Saturday, 31 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

****
Once again, Guy Ritchie offers us a version of Sherlock Holmes that is funnier and more exciting than any previous adaptations by other directors. This adaptation may be loose (vaguely based on Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem) but it does capture the essence of Holmes, possessing much of the wit of the books. It even shows us what it’s like to be the famous detective, giving us occasional looks inside his head to give a flavour of that absurd intellect.

Dr Watson (Jude Law) is getting married and Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) isn’t very happy about it. Watson’s stag is an ‘eventful’ one and alas a happy honeymoon is not on the cards – nothing to do with Holmes, mind but Moriarty (Jared Harris). Criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty is gleefully wreaking havoc throughout Europe – with bombs and assassinations, provoking war - and the crime-busting pair are getting dragged into the midst of it.

Although the action takes Holmes and Watson out of London and into France and Switzerland the film does manage to keep the focus relatively tight. I’m aware the film-makers made a concerted effort not to fall into the sequel trap and throw everything but the kitchen sink into the script. For example, there is only one villain, only one plot and certainly no shark-jumping. But there are some new additions to the cast: Noomi Rapace makes for a mysterious gypsy and Stephen Fry relishes his role of just-as-eccentric brother of Holmes, Mycroft. The accomplished Jared Harris is a wonderful villain and Paul Anderson a chilling henchman. Of course, notable mention to both Downey Jr and Law who, as a fine double act, make the film distinctly more satisfying than perhaps it might have been without them.

Guy Ritchie’s directorial flair has not lessened in this 1890s setting. If anything he’s cranked-up his style up a notch. Slow-mo and bullet time abound during action sequences and, although the perceived wisdom may be to not use such devices in a period piece, it absolutely works. He has also created a very attractive nineteenth century Europe and one on an epic scale. The characters talk fast, the action moves fast and so you do have to keep up. The gags, banter, and exposition come thick and fast. It keeps you on your toes and in this way doesn’t condescend to the audience. And it’s rip-roaring family entertainment for the holidays.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

****
Director Brad Bird makes a smooth transition from animation to live action with an emphasis on action. Being behind one of my favourite (what can safely be described as) action flicks, The Incredibles I suspected he had what it takes. It’s still impressive considering the huge scale of this the latest instalment in the Mish franchise. It is not as some have described, “a return to form”, since JJ Abrams’ MI:III was a damn good watch. I will say however, where most franchises by this point might feel a bit tired, this feels anything but.

We follow Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) on a series of missions that go from bad to worse. Framed for an attack on The Kremlin they go underground and in pursuit of the terrorist that framed them. He is in possession of stolen arms codes giving him the means for nuclear oblivion. The action takes the elite group from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai with barely a moment to breathe between each dangerous situation. We witness a series of sequences from tense to the gobsmackingly breath-taking. Since it’s on one of the posters it’ll be no spoiler that Cruise hangs off the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (he really did it, by the way) in a spectacularly vertiginous scene.

It’s apparent that whoever directs a Mission: Impossible is given room to breathe and make the film their own. Messieurs De Palma, Woo, Abrams and now Bird have all made the films in their own way. They may well be mainstream directors but they do each have a unique style. The producers of James Bond could learn from this since they’re recently prone to hiring an interesting director but then stifling any hint of their individuality. Here, Brad Bird demonstrates a three-dimensional understanding of the action set-piece where everything within it happens for a reason. It’s a good-looking film but the style is backed up by substance.

Most of the comic relief is supplied by Blighty’s very own Simon Pegg. Although Benji sounds like a cuddly children’s character he is now a crack member of the team. Unlikely I know, but Pegg’s nerdy field tech is actually rather convincing. Cruise delivers a mature performance balancing just the right amount of intensity and humour. And regarding the physical stuff, there’s no one in the world who can match him. It’s good to see Tom Cruise back doing what he does best – saving the world.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

X-Men: First Class

***
Who’d a thunk the producer of Lock Stock… and Snatch would wind up being such a competent director. The producer-turned-director is a rare bird. The only ones that spring to mind are Joseph L Mankiewicz and Alan J Pakula. But Matthew Vaughn has done it again – he has made yet another exceedingly entertaining film. He’s also breathed new life into a flagging franchise and, although it didn’t entirely set the box office a light, it’s not done too shabbily.

This prequel sees Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) with legs and hair, just starting out as leader of the disparate band of superheroes. With the action skilfully set against a Cold War/Cuban Missile Crisis backdrop, he forges an alliance with the CIA. This is to track down and then train other mutants, teaching them to harness their special powers. All the while, holocaust survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) seeks revenge for atrocities committed by all-round bad guy, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

The film sees some delicious early sixties period detail making it so much more interesting than its predecessors. Henry Jackman embraces the age delivering a sixties-tinged score which, at times, can only be described as ‘groovy’. The film-makers must be commended on some inspired casting choices; the likeable McAvoy is straighter than an arrow as philanthropist Professor X, Fassbender gets sympathy for his devil-in-the-making (that’s Magneto), and Kevin Bacon makes a dastardly villain. The younger cast members are a bit lame but it doesn’t matter because the onus isn’t on them so much. This is reflective of the previous instalments in the series where everyone else – for me, personally - lived in Wolverine’s shadow. I suspected there might be a conspicuous Wolverine-shaped hole but luckily there isn’t because Magneto and Professor X are such strong characters. It helps that they’re in their prime and doing all their own ass-kicking instead of being relegated to (and this could be heresy) their more familiar ‘managerial’ roles.

Unlike fans of the comic, I never entirely grasped the gravity of the situation in the previous X-Men films. (I was always more of a Beano fan.) They assumed we’d already know X, Y and Z about erm… X. Whereas this one – involving the creation of the key characters - is a lot more involving, and indeed fun, for the layperson. Basically, Thicko here actually understood what was going on this time. 

X-Men: First Class Movie Poster

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Descendants

*****
A warm aloha to Alexander Payne as he returns after a seven year hiatus from writing and directing features. Payne goes from strength to strength with this Hawaiian-set story. George Clooney, also enjoying a purple patch, is proving himself to be a peculiar anomaly: an A-lister whose name on the credits ensures a stamp of quality.

