Thursday, November 14, 2013

Note to Readers

Any blogspot links for this blog will no longer work.

Please migrate to for a brand new archive featuring updated lists for every year since 1930, and any (probably rare) future posts!


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Note to Readers

Just a little message to make readers aware that this site is still active, despite there being no posts or sidebar updates for several weeks. I am in the process of shifting the blog to a different host, which will hopefully be ready in the next few days, here at the same address.

In the meantime, weekly episodes of the podcast are still ongoing.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

In the Mood for Podcast: Episode 42

This week we take the opportunity to discuss all things Nicholas Cage, with the release of two of his films, the silly action thriller “Stolen,” and the prehistoric animated adventure “The Croods.” Cal sat through Ray of Light supremo Jonas Akerlund’s “Small Apartments” while his veto of “Identity Thief” meant that Pete was all alone with Melissa McCarthy, a terrifying thought in itself. And then we get onto “Compliance,” which may be the biggest casualty of ‘In the Mood’ vitriol since “The Lorax,” and proves that the fast food industry can indeed get more repulsive. A budget reveal of “Jack the Giant Slayer” knocks us for six, while we consider the fate of the once-great Bryan Singer, and the potential disaster brought on by his film’s final scene. Fee Fi Fo Fum! We smell the blood of a sequel! 

Il Postino (1994)

Il Postino
Directed by Michael Radford
Starring: Massimo Troisi, Philippe Noiret, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Linda Moretti
Grade: C

Given that its leading man basically gave his life to bring “Il Postino” to the screen (at least in the form we see it now), criticising the film feels rather like kicking a puppy. Nevertheless, its depiction of an insular Italian community – and the man at the centre of it – is disappointingly narrow, plumbing the sweetness of quaint, small-town living rather than expanding upon the relationships Massimo Troisi's Mario has with his girlfriend and her mother. Troisi himself gives a soulful turn which adds to the proceedings, but the film misjudges the measure of Mario, charting his enlightenment far too drastically. We're supposed to believe that his new-found engagement with poetry has also ignited political motivations in his character, but why? The integration of politics is a half-baked device devised to add drama to a story otherwise devoid of it, and snatch at our emotions with a late manipulative climax. Radford's routinely tepid direction adds very little in the way of flair, while Luis Bacalov's nice but earnest musical accompaniment reinforces how dreary the entire affair is.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

Welcome to the Punch
Directed by Evan Creevy
Starring: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, David Morrissey, Andrea Riseborough, Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris, Daniel Mays
Grade: B

“Welcome to the Punch” emerges as a smart British crime thriller, in spite of its heavy reliance upon an opening sequence the filmmakers don't seem to have the budget to pull off. The sketchy attempts to provide a backstory for James McAvoy's dejected police officer never really convince, despite how many times the film seems to hammer this point home, or how dishevelled the actor's gristly facial hair makes him. And still, what the film lacks in character building it gains through a winning cast, who treat the solid plot mechanics with the respect they deserve, alluding to a vast network of criminality beyond what we can essentially see. The text may be better served in a TV series format, in which BBC's investigative crime drama “State of Play,” thrived, but 'Punch' holds its own in this arena, the actions of its characters founded on rational motivations of crime rather than the mafia-style dynamics we see in many mediocre British works of this style.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Directed by Don Scardino
Starring: Steve Carrell, Olivia Wilde, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin
Grade: C+

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is far more thoughtful than it ever needs to be, given that it's specifically cast for an audience drawn to broad physical comedy. Inevitably there are some moronic attempts at humour, but the script at least attempts to chart an (admittedly schmaltzy) arc for Carrell's washed-up magician, who has to rediscover his passion for his profession to appreciate what he has. There's an accurate commentary on the transition of the industry from wholesome illusion to stunty feats of endurance, whereby supposed street entertainers and bodyshock merchants are popularising non-traditional forms of magic. 'Burt Wonderstone' actually spends so much time on building relationships between its characters that – when it comes to the final third – it can't really resolve all of their issues properly, having to drop Alan Arkin's retired magician like an old toy and reduce Jim Carrey's David Blaine clone to a deranged clown. Nevertheless, there's enough rapport generated to ensure that a soft finale can't really spoil a perfectly amiable experience, the film semi-delivering on the promise of laughs and surprisingly adding some soul, to boot.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

