Monday, 27 June 2011

Slut hiatus (again...)

Sadly I'm back in the position I was in a couple of months ago - my job situation has become precarious once more and I'm having to devote time to finding gainful employment in the Manchester area - pretty tough in the these economically-straitened times.

So I'm less able to keep the old blog up-to-date, at least for the time being. It's very definitely a break rather than a closedown, as I love doing this reviewing thing, but I can't justify spending all my spare time watching crappy movies (step forward The Green Lantern... actually a 4/10 so not that bad) when I have a mortgage to pay and a wedding to save for.

Wish me luck, I'll be back soon.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Films #56-59 - capsule catchups

So I've been too busy at work and at home to be able to post much over the last week, but I'll be back to full-length reviews next week. For now here's a quick roundup of what I've seen over the last week or so. Sadly (or maybe not) I missed the boat on Honey 2  - at some point I do need to post a mea culpa list showing the movies I didn't get chance to see over the year so far. Until then, here's my rundown:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2

In reality, this is very much one for the kids - there's some broad laughs for the family to enjoy, but this (refreshingly) has both eyes firmly trained on its target audience of 7-11 year-olds. Which is fine. Marks against? Well, beyond the smart animations this doesn't offer much that is new to audiences, and generally there isn't any real invention to the storytelling. It's fine watching for the young 'uns, but that's all.


Last Night

By contrast, Last Night is the kind of film that isn't really going to appeal to anybody - unless your bag is watching stilted, messy stories of upper-middle-class New Yorkers dealing with fairly trivial relationship issues. Of course, a good story is a good story regardless of setting - but this is not a good story. The direction is fine, technically speaking, and the performances are OK (Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes struggle through, but my tolerance for Keira Knightley is now officially worn out) but the movie is dull, dull, dull. Avoid.


Kung Fu Panda 2

Another sequel where I missed the first instalment, I quite enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 2. Jack Black is tolerable, the plot is solid and makes sense, and the jokes generally hit the mark. It's hardly Pixar-level quality of storytelling, but the animation is excellent (and my cinema is giving more 2D showings than 3D, which is interesting). Worth a watch, even for grown-ups.


Mother's Day

An interesting setup in this unnecessary remake leads into an overlong, derivative and gratuitously-blood-spattered series of burdensome torture porn. While occasionally scary (I jumped a few times) with alright performances (including a cameo from Troma legend Lloyd Kaufman) this is nonetheless a pretty hateful movie, with too much gore, pain and sadism for me. But if you like that sort of thing, by all means check it out.



It's a big-release week here in the UK tomorrow, with The Green Lantern, The Beaver, Bad Teacher and Stake Land all opening at my local cinema. That means, sadly, there'll be no Potiche, The Messenger or Swinging with the Finkels (actually, that one looked pretty bad), but I do get Bridesmaids mid-week and - a mere week later - the preview for the new Transformers movie is on general release. Summer, eh?

Friday, 10 June 2011

List #5 Top ten... David Lynch Movies

Or rather, the Lynch oeuvre in what is, for my money, it's proper hierarchy of quality - happily, our David's done exactly ten movies. I know, I know, hardly the most original premise for a movie blog list. But Lynch is pound-for-pound my favourite director, so it's about time he got the Slut treatment.

10. Eraserhead

OK, so this one I like the least. It does inhabit a startlingly well-realised visual world, and there's a great money shot with the baby-creature, but this really isn't the kind of film you'd want to see more than once - the very definition of 'not a date movie'. Incidentally, if someone tells you this is their favourite Lynch movie or (god forbid) favourite movie full stop, they're either lying or deranged.


And this is where Lynch just went a bit too bonkers for me. There are great elements to this film - Grace Zabriskie, the Locomotion scene, Harry Dean Stanton, but the overwhelming non-linearality (yes, it's a word now) make this a bridge too far for me. Also it's probably his ugliest film - still visually striking, but the starkness of the digital film stands in contrast to his other gorgeous, textured, celluloid movies.

