Thursday, January 31, 2013

January 2013 Film Wrap-Up

I've decided to slightly tweak the format of my film wrap-ups. The changes are as follows:

1. Stills replacing posters for each movie.
2. I'll be specifying my complete rating (e.g. '3/5' instead of '3') so as to dispel any confusion.
3. I'll no longer be selecting my best and worst film of the month. I figure you can deduce that from my ratings and comments.
4. Since I am participating in my self-imposed 365-Day Film Challenge this year, I've decided to provide opinion on every film I see, rather than commenting on ones that were especially noteworthy or thought-provoking. I will also provide my opinion/s on films not specifically selected for the aforementioned challenge, and will probably continue this format beyond 2013.


The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke, 1989) = 4.5/5

I was excited to welcome the New Year with a Haneke film, but I wasn't expecting something this depressing. As depressing as The Seventh Continent is, it's an astonishing film. We see a family go about their daily routines, and it seems like the movie is just hanging in the air, looking for somewhere to go. Before we know it, the mundane transforms into a nihilistic nightmare, and all you can do is sit in silence and watch. This film etched itself in my psyche and I can't shake it off. 

Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) = 4/5

This is one of the most acclaimed films so far in the 21st century, so I was expecting big things. I certainly did enjoy it, although it didn't blow me away. Del Toro creates a dreamlike atmosphere wherein fantasy intersects with reality. It has the feel of a classic fairy tale, and many of its images will stay with me, most prominently the Pale Man (pictured above).


Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988) = 4/5

Oh boy, this film was so much fun! Anyone who has gone through high school will know about the existence of cliques and the prevalence of petty gossip. They will also know about the predicament of peer pressure. This film is about all those things and more, and I was so surprised at how dark it is. The characters are morally ambiguous and the plot is highly engaging. I imagine this film would have influenced a movie like Mean Girls, although Heathers is far more emotionally complex. The chemistry between Winona Ryder and Christian Slater is excellent.  


Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998) = 4/5

This goes down as my first ever Wes Anderson film. I really hoped I would like this one, and I did! What impressed me the most is how original it is. It's zany without being so preposterous that it verges on self-parody. You just get the sense that everyone had so much fun working on this. The soundtrack is wonderful, creating an atmosphere of whimsy (a common term when it comes to Anderson's films) and vitality. Its main flaw is that, at 93 minutes, it's not quite long enough to flesh out all of its story arcs. 


A Short Film About Love (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1988) = 4.5/5

First of all, the title is deceptive. Yes, the film is about love—but it's a feature, not a short. A 19 year-old post office worker spies on a 30-something woman who lives in the opposite apartment building. He falls madly in love with her, but this is problematic because the woman gave up on the notion of love some years ago. She believes the only form of human intimacy is sex. This is a very absorbing film that is at once sexually charged and emotionally tender, and it works so well because we believe that the characters are channelling the thoughts and actions of real people all around the world.  


The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) = 3/5

No, you're not seeing things. I really did give this film 3 stars. Let me start out by saying that I'm not the biggest fan of gangster films. Yes, I did enjoy the first Godfather, but I just could not get into this one. I'm not sure if it's because I watched it on a hot day, but I was bored and fidgety for most of it. Keep in mind the film has a running time of 200 minutes. That's like watching 9 episodes of The Simpsons (without ads) back-to-back, but a lot less enjoyable. I can hardly remember any of it, probably because it insists on using dialogue rather than action to propel the story. If you know me, you'll know I love dialogue-driven films, but not when they go for 200 minutes. I think I was expecting it to mirror its predecessor a lot more than it actually did. I did not like the decision to tell the stories of both Vito and Michael Corleone. It was just too much. But hey, I'm in the minority on this one. Watch it and judge for yourself. 


Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001) = 4/5

Now this is a dialogue-driven film that I loved! I've always believed that Linklater is one of the most underrated directors of our time, and this film only boosted that argument a little more. The film has only one setting—a crammed motel room. There are only three characters who inhabit this room, so you could imagine how minimalistic this movie is. The performances by Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman are all fantastic, and it had me hanging on every word.


Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991) = 4.5/5

One of the reasons I wasn't too impressed with the 1962 version of Cape Fear is that Robert Mitchum's Max Cady just wasn't terrifying enough. In this remake by Scorsese, Robert De Niro is chilling as Cady, and there is a genuine sense of danger whenever he graces the screen. I also enjoyed the performances of Nick Nolte and Juliette Lewis. The latter especially deserves praise for giving such a precocious and difficult performance. A lot of people criticise Scorsese for his work on this film, believing he played it safe and didn't direct the film with that distinct Scorsese style. I can sort of see where they're coming from, but that did not deter me from loving this film.


Arachnophobia (Frank Marshall, 1990) = 3.5/5

I had a lot of fun with this creature feature, wherein the residents of a quiet American town one-by-one fall victim to a cluster of deadly spiders. The characters are archetypes, but I let that slide because a film of this nature isn't about the characters. I think it will only scare you if you actually have arachnophobia. Most viewers will be amused, or "creeped out" at the most. I think I would have given this a 4 if it weren't for a rushed final act. 


Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) = 2/5

Friday the 13th is a classic slasher film, but we should remember that not all 'classic' movies are given that label because they are good. Friday the 13th is a fairly bad movie. There is nothing special about it except for the influence it has had on better films of the same genre. Before 1980, the slasher subgenre of horror wasn't that prolific. Films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas and Halloween made their mark, but Friday the 13th may have been the first "cabin in the woods" style slasher film. Despite its status as a hallmark of the genre, it just hasn't aged well, and the pacing is terrible. There are long stretches in the film whereby the characters just languidly walk around, as though they're waiting to be killed. Boring and forgettable. 


Man on the Moon (Miloš Forman, 1999) = 4.5/5

Andy Kaufman is a name I had heard of but never really looked into. I knew he was a comedian and that he was controversial, but nothing beyond that. Oh, and I guess I'd heard about his feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler and his wrestling with women. Man on the Moon is a biopic about Kaufman's life starring Jim Carrey, who is just fantastic in the role. Carrey leaves his slapstick schtick at the door and portrays Kaufman in a way that earns our empathy. This film has its share of laughs, but it's also genuinely moving. I think it's highly underrated. 


In the Mood for Love (Kar Wai Wong, 2000) = 4/5

It's about the universal tragedy of mutual love left unspoken, and it manages to be simultaneously immersive and standoffish. The latter quality is due to an inconsistent editing style. Mostly, this is a pleasing film that will linger in your mind. One thing that will definitely stay with me is a scene where Chow (Tony Leung) tells a friend about a way people divulged secrets in older times. They would go to the top of a mountain, carve a hollow in a tree, whisper the secret into that hollow, then cover it up with mud. Just beautiful.  


Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000) = 4.5/5

Amores Perros tells three interconnecting stories about people's relationships with their dogs. The dogs represent the theme of loyalty, but it is cruelty that characterises much of the film. It is tough and gritty, and there are scenes featuring organised dog fighting that are hard to watch. This is one of the most impressive directorial debuts I've seen, and González Iñárritu has gone on to show that he's no one-hit wonder (although this is the first of his films I've seen). The script by Guillermo Arriaga is brimming with accurate insights on human impulses. 


Death to Smoochy (Danny DeVito, 2002) = 3.5/5

Not a lot of people like this film. In fact, many people despise it. I can understand why. Nevertheless, I am not one of the film's detractors. Sure, I wish I had seen a better film on my birthday, but this was very much watchable. I thought it was funny and entertaining, but the plot becomes so bizarre that I found it impossible to take anything from it. This is a very cynical film that was made for a specific audience. What that audience is will always be a mystery to me.  


The Mudge Boy (Michael Burke, 2003) = 4/5

Wow. This film was a big surprise. I just didn't expect to like it that much, but I am so glad I watched it. Emile Hirsch stars as Duncan Mudge, a sexually confused, shy and effeminate boy who lives on a farm with his father (Richard Jenkins). His mother has recently passed away, so he carries around a chicken to preserve her memory. Duncan mingles with the local teenagers but he never seems completely at home with them. He's seeking company for company's sake. The climax is extremely powerful and I don't think I will ever forget it. This is just brutally honest filmmaking. 


Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen, 1996) = 3.5/5

It's clear Woody Allen only made this film to tick "make a musical" off his bucket list. That said, this is a fun film and I reckon the cast would have had a ball making it. There's not much of a plot here, but if you're looking for something to make you feel happy, this is a good movie to seek out.


