Wednesday, 30 December 2009

[284] Wild Tyme's Films of 2009, part two

And now to conclude my 'Films of the Year 2009' retrospective. In the second half of the year, my viewing was a little more varied, resulting in fewer entries below that were reviewed for Den of Geek or any other outlet. So a number of the entries below are on films I have not written about before - so read away! Here's to a similarly consistent, quality-filled 2010.





The Class / Entre Les Murs

A Palme d'Or winner at Cannes in 2008, I finally saw Entre les murs at the Prince Charles over the summer. Its depiction of high school education in inner-city Paris was potent and insightful, revealing the tight-rope that teachers have to walk as they work to inspire and inform their pupils in a job that is just as much about crowd control and diplomacy. The film's fly-on-the-wall style, and well-researched (and perfectly acted) qualities make it unmissable.





Moon

After a couple of years of cross-over geek films, it seemed that there would soon be little for sci-fi nuts to call their own. However, Moon is a great big science fiction film in a style that comes along too rarely. Subtle, quiet and full of pathos, it is a piece of work that requires little special effects, and few scares and thrills; it is all bound up in human emotions and experience, and is enhanced by the coldness and isolation of space. Sam Rockwell carries the film almost single-handedly (although Kevin Spacey's mysterious, ever-so-slightly camp vocal performance deserves notice too), and newcomer Duncan Jones shows he has intelligence, resourcefulness and talent in spades. A real gem.





Fantastic Mr. Fox (review)

October came and with it brought the London Film Festival. While I didn't get full accreditation (maybe next year), I was quite excited to attend in order to see two of the programme's three films featuring George Clooney. Fantastic Mr. Fox was the first, and was the slightly better film. Full of warmth and texture provided by its orange-brown hues and furry stop-motion animation, the real joy of the flick was its collision of plucky adventure and director Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach's New York, upper middle class, intellectual idiosyncrasies.





The Men Who Stare At Goats (review)

The Men Who Stare At Goats had more pronounced problems - mainly revolving around its fictionalised-non-fiction premise - but it was, like Fantastic Mr. Fox, an entertainingly light addition to the year's cinematic landscape. Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges let loose in their hippy-GI roles, providing plenty of inoffensive laughs and cheery barminess. At the time, I said it was 'to the end, a joyous, heartfelt film... Its tone is pitched just right, with each cheeky montage sequence, furrowed brow of concentration, or straight-faced citation of the paranormal hitting a sweet, comic note'.





Up

Up is a much better film than Wall-E, but both films suffer from the same problems. Again, this new Pixar film was greeted with hyperbole and praise, but all of its true, unconventional genius is crystallised in its opening act. That sequence, a life as musical montage, is a beautiful short film in its own right, showing that the creatives have perfected a graceful method of intertwining character, drama, and heart-string manipulation. The rest of the film is a ragged, slightly lop-sided adventure, full of quirky characters and mild peril. Crucially, however, it does not lose the plot like its predecessor; in fact, the proceedings are enriched by its bold opening, with the crotchety old man vitalised and shaped by his backstory. Indeed, the whole film dares to unfurl in the shadow of loss, mourning and the inevitability of aging. Yet it is never dragged down by morbidity; it blossoms with hope and energy. For that reason, it is special.





Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno

UK Distributor Park Circus had a stellar 2009, especially with their three releases in the Autumn-Winter period. Two were majestic reprints: The Red Shoes and The Godfather. The third film was an engrossing documentary, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, which told of a project where inspiration was scuppered by bad luck and over-indulgence. Splicing together interviews, recreations and, most importantly, astonishing experimental footage from the unfinished film project, Inferno was a real treat for cinephiles.





