Shadow Of The Vampire (2000)
Director: E. Elias Merhige; Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Eddie Izzard
IMDb Plot Summary: The filming of Nosferatu is hampered by the fact that the star is taking his role far more seriously than what seems humanly possible.
Amongst cinephile circles, urban legend has it that Max Schreck, the man who played Count Orlock in FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, was actually a vampire himself. Shadow Of The Vampire takes this premise and runs with it, delivering a delicious satire that portrays the madness that arises when filmmakers forgo their scruples in the pursuit of “art”.
Merhige does a phenomenal job of imbuing his film with the ambience of Murnau’s - Shadow is every bit as chilling as the original Nosferatu. Wait, didn’t I say this is a satire? i.e. Cuttingly hilarious send-ups ahoy? Well, yes, it’s got those. It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t go for goofs or campiness in its jabs - instead, it’s largely played as a drama, even as a horror, but one laced with deadpan humour. That satirical edge only becomes claws-out obvious in the closing scenes, leaving us with much to ponder as the credits roll. The film’s dramatic structure is slightly unsatisfyingly off-kilter, but I suppose you might say it just adds to the ending’s sense of unease.
Both Malkovich and Dafoe are brilliant as the maverick director and his rogue, bloodthirsty star. Malkovich is suitably manic, while Dafoe handles the meta-ness of his role with aplomb - he is playing a vampire playing an actor playing a vampire, after all. He manages to sink his teeth into the role (forgive me) with hissing theatricality without slipping into pantomime, it’s so delightful to watch.
Funny, clever, skin-crawling and fascinating, Shadow Of The Vampire is quite an under-appreciated little gem; highly recommended for cinephiles.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Director: Peter Jackson; Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
IMDb Plot Summary: A younger and more reluctant Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, sets out on an “unexpected journey” to the Lonely Mountain with a spirited group of Dwarves to reclaim their stolen mountain home from a dragon named Smaug.
I have recently been reminded that the key to enjoying anything is to lower one’s expectations. Such is the case with The Hobbit: having my hopes be so thoroughly played down by friends and critics increased my affection for the movie dramatically! It certainly wasn’t 3 hours of my life wasted - though getting back about an hour or so would be nice.
There is much to like about this movie: I won’t lie, my heart did swell with each recurrence of the old LOTR theme and I delighted in returning to Bag End and Rivendell. The action scenes, repetitive as they were, were just energetic enough to keep me awake for 3 hours (no small feat, I can assure you). Martin Freeman makes for an apt Bilbo, and the pivotal “riddles in the dark” scene was also wonderfully executed. Plus, we get a few glimpses of the clean-shaven Elven incarnation of Bret McKenzie, and they are glorious.
However, I cannot help but agree with the general consensus that An Unexpected Journey’s self-indulgently lengthy running time is a burden. The movie gets off to a painfully slow start, which with a little editing could have been significantly more sprightly. Most of the dwarf-centric humour falls pretty flat, half-assed attempts at thematic resonance are made and the whole project ends up stuck in semi-comic, passable fantasy-adventure limbo. This is not the movie everyone had been expecting (an Unexpected Journey, then? Oh, the wit!), but if you’re looking for a lavish, enjoyable-enough ride, this’ll do just fine.
Director: Ron Fricke
IMDb Plot Summary: Filmed over nearly five years in twenty-five countries on five continents, and shot on seventy-millimetre film, Samsara transports us to the varied worlds of sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial complexes, and natural wonders.
Samsara is an absolute visual knock-out. It’s a film that plays with the theme of rebirth through images of both the natural and the human, the exquisite and the grotesque. There’s no dialogue, no narrative. Just pictures. And what arresting pictures they are.
Though the use of visual allegory and metaphor was at times a little too blunt for my liking (scene in a Chinese food manufacturing plant…ok, cut to scene of obese Westerners in a food court!), and the film’s portrayal of humanity was too narrow to be truly resonant, for the most part Samsara is quite generous in allowing for individual interpretation. The allusions to the film’s central theme are quite clear, but the relatively detached style means that the film might be appreciated in a myriad alternative ways.
Anyway, this is well worth seeing just for the splendour of its fantastic imagery. Ron Fricke’s globe-trotting cinematography brings us scene after scene of fascinating, memorable images. Hints of cultural exoticism do arise, but most of the time Samsara simply awes and enlightens us with sights from beyond our daily experience, reminding us that it’s a big ol’ world out there.
Seriously, this is the kind of movie that justifies the existence of Blu-Ray; in fact, I wouldn’t have minded it being in 3D. Or, even better, see it in sparkling 70mm on the big screen if you still can! It’s totally worth it.
Les Misérables (2012)
Director: Tom Hooper; Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
IMDb Plot Summary: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.
As someone who spent a brief, heady period of their tweens tirelessly listening to the Les Mis soundtrack and watching the 10th Anniversary Concert, it pains me to say that the film version has highlighted to me just how absurd the whole affair is. If overblown passions and shameless illogic make you feel ill, this movie is not made for you.