Matt King (Clooney) and his family are descendants of white missionaries and Hawaiian royalty. King is the sole trustee of some prime real estate on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i left to his family by their ancestors. He and his relatives look to get enormously rich from the morally dubious sale of the land. However, the main focus of the tale is on King’s struggle to keep his family from falling apart. He has troubles with his two daughters. He also has marital problems but here’s the kicker: his wife is in a coma following a boating accident. As the tragedy unfolds the legacy of King’s forefathers (i.e. the land) gains more significance.

It doesn’t sound like the most fun but if you’re familiar with any of Payne’s previous work you won’t be surprised that it is. The action unfolds with a good deal of humour. If you haven’t seen his previous works, Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways, then I can’t recommend them enough. As with all of the above, Payne supplies large doses of both hilarity and seriousness. But it is with his latest film that he delivers a little more of the latter. Something truly profound is achieved amidst the comedy. It poses (and answers) some serious questions about family, loyalty, life, and love. Peculiarly in this his most poignant work Payne’s new co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash possess comic credentials of the decidedly lower brow variety. (An important lesson here: never judge a writer by their IMDb profile.)

Clooney lobbied for the Thomas Haden Church role in Sideways but Payne, wanting someone less well known, turned him down. Their cinematic union on this has proved much more effective (I’m sure) and was certainly worth the wait. And even the smallest of roles has real potency. Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer all impress in the film. The entire project drips with quality.


Thursday, 10 November 2011

Normal Service Will Be Resumed Sometime in December

Have badly broken my collar bone and will be taking a break from blogging.
I will hopefully not be embarking on escapades similar to those of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window or James Caan in Misery but simply watching an awful lot of DVDs... 
In the meantime, the site is still "live" and all older reviews still available for your perusal.
Best regards,
William "Filmchild" Goodchild

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

**
More pointless motion capture and, depressingly, from Steven Spielberg. This approach is neither photo-real nor commits fully to being overtly stylised. The resulting look is a charmless halfway-house that beggars the question, why? Live action could have delivered spectacle and a real sense of drama, straight animation could have supplied the magic of the books which this is distinctly lacking.

Young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his dog Snowy embark on an adventure with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is the baddie on their tail. The skills of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Thompson & Thomson) are also ineffectually utilised.

The motion capture technology has a long way to come. As with previous mo-cap efforts, any dialogue spoken doesn’t sit well with the digital character models. The words feel detached, creating an odd, robotic feel. See The Polar Express and Beowulf for other examples. (Or rather, please don’t.) On the subject of dialogue, it’s striking how poor the entire cast are as voice artists. Daniel Craig’s attempt at cut glass brings to mind Ewan Macgregor’s cringey Obi-Wan. And Jamie Bell, not exactly renowned for his vocal ability, makes for a pathetic Tintin.

Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish have delivered a haplessly weak script along with Doctor Who writer-in-chief Stephen Moffat. Script-wise it’s easy to spot the similarities between this and Doctor Who, with its crappy, bland humour. The jokes – poor in the first place - fall flat throughout the entire film. And it’s not entirely the writers’ fault - Spielberg seems to have lost all sense of his famous precision timing. However, it's all very pretty and some of the action is impressive but all very unnecessarily close-up. Wide shots seem to occur only to establish scenes. Along with the extraneous 3D it all makes for a vomit-tastic experience.

Unlike the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET – to be enjoyed by those of all ages – this is very much a children’s film. Unless you’re taking your kids, avoid.




Saturday, 29 October 2011

Quando la Notte (When the Night)

***
When the Night is directed by Cristina Comencini and adapted from her own novel.

Marina (Claudia Pandolfi) takes her problematic two year-old son to the mountains for a sabbatical. Her toddler doesn’t sleep and he does not stop crying. This drives the poor woman, understandably, a bit loopy. (The incessant wailing drove me a bit loopy.) All the while, strange tensions develop between her and the standoffish landlord (Filippo Timi) as they co-habit in a remote alpine cabin.  

This is not a barrel of laughs, no. It’s intense, heady stuff. While I’m told that parenthood, even in the toughest of times still supplies occasional glimmers of joy, this has none of that. It purely focuses on the downside.

The narrative is somewhat uneven. It lacks a clear story arc. The ending feels rushed, a bit tagged-on, which I find is common with book adaptations. So often there’s just too much information to squeeze in to a couple of hours. But the film does have a lot of passion. The locations are spectacular and not always in a “chocolate box” kind of way. In her LFF Q&A, Comencini explained that she wanted a mountain that was “hard-looking”, as opposed to pretty. Against this backdrop, the director has created a peculiar and disturbing atmosphere.

When the Night suggests that a natural instinct for motherhood is not always a given. This is a bold and brave statement to make and one that ought to be welcomed. Since 1950, the world’s population has exploded from 2.5 billion to 7 billion and, disturbingly, shows no signs of slowing down. Bearing these facts in mind, it’s refreshing to see a point of view that doesn’t encourage us to breed.



Friday, 28 October 2011

The Ides of March

**** 
This is glossy, conventional film-making and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Ides of March is a smart, political thriller that never condescends. The film’s “polish” simply delivers a serious film in an attractive package.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is the junior campaign manager for the democratic presidential candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney). Ahead in the polls, things are looking very good for Morris. Meyers is a damn fine operator, seemingly capable of adjusting the alignment of the planets to get Morris elected. He is also an idealist but unfortunately that part doesn’t last. It’s not long before a series of events embroils him in dirty political tricks.

As well as being in the film Clooney, impressively, takes writing, directing and producing credits. While his character looms large, it’s really man-of-the-moment, Gosling’s film – at least on screen. However, Gorgeous George’s self-casting is spot on. He is well-suited to playing the “The Next President of the United States” – honest and direct, likeable and unflappable - all these qualities at least indicated by his public persona. (I’d certainly vote for him.) Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the campaign manager and Paul Giamatti as his opposite backing Morris' competition. These two been-round-the-block characters are played with relish (and unsurprising accomplishment) by two of the best character actors in the world. While their outlooks are very different, I couldn’t help but think how capable they’d each be at playing the other’s role. Young padawan, Evan Rachel Wood beefs up her already-impressive CV, further proving that she is not intimidated by actors of the heavyweight variety. Notable mentions to co-writers Beau Willimon (on whose play the film is based) and the “undiscovered talent” that is Grant Heslov, director of the brilliant and criminally-underrated The Men Who Stare at Goats.

