Film Journal

THE FILM JOURNAL | January 2014

I look back at the films I watched in the previous month, whether they were brand new in the cinema or simply new to me. Dates are by UK release. Here are my thoughts.

filmjournaljanuary2014_1

The year has started well.
Now a regular contributor to HeyUGuys, a fantastic website for all things to do with films, and weekly writer for Time Out Abu Dhabi’s film section, my prospects in movie criticism are looking up. While I slowly climb the ladder, passing greats on the way up (I’ve just begun David Thomson’s Have You Seen…?, a thousand entry-strong tome of near-biblical proportions) and reading up on fantastic slices of writing that I would otherwise have missed (The Dissolve‘s consistently excellent write-ups continue to inspire in me the notion that film criticism is as strong, intelligent and moving as ever; it’s maybe just a little harder to find on the internet), I catch glimpses of success above me, though there’s still a long way to go yet.

So to coincide with this new chapter in the Book of Gary Green (I’ll write that someday, I promise), I thought I’d try something a bit different for 2014’s first installment of The Film Journal. After reading through many previous editions, I noticed that my choices for the ‘Recommended‘ certification were all spot-on; masterpieces, near-masterpieces, or simply films that were immensely valuable to the cinematic canon. However, a lot of movies that I deemed brilliant – but not quite essential viewing, as it were – were deprived of such a lofty appraisal. My entire ethos when it comes to the ‘Recommended‘ and ‘Avoid‘ certifications tied into keeping true criticism alive; instead of skipping the main body of text to just a brief summary and an ‘out of five’ star rating, which is sadly the norm of film reviews today, you would actually have to read what I thought about the film. Depriving a movie of such prudish valuation (a petulant system; how could you ever reduce a piece of art, that many people have slaved over for many months, to a number of stars on a page?), which is inspired by the ever-fantastic Sight & Sound magazine’s similar refusal of such ratings, coerced someone reading the Journal to actually engage and assess with what I thought about the film – not just whether I reckoned it was good or not.

But at the end of the day, I’ve given Andrei Tarkovsky’s magnum opus Andrei Rublev the ‘Recommended‘ certification, while in the same edition I failed to give Before Midnight the same – yet I thought it was one of the best films of last year. So, to start 2014 with what I hope will be a more comprehensive and helpful way of looking at the films I watch over the course of the year, I’m introducing a slightly different system. It goes like this:

• Unmissable
Exactly what ‘Recommended’ meant in all previous editions of The Film Journal; awarded to those pieces of work that prove cinema is one of humanity’s better endeavours.

• Recommended
This now means that you should get this movie on your ‘to-see’ list. Extraordinary films that deserve viewing, but perhaps may not be considered a ‘masterwork’, per se (example: The World’s End is endlessly inventive, shockingly hilarious and fantastic on every level. But it’s not essential viewing, in the grand cinematic scheme of things).

• Avoid
Many awful movies have some redeeming factors; 
The Delivery Man is blander than your nan’s wallpaper, but has a warm heart. So an ‘Avoid’ certification may be given in cases of technical ineptitude and / or severe philosophical malaise caused by a viewing of the film (Grown Ups 2 a prime example).

So what does this mean? Essentially, there’ll be a lot more ‘Recommended‘ certifications in future, and The Film Journal will now (hopefully) give a more valuable and varied guide to the movies you should be watching. But the main point, as ever, is to read. And agree. Or disagree. Either way, I’m intrigued to see where this’ll take us. So please, read, enjoy, comment, do a ritualistic dance round a fire, do anything; just check out these movies.

~ ~ ~

pineapplexpress1Pineapple Express [2008]
Although it’s irreverent to its own plot and pacing, Pineapple Express shamelessly expounds that same cavalier attitude as a virtue with its extended gags and ludicrous setpieces. David Gordon Green went to his lowest lows (Your HighnessThe Sitter) before reaching his high again (hehe, that was a pot reference) with Prince Avalanche; but before all that, he made Pineapple Express, the escapist stoner caper that works because of the affable chemistry between Rogen and Franco. Lighting up faces and erm, lighting up, have never before been mixed to such chortle-inducing effect.

