Film Journal

THE FILM JOURNAL | February 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.

filmjournalfebruary2014_1

I didn’t see as many films as I wanted to this month.
But then again, do I ever? At least February was of a high calibre, seeing an awards season that, surprisingly, got it pretty much right in most categories. And when it wasn’t smashing the barriers of existence with Her or exploring the definition of family with The Past, the shortest calendar month of the year also gave me two gems in the form of I, Frankenstein and A New York Winter’s Tale, which together may single-handedly validate the concept of cinecide. Enjoy.

• Unmissable
Those pieces of work that prove cinema is one of humanity’s better endeavours.
Example: Apocalypse Now

• Recommended
Extraordinary films that are must-sees, but perhaps may not be considered a ‘masterpiece’.
Example: Kick-Ass

• Avoid
Movies that are cases of technical ineptitude and / or cause severe ideological malaise.
Example: Grown Ups

 

~ ~ ~

forthoseinperil1For Those in Peril [2013]
• Recommended
Mixing elements of straight drama and fake documentary in a careering cocktail of dream logic, this phantasmagorical small-town tale follows Aaron, a socially awkward boy and the sole survivor of a freak fishing accident that claimed the lives of five – including his brother. Paul Wright’s disorientating editing ties Aaron’s profound grief with larger themes of storytelling, the sea, and fate; it’s an astonishing directorial debut from Wright, and a career-exploding showcase for George MacKay as the lead, his portrayal of sanity-eroding despair (or love) equal-parts tender and intense. This should occupy the same modern classic status as The Selfish Giant, but for however many reasons, was underlooked last year. Help right the wrong, and give it the life it deserves by purchasing the home release. (FilmOnTrial Review: For Those in Peril)

For —

Lone Survivor [2014]lonesurvivor1
Before Lone Survivor, Peter Berg’s last release was Battleship. We all knew how that turned out; a tone-dead, CGI beast of bombastic action and blockbuster contrivance  dipped in yawn-worthy melodrama. His latest, starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch, hits all the notes Berg’s been gearing toward for a while; minus the aliens, he’s evidently talented when crafting visceral thrills. Check out the scene in which these would-be action stars tumble down a cliff face; you feel every cracked rib, broken bone and torn muscle. The story itself isn’t particularly inspiring, infused with irritating jingoism and laden with identikit post-rock, but it does drive home an important point; these guys aren’t the invincible supermen they think they are.

dallasbuyersclub1Dallas Buyers Club [2014]
• Recommended
Dallas Buyer’s Club will be remembered for the performances. The movie that snagged both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto respectively, at the 2014 Academy Awards. But that’s overlooking the film itself; a finely tuned, observational piece of underplayed drama that consistently aims for the heart of its matters, without the dallying-about that typifies others in the genre (for instance, Philadelphia is a great movie – but doesn’t even contain a single kiss between two men). Having said that, this is still a showcase movie, and boy, what a showcase; the two juggernauts of finely graded, moving displays of Acting with a capital ‘A’ from McConaughey and Leto deserve the praise heaped on them, but mostly for greasing the cogs for what would have been a mere ‘good’ film; instead, we have a great one.

 

Bastards (Les salauds) [2014]bastards1
Claire Denis may be one of France’s most revered exports, but with
 her latest film, Bastards – cutting between the members of a high-society family and the dark events that lurk beneath – she proves that perhaps wine doesn’t always taste better with age. The stifling claustrophobia of Bastards has no light at the end of its tunnel, which in itself is not grounds for critical dissent. Many works of art have mined the concept of evil in bludgeoning ways; in Seven, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman lose. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke wishes he never wrote Street Spirit. No real sense is to be made from the cruelties of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. But they all have other qualities that make them engaging; Bastards mistakes dour with sombre, and transplants inherent meaning with direct message. A dull, lifeless mess. (FilmOnTrial Interview: Claire Denis)

