The Program (Frears, 2015): Workaday dramatisation of the career of Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) and the sports writer who did more than most to expose his use of performance-enhancing substances, David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd). Some of the material is riddled with average or downright bad acting (Guillaume Canet is terrible here as a sports doctor, while I’m sorry to report that O’Dowd is out of his depth), but at least Foster impresses as the disgraced and rather unsympathetic cyclist, and there’s brief but notably-assured supporting work by Dustin Hoffman and Jesse Plemons. I’ve never been a fan of this particular sport and have only ever watched a few minutes of the Tour De France over the years – my loss, presumably – but director Stephen Frears includes some mid-race scenes that I thought were quite exhilerating, and there’s lots of wonderful mountain scenery captured by cinematographer Danny Cohen. However the re-staged press conferences and PR events, of which there are an interminable amount, are decidedly boring.
Unbranded (Baribeau, 2015): A beautifully-shot documentary that’s partly about the plight of America’s wild horses and partly about a journey from the Mexican/US border to Canada undertaken by five men, more than a dozen of said horses and a burro. The five travellers (four are seen, while director Phillip Baribeau films) are cowboy types, replete with ten gallon hats and shouts of “yeeeee-haaaaahhhh”, and they’re a likeable bunch who understandably form strong bonds with the wild animals they rely on throughout the trip; the men are old friends and get on famously for the most part, though the most exciting footage here arrives when they’re drunk and arguing, with a couple of stubborn alphas refusing to back down during some disagreements. I suppose the sights contained within the film will be familiar to anyone who has seen a handful of westerns, with slow-mo shots of the guys on horseback atop majestic mountain peaks, or similarly romantic footage as they make their way through valleys and across rivers, with a suitable soundtrack to boot. So there’s lots of beautiful scenery to gawp at from the comfort of your own home, but there’s also a little meat on the bones of this glossy travelogue, with some emotional scenes involving an elderly friend and some interesting material about the overpopulation of wild horses, with those who manage land and numbers through culling given roughly the same amount of screen time as protesters who believe that all mustangs should be allowed to run free.
Death Of A Gentleman (Kimber, Collins, Blank, 2015): As much as I enjoy cricket – the second-most popular sport in the world, as this doc proudly trumpets – it’s evident that the recent influx of TV money has changed the game immeasurably. Test cricket (i.e. the traditional long-form version of the game in which matches can last for up to five days) is less popular than it once was and – particularly in India – the shorter, thrill-heavy 20/20 version of the game has attracted many younger fans, who have been dazzled by big name sloggers, fast scoring, cheerleaders, thumping music and other TV razzmatazz. That shift is part of the focus of this film, but Death Of A Gentleman also examines the recent dubious behaviour of certain members of cricket’s ruling bodies, who should probably be scrutinised to a greater extent than they are presently. (I don’t like the analogy, but for simplicity’s sake think FIFA but with even less accountability, and it’s suggested here that the practices of certain high ranking officials go against the notions that seem so ingrained into the sport, such as honesty and fair play.) Unfortunately the filmmakers – a pair of cricket journalists – change tack a little too often, freely admitting that they started making the film without any grand master plan with regards to its content, and so a pleasantly romantic first half hour celebrating the crack of leather on willow (which incorporates the heartwarming tale of Australian cricketer Ed Cowan’s rise to the top) gives way to a kind of forced paranoid thriller vibe, as governing bodies strive to keep the filmmakers at arm’s length. It never quite convinces as a detailed investigation, and although some light is thrown upon cricket’s administrative problems there seems to be a lot of footage here where the camera is just randomly poked out of the window of a moving car in various different countries. Still, enough rope is fed to the English Cricket Board’s Giles Clarke, who seems a tad arrogant in his interviews as he tries to (unsuccessfully) bat the pair’s probing questions away.
The General (Bruckman, Keaton, 1926): What Buster Keaton didn’t know about train-based tomfoolery isn’t worth knowing, but there’s more to this film than slapstick and stunts on board steam engines (though that’s not to diminish any of that of course…it’s all excellent and much funnier than the reviews at the time suggested). There’s enough spectacle here to entertain anyone today, the mirror-like structure works well and I especially like how The General tries to be all things to all people: romance, action film, war film, underdog story, chase movie, comedy, historical epic. This is Keaton at his most deadpan: he is surrounded by chaos, speed, danger and violence throughout, but utterly unmoved by it all.
The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941): Probably John Huston’s best film, once you take Escape To Victory out of the equation. (That’s a joke, in case you’re reading this blog for the first time, or if you fail to understand my sense of humour; everyone knows that it’s Annie, really.) How great that Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade makes his way through the story without firing a single gunshot in anger, and what an unlikeable hero he is, dismissive of just about everyone who crosses his path and barely flinching when his PI partner dies, the heartless bastard. It’s a great film, of course, and the central relationship between Spade and Mary Astor’s duplicitous Brigid O’Shaughnessy has rightly captivated different generations of viewers; even up until the final moments we don’t know whether Spade is going to turn her in or bail her out, and that’s because the character himself doesn’t know; Bogart doesn’t give anything away at all. Huston left Dalshiel Hammett’s novel alone, for the most part, while the casting was spot-on: Bogie, Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Gladys George and Elisha Cook, Jr all shine. Arthur Edeson helped to change cinematography, too, with his use of unusual angles – which emphasise character traits and define relationships – and through his use of low-key lighting, which became a noir staple.
