Thursday, 1 August 2013

My Top Ten of 2013 (so far...)

As you may have noticed, it's been quite some time since I posted on this blog. For one reason and another, I've been really busy over the last month, so it's been tricky to fit in movie blogging. To be honest, I don't know if I will be able to continue with my semi-weekly movie reviews, but I am planning to continue to post from time to time with lists and other thoughts on all things movie-related.

Anyway, I thought it was about time I put up my list of my top ten films that I've seen so far this year. As usual, this is restricted to films which were released in cinemas and which I actually saw at the cinema in 2013 (It includes one film that I watched recently and haven't reviewed on the blog - The World's End). To be honest, it's been a pretty poor year, movie-wise. Other than the top two films, I don't think anything on this list would have made the grade on my last annual top ten, or even my halfway list from last year.

Here's my picks for top of the pops for 2013:

1. The Place Beyond the Pines
2. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Django Unchained
4. Side Effects
5. Stoker
6. The World's End
7. Compliance
8. Lincoln
9. Mud

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The fortnight in brief (10 - 23 June 2013)

These are the movies I've watched over the last couple of weeks:

Billy the Kid (2007): 7/10
Metropolitan (1990): 7/10
Sinister (2012): 6/10
Chariots of Fire (1981): 8/10
A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affaere) (2012): 7/10
Taken (2008): 7/10
Down Terrace (2009): 8/10
God Bless America (2011): 6/10

A fairly decent week, on the whole - I saw nothing which I'd regard as poor, plenty of very solid movies, and two very good pictures. My first choice for pick of the week goes to the 1980s classic Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of the Great Britain athletics team which competed at the Paris Olympics in 1924. It's primarily focussed on GB's two great medal hopes for the games; men from entirely different backgrounds, driven to succeed for contrasting reasons. Firstly, there's Harold Abrahams, a young man who has wanted for nothing and has been to the finest schools in England, but has always felt like an outcast due to his Jewish roots. He's running as a way of proving himself to the establishment. Secondly, there's Eric Liddell, a runner from Scotland of incredible natural talent, whose devoutly Christian faith is his inspiration for running, though also threatens to interfere with his ability to compete (as he refuses to run on Sunday). It's a gripping story, very well told. As I didn't know the actual results of the Olympic games in question, I genuinely had no idea whether the protagonists would succeed. The film features some fine performances, particularly from Ben Cross as Abrahams and Ian Charleson as Liddell.

My second selection for pick of the week is the brilliant Ben Wheatley's first picture, Down Terrace. Having absolutely loved Wheatley's more recent efforts - Kill List and Sightseers (my film of the year for 2012), I was extremely excited to discover that LOVEFiLM had sent me Wheatley's debut in the post. The movie tells the story of a small time criminal family from Brighton - as we enter the story, the father (Robert Hill) and his son (Robin Hill) have narrowly escaped going to prison for drug dealing. They return to their down at the heel family home determined to discover which of their low rent associates was responsible for grassing them up. In common with his later movies, we get to experience the same rundown British setting, the same realistic dialogue and the black humour and bloodcurdling violence which is Mr Wheatley's trademark. Though the plot is perhaps not 100% airtight, at least from my perspective - as it was never really clear exactly why certain characters were suspected of treachery - this never really gets in the way of the fine, understated comic performances and superb script. It's another success from one of my favourite directors.

Once again, I didn't see anything which I'd regard as being a turkey, but Sinister was just a shade above mediocre.  Ethan Hawke stars as Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who takes the inspired decision to move his family into the scene of a horrific slaying, then becomes obsessed with a box of snuff movies which has mysteriously appeared in his attic. Needless to say, these choices backfire on Ellison pretty quickly, as he begins to fear that his own family may be the target of a (possibly) supernatural serial killer known as "Mr Boogie". Now, on the one hand, the film is a success on at least one level, as it's a horror picture which is genuinely scary in places. True, most of these scares are simply horrible things jumping out of the dark with an accompanying shriek from the film's score, but it still worked on me. On the other hand, I felt that a lot of the scary stuff on offer here has been seen before on a number of occasions. Creepy kids drawing weird pictures on the walls, a warning from the local Sheriff, psycho killers in masks, the protagonist running around in the house in the dark... these elements have all been done and dusted elsewhere. So, I suppose the movie scores fairly highly as on the terror scale, but loses marks for lack of originality.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Pi (1998)

"Sol Robeson: You want to find the number 216 in the world, you will be able to find it everywhere. 216 steps from a mere street corner to your front door. 216 seconds you spend riding on the elevator. When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere."


Monday, 10 June 2013

The week in brief (3 - 9 June 2013)

This week, I have been mostly watching...

