Sunday, 25 January 2015

Top 10 of 2014

Today marks the third anniversary of At The Back and as is now tradition, it’s time for my Top 10 films of the last year. As always I choose this date in late January to try and include as many of the year’s awards frontrunners as I can but with UK release dates still lagging behind the US, some will be included next year (if they make the list). This year’s list includes at least one Oscar winner from last year for this very reason.

It’s been over six months since I’ve written a film review on this site and in that time I’ve changed jobs, moved city and bought a dragon. I’ve still been watching as much as I can but missed more important releases in 2014 than I have in several years. For instance I didn’t get to see Gone Girl, a film which is creeping into many lists I’ve read. Other omissions include American Sniper, Two Days, One Night, Ida and Leviathan. A film I did see which I expected would make my list was Foxcatcher. I haven’t been as disappointed by a film since the first Hobbit. For me it lacked tension throughout and couldn’t be saved by some admittedly fantastic performances.

Films which just missed out included the feel good Pride, a terrific David and Goliath struggle in which two unlikely groups join forces in order to battle a much stronger enemy. The Imitation Game featured a stand out central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and an under told story while The Theory of Everything provided us with what was in my opinion the greatest performance of the year in the form of Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking. Under the Skin was a dark and chilling film which stayed with me for a long time while Lego documentary Brick by Brick came at the opposite end of the spectrum, giving me perhaps my most fun cinema experience of the entire year.

10. Locke (dir. Steven Knight)
One of the simplest films I saw all year and certainly one of the cheapest, this $2 million movie is set almost entirely within the confines of one car. It follows a single character played superbly by the ever impressive Tom Hardy as he travels along a British motorway one evening. During the journey which is shot in real time, Locke’s life falls apart without the need for crashes, chases or anything else one associates with cars and the movies. Hardy’s subtle performance keeps the audience gripped as his inner turmoil is beautifully restrained within Hardy’s mannered execution.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Blogathon: 6 Degrees of Separation

It's been some time since I wrote anything film related but a tweet overnight from Shane at Film Actually invited me to participate in a blogathon started by Myfilmviews called 6 Degrees of Separation. The rules are simple. Each participant must connect one actor/actress/director/movie to another actor/actress/director/movie in six connections or less. Have a look at what the previous participants have done.

A Fistful of Films
Cinematic Corner
And So It Begins
Surrender to the Void
Movies and Songs 365
The Cinematic Spectacle
Film Actually 

Shane presented me the the task of connecting a director synonymous for his fight against racism with a film that is most famous for it - Spike Lee to The Birth of a Nation. So, here it is.

1. In 2002, Spike Lee directed 25th Hour starring Edward Norton.

2. A year earlier Edward Norton appeared in the underrated The Score with Robert De Niro.

3. Robert De Niro starred in Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear in which Robert Mitchum, who starred in the original, had a small role. 

4. Back in 1955, Robert Mitchum appeared in The Night of the Hunter with Lillian Gish.

5. Lillian Gish was a darling of the silent era and acted in the controversial the Birth of a Nation.

I'm passing the baton to Jason of the excellent Life Vs Film and tasking him with getting from The Birth of a Nation to Daniel Brühl. Good luck.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Safety Last!

Anyone who knows me or has regularly perused my blog will be well aware that I’m a huge fan of the silent comedy from the 1910s to 1930s. Of course this isn’t entirely true though. My love and knowledge only extends as far as the two behemoths of the era, to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Aside from the occasional foray into the likes of Laurel and Hardy and non-Chaplin Keystone, my understanding is limited. For a long time I’ve wanted to get a hold of some of the films of Harold Lloyd, the man who probably came closest to Chaplin and Keaton both then and now. Unfortunately, unlike my two comedy heroes, his oeuvre is harder to come by and much more expensive. I’ve started then with what is in my opinion his best known work; Safety Last! A film famous for its iconic still of Lloyd hanging from a clock face several stories up a skyscraper, I thought I’d start with the obvious and work my way back.

The movie opens very strongly with a set up that seems to suggest that the lead character, named Harold Lloyd, is behind bars and being visited by his sweetheart and a priest. In the background, a hangman’s noose looms. As the camera zooms out though, we learn that he’s merely behind a fence and is in fact awaiting the arrival of a train that will take him to the big city in search of his fortune. Lloyd promises to make good within the year in order that he and his girl (Mildred Davis) can marry. The establishing scene expertly sets up the next sixty-five minutes by introducing us to the characters and their motivations as well as giving us a great sight gag. From then on, the film goes from strength to strength.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Two Faces of January

The Two Faces of January is an interesting little film written and directed by Hossein Amini, a man best known for penning the script of Drive. Here Amini delivers another taught script set in early 1960s Greece. American tour guide and part time swindler Rydal (Oscar Isaac) gives tours to unsuspecting travellers in the Greek capital Athens and one day comes across an American couple with whom he strikes up conversation and a brief friendship. The tour guide is charmed by the couple and drawn to their wealth and beauty but when it becomes apparent that the couple aren’t quite as well refined and put together as they first appear, Rydal helps them to evade those hunting them before becoming embroiled in their strange and murky circumstances.