The Lego Movie (Lord, Miller 2014): It has taken me a while to get round to this, but I can see why it was so well-regarded by so many upon its release a couple of years back. I’d feared a long, noisy toy advert – and I guess it is, ultimately, if you’re feeling uncharitable – but you forget all about that because of the offbeat weirdness, the arch critique of social conformity and consumerism, the consistently-funny writing and the note perfect voice performances. I didn’t want it to end and I’ll watch it again, some day.
L’Écume des jours (Mood Indigo) (Gondry, 2013): The whimsical elements that dominate this hyperactive tragicomic love story are occasionally funny, and of course very typical of Michel Gondry’s films, but they fail to hide the fact that there’s little insight into relationships contained within this film and the plot is paper thin (also the whimsy doesn’t really sit well with the final act, which is all sadness and decay). We’re in Paris, in the modern day, but it’s barely recognisable: TV chefs can reach forth into people’s kitchens to hand over ingredients, people suddenly grow long legs when they’re dancing, and a philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre (arf) is treated like a rock star. This wacky world is the backdrop for yet another romantic affair between characters played by Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris, who certainly share chemistry, but one wonders whether there’s a French law stipulating that they must appear as the couple in 50% of the nation’s romcoms every year. I’m a little tired of seeing them together, and eventually the surreal nature of the film began to get on my nerves (the final straw being a load of gibberish about growing proton weapons from acorns), but I can imagine watching Mood Indigo again one day – in a better mood – and thinking more highly of it. There are certainly a lot of ideas at play.
Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) (Miyazaki, 2001): This is only the third film I’ve seen from Studio Ghibli, and the first by Hayao Miyazaki, so it was interesting to get an inkling as to what all the fuss is about. After initially feeling a little reticent while watching it – as a first-timer you’re stepping into a bizarre world that’s far removed from what I’ve seen of Isao Takahata’s Ghibli output – I was surprised to find that after 30 or 40 minutes I was completely sold on the spirit realm that Miyazaki depicts, with all its bizarre characters and links to Japanese folklore. The film has a lot of heart, it’s thought-provoking (especially in terms of the way it addresses human nature, specifically greed) and of course it’s beautifully animated too. It also benefits from simple, minimal frames and an unhurried pace, which was even more noticable given that I’ve recently watched four frenetic, busy western animations.
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973): I’m a horror wuss, so I’ve avoided watching The Exorcist for years, but the will to check it out eventually proved too strong. The desire to knock things off the watchlist compelled me! The desire to knock things off the watchlist compelled me! Anyway, here are some brief thoughts: (1) On a technical level I very much liked the camera movement and the racking focus, which creepily draws you into characters’ conversations before eventually pulling you out of them when key or important lines are delivered. And given that I found that unsettling, you can imagine how I felt when Linda Blair’s head started spinning round. (2) Given how well-known certain scenes are that feature Blair’s possessed Regan in her bedroom, I was surprised to find that the film has a much wider scope than I’d expected, with the action moving away from Georgetown and taking in New York City and Iraq; on a similar note the focus on Father Karras’ crisis of faith was most welcome, and I liked the way his story dovetailed with Regan’s. (3) Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells doesn’t actually feature that much, given how strongly the music is associated with the film. Less is more, as they say, and the distinct lack of a background score allows the excellent sound design to stand out, with all those crashes and demonic blatherings punctuating the quiet in a very disturbing manner. (4) Great acting, particularly by Jason Miller, Linda Blair – what a tough role – and Ellen Burstyn. (5) I don’t agree that the film’s impact has been blunted by age or by the content of other horror films made since 1973, which is a comment I’ve seen hither and thither. The Exorcist is full of incredibly scary and unpleasant moments that are still unsettling today. (6) The version I watched included a brief introduction by Friedkin in which he mentioned that your experience of The Exorcist will depend on what you bring to it yourself; I’ve always thought my Catholic upbringing has made me more afraid of the occult/the devil/demons in movies than some of my friends and peers seem to be, so I find films like this one and The Omen scare me more than other horror movies; I can’t seem to shake that as I get older. Additionally, I’ve questioned during the past year whether I could have done more to recognise the fact that my mum’s heart was failing before she had a heart attack and passed away; it came as a surprise at the time, but it’s natural to ponder the ifs and buts afterwards, I suppose. As such the demon’s verbal attack on Karras with a similar accusation really made me feel uneasy, particularly as it came in the midst of a scene of such heightened tension and horror. (7) Uh…the hospital scene. Horrible. Nearly as shocking as the crucifix business. (8) I suppose I shouldn’t have watched it in bed. One of the obvious reasons the film gets under the skin is the fact that everything happens to an innocent girl, and takes place in a supposedly safe home, and in the sanctuary of her own bedroom, in her own bed. I’m only sleeping in chairs in strangers’ lounges from now on. (9) I need to watch something happy now.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World (Wright, 2010): My second viewing of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim, and I liked it even more than the first time (though I liked it well enough then, anyway). It’s mannered, of course, but the commitment to the source material and to video games and to indie music and to general silliness is to be admired…and the film’s just such exuberant fun as a result. Michael Cera is perfectly cast as the lead, but the real treat is the different women who act opposite him, including Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brie Larson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ellen Wong. They share so many of the film’s killer lines, with Pill’s deadpan delivery in particular managing to stand out. It made a loss – in cinemas, at least – which just confirms that people are stupid (including me, who didn’t see it on the big screen).