Argo – Review

Argo (2012) 

Directed by Ben Affleck. Starring Ben AffleckBryan CranstonAlan ArkinJohn GoodmanVictor GarberTate Donovanlea DuVall.

If back in 2001, when the ridiculous Pear Harbor was released, somebody could have told me that in 11 years, one of my favourite film of 2012 would have been one directed by that same Ben Affleck, I think I would have laughed for a good 10 minutes straight. And yet, now despite these preconceptions and against my own pre-judgement I am willing to come out and tell you right now (even spoiling my own review) that I really really really loved Argo!

The film starts off with a mini history lesson: a montage sequence, heavy in exposition, which uses not just archive footage and photographs but also drawings resembling a movie storyboards. At the time, while watching it, I thought it was a weird stylistic choice, but of course, once you’ve seen the film, to have storyboards makes perfect sense, though I still argue whether we actually really needed this sequence all together.

Finally, once the history part is out of the way, the real film can start and audience is catapulted right in the middle of the action as the US Embassy in Tehran is broken into by Iranian revolutionaries and most of the Americans are taken as hostages. Only 6 of them manage to escape and find refuge  with the Canadian Ambassador. Will the US government manage to rescue them and take them out of Iran?

Ben Affleck, the director proves an absolute master at cranking up the tension to unbearable levels: watching Argo is a truly draining experience. In places  the film reminded me of that famous opening sequence in Alan Parker‘s Midnight Express, except that this time, that tension is present throughout the whole film.

The recreation of the 70s setting is impeccable too: I had not seen such a perfect recreation of the 70s  since Spielberg’s Munich. But it’s not just the meticulous art direction, the costumes, perfect make-up and those awful haircuts and hilarious facial hair (seriously, what was wrong with us back then?!) it’s also the way the cinematography works, down to the actual grain of the 35mm film (including some artificially post-produced, and rather effective, film scratches) which what makes this film look like it could have been really made in the 70s. Even the camerawork is reminiscent of those 70s classics (apparently Ben Affleck was quite specific about duplicating camera moves and framing from films like All the President’s Men).

Real archive footage is cleverly woven into the film, either seen through television sets or inter-cut with footage of people filming on portable cameras, as if it was their footage. All this adds an extra layer of reality to the film, making it feel almost like a documentary. The result is timeless film, with the same sensibility and look from those classics from the 70s, and yet at same time, it’s as gripping and fast-paced as a good thriller today so that it can be enjoyed by a more modern audience with their infamously short attention span.

I am sure the film has taken lots of liberties with the  real story itself:  it’s easy to see what scenes must have been beefed-up for dramatic effect and to heighten the tension, but since the final result is so strong and so beautifully done, I’m willing excuse any licence and just go with the film.

It must also be pointed out that among all this perfectly crafted nail-biting tension, the film also manages to be extremely funny in places. Courtesy of Alan Arkin‘s and John Goodman‘s characters and their constant fun-poking at Hollywood segments which serve as a welcome relief from all the anxiety and dread of the rest of the Argo. And even if on paper, the more comical sequences seem to belong to a different film altogether,  amazingly, Ben Affleck manages to balance them perfectly with everything else.

You may argue that the film should probably have ended 5 minutes before it does and that the sequences involving Ben Affleck’s family feel a slightly forced and a bit tagged on and that the in the final resolution, the director gives himself up to the Hollywood way, with sweeping music but to me all this is a small price to pay for an otherwise close-to-perfect film.

Well done Ben, and good luck at the Oscars.

9/10

Flight – Review

Flight (2012) – 

Director: Robert Zemeckis. Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly ReillyNadine VelazquezBrian GeraghtyBruce GreenwoodJohn GoodmanDon CheadleJames Badge Dale.

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD)

After a long 12 years hiatus during which he only directed animated features (The Polar ExpressBeowulfA Christmas Carol) director Robert Zemeckis is finally back to live action film-making. I say finally because I must confess I have always had a bit of a soft spot for his films:  Back to the Future has of course been on the top of the list of my favourite films since 1985, I have also fond memories of a both Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I cry every time Tom Hanks looses his ball in Cast Away,  and despite its many flaws, I still think Contact is a marvel when it comes to camera moves… and then of course the multi-Oscar winner Forrest Gump, a film many people adore (and from which I’ll distant myself, because I seem to be the only one who has some serious issues with it). So basically, I came into this with a certain trepidation, having only seen the trailer once on the internet and thus expecting a slightly different film than the one I actually got.

