Heat (1995)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

In the DVD extras we learn that Michael Mann and Al Pacino decided that Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, should dabble in cocaine once in a while. This would result in him being a little over the top on occasion. But by not putting any evidence of this in the actual film, when Pacino blows up, it’s the real beginning of shouty Al that I’ve been looking out for.

The story of crook McCauley (Robert De Niro) and cop Hanna (Pacino) is a completely gripping one, and the reknowned exchange across the table is legendary. The action scenes are tremendous and the night-time cinematography unparalleled. What I forget everytime though is that the reason I can’t give this 5 stars is because the female characters are so terribly written. I simply can’t fathom how Amy Brenneman’s Eady so readily agrees to give up everything on just her second meeting with McCauley. Nothing suggests that’s a suitable next step for her. And Hanna’s wife Justine (Diane Venora) is given such terrible lines to deliver that the dialogue almost grinds to a halt while she’s trying to spit them out. It makes her look like a terrible actress, which I’m sure she isn’t.

Had also forgotten a teenage Natalie Portman as the stepdaughter.

 

Two Bits (1995)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

Pacino was 55 when he made this, and I’m guessing the character was supposed to be around 80. If only that were the worst thing about it. These may well be events that genuinely happened to the writer when he was growing up, but presenting everything as a gentle coming of age story when in reality it’s about hardship and deception is a poor choice. Also ill-judged (if not just downright wrong) were the scenes featuring a boy being forced to kiss an elderly woman, and a scene of suicide.

If I ever decide I have to see thig again, someone please remind me not to.

Carlito’s Way (1993)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

Watching this for the first time in many, many years, and it suddenly dawned on me how much of a Brian De Palma film this is. For me, not such a good thing. As an example, the female characters don’t even merit second names. I like the voice-over a lot less this time around too.

Pacino is fine playing something familiar, and perhaps the best is Sean Penn who is completely and believably off the wall.

 

 

My top films of the decade: 2010 – 2019

It seems to be the thing to do – as we enter a new decade, a list of favourite films from the one which is just ending appears to be de rigueur.

So here we are.

I’ve seen other lists where the writers have selected one film from each year of the decade to provide a neat list of 10. But me, I’m making my own rules. My list is 15 (ish) films long, and taken from all across the ten years. And in fact, apart from the number 1 and number 15 films, on any given day any of these films could easily be at any rank in the list.

As far as I’m concerned it’s just a good list of films that have moved, intrigued, amazed or excited me since 2010. Some of them are films I’m not sure I’ll ever watch again because they were so brutal, yet at the same time necessary.

Agree, disagree, it’s all fine. But I got the chance to choose and so I did!

15    Get Out (USA, 2017) / Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016)

And straight away I start with a ‘cheat’ – but as I said before, my rules. Many may consider Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan good films, yet perhaps not films of the decade. But I wanted to acknowledge just how much I enjoyed them both. If you’ve been following Marie vs Horror here on The Movie Isle, you’ll know that I have avoided ‘horror’ films over the years. I would never have seen either of these two films if it weren’t for the Marie vs Horror incentive, and I really think they are brilliantly conceived films. They’ve changed my view of what I will consider watching, and that’s why they’re on this list.

14        Under the Skin (UK/Switzerland/USA, 2013)

Scarlett Johansson is an alien prowling the streets of Glasgow in a white transit van, and is totally mesmerising. Beautiful, strange and seductive, it made me look at people through the eyes of an alien as I left the cinema. Amazing soundtrack, too.

13        Nightcrawler (USA, 2014)

Creepy, insincere and manipulative Jake Gyllenhaal goes to extraordinary lengths to record crime on LA’s streets and sell it to 24-hour news channels. Dark, tense and twisted, this is great viewing.

12        Shoplifters (Japan, 2018)

A sublime portrayal of how a family can become a loving and supportive unit when both society and blood ties let it down. The family members are exactly what they need to be for each other and, despite the hardships of their situation on the edges of conventional society, there is so much genuine care and depth of feeling between them that you’re never in any doubt that they will look out for each other. The first two acts of the film have some moments of unbridled joy showing the togetherness of the bunch, and then one simple thing happens which begins the unravelling of everything.

11        Call Me by Your Name (USA/Brazil/France/Italy, 2017)

Call Me by Your Name presents something incredibly 80s and yet also something timeless. It doesn’t matter whether the protagonists are straight or gay, this is a universal story about growing up, growing wise, feeling love and feeling pain.