But to get back to Clooney – he’s doing what Hollywood was doing in the seventies - not only is he making his films thought-provoking, he’s making them look good.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Alps

***
Director Giorgos Lanthimos collaborates further with co-writer Efthymis Filippou to create something even more leftfield than Dogtooth.

The Alps of the title refers to a clandestine group in which each member is codenamed after an alpine peak. They offer a bizarre service to the bereaved, supplying a surrogate loved one, replacing those who have recently died. The replacement spends periods with the family etc, dressing and behaving like the deceased, speaking in a formerly-agreed script. Nuts? You betcha. The film raises more questions than answers, most notably who is crazier – the people who do this for a living or the people who hire them?

The shooting style is verité and the acting naturalistic (some of the cast are non-actors). It all makes for a raw and realistic package. I feel it’s a little underwritten. It’s not clear what some of the scenes are meant to be telling us and the plot is a little muddled. But Alps is startling in its originality. It’s not often you can say a new film is unique but this one is. As the subject matter would suggest, it’s extremely quirky. It’s funny and uncomfortably so. It doesn’t, however, make light of each situation. The consequences are a powerful reminder that it’s not all just a game.

The film was exec-produced by Athina Rachel Tsangari, writer and director of the recently well-received Attenberg. Not hugely renowned for its cinema, it seems Greece is experiencing a new vibrancy in this area. Let’s hope the current austerity measures don’t put an end to that.






Sunday, 16 October 2011

Rampart

****
Oren Moverman’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Messenger sees the writer/director again not shying away from challenging subjects and the downright bleak. 

Dave “Date Rape” Brown (Woody Harrelson) is an unapologetic misanthrope who is happy to dish out merciless beatings. Sometimes he even shoots people. He’s also a member of the Rampart Division of LAPD, which serves the mostly-Hispanic communities of Downtown Los Angeles. The “Date Rape” moniker refers to an incident in which he’d unlawfully (allegedly) killed a serial rapist. This is a real-life case and one on which the film is based. Brown’s case is ongoing and he gets into further hot water with Internal Affairs as the film progresses. For all his cowboy cop ways he’s a smart guy and, helpfully, something of a hotshot when it comes to all matters legal.

His violence, misogyny and racism - to name just a few of his key attributes – helps him to flush his life down the toilet. It’s a tough watch at times but insanely compulsive viewing. The director shows flair and ingenuity in capturing the heat and intensity of driving a black and white on LA’s mean streets. And the dialogue crackles. Although there have been many James Ellroy film adaptations he is rarely involved in writing the screenplays. Ellroy actually scripted this, with Moverman, and it’s a joy hearing his uncompromising words coming out of the actors’ mouths. Impressively, some of those mouths belong to Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia “SATC” Nixon, Robin Wright, Ice Cube, Steve Buscemi, Ned Beatty (well into his seventies and nice to see him still doing good work) and the talented Ben Foster (who also takes a producing credit). But it is very much Harrelson’s film. Adding to a career of interesting choices, he completely inhabits the role of an intensely-dangerous man: the police officer you’d never want to be caught by.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Les Géants (The Giants)

***
My personal London Film Festival experience gets off to a promising start with this endearing film from director Bouli Lanners. In the grand tradition of lazy journalistic shorthand one might say this is Stand by Me meets Winter’s Bone. While the coming-of-age aspect lacks that of Rob Reiner’s 1986 film, it could teach Winter’s Bone a thing or two about making hillbilly gangsters scary.

For reasons unknown, 15-year-old Seth and 13-year-old Zak are abandoned by their mother. Left to fend for themselves at home, they are joined by their friend Danny. Systematically beaten by his psychotic older brother he is glad to get away. In the absence of adult supervision the boys roam the countryside, smoking weed and getting drunk. The situation becomes increasingly serious as they run out of money and food. A solution to their problems involves a local drug dealer. Then things turn even worse.

The story is a little slight and I’m not sure what it all means in the end. The director seemed to, ultimately, celebrate their “freedom” but I couldn’t help feeling practical, adult concerns over the boys’ welfare. With no parents, no home and no education what could possibly go right? The film is warm, funny and gentle but also sporadically nasty. It captures the anarchic bent of teenage boys. Without any grown-ups around chaos, unsurprisingly, reigns. (As a result they live in squalor.)

As civilisation progresses steadily into the 21st century it is a sobering reminder that there are still many in the world quite willing to neglect, abuse or exploit those who are weaker and more helpless than themselves - namely kids.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love

***
Directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who brought us the uniquely funny I Love You Philip Morris give us something more conventionally-comedic here. That is not to say it’s not funny. What it lacks in innovation it makes up for in big belly laughs. And for that we must, essentially, thank its writer Dan Fogleman, who made his name scripting the likes of Bolt, Tangled and Cars for Disney and Pixar.

Crazy, Stupid, Love sees Cal (Steve Carrell) separating from his wife then forming odd couple with ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling) to learn how to be… surprise, surprise… a ladies’ man. The not-unattractive Gosling, donning a series of killer suits makes the slickly super-cool look effortless. Here he is every inch the movie star. Along with Drive and the Clooney-directed The Ides of March (also starring Gorgeous George) soon to hit our screens it looks like 2011 will be the year Gosling goes stratospheric. The perfect foil for Mr Smooth is Steve Carrell. While hilariously hapless, Carrell is capable of real tenderness when required. It’s a reminder of his genuine acting chops. There’s a wealth of talent on display: the esteemed likes of Marisa Tomei and Julianne Moore are in the film, as is the eternally-underrated Kevin Bacon. At the younger end of the spectrum, Emma Stone again proves herself eminently watchable and there are good roles for youngsters Analeigh Tipton and Jonah Bobo, each nursing painfully-unrequited crushes.

It does cheese out in the third act and, running at 118 minutes, it’s sad it didn’t end half an hour sooner, but it’s gleefully un-thought-provoking stuff. Guaranteed to put a smile on the most serious of faces.

Crazy, Stupid, Love Poster

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Warrior

****
It’s completely understandable if you have preconceived ideas about this film (in a not good way). But it’s best to put them aside. The poster, undeniably fetishising the bodies of the two leads, doesn’t exactly help. The mixed martial arts in this film is incidental. It is not a film about mixed martial arts. (Or rather, I should say, Ultimate Fighting Championship or UFC.) Instead it offers a very moving story of a family torn apart, with the conduit of that story being men fighting in cages.

