Monday, 31 December 2012

Obligatory 2012 "BEST OF" list

Favourites of the Year:

And here are my favourite cinematic watches of the year, in no particular order:

Rampart (Oren Moverman)
The Raid/Serbuan maut (Gareth Evans)
Maniac (Franck Khalfoun)
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)

Indeed, aside from “The Raid” (which was the most visceral action film I have seen since, well, “Casino Royale”)  and “The Hobbit”, all my other choices are character studies that often lean to the abstract side. These were the most satisfying watches to me because the acting was so examplary and the aesthetics so wonderful that I knew repeat viewings were only going to reveal how damned good these things were.
I hate voiceovers as a rule, but Elijah Wood’s soft-spoken psychopath  in “Maniac” certainly crawled into the head, helped by the p.o.v. camera (and the best subjective camera I’ve seen this year, though there was quite a bit around).
“Killing Them Softly” was as obviously political and scathing as a polemical soul tune with a deluded bunch of low-lives.
It wasn’t immediately obvious to me how much I rated “Rampart”, but I found I couldn’t wait to bust out the blu-ray as soon as it was on release for a second watch: I’m an Ellroy and Woody Harrelson fan and Harrelson’s heartfelt and frightening machismo was so riveting that the vagaries of the double-crosses in the plot barely even registered.
 “Berberian Sound Studio” looks and feels like a horror film, and indeed I saw it at Frightfest, but it is something else entirely. Repeat watches are going to reveal, etc etc
Oh, I know the majority seem to dislike “The Master” greatly and feel it to be one of the most boring films ever made, apparently, but… Well it worked for me. The acting was stunning, the abstractions beguiling and… well, Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell is the performance of the year, if not one of the most remarkable of cinema, and that is in a year of excpetional performances.
Also best:

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011)
Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes, mini-series 2011)
Two fantastic dramas about and for women with remarkable casts and performances;  both being leisurely, elegantly and sympathetically paced. Sumptious and very, very moving.

 Second tier:
Killer Joe: (William Friedkin) That is some low-down and dirty fun.
Two Days in New York: (July Delpy) Funny, light, smart and silly all at once. And bearing one of the funniest “soul-stealing” cameos ever put onto screen.
Sleep Tight/Mientras duermes: (Jaume Balagueró) Highly creepy Italian stalking thriller that makes the skin crawl and probably has more rightful claim to that much thrown-about accolade “Hitchcockian” than most.
Chained: Jennifer Lynch’s lo-fi serial killer and child abuse drama that isn’t quite as you might expect by the end, but one that ultimately emerges as respectful and should earn a cult following.
Looper: (Rian Johnson) Daft but immensely enjoyable time-travel fun. I am a fan of genre fair that takes sharp mid-way turns. Plus, it includes one of the most remarkable child performances ever in Pierce Gagnon.
Skyfall: (Sam Mendes) Daft but immensely enjoyable spy-fun. No, it doesn’t top “Casino Royale”, but it may be the best-looking Bond and the left-turn into quasi-Gothic imagery for the final act is certainly unexpected and something new. I hope they keep this up because surely this is the best of mainstream cinema, despite any flaws?
And upon reflection, I find myself thinking more favourably of “Dredd” (Pete Travis)than I did initially, and Todd Solondz's “Dark Horse” was pretty entertaining and scathing too.

Disappointments of the Year:
Cabin in the Woods:  (Drew Goddard) Sorry, but Nah. Horror that tries to berate its own genre is much like puritanical priests that have affairs. Also: not half as clever as it thought. Also, I have probably never quite upset so many people over my indifference and objections to the film. Heh.
End of Watch: (David Ayer) Bearer of one of the worst and inconsistant cinematic aesthetics ever.
Prometheus: (Ridley Scott) Expectation was so very high but Ridley Scott trying to trump Quatermass’ “Aliens made us” was a pretty-looking underwhelmer.  I mean, it's not awful - not at all - but no prizes. Also: stupid character behaviour tends to make a film look stupid.
American Mary: (Jen & Sylvia Soska) Intriguing premise with confused and ultimately silly resolutions. All its interesting possibilities missed for muddled horror pay-offs.
The Killing/Forbrydelsen: A bunch of strung-out TV whodunnit and police poredural cliches, albeit with some subtitled grace. Oh, and let me say as snottily as possible that I guessed the killer from episode one, yes I did. Because: cliches.

