Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon/Jim Rash, 2013 )

The opening moments of The Way Way Back highlight an age-old rating system that every teenager has entertained in their mind – or they have at least discussed it in a playground: What would you rate yourself? Duncan (Liam James) struggles to answer, venturing a ‘6’ while his Mum’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) ignores his answer and claims that Duncan is a ‘3’. This disconnect and conflict in values between Trent and Duncan provides the backbone to the film as Duncan desperately escapes the clutches of the family and finds solace in the Water Wizz – a water park owned (or at least managed) by Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen and Duncan strike up an unlikely friendship and Owen becomes a temporary father-figure to coach Duncan in life – ensuring that Duncan acts “like a man” by ogling the bottoms of girls and understands sarcasm.

Likeable, twee and inevitably a “favourite film” for those who relate to the nervous, awkward teenager, The Way Way Back plays it safe and seems to show a formula that clearly “works” for the indie film including a large cast that recalls Little Miss Sunshine (Toni Collette and Steve Carrell appear in both) and the use of the summer as a time for change for shy, reserved boys – recalling Adventureland and Youth in Revolt.

The personal, yet “we’ve-heard-it-all-before” sentiment, that resolves the many situations may be illuminating and important to Duncan but they fail to address the complexities of others. Trent’s image-obsessed daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) is merely a character to be mocked as she appears to be an extension of Trent himself – in one moment, Steph shouts at Duncan about where he has been and how he has “ruined everything”; it would be nice to see Steph’s own worries and how she too – like Duncan – is often left to her own devices to find entertainment. This could be asked of many characters, but even Trent is clearly “bad” while Duncan’s Mum, Pam, is “good” – is it possible that Trent may be trying to change through Pam’s influence? Could Pam be a problem herself? In the Water Wizz world, there is no grey area – it’s all black and white. Or blue and yellow. But maybe that’s too complicated, eh, buddy?

The mantra of The Way Way Back is “Don’t Settle”. Sam Rockwell’s lovable, but useless manager, ‘Owen’ offers this advice to coming-of-age Duncan (Liam James) as our teenager vents his frustrations about his Mum’s boyfriend and his worries about the future. Ironically, The Way Way Back seems to have “settled” for direct storytelling and well-known themes. It becomes flat and specific in the ideas it wants to address – without trying to keep a little ambiguity about the challenges adults face. But the comedy is well-written while Jim Rash (a co-writer) and Maya Rudolph as the Water Wizz “family”, alongside a perfectly-pitched performance from Sam Rockwell, do make you consider why we work so hard at all – maybe we should just pack in our jobs and all work at theme parks? The Way Way Back manages to tell a tale of teenage troubles, and how they can be overcome, but when teenagers reflect on their own life, I doubt they will see a truth and instead see the complexities – something The Way Way Back misses out.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)

Alfred Hitchcock, prior to his acclaimed Hollywood masterpieces such as Vertigo, Psycho and Strangers on a Train, had his roots within the German and British cinema system. This month the BFI are celebrating his silent films in the aptly titled ‘Hitchcock Silents’ season. Blackmail, particularly, is a milestone in British cinema as it is considered one of the first “all-talkie” films – and yet I viewed the film as a silent. Indeed, Hitchcock created two versions; one loud-and-proud “all-talkie” version and another (for those cinemas not fully-fitted for sound) silent version. The latter is more difficult to get hold of – and even if you manage to track down the German DVD that includes both versions, you’d find it tricky to hunt down live piano accompaniment to perform alongside. Thankfully, this experience is what the BFI is providing and considering the silent version has different scenes and actors (as they were shot separately), this screening is a rare treat and something to take advantage of when it screens on Southbank.

Blackmail sets-up the usual Hitchcock three-way relationship involving uncomfortable murderers, alongside drawn-out suspense and a grand finale at the British Museum. Flirty girlfriend of police investigator Frank (John Longden), Alice (Anny Ondra), naively entertains a sleazy Artist (Cyril Ritchard). Arriving at his flat, after some creepy and sinister advances, she becomes the victim of an attempted rape. She murders the artist and wanders London as news of the murder spreads – and Frank realises (through a forgotten glove) that Alice is the murderer. He confronts her and, as they discuss the situation, a third man joins the conversation – “Tracy” (Donald Calthrop) – and he also knows who killed the artist and blackmailing the couple.

At only 75-minutes long, this is a short film that manages to cram in an exhilarating story. The dark themes that dominate the first act is a moment that the film harks back to time and time again. Within the artists flat resides a painting of a laughing jester; an image that haunts Alice throughout. And though the murder takes place behind a curtain, the limp hand that falls to signify his death also becomes a reminder to Alice as she walks London and notices arms resting out of car windows and on a ledge. These recurring moments hint at the same type of repetition we see later in Hitch’s career, such as the latch key in Dial M for Murder, or the use of circles in Vertigo.

