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November 22, 2015

Badlands (1973)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates

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Synopsis: In 50s South Dakota, a teenage girl, Holly (Sissy Spacek) starts seeing an older drifter, Kit (Martin Sheen), and when Kits kills Holly’s father, they embark on a flight to Montana as fugitives….

Review: Terrence Malick may have gone on to direct more transcendent and grandiose works, but his first film, Badlands, might well be the most purely perfect picture he ever made. In fact, it’s one of the most perfect films I’ve seen, period; a masterly exercise in ironic narration, of a director so wholly in command of the rhetoric of his medium, of a narrative melded so mesmerically into the dreamy inner-lives of its lead protagonists and the stark ‘badlands’ landscape of South Dakota and Montana.

It’s a contender for the best-ever use of voiceover in cinema. And this from a director who was to go on to use voiceover in so many other clever and emotional ways; from the myriad perspectives of the anti-war ballad, The Thin Red Line, to the operatic ode to the colonisation of the American continent in The New World. Sissy Spacek’s dreamy, langorious perspective decontextualises and ironises the dark, murderous content of the film so well, and even Martin Sheen’s unconstructed drifter, proves such a bizarre, feckless conduit through this most unusual of ‘Babes in the Wood’ serial killer films.

Even Malick’s musical choices are spot on. From the strange, fairytale intonations of the George Tipton and James Taylor score, to dreamy Nat King Cole séances under the immense open skies of the Great Plains – they are ingenious musical choices to an ingenious film. (November 2015)

A Christmas Carol (2001)

November 22, 2015

A Christmas Carol (2001)
Director: Jimmy T. Murakami
Actors: Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicolas Cage

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Synopsis: Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly, uncharitable man, has his conscience pricked on Christmas Eve night.

Review: This strange hotch-potch of an animation falls between all stools – failing to honour the seasonal elements to this most famous of Christmas fables, while also not really succeeding in its attempts to offer a more original interpretation of its familiar subject matter.

Though the background animation canvases are actually quite impressionistic and painterly (London looks suitably wintry, dingy and Victorian), the 2D character sketches and the way action ‘moves’, are both extremely mediocre. This extends to the film’s conception of its main character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Although the filmmakers have tried to do something different by making him a middle-aged rather than older man, and in giving him Simon Callow’s very rich, deep and expressionistic voice, it simply doesn’t work – for Scrooge to be miserly and unsympathetic, he needs to be aged, sinewy, and thin of voice. Perhaps the film’s biggest crime is the inclusion of two mice who randomly follow much of the action around in Scrooge’s office then on his various night-time ‘flights’. Presumably included to appeal to children, the simple problem is they have no discernible dramatic purpose, and they are not even anthropomorphised, meaning they squeak around a lot…and that’s about it!

On the plus side, the idiosyncratic animation did work for Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present (a pleasingly surreal sequence), and I applaud the attempt to colour in more of the Victorian context on inequality and the plight of the poor in the opening act of the film. That aside, the film doesn’t really capture that seasonal, emotional edge which will appeal to viewers, and I’ve never seen an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that extracts such a small air of euphoria and catharsis at Scrooge’s ‘second chance’, as this film does. (November 2015)

A Christmas Carol

November 14, 2015

A Christmas Carol (2009)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Actors: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth

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Synopsis: Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), a miserable curmudgeon, has his conscience pricked by ghostly visitations on the night of Christmas Eve.

Review: If you’ve seen Robert Zemeckis’ ‘landmark’ motion capture, The Polar Express, then this is the “A Christmas Carol” version of that – undeniably spectacular, and at the very least, ‘interesting’, with its various technical features, but also extremely schmaltzy, unoriginal and Hollywoodised.

My first issue with this computerised version of A Christmas Carol is that it automatically loses something in becoming very homogenised (and, dare I say it, ‘Americanised’.) The power of the story is in its very Victorian canvas of morality, poverty and charity, and though these themes are to some extent timeless and universal – hence the story’s never-ending relevance – distorting the story into a sanitised, Disneyesque vision, reduces its power and end-effect. For one thing, I find Alan Silvestri’s musical score far too familiar from other mainstream kids’ stories, and was it me or did some of the children almost speak in a quasi-American accent?!

Also, as with my other laments against the increasing obsession with ‘reality’ in animated movies, I find that motion capture technology almost adds a certain woodenness and unreality to proceedings (there’s a slow, distancing affect to the action, characterisations and strange computerised pans.) Motion capture also begs the question – if the filmmakers are so obsessed with reality, why not simply create a live-action version of the story? Otherwise, be bold and envision a true, immersive, imaginary world rather than unintentionally drawing the viewer’s attention to the limitations of the technological canvas.

