The Sessions (2012) dir: Ben Lewin

This film is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a 36 year old poet who has been paralysed from the neck down since the age of 6 and has never had any sexual experience – ever, and spends most of his life in an iron lung. With the support of his priest (William H. Macy) he decides to see a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt, in a truly committed performance).

It doesn’t sound particularly cheery and to tell the truth, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if it hadn’t been for my wife. I thought it was probably some biopic of a rock band I’d never heard of.

So let me tell you that the film was full of humour, hope and love, and is extremely frank with the subject matter. I was captivated for an hour and a half.

Ok.

I was moved.

Excellently performed by all the cast, especially Helen Hunt, and unobstrusivley directed by Ben Lewin – the last film he did was 18 years ago  – ‘Paperback Romance’ – nope I’d not heard of it either – he definitely needs to be making more films.  In one scene, my wife almost broke my arm she grabbed it so hard:  It’s the middle of the night. Mark is lying in his iron lung. He’s alone, thinking. We’re listening to the sound of the equipment burbling away. The lights go out and the lung stops…

The film’s main source is Mark’s essay ‘On seeing a sex surrogate‘ written in 1990, and a short documentary called ‘Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien’ won an Academy Award in 1997.

The Last Stand (2013) dir: Jee-woon Kim

Ok, this is Arnie’s new film and for any of you asking – is this really a small indie movie? – I’m going to mention it  because:

1. I really liked the director’s other films that I’ve seen, especially his asian western ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Weird’ (which is really worth trying to get hold of – I can still remember the opening scene which starts high up in the sky and tracks a bird down towards, and into, a moving locomotive)

2. It is an Independent movie

3. It’s very enjoyable (in a fast food kind of way)

4. It seems to have been unfairly maligned

Often in this genre there are idiotic plot points and characters doing stupid things to drive the story forward or to justify an action sequence. Suprisingly I found characters doing fairly credible things (for a movie),  and the plotting was actually pretty intelligent and full of little surprises.

The basic premise: bad guy escapes from the FBI in Los Angeles,  drives off in a super fast car (that even the FBI helicopters can’t keep up with),  has his gang clear the route of FBI and SWAT teams – leaving only Arnie’s sherrif,  ‘Ray’, and his deputies to stop said bad guy at the border to Mexico.

The escape is very neat, and the action is all nicely staged (stunts seemed old school rather than CGI) though I would like to have seen more of the director’s trademark visual flair come through – it was definitely muted – I think this was probably due to the constraints of a US film production.

The film is peppered with gallows humour (though the odd Arnie one liner was a bit groan inducing), and it has a certain joie de vivre.

If you are an action fan or an Arnie fan, pre-Eraser,  there is much to enjoy here!

Seven Psychopaths (2012) dir: Martin McDonagh

This is writer/director Martin McDonagh’s follow up to ‘In Bruges’ (which I quite enjoyed – hell I even visited Bruges this year only to find myself swamped by tourists – yeah I know I was also a tourist – stayed for about 2 hours before jumping on a train to the beautiful Gent). Anyway. This film very much goes for the chatty dialogue extreme violence combo of Tarantino – and although it doesn’t reach the heights of Tarantino at his best (it sometimes feels a bit contrived) it definitely has a good try.

Colin Farrell is Marty, a Hollywood screenwriter who has a great title for a movie: Seven Psychopaths. Unfortunately that is it. Great title followed by 99 blank pages. His mate Billy (Sam Rockwell) decides to help him out and, amongst other things, puts an ad in the local paper for psychopaths to come on over and tell Marty their story. Billy also has a sideline business with Hans (Christopher Walken) in which they steal pet dogs, and then return them to the grateful owner in exchange for the cash reward. Things go pear-shaped really quickly when they steal the Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who is definitely of the psychopathic type – and local gangster – who will stop at nothing to get his dog back.