Following active duty in Iraq, Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) returns to Pittsburgh to be reunited with his father (Nick Nolte), under whose reign of alcoholic abuse the family suffered. They form an uneasy alliance when Tommy recruits him as his trainer for an international UFC tournament. Older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a family man, high school teacher and also an ex-fighter. Money worries force him back into the cage and it’s only a matter of time before the two brothers meet – mano a mano.

Hardy’s tortured loner with his monosyllables and wounded animal persona certainly offers more danger and mystique than Edgerton’s Mr Straight but it is Edgerton who is the revelation. As well as impressing with the physical stuff, the guy can really act. That is not to say Tom “So-Hot-Right-Now” Hardy can’t. But, in their scenes together, he does get somewhat KO’d by veteran Nick Nolte. As the pained father offering too little too late, in Nolte we see the pinnacle of a lifetime spent in movies - he just gets better and better. I am being slightly unfair to Hardy, considering he has more acting ability in a single nostril than the likes of an entire Chuck Norris; whereas Hardy really brings it when it comes to the scraps.

Even if you have no interest in UFC the fight scenes are impressively raw and realistic. Director Gavin O’Connor strikes just the right balance between Hollywood gloss and indie grit to make the whole thing work – inside and outside the cage. It is a surprisingly thoughtful tale of a family, the abuse that family sustained and the resulting baggage; all set against an undeniably-thrilling mixed martial arts backdrop.


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Drive

****
Director Nicolas Winding Refn has created an instant cult classic. This film is unquestionably cool. For example, avoiding all driving clichés, the soundtrack features not a single guitar, instead opting for an electronica bubblegum audio backdrop which beautifully matches that oh-so-modern of cities in which it is set: Los Angeles.

A mysterious stranger in the shape of the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) offers his customers no guns, no muscle, just a means to get away. And all done with a four-stroke of genius. It’s basically cowboy mythology updated to a very dangerous present. He becomes inextricably involved with a young mum (Carey Mulligan). Her ex-con husband’s past is catching up with him and putting them and their son in danger, so the Driver offers his services to help them.

Gosling’s performance is slightly weird - it’s not exactly the manliest. But as soon as he gets in the driving seat he’s as Alpha as they come. Killer casting prevails. Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame) proves further acting mettle. Christina Hendricks (of Mad Men) makes her mark in a smaller role. Ron Perlman leaves his usual big-softyness for dust, playing a genuinely scary character. And going well against type, Albert Brooks plays someone who simply enjoys killing.

It’s a beautiful-looking film. It’s vibrantly colourful. It’s also remarkably violent. But this movie called Drive - about a stunt driver who also drives getaway cars - is slightly lacking in one aspect: the eponymous driving. The action mostly surrounds the noir/thriller aspect and not the stuff on four wheels. Although a little short-changed on this front, the initial car chase is perfection. Shot entirely from inside the getaway vehicle its tension and exhilaration easily rivals that Holiest of Grails of car chases, from Bullitt.


Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

***
Forget everything you've learnt. Being a spy is not sexy. Exhibit A Yer Honour, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The ironically-monikered George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is stuffy and middle-aged. (NB: this is in the days when being in your fifties looked like being in your seventies.) At one point he unceremoniously removes his Walther PPK - that’s James Bond’s gun - not from a sleek shoulder holster but from a shabby plastic wallet just as he might his sandwiches. This, incidentally, is a rare occasion when we actually see some hardware.

It’s the early seventies. The Cold War is positively glacial and Smiley is tracking down a double agent in British intelligence. The action flows at glacial speed too. There is little made of actual operations. They are momentary but incendiary. The onus is on finding the Soviet mole in the “Circus” (The Secret Intelligence Service).

The performances and attention to period detail is the main charm. The production design is stunning, and all things sartorial – even the most staid – offer some kind of allure. Weirdly, the film manages to be attractive while simultaneously showing up the crappiness of seventies Britain and its Empire in serious decay. Smiley is a laconic sort and, as a result, Oldman delivers a potent, internalised performance. He is backed by a strong British cast – from relative newcomers (Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberpatch) to stalwarts (Mark Strong, Ciarin Hinds, Tobey Jones) to an Oscar-winner (Colin Firth) to a living legend (John Hurt). Unsurprisingly, the acting’s not bad.

Smiley almost disappears within the large cast and fragmented story. Other than being King of the poker face we are given little indication of his strengths. It is not a character-driven story of Smiley but it’s neither a balls-to-the-wall spy flick. Instead, it occupies a vapid no-man’s land between the two. It is easy to be dazzled by such slick production value when the actual story is lifeless as this.

File:Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Poster.jpg


Monday, 12 September 2011

Winter’s Bone

**
Winter’s Bone has a lot to offer in terms of authenticity. Director Debra Granik’s film set in a methamphetamine-afflicted community in the Ozark Mountains drips with realism. It’s a shame it’s so dull. When the majority of a film’s cast is made up of dangerous rednecks high on crystal meth, it really should be more interesting than this.

17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has a messed-up mum and an absent father. This means she has to raise her two young siblings. Daddy is a meth chemist awaiting trial. He has put the house up as part of his bond and gone AWOL. If he doesn’t turn up to court they lose the house. To save the family home Ree searches for her father, meeting a number of people who are disturbing or disturbed.

Granik cites Ken Loach and Mike Leigh as influences. Visually she has more to offer than both of those directors. Then again that may be down to the tiniest hint of Americana being so much more cinematic than a lot of say, London. The attention to detail – in all things hillbilly – is impressive; the younger kids playing has a touch of Gummo about it, guns are casually loaded and left lying around like any household item, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a squirrel being skinned for dinner before. However, none of it says a huge deal other than, it sucks being this poor. And there is a lot of repetition – in terms of imagery and even plot.

Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence is good but, as with the film in general, overrated. The superb John Hawkes - who I’ll always think of as the awkward Richard in indie favourite, Me and You and Everyone We Know – here plays a twitching ball of drug psychosis, like Dennis Hopper on a bad day. Sadly the script he was given is weak. The dialogue is minimal and what there is of it carries little weight. Granik does have a good eye but if the characters are going to talk this little then the images need to say a lot more.



Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Inbetweeners Movie

**** 
When many sitcoms pack their bags in search of sunshine it not only feels unlikely but often removes everything that worked. The Inbetweeners Movie takes the boys away to sunny Malia in Greece but it all feels right. That’s exactly what four friends such as these might do; unlike a bunch of colleagues of wildy differing age and class (e.g. the staff of Grace Brothers heading off to Costa Plonka). The Inbetweeners TV series had thrown just about every kind of humiliation possible at Will, Simon, Jay and Neil. The movie had to turn things up to eleven. And where better place than a vile resort flowing with booze and bodily fluids, a place where Brits, like annoying wasps, are everywhere.

Having finished school, our four heroes travel away on a journey of discovery. Well… make that, in Jay’s words, “two weeks of sun, sea, booze, minge, fanny and sex”. Death in Venice this is not. As things go from bad to worse to great, we witness the behaviour of an uncivilised and Neanderthal species: Brits abroad. Not only are the supporting cast embarrassing, silly and unsophisticated, so are the protagonists. And amazingly, we still root for them. Perhaps it speaks to everyone’s inner idiot. Actually, the only ones resembling anything near sensible are the four girls they meet, which rubbishes any possible notions of sexism.

Cinematically, it doesn’t have that much to offer. It does have some semblance of story without just being a series of vignettes. Aside from a few helicopter shots, it doesn’t look a lot different from the TV show. But really, who cares? Spinal Tap is not exactly renowned for its camera work, nor is The Life of Brian. Am not saying it’s in those kinds of leagues, but my point being: comedies simply need jokes. And this is hilarious.

For Inbetweeners virgins, I wouldn’t exactly say avoid it but it’s probably advisable to know what you are letting yourself in for. (Check out the trailer on Youtube.) But if you like the show you have to go. Seeing it with a laughing mass of devotees is riotously good fun. Us fans helped smash the opening weekend record of a UK comedy (previously held by Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason). And unlike that movie, this one deserves every bit of its success.

 

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


*** 
How exactly a planet can rise I’m not sure. If you can get past the nonsensical title (that’s noticeably a bit of a mouthful) it’s easy to enjoy the film. Actually, there is something else to get past. The visual effects still have a way to come to make this kind of thing truly believable but you just have to roll with it. There is no way, though, that men in costumes could have done even half of the spectacular ape gymnastics. Anyway, to stop being a grumpy old spoilsport for just a minute, it’s good solid summer entertainment. It does what it says on the tin and more. It is strongly plot-led, and not just a series of action set-pieces with stuff written to simply link them together. It is also devotes much to character but with the main focus, uniquely, being on a primate.

Cesar the chimpanzee is orphaned in a research facility. He is of extraordinary heightened intelligence as his mother was dosed with an experimental Alzheimer’s drug. Dr James Franco takes him home and raises him with a little help from his father (the ever-reliable John Lithgow) who he is using as a guinea pig for the drug. What could possibly go wrong? In fact, I thought it had perfect sitcom potential…

Although there is much explaining to do, things don’t get bogged down in exposition. As a result, the action moves along swiftly. There’s some great inventiveness to the action which makes it a lot of fun. It isn’t just about blowing big things up (and it doesn’t feel like it was made by committee). The scenes in an ape “sanctuary”, which is anything but, are tense and engaging even though the things are just grunting at each other - albeit in a nuanced way by the likes of Andy “Gollum” Serkis.

Director Rupert Wyatt has made quite a leap from the humble but brilliant beginnings of 2008’s The Escapist. According to his agent, it is the largest increase in budget (proportionally) between films made by any director. With the increase being $90million I don’t doubt it. No pressure then for this his second feature. But Wyatt really brings it and has deservedly created one of the possible biggest hits of this summer.


Friday, 12 August 2011

NEDS


**** 
The title is an acronym for ‘Non-Educated Delinquents’. (But you wouldn’t dare call them that to their faces.) NEDS paints a terrifying picture of Glasgow in the seventies.

John McGill (Connor McCarron / Gregg Forrest) has been a promising student from a young age, but the society in which he lives is seemingly wrecking any hopes of a bright future. His big brother Benny (Joe Szula) has a reputation for violence and his dad (Peter Mullan) is a good example of how not to be a father or husband. His classes are so dysfunctional school actually aids his progress down the wrong path. It’s not long before John gets in with the wrong crowd.

Peter Mullan is a hell of a talent. Not only is he a powerful presence on screen but he’s also a very good director. Did I mention he can write, too? The script is outstanding. Instead of aiming for social realism he has achieved something more cinematic while still maintaining authenticity. It is tragic, funny, at times surreal, but most of all, it’s downright scary. It’s not just the knife-wielding thugs that are scary either. The teachers appear to have received their training in hell. It’s not the casual (and constant) corporal punishment that’s so unpleasant. Some of the mental cruelty is unfathomable.

Pretty much all of the younger cast members are novices but the director elicits great performances from all of them. It doesn’t hurt that they’re all local boys and girls, scouted by Mullan. I don’t doubt they all bring a bit of their own life experience to the roles.

If you watch the DVD, be sure to check out Peter Mullan’s London Film Festival master class - a cut above your usual extras. Mullan is wonderfully unpretentious. He’s funny, self-deprecating and tough - like the characters in his film, you’d know better than to mess with him. 


Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Tree of Life


*****
Factoid of the day: Terence Malick wrote an early draft of Dirty Harry. Who’d have thunk that? I can’t even picture him and Clint in the same room (although the scenario has endless comic potential.) There’s no one quite like Terence Malick and apparently no one knows anything about the man. Rumour has it he was raised by ghosts in the offices of Cahiers du Cinema. Some say he was born in a manger.

The Tree of Life sees Mr and Mrs O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raising their three sons in a suburban Texas home. There are flash forwards to older versions of the couple and Jack (Sean Penn) in later life, all dealing with an untimely death. In a nutshell: along the way we witness life, the universe and everything.

Yes, The Tree of Life comes from waaaay left-field. Yes, it’s genuine arthouse cinema. And yes, it’s quite long. But wait… come back. It’s amazing. It’s a heart-achingly beautiful piece of work. Even if you don’t get it it’s still great. In the same way I still don’t know what that damn obelisk was doing in 2001: A Space Odyssey I can happily love this film and be confused at the same time. You’ve got to keep an open mind here. Conversely, I expected to loathe it. Philistine that I am. But it knocked me sideways. In a good way. Every single moment is loaded with weight and meaning. The whole thing is also like some kind of experiment in audience reaction. (We witnessed quite a few walkouts.) Just expect the unexpected.

