Sunday, 31 January 2016

Best Films of 2015

Good lord, what a great year for movies! I keep hearing people moan about the decline of cinema, but as far as I'm concerned we're going through a golden age. 

The only problem is cutting down my long list of outstanding films (39 titles) down to a reasonable size. Last year — in 2014 — I listed 14 movies, this year I think I shall allow myself the luxury of 15. This tendency could get us into serious trouble by 2099 when I'm a brain sloshing around in a jar of nutrient solution with internet access. And so are you.

So let's start by dropping the movies that just aren't going to make the cut: Max is a dog — no, not a bad film, a film about a dog. Traumatised army dog from Iraq busts a blackmarket weapons ring. Old fashioned, sentimental and soppy. I loved it. But if I included it, goodbye street cred. 

Also being dropped: Age of Adaline: It shouldn’t be good, but it is. Beautiful photography. Harrison Ford is great. Blake Lively is phenomenal. But her romantic lead… I mean WTF? The Gambler: Lovely music, terrific pace. But look at the competition!

Self/Less: Ben Kingsley becomes Ryan Reynolds. Distinctly a cut above. Excellent science fiction thriller. Just not quite...  Seventh Son: Excellent sword & sorcery thriller with a script by Steven Knight. Even Jeff Bridges’s silly accent doesn’t sink it. Great Marco Beltrami score. But see note above about street cred... Unfriended: Genuinely gripping and innovative. A really clever low budget horror movie. Some of the killings are stupid — face in blender — but it still triumphs.

Diary of a Teenage Girl: Funny and surprisingly moving. The animation was excellent.
Mortdecai: An adaptation of Kyril Bonfiglioli's classic Charlie Mortdecai novels which comes close to pulling it off. Surprisingly fine fun. Johnny Depp is on the rampage in Terry-Thomas mode, but Paul Bettany is magnificent as Jock.

Tomorrow Land: Very enjoyable and clever, way better than the trailer would lead you to believe. The Visit: A startling return to form by M. Night Shyamalan. Its great virtue is that it’s funny. Focus: I really enjoyed this con-man caper. Margot Robbie is spectacular. John Wick: Another dog-centric film. A fantastic Keanu Reeves revenge thriller. Splendid ending.  

Spy: In a great year for spy movies this rollicking comedy was a near miss. Really good, really funny, and with a proper serviceable spy story as its foundation. The Last Witch Hunter: This was genuinely high quality. I was amazed. Vin Diesel, all is forgiven. Or at least some things. But, as with Max and Seventh Son, I couldn't show my face in this town again if this was one of my films of the year. Plus, there are 23 titles to ruthlessly drop. So, onwards... 

The Gift: Originally (and more accurately) titled 'Weirdo', this was written and directed by and starred Joel Edgerton. Nerd-revenge suspense movie. Goes a bit off the rails towards the end, but very gripping.

Okay, we are now definitely in it-hurts-to-lose-them territory. Paddington: A kids movie, but splendid in every regard. Birdman: Baffling yet terrific. A lot of people will be annoyed that this doesn't make the list... But a man has to do what a man has to do... Ricki and the Flash: Excellent, affecting family comedy-drama beautifully directed by Jonathan Demme. Great script by Diablo Cody — I’m ready to forgive her for Jennifer’s Body. At last. I think.

 Macbeth: Visually striking version of Shakespeare's tragedy. This one almost makes it into the top list purely on the strength of Marion Cotillard's performance. She is stunning as Lady M. If I was handing out awards for best actress, she'd win hands-down. Legend: Another landmark lead performance with a terrific Tom Hardy as both Kray twins.  Ant-Man: Very funny, zany and inventive. The leaden Marvel continuity stuff was the only dull aspect. 

Far from the Madding Crowd: Very effective remake. Carey Mulligan is truly splendid. And Matthias Schoenaerts, who played the psychotic hood in The Drop last year (another dog movie!) is again excellent. Spectre: the new Bond just misses out because it wasn't quite as good as Skyfall.