Flight opens with a gritty, dirty, squalid and pretty-realistic sequence featuring our Denzel Washington definitely not looking at his best, surrounded by all sorts of alcoholic beverages and a naked lady wandering about a soulless hotel room near an airport. Once the first few lines of dialogue start, they include straight away some f**k and s**t . It’s as if Zemeckis is almost trying to prove right from the start to his audience that he’s really left the kids stuff and 3D animated wizardry of his last few years behind and this is a now a serious film for grown-ups.

After this new signature intro we move on to what this film is going to be remembered for and possibly one of the most harrowing, nail-biting flight-disaster sequence since… well, probably Zemeckis’ own Cast Away! I’m not saying that we haven’t seen this sort of things before, of course (Final destination, Alive, Fearless, just to mention a few) but the prolonged nature of this flight-disaster sequence makes it somehow even more powerful and harrowing than I was expecting. Whatever other issues I have with the rest of the film,  this is a first class sequence. Zemeckis has always known how to stage action set pieces and keep his audience glued to the screen and crank up the tension to almost palpable levels and in the end this sequence becomes certainly no less memorable than the one where a DeLorean is speeding through 88Mph to get to the clock tower in time for the lightning to strike (hope you’re with me with this parallel… and if you’re not, what on Earth are you doing on a site called MovieGeekBlog?!).

However very little after that, Flight slowly (in fact quite slowly as the film clocks at around 138 minutes) becomes something quite different and actually turns into a rather conventional film about a drinking addiction and predictably starts to go through all the motions and the classic steps of the genre: lots of drinking, denial, hitting rock-bottom, relapse and of course redemption (this last part incidentally is the one I have more problems with). Don’t take me wrong, there’s nothing here that it’s bad, but I do wonder if it hadn’t been for Denzel Washington’s exceptional performance whether this film would even be considered for the forthcoming award season. Indeed Washington hasn’t really been this good since his Oscar-winning performance in Training day  (In fact I would argue this is a much more difficult part to pull off).

John Gatins’ script is a mixed bag: on one hand it manages to craft a whole series of interesting and carefully calibrated moral ambiguities (this is really the winning part of the film: do you treat Denzel as a hero for saving many lives, even though he was drunk while doing so?). On the other hand, the film is also peppered with some shameless (even rather effective) melodrama. Unfortunately the story moves almost in fits, as it starts and stops and constantly loses its momentum as various characters come in and out sometimes quite randomly (including an interesting but very redundant sequence with an almost unrecognisable James Badge Dale playing a hospital patient dying of cancer). The film shifts even into parody and almost slapstick with the admittedly very funny John Goodman, but he’s only there for a couple of out-of-place sequences and once he’s gone the film goes back to its original pace.

Finally, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood all give the movie some great support power despite some of them being terribly underwritten (particularly so in the case of Kelly Reilly).

The soundtrack is made of a fairly restrained score by the director’s favourite Alan Silvestri and a whole series of older classic songs, something which worked perfectly on Forrest Gump. But while on that one it made perfect sense to have such a top-of-the-pop for the decades, here it felt to me just like an excuse to sell its soundtrack CDs and it’s all quite random.

Eventually, the climax feels a bit overblown and its resolution all too clean and feels quite inevitable. The film also has an extra coda (something to do with Denzel’s son) which I could have definitely done without, and where the old Zemeckis sentimentality from again Forrest Gump seems to resurface.

But it’s hard to dismiss this film altogether: it’s got the heart in the right place, it’s well made, perfectly acted and, for most of it, it’s well handled.

Ironically the film really seems to fly when with the crashing of the plane, but where it should actually be uplifting and soar, it can’t quite take off.

6.5

Skyfall – Review

Skyfall (2012) 

Director: Sam Mendes. Cast: Daniel CraigRalph FiennesJudi DenchJavier BardemBen Whishaw.

Heralded as the Best Bond film in over a decade, or possibly even the best Bond film ever, accompanied by a series of positive feedback and reviews from early screenings and a marketing campaign that only a 007 film can have (before my screening I counted at least 7 different Bond-theme adverts!), Skyfall finally opens to the public.