In the Mood for Podcast: Episode 41

The highlight of a quiet week at the cinema is Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy,” but will he finally impress us “Precious” skeptics with his Florida-set thriller? We discuss the controversy of that jellyfish scene, as well as other films that kicked up a fuss, for one reason or another. The rest of the releases include showbiz comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and British thriller “Welcome to the Punch.” We’re looking ahead to the next few episodes by dishing our thoughts on trailers for films out in the next month or so, including Seth Gordon’s “Identity Thief,” which one of us has already vetoed. Cal promotes a re-release of Joseph Losey’s “The Servant,” while his unflattering review of “Beyond the Hills” is hijacked by Pete’s desire to turn it into a Catholic-style remake of “Wreck-It Ralph.” Just another week, then…

The Headless Woman (2008)

The Headless Woman
Directed by Lucrecia Martel
Starring: Maria Onetto, César Bordón, Claudia Cantero, Inés Efron
Grade: B

“The Headless Woman” would be a near-masterpiece if it were not for the opaqueness of its central mystery, which partly feels like a deliberate attempt to preserve that mystery, but also reads as a sheepish move by Martel to answer as few questions as possible without the entire thing seeming like a wasted exercise. “The Headless Woman” isn’t a waste; it’s a great character study about a woman that could be any one of us, and the actions of Onetto’s deathly driver feel wholly identifiable given the situation. A story that could have been driven to melodramatic depths of conspiracy and punishment in the hands of a less sensitive filmmaker is handled shrewdly and not without power; a distant shot of an unidentifiable person or object on a road is harrowing, and certainly a contender for best single shot of 2008. Yet it’s strange that, despite all of its successes, the biggest feeling “The Headless Woman” left me with was the lingering lament of what the film might have been had it probed a little further.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Libeled Lady (1936)

Libeled Lady
Directed by Jack Conway
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow
Grade: A –

A viewing of “Libeled Lady” at least illuminates something that had been puzzling me for a while: that Best Picture Oscar snub for “My Man Godfrey.” Why vote for ‘Godfrey’ – its collection of actors far more deserving than a sparkling but philosophically conflicted script – when you can throw a bone to Jack Conway’s “Libeled Lady,” a spicier, more capable comedy about duping daffy socialites? Of course, the question should be why Conway’s film didn’t land nominations for its cast, led by a supreme William Powell (nominated for ‘Godfrey’) and loaded with great supporting turns from Loy, Tracy, and Harlow. The film showcases the strengths of screwball comedy – particularly its canny measure of deceit, which appears to set characters up for a fall before harmlessly snatching them from the jaws of self-destruction. Rallying us to the corner of the newspaper industry works because the film portrays it as a hopeless instigator of its own downfall, while the genre’s trademark gender politics has rarely felt as incisive as within the central relationship between old favourites Powell and Loy.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Cazale
Grade: B+

“The Deer Hunter” might just be the most quintessentially masculine movie I’ve ever seen. While it could be classified as a war film, its sequences of combat are far less impacting than the character work done either side of that conflict; the film’s opening farewell party for the battle-bound men – chief of which is Robert De Niro’s Michael – tentatively setting up the nuances of character which heighten upon the guys’ return from duty. The film’s final hour recalls the most severe moments in William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” updated for a different generation, but with a similar impression of war as an unconquerable hyper-reality. One of the main criticisms of “The Deer Hunter” has been that it advocates America’s involvement in Vietnam, and that it depicts the Vietnamese soldiers as monsters. That second point may have some validity, but Cimino’s film primarily uses the horrors of war to chart the descension of man’s moral fibre, and with a distressing amount of visceral power, too. There’s perhaps an overuse of Russian Roulette to work suspense into its depiction of devolved humanity, a final scene involving the grisly game a somewhat melodramatic move, if instantly iconic in the annals of cinema.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Midnight Run (1988)

Midnight Run
Directed by Martin Brest
Starring: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Farina, Joe Pantoliano
Grade: B