8. The Elephant Man

Lynch's sophomore flick, produced under the aegis of the indomitable Mel Brooks, is perhaps his most conventional. Here we see a film-maker still finding his feet and mastering his own vision, but nevertheless it's a lovely little film, with dignified performances from John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. Plus it earned a Lynch a couple of Oscar noms - for direction and screenplay.

7. Twin Peaks: Fire, Walk With Me

A much-misunderstood movie that is rather different in tone to the wonderful TV series. It was poorly received on release, but now deserves (and is starting to find) tentative, positive reappraisal. I love it - it's a great slice o' Lynch with plenty of his trademarks - psychological horror, a woman in trouble, a fabulous soundtrack and (buried rather deeply, it has to be said) some black humour.

6. Lost Highway

Lost Highway divides opinion - for some it's a pointless muddle of ideas with a dose of exploitation and a trendy gen-x soundtrack. For others it's a challenging, almost Borgesian, Mandelbrot set of a puzzle-plot, with some great moments of genuine horror and a whole bunch of memorable performances. No surprise then that I'm in the latter camp; it's one of my all-time favourite horror movies too.

5. Dune

*Collective gasp*... really? Dune, that renowned commercial and critical flop, at number five? Well, this is a personal list. And yes, I happen to love Dune in spite of its problems. I love the still-great special effects, the ludicrously overblown dialogue, the fabulous set-design and even the Toto soundtrack. I understand the criticisms, but won't accept them. It's wholly irrational, but I love Dune. Deal with it, mo-fos.

4. The Straight Story

It's commonly considered a departure for Lynch - it's a linear, family friendly (and largely true) story about an old man riding a lawnmower hundreds of miles to build bridges with his estranged and ailing brother. But wait - we've also got small-town America, gorgeous vistas, genuinely good people, folk doing peculiar things, memorable bit-part players, a gorgeous Angelo Badalementi score (his best yet), Everett McGill and a very strong female performance: classic Lynch hallmarks all. And oddly, the older I get, the more I love this movie. 

3. Blue Velvet

From a purely objective point of view, this could be his best film. It is the very epitome of what we now consider to be 'Lynchian' - it's a bleak, horrifying and bizarre tale of the rotten floorboards beneath the flush shagpile that is the American Dream. Kyle Maclachlan set up an entire career here, and Dennis Hopper returned from the wilderness with the best and most disgusting movie villain since Noah Cross; my glass is forever raised to his fuck. A masterpiece maybe - but there are two others I adore even more...

2. Wild At Heart

Hotter than Georgia asphalt, this movie is Lynch at his most playful, outside of the first season of Twin Peaks. It's hilarious, enormous fun and perhaps the one grown-up film that's seen more repeat viewing chez Slut than any other (after The Big Lebowski). It also goes a long way to explain my long-standing tolerance for Nicholas Cage. This movie really does contain multitudes and I'll be exploring it greater depth in the near future, unless I'm begged otherwise.

1. Mulholland Dr.

Excellent choice, Adam...
Just a supreme, all-time great piece of filmmaking. You watch it collapsed back in your chair, mouth agape, marveling at the work of a master artist with a complete command of his medium and vision. Mulholland Dr. contains many things: a baroque deconstruction of Hollywood (and companion piece to Sunset Boulevard), some straight-up horror and exploitation, a perfectly-judged mobius-strip dreamplot, sheer dread, broken dreams, (another) girl in trouble, satire, comedy... there are more wonderful scenes, shots, snatches of dialogues, sounds and images than most directors will manage in an entire career. And it's beautiful throughout. Like Nabokov - or Mozart, or Dali - at the top of their games, this is an ornate and perfect work of genius.

...or am I just spouting nonsense? Thoughts below. Unless you're too busy bein' a smart-aleck.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Intermission: for your re-consideration - another look at January's movies

I've always been a fan of the rating system employed by Little White Lies magazine - they give three separate marks out of five: one for anticipation, one for actual viewing experience, and one for the long-term effect - whether the movie will 'stay with you' and grow its reputation or not. At first this seems like an odd way of ranking movies, but it makes sense to evaluate a film's ongoing impact - after all, this is a big part of what makes a great movie great.