Men on the Bridge / Köprüdekiler

Köprüdekiler was the recipient of the London Turkish Film Festival's inaugural Golden Wings Award, and it was a worthy winner, portraying the bustling city of Istanbul from three street-level perspectives. This debut from director Asli Özge is a quiet, naturalistic piece that is miles away from the stylish fairytale of works like Issiz Adam; instead, it adopts a scope that feels like a Robert Altman film, shifting between the stories of a street hustler, a taxi driver and a lonely traffic cop - all of whom live and work in the shadow of Istanbul's Bosphorus Bridge - with the view of cooking up a rounded, insightful narrative. This is definitely one to watch out for once it receives a general release in the new year.





A Serious Man (review)

I was very surprised by A Serious Man, the latest film from the Coen Brothers. Deciding to work on a small budget, and train their sights on the Mid-West American Jewish society in which they grew up, they managed to craft something that features all of their hallmarks, and little of their flaws. And some of the best Jefferson Airplane fan service I have ever been privy to. I said in my Den of Geek review: 'A Serious Man is certainly one of [their] best works... Not only does the film have the off-kilter worldview, memorably expressive moments, and sharp dialogue of top-game Coens, it also has affecting depths of maturity and lyricism'.





On the Way to School

Shown at both the London Turkish and Kurdish Film Festivals, On the Way to School is similar to Entre les murs in its representation of education as the nexus of social tensions. It is a documentary of a Turkish trainee teacher's first placement - in an impoverished Kurdish village in the far east of the country. The tone is light, and there is much gentle humour teased out of this fish-out-of-water situation, as the teacher must handle the large classes and adjust to the community (the cast of cheeky children are a big help in this regard).

However, the film bubbles with a subtextual intensity, as the Kurdish children are forced to speak only Turkish in the class-room, are punished for speaking in their native language, and must recite the Turkish oath of citizenship every morning before school starts. With no narration and little to no authorial fingerprints, On the Way to School does not adopt a stance on these matters of enforced integration and culture suffocation, which will be frustrating for some, but these small insights give the film a harder, fascinating edge.





Ponyo / Gake no ue no Ponyo

How better to finish than with a film set for a 2010 release? I am quite a Studio Ghibli fanatic, so my anticipation for Ponyo was high. Nevertheless, it should speak volumes about the quality of 2009's animated films that the latest from Hayao Miyazaki is faced with strong competition. It is probably his most obviously flawed film, with an attempted mixture of a My Neighbour Totoro-like real-life fairy story and a Princess Mononoke/Howl's Moving Castle epic adventure plot not working so well. This is still a wonderful film, however, full of energy, inspiration and imagination.

My Den of Geek review is yet to be published, but I conclude with: 'nevertheless, the wonders of the film - its visual sense, its charming outlook, the striking score from Joe Hisaishi (which blends both wistful and Wagnerian Romanticism very well) - scream through the cultural-language barrier, making the dubbed version of Ponyo, for the most part, a beautiful, heartwarming piece that should bring a smile to anyone's face, regardless of age'.

Monday, 28 December 2009

[283] Wild Tyme's Films of 2009, part one

This year - I suppose I can say - I became a film critic. While I'm still not widely read, fully recognisable or seeing as many films as some more professional critics (those that easily break 300 a year), I am still watching more than I ever have, and consistently reviewing them in the process. Over the last twelve months, I have seen 59 flicks at the cinema (not far off twice as many as last year), and reviewed most of them for Den of Geek or Screenjabber. I'm hoping that this can only improve and progress as I develop and consolidate my career. Next year should be interesting, but here are the twenty films that made my 2009, in two parts.





Slumdog Millionaire

Technically a 2008 movie, but this was the first film I saw this year, at the Peckham Plex cinema with Nick 'Fox' Moran. I didn't review it at the time, but I remember scribbling pages of notes in my diary about it, raving about its energy, its humanity and its brilliant melding of emotion, fairytale and down-to-earth urbanism. It's a real classic, and probably Danny Boyle's best film; I prefer others of his - Millions, Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later especially - but his films often have one or two glaring mis-steps or slips. Slumdog Millionaire, more than any film this year, really pulsed with life and love.





