Friday, 1 August 2014

'Guardians of the Galaxy', 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes', 'Edge of Tomorrow', 'Maleficent', '22 Jump Street', 'Of Horses and Men', and 'Grace of Monaco'

First post here in a very long time and likely my last for an even longer while, as I'm moving to Spain - and to a place with no cinema. Before I do, I'm going on a road trip around the US this month, so maybe I'll use this blog as a place to keep some kind of travel diary. Haven't decided yet. At any rate, my film watching has really slowed down this year to the point where I'm not even seeing a film every week. This review round-up represents every new film I saw at the cinema between now and that previous update in May (although I did somehow find time to watch 'X-Men' three times!).

'Guardians of the Galaxy' - Dir. James Gunn (12A)

Representing the biggest risk for Marvel since their shared movie universe began, 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is hardly based on household name characters considering the company's deep bench of well-known characters. In fact, until relatively recently Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (a gun-toting raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista) and Groot (a tree-like creature voiced by Vin Diesel) were not even especially well known to superhero comic book fans, with that incarnation of the space-faring anti-heros not appearing until 2008, coincidentally the year Marvel kicked off their own movie studio with the first 'Iron Man'. Yet the movie, directed and written by a similarly left-field choice in James Gunn, looks set to be a huge hit with audiences due in no small part to a whip-smart and irreverently funny screenplay and fine comic performances across the board. It goes without saying that's in addition to some great, hi-octane action and immersion into a colourful and imaginative world.

It's primarily about a group of misfit characters coming together with the villain of the piece Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) only a couple of steps up from Christopher Eccleston's forgettable Malekith in last year's 'Thor: the Dark World', but the baddies and fantastical, world-threatening mcguffins work as required as the loose framework around which to pin a hugely enjoyable combination of strange characters. By the end you not only understand who each of these people is but also believe they've been through enough together to form deep bonds of camaraderie and friendship. It's also the funniest Marvel movie yet, very much accentuating the latter part in action-comedy even more so than Shane Black's frequently hilarious 'Iron Man 3', with a lot of really fun character business between the scenes of colourful, awesome stuff exploding.

When the film was announced a couple of years back, it was regarded as a make or break movie for Marvel's growing cinematic universe: can the studio that started with the (relatively) gritty and grounded 'Iron Man' convince us of a talking raccoon and tree double-act? There was no going back and I'm sure the spectre of Jar Jar Binks must have loomed over the project, at least for nervous studio executives. Well they've more than gotten away with it and, after this, you'd have to wonder if there's too much in the company's comic book continuity they couldn't now bring to the screen with well-placed confidence.

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' - Dir. Matt Reeves (12A)

Not as tightly focussed or emotionally satisfying as Rupert Wyatt's 2011 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' - the prequel movie for which this is the direct sequel - as it broadens the focus from one rapidly evolving ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis), to a whole array of primates and significantly less interesting human characters, but Matt Reeves' 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is exciting and filled with great moments. The opening 20 or so minutes are particularly breathtaking, as the film opens on an organised and socialised ape hunting party communicating in sign language whilst chasing deer through the Muir Woods near San Francisco. All the scenes between the apes are really well done, technically and in terms of storytelling, with Caesar and his brethren clearly compelling enough to carry an entire film if Fox so wished, even though it would be a clear break from the apes versus humans formula of the series.

The human characters, led by Jason Clarke and an underutilised but perfectly cast Gary Oldman, are not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but they suffer by comparison to the more charismatic and fascinating apes. Also upstaging the human cast is a brilliantly realised post-apocalyptic San Francisco, which looks seamless and very real, almost as if they'd trashed the real city even if it must in reality be combination of sets and CGI. My only real criticism of the thing is in the way the central rivalry between Caesar and the abused former lab chimp Koba is resolved, which is impossible to discuss here without major spoilers. That aside, it's an entertaining, large scale sequel which lives up to its predecessor in terms of visual effects and scope even if it doesn't surpass it in terms of character development and heart. Which isn't to say it lacks those things either: I just like 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' a lot.

'Edge of Tomorrow' - Dir. Doug Liman (12A)

Criminally overlooked this summer by audiences who've become increasingly sick of Tom Cruise over the last decade or so, 'Edge of Tomorrow' is a genuinely smart and thoroughly entertaining piece of high concept sci-fi which takes its cues from video games and features Bill Paxton at his sarcastic, army man best. It also stars Emily Blunt as a highly capable and supremely badass soldier who used to have the strange alien power since acquired by Cruise's combat-shy press officer: an ability to come back to life after being killed, waking up in the same point about a day earlier a la 'Groundhog Day'.

It's slick and fast-paced and it even features a gratuitous scene of Cruise riding a motorcycle through London - something which might have been annoying once upon a time, at the height of his popularity and star power, but which is now so clearly ridiculous that it's swung round into near greatness. It comes unstuck in the finale, which ditches the gimmick in a misguided attempt to up the stakes, when all you really want to see at that point is a sort of perfect playthrough of the entire day, but it gets far more right than wrong and takes itself the right amount of seriously to work.

'Maleficent' - Dir. Robert Stromberg (PG)

If all you want to 'Maleficent' is Angelina Jolie chewing the scenery and doing a strange British accent then you'll be very happy. However, as a huge fan of the 1959 Disney version of 'Sleeping Beauty' - which this purports to be a retelling of from the point of view of the iconic villain - it felt like a missed opportunity. Particularly as it takes the position that the original was propaganda and straight-up lies perpetrated by the evil king (the only genuinely bad performance ever from Sharlto Copley), thereby retelling the story with major differences rather than merely colouring in the edges and adding depth to the baddie. It also removes iconic elements, such as Maleficent turning into that awesome dragon in the last act (instead a shapeshifting familiar played by Sam Riley does that bit, to underwhelming effect) and, though at odds with the more sinister tone of the piece (the breaking of the title character's wings plays like a truly horrific date-rape scenario) the movie retains the comic relief fairy characters - here played with unsettling motion capture technology that renders them unintentionally disgusting and frightening.

Another massive problem is that by seeking to add depth and explanation to a fairytale that only works because it's vague and features characters who are broad archetypes the movie renders Princess Aurora completely annoying and simple-seeming in her constant, fairy-mandated happiness, whilst King Stefan's decision to protect his daughter by sending her far away from the palace, to a cottage right on the border with Maleficent's forest domain does not hold up well to even minimal scrutiny. It's also a sad fact that, as great a character actor as she is, nobody has ever seen Imelda Staunton and thought "there's somebody whimsical and fun", with her casting as the main kooky fairy particularly jarring. Though she undeniably looks the part - something this whole projected seems entirely predicated upon - Jolie is also not at her best here, turning Maleficent even more resolutely into a cartoon even as the film wants so desperately to flesh her out. The whole thing also has that ugly, over-designed Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' production design that is a far cry from the minimalism and stylistic elegance of Eyvind Earle's work on the classic animation.