Bugsy (1991): 6/10
The Purge (2013): 5/10
Sullivan's Travels (1941): 8/10
In the Name of the Father (1993): 8/10
Your Friends & Neighbors (1998): 7/10

Starting off with the only movie which I saw at the cinema, I'm sorry to report that The Purge wasn't any great shakes. It's a shame too, since I loved the premise of this film. It's set around ten years time, in an alternative version of America in which for one night of the year, all crime, up to and including murder, is legal. The 'New Founding Fathers' of this brave new world are constantly on the television, trumpeting their achievements in establishing a place in which the ability for the masses to let out their basest instincts in an annual cathartic bloodbath, thus minimising violence for the remainder of the year. However, aside from the state sanctioned propaganda, it's clear that 'the purge' isn't really solving any problems - those rich enough to pay for protection are able to shelter for the night, whilst the poor and homeless are soft targets for the angry and the sociopathic. So, like I said, a very intriguing premise. Sadly, the director doesn't really delve into this world in any great depth, instead presenting us with a fairly ordinary home invasion thriller, in which a family is under attack from a group of rampaging 'Purgers'. The tension is built up pretty effectively, and I was generally enjoying things until the point at which the doors blew off and the house was under attack - after which the film collapsed in on itself like a deflated balloon. The 'Purgers' act in such an idiotic fashion that any sense of threat from them soon dissipates, and all of the action scenes are shot in an irritating shakey-cam style, meaning that it's hard to gather any sense of what's going on. It's all a bit of a shame, as there must be a brilliant movie which could have been made with the same premise - unfortunately, The Purge isn't it.

My pick of the week goes to In the Name of the Father, a powerful movie which examines the Guildford Four case, a famously tragic miscarriage of justice. Beginning in the early '70s, we follow the life and times of Gerry Conlon, perhaps the most famous of the Four, a petty thief from Belfast who was framed for the IRA Guildford pub bombings and remained in prison for a total of 15 years despite evidence clearing his name being available to the police. If it wasn't true, it would be hard to believe that something like this actually happened - but it seems that the desire to catch somebody - anybody - for the pub bombings led the police into a position in which they flagrantly abused their powers. It's a shocking story, but very well told, and features some splendid performances from Daniel Day Lewis (fantastic as usual), Pete Postlethwaite (as Gerry's father, Guiseppe Conlon) and Emma Thompson (as the crusading lawyer who brings the truth to light).

 (In mentioning my favourite film of the week, I should also make a very quick shout out to the Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan's Travels, which was apparently a great influence on the Coen brothers, and remains very funny 72 years later...)

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Sleeper (1973)

 "Miles Monroe: I'm not really the heroic type. I was beat up by Quakers."

Monday, 3 June 2013

The fortnight in brief (20 May - 2 June)

I've been away on my hols for the last week or so, meaning that I haven't had too much time to spend catching up on movies. Nevertheless, I did see the following films over the last fortnight:

Premium Rush (2012): 7/10
Bananas (1971): 8/10
Sleeper (1973): 7/10
Dredd (2012): 6/10

Two Woody Allen movies make their mark as my joint picks of the week: Bananas and Sleeper. The first sees Woody playing a typically nebbishy character named Fielding Mellish, an unsuccessful product tester who finds himself in the centre of a revolution in the fictional Latin American nation of San Marcos. Seeing an opportunity to impress his ex-girlfriend in New York, Woody embraces an opportunity to become El Presidente of the banana republic. The second of the two films (which I found marginally less amusing) has our hero waking up from a two hundred year sleep to find himself in the distant future, where his 20th century attitudes are roundly mocked by those around him. Again, Woody blunders his way into the path of a group of rebels who stand in opposition to the evil tyrants running the country, and once more he becomes a hero despite himself... I'd never previously seen any of Woody Allen's early pictures before, but I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. There's less of the therapy speak and (slightly creepy) pursuit of much younger women that you tend to find in his later film, and much more in the way of slapstick, hilarious one liners and self deprecating humour. As a result I found myself laughing throughout both of these movies, which is definitely a good sign. Previously, my favourite Woody Allen movie would have to be Hannah and Her Sisters, but Bananas gives it a damn good run for its money.

Once again, I didn't see anything which I'd regard as an out and out turkey, but I wasn't completely convinced by Dredd. The plot plays out in very similar fashion to last year's brilliant Indonesian movie The Raid: Redemption, with Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and his psychic sidekick Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) trapped in a tower block, massively outnumbered by a gang hell bent on killing them. It zips along at a good pace, so I can't say I was bored by the movie, but for me, Dredd suffers in comparison with The Raid, in a couple of areas. Firstly, the action scenes just aren't as well choreographed or as compelling as the astonishing martial arts work on display in The Raid. Secondly, Dredd is an almost inhuman killing machine, in stark contrast to the Indonesian film's more vulnerable, human protagonist - this meant that I never found myself caring too much whether or not the Judge succeeded. While it's welcome to see a darker, more adult take on the superhero genre, Dredd isn't in the same league as films like The Dark Knight or Sin City.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Bananas (1971)
"Fielding Mellish: I was a nervous child - I was a bed wetter. When I was younger, I used to sleep with an electric blanket and I was constantly electrocuting myself..."