Vicky Cristina Barcelona (review)

I remember having my haircut before the Vicky Cristina Barcelona screening, not knowing what to expect. It was my first press screening, and I was quite surprised by the welcoming, down-beat atmosphere of the Soho Screening Rooms. I was more surprised by the film, though, probably Woody's best since the early '90s (certainly of those I've seen). It is understated, casual and without some of the grand ideas and concepts of his better recent films (Deconstructing Harry, Everyone Says I Love You, Celebrity, Melinda & Melinda), but this does not hold it back from being a keeper.

I reviewed it for Den of Geek, and said it was a 'novella film'; something character-driven, small-scale and centered on relationships and interaction. The writing is sharp and complex, but the airy Spanish setting, and the consistently strong performances from the cast (Penelope Cruz especially) gives it more definition. Woody is already working on his next film in line - with Whatever Works already done, dusted and released in the majority of the world, and another London project in the post-production stage - but this is one worth going back to.





The Wrestler

Again, I didn't review The Wrestler, but this was an affecting film. Like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this film saw a uniquely talented left-of-centre director making their most mainstream, star-oriented film - but unlike Button, The Wrestler is a bloody, heart-wrenching triumph. Mickey Rourke's performance is unbearable to watch, for all the right reasons, and the story of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson bleeds emotional energy out of the most unlikely sources, without much of the manipulation and crassness of many 'weepies'. I could have done without the subplot involving Evan Rachel Wood's daughter character but, for the most part, The Wrestler is a fitting, if stylistically more realistic, sequel to Requiem For A Dream's gut-wrenching, cathartic drama.





Watchmen (review 1, review 2)

Watchmen is a weird, stylish, ugly, inspired, flawed monster of a movie. I wrote about it twice: once up against it, writing to a tight embargo for its theatrical release; and secondly in a more reflective mode, sizing it up as a DVD release. It was my first big review for Den of Geek, and the first press junket I covered.





Let the Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (review)

When pushed, I placed this at the top of my list for Den of Geek's films of the year article.
Låt den rätte komma in is fabulous, moving and surprising, and at the time I said it was 'inventive, moving and disturbing -- all with a subtle touch'. I can't really make much of an advance on my original Den of Geek review, so it is best to check that out here.





Coraline (review)

I am currently in Manchester, and at arm's length from my signed copy of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. When he came to Manchester years ago, I was unable to attend his reading-signing; I finally rectified that mix-up last Halloween, but imagine my surprise when I had the opportunity to interview not only Gaiman, but the superb stop-motion animation director Henry Selick (the man behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, a favourite of mine) for the film's release. That was a huge moment for me this year, and I don't know if I can think of many interview subjects that can top them. It also helped that the film was fantastic, retaining the mystery, imagination and tone of the novella, while bringing a seemingly endless supply of fantastical flourishes and production pizazz to the piece.





Che (The Argentine and Guerilla)

In a bid to go to the cinema more often as a paying customer (something that crashed completely this year), I became a member of London's Prince Charles Cinema, a great little picture house just off Leicester Square. While I still haven't really exploited my membership to its fullest capabilities, I still went along to see a few good flicks there. The first was a superb double bill of Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che Guevara biopic. Unconventional, complex and radical, it's no surprise that it didn't fully recoup its budget from exhibition.

I ended up reviewing the DVD releases of both films for Den of Geek, in which I said: 'While both Che films add up to an often baggy, uncompromising 4-and-a-half-hour epic, their quality lies in their ambition and duality. Furthermore, they break the mould by refusing to rein in history, subjugating it to the medium of cinema. Instead, characters, events and context spill out from all directions, inciting the viewer to explore the period on their own after the film ends. As a whole, they present a kind of political, biographical film that manages to inspire interest without resorting to crass polemicism or Hollywood sugar-coating'.





Chevolution (review)

The middle of 2009 was full of Che, as I went from reviewing Soderbergh's film to seeing Chevolution, a fantastic documentary about the revolutionary and his pop-cultural legacy, told through the history of the famous
Guerrillero Heroico portrait. It was a real feast of a film, full of information and insight, playing well to the strengths of its form in the way that Soderbergh did with his film.