So while I always simply record my immediate impressions of a movie in terms of the mark scheme, I'm going to have a look back at each month from a safe distance - say five months - to look again at the marks given and whether or not time has altered my impressions. I won't actually be doing any Stalinist revisionism by altering the marks originally given, but this might explain why, come the inevitable end-of-year top ten, some 8/10s might be missing and some 7/10s might be included.

First up is January. And look... three simple categories below:

Maybe better than I first thought...

127 Hours really has stayed with me, to the point where I would actually like to see it again to re-appraise it. 7/10 doesn't seem like quite high enough a mark now. The King's Speech, already an 8/10, is really at the upper echelons of its mark - it is beautifully scored, scripted, performed, deigned and edited. Perhaps it's just the republican in me that wouldn't stretch up to a nine, but as with 127 Hours, this film has lingered and grown in my estimation as time has passed.

About the same...

I stand by my 5/10 for Black Swan - an ambitious movies whose problems have not been smoothed over by time. I also wouldn't change the 1/10 given to The Dilemma, still the third worst film I've seen this year so far. The Next Three Days is pretty much the archetypal 6/10 film, so I wouldn't change that either.

Maybe not so good...

In retrospect, 4/10 may have been generous to The Green Hornet given that I have no pleasant memories of this movie at all. Also, I should either raise Drive Angry's rating or reduce Season of The Witch's as it's hard to say which of the two is actually the better. The 7/10 gifted to It's Kind of a Funny Story now seems a little OTT - it's more of a 6.5/10 really: lovable but forgettable.

N.B a not-so-quick-and-easy guide to what each mark means is here.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Film #55 Apocalypse Now

Where to begin with Apocalypse Now? Acres of criticism and commentary have been written on this movie; adding to it just feels like pissing in the wind. I suppose I should start with why I've seen this at all - it's been re-mastered and given a new (alieet limited) theatrical release. Also, this is the original(ish) cut, not the three-hour-plus Redux version. For the uninitiated, this is Francis Ford Coppola's transposition of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, itself set in Belgian Congo, to the Vietnam war (from a script co-written with John Milius). The protagonist, Willard (Martin Sheen) is a US army captain tasked with assassinating the rogue colonel Walt Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an man of prodigal talent and intellect who has set himself up as a kind of deity deep in the Cambodian jungle. The film follows Willard on his journey downriver to carry out his mission, facing ever more bizarre and grotesque aspects of the conflict en-route.

It’s a film of extraordinary ambition – hubris, even – and it just doesn’t come together in the end. There are moments of sheer brilliance; no film has ever quite managed to convey the confusion and insanity of warfare quite as well. But there are some serious flaws, largely relating to plot and structure. Episodic by nature, I wonder if today this might have been made as an HBO series. It would be better served by the format for obvious reasons, though we would lose the blissful cinematography of Vittorio Storaro.

And for me it’s this visual magnificence that is the key achievement of the film. No other film I’ve seen this year, and few ever, look as good as Apocalypse Now. The broad jungle shots, the dynamic action sequences, napalm along the treeline... this film stands alongside the combat photography of Tim Page, Peter Hodierne and others as being one of the key artistic visual products of the conflict in Vietnam. It is sonically brilliant too –not just The End and Ride of the Valkyries, but also the synth-heavy score, now oddly reminiscent of Scarface and The Terminator.

As every knows, the fundamental flaw of the film is the Winchester-Mystery-House-esque story – it’s messy, overlong and lacks real structure. By the time we arrive at Kurtz’s temple-compound – and lord-knows we’ve taken bloody long enough to get there – the movie really does start to drag, and the mind wanders to grocery shopping and uncompleted errands. The story is episodic almost to the point of being picaresque, and that does not make for a great movie story. I don't want to come across as being overly trad and McKee-ish - I'm fine with movies that break rules and take risks, as long as there is a payoff in the film's artistic worth or entertainment value. And in the case of Apocalypse Now, there isn't.

