What I Watched Last Week – 26/05/14 – Nine film reviews in one!

‘Nine films? That’s seems a lot of time to be spending considering you’re in the middle of exams and all…’ I know, right? And those wasted hours don’t even take into account the three cinema trips, nor the Stephen King book I read, Doctor Sleep, which is the sequel to The Shining and a hell of a lot less scary than its hotelier predecessor. Please go to the home page after you read this to see my X-Men: Days of Future Past review; it’s the franchise’s seventh film and by far the best, and is also the first ever recipient of a Movie Quibble decimal rating at 4.5 out of 5 stars. Why not just 5? Well, because it’s a superhero movie, and no superhero movie can ever be given a 5. Never ever. Here’s some reviews.

The Mist (2007) – 3/5
Director: Frank Darabont
Cast: Thomas Jane, Laurie Holden, Marcia Gay

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All Lacerated in the Supermarket…
Stephen King obsessive/collaborator Frank Darabont’s most celebrated films have been adaptations of the master of horror’s novels. While his retelling of King’s novella The Mist doesn’t quite compare to the likes of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, it defies the trope-alicious preconceptions one might garner from a glance at the dodgy tagline and overly familiar poster, instead focusing on the human element of worldwide disaster. An artist named David Drayton, who supposedly created the iconic poster for John Carpenter’s The Thing (even though we all know it was Drew Struzan), lives in a small lakeside suburb that is suddenly stricken with an eerie storm followed by a dense and all-enveloping pall. Trapped in a grocery store with a crowd of terrified townsfolk – amongst them half the cast of The Walking Dead, the project Darabont moved onto straight afterwards – Drayton tries to protect his family from the ‘mist’erious goings on and work out what exactly is happening in the car park out there. Then he finds out. It’s giant, spiky, laughably rendered tentacles. And spiders with human faces (another nod to The Thing, it seems). And unconventionally large wasps. A vengeful religious nut feeds the hysteria of those inside the supermarket, chastising them for sins gone by and ordering them to either repent or cower before the ‘judgement of God’. There’s a good bit of tension, aided by nimble camera work that nips though the aisles, and the (slightly idiotic) character choices rile you up so that you are forced to imagine how you might react in the same situation. The monsters look a bit pish, apart from the glimpse of Chtulu himself at the very end of the film which, as endings go, is very bleak indeed.

Slacker (1991) – 3/5
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Richard Linklater, Rudy Basquez, Jean Caffeine

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The title should have an ‘s’ on the end. Indie treasure Richard Linklater’s debut is a free-wheeling counter-culture piece devoid of narrative which plays out like a transitory stage production. In a relentless series of unrelated encounters, Slacker studies the college drop-outs of the city of Austin, Texas as they while away the day discussing conspiracy theories and flicking through old magazines, all of them stoned and bored out their nonplussed minds – for them, ‘time doesn’t exist’. Linklater, appearing as a ‘realitee’ obsessed dreamer in the opening vignette, frames the film using a box-like aspect ratio that gives a strong sense of containment to the low-budget production, a low-budget made evident by the extremely varied quality of acting on display and (intentional?) boom-dips. Languid, street spanning shots and the next level neuroticism of the snappy, book length script point directly to the cinematic influences of Woody Allen. Disseminations of pop-culture and existentialism – reproduced to better effect by Clerks three years later – are the tracks that Slacker follows but, like many of the one-time actors that drift across the screen, paying attention is kind of optional. The TV-Mutant-Ninja-Turtle (pictured above) sticks in the memory, most probably because he’s the only character who doesn’t feel like a caricature of one of Linklater’s mates.

 

Dazed and Confused (1993) – 4/5
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Willey Wiggins, Ben Affleck, Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams

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A pyre of romanticism doused with nostalgaline and set gloriously ablaze, Dazed and Confused captures its era so fully that seems as if it were made in the actual 70s. Richard Linklater’s infinitely more confident Slacker follow up is shot with a grainy, vibrant, cannabis shrouded haze that permeates the entire picture. Based on the director’s own experiences of high school graduation in the Summer of 76′, a bunch of late teen guys and gals engage in ritualistic end of term war games aimed at the freshman year students. This mostly consists of a gang of libidinous assholes, led by Ben Affleck’s alpha male, running around town paddle-whacking and mailbox-smashing to a victoriously iconoclastic jukebox mix (Slow Ride, School’s Out, Rock & Roll All Nite, Why Can’t We Be Friends, Lord Have Mercy On My Soul) and it all begs the question: Was 70s high-school actually like this? If so, no fair. Wiley Wiggins, whose resemblance to actress Rebecca Hall is distracting throughout, is – if anyone is – the protagonist, going from bullied youngster to grizzled babe magnet over the course of a single evening, but the out and out shining (lone)star is Matthew McConaughey as moustachioed dope king Wooderson; ‘Alright, alright, alrighhhhhht’. So THAT’S where it comes from!

