What I Watched Last Week: 16/06/14 – Thirteen reviews in one!

The World Cup 2014 is finally up and running, making Brazil the world’s number one attraction. As the Greatest Show on Earth marches on, cinema releases are really being stripped back to a bare minimum of period dramas and delicate foreign connoisseur pieces that only the most ardent anti-football fan would consider paying to see right now. Since there’s a lack of new films to properly review, and I’m watching most of the World Cup matches myself since I’m on holiday and unemployed, the What I Watched Last Week is about the only thing I can be bothered with. Anyone else hyped for England v Uruguay? I’m going to watch it in my local bar, because it’s a real dive. (Football joke? Oh well forget that here’s other person making fun of Uruguay).

OK. Here are some films you may choose to see or avoid based on my lackadaisically edited ramblings.

 

Winter’s Bone (2010) – 3/5

Director: Debra Granik

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt

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Jennifer Lawrence is a serious actress, something that can easily go unappreciated if you only know her from fluff piece American Hustle or the mega-charged super franchises X-Men and The Hunger Games. A tale of honour, Winter’s Bone’s central character is Ree (Lawrence), a seventeen year old Missouri girl with an absentee meth-cook for a father, a sick mute for a mother and two young siblings to care for. Told by a bondsman that she has just a week to vacate her property since her father failed to make bail, she embarks on a life threatening search to find him. Leaving no stone unturned, Ree upsets the criminally inclined locals – including hostile family members-  many of whom seem to be the product of incest ; regardless of genetic connection, when it comes to their privacy they defend it with wide-eyed ferocity. Lawrence is quite something as the ‘strong female lead’ (Netflix quote), bearing the brunt of the suffering and humiliation her father brought upon the family and showing visible signs of fatigue and anguish as her character tries to restore balance to nature, all the while making sure the damn dirty law keeps its nose right out. Supporting Lawrence is John Hawkes, who looks the definite article as her prideful cokehead Uncle, Teardrop. When the country bumpkin credits song kicks in there’s a sense of closure but also a distinct lack of consequence – it’s a good film, but it won’t stay with you.

 

High Fidelity (2000) – 4/5

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: John Cusack, Jack Black, Iben Hjele, Catherine Zeta-Jones

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High Fidelity follows the ins and outs of the life of record store owner Rob (John Cusack), who routinely breaks the fourth wall to impart misguided wisdom or regale you with one of his many traumatic relationship breakdowns. Friends and employees Barry (pre-famously-famous Jack Black)and Dick (Todd Louiso) are always present to annoy him when he’s feeling good and aggravate him when he’s feeling down, which, in the wake of his latest dumping, he usually is. Cusack’s sister, Joan, has a pretty good supporting role, and Catherine Zeta-Jones does Rob’s infuriating, pseudo-artistic ex-girlfriend with theatrical zeal. Jack Black is the best in this film; he’s a bastion of frantic energy, and his band Sonic Death Monkey’s (aka Kathleen Turner Overdrive aka Barry Jive and the Uptown Five) rendition of Let’s Get It On at the end inspires Rob to finally and unequivocally fill in his Allen-esque pitfalls. High Fidelity’s soundtrack has it all, from The Kinks to Costello to Stevie Wonder – there’s even a cameo from an imaginary fake Bruce Springsteen – and, could he see it, the film would surely make it into the ‘Popular Indie Romantic-Comedy’ list  of Rob’s obsessively categorised Top Fives.

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) – 2/5

Director: Tobe Hooper

Cast: Dennis Hopper, that’s pretty much it

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The first Texas Chainsaw Massacre is considered an all time cult classic, an arthouse masterpiece of terror and gore. It’s actually garbage. The second Chainsaw Massacre, conducted once more by Tobe Hooper, is widely regarded as a butchering of everything that made the first film such a prime slice of cinematic horror. While it does indeed stray into more absurd territories and needless gross-out moments, it’s actually marginally better than the brain haemorrhaging first instalment in the series. An engagingly well-shot intro and Dennis Hopper’s cowboy on a mission are mainly to thank for this. The ‘story’ hangs upon Hopper’s hunt for the cannibalistic Sawyer family, the very same fellows that murdered his family back in the South Texas-set original 14 years previously. His blood-crazed intensity and spiritual declarations of intent – ‘This is the Devil’s playground!… I’m gonna take you all back to hell!’ – make for bizarre and temporarily compelling viewing. Shot in a grainy wide screen 70mm that crackles and burns in the deep southern heat, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 has plenty of pulp and sleaze, and the victimised female radio host (Caroline Williams) in the middle of it all practically lives within the Grindhouse universe created by Tarantino and Rodriquez in homage to this type of trashy horror flick. Also, Leatherface confuses his chainsaw for a penis.