Wayne's World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992) = 3.5/5

This was a film I was almost afraid to dislike. "How could I tell people I hated WAYNE'S WORLD!?", I thought to myself. The movie has achieved cult status since its release in 1992, and with its unconventional humour, I can see why. Here's a film that is aware of how silly it is, which is both a virtue and a hindrance. Personally, I wouldn't call it a classic, and I'll probably soon forget it. That said, it works well as light entertainment and is great for a lazy afternoon.  


Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen, 1992) = 4.5/5

I had heard a lot about this film, and I was glad it lived up to its reputation. It's notable for the use of a shaky handheld camera, which is surprisingly effective. The drama is intense and it's a great spectacle to see the characters match wits. The cast is excellent. I mean, you've got Woody Allen, Judy Davis, Mia Farrow, Sydney Pollack, Juliette Lewis and Liam Neeson. Pretty good, huh? The scenes between Allen and Farrow are a bit awkward to watch, knowing they had their real-life disputes around the time of the film's release.


Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, 2009) = 4.5/5

It took me a while to get around to this much-acclaimed Pixar film. I don't watch a lot of animated films, but I'm glad I gave this one a go. Firstly, the hype surrounding the opening 10-to-15 minutes is completely justified—simple, quietly touching storytelling. I think the second act drags on a little bit, but Up ultimately provides the escape most people look for when they go to the movies. It's breathtakingly animated and has that humanistic Pixar touch.


Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961) = 3.5/5

This was my first Audrey Hepburn film, and I can see why she's often hailed as one of the most beautiful women people ever to grace this planet. If this film were a breakfast food, it would be scrambled eggs—light, fluffy, and enough to satisfy but not fill. It's iconic without being a masterpiece, but I was highly satisfied with the ending. It made me smile. A lot. 


Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, 2000) = 4/5

It's slower than a tortoise in the mud, but every frame in this film is exquisitely crafted. It's an intensely challenging film that I would have to watch at least one more time to truly appreciate. You can almost feel the images in this film being tattooed on your brain as you watch the events unfold. 


Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) = 3/5

Tim "Style Over Substance" Burton takes an interesting premise for a film and overcomplicates it by showing off about how beautiful he can make a movie look. It's as though he adds layer upon layer of plot detail as an excuse to introduce more locations and odd characters. There's a lot of energy here and I wanted to like it, but Burton bit off more than he could chew. Oh, and it's a bit too saccharine for my liking.


Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978) = 4.5/5
"For me, the human face is the most important subject of the cinema.”
                                                                                                   ~ Ingmar Bergman

Bergman's interest in the human face really comes to the fore in Autumn Sonata, a film about a strained relationship between a mother and her daughter. The film is raw and intensely absorbing. A lot of films are depressing because of their atmosphere. This film is depressing because we strongly empathise with the Liv Ullmann character. Ingrid Bergman and Ullmann give powerhouse performances.   


Reprise (Joachim Trier, 2006) = 3.5/5

There's a great film in here somewhere, buried beneath the distracting (almost pretentious) narration and annoying jump cuts. As a debut, it's respectable, but it just felt a bit too muddled and self-aware to be truly accomplished. Trivia: This is the first Norwegian-language film I've seen. 


What About Bob? (Frank Oz, 1991) = 4/5

Now this is one of the most entertaining films I have ever seen. Its treatment of mental illness is simplistic and rather clichéd, but it works so well as a comedy. Bill Murray has never been so lovable, and his chemistry with Richard Dreyfuss is just fantastic. Please see this under-appreciated film! 


Planes, Trains & Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987) = 3.5/5

I am a huge admirer of John Hughes, although I didn't connect as strongly with this film as I have with his other ones (most notably The Breakfast Club). Of course, we're dealing with two grown men here, and not a bunch of high-schoolers. I'm not saying this is a bad film. Steve Martin and John Candy complement each other quite nicely. It's very funny and it will warm your heart, but I found it a bit predictable and flimsily plotted. 


Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002) = 3.5/5

It's an original, surprisingly atmospheric film featuring wonderful performances from Spader and Gyllenhaal. It dares to be different, and it could be seen as a satire that demeans the relationships we usually see in run-of-the-mill romantic comedies. I just thought it was a bit too self-aware, especially towards the end. If you're after a sex-positive film, you'll thoroughly enjoy this one. 


Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) = 4/5

I have now seen five Lars von Trier films, and Melancholia is probably the least depressing of them all. That's saying something! This immaculately photographed film speaks to the sceptic in all of us. It's slow but rewarding, and too unique to dismiss. 


Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012) = 3/5

Note: This film is not part of the 365-Day Film Challenge. Initially, I wasn't going to see Hitchcock—at least not in cinemas. I'd heard it was very disappointing. However, I was given a free pass to see any movie at Hoyts, so I succumbed and went to see it. The film provides only a cursory glance at the eponymous master, and is primarily about the filming of Psycho. Much of the film focuses on the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are delightful to watch. Yeah, Hopkins doesn't look a lot like the Master of Suspense, but he was still very acceptable. I was disappointed about an unnecessary subplot involving Alma assisting a friend in writing a screenplay. There are also a few needless scenes where Hitchcock hallucinates that he is in the presence of serial killer Ed Gein. My advice is to stay home and rent Psycho. Hitchcock is good. Just good. Only watch it if you're a serious fan of Hitchcock. 


Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) = 5/5

I didn't think I was going to see a 5-star film in January, but then this film came along (on the same day I saw Hitchcock, believe it or not). This is a classic noir tale that's high on suspense. It's not the edge-of-your-seat suspense evident in later Hitchcock films, but rather a sense that there's something ominous we don't know about. It's fun to get inside the characters' heads in this twisted love story.

Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973) = 3.5/5

The most important lines in Mean Streets are, "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, a young Italian-American man who wants to move up in the ranks of the New York Mafia, but must first control his reckless friend, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). This early Scorsese film is flawed, but it's a nice preview of things to come. The performances and soundtrack are brilliant, and New York City looks sordid though beautiful.


Slugs (Juan Piquer Simón, 1988) = 2.5/5

I first saw Slugs on cable TV when I was 6 or 7 years old. I LOVED it. During my mid teens, I rented it on VHS from the local video store and watched it with a friend. It didn't hold up, and I realised how silly it is. I decided to give it one more shot. Imagine Arachnophobia with killer slugs instead of killer spiders, and with less humour. That's what Slugs is, essentially. This is sick, slimy fun, and while it's not exactly a good movie, it's oddly amusing. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

An Ode to Crowded House

Let me tell you how much the songs of Crowded House mean to me. All I ask is that you read what I have to write. You don't have to like it. I believe you discover a Really Good Band only once in your life, or twice if you're lucky. When I say 'really good', I mean a band that gives you the shivers; a band that gives you that skin feeling. I feel possessed whenever I listen to Crowded House, as though Neil Finn and co. crafted all these beautiful songs to appeal to every emotion in the gamut of human feeling. When I really got into Crowded House at the age of 16, I knew my life would never be the same; that every dismal moment of isolation could be cured by their gorgeous harmonies and melancholic hooks. So many of their songs transport me to a private universe, where the only things that exist are the music and lyrics. If I find myself in the lowlands of dark thought, or feel that I can't carry on, I can rely on their music to be a speedy antidote.

Some of the songs on Crowded House's eponymous debut album are as sweet as chocolate cake, but when you come around to 'Temple of Low Men', you'll notice a darker shift in tonality. Neil's brother, Tim, came on board for the recording of 'Woodface', while their fourth album was recorded overlooking a lush valley at Kare Kare (sic) Beach in New Zealand. Crowded House said Farewell to the World in 1996,  but reformed in 2006. They released 'Time on Earth' in 2007, which was partially inspired by the tragic death of drummer Paul Hester in 2005. This was followed by 'Intriguer' in 2010, which certainly lives up to its title.

Are you still reading? Don't stop now!

You'd have to be a pineapple head to deny the talent of this band. Even a child can appreciate the music they make, and I was a child myself when I was introduced to Crowded House's most popular tracks. I really owe it to my parents for purchasing a copy of 'Recurring Dream': their first greatest hits compilation. I was a fickle child—a black and white boy, if you will. Nevertheless, I was adamant that I enjoyed the music of Crowded House. Their music pops up everywhere, in the places you least expect. You can hear it in a secondhand store while you trawl through Italian plastic, or in a cosy café tucked away in the backstreets of Amsterdam, or over the stereo in a transit lounge. The bottom line is: you can hear Crowded House on either side of the world.

