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The Imposter (2012)
Gripping and often funny
A fascinating film (almost as good as Man On Wire by the same producer).
It tells how a Frenchman bizarrely managed to fool a Texan family, the Spanish authorities, and the FBI, that he was their missing 16-year-old son - even though he was aged 23, looked nothing like their son, and had a French accent! Only a local private investigator saw through it.
As well as being gripping, it's pretty funny as well - at various points the whole audience laughed at the apparent stupidity of the family (who for example had little concept of foreign countries).
However, the film doesn't tie up all the loose ends, and leaves a strong hint that the family may have known more about the deception than they let on...
Bland & forgettable
On the plus side this film is set in beautiful locations, well shot, and gives a fairly realistic impression (from a tourist's viewpoint) of visiting an Indian city. The thing I enjoyed about it most was reminding me of a trip I made to India myself.
On the minus side, I found the script was weak in various ways: the humour is so gentle as to be barely perceptible. The characters (partly because there are quite a few) are sketched pretty thinly, such that you couldn't really care much what happens to them.
And the events are predictable and clicheed: a elderly East Ender starts out racist but eventually she's turned around. The hotel is going to be sold and knocked down, but shortly afterwards it's saved. The young manager wants to marry a girl who his mother disapproves of, but a few minutes later she relents. These events are trotted out in a perfunctory fashion; nothing is surprising or interesting.
And while undoubtedly it has a star-studded cast, this isn't exactly Shakespearean material to work with, so you could hardly call the performances memorable. It's like the London Symphony Orchestra playing a jingle.
So a humdrum, mildly entertaining, instantly forgettable throwaway film. But don't take my word for it - watch the trailer; like most trailers it includes the 'best bits', and if you don't find it particularly hilarious/compelling, the same will probably go for the film.
Inside Run (2010)
Superb example of a short film
I just saw this at the London Film Festival, and at the risk of sounding over the top, it's actually excellent - and a perfect example of how a really well-written and well-acted short film can have as much impact and substance as a full-length feature.
Though not for the faint-hearted - without giving away the plot and the harrowing twist at the end, it's one of the grimmest films I've seen in ages!
(I hope it would come out on DVD, but being a short film I suppose it won't be possible to get hold of it. Maybe it'll appear on some late-night TV channel at some point, in which case well worth looking out for.)
American History X (1998)
Quite good if you overlook the preachiness
Film about a neo-Nazi skinhead whose prison experiences convert him into a clean-cut all-American good boy, accompanied by soaring music. He then tries to convert his neo-Nazi skinhead younger brother, but it all goes horribly wrong.
There's a notable (and somewhat extreme) scene in which said skinhead has a violent row with his mother's Jewish boyfriend over the family dinner table.
However the film is slightly marred by its worthy, preachy & at times overwrought tone. This is borne out by the fact that it actually ends with a cutesy moral about loving thy neighbour. (Just in case we were too thick to get the point.)
Hey, stoopid, this film's about race!
To misquote somebody, no film ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the public. And this film is no exception. For in case you should not notice that it is about race, it is laid on with a trowel. Virtually every scene, every conversation, turns clumsily into a racial issue. Forget subtlety, it doesn't pay.
Examples: Scene 1: two cars have a minor collision. The drivers immediately begin trading racial insults. One (Chinese) accuses the other of being a typical 'Mexican driver'. The other driver (Hispanic) says because the first is Asian she's too short to see above the steering wheel.
Scene 2: two innocuous-looking young men (black) feel insulted when a wealthy woman (white) avoids them on the pavement. However - our assumptions are challenged - because the black men then pull out guns and rob the woman and her husband. When the couple get home, they have a loud, embarrassing (and implausible) argument because the man who's right there changing the locks is black, and the woman says he'll make copies of the keys so his 'homies' can burgle the house.
Scene 3: a man (Iranian) is in a gun-shop buying a gun, but the shop owner (white) insults him, saying that he's plotting jihad, and has him thrown out of the shop.
After a few minutes of this I thought it might tone down a bit, but no. It gets worse.
