Friday, March 1, 2013

February 2013 Film Wrap-Up

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009) = 1/5

There is something repulsive about this film, and it is not the genital mutilation scene (OK, that's vile, but not my biggest qualm). The repulsiveness stems from the film's insistence on being weird for the sake of it. I have seen five other von Trier films and they were all weird or depressing (often both), but there were rewarding aspects of those films that really made me love them. The talents of Dafoe and Gainsbourg are wasted here. I didn't care an ounce for their characters, and it felt like I was watching a marriage counselling session gone awry. There's an eerie atmosphere and some nice cinematography that plays well here, but you're gonna need more than that to redeem a horribly sloppy and pretentious narrative. Seriously, when the fox said "Chaos reigns", I just lost it. It was so hilariously misplaced. Oh, and "Dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky"? Fuck off.

Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973) = 4/5

Not to be confused with Barry Levinson's Sleepers (1996), this is one of Woody's "early, funny ones." This is a great vehicle for Allen to showcase his knack for physical comedy. If you don't think he has it in him, just watch this film. As is characteristic of Allen's films from this period, the plot is zany and merely acts as a conduit for the jokes, but boy are the jokes good! You should also appreciate the film if you're a sci-fi enthusiast. Personally, I am not, but I still had a great time!

The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) = 3.5/5

If John Carpenter had cared about his characters as much as he cared about the special effects in The Thing, I would have loved it so much more. As it stands, I did like The Thing, but I fail to see why this film is held in acclaim. The special effects are great and comically grotesque. When it wants to be, The Thing is very suspenseful, but there are times where the tension doesn't amount to much. But it's those two-dimensional characters that are the biggest let-down. A frustrating film. 

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) = 5/5

This film, coupled with Shame, proves that Steve McQueen is one of the great artists of the 21st century. Not a single shot in Hunger goes to waste. The film sinks its claws into you as soon as it starts, and only starts to relinquish its grasp as the end credits roll. There are some images here that are difficult to shake from your memory, and indeed, Hunger packs a visceral blow. Inside this Irish prison, everything feels so real, and the use of sound in this film is incredibly effective. Take, for example, a scene where a guard mops a vacant corridor floor which is covered in urine. This sounds disgusting, but the rhythm of the mop reminds us that this is all part of prison life and it has to be done. Fassbender deserves endless praise for his demanding performance, and it hurts to look at him during the later scenes. What this film is best remembered for is an unbroken 17-minute shot wherein Bobby Sands (Fassbender) speaks to a priest (Liam Cunningham) about the prospect of a hunger strike. Goodness knows how difficult this must have been to perfect, and it's a credit to both actors that they pulled it off, and to McQueen for risking the scene in the first place. 

48 Shades (Daniel Lapaine, 2006) = 3.5/5

Now here's a film that will charm your socks off! For a film about unrequited love, it's not at all brooding or negative. I think it reinforces the idea that some things, like the weather, just are, and we have to be prepared to move on if we don't successfully pursue the person of our affection. This Australian film was filmed in Brisbane, and the colours are very vibrant. You'll be surprised how much happier this makes you while watching. I really cared for the characters, especially protagonist Dan, played by Richard Wilson. I really wish this was more widely available on home video.

The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956) = 3/5

The performances in this film are very solid, especially by the precocious Patty McCormack (pictured above). It's just a shame that this hasn't aged well at all. The concept of an "evil child" would have been almost taboo in the 50s, but these days, a lot of horror movies are made about children who seem to summon evil wherever they go. As a result, this movie came across as very tame. The film is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, and it felt like I was watching a stage production at times. It would have benefited from fewer stagy moments. 

The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982) = 4/5

The World According to Garp is a textbook example of a 'bad good film'. Or maybe it's a 'good bad film'. I dunno. It's certainly not arty, but it manages to be so...different, so enigmatic, that you can't help but be intrigued. When the film was over, I had no idea why someone would want to adapt John Irving's novel for the big screen. It's not the type of story that needs to be filmed. There's a certain coldness to it which made me wonder "Who is this Garp fellow and why should I care about him?" In saying that, I enjoyed the film for the most part, even though it was strange and overlong. John Lithgow and Glenn Close give memorable performances. 

