Mike’s Been Watching…
DIR: Brian Robbins
In the wake of The Blind Side (2009) and on the eve of Moneyball (2011), sports movies are hot property right now, so it’s about time we started revising their history. My vote for the most underrated – alongside Breaking Away (1979) and Downhill Racer (1969) – is Hardball, an uplifting treat which follows a young basketball team from Chicago’s Projects and their down-and-out gambling addicted coach, Conor O’Neill (Keanu Reeves), who’s only helping them train to earn money for his debts. Clichéd it may be, and the final twenty minutes slip into unfortunate sentiment, but this is a genuinely charming little flick, featuring one of Reeves’ best screen performances. I first saw Hardball when I was twelve, maybe thirteen, and I’ve been resisting the temptation to revisit, because I found the film incredibly powerful back then. I’m glad I caved in, as it holds up surprisingly well. This is mainly because the chemistry between the kids is fantastic and we always believe in where they’re from. They’re really down-to-earth and each character has a fully rounded personality, as well as a surprising amount of depth, created by the individual actors. There’s also a great sense of Conor’s desperation and the film doesn’t shy away from his emotional reality – our introduction to the character is a scene in which he beats himself up outside a pub, holding up a bloodied fist as proof that self-inflicted pain has more resonance than anything the debt collectors could inflict, who all want to put him in hospital. It’s a shame about the ending, but Hardball is still a hugely enjoyable sports flick which deserves to find its way above the radar, if for no other reason than to prove how great Reeves can be.
Oren’s Been Watching…
DIR: Gore Verbinski
I had heard from friends and read reviews that stated that this film was pretty crazy when it came out, and yet, for some reason I never got around to seeing it in theaters. Well, I finally got around to it now, and boy was I in for a treat. This is quite possible one of the more demented animated films I’ve ever seen. How any child could take pleasure in this film I have no idea, but it really is a treasure trove for astute adult viewers. Essentially, it is a revisionist Western but with talking animated animals, taking themes and visual cues mainly from films such as Chinatown and A Fistful of Dollars, via two previous films of Johnny Depp’s: Dead Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It also benefits from the titular character’s apparent self-awareness that he is playing a character, and the necessity for certain story beats that he constantly narrates, breaking the fourth wall. The film is enjoyable enough without having seen these films, but I definitely feel that, having seen them, the movie offered so much more, in the cleverness of its parody. Depp is absolutely hilarious, even in voice-only mode; his tics and mannerisms translate beautifully onto the wacky character he is voicing. In general, the film boasts an impressive voice cast, all of whom do their best to really sell the film’s demented mish-mash of genres and conventions. The movie is also beautifully animated courtesy of ILM – their first animated feature – and everything from the textures to the lighting is absolutely gorgeous, and surprisingly unorthodox and daring for an animated film. It’s not the perfect film: it’s overlong and has a lot of padding, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’re into a wacky animated film quite unlike any you’ve seen before.
DIR: Olivier Assayas
An affectionate and beautifully realistic portrait of adult siblings coping with the death of their matriarch, and all of the various emotions and thoughts – both internal and external – that they and their respective families go through in the wake of this tragic event. Through this relatively simple and low-key story, the film explores themes of growing apart, re-considering the past, looking back on childhood memories and what they mean to them, and looking to the future generations – their children – that will follow in their footsteps and in turn inherit the legacy from their parents.. In a broader sense, the film offers a really interesting, resonant and poignant exploration of grander themes including the sentimental value we assign to objects and property, and the notion of history, belonging, and legacy through the things that we own. It’s a simple, low-key but extremely effective film, anchored by fantastically naturalistic performances from the entire cast. In the end, this film really proves the power of cinema to evoke really deep emotions, themes and textures even in simpler settings and without having to resolve to painfully heavy or dark subject matter.
Sam’s Been Watching…
DIR: Tobe Hooper
The story is simple; a family (parents Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams and their three children aged 16, 8 and 5) are menaced by a ghostly presence which first appears to their young daughter Carol-Ann (the late Heather O’Rourke) through their television, and then, in an attack on the house, spirits Carol-Ann away to a spiritual realm, forcing her parents to employ a medium (Zelda Rubenstein) to get her back.