Highlights of the year:
Going to “Frightfest”.
The storm sequence of “Life of Pi”.
The cast of “The Master”.
Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell.
The cast of “The Deep Blue Sea”.
Being won over by “The Hobbit”.
Richard Parker in “Life of Pi”.
Breaking Bad”. Because it is stunningly well written and performed and might well be the most minute-to-minute surprising and enjoyable TV show ever given over to fandom. And that’s in a world where brilliant shows like “The Wire” and “Deadwood” exist.
Having  five minute chat to Alan Jones about Dario Argento at “Frightfest”.
Finding myself the only person left in the cinema by the end of “The Master”.

Lowlights of the year:
            Too much rape on the film menu at “Frightfest”. By the time Jennifer Lynch’s “Chained “ came on, I could barely appreciate how respectful and good it was because I was sick of seeing another screaming woman being dragged across the floor to rape and torture.
            Too much incomprehible and nauseating shakey-cam in “V/H/S” (which I enjoyed) and “End of Watch” (which left me indifferent).
            The downward slide into narcissisitic fairground-ride of “Dr Who”.

So, so many that I didn’t get to see. “The Hunt”; “Sighseers”; “Moonrise Kingdom”, etc etc. *sigh*. Later…(O

Sunday, 30 December 2012

"End of Watch": shakey-cam cowboys

David Ayer, 2012, USA

“End of Watch” presents a YouTube, subjective, “found footage” point-of-view aesthetic: the cops we are following utilise cameras – by hand, on their dashboards and lapels – to present the story, which means there is a lot of to-camera addresses. This is on top of the obviousness and redundancy of the opening narration, which explains and stresses that the cops are good guys, that they are heroic and against Evil (“Evil”?); all of which ought to be self-evident. Except that we have a litany of corrupt-cop fiction and fact that seems to require that we have such a disclaimer fronting the film, just in case we don’t quite assume from the outset that the cops are the ones to root for. And: except this narration is on top a dashboard-cam view of a car chase that ends with the cops getting out of their car and, in retaliation/defence, shoot down a couple of criminals and then high-five one another at the kills. So, perhaps without the narration, the goodness of the cops might be felt to be a bit ambiguous; they are a little bit too pleased, if justified. Indeed, it becomes quickly evident that our two heroes are a little too tiresomely cowboyish in their approach to law enforcement because, as nearly every Hollywood production tells us, you have to break and bend the rules and be a maverick in order to get justice and goodness done. Following the law and regulations is for the laughably uptight and cowards. And it becomes quickly apparent that the film buys into this and doesn’t question their recklessness, seeing it as a part of their professional duty. So then the opening narration is to be taken at face value and ambiguities and shades of grey are to be shrugged off; but the fact that it is so obvious and arguably redundant and that the voice-over is a technique never used again belies the confusion of the film’s whole aesthetic.
The cops filming themselves on duty seems a dubious premise from the start and it proves and elucidates not a thing: we learn nothing from the fact that they are filming themselves. But the thing is that the film is not found-footage, even if it superficially seems to be. In fact, after some to-camera addresses, it becomes apparent that there appears to be a third, invisible and omnipotent cameraman running around after them, shoving the camera in their faces and then rushing home to super-edit everything. It is neither one thing nor the other and point-of-views are thrown around all over the place, making obsolete the premise that the cops are filming themselves all the time. There is unintended irony in that - to maintain the conceit of found footage perspective – the gangsters also film themselves (because they are stupid?), which gestures at similarities between the lawless cowboy vanity of cops and killers. What we do get is constant ugly close-ups of faces and shaky-cam that is frequently as nauseating and incoherent as the recent found-footage horror “V/H/S”. Also, there are so many edits – often shots last no longer than a second – that this further undermines the found-footage conceit. We start from a dashcam point of view, but is this the same camera mounted on the bonnet and turned to face the cops so we can capture their amusing bonding-banter? Who knows?
It is up to the performances to save the piece, and indeed Gyllenhall and Michael Peña put in fully winning turns as our pranking, faintly assholish, sometimes commendable and sentimental protagonists. At its best, the film does nod to the casual heroism of our guys, in particular when they dash into a burning house to save children, although the editing is so rapid and random that it’s pretty hard to follow what’s going on other than: oh, they are in a burning house to save children (and, of course, how cowboyish of them too).
It’s an engaging enough mess, guided by on-patrol atrocities and frat boy pranks, cop-movie clichés and good performances. Perhaps the most interesting aspect, which the film fails to capitalise upon, is that these two wannabe maverick law enforcers seem to be getting into something much bigger than they but seem quite clueless to their predicament, even when warned off by Federal Agents. But the aesthetic is so terminally confused by the outset and the tropes so little engaged with and questioned that nothing original emerges from the whole. William Friedkin has said that “End of Watch” may be the “best cop film ever”. No. Head over to Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” for far greater character study, modern aesthetic and complexity (yes, Woody Harrelson’s cop is corrupt, but it’s far more honest depiction of the cowboy-ing cop), or over to Friedkin’s own “The French Connection”, of course. Indeed, watch David Ayer’s previous dramas “Training Day” and “Dark Blue” for better police dramas. We can do with as many respectful pro-cop dramas as exposes of corruption, I am sure, but “End of Watch” manages it only through cop film clichés, policing as YouTube footage and video game p.o.v. shoot-em-ups then topped with cheaply-won sentimentality. It fronts heroism over coherence, perhaps. If the camera had held still for a moment, perhaps there would have been some kind of focus.