Right from the word go, you can tell you’re in for something special: as we’ve now become accustomed, the opening sequence is absolutely spectacular. A never-ending chase, through the streets of Istanbul, along the labyrinthine corridors and over the rooftops of the Grand Bazar, and finally on a moving train, ending with a bang, literally! Bond gets shot from the distance and falls off from the moving train, over a bridge down to some deep waters below… How on earth can he have survived the fall is never really explain, but hey, who cares, it’s Bond, James Bond. Logic and plausibility should have been left outside the theatre, before coming to see the film. Later on there will be another impossible escape from a prison, which once again, will not be explained. But then again, the film moves so fast, that it almost doesn’t matter.

However the film never really reaches the heights of that first sequence in terms of action (almost as if the budget had been all blown on that). The other set-pieces throughout are pretty standard fights, shootouts and simpler chases. However what really makes this Bond quite special is its mood, its splendid cinematography (including an ingenious one-take-wonder-fight in silhouette against the backdrop of some flashing neon lights from some advert on a building in Shanghai), but above all, the central relationship between Daniel Craig and Judy Dench. It’s ironic that across all the 23 films, the 77 years old Judy Dench could possibly be my favourite Bond Girl. Ruthless, ice-cold, incredibly charismatic and this time vulnerable too. I will not spoil the ending (though you can see all the various twists coming miles away), but by the time the credits roll, she will be the real star of the movie.

Skyfall (Incidentally, for some reason I had missed the name of the house in Scotland and I cound’t quite work out the reason behind this title) also sees the return of Q (though as Bond rightly says it’s not really Xmas as far as gadgets go), this time as the new geeky young techy genius played impeccably by Ben Whishaw. It all makes me really hopeful for the next future instalments (apparently two more movies are already in the pipeline after this one, with the next one already in production ready for a 2014 release).

And of course no Bond is complete without its baddie and Javier Bardem is one of the best we’ve had in a while. Over-the-top as only he can be, Bardem shares a classic intimate scene with Bond which will be remembered forever: a brave scene, considering Bond’s history, but also brilliantly funny!

Despite the above mentioned sequences in Istanbul and Shanghai, British director Sam Menders decides to play most of the film at home and London is where most of the film takes place. It’s the London we all recognise, with its rain, its Millemiun Wheel, its Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, its Gerking skyscraper standing above the city-line and its iconic “tube” at rush hour which plays as the setting for another chase, though this one rather unremarkable (I must confess, the only fun for me this time was to try to recognise all the various stops).

The film gets more and more intimate, the more it unravels, something which is quite unlike any other Bond movie before, where usually the third act is reserved for the big reveal of a massive lair, or some secret base somewhere in some hidden location. This time  we end up in rural Scotland. Nothing wrong with that, of course. This is a more intimate 007 film, one that focuses more on personal relationship and people rather than dastardly plan from some evil master of crime. Having said that , there is something slightly under-whealming about this last 30 minutes and in the end I couldn’t help feeling a bit let down (especially given the fact that it ended in exactly the way I thought it would… Including the twist).However, we even get given a little bit of a hint into James Bond’s background, something which has escaped us for 23 film, and though it was all just a fleeting moment, it was also a nice welcome novelty into a character who we think we know much too well.

And of course, to complete the mix, we’ve got a shaken Martini, a splendid Aston Martin (with its music cue right from the 60s), the classic “Bond, James Bond” line and a couple of cold jokes (though we are still quite far from the Roger Moore fun-fest).

Daniel Craig, now on his 3rd outing (4th if you count his appearance with the Queen at the Olympics), inhabits Bond to perfection, whether he wears his tuxedo or not. The blink-if-you-miss-it moment where he adjusts his cufflinks right after landing on a smashed train is played to perfection both in terms of timing and tone. Never for moment I regretted I didn’t have Connery, or Moore, or Brosnam (I’m not even going to mention the other two…).Daniel Craig is James Bond!

Slightly shortchanged are the actual Bond Girls this time. Sévérine, played by Bérénice Marlohe is of course beautiful, but ultimately rather forgettable. Eve (Naomie Harris) is a much stronger character (I bet any Bond fan will be able to guess the twist much before it will actually be revealed), but I couldn’t help having a certain detatchment towards her and to be honest I could not care less whether she had lived or die.

