The Road (US, 2009)

Going nowhere

Dimension Films is one of the producers of this bleak movie, an unlikely source as the company was originally conceived as Miramax’s genre arm. While this is a genre film – science fiction – it is clearly not one that will have a large appeal. There are one or two Mad Max moments but mostly the film follows Cormac McCarthy’s novel fairly faithfully; that is to say, it’s grim. It’s not primarily a commercial movie, though of course was designed to make money, so what the film brings to the novel is a valid question as it hasn’t simply been made as a business deal. McCarthy’s book is a brilliant depiction of a post-Apocalyptic world where people commit suicide rather than live in such inhospitable surroundings. Most obviously, film can depict the environment which Hillcoat, and his designers, do with some brilliance. Even the CGI looks convincing as its unreal sheen works in this unreal world.

Most films require pacing to keep the audience interesting; when reading a novel if attention flags then the book can be put down. McCarthy’s novel had plenty of suspense throughout and these scenes work in the film very well to maintain interest. Less successful is the fleshing out of (if I remember correctly) the scenes with the Mother (the characters have archetypal names); though the colours of the pre-Apocalyptic world do contrast brilliantly with the grey morass of most of the film. I also don’t remember earthquakes in the book – added for drama? During the end credits we hear what sounds a bit like normal life; given that McCarthy offers some hope at the end then this was unnecessary.

The most disgusting human behaviour is missing from the film, which is probably a good thing as a visualisation of eating a baby is something I’m happy not to see.

There are potent cameos from Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce (he needs to be in more films) and, although I’m not recommending it as a Friday night movie, I am recommending as a film that reminds us to make the most of what we’ve got and to warn against where climate change may be taking us.

Flashbacks of a Fool (UK, 2008)

One night lying down

An excellent cast, including Daniel Craig and Olivia Williams, strive hard to make this schematic melodrama convincing (melodramas to tend to be schematic but this is schematic by melodrama’s standards) of a Hollywood star – Joe Scot – on the slide, revisiting his past. The central section of the film is early ’70s Britain (shot in S.Africa according to IMDB) when the young Joe meets the would-be love of his life. The coda sees Joe returning from Hollywood to ‘confront’ his past.

Craig’s good as the star on the slide (Mark Strong does a creepy turn as his agent; both Strong and Craig came to prominence in the BBC’s Our Friends in the North, 1996) but – SPOILER ALERT – the one night stand (there’s no sex involved) that the youthful Joe has does not convince as the ‘significant moment’ in his life that he was never able to recapture. The would-be cathartic finale, where the girl breaks down as she realises that Joe has remembered that evening for 25 years, has no emotional heft as it’s impossible to believe that listening to Roxy Music and Bowie could be so significant (nothing against Roxy of Bowie). It might have been better to show Scot’s belief that it was as an illusio, that he could have been happy ‘if only…’.

Similarly the tragedy of the exploding washed-up mine fails to convince: how the hell didn’t it explode when it landed on the beach?! The locations look great; a puzzling mix of west country sea – big waves – and flat East Anglian coast; explained by it being South Africa.

It’s Complicated (US, 2009)

Second time around the same guy

Maybe with the aging demographic Hollywood is starting to ‘get’ the fact that the cinema-going audience are not all 16-25 year olds and that sex does not stop when children are produced. Certainly kids make it harder but what about when they leave home…? Surely not! That’s disgusting! Well, that seemed to be the emotion of some young women in the cinema I saw this when the leads (tastefully) took off their clothes. However, I don’t think they’d picked the wrong film as their laughter was mostly with the film rather than at it. In addition the film has space to address how children feel when their mum and dad have divorced.

Old, female and sexy is not wholly new to Hollywood, Something’s Gotta Give (2003), visited similar territory and it helps if the leads are charismatic stars. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the film delivers emotional resonances for those of us whose marriages didn’t survive, as well as plenty of laughs. The casting of Steve Martin – only given one brief funny scene – works as the ‘nice’ guy but the movie belongs to Streep, still in terrific voice, and Baldwin, whose teenage vitality might not be realistic but he conveys the frustration of a man, who’s made bad choices, very well.

