Saturday, 31 October 2020

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Caught this classic at the Girls' School Cinema in East Perth recently and I'd forgotten how good it was. It's a touch under 3 hours but even sitting on a weird beanbag thing, trying to make the most of the bottomless popcorn (I don't even really like popcorn but it was part of the prize), didn't detract from the fun of Sergio Leone's madness. Like most spaghetti westerns, this was filmed with the actors speaking their own languages - Spanish, Italian and English - with voice actors dubbing over in post. Apparently, even the three leads had to do their own dubbing as the whole film was shot without sound. 

Speaking of the leads, the film starts in reverse -  Eli Wallach, as Tuco, is introduced first, then Lee Van Cleef, as Sentenza (or Angel Eyes), and finally Clint Eastwood, as Blondie (or The Man With No Name); so The Ugly, the Bad and the Good. Van Cleef gives good nasty and Eastwood is laconically funny but Wallach is the star for my money. He has all the best lines and gets a few meaty emotional scenes (see his meeting with his padre brother) that the other guys don't really have. His double act with Eastwood's unruffled straight man is the highlight of a film littered with them.

There are loads of iconic set pieces - Tuco saved from the noose by Blondie in a recurring scam; Tuco and his gang trying to creep up on Blondie while an army marches noisily through town, until it stops; Blondie's desert march; meeting Sentenza in the prison camp; the bridge sequence; and the final Mexican stand-off in the cemetery. The story is constructed with crosses and double crosses and it flows superbly. Much of this is down to Ennio Morricone's legendary score and Leone's penchant for close-ups, though the amoral tone of the film is a big plus too. And I didn't expect to be laughing so much - it might be the funniest western I've seen.

See also:

Though I don't think it's essential to see these prior to TGTBATU, but why not Leone's two preceding 'dollars' films - A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Both star Eastwood, Van Cleef joined the second one. Even better is the original of Fistful, Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961).

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Honest Thief

Liam Neeson has had quite an interesting career, hasn't he? The bloke's nearly 70 and in the last 12 years, he's peppered his CV with (mostly) meathead action fare. Yet early on he drifted more towards worthy or political dramas. Consider these disparate titles: The Mission, The Commuter, A Prayer for the Dying, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Schindler's List, The Grey, Rob Roy, Taken, Michael Collins, Taken 2. I could go on. If Matthew McConaughey has had his 'McConaissance', what do we call Neeson's latter-day path? A Neetrogression? Nah. Neeterioration? Hmmm. Maybe a simple Neescent? Let's go with that. [Copyright Oct 2020]. The thing is, he's a fine actor and a really likeable screen presence. So what's with all the dreck?

The above reads kind of like I'm trying to fill a word count. This is possibly due to the puddle that is Honest Thief. When I say puddle, I guess I mean it's shallow enough to be annoying but not so deep that your day would be ruined. Unstrangle that metaphucker! The premise of this film goes that a bank robber meets a woman and after a year, decides to turn himself in to the law and give back his loot. So far, so stretched. The wrinkle is that a jawbone of an FBI agent sees an angle here and tries to keep the dosh and cry crank re: Neeson. But Liam and his wounded expression are having none of that shit. "I will find you. And I will [cliché redacted]"

Here's a poser - why is this film here now? It was probably made on a mid-level budget (can't be more than $30 million?) with only Neeson and maybe Jai Courtney getting big bucks. Throw in some explosions, some car crashes. This would have been a straight to video boiler in the old days - now it's competing at the top of the box office. Is it purely the Covid desert landscape? It appears that in the top ten worldwide box office so far this year, only ONE film, Tenet, was released after March. A concern for cinema's future?

See also:

Arguably, the best thing Neeson has done is a cameo on Warwick Davis, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais's, Life's Too Short (TV 2011), but Neil Jordan's Michael Collins (1996) was a good example of his talent.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Baby Done

Baby Done
is a film I had my suspicions about going in but it actually surprised me with its odd Kiwi charm and no little humour. This is a maternity comedy/drama from New Zealand, directed by Curtis Vowell (only one other feature to his name) and written by Sophie Henderson (who has a similarly light CV as a writer). But Henderson specifically has to take the bulk of the credit here for splashing a bit of life into this genre and dealing out some great lines and set-ups. The leads, Rose Matafeo and Matthew Lewis (Auckland is a long way from Hogwarts), bounce off each other perfectly well, each having a few golden moments to shine. The tension comes from the fact that Zoe (Matafeo) doesn't really want a baby and would prefer to go to Canada for the International Tree Climbing Championship (yep, apparently it's a thing), yet Tim (Lewis) is super chuffed and ready to settle down.

