Another Year (2010) D: Mike Leigh

•March 18, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Another Year

Mike Leigh’s 2010 Oscar nominated Another Year tells the tale of a year in the life of a mature couple and the people around them. Structured over four seasons in the drab English contours of Derby, Another Year is instantly recognisable as a Leigh film.

Jim Broadent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri, a couple with a grown son who tend to an overgrown vegetable patch at their quaint suburban cottage home. Beginning in Spring when planting is taking place, the film features a cast of players who come in and out of the couple’s life, carrying with them a pattern of substance and/or relationship problems.

Jim is a geologist in search of metals and minerals. Gerri is a psychologist currently seeing a depressed and abused woman. It is Gerri’s friend Mary though who is most like a patient. Mary is teetering on middle-age, drunk for what seems like the entire film and has a tragic and ominous vibe about everything she does.

The level of intimacy played by Broadbent and Sheen is tremendously impressive. Gerri’s every smile to Tom is an inside joke that we can see they have, but never get. It’s this intimacy that gives the couple complete constancy while everybody’s troubles rage around them. Leigh’s static camera work and long takes put the characters at the centre of the frame and give them complete focus. This is what Leigh does best, as evidenced in Secrets and Lies and Naked.

In the end what Another Year gives us is an exaggeradtedly sad and dull slice of life, all played out with the seasons as a backdrop. Leigh lets the moods and the actions of the characters mirror the natural turns of the Earth. In Spring, with the planting of seeds, the optimism of a pregnancy; in Summer, flirting at the lunch table and the birth of a child; Autumn brings a fall from grace and the shaking off of old foilage until finally, Winter brings sombre revelations as if a cold, silent death.

For all the bleak surrounds and the pain and suffering of Mary and others, Tom and Gerri present quite a calm oasis of hope. Growing old together and sparkling in each other’s company, they are the one thing that doesn’t change no matter the weather. This might not be Mike Leigh’s best film, but you’d struggle to find two better performances in anything he has made so far. What’s more, the Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay was well-deserved.

Another impressive look at England through Leigh’s lens. 4 stars

Inside Job (2010) D: Charles Ferguson

•March 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Inside Job

Inside Job, the 2011 winner of the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award is a study of the the Global Financial Crisis and those who appear to have caused it despite the fact they knew they would. Like the third act of any good legal drama, Inside Job sets out from the beginning to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that several of Wall Street’s largest institutions (Lehman Brothers, Merryl Lynch, Goldman Sachs etc) and their respective executives are not only to blame for the global financial crisis, but that they could have stopped it and nothing has changed.

As a document, the film reads like a dossier; segmented into five distinct parts outlining the past, present and future of the GFC. Intercutting interviews with outraged analysts and unrepentent high-flyers, there are scenes of excess to dream-like levels – private jets, multi-level mansions, swiming pools the size of a great lake – all overlayed with 80s synth tunes from Peter Gabriel and others. This is no doubt an attempt to raise the ghost of 80s greed in an ironically amusing reference to 1980s popular cinema.

Narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job feels like watching the tale of a notorious killer. Important turning points in history laid ominously bare with the power of hindsight and the audience is dragged to the final denouement – these guys did this deliberately and they got away with it. It’s a fascinating font of information on derivatives, junk CDOs and insurance credit default swaps, as well as on the lobbies who helped prevent any regulation stopping people profiting from them. By film’s end, viewers will no longer be shocked to find that the people at the centre of these legislation lobbies were tied in with finance companies and stood to profit from not fixing the problems.

Essentially, Inside Job is a law suit against Wall Street. It systematically analyses the reasons behind the financial meltdown of 2008 and beyond and provides supporting evidence to show the viewer who caused it. Like a lot of the best documentaries, it is supposed to be a call to arms, a none-too-subtle prod in the ribs with a message. In this case, the message is that a bunch of greedy and arrogant executives took the world’s financial system to the brink of total collapse, costing tax payers billions of dollars, and the government let them go on doing what they do without any real consequences. Director Charles Ferguson used his award acceptance speech to remind the audience that nobody had ever been prosecuted for causing the GFC. Inside Job wants to know what are we going to do about it?