I've encountered people who don't like this band, and that's their right, but when they do it out of spite, I flash them a kill eye and let out a sigh. I could challenge them with "say that again", but at the end of the day, music taste is a trivial matter. I should note that such moments are rare. Most people I encounter love this band with the intensity of an archer's arrows penetrating flesh.

One thing I've noticed is that Mr Finn enjoys writing songs about the weather and natural elements. It's only natural to notice a botanical connection between Tall Trees and English Trees. You can bask in the Saturday sun, but as that distant sun disappears and the rain begins to pour, you'll realise that four seasons in one day is a very real possibility. And don't forget that you always take the weather with you, which is of course a metaphor for emotional baggage.

In the liner notes of 'Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House', Peter Paphides writes about "Crowded House Moments". You'll know them when you hear them. They stay with you forever. A Crowded House Moment could be a shift in melody, an entire chorus, a bridge, or any part of a Crowded House song that just sounds 'right'. I know the moments Peter is referring to. They strike me like nails in my feet. The songs are not in my command; I am in theirs. I hear them in a silent house, and we are together alone: the songs and I. Some of the songs are soft, like the grace of a falling dove, while others make their force known, the way Catherine wheels dazzle in the night.

My copy of 'Recurring Dream' is one of my most treasured possessions, despite being in terrible condition. The front cover is missing, so all I've got is the back cover, the disc (thank goodness), and the frayed liner notes. Despite this, I refuse to replace my copy because there is too much sentiment attached to it. Now, that's what I call love! That greatest hits album lured me into temptation with its surreal cover art and even stronger with its timeless tracks.

Fame is inconsequential to Crowded House. Promoter Michael Chugg has said they were so, so close to being one of the "biggest all-time bands in the world" when they broke up in 1996. Even though the whole world may not know about Crowded House, their music is definitely for the world, or pour le monde for those who know French. 

Crowded House lyrics have a distinct sense of humour and a tinge of oddity. Neil Finn wrote a song about the whispers and moans of couples who have sex in hotel rooms. And let's not forget that song about Neil's sister madly screaming in the middle of the night. And there's often an element of autobiography to the songs Neil Finn pens. Neil tells us about the time she called up, or about the way she goes on.

There is something so strong about the songs of Crowded House. I dare you to listen to Together Alone and tell me it's not one of the most beautiful songs ever written on this world where you live. If you find yourself walking on the spot, listen to something upbeat like Black & White Boy to break the monotony.

Despite my great love for this band, I am yet to see them perform live. I'd much rather attend a concert of theirs than own a mansion in the slums. In the heaven that I'm making in my mind, they are on the stage exchanging banter, and I am sitting front and centre. All external influences are locked out of my mind, and they bring down the house with a killer setlist. Nick Seymour strums his bass with fingers of love—the fingers that have strummed along since 1985. I glance at my watch and think "I better be home soon," before deciding the music matters more than my whereabouts. I slink in my seat and think about how all is right in the world, and about how much I love this life. When the night is over, I walk away knowing I just witnessed the greatest moment of my existence.

If people are like suns, Neil Finn shines awfully bright. If I ever meet him, I want to look him in the eye and say, "You are the one to make me cry." Of course, he only incites tears of joy. Haunting songs do that to you. Nobody wants to be caught with tears streaming down their face, but if those tears are in the name of Crowded House, I'll let anyone watch. The day Neil Finn dies will be the day I proclaim "There goes God." I think Sharon Finn made the right decision when she walked her way down the aisle to marry Neil.

Do you feel that you know the band a little better having read this? Good! Now we're getting somewhere! Do your friends a favour and introduce them to this wonderful band. They will fall at your feet, begging for more suggestions. You will have turned their worlds inside out. I'm sure of it—as sure as I am that the sky is blue.

One day I'll be dead. I don't know how I'll die. I could be trampled by elephants, or drive my car into a hole in the river. Even if I die from natural causes, it won't change the fact that I'm gone forever. I wonder what I'd like inscribed on my tombstone. As cynical as I am, I think "Don't dream it's over" would make a nice epitaph.

So, how will you go with the music of Crowded House? Hopefully, you'll adore it as much as I do. Crowded House, I will love you 'til the day I die.