10        The Act of Killing (Denmark/Norway/UK, 2012)

The only documentary on my list, The Act of Killing is a jaw-dropping film in which former Indonesian hit men are invited to re-enact their misdemeanours in whatever form they choose. The truth of what happened over 40 years ago slowly begins to dawn on some of them, with remarkable consequences.

9          Capernaum (Lebanon, 2018)

Challenging and remarkable, with an amazing acting performance from 12-year-old Zain Al Rafeea -and of course credit for extracting the performance must also go to director Nadine Labaki. Following undocumented people in almost unbearable circumstances, scenes with Zain and a baby are both a delight and chilling at the same time. It’s not an easy film to watch at all, but the final shot will steal your heart.

8          12 Years A Slave (USA/UK, 2013)

Director Steve McQueen has taken this difficult story and made it work on-screen. The beauty of the photography contrasts with the ugliness of the behaviour, and we are compelled to watch brutal scenes because they matter. It’s not easy to watch, and that’s the point.

7          Parasite (South Korea, 2019)

Side-swipes at Korean society abound, and just when you think you’ve worked everyone out, all hell breaks loose. Song Kang-ho handles his character’s arc to perfection. The less you know about Parasite before watching the better, so for those in the UK where is hasn’t been released yet, then I’m stopping here.

6          The Lobster (France/Greece/Ireland/Netherlands/UK, 2015)

The things we do for love. Or at least, the things some people will do to avoid being alone. The world of Yorgos Lanthimos is just a step beyond what feels normal, yet not so far away that it doesn’t feel strangely relevant. As with much of the work of Lanthimos, it’s possible to feel both amused, repulsed and saddened all in the same moment. Colin Farrell is a revelation.

5          Even the Rain  (France/Mexico/Spain, 2010)

Fascinatingly weaves in the real life story of the exploitation of locals in Cochabamba with a film shoot also using locals. Parallels are drawn yet not over-stated, and when the modern police encroach on the film set and find themselves face to face with the red-painted indigenous people, the point is well and truly made. Brilliant.

4          Mommy (Canada, 2014)

Another tough watch, and my favourite Xavier Dolan film – just don’t put it on if you have a headache because it is VERY SHOUTY. Notable for its creative use of aspect ratio, three excellent performances from Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément and Antoine Olivier Pilon, and the official pronouncement of Céline Dion as National Treasure of Canada.

3          Waru (New Zealand, 2017)

A very powerful film. 8 different female directors have each created a 10-minute short film – shot in one long take – featuring female characters, each of which has a connection to the funeral of a young boy. The shorts weave together to allow us to view the death and its impact through the eyes of the immediate family, the community and the media.

An excoriating view of New Zealand’s failure to address issues of child abuse, and also highlights racism and inequality, ending with a call to action directly to the camera.

2          Enemy (Canada/Spain, 2013)

I love a film that has me wondering what the hell is happening from the very start, and this just does that. Jake Gyllenhaal creates two identical-looking but very different characters, and we’re never in any doubt as to which ‘Jake’ we’re with at any one time: even when one is impersonating the other. For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I actually went and read the book which inspired the film.

1          Moonlight (USA, 2016)

The phrase ‘coming of age’ usually has me running in the opposite direction, but this is simply beautiful beyond words. Although each of the three sections featuring Chiron at different points in his life are fabulous, the final third pulls everything together beautifully. Strong performances all round make this this case, particularly Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes. The story is accompanied by a beautiful score and gorgeous cinematography, with occasional shades of Wong-Kar Wai in tone – a sense of longing, searching and unrequited feelings permeates.

(This article first appeared on The Movie Isle)

My favourite films of 2019

2019 has been a funny old year as far as my film ratings have gone. There have been a whole bunch of solidly good films, but there’s been nothing which has really taken my breath away or stopped me in my tracks in the manner that, say, Moonlight did a couple of years ago.

But nevertheless, here are my top 10(ish) picks from 2019. It was neither planned nor engineered, but 5 of them turn out to be directed by women. Click on the title of any of them to read my thoughts at the time of watching.

A complete list of my 2019 viewing can be found here on Letterboxd or click on the titles to see my thoughts on the top ten.

10        Queen of Hearts (Denmark/Sweden) / System Crasher (Germany)

I say 10(ish) because I just couldn’t separate these two for a place in the list so I’m cheating and having both. Although they are very different in content, I think they belong together for a number of reasons.