ifrankenstein1

I, Frankenstein [2014]
• Avoid
Avoiding the ‘caps lock’ key when describing the abortion of celluloid that is I, Frankenstein is an exercise in misguided heroism and ultimately, futility. Which essentially means THAT THIS UNDERWORLD SURROGATE IS DEVOID OF IMAGINATION, JOY, COHESION, OR EVEN A SHRED OF SELF-AWARENESS THAT WOULD POSSIBLY REDEEM SOME OF ITS MORE INSIPID MOMENTS, SUCH AS WHEN A MASSIVE COMPUTER-GENERATED CLUSTERFUCK OF GARGOYLES AND DEMONS ENGAGE IN A MASSIVE BATTLE RIGHT OUTSIDE THEIR CATHEDRAL, HAVING ONLY MOMENTS BEFORE STATED THE IMPORTANCE OF REMAINING INVISIBLE TO THE HUMAN POPULATION. WHERE THE HELL DOES THIS MOVIE TAKE PLACE? WHY ARE THE HUMANS NOT NOTICING FUCKING GARGOYLES AND DEMONS FIGHTING IN THEIR STREETS? WHERE THE SHIT ARE THE HUMANS ANYWAY? It’s a film that’s as haphazardly put together as the titular monster, but with no trace of life and even less of a brain.


That Awkward Moment [2014]thatawkwardmoment1
Having been panned, it’s not difficult to understand the almost prefab derision 
That Awkward Moment faced at the instant of its release; broad humour, an entirely perfunctory plot, and Zac Efron. No one has yet realised the full-on film star charm that Efron almost oozes, a qualitiy rarely seen today; when he’s not eating up a scene he features in, the other likeable leads (Michael B. Jordan and the wildchild Miles Teller) are off galavanting on their own ventures. It’s very much in the mould of lowest common denominator ‘gross out’ humour, but any set pieces here rely solely on the characters’ relationships rather than copping out for crassness, revealing a beating heart beneath the shoddier aspects.

outofthefurnace1Out of the Furnace [2014]
Out of the Furnace never, for one moment, stops feeling like a missed opportunity. One of the sadly increasingly frequent examples of a film’s trailer building a world and characters that are more engaging than the ones found in the film itself, the performances it houses are nonetheless solid, with Christian Bale proving he can underplay things beautifully, and a welcome return to big movies from Casey Affleck as his on-screen brother. Its main problem is that while the events that take place are standard, almost routine for films in this mould, it entirely fails to recognise what makes this particular incarnation interesting; the central fraternal relationship is never explored to a satisfying extent, and while Woody Harrelson provides his best menacing face (looks like you just have to have food in your mouth, constantly), it doesn’t receive the fleshing out that a villain of such cruel design deserves.

August: Osage County [2014]augustosagecounty1
Director John Wells uses his relatively new cinematic experience (he was behind the passable Ben Affleck / Tommy Lee Jones vehicle The Company Men) to bring us a half-baked adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning play. Only ever kicking off when all its family members are sat round the dinner table, throwing ugly truths and assorted insults at one another in a scene whose every frame throbs with the possibility of an imminent food fight, and with Julia Roberts shining in a role worthy of her obvious talent (i.e. strike the last ten years from her resumé), these are essentially the only highlights in a movie that’s chronically unaware it’s not a play anymore.

dI c-

nothinglefttofear1Nothing Left to Fear [N/A]
Produced by Slash (yes, that Slash), this is low-budget horror fare that seems destined for nothing more than a DVD release following its single FrightFest screening late last year. But there’s plenty to find here, including good – if at times camp – performances from all involved, and a Children of the Corn style yarn that’s spun with brio, and if the VFX are awful (they really are), this is still much more convincing than most of your other bargain bin horrors. (FilmOnTrial Interview: Slash)