'22 Jump Street' Dir. Chris Miller & Phil Lord (15)

Coming directly off their huge success with 'The Lego Movie', co-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord have now firmly established themselves as two of Hollywood's top talents in the realm of comedy movies. Adding to their earlier success with the original 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' and break-out live action hit '21 Jump Street', the duo clearly understand funny, whether it's an animation for children or sex, violence and expletive ridden fare for adults (or at least older kids). '22 Jump Street' is another great example of the sort of smart, joyful and zany (in a good way) thing they do, subverting cliches and making self-aware jokes about cop movies and sequels along the way. Much like the original film - a re-tooled adaptation of a widely reviled Johnny Depp TV series from the 80s - this sequel is comfortably better than it has any cause to be.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are again really fun to watch as two cops sent undercover to infiltrate a college for a sting operation and unlikely BFFs. Like the first one, this is primarily the story of a sweet and sincere friendship and that's where most of the fun comes from. Tatum in particular is hilarious and charmingly dumb as the football playing jock of the team. Ice Cube also returns in scene-stealing form as their ballbusting boss, whilst relative unknown Wyatt Russell is perfectly cast as the easygoing ball player who nearly breaks up the central bromance.

'Of Horses and Men' - Dir. Benedikt Erlingsson (15)

A series of tangentially connected short stories revolving around, naturally enough, humans and their relationship with horses in one isolated Icelandic community, 'Of Horses and Men' is downbeat with an odd sense of humour. It also contains far more sex and death than you might expect, with most the characters, horse and human, not surviving their story unscathed (if at all).

At first, the opening story seemed to me to be a savage critique of the way men treat women, as trophies and extensions of their own pride and ego, as one horse owner struts around the village on his favourite female horse before shoot that horse after she is set upon by a randy stallion from another field. It's the idea that women can be seen as damaged goods, sullied by sexual contact, whereas the male who initiated the encounter is not punished or in any way demeaned by the ordeal. There's also a really refreshing and progressive story about a young, Swedish woman who is depicted as the most competent and dedicated horse wrangler in a community otherwise populated by self-destructive drunks and irate farmers. But then the end credits proudly state that the film is made by horse owners to express a love of horses, so maybe it's really only about horses after all. It's an odd one.

'Grace of Monaco' - Dir. Olivier Dahan (PG)

It's the terrible, car crash movie you heard bombed with critics at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but the worst thing about 'Grace of Monaco' is that it manages to be bad without ever being particularly funny with it. This is no 'Diana' in terms of providing derisory sniggers, though I'd argue it is a worse movie. Certainly in terms of narrative structure. For all its faults and however dubious it is as a work of supposed biography, 'Diana' at least has a coherent structure and tight focus, which sees that particular tabloid princess falling in love with a surgeon in the lead-up to her premature death in 1997. But 'Grace of Monaco' is a confused affair, spending an equal amount of time with Tim Roth's Ranier III (as he fights against Charles de Gaulle's bid to make the principality pay taxes to the French state) as it does with Nicole Kidman's pouty movie star-turned-royal. With the exception of Parker Posey's "why is she in this?" turn as a sinister French maid, the film is just utterly boring.

An anti-tax, hilariously anti-French (all the Monacans are played as English, whilst de Gaulle and his compatriots are almost Pythonesque in their Frenchness) screed in which an American celebrity has to learn to become a model princess, it ends with Kidman giving a rambling speech that somehow averts a war between France and Monaco by utterly charming de Gaulle, which is not only unearned but makes no sense at all. Roth and Kidman are phoning it in, the sets look sparse and lifeless, the cinematography is like something out of a bad perfume ad and it also boasts one of the worst big screen portrayals of Alfred Hitchcock ever seen - which is saying a great deal. 'Grace of Monaco' is horrendously awful. A film where nothing is right at any level of the production, even by accident. Avoid it.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

'X-Men: Days of Future Past', 'Godzilla', 'The Wind Rises', '20 Feet from Stardom', 'Blue Ruin', 'Locke', 'A Story of Children and Film', and 'Tracks'

'X-Men: Days of Future Past' - Dir. Bryan Singer (12A)

Regular readers of this blog will know I'm a huge fan of the Marvel Studios movies to date, with my enthusiasm for 'Captain America: the First Avenger' and 'The Avengers', in particular, leading me to become an avid reader of the comics themselves. I like the Sam Raimi 'Spider-Man' series a lot too (even the third one, with reservations) and I even have time for Ang Lee's much-maligned 'Hulk' and, over on the DC side of things, I am overall a fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Yet, even though I'm of that generation that grew up with the Saturday morning cartoon series in the 90s and had parents who owned and loved an extensive collection of the Claremont/Byrne comics, I have never been a huge fan of Fox's X-Men movie franchise. The first one was pretty good - certainly better than I remember expecting it to be after seeing the title characters disappointingly decked out in unexciting black leather outfits - and its direct sequel, 2003's 'X-Men 2', was better still, but I've never been nostalgic about the series at all. And that's in spite of the fact that, with a couple of exceptions, the casting has always been superb.

That cast is probably why the series has limped on within the same continuity for over a decade now, even after the third entry 'X-Men: the Last Stand' killed off several main characters and pissed fans off by being completely terrible in almost every way: how do you recast Ian McKellan as Magneto or Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier? To say nothing of the fact that Hugh Jackman, a near unknown when he was first cast in 2000, practically is Wolverine. The solution was to go backwards a few years ago with 'X-Men: First Class' (which most seemed to love and I completely hated bar its, again, exceptional casting), keeping the option open of making more Jackman Wolverine movies (2013's 'The Wolverine' was legitimately pretty great, whilst 2009's 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' is best left forgotten) and enabling the recasting of key roles without inviting the same unkind comparisons that might have persisted had it been a straight-up reboot.