A less serious, though still significant, misstep is the casting of Marlon Brando as Kurtz. The thirty-plus years of hindsight have not been kind to a performance that now seems almost comical. His mannered and heavy-handed take on a character that has plenty for an actor to work with sadly typifies the pomposity and staginess of later Brando. His mumbled delivery of the (undercooked) monologues undermines his devilishness - Conrad’s original Kurtz is far more compelling and, ultimately more horrifying.

Of course, there are some genuinely superb performances too. Frederic Forrest is excellent and self-contained as the I-can’t-take-this-shit-anymore engineman Chef, Albert Hall's boat chief goes from assured to skewered with aplomb, and of course we have Robert Duvall's iconic bravura turn as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. Martin Sheen does well too, occupying the Marlow role with a kind of hangdog detachment that seems like the only sane response to the world that is collapsing around him.

A quick note on the re-mastering: having never seen this on the big screen before, it may be that I’m not well-placed to comment - but I didn't really see any difference. It looked great and sounded great, but then hasn't it always? Of course, it was a welcome opportunity to see a cinematic touchstone in the theatre, so I'm not complaining.

So, a film that grazes celestial highs in its production and imagery, but ultimately is consumed by its own scale, scope and ambition. Nevertheless, it is the noble failures’ noble failure, a cinematic event of a movie that is hard to truly love but cannot be dismissed.


Sunday, 5 June 2011

Intermission: Slut ratings... explained!

It’s marks out of ten - how hard can it be, right?! Well, lest I appear unduly harsh - and I've been challenged on this a few times by friends - I thought I’d give a wee breakdown of what it means exactly to get ten (or zero) out of ten.
There are eleven possible marks then, from zero to ten, and I’ll run through them in ascending order:
0/10: not only is this film dull/stupid/unentertaining/shoddily-made, it has no redeeming features whatsoever and, furthermore, is actively offensive. As with the top rating, this can be quite a personal category – for example, both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones would receive this mark from me. Less controversial examples would include Sex and the City 2 and this year's Just Go With It.
1/10: a very, very poor film. Probably as 0/10, though perhaps not as offensive, or maybe there’s a single scene or performance that precludes the film from the lowest mark. The Dilemma fell squarely into this category.
2/10:  One to avoid. Not the worst film, just sub-standard dreck that isn't worth anyone's time or money. Even it is well-intentioned, the film is deeply, deeply flawed. An example might be Clint Eastwood's disastrous Hereafter.
3/10: Bad, but in an unremarkable way. There are probably one or two redeeming features – a good score perhaps, or joke or two that hit the mark. If you’re passionate about the genre or perhaps one of the individuals involved, then it might be worth seeing – but prepare to be disappointed. Examples from this year include Paul, Hall Pass and Season of the Witch.
4/10: Multiplex mediocrity or dull arthouse failure. It’s certainly possible to sit through the film, but don’t expect to be particularly entertained, moved or amused. Worth seeing only if there's nothing else better or, as with the 3/10s, if you happen to be a big fan of a director, actor or the genre in general. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the mark I've given most frequently over the year so fear, with nearly a quarter of all films receiving a 4/10. Films that epitomise the rating include Pirates 4, The Rite and Fast & Furious Five.
5/10: An OK film, it may be an unimaginative but competent genre offering (e.g. I Am Number Four) or a movie with higher aspirations that is flawed yet noble (e.g. Black Swan). Probably worth seeing if the genre is your cup of tea or if the subject mater piques your interest.
6/10: A decent effort, worth a look. 6/10 films are well-crafted, entertaining yet ultimately forgettable - like The Next Three Days or Rio; or they may have higher ideas that don't quite work out - but an worthwhile viewing experience still remains, as with Barney's Version.
7/10: A good film. Not one for the ages, perhaps, but good solid entertainment that is well made and solidly performed. The story is compelling and probably quite original, or least has original elements that elevate it above the morass. From this year The Fighter, Attack the Block and Source Code are good examples.
8/10: An excellent film, something that has really extraordinary elements and is entertaining, profound and substantial. If it’s a genre piece, it will be something that stands out as a classic of its kind (e.g. Back to the Future, Gremlins, or Four Weddings and a Funeral) - The King's Speech and 13 Assassins qualify from this year. Alternatively it may be a kind of ‘flawed masterpiece’, i.e. there are elements of the film that would lift it up to a 10/10, but it is problematic in other ways. Apocalypse Now is a good example of this.
9/10: A tour de force, likely to be considered a classic. Examples might include The Shining, City of God or Fargo. If it’s a genre piece, it transcends to stand simply as a superb piece of film-making and could be seen as the pinnacle of the craft – perhaps Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Airplane!. Only Animal Kingdom and Senna have achieved this rating so far in 2011
10/10: An all-time great, as close to flawless as a film can get. Examples would be The Godfather, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Chinatown. This is probably the most personal and controversial category in which to place a movie. No films from 2011 have achieved this rating (so far)
Of course, there will be some films that are quite hard to fit into this framework (Le Quattro Volte springs to mind), so do take these definitions fairly loosely. Hopefully this illustrates why the marks I give might seem a bit harsh - they aren't really, it's a just a sliding scale that allows for the very best at the top and the very worst at the bottom