The low key feel to the film is a strong point. If I mention piss, vomit, attempted threesome shagging and a preggophile who's into plaster casting you may be forgiven for thinking this is a gross-out comedy but it rides those events with style and wit. The end of the threesome sequence, for example, has Zoe and her friend arguing about the environmental impact of having a baby. And the preggophile character, Brian, played by Nic Sampson, isn't strictly played for weirdness value, though he has some of the best (awkward) laughs. There's also a show-stopping gag near the end that I won't spoil, but it almost brought the house down at the screening I attended.

The supporting cast play it as straight as an arrow, with special mention for Rachel House as a deadpan school principal, and the host of the antenatal class (whose name I sadly can't track down). The presence of Taika Waititi as an executive producer shouldn't be understated. It's as though the Kiwis are riding a kind of Taika wave at the moment, similar to the influence Ricky Gervais had on English comedy a few years back. And this is a positive in my book.

See also:

Difficult to choose as I'm a bit out of my element but maybe Jason Reitman's Juno (2007) about another reluctant mother-to-be and Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) for a similar feel.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

David Fincher Top Ten

With Fincher's first feature in 6 years, Mank, due soon, I figured I'd do a top ten of his other films. Conveniently, he's only made ten features, on top of dozens of music 'videos', as well as some TV and a few shorts. But lets focus on the films.

10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Where to start? Well, let me say that Benjy is the only Fincher film I hated. Full of heart-felt whimsy attempting depth, it misses just about every mark. This is trite bollocks with very little to raise it, save from the unimpeachable Cate Blanchett. Take her out of it and you're left with a certified steamer.

9. The Game (1997)

Not a bad film, and made with some late 90s panache, but it just didn't elevate for me. Not much wrong with the cast, Douglas and Penn are usually watchable at worst. There are the requisite reversals and rug-pulls but maybe that's part of the problem - too much of this malarkey?

8. Alien³ (1992)

I don't remember the minutiae of this film but I  recall it being bloody grim and quite dull, even with sharpy tooth, dribbly face popping up in odd places. The cast is packed with British gems like Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite and Paul McGann and Weaver is top bins as usual but this might be the weakest of the Alien series.

7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Not a bad stab at adapting the Stieg Larsson novel, with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig playing the two leads, Salander and Blomkvist. This is mostly on a par with the Swedish version of two years previous but Fincher's style nudges it just above for me. Craig is generally underrated as an actor and the supporting cast is fine but it's Mara who drives the film. She's oddly magnetic but also hard to warm to in this role, which creates a pretty memorable balance.

6. Panic Room (2002)

A nicely paced, home invasion thriller full of Finchery touches and well pitched performances from Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart and Forest Whitaker. I reckon I haven't seen this since release but I remember it being pretty nerve-jangling fun.

5. The Social Network (2010)

A film that used Jesse Eisenberg's inherent unlikeability to good effect, this gets in the top five due to Fincher's (and writer Aaron Sorkin's) alchemy of making a dull reality into a sparkling Shakespearean twat-bastard-fest.

4. Se7en (1995)

Fincher's second feature (and the second to use a weird number thing in the title), this was his 'name on the map' turn. Pitt was a bit raw but Freeman and Spacey brought the gravitas to this delicately assembled scunge-pit of a film. Aside from Delicatessen, I can't remember a BROWNER film. Or a more unsettling one.*

*These are both good things in my book.

3. Gone Girl (2014)

This film jumps genres like it's scanning the dial for Jim Maxwell. It takes a stab at thriller, black comedy, satire, even echoing number 2 in this list at times (see below). Fincher seems so assured with Gone Girl, like he's completely comfortable with its ultimate destination. Career-best turns from Affleck and Pike, with top notch support in Kim Dickens and Tyler Perry as well as a creeping sense of dread, make this a superbly landed piece of cinema.

2. Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac is the film that took on Iron Man, Hulk and Mysterio and left them floundering. Immensely watchable, mostly accurate account of the Zodiac serial killer case in California in the 60s and 70s. Fincher pretty much found his opus here and his detailed camerawork, suspenseful editing and control of pace and performance make this one of the best films of the 2000s so far. A flipping belter this.

