Thursday, 28 February 2013

2012 films: #1


Directed by Leos Carax

If The Master was Ulysses, then Holy Motors is certainly Finnegans Wake. So the question is: should I even bother with a –half-reasonable, well-balanced review of this thing, or would it be enough if I just exclaimed Christ what a film!?.

But – just for the hell of it, why not give it a random, erratic shot?..

Well, the first and most important thing I’m going to say about Holy Motors is that you don’t need anything from cinema that you won’t get from this film. There’s a lengthy and diverse (and quite possibly endless) list of epithets I could include in this review, but let’s just say that the film contains talking cars, a man living with a monkey, people dying and waking up, a tramp munching flowers, a full-blown erection, Eva Mendes singing a lullaby in a cave and many more things in that vein (what vein?). The hilarious, over-the-top accordion scene in the church is in fact one of the most breathtaking things I saw in the whole of 2012.

Just don’t think it is all edgy for the sake of being edgy. Yes, Holy Motors is mad fun where a bizarre, brutal murder is followed by Kylie Minogue singing a rather conventional, musical-styled ballad. But it is gripping, seductive stuff that is a lot more cohesive than it sounds. There really is a strange sense of purpose running through the disjointed mess that is this film’s plot.

Speaking of which, how do you describe it without sounding completely insane? You get a man traveling through Paris in a limousine and doing rather odd things: at some point he dresses as an old beggar woman asking for alms, at some point he puts on latex clothing and engages in an erotic dance, at some point he becomes his own murderer. However, at no point do you wish to look away or abandon the experience altogether. Inexplicable though it is, you are genuinely intrigued. There are some answers waiting for you at the end, but – really, like best Lynch (think a more tight Inland Empire, though that is a very loose comparison), it makes sense on a purely intuitive level. But sense it does make.

I’d advise to watch this one with an open mind and get lost in its lush, maddening textures. Don’t bother with ideas or explanations. Treat it as some juicy, exotic fruit with strange, narcotic powers. Hell, just sit back and enjoy the cinematic experience. Holy Motors is a film lover’s wet dream.

Monday, 25 February 2013

2012 films: #2


Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

There are these nervy, gut fits of laughter coming out of you when you watch something as good as The Master. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a movie, of course, and it doesn’t even have to be a particularly appropriate moment. Your normal senses are just swept away by the sheer awe-inspiring brilliance of what you see. It came two minutes into The Master for me, when I saw Joaquin Phoenix’s stooping figure over a group of sailors beach-sculpting sandy forms of a female Phoenix’s character is about to dry hump. Nothing remotely funny about that moment, and yet your laughter is your admiration.

Set in the post-war times, the film tells of a WW2 veteran, Freddie Quell, alcohol and sex addict who’s suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a viciously great performance from Phoenix (Daniel Day-Lewis has just been given his dues at the Oscars, but for me Phoenix was in a league of his own – what he is doing here is absolutely out of this world) as well as the rest of the cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, of course, formidable in the role of Lancaster Dodd, the leader (the Master) of a philosophical cult called “The Cause”, as is Amy Adams, Dodd’s devoted, willful wife.

Quite by chance, Freddie, a hopelessly sick and traumatized individual haunted by lost love and troubled past, gets right in the midst of it all. There’s senseless worshipping, there are lies, and yet Freddie is too weak to resist. The relationship between Dodd and Freddie is really what’s at the heart of this film (there’s one particular prison scene that has more to say about religion than any book by Richard Dawkins – no offence, I love Richard Dawkins): it’s odd, disturbing and strangely magnetic, and discloses a lot about inner cells and private prisons. And it has much to say about just how the world operates. Any political system and any society.  