In terms of dynamics, “Midnight Run” is intriguing: it ends up playing out rather like “The Defiant Ones,” despite De Niro’s bounty hunter essentially having the upper hand in his quest to bring corrupt accountant Charles Grodin to justice. The difference here is that the characters’ main differences are behavioural, the film mining their contrasting approaches towards getting their own way for maximum laughs. The film had me worried on occasion; a scene in which De Niro returns to his estranged wife and daughter suggested things might take on a personal angle, while there are some questionable ideas about what constitutes justice towards the end. Nevertheless, “Midnight Run” has some enjoyably madcap qualities, and De Niro exhibits just how great he is at being the flawed good guy by giving a hilarious, immaculately-pitched turn. Ultimately, the success of the film probably depends on whether you buy Grodin’s quiet, apathetic charade of a performance, which I found disarming at first but grew to appreciate – mainly for having to compete against a man aware that he’s totally running the show.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ali (2001)

Directed by Michael Mann
Starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Nona Gaye, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mario Van Peebles
Grade: B

While it loosely follows the conventional structure of biopics, Mann’s impression of the boxer deemed the world’s ‘greatest’ is often bitingly honest, Ali shown to be an arrogant adulterer with a nasty streak about him. And yet the film still feels compromised, the attempts to associate Ali’s Islamic commitments to the people of Zaire confusing given that the characterisation of the man suggests his approach towards religion was a hypocritical burden to all around him. It might be that I’m reading this wrongly, or that the film simply doesn’t handle this element of Ali well, but it does feel like the late switch to Africa leading up to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ tries to reconcile the behaviour of Ali the Man when there doesn’t appear to be much to identify with. The decision to cast Will Smith, however, is a wise move, the guy’s extrovert nature and clear sense of ambition a good fit for Ali’s charismatic brand of showmanship, while Nona Gaye gives an excellent performance as his suffering second wife.

Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vanessa Shaw
Grade: C –

One hopes that Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” isn’t – as proclaimed – his final feature film, since it’s lazily unbecoming of his eclectic filmography, and a severe disappointment. Soderbergh’s biggest crime is to squander opportunities to provide a concrete commentary on the perils of the pharmaceutical industry, using the arena as a haven for exploitation but at no particular cost to the accepted enterprise of doping to maintain business. Instead, the film acts as more of a cautionary tale about how manipulative women can be – particularly when they aren’t under the spell of a man (please!) – its array of characters all morally compromised and conceited to some degree. That the film makes the two ‘victims’ of events a corrupt stockbroker and a vindictive shrink adds little weight to its ideas of corporate greed, as it doesn’t really establish a network beyond its set of strangely compartmentalised characters to punctuate lasting observations about a ‘rotten core’ to the industry, like “Margin Call” did, for example. The thriller’s linear path creates just one legitimate avenue of mystery, and the film fails to maintain enough interest to offset the inevitability of its climax, settling instead to offer a couple of redundant twists at its laboured denouement.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Entertainer (1960)

The Entertainer
Directed by Tony Richardson
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Roger Livesey
Grade: B+

Set in the seaside town of Morecambe, this John Osborne-penned domestic drama deals with concerns relevant to British tourism even today – most notably the need to revamp traditional customs of holiday entertainment and move with the times. In detailing the resistance of Laurence Olivier’s Archie to transition from his Vaudeville roots, “The Entertainer” expresses the difficulties posed by the uncertainty of change, balancing the suffocation of small-town living with the charm of its familiar comforts. The film has a real knack for building loaded relationships between the characters without them having to vocalise issues, far looser and eminently more interesting than the overwrought “Look Back in Anger.” Away from Shakespearean territory Olivier enlivens Osborne’s selfish antihero with a sad artificiality, reinforcing the independent spirit of Archie by ‘performing’ to even his closest family members, and hurting them by acting like the twenty year-old Jack The Lad it’s obvious he once was. It feels fitting that in a year loaded with great male acting showcases – from Anthony Perkins, Marcello Mastrioianni, Albert Finney, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, and Spencer Tracy, to name but a few – Olivier managed to bring out his best, too.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In the Mood for Podcast: Episode 40

