Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Listomania! My Favourite Films of 2014

You all read my rambling, shambling, ambling stroll through my year at the movies, right? Well, it’s time now for the cold, hard data known as The Best of List. I’ll dispense with the usual caveats about Best Of Lists by distilling it all into this: “This is my list. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.”

Now that’s out of the way, at ease, soldier! Let the Listomania begin! And at the top of the heap is:


Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

Here’s something that doesn't happen very often: There was one scene in Under the Skin (that I’m not going to spoil here) that was so oppressively tense that I think I may have held my breath a couple of times. Another thing that doesn't happen very often: Once the film had ended, I remained rooted to my seat, all the way through the closing credits and beyond to the illumination of the house lights, just sort of staring both past the screen and right through it. Just extraordinary.

Sliding into second is:


Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Brooding, dark, funny, uplifting, hopeful and nihilistic, all held together by Brendan Gleeson and those eyes.

The rest of my Top Ten, in no particular order:

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

I've always been something of a Wes Anderson sceptic, but with The Grand Budapest Hotel he finally got me with his lovely, labyrinthine, laudatory lament to stories and the people who tell them. It was surprisingly affecting once the artifice crumbled.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)

I never know what kind of Coen Brothers movie I’m going to get. There are the ones that I love unreservedly (Blood Simple; The Big Lebowksi; No Country For Old Men; Raising Arizona; O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and then there are the ones that leave me cold (Fargo; Burn After Reading; Miller’s Crossing; Barton Fink; The Man Who Wasn't There). I had a hunch that Inside Llewyn Davis would fall into the latter category as soon as I heard that this would be about folk music and featured a cat in a prominent role. Man, was I wrong! I still catch myself singing Please Mr. Kennedy at inopportune moments...

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)

Only Lovers Left Alive (or "The Unbearable Darkness of Being") did nothing to alleviate my ongoing crush on Tilda Swinton as it reveled in the gothic in more ways than one.

The Purge: Anarchy (James DeMonaco)

Note for Purge virgins (Purgins?): You don’t have to have seen the first film to enjoy this superior sequel.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese's trilogy chronicling a History of True American Crime is now complete. From Goodfellas and Casino to the amoral white-collar recidivists of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort may well be the biggest monster of them all...

Under those ten, in the category of Close But No Cigar:

The Guest (Adam Wingard) and It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) - That’s a stunning Carpenter-inflected Maika Monroe-starring double-bill right there. Prediction: It Follows may well graduate to my Best of 2015 list next year after another viewing...
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Oculus (Mike Flanagan)
Pasolini (Abel Ferrara)
Pride (Matthew Warchus);

Honorary Mention: All Is Lost (J. C. Chandor)

I’m counting this one for this year even though it got a UK release date of Boxing Day 2013, because that week between Christmas and the New Year is a ghost week that comfortably straddles both sides of the temporal firework whizbang we divide our calendars with. There are coincidental glimpses of Life of Pi, Captain Phillips and Gravity here, and All Is Lost is better than all three of them put together. On the strength of this and the terrific Margin Call, Chandor’s forthcoming A Most Violent Year shoots to the top of my most anticipated films of 2015.

Cut. Print. Ask me tomorrow, and you'd get a different list. Maybe. 

(Please don't ask me tomorrow).


My Movie Year 2014

For me, 2014 has been all about the eyes. Brendan Gleeson's sad, soulful eyes in Calvary. The horrors reflected in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s haunting and haunted eyes in 12 Years A Slave. The flat blank eyes of Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin. My abiding memories of this year’s screen-gazing are going to be the gazes looking back out at me...


And it’s not just the eyes looking out. How about the eyes looking in, carting along baggage, preconceptions and a lifetime’s experience with them? You take from a movie what you bring to it. Case in point: The excessive deluge of think pieces screaming about the perceived agenda of David Fincher’s Gone Girl. From one corner: “It’s misogynist!”. From the other: “It’s feminist!”. And I sat in the middle thinking “No...it’s pulp. Really well-tooled pulp, and Fincher is smart enough to want to provoke his audience and raise such questions. But...it’s still just pulp.”