The moral of this rivetting court room thriller seems to be that the lessons of the GFC have been largely ignored; that the people responsible have never been brought to task on their actions and haven’t even changed their ways. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order where the case fails and our heroes stare at the floor, helpless to stop more killing.

A strong case for the prosecution. 4 stars

127 Hours (2010) D: Danny Boyle

•February 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

127 Hours

127 Hours

In 2003, engineer Aron Ralston went canyoning in the Utah desert. Ralston slipped through a canyon and his right forearm was crushed and trapped under a falling boulder. For five days he was trapped with water and food supplies quickly dwindling. With little recourse, Ralston severed his arm just below the elbow to free himself and avoid certain death.

It is knowing this story that is part of what keeps the tension of 127 Hours completely electric. Danny Boyle takes the viewer through the story, methodically and deliberately leading toward the inevitable, horrific climax. But it is James Franco who carries this tale. For virtually three quarters of the movie’s nearly 100 minutes, Franco is the lead if not the only focus in the frame. From disbelief and bewilderment to anger and sheer agony, James Franco expresses a myriad emotion that is so much of why this film works.

As Franco plays him, Ralston is an affable scallywag with an easy charm, and Boyle has a penchant for likeable characters with a bit of a foolish and selfish streak – whether it’s Alex Law in Shallow Grave, Mark Renton in Trainspotting or Richard in The Beach. Ralston’s stubbornly independent nature was his downfall, as he neglected to tell anyone where he was going. To show us the true consequences, Boyle continually shows establishing shots of the vast desert and its labyrinth of canyons, starting with a slow zoom out from Ralston to a wide aerial shot of the desert floor.

The claustrophobic close-ups inside the canyon give the viewer a stifling sense of Ralston’s predicament. Well executed point of view shots from inside his last sips of water are not just a setup for the stomach-churning, foreseeable urine-drinking, but also give the audience a sense of cool refreshment that puts them in Ralston’s thirsty shoes. When the time comes to take his arm off, Ralston has exhausted his options so the audience knows he has no choice.

In the end, Aron Ralston accepts the inevitability of where he finds himself. As he offers a philosophical ‘oops’, he later muses about how everything in the Universe has aligned, from the rock’s journey as a meteor to his moment beneath it, to bring him to this place. For him, his accident seems as inevitable as the eventual outcome is to the audience. The actual act of removing the arm is brief but powerful, with the pain made palpable through superb sound editing and Franco’s agonised wailing.

If anything at all about this exhilarating and tense film disappoints, it would have to be the fact it was shot in 1.85 : 1 aspect on 35mm. With the stunning locations of Moab and Salt Lake City Utah, not using 2.39:1 and 75mm seems like an opportunity wasted. However, this is Franco’s film and the backdrop is overshadowed anyway. Boyle has again done what he does best, which is show ordinary and flawed people overcoming extraordinary circumstances – as the best stories always do.

Superbly nerve-wracking and briefly nauseating  4.5 stars

True Grit (2010) D: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

•February 4, 2011 • 1 Comment

True Grit (2010)

True Grit

While the Coen brothers’ much anticipated version of True Grit is said to be a reworking of the Charles Portis novel and not Henry Hathaway’s famous John Wayne film, it is difficult not to draw comparisons – particularly when star, Jeff Bridges, is clearly channelling The Duke.

The film’s now classic Western story is of a young girl who recruits misanthropic, hard-living, one-eyed Marshall Rooster Cogburn to avenge her father’s murder in the belief that he has ‘true grit’. To bring her father’s killer to justice, she is willing to travel across some of the harshest terrain that the Mid-West has to offer, in the dead of winter – much to the chagrin of Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (who is looking to capture the same man for different reasons).

While a good many scenes in the film harken directly back to the 1969 film, there is still much of this treatment that is recognisably Coen. For a start, the film is quite heavy with the kind of smart and multilayered dialogue that drove films such as Blood Simple and A Serious Man. Touches of eccentricity also abound in the wordy film, such as a suit made of bear skin – head included.

