Thursday, 31 December 2015

My Top Ten Movies of 2015

10: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Truth be told, this may only be in my top ten due to affection and nostalgia. I'm still waiting for J.J. Abrams to direct a film that is truly brilliant in its own right rather than efficiently riffing on his adoration for the movie adventures of his, and my, childhood. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfectly decent caper but one which feels so much more because of the weight of cultural significance that we have invested into this world... and the sense of sheer relief that it's NOT another Phantom Menace. I've always maintained a sneaking admiration for what George was trying to achieve with those prequels: Something operatic, politically rich and mythically grandiose, an ambition mostly undone by his tin ear for dialog, leadenly delivered by poorly directed actors at a loss to find their feet in his CGI imaginarium. This new Star Wars has, so far, less of that epic sweep and scope, and many of its delights are recycled from the originals. But crucially what is does have, in spades, is FUN. Sprightly, seemingly effortless wit and action, delivered by real people, often in real locations, actually interacting with a real environment around them. It's hard to overstate just what a welcome feeling that is. A tribute act compared to the original it may be, but those are still some fine tunes.

9: Sicario.

A phenomenally tense thriller centring around a shady US drug enforcement task force attempting to take out a Mexican cartel, Sicario tackles familiar and often clichéd narrative territory with fresh verve and complex amorality. Featuring a clutch of superb, understated performances (with the marvellous Emily Blunt front and centre) from a principle cast essaying assorted FBI, CIA, special forces and other individuals with even murkier pasts. Many with shifting, hard-to-read agendas. Features possibly the finest stationary car chase in cinema.

8: The Tale Of Princess Kaguya.

With the future of Studio Ghibli in doubt, it's been a particularly painful two year wait for this, possibly their last masterpiece, to make it to these shores. But if it is to be the end, what an end. The very definition of a true fairy tale, this is a slight and gentle story, animated with the most delicate of brush strokes. Pastel watercolour beauty bleeding to white at the edges of the screen as if lifted straight from some museum preserved manuscript of a forgotten time and place. The running time and gentle pace may try the patience of some. But tune out the world and you can lose yourself in its beauty and wish never to return.

7: Bridge Of Spies.

Spielberg, Hanks, The Coen Brothers, a true story (mostly). You know you are in safe hands. Bridge Of Spies is no great revelation, rather it's exactly as expertly crafted as you would expect. It is however, rather wittier than you might imagine. And the brilliantly authored inertness of Mark Rylance's potential agent playing against Hanks' fast-talking, yet noble lawyer (remember those?) is an absolute joy to behold.

6: The Martian.

Ridley Scott's best film in some years. Exciting, funny, and shot through with old-fashioned heroic stoicism as Matt Damon's astronaut is marooned alone on Mars and has to survive on his smarts and his wisecracking soliloquisms. Shot through with a rare uncynical "Yay For Science!" motif. It's as if Castaway had been directed by Carl Sagan. Which is a good thing.

5: The Diary Of A Teenage Girl.

This bravura coming of age tale follows the travails a fifteen year old girl in 1970s San Francisco as she embarks on a sexual relationship with her mother's boyfriend and a heap of other complex, broken family and growing up issues. Bold and honest filmmaking that is nothing like as harsh to watch as you might imagine because it is also empowering, delightful and laugh-out-loud funny, and is visually as full of brio and invention as its creatively imaginative lead character. A refreshing delight.

4: Song Of The Sea.

Tomm Moore's second animated feature (following The Secret Of The Kells) is a beautiful, sweet and heartbreaking piece of Irish folklore fantasy that manages to dig deep into rich and whimsical mythology, while absolutely grounding its emotions in the story of a young girl dealing with real and tragic family drama (rather like Pan's Labyrinth... but with less torture). On top of this, the animation is a gobsmacking mixed-media masterpiece, as if Michel Ocelot, Hayao Miyazaki and Sylvain Chomet had all collaborated on the one movie.

