Archive for September, 2014

Breezy As It Should Be

Posted: September 29, 2014 in movie reviews

Life of Crime *** (out of five)

Life_of_Crime_PosterTo do Elmore Leonard right on screen, you’ve got to achieve the right tone, which is breezy and witty with tasteful dollops of violence. Your criminals have to be likeable, your dialogue has to sparkle unexpectedly, the story lines must be weighted appropriately (which is usually to say equally) and the style has to be consistent and unique. An Elmore Leonard film (or TV show – Justified is a brilliant Elmore Leonard adaptation) should look and sound like an Elmore Leonard film.

Life of Crime, based on Leonard’s 1978 The Switch, looks and sounds like an Elmore Leonard film, and, coupled with that novel’s excellent plot and characters, means it’s already got a lot of good eggs inits basket. The Switch was my favourite Leonard book when I tore through about twenty of them when I was a young teenager, handed down to me by my father one summer, partly because it’s so quintessentially Leonardovian. Its two lead male characters are witty, likeable criminals; its bad guy – only partially, or at least a white-collared, criminal – is a dick, its got some excellent, funny minor characters, and an excellent and surprisingly gutsy female lead. The plot is so much genius that we have to remember he thought of it first (Ruthless People did not): when a rich guy’s wife is nabbed in a kidnapping extortion attempt, the bad guys weren’t to know that he’d already filed for divorce, and won’t pay the ransom. Wit, twists and general enjoyment ensue.

The rich guy is played beautifully by Tim Robbins, who, in his middle age, plays rich dicks every bit as well as he did when he was younger (see The Player). The criminals are played with easygoing Leonardism by John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), and the kidnapped wife by Jennifer Aniston with grace and style. It’s great to see Aniston, who probably has a few hundred million dollars thanks to Friends, picking indie films like this, where she would have been paid a relative pittance, because she likes the material, the creative team, the role or all of the above: without the pressure of having to carry some bloated studio rom-com, she is relaxed and free of mannerism and gives a very likeable and appropriate performance.

The film is not as funny or brilliantly vibrant as Get Shorty (1995) nor as textured as Jackie Brown (1997, based on Rum Punch, and sharing characters with The Switch / Life of Crime) nor as out of sight as Out of Sight (1998). But it is better than 52 Pick-Up (1986), Touch (1997), The Big Bounce (2004), Be Cool (2005) and Freaky Deaky (2012), among other Leonard adaptations (there are 43 listed on IMDB, many of the early ones westerns, of which both versions of 3:10 To Yuma, 1957 and 2007, are excellent.) If anything, Hawkes and Bey play their characters a little too genial, laid-back and low-key, and Isla Fisher, who’s playing a character she should be able to do in her sleep, perhaps relies on that fact, and gets her performance strangely wrong. But it’s good, solid Leonard, which, for me at least, is a cosy, comfortable, and extremely fun place to be for ninety-eight minutes.

Nothing New

Posted: September 22, 2014 in movie reviews

sin-city-posterSin City: A Dame To Kill For **1/2 (out of five)

I loved Sin City (2005). I loved its amazing world, a grotesque fantasyland of noir; I loved its groundbreaking style, those indelible blacks and whites with bursts of primary colour that seemed to say so much in opposition; I loved its characters – especially Marv (Mickey Rourke), the granite-faced brute, but all of them, really, even the sick Yellow Bastard. Images from that film – which I’ve only seen once, on its’ initial cinema release – are as bright in my mind as ever. I was excited for the sequel.

Unfortunately – very unfortunately – A Dame To Kill For offers nothing new and feels terribly, sadly, redundant. We’re back in the amazing world, the style’s all still there, and its peopled with those characters – and that’s the problem. There’s no advance, no maturity, no gain. None of the new characters (of whom there are very few) are indelible, and the story lines for the original characters are simply not as good as the first batch that made up the first film.

