Film Journal

THE FILM JOURNAL | March 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.

filmjournalmarch2014

March. The most bleak month of the year.
But it’s not all bad, right? Especially considering it’s been the best part of the calendar for British film with Under The SkinStarred Up and Locke, and we also ushered in a quality entry for blockbusters in the form of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s been a bittersweet month, too, with Hayao Miyazaki’s directing swan song The Wind Rises, but there was plenty to find respite in with a new effort from Errol Morris, and a remake that justifies the practice (Yurusarezaru mono, the Japenese Unforgiven.) It’s been a mixed bag of a month, so best to just dive right into the March edition of the Film Journal. Enjoy responsibly.

• 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 aren’t considered masterpieces.
Example: Kick-Ass

• Avoid
Movies that exhibit technical ineptitude, cause severe ideological malaise, or both.
Example: Grown Ups

~ ~ ~


unforgiven1Unforgiven
(Yurusarezaru mono) [2014]
It turns out remakes don’t have to be exercises in futility after all; by successfully transplanting the narrative beats of Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed original into a different culture, with all of Japan’s own inherent memetics, calmness and vengeance, it wins out over the likes of other recent remakes where countries and cultures are different (Let Me In a perfect example). Ken Watanabe also shines as the tormented protagonist, who wants to be badass but fears the consequences.

For —

The Two Faces of January [2014]twofacesofjanuary1
Working in a mode somewhere along the lines of Roman Holiday, but tinted sunglass-dark and (perhaps) too much in love with its genre, Hossein Amini’s debut is an enticing creature. With a winning performance from Oscar Isaac in fine post-Inside Llewyn Davis form, and a screenplay that’s familiar to a level of near-triteness yet with skilfully weaved tension in its framework, The Two Faces of January is an exotic affair – exciting, dangerous and enigmatic.


anchorman2continued1Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues… Continued
[2014]
Since this was released as a separate film to the original cut, but without a BBFC rating tag of its own or IMDB page, it’s difficult to place this re-release. Nonetheless, this was a unique trip to the movies all the same; distinctly less funnier than Adam McKay’s original edit, there are a couple of foot-stompingly hilarious musical numbers that help justify its week-long stay in cinemas. 

Non-Stop [2014]non-stop1
This high-stakes thriller packs a surprisingly coherent punch, despite action beats so familiar you could call them a friend. It’s a ridiculous premise (an unknown killer will murder someone on Liam Neeson’s flight every twenty minutes), but the visceral thrills are more engaging than it would originally lead you to believe, mainly via a full utilisation of modern technology – smart phones, etc. – to carry the story along, and not as a barrier as many screenwriters would perceive. After the blandness of Unknown, it looks like director Jaume Collet-Serra might be honing his trade.


bookthief1The Book Thief 
[2014]
Narrated via cloying voiceover on behalf of Death himself, this iffy period piece has a lot wrong with it ideologically (insultingly simplistic) and formally (why are these Germans speaking English with a German accent?). But despite these major points, a lavish production design and solid storytelling carry this to its sob-worth conclusion without much friction. Then it’s over. Then you can go home.


The Rocket [2014]rocket1
While it can’t help becoming overcome with its own plot tangents mid-way through, this is a rare thing; a feel-good movie without the guilt. Any moments of potential saccharine gooiness are grounded by the near-mythological backdrop of the characters’ beliefs, and enhanced by the majestic landscape (captured wonderfully by cinematographer Andrew Commis). The Rocket just about transcends its flaws.


grandbudapesthotel1The Grand Budapest Hotel
[2014]
• Recommended
There is so much going on in Wes Anderson’s latest picture that you may be forgiven for getting a bit dizzy, or feeling a tad sick. But the only dizziness you’ll experience with The Grand Budapest Hotel is the kind when you lose breath from being propelled headfirst into a tapestry of exquisitely drawn characters, and the only sickness you’ll get is by eating too much of Mendl’s delicious cakes. Because, let’s be honest, in Anderson’s worlds, you can essentially taste the food; feel the cold wind atop a ski slope; follow a lobby boy around a bustling hotel, and get lost in its corridors, the wallpapers of which are oozing with nostalgia. With Ralph Fiennes’ best role of his career, an endearing, tender and very, very funny creation, we’re allowed a glimpse at how memory paints the past. It’s Anderson’s most emotionally and technically sophisticated work yet.