Exam (Stuart Hazeldine, 2009) = 4/5

Some films don't feel like films at all—they feel like games, instead. Exam is one of those films. I had a lot of fun toying with it. I don't want to give away too much about it, but I'll give you the basic premise. Eight job candidates enter a room with eight desks and eight exam papers. A representative from the company lays down the rules of the exam. Each candidate has 80 minutes to answer one question. They must not talk to the Invigilator or the armed guard, must not spoil their paper, and must not leave the room. Failure to abide by the rules results in instant disqualification. Does that sound like a fun movie? I'll answer that question for you: yes, yes it does.

The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940) = 4.5/5

My first Chaplin film was a very good one. Speaking of firsts, this was Chaplin's first proper 'talkie', having established himself in silent films such as Modern Times and City Lights. It was his most commercially successful film, but also the one that attracted the most controversy. Chaplin's likeness to Adolf Hitler (complete with toothbrush moustache) is no accident. He wanted to make a mockery of the man, even if it politicised the film too much. But it is Chaplin's six-minute monologue towards the end of the film that has inspired the most criticism. It is a humanistic speech that calls for a society governed by science and progress, where empathy eradicates selfishness. Some people have called it the greatest speech of all time, but plenty of people think it is awkward and uncalled for, as Chaplin breaks the fourth wall and espouses his personal politics. I am a fan of the speech, but I can certainly see why many object to it.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) = 4/5

I first saw Casablanca back in 2011 at my university. I thought it was okay, but nothing grand. I decided to rewatch it this year as I feared my initial thoughts may have been influenced by the fact I was tired during the morning screening. Well, I was able to appreciate it a little bit more this time, but I still think it's nothing spectacular. The most memorable thing about it is the dialogue. There are so many quotable lines and I'm sure you've heard 'em all before. The performances are solid, especially by the sardonic Bogart and charismatic Claude Rains. My main criticism of this film is that the parts are more effective than the whole. There are so many iconic scenes here that allow the film to stand the test of time, but I try to visualise the small moments between those big scenes and I draw blanks. There is so much talking in this film, and I felt it needed to take a breather or two.

Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955) = 5/5

Note: This film is not part of the 365-Day Film Challenge.

I don't watch that many short films, and when I do, they are usually less than ten minutes. Night and Fog is a 32-minute short about the Holocaust, and each minute is terrifying. I think it overtakes The Exorcist as the scariest film I've ever seen. This is what every documentary should aspire to be. The execution is very simple, and the factual details are prioritised. In saying that, if every documentary were this realistic, cinema would lose its distinction as a medium for providing an escape. It goes without saying that this is very grim viewing, so only watch if you've mentally prepared yourself. More than anything, this film made me feel incredibly privileged to be born at the time I was, in the place I was.


WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) = 3/5

This film is beautifully animated with amusing sight gags, but I just didn't care for the plot. The first act is a familiarisation period where we start to identify with WALL-E. It is slow and leisurely, but everything sinks in. As soon as the film changes its setting from Earth to space, everything moves so frenetically and this creates an uneasy juxtaposition with the first act that I just couldn't adapt to. There is also a lot of jargon in the dialogue which will probably be incomprehensible to the target audience. Heck, even I got lost in it (there's a reason I'm not really into sci-fi). Another thing that annoyed me is the heavy emphasis placed on WALL-E's 'cuteness'. Hey, we get it: this little guy is cute, but after a while I grew tired of his robotic squeaks and puppy dog eyes. Because of this, most of the sentiment felt manufactured. The film's messages are very blatant but I won't be too hard on this aspect because, after all, the film does have to appeal to children.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, 2008) = 3.5/5

Despite being a little overlong, I was fairly impressed by this offbeat comedy. It was a lot more emotionally complex than I expected. The ambiguity of the characters is very refreshing. Every character has their flaws, and sometimes it's tough deciding who to root for. If the title doesn't make it evident, the film is about the challenge of getting over a past lover, and I was surprised at how strongly I empathised with this theme despite never having been in a relationship myself. I don't think this film would have worked in any setting but Hawaii.   

The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012) = 4/5

Mark O'Brien was an American poet who contracted polio in his childhood, rendering him paralysed from the neck down and dependent on an iron lung. The Sessions is about O'Brien's quest to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate at the age of 38. That sex surrogate, Cheryl, is played by Helen Hunt, in a role that earned an Oscar nomination. How John Hawkes wasn't nominated for Best Actor astounds me. This film could have fallen to pieces in other hands, but Lewin's treatment of the material is sensitive and mature. The sexual contact between Mark and Cheryl isn't erotic. It is gentle—just one woman doing her job and in the process making a man feel good about himself. I'm sure many people will watch this solely for Hunt's full-frontal nudity, but I hope they'll take something from it other than how supple her bosom is. Recommended reading: On Seeing a Sex Surrogate, Mark O'Brien's article that was used as the film's source material. 