 

2 Headed Shark Attack (2011) – 1/5

Director: Christopher Ray

Cast: Carmen Electra, Brooke Hogan

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What what what what what what? Apparently, this is The Asylum’s most polished and profitable ‘so bad it’s good film’; considering it took three months from inception to video release, it isn’t quite as poor as you’d expect. That said, some of the following gripes don’t exactly encourage one to seek out The Asylum’s other 150 low-fi horror shows: a) There is a complete absence of a storyline/explanation for the fishy mutation. b)There are super-toned, soulless thirty year olds posing as teenagers. c) Both female and male cast members touch-up their hair so frequently that the drinking game played during our viewing only needed one rule. d) The line, ‘It’s twice the electro reception!’ e) The line, ‘Spread out but stay in this area’. f) The line, ‘It’s twice the electro reception!’

They got Brooke Hogan (son of Hulk Hogan, whose inimitable knowledge of living life earned him a reality TV show and 7 ½ minutes of fame for each of his two kids) and Carmen Electra, both of whom the camera shamelessly dresses up and down (going as far as a triple zoom in on some sun-baked thighs during one exceptionally frat-baiting soft porn scene) despite one of those women being of a much finer pedigree than the other. The prop work used for the dual-headed ocean hunter (Seaberus?) is actually quite impressive, but it’s the piss poor, re-used CGI that puts a damper on the sharky blood lust. Showing the same shot as in a previous attack except flipped in reverse… come on, guys.

 

Dumb and Dumber (1994) – 4/5

Director: Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly

Cast: Jim Carey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly, Cam Nealy

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The Dumb and Dumber series has had its highs and its lows, but the titles – Dumb and Dumberer, Dumb and Dumber to – have always been pretty funny, summing up the kind of harmless humour the Farrelly Brothers feed on. Misspoken idioms (‘I have a rapist’s wit’, ‘She sent me a John Deere letter’) and toilet gags are their bread and butter, and they spread it on thick in Dumb and Dumber. Broke and in love with a woman he’s only met once, social retard Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) talks his equally clueless roommate Harry (Jeff Daniels) into taking a road trip and returning a bit of luggage that the fair lady left behind. Make-up break-up quarrels erupt along the way, and there are some close encounters with the baton of the law and the ‘load’ of a long distance trucker named Seabass. The endearingly single-minded dudes are very Wayne’s Worldsy, constantly on the prowl for women they cannot possibly hope to win over (except when they stumble into millions in free cash) and seizing every opportunity to crack wise or squeeze in a fart gag.

Some of the over long jokes don’t really go anywhere, playing out more like unfunny Marx Brothers skits than character moments or actual plot points, but there’s lots to laugh at too. Jim Carrey is in his element here, and his master class of visceral slapstick makes Lloyd Christmas an iconic comedy  character. Here’s looking to his return in Dumb and Dumber To in December!

Video of a Silence of the Lambs reference from the film. SphSphSphSphSphSphSphSphSphSPh.

 

 Bad Lieutenant (1992) – 5/5

Director: Abel Ferrera

Cast: Harvey Kietel, Victor Argo, Frankie Thorn

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Bad Lieutenant drops you smack bang into the gritty circle of thoroughly complete corruption inhabited by famous crime films such as The Departed, American Gangster, Training Day, Copland (another Kietel classic), Serpico, Narc and you get the pictures(s). Watching Bad Lieutenant, it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing it does differently. It came before all of those films just listed and so surely had some kind of effect of their production, but what effect? The scenes pile up like a clusterfuck of a drunken car crash: predominantly, they consist of no holds barred drug abuse and exploitative, non-consensual sexual encounters that are rather difficult to shake off.  Just as Harvey Keitel’s coke snorting on the school run  and non-stop boozing provide a gateway into depravity and corruption, Abel Ferrera’s uncompromising take on mental and physical deterioration allowed future films to explore the darkest, tabooed elements of the human condition. Jon S. Baird’s Filth, the finest film of 2013/2014, owes Bad Lieutenant everything, and Baird did a stupendous job turning it into something hilarious as well as heartbreaking.

