Sunday, 28 February 2016

Blind Spots triple-bill... Incendies (2010), Before Sunrise trilogy (1995-2013), Untouchable (2011)

Blind Spots is an ongoing project from film site The Matinee, and this year I’m joining in. The idea is to pick 12 well known or highly rated films you’ve not seen but feel you should have, and vow to watch them all by the end of the year. If you write your own film blog, feel free to join in at any time. My list is here, all selected from IMDb’s top 250.

I've actually done a triple-bill this month, and one of those is a trilogy in itself, so five films in total. The reason is that I have hundreds of titles on my Lovefilm rental list (Amazon UK's equivalent of Netflix by post), and although you can prioritise the discs you want sent out next, most of the time I just watch whatever arrives randomly. This month all of these happened to be sent out, so I thought why not just review them all now, if I reach my 12 before the end of the year I can always expand the list. It also helps that they were all absolutely tremendous and films I urge anyone reading to seek out asap.

Incendies (2010)

Denis Villeneuve is a director suddenly on my radar. Why? Because Incendies is one of the most shocking, remarkable films I’ve ever seen. In her will, a woman leaves letters to her children with instructions to carry out her dying wish, leading them on a journey from Canada to the war torn Middle East. Jumping forward and back through the family’s timeline, in a structure that at times gets dizzyingly complex, we slowly start to grasp what’s going on. The performance of Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, in the lead role of the woman’s daughter, is astonishing. There’s a moment when she realises something, and that gasp. Wow. I’ve never had a movie create such a sudden, horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Added to all of this is the unexpected and inspired use of Radiohead soundtracked over slow motion footage, the effect is pure cinema. The reason I try to avoid spoilers is precisely because of films like this - all I can emphasise is that it’s essential to view without prior knowledge of the story, and that it’s an absolute must-see. It’s also one I will need to see again to fully absorb, and of course to come at it with knowledge of the outcome. Villeneuve went on to direct the likes of Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), both of which I enjoyed even if they’re not nearly at the same level as this, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013)

I’ve been aware of these films for a while, but doubted they would be my sort of thing. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. The setup involves a man and woman, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who meet on a train in Europe. They get chatting, and by the time they reach Vienna, she has to make a decision - get off the train with him, or continue her journey alone and risk regretting the one who got away. The fact they made a trilogy out of their story suggests it doesn’t end on the train, so it’s not really a spoiler to say that the remainder of the first film spans that day and evening as they wander around a dreamlike Vienna ruminating on life, literature, art, love etc. Will they fall in love? Will they part and never see each other again? There are many moments when you just don’t know and really want to, and that’s down to the quality of Linklater’s writing. It also helps to have two leads who are so likeable, and by the time Sunrise finished, I was desperate to see the next part. It’s a marvellous thing to discover a trilogy that you can see together one after the other, originally I would have had to wait 9 years to see what happened next (twice!) - that would have been excruciating given how the first one ends. I was less keen on the direction the final part of the trilogy took, even if it’s one of the most honest portrayals of love and getting older that I’ve seen in any film, the indefinable magic in the first two isn’t quite there. The fact that Richard Linklater likes to makes films over many years, also the case with Boyhood (which I haven’t seen yet - one for my next blind spot list perhaps), means that he can tell a story that shows how people change physically and emotionally in real time, rather than faking it with the costume and makeup department. It’s risky filmmaking but such a unique way to tell a story. I was hooked on this throughout, got swept up in the will they/won’t they scenario in a way I rarely do with romance films, and found the whole thing entirely captivating. It proves why it’s worth keeping an open mind about your taste in films, in the end all I want is to be told a good story, and in spite of my preconceptions, this is definitely that.

Untouchable (The Intouchables) (2011)

Best film I’ve seen so far this year? It’s a contender (as are the others above). One of the most inspirational and joyful films I’ve ever seen? It’s a contender for that too. Warm, funny, moving, charming… there are many ways to describe Untouchable, but it’s best summarised as: “yaaaaaaaaaaahoooooo!” It’s a film that makes you want to leap up from your boring life, throw your arms in the air and scream something very silly at the top of you lungs. Or parachute off the side of a mountain. Or get in your car and drive stupidly fast (up to and no further than the speed limit, of course). Something that will make you feel alive, and glad to be so. The story concerns Philippe (François Cluzet - the spitting image of Dustin Hoffman), a man who was paralysed in an accident, and the life-changing experiences he comes to have under the care of Driss (Omar Sy). From entirely different backgrounds, one a wealthy aristocrat and the other coming from a life in the projects, and with seemingly opposite personalities, their relationship forms into something unexpected and wonderful. It takes a very skilful filmmaker to create scenes that are hilariously funny, woven between a drama of such emotional depth and power. Two actors that are new to me have taken that story, which I might add is true, and delivered performances that made it something very special. I am so glad to have happened upon this Blind Spots idea, just as I’d hoped it has lead me to see stupendously good films that I might have missed otherwise, and this is the pick of them so far. It’s a little like the Amelie effect - I defy anyone not to like this film.

