Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)


Midnight in Paris
This has been touted as the best Woody Allen film for years but they said that about Vicky, Christina, Barcelona too, and that was a crashing disappointment.

The first thing to say perhaps is that, despite having lots of ‘touristy’ establishing shots of Paris, this fetishising of the city is not so intrusive as it was in Vicky, Christina partly, I think because the film is about that kind of touristic fascination with a place but also that Allen seems to ‘get’ Paris in a way he didn’t with either Barcelona or London. It’s a city that likes Jazz and likes him, and it looks like he genuinely reciprocates – one of the characters suggests that the cold, dark universe is partly justified by the existance of a city as beautiful as Paris.

Owen Wilson here takes on the Allen-substitute role, and rather creditably. He plays Gil, a very successful American script-doctor sick of his hack-work, and wanting to move to Paris to write a proper ‘literary’ novel, though this would entail a serious loss of income. He is engaged to be married to Inez (Rachel McAdams), the daughter of richTea-Party supporters, who has no wish for her husband-to-be to give up his lush Beverly Hills lifestyle unless it’s for more of the same in Malibu.

Gil is struggling to finish his novel until he is magically transported each night after midnight to the Paris he yearns after, that of the 1920’s where he meets all the artistic greats who congregated there then, and also Adriana (Marion Cotillard) a serial mistress of great artists with whom he begins falling in love, but who herself hankers after her own ‘Golden Age’ – for her, the Belle Époque.

A film about nostalgia, its attractions and dangers, Midnight in Paris really is Allen’s best film for years, a funny and touching romantic fantasy on the lines of Purple Rose of Cairo. A few more like this, please!

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The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009)


The Lovely Bones
I first became aware of this movie through a bulletin board discussion in which one poster raved about how wonderful it was whilst others railed against it as a monstrosity, and critics were not generally kind, so I was curious to see how it raised such animosity.

For the first hour, I was totally engrossed by the story of Suzie Salmon (Saiorse Ronan) who is murdered by her neighbour (Stanley Tucci) and who then watches her family from a dreamlike and idealised pastoral Limbo state.

Then it started to grate on me. The obsession of Suzy’s father (Mark Wahlberg) to find the killer and Suzie’s desire for revenge were both presented as heroic well beyond any sane wish for justice. With Suzy in a primary coloured and simplified Limbo, it was starting to look like a Tellytubby version of Death Wish. As Tucci’s murderer was made more and more a simplified grotesque, simply there to raise bloodlust, and a terrible waste of such a good actor, I really began to despise this film.

Jackson does manage to turn it around and, by the end, I no longer hated the film but I can’t say it’s among my favourites. Lynne Ramsay tried to make a film from the same source book. Given how excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin was, I have to suspect that she might have made a better fist of this than Jackson but it might be that, as has been claimed, the book was just unfilmable.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)


We Need to Talk About Kevin
Mark Kermode’s ‘Film of the Year’ so far (and with a little over two months left, a good contender for his final award), so a lot to live up to.

It did, in spades. From the moment Eva (Tilda Swinton) gives birth to Kevin, the child sets out, whether by accident or design, to destroy her, like some incubus version of the son “not even a mother could love”. What makes it worse for Eva is that Kevin reserves all his bile for her, acting normally and affectionately in front of his father (John C Reilly). When Eva has a second child, with whom she has a normal loving relationship, Kevin has another reason to hate his mother and a new weapon to use against her.

Ramsay has another career as a photographic artist and it shows in some of the most impressive visuals I’ve seen. These are paired with a wonderfully involved and confident fractured narrative, for which I have a liking anyway, to give a truly involving story. The artistry here is not self-indulgent but expertly applied.

Ezra Miller, as the last of four young actors playing Kevin, is smooth and reptilian but hardly any more disturbing than the younger versions. The film belongs to Swinton, though. Looking increasingly drawn and haggard as Kevin wears her down, she eventually looks more wasted than anyone I’ve ever seen in film, bar tramps and addicts. Only her extraordinarily expressive eyes continue to show emotion.

Kevin is clearly psychopathic but Eva can’t help but wonder, as almost everyone demonises her for the atrocity he commits (not a spoiler – this is clear early on, and from every trailer for the film), whether she really is responsible -and even those who don’t blame her can’t help but increase her feelings of guilt.

With a psychopath in my family, though not in Kevin’s league, it reminds me of my mother’s concerns that “she’d done something wrong”. A really extraordinary film.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Troy Nixey, 2010)


Yep, 2010 – not sure why it’s only been released now in late 2011 – it’s often supposed to be the sign of a poor film but there’s nothing particularly wrong with this – but more of that later.