But for some football-related rants this week’s episode is surprisingly concise, as we turn our attention towards legacies. As Steven Soderbergh prepares to fold up his chair and retire (we’ll believe it when we see it) after his final film “Side Effects,” we reveal whether we think his pharmaceutical thriller is a worthy swansong, and offer our favourite examples of final films from directors. Sam Raimi is resurrecting L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books with “Oz the Great and Powerful,” but can this kaleidoscopic 3D adventure even come close to replicating the magic of the original? And will Barbra Streisand’s Razzie-nominated return to acting in “The Guilt Trip” affect her long-standing reputation as a Queen among actresses? We have reviews of Jason Statham vehicle “Parker,” the acclaimed British thriller “Broken,” and Pete’s precious “Robot & Frank,” while we assess the power of Bette Midler’s Oscar-nominated performance in “The Rose” and look ahead to Sofia Coppola’s latest foray into the perils of youth, “The Bling Ring.” Sit back and listen to us bitch!

Head on over to the blog and give it a listen!

Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent
Grade: C

Scorsese, usually so good at fleshing out criminal networks and hierarchies, doesn’t quite get there with ‘Gangs’, torn between the various constraints of the story – historical accuracy, romance, and primarily the Jesse James-Robert Ford relationship between Day-Lewis and Di Caprio – that much of it feels overstuffed and undernourished. When he has to widen the scope and chart New York’s escalating lack of rule in the second half, the tone intensifies and the anarchic state of the city is shown through choppy editing and manic cinematography, which feels completely out of place with the rest of the movie. Its unevenness is – in many ways – a double-edged sword; While distracting, at least the erratic nature of ‘Gangs’ means that you can never really settle into it, the theatrical performance of Day-Lewis a disarming treat in itself, and the dourer elements of the period shown to be quite enterprising. As for any grander commentary on New York, the film takes two hours to establish a political system within the city (an election battle seemingly emerges from nowhere), affirming that its helmer may have had a little too much on his plate here.

The Evil Dead (1983)

The Evil Dead
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell
Grade: C+

I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be impressed by how cheap “The Evil Dead” is, or how much blood it manages to squeeze out of that miniscule budget. Either way, it’s safe to say it doesn’t click in the way that “The Blair Witch Project” did, neither particularly terrifying nor funny, basically a silly exercise in genre filmmaking with Dogme-like limitations. It does hold up as an example of how production values are unimportant in creating an effective horror film in relation to what you do with those production values, and Raimi’s roaming style of filmmaking achieves a fair blend between genuine scares and a wholly ridiculous grand guignol. Ultimately, the film means much more in the context of independent filmmaking than as a benchmark for its genre, the 1980s equivalent of what “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was for the 1970s, and ‘Blair Witch’ was for the 1990s, but stuck in a decade in which American cinema struggled, and an obvious, dated representation of that.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Guilt Trip (2012)

The Guilt Trip
Directed by Anne Fletcher
Starring: Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand
Grade: C+

As predisposed as I am to welcoming Barbra Streisand’s return to acting with open arms, this is a role she could ace in her sleep, that of a pernickety mother eager for her boy to settle down and find a nice girl. The surprise here is that she and Seth Rogen (as her inventor-of-sorts son) have a winning chemistry together, their exchanges of banter making the utmost out of a fairly mediocre script. The road-trip narrative – used so often as a tool to force two people to identify with each other – plays out as schematically here as it ever has, but the film at least has some markedly interesting quirks; a recurrent joke involving a hook Streisand uses to keep her purse from becoming dirty is an amusing aside, while the practical influence she has on her son’s sales approach handily emphasises the strengths of both their characters. The film aims to reel in its audience through traditional Route-66 stamps, breaking out the 2-D stereotypes along the way, and makes the mistake of trying to reconcile past issues involving Streisand’s character in one late, cloying scene. That it finds an identity amid an abundant use of cliché at least makes “The Guilt Trip” not an entirely wasted journey.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Firm (1993)

The Firm
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Ed Harris, David Strathairn, Tobin Bell
Grade: C –

