Wednesday, August 29, 2012

10 films that shocked me

This is what passes for a dramatic moment in Le Quattro Volte: a man turns and looks at his dog. 
Will he or won't he pat the dog's head? Oh my, the tension is almost unbearable...

1. Le Quattro Volte This film really made me laugh - the way you would laugh if you went to a restaurant and you asked, in a very innocent, polite manner, to see a menu and the reaction from the (mentally unstable) waitress was to throw her tray on the floor and walk off in a huff. This movie really was an insult to the audience. I sat through half an hour of it just shaking my head; I couldn’t believe any film-maker could be that lazy and contemptuous of an audience, could expect viewers to watch this pathetic excuse for a motion picture. It’s the story of a goat- a goat eating grass. And that’s it. I’m not kidding you. They proudly advertise that this is a 'film without dialogue', but they forget to mention that it is also a film without a story, a point or any regard for the viewer.
2.The Philadelphia Story I had loved this film for many decades and I’m a great fan of all three stars- Grant, Stewart and Hepburn- so I was shocked when the last time I saw it, the dialogue really annoyed me. It seemed to want to defend the idle rich at all costs - and I realised it was a kind of smug movie. Right after that I also re-watched What’s Up Doc? (1972), a film often accused of being a poor 70’s attempt to re-make 30’s screwball comedies - and it seemed a lot better and a lot more honest!
3. The Next Three Days I was shocked at how powerful this movie was, especially as I’d heard some critics completely slating it. In fact it’s a great film and a lot better than Anything For Her, the French film it was based on. There’s something about the way Russell Crowe interacts with the camera in his recent works - State of Play was another example - that is really affecting, and is the definition of great film-acting. I think these are two towering performances and he’s operating now at a far higher level than he was at the time of Gladiator (he was excellent in American Gangster as well).
4. Looking for Eric I was shocked at how joyous and life-affirming and damn right funny the ending of this film was. You think you’re watching a typical miserabalist Ken Loach picture then it completely transforms into another kind of movie, in a way that totally works.
5. Distant Voices, Still Lives I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find the work of yet another acclaimed arthouse director is just a load of old baloney, but I’d heard so many good things about Terence Davies - from Time Out magazine and the Guardian especially - that I once again fell for the hype and expected great things. This film is not bad; it’s a moderate success, three stars out of five. But I went on to watch his second film - The Long Day Closes - and it was just the same thing but worse, and then The House of Mirth (dull, dull, dull). Incredibly Mark Kermode said of Of Time and the City, which Davies narrates, that it was a wonderful film partly because he has such a lovely voice. I listened to the trailer on Youtube and was so put off - he seemed to me to have one of the most annoyingly affected posh-English voices I’d ever heard - that I’ve avoided it ever since.
6. The Killer Inside Me I was just shocked at Michael Winterbottom’s poor judgment in the way he directed certain scenes in this movie. This is a man who’s made three of the best, most sensitive, most empathetic films about the post-9/11 world and the Muslims vs. The West dichotomy: In This World, The Road to Guantanamo and The Mighty Heart. When the disgustingly violent scenes start in this film it’s like watching a friend, who is normally very good-natured, get drunk and start swearing at everyone in a really abusive way. You just want to hang your head and look away.
7. Somewhere Sofia Coppola shocked me with the tediousness of Somewhere. In one scene the characters park a car 300 metres from a building and walk in and they show the entire slow, silent walk - about five minutes of it, it seemed- with no cuts. It was one of the most pointless and boring shots in all cinema of the 2000’s. And this was the first film I’d seen by her after the brilliant Lost in Translation: what incredible bathos!
8. Where the Wild Things Are Co-incidentally Sofia Coppola's ex-husband Spike Jonze also shocked me around the same time with this film. As I was watching it, I kept thinking: such a good director, such a bad film. I couldn’t believe how badly he blew it. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were masterpieces, this was just a drag.
9. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? I re-watched this again recently and was shocked at how good Johnny Depp was. DiCaprio was even better but he hasn’t driven his career into the toilet the way Depp has over the last ten years, so there was no great contrast to note in his case.
10. A Single Man I was shocked at how good Colin Firth was. Until then I hadn’t been much of a fan and thought of him only in things like Bridget Jones’ Diary and Love Actually and Jane Austen adaptations. I also saw another gay-themed film around the same time - I Love You Philip Morris - and was shocked at how Jim Carrey, who I usually love, annoyed the hell out of me. Ewan McGregor was also terrible in that very bad film but that wasn’t such a surprise, since to me he’s always been very uneven - bad in the Star Wars films and Velvet Goldmine and The Island, great in things like Shallow Grave and The Ghost Writer. (One last shock: the directors of I Love You Philip Morris, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, followed that stinker up with a wonderful film: Crazy, Stupid, Love)

