El topo: a surreal wild-west-type cowboy tale that’s heavy on the religious symbolism and appeared to have been conceived (& filmed) whilst on all of the drugs. The biggest thing this film has going for it is reel after reel of top-shelf insanity and phenomenal imagery: attempting to put some of the scenes into words wouldn’t do them justice – but suffice to say that the locations, landscapes, characters, and overall visuals are absolutely remarkable. Beyond the aesthetics, the rest of the film feels like a hodgepodge of themes, styles, and ideas. The tone continually bounces around from jarring “Texas Chainsaw” style, straight into to a Russ Meyers type shoe-sniffer: from po-faced religious moments through to Blazing Saddles levels of stupidity. It’s also – unfortunately – a film of two halves, that gets tangled up after the initial “mission” and really loses the head of steam (and patience) that the first have had built up. The foley work is particularly terrible – the film is shot outdoors, but most of the speech and effects appear to have been recorded in a boxy echo chamber. There’s also a lot of violent (although reddest blood ever) and exploitative stuff in here too, like the misuse of religion, lesbians, and midgets & disabled people for no real reason. Bizarre and easily one of the strangest & most overlooked cult movies ever made, El Topo is the most peculiar of beasts, that’s only worth watching for it’s sublime and visionary aesthetic.
Aftermath [mild spoilers]: follows two men after a fatal airplane collision that changes their lives forever. The film starts with a relentlessly grim and drawn-out opening act in which both leads deal with the shock of their situation, frequently tipping over into forced melodrama; it’s all very burdensome and somber. Where the film really fails to deliver is after a 70 minute gloomy setup; the ‘climactic payoff’ is far too brief, and then we get a post-script ‘years later’ scene that you could see coming a mile off. Stylistically, the film is equally austere, with a grayed out colour palate; it starts at Christmas for no real reason than to crank up the sorrow-o-meter; and contains some rather clunky imagery & parallels between the leads’ lives. Strangely, the movie takes a powerful real-life story and changes core elements that ultimately lessens the story’s impact in the fictionalized movie version. I’m a huge Arnie fan – and think he’s a better actor than he’s generally given credit for – however this film asks a little too much of him: there are moments where you can see him struggle with the emotions. Scoot McNairy is rather good, but doesn’t get a lot of gears to change through. From the director of Bltiz (a solid police action/drama) the lack of action and tunneled focus on tragedy feels like a huge – but just-missed – leap. Aftermath is by no means a bad film, but it is a very heavy film about a very heavy subject that you’d need to be in a particular mood to watch.
638 Ways to Kill Castro: Documentary about some of the attempts – and alleged attempts – by various agencies and radical groups to kill Cuba’s charismatic leader. TNT filled sea-shells, exploding cigars, poisoned wetsuits, Mafia hits… it all sounds rather exciting, but after a jovial opening 10 minutes or so the documentary switches focus to a couple of right-wing ‘Terrorist’ factions, and shows how America hold double standards in the old Terrorist Vs Freedom Fighter debate… pretty deep, man. You end up spending more time than you’d want to with a couple of old guys regaling how they came **“this close”** to pulling it off, but there’s not a shred of evidence to prove that it isn’t all nonsense. More focus on the full list, or some detailed commentary on the where/how/why would have been more interesting; instead you get a bunch of American foreign policy bashing. The Doc was made for TV, and it doesn’t aim any higher: it’s all very low budget, feels unfocused and ill-disciplined, and is a bit too one-sided. Even worse, there’s not even that much footage of the titular Castro! Despite it’s sassy title, and a promising opening this is all just a bit dull considering the sensational subject matter.
Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os): an unemployed wayward man falls in love with a whale trainer – but in European cinema, it’s rarely as easy as that. This feels like a mish-mash of many big European films – although to name some would probably be spoilers. There’s not much of a scope or message, and as the film jostles with so many big questions that you leave the screen wondering what it was all about – love, coping with disability, family, sex, fighting, morals, fatherly responsibility… to name but a few. It’s also pretty nihilistic, to the point where you hope one good thing happens to the characters, although there’s a few silver linings, and some brief comic relief. You can’t fault the acting much – big, powerful, deep, solemn performances – but it’s very “European social-drama” (open, blunt, provocative everyday dialogue), which matched the vagueness of the story. It’s also peppered with dozens of random arty shots, for no reason other than filler. For such a diehard ‘European’ film, the American Indie/Pop soundtrack felt really out of place, and like it was screaming for international attention. The computer effects (greening out) when required were fantastic, seamless, you would think that everything you saw was absolutely in-frame. Rust and Bone is an interesting film, and to a point it’s watchable, but the vagueness and slow-pace means that your interest dips in and out, and it’s hard to engage with. It does end up feeling like a random bunch of poignant scenes and circumstances.
Blue Valentine: full-circle relationship drama focusing on a young all-American couple. This one’s independent to the core: indie Soundtrack, lo-fi visuals, handheld camcorder / shaky vibe – R-Gos even busts out a ukulele for a serenade at one point, in a scene that’s sweet enough to give you diabetes, or cringe-worthily comparable to dental work – depending on your stance. If there ever was a film aimed specifically at Noah and the Whale / Modest Mouse fans… this is it. The story itself is uncompromisingly banal, refusing to go anywhere, and with the indie style, it feels more like a fly-on-the-wall than drama in parts. Chronologically shuffled, it bounds between timeframes, making the mood warm and fuzzy, then ice cold, then fuzzy again… Despite a dull, mumbly script Gosling and Williams are the only aspects that kept me watching; they clock in some serious dramatic mileage through the convincing everyman/everywoman relationship scenarios. Overall, this is a tough one to rate: Blue Valentine wants to be rooted in the real world, yet it’s cast two beautiful Hollywood stars; it wants to be crushingly realistic yet has a rose-tinted cinematic romanticism outlook. Rarely does a film hang so heavily, or rely so much on two people, and in this case, two solid performances couldn’t make this special.
The Hangover Part II: Take my review of the first film – change mentions of ‘Vegas to Bangkok and it’s a job well done! Realising that the one-man wolf pack and Leslie Chow (the only two that pull off ‘funny’) were the best things about The Hangover, these two characters get even more screen time and gags than before. Once again, the humour is very Lad / Frat friendly and doesn’t appeal to everyone. Not much else to say other than it’s even more crass and offensive than the first, and seemed to have longer periods where nothing amazingly funny was happening. It’s good, but definitely more of an expansion pack than a new addition. Kudos to the people responsible for taking Hangovers for from a low-budget comedy to the biggest comedy of all time in 2 films!