I’m not really doing the story much justice here as there is shitloads going on and any more info would be a spoiler – I’d avoid reading reviews – suffice it to say there are twists and turns, and given that Marty is a screenwriter, self referential discussions on gangster type movies: such as why women are so badly written in these types of films (like this film), stories within stories and films within films. There is so much that is enjoyable in this movie that it didn’t really matter that occasionally it kind of disappeared up its own arse. And with such a great cast including Gabourey Sidibe, Tom Waits, Zeljko Ivanek (who should have got more screen time – you’ll probably recognize him instantly as that bloke from…) and a really great section with Harry Dean Stanton, there are surprises and laugh out loud moments. Definitely check Seven Psychopaths out.

Oh yes. Don’t suddenly leap out of the cinema (or hit stop on your DVD etc) as soon as the credits roll. You don’t have to wait long for one ‘uh-oh’ hanging story thread to be tied up.

How I Spent my Summer Vacation (2012) dir: Adrian Grunberg

First of all I got a bollocking when I took my wife to this as I didn’t tell her it was a Mel Gibson film. She used to be a huge fan but now refuses to watch anything with him in it – which is, I guess, how much of America feels about him at the moment. Anyway, I wanted to see it because there were elements of the story that were of interest to me and I thought – once it starts – she’s less likely to drag me out.

This is a lowish budget film for Mel ($20m) and unusually for a film there weren’t loads of producer and company credits at the start of the picture, just his company, Icon.

Mel plays a guy who has stolen loads of cash from a gangster (who would like it back) and crosses into Mexico where he is locked up in a prison – which is more like a small town run by criminals. Here he finds friendship with a boy (Kevin Hernandez who is great) and uses his ill learned skills to survive.

I liked the film, it was entertaining and had some Tarantino type moments in it nicely put together by director Adrian Grunberg (Mel’s 1st AD on Apocalypto). What I found annoying was the voice over which explained the obvious and the night time camera work which produced a poor strobing video effect.

Other than that it had some clever sequences, and if you can ignore Mel Gibson’s personal life, is a movie worth checking out.

It has the appaling title of ‘Get the Gringo’ in the USA which would have only worked if it was a Tarantino or Rodriguez movie, who are a big influence on this.

Oh yes, I think my wife liked it too but I am going to have to let her choose the next ten movies for us to go and see.

Sometimes her choices are…questionable.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) dir: Boyle & Tandan

The story of two children from the slums in Mumbai, destiny and ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’.

This film is pretty much outstanding in all departments. Technically,  visually and also storywise (it’s based on a book) with a great soundtrack by A.R. Rahman – it all comes together beautifully. The film actually comes alive on the screen in front of your eyes – which is pretty rare indeed.  Don’t wait for the DVD or dodgy download. You have to go see it on the big screen. I’ve been to Mumbai and watching the film I was often thinking ‘how did they manage to film that?’. For example, in one sequence the camera whizzes through the slums and shanty towns (capturing so much detail as it goes!) as policeman chase the two young brothers (I’m guessing but maybe they were 5 or 6 years old), then pulls back to follow the chase from the air. Looks easy and we kind of take it for granted in a big Hollywood movie, but here it just kind of looked so much better and cooler.

I’d say this is the best Danny Boyle film I’ve seen, and here he shares his director credit with Loveleen Tandan, originally the casting agent, but I think here she went on to direct the 2nd unit material, as well as work with the children (who had no acting experience) to help bring out the wonderful performances from them. In fact, each of the six young actors, playing the two brothers as they grow up, are excellent. Often different actors playing the same role as that character grows up, don’t really convince. Here it’s pretty seemless.

Although the film is full of joy it also doesn’t avoid the harsh contradictions that exist in India, so there is poverty, death and crime.

This is truly a great film with a real heartbeat and soul.  Even the ending won me over.

Serial Lover (1998) dir: James Huth

OK. Bit of a rule breaker here. This is an old film, so I’m not going to do this often. But it was great! And you won’t have heard of it. And I’ve got a bit of time on my hands (but that’s another story).

Picture the scene:

I had to get up really early on a cold Saturday October morning to go to a seminar. It was heaving down with rain and I was grumpy. So me and these 5 other people sat down in this huge empty auditorium – 9.00am – in these uncomfortable metal chairs. The kind that are always dug out from the room marked ‘Pain’ at these sort of events. Then an announcement comes on: “Before the seminar we’d like to show you this French film.”