What is also a change from the 1969 film is the protagonist. While Hathaway’s Rooster ‘drove the wagon’, so to speak; for the Coens it is Mattie Ross around whom the story turns. Even as she romanticises and relishes the quest for revenge, it is she who mediates the natural friction between Cogburn and LaBeouf, she who keeps them moving when they would otherwise be happy to abandon the chase.

As you’d expect from the Texas and New Mexico locations, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is often breathtaking. Regardless, the dialogue-driven story frequently requires tighter shots and the stunning winter desert backdrop takes second place to the actors.

Jeff Bridges is crusty and mean and literally gritty in what is most likely an Oscar-winning performance. A bloated Matt Damon is the perfect ‘straight’ man as LaBeouf with his stuffy and arrogant air, while Hailee Steinfeld is a wonder as the cunning and whip-smart Mattie. Ross’ haggling and negotiating with Col. Stonehill over the purchase of ponies is impressively written and admirably handled by the 14 year old Steinfeld.

There has been a general dearth of films in the Western genre in the last 15 years or so. Arguably, not since 1993’s Best Picture winner Unforgiven has there been a successful mainstream example (though some would say No Country For Old Men qualifies). Part of the reason for this would be a modern America not prone to watching stories about it’s Wild West past anymore and a Hollywood that doesn’t want to make films people might stay away from.

In good news for fans of the genre, the Coen Brothers have made a superbly crafted film with a high amount of commercial appeal – as they are becoming increasingly good at. The success of True Grit could soon see a return to the days of Western films where mavericks like John Ford once sunk their filmic teeth into sweeping vistas and scorching sun.

A faithful renewal of an old tale and its genre with a masterful Coen touch 4.5 stars

Trees Lounge (1996) D: Steve Buscemi

•November 23, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Trees Lounge

This review appeared on the original Make Films Not Movies over at Blogspot.

Known to a generation of film fans for his wired portrayal of Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs (and to another generation entirely as the voice of Randall Boggs in Monsters Inc.) actor Steve Buscemi’s feature directorial debut is a raw and unflattering look at the life of dedicated alcoholics.

Trees Lounge is the story of Tommy Basilio, an out of work mechanic with an alcohol problem whose wife has left him for his one time best friend and boss (Anthony LaPaglia). Besides trying to get his boss to hire him again, Tommy spends his days at Connie’s bar (a world-weary Carol Kane) amongst the barflies and the down-trodden. His luck turns when he inherits an Ice Cream truck business and returns to work, but it quickly degenerates as he strikes up a worrying friendship with his ex-Wife’s seventeen year old niece (a very young Chloe Sevigny).

Filled with mise en scene as grimy as Connie’s dark den, along with an impressive number of outstanding performances, Trees Lounge seems to be about the curious need of all people to search for something else. A motif runs throughout the film of elusive wishes – from Tommy’s search for the love of his ex-Wife to some poor kid who just wants an ice cream cone and can never seem to win.

Flying well under the radar and not seeing much in the way of commercial success, Trees Lounge is an underrated film with a strong home video following. Watch it with a bottle of something cheeky and a wry smile.

A slack slice of barfly life with a lot of heart. 4 stars

Let The Right One In (2008) D: Tomas Alfredson

•October 29, 2010 • 1 Comment

Let The Right One In

There has been a slew of vampire films unleashed on the public over the last four or five years. Tomas Alfredson‘s chilling Let The Right One In is arguably the best of the lot. Along with last year’s Thirst, this is a vampire film that attacks the boundaries of what viewers expect from the genre.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a deathly white, bullied adolescent with not a friend in the stark housing project in which he lives. Until one day, Eli (Lina Leandersson) moves in. The somewhat androgynous Eli is a centuries old vampire trapped as a twelve year old girl.  After her initial attempts to shun Oskar, it is Eli who encourages him to fight back against his tormentors. The viewer soon discovers that the man who is ostensibly Eli’s father is in fact a human companion who collects victims to feed her bloodlust.