Two policeman (white) stop a couple (black) in a car for no good reason. One of the policeman gropes the black woman, which her husband feels powerless to stop. When they get home she upbraids him for Uncle Tom-like behaviour. The other policeman, horrified at his partner's racist behaviour, reports him to his superior; however the superior (black) doesn't believe him.
A man (white) goes to a health insurance office to ask a woman (black) to pay for his father to see a different doctor. When she declines, he accuses her of having got her job through preferential treatment of blacks.
Two men (black) are driving along arguing about the use of the word 'n**ger' in songs. They accidentally knock over a pedestrian. They look under the car and, seeing that he's Chinese, discuss whether to pull him out from under the car or just drive on.
And so on. White on black racism, black on Chinese racism, Chinese on Hispanic racism - almost every single scene (I'm not kidding) rapidly turns out to be a crude set-up for another racial issue with guaranteed shock-value. Conversations suddenly degrade into racial insults in a way that (though I don't live in Los Angeles) I've never, ever seen happen in real life.
In the second half of the film, it all goes a bit topsy-turvy, as new racial situations turn good guys bad and vice versa. The groping policeman (white) heroically rescues his female victim (black) from a burning car. The other, non-racist, policeman (white) gives a lift to a man (black), then, fearing attack, shoots his innocent passenger dead. Etc. etc. Hey, we may be dumb, but now you're really messing with our heads! Good films seem like reality, but much of this film felt so contrived it was more like watching a formula unwinding. About the only thing it lacked was a big red sign in the cinema saying RACIAL ISSUE, flashing on and off every 30 seconds.
El espíritu de la colmena (1973)
Save yourselves - don't watch this film!!
This film only has two faults: (i) it is completely infantile, (ii) it is unspeakably tedious.
Other than that, it is a masterpiece.
On the first point, it features two tiny tots and their unutterably dull (see below) lives. The kiddywink occurrences depicted by this film are not recommended for viewers over the age of 4.
On the second point, this film is tedious, slow-moving, glacial, set in an empty, dull, windswept part of rural Spain where nothing ever happens. Some sample scenes: One day, the kiddywinks watch a film. Another day, they go to a shed in a field. Another day, a train goes past. Another day, they look at some old photographs. (Whoops - I fear I've just given away the first three-quarters of the movie.)
Each non-event is spread out over far more time than it could possibly deserve.
During the course of the film, I gnawed off my own leg in a bid to remain conscious. Now I can no longer walk, and I want to know who to sue.
Finding Neverland (2004)
Treacly entertainment for the elderly
A curious cross between a pewiod dwama about repressed, moustachioed Edwardians, and a twinkly paean to the imagination of little kiddywinks.
Though beautifully filmed throughout, the latter episodes (accompanied by tinselly music) are so cringingly saccharine that at times I wondered if the film was aimed at an audience of five-year olds. Yet the other themes of infidelity, disease and death seemed strangely inappropriate for tiny tots.
But then it all made sense: surrounding me in the cinema were hordes of old age pensioners, who though unaccustomed to such new-fangled forms of entertainment, could relate perfectly to being a tiny tot in Edwardian times, being almost of that generation. And so they found the film delightful.
I, still having full command of my faculties, was not so keen, though in time I hope my toes will uncurl without surgical intervention.
Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004)
Best documentary I've seen this year
A fairly devastating expose of the tissue of lies which spewed out from the Bush administration between 9/11 and the Iraq invasion.
What gives this film credibility is that it consists almost entirely of interviews with numerous experts - CIA agents, weapons inspectors and US government officials - who contrast what they knew to be the case with the distortions and blatant lies the US government spun to the public, and which are now unravelling. Everything from the entirely non-existent connection drawn between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein - which thanks to Bush a majority of Americans still believe are related - to the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, for which there never was any solid evidence.
These experts spoke out at the time, but were ignored by the theoretically free but largely patriotic and unobjective American media, which chose instead to toe the government line for far too long. This is why too many Americans continue to have little grasp of the facts (or indeed of foreign affairs generally), and voted Bush back in.
Though I have some admiration for Michael Moore, this is a considerably more intelligent and well-argued film than his, and definitely is the best documentary I have seen so far this year. It's a shame it hasn't received wider exposure.