"The Master" and the drift of masterpieces

Paul Thomas Anderson,
2012, USA

It would appear that Paul Thomas Anderson is pushing his characters ever more into states of ambiguity, if not obliqueness. “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” are positively broad soap opera compared to his later work, “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master”. “The Master” seems to have divided audiences more than ever. And then it is the film of the year in “Sight and Sound” magazine. Well okay. When I sat down in the theatre, leaving in my headphones to avoid the tedium of commercials, I saw four other people seated. For some reason, two got up and left (I don’t know if they came back later on because I sat in front of them, which I prefer) and there were two at the back. For all I know, the film screened to just three paying customer (I assume everyone else was at “Skyfall”).
Happily, I had forgotten what on earth “The Master” was going to be about when I sat down to watch: I had deliberately avoided all writings and warnings about it and had forgotten the little articles of gossip about it that I had accidentally browsed. This meant that I sat for half hour or more, fascinated by the oddball character drama before me, marvelling at Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance… and wondering where it was all going (I was curious as hell; some others might be bored) … and then, suddenly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s elusive Lancaster Dodd shows his true colours and subject Phoenix’s Freddie Quell to a question/answer session that threw everything into new and exciting light. “The Master” was long predicted to be about the growth of Scientology, I suddenly recalled, and all at once the film leapt into gear.
It is indeed one of those divisive films that are said to be beloved by “critics” (who know nothing about enjoyment and are apparently an species unlike others) and met with bored horror by “the audience” (who apparently retain the facility for enjoying films rather than criticism), whatever on earth that proposed division means. Some are saying that there is no story/narrative, that it’s boring and that there is not character progress or whatever. That is not how I experienced the film at all. Compare with the more wilfully indulgent and oblique and much loved “Tree of Life”, which succeeds as stream-of-consciousness cinema, as cinema as memory and as rumination on all of the above; by comparison, “The Master” has a pretty straightforward if slender narrative.
Freddie Quell comes home from World War II suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: war has allowed him to unleash his Id but he is unable to put it back into the bottle when returning to civilisation. We first meet him on the beach, spiking coconut juice with alcohol and making love to a giant sand-woman amongst his fellow veterans… but then he seems to take it too far and go on too long and no one seems interested in him; he goes to masturbate in the sea. It is quickly apparent that he is a loner. Moving from job to job, through wonderful period detail, failing to maintain relationships although he seems mostly to act from goodwill, he finally stumbles upon a yacht where Lancaster Dodd is holding court. Dodd, it turns out, is developing a new religion/cult based upon uncovering repressed previous lives. He is a charismatic and compelling charlatan who seems to treat Quell both as friend and primary test-subject. Quell finds some relief in falling under Dodd’s spell, finding that Dodd is genuinely interested in him, asking him about himself and seeming paying attention in a way nobody else is. With no place else to call home, Quell gives himself over to Dodd and Dodd’s “The Cause”.
The Master” does coast and drift, just as CalumMarsh says, but not every film needs to cut to the bone – this isn’t exploitation cinema, after all; and if you are willing to coast and drift, to wallow in the atmosphere, the set design and the potpourri of actors at the top of their game, then you may find Anderson’s meanderings gives the film the feeling of a novel’s dense prose. Here is a film more successful at allowing narrative to take a back seat than “Tree of Life”, because it allows character to lead and the story/narrative to slip back and act as support, which is pretty much the reverse of how many films work. Story is not the only thing.
The dramatic tension comes from this question: Will Quell get away from Dodd and the cult? That, for me, was the real tension at the point that he goes back to Dodd to see if he can call his cult home again. At this point, Dodd is now a big-shot presiding over his followers, but it is also apparent that his wife is pulling many strings and has never wanted Quell around. At this point, Dodd’s pitiable characteristics and his villainy are never clearer: in an awkward and oddball scene typical of Anderson as a rain of frogs, Dodd tries to literally serenade Quell back into the fold under the most uncompromising conditions: Don’t fall for it! I was encouraging Quell, despite Quell being quite the most frightening and wretched of people.
Quell doesn’t.
Quell beds a large woman, perhaps reminiscent of the sandcastle woman at the start of the film, and ambiguously tries Dodd’s techniques on her. This is wonderfully ambiguous. It is both playful and sinister. My reading is that Quell has somehow, miraculously, taken something positive from Dodd’s cult and is using those techniques as a method to try and connect with others; it is also snarking at those techniques too, in the manner of a boy mocking the things that his parents and teachers say.
As a tale of those that would manipulate lost and needy souls, as a tale of a lost soul trying to find a place to be, “The Master” feels quite the stuff of literary award-winners. Halfway through, I knew that this was a classic for those that go along with the aesthetic, the ambience and the pace. And, if nothing else, the performances of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams (who gets the really rewarding slowburn as Dodd’s wife even as Phoenix is all elbows and Hoffman is all bombast) mark “The Master” as one of the most notable actor’s platforms ever constructed.
About ten minutes before the end, I heard the two people at the back of the cinema holding a discussion: I would guess that she was protesting to leave. When the credits came up, I did indeed find that I was the only one left in the cinema. Hey, it was like my own private screening, which amused me because, well, if nothing else is obvious, it is not a film for everyone.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