For —

Midnight Run [1988]midnightrun1
The late ’80s seemed to be a breeding ground for high-class road pictures (Planes, Trains & Automobiles came out the year before), but none got all the elements together as perfectly as Midnight Run. Back when Robert DeNiro could still charm effortlessly, when plotting and character were intertwined even in the simplest of genre or premise, and when that extra bit of effort on all fronts could make a routine movie into a great one, we had Midnight Run. That, and a horrific stuck-in-a-time warp soundtrack. 

fearless1Fearless [1993]
• Unmissable
Many cite The Truman Show as director Peter Weir’s best movie – or at least his most culturally significant (often the same thing). But then, many haven’t seen his previous effort, Fearless; treading the line between bad taste and rapture in every frame, and winning through every second with a dogged determination to let us, the audience, truly know what pain is, it’s an exhaustive potrayal of profound, existential grief. Jeff Bridges, as ineffably brilliant as ever, plays a man who survives a horrific airplane crash, and returns to life not fearing anything that may threaten his fragile mortal coils; the sight of Bridges standing on the ledge of a tall building being a particularly indelible image. Weir’s unwillingness to shy away from the visceral, recurring horrors of grief (‘You’re thinking how he died’) is intrinsic to how he accomplishes the magnificent moments of catharsis throughout Fearless, a modern, underrated masterwork that more than lives up to its title.

 

The Ipcress File [1965]ipcressfile1
Perhaps not as ‘classic’ as some may have you believe, Michael Caine still puts in the kind of performance that reminds you why he’s been in the business so long. It’s highly classy, irrepressibly sexy stuff, with a brain on its shoulders to boot; it revels in paranoia thriller mode before such tropes became the in-thing in the seventies. But Caine’s voice will always be an in-thing.

mandela1

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom [2014]
From the great man himself: ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’

A beautiful message, one that Long Walk to Freedom apes at every moment without once remembering there’s supposed to be a film somewhere here too.


Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones [2014]paranormalactivity-themarkedones1
Kicking off the inevitable ‘Colon’ section of this soon-to-be bloated horror franchise, this is surprisingly sprightlier than you’d imagine. What it lacks in invention it (almost) makes up for in intrigue, but considering the first Paranormal Activity had me wishing I’d brought a roll of toilet paper and some very strong air freshener to the cinema, this is a let-down. Then again, ‘let-down’ denotes reasonable expectations in the first place.

47ronin147 Ronin [2013]
Weird and wonderful beasts, breathtaking katana action, and Keanu Reeve’s motionless eyebrows, all rolled into one sprawling adventure story across mystical ancient Japan? What sounds fun is instead an unmitigated bore, CGI injected into its veins like botox into a celebrity’s cheeks in a vain attempt to instill some excuse for action, intrigue or good old-fashioned heart into proceedings.

Mysterious Skin [2005]mysteriousskin1
• Recommended
This is Joseph Gordon-Levitt at his early best – yes, that includes Brick – in what has got to be one of the best independent movies to come from the noughties. Essentially telling the same tale but from two radically different views, Mysterious Skin‘s outlook on sexuality and small-town life are so unique, yet universal, that layer the sickening truths at its core with sympathy and a sweetness that’s rare in any movies that attempt to observe sexual abuse in a more clinical manner.

I c-

timsvermeer3Tim’s Vermeer [2014]
Directed and narrated by world-class magicians and entertainers, Penn and Teller, Tim’s Vermeer is fundamentally an exercise in the deconstruction of magic; in order to understand famous Danish master painter Rembrandt’s achievement of photorealistic technique, inventor Tim Jenison sets out to reproduce one of his works in painstaking detail. It’s about obsession, a concept well-suited to cinematic endeavours, but it’s Tim’s devotion to his task, not Rembrandt’s accomplishments, that provide the real wow factor here.

12 Years a Slave [2014]12yearsaslave1
• Recommended
Watch. Watch the whip of Michael Fassbender’s cruel slavemaster tear into the flesh of Lupita Nyong’o’s unfortunate slave. Watch.
Of course, director Steve McQueen isn’t forcing you to view such atrocities in his near-perfect 12 Years a Slave. All he does is provide extraordinary dramatic weight to scenes such as this, unbearable as they may be, but are wholly necessary; it’s the fact that the horrors of slavery don’t seem to have been captured this elegantly before, without a hint of melodrama, that the brutality of the evils let upon the black slaves of America speaks for itself. It’s a piece of cinema that’ll be remembered for a stretch of years longer than Northup’s incarceration, once the initial harshness of accepting the truths it offers has passed, for merely fulfilling the thing that cinema has the edge with over other artforms; eliciting empathy.

thesquare1The Square [2014]
Jehane Noujaim has made a name for herself with her eye-opening documentaries Startup.com and Control RoomThe Square is no different, paving the way for the world outside Egypt to see just what kind of political hypocrisy and turmoil has been – and still is – transpiring there. Its energy, combined with its on-the-ground ethos, means it couldn’t possibly be any more vital.