From next week, I'm going to have a go at expanding my "Three Great Movies" series, now that I'm getting the hang of (read: obsessed with) this blogging lark. There might even be a new title for it, and one or two other new ideas. More on these exciting developments during the week.

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Great Directors... Martin Scorsese: watchlist

Martin Scorsese. The godfather of American cinema, one of the most influential film directors of all time, and now to top it all off, he’s getting his own feature on this very blog. As I mentioned in my previous post, the idea is to pick a director and watch my way through their entire film catalogue in chronological order. I went with Scorsese because I can't think of any work he's done that I've not enjoyed, I particularly like Italian and Italian-American culture in movies (I've been going to Italian language night classes for almost 2 years), and it's a safe enough bet for actually making this a fun process rather than a slog.

The list below contains his 39 feature films, short films, TV films and documentaries stetching from 1959 to 2013 (I’m only interested in the films, so excluded any TV series like Boardwalk Empire, The Blues, adverts, music videos*, and anything currently unavailable). I’ve only actually seen 12 of the 39, far fewer than I’d realised, so this is a bit of a step into the unknown. The plan is to write a post with little reviews after every 10 film milestone, and a top 5 or 10 at the end depending on how good a director he is. I suspect he’ll be quite good.


What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (Short) 1963
It's Not Just You, Murray! (Short) 1964
Who's That Knocking at My Door 1967
The Big Shave (Short) 1968
Boxcar Bertha 1972
Mean Streets 1973
Italianamerican (Documentary) 1974
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore 1974
Taxi Driver 1976
New York, New York 1977

The Last Waltz (Documentary) 1978
Raging Bull 1980
The King of Comedy 1982
After Hours 1985
Mirror, Mirror (Amazing Stories) (TV) 1986
The Color of Money 1986
Bad (Short) 1987
The Last Temptation of Christ 1988
New York Stories (segment "Life Lessons") 1989
Goodfellas 1990

Made in Milan (Short documentary) 1990
Cape Fear 1991
The Age of Innocence 1993
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (TV) 1995
Casino 1995
Kundun 1997
Bringing Out the Dead 1999
My Voyage to Italy (Documentary) 2001
Gangs of New York 2002
The Aviator 2004

The Departed 2006
The Key to Reserva (Short) 2007
Shine a Light (Documentary) 2008
Shutter Island 2010
Public Speaking (Documentary) 2010
A Letter to Elia (Documentary) 2010
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Documentary) 2011
Hugo 2011
The Wolf of Wall Street 2013


Vinyl 2016
Silence 2016

Vesuvius VI (Short) 1959
New York City... Melting Point (Documentary) 1966
Street Scenes 1970
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (Documentary) 1978
The Neighborhood (Short Documentary) 2001
Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty (TV Documentary) 2004
The 50 Year Argument (Documentary) 2014

*I'm including Bad, the Michael Jackson music video, as I seem to remember that being a short film.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Three Great Movies... about walking the trail

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday.

I'm lucky enough to live in Perthshire, a region of Scotland known as "Big Tree Country". Dense forests with enormous trees, rivers, waterfalls, trails and dramatic viewpoints are but a short drive away. I love to spend time in the woods, regularly taking my camera and heading off for a few hours without seeing another soul. Solitude, silence, away from the world. And so I understand exactly why people remove themselves from the troubles of "normal" life and set out on long trails through the wilderness. Inspired by the DVD release of A Walk in the Woods, here's three stories about people who do just that, and their often emotional reasons behind it. These are not survival stories, at least not in the literal sense, but tales of people who’ve chosen to put themselves through a long trek for the sake of redemption and/or personal fulfillment.

The Way (2010)
"You don't choose a life, dad. You live one."

A poignant and at times quite moving story of a man who is compelled to walk the Camino de Santiago Trail, in memory of his son who died whilst attempting the same Spanish pilgrimage. Written and directed by Emilio Estavez, with Martin Sheen in the lead role (his real life Dad), you can tell this is a passion project for them both. Along the route a variety of characters are introduced, and the story becomes as much about them and their varying reasons for being there. When James Nesbit's character is first introduced he is so over the top as to seem like he's on the set of an entirely different movie, but as with all of the group, there is much more below the surface than first appears. By the end I was reminded just what a gifted actor Nesbit is. The same goes for Martin Sheen, much changed from his Apocalypse Now and Badlands days, but still as compelling as he's ever been. For me there were one or two directorial decisions that seemed out of place, such as parts of the soundtrack and Nesbit's opening scene, but it didn't really detract from this understated gem of a movie.