There is no music, just the radio chatter commentary of the lieutenant’s beloved baseball, which for him bears a terrifying, almost religious significance. The reckless, drug addled bets he stakes upon the World Series  are ultimately his undoing, bringing  his racism, sexual perversions and self-hatred to the fore. Expect a review of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant sequel-except-not in the next couple of weeks.

 

Stalag 17 (1953) – 5/5

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: William Holden, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Peter Graves

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This WWII comedy-drama is tenser than The Great Escape, more engaging than The Bridge on the River Kwai and superior in every way to Escape to Victory – that last one isn’t all too hard to top, but the point still stands. Stalag 17 is the ultimate POW experience. It’s packed full of the kind of intelligent satire and verve that’d turn Kubrick seven shades of green –   he even nicked the repeated Johnny Comes Marching Home strain for his film Dr Strangelove –and the German prison camp officiates are Hans down the best caricatures this side of uproarious comedy caper Downfall.

William Holden, the big boy on prison campus, plays an American air force officer with captivating, Oscar winning witticism. Not that he did it all on his own, because that Wilder/Blum script is a knee-slapper and a half. There is an unexpected twist in which, contrary to the norm, the plot actually unthickens, but the atmosphere and the stakes are seriously ramped up because of it. Only the viewer, Holden and the droll retrospective narrator are wise to the action, and waiting for the ensemble cast of dejected prisoners to catch on becomes a maddening test of nerve. He mostly stuck to saucy noirs or rom-coms starring Marilyn Monroe, but if anybody could have made a good film of Catch-22, it was Billy Wilder. No matter, Stalag 17 is one of the greats.

 

The Conspirator (2010) – 2/5

Director: Robert Redford

Cast: James McAvoy, Evan Rachel Wood, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Root

 

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Period puff piece about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination directed by Robert Redford and starring James McAvoy. It’s vanilla as they come, a great big gluten free angel cake of a film with low fat non-dairy whipped cream icing on top. Redford examines the case of Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright), the mother of the friend of actor cum assassin John Wilkes Booth, and her fight for survival against a rigged war crimes panel. There is not a single memorable scene. Evan Rachel Wood is decent, and as always McAvoy acts well too, but this feels like a dress rehearsal for a production that got cancelled so that Spielberg could step in, do some re-writes, and make Lincoln a couple of years later. Half of Boardwalk Empire are in it, probably lured in by the promise of fanciful historical outfits.

 

The Color of Money – 4/5

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

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The Hustler didn’t need a sequel: it got one anyway. Martin Scorsese’s taking over of the life and times of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson makes this silver anniversary follow up not anything like the shambles one might expect. Advancing from The Hustler’s smokily romantic black and white to beautiful, rippling Technicolor, The Colour of Money finds pool maverick Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) all washed up and liquored in (as in he works in the liquor business)but ,believe it or not, no longer playing pool. Nevertheless, he can still smell profit from across the room and hear talent a mile away, senses he puts to use when he catches wind of the thunderous power-break of young Victor Lauirus (Tom Cruise), a two-bit hustler that frequents his local from time to time. Laurius is as much focused on 8-bit arcade games as he is pool, but Felson takes him under his suave, well-plumed wing and shows him the ropes of the hustling game… or rather the rails. Of the pool table. Because the sides of pool table are sometimes called that. Uhh. Telling a riveting story of mentorship and betrayal that is basically the same as Rocky 5 except with pool cues instead of boxing gloves, The Color of Money does its originator proud.

Newman sparkles in his silver-streaked old age, and he still has that supple charm that a young Cruise cannot match no matter how many times he flashes that perfect, cheesy smile of his. Martin Scorsese does some real neat trick shots with his direction to complement the astounding cue ball contortion on the velvety greens of The Colour of Money’s many, many pool tables; if they could get him to do the snooker, people would spend a bit longer on visits to their grandparents.