"The Hobbit". A (mostly) unexpected treat

"The Hobbit: an unexpected journey": Peter Jackson, 2012, USA-New Zealand
...where Peter Jackson turns JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit" into a trilogy.

When I first heard that Peter Jackson was going to adapt JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”, I was fascinated and hopeful. He was known mostly for the outrageous monster splatterfest “Bad Taste”, but also the creepy and careful “Heavenly Creatures”. The guy could obviously do subtle and story as much as he could gonzo insanity so I was keeping a hopeful open mind. And so it was that I went with a friend to see the first “Lord of the Rings” instalment on New Year’s Eve and, for the next two years afterwards, we did the same. They were, for me, instant masterpieces. They were perhaps the greatest example of fantasy artwork brought to life ever put on screen; they were also some of the greatest monster movies ever made and perhaps THE argument for CGI, being also some of the greatest special-effects showcases ever made (an argument that others have mostly not matched). They were, indeed, closer to how I had visualised fantasy/fairy-tale narratives as a kid. The extra-extended editions were even better. Yes they were: a mammoth cinematic and audience undertaking. The attention to story and to detail (dirt and grime visible in the Frodo’s fingerprints when he picks up the ring, for example) made the film a long, long otherworldly pleasure; the downbeat tendencies helped to imbibe seriousness to otherwise absurdist ingredients. Despair, death and desperation coloured everything, making them grand apocalyptic visions too. I also considered them commendable war films.

I think we have been spoiled since. Every other blockbuster is a special-effect bonanza – particularly with the advent of the relatively young super-hero film genre and the fact that CGI makes EVERYTHING possible, if not actually convincing – and cinema has followed the “Lord of the Rings” precedents with “Harry Potter” and now regularly indulges in multi-film storylines and accepts that audiences are happy to wait and hold out for, and keep coming back for, the bigger multi-film narratives. This also helps to made sequels less obnoxious. Even “The Chronicles of Narnia” made it to a trilogy, even though it has, possibly unfairly, not reached the same giddy following of some others. Games systems and games are more cinematic than ever and the CGI lines between games and film effects are harder and harder to distinguish – interactive film! Every "Dr Who" episode is a special-effects wonder of sorts. What “Lord of the Rings” did is familiar turf now.