All right, wake up at the back of the classroom, we finally arrive at the top-films-of-the-year list... 

No Escape: Under this anodyne title lurks a modern classic. Owen Wilson's family is caught up in a terrorist uprising in South East Asia. Utterly gripping, incredibly suspenseful and entirely effective. Piers Brosnan is tremendous, though he’s given a rather clunky speech near the end.

Woman in Gold: Concerning the recovery of the Klimt painting stolen by the Nazis, this is really engrossing. Helen Mirren is terrific. Ryan Reynolds, so often bland, is startlingly good. Produced by Kris Thykier. 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation: Hands down the best film in the franchise so far. But for one rubber-mask reveal, it would have been perfect in its own Mission: Impossible way. It also has the finest soundtrack music of the year, thanks to the immensely talented Joe Kraemer.

A Most Violent Year: A tense and suspenseful Sidney Lumet-style crime pic set in 1970s New York. The awe-inspiring Oscar Isaac strikes again. Survivor: A gem of a movie: a first class, nail-biting spy thriller set in London — and vastly better than Spooks, a similar tale which came out at the same time.

The Martian has to be included because it's Ridley Scott's finest movie since his wonderful, early days. A worthy adaptation of Andy Weir's masterpiece of a novel.

Kingsman: Like I said, a great year for spy movies. This is rude, intensely violent, hilarious, and exhilarating. Knock Knock: Keanu again, as a married man victimise by hotties. Terribly powerful and distressing. Black Hat: Excellent and criminally under-rated computer-hacker thriller. Wei Tang is very touching. I loved the sequences of electrons scurrying along a microchip like rats under the floorboards.

Okay, folks, we're heading for the Top Five. But just before we get there, a tip of the hat to Bridge of Spies: Absolutely wonderful. Great script. And it's Spielberg’s best since Schindler’s List.
 

Right, into the Top Five we go, with The Salvation: A fabulous Danish Spaghetti Western shot in South Africa. Mads Mikkelsen is perfect as a Spaghetti Western hero. The photography is perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. A classic. Man from UNCLE: I loved it — one of the finest films of the year. I loved every moment of it, except for Solo’s sandwich. The bread wasn’t convincing.

Very near the top is the welcome return of the Road Warrior in  Mad Max: Fury Road: Absolutely dazzling. Charlize Theron with a shaved head, Brendan McCarthy's car designs, ravishing photography, breathtaking stunts. What's not to love?

Top Three time. Is the suspense killing you? Okay, at Number Three we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Apart from the rather dud title (a tradition through most of the series) this was simply majestic. I loved every minute of it.

It was a hard-fought battle for the top spot. I was seriously tempted to give the honour to Steve Jobs with its exquisite Aaron Sorkin script, fine direction from Danny Boyle and a riveting performance (in a top ensemble) by Michael Fassbender. The other day I had to chose between seeing Brooklyn for the first time and Steve Jobs for the fifth time. Guess which won?

But in the end, the title of Film of the Year goes to Sicario with its fascinating and impressive script by Taylor Sheridan, bruising, brilliant direction by Denis Villeneuve, a menacing and moody score by Jóhann Jóhannsson and a stellar cast led by the unsurpassable Emily Blunt. And fine behind-the-scenes interviews by Celeste Bronfman-Nadas. If you haven't seen Sicario, go and see it. Now.

(Image credits: all the posters are from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Revenant by Smith & Iñárritu

A revenant is essentially a ghost and the film The Revenant tells the tale of Leonard Dicaprio as a frontiersman, Hugh Glass, who virtually returns from the dead. It is directed by Chilean prodigy Alejandro Iñárritu (who last gave us the weird, wonderful and unforgettable Birdman). And it looks to be a major critical and commercial success.

The Revenant goes on for two and half hours but it is really only about half a movie. The scant narrative badly needs some kind of major subplot to bulk it up and provide contrast, but there is none. Consequently this film just keeps hammering away at the same nail and, despite all its mayhem, becomes monotonous, dull and repetitive.

It is a tale of survival and, ultimately, revenge. But after the spectacular opening, which features a fearsomely effective battle sequence, it is clear where the movie is going and the story remains linear, predictable and finally tedious. 

There are no surprises, no variety, nothing to relieve the relentless singlemindedness. The result is a gruelling ordeal instead of an exciting adventure. After 150 minutes, the viewer is simply left weary.

This is despite an impressive cast full of fascinating faces, with Tom Hardy as a really memorably nasty villain. And Iñárritu is a director of almost crazed brilliance and originality — there's a stunning dream sequence in which Glass sees his murdered wife dying before him and her soul leaves her body in the form of a tiny bird taking wing.

There's also ravishingly beautiful location photography, mostly shot in the wilds of Canada, using only natural light and, unusually, filmed in story order. Extreme weather often made it a very tough shoot ("Every day was like a bear attack," says Iñárritu.) But the splendour of nature eventually palls. (Did I mention it's two and a half hours?) Plus there's ample animal cruelty on display — hardly surprising, given the setting and period. In this respect the movie is sort of a companion piece to In the Heart of the Sea.

I also disliked the ludicrously modern dialogue here. There's lots of this, but the thing that bugged me the most was the constant reference to the characters' weapons as "rifles". In fact, I think these are smooth bore muskets — whereas a rifle has a helical groove in the muzzle, called rifling, which improves accuracy. Anyway, the dialogue seems wrong and phony.

There's quite a lot of subtitles in the film, translating French and Pawnee, but where they are really needed is for a lot of Tom Hardy's lines in English, which are often incomprehensible, thanks to the silly accent he's affecting.

The film is based "in part" on a novel by Michael Punke, which in turn was inspired by real events (Hugh Glass did exist, had a fascinating life, and there's more than one book about him). The script is by Mark L. Smith (who wrote The Hole, directed by Joe Dante) in collaboration with Iñárritu .

But if you want to see this sort of film done right, watch Jeremiah Johnson, with a script by John Milius and Edward Anhalt. That's a properly crafted film, well written, and provides a satisfying and entertaining experience for the audience. It also actually does have rifles.

(Image credits: Surprisingly, only three posters at Imp Awards. The striking book cover is from Good Reads.)


Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Force Awakens by Kasdan & Abrams and Arndt

My favourite Star Wars movie has always been The Emperor Strikes Back, largely thanks to a dazzling script by Lawrence Kasdan (based on an earlier draft by the late Leigh Brackett, a distinguished female science fiction novelist and screenwriter). 

Kasdan is also responsible for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat and Grand Canyon. It is wonderful news to report that he is back on the new Star Wars flick.

And what a flick it is. It's such a great film that I think it has actually supplanted The Empire Strikes Back in my estimation as the best of Star Wars. 

I've now seen The Force Awakens more than once, and it is particularly remarkable in that it's almost as enjoyable on repeated viewings. There is very little dip in the pleasure of watching it, despite knowing what will happen next.

I attribute this to an amazingly well crafted script in which something interesting, unexpected or gratifying is always taking place, each new scene smoothly replacing the old one. 

I guess this might also have been an attribute of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the film I'm really reminded of is Chinatown (written by Robert Towne) in which I felt every scene was great.

Kasdan has co-written The Force Awakens with director J.J. Abrams, who has also done a wonderful job on shooting the movie. They were working from an earlier draft by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3). And of course the characters were created by George Lucas.

Much credit must also be given to an amazingly good cast, newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in particular. It's very much to the film's credit that so much of it concerns women and black people — two kinds of human being who seemed to be virtually off George Lucas's radar.

Brits actress Daisy Ridley is especially magnificent. She comes close to carrying the movie single-handed. Which is why it's so invidious that in the flood of toys and merchandise exploiting the film, there are virtually none featuring her character Rey. Sexism is alive and well, folks. (Though business acumen seems to be stone dead — people could make a vast fortune selling Rey stuff.)

I had always defended George Lucas's three prequels (Phantom Menace and whatever the hell the other two were called — "Sith"-something and Something-or-other "Clones"). But I'm afraid those days are over. The Force Awakens is such a good movie it shows up how wretchedly mediocre those earlier efforts were.

One last thing — I am generally not a fan of 3D, but this film actually looks pretty good in that format. And it isn't even true 3D; the movie was shot in 2D and retrofitted. So, go figure...

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards where, not surprisingly, there were particularly rich pickings.)

Sunday, 10 January 2016

In the Heart of the Sea by Leavitt, Jaffa & Silver

Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, thanks to their stunning work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, are among my most admired screenwriters. 

When their scripts have been rewritten by other hands, however, the results have not always been so stellar. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was fine, thank heavens. But elsewhere some vital spark was lost, to say the least.

Jurassic World was one such rewrite of a Jaffa & Silver script and, despite it being a huge hit, I thought it was weak and unsatisfactory. 

In the Heart of the Sea is another script of theirs which has been considerably rewritten and it's a complete stinker, so much so that I was startled to see their names come up at the end. The bulk of the writing credit (or possibly blame) goes to Charles Leavitt, who had previously done such excellent work on Blood Diamond.

In the Heart of the Sea tells the true (-ish) story of the ill-fated Nantucket whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820 (go, whales!). The incident provided the inspiration for Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby Dick — you may have heard of it.

The gimmick for the movie is that the ship's adventure, if you can call it that, is framed by Melville (Ben Whishaw) hearing the story from an old salt (Brendan Gleeson) who was on the Essex when he was a kid.

The film gets in trouble immediately with an introductory voice-over by Melville talking about the "global demand" for whale oil. People in 1820 simply didn't say things like "global demand". I personally would  have used some phrase like "a thirst by all nations."

Worse is to come, though. As the Essex sets sail a priest on the dock gives a sermon where he talks about our species "evolving." No, really. Need I point out that Darwin's Origin of the Species, which introduced such concepts, wasn't published until 1859? And even then, the last place you'd be likely to find them was in the mouth of a Nantucket preacher.

But the really fundamental problem with In the Heart of the Sea is that its creators don't seem to realise that making a movie with whalers as heroes is like making one with child-killers as heroes. The audience's sympathy lies emphatically with the poor, slaughtered cetaceans.

The ships crew are a pretty unsympathetic and feebly sketched lot, anyway. Cillian Murphy's character Matthew Joy is clearly supposed to be having a battle with alcoholism, but this just gets muddled and forgotten about (and that bottle he steals — doesn't it change colour from red to blue? Continuity, please).

The conflict between the first mate Chris Hemsworth and the captain Benjamin Walker is somewhat more successful. But really the only effective thing in the movie is Gleeson's painful (and cathartic) confession of an act of cannibalism. This I attribute to the Jaffa & Silver draft of the script.

In the Heart of the Sea is a dog. A sea dog. Some nice 3D, though.

(Image credits: The movie posters are from Imp Awards, as usual.)

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

One of Steve Jobs's (many) idiosyncrasies was his fondness for talking to someone while taking a long walk with them. This makes him an ideal subject for a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, who ever since the days of The West Wing has been famed for having his characters talk while they walk.

The Steve Jobs film with an Aaron Sorkin script and directed by Danny Boyle is one of the finest movies of the year. I enjoyed it so much, and was so fascinated by the picture of Jobs it evoked, that I sought out the biography, written by Walter Isaacson, which it was based on.