Now, seven movies in to Fox's X-Men movie franchise, they've finally made one I unequivocally love. Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two movies, returned to the director's chair to tell a very X-Men story: one involving not only the comic book series' staple of time travel but also spinning a tale specifically designed to address and repair perceived to an increasingly elaborate and inconsistent continuity. Put that way, 'X-Men: Days of Future Past', which is loosely based on a classic Chris Claremont and John Byrne story, is possibly the most comic book movie ever. The series that once felt the need to make jokes about heroes wearing "yellow spandex" has now fully embraced the madness of comic books and I couldn't have had a bigger smile on my face whilst watching it. Especially at the ending, because here's the thing: Singer and writer Simon Kinberg have done it.

They have fixed the X-Men movie franchise and in a classy way that makes it possible to make new movies with the 'First Class' cast (primarily James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence) without fear of bumping into any of the old baggage that once lay in the way. It's a smart movie that celebrates the past, but definitively makes way for the future. It's a rare sequel/prequel that actually elevates everything that came before and makes it all seem, finally, like it all sort of makes a certain fuzzy kind of sense. I like problem movies, which is to say movies which seem to have set themselves a problem and solved it. It's partly why I liked Joss Whedon's 'Avengers' as much as I do. By all rights that movie should have been a huge mess: too many characters to juggle, too many egos on set, too much extended universe baggage to make it appeal to new audience members - yet it all clicked into place.

The same applies to 'Days of Future Past' in that this movie seems to have been conceived as a way to address continuity mistakes and to help rejuvenate and reboot the franchise. It's a placeholder movie, paving the way for new stories with a couple of hours of energetic rebuilding work, basically. Yet it also works on its own terms somehow, and is fast-paced, fun and contains terrific fight scenes not matched by any X-Men movie and, possibly, by any superhero movie to date. For the first time I'm excited to see a new X-Men movie. In fact, now I'm excited to see the recently announced Channing Tatum Gambit movie. It's not often movie number seven is the best in the franchise, but Fox's X-Men just got really good and it only took about 15 years to get there. Oh, and Quicksilver is awesome.

'Godzilla' - Dir. Gareth Edwards (12A)

Can't talk about this one without a mild SPOILER that won't be a surprise to anyone who's seen the more recent trailers, but some may want to avoid until they've seen the film.

The obvious way to reboot 'Godzilla' for a modern audience would be to re-tell that great original story from Ishiro Honda's 1954 classic, with all its post-war nuclear paranoia and pitch-perfect melodrama, as scientists work against hope to prevent the gigantic scaley metaphor from wiping out humanity one city at a time. He emerges from the sea, we get terrified, he fights the army, we somehow beat him back, the end. That first movie is popularly acknowledged to be the best of a series that, depending on who's counting, now extends to around 40 entries all sticking to a tried and tested formula which typically sees Godzilla fighting other giant kaiju whilst we humans look on helplessly. It's a "proper movie" that still holds up, in other words, whilst the sequels went the way of 'Rocky'. So it's fascinating to me that Gareth Edwards, director of DIY critical darling 'Monsters', has effectively bypassed this obvious route to respectability and gone straight into this prospective franchise in the spirit of those sequels. It's a weird choice but he more or less pulls it off with an entertaining monster smash-up even if it's not the more grounded and cerebral film many were expecting.

Godzilla is, charitably, a supporting player here, arriving around the hour mark and seldom seen until the big final showdown in which he rescues hopeless humanity from no less than two other gigantic terrors, after which he is declared the "king of monsters" by the TV news and celebrated in the streets. He's not the main hero and nor is he the epic antagonist, but instead serves as an elemental force of nature who sweeps in and, as Ken Watanabe's scientist has it, "restores balance" when things are at their bleakest. Until that happens we have to make do with a bunch of really good actors with varying degrees of little to do (Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Brian Cranston, David Strathairn) and a lot of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a military guy who, for one reason or another, follows the monsters around the world, acting as witness to a lot of city destruction and a number of futile US military attempts to thwart the beasts.

It lacks a little on the human side, but one thing Edwards' movie gets spectacularly right is the special effects on the monsters, which pull of that difficult trick (notoriously hard with CGI) of giving the creatures weight and scale. These are impressive things that easily dwarf aircraft carriers and skyscrapers. One of the most fun aspects of this movie is that Godzilla and his kaiju cousins are completely indifferent to us, only attacking when we get in their way, something best shown by scenes which show the American navy travelling alongside Godzilla as he makes his way inland. He could smash them up in moments were he bothered, but we're insects to him - which is probably the clearest way the film retains any of the original's fear of destructive forces outside of our control. Despite the cheering at the end, there is little indication that Godzilla has gone out of his way to save humanity, just that his vague objective matched up with our own this time around.

Far from perfect and not as complete or fully realised a vision as last year's more ambitious and imaginative 'Pacific Rim', Edwards' latest monster movie is a strange inverse of his last one: great at delivering epically sized beasts laying waste to civilization in suitably entertaining ways and a little bit shoddy when it comes to character work. Perhaps if a supporting player like Bryan Cranston were the star instead of the bland Taylor-Johnson then things would be very different, but as it stands this is a film that has just enough thrills to make you forgive its shortcomings.

'The Wind Rises' - Dir. Hayao Miyazaki (PG)

Supposedly representing the final film from legendary writer/director Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, 'The Wind Rises' is a relatively low-key affair which serves partly as a biopic of aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi - designer of the famous 'Zero' fighter plane during the Second World War - and, oddly enough, also as a loose adaptation of a short story by Tatsuo Hori called The Wind Has Risen, which concerns a woman suffering from tuberculosis. It's a strange blend, especially as it means half the story (the part concerning Jiro's love for his sickly wife Naoko, which becomes increasingly pronounced in the final third) bares no obvious correlation with the life of the person the film is directly about, but it works in injecting what might have been a fairly dry tale about an aviation pioneer with the heart and romanticism associated with the filmmaker.

In almost every Miyazaki film to date his passion for machines, engines and, especially, aircraft has loomed large - most notably in 'Castle in the Sky' and 'Porco Rosso' but also visible in the joy of flight experienced on the catbus of 'My Neighbour Totoro' or the broom in 'Kiki's Delivery Service' - so in many ways, though it is less fantastical and magical (and it does still have those qualities stylistically), 'The Wind Rises' does have the air of a great passion project and represents an extremely personal sign-off. In the dream sequences, which are many, Miyazaki indulges his childish imagination, creating wondrous and impossible aircraft and contriving to have two of his heroes converse in what is ultimately aviation hobbyist fan fiction, as Jiro regularly checks in with the Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caproni, who forms his imaginary mentor. Miyazaki's obsessions enter the film in other ways too, with Jiro's drive and single-minded dedication to pursuing his chosen profession, perhaps at the expense of his personal life, another recurring theme.