If we were getting a Sin City instalment every year or two, it would be fine to treat these slight little tales as disposable as the comic books from which they spring, as diversions with comfortingly familiar qualities; by their abundance we could accept that, inherently, some episodes wouldn’t be as good as others (as we do with long-running television series). But we’ve waited ten years for this instalment, and for it to be so lacking in new ideas and vitality, so, so similar to the first, kind of beggars belief. This is all they could come up with?

jodorowsky-dune-banner-e1392402337448Jodorowsky’s Dune *** (out of five)

A film for a niche market (and I’m smack-bang part of it), Jodorowsky’s Dune tells the story of a great unrealised film project: a huge production of Frank Herbert’s Dune by Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who created the “Midnight Movie” phenomenon in 1970 with El Topo and is also well remembered for 1973’s The Magic Mountain (and who has recently released his first film in 23 years, The Dance of Reality).jodorowskysdune_toppage

Jodorowsky’s ambitions for the film were hugely ambitious and fanciful, and his list of intended collaborators – some of whom came on board, and some of whom were less than fascinated – makes for some entertaining portraits of some major ‘70s artists across all fields. The director created a massive book containing painted storyboards of the entire film, along with detailed design and other notes, and our many glimpses into this are vibrant and exhilarating, a true examination of an eccentric creative imagination at full bloom.

Jodorowsky-DuneOf course, if Jodorowsky was boring, the film would be a dud, but he’s anything but, and the film is as much a portrait of him as it is his doomed project. It could have as easily been called Jodorowsky. He’s worthy of this film, all on his own, but his Dune is certainly a worthy recipient as well. We’ll never see it, but we have this.

Never Mind The Bollocks

Posted: September 16, 2014 in movie reviews

we-are-the-best-poster-longWe Are The Best! **** (out of five)

Lukas Moodysson has made some terrific films, including Mammoth, Lilya 4-Ever, Show Me Love and his masterpiece (to my mind), Together, which was one of the best films, if not the best film, of 2000. His palette is wide. He can paint in dark, tight colours or let his happier imagination roam, as he has here, in what is, so far this year, one of the most warmly inspiring films, up there with Boyhood for sheer smile-on-your-dial factor. As with that film, We Are The Best! is a feel-good movie when that phrase is not a dirty one.

The very simple story follows two best friends, Bobo and Klara, who decide to form a band. They are thirteen and they don’t know how to play any instruments, but they have passion, verve, outsider status, and the spirit of punk flows through them as though it was their birthright. Both wear punk-influenced haircuts that, besides defining them immediately as the antithesis of their mainly long blonde-haired classmates, this being Stockholm in 1982, also make them look very boyish. Bobo in particular is naturally mistaken for a boy, which is symbolic both of her defiance and her at times painfully acute self-consciousness. Klara is a lot happier in her own skin (and mohawk), but, like all best friends, they need each other to make a whole.

The scenes may seems to meander at times, particularly in the first half, but Moodysson absolutely knows what he’s doing, and everything adds up to the most downright delightful, rewarding, satisfying and thrilling conclusion of any film so far this year. As these girls overcome the challenges of creating something (a band) in the face of nothing (their talent with instruments), along the way realising the need to collaborate, compromise, struggle and learn, Moodysson also manages to tell the story of Everyband in miniature: the creative conflicts, the arguments over who plays what, who’s leading the band, the quest for rehearsal space – even the corrupting influence of romantic relationships. Along the same, the humour – like the humour in Boyhood – grows organically from the characters and our enjoyment of them, so that it becomes funnier and funnier. Like all good films about kids, it has a lot to say about childhood, growing up, and growing wise, but it is also – indeed most powerfully – about creativity and commitment, and how commitment to creativity can form the basis for everything – friendship, self-acceptance, independence, happiness – that is most important in life.

Twister? I don’t even know her.

Posted: September 8, 2014 in movie reviews

Into The Storm ** (out of five)

into-the-storm-movie-poster.0_cinema_1200.0When I first saw the posters for Into The Storm, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to see it. Now I know. You see Into The Storm for the scenes when you go into the storm. These happen about every ten minutes or so, when one or another of the (generic) groups of (young, mostly) characters drives straight into, or is set upon by, the eye of one of the film’s many well (computer) generated tornados. These sequences are great fun, with the sound system at the cinema I attended getting the most out of the sound design’s deep stormy bass effects: my seat shook, and I felt like I was in a ride. None of this was at all scary, by the way, and I can’t imagine it’s intended to be. I wouldn’t call this a horror film, nor even a thriller; it’s an adventure.

What happens between the storm set-pieces is not worth mentioning. Those same generic characters drive between storms, get ready for storms, or partake of mundane activities so that they can be surprised by storms.

The whole thing is constructed as found footage and goes to ludicrous lengths to make this plausible by showing everyone carrying some sort of camera most of the time, having “storm chasers” as characters, and making Pete (a very oddly cast Matt Walsh) the most dedicated (obsessed?) storm chaser of them all, thus encouraging everyone else to keep filming even as they’re… well, getting sucked… into the storm.

The ending, not that it matters, is ludicrous.