Repo Man [1984]repoman1
Mixing a multitude of different genres and exhibiting a kind of lopsided, effervescent streak of black humour that would make John Carpenter cry with jealousy, Repo Man eschews convention to make itself a cult classic romp through action that has its tongue in its cheek, humour that has its heart on its sleeve, and an almost anarchic, flippant attitude to tonal specifics that are as dangerous as they are exciting.

,

swingers1

Swingers [1996]
• Recommended
At times 
astringent and at others heartbreakingly delicate, Swingers sees Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in star-making form as a couple of loveable, relatable, and sometimes dunderheaded wannabes flexing their stuff in the wake of Hollywood, babes, and Vegas, baby, Vegas. A particular nightlife scene has never been studied quite this way before, nor a portrait of masculinity felt this understanding; however Swingers achieves its alchemy, you’ll be swept along for the duration.

Midnight Express [1978]midnightexpress1
Despite it technically being yet another prison drama (cinema seems to service them well), Midnight Express follows no formula and gives no fucks. Carrying the weight of late-seventies paranoia and a convention-busting attitude to boot, this movie can still light up the screen in terms of displaying the sheer terror, hardship and, above all, the lunacy of imprisonment.

fiveeasypieces1

Five Easy Pieces [1970]
• Recommended
Kicking off a decade that was known for its bravura portrayals of American ennui, Five Easy Pieces perhaps remains the epitome of Jack Nicholson’s acting career. The storyline faces Robert (Nicholson) with his past, transplanting him from his rough existence as an oil rigger to his old life as a talented pianist, one that he never wanted thanks to his strict family and troubled relationship with his father. It’s a treatise on what family can mean, how happiness is an entirely subjective experience, and being a complete, obnoxious lout is sometimes a commendable profession.

 

Drinking Buddies [2013]drinkingbuddies1
Extraordinarily slight in terms of plot but driven by simmering feuds and make-up cuddles, Drinking Buddies sees Olivia Wilde finally take on a role worthy of her talent in a character piece that positions alcohol as a quiet catalyst for big decisions.


crystalfairy1

Crystal Fairy [2014]
Meandering, freewheeling, and a bit loopy, Crystal Fairy (or Crystal Fairy and The Magical Cactus and 2012 if you want its full, BBFC ident-defeating title) is a peak for both Michael Cera in terms of mastering roles within his particular range, and Gaby Hoffmann for showing the world how she can construct an out-of-this-world character based around a naturalistic, sensitive performance. Is Crystal Fairy about forgiveness, or about getting off your tits on cactus juice? Only you can decide.

 

Delivery Man [2014]deliveryman1
Anytime Vince Vaugh signs on to yet another comedy project, the world sighs in unison. And for ample reason; his safe, bland semi-performances are matched only by the lacklustre script of whatever he happens to be rolling out at the time. Delivery Man is no different, boasting zero variation on Ken Scott’s original Starbuck (Delivery Man is Ken Scott’s remake of his own movie), albeit adding a smothering of gooey schmaltz. Not quite an ‘Avoid‘ (mainly for Chris Pratt’s too-brief appearances as Vaughn’s clueless lawyer), but not quite worth a trip to the cinema either.

onlyloversleftalive1Only Lovers Left Alive [2014]
Jim Jarmusch’s latest concerns the near-immortal lives of Adam and Eve (wahey!), played with glowing brilliance, naturally, by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, and how they go about their almost godly existence enjoying rock n’ roll and blood popsicles.. The moment perhaps most emblematic of its slow-burning message is when, during a flight, Swinton’s Eve enjoys an epiphanic moment with a particular passage in her book. Not a moment later, she glances over to a fellow passenger who has accidentally nicked himself, the scarlet blood filling her senses and her world. High-brow, soul-effusing art to base, physically gratifying desire all within seconds; these aren’t vampires, they’re people.

The Wolf of Wall Street [2014]wolfofwallstreet1
• Recommended
Three hours of indulgent drug taking, shameless unchaste sex, and a paper chain of verbose expletives made from dollar bills, The Wolf of Wall Street sees living legend Martin Scorsese throw everything at the screen as if it were the last movie he’ll make (he is seventy-one, after all). Leonardo DiCaprio, who has already proved his acting chops for the past decade or so, actually finds room to surprise us with an uninhibited downward-spiral of Quaalude-powered grins and a physicality we haven’t seen from him before. If an old man can make films like this, why can’t younger ones find a similar mojo?