3: Mad Max: Fury Road.

The most full-on, knock you flat, non-stop, crunching, brutal, old-school action movie of the year. Mad Max's first outing in three decades retains all the strange, colourful, insane elements that made the originals so iconic, and (unlike Star Wars) it doesn't feel like it's trying to simply live up to past glories. This one kicks the previous movies (not to mention the whole Fast and Furious franchise) in the face and drags them kicking and screaming though the post-apocalyptic waste in its dust storm wake. Director and creator George Miller is now 70. No, really. No-one else can quite believe it either.

2: Ex Machina.

Alex Garland, long-time writer / collaborator on many of Danny Boyle's movies, graduates magnificently with his directorial debut. A chilling, twisting sci-fi chamber piece set in clinical Kubrickian isolation. Four actors. One house. Humans and machines testing and deceiving each other. Morally murky, powerfully intense and superbly performed.

1: Whiplash.

It may be no more an accurate depiction of life in a prestigious music college than Black Swan was an honest tale of studying in an elite dance academy. What Whiplash is, is a fun, triumphant, indie-spirited maniacal howl of a movie. A study of artistic obsession, abuse of power and the drive to succeed against all odds. It boasts a riotously funny script, genuine heart, freewheeling performances (actorly and musical), and in J. K. Simmons' band leader, a thermonuclear full-leather-jacket onslaught of verbal abuse that is hilarious and terrifying in equal measure(s). Quite my tempo.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Rick Baker Retires. World Explodes.

The great make-up and practical special effects genius Rick Baker has announced his retirement at 64. It's just retirement, well deserved with an astounding body of work that he can look proudly back on. So why then do I feel like I'm writing an obituary?

Rick has bowed out surprisingly early for a creative master, selling off many of his prized collection of original props, with a handful of bitingly rueful comments about what it is like for a singular artist working in theCGI dominated effects industry today. "I like to do things right, and they wanted cheap and fast". He was one of the last of a dwindling group of in-camera make-up effects legends, Dick Smith, Rob Bottin, Chris Walas and Stan Winston among them, who have either died, retired, or been relegated to minor advisory roles in the face of a wave of world-obliterating digital mayhem that now swamps almost every big summer movie production. There was a time, in movies from the 1970s and '80s, when I could often recognise immediately the stamp of an individual artist responsible for an effect, such was their unique personality. I knew in an instant a Matthew Yuricich painting, or a Phil Tippet mechanical creation, or the blue-screen model work of John Dykstra. Like a great film composer or cinematographer these artists imprinted their character as well as pouring unparalleled skills into their work and so materially contributed to the unique look, feel and personality of the films they enhanced.

CGI today can indeed show us pretty much anything you care to imagine in pristine photorealistic perfect detail. Used well I acknowledge it is indeed a fine craft and I do not seek to belittle those that have mastered it and continue to push back the boundaries of what can be achieved. But from a studio perspective it is far too often now a mere marketing tool; a soulless, tiresome splurge of wave after wave of destruction, devoid of character and curiously lacking in substance in spite of its vast overwhelming scale. One by one we have lost from film-making a precious few unique and gifted individuals, replaced by squadrons of anonymous CGI work-houses. It is as if, in some parallel reality, Enrico Caruso announced his retirement because One Direction and a bank of Autotune plug-ins could do the same job with half the fuss. So I feel indeed it is kind of RIP. Not to Rick himself thank goodness, but sadly to much of what he represented.

I guess this guy just heard too...


Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Boxtrolls (2014)

A lovely grimy, grungy, stop-motion Grimms' Fairy Tale sort of a movie, with a surprising amount to say about greed, class, privilege and corruption, and clueless toffee-noised oiks at the top of the chain munching on brie and fucking the poor (not literally). In a kids movie. Had this been released a week or two earlier in the UK, the Scottish independence vote might have gone quite differently.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Dick Smith: RIP

The legend that is Dick Smith: makeup FX artist has died. One of the truly great visual artists in cinema history. You'll probably have noticed his work most overtly when he transformed rosy-cheeked thirteen-year-old Linda Blair into the devil him/her/itself in The Exorcist. However, I would point you also to his Oscar winning work turning F. Murray Abraham into the decrepit, elderly Salieri for Amadeus. A feat of makeup ageing that still, thirty years on, no CGI has yet to equal.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Not so much a movie, as an exquisite, miraculous mechanical automaton from a delicate, half-forgotten age. Insubstantial and inconsequential, yet for all that, somehow rather delightful.

Rating: 3/5

The Raid 2 (2014)

The Raid 2: A Review:

10: PRINT "pain"
20: GOTO 10
RUN

Rating: 3/5

How to fail an Audition.

Sigh. Another week, another terrible money-grabbing pointless remake idea, signalling another impending case of forever more having to say, in place of "Have you seen Audition? It's really smart / interesting / moving / terrifying (delete as applicable)" saying instead "Have you seen Audition? No not that steaming pile of inept, derivative flatulence directed by Brett Ratner / Eli Roth / Rob Zombie (delete as... on second thoughts, just delete all)".

Audition Remake Planned (Empire Online).

I've ranted written at some length previously about my issues regarding remakes, especially of non-English language movies. You can find that article here.

Apocalypse Now... and Again.

Great news. Pacific Rim 2 is confirmed. Reports of it being made according to Dogme 95 rules still TBC.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)

Well that was three hours in the company of a hideous, debauched, vile, selfish, abusive, self-destructive, fucked-up individual... and I loved it. Am I a bad man?

Rating: 4/5

Monday, 10 February 2014

Not One For All After All

Three episodes in, and I'm calling it quits with the BBC's new Musketeers adaptation. It's not without some redeeming charms, but overall, such a mess. Uneven performances, anachronistic script, toe-curlingly melodramatic and stylistically all over the place with so many jarring tonal shifts that it feels like the assembled work of six different student directors who weren't allowed to speak to each other. After careful consideration I think I will return to an adaptation featuring far more engaging and relatable characters, and a clear, well-structured through-line of narrative purpose that best honours the source material. Namely this one:


Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Oh Captain My Captain

Proving why Captain Phillips, ahem, ruled the waves in 2013.
(click for a more detailed view)


My Top Five Feature Documentaries Of 2013

There were a lot of great feature-length documentary releases this year, so much so, that I've decided to indulge them their own top five.


5: Side By Side: Basically a series of one-on-one interviews in which host Keanu Reeves, yes, KEANU REEVES, discusses with a range of directors, cinematographers, editors and archivists, the digital revolution sweeping cinema, and its effect on the past, present, and future of film-making. Genuinely engrossing stuff if you are interested in cinema, probably not otherwise, but then, why are you reading this again?

4: How To Survive A Plague: Charting, mostly through archive amateur footage, the fight undertaken by the gay community in America through the 1980s and 1990s to have AIDS research, funding and medicine approval taken more seriously and more swiftly, in the face of apathy, confusion and downright hate from the establishment. It should be (and at times is) heartbreaking, but more often, it is utterly uplifting and transcendent. A paean to human dignity and solidarity.

3: Blackfish: Starting out from one particular case but soon unfolding into a litany of poor practice, dreadful incidents and shady cover-ups, this is a shocking exploration of the appalling conditions suffered by, and danger from, killer whales kept in captivity for our amusement. If you see one documentary about our hideous mistreatment of marine Cetaceans, well to be honest, see The Cove. Whereas if you see one documentary about deluded humans thinking they have some sort of intellectual-spiritual bond with deadly predators then, well ok, see Grizzly Man. But if you can stretch to two of either category, and you should, then Blackfish is a worthy companion piece to either. I guarantee you will never set foot inside a SeaWorld again.

2: Fire In The Night: The story, or rather the experience, of the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster of 1988. An unfussy documentary told  from the personal recollections of the survivors. Mostly talking heads intercut with the terrifying real footage captured of the event. Simply devastating.