Tôkyô monogatari (1953)
Good, but no masterpiece
This likable film has a simple story of a nice elderly couple who go to visit their daughter and son-in-law in Tokyo, but are made to feel somewhat unwelcome.
This cold-shouldering is somewhat laid on with a trowel throughout, as for example when the daughter tells an enquirer that her parents are just some visiting 'friends from the country'. It was also left strangely unclear (to me at least) just why the daughter was so unwelcoming to her parents - strange since this appeared to be the central theme of the film.
Nonetheless this was generally a pretty good film, and well-acted, particularly by the charming grandparents.
I am however baffled as to why this has gained the reputation of being one of the greatest films ever made, frequently appearing in critics' top 10 favourite movies. After much thought, though, I have a tentative explanation:
Firstly, it's a foreign language film, hence clearly an example of High Art.
Secondly, it's black-and-white and somewhat flickery - this means it must be vintage, a veritable Classic in fact.
And lastly, unlike most flickery black-and-white films, it's reasonably watchable. Hence this must be something quite out of the ordinary - not merely a High Art Classic, but surely a genuine Masterpiece. One of the Greatest Films Ever Made, no less. Yup, that sounds about right.
Worthy but second-rate footage
The premise of this film is certainly worthy. It's a collage of film archive documentary footage which depicts the complete range of humanity and human experience, starting with birth and going on through various themes (love, war and the like), set to an interesting soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood (the music is in fact by far the best bit).
I expect some people thought this film was wonderful, and I came to it well-disposed myself, but ended up thinking otherwise. Sorry to sound cynical, but given a half-decent film archive, a pair of scissors, a roll of sticky tape and a few days, I could have done quite a bit better myself.
It became apparent after a while that almost all of the footage dated from the 70s or earlier, and it certainly showed. Crackly, poor colour, etc. And it was pretty second-rate footage too.
Lots of shots not particularly well filmed, ranging from the uninteresting to the mildly interesting. The themes were worthy (that word again) enough - people being happy, people being sad, people being shot at, etc. But with a handful of exceptions, you just wouldn't have chosen this particular footage to illustrate the themes. Rather than being inspired by the images, I ended up feeling that I was supposed to be inspired by them, but they just weren't very good.
I couldn't help wondering: given the vast scope of this film - potentially depicting all and any aspect of humanity and human endeavour - was this the best that could be found? Given the billions of hours of film that have ever been shot, was this really the top 83 minutes of all?
I'm afraid not. No moon landings, Beatles, Hiroshimas or other spectacular or memorable imagery here. Working down from the top of the pile of all footage ever taken, you'd find this stuff somewhere in the bottom half - not quite cutting-room floor or home video stuff, but not choice material either. Kind of old, mediocre stuff.
I assume the constraint here was budget. Presumably what happened is that the film-makers paid to use whatever they could find in a cheap archive of old footage. You get what you pay for.
And what you got was basically a load of crackly second-rate old footage on worthy themes cobbled together. Sorry to sound cynical, but that's all this film was.
Incidentally the opening few minutes, which includes (literally) about 30 different slow-motion graphic sequences of childbirth (all also apparently dating from the 1970s), are fairly gross and I'm surprised no-one in the cinema passed out or at least walked out during this.
However, as time wore on various people did get up and leave, and in the end I joined them.
Play for Today: Spend Spend Spend (1977)
Classic TV drama which stands the test of time
I went to see this film yesterday at a small viewing in the National Film Theatre in London, and was delighted to find that Vivian Nicholson - the football pools-winning subject of the film - was seated in the row behind me with family & friends, all joking (and sometimes singing) much of the way through. Though a granny now she still seems pretty lively & feisty.
How strange it must be to watch your life represented in fictional form, particularly with the numerous ups and downs (including violent drunken father, illegitimate children, a tragic death and several failed marriages) depicted here. Presumably the film must have been pretty accurate, since much of the dialogue was apparently quoted verbatim from transcripts of Vivian's personal account.