The children are fairly horrible, John Krasinski excepted, something the teens in the audience noticed, but that aside Nancy Meyer’s produced excellent entertainment; though it should have ended at the penultimate scene – but, hey, it’s Hollywood!

Before Sunset (US, 2004)

Love at second sight

This sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise throws the protagonists back together for the first time since their liaison in Vienna 10 year’s before. What happens after a romantic ‘one night stand’ which was truly romantic? The answer to the question plays out over this film’s 70-odd minutes with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, both credited with Richard Linklater as scriptwriters, entrancing with their answer. Rarely can a movie have so much talking and so little action. Much of it is shot in long steadicam takes, usually in front – sometimes behind – the protagonists, and Paris is merely a set of streets – albeit quintessentially romantic streets – for our characters to play out time. And rarely can a movie be so riveting with its talk a testament to the leads’ performances. Hawke, in particular, allows his face to register what he’s thinking, whilst Delpy talks and talks as they try and exorcise the last 10 years.

There may not be much room for a sequel; what happens in their 40s? But I hope they can come up with something. It was one of the best movies of the decade; just outside my top ten.

La Boheme (Aus-Ger, 2008)

Love in a cold climate

La Boheme is one of my favourite operas and with Netrebko and Villazon in the leads there was no way this film could fail. Opera and film don’t necessarily make the best bedfellows, I usually find filmed staged performances the best as you do get a sense of the theatrical experience and the music’s great. Going on location, as the Losey directed Don Giovanni (It-Fr-Ger, 1979) did, doesn’t work for me as the realist locations class with the artifice of opera.

This Robert Dornhelm directed Boheme, however, works both as opera and film because it’s not constrained by shooting a staged performance and so can use the full gamut of film language such as the cut to a high angle medium close up for the moment Mimi declares her love. It helps that Netrebko is a beautiful woman… seriously: she is a  fantastic singer. Dornheim also uses split screen and digital colouring to great effect making the version a marvelous cinematic experience. The set is suitably stylised, and looks great, perfectly fitting for the inevitable artifice of opera. This is a marvelous operatic and filmic experience so it is clearly the best opera on film I have ever seen.

Me and Orson Welles (UK-US, 2008)

Bigger than life

Another biopic (see Nowhere Boy from last week) and this film also avoids the genre’s pitfalls by focusing on moments before the protagonist was recognised as ‘great’. Me and Orson Welles goes further and makes the protagonist 17 year old Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) who gets to spend a week in the shadow of Welles. If we want to get auteurist we can consider it typical ‘coming of age’ Linklater as Samuels learns some harsh life lessons. However, the film is far more interesting on Welles’ extravagant character and the genius of his Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the work that established him in the literati’s eye.

Christian McKay has come from virtually nowhere to produce a bravura performance, all of Welles’ life appears to have been a bravura performance, and the casting director can be congratulated for finding this guy; unless bravura is all he’s good at! The film shows the extravert’s vulnerability as well as his exploitative behaviour and why those around him are happy to ‘wait for Orson’. There’s no doubt Welles was a genius and this film convincing portrays him as such.

Efron does well as the gauche boy but Claire Danes’ bed hopper seems too sweet to me; though no doubt if we met her a few years on she would’ve become a cynic as her attempts to ‘sleep’ her way to the top failed. James Tupper’s Joseph Cotten merits a mention but the film’s strengths are in showing the fears and excitement that run riot backstage.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (UK-US, 2008)

Divided at birth

John Boyne’s source novel uses the limited perspective afforded by the medium brilliantly so we only gradually understand the social context of Bruno’s life. Film, on the other hand, cannot do anything but show the social context so it loses the focus on the child’s consciousness. Film can still give us the child’s perspective but not in such a complete way. So why adapt source material that is already perfect in its form?

