leads to one of the biggest problems of the film. With so much emphasis placed on the afterlife Susie finds herself in and the man who put her there, precious little time is actually spent with the family. Their grief seems almost non-existent. There are a few scenes of Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz) crying, but nothing that actually constitutes any development. Most of the scenes based around the family deal with Jack investigating the case on his own and sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) becoming suspicious of Mr Harvey. It's an opportunity wasted. Abigail still leaves in the final third of the film, but her infidelity (a powerful emotional blow in the book) is disregarded here and she instead leaves when Jack's investigations become too much to handle. Her replacement? Susan Sarandon, in a comic relief musical montage. Gritty drama this is not.


The other problem is the investigation itself. There are a few scenes of questioning and a crime scene here and there, but any sign of an actual investigation is missing from the film. It's no wonder that Jack takes matters into his own hands, such is the apparent lack of interest from every officer involved. It's an element that would have bogged the film down had it been too much of a focus, but it still feels like an opportunity missed.


All of this criticism makes the film sound bad, but it's really not. It's an inventive, brilliantly directed and photographed film, with some stunning performances and a great soundtrack from Brian Eno. On a cinematic level it's an achievement worthy of attention and a re-watch will surely uncover even more depth. But it's a film that could have done more with such brilliant source material. Had the family drama and police procedure been as developed as the other elements of the movie, it could have been a masterpiece. But a few too many of the books elements are fiddled with or not tackled at all. It's actually a film that could have benefitted from an extra half hour on the running time.


So, newcomers to the universe of The Lovely Bones are in for a flawed treat, fans of the book are in for a disappointing but solid drama/thriller. But, if you set your expectations low, you might be very, very pleasantly surprised.


7/10