A stand out film in Hitchcock’s career, the sharp hats in silhouette show how mature Hitchcock already was in 1929. Blackmail is thoroughly enjoyable and sets the scene for the future of his films through narratives and plot-developments we have seen many times. A final chase in the British Museum seems to echo North by Northwest as characters run amongst enormous pharaoh heads leading to a climax as – akin to Saboteur, Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much – Tracy falls from the top of the building, through the glass to a grisly end. But Hitch knows how to end a story and, despite a dated joke as everyone laughs at the idea of a “Lady Detective” (who would think!), a carefully controlled approach and close-up on Alice gives the impression that maybe there is more to her than meets the eye. By releasing alternate sound and silent versions to suit different audiences, Hitchcock ensured he was at the forefront of cinema. Like the continuous-shot-film Rope and 3D Dial M for Murder, In 1929, I’d like to think that many people knew that Alfred Hitchcock himself had much more to offer after watching Blackmail ...

Thursday, 29 August 2013

150W: Whatever Works

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts of a broad range on films...

Whatever Works (Dir: Woody Allen/2010)

Considering the cynical, critical and self-analytical “Larry David” in Curb Your Enthusiasm, it is no surprise that he plays the “Woody Allen” character in Whatever Works. Boris (Larry David) is a chess teacher and former professor. Despite his hyper-critical nature, he becomes the crush of Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) – a 21 year-old runaway Boris finds on his doorstep. Though Allen turns to tried-and-tested narrative techniques (Boris talks to us directly throughout), it feels like a wannabe-Woody film, rather than actually by the New Yorker who directed Manhattan and Annie Hall. It feels dated and doesn’t seem to say anything that we haven’t heard before – and Allen claims the script was written in the 1970’s. Indeed, the characters are simplistic - Deep South folk are repressed; the religious Father is, in fact, gay, etc. Hey, I look forward to the new Woody Allen - but in 2010, we expected much more.

Rating: 6/10

These 150 word reviews are a part of 'Woody Allen Wednesdays' on Flickering Myth

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Thursday, 22 August 2013

150W: Annie Hall

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Annie Hall (Dir. Woody Allen/1977)

Vintage Woody Allen is where you start. Annie Hall is the specific spot. Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) is reflecting on his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). By breaking the fourth wall in the first few seconds, you are caught off-guard. Allen is being honest with you; his audience and friend. He is confiding in you with his innermost feelings and personal outlook – cynical, narcissistic and incredibly funny. He darts from his childhood (“I like leather”) through to his New York Jewish family. Gordon Willis captures deep shadows and warm colours and Christopher Walken appears for mere-minutes in an unforgettable appearance as Annie Hall’s brother. Annie Hall hints at a darker edge – a pessimism that often lurks amongst Woody’s films, but it remains timeless – unlike many Best Picture Oscar winners – and comedians including Ricky Gervais and Larry David owe Woody Allen here. Indeed, where would comedy be without Annie Hall?

Rating: 10/10

These 150 word reviews are a part of 'Woody Allen Wednesdays' on Flickering Myth

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Seven Psychopaths (Dir. Martin McDonagh/2012)

From In Bruges to “In Hollywood”. Seasoned playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh directed his first feature in 2008 to audiences who lapped-up his semi-serious, black-comedy. In Bruges was set within a quaint and picturesque town, so his move to the bright lights and big city of Los Angeles is a different setting to say the least! Seven Psychopaths deconstructs Colin Farrell's script-writing obsessive 'Marty' amidst the wannabe film-stars and Californian cliffs with a dark tone that In Bruges fans will be happy to see again.
Opening on the Hollywood sign, drunk screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) searches for an idea for a script. Marty's drinking-buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) thieves dogs from the rich with the help of kind elderly gentleman Hans (Christopher Walken). Through Billy's criminal enterprise, Marty is dragged into this world as bullets blow-off limbs with “reality” and fantasy colliding as we meet dog-obsessed gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson replaying his smart-alecky but “oh-so-charming” villain we've seen before in Zombieland). Between the script Marty writes and the drama unfolding on-screen, McDonagh's twisty-plot and quirky-characters simply don't hold our attention. The final act of Seven Psychopaths in the harsh-lit desert, drags the film to a convoluted close that we desperately hope would've been more satisfying. Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt even appear in a Pulp Fiction homage 'prologue', before they are promptly shot in the head. Considering neither appears on the poster and casting them purposefully echoed their roles in Boardwalk Empire, the sun had set on these characters as soon as they appeared on screen - and the film is littered with this type or predictability throughout.
Seven Psychopaths flips between a mystery (as we seek to know who each of the Seven Psychopaths are) and the established Hitchcock favourite “innocent man embroiled in criminal activity” plot. Like the mental-states of the psychopaths featured, the story seems to be unbalanced and uncontrolled as we dart between sequences and moments of fantasy and reality without clear rhyme or reason. Rather than playfully toying with the audience, Seven Psychopaths jarringly attempts to shock; arrogantly believing it has pulled the wool over your eyes – when anyone paying a slight bit of attention will see the ‘reveal’ of the final three psychopaths coming a mile off. 
Marty’s conflicted attitude about ending the film refects the directors own difficulties as McDonagh struggles to resolve all seven psychopathic threads. Though highlighting violence in cinema - and its effect on audiences, Seven Psychopaths delivers too late with no clear statement on the issue. 
It is disappointing that such a sharply-shot, gun-toting comedy fails to meet the well-structured film-junkie movie it desperately wants to be and the ambitious ending finishes the film on a whimper rather than the bang it hoped for.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Planes (Klay Hall, 2013)