As ever, Paul Thomas Anderson’s gutsy filmmaking is both heavy and beautifully subtle. There is a constant feeling here that this is the real stuff. However good your other favourites from 2012 may be, The Master just turns them into sand. For me, this is an even bigger triumph than There Will Be Blood, and that’s saying a lot. I almost feel embarrassed about not making this my number one film of 2012, but that’s only because on a rare occasion ‘brain good’ can be beaten by ‘raving madness good’.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

2012 films: #3


Directed by Michael Haneke

You do not expect to come away unscathed when you see the film title Amour with the name Michael Haneke underneath. This is aesthetically moving and psychologically punishing, deeply European filmmaking (the Academy Award nomination in the general category comes as a pleasant shock) at its unforgivable best.

There is nothing beautiful about pain, whether this pain is physical or mental, and yet on a purely artistic level Amour is absolutely gorgeous. Both Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant make it so. Their performances are effortless and breathless. In a way, you feel they are not even acting. Don’t need to act. This is so much more than just being in front of the camera and acting out the scripted words and movements. They have this beguiling, formidable, mature presence that will make your ‘real life’ look silly half-joke, half-fiction.

Amour is a slow-burning, meditative study of old age and the inevitable loss of the loved one. Georges sees his wife (both former piano teachers) suffer a stroke and gradually lose her physical and mental powers. Haneke shows it all, bit by bit, immersing you in all the despair and disturbing naturalness of the situation. He does so through long, tense silence, shaky hands and wrinkled faces, as well as some of the most powerful scenes you will ever see. There’s that unnerving pigeon sequence whose obvious symbolism, again, has this striking, no-nonsense character to it. There’s that masterful moment of poignant genius when Georges sees his dying wife play the piano – beautifully, the way it used to be. But then he switches off the CD player, and the music ceases, giving way to a silent, empty room.

Basically, there’s just one flat, two actors and a director (the supporting cast is good, though). The closed space does the job effectively. I guess on a personal level I did not find Amour as psychologically merciless as The Piano Teacher, but what a brutal and bruising experience nevertheless. Mesmerising, too. Compelling. Moving. And almost unbearably beautiful.

I do not really know how much a person under, say, 30 can take out of this film. God knows. In fact, if you meet a young person gushing over Michael Haneke’s Amour, you have every reason on Earth to dismiss that young person as pretentious or, worse, deeply troubled. For the record, I’m 26.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

2012 films: #4


Directed by Quentin Tarantino

At the risk of sounding like an incompetent hack, I’ll say that Django Unchained may well be Tarantino’s greatest film. I can see why one would prefer that performance, that dialogue or that soundtrack, but as an overall, all-round experience, this is pretty much the man’s peak as a filmmaker. A stylized, delicious western made with all the swagger and bloodshot lushness you would expect from Tarantino.

Still, the most blinding factor here is by far the amazing acting, in particular from Christoph Waltz (who is no less exceptional than he was in Inglourious Basterds), Samuel L. Jackson (every bit as loyal, sinister and defiant as you would expect his Uncle Tom-like character to be) and Leonardo DiCaprio (who is absolutely sensational as a despotic, quick-tempered landlord). These three are so viciously good that the perfectly competent, serviceable performance from Jamie Foxx as a liberated slave looks somewhat underwhelming. To say nothing of the typically hammy appearance from Tarantino himself – don’t despair, though, it’s way too brief to spoil all the fun.

The plot is your standard western fare, of course, with a quest for a lost love in the midst of all the shootouts and explosions. So – no, don’t think too much about them silly love quests (even though I did appreciate that line): all the goodness in this film is only a handy excuse for Tarantino to yet again show himself as a badass motherfucker who’s ready to keep lashing out that ‘nigger’ word at you with impressive insistence. Joking there, of course, but all the same: it’s first and foremost a classic Tarantino film. You won’t mistake it for anything else.

Really, for all its great look and irresistible epic feel, you do care about the story. In fact, I would not hesitate giving Django Unchained the best original screenplay Oscar. It’s gripping and it’s smart. Plus, tons of great music; you know he is good at soundtracks. The rapping stuff was unnecessary, but Jim Croce’s classic “I Got A Name” (used brilliantly here) and John Legend’s “Who Did That To You?” (written specifically for the movie) are too good.