John Grisham’s “The Client” had a better shot at mainstream success, but was badly acted and directed; “The Firm” just feels like an overcooked attempt to make us care about people we really shouldn’t. Cruise’s discovery of corruption and murder is followed by the implication that his plucky lawyer possesses some sort of elitist brand of ethics – he goes to such lengths to find a legal solution to his problem – which is unjustifiable given the rest of his behaviour (Don’t get me started on his fiscally-dependent relationship with Jeanne Tripplehorn). While I’m reliably informed that Grisham’s novel makes for a bracing read, “The Firm” makes it clear that his specified prose does not lend itself well to broad cinematic appeal. Pollack’s quest to turn the David vs. Goliath-style narrative of this legal drama into the vein of a survivalist thriller further compounds that observation, a distractingly overutilised score one of his failed attempts to inject tension into a strangely anaemic exercise.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Give 'Em Hell, Harry! (1975)

Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!
Directed by Steve Binder
Starring: James Whitmore
Grade: C+

‘Harry’ is a difficult film to judge, given that it’s essentially a videotaped production of a stage play, and not a particularly accomplished one at that; there are many inexplicable close-ups of its actor when he isn’t facing the audience, and when the performance cuts to an interval or ceases it appears as if the cameraman has become lost in the crowd. But this was 1975, and cinema-goers were fortunate to have even seen this on the big screen at all, foremost a vehicle for James Whitmore’s Academy Award nomination but also a canny exploiter of the Watergate scandal as a catalyst for considering the core values of modern American politics. Whitmore’s turn is, quite literally, a tour-de-force, largely successful at expressing the practical habits of Harry Truman and his humanist condemnation of prejudice and bigotry. The humour itself is rather tame, and you can sense the audience laughing before they’ve even had time to digest the joke, the actor’s intense delivery not always lending itself to clarity of thought or consideration. I don’t know enough about Truman to know if this is an accurate or founded portrayal of the man, but as a nostalgic yearn for integrity in Washington, it’s quite an enamouring showcase.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Primary Colors (1998)

Primary Colors
Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring: Adrian Lester, John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Maura Tierney, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton
Grade: B+

That this particular story holds up in 2013, and continues to be replicated in films such as “The Ides of March,” is more indicative of the unchanging shallow dynamics of American politics than it is of any cinematic habit. Armando Iannucci has clearly modelled his scripts on this sort of political satire, the coarse wit of “In the Loop” perhaps the closest rival to the silly campaign trail melodrama of “Primary Colors,” which features an assemblage of actors (from John Travolta to Maura Tierney) you feel have no right to be as compatible as they are together. The biggest success of the film is that it continues to ask questions of its characters when it could just resolve to become a lesson for Adrian Lester’s lead that idealism in politics is essentially foolish. Even when ‘Colors’ makes its rashest mistake in killing off one of its characters, the refreshingly honest reaction of Travolta’s Presidential candidate offers yet more shade to a script bursting with ideas about how or whether ethics belong in this arena, and comes to an acceptance of political coda without resorting to as surly or solemn a climax as ‘March’ does. The absence of any real villains or preoccupations with blame in “Primary Colors” is a shrewd move, its only critique being of an irreparably damaged system.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Directed by Robert Ellis Miller
Starring: Alan Arkin, Sondra Locke, Biff McGuire, Laurinda Barrett, Stacy Keach
Grade: C

A film about a deaf mute, the most striking feature of ‘Hunter’ is its constant reinforcement of disability as an ennobling fate to befall a person; the loving patriarch of the family Arkin’s John lodges with is confined to a wheelchair, while the humble husband of a middle-class black woman has to have one of his legs chopped off. Social and racial pressures were a big concern in this period (lest we forget the Best Picture win for “In the Heat of the Night” the year before this) but the dramatic beats in ‘Hunter’ feel like soapy elements unrelated to the inner troubles of our central protagonist. It’s almost as if somebody thought it too bold to spend an entire film focussing on a man unable to talk, the film eventually justifying how unconcerned it is with John by asserting that nobody really knows him at all, which reads as a pretty huge copout to me. Still, there is at least the lovely presence of wallflower Sondra Locke to usher some real truths out of the script, animating her character’s arc from spirited small-town wallflower to crushed adolescent with a depth of feeling the film probably doesn’t deserve.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Good Morning, Vietnam
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, Tung Thanh Tran
Grade: D+