In the end, this is one of the stronger Bond movies we’ve ever seen, though certainly not as Oscar worthy as the hype wants us to believe it is (though Judy Dench might get nominated and probably some technical nods will come its way too). It is enjoyable, tense, thrilling, always intriguing,  but I must say, it won’t be one of those I will watch over and over again (aside from that amazing opening).

7.5/10

Ice Age 4 – Review

Ice Age 4 – Continental Drift (2012) 

Directed by Steve MartinoMike Thurmeier. Starring Ray RomanoAziz AnsariJoy BeharPeter DinklageAubrey GrahamQueen LatifahDenis LearyJohn LeguizamoJennifer LopezHeather MorrisSeann William Scott.

On its fourth outing the saga begins to feel a little bit tired, the formula is wearing slightly thin and as the subtlety and freshness are obviously long gone, it all begins to merge into one.

There is nothing really wrong  with Continental Drift, but for the first time I felt slightly too old for this type of fare and I almost wished I had a child with me so that I could enjoy the film a lot more than I really did.

The film starts off with the wrong foot straight away, introducing us to so many different characters that at some point I thought I was going to get lost. It’s obviously trying to pull together all the threads from the various earlier episodes, but by doing that not only it delays the actual story, but also it makes it feel clunky, chaotic, crowded and a bit confusing, and given its target audience that is inexcusable (you may argue that the target audience probably watch the previous parts almost daily on DVD and they are not lost at all…).

However once the plot gets going, it all runs quite smoothly, without too many surprises but also without anything offensive or boring.

This is old-style storytelling for kids and there is nothing wrong with that. The baddie is vicious enough, the hero is brave, the music is fitting for the adventure it’s depicting, and just in case you get bored, you can always count on the interludes with Scrat (though, I must say, even those felt slightly re-hashed from the past).

The animation has advanced a bit from the previous instalments, but it’s in the details more than the actual design and film-making. And while the 3D, as in most animated films, works rather well,in the end  it’s just as un-memorable and unimaginative as the rest of the ride.

But I shouldn’t really criticise it: I guess this is what people want from an Ice Age movie: the familiarity, the cosy feeling that comes being together with some old friends, the easy laughs (fewer out-loud ones I must say), the cute animals and at the end of the day even if you feel you’ve seen it all before, your kids will probably love it.

6/10

Cosmopolis – Review

Cosmopolis (2012) 

Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Robert PattinsonJuliette BinocheSarah GadonMathieu AmalricPaul GiamattiSamantha Morton.

How can anyone enjoy such a self-indulgent pile of unintelligible garbage is really beyond me. A few years ago I used to think Cronenberg was one of the most inventive directors around in America: his early films, though not very accessible in a mainstream sense, have always been at least incredibly imaginative and created some images of nightmares of an almost visceral quality, which would stick in our minds for years and years to come: whether it’s an exploding head (Scanners) or a TV screen literarily eating your head (Videodrome), or piece of ears and fingernails falling off Jeff Goldblum  decomposing body  (The Fly). Even the non-completely successful  Naked Lunch or eXistanZ despite their absurdity, were intriguing enough to keep you glued to the chair and had ideas and inventiveness to fill not just one but two films. And then Crash, of course, I film I really hated  and yet I cannot deny its power.

More recently David Cronenberg seems to have abandoned his visceral style for one which is more cerebral… and his nightmarish images have been replaced by tedious logorroic dialogue and by doing that he’s really lost me… It was only a few months ago that his spectacularly dull A Dangerous Method was released. A film that not only managed to bore the hell out of my me, but which also made Michael Fassbender look quite a banal actor: quite an achievement indeed. But if you thought A Dangerous Method was slow, talky and un-cinemtic, Cosmopolis will go you even further and take you to unexplored corners of boredom and self-indulgness, like few films have done before! How could Philip French from the Observer have called it “riveting cinema” is a real a mystery… Are you kidding me?

I would be willing to bet that if the film had been made by a different unknown director, (and not starred Pattinson) hardly anyone would have even noticed it, let alone raved about it as some people are doing.

There are possibly one of two interesting ideas about the film’s concept, which all come from the novel by Don DeLillo, from which the film was adapted: the journey of a multi-bilionarie crossing New York inside a limousine to have a haircut (yes, that it is).