Gone Girl was monumentally stupid, hugely entertaining, far too long, never a dull moment. All at the same time. It’s a potboiler. Lurid. Over-egged. Melodramatic. Compulsive. It's riddled with holes that only gape wider when you prod at them a little bit. It may well be the ne plus ultra of potboilers, but it's a potboiler all the same.

Brilliant balderdash, but it really doesn't have anything remotely profound or meaningful to say about marriage or the media. Let's not credit Gone Girl with such unwarranted gravitas, when it's little more than a very good time at the movies.

And yet while everyone was picking apart Gone Girl fruitlessly hunting for an agenda where there was none, there was a more insidious, cavalier sexism at play in another huge release that didn't garner anywhere near as much attention - Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. Let me show you how with a little game called Reverse The Following Roles: Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson. I can't think of a single reason why at least one of those character reversals couldn't have been made without adversely affecting the narrative in any significant way. Ken Watanabe would still have had the opportunity to say “Gojira!” with the requisite amount of crowd-pleasing portent and gravitas.


(And, while I’m railing against inconsistent ways of looking at things, chew on this one: Stealing and sharing stolen naked selfies online is rightly perceived as Very Bad and Wrong. And yet stealing and sharing private company data and Sony email correspondence is Perfectly Fine and Fair Game. How’s that for a double-standard, motherfuckers? Sharing your body and sharing your opinions are personal and intimate acts and, most importantly, choices. Choices that have been removed from those affected. And with each licked lip over every salacious reveal, everyone makes their future argument weaker the next time someone comes to violate your rights and privacy….OK, back to crapping on about movies…)


Elsewhere, Christopher Nolan continued to make films that I admire rather than like. Interstellar was no better or worse than his erstwhile collaborator Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, and yet the latter was the one that got the critical kicking. In both cases, it's just not enough to have the ambition to interrogate questions of love, devotion, grief and our relationship with technology if you can't actually come up with anything remotely profound or illuminating to say about any of it.

Lucy, on the other hand, was Transcendence with a sense of humour. Where Pfister's film trades in po-faced faux-profundity, Luc Besson has a twinkle in his eye as he gleefully bullshits us for the sheer fun of it.

2014 was also the year that The Great John Carpenter Homage became a fully-fledged sub-genre. The Guest was essentially John Carpenter's Uncle Buck. It Follows was Halloween in Detroit (which is unfairly reductive, sure, but if you want a more detailed assessment, you’re going to have to click through to my recap of this year’s London Film Festival.) And in The Purge: Anarchy... It's Punishin' Time! If John Carpenter directed Frank Grillo as Frank Castle for Marvel, you’d get this double-barreled blast of pulp nirvana.

On the subject of Marvel, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy disproved the burbling misguided wisdom of the internet masses who liked to claim that Big Bad Corporate Marvel were far too conservative to unleash Edgar Wright on Ant-Man. Gunn vaporised that argument with the endearing friendship between a gun-toting raccoon and a monosyllabic dancing tree. I also now have an excuse to once again share this beautiful logo designed by my inestimable friend Emma Price based on a dumb gag I hurled on to Twitter.


The Raid 2 sadly hewed to the maxim that more is less. The first film was all tight, stripped-down bonecracking beauty. This, however, was somewhat baggy and occasionally tipped over into queasy, disposable sadism. It lagged and suffered whenever Iko Uwais was off-screen (you could jettison an hour of subplots easy), but when he's there...wow. He's the Fred Astaire of face-kicking.


And so ends just a few of my ruminations on my Year In Dimly-Lit Auditoria. For one of those list things that everyone seems to be so fond of, you’ll have to wait just a little bit longer...

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Writer's Bloch


I just found these and needed somewhere safe to keep them, so...

Robert Bloch wrote Psycho, so we should love him unreservedly for that alone. But he also came up with these wonderful bons mots:

“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” 

"Friendship is like peeing on yourself: everyone can see it, but only you get the warm feeling that it brings.”

“So I had this problem -- work or starve. So I thought I'd combine the two and decided to become a writer.”


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Obsessive Compulsions: John Shaft

"Hey, man," Shaft said with weariness and exasperation. "What is this bullshit?"

The glint of metal became a blossom of flame, a bouquet of orange and vermilion thunder flowers. But only for the shortest moment known to man, that moment before dying.