"See ya, suckers!"


Considering the obvious race-after-race structure of Cars 2 was what many considered - for want of a better word - mechanical, it is surprising that Planes seems to follow the same structure. What was originally intended to be a straight-to-video Disney spin-off, the successful racing sequences inspired John Lasseter - director of Cars and Chief Creative Officer of Disney and Pixar - to release the film cinematically. The lack of a Pixar logo will put fans off, but this film is very much in the mould of Cars 2, with a sprinkling of Cars on the top, creating a film that feels repetitive and lacking heart.

Repeating Radiator Springs

Dusty (Dane Cook) is a crop-dusting plane who is desperate to race in the big leagues - this means an opening act whereby Dusty trains and befriends old-timer Skipper Riley (Stacy Keach) and enters into a qualifying race. Does he fly-high? Of course he does - and we see his significantly smaller plane challenge the big guys as they compete in an across-the-world tour moving from crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the Himalayas and the Pacific. To make matters worse, Dusty is afraid of heights and therefore plans to fly low for the vast majority of the races - and yet, continues to win each time.

In the same manner that Lightning McQueen in Cars and Cars 2 had a group of friends to help him through, Dusty has a very similar combination of friends - Dottie (Teri Hatcher) plays the female friend while Chud (Brad Garrett) is "the clumsy one", just like Mater. Cars held high ambitions and lofty aspirations as it challenged the audience to consider the small-towns that are squeezed off the road by the bigger companies. A story that, in some respects, contradicted what we all believe Disney to be. Ironically, it seems that the personal - but political - story of Cars has been squeezed off the road for toy-focussed, repetitious narrative story-telling. Cars 2, though a financial success, was critically panned but Planes has clearly ignored the criticism and continued full-steam ahead to create a franchise that is clearly about little plastic vehicles and different countries.


In Planes we now have an English plane in 'Bulldog' (John Cleese) and an Indian plane in 'Ishani' (Priyanka Chopra). Maybe Disney realised they had missed a central area of the Asian market and capitalised on it this time with both a core character (Pan-Asia plane 'Ishani') and a romantic sequence that is a celebration of the stunning landscape India has to offer as they glide over the Taj Mahal. No surprise that Priyanka Chopra is a huge star in Bollywood becoming one of the highest paid-actresses after notable performances in films including Andaaz, Aitraaz and Fashion.

Funnily enough, in the 1980's and 1990's, TV-series Jimbo and the Jet Set and Budgie the Little Helicopter anthropomorphised planes and automobiles and, though I recalled the Milkyway advert when watching Cars, these TV series didn't come to mind. This time, they did because it appears that big eyes stuck onto the windows of vehicles are ultimately nothing new. Planes and Cars have become a franchise that children clearly flock towards because they have the immortal enjoyment of characters that can be recreated at home on the floor (as they did in the 1980's and 1990's) - to some extent, this was the same reason Toy Story was a success as it tapped into the nostalgia when adults were young. Unlike Toy Story, the heart of the characters is missing in Planes. As children can create their own versions of Dusty and Dottie, whizzing them across the carpet, it’s worth reminding ourselves that with Toy Story - and any successful children’s film - they would also imitate the characters voices and try to act out the characters they knew. Dusty and Dottie are just boy and girl planes and cars. They have nothing else that is engaging and, unfortunately, nor does the story itself ... but we'll see them again, that's for sure.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth on August 15th 2013

Monday, 5 August 2013

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

"Mind you, even I didn't guess that at once... extraordinary."