I suppose the souring reputation of this one-time Oscar nominee comes from its failure to commit to a particular stance on the (also) souring debacle that was the Vietnam War. It’s not so much that the film sanitises the event but rather that the story of Robin Williams’ outspoken disc jockey is an ineffective window into this period of history, playing out rather like Lenny Bruce Does Asia, with Bruno Kirby’s stuffy Lieutenant the counterpart purveyor of conservative taste. Mitch Markowitz’s script tries to forge an even reflection between comedy and drama by heightening the seriousness in the second half, and it all gets terribly messy when an escalating subplot involving the funny-man’s local friends pushes the character into unbearable degrees of self-righteousness. Williams, either hysterically funny or hysterically frustrated, rides along with the flaws of the film, adept at giving an impression of Oz’s Good Witch of the North, but less successful at providing his character’s growing political conscience with any logical credence.

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

The Keys of the Kingdom
Directed by John M. Stahl
Starring: Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell, Cedric Hardwicke, Rose Stradner
Grade: C+

“The Keys of the Kingdom” has a potentially silly setup, whereby a young Gregory Peck dons old-age makeup, and plays an elderly Scottish Priest told to retire by the monsignor in charge of his church. When the monsignor finds the priest’s journal he becomes enthralled, and the film flashes back to tell his life story, the bulk of which takes place in war-torn China.

The framing device seems rather arbitrary on the face of it, until it becomes obvious that this is a drastic attempt to slap unearned sentiment onto an unendingly earnest portrayal of humble service. I get the distinct impression that “The Keys of the Kingdom” is a film best viewed in one’s later years, when its self-important reverence of legacy may punctuate best towards somebody genuinely looking back on their achievements and wondering whether they could have done more. Nevertheless, the film acts as a formal vessel for its message that we make the best of what’s given to us – hardly a novel or particularly interesting concept, but one that makes for a disarmingly moving last twenty minutes or so, when an appropriately stately Peck laments to his female colleague about being overlooked for a Bishop’s position. It’s a shame that the obligatory structure of biographical narratives means that we don’t get as much of a character study as in these later scenes, but ‘Kingdom’ still carries a surprising amount of emotional heft.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

I Never Sang for My Father (1970)

I Never Sang for My Father
Directed by Gilbert Cates
Starring: Gene Hackman, Melvyn Douglas, Estelle Parsons
Grade: B –

If Gene Hackman were a less capable actor, his character in “I Never Sang For My Father” might become an unbearable sulk. As a dutiful son to all-around curmudgeon Melvyn Douglas he seems resolved to be unhappy throughout the film, unable to see any compromise between committing to a miserable life at home in the East, and high-tailing it to the West Coast with his girlfriend and her two kids. Essentially one long struggle to rationalise feelings for a stately, arctic patriarch, ‘Father’ has an innate personalisation which suggests an autobiographical element to Robert Anderson’s script (adapted from his own stage play), but does tire from being so concerned with a singular overwrought issue. Hackman’s realisation of the character helps to overcome the stodge; he approaches invisible bonds of history with resignation rather than contempt, and in the film’s final, wrenching scene between father and son, he retains a level of emotional openness and reassurance when it feels like his character has nothing left to do but flail around the become the victim. This is an example of how an edgy script petrified by the idea of mortality can be tempered by wise casting decisions.

In the Mood for Podcast: Episode 39

EPISODE 39: Shostakovich & Shockers [1:22:37]
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It's Episode 39 of In the Mood for Podcast, a British-based film podcast hosted by Calum Reed of Ultimate Addict and Pete Sheppard of In the Mood for Blog. We might be a little off-form this week, as Pete is still ill and Cal is hungover, but we've got some juicy-looking films to ponder. We aim to be positive by bringing out our irregular Red Light District segment and pimping the best films we've seen in the past month, which include a Russian classic and a film about a woman who rents cats. We check out "Stoker," the latest bloodthirsty offering from arthouse favourite Park Chan-Wook, and there's blood on the hands of Richard Gere's troubled billionaire too, in Nicholas Jarecki's "Arbitrage". While Pete opted for masculine thriller "Broken City" Cal sat down for Lasse Hallstrom's adaptation of Nicholas Sparks novel "Safe Haven," but we both saw part two of Terrence Malick's prolific streak, the grand, romantic "To the Wonder." Tune in to find out which one of us was reduced to tears by Malick's film, and listen to our confessions of which films never fail to make us blub. 