Whether you read Cosmopolis as a premonition for the economic crash or simply as the descent of a man into bankrupcy, there is no denying that this film is one of those clear examples of an adaptation that should have really stayed on the written page of a book. Because once the cumbersome dialogue gets transposed onto the screen, it really begins to show how proposterous and self-indulgent it all is. And unfortunately that’s all the film has to offer: dialogue dialogue, dialogue… and more dialogue. I have nothing against films built around dialogue and speeches (12 angry men is a masterpiece and that takes place inside a room where people talk at each other!). The problem here is that the dialogue in question is so full of itself , so obtuse, so preposterous, so un-real, so arty, and just so uninteresting, that after a while it really starts to go through you, as opposed to you. While watching this film I literarily found myself wondering “What is it they’re actually saying to each other?!”.

Beyond the dialogue, there’s very little else to admire in this film. The cocoon-like atmosphere inside the limousine is not supposed to be real, but it’s jarring at the best, it’s distracting and after about 5 minutes it becomes just tedious. The multitude of characters that come in and out of the journey, all seem to live in some sort of limbo, and despite their obvious differences, all talk with the same monotone voice those uninteresting lines of dialogue. So much so that it’s actually impossible to tell whether anyone is good in this film. I’m sure they are, because they’re all great actors… Sadly, their skills is totally wasted here. Lots of people asked me: “How is Robert Pattinson? Is he good?”. Well you know what? I have no idea? Mainly because that part is playing is so dull, so unreal, so uninteresting, so un-engaging that after a while not even the charm of Twilight-icon is enough to carry you through.

I’m all in favour of film directors trying new things, experimenting with cinema, trying to follow their personal paths, but when it comes to pointless crap like this, they should really spare us from joining their egocentric selfish trip!

This is an insult to all those Pattison fans out there and a deadly kick on the balls to all of us common mortals who happen to stumble across it. They should really pay us to watch this kind of stuff and it should not be the other way round… (actually I might ask Philip French to pay my ticket!).

Stay well away from it, for your own sake. Let’s not encourage Mr. Cronenberg to pull any of this shit on us again!

4/10

The Amazing Spider-Man – Review

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)  4.0_MG_SMALL

Directed by Marc Webb. Starring Andrew GarfieldEmma StoneRhys IfansDenis LearyMartin SheenSally FieldIrrfan Khan.

When the news of a reboot for the Raimi-Maguire Spiderman was first announced (and not just a reboot, but another ‘origin’ story, only 10 years after the first one), the obvious question on anybody’s lips was “Why on earth?”. What followed was a sort of anti-campaign from fans and critics alike: we all seemed to have decided we were going to hate this film, at all costs. When eventually first teaser was released in 2011, with all that badly CGIed, cartoony, extended point of view shot, looking more like a video-game than anything resembling a real film, we had already made up our minds that new incarnation of Spiderman was going to be not just redundant, but the final nail in the coffin for possibly the most beloved superhero of them all.

Well, I am happy to eat all my words back and say that I could not have been more wrong: The Amazing Spider-man is possibly the best Spiderman movie we’ve ever seen (I would have to watch the second one by Raimi again to really work out which one is now my favourite), but more importantly Andrew Garfield is the absolute ultimate Spiderman.

The line that everybody has been saying over and over again to describe this film is that it is a more realistic version of Spiderman (if you can call realistic the story of a man in spandex swinging through the skyscrapers of New York); what director Mark Webb has managed to infuse in it, is not the usual gritty and dark realism we’ve come to expect from those Nolan-directed Batman movies, but one steeped in real characters and real feelings, where people can be hurt both in a physical and emotional sense. And if you thought the Raimi-directed films were love stories first and foremost, and ain’t seen nothing yet!

The comparison with the previous incarnation of your friendly neighbour,  given the fact that we are meant to buy into another origin story so soon after the first one, it’s not just unavoidable but also quite fair. The ghost of Raimi is constantly behind the corner, but cleverly Mark Webb (who has obviously studied his source deeply and intensely) has manage to avoid most of the obvious comparison by giving the story a completely new spin (you will forgive me the pun), steering away from anything which could give us any sense of Déjà vu, making the story and the characters different enough at each opportunity, giving us a new baddie and a new girlfriend too.