Less Than Zero (Marek Kanievska, 1987) = 1.5/5

This film is a reminder to not get too sentimental about the 80s. Yeah, John Hughes made some great movies for young adults, but every now and then, a film like Less Than Zero came along and it sucked. I think the title refers to the amount of effort devoted to making us care for the characters. Look, I haven't read Bret Easton Ellis' novel on which this is based, but I'm less inclined to after watching this. It is so damn dated, brimming with all the excesses that characterise bad 80s films. Oh, and have I mentioned how boring it is? Watching these rich kids prance around LA is just plain uninteresting. 

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974) = 4.5/5

This is Scorsese's forgotten gem. Ellen Burstyn is terrific, and so is Alfred Lutter as her precocious son. A young, androgynous Jodie Foster is also a pleasure to watch. The whole film is imbued with a cinéma vérité feel, which made me get so involved in it. The use of popular music is great here, and I knew I was in for a treat when I heard Mott the Hoople's All the Way from Memphis and Elton John's Daniel within the first 30 minutes of the film. It's one of the quintessential films of the 70s.

Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981) = 2.5/5

A mute seamstress is raped twice in one day, goes insane, and begins killing men throughout New York City using a .45 caliber gun. That is the plot of Ms. 45, one of the most popular exploitation films of all time. As an exploitation film, it delivers quite well, but it never transcends its provocative sensibilities. It's always intent on shocking the audience, and I question whether Ferrara wanted to make a film with a message, or if he just wanted to give viewers something that packs a punch. I must give credit to the late Zoë Lund on her voiceless performance as the eponymous character. 

Super Troopers (Jay Chandrasekhar, 2001) = 4/5

Don't let the generic title or poster fool you. Super Troopers is a very funny movie. I was pleasantly surprised by how often and how hard it made me laugh. The best thing about the movie is that it realises how silly it is and doesn't try to emit an intellectual vibe. The humour is clever, but the plot is fairly run-of-the-mill. I envy everyone who worked on this film. It must have been so much fun to make.

Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) = 4.5/5

While it may not be the most entertaining film, it has a subtle emotional power that creeps up on you when you least expect it. Amour is a great film about the ravages of age and the things we do for love, which confirms Haneke's status as one of the most original and daring filmmakers working today. Trintignant and Riva are fantastic as husband and wife, and it often feels like you're watching a real-life couple go about their daily lives.

Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977) = 3.5/5

I had never seen a John Cassavetes film before this one. I'd heard a lot about his style and how it polarises audiences. Well, I neither loved or hated it. As for the movie itself, I liked it in parts, but it just went on for too long, and I didn't really care for the characters. The performances, however, are brilliant. Gena Rowlands is terrific as a stage actress who is mentally shaken by an incident whereby a young fan dies trying to see her, and descends into alcoholism as a result. Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara is solid as usual. Cassavetes himself is wonderful as Rowlands' co-star in the play.

What's Up, Tiger Lily? (Woody Allen & Senkichi Taniguchi, 1966) = 2.5/5

In a way, this is Woody Allen's directorial debut. In another way, it isn't. You see, Allen obtained the rights to a cheesy Japanese spy film, International Secret Police: Key of Keys. He stripped the film of its entire vocal track, and re-dubbed it in English as a comedy about the search for the world's best egg salad recipe. Hilarious concept, right? Well, I really enjoyed the first 30 or so minutes, but the novelty soon began to wear thin. The movie reinforces the importance of character development and dialogue. The former is missing, which makes for a less engaging picture. The latter has been re-dubbed, illustrating how the screenplay is the crux of a film. Worth seeing for sheer originality alone. 

Starter for 10 (Tom Vaughan, 2006) = 4/5

I'm calling it. This is one of the most intelligent and perceptive romantic comedies I've ever seen. It just radiates charm. This is essential viewing for any trivia nerds, and, if I may be shallow for a moment, it features one of the most physically attractive ensemble casts I've seen in a while. Benedict Cumberbatch is so funny here. 