Tom Hooper’s perfunctory and relentlessly sentimental direction doesn’t help a plot that, even fans may admit, is just bloody silly in the first place. Though tearful melodrama may have worked for Victor Hugo, the movie fails to develop any sense of credible urgency to make it bearable. The film’s rich colours and textures go a long way in conjuring up some much-needed sense of occasion, though the restless camerawork and persistent close-ups seem to doggedly play it down.
Acting and singing prowess varies between performers: Jackman and Crowe are vocal weak points, but they inhabit their roles well, while Samantha Barks can pull off “On My Own”, though her acting comes off as a bit broad. And may I say, the Oscar buzz for Anne Hathaway seems frankly ridiculous – she does a pitch/picture-perfect rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream”, but the rest of her brief performance is almost parodically schmaltzy. The highlights are in fact Eddie Redmayne, fusing an endearing performance with exquisite vocal chops, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s impeccable comic timing.
Having said all that, I’m still glad I went to see Les Mis. Though I can sympathise with the scathing reviews, it is nonetheless gratifying for fans to see their favourite songs realised so meticulously onscreen. At the end of the day (pun not intended), the appeal of this love-it-or-loathe-it musical lies not in narrative logic, but in sweeping pathos and a few superbly rousing showtunes.
Apocalypse Now Redux (1979/2001)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola; Starring: Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando
IMDb Plot Summary:During the on-going Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade Green Beret who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.
Apocalypse Now is an audacious, hallucinatory nightmare of a movie. Not just a commentary on the Vietnam War, it uses the war as a backdrop for scenes of carnage, hedonism and despair, plumbing the depths of human nature to horrifying effect. Not the cheeriest endorsement, I know, but trust me, it’s well worth it.
Though the film’s production was famously beset with problems, every element here seems to successfully serve a work of operatic proportions. The various scenes of warfare are terrifyingly believable, and yet they also work as scenes of intense poetry and weird beauty (perhaps not valorising war, as some have suggested, but expressing man’s perverse attraction to it). The cinematography and score create a persistent sense of visual and aural grandeur, sometimes sending us spiralling into psychedelic delirium. Martin Sheen is excellent, holding his own against Brando (who weirdly got top billing despite appearing for about 10 minutes) in the film’s closing scenes. In sum, we get a hellish, disturbing portrait of the American intervention and, more to the point, the extremes of human nature.
Redux is a director’s cut that adds 50 minutes to the already sprawling film. I haven’t seen the original cut, but I can’t help feeling that the additional sequences (mainly one set on a French plantation and one featuring Playboy Bunnies) are superfluous and disruptive. Otherwise, a great movie, perfect for occasions when you feel like staring into an abyss and weeping for humanity.
8/10 (Rating for the Redux cut; the original may be a different matter)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Director: David Lynch; Starring: Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Madchen Amick
IMDb Plot Summary: A young FBI agent disappears while investigating a murder miles from Twin Peaks that may be related to the future murder of Laura Palmer; the last week of the life of Laura Palmer is chronicled.
Let me begin by saying that Fire Walk With Me is not the prequel that the brilliant Twin Peaks TV series deserves. Though the show was littered with surreal sequences and bizarre dialogue, it all had a weird coherency about it and the sheer audacity of its oddness worked to its advantage. Lynch has clearly attempted to slather its follow-up in surrealism and non sequiturs, and yet it comes across as an amateurish and disjointed attempt to ape the quirks of the original. It lacks the alluring sense of mystery that held the show’s viewers in thrall, preferring to spell everything out in garish, melodramatic strokes. There is some pretty laughable dialogue thrown in there, which isn’t helped by the fact that Sheryl Lee is just not convincing as a coke-addled, promiscuous teenage deviant. She’s meant to be the heart and soul of the film, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Laura Palmer.
Admittedly, there are some flashes of creepy brilliance sprinkled throughout the movie (BOB’s leering face will scar my dreams forever), but they are all too scarce, and probably not worth watching the rest of the film for. This is a movie solely for Twin Peaks completists; it will likely taint the Twin Peaks experience for many fans, and it would make absolutely no fucking sense to anyone who hasn’t watched the show. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get some BOB-induced emotional therapy. Good day.
Director: Rian Johnson; Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
IMDb Plot Summary: In 2074, when the mob wants to get rid of someone, the target is sent 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits. Someone like Joe, who one day learns the mob wants to ‘close the loop’ by transporting back Joe’s future self.
In a movie full of fascinating details, what fascinated me most about Looper was its odd balance between the ambitious and the restrained. It’s futuristic, but there isn’t a flying car in sight. It’s a time travel movie, but it does its best to keep things tidy. It’s punctuated by scenes of bombastic, ear-splitting violence, but it also ends with a nicely understated coda. It feels original, mature, and very exciting.