Rarely does 3D demand your attention. Avatar broke the mould; Life of Pi brought heart and beauty to 3D; Dial M for Murder is a master filmmaker ahead of his time. When Alfred Hitchcock directed Dial M for Murder almost 60 years ago, 3D existed. In fact, 3D existed under the guise of stereoscopic as far back as the late 1890's as experiments in filmmaking determined the future of the medium. 1922 introduced the first 3D feature-film in The Power of Love, but it was 1952 that became the 'Golden Era' of 3D in cinema. Hitchcock plays with perspective and toys with the foreground and background so that in 2013, when re-mastered and re-issued at cinemas in a limited release, you are expected to attend. Hitchcock has been temporarily re-born to take part in the 3D craze that has dominated blockbuster cinema - and what an incredible film it truly is.

The Theatre

A small-scale story on a par with Rope and Lifeboat, this is a small cast with murder on their minds. Opening on a couple enjoying breakfast, Mrs Wendice (Grace Kelly) spies an article highlighting the arrival of a boat - cut to a smart gentleman (Robert Cummings) stepping off boat; immediate cut back to the house whereby a gentleman and Mrs Wendice are in a heated embrace. Within a minute, we know the set-up: A woman is having an affair and they are deeply in love - and her husband is unaware. This fast and functional start implies that Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings are to lead the thriller but it is only after they highlight their fear, anxieties and conflicted ideas about how to move forward do we meet Tony Wendice (Ray Milliand), her husband - and the man we hold mixed emotions towards throughout Dial M for Murder. He is a victim to their infidelities but his murderous plan is, shall we say, a little unreasonable as a reaction.

Set almost exclusively within a single flat in Madia Vale, the story plays out over three acts. Tony Wendice explains in exquisite detail the plan to kill his wife and his unwilling accomplice Swann (Anthony Dawson) is slowly drawn into his role to play. This intelligent writing and perfectly placed actions and manouvres exemplify the very best elements of theatre as Mr Wendice wipes down each item within the room and lays white gloves carefully on the side - noting to Swann that, if he does pick up anything, to use the gloves. To make matters more fascinating, Robert Cummings plays Mark Halliday - crime journalist and writer. His insights into what could - or could not - be a perfect murder means that we assume he may work out the plan himself. Instead, Hitchcock paces the film gently so that we are intently listening and trying to work out where the story will go. Wendice has planned it out so well - how will it go wrong? If indeed it does. The genius of Dial M for Murder is how we don't particularly trust the storyteller himself - as all the characters are despicable to some extent it is not out of the question that everything goes to plan. Hitch knows us better than that.

Do we benefit from 3D?

Depth of composition and perspective is something that, for Alfred Hitchcock, is not new. Dial M for Murder is unqiue as Hitchcock knew the possibilities of 3D filmmaking and rather than interesting shots taking place at different points, Hitchcock guarantees that every single sequence and shot utilises the 3D feature. The DVD release highlighted many elements of the film that purposefully acknowledged the 3D medium, but David Bordwell on his site Observations on Film Art manages to breakdown almost every single style of 3D Hitchcock uses.

As a adaptation of Frederick Knott's play, Dial M for Murder often situates our perspective from beneath - akin to the experience when looking up to actors on stage. But there is so much more as lamps and chandeliers obscure the shot and create deep persepctive as characters converse; even the characters themselves utilise the perspective. In one sequence, Hitchcock regular John Williams plays the Chief Inspector and as he questions the victim, behind him another character awaits the change in statement the victim is making. Two specific shots are incredible in 3D, and though I won't spoil both - the theatrcial poster whereby the hand reaches out of the screen is a pleasure to watch in three dimensions.

Now is the time ... 

The re-release has been incredibly popular in Toronto and New York - and with screenings at the Curzon, Barbican and BFI, there is no reason it cannot continue to attract audiences. Watching the film on DVD prior to this cinematic release, the story alone was so intrieguing and tense, it was frustrating that films like Dial M for Murder are no more. Indeed, the small-scale, careful plotting and theatricality of the actors is a rare occurence. But it doesn't need to be - those who limit their film-viewing to new releases and post-1977 cinema will benefit hugely from Dial M for Murder. This is a master ahead of his time and one can only hope that many viewers may watch Dial M for Murder as their introduction to Alfred Hitchcock - and if not, watching Dial M for Murder in the way it was intended is fascinating to see too. Viewing at the BFI, families viewed the film together and what an incredible, eye-opening experience that would be.

Originally published for Flickering Myth on 27th July 2013