Both are very difficult to watch but worth it, both have excellent performances at the centre, both were their country’s nomination for Best International Film for the Academy Awards (although neither was selected for the shortlist, unfortunately).

Queen of Hearts features Trine Dyrholm as an ice cold woman having a relationship with someone she shouldn’t, and the film will make you squirm with unease. System Crasher is all about a disturbed young girl who is being failed by the social care system despite everyone’s best efforts to help. Neither may sound too enticing, but they are worth the time investment.

9          Avengers: Endgame (USA)

This one is on the list not so much for the standalone film (although it is highly entertaining), but for the way it beautifully tied up so many strands from the last decade and gave (most) characters a satisfactory ending to their story. It also made Infinity War a much better film. Reader, I cried.

8          The House of Us (South Korea)

My favourite film that I saw at this year’s London Film Festival. A tale of children from dysfunctional families very much in the Kore-eda Hirokazu mode, but with additional side-swipes at Korean contemporary society.

7          The Irishman (USA)

Forget all the talk about de-aging technology. What’s so special about The Irishman are the considerations of an aged, lonely, former hitman – the last of his crew – and Joe Pesci’s performance.

6          Rojo (Argentina/Brazil/France/Germany/Netherlands)

An air of unease reflects society in a pre-coup Argentina of the 1970s. The wealthy get away with – literally – murder, and there’s a creeping but unacknowledged disquiet. The exchanges between Dario Grandinetti and Alfredo Castro are electric.

5          The Mustang (Belgium/France)

Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre – in her debut feature – has done something quite remarkable with the sound in The Mustang. Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Roman Coleman, is no stranger to the silent, damaged criminal role, but this is the most repressed character of his I think I’ve seen. He barely speaks at all for the first third of the film – it’s almost as if he’s not physically capable rather than it being a choice not to participate.

4          Atlantics (Belgium/France/Senegal)

Magical realism meets the undead as Mati Diop comments on inequality, corruption and emigration in Senegal in a most unexpected way. A film that lingered and which I have appreciated more as time has gone on.

3          Transit (France/Germany)

Casablanca, if it had been written by Kafka. The gates of hell are the visa offices in the US Embassy, and purgatory is a wine bar in Marseille. Heaven is watching Franz Rogowski realise he’s never going to leave. He’s amazing.

2          Ash is Purest White (Japan/China/France)

A film of three parts, following the relationship of two people, unable to really commit to loving each other, over a period of almost two decades. Intertwined – and perhaps even more importantly – we also see the development of modern China. Full of impactful long takes and beautiful cinematography, what stands out way above anything else is the performance of Tao Zhao as Qiao. And in some ways Qiao also personifies modern China – rooted in history but constantly moving forward, fiercely self-sufficient with a backbone of steel and in complete control of her emotions.

1          Parasite (South Korea)

Everyone’s a parasite, at all points in the class system, and the ending is perfection. Some outstanding cinematography from Hong Gyeong-Pyo too. Brutal, funny, touching and honest. Bong Joon-ho is a master. This doesn’t get its UK release until February 2020; I saw it in Germany, in a dubbed-into-German version, and it was still the best film I’ve seen all year. Can’t wait to see it again!

 

(This article first appeared on The Movie Isle)

Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (2019)

Thank you Quentin Tarantino. Thank you for not making ‘The Sharon Tate Story’. I’m going to err on the side of benevolence and assume that it was Tarantino himself who realised that it was not a good idea to go there.

Instead, he has taken those events as a starting point, weaving fictional (but believable) characters into real life events, and creating his own story for 1969 Los Angeles complete with princess, knight in shining armour and fairy tale ending. This is fine; I don’t have a problem with the fact that the ending is not what actually happened to the real life characters – the clue is in the title: it’s all made up.

If Tarantino wants to go ahead and make a movie about two guys nearing the end of their Hollywood careers, set in 1969 and rammed full of references which only the most ardent of US-based TV and movie fans will get, then that’s fine. Because I loved what was going on in the first two thirds of this. DiCaprio and particularly Pitt are really very good, and their relationship highly entertaining. To be honest, I really wish Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood was just about these two. Their history, their struggles, their successes. How they’re ageing out of relevance and what that means to them. Because it affects both differently.

The feel of the era is captured perfectly, from the billboards to the cans in the cabinet, from the music to the radio advertisements. We’d expect nothing less from Tarantino.