The book proved to be an addictive and compelling read, and full of surprises. I didn't know Apple created the first successful home computer and indeed, if they'd played their cards right they could have continued to dominate the market and never let IBM/Microsoft get a foothold. 

I did know that the wonderful user-friendly Macintosh interface, which changed the world, was directly derived from work already done at Xerox PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center). But Apple, driven relentlessly by Jobs, improved it enormously. The original Xerox mouse was a clumsy, complicated and expensive artefact. Jobs streamlined it brilliantly.

But Jobs was disingenuous — to say the least — to accuse Bill Gates of ripping him off when Microsoft introduced Windows (a coarse and clumsy copy of Macintosh). Gates himself was surprisingly witty on the subject: 'Well, Steve, I think there's more than one way of looking at it. I think it's more like we had this rich neighbour named Xerox and I broke into the house to steal the TV set and found that you had already stolen it."

However, this is just about the last point Gates can be said to score. It’s hilarious to read how he completely get it wrong every time he predicts disaster after an Apple product launch and instead sees his company relentlessly ground into the dirt by each magnificent innovation from his rival: the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad — every one  a brainchild of the fascinating, exasperating, exceptional human being who was Steve Jobs.  
In fact, 'exasperating' doesn't begin to describe it: "He refused such trappings as having a 'Reserved for CEO' spot, but he assumed for himself the right to park in the handicapped spaces."

Nevertheless, the man was a genius, not only driving the creation of some of the most stunningly designed — and effective — technological products of our time, but he also seemed to be able to anticipate the future. He correctly predicted that the iPod would be wiped out if they weren't careful: "The device that can eat our lunch is the cell phone,” he said.


So he set about conquering the cell phone market.
 

Jobs remained cantankerous right up to the end, when he was knocking on death’s door. Lying on a hospital bed “the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked.”

Now I want to see that movie again.
 
(Image credits: The standard cover shot with the black and white photo by Albert Watson is from Wikipedia. The variant, more smiley cover, also by Watson, is from Simon & Schuster. The Time magazine cover is from Fortune. The Norman Seef black and white head shot, used on a Rolling Stone cover, is from iPhone Savior. The front and back cover shot is from iMore.)

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Susan Slept Here by Alex Gottleib and Steve Fisher

Perhaps, like me, you have a favourite Christmas movie which you enjoy watching every year as part of the festive ritual. In my case it's a brilliant, but little known 1954 comedy called Susan Slept Here. I first caught it on TV, was captivated, and kept a treasured VHS copy for years until a very welcome Warner Archive Collection DVD supplanted it in my collection.

This delightful comic gem tells the tale of a grizzled screenwriter called Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) who ends up entangled with a female juvenile delinquent called Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) — some cops who are friends of Mark's have picked her up for coshing a sailor with a beer bottle. Recalling that Mark wanted to research a movie about teenage delinquency, they hook up the two of them.

Hook up indeed. The unlikeliest of romance blossoms, with some nimble plotting, hilarious situations and classic dialogue. ("These gentlemen are from the Vice Squad." "How nice! My favourite squad.")

The film is written by Alex Gottleib, based on a stage play he co-wrote with Steve Fisher. 

Gottleib is a vintage Hollywood pro with a long string of movie and TV credits stretching from 1938 to 1969, including contributions to the screwball classic Hellzapoppin. He seemed to specialise in Westerns, as did Steve Fisher — another Hollywood pro with an even longer string of credits, which interestingly embraces Peter Gunn, The Wild Wild West and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

These seasoned screenwriter achieve a virtuoso tap-dance in their plotting, managing to pair off the thirty-something screenwriter and underage (17 year old) hoodlum and eventually get them happily married without breaking the law or offending even the most delicate of audiences.

Debbie Reynolds is fresh and fetching and proves to be a comedienne of genius. And Anne Francis is smoking hot as the female Baxter. 

(A "Baxter" is a screenwriting term for the character in a romantic comedy who is a —temporary — barrier to the hero and heroine finally getting together.)