It’s an impressive roll call of talent. Pitt delivers an understated, pressure cooker performance as the not-wholly-likeable father. Chastain, on the other hand, can only be described as ethereal in her performance as a loving mother. The kids are all ridiculously good. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots like it’s the film he wishes to be remembered for (and it just might be). Living legend Douglas Trumbull wows us with some impressive effects, as does Prime Focus with the “controversial” dinosaur scenes. (Don’t listen to what you hear – said scenes are fantastic and puts the film into a whole new league.) However, the star of the show is Malick, who – more than ever – has got his serious groove on.

You must see it on a big screen. Having missed both The Thin Red Line and The New World at the cinema, as a result I found both something of a disappointment. (Please don’t hold it against me. I told you I was a Philistine.) But don’t make the same mistake and wait till its DVD release.

Super 8

****
Although Spielberg has the slightly less sexy credit title of Producer, his pervading influence makes it a Spielberg film in all but name. JJ Abrams takes writing and directing duties in this, his sci-fi homage to the great man.

The year is 1979 and a bunch of kids are making a zombie movie in their small town, in the titular Super 8 format. One of them is Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) who recently lost his mother in an accident at the local mill. One night when shooting a scene, they witness a spectacular train crash which triggers a dramatic chain of events. Synopsis-wise I don’t want to say much more.

I was completely bowled over by the human story. It is beautifully told. The film has heart and soul, and is embedded with old-fashioned movie magic – it gives me faith in the future of the blockbuster. Story and characterisation is clearly, as always, at the forefront of Abrams’ mind, not the wow factor or the ‘splosions. There are, of course, some pretty big ‘splosions but none of them would mean anything without the all-important human element. Star Trek was this reviewer’s favourite film of 2009. Am also a big fan of the job he did on ‘Mish’ 3. With Super 8 being JJ Abrams’ third directed feature it’s a hell of a track record.

As well as being a love letter to Spielberg it’s also a love letter to shooting films. These fictional youngsters are Spielbergs and Abrams in the making – dedicated fans of the medium who would do almost anything to get their movie made. They are also completely charming, and not in the slightest bit annoying (as so many screaming children in monster movies are). Newcomers Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths hold their own against young veterans of film and TV such as Elle Fanning and Ryan Lee.

Abrams has a knack for humour and manages to make it not feel tagged on. He actually pushes the action forward with very funny material. He is simply a damn fine writer who has honed his skills for years, segueing smoothly back and forth from TV to features. This brings to mind Columbo and a little known talent who once directed an episode back in ’71: one Steven Spielberg. 

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

On Tour

***
The rather brilliant Mathieu Amalric co-wrote and directed this story of a troupe of American burlesque performers on tour in France. Amalric himself plays the tour manager. Great news, because ever since seeing the powerhouse performance of his left eye in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I’m always keen to see it (and the rest of his body) perform.

His directing style is loose. Improvisation is king and by this route he achieves a fresh and realistic feel. While the burlesque artistes are professionals - for all of them - this is their first acting gig. He draws pretty powerful performances from some of them too.

Ex-TV producer Joachim Zand (Amalric) has a train wreck of a life. He returns to his home country from the USA, bringing with him a bevy of burlesque performers, drinking, laughing, and cavorting around the coast of France. His job is, effectively, herding cats. While attempting to start anew, by means of this tour, he faces a lifetime of baggage catching up with him. For example, there is an uncomfortable plot thread involving his two estranged sons.

The burlesque itself is very entertaining, albeit more comical (and often spectacle) than sexy. The likes of Mimi le Meaux and Dirty Martini deliver knowing, contemporary twists on an old-fashioned art form. The routines are shot from offstage and from the very backs of theatres (i.e. from the point of view of those on tour) and done so evocatively you can almost smell the nipple tassel glue.

Although the film brilliantly evokes the spirit of Cassavetes and the Nouvelle Vague I can’t help but think the plot is a little slight. I feel I never really understood Joachim. But being something of a wounded animal he does have his guard up a lot so maybe that is intentional. Saying all that, Amalric is a undeniable talent to keep an eye on. Or maybe even two.


Thursday, 21 July 2011

Another Year

****
I once stopped Mike Leigh on Great Marlborough Street in Soho. Ever the polite Englishman, I awkwardly gushed, “I’m really sorry to bother you but I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your films over the years.” He offered me his hand and said, “Well, it’s very nice to be bothered.” That remark sort of sums up Another Year – he makes all the bother seem enjoyable. Then again, you could say that of his entire back catalogue.

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a loving, and most notably, happy couple. The trouble is they’re surrounded by miserable people. Possibly more downbeat than Mike Leigh’s usual fare it is still very much a life-affirming story. The more Tom and Gerri give, the more they get. By which, I mean, they are richly rewarded with happiness.

Broadbent and Sheen are fantastic as the dream friends/ perfect Mum and Dad. There are so many good performances in this film but it’s frustrating – as with much of Leigh’s work - when some stray a little into parody. One of whom, was Lesley Manville. She received a lot of nominations but, personally, I found her a bit over the top. Notable mention to Martin Savage – although the role is small, he appears out of the blue like a heat-seeking missile. Having only otherwise seen him as the flouncy BBC writer who assists Ricky Gervais’s character in Extras, the intensity of his performance rendered him completely unrecognisable. (I had to look him up.)

By the way, the “A Film by Mike Leigh” credit is totally unnecessary. We’re well aware you’re an auteur, Mr Leigh. Actually, I believe the “A Film by” tag is always unnecessary. To be fair, he’s not the only culprit. (By a long shot.) For example, the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire was written by Simon Beaufoy, it was adapted from a novel by Vikas Swarup, yet was still touted as “A Film by Danny Boyle”. At least Another Year was written (and entirely so) by Leigh himself.

 

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

13 Assassins

****
Director Takashi Miike, he of insane shocks fame (see Audition and Ichi the Killer for examples) gives us something more conventional here - dare I say, old-fashioned. Doesn’t mean it’s not lacking in shocks. While not on an obvious horror bent, Miike has not softened in his approach. The body count is high and the blood flows freely. Some of the imagery is give-you-nightmares gory.