 

To Catch a Thief (1955)  – 3/5

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Carey Grant, Grace Kelly, John Williams, Brigitte Auber

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Essential Hitchcock glamour with essential Hitchcock stars set in the glossy climes of the French Riviera. Playing the role of a retired ex-acrobat turned cat burglar, John Robie (Grant) is forced to defend his already unpopular name when a spate of high-profile jewel robberies take place in the area surrounding his mansion in Cannes. Going around conversing with English poshos and women fitting the bill for Hitchcock’s rules of attractiveness (blonde, thin and especially blonde), Robie finds more than he expects when he investigates the real thief that’s been clambering over the rooftops at night and defaming his chivalry. Grace Kelly conducts herself gracefully in a role that demands an extraordinary number of outfit swaps, but Carey Grant isn’t quite all he’s cracked up to be. The same issue marred this writer’s enjoyment of North by North West. His response to the question, ‘Did you… kill many people?’:  ‘Haha. Seventy two.’ *returns attention to his caviar luncheon*just doesn’t come off; he has neither the demeanour nor the physical makeup of other old school stars (e.g James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier) held in similar regard. As far as Hitchcock thrillers go, this is one of the prettiest but also one of the most dull because of the pitifully low level of risk involved. It’s still good, with a script as smart as brass buttons on a tweed jacket, and it looks fantastic, dodgy car back projection and all, but it’s no game changer, as so many of Hitch’s other films were.

 

The Enforcer (1951) – 4/5

Director: Bretaigne Windust

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel, Everett Sloane

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Also known as ‘Murder, Inc.’ (a possible inspiration for the name of a certain Disney title?), The Enforcer was the fifth and final feature film of French-born director Bretaigne Windust. This complex detective noir is concerned with the unraveling of a syndicate of hitmen – now mostly dead – so that the ruthless crime lord Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane) can be brought to justice. Ferguson (Humphrey Bogart) is the man on the case, but it isn’t until the death of his key witness the day before the trial that he is forced to reflect on the room full of evidence stockpiled over four years of intense investigation.  Flicking through the files, we’re taken into a flashback and then a flashback within a flashback, and then – or so it seems– a flashback in between the two which reflects on information learned in one of the other flashbacks. It’s all very unclear, but that’s the idea, and it all comes out right in the end. The Enforcer has a scintillating score and the finest quality of acting you could hope for. It’s the kind of film people looked back to when making films of the L.A. Confidential or Chinatown strain (or indeed upcoming noir piece The Nice Guys, written/directed by Shane Black). The Enforcer can stand proudly alongside Hitchcock classics The Wrong Man and Vertigo; there’s a ‘guy falls to his death from a height’ moment that’s infinitely more convincing than anything from that second film, too – the accuracy of the dummy and the pavement crunch really make it.

 

Dragnet (1987) – 3/5

Director: Tom Mankiewicz

Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Tom Hanks, Christopher Plummer

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Clever spoof of L.A. detective stories monologued by Dan Aykroyd’s Joe Friday, a robbery/homicide investigator that doesn’t so much stick to the book as live inside of it. It’s sort of a spiritual predecessor to the poorly executed The Other Guys, with Tom Hanks playing the talented, passionate foil to Aykroyd’s super serious protagonist. Almost all the jokes are of the running variety, and revolve around a circuit constructed solely to poke fun at ultra-square Aykroyd as he goes after Christopher Plummer, the man behind the P.A.G.A.N (People Against Goodness And Normalcy) takeover of Los Angeles. There’s a lot of hate towards Dragnet, and it’s often dismissed as late eighties confetti comedy and one of Hanks’ worst films, but there’s an endless stream of Naked Gun-alike spoofs of the buddy cop genre that can be genuinely funny. Dan Aykroyd must have a phenomenal memory, because some of the lines he reels off require several rewinds just to appreciate. He and Tom Hanks also do a rap at the end; even Dragnet’s most impassioned detractors must admit it was worth it for this:

 

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Director: Gregg Araki

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bill Sage, Michelle Trachtenburg, Brady Corbett

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A cataclysmic collision of Unidentified Flying Objects, homosexuality and child abuse. This is the kind of film that has the ability to make a person very, very uncomfortable. Some morally abhorrent acts go down before you’re ten minutes in, and Gregg Araki’s unsympathetic shooting style implicates the audience to the point that you must either accept responsibility for the weaknesses and desires of mankind or turn the thing off and watch a panel show. This is heavy-heavy content; as rent boy Neil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt drags it along with a painful performance wrought with emotion and strength. Assume fetal positions in 5…4…3…2…

 

If you read this far then just thanks I suppose. Bye for now.

 

 

 

 

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