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Film #54 Senna

I've mentioned previously that I've really been looking forward to this, and I'm delighted that Cineworld (I'll name them, as they deserve credit) have seen fit to give it a nationwide release - unusual for what is ostensibly a niche-interest documentary feature. I'd seen the trailer a couple of times too, and it really took me back to a silver age of motor racing, back when I was a kid and used to love watching Formula One and seeing those men race - men who now seem like gods-that-walked-the-earth: Prost, Mansell, Patrese, Piquet and of course, the handsome, puckish, charismatic & superfast Ayrton Senna - the sporting hero of my youth.

To talk of a plot in a documentary sounds silly, but the story here - culminating in the infamous crash that caused his death in 1994 - really does build like a drama. Starting out in Senna's early days, through his monumental for-the-ages rivalry with the more pragmatic and politically minded Alain Prost and on to his death, all of the footage is archive footage from old interviews, TV race footage and so on. There is no narrator, nor are there recent interviews or talking heads. This is a bold move on the part of director Asif Kapadia, yet it works beautifully. The entire film has a sense almost of found footage, or lost pieces of a wonderful feature film that was never made.

There is also boldness in putting Senna's deep spirituality front-and-centre, a trait that was well-known to his enormous Brazilian fanbase but rarely came across to Europeans. For Ayrton, racing was a religious experience that brought him into communion with God, and watching some of the prolonged 'on-car' mid-race sequences, the audience does come close to understanding the meditative stillness that can be derived from maintaining such complete control.

I can only urge you to go and see this, whether you have any prior knowledge of F1 or not. It is a masterclass in documentary (and highly cinematic too; well worth seeing on the big screen) - it's smart, funny, gripping, horrifying and as moving a piece of cinema I've seen all year. As a window to an extraordinary man's soul, it is a phenomenal piece of work. I've got no hesitation in giving it a:


Friday, 3 June 2011

List #4 Top Ten... LGBT moments in British gangster flicks

With the emphasis very much on the 'G' and the 'B'... 
It's time for the Friday list, and as part of YAM magazine's 2011 LGBT Blogathon I've brought forward this list, which I've had in mind for a while. It's always surprised me, the extent to which (male) homosexuality pervades the British gangster genre. This may be in part down to the traditional semi-acceptance (or at least tolerance) of gay mobsters in the UK (as opposed to the much more macho gangster culture in, for example, Italy, the USA, Latin America, Russia etc), or there may be something more deep-seated going on. Frankly, I don't know enough about either the genre or the subculture to qualify any arguments - this is simply a frivolous and fluffy look at my fave queer moments in Brit gangster movies. So here goes:

(By the way, I'm discounting Donal McIntyre's A Very British Gangster on the grounds that, while feature-length, for my money it's a TV documentary, not a gangster movie.)