I said in my review for Screenjabber, where I also interviewed co-director Trisha Ziff: 'this means that, after the film, propelled by its rock music soundtrack, has washed over you, it reveals itself, in retrospect, to be a wonderfully dense documentary - its 86 minutes tightly packed with a wealth of political, historical, artistic and sociological information. That it does this while still allowing room for complexity, conflict and ambiguity, is testament to the great talent that has gone into its creation'.





Broken Embraces / Los abrazos rotos (review)

One of the near-misses of 2009, I found it quite strange that Pedro Almodovar's Los abrazos rotos was greeted by surprisingly lukewarm reviews, and gained little recognition in many of the end-of-year features I have read so far. I thought it was wonderful: buoyant and cheeky in its colourful, melodramatic take on noir, with eye-pleasing, strong performances across the board.





Harry Brown (review)

This is still a complicated one for me, because the film's frustrating politics are either naive or reactionary - meaning that I can't recommend Harry Brown lightly. That is a real shame, because it features a great central performance from Michael Caine, and Daniel Barber cooks up an interesting tapestry of a world for his debut film. But, unlike other complicated reactions from this year (Public Enemies, Inglourious Basterds, Avatar), I think that Harry Brown deserves support, if only so that its successes can be appreciated.



Tune in again soon for the second part of my Films of 2009...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

[282] Paper Science

Now this is a perfect little small press-themed stocking filler, if I ever saw one!





Paper Science is a tasty, twelve-page morsel from the dream merchants at We Are Words + Pictures. Working in collaboration with The Newspaper Club, editor Matthew Sheret et al have put together a nice periodical-shaped sampler, showing off - in their words - 'some of the wonderful things our friends are doing'. This includes photography and prose, creative writing and comics from the likes of Julia Scheele, Katie West, Lizz Lunney and Adam Cadwell (whose contribution is a lovely, tight one-pager called 'Spilt Soda').





And there's more: stories and mini-essays, and an extract from Dan Hancox and Tom Humberstone's My Fellow Americans project. There's also an interview with the irreplaceable Marc Ellerby, and a full page dedicated to Matt Jones' 'Get Excited and Make Things' poster. Fitting, really, as Paper Science drips with infectious enthusiasm and excitement.





It's only a pound, and is creativity in its purest form. A perfect companion to the Solipsistic Pop anthology (which I gushed about here) - luckily, it is being bundled with online orders of that slice of joy. Otherwise, it can be purchased at OK Comics Leeds, Orbital Comics London, Page 45 Nottingham, or from We Are Words + Pictures market stalls in the future.

For more info, click here.

Monday, 21 December 2009

[281] Lynn Shelton Interview

And now that Humpday is out at the cinemas, I can gladly link again to the interview I conducted with director and writer Lynn Shelton. A kind, intelligent lady with a broad, infectious smile. Shelton was a great interview; I was especially happy to get her views on the American independent cinema scene, and was thrilled to chat with her about Stardust Memories, one of my favourite Woody Allen films. Check it out below.





As her latest film, Humpday, opens across the UK, Michael Leader speaks with Lynn Shelton, writer, director and producer of the 'bromantic comedy', starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as two best friends, who decide to film a porn film together on a 'mutual dare'. Shelton, recipient of the Someone to Watch Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Grand Jury Prize for Spirit of Independence at the Sundance Film Festival, gives us great insight into contemporary independent cinema, her influences, and the importance of both film festivals and digital distribution for filmmakers on a budget.


Read the full article here.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

[280] Humpday (2008) Review

As Humpday is now on release in the UK, here's a review I wrote a couple of months ago for Screenjabber.




A glance at the synopsis - hell, even the poster - of Humpday will send off 'bromance' alarms. Indeed, its high concept plot about the relationships between male friends is trite and badly timed, as it enters a marketplace over-stuffed with films with high concept plots about the relationships between male friends. But, with a sharply observant script, and a roughshod charm, it manages to be stirring and probing, as opposed to tepid or hackneyed.