Monday, March 04, 2013

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

Vanya on 42nd Street 
Directed by Louis Malle
Starring: Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine, George Gaynes, Lynn Cohen
Grade:  A –

Having not seen the Chekhov play “Uncle Vanya,” I was going into this somewhat blindly, reassured by people who have seen it that watching Malle’s film, of a set of actors performing a stage rehearsal, doesn’t require any particular foreknowledge of the seminal Russian text. While “Vanya on 42nd Street” presents the material in a way which made me hanker for a viewing of it in all its theatrical glory, with actors dressed in forlorn period outfits rather than the leather jackets and light denim donned by New Yorkers in the mid-90s, I’m doubtful as to whether this particular ‘adaptation’ could be bested. Rather than marvel at the workmanship of a crew of filmmakers attempting to enliven the literary majesty of a complex story of domesticity and tentative familial bonds, perhaps it’s more valuable to absorb “Uncle Vanya” through Malle’s unpolished, semi-improvisational method, which demonstrates actors learning and developing their roles as they perform them, and which allows the different degrees of intimacy between the characters to emerge with clarity, and thrive.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

To the Wonder (2013)

To the Wonder
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem
Grade: B

Those put off by the broader themes in Malick’s vision in “The Tree of Life” can be assured that “To the Wonder” reverts to a form of romantic personalisation that won him loyal supporters back in “Days of Heaven.” A rural-American setting once again provides the landscape for a story which reinforces themes of dislocation and estrangement, but details them as a destructive factor in a relationship, rather than a uniting, primitive bond, as in his 1978 romance.

The courtship of Affleck’s Neil and Kurylenko’s Marina exercises Malick’s enterprising visual flair, his inherent tenderness as a filmmaker giving their romance a swooning, crystallising glow. The couple’s subsequent deterioration echoes common relationship issues like cultural mismatch, commitment phobia, and even boredom, problems which could easily grow repetitive and tire a film so attached to narrative pitfalls, like last year’s “Keep the Lights On.” Malick’s style ensures that, largely, this isn’t the case, never fully immersed in the finer details of the couple – we get flashes of dialogue regarding VISA trouble and a sexual issue, but never more than that – and therefore able to curb the potentially overwrought nature of their relationship in favour of his trademark visual storytelling.
The disadvantage of this technique is that “To the Wonder” becomes more reliant upon individual performances than any of Malick’s previous films – save for maybe “Badlands” – to provide bursts of characterisation, and the success of the cast members vary significantly. Kurylenko gives an astonishingly layered performance, imbued with the precocious, playful qualities which make her endearing in the first place, but reveal themselves to be tiresome and misguidedly idealistic that it’s no wonder Neil loses interest in Marina. Affleck – who it’s good to see back in front of the camera again – fares less well, not necessarily through a particular fault of his own, but rather that Malick seems less interested in his character’s plight than Kurylenko’s, whose effervescent complexion fits more with his entrancing, romanticised view of a doomed love affair. In any case, he doesn’t afford Affleck as much freedom as Pitt in “The Tree of Life” or Caviezel in “The Thin Red Line,” tortured male characters who were far easier to identify with.

While some attest that “The Tree of Life” is a religious film, its reverence of the natural mystique reads more to me as a spiritual piece uncommitted to God, or Jesus. The attempts to introduce Catholicism into “To the Wonder” sit less well – not because they represent a more specified belief system, but because they’re closely associated with guilt, and there isn’t a strong enough sense of duty from either of the couple to warrant that aside. At under two hours “To the Wonder” feels drawn out, too, although positively so: the conviction of its director towards creating an emotional pull makes the film visually extraneous without letting its characters overstay their welcome, and may perhaps best demonstrate the appeal of Malick’s unique brand of cinema.