Those are the final lines of Ernest Tidyman’s The Last Shaft, published in 1975. The end of the line for the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about. But you can’t keep a good cat down…


[Cover art by Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz]

I've written about my lifelong obsession with Shaft many, many times before, so I’ll try not to cover the same ground here. But that doesn't preclude me from expressing my delirious excitement that Shaft is BACK! Not only are Dynamite Entertainment bringing all seven of Ernest Tidyman’s novels back into print (They Are Great! Buy Them All!), but a whole new cycle of John Shaft stories are about to begin in a series written by David F. Walker and illustrated by artist Bilquis Evely. As someone with a complete run of the original Shaft novels and an almost complete print run of Walker’s BadAzz MoFo magazine, I have no doubt that he is absolutely the right man for the job and I can’t wait to get my hands on some brand new Shaft. The man entrusted with continuing the legacy of Ernest Tidyman’s creation talks a little bit about what he has planned in an interview at Comic Book Resources here.

I’m positive I’m not the only one happy about the rebirth of an icon. I recently discovered that writer Steve Aldous has been working on a book provisionally called The Complete Guide to Shaft. He talks about the book and his research in fascinating detail at The Rap Sheet here.


But there’s more! Kimberly Lindbergs wrote about photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks for the Movie Morlocks recently here, discussing not only Shaft, but also Parks’ achievements as a photographer, accompanied by a selection of some of Parks’ greatest photographs. And there’s also a selection of pieces about both Gordon Parks Senior and Junior that tied into a recent season on TCM in the US. Start here with the one on Shaft by Richard Harland Smith and click through to the rest of them from there.

This is the dawn of a new golden age for this inveterate Shaft fan. Right on...


Friday, October 24, 2014

My Take on the 58th London Film Festival

It’s been a long time since the London Film Festival was my beat and I was a card-carrying member of the press corps. Back in those days, in the fortnight leading up to the LFF’s Opening Night, I’d gorge on three screenings a day, topped up with a stack of screeners for home consumption - and that was before the whole thing started and then there’d be even more daily showings to squeeze in. Movies all day. Booze well into the wee small hours. Cadging stray minutes throughout the day and night to actually write the whole thing up. It was a blast.

The highlight of that time was finding the things that you didn't know existed. Sitting and watching Mulholland Dr. or Punch-Drunk Love or Ichi the Killer for the first time.

Now, I cherry-pick from the programme, picking out the “I Hope That’s Great”s whilst navigating my own schedule and availability and finances to ensure that I have a Good Film Festival.

This year certainly qualified as a Very Good Film Festival. Here we go:


Pasolini
It took me a little while to warm to Abel Ferrara’s impressionistic portrait of the last day of Pier Paolo Pasolini, but I can remember the exact moment when I was completely sold. The Staple Singers’ "I’ll Take You There" swells on the soundtrack as the frame is filled with a close-up of Willem Dafoe’s troubled, bespectacled visage - the finest use of the Staple Singers since The Last Waltz. Maybe even since Let's Do It Again. Soon after, there’s a snippet of the Swamp Fox Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and a great segue from Dafoe announcing to the proprietor of a trattoria "I'm waiting for Ninetto" into a story-within-the-story featuring the real Ninetto Davoli himself, replete with a shock of thick white hair. He's aged very well. We also get glimpses of what would most likely have been Pasolini’s next feature project which, from the fragments we see, looked like it was intended to be somewhat in the spirit of Uccellacci e uccellini, as Pasolini’s last night moves inexorably towards its tragic end. The dialogue throughout flips between English and Italian in a way that, surprisingly, isn't jarring and Willem Dafoe’s subtle, thoughtful, mournful characterisation is superb. He really knows how to rock a pair of bell bottoms, too.


A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Ana Lily Amirpour’s skateboarding Iranian vampire Western (shot with the stark, striking crisp photography reminiscent of Robby Müller's work with Jim Jarmusch) does not wear its love of Lynch lightly. It is, after all, both wild at heart and weird on top. But I also thought it hit a vein of Michael Almereyda's Nadja too. Excellent sound design (particularly the sequence where a piece of music becomes suddenly overlaid with the gentle bumps of a heartbeat), and Sheila Vand is the spit of a slightly younger Asia Argento. Lots of fun.