The only real ‘success’ of Zemeckis’ vision is that there are some truly spectacular ride sequences, where Scrooge is escorted on his three ‘flights’ by the various Ghosts who visit him. As an interesting sidenote, for a film that is otherwise so ‘wholesome’ and family-oriented, was it me, or were some of Scrooge’s interactions with the apparitions of Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, surprisingly dark, especially when Scrooge is cast into the open grave of his future destiny? It would be interesting to know what the evidently courted younger viewers felt about those scary séances…(November 2015)

The Mission

November 14, 2015

The Mission (1986)
Director: Roland Joffé
Actors: Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro, Ray McAnally

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Review: Jesuit Father, Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), takes over a perilous mission in the jungles above Iguazu Falls, and slowly wins the favour of the native tribes there despite the nefarious input of colonialists – including the mercenary, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). After Mendoza slays his brother in a bout of jealousy, he descends into a deep bout of penitence, and decides to join Gabriel’s mission. When the ruling Spanish and Portugese plan to close the mission, Gabriel and Mendoza are left with stark decisions as to whether to abandon their work with the natives, or rebel against the colonialists.

Synopsis: The Mission is classic exemplar of the poverty of cerebral Anglo-American ‘arthouse’ cinema in the Eighties – after the end of the fabled New Hollywood movement of the preceding decade. The fact that this even won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes only attests to the mediocrity that must have been on offer around this time.

Of course, the telling of the politics of a Jesuit mission deep in the South American jungle in the 1750s offers the filmmakers ample opportunity to produce a marvellous canvas of gorgeous photography and period detail (and they don’t disappoint in that regard), but the films’ storytelling and direction is irredeemably crass. The pacing is all wrong; within the opening twenty-five minutes, De Niro’s brutal colonialist has had his character-defining ‘tragedy’, and each of the characters are so clearly ciphers – mere pawns in the filmmakers’ transparent storytelling construct. Beyond the ‘open goal’ of an evocative setting, even the direction is clumsy – am I the only one to notice some very ropey pans and cuts? Also, the film is exposé of a time when Western cinema was still struggling to film stories of indigenous peoples in modes other than unintentionally stereotypical and condescending. The Mission, though empathetic in content, is ethnographically very incurious about its native tribespeople, and this is the final nail in the coffin of its mediocre end-result. (November 2015)

Cemetery Junction

November 8, 2015

Cemetery Junction (2010)
Directors: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant
Actors: Christopher Cooke, Tom Hughes, Ralph Fiennes

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Synopsis: In the mid-1970s, three young men in ‘Cemetery Junction’, an unexceptional district of Reading, dream of a life outside its mediocre boundaries….

Review: For Ricky Gervais’ second feature film as director (in fact, this is co-directed with regular sparring partner, Stephen Merchant), he falls foul of almost all the pitfalls which made his debut effort, The Invention of Lying, an uncomfortable compromise between the evident comic talents that brought him to the forefront in the first place, and the moneyed, commercial apparatus that his popularity has invited.

In a sense, the only clue we get that Gervais has authored this film are the irreverent one-liners and some witty sketch-show skits – invariably featuring Gervais’ nonchalantly portrayed working-class father. That aside, Gervais and Merchant as directors seem trapped in conceiving of their medium in the most bland and hackneyed of ways. There’s the absolutely prototype three-act structure that’s so telegraphed you can see each plot development coming a mile off. The characterisation is so prescribed that it adversely prevents the viewer from empathising with any of the three boys, and the nostalgia theme and soundtrack is so familiar and ‘received’ from other feelgood period movies that it completely swamps anything even remotely profound that Gervais might be trying to say about a sentimental notion of his ‘goldfish bowl’ adolescence in Reading in the Seventies. This film’s ‘coming of age’ theme and critique/satire of regional English mores in a bygone era was done infinitely better in Lone Scherfig’s An Education of a year previous. (November 2015)

The Blair Witch Project

October 31, 2015

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
Actors: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard

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Synopsis: Three filmmakers head into the woods near Burkitsville, Maryland to shoot a documentary about the fabled ‘Blair Witch’….

Review: One of my few concessions to Halloween is to ramp up my horror movie watching in the days before October 31st, and the chance to watch one of the most fabled spookers of all time (and originator of the ‘Found Footage’ subgenre) proved too good to pass up.

So, with over fifteen years perspective, just how good is The Blair Witch Project away from the sheer hype it generated on its release? It’s become fashionable to scoff at the film in recent years, but in my opinion it stands the test of time. Its ‘found footage’ gimmick still hooks despite the conceit being flogged to death by subsequent copycat filmmakers, and other, less obvious elements conspire to make it a deceptively rich film. First, it’s a very ambitious and cine-literate work by directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick. They understand the lure of legend and storytelling to the horror genre, and they cleverly choose to wrap the film up in various Russian Doll layers: there’s the general ‘Blair Witch’ myth, then the documentary filmmakers shooting a pilot treatment about the cult of that story, then there’s what actually happens to the filmmakers as ‘strange things’ start occurring in the woods, before the final layer of reception – that we’re being told this is ‘found footage’, so we know from the outset that the filmmakers didn’t survive.