10. High Heels and Low Lifes
Not a great film by any stretch, but Michael Gambon excels as queer kingpin Kerrigan, exultantly wallowing in foam baths and sipping flash cocktails.

9. The Italian Job
Noel Coward as king of the underworld? Absolutely! Top scene has to be the round of applause from the lags that Coward's Mr. Bridger recieves on entering prison - you can see a twinkle in The Master's eye, as if to say 'all is right in the world'.

8. The Long Good Friday
In which gay gangster and associate of boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), Colin (Paul Freeman) gets bumped off in the swimming baths early on by a startlingly twinky Pierce Brosnan, playing an IRA hitman in his debut film role.

7. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Lock Stock is an aggressively hetero film with obvious (and, presumably, unintentional) gay undertones - you don't have to be a trained psychoanalyst to read much into all those big pointy guns. However, one scene takes the cake - how about one gangster beating another to death... with a rubber penis? Stick that in your pipe, Dr. Freud.

6. Layer Cake
A worthy inclusion if only for the line "He was never gay... Larry used to say 'fuckin' females is for poofs.'"

5. The Krays
It could be argued that real-life celebrity mobster Reggie Kray took the phenomenon of the gay gangster overground, so it's surprising that there's very little homosexuality to be found in the twins' biopic. However, what little there is - and there's not much more than a peck on the cheek - was enough to cause more shock and outrage than any of the (copious) violence.

4. The Long Firm
So I'm cheating now - this was a BBC miniseries - but it cries out for inclusion. Mark Strong's complex, Judy Garland-loving racketeer Harry Starks - based, inevitably, on Reggie Kray - is noe of the great gay gangster performances. Best moment? Any interplay between Strong and Derek Jacobi as the somewhat dissolute aristo Lord Thursby, based on the real-life relationship between Kray and Conservative MP Lord Boothby. 

3. Sexy Beast
"Men or women?", "Oh... absolutely" - thus runs the exchange between slick 'prince of darkness' Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) and upper-crust banker Harry (James Fox) at a posh West-End orgy, a prelude to a somewhat waterlogged sex session. Also later features illegal penetration in a steam bath (sorry). 

2. Villain
A great forgotten gangster flick (and a nasty one at that), Richard Burton - yes, that Richard Burton - stars as Vic Dakin, a bank robber based on, yes, Reggie Kray - with a very young Ian McShane as his boyfriend. Best moment? Tricky (especially given that the major love scene between Burton and McShane was deleted from the final cut), but their first on screen kiss is a helluva moment - apparently ladies-man Burton claimed that McShane 'reminded me of my wife'-  Liz Taylor, of course. Make of that what you will. 

1. Performance
The daddy of them all, it's hard to pick a single moment from Cammell and Roeg's wonderful, trippy, unique movie. Perhaps the sequence in which Mick Jagger, transformed into a slicked-back gangster, lip-synchs to his hit Memo From Turner before a gaggle of queer old hard men; the induction of James Fox's cockney crim into a bisexual ménage à trois by Michele Breton and Anita Pallenberg is also noteworthy.

I was torn on whether or not to included Vincent Cassel's closeted, voyeuristic vor in Cronenberg's London-set Eastern Promises, but decided against it - he's supposed to be Russian, after all. And while I included Lock Stock (because it's so blatant) there are a plethora of gay-subtexted Brit crime flicks, from Get Carter to Gangster No. 1 and many more besides. We could also have had Ray Winstone in London Boulevard or Ian McShane (again) in 44-Inch Chest, though I've not seen either of those movies. Nor did I catch the by-all-accounts pretty poor Mojo, this time starring Harold Pinter as the queer top dog.

As ever, comments below please.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Film #53 Le Quattro Volte

OK, OK, hands up on this one - I didn't see this at my local multiplex. This is an art-house offering, so I boogied on down to Manchester's Cornerhouse cinema to see it.