splash1Splash [1984]
Slapstick meets genuine heart and man meets genuine mermaid in this eighties romcom classic, the sophomore effort from national treasure Ron Howard. Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah’s droll chemistry light up the screen at every opportunity, while a finely tuned screenplay smartly takes a potentially indigestible premise and fills it with the kind of humour that Hanks pulls off so effortlessly.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2012]jeffwholivesathome1
Some indie projects are visible passion projects for some filmmakers, none being more evident than
Jeff, Who Lives at Home from co-directors Mark and Jay Duplass which sees the eponymous hapless thirty year-old (Jason Segel) navigate what he perceives as cosmic premonitions, dressed only in his lounge-about attire. He has no job, no prospects, a brother who looks down on him (Ed Helms, never better), and doesn’t have a lot of smarts either; but Jeff’s best quality, and by proxy the film’s best quality, is the willingness to pursue feeling over thinking.

bignight1Big Night [1996]
• Recommended
Though Stanley Tucci had an expansive career already when he made Big Night, it was the first of only a few directorial efforts (though this was co-directed with Campbell Scott). Watching it now, it feels like a minor miracle; shot like a Peter Greenaway movie, and featuring a committed central performance from Tucci – probably his best to date – help make this small-scale drama about a struggling Italian restaurant soar, even if it rarely leaves the confines of the kitchen.

Traffic [2000]traffic1
• Recommended
Taking multiple, epic story strands and weaving them into a narrative concerning the complexities of America’s war on drugs, Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning drama is densely layered yet accessible, heavyweight but always fast-paced, and never opts for easy answers. Therein lies Soderbergh’s point, in perhaps his best film since Sex, Lies & Videotape (and at least until Behind the Candelabra). Exceptional stuff.

deathofasalesman1Death of a Salesman [1985]
Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer-winning play gets the cinematic treatment, starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich. It may be Hoffman’s show, his increasingly senile salesman Willy Loman taking us from misfortune to tragedy, but Malkovich shines brightest as son Biff. While the movie doesn’t seem to want to part with the ‘stagey’ feel, and is consequentially overladen with postmodern contrivances, some extraordinarily scripted and acted scenes are as engaging as movies get.

¡Three Amigos! [1986]threeamigos!1
Before 
Tropic Thunder, there was John Landis’ comedy following three famous – but unemployed – actors who travel to a Mexican village, misinterpreting a genuine distress message for a casting call. The gags are thin on the ground, the chemistry between the amigos is sorely lacking, but there’s a likeablity to Chase, Short, and Martin that’s just strong enough on its own to drag this otherwise dead wood into life.

starterfor10Starter for 10 [2006]
A teensy, small-stakes British film this may be – and it certainly feels it at times – but Starter for 10 evokes much of the excitement of being alive (and educated to degree-level) in 1980s England. Winning roles from James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch are reasons enough to give this a spin; awkward, relatable uni humour is another.

Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos) [1997]openyoureyes1
• Recommended
Before Vanilla Sky took the story and suffocated it of its innate mystery, the Spanish original is infused with situations that bear grave philosophical ramifications. Wealthy stud César falls in love with Sofia (Penélope Cruz), only to have his face horrifically disfigured in a car accident. To say more would be wrong; this graceful, moving and ultimately shocking movie puts the viewer at the front, letting you navigate its labyrinth of dreams, flashbacks and questionable realities. Predating The Matrix by two years, this is thought-provoking cinema with an engaging narrative, and introduces us to doors that, once opened, can’t be closed again.

ytumamatambien1Y Tu Mamá También [2001]
• Recommended
Twelve years before the maelstrom of critical praise for GravityAlfonso Cuarón made this ebullient, sexy-as-hell rollercoaster of a road movie. Set in Mexico and starring crossover star Gael García Bernal, this finds Cuarón at his funniest, saddest, and most irrepressible. It plays like a punk rock number, yet framed with the director’s trademark calm shooting techniques (many shots are like harbingers of Children of Men), this would be his last home effort before the big studios called (Prisoner of Azkaban would be next).

Dark Days [2000]darkdays2
One of the most vital docs of the last fourteen years, Marc Singer became in cahoots with New York City’s ‘tunnel people’ in the mid-nineties; homeless people who had absconded the streets in favour of the dark confines of subway tunnels underground. The fascinating community on display here shows that life always finds a way, regardless of money, class or disposition – and its gorgeous monochrome makes even the dingiest places look eerily beautiful.

topsecret1Top Secret! [1984]
Largely forgotten by time and ignored by audiences upon release, you may have to dig slightly for this gem from the school of David Zucker. Previous hits Airplane! and The Naked Gun dominate this type of humour, and perhaps the premise (a send-up of spy thrillers, combined with an Elvis parody in the form of a swingin’ Val Kilmer in the lead) missed its point. Yet it retains some of the greatest sight gags in film history, and stands the test of time just as well as its more famous counterparts.