While I was watching it, the only thing I felt I was missing from this version, was that sense of wonder and excitement that came with the first one, when Peter was swinging across NY for the first time. But having now seen it all, I am willing to admit that the film is keeping all that for the end and I was just waiting for it because of my knowledge of the 2002 version.

And of course on this one we get the added dimension given by the 3D technology, which seems to be have been created for this kind of films: I’m not your number 1 fan of 3D, but seeing this in an IMAX Theatre, I have have to tell you I found myself flinching from time to time and having a sense of vertigo that I am sure it would not have been so strong if it had been in 2D. So for once, kudos to the gimmick!

The final result is a film that manages to be just as fresh and exiting as if it was a completely new story, and it still manages to keep us guessing, thrilled and entertained throughout.

Somebody may argue that, clocking at around 136 minutes, it is all probably too long, but not me. Never once I felt anything was superfluous or in need of a trim. Andrew Garfield is so good and likeable in the main role and the chemistry with his co-star Emma Stone so sweet and believable (Yes, I know those 2 are together in real life too, and it shows) that I was just happy to be in their company. And even if Mark Webb took his time before the new Spidey costume made its first appearance, I would have been absolutely fine without seeing it for even longer. And if the film works as it does it’s because we do actually spend some proper time with these characters. It’s crucial that those scenes don’t feel rushed.

Rhys Ifans as the one-armed scientist/lizard, has enough screen-time  to flesh out his character into not just your stereotypical baddie, but a proper two-dimentional persona, making that extra twist at the end even more believable  (and giving Alfred Molina from Spiderman2 a run for his money for the top spot on Spidey’s best enemy list).

One the downside, James Horner‘s music, while one one hand was nicely judged on some of the more intimate and poignant moments, felt too saccharin and sweepy in what should have been much quieter scenes, but more crucially, it seemed to lack that Hero-theme which this type of films require. The kind of theme you can still hum by the time you leave the theatre, just like in Superman or Indiana Jones or even Harry Potter  (God, is John Williams really the only composer who’s able to do that?).

I’m also in two minds about the costume itself (I know, now we are on geeky-territory, but what do you expect from a moviegeek writing on his blog?!): though it look cool from far away and even on the poster, more often than not it seemed to fit awkwardly on Garfield’s body, creating strange creases and looking more like plastic than anything else…

The CGI work though has still a few cartoony moments is pretty good, and certainly the best we’ve seen so far in any Spiderman movie. I was pleased to see how little of that video-game-like point of view from that first trailer was actually left into the film. It must have been a case of listening to what the fans had to say and acting consequently.

Three editors are officially credited in the film and that’s always a sign of a film going that’s gone through several permutations. As someone very close to the art of editing I could see that despite those 136 minutes some of the transitions were a tiny bit too quick: the explanation of how Parker was able to make his web seems to be the sequence that suffered more than any other.

But I know, I am really picking needles here! It might not be the most original story you’ve ever seen (well, it not!), but it’s a thrilling romp and thoroughly enjoyable. And yet, despite all the action, the spinning, the spectacle (and the film has a lot of that!) what really shines at the heart of The Amazing Spiderman it’s the relationship between Garfield and Stone: it might be just marketing campaign to draw in the female audience as well as the the comic fans and the geeks, but it also gave the film such an emotional depth that I completely won me over. In fact in a way it’s the simplicity of the story itself that makes this such a pleasure to watch (I did enjoy the Avengers, but I still have trouble at explaining some of that story…).

If you add to all this, Andrew Garfield‘s spotless performance (in fact in a couple of moment really Oscar-worthy! If only Hollywood was brave enough to allow those types of performances in the Oscar race…) the perfectly balanced and well calibrated direction, and some wonderful supporting cast (Martin Sheen, I love you!) and some thrilling visuals, what you get is one my favourite superhero movie ever.

4 Stars (out of 5)

Killer Joe – Review

Killer Joe (2011) 

Director: William Friedkin. Cast: Matthew McConaugheyEmile HirschJuno TempleThomas Haden ChurchGina Gershon.

I came to this film knowing very little about it and pretty much spoiler-free (which incidentally it’s always the best way films should be watched). However I was very aware of the director Friedkin‘s pedigree and having seen all those 5 stars flashing on the poster, I was building myself up for something really good, if not a masterpiece.

Unfortunately the film left me not just cold, but actually rather annoyed by how uneven and all-over the place it all was. In the end I just can’t help but be baffled by the critical response that it’s gaining.