Married early-30s couple Ben (Duplass) and Anna (Delmore) are trying for a baby, when into their lives barges Andrew (Leonard), Ben's old college buddy. A Kerouac-worshipping free spirit, Andrew manages, in no time, to hook up with a group of local bohemian artists and, after entangling Ben in their dope-and-drink-fuelled shenanigans, the duo make a hasty drunk-and-stoned pledge: that they would create an entry for an amateur porn film competition together.


Read the full article here.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

[279] Den of Geek's Film of the Year 2009

Den of Geek have just put up their collaborative Film of the Year article. I contributed my top 5, with my arm twisted behind my back. I will still be compiling my (unranked) films of the year later in the month; but, for the time being, here is my selection.




1. Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (review)
2. Coraline (review)
3. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (review)
4. Moon
5. A Serious Man (review)

This is a tough year to rank. I could easily fill a top 10 with films that are all very close in my estimation - so picking an ordered 5 is a particular form of punishment. For the purposes of this, and to make it easier, I've chopped out any films that technically belonged to 2008 (shout outs to Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Steven Soderbergh's Che), leaving a good five choices that were all given a general release in the last twelve months. Handily, I've reviewed four of my picks for this very site, and the other is no doubt on many others' lists, so I can be brief (and you can click away for more info, if you're so inclined).

Let The Right One In is a beguiling and revolutionary masterpiece, reinventing the supernatural genre just as Twilight is making it mainstream and dull. Coraline is, likewise, a great literary adaptation, twinning Neil Gaiman's tight, chilling children's book with the creative genius of Henry Selick; it also caps off one of the strongest years for animation that I have lived through - with Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Ponyo (general release in 2010, unfortunately) all deserving heaps of praise and regard. It's certainly going to be an interesting fight for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards early next year.

Already a (deserved) Oscar winner for the outstanding Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen's best film in a long while. It is a mix of his quirky, neurotic comedy moments, psycho-philosophical ruminations and dramatic character interactions that emerges as a perfect novella film, with brilliant performances all round. The appeal of Moon is rooted in Sam Rockwell's load-bearing, one-man turn - and deserves notice for that at the very least - but the whole film is a serious, atmospheric triumph. Speaking of serious, The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man may not be a crowd-pleaser, but it ties together their best traits - bold characters, sharp dialogue, moments of surreal barminess - and combines them with what is their richest narrative yet.


Read the full article, with other writers' picks and the tallied list here.

Friday, 18 December 2009

[278] Jon Landau Interview

Here concludes my coverage of the Avatar press junket, a roundtable interview with Jon Landau. He seemed like quite a warm, savvy gent. The group of us bumped into him in the corridor, after we were told to wait, and he just invited us into his room - and later told the PR that we'd started late, so we could throw in another question.



Avatar is out today, and we're capping off our coverage of last week's swanky Claridges-based press junket with an interview with producer Jon Landau. A charming, affable gent, Landau started his career producing films such as Dick Tracy and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, before first collaborating with James Cameron on True Lies. Subsequently, he jumped ship to work with Cameron on Titanic, a move that won him an enviable amount of awards.

In this roundtable session, the assembled, hard-nosed journos were intent on grilling Landau about Avatar's inflated budget, as well as the price of 3D exhibition, and the production's dealings with Fox, Murdoch and News Corporation.


Read the full article here.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

[277] Easy Rider (1969) Blu-ray Review

Easy Rider is one of my favourite films. It is one of those great confluences of cinematic art and popular culture, with such a rich backstory in terms of its countercultural leanings and its production anecdotes. I've written about it at great length before, in an essay I wrote back in Birmingham on the American counterculture of the 1960s, but I was glad to have the chance to write a more straight-up essay/review for Den of Geek. This is also my first Blu-ray review; I'm not sure I'll be doing many in the future, though, because my audio-visual set-up just isn't up to the task.