The Thomas Crown Affair [1968]thomascrownaffair1
Although it begins disguised as your typical cat-and-mouse thriller, 
The Thomas Crown Affair elegantly morphs into a love story that takes precedence over a more straightforward heist narrative. This makes for a much more interesting take on the genre, while star Steve McQueen oozes that effortless cool over every frame he’s in – whether he’s casually arriving by glider or standing there, smiling.

grudgematch1Grudge Match [2014]
Grudge Match actually has more going for it other than its dream pairing of De Niro and Stallone; convincing subplots about reconnection and some original gags all raise the bar of the production from ‘shlock’ to ‘near-miss’ (a considerable improvement), but the movie constantly feels flimsy. A more confident construction would’ve made this a perfectly watchable picture, but as it is, Grudge Match is take or leave.

Teenage [2014]teenage1
Toying with narrative and documentary is always going to be an exciting watch, even if sometimes the results can be mixed. 
Teenage proves this dichotomy perfectly; hired actors talk their bit about growing up in the 20th century over footage of teenagers strutting their stuff in the ’20s, ’30’s, ’40s, and beyond. However, its ambition is big yet never feels vital, despite its messages about adolescence, and feels neither quite fresh or challenging enough to leave much of an impression.

thisisnotafilm1This is Not a Film (In film nist) [2012]
Flexing even more with the power of documentary, This is Not a Film follows Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi around his house, awaiting a jail sentence concerning the political messages in his movies. Banned from making films, it’s heartbreaking to see Jafar break down after attempting to act out a stillborn screenplay in his living room, the repression of his artistic creativity a harrowing mirror of the censorship afflicting the rest of his nation.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit [2014]jackryanshadowrecruit1
Everything about 
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Kenneth Brannagh’s kickstart of Tom Clancy’s popular character, is slightly above average. The acting: Slightly above average. The action: Slightly above average. And so on and so forth, but there’s nothing about the movie that’s exactly bad. If there’s a ‘rainy day’ film, this is it.

mash1MASH [1970]
Robert Altman’s MASH kicked off one of the most loved TV shows of all time, and he did it by filling his movie of the same name with dark humour, complete irreverence on all fronts, and unforgettably gelastic characters (Donald Sutherland is particularly quip-wise here). It defies what you expect from what is technically a war movie – plot, for instance, is thrown out the window along with any po-faced seriousness – and made an eternal dent in the American ‘free’ cinema of the time. Culturally apathetic? Perhaps. Culturally insignificant? Certainly not.

Repo Men [2010]repomen1
A gloriously ridiculous premise and an affable cast are gradually swallowed by a cannibalistic screenplay, which is almost selfish in the way it hampers interesting plot lines and themes. Some risqué yet successful toeing on the line of bad taste (a ‘surgery’ scene set to early noughties dance music, for instance) makes 
Repo Men marginally exciting, and a note-perfect ending that rings true of its dystopian genre a la Brazil is more than welcome; it’s simply a shame the pretty pieces look ugly when assembled.

dora1D’ora [N/A]
• Avoid
This movie, or at least something that deems itself a ‘movie’, is a cold-faced testament to the destructive powers of self delusion and zero talent, a cyclone of facepalm-worthy despair when both are combined. In general terms, D’ora – which concerns a Romanian fleeing her homeland in search for a more exciting life in England – shouldn’t get such unfair treatment. After all, it’s essentially someone’s home movie with a couple of semi-professional actors thrown (or coaxed) in – but it’s the very threat that this project may be shown on cinema screens at all that rises me to type this tirade of a bad review. Imagine a ten year-old picking up a £30 camera from Currys, getting his mum to act in it, and following every single cliché like a slavering moron who genuinely believes they’re making an impact, that their talents know no bounds. Such blindness in the face of passion nudges it into cahoots with a film such as that spectacular misfire-masterpiece, The Room (except Tommy Wiseau’s technical proficiency makes him look like Kubrick next to D’ora‘s writer/director/star Delia Antal). And yet, this ‘movie’ (must remember those inverted commas) has no chance of becoming such a cult ‘so bad, it’s good’ classic; this falls into the ‘so bad, it’s Satanic’ camp. Repeat after me: AVOID.

Follow the Editor on Twitter: @GaryGreenScreen

 

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About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.

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Gary Green: Freelance film critic.

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