Wild (2014)
"If your nerve deny you - go above your nerve."

The true story of Cheryl Strayed, a young woman (played by Reese Witherspoon) trapped in a cycle of increasingly self-destructive behaviour as she struggles to cope with a marital breakdown and family tragedy. Instead of just accepting that's all there is to her life, she eventually regains control and sets out to walk the 1,100 mile Pacific Coast Trail (PCT). It's an escape and a way of finding herself, for want of a better phrase. The film looks beautiful (of course it does, how could it not be with scenery like that), it's rammed with metaphors and little poetic moments, and I loved the little quotes she writes in the notebooks at each waypoint. If you can't find even a glimmer of joy in the scene where she watches the setting sun, then you're a cold, cold human being. Witherspoon is fantastic, she must have put herself through a lot in the making of this, and convinces in all aspects of a difficult, fragile, yet ultimately very likeable character. I'm struggling to think of anything negative to say about it.

A Walk in the Woods (2015)
"John Muir once said, sometimes a man needs to grab a loaf of bread, throw it in a sack,
and jump over the back fence."

I remember Robert Redford saying at the time of the cinema release that he originally hoped for this to be a reunion with Paul Newman, a sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as grumpy old men. After Newman died, Nick Nolte instead joined him on the trail. Based on the Bill Bryson book, it follows two men, unfit and getting on in life, who attempt to walk the entire Appalachian Trail. All 2000+ miles of it. There are quite a few amusing situations in the first half, mostly involving Nick Nolte who looks like he's about to pass out after the first few yards of the walk. The best moments are not through the comedy though, but when they sit to reflect on their lives, alcoholism, and their place in the world. Those bits are thought provoking and a little bit lovely, I just wanted more of that. You get the feeling in the latter stages that as the characters are saying "we're getting too old for this", the actors are thinking the same, they do look ragged and worn out by the filming and by time. Although suitably so, that's how most folk on the trail will be. A gentle and easy to watch film, I think the more profound reasons for the characters of Wild and The Way to be walking the trail made those better films, but this was enjoyable all the same.

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Great Directors... a new series

I’m not going to claim that this idea has even one iota of originality, but it’s something I personally have never done before, and that’s what counts. This is the start of a series in which I pick a highly regarded director, one of the true greats of cinema, and watch my way through their entire back catalogue in chronological order. Then write a bit about each film.

I’ve seen other bloggers do this sort of thing, and it struck me that there are probably not any directors whose complete filmography I can say I’ve seen. Even with my favourite directors there are likely to be gaps, especially as I’d like to include all of their available short films and TV films (though skipping any TV series/shows). I think it will be interesting to watch in such an order and see how a particular director’s style and quality of output changed over the years.

Some directors have a huge catalogue to get through, so this will be a very long-term project. I’m just going to take my time, write a little about each one as I go along, and hopefully do a top 10 when I reach the end.

My first director is Martin Scorsese. It’s an obvious choice, but I can’t think of a more appropriate one to start with. A visionary director, hugely influential, amazing catalogue of films and includes few I'll be seeing for the first time. A watchlist with all the qualifying films is linked below, and I’m rather looking forward to getting started. This must be what it’s like to be a film student, only at the end I won’t have a teacher telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Below is the index for the various articles I'll be posting. Links will be added to the dates as I go along.

Part 1: 1963-1977
Part 2: 1978-1990
Part 3: 1990-2004
Part 4: 2006-Present

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Three Great Movies About... L.A. Criminals

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday.

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than by treating your loved one to a stay-at-home screening of one or more films from this concluding part of my Los Angeles crime season. If their response is negative, then you know it’s time to get rid. For the occasion I have gathered three treats celebrating the fine work of everyone’s movie favourites: the criminals. I wanted them to be more interesting than your bog standard criminal though, and so I went looking for those who are just a little more, shall we say, unusual. And as a bonus, they all dress terribly smartly as they go about their business.

Falling Down (1993)

You're having a terrible day. In fact a terrible time of it in general. You're stuck in a traffic jam, and it's a sweltering L.A. day. If you're Michael Douglas, that's enough to make you snap, abandon your car, and go on a fantastically fearless rampage across the city (still carrying your briefcase and dressed in shirt and tie). Except he’s nice about it, he’ll only violently attack people who irritate him in some way. Just wait for the diner scene and his reaction when he's told they’ve stopped serving breakfast. For the most part this is good clean violent fun, I suppose the attempted balance of comedy and drama compares it to something like Beverly Hills Cop, and although it fizzles out a little towards the end, it passed an enjoyable afternoon.