 

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004) – 2/5
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Charlize Theron, Stephen Fry, John Lithgow, Stanley Tucci

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‘I didn’t bring you up to be content’ – Being born to the kind of mother that checks the evening news upon hearing of her son’s major coronary to see how much coverage the story gets can’t be easy. Having watched many of the great actor-comedian’s films and televised interviews, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is far from deft in its trajectory, but Geoffrey Rush just about holds the biopic together. One example of how the film differs from reality is the depiction of Sellers’s first television spot: In truth, he brashly impersonated a producer over the phone to give the television director in question a gleaming self-endorsement, but in the film he disguises himself and gives an in person interview for a film role. Not that this matters hugely, but that wasn’t Peter Sellers’s life, which is what the film’s title purports to show, warts and all – not that he had any. A confident, chin-held-high Geoffrey Rush is ideal casting, but with all that make up he sometimes bears a freakish resemblance to Brian Badonde (of Facejacker fame) or a Bo Selecta character. Rush’s interpretation of the creation of Dr Strangelove, especially the formation of the facial tics and rogue limb syndrome, is fascinating to watch; momentairly, you feel like you’re watching the man himself as he makes history. Charlize Theron also stars as his second wife Britt Ekland but, through no fault of her own, she really drags down the initial fun that was had with the hotels, fast cars, affairs, and red carpet premières. Stanely Tucci has a few good moments as Stanley Kubrick; although he’s a tad too fabulous, his description of Sellers as a ‘vessel’ as opposed to an actual person seems a rather apt surmisal.

 

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) – 5/5
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Del Negro, Helena Rojo

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The 16th century. Following massacre upon massacre, Spanish conquistadors have Inca-pacitated the indigenous tribes of South America. In the desolate aftermath, a group of expedient religious types set off on a raft downriver on a holy mission to reach the as yet untapped treasures of the mythical El Dorado. The thick, chromatic locations of Aguirre are intimidatingly beautiful, with high vista views capturing the crusading invader’s formicine trek through the treacherous terrain. Initially, Aguirre displays all the trappings of an exploitation flick, but it isn’t in the least bit sleazy – it is the pinnacle of high art. Herzog’s camera goes through wide, slow-paced pans across the landscape before cutting into guerilla mode, mounted on the shoulder of some basket carrying captive or hidden in the brush as masked horses and absurdly outfitted knights fight their way through the undergrowth. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust owes this film a great deal, as indeed do the more obvious comparisons of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and Terrence Malick’s The New World. Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn’s medieval masterpiece, files very closely behind Aguirre, though this film is far more naturalistic in its construction. Speaking of nature, with all the real looking drowning and spearing going on, it’s a wonder that no one died during the shoot.

‘The Church was always on the side of the strong’. Herzog’s intense criticism of religious doctrine and history’s inclination to label genocide as colonisation is handled with extreme proficiency. Aguirre himself (Klaus Kinski), that brooding, wide eyed maniac, is representative of the New World Order. His fury at the superstitious, puerile earthlings he perceives to be beneath himself and his subversion of their trust is barbaric, but this makes his failure to recognise that all has been for nought all the sweeter. As he and his fellow raft dwellers float down the grey, watery highway of their doom past river banks lined with flesh hungry cannibals ((Poison) Dart of Darkness?) his ridiculously grandiose conviction of victory is compelling to watch.

Easy Rider (1969) – 3/5
Director: Dennis Hopper
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda

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Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda take in 60s America en route to New Orleans, pulled all the while by the steamy allure of Mardi Gras. As with all good road trips, it’s more about the journey than the getting there, and some who go do not fully return. Seeing the central characters of Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) sampling cocaine in a Mexican scrapyard, pre opening credits, helps sets the tone; these guys live rough, and they snort freedom by the line. Dennis Hopper’s directorial tone is meandering but meaningful, as he emphasises the turning tides of a nation with increasing apposition; one key shot has Hopper’s cowboy-lookalike adjusting the hub-cap of his gleaming motorcycle and inflating a tire while, on the other end of the barn, two old boys are fitting horse shoes.