Though Tobe Hooper is credited, the actual assignment of a directorial credit to Poltergeist has long been controversial. I suspect that it should belong to co-writer and producer Steven Spielberg, as this is almost as purely Spielbergian a film as I have ever seen. It’s present in the way the focus is, for the most part, less on the special effects than it is on the family, who are all impressively rounded, with character development handled swiftly but effectively in the film’s opening half hour, but you also feel Spielberg’s presence in many of the shots, which often reflect his signature style (one shot, of a door with a light glowing from behind it, is almost the quintessential Spielberg shot). Whoever directed it though, Poltergeist is a fine film.
The mix of comedy (in the more character based opening) and scares works well, and the film never uses the later effects sequences (all of which are brilliantly realised for their time) as a substitute for character beats. More than that though, I really bought into the family. The actors all do a sterling job, with Nelson and Williams convincing as a couple who have been happily married for some time and the remarkable Heather O’Rourke (who died tragically, aged 12, just after finishing Poltergeist 3) giving a really resonant performance as Carol-Ann. Also notable is Zelda Rubinstein; a calming influence in a film that, at the time of her appearance, is really kicking into high gear.
Though it’s not really truly scary, Poltergeist does have several great spook sequences; some are atmospheric (notably the film’s outstanding opening, which relies entirely on Heather O’Rourke’s performance to get under your skin right from the off) and others are more full on (the shockingly gory for a 15 certificate sequence in which a paranormal investigator peels his own skin off), but all of them work in and of themselves.
The only major issue with Poltergeist comes at the end, when it indulges, for no real reason, in a second special effects heavy climax. It simply doesn’t need those ten minutes, but I can forgive that, given how much fun the foregoing 100 minutes are.
DIR: Asghar Farhadi
This Iranian film seems on the surface to be simply about a divorcing couple whose separation creates an impossible situation for the Husband, eventually leading to his facing a possibly spurious murder charge, but it ends up being about much more than that. There are layers here – which other viewers will understand far better than I was able to – about Iranian politics; Iranian attitudes to old people, to marriage, to family life; Iranian justice and changing ways of life in the Muslim world. At heart though, Asghar Farhadi’s Golden Bear winner is a piece of kitchen sink Hitchcock; a dramatic mystery in which more is revealed with every passing scene and another secret slaps you in the face time and again.
The performances are exemplary (and award winning, the male and female ensembles shared the best actor and actress prizes at the Berlin Film Festival). There are two central families, both fractious. As the divorcing Nader and Simin, Peimna Ma’adi and Leila Hatami give brilliant performances which make us feel every instant of their history, every ounce of love felt and lost between them. Neither is painted as a villain in their problems, and that’s greatly to the film’s benefit, because keeping all sides to some degree sympathetic is a key ingredient for later in the film. When Simin leave him, Nader has to hire nurse to help him and his 11 year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, excellent) care for his alzheimers stricken Father. One day Nader returns to find the nurse (Razieh, played by Sareh Bayat) gone and his Father tied to the bed, when Razieh returns they argue, and Nader pushes her out of the house. A few days later he is arrested for killing Razieh’s unborn child.
This is where the film becomes really Hitchcockian, where lies and uncertainties begin to pile up, where events are different seen or heard from two different angles. Farhadi does a brilliant job of juggling your sympathies, and keeping the cards that hold the revelations close to his chest. Like Hitchcock’s films this is a thriller that often works at a deeply personal level (though Farhadi’s work is less ostentatious in terms of his use of camera, which enhances this impression). The courtroom scenes, in which accused and accuser are able to confront each other and offer evidence in front of a judge, are tense exercises, shot almost entirely in claustrophobic close up, and rife with an atmosphere that bleeds tension thanks to the seriousness of the accusations and the fraying of tempers on all sides (especially that of Razieh’s Husband, played by Shahab Hosseini).
The final resolution of the case is a real punch to the gut, and though it is indicated it still took me very much by surprise. But what really sticks in the mind is what goes unresolved; ultimately the answer to the film’s most important question; what happens to Nader and Simin’s family now? Farhadi lets that thread dangle, and closes his film with a moment of incredibly powerful uncertainty. A Separation is one of the year’s best films, and highly recommended if you enjoy world cinema.