At its core it's a film about choosing to pursue your creative dream even if it might be appropriated for nefarious purposes. Some have criticised the director for not going far enough to address the fact that Horikoshi ultimately designed efficient engines of war and destruction which were quickly put to devastating purpose in expanding the Empire of Imperial Japan - and it is fair to say he doesn't admonish Jiro for anything more severe than maybe not paying his (fictionalised) ailing wife enough attention. That said, given some of that negative reaction I was surprised how much the oncoming war underpins the entire film from its opening dream sequence (interrupted by bombs and destruction) to it's bittersweet final moments as Jiro finally perfects his plane only to be suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of what it will be use for next.

I'd argue Miyazaki effectively creates an air of menace and unease for most of the running time, with the foreshadowing of the coming destruction keenly felt during a haunting portrayal of the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, as it levels Tokyo amidst an eerie sense of calm and quiet resignation of defeat in the face of a greater power - one of the greatest sequences he's ever conceived. The anti-war theme also comes to the fore in Jiro's dreams and the question of whether to "live in a world with or without pyramids", as Caproni puts it to him, is central. Then there's the kindly German traveller who (voiced to great effect by Werner Herzog in the English language dub) speaks gravely about the great evils being perpetuated by Japan's Nazi allies in Europe and who is suddenly forced to flee from the secret police. Ultimately this distaste for (though never outright rejection of) war is what sours Jiro's greatest achievement.

As you'd expect by now, the animation is peerless and beautiful, rendered all the more majestic by Joe Hisaishi's sweeping score. Miyazaki always nails small character moments and this film is no exception, from the effortless poetry of Naoko pulling her quilt over the sleeping Jiro as he rests at her side to his light and joyful depiction of something as simple as a paper airplane drifting on a breeze or a group of kids squeezing cartoonishly into the narrow confines of a giant biplane. Without much in the way of conflict to power the narrative, or anything like the fantasy of 'Howl's Moving Castle', 'Spirited Away' or 'Princess Mononoke', this is a film of small moments and wonderful details, no less joyful than those he's given us in the past. He threatened retirement in the past and then came back with some of his most celebrated work, so here's hoping this isn't the last of Hayao Miyazaki. But, if it is, this personal and intimate film is a great way to go.

'20 Feet from Stardom' - Dir. Morgan Neville (12A)

Controversially taking the Best Documentary Oscar earlier this year when it beat the fancied critical favourite 'The Act of Killing', '20 Feet from Stardom' may not be as exceptional a film in terms of form or content, but it's still a very entertaining doc, especially for those with a predilection for the girl groups of the 50s and 60s. The great Darlene Love is probably the best known of the film's subjects, as it explores the careers of remarkable singers (more often than not black women) who found themselves, for one reason or another, working as back-up rather than making the breakthrough as solo acts. There's all the expected VH1 Behind the Music style accounts of the highs and lows of fame and fortune, as some make it and others fall into obscurity and even out of music altogether, but it's pretty shallow when it comes to insight and is far from a definitive account of any era or artist. The main reason to watch is to see and hear these brilliant singers given a long overdue spotlight, and to learn anecdotes about their careers in music which saw them working behind everyone from Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder via Springsteen and Bowie.

'Blue Ruin' - Dir. Jeremy Saulnier (15)

With a low budget crowd-funded on Kickstarter and a very slight plot, 'Blue Ruin' is a taut thriller that mostly gets by on atmosphere, with the camera often uncomfortably close to Dwight (Macon Blair) who, when we first meet him, is a soft-spoken, reclusive vagrant - apparently sleep-walking through the past several years of his life in a traumatised stupor and living on a beach in a rusted, blue Pontiac. This changes when a local cop informs him that the man who killed his parents is due to be released from prison, prompting Dwight to start moving with a zombie-like single-mindedness on a quest for revenge. He starts up his old car, gets himself a gun, and heads out on a path of endless and empty ultra-violence with no clear winners.

Whilst clearly relishing the imaginatively executed scenes of violence, and clearly taking influence from the black humour and dark-hearted menace of early Coen Brothers movies, director Jeremy Saulnier also makes revenge seem appropriately childish. His baby-faced protagonist seems stuck in infanthood after losing his parents and seems perpetually afraid and incompetent, as opposed to cool and in control, a fact which serves as a nice counterpoint to the place revenge now seems to occupy in media in a post-Tarantino world. He gets his guns from a similarly childish old school friend, who displays a juvenile male's love of firearms and murder that is without conscience or understanding of consequence. That's not to say Saulnier isn't perhaps having his cake and eating it, with part of the thrill of 'Blue Ruin' definitely coming from the well-crafted scenes of death and violence, but it's an interesting and welcome aspect and one which elevates this interesting film above the crowd.

'Locke' - Dir. Steven Knight (15)

A masterclass in terms of showing what you can achieve with one (admittedly world class) actor and a tight, disciplined screenplay, 'Locke' is literally a film in which Tom Hardy drives down a British motorway for around an hour and a half, juggling problems at home and work on his phone. It begins with him getting into his family car in Birmingham and ends with him taking exit ramp off the M40 and, though hugely important to Hardy's Ivan Locke and to the disembodied voices we hear on the other end of his carphone, the problems he faces are refreshingly down to earth. If given a small budget, one actor, and the brief to make a film entirely set in a moving car, it would be tempting to inject high-octane drama by making, say, something about a man with a bomb on his backseat who is having to deal with terrorists as he drives against the clock to rescue his wife and kids - but Locke gets a lot out of far less. It's consistently tense and thoroughly gripping even though it's about a man who's simply trying to get to resolve marital problems whilst also trying to co-ordinate what we're told is the "biggest concrete pour in Europe" (outside of military and nuclear). High stakes on both fronts, but on a relatable, human scale.

The only criticism I have of 'Locke' is that some of the voices on the other end of the phone sound theatrical and exaggerated rather than naturalistic, which is jarring when Hardy's adopted Welsh accent comes across as conversational and a little more nuanced, which has the effect of making it feel like the two sides of the conversation are coming from different films. Though that's a minor quibble at most because Hardy delivers a central performance that is captivating from beginning to end, even as/especially when he monologues about the minutiae urban planning and the construction industry in great detail. In fact his Alan Partridge-like fixation on pedantic, humdrum details lends the film a lot of humour even as you find yourself on the edge of your seat wondering if he can get the council to approve a vital 'stop and go' on a minor road at short notice.