300: Rise of an Empire [2014]300riseofanempire1
A sequel / prequel / sidequel that seems curiously happy to stay forcefully in the shadow of its predecessor, there’s little here for anyone  who isn’t familiar with Zack Snyder’s hit original. Struggling to find a mainline narrative through the indulgent backstories and flashbacks, Rise of an Empire entertains in the basest way just like the first – minus the mythological weight and feel of genuine peril. And that sex scene is beyond comment.

dI c-


ideclarewar1I Declare War
[2014]
The opening animated sequence of I Declare War, an alternate coming-of-age yarn in which things get very heated indeed during a make-pretend war in the middle of the woods, spells immediate disaster. For a violent comedy starring no one but kids, its comedy timing is poor – so is its feel for drama (these actors and one actress aren’t the pick of the litter, unfortunately) or even, for argument’s sake, action. It could have been a small cult smash, but there’s little to offer here for would-be fans to latch onto.

Starred Up [2014]starredup1
• Recommended
Proving that brutality can be beautiful, Starred Up sees British cinema’s current proclivity for finding the sublime in the unspeakable. It’s also an exquisite example of a piece of drama being driven by character, not plot; director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Johnathan Asser (who spent twelve years as a prison psychotherapist), completely understands that not a lot happens inside jail, except for the glacial changes of temperament that occur in its inmates. Above all, this is a tender father and son story; perhaps if resolution isn’t exactly a viable answer within the walls that hold them, maybe step-by-step change is what’ll get them both through.


undertheskin1Under The Skin
[2014]
• Recommended
By never understanding the clearer intents (or origins) of its aliens, Jonathan Glazier wipes clear the preloaded emotional responses that would otherwise service viewer understanding of Under The Skin. But understanding this horrifying, exhaustingly relentless experience isn’t the key; instead, to simply accept that understanding may never be part of that experience, may actually open up the obliqueness of this excellent film. Sexuality has never been less erotic on screen, even with Scarlett Johansonn’s grade-A allure (an inspired casting choice in one of many respects) dampened by the shadow of dread that permeates each frame. It’s frustrating, thought-provoking and profoundly upsetting (an early scene at a beach fully discloses, wordlessly, just how alien Johansonn’s character is); it’s also a sly masterpiece.

Veronica Mars [2014]veronicamars1
Not so long ago, the team behind the long-dead TV show Veronica Mars posted a video asking fans to donate in order for a movie to manifest itself. The Kickstarter project exceeded all expectations (and its initial budget), exposing the fact that you don’t have to leave it up to the studios to get your project off the ground anymore. Despite all its good points, and there are many, watching Veronica Mars is like turning up to somebody else’s high school reunion; you feel left out of the inside joke. However, this is fan service in the best possible way, ushering in an exciting new time for potential filmmaking routes.

 

legendsofoz1Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return [2014]
While being not much more than your typical dire kids’ film, it does succeed where Oz the Great and Powerful didn’t; I believed, in whatever scrappy, not-quite-canon way, that I was there. And despite the second-rate animation, that’s a recommendation.

The Unknown Known [2014]unknownknown1
Errol Morris. What can you say about a filmmaker who overturned a crime case, made Werner Herzog eat his shoe, and finally win an Oscar through his documentaries? His latest, The Unknown Known, continues Morris’ cavalier yet disciplined knack for getting the most out of his subject – even when that subject is the ever-evasive Donald Rumsfeld.
(Interview: Errol Morris)

 


gatesofheaven1Gates of Heaven
[1978]
• Recommended
Errol Morris’ first movie is a transcendent ode to pets, and the people who loved them while they were alive. Its leisurely, almost calming atmosphere while examining pet cemeteries and those running them obscures a piercing talent for getting to the emotional core of its interviewees – a segment where, without prompt, a woman laments her son leaving home, is particularly affecting – and putting the triumphs, big and small, of the human condition front and centre. Gates of Heaven also resides
 in Roger Ebert’s favourite films of all time – a position worthy of its uniqueness, and its humanity.

 

The Zero Theorem [2014]zerotheorem1
One may be forgiven for mistaking Terry Gilliam’s idiosyncrasies for gimmicks; the slanted camera angles, the quirky practical designs, the cartoonish characters are all part of a very singular creative genius’ personality. The same factors are in place for The Zero Theorem; however, narrative thrust is one that is crucially missing. For all its whirring parts, it stalls frequently, and while there are a handful of great scenes (mainly set within the protagonists Qohene’s mind), it doesn’t make for a whole machine that is tasked with understanding the truths of the universe.


locke1

Locke [2014]
An experiment that paid off, Steven Knight’s Locke stars Tom Hardy (and only Tom Hardy) who plays a Welsh construction foreman, Ivan Locke, driving his car along the M6, conversing with those he loves on the phone and, sometimes, himself. This is all set within the confines of his car, but the tension ramps up expertly, making for a one-man thriller that tugs at the heartstrings and circumvents cliché.
(Feature: The Landscape of Locke)

 

Need for Speed [2014]needforspeed1
• Avoid
The screenplay for Need for Speed isn’t good enough to be used as toilet paper. Some impressive practical stunts do not hide a story entirely bereft of tension, drama or anything else that would be the tell-take sign of a good picture – or a picture in the first place, for that matter. Even Aaron Paul, fresh from Breaking Bad, fails to register in a role that could’ve been commandeered by a mannequin.


laborday1Labor Day
[2014]
Jason Reitman’s as-strange-as-life tale is engrossing in its details, but is ruined, however, by sacrificing a perfect ending fade-out for a syrupy coda. And Tobey Maguire pops up for some reason. Oh, that was him narrating the whole time too? For God’s sake.