A friend of mine once called Easy Rider 'the most random film ever'; that is not a very good assessment. It is one of those early landmarks in what is called the New Hollywood movement in American cinema from the late 1960s onwards which have been superseded by more accomplished, accessible and - importantly - popular films from the 1970s. Nevertheless, it retains an integral place in the history of the art form, and its ambitions, intentions and perspective still ring true to the present day.

Case in point: with Easy Rider, the lunatics were in control of the asylum. Essentially a low-budget, independent style project, erstwhile actors Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, acting as director and producer respectively, developed the film with the funding of Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, the young industry boffins that had made big bucks by smuggling the counterculture into the mainstream with The Monkees. The two were given creative freedom to work on their idea: a motorcycle road movie with two enigmatic modern-day cowboys surveying post-Kennedy America.


Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

[276] Avatar Press Conference Report

And here's more material from the Avatar press junket, namely the over-stuffed press conference at Claridges.




Avatar is out this week, so we're stoking your anticipatory flames with material from last week's London-based press junket. Held in the ballroom of Claridges, it was all fittingly opulent for such a big, expensive film release. In attendance at the press conference were writer-director James Cameron, producer Jon Landau and cast members Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the questions were directed at Cameron - or Jim, as most overly-chummy journos were calling him - about his design inspirations for Avatar, his experiences working with Weaver again after 20 years, the implications of the VFX technology used on the film, and even giving some tantalising comments on the possibility of an Avatar sequel, or trilogy! Read on, true believers!


Read the full article here.

[275] Stephen Lang Interview

Here is some material from last week's Avatar press junket. To start with, an interview with actor Stephen Lang.




Ahead of the much-anticipated release of Avatar next week, we had the chance to speak with Stephen Lang, who plays muscly-and-mean marine Colonel Quaritch.

Lang, who goes by the nickname 'slang', has already turned in two memorable performances this year, in Michael Mann's Public Enemies and the film adaptation of Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats. His larger-than-life appearance as Avatar's antagonist is the jewel of the bunch, capping off a great year for the stage actor, and current co-artistic director of the respected Actor's Studio. A precise, intriguing figure, in this roundtable interview we speak about his theatre and film careers, his fascination with the military, and the movie actors that have inspired him.


Read the full article here.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

[274] Avatar (2009) Review

I realise it's been a little quiet around here of late. I have a couple of reviews waiting to be published at Den of Geek, but otherwise I have been engaged with postgraduate work, or The Finnish Girl visiting. I have so much to tell you about; maybe I'll splurge it in the last couple of weeks of the year.

This week I went to see Avatar, and attended the press junket. The interview material will be up next week, but my review is up now, thanks to weakly upheld embargoes. Check it out below.





Okay, breathe. Avatar is easily one of the most anticipated films of the year - and rightly so. It is a technological marvel, and a return to sci-fi filmmaking from a director that many of the writers, editors and readers of this site consider to be some sort of Cinematic Father Figure - a peddler of pure, imaginative wonderstuff. With James Cameron involved, there is a hope that this will offer something more nourishing, something different from the blockbuster geek fare that we have seen of late. And that's certainly true. So with my spoiler hat firmly on, we're going to wrestle with this huge, beautiful, radiant beast called Avatar.


Read the full review here.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

[273] Disgrace (2008) Review

Starting off the month with a review for Den of Geek, of a film adaptation of a book I haven't read. I'm quite proud that, unlike the majority of my reviews for DoG, this got a comment(!), saying that the last line was a 'humdinger' (and another, less positive, one, which I will hopefully forget about soon enough). Check the review out below.




There have probably been enough column inches dedicated to film adaptations of literary classics to rival the word counts of War And Peace, Atlas Shrugged and Clarissa combined. And now, into the arena steps Disgrace, the silver screen version of the 1999 Booker Prize winning novel by Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee. Having not read the book, I'm entirely incapable of critiquing director Steve Jacobs and writer/producer Anna Maria Monticelli's efforts in this area, but even without a preconceived awareness of the property, it seems that something is missing.


Read the full article here.