'A Story of Children and Film' - Dir. Mark Cousins (PG)

In the vein of his celebrated television series 'The Story of Film: An Odyssey', critic-turned-filmmaker Mark Cousins turns his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema onto films from around the world depicting children, shining a spotlight on a number of little-seen gems and forgotten classics along the way. Using footage of his young niece and nephew playing in his front room as a sort of framing device, he identifies what he thinks are true expressions of childhood on camera and then uses films - ranging from the blockbuster 'E.T' to Iran's 'The White Balloon' and the Albanian 'Tomka and His Friends' - to illustrate how these traits and ideas have best been depicted on film.

It's as much a celebration of cinema and childhood as it is a work of criticism and film history, with the definite article in the title of his aforementioned series replaced with a more subjective 'A' this time around. Admittedly, some of the links Cousins draws between the films feel like a stretch (I'm still not sure what his segways to the art of Van Gogh have to do with anything) but it's primarily made up of clips from some truly beautiful films, presented here with an enthusiasm to match the intellect.

'Tracks' - Dir. John Curran (12A)

The based-on-a-true-story tale of one young woman's nine month trek across the best part of 2,000 miles of inhospitable Australian desert, from the Northern Territory town of Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean on the west coast, John Curran's 'Tracks' struggles to convey a sense of either time or distance. Like many walking films before it, such as Peter Weir's 'The Way Back' or even John Hillcoat's adaptation of 'The Road', the great swathes of land covered by the protagonist are lost in the edit in the name of brevity, with the film instead taking us from incident to incident - which seems antithetical to the nature of the story being told. The ever-watchable Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson as a loner who prefers the company of animals to people, yet the film - even with frequent flashbacks to a traumatic childhood - never really gets to the heart of why that is, or why it is she decides upon this arbitrary and extremely dangerous goal.

We don't really even get to see her deal with isolation for any great stretch of time, as the film bumps Robyn into numerous people seemingly every other scene - from Adam Driver's well-meaning photojournalist to empathetic aboriginal elders and bemused white settlers. It's ultimately a movie hamstrung by an apparent belief that the only way to advance the story or develop its central character is through dialogue and contrived drama. I can't help but imagine Robyn Davidson's months in the outback must have, in truth, consisted of very little of either. Her biggest struggle, perhaps after ensuring a reliable supply of drinkable water, must have been against boredom and madness. This should have been a tale of remoteness, quiet self-reflection and perseverance, but what we have instead is a fairly conventional romance story about a woman who just needs to learn to let people in, principally by learning to love Driver's manic pixie dream-boy.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

'The Amazing Spider-Man 2', 'Calvary', 'Noah', 'Muppets Most Wanted', 'We Are the Best', 'The Double', 'The Raid 2', and 'Labor Day'

'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' - Dir. Marc Webb (12A)

Like its immediate predecessor, 2012's 'The Amazing Spider-Man', what's frustrating about Marc Webb's sequel is that it isn't totally, utterly terrible on anything like a consistent basis: it's that the film is sometimes an utterly perfect superhero comic adaptation between the (more frequent) instances where it's completely and utterly terrible. For instance, ignoring the boring opening scene in which it needlessly focuses on the death of Peter Parker's parents, the film starts with Spidey (Andrew Garfield, mumbling less than in the last film) swinging around a sunny New York City (this one isn't entirely set at night like the last) attempting to stop a robbery, aiding police in pursuit of a pantomime villain played by overacting's Paul Giamatti. It's one of the instances where the Spider-Man from the comic book page, and your childish imagination, is right up there on the screen, swinging through the streets with all the joyousness that makes him such an appealing character. He wisecracks the badguy to great effect and the animation is fantastic in that it presents the character in a way which is entirely comic book: he moves and bends like a cartoon character and not like a real person. It's terrific.

Then we cutaway to Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter's girlfriend, giving the painfully earnest and obviously prophetic graduation speech that Parker is typically late to because that's sort of Spider-Man's entire thing. And the fun leaves the movie for a few minutes. Then Spider-Man shows up again and it's awesome! Then the emo, sub-'Twilight' drama kicks in again. And so on. Now both leads are highly watchable and they have a chemistry that makes some of the straight-up romance scenes work very nicely, but these moments are self-conscious and overwritten, with musical cues that always tell you, right on the nose, exactly how to think and feel at any given moment. What they are not, generally, is fun to watch. Then there's poor Jamie Foxx, a decent actor who is given a truly thankless task as villain Electro, who has some unbearably embarrassing scenes which mostly involve talking to himself whilst the soundtrack starts to rap whatever he just said in the background. The Times Square action showdown between him and Spidey is laughable when it should be, if you'll pardon the pun, electrifying simply because of the terrible dialogue and cringe-inducing musical choices.

So it goes. There are some more excellent bits: Dane DeHaan predictably enough makes for a delicious comic book villain, as Peter's lifelong friend Harry Osborne (absent from the last film) who takes on the mantle of arch-nemesis the Green Goblin here. His late-film team-up with Electro is really fun to watch, as he taunts and intimidates members of the cartoonishly evil Oscorp board. Likewise the climactic action sequence, though hamstrung by its regrettable staging (taking place on the oversized cogs of a giant CGI clock), is tense and its climax emotional, if only because of the quality of the actors involved and prior attachment I feel to these characters. Yet there's so much crap in between the good moments that we're again left with a Spider-Man movie that is neither awful or brilliant or even consistently mediocre, but an unholy hybrid of all three. Which is disappointing and maybe the worst of all possible worlds because of the false hope proffered by the very best moments here.

'Calvary' - Dir. John Michael McDonagh (15)

Hinging on a stunning central performance by Brendan Gleason, as a good man and dedicated priest in a rural Irish town, 'Calvary' is writer-director John Michael McDonagh's typically tragicomic follow-up to 'The Guard'. Behind that great performance is a screenplay which not only boasts a lot of smart and darkly funny dialogue but also a simple yet ingenious premise. The film begins with an unseen person making a confession to Gleason's Father James Lavelle that he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child and that, one week from now, he'll murder Lavelle on the local beach - the logic being that murdering a good priest for the sins of the church (inviting a fairly obvious Christian parallel) will mean more than murdering a bad one. The rest of the film follows Lavelle's daily life leading up to the prophesied event, as he runs into various members of his flock, all of whom have some sort of historic axe to grind with the Catholic church as an institution, which serves the dual function of allowing for some interesting contemplation about the role of the church in contemporary Ireland whilst also handily setting up a half-dozen potential murderers.