Unlike some people, I didn’t see Django Unchained as Tarantino’s going political. Not at all. I appreciate his gutsiness and his straightforward take on a delicate subject (see Lincoln for a classy, bland angle on that one), but for me this was just great, mad art. Quentin Tarantino having good clean (clean? no, of course not) fun. 

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

2012 films: #5


Directed by Ben Affleck

If you set Argo against the year’s two most acclaimed films, you will see that Ben Affleck’s latest has neither the whooshing scope of Lincoln nor the brave charisma of The Master. In fact, if you take any aspect that might interest you in art and then ask yourself whether Argo has it, you will say that yes, maybe, but then [insert something relevant from 2012] certainly outstrips it in that sense. So no – it’s not an outstanding film. Or, if you are into that word, a stone-cold ‘classic’. And yet: Argo is tight, smart, exciting filmmaking of highest order.

Argo is something of a political thriller, and whatever you might think of the unexpected praise it’s been getting lately, you have to admit that political thrillers rarely get more effective (Zero Dark Thirty was effective, but it had too little to offer outside of its raid scene) and, well, oddball than this. Plus, it keeps you on edge, which is what good thrillers should do.

The oddball factor is of course the key to the film’s current success. It’s not just politics, you see, it’s also a great deal of entertainment. This is not just a story of trying to rescue several US diplomats from Tehran (real events that happened in 1979), this is also about a quirky, fake film project called ‘Argo’ (‘best bad idea’) that was invented to cover up the ‘smuggling’. It is true that few can do oddball as convincingly as Alan Arkin and John Goodman, both of whom bring the offbeat charm and humour the film needs. One could of course make a point that without those two Argo would have ended up a very dry and faceless place indeed, even despite the irresistible premise. In the end, though, we got what we got: a political film that doesn’t want to take itself too seriously. And totally succeeds at that.

A word about the ending. While that was the sort thing we had to expect, obviously, I still wish they’d gone for something less smooth and lazy than that. Otherwise, it’s just about perfect. Forget about the Oscar hype. Argo is simply a good film. ‘Good’ as in ‘great’.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

2012 films: #6


Directed by Wes Anderson

The Moonrise Kingdom review can be found on my Wes Anderson page...

Friday, 15 February 2013

2012 films: #7


Directed by Christopher Nolan

It’s quite an experience to be exposed to all the madness and ambition of The Dark Knight Rises after watching Doodlebug, Nolan’s short film from 1997. However, we do not really need to go that deep: 1998’s Following (an absolute classic, it should be said) would be enough to show the long way the director went from Kafka-esque to Wagnerian. Certainly, his old self can still be traced here (mainly in the ‘difficult’ sequencing and effective plot twists), but this sci-fi, big-budget romp is miles away from bugs, slippers and depressed writers walking the black and white streets of London.

Now obviously everything about The Dark Knight Rises is quite preposterous. Everything. Which is of course hardly surprising considering that it is all based (so loosely that God knows, I shouldn’t be mentioning it at all) on a comic book. But all the same: watching Nolan’s latest is a lot like being gulped down by a giant sea monster and not minding that at all. In a word, exhilarating.

It’s close to three hours long, yet again Batman has to save the city from a heinous villain (I thought Tom Hardy’s “liberator” figure was utterly convincing) – so where’s the catch? I guess there is none (other than it is done so well and that you feel like a kid impressed by the sheer size of a birthday present), but you have to admire the wit and intelligence behind it all. I won’t be getting into political allusions and stuff, but there’s something to appreciate here on a purely intellectual level. Not your random superhero crap, this is a highly commercial blockbuster done with brain and, dare I say it, heart.

Plus, competent acting and (of course) impressive cinematography and visual effects. Really, if art’s true aim is to impress, then the film certainly qualifies. I never cared for Batman comics, I was bored by Batman Begins and I thought The Dark Knight wouldn’t have amounted to much without Heath Ledger, but somehow I found the final installment (I suppose it is final) absolutely fascinating. It’s clearly a work of thrilling imagination, and if someone has it – it’s got to be Christopher Nolan.

Just a personal note, though. I would really love Nolan to calm down a bit and do some of that old, cheap, left-field thing again.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

2012 films: #8


Directed by David O. Russell

Silver Linings Playbook continues an uneven tradition (Little Miss Sunshine was good, Juno wasn’t) of light and largely unpretentious Academy Awards nominees. Comedies with an edge. It’s good to have them around, beautifully lodged in the bottom half of end-of-year lists. This is clearly one of those films that snobs can and should hang on to. Steeped in romantic clich├ęs that should render the whole thing shallow or, at the very best, passable but amusing, Silver Linings Playbook manages to be a minor 2012 classic.

There are many factors at play here (not least good acting), but in terms of the actual plot – I think it’s the farce element that gives the film its edge. Bradley Cooper’s character waking his parents in the middle of the night to vehemently disagree with Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms; Jennifer Lawrence’s character giving away the hair-raising details of her sex life; even the clearly too-fucking-fetched American football theme – it all somehow distracts you from the backbone story that is neither too unpredictable nor particularly imaginative. Like I say, it works, and the experience is never less than hilarious and pleasantly titillating.

Pat gets out of a rehab (he had almost murdered his wife’s lover) with a plan to get his life back on track. Which means that he will have to return Nikki (the adulterous wife) and try to keep on the sunny side of it all (hence the title). And then… But that would have to be spoilers (yet again, you don’t have to be a genius). As I’ve mentioned above, the acting is another thing that puts Silver Linings Playbook above its numerous peers. Much praise should go to the film’s supporting cast, but ultimately it’s the odd, awkward, electrifying chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence that wins you over.

The film balances seriousness with pure undulated farce in such an irresistible way that you will forgive any flaws. Great stuff. After all, who doesn’t like watching lovely losers and beautiful freaks under pressure?.. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

2012 films: #9


Directed by Andrew Dominik

After all the ‘light’ entertainment, after visually delightful epics, witty (some might say cutesy) soft comedies and imaginative flashy cartoons, there is always time for something as grim and humourless as Killing Them Softly. In a way, Dominik’s film tickles similar nerves to those touched in 2011’s overlooked The Ides of March by George Clooney. This is the flipside of Obama’s banner, and there’s no getting away from it: it looks rather bleak.

Essentially, Killing Them Softly is a stylish, laconic, expertly executed noir thriller. The mood is desperate and unnerving, but also horrendously business-like. The colours are so understated, the actual thing could have been shot in black & white. Killers kill (for pay) and payers pay (for killings), it’s all done in a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way, in shady offices and under faceless bridges. The hypocrisy is impressive (we never even get to see who stands behind it all; not that we need to, of course), and it brilliantly reflects the tough reality that allows no jokes or emotions. Having said that, there is an unlikely sentimental edge to it, one that can be traced in the film’s infectious title.

Still, in a somewhat perverse way, there’s something appealing to all this dismay. One particular murder scene features some of the most beautiful slow-motion sequences I’ve ever seen. The soundtrack is classy, too, with Nico’s “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” doing a particularly effective job of underpinning all that sickening atmosphere. The acting throughout is superb. Richard Jenkins gives an exciting fragile edge to the proceedings, James Gandolfini is hilariously gruesome, and Brad Pitt’s performance is about as tight and gripping as you can get.

Killing Them Softly is so deeply steeped in cynicism and routine murder, that I can see why many would feel squeamish (the actual word makes an effective appearance in one of the film’s best dialogues) and grope for the hopeful political promises of Lincoln (or something). This, however, is the brisk, but irresistible glimpse of reality: “Now fucking pay me!..” 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

2012 films: #10


Directed by Rich Moore

It has become something of a fact that Pixar is next to only thing you should know about modern-day animated films. Which is understandable: apart from the tedious Cars misfires, Pixar hasn’t really done much wrong. Last year’s unjustly maligned Brave, for instance, was actually quite good (despite that inane mother-bear plot line). Still, it’s Walt Disney Animation Studios, of all animation studios in the world, that made a 2012 film worthy of almost any Pixar you can think of.

Wreck-It Ralph was clearly the most inventive, imaginative cartoon of the year. They took a great idea (‘real’ life of video games’ characters) and explored it to the point where your brain might just go numb – particularly at the very end, when all hell breaks loose and you give in to your childish doubts about how on Earth they are going to resolve all that?!?

If there are similarities with Monsters Inc. (bulky and ‘scary’ main hero on a path to goodness; hilarious and fidgety girl; corporate culture of all sorts of monsters and freaks hanging out in their own non-video game world; even a certain amusing ball-shaped character), I’m willing to forgive them. Not because Monsters Inc. is only second to Toy Story 3 as the world’s greatest cartoon, but because Wreck-It Ralph really does take its story to completely different, no less exciting places. And does it with lots of charm, humour and amazing little ideas that will remind you why you are supposed to enjoy this kind of entertainment in the first place.  

For instance, the moment Ralph says at the end that being thrown down has become his favourite part of day, is pure gold. Behind all the technological brilliance (not quite Pixar-level, but still) there is enough heart and joy to satisfy both children and adults. But above all, it’s the imagination of Wreck-It Ralph that makes it such an unforgettable experience.

Friday, 8 February 2013

2012 films: #11


Directed by Whit Stillman

It’s quite astounding, but Damsels In Distress is only Whit Stillman’s fourth film in two decades. But however astounding that could seem, it is nothing compared to the fact that it is also his first in 13 years. Apart from obvious commercial reasons for that (must be near impossible to raise money for all that whimsical stylishness that has never been in fashion in the first place), Stillman’s highly artistic, well-honed films look like they demand perfect precision to fully satisfy the author. Could be general laziness, could be writer’s block, of course, but that’s all immaterial: Damsels In Distress is classic Whit Stillman stuff.

And a classic Whit Stillman film is a very special place indeed, filled with peculiar young people who inhabit their own peculiar world. There’s nothing wrong with that, because you actually fall in love with that odd place, with its odd little troubles and concerns. I guess I get a similar feeling when I watch Wes Anderson’s films, except that Stillman comes off more serious and less twee. He doesn’t make you laugh (not that you don’t), it’s all high classes and pretty, heartfelt sarcasm.

Damsels In Distress might be a romantic campus comedy, but it is hilarious for reasons inexplicable and, I assume, completely unintentional. Which makes the experience of seeing these three refined young women suffer (gorgeously!) through University even more precious. Retelling the film’s plot is completely unthinkable, because it will just sound silly and inane. But Stillman can still offer you a perfect escape, and a story that infuses you with joy and optimism of a romantic, non-cheesy sort. I mean, that final dance. You just have to stifle your own cynicism.

Out of Stillman’s four films, I would probably put Damsels In Distress at the bottom of the list, but that is irrelevant. His mannerisms still amuse, and that peculiar world he creates – well, it still looks intriguing. The director's taste is impeccable, and when one of the heroines mentions at the end that “vulgarity is a kind of blasphemy”, you have to smile. First, this is such a perfect way to end a Whit Stillman film. And secondly, the director actually convinces you that it is completely true.

A welcome return.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

2012 films: #12


Directed by Peter Jackson

While The Hobbit might be my idea of Peter Jackson tackling a porn-fantasy genre, I just don’t get all the backlash this film had to face. Is the frame rate really so disturbing that you can’t sit back and enjoy the actual thing? Is that ‘long-winded’ pre-journey beginning not amazing oddball fun? And, for Christ’s sake, can’t anyone live with the fact that yes, Tolkien’s book was slim, and Jackson (for reasons that are too obvious to name) inflated it all into three huge films?..