The film played the (then daring) temporal device of alternating scenes from Vivian's harsh early life with scenes of her decline & fall following the football pools win. At the time the director feared this might confuse the viewing public, but it turned out to be clear enough.
Apart from the surprise of finding Vivian herself behind me, the most striking thing about this film was just how well scripted and acted it was, despite being made on a shoestring (with no budget even for title music) and designed for one-off TV viewing. It deservedly won a BAFTA award in 1978. Together with the other best of the Play for Today films (such as Mike Leigh's Nuts in May), these strike me as classics which stand the test of time, much as the Ealing Comedies do. A shame that they are perceived as almost forgotten one-off TV dramas of their day rather than part of the cinema canon.
Derivative and clunky
The noble, inspiring message of this lumbering film is clear, and in case it isn't clear enough it's laid on with a trowel:
Art and human emotions are GOOD. Totalitarian regimes (with Swastika-like flags) who ban them by burning the Mona Lisa and making everyone take regular emotion-suppressing injections (of a drug named something suspiciously similar to Prozac) are BAD.
Despite many comparisons people make to the Matrix, this is far more closely derived from 1984 - everything from the grim communistic cityscapes and downtrodden populus to the Big Brother (or 'Father' as he's called here) figure who broadcasts propaganda on giant screens.
So, though the cinematography is often impressive, you'd have to be a bit dim to think this film was anything like as profound as it obviously thinks it is.
Club Le Monde (2002)
Entertaining British movie with some rough edges
The entertaining independent British comedy depicts the interactions of a variety of characters in a typical nightclub. Much of the script and many of the performances are hilarious - notably the off-his-face raver Mr Sunglasses, and the charmingly innocent public schoolboy Anthony (for whom this new-found world of sex, drugs and alcohol is a fascinating revelation).
On the minus side, the film lacks polish. No doubt due to the low budget, the lack of variety of location and the limited photography give it a static feel. Though there is progression of storyline in individual threads, the film comes across somewhat as a series of sketches rather than a coherent whole - reminiscent in this respect of the Comic Strip TV films of the 1980's.
Overall though it makes for an entertaining enough evening, particularly for a British audience (I'm not sure how many of the characters and jokes would travel).
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Lays it on with a trowel
This anti-drug film is mostly interesting and vividly done, though as the characters spiral downwards towards the end, the films lays it on with a trowel more than somewhat. Rather like a Victorian temperance rally preaching on the evils of drink.
Watch this film and learn how messing with drugs will inevitably cause you to spiral downward into a mire of despond and eternal damnation.
An endurance but worth it
This is a long and extremely slow-moving film in which almost nothing happens. It is quite unlike any other film I've seen.
It is characterized by extraordinary photography, and long periods during which very little occurs. There is no plot as such - a series of eight situations (dreams) which are virtually tableaux.
From time to time people do things like dance in a stylized Japanese manner for a very long time. This can be quite wearing.
However, I sat back, went into a contemplative, meditative state (partial hibernation in fact) and let it wash over me, and I felt it was well worth it.
Intriguing use of time
An intriguing film which plays with time in an interesting way - it is based around the bizarre suicide of a young man, and scenes are shown in no particular order, some from before the suicide and some from after. Often it's hard to tell when chronologically a scene occurs. I like this kind of narrative structure (cf. Pulp Fiction).
Towards the end of the film further scenes are interspersed from an apparently independent storyline about American soldiers during the war. When I saw the film (quite a few years ago) I couldn't work out how this related to the rest of the film at all. But it all seemed to make some kind of sense anyway.
Definitely worth a look.
Passionless Moments (1983)
Remarkable first film
A remarkable first short film by a student (or fresh out of film school) - as much for the script as anything else. I happened to see it on TV as a teenager and then made various other people watch it too when I spotted it coming round again.
The film simply shows a series of short quirky moments in people's everyday lives. For example, a man stretches his arm as he wanders out of his house, and this gesture is mistaken by a neighbour who thinks he's waving at him.
Quirky moments such as these have since become the stuff of observational comedy, except that the ones depicted here are so small that they would pass quite unnoticed if not isolated and commented on by this film.