Criterion Sunday 75: Chasing Amy (1997)

I was pretty indulgent of this film when it first came out almost 20 years ago, and remember liking it on the big screen, but it was also the last of Kevin Smith’s films I saw and in retrospect I think maybe we just grew apart (I don’t even recognise the titles of some of his more recent works). In truth, my enjoyment of it it may be because I identified somewhat with Ben Affleck’s romantic lead Holden (his ill-advised 90s goatee aside) or maybe, as a friend opines, it’s because it was interesting and relatively unusual to see this geeky subculture of comic books and fan conventions portrayed on screen back then. In any case, it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time (if it ever was any good when I first saw it) and now strikes me as almost amateurish in its style, and in the attitude it takes towards its subject matter — the fluidity of sexuality and romantic desire, specifically as channelled through the character of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who is a lesbian… or is she??? [Cue this viewer’s heaviest sigh.] Jason Lee as Holden’s sidekick Banky has far more comic energy, even if his puerile fantasising tends towards aggressive hate words (or so they certainly seem now) and it’s not a stretch to see him as the narrow-minded person Kevin Smith indulgently imagines he’s moving away from, and Holden as a caustic self-portrait of himself not being able to deal with others’ sexuality. But I still feel that would be too forgiving to a set of characters who are all fairly one-dimensionally drawn caricatures, as colourful yet as flat as their comic book alter egos.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kevin Smith | Cinematographer David Klein | Starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee | Length 113 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, December 1997 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 January 2016)

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Love the Coopers (aka Christmas with the Coopers, 2015)

This may not be the worst movie this year, nor is it even the worst movie that my New Year’s Resolution has brought me to (that was probably Hot Pursuit), but it feels like the laziest. There are plenty of excellent actors involved in the large ensemble cast, but the whole enterprise is coated in a layer of treacly sentimentality so thick that it’s difficult to perceive some of the film’s likeable qualities (there are one or two amusing jokes, and I think there’s potential in the Olivia Wilde/Jake Lacy pairing), and by the end it had entirely squandered any goodwill I had towards it. Diane Keaton and John Goodman play the central couple, at whose home the traditional Christmas gathering is taking place, with stray members of the family travelling to get there. Everyone does the best they can, I suppose, but matching up Keaton with Marisa Tomei as her sister, or Alan Arkin with Amanda Seyfried as a (sort-of) love interest seem like bizarre choices. However, the worst choice was to have the film narrated by the family dog, voiced by a particularly unctuous Steve Martin. Not destined to be a holiday classic.


© CBS Films/Lionsgate

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jessie Nelson | Writer Steven Rogers | Cinematographer Elliot Davis | Starring Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, Amanda Seyfried | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015

En chance til (A Second Chance, 2014)

There’s a lot of very intense thematic material in this Danish domestic drama (what the BBFC title card judiciously warns us are “bereavement themes”). It swiftly sets up the work life of Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as a cop, contrasting one of his cases — a thuggish heroin junkie who’s just relocated to his neighbourhood and has a maltreated baby and girlfriend in tow — with his almost-perfect home life alongside wife Anne (Maria Bonneville) and their tiny baby Alexander. Then horrible things happen, bad decisions are made, and tragic consequences are reaped, and well… it’s just not convincing, not the characters, and certainly not the choices they make. Andreas’s police partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) has his own generic and perfunctory character development, and comes in at the end to clear things up all too neatly. Sure, there are lots of lingering close-ups of furrowed eyes and harrowing music on the soundtrack to guide our feelings, so I could at least say there are some believable emotional arcs being expressed. It’s just that as a viewer I don’t feel any engagement or sympathy with Andreas or his wife or his partner, while the working of the plot suggests a madcap screwball comedy, not the stark grief-filled drama Susanne Bier and her screenwriter Anders Jensen have crafted. The contrast of Andreas’s life with that of the criminal family, along with a tacked-on coda, have the effect of pat moralising, and when the credits come up there’s a feeling you’ve been watching a TV social-issue-of-the-week movie. If you are a parent, it may be more emotionally engaging, but then again I can’t imagine a parent wanting to watch this film either, given the events it depicts.