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The week in brief (13 - 19 May 2013)

This week's list of films I've watched...

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013): 6/10
Amour (2012): 7/10
Blowup (1966): 6/10
Miss Bala (2011): 6/10
American Movie (1999): 8/10

I'll start out with Star Trek: Into Darkness, which is top of the UK Box Office charts this week, and has received some extremely positive reviews from a variety of reputable sources. The film sees Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise pick up where they left off after J.J. Abrams' reboot of the series in 2009. On this occasion, our intrepid heroes are up against threats both internal (an unscrupulous senior officer) and external (a superhuman foe with a grudge against mankind)... Now, despite all of the rave reviews for this picture, I never really found myself fully able to suspend my disbelief and go along for the ride. I suppose my complaints are threefold: firstly, the action screams along at a breakneck pace - there's barely time to draw a breath before you're thrust into the next set piece. Whilst this has the benefit of keeping you on the edge of your seat, after a while it just proves to be exhausting. Secondly, while I could appreciate that Abrams is keen to provide some nods and winks to the series' loyal fans, I think he may have gone a bit overboard with this - as somebody who isn't entirely au fait with the Star Trek universe, quite a few of these in jokes went way over my head. Thirdly, and I say this as fan of Simon Pegg, his Scottish accent really doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, to the point where I found it quite distracting. Similarly, Anton Yelchin (playing Mr Chekov) provided another source of earache with his high pitched cod-Russian whining. Notwithstanding all of that, there's still quite a bit to enjoy here. Despite my gripe about the relentless nature of the action scenes, I have to admit that the special effects for those sequences are absolutely top notch. Finally, it's definitely worth mentioning Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in this movie as the villain of the piece. He's absolutely top notch, head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, and serves as a continuation of a fine tradition of British dramatic actors playing the baddies in Hollywood movies.

Other than my trip to the cinema, it hasn't been a particularly memorable week, though it was salvaged by the film I saw today, American Movie. This documentary looks into the life of Mark Borchardt, a part time filmmaker, part time janitor and full time dreamer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As we enter his story, Borchardt is attempting to raise the funding for his great work, a feature length examination of the lives of the American working class in the Midwest - but it soon becomes apparent that this project is going to be too ambitious to ever see the light of day. Instead, Borchadt and his gentle, good natured best friend, a recovering alcoholic named Mike Shrank, decide to make a horror short as a way of financing his magnum opus. However, we get to appreciate that it's damn hard work trying to finance and make a movie on a shoestring budget. Borchardt spends a good portion of his time borrowing money from elderly relatives and arguing with utility companies about overdue bills, not to mention the hours he spends coaxing performances out of his troupe of (very) amateur actors, manually cutting and editing the reels of film and scouting locations. However, when his project finally hits the silver screen, it all seems worth it - as we, the viewer have spent time watching the various pieces slowly come together, it feels like a triumph when it all comes together. It's a mark of the impact that these characters made on me that after watching the movie, I immediately checked to see how Mark had fared after the documentary was made. I'm happy to report that he's done fairly well - though he's worked primarily as an actor since 2000, his first full length movie as a director seems to be in progress and is scheduled for a 2014 release.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

The Sting (1973)

"Johnny Hooker: Hey, where's June?
Loretta: She quit. I'm filling in for a couple of days, 'til I can get a train outta here.
Johnny Hooker: Yeah? Where you going?
Loretta: I don't know. Depends on which train I get on."

Monday, 13 May 2013

The week in brief (6 - 12 May 2013)

This week's list of movies I've seen over the last seven days:

Ill Manors (2012): 6/10
Troll 2 (1990): 2/10
Mud (2012): 7/10

As I only caught a few films this week, I should have time to do a little write up of each of them. First of all, we have UK rapper Ben Drew (aka Plan B)'s first foray into the world of filmmaking, with his London crime drama Ill Manors. Set in a deprived part of East London, the movie looks at the lives of various residents of the area in a non linear fashion, with the storylines of various characters intersecting with each other at certain points. It's difficult to convey just how bleak and depressing this movie, but the free form word association exercise in the following sentence should give you a flavour of it ... High rise, grim, grey, drugs, violence, degradation, pimps, prostitutes,  squalor, guns, knives, thugs, concrete, desolation, hatred.... Despite all of the misery, I never really found myself drawn in by this picture. I'm not normally a person who needs to emphasise with the lead characters to enjoy a movie, but on this occasion, the sheer unpleasantness of actions of nearly everyone involved means that it's hard to care too much if those same characters meet a grisly end. Drew certainly has talent as a director, adding some interesting visual flourishes, but he's let down to a certain extent by a number of mediocre performances and a rather contrived, overly melodramatic ending.

