Friday, 31 January 2014

Film review: AMERICAN HUSTLE

Directed by David O. Russell

9/10

American Hustle is a ridiculously good film. I just couldn’t stop asking myself: is this tight, clever, preposterous, over the top? American Hustle is all those things and more. Basically, you get a neatly plotted hustle alongside an absolutely outrageous scene with Jennifer Lawrence singing and dancing to Paul McCartney’s “Live And Let Die”. I mean – how on Earth?.. But it’s the sort of film where the director has enough sense and taste to make everything work.

This is first and foremost a big swindle story that is enhanced by Russell’s passionate directing. It all starts as a beautiful romance with an edge. Two unlikely people (played by Amy Adams and Christian Bale) from the 70’s fall in love over a jazz record, dance inside a dry cleaning store and start a business of rather dubious nature. Enter an F.B.I. officer (Bradley Cooper) who wants to be a Napoleon and eradicate all crime in Atlantic City with the help of these two cons-cum-lovers. It’s an unlikely partnership, it’s a matter of who has bigger balls and larger vision, and it becomes a real riot on screen. American Hustle is stylistically confusing, but in a good way. It’s something of a gangster movie with elements of drama, screwball comedy and God knows what else. It’s the diversity, and the diversity is never less than charming.

But however witty the lines (that Picasso one everyone is quoting deserves to be a perennial), however breathtaking the soundtrack (Roy Wood, Steely Dan, even goddamn America sounds great here), however smart the dialogues (the ice fishing bits are a genius touch), however intriguing the plot (I certainly enjoyed the corrupt Boardwalk Empire angle), it really is about the acting. Not individual people pulling off great scenes; American Hustle is primarily an ensemble piece. 

And it is such a joy to watch. Jennifer Lawrence has the most straightforward part (Bale’s hysterical wife), and she is both hilarious and convincing.  Bradley Cooper is a brilliant mixture of insecurity and pathological self-belief. Amy Adams and Christian Bale could be two of the greatest actors of this generation, so what can you really say? There’s also an effective appearance of Robert de Niro who should probably stick to David O. Russell’s films. The other stuff he does these days is god-awful.  

Plus, the clothes! The hairstyles! Truly a wild, gutsy concoction of a film. It moved me and made me laugh with tears in my eyes. Quite simply, if you don’t like American Hustle, what kind of a film fan are you? It could be this year’s Holy Motors. A more mainstream, better behaved one, and almost as brilliant. I’d give it the Best Picture Oscar, just for the hell of it. 


Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Film review: THE WORLD'S END

Directed by Edgar Wright

8/10

Comedy-wise 2013 was a standard fare. The Way Way Back was uncomfortably hilarious (in places). The Heat was surprisingly good and will surely spawn a few disappointing sequels. This Is The End had a few moments but was overall a snooze-fest (I wish self-indulgence was the film’s problem). Monsters University, while hardly a Pixar classic, was still witty, funny and intelligent and several heads above everything else in animation business. Calling Scorsese’s latest a comedy is a stretch (even if technically it probably is), and Woody Allen did his first full-on drama in years. Which leaves us with this little film.

The World’s End is the last part of Edgar Wright’s quirky sci-fi trilogy. It all started a full decade ago now, with Shaun Of The Dead, which is still the world’s greatest zombie movie. Then there was the equally brilliant Hot Fuzz in 2007 that explored the hilarious still waters of British countryside. And now The World’s End, a reunion, a fitting finale, a comedy that doesn’t even make you laugh all that hard. Either that or a certain London cinema was drunk or doped all the way through…

The premise. A few old friends who are barely on speaking terms get reunited to repeat their semi-legendary pub crawl they once started and never finished. All in all there are ten pubs on the itinerary and the last one is obviously called The World’s End. You get Martin Freeman (who appeared for precisely one second in Shaun Of The Dead), you get Paddy Considine (who was in Hot Fuzz), you of course get the irresistible duo of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. It’s Simon Pegg’s character, a middle-aged loser and an enthusiast, who summons everyone and keeps the dream alive. The trouble is – he might just be the only one who still has that dream.

You would expect a riot of laughs. A bunch of brilliant English actors beautifully over the top while high on cheap beer. Well, not really, and it’s not even Martin Freeman’s particularly wooden face. It’s the script (as ever co-written by Pegg), the plot. You might chuckle on occasion (the hedge stunt still works), but as the film develops, as you witness the possessed, blue-blooded citizens and the night and absurdity growing, you realise The World’s End is scary social satire. The surreal, tits-out ending is brutal judgement on the webbed-out society that manages to be fresh, clever and original. 

Which is probably what makes these Edgar Wright’s films so good. Yes, they are funny all right (especially the first two), but there’s always an idea, a nice concept running through them like a supercharged wire. Hitting you in a way that is perhaps not entirely pleasant. And making this final installment a great, mature end of the whole affair. I have no doubt whatsoever that The World's End is a future cult classic quite on par with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. Terrific soundtrack, too.


Monday, 27 January 2014

Film review: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Directed by Steve McQueen

8/10

This, they say, is destined to get every meaningful Academy Award this year. Terribly likely. 12 Years A Slave has so much going for it: subject matter (you don’t want to mention it first, but you do mention it first), breathtaking cast, Steve McQueen’s charismatic directing. In a year when the best films aren’t even nominated (Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis were left out in the snow, inexplicably), 12 Years A Slave has every reason to do it in style.

And it’s okay, 12 Years A Slave is a better film than Argo. Steve McQueen is a great director, with style and chops to make this minefield of a topic (just imagine how pathetic and one-dimensional it could be) look intelligent and artistically compelling. A little artsy, too, but that doesn’t hurt. Hunger and Shame were very good, but you feel it’s here that McQueen makes his breakthrough and comes unto his own. It’s his big Money moment, after a couple of brilliant left-field gems like Other People and The Rachel Papers. This time around it’s not just Michael Fassbender. This time it’s Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s Brad Pitt.

And it’s, yes, American slavery of mid-19th century. Not Tarantino’s comic-book look, not Spielberg’s sideway glance; this is dead serious, full-on stare. The film is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, and follows his 12 years of hard labour and humiliation. Different owners, beatings, despair. It’s a relatively uneventful story (in cinematic terms, of course), which is both a blessing and a trap. On the one hand, it gives McQueen a great opportunity to explore the life around Solomon in every cruel and brutal detail; on the other hand, it makes McQueen resort to rushed, episodic scenes that are supposed to bring spice to the passive, occasionally boring narrative. He mostly succeeds, and the film looks gripping more or less all the way through.

As for the acting, it’s consistently good. Chiwetel Ejifor (as Solomon) masterfully carries his humble dignity around him from beginning to end. Cumberbatch is reasonable as a kind-hearted plantation owner. Fassbender is the film’s most complicated character, all crooked and confused, the sort of Nazi officer in love with a Jewish girl; you can’t look away. Pitt I’m not so sure about; he is mostly hidden behind a Southern accent and a beard, but I guess he does what he was asked to do.

Still, for all its talent and guts, 12 Years A Slave doesn’t really overwhelm emotionally. Maybe it’s the rushed ending, maybe it gets a little too technical in places. Thus, my resolution would be an Oscar for Steve McQueen, and a hilarious best picture award for American Hustle. No, this film wouldn’t be a bad choice, obviously not, but God knows La Grande Bellezza kicks this one out of the window. Last year’s main-category nomination for Michael Haneke’s Amour was a pleasant surprise, but this time the Academy just blew it again.


Sunday, 26 January 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #132: Pretenders - "Kid"

1980. Chrissie Hynde in imperial form as a performer and a songwriter. To say nothing of the looks. "Kid" is a classic three minute pop song, with poignant lyrics, gorgeous vocal melody and the sort of clever, concise guitar moment that makes me think of Robbie Krieger's brilliant solo in "My Eyes Have Seen You". 





Friday, 24 January 2014

Film review: BREATHE IN

Directed by Drake Doremus

7/10

If this film were a person, it wouldn’t be a very humorous person. It could occasionally crack a decent joke and grind out a half-genuine smile, but overall it would be far too in love with its own voice and its mirror image to bother with something as basic and revealing as humour.

Which is not to say that Breathe In isn’t a fine film. It is. It’s so fine it hurts. Precise acting, gorgeous camera work and a very stylish, dream-like world that almost threatens to choke on its own solemnity. In this world  Keith Reynolds (expertly played by Guy Pearce), a disillusioned piano teacher with a lovely wife and an equally lovely daughter, hosts an exchange student from Britain in his beautiful house not far from New York. The girl is played by Felicity Jones with all the unspoken desire and shy allure that this role needs. The passion sparkled is decidedly understated (there’s always music, of course), but Sophie’s impact on this American family is not. It’s through a few clich├ęs and rather predictable plot twists that we reach the end, but the film gets by through style, acting and perfect execution. 

Breathe In is ultimately an art for art’s sake experience. Calculated, worthy, mildly intriguing and, sadly, rather low on guts. But then the crisis it’s describing is a delicate matter, and it’s always hard to decide what to touch and when to lay off. American Beauty went over the top with it, Breathe In forgot to tell you a joke lest it should be in bad taste.


Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Film review: COMPUTER CHESS

Directed by Andrew Bujalski

8/10

Such a genuinely odd film. It shouldn’t have worked. More than that, the idea of creating such a film shouldn’t even have entered anyone’s mind, however freakish or subversive that mind could be. But against all odds (pun intended), the thing does work. Computer Chess is that special and rare movie experience that manages to be both boring and engrossing.

It’s a black and white film, which is perhaps the least unconventional thing about it. It’s a faux-documentary with a strong emphasis on ‘faux’. Set in the early 80’s and looking as if it was also shot in the early 80’s, it quickly dispenses with a casual viewer by stuffing his face with a solemn and ridiculously unexciting (verging on ‘what the hell’) conference on the prospect of machines beating humans at the game of chess. As it transpires, it’s all a prelude to a peculiar tournament where men are set to compete with ingenious chess software. The tournament is taking place at a hotel and attracts various chess geeks, nerds and weirdos who at times engage in mumbling conversations that will make you splutter with incredulity.

The juxtaposition emerges through the fact that the hotel happens to host another event (generally speaking) at the very same time: an eccentric therapy course aimed at free love, liberated feelings and, well, you should just see the participants. 

It would be hard to imagine, but the incredible boldness pays off. Computer Chess is done with such matter-of-fact conviction and self-belief, the vibe is so engaging and the oddness is so genuine that you feel strangely intrigued by what you see. It feels real and quite absurd. In fact, you might even be moved by the final scenes where the two worlds collide and love conquers all (so to speak). Then, as an afterthought, there’s a lovely non-sequitur that is like a very lo-fi equivalent of the final scene of Inland Empire. You see a woman soulfully performing a beautiful folk song. Credits roll. A fitting end. 


Monday, 6 January 2014

Film review: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR

Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche

7/10

It’s not a leading actor spoiling close-ups or a cameraman shooting from ill-advised angles. It’s a lot more mixed-up than that. It’s like nourishing pineapple juice ruining your teeth. In case of Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film, it’s questions, hundreds of questions running riot in your head. Sadly, these are not always ‘deep’ questions that you drag out of ‘deep’ movies. These questions are really quite basic.

The key one being, what if it wasn’t about two lesbian girls, but about a boy and a girl? Would anyone care?

While that may not seem like a legitimate question, I’m afraid it is. I don’t mind the gay awareness issue and likewise I'm okay with the fact that one of the girls just had to work with kids, but the story definitely counts, and in a film lasting three hours you have to offer infinitely more than passionate filmmaking (very crude in places) and brilliant acting (both Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos are sensational, especially Adele). Which is what the rather predictable plot of Blue Is The Warmest Colour fails to do and which is where the sex scenes have to come into play.

Were they necessary, did they have to be so graphic and did that scene have to last 7 minutes?

If one has to put a label on it, those scenes are softcore pornography. The bitter truth is that without those scenes the film could end up ordinary. With them – it’s admittedly rather gross, and you don’t even have to be a prude. No, the scenes are justified. The problem is that they don’t make the film any better. They are Lars von Trier’s area, they were meant to be provocative

The film isn’t bad, crucially. While ups may be trampled and brutally abused by downs, Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a perfect example of European cinema. It’s one thing watching elves slaughtering orcs over three hours, and it’s an entirely different proposition being headbanged into stark-naked (often literally) reality over the same period of time. The film is gutsy and overpowering, and it gets you in the end by way of your former emotional encounters that might have been just as passionate, traumatic and fucked-up. And like any successful exponent of European cinema, Blue Is The Warmest Colour plants a scurry of ideas in your head, not all of them pleasant.

Hard to say if the Cannes’ triumph was deserved, but the film certainly gets under your skin. And leaves a sickening taste in your mouth (have I just been manipulated into anything?), but you almost don’t regret that. Yes, it’s exactly the same with those teenage years.


Sunday, 5 January 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #131: Godley & Creme - "An Englishman In New York"

While the period of intense listening to this song just about everywhere (home, buses, airports, etc.) ended 6 or 7 years ago, I’d still argue this demented mini-opera is not just the greatest Godley & Creme song (and that includes their 10cc contributions) – it’s one of the best things ever. Lyrically or musically. From Freeze Frame (1979). And let's not even mention another song with the same name. This is the one.