© Nordisk Film

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Susanne Bier | Writer Anders Thomas Jensen | Cinematographer Michael Snyman | Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Bonnevie, Ulrich Thomsen | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015


© 20th Century Fox

For all that I’m trying to watch films with some element of female authorship, this adaptation of a comic book written by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn (the team behind the stylish and misanthropically nasty Kick Ass) doesn’t exactly give me a great deal of hope. It has enough stylishness in its staging, with the kind of set design and gaudy palette that fully justifies its origins, that it has won over plenty of people. It also stars Colin Firth, putting in an impeccable performance as the kind of heightened Englishman he’s so often called to be in films, in a film that itself lovingly curates an overabundance of signifiers of English-ness (my favourite being an underground workshop packed with taxicabs and red London Routemaster buses, amongst other such iconic machines). Which would all be fine, except these signifiers include the mock-Burberry-clad working-class ‘chav’ — whose apparently natural environment is picking fights in pubs (one which is actually a really very pleasant pub, it should be pointed out, should you find yourself down the Lambeth Road anytime soon) — and it does so with a level of subtlety that makes Attack the Block seem the very model of kitchen-sink drama. Then there’s the sickening attitude to violence that would orchestrate a mass killing to a jaunty soundtrack and self-consciously stylish camerawork and then try to exculpate itself by painting the victims as merely bigots, but then this is all of a piece with a film that also finds plentiful humour in some kind of anal-fixated homophobia, not to mention a bit of racism (there’s a quip in relation to Samuel L. Jackson’s bad guy about “colourful megalomaniacs” that’s straight from the Cumberbatch playbook). But, you know, it’s FINE, right, because it’s a SATIRE about spy films, exposing all of this as the seedy underbelly of the genre (albeit one that’s always been pretty clearly on display throughout much of the Bond cycle, to the extent that I was almost thankful that Kingsman‘s cribbing from Skyfall of the value of a 50-year-old whisky wasn’t turned into a cheap gag at the expense of a woman’s death). So, in short, no I didn’t much like it, though the plentiful laughter from the young woman along the row from me at the cinema suggests this might just be one guy’s grumpy opinion. There’s a self-aware refrain that’s repeated a few times that this isn’t “one of those kinds of films”, but it just leaves me wishing that it had been. Instead, if you’re a fan of violently nihilistic misanthropic nastiness clothed in the natty threads of the aristocratic English gentleman, knock yourself out. This is probably your film of the year.


CREDITS || Director Matthew Vaughn | Writers Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) | Cinematographer George Richmond | Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine | Length 129 minutes

Flight to Berlin (1984)

This screening was presented as part of the ongoing celebrations of author and filmmaker Iain Sinclair’s 70th birthday. It’s a film by his colleague and friend Chris Petit, who has made some excellent films and documentaries over several decades (some with Sinclair), and I hardly wish to go on at length about a film I found disappointing, especially when it’s a film that is relatively obscure and unavailable. Therefore I shall keep my comments brief. (NB I can find no poster online for this film, so the attached image shows the lead character, played by actor Tusse Silberg.)


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Iain Sinclair 70×70 || Director Christopher Petit | Writers Christopher Petit and Hugo Williams (based on the novel Strange Days by Jennifer Potter) | Cinematographer Martin Schäfer | Starring Tusse Silberg, Ewan Stewart, Eddie Constantine, Paul Freeman | Length 91 minutes | Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Tuesday 11 September 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© BFI

Petit’s film, his third feature following his excellent debut Radio On (1979), is built around a mystery involving a woman, Susannah (played by Tusse Silberg), though it’s never quite clear what she’s involved in. We are introduced to her being taken from her German hotel to be interrogated by police agents, by whom no more than teasing hints are dropped as to what’s happened, before the film flashes back to her arrival in Berlin. Susannah meets up with her sister, and then, giving an assumed name, falls in with a handsome young Scot, Jack (Ewan Stewart), at a cafe. He has followed her from her sister’s workplace, and it turns out that he, the sister and the sister’s husband are all wrapped up in something shady — again it’s never clear what. There’s also a sense that Susannah is running from her past, as her husband Nicholas (Paul Freeman) is in pursuit of her, though he never quite catches up. And then there’s Eddie Constantine, who just shows up as himself (an American-born French actor), as part of the sister’s circle of contacts.

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Kick-Ass 2 (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Jeff Wadlow (based on the comic books Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.) | Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones | Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey | Length 103 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 September 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Universal Pictures

There’s a refrain that’s repeated over and over in this film: “this is real life”. It’s repeated often enough that I get the feeling the writer-director must have a bit of a complex about quite how abstracted all this stuff is from any kind of recognisable reality. I mean, that’s fine — it hardly hides its comic book origins with all those luridly saturated colours, the glib violence, the superheroes and supervillains storyline and the superimposition of comic book captions — but the repetition of that particular phrase just comes across as witless irony in such a uneven work.

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The Heat (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Paul Feig | Writer Katie Dippold | Cinematographer Robert Yeoman | Starring Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock | Length 117 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© 20th Century Fox

I still think there’s a lot to appreciate about this film, and a lot of reason not to write it off from the outset. For a start, it’s from the director of Bridesmaids (2011), a very likeable comedy that was generous to its largely female cast, and the TV show Freaks and Geeks, which was unjudgemental about high school cliques and launched the careers of many of today’s comedy stars. The writer worked on Parks and Recreation, one of my very favourite TV comedies of recent memory, and it stars a number of alumni of the often very funny Saturday Night Live (including the wonderful Jane Curtin in a small role). And I remain very happy with the idea of taking a genre as hackneyed as the buddy cop film and giving it a gendered twist. In fact, I rather enjoyed the trailer to be honest, so I thought it might be worth a couple of hours of my time. It’s just that, as a finished film, it feels stale and underwhelming and lacks real laughs.

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Man of Steel (2013)

Zack Snyder is not a name to inspire great confidence in filmgoers (at least not those I’ve talked to). I’ve only actually seen one of his directorial efforts, and I may be in a minority in quite liking Sucker Punch (2011). That was a film which seemed to depict its abused characters coping with and overcoming their traumas by reconfiguring them as video game challenges; it may not have been entirely successful, but it was a very interesting concept. There’s plenty of trauma in Man of Steel, too, but mostly on the audience’s part. The film itself seems curiously shorn of any human emotion, at least by the time it reaches its absurdly overextended denouement.

A key moment for me in this respect is a kiss shared amongst the crumbling detritus of a ravaged Metropolis, a falling skyscraper barely enough it seems to get the two to break off their kiss to take a look. It would be a moment of bathos if I could rouse enough emotion to care about anyone by this point, but after half an hour of mechanised (and curiously bloodless) destruction, there’s little empathy left in me. If this and Marvel’s The Avengers last year are anything to go by, American blockbuster movies seem to revel in destroying their cities, which is a curious place to be all things considered.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first half of the film concerns itself with the origin story and is (relatively-speaking) fairly low-key and interesting. Most filmgoers are probably aware of the basics: how Kal-El is sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El, pursued by General Zod and his gang of usurpers; how he grows up in rural Kansas as Clark Kent, only slowly growing to understand and control his special powers; how he meets and falls in love with intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. If there’s a sense that some of this is superfluous for most viewers, it’s nevertheless welcome if only for its calmer tone and pacing.

It’s never far from the surface that the Superman mythology is a thinly-coded Second Coming allegory, with Kal-El/Clark as a specifically American Messiah; he even has a scene of questioning doubt in a church at one point. As his father, then, Russell Crowe does a good job as a calm centre of Krypton’s benevolent patriarchal power, matched by Kevin Costner as Clark’s human father, even if a lot of his role involves staring off into the middle-distance and mouthing moral platitudes. Nevertheless, Costner’s a master at this kind of thing, and does it well.

These snippets of his rural upbringing are interwoven as flashbacks in what has largely become a peripatetic existence for Clark, as he shows up in enough different places to pique the interest of reporter Lois Lane. The way this unfolds all feels rather perfunctory, and Amy Adams, although likeable as an actor, has little to work with here. It’s not, in truth, a great film for actors of subtlety and imagination. Michael Shannon, for example, plays General Zod, and though he may have had some great roles in his time, Zod seems to require little more than shouting and glowering, a waste of Shannon’s more acute talents. Luckily, this helps the blandly attractive Henry Cavill to impress more as the titular hero. In a film where actorly insight has been pushed into the background, looking the part becomes more of an asset, and Cavill with his chiselled jaw and impressive physique certainly does do that.

I’ve already mentioned the way that by the end, the film seems to lack a sense of humanity: it’s a dour and serious film, dark and brooding without much in the way of levity or humour. This certainly sets it apart from the earlier film series with Christopher Reeve, and may point to the involvement of Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight franchise similarly ‘rebooted’ the Batman story, kitting out its world in cold, hard metallic surfaces and glowering darkness. But Batman is an anti-hero at best, where Superman is supposed to embody all the best of humanity. By the end, I feel as a viewer like Laurence Fishburne’s newspaper editor, watching impassively at the filmic destruction all around. Perhaps he feels unable to move from his window (though he does, at length) because he too is wondering where it all went wrong.

This is undeniably a visually impressive film, but at some basic level it has gone awry. I am left cold by its cold surface textures, and there’s little to convince me that any of the characters have any heart. And for a film about a character embodying the best of human nature, that’s a real failing.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Zack Snyder | Writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (based on the comic book Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) | Cinematographer Amir Mokri | Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 19 June 2013

My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director J.J. Abrams | Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (based on the television series by Gene Roddenberry) | Cinematographer Daniel Mindel | Starring Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch | Length 133 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue (2D), London, Wednesday 15 May 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Paramount Pictures

When growing up, I was always more of a fan of Star Trek than the other popular sci-fi franchises available. Specifically I watched a lot of The Next Generation television series, which was airing just at the right age for me, really. A lot of the vague ethical issues bandied about in this newest film (the twelfth overall, and the second since its ‘reboot’ in 2009) are familiar from that show in particular, though perhaps the 40-minute small-screen format was better able to handle such complexities. Added for the film is a lot more action and a lot more explosions, but a whole lot less sense.

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2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)


FILM REVIEW: Fast and Furious Week || Director John Singleton | Writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas | Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti | Starring Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson (as “Tyrese”), Eva Mendes, Cole Hauser | Length 107 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Sunday 12 May 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Universal Pictures

If the first film was a bit perfunctory with its plot, this second instalment pushes it into the entirely forgettable. The villain here is an unctuous drug dealer Carter (Cole Hauser), whose shadowy trafficking ring Customs have been trying to infiltrate. It’s when they capture the first film’s protagonist Brian (Paul Walker) at an illegal street race in Miami, that their plans take a new tack. Since the first film, Brian has been on the run from the law, making ends meet via winnings from street racing (illustrated in a short film/teaser trailer, included as an extra on the Blu-ray). With the promise of a clean slate, he is now conscripted back into the crime-fighting cause, and must pick a partner. He chooses former friend and ex-convict Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson).

Questions of exactly why Brian needs to get a partner, and just what value street racers have to Hauser’s drug lord, are barely addressed. Maybe they were and I wasn’t paying attention (I concede my mind may have wandered during some of the early scenes), or more likely they just don’t matter. In any case, the film has plenty of ways to distract one’s attention from the gaping plot holes.

Eva Mendes plays the drug lord’s girlfriend — and is possibly a federal agent as well, though the possibility is held out that she may have gone rogue — who glamorously crosses the screen in a succession of flattering dresses. The street racing is still going on, under the auspices of local impresario Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), who has his own little tricks for making the race scenes more exciting (a spectacular and ridiculous bridge jump in the opening sequence, which one of the drivers wisely opts out of). There’s even an all-woman racing crew under his sidekick Suki (Devon Aoki); I am particularly fond of the scene where the various drivers are tinkering with their engines, cosmetically daubed with oil, except for Suki, whose blindingly white dress is entirely free from any kind of smudges.

I’d hardly want to be particularly strident in proclaiming the film’s progressive agenda, though: there are still plenty of scantily-clad women dotted around, even if a macho misogynist Spanish driver gets his deserved and amusing come-uppance at Suki’s driving hands. It is, however, worth pointing out there’s a fairer racial balance in the film from the first one, with more of a buddy-sidekick dynamic at play between Brian and Roman. Some of this may be down to the film’s director, John Singleton — still most famous for his debut Boyz n the Hood (1991) — and if this outing is the most blandly commercial of his films, it’s still put together with plenty of zip (as you’d hope for in a film of this title).

Ultimately, like the others in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious represents a throwback of sorts. Thematically it’s not unlike a juvenile delinquency film of the 1950s (the title of the series is after all taken from one such), and in style like an buddy-cop action film of the 1980s. This, combined with the sun-blanched Floridian settings, call to mind the recent action of Parker (2013). Neither are particularly groundbreaking, but they do have their transient pleasures.


Next Up: The series gets back on track with a new director and a new location in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006).