There were two things that attracted me to this movie. The first was the name Amini. I was curious to see the screenwriter’s directorial debut and was interested in his script. The second factor was Viggo Mortensen. At this stage in the actor’s career I feel as though I can pretty much trust that if he’s agreed to be in it, it will be good enough to see. Mortensen does indeed impress and his choice of role is once again solid. The movie is about surface and sheen and the attraction that bright and beautiful things hold while under the surface bubbles something more sinister. There’s an uneasy feeling which envelops the film and it stabs through the false surface from time to time in a wonderfully calm but out of control manner.


Sixty years after his debut screen appearance, Godzilla is back on our screens in his second American guise. For anyone who remembers the 1998 Roland Emmerich version, this news may legitimately cause trepidation. My interest in the picture came about when I heard that the new film was to be directed by second time director Gareth Edwards. For nearly half a decade since Edwards’ first film, I’ve been telling anyone I can get my hands on to watch his film Monsters. That movie was outstanding; an ultra low budget monster-thinker which Edwards wrote, directed, shot and edited himself besides doing all of the FX work in his bedroom. In comparison to that movie, Godzilla is a let down.

Things start well with an interesting and attractive titles sequence which gives a slight spin on the traditional Godzilla back story. The film postulates that the atomic tests of the 1950s were in fact not tests at all but an elaborate attempt to destroy the gigantic titular beast. Fast forward several decades and we find Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) hard at work as the supervisor of a Japanese Nuclear Power Plant. Brody is concerned by strange seismic patterns which are unlike any earthquake he’s seen before. In fact he’s convinced there are no earthquakes at all.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

To Catch a Thief

A beautiful if underwhelming film, Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief marked the director’s third and final picture starring Grace Kelly. Joining the actress is another actor in his third Hitchcock movie, Carey Grant. Grant plays John Robie, a once jewel thief turned French Resistance fighter who now retired, tends to his vineyards high above the Côte d'Azur. When a series of robberies which display Robie’s hallmarks are committed, the police come looking for the man known as ‘The Cat’ and in order to clear his name, he gets hold of a list of potential targets in the hope of out witting and out manoeuvring the real thief. First on the list are Mrs. Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Kelly).

To Catch a Thief lacks some of the dramatic tension and edge of the seat thrills of Hitchcock’s finest films but what it lacks in tautness, it makes up for in other ways. Hitchcock cleverly gets passed the Hays/Breen censors with some fantastic sexual innuendo and half hidden imagery. The romantic side of the plot is much more developed than the dramatic side and Hitch wows his audience with sexual fireworks (literally) and a John Michael Hays script which while leaving little to the imagination, somehow feels clean and moral. Coupled with the spectacular beauty on display, this is a movie which is worth investing time in.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Stand Up Guys

Stand Up Guys is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Stuck somewhere between a geriatric sub Apatow production and 70s crime drama, it’s lost perilously at sea with a precious cargo of acting royalty desperately trying to steer around an iceberg. Despite pulling in the same direction, they go down with the ship. The S.S. Good Riddance. Directed by Fisher Stevens and penned by Noah Haidle, the film has at its centre an interesting premise but tonally it’s all off beam. Twenty-eight years after a job that went badly wrong, Valentine or “Val” to his friends (Al Pacino) is released from prison and into the welcoming arms of his former partner in crime Doc (Christopher Walken). Having served half a lifetime after a stray bullet accidentally ended the life of their bosses only son, Val is keen to make up for lost time, lost steak and lost sex. He’s acutely aware however that his time is limited and is expecting a hit on behalf of his still grieving boss. The bullet he’s expecting is due to be expelled by the gun hidden in his old friend Doc’s pocket, something Val also suspects.