When Jack Nicholson shows up in a county jail and bums a ride, things really pick up. His pure energy lifts the mood of the piece like a hundred mile wind at the leather clad backs of our bikers. When sampling ‘pot’ for the first time, his earnest youth is unrecognisable from the demented souls he would go on to portray in his more famous roles, but he also gets the most meaningful lines of the sparsely scattered dialogue. His monologues reflect on the antiquated concept of some ossified manifest destiny, held so dear by the bigots whose lives Easy Rider peeps in at, and the difference between living life and actually experiencing it.

 

After Hours (1985) – 4/5
Director: Martn Scorsese
Cast: Griffin Dunne. Rosanna Arquette, Cheech Marin, Linda Fiorentino

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Crushed and confused by a disastrous date and unable to get himself home, Griffin Dunne’s simple minded paper pusher has the worst night of his life. Hey, at least he didn’t get torn apart by a lycanthrope though (as he did in a 1981 film in which he appeared that is called An American Werewolf in London). After Hours is one of the more experimental works from Scorsese’s canon; shot in and around the arty Soho district of New York, it’s a sultry psychological mind bender of a murder mystery and, for once, a film which seems to have influenced Stanley Kubrick (rather than the usual way of Kubrick influencing film). It plays out like Eyes Wide Shut on a coke-binge, employing the same mesmerising side-on tracking shots and panoply of neon drenched lighting effects seen in Mean Streets. The sexually tinged interplay of the lead’s many various late-night encounters is so Kubrickian it’s scary yet, unlike Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, Paul Hackett (Dunne) doesn’t need to f*** as soon as possible; sleep is what he needs – and badly.

 

Stuart: A Life Backwards (2007) – 3/5
Director: David Attwood
Cast: Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch

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Based on a true life story, this film recounts the life of a schizophrenic/alcoholic/heroin-addicted homeless man named Stuart Shorter (Tom Hardy) as told from the perspective of a middle class charity worker turned biographer called Alexander (Benedict Cumberbatch). A self-effacing Hardy cuts a lovably shambolic figure as the titular tramp, stumbling through life with a can in his hand and a care free attitude that belies his traumatic past. Cumberbatch is not quite as memorable; mostly his job is to look surprised or alternately affectionate as he gets the goods from Stuart and scribbles them in his notepad. His metamorphosis from a prejudiced, Cambridge educated white saviour to a genuine friend of the homeless is laudable however, and the same can be said of the film’s efforts to get over the pre-conceptions attached to mental health and addiction. Cartoon reels are often employed to fill in what the BBC’s budget constraints didn’t allow, but there are some more cinematic cutaways to harrowing images of Tom Hardy’s Stuart bashing in prison screws, self harming and setting his council-lent abode on fire. Released roughly a year before Hardy got his big break in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, this performance was almost definitely what drew the Danish maverick to cast him in the lead role.

American Beauty (1999) – 5/5
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper

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Sam Mendes is a great director. Skyfall, Jarhead, Road to Perdition – these are all bangers, and his influence is what raises them a flight of stairs or two above the predictable films which share genre tags with his. American Beauty, his first film (first film!) after a robust producing career (in an odd coincidence, he was the guiding force behind the HBO/BBC collab Stuart: A Life Backwards), is an astonishing work. It’s an undisputed classic which transformed the topography of suburban-set dramas with magisterial elegance. Kevin Spacey is riotous as the sardonic Lester Burnham, upping sticks from his soul sucking 9 to 5 and revelling in the mid-life crisis to end all mid-life crises. Burnam’s triumphant exploration of a life he thought he’d lost forever is genuinely hilarious, but the heartfelt humour of American Beauty is what makes the emotional pain and physical suffering that comes later all the more difficult to bear. Potent imagery, such as that of Mena Suvari swanning amongst the roses in a spread fan, capture sub-conscious fantasies in mesmerising fashion and, for a couple of hours at least, American Beauty makes you feel as though you have nothing to lose. You do though, so don’t just go around filming plastic bags all day.

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4 comments

  1. I can’t speak on 70’s high school (I’m not that old) but I can tell you that the Dazed and Confused shenanigans were still going on at my high school in the late 80’s (I am that old). The seniors made life hell for the incoming freshmen!

    1. Damn. Did you hand it out or were you mostly a recipient?

      1. The girls didn’t have it as bad as the boys (no paddling) but there was a lot of verbal abuse and humiliation. But it was helpful if you had a friend who’s sister was a senior (which I did) and that got you a lot of free passes.

        You always think in those kinds of situations, “I’ll never be like that when I’m a senior!” But let me tell you, when your time comes, you give just as good as you got!

  2. I’ve seen Slacker in my film class. What a bizarre film! And a possible waste of my time…haha

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