The film is directed by Frank Tashlin, a comic maestro who started out making Warner Bros. cartoons before he graduated to live action comedy features starring the likes of Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and Doris Day. 

Tashlin is a recognised titan of the genre and his background in animation shows clearly in the beautifully orchestrated physical slapstick of Susan Slept Here and its terrific, surreal Technicolor dream sequence which wouldn't be out of place in a Powell-Pressburger movie.

The animation connection is also evident in the movie's gorgeous, garish 1950s colour palette. The cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca, better known for his black and white work on film noir, of all things. 

I just love this film. Check it out — at Christmas, or any time — I hope you'll love it, too.

(Image credits: The 'girl about 18' poster is from Wikipedia. 'Who's been sleeping in my bed' (blue and horizontal) is from We Are Movie Geeks — an interesting article about the top 15 non-traditional Christmas movies. The red DVD cover — which looks like a bootleg to me — is from Amazon. The official Warner Archive DVD cover is also from Amazon. It's an excellent transfer, and I recommend it highly. The blue sheet music is from Flick River. The head shot of platinum blonde Anne Francis — confusingly, dressed like Susan here in an attempt to lure Mark back — is from DVD Savant, who have an excellent review of the DVD. The head shot of red haired Debbie Reynolds is from Warner Archive on Tumblr. )

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan

Created by former X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad is one of the most audacious TV dramas ever conceived

It has now soaked deeply into our culture (you can buy Heisenberg tee-shirts and fridge magnets) and the view of it as a masterpiece of television has become such a widespread cliché that I'd begun to somewhat look down my nose at this show, and discount it. 

However, that opinion was challenged when I finally caught up with the final season

In preparation for this climactic binge, I backed up and watched the preceding series, Season 4, which gave me a chance to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of this excellent — indeed, great — television drama.

In case you're not aware of the story of Breaking Bad, it's about a good and decent man, a high school chemistry teacher called Walter White (the great Bryan Cranston) who is forced to become corrupt and turn to crime. That is what the title means. Walter White's gradual transformation from a bumbling, apologetic victim of fate to a full blown evil villain is the great joy of the show.

Unfortunately it is undermined by the unending whining and wallowing in regret of Walter's wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his chief accomplice Jesse (Aaron Paul). The viewer gets so sick of this that one begins to long for the good old compliant mob spouse and unquestioning sidekick.

The other flaw in the show is that some of the hero's stratagems are just too wildly elaborate. You'd have to be god or the devil to anticipate that they'd play out exactly the way they do. I won't give any spoilers here, but I'm talking about what we'll call the "Lily of the Valley" subplot. Worse yet, this wildly implausible subplot resurfaces in the final season as a ludicrously unlikely trigger to create a falling out between Walter and Jesse. It's just so contrived it could never happen.

Worse yet is the way Walter finally falls under suspicion with his DEA brother in law Hank (Dean Norris). I just couldn't believe that a man as clever and careful as our hero would leave an incriminating piece of evidence like that lying around.

But those considerations aside...

The final season of Breaking Bad is a joy. It is set up wonderfully by the deeply satisfying climax of Season 4 where Walter finally deals with the satanic Gus Fring. That was hard to top, but the show manages it by introducing some terrific new characters, notably the wonderful Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) and the astonishing Todd (Jesse Plemons, who was also excellent in the recent film Bridge of Spies).

Highlights of the final season include an amazing train robbery, a bravura and bloodthirsty sequence eliminating witnesses, a dazzling meth-cooking setpiece featuring the song 'On a Clear Day You Can See Forever' by the British jazz trio the Peddlers (you can watch it, and listen to it, here) and the final apocalyptic reckoning between Walter and those who have wronged him.
 
Unforgettable.

Still, I don't think that Breaking Bad is, as many claim, the greatest television show of all time. For my money that title currently goes to Game of Thrones.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)