And why? Well, it just appealed. Apparently based on Pythagorean theories of elemental being and transmigration of souls, featuring practically no dialogue at all and largely 'starring' a kid goat, who could resist?

At this point, I'd usually give a flavour of the plot. But there's hardly any point in the case of Le Quattro Volte, it kind of transcends traditional cinematic notions of plot and storytelling Like Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy or, to a lesser extent Alexander Sukurov's Russian Ark, it inhabits an interzone between traditional storytelling cinema and video art. Think Bill Viola meets Animals Do The Funniest Things! 

Filmed entirely in and around a tiny town in director Michelangelo Frammarinto's native Calabria, the camera bears witness to a range of loosely interconnected human and natural phenomena, from a tubercular goatherd's daily routine to the peregrinations of the aforementioned kid goat through to the chopping down of an immense tree and its eventual transformation into charcoal. Frammartino himself has talked about the influence of Pythogoras (a fellow denizen of southern Italy) on the film, particularly the notions of reincarnation through the four states of being: human, mineral, animal and vegetable (the title translates as 'The Four Turns'). There's a surprising amount of Christian imagery in the mix too, though it's seen almost in a natural-historical context. With practically no dialogue, it's all left open to the audience to make what they wish of it.

Sadly though, and I hate to say this - it's just a wee bit dull . That's not to say it won't stay with you after watching - I have a feeling I'll be daydreaming about aspects of this - but actually sitting through it for an hour and a half... it's just kind of boring. And the sound - while interesting inasmuch as it is entirely natural with no score - is irritating: I'll be happy to never hear another bloody cow bell (as opposed to cowbell) for as long as I live.

And the film suffers from a further disadvantage: not since Inland Empire have I been so conscious of a film being shot digitally. Of course it makes for cheaper production, but if ever a film was crying out to be captured on lovely, textured, characterful 35mm film it's Le Quattro Volte. I'd go as far as saying that the use of the non-analogue technology constitutes an intrusion onto the film's central thesis. Sorry if that sounds a bit geeky - but I like my movies to be beautiful, and this is not as beautiful as it should have been.

An oddity, then, and a fairly pretentious one at that. It's noble, unusual and curious yet not particularly entertaining - but then it's not really meant as entertainment.


List #3 Top Five... books that should NEVER be made into films

Friday is list day, but, inspired by this post at Wide Screen World on books-of-the-movie, I was immediately given to think about which books I really don't want to be turned into films. Because you just know that one day, they will be...

5. Marvel 1602
Even in light of the recent success of X-Men: First Class, I would still hate to see this fabulous re-imagining by Neil Gaiman of the Marvel universe in the Tudor Age of Discovery. The setting & story just fit perfectly with the comic-book medium; a film adap would greatly diminish the concept, particularly given the episodic nature of the plot.

4. Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell
Susanna Clarke's literary wizarding classic was optioned by New Line in a post-Potter/LOTR myths 'n' magic frenzy, though production has never really got going. I suppose this could work, in the most basic terms of the plot, but it would lose all of the beauty of this unusual book - for a start, it's massive, and for a second thing, much of the exposition and in-universe detail is explained through footnotes and other literary devices that can't work on screen.

3. The Master & Margarita*
In 2004 I saw a pretty dreadful theatrical version of Bulgakov's classic Satanic satire - not the fault of the company, I should add: I just believe this book to be unadaptable. That said, I was twenty pages into writing an adaptation myself a few years back before my old PC crashed and I lost everything, which is probably for the best. Terrifyingly, Andrew Lloyd Webber was planning a stage musical version; thankfully this has now been kiboshed.

2. The Corrections
Notorious Oprah-dodger Jonathan Franzen's meisterwerk was optioned ten years ago, with a screenplay in production ever since. It doesn't surprise me that it hasn't reached fruition, given that the (brilliant) novel surely just contains too much to be viable on-screen. Even a 10 or 15 hour mini-series wouldn't really do justice to the multifarious and deep strands of social commentary involved.