The story of the concentration camps and racial intolerance is one that should never stop being told and Mark Herman’s adaptation tells it superbly. Key to the film’s success is the performances he gets from the youngsters and their conversations through the wire lay out the evil of the Nazis brilliantly. After the ‘wow look at the period detail’ of the opening the film relies upon the human drama and hopefully the film is being used in schools as it both engages on a human level and educates in morality.

Films of the year 2009 and the decade

Films released last decade

1. Requiem for a Dream (US, 2000)
2. Sex and Lucia (Lucia y el sexo, Spain-France, 2001)
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (US, 2004)
4. Osama (Afghanistan-Netherlands-Japan-Ireland-Iran, 2003)
5. And Your Mother Too (Y tu mama tambien, Mexico, 2001)
6. Crash (US, 2004)
7. Donnie Darko (US, 2001)
8. Mulholland Drive (France-US, 2001)
9. Billy Elliot (UK-France, 2000)
10. Vanilla Sky (US, 2000)

Film released last year

1. Red Riding 1983 (UK)
2. The Age of Stupid (UK)
3. The International (US-Ger-UK)
4. Let the Right One In (Lat den ratte komma in, Sweden)
5. Red Riding 1974 (UK)
6. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, S.Korea)
7. Star Trek (US)
8. Red Riding 1980 (UK)
9. Looking for Eric (UK-Fr-It-Bel-Sp)
10. Coraline (US)

Films seen last year

1. Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948)
2. Red Riding 1983 (UK, 2009)
3. The Age of Stupid (UK, 2009)
4. House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, China-Hong Kong, 2004)
5. 28 Days Later… (UK, 2002)
6. The Wings of the Dove (US-UK 1997)
7. Sweet Smell of Success (US, 1957)
8. Blindness (Can-Bra-Japan, 2008)
9. The International (US-Ger-UK, 2009)
10. Let the Right One In (Lat den ratte komma in, Sweden. 2008)

Books of the Year

1. Rapture, Carol Ann Duffy
2. Bodies, Susie Orbach
3. McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, Misha Glenny
4. Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia, Roberto Saviano
5. Bright Shiny Morning, James Frey
6. Netherland, Joseph O’Neill
7. The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James
8. The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
9. Crusaders, Richard T Kelly
10. Palestine, Joe Sacco

Albums of the Year

1. Spiro – Lightbox
2. The Unthanks, Here’s a Tender Coming
3. Ravel Orchestral Works, Rotterdam PO – Nezet-Seguin
4. Stonephace, Stonephace
5. Berg, Orchestral Music, Gothenburg SO – Venzago
6. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba – I Am Fula
7. Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3
8. The XX, XX
9.  Thea Gilmore, Strange Communion
10. NMC Songbook

Nowhere Boy (UK-Canada, 2009)

Divided at birth

Biopics are a difficult genre as packing a life into a brief narrative is ludicrously difficult. Focusing on a couple of years, however, is a good compromise but when those years include the formation of The Beatles, then the baggage accrued is immense. Nowhere Boy deftly finesses most of the problems; knowingly in the moment when the name of the band is almost, but not, mentioned. Sure there’s the first meeting of Lennon and McCartney but the film’s really about the relationship between John, his mother and the aunt that raised him. So it’s less about The Beatles and more about difficult family relationships and this makes for a satisfying drama.

Aaron Johnson gets Lennon’s tone of voice really well and portrays youthful vulnerability with pathos. Kristen Scott Thomas is also excellent but David Morrissey’s not really required to do much in the role of the step dad.

Debut feature director Sam Taylor-Wood follows Steve McQueen (Hunger) into film from art. Whilst McQueen makes an impact with his direction, Taylor-Wood’s less showy though there are some effective dream sequences and a melodramatic use of mirrors. This isn’t a criticism as she directs effectively. A good end to the year when watching films has become something of a struggle!