1: The Act Of Killing: A documentary maker travels to Indonesia to meet a group of elderly gangsters who tortured and murdered hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent people during the death-squad anti-communist purges in the 1960s. He then invites them to go beyond telling the stories of their atrocities, but to actually re-enact them for the cameras as movies in the style of their choosing. Grim, dumbfounding, and at times surreal almost beyond comprehension.

My Top Ten Feature Films Of 2013

At first glance, 2013 didn't seem like much of a vintage year of quality cinema for me, with quite a few disappointments in the event movie calendar. But on reflection there have been some hidden gems and a couple of guilty pleasures along with the few really high achievers. So, never one to knowingly leave a bunch of random thoughts unlisted, here's my personal top ten movies of 2013.*


10: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa: Excruciating, absurd and eye-wateringly hysterical. The Roachford mime-along is a thing of sublime beauty.

9: Pacific Rim: Is this the dumbest awesome movie ever made, or the awesomest dumb movie ever made? And if a hundred meter tall robot beats the shit out of a three-thousand ton monster using a ship as a club and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound? YES. A FUCKING LOUD ONE!

8: All Is Lost: Absolutely the year's best lone-survivor-marooned-thousands-of-miles-from-help-with-ship-disintegrating-around-them drama.... that didn't star Sandra Bullock.

7: Zero Dark Thirty: NOT a defence of torture or America's foreign policy, but simply a rigorous, nail-biting and thrilling retelling of the shit that went down in the USA's hunt for its most-wanted, and a portrait of the tough and resourceful woman at the eye of that particular storm.

6: The Kings Of Summer: 2013's breakout hit that never was. Great early whispers and then... nothing. Three boys take off and build a home in the woods to live as they please... for a while. An inspired mix of Lord Of The Flies, Stand By Me and even Son Of Rambow, this is a breezy, raw and refreshing tale of friendship and all that growing-up stuff. Seek it out.

5: A Hijacking (Kapringen): The year's OTHER hijacking movie, and a fictional tale that plays even more documentary-like than the true-story of Captain Phillips. Alternating between a long drawn-out siege on board ship, and the strained, claustrophobic negotiations on land. This Danish drama takes its time, and carefully underplays the melodrama, to eventually devastating effect.

4: Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La vie d'Adèle): Yes, it's that briefly notorious Cannes winner. You know, the three-hour French drama with all the explicit lesbian nookie? Well, it's beautiful, heartfelt, totally consuming and propelled by a staggeringly open and mature emotional performance from its young, brilliant lead actress. Spellbinding.

3: Captain Phillips: Back to sea for the third time in this top ten. A massive ship, some pirates, immense tension, brilliantly orchestrated action, and two leads, one a total newcomer, one absolute Hollywood royalty, who push each other to remarkable performances. The final scene from Hanks might be the best acting moment of the year (apart from the whole of Lincoln, which I'm discounting as it was clearly, actually Lincoln).

2: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug: Bigger, Faster, Funnier, Scarier. It may still be a bloated behemoth, groaning under the weight of all the myriad ideas that Jackson and his team can throw at it. But this time, directed, or perhaps more confidently edited, with a bravura, joyous, kinetic abandon.  Almost as good as Lord Of The Rings, more fun than almost anything else all year.

1: Gravity: A simple, lone-survival adventure, pared to the barest bones for maximum edge-of-the-seat thrills, and then wrapped up in a quantum-leap of visual FX, sound-design and 3D perfection for ninety minutes of jaw-on-the-floor astoundment.


(*NB: based on 2013 UK general releases as best as I can ascertain, and not including feature documentaries, which I suspect I may tackle separately, in fact, I just have done)


Special Achievement (or Underachievement) Awards:


1: Funniest Scene Of The Year: Iron Man Three - Questioning The Mandarin: This movie was pushed a little outside my top ten as I found the final act rather uninspired. But for all the time that Tony Stark was kept out of the suit, Shane Black's wisecracking script, married to RDJ's hyperactive motor-mouth was a joy to behold, and nowhere more so than in this scene where Sir Ben's agenda is revealed.