With Alan Arkin joining an already illustrious cast and a premise that sets up so much, the film still somehow disappoints. The comedy is absolutely dire and produced just one laugh (admittedly a large one) in the entire 95 minute runtime. Time that could have been spent creating dramatic tension or allowing the great actors to spit thick, gloopy dialogue is instead devoted to nob gags and wave after wave of “Oh aren’t we old” jokes. I don’t know who is supposed to be enjoying it. If you’re young and have no love for the actors then it doesn’t work. If you’re young and have a great affinity for the actors then it’s simply sad and embarrassing and if you’re older then you just aren’t going to be interested in the Viagra stealing, Russian prostitute visiting humour. This is a movie aimed at fifteen year old fans of forty year old movies. A lot of movies have been produced recently which try to put a twist on the frat boy comedy by introducing an older cast but it’s just uncomfortable. Seeing Michael Corleone, Sonny Wortzik, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, Frank Serpico, Tony Montana, bloody Al ‘8 Oscar nominations and 1 win’ Pacino pretending to go to hospital because he can’t get rid of an erection? No. Just stop it. Enough.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

At The Back At The Tribeca Film Festival

Late last month, a scheduled trip to New York happened to coincide with The Tribeca Film Festival. When I discovered this a couple of weeks before crossing the Atlantic, I immediately looked into the possibility of going to see some films and was fortunate to find the time to squeeze three in. With only six days in the greatest city on the planet, I wouldn’t have been able to justify any more than this. Tribeca was my first film festival and overall I had a positive experience. The event was well run by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff while the locations were excellent. The cinemas themselves were less desirable however. The three screenings we went to were situated in two theatres, both multiplexes and both with very shallow seating rakes. At 6’ 3” I still struggled to see through the heads of those in front of me and was very conscious of the views I was obstructing behind. I’m not sure if this is consistent with all American cinemas but on the only other occasion that I’ve seen a film in the States, in the same city, a year before, there was no issue. Anyway, I digress.

The first film we saw was Night Moves at the AMC Loews Village 7 on 3rd Avenue. Both my girlfriend and I were excited and nervous about our first film festival experience and eagerly joined the long line outside the theatre. Night Moves is a drama with a political edge. Directed by Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) It stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as environmentalists who plan to blow up a dam in rural Oregon. The film initially reminded me of The East, thematically at least but it soon becomes apparent that this is a significantly smarter film which takes a different direction. It doesn’t bombard the audience with back story or justification for the crimes. It assumes that the audience is clever enough to understand their motivation. The central characters also remain half hidden and you’re never sure if they’re showing their real selves to each other or the audience. The planning and preparation are interesting and the execution of the dam’s destruction is incredibly tense. What follows soon after is rather predictable but the character’s transformations surprise.

Friday, 11 April 2014


Based on a 1929 novel and inspired by real events, 1932’s Scarface was one of a series of pre-code gangster pictures which shocked and enthralled its viewers. Opening with a written disclaimer, damming the government for their lack of action regarding the threat that modern gangsters pose, the film nonetheless glamorises the life of crime while shaking a stick in its vague direction. It follows the ascent of young arrogant Italian immigrant Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) as he rises through the Chicago underworld by bumping off bosses and rivals who stand in his way and intimidating speakeasy proprietors into taking his booze. Aided by his right hand man, the quiet coin flicking Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), Tony reaches the heights of underworld overlord but finds that being at the top is even more dangerous than the climb to the summit.

Arriving two years before the Hays Office began imposing much stricter censorship on Hollywood; Scarface was able to get away with a lot more than many films which followed it. Inside its ninety minutes you’ll find brutal murders, gunplay and revealing costumes worn by the female characters, things which just wouldn’t be permissible from 1934 onwards. Even still, the film troubled the censors and the ending was changed to suit their tastes. Overall the movie contains a ‘crime doesn’t pay’ theme, something which you expect from the opening credits disclaimer but it’s slow in coming. For the most part, the theme appears to be ‘crime gets you everything you want’ and it’s this which the censors must have taken issue with. The glorification of the central character is also something which the Hays Office was unhappy with. This is something which film makers and censors would lock horns over for the next forty years.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Out of the Past

1947’s Out of the Past is widely considered to be one of the greatest examples of 1940s film noir. Set around a convoluted plot, the film twists and turns through double, triple and quadruple crosses, landing surprise blows on its dumbstruck and occasionally confused audience. Based on the novel Build My Gallows High and originally released in the UK under the same title, the picture stars Robert Mitchum as freelance Private Detective Jeff Bailey. He’s hired by rich and shady businessman Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down a dame, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) who Stirling alleges has disappeared with $40,000 of his money. Told partly in flashback and with a voiceover to match that of Sunset Boulevard’s, the film twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing, through several cities, two nations and a long, albeit undisclosed, period of time.

It took me a little while to get into Out of the Past but when I did, I enjoyed it greatly. Unfortunately my patience wore off towards the end thanks to the elaborate nature of the narrative. This isn’t a film I’d suggest watching after a long day at the office and a couple of martinis inside your stomach. Although a large part of the movie’s charm is its strong story, the frequent double crossing did begin to confuse me as we crossed the hour mark. This isn’t entirely a bad thing however as half the fun is in guessing who has the upper hand and who will strike next.