Moving on, I finally got the chance to catch the infamously terrible Italian/ American horror movie Troll 2, and it was pretty much as bad as the hype suggested. The nonsensical plot involves an all-American family unit spending a little quality time on holiday in a strange village called 'Nilbog', a place with a dark, terrifying secret which is a mystery to everyone unable to read place names backwards. Yes, as you may have guessed, its residents are a group of vicious goblins, hell bent on tucking into some sweet, gamey human flesh. For some reason (possibly because the people behind the movie really hated vegetarians), the goblins need to convert their prey into vegetable form to consume them. To do this, they must first tempt the humans into eating goblin food, which apparently has the power to turn people into a mushy green pulp. Only a plucky young boy and the spirit of his beloved (but sadly deceased) Grandpa Seth can save the family... It's not all that often that I go in to watch a film knowing (and in fact hoping) that it will be truly terrible, but this was one such occasion. The movie didn't disappoint -  the acting is laughably bad, the special effects are atrocious and there are some scenes which are just indescribably bizarre and have to be seen to be believed... . Having now seen two of the three movies which constitute the holy trinity of 'so bad it's good' cinema, I will finally get to complete the set when I get to see 'The Room' next month. I can hardly wait...

Last, but definitely not least, we come to my pick of the week, Mud. It's an old fashioned kind of adventure/ thriller, with Matthew McConnaughey contuing his recent career renaissance by offering a very creditable performance as the charismatic title character. He's a fugitive who's hiding out from the law (and a gang of vicious local gangsters) in a boat which has been abandoned halfway up a tree in the wilds of Arkansas. When a couple of teenage boys come across him, the three of them strike up a friendship - but with the authorities closing in, it's going to be difficult for him to stay free... Although I wouldn't say I was dazzled by this movie, it's definitely enjoyable, with some interesting characters and some strikingly beautiful shots of the Southern American wilderness. It's just good to see an American picture during the summer which isn't a big budget remake or sequel - so I'll keep my fingers crossed that Mud does well enough at the box office to give the director (Jeff Nicols) another crack at the big time.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

 Taxi Driver (1976)

"Personnel Officer: How's your driving record? Clean?
Travis Bickle: It's clean, real clean. Like my conscience."

Monday, 6 May 2013

The week in brief (29 April - 6 May 2013)

This week's list of movies watched:

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012): 9/10
Airplane! (1980): 8/10
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012): 5/10
Frankenweenie (2012): 7/10
Gremlins (1984): 9/10

Starting out with my pick of the week, we have the excellent The Place Beyond the Pines. It's director Derek Cianfrance's second picture and sees him moving in a completely different direction from the low-key relationship strife drama of Blue Valentine. Set in the small upstate New York town of Schenectady, it tells three interconnected stories - the first the tale of a former motorcycle stuntman who turns bank robber to provide for his son, the second an examination of police corruption and the third, set some years after the first two stories, which examines the ways in which the sins of the fathers are revisited upon their sons. It's a gripping, tremendously well acted movie (with fine performances from Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Dane DeHaan), featuring some stunning cinematography and tense set pieces. It hasn't been a vintage year to date, but The Place Beyond the Pines moves straight in at number one on my running list. (Nudging just ahead of Zero Dark Thirty).

Moving on, I caught up with a couple of old favourites this week - having seen both Gremlins and Airplane! on numerous occasions, I can confirm that they stand up to repeat viewings. Both are highly amusing, but in different ways; Airplane! offers up a madcap, gag-a-minute style of comedy that never fails to crack me up. Even though a few of the references in the movie are a little dated now, there's still a huge amount to enjoy here. Gremlins is darker, but more subversive, setting up an idealised version of the American small town so beloved by Ronald Reagan, then getting a hoarde of vicious, chain smoking, anarchic little critters to tear that town to pieces.

The one real disappointment this week was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a high school drama in which a lonely outcast finds his niche as part of a group of artsy, theatrical students. I suppose I'm too far removed from my teenage years to really appreciate this kind of movie now, but I just found the central characters too precocious by half. As a group of hyper articulate, massively self confident and hugely photogenic geniuses, they certainly didn't resemble any of the outcasts and losers I came across in high school in real life. That's not to say that the film is worthless - the acting isn't too bad, and there's a decent collection of songs on the soundtrack - but if I want to relive my adolescence again, I think I'll stick to watching Dazed and Confused or reading The Catcher in the Rye.

Kirk's Quote of the Week

Airplane! (1980)

"Dr. Rumack: What was it we had for dinner tonight?
Elaine Dickinson: Well, we had a choice of steak or fish.
Dr. Rumack: Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagne."