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 on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 January 2016).

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Criterion Sunday 40: Armageddon (1998)

If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi; Length 153 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my A-Z and year pages.)


© 20th Century Fox

Gone Girl (2014) || Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 7 October 2014 || Director David Fincher | Writer Gillian Flynn (based on her novel) | Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth | Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris | Length 149 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

David Fincher continues to extend his auteurist credentials with another film dwelling in the twists, turns and dead-ends of narrative fiction, shot in a coolly modernist style, with dark corners and muted colours befitting the shifting allegiances and motivations of the characters. Ben Affleck does well as the put-upon husband Nick in small-town America whose wife has gone missing, and Rosamund Pike has a piercing intensity as that New York-born and bred wife Amy, but beyond those plot points it would not be wise to stray, suffice to say there is a twist, and more than one at that. It’s a film that doesn’t just find its drama in the orchestrated chameleonic performances of its core cast, but is itself about performance, about lives moulded by societal or parental pressures (whether the expectations of precocity and feminine perfection as forced upon Amy by her author parents, or the expectations of marriage taken on by both leads, or the requirements of the ‘gone girl’ narrative when reconfigured by the media). In a sense — and to this extent I agree with criticism of its misogynistic underpinnings — it’s about a clueless husband taken advantage of by a conniving woman deploying rape allegations and other standbys of the tabloid press, but yet the film seems too self-aware of the ways that all of its protagonists shape and control their representation for it to fully fall into that trap. However, basically what I’m saying is that this film, more than most blockbusters of 2014, would seem to repay further investigation.


© Paramount Pictures

Interstellar (2014) || Seen at Science Museum (IMAX), London, Tuesday 11 November 2014 || Director Christopher Nolan | Writers Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan | Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema | Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine | Length 169 minutes || My Rating 3 stars good

Christopher Nolan is another kind of auteur, though he seems to specialise in unselfconscious pomposity (or at least, so it seems to my mind). Seen on a 70mm IMAX screen, this is undeniably big and undeniably epic in scope, with huge bassy rumblings and the kind of sound design and picturesque cinematographic vision engineered to convince of the earnestness of the undertaking. Without giving away any prized ‘spoilers’, it increasingly suggests an updating of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (also recently on re-release) albeit without the kind of understated intelligence of design that Kubrick’s films always exhibited. Aside from some affecting early scenes with McConaughey’s astronaut/engineer/farmer and his children, I’m not even sure the more upfront sentimentality always works in the film’s favour, as it progressively becomes more loopy — and it certainly seems to me that the almost mystical treatment afforded to black holes and other astral phenomena are somewhat akin to religious texts’ relationship to God (though with that latter concept somewhat ponderously replaced here by Gravity and/or Love). Some of the ideas seem rather too incredulous, at the same time grounded in character interactions which smack rather more of cliché, but I cannot deny that it held my attention effortlessly for three hours, and should at least be given points for trying something bold, epic and heartfelt.


© Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Monday 24 November 2014 || Director Francis Lawrence | Writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig (based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins) | Cinematographer Jo Willems | Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Natalie Dormer | Length 123 minutes || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable

Another instalment in the ongoing young-adult dystopianism that’s been part of all our lives for the last decade or so (whether under this franchise’s title, or previous ones you may guess at; even if you haven’t read any books or seen any films, you can’t possibly be unaware of the trend). I certainly enjoy the range of darker and more complicated emotions this kind of thing leads to, even if the way they’re handled remains strictly teenage (although most mainstream entertainment pitches itself to that age range, to be fair). With Mockingjay, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss starts to really doubt her own abilities to lead a revolution as the stakes become more serious (the film is largely based in the underground compound of District 13, as they make periodic sorties to disrupt the Capitol and its propaganda), though even when crying in a dark corner, Lawrence remains effortlessly watchable. If there are any ‘games’ here, they take place in the real world of the film (Panem), which seems to make them curiously less engaging than the engineered ones of the previous two films. It also seems to squander an obvious cliffhanger ending point, but I’ll undoubtedly be back next year to see how things wrap up.

Argo (2012)

Like all film-lovers, I’ve had a complicated relationship with The Oscars™ over the years, but my general feeling is that I dislike the ways it rewards filmmakers and actors (and when it gets things right it’s usually for the wrong reasons anyway), and I dislike the way it affects how American studios create and distribute certain kinds of films. There are subgenres of ‘Oscar-baiting filmmaking’ that generally produce either torpid, listless, dull and often overlong films of little human interest but with plenty of empty emoting and visual grandstanding, or, as with last year’s winner The Artist (2011), perfectly entertaining little movies with an inflated pseudish cachet.

Argo falls into the latter camp: it’s entertaining and I enjoyed it for the most part, but I wouldn’t make any great claim for it being the height of film art. In fact, it’s rather campy in places: Alan Arkin and John Goodman as Hollywood studio people seem to be in an entirely different film. The scenes set in Iran at the height of the 1979-80 hostage crisis, though, are appropriately gripping, as we watch Ben Affleck’s CIA agent working to “exfiltrate” the six escaped US embassy workers, who are uneasily holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s residence (played by the ever-reliable Victor Garber).

Plenty of others far more knowledgeable than I have picked holes in the history, and I don’t doubt it takes liberties with the facts. More concerning is the demonisation of many of the Iranians, though the film’s animated introduction makes it clear that the US itself had a great part to play in the radicalisation of Iran and the overthrow of a democratically-elected government (as remains their wont to this day). Nevertheless, when it’s focused on the intimate human drama of these six Americans and the oddly far-fetched plot to get them out of the country, it makes for fine entertainment.


© Warner Bros.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Ben Affleck | Writer Chris Terrio (based on the book Master of Diguise by Antonio J. Mendez and an article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber | Length 120 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Wednesday 6 February 2013

My Rating 3 stars good

To the Wonder (2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Terrence Malick | Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki | Starring Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams | Length 112 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 February 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Magnolia Pictures

I think it’s fairly well understood that Malick’s films are an acquired taste, especially the more recent ones. After The Tree of Life (2011) — which on balance I was not a huge fan of — comes this new film, and both of them (more than previous Malick films) eschew traditional scenes of dialogue, often cutting away before someone speaks or cutting to them just after it seems as if they’ve spoken. On the rare occasions when characters are shown speaking, the sound is generally faded out before they finish, let alone any response is given. Swift editing imbricates flashes of future and past time, an impressionistic bricolage of images. Which all goes to make it a film of fleeting experiences, of connections made at a level other than speech. Of course, there’s still the poetic voiceover, this time primarily in French (also Spanish and Italian, and very little English), which perhaps makes the tone of it less intrusive to English-speaking audiences than it can seem in such films as The Thin Red Line (1999, my personal favourite of Malick’s films). But you wouldn’t expect a Malickian voiceover to explain anything: it remains at the level of laconic, gnomic utterances.

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