“God noooooo!” I’m thinking. “I’m just not in the mood for some arty farty boring subtitled film.”

(I was a bit of an idiot in those days when it came to subtitles and foreign language films. And I had no hot chocolate on me to soothe my sorrows.)

What’s more the film didn’t start off too hot neither.

35ish Claire (Michèle Laroque) has decided she needs to settle down and get married, but she’s single. She doesn’t have a boyfriend. Her biological clock is ticking.

This didn’t sound like a good setup, I knew where this was going: it was a one way trip to La Boredom. But it’s shot nicely so I’ll hang in there.

But then Claire has three male friends and she’s going to pick one to marry.

I’m shuffling in my bum-numbing seat and thinking about blowing the seminar entirely. God it’s cold in here.

So she invites them over for dinner and…

…accidentally kills them all – one by one – in entirely believable and ingenious ways.

This was now laugh out loud black comedy.  Coen brothers territory but funnier. All six of us in the audience are trying not to choke.

And it just got funnier:

After she’s killed two of her friends, and failed to hide the bodies properly, her last remaining friend discovers whats been occurring and panics. He shuts himself in her bedroom, and pushes the end of a bookcase against the door. Maybe he can save himself from this apparently deranged and psychotic woman?

He sits down, and leans back against the other end of the bookcase to keep the door from opening.

She’s banging on the door “It was an accident! I didn’t mean to kill them!…. Both times!” Or words to that affect (and in French).  I can’t remember exactly.

On top of the bookcase is an ice-skate.

Claire’s banging on the door, blokey is on the floor freaked out.

Bang, bang, bang goes the door against the bookcase.

Snick!

The ice-skate falls and embeds itself in the guy’s skull. But he’s alive – that’s not fatal.

“Are you ok?” Claire calls out from the other side of the door, now that her friend has gone quiet.

Thump, thump, thump as the door rattles against the bookcase. Very slowly Claire’s bowling ball, which we now learn she keeps on the top shelf, gently rolls off and…WHAP! Smacks the top of that ice-skate – with dire consequences.

Of course there’s no way I can do this scene justice, but the film was an absolute delight. I mean I’m banging on about it now and it was like 10 years ago when I saw it! It came out in France, during the 1998 World Cup staged where?  France. So no one went to see it. And it’s been released on DVD in Germany.

As far as I am aware, that is it.

At one time Sean Penn had the remake rights but I don’t know if that is still the case.  I met James Huth once and even he didn’t have a copy of the film.  James is doing OK though, one of his more recent films (which I haven’t seen) ‘The Brice Man’ was No. 2 in the French box office for 2005 – after Star Wars: the something or other.

If you happen to have a copy, with English subtitles, please let me know.  I’d love to see it again.

Bigga Than Ben (2008) dir: Suzie Halewood

Apparently when Suzie Halewood optioned the rights to the book Bol’she Ben by Pavel Tetersky and Sergei Sakin, all she knew about it was an article that she’d read in the Evening Standard. The book or journal was kind of a ‘Rough Guide’ to ripping people off in Britain and was written (in Russian) by two ‘Moscow scum’  who had illegally stayed in Britain so that they could scam enough cash to either get married or start a band.

In their guide, they apparently described themselves as pretty unlikeable and irredeemable lo-life drug addicts. In the film, the two main characters, Cobakka and Spiker, played by Brit Ben Barnes and the Russian Andrei Chadov, are pretty likeable and irredeemable lo-life drug addicts, and both actors convince in their roles.

(I heard that Ben was so committed to the role he was happy to use public transport to get to the film locations, hang out watching Russian dubbed movies and doss on peoples floors.)

The film is a drama with a lot of humour, and fizzes with energy. There’s a great scene where Cobakka (I think!) is comparing the different methods employed by law enforcement officials in London and Moscow when dealing with scammers. In London, over several months, you get a nice letter followed by another less nice letter, maybe followed by a polite knock on the door. In Moscow, a car screeches up, 5 cops get out, chase you, catch you and then beat the crap out of you.

Made, I believe, for around £200K, it did well in Russia, but has a very small and limited release in the UK.

Check it out. If not on the big screen then when it arrives on DVD.