Added to that meta-referential literacy, Sánchez and Myrick get great mileage out of their cinematography and setting. Forboding woods shot in their late-autumnal glory (i.e. at Halloween time) is a great horror movie ‘look’, and the cris-crossing between the two cameras (one black and white, the other colour) adds to tension as perspective and ‘players’ change throughout the action. To nitpick, the only marginal misstep is according too much time to the second act (the filmmakers slowly unravelling in the woods), leaving little time for the exploring of the myth at the beginning, and the sinister playing out of the legend at the end. That aside, The Blair Witch Project stands the test of time as an exemplary horror film in its own right, as well as in its more fêted guise as a memorable pop cultural reference point. (October 2015)


October 28, 2015

Spectre (2015)
Director: Sam Mendes
Actors: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz

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Synopsis: James Bond (Daniel Craig) continues following a trail of assassins which leads all the way to Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) – a man with some relevance to Bond’s own backstory, and who goes on to assume a more familiar villainous alias…

Review: Back in 1962, in the opening entrant to the Bond film series, the criminal organisation of Spectre was outed aptly by the clipped diction of the macabre Doctor No as “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion.” Over fifty years on, and having just sat through over two hours of the series’ increasingly transparent three-yearly exercise in blandly aspirational, deluxe brand management par excellence – I’m inclined to reimagine Spectre as acronym for the mediocre input of regular executive hands on the film (producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, director Sam Mendes, and writers John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) as: Special Executors of Clichéd, Tired, Rote ‘Entertainment’.

My first issue with Spectre is that…yawn…it’s still hammering away at this sentimental, ‘origin’, Bond as “damaged goods” thesis, which totally misunderstands the key sentiment and lure of Bond the character, as well as betraying the redundancy of originality in the creative minds of the Bond filmmakers themselves. As Hollywood has proved in the last decade or so with its increasing homogenisation around franchises, superheroes, and ready-made texts and fables, ‘origin’ is the go-to tactic when you can’t be bothered to write something creative, and you’re content to trot out the mediocre parlour game of reminding us how the hero/villain came to be who they are etc. A classic case in point is Spider-Man; it’s only been twelve years since Tobey Maguire first incarnated the role cinematically, but not only have there been two further actors playing the role in that time (Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland), but in both cases, they’ve been part of a whole reboot and reloading of the Spider-Man origin myth. How cynical is that!

That’s why I find Sam Mendes’ role in the turgidity of the last two Bond films particularly culpable. At least with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, although they are an ‘origin saga’, it was the first such reboot in nearly fifty years of Bond films, and it was to some extent a necessary recalibration from the sheer flatulence of Pierce Brosnan’s woeful Blair-era incarnation of Bond. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were also concentrically brutal, brilliantly-realised spy tales in their own right. With Skyfall though, it just feels like Mendes took the easy option, offering up an exercise in lazy storytelling at its worst, plundering the whole franchise, trying to “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” us with his camp revision of the histories of M, Q and Moneypenny, while also turning Bond into a sentimental Bruce Wayne-style figure with the ridiculously silly ending – “Welcome to Scotland”, and having the villains devolve from their sinister geopolitical aims, to being petulant, spiteful brats, seeking personal vengeance on Bond due to some inelegant, biographical conceit (in Skyfall, Silva is jealous of Bond being M’s favourite, and in Spectre, Oberhauser revised his name and killed his father who had been Bond’s ward in the wake of Bond’s boyhood orphaning). You only need to look at Mendes’ cinematic back-catalogue to know how meek, mainstream and theatrically unnuanced his films are (I assure you, if you re-watch American Beauty, you’ll be staggered at how unsubtle a work it is).

Spectre itself is boringly told – nothing more than a conveyor belt of action sequences cynically marking out the Bond ‘formula’. I’ve never seen a film set in Mexico City, London, Rome, Austria and Morocco as incurious about the visual and ethnographic potential of those places as Spectre is, but then again I shouldn’t be surprised, since James Bond has gone from a moderately paid civil servant who went under the radar but had a penchant for fine things, to today’s wet dream of a GQ colossus with his blandly aspirational lifestyle of an earnest gym-honed six pack, designer Tom Ford suits, an Aston Martin DB10, a Rolex watch, and he’s more in touch with his emotions as he stoically chokes back tears about Mummy, Daddy, Vesper and M. (Connery’s Bond would hate all this!)

Even the casting in Spectre is all wrong. How can they turn the Léa Seydoux of Blue is the Warmest Colour genius into one of the most uncomfortable looking Bond women of all time, and Christoph Waltz is completely incorrect casting as the key criminal kingpin to the whole Daniel Craig-run. I think it was one of those decisions made by a cosseted American suit, whose stereotypical idea of European debonairness was inspired by Waltz’s colourful turns in recent Quentin Tarantino films. The irony being that Waltz is actually a very warm, genial and relaxed performer, and the most sinister villains should be the most cipher-like, the most faceless – hence the genius casting and brilliant understated performance of Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.

There’s a reasonable likelihood now that Craig and Mendes’ time is done at the end of Spectre, and they’ve left the next Bond storytellers with the cinematic equivalent of a rugby ‘hospital pass’. Because those next writers, directors and actors are going to have to kick on with the business of actually telling a Bond narrative without any of the gimmicks of ‘origin’, sentimentality and false pathos. But as I identified recently in a scene that represents the best of Bond (his killing of Professor Dent in the first film, Doctor No), there’s a brilliant, laconic, ruthless spy in there, and his interactions with a taut, threatening world are still waiting to be told. ( ). (October 2015)


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