Even-handed to a fault, the supporting cast of broad archetypal characters - played by the likes of Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran and a particularly superb Chris O'Dowd - air a number of popular (and generally justified) grievances against the church's exploits, whilst in return Lavelle is shown to be a pretty smart and witty guy who more often than not has an amusing rebuttal, even if he doesn't always mount a counter-offensive. It's as much about the Catholic church as an institution as it is about religious belief and the very idea of a good priest - or even a good man - as it is a compelling, occasionally tense crime mystery and acidic, jet-black comedy.

'Noah' - Dir. Darren Aronofsky (12A)

Already one of the year's most divisive and controversial releases, Darren Aronofsky has risked alienating both secular and religious audiences with an epic adaptation of the story of Noah's Arc from the Old Testament book of Genesis. On the face of it you'd think there couldn't be much worse in this world than a big screen Bible story starring Russell Crowe, but the director's decision to tell it as a full-blown High Fantasy-influenced myth - complete with rock monsters, flaming swords and magical potions - makes for something highly entertaining, yet also thought-provoking as it becomes something of a discussion about the Old Testament in the post-flood second half. For his part Crowe is perfectly cast as a biblical patriarch in the old mould: an uncompromising zealot who would murder a child if God willed it of him. It's his decision to collaborate with God (referred to throughout as 'the creator') in wiping out the rest of humanity that forms the bulk of the third act soul searching and causes conflict between Noah and his long-suffering family.

Aronofsky is working on a large canvas here, though this succeeds where his previous attempt at something fantastical, theological and expensive - 'The Fountain' - failed, being more coherent and straight forward in a narrative sense, which gives the theological or moral concerns of the film more immediacy. Though none of his visual flair or tendency towards the poetic is diminished by this more conventional approach, with some particularly memorable and magnificent sequences standing out - such as a time-lapse montage of a trickle of water forming a mighty, continent-spanning river and a brilliant 'Tree of Life' style sequence that features the biblical story of creation being told over images of the formation of the universe as we presently understand it through science. And whilst these visuals impress, and the fallen angel/stone golems excite during a 'Lord of the Rings' style battle against Ray Winstone's army of damned humans, where it really excels is in its complex grappling with ideas.

The assumption with religion, at least in movies, tends to be that if you accept the existence of God then you must worship him. By setting this story in a world where 'the Creator' unambiguously exists the film instead seems to ask the question of should you follow him? This isn't the crisis of belief which we see explored time and time again, but an active challenge to God's moral authority. This is a vengeful and violent Old Testament deity who doesn't seem to have our best interests at heart. He damned his angels for helping Adam and Eve - and cast them out of heaven for exercising an innocent curiosity about the world around them. When Noah suggests he has been chosen by God not for being the best man, but for being the one prepared to get things done, what could read as a cliche action movie line actually suggests quite a frightening prospect. Not least that the nominal hero of the movie is actually a callous psychopath, with the sense growing ominously that his family are trapped on the arc with somebody dangerous and unhinged. As a result 'Noah' is a much smarter film than many might be expecting.

'Muppets Most Wanted' - Dir. James Bobin (U)

Disney's sequel to 2011's well loved 'The Muppets' might not hold together as neatly as a movie, lacking that earlier film's pathos and clearly defined character arc, but it's every bit as fun (and possibly more so) thanks to a high gag-count and some typically enjoyable musical numbers from Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie. This time the gang is tricked by Ricky Gervais' Dominic Badguy (amusingly described by Rowlf as "honest and humble") into embarking on a European tour during which Kermit is spirited away to a Siberian gulag and replaced by his evil doppelganger: Constantine, the world's most dangerous frog. Dominic and Constantine plan to use the tour as a cover to steal artifacts from the museums of Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London.

This great Muppet caper prompts intervention from the year's most surprising and enjoyable comedy double-act as an FBI agent (Sam the Eagle) and an Interpol Detective (Ty Burrell) seek to pin the blame on our framed heroes, whilst mocking each other's crime solving acumen and competing to see who has the biggest badge. Also extremely fun to watch is Tina Fey as the Kermit-obsessed warden of the gulag, stealing the show with her performance of one of the film's most toe-tapping songs and getting some of the best gags. It's a bit baggy in places but made with obvious love and a complete lack of cynicism, something backed up by dozens of celebrity cameos which feel less like an attempt to sell tickets and more like genuine expressions of the affectionate regard held for these fading icons within popular culture. 100% joyful from start to finish.

'We Are the Best!' - Dir. Lukas Moodysson (15)

A truly special film, Lukas Moodysson's coming of age story 'We Are the Best!' is a rare type of movie. It's uplifting without being schmaltzy, with an infectious enthusiasm for jumping around and generally being a 13 year-old misfit that I would have loved to have seen at that age - even if the film's curious '15' rating by the BBFC would have made that a difficult prospect. The plot concerns a group of young, female social outcasts, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin) and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), who decide to form a punk band - more or less with the soul intention of pissing people off. Though they have a passionate interest in music from the start, and take the band increasingly seriously as the story progresses, it's this fearless irreverence and defiant attitude that makes the characters and the film so compelling.

It's an obviously apparent truth to say they don't make a lot of films of this quality about the experience of teenage girls but, more broadly, there just aren't that many films that depict adolescence with the kind of heart and complexity displayed here. The three leads are all incredibly interesting, lovable, fully-formed characters who you really root for in spite of, or rather because of, their naivete, stubbornness and half-formed pseudo-political ideas. As fun as it is, the film also cuts to the heart of what it means to be an outcast: to feel isolated, unloved and alone. We see their daily interactions with cruel classmates, weary teachers and odd parents - with three contrasting family dynamics proving its how you fuck up your children as opposed to if - and glimpse more than a little casual everyday sexism, that's so constant as to be mundane. Yet there is a fierce optimistic streak running through it too and the film is smart enough to also understand (and embrace) how the girls' self-conscious outcast status is to some extent a construction of their own design. A film that says so much about youth, friendship, being an outsider, and the unaffected joy of music.

The Double - Dir. Richard Ayoade (15)

There is so much to love about 'The Double', the second feature film directed by Richard Ayoade following his instant classic 'Submarine'. It has a brilliant cast of intelligent actors, making perfect use of the intense and twitchy Jesse Eisenberg - as both a downtrodden schlemiel and the obnoxious personification of his id who ruins his already crummy life - and Mia Wasikowska as another slightly broken person rendered similarly anonymous by an uncaring dystopian state. The supporting cast is a laundry list of other perfomers I really admire, such as Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Wallace Shawn, Tim Key, Paddy Considine, Chris O'Dowd and Chris Morris, as well as roles for Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, the young stars of his earlier film. It deals with themes of social isolation and awkwardness that I tend to enjoy seeing explored and has a brilliant concept as adapted from a novella by Dostoyevsky. It also has a style that seems to me like a blend of 'Brazil' and 'Punch-Drunk Love' - two of my favourite films.

So why did it leave me so cold? Why didn't it connect with me on an emotional level, even as I recognise that it was very clever and quite beautifully executed from a technical standpoint? I ask rhetorically here because I don't know the answer myself, at least after a single viewing. (I'm sort of working it out as I type this.) There's nothing I could point to as being 'wrong' with it and, conversely, so much that I could describe enthusiastically. In particular the staging of scenes and the lighting was really terrific, whilst the fractured, off-kilter musical score by Andrew Hewitt was quietly effective at creating discomfort and tension. So why wasn't I engaged by it? The best I can come up with now is that there isn't enough lightness there, not enough hope or happiness in this world to make you think our heroes have anything worth striving for. In both 'Brazil' and 'Punch-Drunk Love' it's love that makes the world worth living in, despite all the other crap going on that makes you question humanity, and that's what Ayoade is seemingly trying to evoke here with the relationship between Eisenberg and Wasikowska. But it somehow falls flat, perhaps because she never seems like she's into him and he just seems like a creepy stalker.

In 'Brazil', Sam Lowry is able to dream of a life beyond the stale, bureaucratic dystopia he inhabits because of an idealised love affair that he dreams will take place. It doesn't matter that (spoiler warning) it doesn't, because we join him in feeling like it could. We badly want it to happen for him and the ending is a punch to the guts because we don't get our way. Similarly, 'Punch-Drunk Love' has Barry Egan live in a world rendered cruel by his own internal struggles with anxiety and confidence, and he hopes to break free of his inhibitions and give his experience of life meaning - in a frightening and often hostile world - through a love which will validate his existence and give him peace of mind. This works because Emily Watson's character genuinely likes him too and, in fact, initiates contact (making it more about him overcoming his emotional problems than about him "winning the girl"). 'The Double', as I see it, is combining both of those narratives but something has been lost in translation. I feel like the film wants to make my heart soar when the up-tempo J-Pop song comes on in a dingy cafe or when Jesse dances down the corridor, towards the camera (in a shot lifted directly out of 'Punch-Drunk Love') as the lighting cues change around him in harmony with the music and mood. But it didn't and I'm as confused as anyone as to why that was.

'The Raid 2' - Dir. Gareth Evans (18)

There's a scene in the second 'Bill & Ted' film where they're falling into a seemingly bottomless abyss. At first they are screaming, terrified of the expected collision with the ground below, but minutes later they are simply bored - memorably playing a game of 20 Questions to pass the time as they continue downwards. Psychologists might chalk this up as an example of the hedonic treadmill, which sees human beings return to a sort of stable emotional baseline after a while regardless of positive or negative events, in other words: there's only so long you can be terrified for. That might seem like an odd way to open my critique of Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans' 'The Raid 2', a sequel to his well received 2011 Indonesian martial arts film, but it's the only way I can explain how I felt watching the film's intense but lengthy fight sequences.

Choreographed with imagination and performed with incredible skill, any five minute clip of a fist fight in 'The Raid 2' would be jaw-dropping and pulse-raising. The fights are fast, frantic and brutally violent, and they get more and more extreme as the film continues. Yet there's only so long I can be thinking "wow, this is intense" before my mind starts to wander and I find myself thinking "what's for lunch?" only to pull back and realise the same fight is still going on and plucky rookie cop Rama (Iko Iwais) still hasn't dealt that killer blow we know is coming.

I don't mean to seem so negative about the movie, which I actually enjoyed hugely for the most part. It's spectacular for a good portion of its length and the epic gangster drama which unfolds is consistently engaging (if convoluted and occasionally confusing), even if it lacks the tightness of the original's ingenious concept. But it turns out the film's two and a half hour running time tests the limits of my attention span when it comes to unrelenting, first-driven carnage.

'Labor Day' - Dir. Jason Reitman (12A)

Telling the tale of how one mentally ill woman (Kate Winslet in full-on 'middle-American housewife' mode) falls in love with (and makes hasty plans to move to Canada with) a convict she's just been kidnapped by (Josh Brolin) over one blissful, romance-filled weekend, 'Labor Day' is the unhappy spectacle of lots of very talented people having a very bad day. To start with, Brolin's escaped convict is the most cliche example of a dreamy, manly-man as it's possible to be: fixing the kitchen sink and the car; cooking a mean chili con carne in the most sensual way possible; playing baseball in the yard with her son (Gattlin Griffith) and the nice disabled boy from across the road; serenading Winslet on the acoustic guitar - all in a tight-fitting white t-shirt. Despite his rarely mentioned manslaughter charge, which never seems to bother Winslet & son in the slightest, he's presented as the dream answer to every trite utterance of "that boy needs a man in the house" across the span of American popular culture.

Aside from teaching us, in hyper-incestuous erotic fashion, how to make a mighty tasty looking peach pie (in an extended cooking scene almost pornographic in detail) there is very little of worth to take away from 'Labor Day'. Overwrought drama and convoluted tension playing out over events that (being charitable) very quickly begin to stretch credibility. There's even a teenage romance sub-plot, which gives us a particularly egregious example of the manic pixie dream girl (Maika Monroe) phenomenon. Winslet and Brolin are fine actors and they demonstrate good chemistry together as romantic interests, but that isn't enough to save this from being one of the year's worst so far.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

'Captain America: the Winter Soldier', 'Under the Skin', 'The Past', and 'Starred Up': review round-up

'Captain America: the Winter Soldier' - Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo (12A)

A sequel to both Joe Johnston's charmingly Spielbergian WWII-set origin story 'Captain America: the First Avenger' and Joss Whedon's superhero team-up crowd-pleaser 'The Avengers', 'Captain America: the Winter Soldier' is tonally very different to those films and indeed to the rest of the Marvel Studios oeuvre to-date. Directed by the Russo brothers, this one is more of a conspiracy thriller and - without going all Nolan Batman and jettisoning fun and colour - it's a comparatively gritty and grounded affair. Much like the Ed Brubaker run in the comics, which introduced this film's antagonist the Winter Soldier (alluded to by the writer's cameo as one of the scientists behind his creation), the film does a neat job of including lots of outlandish and far-fetched comic book elements - from the winged exploits of Anthony Mackie's Falcon to the newly computer-bound consciousness of Toby Jones' Arnim Zola - with something altogether more grounded and grave.