2: Worst Geography: Thor: The Dark World: Yes, fine, I can buy a couple of jet fighters over London being sucked through a wormhole into Svartálfaheimr, the underworld realm of the dark elves, that's just dandy. But you CAN NOT get from Charing Cross to Greenwich in three stops on the underground, NO NO NO. back to school the lot of you.

3: Most Honourable Failure: Cloud Atlas: (sigh) Multi-stranded, epoch straddling metaphysical ambition. A magnificent, touching performance from Ben Wishaw, beguiling otherworldly sweetness from Doona Bae, stunning future-Seoul visuals and the best orchestral score of the year by a mile. But then there's Tom Hanks geezering up a role that Danny Dyer could actually have played better! Tons of absurd makeup, Hugo Weaving cross-dressing (and not in a Priscilla Queen Of The Desert good way), the least convincing Scottish bar in film history, and The Mighty Boosh seemingly called in to act out all the post apocalyptic stuff. Honestly, I suspect I will go to my grave TRYING to love this film.

4: Biggest Disappointment Of The Year: Man Of Steel: Let me be clear, I am not saying that this is the worst film of the year. Far from it. But when it comes to hope vs. reality, nothing let me down this year more than Man Of Steel. It breaks down like this. Act One: Magnificent. All the stuff on Krypton is beautiful, mythic, and set up Superman's origin and back-story better than any previous iteration. So far, very impressive. Act Two: Perfectly solid. The young Clark Kent growing up and learning life-lessons in his blue-jean middle-America adoptive life is gently paced and decently acted. However it just isn't as rich and heartfelt as the exact same take on the story delivered in 1978. Act Three: Awful. An endless, repetitive destructathon that sorely undermines Superman's essential charm and character by having him utterly ignore the thousands that must be dying as half a city is flattened, and it just keeps pummelling away till numbness takes over. This might have been mitigated if the movie had any sense of fun about it, but, save for one solitary visual gag, Man Of Steel is quite the most dour Superhero movie I have ever seen. The Dark Knight is a natural fit for conflicted sour-faced moodiness, Kal-El however is not, and I just needed him, and the writers to lighten up once in a while. Pacific Rim is probably a dumber movie, but it's ten times more fun.

5: The What-The-Hell-Did-I-Just-Watch? Mindfuck Of The Year Award: A Field In England: A film I actually really liked, but I will never, ever, be able to explain why.

Monday, 30 December 2013

47 Ronin (2013)

A dopey but passably diverting fantasy take on a genuine event in Japanese feudal history. The story of the 47 Ronin who avenge the honour-induced suicide of their former lord is widely acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent examples of Bushido (the samurai code of chivalric values) in Japanese history and has passed, somewhat embellished, into a wide range of literature and arts, having been filmed at least six times before. But I'll wager none of those versions included a shape-shifting witch-dragon lady.

In this first (and probably last) Hollywood stab at the tale, Keanu Reeves comes billed as the star of the piece playing an outcast half-breed which is one of the many inventions added to this version of the tale and most likely intended as a familiarisation waypoint for western audiences. Stoic and ultra-serious he's not actually too bad, but neither the role as written, nor the screen time really allow him to make much of an impact. Thank goodness then for Hiroyuki Sanada as the ronin leader Oishi. One of the just about every well-known English-speaking Japanese actors that have been harvested for this production, he shoulders the bulk of the drama with capable authority, and along with Rinko Kikuchi's deliriously absurd wicked witch, ensures that at least a few engaging characters emerge from the CGI hailstorm.