Posted: September 6, 2014 in movie reviews

What We Do In The Shadows **1/2 (out of five)

10339723_1434342393481547_2560293756595207488_nThe biggest disappointment so far this year is What We Do In The Shadows, which is neither to say it’s terrible nor even bad. But my expectations were very high – and way too high, unfortunately (and rather bafflingly). Written and directed by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Boy), I imagined this modest, 86 minute mockumentary couldn’t go wrong.

The essential problem is that vampires are a childish target, the stuff of jokes in Christmas Crackers (“What’s a vampire’s favourite song? Fangs for the memories!”) rather than smart satire. I imagined Waititi or Clement riffing on a vampire theme over a drink one night and deciding it would make a funny movie, then, six days into shooting, realising that it wasn’t working but having to push on regardless, perhaps thinking, “We should have perhaps made fun of something with a little more bite.” Doh!

The conceit is vampires as flatmates, and the conflicts are flatmate conflicts, but these guys haven’t had to be flatmates with anyone for awhile so even that side of things is generalised. It’s a little hard to watch grown men – especially Clement, a comedic acting legend thanks to Conchords – walking around hissing and flashing their fangs for (attempted) laughs. Watching them make dirty dishes jokes doesn’t somehow make the vampire schtick funnier.

At its heart, the film is really a comedy about New Zealand manhood and its associated perpetual adolescence, with our vamps heading into “Wellington Central”, befriending other clueless men and even getting into a bit of a chest-bump confrontation with a pack of werewolves led by Rhys Darby, who has been blessed with a comedian’s golden fleece: everything he says is funny. This isn’t really “about” vampires and werewolves – you can imagine these two groups as sports fans on a Friday night in town after the game – but that satire is barely mined (and could have been, far more richly). It’s almost as though it were made for kids, except that every now and then there is extremely bloody violence.

To make matters all the more disappointing, Clement has written himself a strait-laced, straight-jacketed role, allowing himself to display none of his comic chops. This error in judgement is, very unfortunately, indicative of the whole movie – it’s simply a misfire, a project that should have been left in the pub.

Life / Work Balance

Posted: September 2, 2014 in movie reviews

Locke ****1/2 (out of five)
locke_ver5_xlgI’m not a great fan of the word “masterclass” when used in reviews, as in “so-and-so gives a masterclass in…” But there is no denying that Steven Knight’s screenplay for Locke, his auteurist thriller set entirely in a single car and featuring only one on-screen performance (by Tom Hardy), is, literally, a masterclass in the craft: forget about all those screenplay books if you want to learn how to write one, and just watch this film again and again, because it’s got all the elements, and they’re laid out, clean and polished, for all to examine, understand, and utilise.

By stripping away all the elements of bloated filmmaking, and setting his real-time film in this single Mercedes, Knight, writer of Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, and the television series Peaky Blinders, among many other credits, really is pulling back the curtain – doing a “Penn and Teller” – or, to use a more apt metaphor, lifting the bonnet – and showing us how a screenplay runs, and how like an engine it actually is. In this car, heading towards London, from about 8:20 to about ten pm at night, an entire story is richly told, whole characters are indelibly portrayed with nuance, ambiguity, precision, foibles, heroics and devastations, and we are thoroughly engaged, manipulated perfectly, carried along as by the superior mechanisms of Locke’s Mercedes, which glides through the night on highway roads, clean and quiet and perfect.

It would be fun to identify all of Knight’s tricks of the trade, because they’re not hidden; indeed they are so obvious that the film’s one real danger is that of being too “perfect”, of it’s clockworks being too loud, so that the ticking is annoying. Perhaps you’ll feel this way. Perhaps you’ll feel that one of Locke’s challenges is, by its sheer magnitude, simply an example of “raising the stakes”; that his main emotional journey carries him between two things that are too neatly chosen as perfect opposites; that the exposition is too frontal – that it’s all too neat. I could hear the screenplay ticking, the entire time, but it never bothered me, because that screenplay is such a thing of beauty, and it has been supported by such lustrous cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos) and performances (the perfect Hardy is surrounded by eleven other actors doing stellar work, especially as they are only ever heard on Locke’s car’s bluetooth speaker system) that, even as I admired, I cared, deeply. I cared for Locke, and his predicament, and his family, and his co-workers, and that other person he was talking to, who may represent “the inciting incident”, but who was also one of the most fully realised characters seen on-screen so far this year, and was only, ever, a voice on a car’s speaker phone. Amazing.