RoboCop [2014]robocop2
Men of a certain age were diametrically opposed to the idea of RoboCop being remade. And not without reason; the eighties original is the apex of everything Paul Verhoeven set out to achieve, chiefly the perfect amalgam of brutal violence and subversive satire. But this ‘upgrade’ doesn’t seek the same things as its predecessor, going down a dark family drama route while constantly questioning the existence of free will. It’s surprising how little time is given to the action itself, in a refreshing focus on themes opposed to stuff blowing up. To that extent, José Padilha’s effort is commendable, and is most certainly a guy with a head on his shoulders – but that aside, this isn’t enough to validate its existence.

legomovie1The Lego Movie [2014]
• Recommended
When you leave The Lego Movie, you will be baffled by a single question: How could a two-hour advert for a children’s toy be so rich, funny, and curiously moving? Phil Lord and Chris Miller have proven themselves with a so-far unblemished track record for side-splitting movies with genuine heart (having written Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and directed 21 Jump Street), and they hit the jackpot again with the story of Emmet, a painfully normal yellow brickman and voiced by Chris Pratt, who realises he may be more special than he first thought. Housing a message fit not just for kids for adults too (how many times do we keep needing to be reminded of life’s more interesting tangents?), and animation that is downright gorgeous and full of wit and detail, The Lego Movie reminds you of the sheer universal joy of using your imagination. If all marketing campaigns were as good as this, we’d be living in a better world.

The Armstrong Lie [2014]armstronglie1
Not too long ago, Alex Gibney had a difficult decision to make; to either scrap his entire documentary about Lee Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France following the cyclist’s admission to taking performance-enhancing drugs, or to somehow salvage the project. Thankfully for us – and the biking world – he went with the second option; 
The Armstrong Lie is an engrossing and brutal exposé of its central Jesus-cum-Judas, a figure of purity and selfless motive, and a perfect smaller scale follow-up to the director’s other outstanding work (Taxi to the Dark Side and We Steal Secrets just a couple of great examples). Gibney is also wise to include himself into proceedings, a move not of vanity but absolute transparency; in this respect, at the very least, Gibney has mastered the form, and point, of the documentary.

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Exhibition [2014]
Joanna Hogg’s previous project was Archipelago, a family-driven drama featuring Tom Hiddleston. Hogg ups the experimental ante for Exhibition, but unfortunately delivers something that counfounds instead of perplexes. A fine line of differentiation that may be, but this self-aware chamber piece embarks down routes toward inner darkness but never once provides the requisite feeling of being dangerous, or groundbreaking. Viv Albertine is also horribly, horribly miscast in the lead, an inert figure of beige as excruciatingly annoying in her misguided bouts of sexual exploration as her wet fish, housewife voice. (N.B. No poster for Exhibition seems to exist at the time of writing.)

The Invisible Woman [2014]invisiblewoman1
It was very late in the day when Ralph Fiennes, just before making his Charles Dickens period piece, replaced the actor playing the beloved author with himself. This must’ve been a good move, for Fienne’s portayal of Dickens here is at once playful, gentle and also slightly sinister, a true character who could have easily been a creation in one of his own novels. But the real gem here is Felicity Jones, proving she’s not just a pretty face with a performance that carries her from teenagehood to wrinkledom, showing that a soul ages more convincingly than prosthetic effects can age the body.

thepast1The Past (Le passé) [2014]
• Recommended
You’d have thought Asghar Farhadi, after mastering the familial drama with 2011’s A Seperation, would have thrown in the towel, knowing that he’d made that rarest of things; a perfect film. Disregarding the notion of having a sit down, it’s clear there was more Farhadi had to say about the relationships in families, and the dubious tensions between them. He asks the question, finally – what makes family ‘family’, anyway? This absolutely riveting work is an equal to A Seperation, boasting terrific performances and a screenplay that defies easy answers. Watch Farhadi, as it’s clearly impossible to gauge the heights he can reach.