Relatively unknown director Carl Rinsch struggles to marry the serious tone of the human drama to the Tolkien-esque fantasy romping, and as such the film lurches around, uncertain of what it wants to be. That said, some individual scenes are impressive, he and his DP have clearly spent a productive afternoon watching late-period Kurosawa and the courtly and battlefield scenes have a beautiful, symmetrical formality to them.

Not the disaster that the initial critical drubbing might suggest, this is no worse than most of the Narnia movies, or second-tier Wuxia fantasy such as Reign of Assassins, but then outside of Japan it doesn't have the franchise brand selling power of the former, and the latter sure didn't cost 175 million dollars to make. Ouch.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Act Of Killing (2013)

A documentary maker travels to Indonesia to meet a group of elderly men who led some of the notorious death-squad anti-communist purges in the 1960s. They were once small-time gangsters, who took advantage of the corrupt regime following a failed coup and became terrifying warlords; extorting from, raping or brutally murdering thousands. They have never been held accountable, and what is more, as the documentary progresses it becomes clear that they are minor celebrities still, admired seemingly by some, evidently feared by many others, and utterly brazen in their boasting of what they did.

Co-director Joshua Oppenheimer invites them to go beyond telling the stories of their atrocities, but to actually re-enact them for the cameras as mini-movies in the style of their choosing. An idea to which these elderly monsters, deluded by their own distorted egos and immunity from prosecution for their crimes, eagerly take. What then follows is simultaneously terrifying and absurd beyond belief as they rally locals as extras, and get into the mechanics of script meetings, location scouting, and marshaling the required production forces, while practicing their best strangulation and torture techniques on each other. One later proudly shows off the raw footage to his young grandchildren. Another, perhaps gradually and dimly comprehending the horrors he perpetrated for the first time, cuts a pathetic, tragic figure, literally chocking on the evil that is consuming him from within. I doubt there was a more astonishing image in cinema all year than that of a vile, bloated, real-life mass-murderer, cross-dressed in a gaudy pink ball-gown, swaying in front of a waterfall as he serenades a chorus-line of his departed victims spirits into the afterlife.

The fear and repression that infests the country still is no better illustrated than when the credits roll. The mostly Danish production team are naturally listed openly, while practically all the locally recruited crew simply scroll by as "anonymous", "anonymous", "anonymous"....

Rating: 5/5

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (2013)

This year's biggest (literally) pleasant surprise. After the long, slow start to chapter one had dampened the ardour of many a Middle Earth fan, I had more modest hopes for what could be achieved eking out yet another three hour behemoth from the middle chapters of Tolkien's modest children's tale and Peter Jackson has exceeded every one magnificently. Bold, energetic, funny, frightening, tense, and immensely spectacular. The clear aim now is to take The Hobbit as a skeleton structure that will be fleshed with all the immense back-story, parallel tales and grim foreshadowing of what is to come that it can withstand. It's a brave, and somewhat indulgent move, but it's coming together here with a bravura confidence that was sometimes lacking from part one. This is now just a dwarf's whisker from Lord Of The Rings greatness.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, 27 December 2013

All Is Lost (2013)

A lot like Gravity, but wetter, cheaper, and pretty much dialogue free. Robert Redford battles the ocean and delivers one of the great performances of his long and fascinating career. Simple and stunning.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Missing a Mega-Trick.

Dear Asylum Studios: Where is your Christmas movie huh? I want Mega-Santa vs. Giant-Snowman and I want it now. Come on guys, it's 4 days till Christmas, that's at least a 200% increase over the production schedule lavished on any of your previous output so this should present no problems. Oh and Debbie Gibson can play the elves... All of them.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

No (2012)

...maybe.

Rating: 3/5

On the matter of The Middle Earth Taxi Service

Time and again the main "plot hole" flaw that I have heard levelled against, first The Lord Of The Rings, and now also The Hobbit, is why the Eagles, those fierce and inscrutable creatures of Middle Earth, didn't conveniently take Gandalf and his Company to exactly where they wanted to go? Meanwhile in real life, thousands of people every day board Ryanair flights...