Mike’s Been Watching…
ANYTHING FOR HER [Main Picture]
DIR: Fred Cavayé
This rampantly silly French thriller is frequently celebrated for its methodical realism, but life could never coast on the sort of movie cliché found in Anything For Her (Pour Elle), which, behind the veil of moody introspection and underplayed action, is about as high-concept as any Hollywood lobotomy *ahem* thriller. As far as rule of thumb is concerned I don’t have a problem with coincidence and luck appearing as plot devices in breakout thrillers, but it becomes a problem when the filmmaker is selling his suspense vehicle as something grounded in the ‘real world’. Cavayé is an incredibly gifted filmmaker, and one day he’ll make something truly great, but he needs to address tonal balance, which is somewhat haywire in his debut. Vincent Lindon is captivating in the role of Julien, but his transition from ordinary workaday teacher into hardened criminal (and let us not sugar coat this, for murder is murder) seems just as unbelievable as the transition in revenge thrillers like Death Sentence (2007), which at least embraced its genre roots. Of course, Anything For Her is a much more character-driven piece, and the film is beautifully shot and played. I can’t fault it on a technical level, nor a performance one, but it raised an interesting question, and one which I consider often: do we take films more seriously for being in a foreign language? The Next Three Days (2010), which is a remake of this film, proves just how good a filmmaker Cavayé is, as Haggis’ film protracts itself into an action-driven bore, but the idea is exactly the same. I think people do take Anything For Her more seriously for being in French, and having a translatable title which, when spoken aloud, makes them sound smarter. But it doesn’t make Pour Elle a better film.
DIR: Harmony Korine
I’m not a fan of Cape Town’s rap-rave collective Die Antwoord, but I am a fan of Californian provocateur Harmony Korine, and I’ll give anything a go with his name on it. This isn’t always the wisest decision, as Kids (1995, directed by Larry Clark) and Trash Humpers (2010) have proven, but his ugly/beautiful aesthetic, nihilistic landscapes and uncompromising eccentricity are unparalleled when they come together, à la Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). Umshini Wam proves to be something of an oddity on his CV (which, believe me, is zany enough to begin with), but it is a distinctly auteurist work, right down to the bright animal costumes worn by Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er. The title literally translates as “Bring Me My Machine Gun“, and certainly violence is a theme in this free-form tale of Die Antwoord’s central members, who roll around in wheelchairs rapping lyrics such as “I’m old enough to bleed, I’m old enough to breed, I’m old enough to crack a brick in your teeth while you sleep.” Yo-Landi sings these words in an attractively delicate whisper, however, so she may as well be rapping about butterflies and rainbows. The film is bound to antagonize some, and I found its high-pitched oddness frustrating at times, but there are also moments of poetic beauty, which pluck the surreal from the real to compelling effect. The hip-hop soundtrack is melded perfectly with a soft piano melody which underscores the action, set against an isolated wasteland. Our protagonists kill almost everyone they come across, but also ponder their dreams under the stars. I don’t really know what to make of the movie; I don’t even know if I like it. But fans of Korine and Antwoord would do well to check it out, as their creative fusion has birthed something indelibly unique.
Oren’s Been Watching…
DIR: Jean Pierre Jeunet
Many have labeled this a “return to form” for the illustrious and noteworthy French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and in many ways, they are right. However, this is a unique case in which, in my opinion, the form he is “returning” to is not quite as good as the form he is returning from. That is to say, while Delicatessen and City of Lost Children – and by extension, Micmacs – are wonderful, charming, funny, sinister, with a little touch of mischievous magic unique to European cinema. Micmacs is probably even sillier than Jeunet’s earlier films, but it certainly features the same signature visual flair and style – sweeping camera movements, canted angles, wide-angle lenses and highly saturated colors – that has come to be associated with Jeunet’s films. However, I really think Jeunet came into his own with his decidedly more complex and mature features Amelie and especially A Very Long Engagement, which I personally believe is one of the most beautiful, epic, touching, incredible romance films and one of the most underrated. On the one hand, it’s fun to see Jeunet go back to a more goofy style, like in his earlier films. And Micmacs is a very enjoyable film, and certainly quite a pleasure to look at. But it’s not quite at the same level as Amelie or A Very Long Engagement. And I’ve come to expect that level of quality from Jeunet of late.