It Follows
Shot in Detroit, Michigan (although I couldn't help thinking of it as Haddonfield, Illinois), It Follows is heavy on the Halloween, but is also an effective, genuinely disquieting chiller in its own right. Here, John Carpenter’s stolid, impassive Shape has transmuted into David Robert Mitchell's protean, relentless shapeshifter. It was almost enough to put me off sex for life. Almost…

Halloween’s subtext becomes It Follows’ supertext, in an environment where abstinence and celibacy can save your life and sex kills. Or, if you know how to play the game right, sex might just be the path to salvation. Along with the heavy notes of the Horror Master, there’s also a bouquet of John Landis (in particular the gimmick of having old public domain B-movies crackling away in the background, with their soundtracks doubling up to underscore this film’s action) and more than a little bit of Scooby-Doo. But I thought the biggest resonance here, intentional or otherwise, is Spielberg, echoing his early predilection for populating his worlds with absent or faceless parents. And I loved the Disasterpeace soundtrack. Whilst the central conceit is rich for mining in the future, I fervently hope this remains a one-off that doesn't succumb to sequelitis.


A Girl At My Door (Dohee-ya)
July Jung’s South Korean drama starts with the familiar set-up of stranger-in-a-strange-land, fish-out-of-water à la Hot Fuzz and Copland, but as it progresses it starts to go to some very dark and unexpected places. To say much more than that would spoil the skillfully calibrated run of reveals. I can say this much: Doona Bae (terrific in her brooding, understated central role) is a disgraced cop transferred to a small fishing village, where the old adage “no good deed goes unpunished” comes to pass as she comes to realise that her lack of understanding about local customs, culture and community results in a succession of unintended consequences, soaked in alcohol and steeped in violence.


No Man’s Land (Wu ren qu)
Bad people do bad things to bad people in a nasty, stylish and very, very funny Golden Harvest Spaghetti Western. (A Noodle Western?) Luxuriating in the Leone playbook, all the exterior scenes are hyper-stylised in a heavy orange wash. (So orange, you almost expect the Road Runner to go meep-meeping past with a smoldering coyote hurling Acme products in his direction). A scumbag lawyer finds that he has to Break Bad as he navigates a desolate Looney Tunes landscape populated with twisted oddballs redolent of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. The lone bum note here is a final scene that somewhat undermines everything that came before it. Lop off the last five minutes and this is a scuzzy delight.


When Animals Dream (Når dyrene drømmer)
Like a Danish Ginger Snaps shot through with the staid, sterile provincial ambiance and tempo of Les Revenants. Confidently paced for most of its running time, its easy to forgive a final act that accelerates into bloody, full-throated genre conventions. It’s also worth singling out Lars Mikkelsen as the star player here, shouldering the weighty responsibility of devotion, sacrifice and dark secrets with quiet stoicism. A smart and genuinely quite moving take on love and lycanthropy.


Cub (Welp)
There's something in the woods! A grisly, inventive Flemish slasher that validates my lifelong antipathy to camping. Jonas Govaerts cites John Carpenter’s influence on the film’s visual grammar and narrative propulsion, and he also copped to the fact that he kind of wanted to answer the question Who Can Kill A Child? Lean, efficient and the exposition is sliced right down to the bone, Welp is a splattery joy.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Anamnesis

I frequently trawl through Google Image Search and save pictures for No Purpose Whatsoever. And then I end up with a folder full of pictures loitering on my hard drive just waiting to be consigned to the Recycle Bin awaiting permanent deresolution.

Not today! Today, I'm going to sling them all up here. No explanation, no context, nothing. And then I'm going to send them to the Recycle Bin. But for one, brief shining moment, they will have their moment on the screen.

Initiating image dump now.
















Saturday, August 30, 2014

Deuces

Here are a couple of quotes that have have been rattling around in my head recently. I'm sticking them here for safe-keeping. Keep an eye on them for me, will you? Thanks.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” - E.L. Doctorow, Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews


“One day, someone showed me a glass of water that was half full. And he said, "Is it half full or half empty?" So I drank the water. No more problem.” - Alejandro Jodorowsky

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

True Detective


Still mourning...

"This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I'll get back to you." *beep*
"$200 a day, plus expenses..."



And this is how I fly a flag at half-mast...

Farewell, Jim Rockford. Rest in Peace, James Garner.