After all, even if there exists such a travesty as too much of a good thing, we’ve only had one part so far, and there’s no reason on Earth why anyone (and a TLOTR fan in particular) would want to turn it down. This lush and sumptuous prequel might lack the immediacy and subtlety of its acclaimed predecessor, but I would strongly argue that The Hobbit is just as funny, action-packed and absorbing as any installment of the famed trilogy.

Certainly, what was essentially a children’s bedtime (well, loosely speaking) fairytale, is turned here into this engrossing, epic action-thriller that nonetheless manages to follow the original story in quite a faithful way. All the new things and add-ons never feel boring or stretched, but are a work of truly awe-inspiring imagination.

The actual story is in many ways similar to that of the tireless ring quest, only this one involves dwarves (I do agree with the criticism that Jackson could have developed the dwarves’ personalities a little more, though that might have beaten the three-hour mark) and a certain dragon. Still, there’s that brave hobbit, Gandalf, Rivendell, the ring, and, oh yes, Gollum. Speaking of the latter, the guessing game is arguably the best episode in the entire film…

The cinematography and the special effects are impressive, New Zealand is as breathtaking as ever, but the acting should be praised, too. As far as the cast goes, it is of course nice to welcome back all the familiar faces (Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, others). Still, it’s the newcomer Martin Freemen who looks especially mesmerizing. The moment I learned Freeman would play the part of Bilbo Baggins, I just knew it was the perfect choice. He is like your old best friend in The Hobbit. He inhabits that whimsical world so naturally.  

In a way, the film is a Tolkien’s obsessed fanboy’s wet dream. A wild, imaginative romp through what is known to be a very modest and subdued narrative. If that sort of thing sounds appealing, believe me: you won’t look away throughout these 169 minutes. I know I didn’t. Pornography – yes, but tasteful, inventive, intelligent pornography. Great entertainment; besides, I’ve always preferred Gandalf the Grey… 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #91: Gillian Welch - "One Monkey"

For me, Soul Journey (2003), remains Gillian Welch's strongest album. There's a kind of unharnessed, less transcendental beauty to this album that makes me come back to it again and again. The chilling, gorgeous "One Monkey" (oh how I wish she would do more stuff in that vein) never fails to send shivers down my spine...

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Album review: TUNABUNNY - Genius Fatigue

Highlights: Duchess For Nothing, Serpents & Lights, Slackjawed

Tunabunny might hail from Athens, US, and sound like fucked-up Blondie (we are of course forgetting all about Deborah Harry’s charisma for a second), but they can so easily be mistaken for a British band. One that could have gained some cult following back in 1986. Not surprising then that Tunabunny toured with Shrag last year, in addition to recording a split single with them in March. Genius Fatigue is that raw indie sound, big on sweet tunes, ringing guitars and crude feedback.

Thankfully, the sound also happens to be incredibly addictive. Even when the band doesn’t come up with an interesting melody and relies entirely on a lengthy, repetitive groove (the album’s two longest tracks are also the most uneventful), they still achieve amazing chemistry through sheer sound and attitude. I would stress, though, that the songs work best when there’s a great melody playing in the background. I’m saying background - because really, the whole thing is more about noisy aural delights than anything else. Things like “Serpents & Lights” and “Slackjawed” have an almost twee gorgeousness to them, and that actually makes the sound a lot more intriguing. Overall, I'd say that The Fall’s Cerebral Caustic would be a good reference point.

Funnily enough, the album is indeed half genius, half fatigue, where truly inspired moments live side by side with what seems so ramshackle and deceptively careless. But don’t let that fool you: the band’s playing is tight, and their undeniable confidence pays off with every new listen.

Also, Tunabunny. Not the greatest name in the world. Unbunny (actually, a brilliant little indie-folk band) have been doing it for almost 20 years now, and nobody seems to care... Sad. Back to seriousness, though: I do of course wish these guys all the best; they certainly have the style and the chops. For the moment, it seems like an improvement in the melody department will surely do the trick. As of now, however cool titles like “Government Of Throats” may be, I’m going to settle for a solid, well-deserved seven.