 

Her [2014]her1
• Recommended
The best film of the year so far has a plot that starts simply enough; a man falls in love. It just happens to be with his new operating system, an artificial consciousness that begins to, in her own words (courtesy of Scarlett Johansson), become much more than her programming. Insights are made in each line of dialogue, with every relationship between every character – not just the unlikely one between the two leads – becoming minor studies on the nature of love and all the preconceptions that come with it. It’s grounded by Joaquin Phoenix’s soulful, funny performance and his want to love and be loved; but the ceilings of definition soon peel away during the final act, when Spike Jonze’s cliché-free, tender (and now Oscar-winning) writing lifts Her away from what could’ve easily been a kitschy odd-couple romance to an exploration of humankind’s own perception of the universe; how what we see, hear, and ultimately feel is merely an ontological sliver we call ‘life’, the human prism of existence a beautiful construct – albeit one with walls, definitions that limit our range of understanding and finally, emotion. Accepting this, and filling your brief time on Earth with joy, is Her‘s suggestion. This is one of the definitive films about love, but also more importantly, about how that word just doesn’t do it justice.


cubanfury1

Cuban Fury [2014]
Although it unreservedly flies the flag for British comedy, the fact that BigTalk productions are essentially the sole proprietors of homegrown laughs is something that sorely needs to change. Not that BigTalk are bad; quite the contrary. They’re responsible for some of the best cinematic output for comedy the UK has had (they were behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), but the country simply needs to take higher risks. Cuban Fury doesn’t feel like one; it’s genial and warmhearted enough, but lacks any genuine peril or laughs to match. It’s by-the-numbers via salsa numbers, yet that’s not enough to push the UK forward in a genre that, let’s be honest, we’re pretty good at pulling off.

 

The Monuments Men [2014]monumentsmen1
The Monuments Men is a classic case of all the pieces being there, but simply not fitting. Clooney’s WWII art rescue reverse-caper never lives up to the promise of excitement and adventure of its ‘men on a mission’ premise, and director Clooney – now on his fifth outing – keeps the stakes high, but shifts them constantly, so as to confuse as to how we should be rooting for the heroic deeds of the Monuments Men, who are themselves a cast worthy of such gravitas. This is a sore misfire, hampered by lazy shades of jingosim and a screenplay as limp as a wet biscuit – but even wet biscuits have some kind of flavour.

hoopdreams1Hoop Dreams [1994]
Look no further than Hoop Dreams for essential documentary viewing. Using high school basketball courts as a springboard for portraits of class, family and that all-important factor, hope, this near-three hour-long procedural takes its sweet time forming emotional gut punches, filling entire buckets with dinner table tears and court sweat along the way. This comprehensive look at the lives of two budding NBA prodigies and their families proves that life is, indeed, complex – on and off the court.

Metro Manila [2013]metromanila1
‘Metro Manila’ almost sounds like a flavour of ice cream. If it were, it would taste like regret of the past, with a swirl of dreams of the future; Sean Ellis’ wonderful achievement with this familial drama – engined by heist and thriller elements – will keep you second-guessing at every step, while its beautiful cinematography captures a city and its people with an authenticity not typically bestowed upon British filmmakers like Ellis. (FilmOnTrial Interview: Sean Ellis)

inthefog1In the Fog (V tumane) [2013
Like its title, In the Fog likes to be unreservedly oblique, yet up-front about that obliqueness. Its evocative woodland visuals hint at Tarkovsky (completely unrelated to it being a Russian production, by the way) but don’t possess any similar kind of power. Its dogged mysticism is too wide, too hard-headed, and its prevalent mood too well-treaded to leave much of an impression.