The Stag [2014]stag1
Jittery and unconfident, this is piss-poor filmmaking enlivened by a cast willing to do the dumb things the script asks of them. Case in point: they wake up naked. Wahey! Naked = funny!



machine1The Machine
[2014]
More interested in ideas than grue, a rare quality in a sci-fi of this budget, The Machine shows what Britain is capable of when producing science fiction. Its closed-space conceit is another limitation of its small budget, but thankfully it plays as a more claustrophobic Day of The Dead, as opposed to a factor borne of necessity. It’s equal parts silly and cerebral, which is great for fans of the genre.

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu) [2014]windrises1
The Wind Rises is a worthy testament to Studio Ghibli’s output under the directorship of Miyazaki. In making a film about planes – or ‘beautiful dreams’ as they’re described in the movie – we in fact have a film on our hands about obsession with art. The theme is rather apt, as this is Miyazaki’s final picture as director – but it’s one that’s as thematically resonant and emotionally engaging as the many hits that have come from him and the studio.


ridealong1Ride Along
[2014]
Yet another conveyor-belt comedy from the no-laughs factory, this dire – if unhurtful – strip of ugly celluloid is lightened ever so slightly by Kevin Hart’s impression of a cymbal-crashing monkey with a battery stuffed up its arse.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier [2014]captainamericathewintersoldier1
Kudos, Marvel, kudos. The Winter Soldier‘s tone is pitched perfectly between event cinema and political thriller, as Captain Steve Rogers goes off the grid to get to the heart of what S.H.I.E.L.D. is really up to. Cap makes a refreshing superhero to root for; in always trying to do the right thing, he becomes a role model for not just his fellow Avengers, but for a nation under threat from itself. The Winter Soldier is endlessly fun, well-directed, and possibly the strongest solo movie we’ve seen from Marvel yet. 

 


svengali1Svengali
[2014]
Seemingly confused as to how to handle its multiple plot strands, low-budget music pic Svengali still does a fair job of illuminating the evils of the record industry. A passing role from Martin Freeman barely registers (perhaps a reflection of his inclusion being part of the funding agreement?), and nothing feels gained at its conclusion; perhaps it’s time to lay down the hip vinyl and get with the times?

Magic Magic [2014]magicmagic1
Sebastian Silva once again bounds into the wilderness to make a movie, and the result is agreeably atmospheric. Juno Temple is fantastic as a possibly schizoid outsider, and Michael Cera gets brownie points for a portrayal of creepiness that would be great to see explored further in th future – but Magic Magic lacks an authorship to steer it in a meaningful direction.


quietones1The Quiet Ones
[2014]
An unfortunately befuddling horror mix of jump scares and ill-conceived set pieces, this wastes its fine talent by displaying that it obviously doesn’t know what it’s doing, at any single point, through its entire running time. Zero scares, zero tension, zero quality. Hammer Horror, you’re supposed to be going through a bit of a resurgence – live up to it.

Muppets Most Wanted [2014]muppetsmostwanted1
Nearly as enjoyable as its brilliant predecessor, which rebooted interest in the Muppets, it still lacks that film’s knack for ramping up the excitement levels. What we do have, however, is a very fun heist caper, a slew of laugh-out-loud slapstick set pieces, and of course, the felty guys at the centre of it all.

 


honour1Honour
[2014]
Honour, despite its pulpy elements, is a challenging look at the problem of Islamic honour killings in the UK. Some will see it as an issue movie, some as a thriller, but where it really lies is as a hard-faced drama, comprised of an involving narrative form and great performances from Paddy Considine and Aiysha Hart.
(Interview: Shan Khan)

20 Feet from Stardom [2014]20feetfromstardom1
• Recommended
This year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary lives up to its award (despite The Act of Killing being most deserving). Each one of these wonderful back-up singers has a rich history behind them, and more talent in their little finger than a lot of the famous artists they’ve worked with combined; what we witness most in 20 Feet From Stardom is a sensitive insight into an industry that’s knee-deep with bullshit, and good, genuine human beings attempting to navigate the muck. The demonstrations of talent on display here are breathtaking – but more so is their utter lack of recognition.

 

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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