Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monthly Roundup: April Viewing

I watched a total of 40 Films in April. Below are some very brief thoughts on all of them.

New-To-Me Films (In Order of Preference)

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) - Malick's violent and fascinating road odyssey tracks a pair of alienated youths who gain criminal notoriety living off the land and notching up body count. Sheen and Spacek are excellent in this brooding film that shocks with Kit's carefree trigger finger, and yet it's impossible to look away. 

The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1982) - De Niro is absolutely phenomenal as Rupert Pupkin and it's a great film. A dangerously ambitious comic takes his obsession with a talk show host (Jerry Lewis) and gaining his big break to an extreme length.

One Week (Buster Keaton, 1920) - Just pure genius. Keaton's debut work too, I believe. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) - The horror genre is all about consciously watching your nightmares and ELM STREET brilliantly toys with perceptions of interlocking dream and reality. For me, it is Craven's masterwork so far. Relentless intensity, inventive deaths and a perceptive heroine. Would have left many audiences scared to sleep over the years.

Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007) - A very troubling investigation into the heinous US interrogation techniques during the war on terror including suspicious deaths of innocent detainees and the laws unscrupulously amended by Bush admin to allow such methods to be used. 

Sex, Lies and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) - Soderbergh's ridiculously young debut feature is sexy and very well acted by the ensemble (including a Cannes winner in Spader, and a never-better Andie MacDowell), fueled by lies, deceit, suppressed desires and the inability to communicate sexual urges.

Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995) - Lovely Studio Ghibli animation about confusing adolescent crossroads; falling in love, taking responsibility, and finding inspiration and ambition to realize one's dreams. A remarkably sweet film about high school life.

Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973) - In manufactured themed resorts tourists can fearlessly reinvent themselves, their desires at liberty to the programmed stimuli. This is a really cool futuristic thriller from writer/director Michael Crichton about human tinkering with reality, being betrayed by own creations. Paved way for films like THE TRUMAN SHOW and CABIN IN THE WOODS and evolves into a monster film of sorts after opening as a sci-fi/western hybrid.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013) - Hard to gauge conflicted feelings initially; thirst for freedom, rush, debauchery and power raised to 11. Franco kills. Martinez too. Some issues but as irresponsible and disturbing as some of the behaviour is, it is not far removed from reality. Final third a tense and uncertain spiral into madness, a hallucinatory nightmare of immorality and deception.

Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996) - Mysterious old-timer (Phillip Baker Hall) involves himself in the life of wayward youngsters (John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow) in need of wisdom and counsel in PTA's intriguing and unfairly assured (and ignored) debut. It's a top film, and though far less ambitious than the films he has followed it up with, it still features impressive writing and a sense of style that would be especially evident in BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA. Most fascinating theme: the clash of generations - composure and method versus recklessness and spontaneity when unwisely making decisions influenced by chance. The cast are superb.

Cinema Jenin: The Story of A Dream (Marcus Vetter, 2012) - Cinema Jenin is an enlightening documentary account of a tightrope evasion of political, cultural and economic obstacles to resurrect a decrepit Palestinian cinema and former Jenin West Bank cultural centre to bring the power of not just cinema, but the arts in general, to a nation who had been without the privilege for over twenty years.

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) - Gripping and twisty psychological unraveling/betrayal following the chance procuring of a fortune and amateur body disposal. McGregor, as has been the trend recently, is best in show, but it's an early culmination of Boyle's flair and familiar themes of greed vs. morality.

Millions (Danny Boyle, 2004) - Gentle, family-centric Boyle tackles relevant moralities and a young boy's saint-like ideals when faced with fleeting, life-changing wealth. It has an abundance of style (per usual with Boyle) but also interesting ideas on faith, goodwill, equity and economy.

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) - High school cruelty and Evangelical extremism mold an outcast desiring acceptance who exerts telekinetic revenge in disturbing fashion. The film feels pretty dated until the extraordinarily directed prom scene, which is unforgettable. Spacek is magnificent. A De Palma winner, finally.

Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, 2012) - A fascinating, stunning and important documentary. To challenge the climate change debate, a driven photographer named James Balog traverses the icy extremes of Alaska, Greenland and Iceland to publicize visual evidence of significant glacial calving. James' mission and dedication is admirable work, as is his belief in the co-existence of civilization and nature. They can't be divorced. It seems undeniable.