So, Bailee Madison plays Sally, a young girl packed off by her mother to stay with separated husband Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in the old house they are renovating to sell. Sally hears voices of ‘little people’ who tell her they want to be her friend but they quickly show themselves to be nasty little bastards, no surprise to us since we’ve seen, in the particularly vicious opening sequence, just how horrible they can be.

Of course, when Sally says anything about the house’s oddities, nobody believes her, although evidence starts to mount. This has Guillermo del Toro’s name on the opening credits and a few of the exterior shots along with the fairyland meets reality idea bear a passing resemblance to Pan’s Labyrinth but it doesn’t have that same ‘magical’ feeling to it, nor is it half as good. Still, to this non-horror expert, it was pretty scary much of the time and didn’t drag or irritate though, as even I could recognise several well-worn tropes being rehearsed, viewers better versed in horror might have found it over-familiar. Even the critters themselves reminded me of several Terry Pratchett ideas mashed up together (tooth fairy magic being powerful and dark, scary elves).

So, pretty good for someone like me but probably not for the horror aficionados, perhaps why it didn’t get a timely release.

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982)


Fitzcarraldo
Another (overdue) first for me – my first Herzog film. A European adventurer in South America, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), aka Fitzcarraldo, rushes to see a performance by the great Caruso, rowing upstream with his lover Molly (Claudia Cardinale) so furiously that his hands bleed, and has to beg his way in. Fitz’s obsession is opera and his grand ambition is to open an opera house in his jungle village and bring Caruso for the opening performance.

Fitz is a dreamer, a profoundly unrealistic planner of grand projects and a laughing stock amongst the ruthless rubber robber barons who congregate in the brothel Molly runs. His last project, to run a steam railway into the jungle, lost vast amounts of money and he is taunted mercilessly about his talent to wreck fortunes. Seeing a map of the jungle plantations, Fitz has a grand new plan to find a route to an unclaimed plot of land, one that is supposedly impossible to reach, but Fitz has big ideas…

Buying a boat and heading off into headhunter territory with his ragtag crew, there is a sense of impending doom, a touch of “Heart of Darkness” about Fitz’s obsession and, as we see the outcome of his various projects, it becomes evident that his idealistic dreaming can cause problems as great as those of the coarse, vicious and greedy barons he despises (and they are pretty despicable). Encountering the unknowable and potentially lethal tribes of the interior, Fitz loses his crew but gains a new one as he attempts to drag his huge boat over a mountain.

With gorgeous cinematography and some amazing setpieces, this is a beautiful, impossible film with a beatiful, impossible hero – and Kinski is superb.

Tyrannosaur (2011, Paddy Considine)


Tyrannosaur
For this movie, I had to rejig my normal routine, in order to visit my nearest independent cinema (and so I should, more often!). Tyrannosaur is another film co-sponsored by Screen Yorkshire and so is filmed fairly local to me (Seacroft in Leeds) so I would have wanted to support it even had the trailer not been astoundingly good and the early reviews very positive.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is struggling to control his inner demons, regularly getting drunkenly violent, as he loses the last friends he has – both, in their own ways, in part or full down to his own behaviour. Joseph is that scary drunk you occasionally see, arguing violently with himself over his pint. Hannah (Olivia Colman) is the devout Christian who has come over to Joseph’s bleak estate to run a charity store, from her house in a very ‘comfortable’ area nearby. Joseph enters Hannah’s shop to hide from the world after a violent episode in a pub.

Hannah’s ‘do-gooder’ demeanour, particularly her desire to pray for him, is mocked by Joseph though they strike up an unlikely relationship, in clumsy stages, under the threat of Joseph’s dangerous neighbours and Hannah’s despicable and violent husband, James (a wonderfully creepy turn from Eddie Marsan). Right from his introduction, we see that James is a bad’un and he doesn’t improve on better acquaintance. Hannah’s world is perhaps more terrifying than Joseph’s with the threat of violence always lurking where she ought to be safest.

It is a wonderful film, honest and powerful, with two amazing, and yet understated, performances from Colman and Mullan in the lead roles and strong support throughout, most notably from Marsan. It is tough going in places and it doesn’t give any easy resolution but this is another contender for best film of the year – right now it’s way in the lead for me but, then, it is the last one I’ve seen and it’s left a very big impression.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)


Melancholia

It’s the end of the world, and I feel – a bit glum actually.

I’ve not seen any of von Trier’s stuff before, so this is another step into the dark for me. I’ve heard about his idiotic behaviour at Cannes; I don’t think you should necessarily judge a piece of art by the morals or good sense of the artist, even if the antics of some of them nonetheless can permanently disfigure their works (Oasis’ perfectly decent first album is now a complete no-go zone for me, since I just don’t like them).