It won’t take you long to realise what type of film you’ve stepped into and you’ll be able to tell straight away this is certainly not one for everybody and especially not one for the Matthew McConaughey‘s hard-core fans (who are there anyway?!): within the first 30 minutes of the screening I was in, I watched at least 4 different couples standing up and leaving the theatre.

The people depicted in the film certainly don’t belong to your typical American family. You know the ones I mean: the loyal husband kissing goodnight his lovely wife in her nightgown, always looking as if she’d just stepped out of a 2 hour beauty session and all together having a lovely meal around a dinner table… These are people who don’t really talk to each other, but rather  “at” each other: they shout, swear, lie. They’re happy to plot the murder their own mother, or their own ex-wife, willing to let their own daughter to have first time sex with a stranger in order to pay what they can’t afford to buy.

Friedkin doesn’t shy  away from showing you not just the worst side of everyone, and certainly there is no sugar-coating around any of the depiction of the characters. Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about, let me tell you that the first shot we get of  Gina Gershon, introducing her character as she opens the door to her son-in-law in the middle of the night, is an uncompromising view of her private parts. We get it straight away.

The film indeed did leave me with a quite uncomfortable feeling right form the word go, but not so much because of this approach, of the unlikable characters, or grim subject matter, but more because of the way the actual story was all being handled by the director. I couldn’t quite work out how I was supposed to take all this.

On one hand it was clear that Friedkin was talking about that “America” we rarely get to see in movies: shockingly ignorant, naive, violent and brutal. And while this doesn’t certainly make a pleasurable viewing experience,  I was very willing to go with it. I was constantly being reminded of films like The Killer Inside Me and yet there was something slightly off about Killer Joe. There was something fake about it: at times the characters seemed to be over-the-top caricatures of themselves: hard to like (of course), to care about and more crucially to believe in them.

It was at least 40 minutes into the film that the  audience I was with, started to laugh. Call me thick, but only then I began to realise that all this was actually to be taken as a satire.

Of course, the Killer Joe Cooper himself  is at times is filmed like a character from a comic book, and yet other times the camera lingers on him for very long takes, giving the film a much more grounded sense of reality.

But this is a long step away from the harsh realism Friedkin‘s previous masterpieces, like The French Connection and to a degree even The Exorcist, which despite the absurdity of its story, always treated its subject matter with so much respect  and honesty that it actually felt incredibly real (which is what made the film so powerful).

What we have in Killer Joe is a weird and uneven hyper-version of reality: and we as the audience are left to watch it from the outside, as you’d probably watch some kind of freak show.

But this isn’t another Natural Born Killers,  Killer Joe constantly shifts (especially in the first part) from real to almost parody and even slapstick (the joke with the jacket, however funny, seems to belong to a different film). Some people may argue that this is called “being subtle” and it’s what makes Killer Joe a masterpiece, I personally call it being “all over the place” and eventually found it very hard to digest.

Don’t take me wrong, I am not against satirising violence or ignorance: the Coen Brothers did it in Fargo with splendid results, but while in Fargo there was no fudging, just a perfect unity of tone right from the start, here I couldn’t help feeling that this was a film made by different people pulling in too many directions. All the subplots to do with Emile Hirsch‘s character (which is incidentally the most under-developed in the story) belong to one kind of film, while Thomas Haden Church (who once again plays an idiot) belongs to a different one, and of course Matthew McConaughey seems to have his own show all together.

It all comes together into a final act which is (intentionally) so over-the-top that it cannot leave you but completely baffled. The audience I was with went absolutely wild as if they were watching Airplane! or a Naked Gun movie, which leads me to think I am certainly in the minority of those people who didn’t find it all that funny. It’s a completely personal thing, I understand, but I find it quite fun to laugh at what’s essentially rape… Whatever the message underneath might be.

The episode with the Kentucky Fried Chicken leg will probably remain imprinted in your head for years and years to come, and it might even become as classic moment in cinema as the Royale with Cheese speech in Pulp Fiction; it’s certainly a non very subtle visualisation of the message the film is trying to carry, but to be honest at that point I had already lost my patience and when the ending finally came, as abruptly as it did, I was as happy to leave the theatre as I have rarely been. Was I offended? Not particularly. That would give the film more credit that I’d like to give it. I just thought it was all a bit pointless.