From the opening scene, Alfredson surrounds the viewer in the crystal cold Swedish ice which the protagonists inhabit. Sparkling white snowflakes fall across a death black midnight sky. Serving a perfect setting for a tale of the undead, the unforgiving ice and snow are enough alone to cause shivers of repulsion. The use of children as protagonists is from the source material (John Ajvide Lindqvistis’ novel), and within the film it harkens to successful horror movies such as the Omen trilogy, Poltergeist and The Exorcist.

Because the film has children up front, it is denied the vampire genre convention of sexual metaphor, which gives high importance to Eli’s thirst. This thirst is illustrated perfectly when we see Eli strung out like a heroin addict about to die, until she feeds and becomes the picture of health. It is a true and obvious hunger – almost legitimised when Eli feeds on a stranger like a lion on a felled antelope. What’s more, she shows genuine remorse when she is done, breaking the general lore of vampires – as does her seemingly genuine attachment to Oskar.

This icy wasteland of a horror film will stay with you long after an initial viewing, and yet the visceral gore of the piece is kept to key moments. It is this subtlety and nuance that is said to be missing from the 2010 English language remake, Let Me In. Alfredson opens his film up to the mumbling, begrudging communication between the two 12 year olds, instead of blazing away with fangs and gore. Everything here is shown at a cold and clinical distance; calm and still like the Nordic waters beneath.

Hedebrant’s disturbingly vacant Oskar and Leandersson’s bloodthirsty Eli are given life with unforgettable acting as the two outsiders connect in a very real and ultimately horrific way.

Superb storytelling and tremendous performances. 5 Stars

 

Before Sunset (2004) D: Richard Linklater

•September 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Before Sunset (2004)

Before Sunset

Director Richard Linklater released the no-budget, meandering Slacker in 1991 and became an instant indie darling. By the release of Before Sunrise in 1995, his penchant for long and involved, philosophical dialogue and tracking shots of characters in motion was well known. That film told the tale of two twenty-somethings on a Eurail train who meet and share a single night in Vienna. In parting, they swear they’ll meet in the same place one year on.

Almost ten years on, in 2004, Linklater released Before Sunset, the sequel. Before Sunset is a look at what happened to the young lovers. Did they return to Vienna a year later? Did they meet again every year after that?

Jesse (Ethan Hawke), it turns out, has become a novelist and has written what appears to be an autobiographical book about his night with Celine (Julie Delpy). As chance would have it, Celine has read the book and attends a book signing in Paris where the two are reunited. Again, they are short on time because American Jesse must catch a plane out of Paris that same evening. They spend what little time they have wandering around the streets of the city.

At its core, Before Sunset is a window into the way our romantic ideals change or are quashed with the trials and tribulations of everyday life. When they met, the characters believed everything was possible, that fate played a role in everything they did. With the passing of time we see they are somewhat more jaded and know that any lasting love must be worked at. Still, the illogical flame of true passion still burns within and Linklater lets us follow them around and see if it comes out. You don’t have to have seen Before Sunrise to care if it does or not, because their flirting and their tale are interesting enough.

Before Sunset is as much a love song to Paris as a truly romantic film about the excitement of new and honest love. Each long and carefully executed tracking shot through Parisian streets in the afternoon light as the old friends reconnect is an embrace of the City of Love. There’s a touch of Roman Holiday in the film, and Hawke and Delpy are almost as likable and striking as Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn were. Linklater is quite clearly trying to imbue a situation as mundane as two people walking – people who have all the grown-up problems they didn’t have as traveling twenty-somethings – with a stunning element of romance.

This sweet morsel of a movie is a secret note to jaded viewers that real romance is very much alive if we look for it and let ourselves love and be loved. What serves as an end to this simple vignette may not be satisfying for some, but is arguably among the most memorable of romantic finales in years. Many viewers have been put off by Linklater’s love of the spoken word, but the charm of Before Sunset rests in the believable conversations and the easy and romantic connection between Jesse and Celine.

A warm Spring walk in Paris with a lover. 4.5 stars