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013) - I enjoyed Iron Man 3 a lot. A fun superhero-come-political espionage thriller with compelling action, an exposed and vulnerable hero (RDJ is terrific) and some surprises. The final act, though featuring an impressive set piece, was less satisfying, but Stark's sharp dialogue and his genuine relationships with helpful civilians, give the film a big lift. Hats off to Shane Black for ensuring there is an arresting personal story amongst the visual spectacle.

Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) - Atmospheric and cinematic. Terrific visuals, score and a consistently intriguing/surprising story that takes it's time to immerse a viewer in the world Cruise's (good!) character inhabits. Lots of sci-fi derivatives, which will likely prove to be too much to overlook for many, but personally I didn't care. Much better than most films I have seen recently. A big surprise.

----- Essential Viewing -----

25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) - Affecting post 9/11 existential drama about a con reflecting on life decisions and relationships on the eve of his imprisonment. Monty's (Norton) girlfriend (Dawson), lifelong buddies (Hoffman and Pepper) and father (Cox) have played a major role in his life and remain supportive to the end but Monty rejects all blame, accepting responsibility for himself. I wasn't keen of the Hoffman/Paquin subplot, and some of Lee's overbearing politics, but the cast bring their best (esp. Norton and Pepper, who had some great roles but has disappeared in recent years).

A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987) - Increasingly silly but effective sequel incorporates more characters, personalising nightmares and unique in-dream abilities. The hospital setting and some inventive dream scapes result in this feeling different to the first film. Chilling score too.

Sleepwalk With Me (Mike Birbiglia, 2012) - An endearing and honest journey of a lowly comic who channels an increasingly serious sleep disorder and daily anxiety into successful material and discovers the root of his problems alone on the road. It took me a little while to warm to Birbiglia's character, because he is his own worst enemy, but his lack of confidence, his failing ambitions and the various pressured expectation of him was relatable. It's amusing in a very awkward way, but also surprisingly sad. Top supporting cast of Ambrose, Kane and Rebhorn.

Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013) - There are Laughs, brain eating and romance in this fun (and creepy) Zombie flick. Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer are great and there is a commendable message about humanity at the heart about making the effort to connect with one another.

Mercy (Matthias Glasner, 2012) - Set in a stunning northern Norwegian town covered by periodic blankets of dark/light, this slow burn drama is fraught with moral and domestic quandary. It is about isolation, locale and emotional, accepting personal guilt/ignorance in the wake of tragedy. First class DP work. Worth a look at the Audi Festival of German Films.

The Wall (Julian Roman Polsler, 2012) - A woman (Martina Gedeck) is inexplicably isolated in a lush forest within the Austrian Alps by an invisible and impenetrable wall. But paired with nature - befriending a series of animals that seek shelter - she continues living and manages her wavering sanity. An eerie, disturbing and fascinating study of human behaviour - survival instinct and responsibility - when facing an uncertain future and forced into primitive existence. The story covers every season and consistently offers up images of immense beauty, if the film becomes somewhat monotonous after a while and over-narrated from chronicled diary entries to compensate for Gedeck's single presence.

Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986) - It felt like David Bowie was undesirably lured to participate in some bad music videos. Extraordinary set and creature design but it wasn't what I was expecting and I think if I'd watched it when I was a kid not sure I'd have enjoyed it. Still, points for inventiveness and some good laughs.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel, 1972) - I like Viridiana and some of Bunuel's other stuff, but I just wasn't on the wavelength of this social satire/comedy of manners. Surreal and intermittently very funny, but I just never got immersed.

Haute Cuisine (Christian Vincent, 2012) - Tasty French bio-drama about a modest cook whose skill and passion was appreciated in the macho-politics of the Élysée Palace kitchens. Subplots involving an Australian's documentary interest in Hortense and the aforementioned hierarchy-challenging feel forced, but it was moderately enjoyable.

The Company You Keep (Robert Redford, 2013) - Upstart journalist plays detective in plodding on-the-run thriller, fallout of anti-war radicalism and harbored secrets. Long and lacking tension. LaBeouf is solid, but a heap of recognisable faces appear in only bit parts. The repercussions of speculative reporting, a younger generation shielded from past ideals remains the most rousing themes.

Two Hands (Gregor Jordan, 1999) - Very disappointing. I just didn't enjoy it at all. A scummy, violent award-winning Australian crime classic with early roles from Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne.

The Break-Up Man (Matthias Schweighofer, 2012) - Outrageous buddy comedy about a cold relationship-ender for hire and an oddball broken-heart. Fires lots of gags with hit/miss results. An amusing international hit with a good heart.

Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980) - An exercise in camera and style with some effective tension-building (gallery stalk, elevator murder) but sexual anxiety taken too far. Hints are dropped that have little bearing on anything and the reveal precedes the establishment of any real suspects. Typical De Palma gratuity. The film sorely lacked subtlety (news story on gender reassignment playing in background?) with a plot thinner and much less fun than all of Argento's resume.

Domino (Tony Scott, 2005) - Through T. Scott's overload of wearying stylistic excess and rapid editing there is an interesting but increasingly convoluted story.

The Dead Girl (Karen Moncrieff, 2006) - Bleak thriller tells five connected tales; when a young woman is savagely murdered, her disappearance/death affects a number of other women, both directly and indirectly. While Brittany Murphy is insufferable as the victim, Rose Byrne tops the ensemble in the second story as a forensic intern. It is a gloomy, uncomfortable sit with overdone, screeching melodrama and a repetitive woman-in-distress theme that doesn't provoke nearly as much sympathy as it should, given the sad, but wafer thin stories it throws at us.

G.I Joe: Retaliation (Jon M. Chu, 2013) - Confusing allegiance shifts and US nuclear domination make up this diabolically plotted toy-based actioneer with some of the worst 3D I have seen yet. Ray Stevenson holds his own against The Rock, which doesn't happen, and the roundtable atomic launch has to be the frontrunner for worst scene of the year too.

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013) - I'm not sure what else to say about OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN other than it is every bit as bad as the trailer suggests. Worse even. The worst.

Re-watches (In Order of Preference)

Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946) - One of Hitchcock's best films. A dramatic romance and a thrilling undercover operation to convict a Rio-based Nazi operation results in some of Hitchcock's steamiest moments and tensest infiltrations. Bergman and Grant are dynamite.

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) - Deterioration of body but not spirit, in McQueen's masterful and confronting chronicle of IRA prisoner's political defiance against violated HR. Michael Fassbender's introduction is incredible and famous 12 min. single shot conversation one of the most powerful scenes in cinema.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964) - Pasolini's mighty biblical epic uses a harsh Neorealist cinematic language. Powerful visual storytelling.

The Yellow Sea (Hong-Jin Na, 2011) - An emasculated outcast is targeted by the Chinese and South Korean mafias after a botched hit. A frenzied and brutal crime masterpiece with a pair of lengthy and intense chase sequences. The latter involves the on-the-run protagonist fleeing from a hatchet-wielding mob.

No (Pablo Larrain, 2012) - Sublime artistic recreation of how one man's bold vision and optimism turned the tide for the people of Chile during a period of political and social oppression. This is the second time I have seen NO and it's one of the year's best so far. 

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007) - Endlessly re-watchable and amongst some of the finest work the core cast has ever been involved with. Perhaps Apatow's best film?


  1. You caught up with a number of my favorites this month: Badlands, Carrie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, One Week, Whisper of the Heart. That's a fantastic month right there.

  2. A really interestingly varied bunch of films and nice-mini reviews. I've upped a few of those on my priorities after reading that - King of Comedy , Taxi to the Dark Side and Hard Eight.

    Really weirdly though we've only overlapped on 2 movies all month (Oblivion & Sleepwalk With Me) even though 22 of the 38 I've seen have been in the cinema. Strange !

    1. Hard Eight is worth checking out for super young PTA work, but the other two are absolutely essential.

  3. Actually Keaton's solo debut (after the years he'd worked with Roscoe Arbuckle) was The High Sign; One Week was made some time after but released first cos Keaton recognised it was a better film, so he held High Sign back. Nothing wrong with the latter, of course, but One Week really is just vastly superior; Keaton was right to do what he did.

    Taxi To The Dark Side destroyed any remaining vestige of sympathy I had for Dubya. I've always said the latter was not the true power behind his own presidency, and that the real forces for evil were those supposedly under him like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rove, etc, who really overwhelmed Bush's own natural mediocrity. But really, fuck him.

    1. That's really interesting. One Week was perfect, and I have a feeling I have seen bits and pieces of it before (maybe The Story of Film used clips) so I completely understand wanting to start out with something ridiculously good.

      From my experience with docos featuring the Bush admin, it is those guys who always seem to have a lot of influence and whether they are acting on their own and undermining him or are under his direction I don't know, but he surrounded himself with shady characters and willingly re-instated them/promoted them to higher positions. That film was shocking. U.S politics were in a bad way.