1. The Secret History
This one's been looming on the horizon for some time, though I do wonder if it'll ever be made. A heady mix of sex, murder and Dionysius at an exclusive Vermont liberal arts college, Donna Tartt's book sold millions worldwide, making it pure catnip to studio execs (horny teens + proven source material = $$$). Word is that the property has been passed from pillar to post and remains in limbo for the foreseeable future.

I can think of a fair few others, but the above are books I feel particularly passionate about. What it really comes down to is the fact that, while the book and the film are both great media for storytelling, they have completely different strengths. Films are more immediate and have a visual, kinetic and sonic palette that books obviously lack. Novels are harder work, but correspondingly much more immersive and detailed, allowing for far greater character development, an almost unlimited attention span on the part of the reader (if the book's good enough) and much more freedom to bend or break the basic rules of storytelling.

As ever, comments and opinions are welcome...

*I'm cheating slightly here, as M&M was actually made into a film a few years back. However, given that it was a Russian production that never actually saw release, I think it still counts. It's a really brilliant novel BTW.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Film #52 X-Men: First Class

Perhaps against better judgement given the standard of recent comic-book adaps, I've been looking forward to this. For one thing, I'm a big Matthew Vaughn fan (Layer Cake is an undersung classic); for another, the cast list looks great - even beyond the main players, I'm always happy to watch Ray Wise, Oliver Platt and, of course, Kevin Bacon.

So, for those who haven't been paying attention this is a prequel/reboot (preboot?) to/of the Bryan Singer X-Men movies. Set in the early sixties against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's basically an X-Men creation myth: Magneto and Charles Xavier, allies this time, are played by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy respectively. Bacon is the main antagonist, Sebastian Shaw, intent on bringing mutant-breeding nuclear apocalypse to the world via military confrontation between the superpowers. Xavier, Magneto and their team of young, untamed mutants (including a junior Beast, Havok, Banshee and Darwin) are tasked simply with stopping him.

I'm delighted to be able to say that it was great - really top-quality entertainment. Unlike more recent superhero outings it's played fairly straight, and because it eschews the sly-winking nudgery of the Iron-Man/Avengers sequence it ends up being much the better film for it. The story, fundamentally, is solid and gripping - of course it's fairly silly, but if Watchmen proved nothing else, it's that comic-book adaptations shouldn't take themselves too seriously, and X-Men: First Class walks the line with aplomb.

The performances are excellent too, particularly Fassbender as the tortured Magento/Erik Lehnsherr - bringing many subtle touches to the stateless character, speaking impeccable Castilian Spanish in Argentina etc. -  and Bacon as the Bond villain, immaculately sleazy in white blazer and crimson cravat. Additionally, Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique is given a chance to actually be a rounded character rather than a plot device, and January Jones adds an assured sexiness as villainess Emma Frost.

A word on the direction: I've declared my prejudices above, but Matthew Vaughn was an inspired choice as director - he's ultra-stylish, with a dynamic approach to mise-en-scene/shot and an intelligent way of visually hinting at the evolution of these flawed superhumans. The set design and props are marvellously, gorgeously sixties (I particularly loved the VTOL Blackbird) without veering  into Austin Powers self-parody. Throw the wardrobe department from Mad Men and you've got yourself a very good-looking movie.

If I have to have a few gripes, then I suppose the score was a bit overblown, there was a touch too much CGI and for all the build-up, the final confrontation is dealt with quite quickly (odd, seeing as the film is also overlong). The Russians, as ever, are ludicrously caricatured - all eyebrows and raised voices. And of course there's nothing transcendent about the film - it's played pretty safe throughout, though you really shouldn't expect much more from a Marvel movie. What we do get, however, is a well-crafted, entertaining film that is undoubtedly the best out-and-out Hollywood popcorn flick of the year

[NOTE: I originally gave this an 8/10; frankly I don't think this was worth an eight, so I've sinced revised it downwards to a still-worthy seven