Said assassins’ target is unhinged psychopath Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), a feudal lord threatening to bring chaos to these ahem, peaceful times. The man is so evil, had the likes of Ghandi been in the audience even he (as we all were) would have been baying for the man’s blood. Ageing samurai, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) is hired to terminate his command with extreme prejudice and recruits a team of samurai badasses to do just that.

It’s an oft-seen emblem but one I’ll never tire of: a group of outnumbered men facing certain death for a noble cause. An obvious comparison is Seven Samurai but I like to think of it more as The Wild Bunch with swords. It’s also a witty script that maintains the samurai ethos and still speaks to philistines like me.

Except for a moment of unnecessary, and glaringly-obvious, CG animals, the film is very pure. Unlike the otherworldliness of Crouching Tiger and Hero, this is more grounded in reality. (It is based on a real event.) Doesn’t mean to say it isn’t a spectacle. It is. The climactic battle is relentless. Michael Bay sprang into my mind while watching (although I tried to fight it) namely, his destruction of Chicago in a recent little film based on a popular child’s toy. Actually, I’m proud to say I haven’t seen Transformers 3: The Search for Plot but I hear it similarly builds to a wild climax. That, I hope, is where the similarity ends. The slow pace of the build-up makes this climax so much more satisfying. (Although, the samurai recruiting scenes are very cool in their own quiet way.) The ultimate battle is structured beautifully. Each different fight is unique and leaves you screaming for more cinema like this.


American Heart (1992)

****
More from The Dude Abides season at the NFT demonstrating not just Jeff Bridges’ ability to pick roles but to champion interesting projects. (He also produced the film.)

Martin Bell has only ever directed one feature work of fiction and, impressively, this is it. Inspired by his documentary Streetwise, American Heart takes a close look at those inhabiting the seamier edges of Seattle society. It's gritty and often unpleasant albeit sharply observed and dryly funny. The film is populated by street kids, pimps and prostitutes but it is a powerful father/son story that is the focus.

Jack Kelson (Bridges) has just got out of jail and wants to put the life of crime behind him. His estranged son Nick (Edward Furlong) shows up wishing to share this new start. Initially Jack resists but they get a room together in a cheap hotel and their bonds develop. He gets a job as a window washer and, unsurprisingly, the straight life proves to be tough. The ensuing fallout tests their already-fragile relationship.

Muscular and long-haired, Jeff Bridges looks and feels every bit the hard-drinking, tough guy, former thief. Edward Furlong – here just a year after Terminator 2 – proved again he had an absurd talent for such a young man. He achieves a balance of toughness and vulnerability in a very moving performance.

I’d never heard of this film, which admittedly, made it an even better watch. It’s a rare treat these days, for so many of us, to go in un-primed for a film. Even films premiering at festivals will have some kind of buzz – good or bad - surrounding them. But creeping in under the radar with little fuss this is indicative of Bridges moniker (till recent Oscar glory) as Least Appreciated Actor in Hollywood.


Sunday, 10 July 2011

Cutter’s Way (1981)

**** 
I hate this cliché but what the hell... they don't make 'em like this any more. If they're not big enough words for you, then here’s another sweeping statement: Alex Cutter is one of the greatest characters ever committed to celluloid.

I saw this as part of the Jeff Bridges retrospective at the NFT, The Dude Abides but it's John Heard as the eponymous Cutter who steals the film. The role would have been a gift to any actor. Thank heaven it wasn’t wasted on Heard. The one-eyed, double amputee 'Nam veteran staggers around on his stick, raging against the world and everyone in it. The yin to his yang is Richard Bone (Bridges). Bone is a handsome, stylish ladies’ man while the eye-patched Cutter is a shambolic drunk and, in his own words, “a cripple”. Bone is charming whereas Cutter enjoys being rude. Bone is diplomatic and Cutter is consistently inappropriate.

One rainy night in Santa Barbara, Bone witnesses a murder and suspects it is a local wealthy businessman. Cutter insists they bring him to justice and pursues the opportunity with Ahab-like zeal.

Bridges holds his own in the less flashy role. He should be commended for not being acted off screen by such a lunatic performance. Similarly, think Cruise in Rain Man or Wahlberg in The Fighter both lending overlooked support, respectively, to the oscar-winning Hoffman and Bale. No such acknowledgements for Cutter’s Way, however. Its release was botched by United Artists and was ultimately bulldozed at the box office by the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Arthur, and that other eye-patch flick, Escape from New York. While I have no problem with any of these films, it is indicative of an ending of a golden age of cinema. Cutter’s Way is a seventies hangover with that decade’s depth and sense of purpose. Suffice to say, it was widely shunned by eighties audiences.

NB: It is readily available on DVD and an essential part of any film enthusiast’s collection.



Saturday, 9 July 2011

Henry’s Crime

**
It looked good on paper: a gently comedic caper led by a likeable cast and headed by a talented director. The film is well-intentioned but let down by a duff script. There are moments nearing sweet, tender, and poignant but they don’t quite reach. Again, it’s nearly-but-not-quite funny. The characterisation is paper-thin and clichés abound. It has only just come to my attention that it was written by Sacha Gervaisi, who scripted The Terminal. I notice they didn’t put that on the DVD.

Henry (Keanu Reeves) unwittingly becomes part of a bungled bank job and goes to jail. On his release he plans to rob the same bank with his cellmate (James Caan) - his logic being he has already served the time for the crime. To do this, and without giving too much away, he needs to perform in The Cherry Orchard in a theatre nearby alongside his girlfriend Julie (Vera Farmiga).

Although I know a lot of people do, I don’t have a problem with Keanu. From Ted Logan to Jack Traven to Neo, I’ve always liked him on screen (NB: when the casting has been right). Here it’s not so right and he flounders in the role. Caan and Farmiga do the best they can with the material.

We can’t blame everything on the script. Director Malcolm Venville should have done something better with it. It is his job to make the script, just as with every other component part of the film, work. Some things that occur are so hokey it’s embarrassing. For example, the theatre company run rehearsals with the entire cast in full costume weeks before opening night. In cinematic terms, the heist doesn’t quite work. And that’s without being too nerdy about it. There are some glaring logistical errors I can’t imagine anyone will miss. Venville bathes the film in heavy grades of blues and green. This is fine for a car advert but here it does nothing but detract from the intentionally-glum locale of Buffalo, NY.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Four Lions

****
It's no surprise that the dream team of Chris Morris and Peepshow writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong has produced a very funny script. Of course, the film is in no way offensive to anyone except perhaps those defending the rights of morons. (I'd say Four Lions is not really about Islam. It's about getting things wrong.) The staggering levels of stupidity are just priceless but more of that later. Still, it takes balls that clang to make jokes regarding a notoriously humourless religion like Islam. As far as I am aware there is no Fatwa issued on Morris. Phew.