Harsh Times (2005)

One of the less well known of writer/director David Ayer's L.A. crime stories, and one that I think was very underrated on release. Christian Bale is immense in the role of a 26 year old war veteran, who on the one hand is applying to become a cop, and on the other has been damaged by combat experience to the point of a borderline psychopath who is increasingly losing control of his desire for drink, drugs and violence. It's a film that is all about Bale, when you see the way he builds his performance from low key to lunatic, with just the right L.A. accent, lingo and mannerisms - it feels like watching a masterclass in acting. It's easy to forget he's actually English, so used are we to seeing him doing American characters. There are probably plenty of actors that could have performed this role, but few that could have performed it so well.

Jackie Brown (1997)

I couldn’t have an L.A. crime season and not include a Quentin Tarantino picture. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are equally deserving of inclusion, but I opted for Jackie Brown. Played by Pam Grier, she fits the bill of not being your everyday criminal; a sophisticated, stylish yet underpaid flight attendant who smuggles money through L.A. International Airport and into the hands of an illegal arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). The police latch onto her, and before you know it, everyone is scheming each other to get their hands on the money. The dialogue and action are pure Tarantino, though I didn’t realise before that it’s his only adapted screenplay, you wouldn’t know as it feels like his story. The cast are all superb, too many to mention, but I particularly liked Robert Forster’s role as the bail bondsman - it’s the most down to earth character and performance in any of Tarantino’s work, and all the better for it. I was also taken by how well the soundtrack was worked into the scenes, he always does a great soundtrack but this song selection matched especially well with the story (and is mainly love songs, so I guess the film is actually appropriate for today). There’s a beautiful flow to the film, almost effortlessly cool, and the most subtle of his films. I think it’s growing into one of my favourites. Happy Valentines Day motherf*****s!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Three Great Movies About... L.A. Cops

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday.

My L.A. crime season continues with part 2, focussing on the poor souls who are employed to keep law and order in the city's endlessly violent gangland neighbourhoods: the officers of the LAPD. I went through quite a number of films for this theme, including many poor ones, and others like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential which are great but more noir than modern cop stories. I ended up with three very different titles - one’s a brutally honest representation of life in the job, another a gripping detective versus criminals heist movie, and finally a comedy classic. No I am not talking about Police Academy 6.

End of Watch (2012)

A particularly powerful drama that follows two LAPD officers, Jake Gyllenhall and Michael Pena, as they go about their daily police routine. Except in L.A. nothing is routine. The film probably depicts the most realistic movie version of what policing in such hostile neighbourhoods is like, not that I'd know, but at least it feels like you're watching something real. This is helped by the film being largely presented as footage shot by the cops and criminals using camcorders and body cams, an unusual style that I thought worked well for the most part. Mostly though this is a film that is made by the performances of the two leads, plus Anna Kendrick who is adorable as Gyllenhall's girlfriend. It's a film that takes police work seriously and presents the officers as real family people risking their lives for a living, rather than two dimensional corrupt alcoholic robots (though I want to see that movie), and that's why I think it's one of the best cop films Hollywood has ever produced.

If you like End of Watch, I also recommend David Ayer's other L.A. cop story Training Day (2001). Additionally there’s the excellent tv drama series Southland, which has many similarities to End of Watch. It’s flown a little under the radar but is really very good indeed. So you've got something new to watch now Breaking Bad is finished.

Heat (1995)

This centres on a detective, Al Pacino, and his attempts to bring down of a group of high end criminals planning a daring multi-million dollar bank robbery in downtown L.A. It's the sort of story I find hard to resist, it’s so well paced with the story weaving between Pacino's struggles to balance the pressures of work and family life, and the sharp criminals (lead by Robert De Niro in his last great role - twenty years ago!) who seem intent on succeeding even if it means blowing to bits everyone who gets in their way. At nearly three hours it's way too long, there was an obvious point long before the end where things could have been wrapped up, but making it through the last half hour or so is worth it for the final wordless image. Michael Mann really knows how to make movies, or at least he used to, and this is a great companion piece to last week’s Collateral.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Just like returning to my favourite Christmas films each year, this one fills me with nostalgia. Eddie Murphy's performance as Axel Foley is legendary, the Detroit cop who ends up in Beverly Hills on a murder investigation, causing all sorts of chaos along the way. Obviously this entangles him with the Beverly Hills Police Dept, rather than LAPD, but as we're still within LA County territory it still fits the theme. I'm surprised how well this has stood the test of time, I still find it funny and Eddie Murphy's laugh is utterly infectious. It's the little comedic touches that I love, like the banana in the tailpipe, and the guy who makes the espresso with a lemon twist*. When the iconic theme tune kicks in around the ten minute mark, it feels like coming home after a long trip away.

*I've never had lemon in coffee before. Sounds odd, possibly disgusting. Must try it sometime.