5.0/10

Friends with Kids – Review

Friends with Kids (2011) 

Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt. Starring: Jennifer WestfeldtAdam ScottJon HammKristen WiigMaya RudolphChris O’DowdMegan FoxEdward Burns

Making a good romantic comedy is not as easy as you might think. Comedies in general  have always been the overlooked genre when it comes to recognition or even awards: there is a certain (unfair) snobbery about them and an even greater misconception: because they talk about lighter subjects than, let’s say, the holocaust or war or cancer (just to mention the few obvious ones), we should not consider them as serious films…  Obviously calling them “rom-com” doesn’t quite helped their case either…

Isn’t it incredible that people still look at the 50s and 60s for the favourite comedies (Some like it Hot or the Apartment)? Or that we still quote those classic Woody Allen movies from the 70s? And when asked about the best rom-com (there you, I’m saying that too!) many will go back 23 years to that little jewel of a movie called When Harry Met Sally. It’s not surprising then to see writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt going back to exactly those types for her directorial debut.

Friends with Kids owes a lot the best Wood Allen (nowadays we must specify ‘best’, as there’s good Woody and dreadful Woody), both in its settings (New York, of course) and in the sharp and witty dialogue exchanges. But there are lots of echoes from When Harry Met Sally too, in fact it could almost be called “When Harry and Sally had a kid“. But while in Rob Reiner‘s classic the question was “Can a man and a woman be friends without sex getting in the way?”, in Friends with kids the question gets updated to “Can a man and a woman have a child, without getting stuck into the trappings of married life?”.

The actual premise and the excuse for the film is definitely rather out-fetched, gimmicky and to a degree it might feel a bit forced, but if you’re willing to go with it, what you’ll find beyond is an incredibly well-observed and smart piece of comedy about the painful truths of parenthood, about getting older, about responsibilities and friendship.

Westfeldt relies more on her characters and their dialogue to make us smile, or cry, or simply think, as opposed to resorting on cheap gags, or shots of cute babies (well OK, you get a couple of those too… But you get my point). This is an actors’ film, first and foremost and the cast is truly impeccable.

Adam Scott had already shown what he could do with the underrated (and rather harsh and depressing) HBO series Tell Me You Love Me: in this film he makes a potentially unlikable and tricky character, warm, sympathetic and charismatic.

However the film is also packed with other characters, which once again remind us of Harry and Sally’s types of friends: these are all people rooted into the real world, instantly recognizable to anyone struggling to find love before the clock runs out, anyone dating, anyone who’s been married for a long time, anyone who’s had kids or who’s about to have some. Like in the real world, there’s no black and white here: each relationship in the film feels true, people are not simply bad or good, they fall in and out of love, they come and go in and out of your life.

Everybody is perfect, even if they just appear in a few scenes. Jon Hamm shines, as he always does, and makes the most of his tiny role, even Edward Burns manages to be incredibly likeable and there’s even a surprisingly turn from Megan Fox, who shows she’s not just a pretty face… and body, and legs.. and… OK well, you get it.

It all comes to a head during an excruciating dinner sequence with no less than 8 people sitting around a table, which is not just beautifully directed and skilfully handled, but also it’s where the film really shows its cards and goes beyond the simple rom-com boundaries.

It’s interesting to see this film only a few weeks away from the clichè-riddled What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Both stories essentially tackle the same issues, but while WTEWURE goes for the easy Hollywood way (i.e. schmaltzy, A-list packed-cast, cheap jokes and so on), this one takes its time to work around its characters and aims at reaching a much more mature audience: it’s not just the situation that feels real but way the characters behaves in that particular situation.

Unfortunately there are some slips here and there: the excessive and unnecessary vulgarity of some of the dialogue does feel a bit forced and some jokes to do with kids seem to belong to a different kind of film (It’s “Three men and a Baby” territory, more than Annie Hall‘s)… And the ending might make some people cringe a little bit… However most of Friends with Kids is so honest and balanced that it feels wrong be harsh about it. In an age where good romantic comedies are so rare (they only come once every two years, if we are lucky!) we should treasure films like these, which at least try to be a little bit more intelligent and step away from the clichés of the genre.

7.5/10 

Check out my review of What To Expect When You’Re Expecting

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