Four Lions follows the misadventures of a small group of fanatical moslems hellbent on blowing something up. The initial plan, hilariously, is to bomb a mosque "to radicalise the moderates". They settle for detonating themselves on the London marathon thus ensuring their place in paradise. It's a kind of Suicide Bombing for Dummies except the dummies are the suicide bombers. Just when you think they can't do anything more retarded they do. It's a lovely dynamic, the way the group follows the "knowledgeable" ones - Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Barry (Nigel Lindsay) - with unquestioning, wide-eyed enthusiasm. It's a similar tradition to the local defence force putting their trust in Captain Manwairing or Harry Dunne hanging on Lloyd Christmas' every word. The performances here, portraying the dumb and indeed, the dumber are just wonderful.

It is evident the writers really know their subject matter. The DVD extras include a pair of darkly disturbing documentaries involving British moslems and the difficulties they face. I don't doubt the research involved was exhaustive because it shows. Morris et al certainly know their Koran. Some of the jokes cleverly reference Islam, some are just brilliantly silly. There is much hilarity gained from the characters incomprehension of why exactly they're doing what they're doing ("I think I'm confused but I'm not sure"). 

Morris' directs the action capably in this his debut feature. He often lets the scene go on a little longer than the perceived wisdom might suggest it should. It makes us, the viewer squirm a little and brings to mind his work on the fantastically bizarre TV show, Jam.




Friday, 1 July 2011

Potiche

****
Potiche is a word for “decorative vase” but also a term for “trophy wife” and Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is just that. When her husband is taken hostage by the workers at his umbrella factory she takes over and is given a chance to unlock her potential. The year is 1977 and womankind still has a lot to prove, especially in this provincial French setting. Amidst the rampant sexism she goes from strength to strength in this feelgood French flick. Fabrice Luchini gives good sleaze as her husband and Gerard Depardieu plays the local mayor who has some nice chemistry with Deneuve.

The film’s seventies theme offers a camp charm. It’s not a particularly subtle comedy (it has all the hallmarks of a play and was adapted from one) but the key players do not descend into farcical performances. Deneuve in particular gives a quietly effective performance. While her unfabled beauty may have diminished, her acting has only got better.

Alongside the main equal rights issue, Potiche gives us a look at a politically-divided 1970s France. This aids the film’s jocular nature, supplying us with some fun - let’s face it – stereotypes and director Francois Ozon gets away with it because it’s a period piece. Nothing offensive occurs, mind. It is sweet and un-cynical but at the same time has an important (and still relevant) message. Sometimes it takes a story from more prejudiced times to throw a spotlight onto the same problems occurring today. But first and foremost it’s a real giggle and I’d recommend this to anyone old enough to read the subtitles.





Friday, 17 June 2011

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

**** 
Gena Rowlands breaks my heart in this. It’s a warts and all portrait of Mabel Longhetti (Rowlands) whose mental illness is impacting on her loving husband Nick (Peter Falk) and their three children.

I’m of the opinion that we all sit somewhere along a sliding scale of mental illness. To put it very simply, some of us are able to get by and some of us need a little help. Mabel walks a fine line between the two. Her behaviour gets more and more eccentric to the point where it is impossible for them to live as a ‘normal’ family. (One of the questions raised is, what the hell is ‘normal’?) She is a loving wife and a wonderful mother. The hard thing is that what she brings to these roles (e.g. being fun and entertaining) is inextricably a part of her illness. In one scene she desperately tries not to behave like a crazy person to prevent herself from being committed. The act she puts on isn’t remotely like her, and it’s painful to watch. 

As with so many actor/directors John Cassavetes really knew how to extract performances from his cast. The acting here is ridiculously good. You have to pay attention because there are so many magic moments that are easily missed. It’s likely these are unplanned improvisations with no plans for big close-ups. The camera just roams around. If you flicked channels and came in halfway through you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was a documentary. This is cinema verité proper. The style is raw.

Self-funded by Cassavetes (by means of his acting work in mainstream fare such as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby), he never had anyone threatening his film with scissors. Consequentially, and I hate to admit it, at 155 minutes it is unnecessarily long.  

I should add, Cassavetes is not scared to show the comical side of her condition. There are many very funny moments - all of them involving Mabel's bizarre behaviour. She has some amazing idiosyncrasies and as the camera revolves around her, we - almost as another member of the cast - are encouraged to laugh along with her. Never at her. 

Rumble Fish (1983)

****
It’s an odd film. I can’t really think of anything quite like it and hey, that is never a bad thing. I first saw this as part of director, Alex Cox’s Moviedrome season on BBC2. It was in a double bill with its companion piece from that same year, The Outsiders - also from an SE Hinton book. While The Outsiders is rich in colour and, conversely, realistic in its feel, Rumble Fish is steely black and white and overtly stylised. It’s a superb double, by the way (probably best with The Outsiders first) most obviously due to the street gang subject matter but it’s also a real Venn diagram of talent involved: Hinton, Coppola, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Tom Waits.

It is set in a not-too-distant urban future. We are told “the gangs aren’t around” any longer although the threat of violence is still very much in the air. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is a young buck always looking for a drink/fight/screw (in no particular) order and is the younger brother of legendary renegade, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). Rusty James is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Big brother got the brains and is also quite the philosopher. Motorcycle Boy is colour blind and experiences intermittent deafness. He lives in a bubble but, contradictorily, experiences “acute perception” of the world. Dennis Hopper is perfect as their boozehound father.

It’s all cloaked in hallucinatory weirdness. Stewart Copeland’s debut score provides a perfect, otherworldly tone. First The Police, then this, then The Equalizer theme tune… is there no limit to this man’s talent? The soundtrack is pretty much wall-to-wall sound – something I’m not usually fond of but here, God bless you Mr Coppola, it works a treat.

You might be interested to know that this formed part of the inspiration – in terms of shooting gangs – for Joe Cornish when making Attack the Block. It’s very apparent when you watch Rumble Fish. Said shots of the gangs strutting their stuff are insanely cool and very beautiful.

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