So, this is a small scale, low key end of days as the eponymous planetoid crashes into earth (hardly a spoiler, since this is the extended opening scene) as experienced by two sisters, Justine and Claire (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the palatial country home owned by Claire’s husband, John. Both sisters are subject to the psychological version of the title, making them alternately frustrating characters. I can’t remember seeing the infuriatingly self-destructive selfishness of depression put on film so well before.

It’s not a realistic story but it’s different, the acting is solid and the cinematography frequently gorgeous. I’m not entirely convinced by it – I suspect von Trier’s playing with both his characters (with some exploitation of Dunst perhaps, too) and with us as an audience but there is a nice sense of honest feeling in the performances and quite a few little laughs – much of the film is taken up with Justine’s doomed wedding to Michael (Alex Skarsgard), which manages to be amazingly opulent and recognisably excruciating. I certainly enjoyed it and I intend giving von Trier another try.

Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008)


Frost Nixon

The sometimes hilarious story of how David Frost, a fairly lightweight and vapid TV personality, managed to get one of the most revealing and important interviews of the last century, putting Nixon on the spot and getting him to admit to his own role in criminal behaviour with respect to Watergate.

I have to admit that Frank Langella’s total and complete lack of resemblance to Nixon was a bit of a hindrance to my immersion in this, as good as Langella was. Sheen is more convincing as Frost, avoiding just doing an impression of Frost’s mannerisms, but the most important thing is whether we buy the chain of events, and I did.

Frost’s playboy lifestyle and his lack of real political interest in Nixon’s crimes is laid out pretty damningly as Nixon gets the edge in the first three out of the four interviews arranged, though you are left with a grudging respect for his talent as a TV host as his desperation to make the themed interviews ‘work’ as a television event eventually force him to put the work in necessary for Nixon to be held to account in the last, crucial discussion, on Watergate itself. John Birt, Frost’s producer at LWT at the time, also comes across quite well as the two of them made one of the more unlikely successes of investigative journalism ever seen on TV.

Red State (Kevin Smith, 2011)


Red State

I walked into this screening having been listening, coincidentally, to a podcast about Dominionism, the US (so far) phenomenon where extreme and right wing Christians try take over government so it was a bit of a relief to watch a film where government and religious nutters were at loggerheads.

The film starts with three schoolkids arranging via the internet to meet an older woman (Melissa Leo) for sex. Although a little sleazy, the kids are quite likeable so it’s a bit unsettling when the woman turns out to be a cut-price “honey trap”, devised quite deliberately to catch kids like them on behalf of an end-days Christian cult.

Although the situation that develops is similar to Waco, the church itself is more like a gunned-up version of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptists, who are name-checked as a point of reference. The leader of this cult, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) is a tremendous figure, funny, charismatic, and utterly demented. Like Phelps, he is a patriarch to whom his family are completely subservient. Smith confidently gives him an uninterrupted ten minutes (approximately) to preach, and this looks authentic. We are assumed as an audience to know what he’s saying is wrong-headed without this being spelled out for us or directly contradicted by anyone else in the film, a refreshing change to be treated as an adult.

It’s initially set up as a horror-style torture movie but a chance encounter the kids have with a local suddenly veers everything to a new storyline, and John Goodman’s ATF Officer, Joe Keenan, arrives at the church to start the siege.

It would have been easy to make a film where the cult members were simply 2D monsters but Smith has bigger fish to fry and does something much more interesting. I can’t say much more without spoilers but this was a funny and exciting movie with a couple of serious messages embedded in it and terrific performances from Goodman and, especially, Parks with good support all round. A very credible film.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Lauded by just about all the critics, the first question to occur is how would this stand up to the great Alec Guinness tv series? To tell the truth, it’s probably getting on for twenty years since I saw the tv version and all I could remember, apart from that it was excellent, were the characters of Smiley and Ricki Tarr and who the mole was.

So the questions for me now were can I follow the plot and is it any good? The answers to both are yes. This is probably one for repeat viewings, both for the consistently superb quality of acting – the cast is a “who’s who” of British talent – and for subtleties of plot. While there is enough information to get you through on a single viewing, some of the information is given in hints and inferences which suggests further rewards on subsequent ones. Since Alfredson’s previous film, Let the Right One In, was such a subtly wonderful character piece, I’m fairly confident this will have similarly lasting qualities.

The dominant theme is betrayal, and there are a number of significant ones throughout the film, but there is also a tone of regret, of disillusionment and disappointment. There is also a sense of the passing of the second world war generation, as another world is taking shape signified by the diminishing significance of the British in the espionage power-plays.

The film is tipped for Oscars and it will be a scandal (if not altogether a surprising one) if it doesn’t at least get a few nominations.

Now to replay the box set of the series…