DIR: JJ Abrams
J.J. Abrams is quickly making a name for himself as one of the great entertainers of our time. A director of high-concept, blockbuster fare who simply refuses to forfeit story and character for the sake of special effects and spectacle. Mission: Impossible III had its interesting moments but was marred by the silliness of the franchise it belonged to; but Abrams’ Star Trek reboot/prequel delivered all the goods and then some. Solid, character-driven stuff, featuring dynamic, exciting camerawork, thrilling set-pieces, and relying on practical effects and make-up, only using CGI when necessary. Super 8 is even more of a throwback to the entertainments of yesteryear. The trailer really gives off an E.T./Close Encounters of the Third Kind vibe, and I think it is very easy to mention this film in the same breath as those two classics. Although not directed by Spielberg, his presence is felt more than just through the Amblin Entertainment logo and his producer credit. With Super 8, Abrams has crafted a thrilling and enchanting homage to Spielberg, taking a high-concept science fiction story but building it around unique and compelling characters and their personal dramas. The sci-fi aspect is good, but the story of the kids and their emotional journey is at the center of this film. It is clear that, despite its high-concept framework, this is a very personal project for J.J. The film is simply dripping with nostalgia, reveling in the period details and especially in the low-budget Super 8 filmmaking techniques no doubt employed by J.J. himself when he was growing up in the 70’s. Featuring tremendous performance from a truly excellent cast of young actors, and great turns from the adults as well (without having to rely on big-name Hollywood stars to boot), this film is a testament that modern entertainment can still be emotionally engaging as well, and that one does not have to outweigh the other.
Sam’s Been Watching…
DIR: Alfred Hitchcock
Frenzy was Alfred Hitchcok’s penultimate film, and it’s generally regarded as the best of his post Birds work. That being the case I’m really not looking forward to seeing the rest of his late period films, because this, for me, was Hitchcock by numbers and, a couple of standout moments aside, could have been made by any number of less talented imitators.
It’s another of Hitch’s old favourite plots; the wrong man thriller, as an innocent man (Jon Finch) is pursued as the notorious necktie murderer. Unfortunately this time around it just doesn’t engage the way it did in North By Northwest, or The Wrong Man or, well, take your pick really. That’s largely because the characters feel underdeveloped and, with the best will in the world, Finch is no Cary Grant or Henry Fonda. Even Hitch’s old trick of letting us know who the real murderer is (Barry Foster) doesn’t really up the thrills because there’s no real insight into his motives, and the film as a whole is just surprisingly plodding.
The murder scenes are effective (the first is brutal, and a tracking shot away from the second is the film’s sole truly classic Hitchcock moment), there’s also an effective setpiece with Foster trapped in the back of a potato truck, desperately trying to recover evidence from the rigor mortis stricken hand of his latest victim, but even this lacks real suspense. Among the performances only Anna Massey really stands out (as a barmaid who is sleeping with Finch and comes into danger from Foster) with most of the rest of the acting feeling as perfuntory as the rest of the film.
Perhaps this film just finds Hitchcock out of his time (the increased violence compared to his other films feels like a half hearted nod to thriller trends), and by 1972 ‘the French Hitchcock’ Claude Chabrol was making more interesting films than The Master.
DIR: Greg Araki
Greg Araki’s latest certainly, after the seriously intentioned (and excellent) Mysterious Skin and the gleefully dumb stoner comedy Smiley Face, reclaims his status as a true provocateur. This college set comedy really does want to have its cake and eat it, concerning itself variously with the sexual entanglements of its characters – whether they be gay, straight, or somewhere in between – a murder mystery plot, cults and the end of the world. Obviously this means that, as much fun as it can be, Kaboom is scattershot, digressive and maddeningly inconsistent.
The parts don’t mesh brilliantly, yes Araki shoots the horror scenes with Smith (Thomas Dekker) being stalked by animal masked men effectively, but they don’t really mesh tonally with the broad comedy of Smith’s crush on his roommate Thor, or Stella’s (Haley Bennett) attempts to get out of a burgeoning relationship with a possessive woman with supernatural powers (Roxanne Mesquida). However the film is most damaged by its last fifteen minutes, at which point it adds in an entirely new set of ideas, stopping the film dead while various characters explain things to each other before the film just STOPS. It’s an incredible miscalculation from Araki, and some of the most inert cinema I’ve seen all year.
Happily, for the most part, Kaboom is great fun. Araki’s candy coloured visuals are diverting, as is the film’s design as a whole, but Kaboom is made an engaging experience by its young cast. Thomas Dekker is a solid lead as Smith (and puts across more in one scene of this movie than he did in the whole of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake) and Chris Zylka is hilariously dumb as Thor, but the film is stolen by excellent performances from Haley Bennett; sexy and sarky as Stella, and by a very frequently very naked Juno Temple as Smith’s latest conquest, the matter of fact London. Kaboom can be frustrating, and the ending is terrible, but for the most part it’s laugh out loud funny and very well acted. If you’re a fan of Araki’s it’s a must see, and if you want to try his cinema out then it’s a good place to start.