And so having enjoyed so much of OUATIH, what a shame to see that Tarantino hasn’t failed to meet expectations elsewhere too. Whereas the casual references to TV, film and music were just right, Tarantino then overdoes it in his recreations of clips from Dalton’s filmography, which are far too long and self-indulgent.

I’m mystified by the casting of Margot Robbie. Either give her (significantly) more to do or, if you just want a blonde princess in the form of a budding young actress, then perhaps give the role to a lesser known performer? Having someone of Robbie’s calibre in such a flimsy role was a strange choice.

I’m puzzled by the choice to have the Bruce Lee scene too. Surely there are other ways of showing off Cliff Booth’s fighting skills, if that’s what it’s meant to do? My limited understanding of Lee’s martial arts philosophy is that seeking or provoking a fight is totally counter to what he believed (and no, that’s not just from watching Ip Man). Lee’s on-screen characters may have sought confrontation, but the man himself would not have.

And now that I’ve got to the topic of violence … the end scenes are just too much. The bone-cracking, flame-throwing, dog-chewing finale was a real shame, given that we’d got so far through the narrative with an interesting story and no need for gratuitous violence. The aggression could have played out in any number of ways, but Tarantino chose this one. It made it all the more annoying because for the past 2 hours I’d been enjoying a story about people that didn’t need to use violence.

I’ll probably watch the first sections again for the enjoyment of the period. But I don’t need to see the finale ever again.

Scent of a Woman (1992)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

This is film for which Al Pacino famously won his Academy Award, one which he actually should have won at least twice previously, and which this time around was practically the apologetic life-time achievement win.

That’s not to say he isn’t good in this – it’s a fine performance of a generally unlikeable character – and it’s actually a lot more subtle of a performance that you may remember. Frank Slade and his hoo-ah has become a bit of a parody these days, and there is more to Pacino here than that.

So although Scent of a Woman was fine, it just didn’t spark with me.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

There is so much going on in this film I actually don’t know where to start.

Perhaps by saying that I liked it, though I didn’t love it. Then, I’m not generally one for animations so it must have been doing something good.

I liked the way that it acknowledged what even peripheral audiences know about Spider-Man, and so zipped happily through the back-story where necessary to keep thing moving along. I liked the way it captured the feeling of a comic book, with panels, sound effects and dots in the images. I liked that it did make me laugh.

Perhaps there were one (or two) too many Spider-people, as I felt that the little Japanese girl and her spider robot(?) got a bit sidelined towards the end, and the pig didn’t seem to have that much to do. (By the way, there’s a pig?) And I think if you are a big fan of the comic books then you will obviously recognise many more of the characters than I did. Also, even though I was definitely watching the 2D version, I sometimes felt like I had forgotten to put my 3D glasses on. I’ve read that the filmmakers deliberately did this to focus on the character at the centre of the screen, but it did make me squint and feel like I was missing something.

Waru

Waru is a film which I tried to get to see at TIFF in 2017, but it was sold out. It doesn’t seem to have been released outside of festivals. It’s been on my watchlist but ‘unavailable’ on Amazon Prime for almost a year. I wondered if I would ever get to see it.

And so god bless HOME, my local independent cinema and spiritual home, for their year-long programme of Women in Global Cinema in 2019. Waru was screening once, and once only, on a bitterly cold January evening, and I was not going to miss it.

It is such a powerful film. 8 different female directors have each created a 10 minute short film featuring female characters, each of which has a connection to the funeral of a young boy. The shorts weave together to allow us to view the death and its impact through the eyes of the immediate family, the community and the media.

The women at the centre of the 8 scenes are all incredible characters. All are struggling in some way with their position in society, some maintaining a steely exterior to cover up their internal emotions, others succumbing to desperate measures to cope. But all are real characters in recognisable situations, which really ensures that the message is brought home.

In fact, it’s worth mentioning that each short is filmed in one long take, with the camera swirling around the central female, following her in and out of her car, around the corridors of her work, or through the rooms of her home so that the audience is completely immersed in her experiences and emotions. It’s incredibly well done and I would be hard pushed to pick out a weak link, unusual for a portmanteau film.

It’s an excoriating view of New Zealand’s failure to address issues of child abuse, and also highlights racism and inequality; its themes are weighty, but the film doesn’t wring its hands over the issues. Instead it is (and indeed it ends with) a call to action to actually do something to reduce the levels of abuse.

If you ever do get a chance to see this, please invest 86 minutes of your time. It’s worth it.