The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventù) [2004]bestofyouth1
• Recommended
How long does it take to compound Italy’s history into cinematic form? Just over six hours, it would seem; this sprawling opus recounts the lives of two brothers who embark on extremely different paths of life, but ones that are forever entwined. Call it destiny, call it circumstance, call it what you will; some moments of sentimentality are bolstered by the myriad nuances that are drip-fed through the excellent acting and screenplay, both given much more room to breathe thanks to the extended run time. Its length is justified not just by the scope of the historical backdrop, but the scope of these characters’ arcs; you’ll laugh, cry and practically live with them, leaving nothing but an intensely warm feeling that hey, life isn’t so bad after all.

newyorkwinterstale1A New York Winter’s Tale [2014]
• Avoid
A New York Winter’s Tale tells us, ever more patronisingly, that the universe has a plan – that everything, and everyone, is connected. In that case, why didn’t someone, somewhere, at some point between writing and post production, realise this was an absolutely, irredeemably, laughably bad film? This edition of The Film Journal has the privilege of including the best film of the year so far with Her; now witness the quality of movies in this post drop sharply with which is by far and away (including I, Frankenstein) the worst movie of 2014.

Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) [2014]strangerbythelake1
This erotic French drama doesn’t orchestrate its tension with the more typical tropes associated with thrillers; Stranger by the Lake simply isn’t interested in such basic delineation. Packed with ‘real’ sex scenes (thanks for clearing that up, BBFC) that would make everyone involved with making Blue is the Warmest Colour blush, and driven by an unmessy, full-frontal approach to character motivations, this bare-bones chamber piece soars.

stalingrad1Stalingrad [2014]
• Avoid
Russia’s No. 1 box office hit of 2013 comes to British shores. Unfortunately, it would seem that our comrades have a similar slant toward CGI-heavy melodrama when it comes to their own populist fare; put simply, The Lord of the Rings feels a hundred times more realistic than the action on display here. Most reprehensible, however, is its complete indifference toward the psychology of its (naturally) afflicted characters, the most shocking instance being the rape of a Russian civilian by a German officer, who then – somehow – falls in love with him. Whether she stays with her rapist to avoid the train-bound fate of her fellow people, or whether as the result of a complex Stockholm syndrome situation, is never explored; it simply isn’t built into the picture. In that case, it should never linger as much on such tedious characterisation processes, and instead focus on what it seems more interested in – which is over-the-top (trench joke, wahey) action, slowed down to the most tedious bullet-time this side of The Matrix Revolutions. In the midst of it all, you wonder; what happened to the country that gave us Tarkovsky?

The Last Picture Show [1971]lastpictureshow1
The ’70s was a decade in love with colour in its cinema; that’s the first respect in which The Last Picture Show differs from other teen movies of the era. Whipping from gags to dark themes in a beat, thanks to its consistently droll and ever curious tone, it’s a leftfield look at everyone’s personal battle with sex during adolescence, set against the backdrop of the desolation of small-town Americana – where not even the characters know what they want.

wakeinfright1Wake in Fright [1971]
An Aussie After Hours, this is an all-out dive into hedonism and what such horrifying experiences (chiefly a real-life kangaroo massacre) can do to the most upstanding fellow. Not quite a horror, but with all the trademarks of one, this is a classic for a reason – and re-released for the same reason. Which is that Australia is terrifying.

This is Martin Bonner [N/A]thisismartinbonner1
Underplayed to the maximum, this slow-paced skeleton of a screenplay burns like a beautifully scented candle thanks to a wry, naturalistic and observational style, and the quiet yet deep-seated charm of its leads. The film comes into our lives, then leaves us just as briskly, at just an hour and twenty-six minutes; but the impression feels like it’ll be a permanent one.

youaintseennothinyet1You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Vous n’avez encore rien vu) [2013]
Shakespeare once said that the world is a stage. That’s if Shakespeare actually wrote anything he was supposed to have written; You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is the recently departed Alain Resnais’ last film, and navigates the concept of art for art’s sake, dying for art’s sake, and dying just for dying’s sake. It’s an exercise in beautiful futility, is fully aware of that, and puts down a red curtain on an experimental, genre-bending and New Wave-defining career in a metatheatrical fashion perfect for the occasion. See you at Marienbad, Alain.

 

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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