Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Year In Film So Far - The First Seven

You know that thing when, if you’re looking directly at something, you just can’t see it? Well, my hindbrain is ticking away trying to put some bits and pieces together whilst I hurl fistfuls of Haribo into my mouth. To distract myself and stop me from paying too much attention to what’s going on back there, my forebrain thought I should do something completely different - which is why I'm chucking down some brief impressions of the films I’ve seen this year so far.

The Big Steal (1949, Don Siegel)

Don Siegel made a slew of my favourite movies of all time: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dirty Harry. Escape From Alcatraz. Charley Varrick. The Shootist. But this minor, early B-movie was made long before any of those, back in his journeyman director days, before the legend “A Siegel Film” really meant something.

The tagline pretty much says it all: “Mitchum is HOT! - location in the heart of Mexico...HOT...after a girl with a million-dollar figure! the nation's his newest picture!”

The selling point is Bob Mitchum tossing off one-liners on a location shoot in Mexico. The entire plot is a MacGuffin. Something about money and thieves and guns and chases. That’s all that really matters. Mitchum drawls and charms just the way we like it, William Bendix snarls and chews the scenery as the Heavy, and Ramon Novarro almosts steals the picture away from both of them as a pragmatic, self-serving Mexican police inspector. Fluffy, forgettable fun.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2001, Sean Durkin)

If you stripped away the non-linear storytelling and this played out chronologically, it would reveal that this isn’t quite as interesting as it thinks it is. And I’d guess that the most fascinating elements probably only pay-off if you have some rudimentary knowledge of the Manson Family and their modus operandi. That makes it sound like I didn’t like it. I did - there’s something quietly menacing that permeates the whole thing that I liked a lot. And, yes, John Hawkes is great. He is always great.

The Loved Ones (2009, Sean Byrne)

There were enough bizarre, unusual and grisly set-pieces in this Australian slasher to keep my interest, but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t add up to a great deal by the time the end credits rolled. It almost feels like they deliberately set out to make a particularly quirky, kitsch chapter in the Saw series.

Boarding Gate (2007, Olivier Assayas)

Asia Argento gives a fantastically committed and supremely watchable performance in a film that just doesn’t deserve it. Frustratingly enough, there is the kernel of something worthwhile here - how people, money and information are moved around the world, illicitly or otherwise, all wrapped up in the superficial trappings of a psychosexual thriller - but the execution destroys it. Michael Madsen sleepwalks through his scenes with a very odd, detached energy about his performance. Too many scenes are hobbled by weird, counterintuitive camera placement and staging, doused with sterile soap-opera lighting and choked by ponderous, ultimately fruitless conversations that don’t do the film any favours. (Having said all that, I heartily recommend Steven Shaviro’s robust defence of the film. He almost convinced me that I’d badly misjudged it. And, to be fair, Boarding Gate is better than Assayas’ next feature, the noodling middle-class navel-gazing of L'heure d'été.)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

As much as I'd like to avoid using a hackneyed, overused and abused word like “masterpiece”, there’s really just no point. This is a masterpiece. My first big-screen outing of the year - a 35mm presentation at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, complete with Intermission. And it was phenomenal. It was the sound that really got me. I could feel it vibrating right through me towards the end. Co-writer Arthur C. Clarke once commented, "If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered." Don’t worry, Arthur, 2001 is still sufficiently opaque, and dazzling with it.

The Anderson Tapes (1971, Sidney Lumet)

Almost perfect. Lumet behind the camera. Sean Connery bold enough to dispense with a toupee for the first time on screen. A spiky, beautiful turn from Dyan Cannon. The score by Quincy Jones bounces between the dissonant bleeps of obsolete telecommunications kit and upbeat, funky jazz appropriate for a great heist movie. “And introducing Christopher Walken”.

I said “almost perfect”. Perfection would be a double-bill of The Anderson Tapes and The Hot Rock.

Halloween III Season of the Witch (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace)

It doesn’t bother me that this breaks with the format of the series and isn’t part of the continuing saga of Michael Myers. What bugs me is that this should be scary, or funny, or both. And it’s none of those things. At one point, it could have been blessed with the credits: Written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Joe Dante. That could have been something very special indeed. Instead, we have this stinker. And I still can’t get that excruciatingly irritating “Silver Shamrock” jingle out of my head. (I nearly posted a YouTube clip of it here, but that would just be cruel).

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