1. Fight Club (1999)

A South African fella named Shane called me over at the pram repair warehouse and said, "Bru, you have to see this new Brad Pitt film, Fight Club!" I think I dismissed him with an eyebrow and a scoffing, "Pitt". But how wrong I was. This is a deliciously anarchic, bonkers, anti-capitalism tract with a lovely pre-21st century twist and visuals to lick dry. Ending on a Pixies song just popped an allergy free cherry* on top.

*I'm actually allergic to cherries.

Friday, 18 September 2020

The Translators

Got along to an advance screening of The Translators at the Luna in Leederville a few nights ago. It's a mystery set in the world of literary publishing and the story takes a little getting the old bonce around. Broadly, a group of nine translators are seconded to a high security bunker to translate the third book in a massively popular series, Daedalus, written by the reclusive Oscar Brach (strangely subtitled as 'Bach'). Pretty soon, it's found that 10 pages have somehow been smuggled out to the Internet, setting off a series of events that land the publisher Eric Angstrom, among others, in shtuck. 

Angstrom is played by the hawk-nosed yet serpentine, Lambert Wilson, who has a swathe of shite films to his credit (Babylon A.D., anyone?). This is the best film I've seen him in, but I'm certainly not a Wilson completist, so there must be other passable works. Some of the translators are reasonably well known, especially in their home 'markets'. Olga Kurylenko plays the Russian; Ricardo Scamarcio, the Italian; Sidse Babett Knudsen, the Dane and Eduardo Noriega, the Spaniard. Alex Lawther, who was in an especially downbeat Dark Mirror episode plays the English translator, and he's ok but I didn't take to him, not sure why.

The whodunit aspect of the film soon becomes a 'howdunit', as the films twists and wriggles its way through several plot crevices, all the while attempting to keep the audience on their toes and in their seats at the same time. All this is fairly well handled by director, Regis Roinsard in only his second feature, but it didn't have the same style, or at least humour, as something like Rian Johnson's Knives Out or even those old Poirot films from the 70s. There are more things going on than I was probably aware of, for example, the significance of the Proust novel as a kind of money shot, or the apparent focus on one character, to deflect attention, perhaps?

The Translators has a lot going on and there are some tense moments sprinkled throughout. A mini-heist scene lifts the pace around the halfway mark and there's a clever Mexican standoff where different languages are utilised for extrication. Ultimately though, I was left a bit underdone by this film. Maybe it was trying to be a bit too clever, maybe some of the cast weren't quite right or possibly some parts were underwritten. It's not a bad film but as Ween once said, I can't put my finger on it.

See also:

For similar captivity themes, try the German film, The Experiment (2001) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, and for more translation, albeit the Alien kind, check out Denis Villeneuve's brilliant, Arrival (2016).


Listen to "The Translators" on Spreaker.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

The New Mutants

After more than two years of postponed release dates, The New Mutants finally arrives in cinemas. Re-shoots, schedule clashes with other films, Disney's purchase of 20th Century Fox and covid-related cinema closures all contributed to the limbo the film found itself in. So was the wait worth it? I'd say sure. It's no world beater but it has a neatly contained story with some creepy elements (mainly down to the work of DOP, Peter Deming, whose first feature was Evil Dead 2) and nicely pitched performances. Let's have a roll call of these younglings, then. The first credit (though not the protagonist) is Maisie Williams as Rahne Sinclair [WOLFSBANE]. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Illyana Rasputin [MAGIK]. The real lead is Blu Hunt, who plays Danielle Moonstar [MIRAGE]. Charlie Heaton plays Sam Guthrie [CANNONBALL] and Henry Zaga plays Roberto da Costa [SUNSPOT]. And aside from Alice Braga as their doctor/monitor, that's about it for the cast. They all bounce off each other well and Taylor-Joy is better here than I've seen her before but Hunt in the lead is a little damp, not quite up to the energy level of the others.

The New Mutants is basically a haunted house thriller where the ghosts are mutation related, therefore explicable yet very dangerous. There's a clear through-line which follows Moonstar and her need to overcome a pretty bloody intransigent obstacle (keep an ear out for her narration at the start and an eye on her necklace thereafter). Other thematic pincushions of keeping control, sticking together and choosing the correct side of your character to 'feed' are ritually pricked. And it seems like they made Braga's doctor the daughter of a vet, just so she could spew forth some strangled analogies about baby rattlesnakes and some such.

There is a honking great foreshadowing of a character watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer at one point. Ooooh, hang on! Does this mean...? Yep, there may be some wolf-girl-on-bear-girl action at some stage. In fact, this relationship is quite sweet, if you can get past the bestiality aspect, and I'm sure you can. Each of the five have a moment to shine where their backstories are winkled out. Rasputin's story is bleak shit and serves up the scariest manifestations, partly thanks to Marilyn Manson's voice work. Speaking of Rasputin, there's a long shot near the end of the film where the five mutants walk off camera and Taylor-Joy lingers, taking her time to get out of frame. I wonder if she's trying an old Steve McQueen trick here, a way of hogging a fraction more screen time.

It seems with Disney's acquisition of Fox, there won't be any more of these new mutant films, at least not with the cast or 'creatives', namely director and co-writer Josh Boone and co-writer Knate Lee. Shame if so, as this was a happy surprise. A 'Marvel' film with a whiff of paranoid grunge horror to it. They don't come along every day.

See also:

For a similar setting, there aren't many, actually ANY, better films than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) directed by Milos Forman. The British TV series, Misfits (2009-2013), created by Howard Overman, has an echo of young folk discovering their 'specialties'.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Christopher Nolan Top Ten

With the release of Tenet, I thought I might rip off many film mags/websites and do a top ten of Nolan's films. For the sake of cleanliness, I've forgone his first feature, Following (assume it's 11th) and all his shorts. Let's go.

10. Insomnia (2002)

This is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgard in the Pacino role. Williams and Pacino are great and this is a pretty good film, but I prefer the others.

9. The Dark Knight (2008)

This might be an unpopular choice but, again, I actually liked this film, just not as much as the first or third in this Batman series. Ledger is spectacular and the set pieces are fantastic but it lost me with the Harvey Dent subplot and the ferry sequence was too portentous.

8. The Prestige (2006)

Clever, well-paced thriller, stacked with big names putting in sterling performances. I'm actually going to watch it again soon to try and figure out why so many people rate it as Nolan's best. It's very good but the best? Not for me.

7. Memento (2000)

This was Nolan's second feature after Following, and his first step into the US film industry, though he was still a few years off supreme leader type power. Memento is the beginning of Nolan's dalliance with time and his experiments to confuse his audience with fractured narratives and timelines. This works, as I needed to see it about three times to 'get it'. Pretty amazing stuff.

6. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Many folk have this as the weakest of Nolan's Batman trilogy but I quite liked the high stakes and the rug-pulls and the anarchic idea of forcing a city to sever itself from the rest of society. Tom Hardy's Bane was fun and an infinite amount of Marion Cotillard would still be scrimping.

5. Batman Begins (2005)

Never a fan of the Burton & Schumacher Batmans (Batmen?), nor the campy shite from the 60s, not to mention the latest DC crud, Nolan's first crack at the job was a gritty rejig, a rebirth of the character. Lashings of confident style and Christian Bale had an easy charm as well. Best of the bunch.

4. Tenet (2020)

See previous blog entry for thoughts on this gem. It's just about the most Nolany you can get, quite the melon-twister, but he pulls off the neat trick of not having it matter so much if you can't follow proceedings. Film-making summed up with this line - "Bold I'm fine with, I thought you were going to say nuts."

3. Interstellar (2014)
For all its faults (iffy dialogue, questionable politics and sentimentality) this packs a punch like none of Nolan's other work. I'm not on the best terms with McConaughey or Hathaway and yet, Interstellar had me in bits, weeping like an infant. Add a few magnificent set-pieces and you're onto a winner.

2. Inception (2010)

Career peaks galore here - DiCaprio, Page, Hardy, Gordon-Levitt - in the film that has become a throw-away term for inferior copies "Oh, it's kind of Inception-y." High stakes, complex set-ups and tension-building in spades, Inception is a ball-tearer of an experience. And a glorious, 'choose your own' final shot. Supreme film-making.

1. Dunkirk (2017)

When I left the cinema after seeing this I, maybe rashly, suggested to myself that Dunkirk was the best film I'd seen for around a decade. Still not sure I'd disagree with 2017 me. It's bloody amazing. The concentric story threads meeting at a pivot point in the ocean could be a gimmick in other hands, but Nolan barely brings our attention to this aspect, instead focussing on the lives of the desperate characters. Excellent work.