And the truth is, Jackson’s “King Kong” dissatisfied me and Del Toro’s “Hellboy 2” was just okay and he has since been curating so-so productions; so in truth I was expecting to be disappointed with “The Hobbit: an unexpected journey” too. Well, despite the crap trailer – because all contemporary trailers serve their films in the worst possible manner, I observe – it would seem that Jackson has simply picked up from where “Return of the King” left off with Del Toro backing things up and encouraging. Okay, so arguably “The Hobbit” is a little softer – because it is about discovering one’s own heroism in a far less despairing and dark environment than the apocalyptic “Lord of the Rings” Middle Earth – but it doesn’t betray it’s preceding trilogy. The whimsy stays the right side of zaniness; the monsters are horrible and often terrifying; the pacing is languid but reaps great rewards. Even as there is a slow build-up with all the dwarves assembling around the reluctant Bilbo through the plotting of wizard Gandalf, there are the most tantalising flashbacks to mitigate any boredom and to promise that the best is very much still to come. The novel “The Hobbit” is markedly thinner than the trilogy that precedes it, of course, so Jackson is raiding the appendices and legends to widen the scope and horizons and, perhaps, giving Bilbo’s adventure more maturity through association. The first flashback to the dragon assault (we don’t see the dragon Smaug, just the effects of his attack plus a flicker of tail) got this particular viewer’s pulse racing with anticipation. By the time we get to the fighting rock giants – let me just say that again, monster fans: fighting rock giants – I was sold. This, I thought, is something I could watch allll day long: and I was thinking is when a couple of characters were talking away in Elven outpost of Rivendale. I couldn’t, of course, but the feeling was that I didn’t want things to stop, and I was only halfway through the film.

Wow, I continued to think: I am really enjoying this. The fantasy vistas and the monsters and the sheer scale of the piece had thoroughly won me over. Why would I have any reservations? I gave myself over to cinematic joy. Slowly I was reminded exactly why I had fallen totally in love with the “Lord of the Rings” films. I knew others would be indifferent, but I was thrilled by “The Hobbit”.

Too slow?? Too long?! Some say.


I care not. What else is this fantastical, this lovingly made, this carefully developed, this joyous and fun?


Just as Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and “Alien” have proven to be definitive visualisations of science-fiction, Jackson’s Middle Earth films must be the epitome of fantasy cinema. The fantasy, otherworldly panoramas Jackson and his team create from New Zealand locations and computer-generated wizardry are continually ravishing, realistic and exceeding almost all rivals. I think the trick, the magic ingredient, goes something like this: unlike most peers, Jackson focuses continuously and unwaveringly on story and character, treating the fantastic and fabulous with seriousness; which all creates a context that elevates the fantasy visuals and the computer-generated monsters so that they have the essence of realism, so that they transcend that look at this special effect! and self-congratulatory sense given off by so many other films. That is, the effects do not feel like an end unto themselves and for all of their sense of awe, they are at the service of greater forces and rewards of narrative, story and character. One can happily give in to being awe-struck because all the elements of cinema are in action, are being attended to. (It’s prudent to mention that Jackson isn’t the only writer that this is all helped by the contributions of Fran Walsh, Del Toro and Phillipa Boyans to the screenplay.)

And then: when Gollum appeared, eyes flashing in the dark, I heard the audience mumbling with pleasure and the film positively purrs with delight. Andy Serkis’ Gollum is surely one of the greatest special effects ever put onto film. When he first appeared in the “Ring” trilogy, the shock of how good Gollum was, being a CGI creation, of how much it could withstand close-ups and scrutiny, was a revelation and he is still a total joy. Again, this is also because of Serkis’ wild performance the terrifying and the pathetic/terrifying character that Gollum is, which makes him utterly compelling. The showdown of riddles, the battle of wits between Gollum and Bilbo likely trumps any hard-man duelling present in other action films (which are, for the most part, just as unhinged from reality as Middle Earth).

Even, it seems to me, such a ridiculous creation such as the Great Goblin is salvaged by performance and being treated with seriousness. The Great Goblin and his humungous double-chin is repellent and borders on the off-puttingly silly; but Barry’s Humphries voice and straight-forward dialogue grounds him into the rest of Middle Earth.

And yes, Martin Freeman is a great Bilbo, making him amusing without being farcical.

It is a treat to have all the key cast return to maintain continuity from the previous films. Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, etc, all return (and yes, it is still mostly an all-boy’s affair, even though the film tries to stress Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel as much as possible).

Even Sylvester McCoy is used well (and that bird-poo stained beard really is icky; one of those details that makes each character and segment memorable.)

The Orcs range between slightly softer versions and just as frightening and ugly as before.

There is the most remarkable range of facial hair.

And so on.

I think that here was a film that tapped into the indiscriminate enjoyment of pure imagination and love of monsters and adventure that I bore as a boy. It seemed to me that, somehow, any critical faculties were cheerfully being bypassed or put aside for the greater good of being purely entertained. “The Hobbit” it thoroughly complimentary to the preceding “Lord of the Rings” films and proved that Middle Earth is a place that keeps on giving. I, myself, cannot wait for the next film. And I really, really cannot wait for some full on dragon action.

And how delightful that is.   

Sunday, 2 December 2012

"Martin" posters

Here is a selection of wonderfully inventive and evocative posters for George A. Romero's fantastic 1976 serial killer/vampire flick "Martin".