Hugo and Haywire: Great Directors on the Precipice

In this imperfect world, where it sometimes seems that no good deed ever goes unpunished and kindness costs you dearly, we look to the movies to lie to us with charm. People who are not movie fanatics don’t realise that for some of us movies are not just a pleasant way of passing the time, they’re a psychological necessity. Without them we’d lose hope. Even great, honest movies like All the President’s Men, American Beauty and 12 Angry Men ‘lie to us with charm’; they take a depressing reality and give it uplift that it doesn’t actually have. Without that sugar-coating, it wouldn’t even be a movie.

And maybe the older you get, the more you need movies to blot out the disappointments of real life. By middle age, you’ve probably come to accept that most people will always be very conscious of what they should get in life and not at all interested in what they should give, and to dilute your own cynicism you need to see examples of good and generous behaviour. That’s why when ‘creative’ people are selfish and try and sell us something they haven’t thought through or worked very hard on, we howl so loudly. That’s why so many people experience the Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean movies as abominations. We expect that kind of crassness from bankers and politicians, but film is supposed to be art, it’s supposed to be better than that.

And that’s why, after the OK but overrated Contagion and the lazy piece of nonsense, Haywire, my sense of disappointment was vivid and personal, and I felt a bit angry at Steven Soderbergh. Since he can make films as good as King of the Hill, Out of Sight and Traffic, and since he seems to have more artistic freedom than just about anyone else in Hollywood, why doesn’t he do a lot better? Soderbergh doesn’t seem like he’s even trying these days. Haywire is a ‘thriller’ without any tension whatsoever. It wastes the talents of about 10 fine actors - including newcomer Gina Carano - because the director couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed. It has the humdrum, couldn’t-care-less-vibe of a 1970’s Elizabeth Taylor TV movie, and I was astonished at how kind critics were to it.

I felt the same way about Hugo: just astounded at the good reviews it got. To me it was completely inert and contrived for the first 80% of its running time. It was definitely the worst film Scorsese has made since The Age of Innocence (1993) and perhaps even since Boxcar Bertha (1972), the one film in his career that even Scorsese completists should avoid. After seeing Hugo I started to worry that one of my favourite directors may be standing on the same kind of precipice that Hitchcock stood at in 1963, after he’d made four brilliant films - Vertigo (1958) North by Northwest (1959) Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) - and before he followed that up with four terrible ones - Torn Curtain (1966) Topaz (1969) Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). (Marnie, in 1964, was a fairly good but not great film that acts as the transition point). It’s the same precipice Coppola fell off in 1980, after a string of masterpieces in the 70’s, or Jean Renoir fell off in 1940. (The latter may be a more controversial opinion, but to me his films in the 30’s are so good, and everything he did after that so uninteresting, that it represents a similar sudden falling off of talent). With Soderbergh, after Contagion, Haywire and now Magic Mike (I haven’t seen it but it sure doesn’t look like it’s going to reverse the trend) there are definite signs of the rot setting in, and he needs to have a major re-think. With Scorsese, the problem is just with one picture so maybe I’m over-reacting, but all I can say is: please, Marty, make sure your next film is a lot better than Hugo!