Once (John Carney, 2006) = 3/5

Can someone tell me why this film receives so much acclaim? It's a musical, and the music is lovely, but as an entire film, this is frustrating. The jumpy camera is so annoying and not much happens except for the making of music. I didn't buy the intimacy between the two leads. It almost felt as though I was watching the special features of a concert on DVD, and this was under "Behind the Scenes". It's such a strange film. In fact, I feel funny just calling it a "film". Once almost defies classification. 

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) = 4.5/5

This film is deliciously weird and subtly horrifying. Just reading the IMDb plot summary gives me chills: "A police sergeant is sent to a Scottish island village in search of a missing girl whom the townsfolk claim never existed. Stranger still are the rites that take place there." It's one of the best British films I've ever seen, and maybe even one of the best horrors I've seen. The final scene will haunt you forever. 

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) = 3/5

I felt so shitty with myself after watching this film. Kubrick is one of my favourite directors of all time, and this is one of the most acclaimed films of all time, and yet I didn't like it that much. I felt like a simpleton, thinking I didn't "get it", or that the satire was above my level of comprehension. I thought the characters were interesting, but the plot completely lost me. I think it's because I approached this film expecting laugh-a-minute material, and underestimated its ability to have an actual plot. The film was very much ahead of its time, as was a lot of Kubrick's work. The best part of Dr. Strangelove was Peter Sellers. Comic genius. 

Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) = 5/5

The doggedness of the human spirit is a powerful thing. The setting is post-World War II Rome. A man's bicycle is stolen, and this really complicates matters as he needs the bicycle for his job, and he of course needs the job to support his family. So, along with his son, the man searches all over the city. Do they find the bike? That's something I'll leave you to find out. The film reminds us that life is often unfair, but there are silver linings to be found, however small. It is timeless and has universal appeal, but will especially resonate with those who know what it's like to go without.

The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006) = 4/5

I'm not a major crime enthusiast, but I've developed an admiration for the films of Scorsese, so felt compelled to check out this Best Picture Oscar winner. I thought it overstayed its welcome and was often confusing (especially towards the end), but that confusion may be due to the fact I don't watch many crime films. It's still a very good film with all the usual Scorsese touches, and it's quite accessible for those not too familiar with the veteran's work. Jack Nicholson's performance is outstanding. Oh, I've gotta ask: Did anyone else get confused between DiCaprio and Damon? It got to a point where I found it difficult to tell them apart. *Sigh* Silly me!

Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen, 1969) = 3.5/5

If we remove the experimental What's Up, Tiger Lily? from Woody Allen's filmography, this is the film that stands as his directorial debut. It is a whole lot of farcical fun. Allen's brand of comedy here is almost surreal, such as when he attempts to rob a bank by asking written permission. It is not Allen's greatest film, but it is undoubtedly one of his funniest.

Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004) = 0.5/5

I fucking despise this movie. I'm not calling it a film because that might trick some people into thinking it has an ounce of artistic merit. This was my second time watching it. I first saw it when I was 11 or 12, and don't remember liking it. However, I decided to give it one more go. Being older and more knowledgeable about movies, I thought I might be able to appreciate it this time. I was also curious to rewatch it because I had since learnt that this remake garnered critical acclaim and has a large cult following. I wanted to know what the hype is over. Well, I had already lost interest after 20 minutes, and began checking Twitter which was a lot more entertaining. I didn't completely zone out, though. The problem is that I TRIED to get into it, but just couldn't. Ask me to describe the plot and the best I can do is "Uhh, zombies?" The camera was moving so fast, it made Transformers 2 look like a Béla Tarr film. Seriously, how do people watch this and process a narrative in their mind? I think its main goal was to recreate frame 313 of the Zapruder film, over and over again. Oh, and one last thing. I'm sick of this notion that zombie horror is a sacred niche, as though all zombie films are "cool" or "fucking awesome" merely because, well, they contain zombies. What's so great about a zombie? I would guess than 90% of the fans of Dawn of the Dead are teenage males who fantasise about zombie apocalypses and wish the Saw franchise was still kicking because "ZOMG gore!". I don't know what I'm saying anymore, and I'm probably being too snarky here. The last thing I'll say about this movie is that it's one of the worst movies I've ever seen, and you can quote me on that. 

Final thought: My February was bookended by two awful films. I hope this never happens again.

1 comment:

  1. Really glad you dug Hunger and Night and Fog. Two of the finest films I've ever seen - raw, real, and completely gut wrenching.