The universe that Looper presents is striking. With minimal effects, the filmmakers have created a plausible near-futuristic society that has a seedy, derelict sort of glamour. JGL’s facial transformation into Bruce Willis may be less convincing, though the two actors do play off each other well. Plot-wise, the clever script mercifully doesn’t try to do more than it needs to, saving us from having to scratch our heads over plot machinations and letting us just enjoy the ride. It takes a fair bit of exposition before the plot gets going, and it takes a rather different path from what I had expected, but it eventually produces some heart-racing scenes. The tight plot also means Looper doesn’t feel like a sweeping epic à la Inception, and it’s all the more emotionally involving for it. Though some characters feel underdeveloped, and the ultimate “message” isn’t anything to write home about, the film generally hits the right emotional notes where it counts.
It’s not perfect, but I think it’s this interplay between big ideas and understated execution that makes Looper such an interesting, worthwhile experience.
Director: Richard Linklater; Starring: Richard Linklater, Judy Basquez, Jean Caffeine
IMDb Plot Summary: Presents a day in the life in Austin, Texas among its social outcasts and misfits, predominantly the twenty-something set, using a series of linear vignettes.
Those with a very low tolerance for rambling philosophical insights, non-existent plots and “indie-ness” had best steer away from Slacker. All else, gather round and enjoy!
Slacker consists of an entertaining series of overlapping vignettes, played out in Linklater’s trademark “day in the life” style. Freed from the constraints of plot, we’re given tantalising glimpses into the lives and thoughts of a range of anything-but-mainstream individuals, mostly the young, the unemployed, the anarchic and the paranoid. I won’t spoil any of it for you, but I can attest that there are a few particularly memorable figures amidst the eccentric, eclectic mix. It’s extremely well written and keeps you fascinated; neither parody, nor loving tribute, you don’t have to buy into anti-establishment philosophy to enjoy this. It’s kind of refreshing to get an alternative perspective on the world anyway, even if it may smack of disaffected hipster-dom. In that respect, it is interesting that this was made in the early ’90s; the Gen X counter-culture style we see in Slacker seems so very familiar to us now, 20 years on.
Though similar in style, Slacker lacks the emotional weight of Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset as it seems less interested in making a single relationship seem universal, and more concerned with exploring the diversity of human experience. However, it is a nonetheless thought-provoking look into the various facets of the anti-mainstream lifestyle. (It’s also pretty funny.)
PS. You can watch it here if you so wish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jB4xlYKAVCQ
Three Colours: Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu) (1993)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski; Starring: Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Florence Pernel
IMDb Plot Summary: First of a trilogy of films dealing with contemporary French society concerns how the wife of a composer deals with the death of her husband and child.
Trois Couleurs is a trilogy based upon the contemporary meanings of the French Revolution’s maxim, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. ”Liberty” is the thematic thread that runs through Bleu - the film follows the recently bereaved Julie, as she attempts to take on an anonymous life and divorce herself from the “traps” of society.
Though it’s a moving tale, Bleu is less about plot than it is about a totally immersive sensory and emotional experience. One might easily attribute the film’s ponderous pacing and sparse dialogue to esotericism, but its beautiful, evocative cinematography makes it surprisingly accessible. The camera’s tendency to linger on the most exquisite details allows us to delve right into Julie’s psychology. It is a genuine pleasure to be given such an intimate insight into a character. The use of music is striking, though its frequent stretches of silence are equally important, making the swooping bursts of sound all the more dramatic. As Julie, Binoche is more than worthy of her role; calling it a “performance” doesn’t do it justice. She vividly embodies this embittered woman, and yet she manages to maintain a certain enigmatic quality, keeping us ever at a distance.
Bleu showcases an attention to detail and rewards the patient. As one drifts through the film, it becomes clear that every creative decision here is purposeful and meaningful, even if that meaning is not immediately obvious - surely all the more reason to watch it again, eh?
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Starring: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch
IMDb Plot Summary: In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.
The Lives of Others is a stirring drama-thriller that plays on the appeal of voyeurism, striking an entertaining balance between emotion and thought. Set against the backdrop of East Germany, the idea that our decisions determine our path is central to the film’s enjoyably unpredictable plot. The choices that each character makes give us pause to reflect upon ambitious ideas about love, loyalty, power, artistry, and the human capacity for change. Though some plot turns struck me as slightly trite, as a whole it is remarkably incisive.
The unpredictability of the characters’ choices (given the pressures of their oppressive political context) also makes for an effective suspense thriller; the film delicately builds its layers of tension over the course of its cleverly plotted storyline. It’s highly engaging stuff; we become wrapped up not only with the lives of the artists that Stasi agent, Wiesler, is charged with watching, but with how their lives begin to intertwine with his.
Ulrich Mühe is quietly charismatic and believable as Wiesler, despite the inherent incredibility of his character arc. I was saddened to hear that Mühe passed away shortly after the film’s release; I am determined to see more of his work. However, The Lives of Others is a wonderful swansong, meditating upon human cruelty and kindness in a way that ultimately leaves the viewer with a vigorous sense of empowerment.