The casting of Robert Redford as the political face of world peacekeeping force SHIELD, Alexander Pierce, is one of many nods to the classic thrillers of the 70s, as this film delves into more morally grey territory than its predecessor. Where once there was a struggle between the 'greatest generation' and the Nazis, Cap (Chris Evans) now finds himself in a world he doesn't recognise and which has seemingly abandoned the principles of freedom he fought so hard for in the 40s. Now SHIELD is starting to look like something more tyrannical and oppressive than it seemed when Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) first burst onto the scene at the end of the first 'Iron Man' film - creating huge, automated airborne battleships capable of detecting and erasing threats before they happen: in an obvious nod to both modern drone warfare and the NSA surveillance scandals of the last few years.

Against this background is a well-crafted superhero romp, which is also something of a mini-Avengers team-up as Cap unites with the aforementioned Falcon and Scarlett Johansson's espionage specialist Black Widow to stay one step ahead of SHIELD and discover the truth behind the agency's corruption - thwarted at every turn my a mysterious new enemy with a link to Cap's own past: the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The action is hard-hitting, well choreographed and visceral, whilst the main players exhibit the sort of good chemistry needed to make all the bits in between fun. Especially Chris Evans in the starring role - an actor who imbues the title character with as much subtle depth as he does obvious decency.

'Under the Skin' - Dir. Jonathan Glazer (15)

A masterclass in editing and sound design, Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who takes on the form of a human female and uses this guise to seduce lonely, socially isolated men, who she then traps and harvests for... some reason probably much clearer to those who've read the Michel Faber novel. Though I'd argue the question of why she captures these men and what exactly becomes of them is a secondary concern in a film that works primarily on the level of visceral, sensory experience. In lieu of much specificity or explanation, this is simply the story of an outsider assimilating and attempting to fit in (albeit with nefarious intent), learning a certain degree of compassion for humanity and gradually becoming more unsettled by and attached to her newly acquired body.

Johansson is perfectly cast in the role, especially as the film is set in Scotland and she adopts a clean, regionally non-specific English accent when talking to her co-stars - mostly comprised of non-actors, supposedly oblivious (at least at first) to the fact they were part of a film. The audience is aware that she's a Hollywood movie star pretending to be English and, even if they don't consciously realise it, those she approaches must also have sensed this unease with and disconnect from the star in their midst: familiar yet just different enough to sow seeds of doubt. She's an impostor playing an impostor and it works brilliantly, especially as she glides around British high streets and shopping centres in her black wig and incongruous fur coat.

Moments of intense body horror and a heart-pounding finale combine with this playful casting and Glazer's technical mastery to create something truly memorable - potentially even destined for cult status.

'The Past' - Dir. Asghar Farhadi (12A)

In a style familiar to fans of his earlier films, such as 'A Separation' and 'About Elly', director Asghar Farhadi's maiden effort outside of Iranian cinema is still a tightly wound and faultlessly humane drama, peppered with extraordinary revelations and populated by nuanced and fully-formed characters who are lead by circumstance to ponder profound ethical questions. Ali Mosaffa stars as Ahmad, an Iranian man who travels to France to finalise a divorce from his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, star of 'The Artist') from whom he has been separated for four years. Whilst there he is immediately thrown, quite against his will, into an unfolding family drama that he otherwise has nothing to do with, as Marie begs him to have a heart-to-heart with her eldest daughter from a previous marriage, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), in order to find out why she's taken against her mother's new partner Samir, played by 'A Prophet' star Tahar Rahim.

After a half-dozen twists and turns we come to understand the various conflicting points of view all involved in the unfolding crisis, which this time revolves around the theme of forgiveness and moving on from what has happened before - of leaving an old life behind as you head into another. Something which none of the characters can quite face doing, at least without difficulty and heartache. Nobody in contemporary cinema (at least that I know of) is quite as brilliant as Farhadi when it comes to creating ensemble casts in which every character is so complex and well drawn. As with his other films, the four central characters here - along with another three or four supporting cast members - are each worthy of audience investment and sympathy, portrayed and written with great compassion.

'Starred Up' - Dir. David Mackenzie (18)

Muggin' everybody off, and generally causing no small amount of bovva on his cell block, in this gritty British prison movie is rising star Jack O'Connell as damaged, young offender Eric Love - a teenager prematurely moved up to big boy jail because of how violently he behaves. In service of drama, Eric is improbably moved to the same prison, and indeed the same wing, as his equally unhinged father Neville (the always intense and brilliant Australian Ben Mendelsohn) where he comes face-to-face with his past and some the issues which have played a part in his becoming a violent offender in the first place. Without explicitly stating it, there's undoubtedly a history of physical and mental abuse between them that's telegraphed mainly in how O'Connell's body language and demeanor change when confronted by his old man. Apparently known to audiences for his role in teen drama Skins, O'Connell makes an impressive transition to the big screen here: as charismatic as he is frightening and unpredictable.

The central drama concerns how Eric becomes a pawn in a broader game played between a powerful fellow inmate (Peter Ferdinando, who was excellent in the low budget crime film 'Tony'), a crooked and cruel prison warden (Sam Spruell), and a well-meaning volunteer psychologist (Rupert Friend). Friend's psychologist lobbies the skeptical prison establishment to get Eric placed in his self-help group (which they want to see fail for reasons of pantomime vindictiveness), where he can talk through his problems and learn to deal with his emotions without resorting to violence, whilst the prison authorities mostly just want to smash his face in - to the extent where all the police seem like irrational villains. It's the interactions between the various prison staff that ultimately bring the film down, though scenes between inmates (and especially those in Friend's group) are often gripping and compelling.

Friday, 14 March 2014

'The Grand Budapest Hotel', 'Only Lovers Left Alive', 'Nymphomaniac', 'Dallas Buyers Club', and 'A New York Winter's Tale': review round-up

'The Grand Budapest Hotel' - Dir. Wes Anderson (15)

If the move from 'Bottle Rocket' to 'Rushmore' onto 'The Royal Tenenbaums' marked a gentle progression of his style, Wes Anderson's subsequent films - 'The Life Aquatic', 'The Darjeeling Limited' and even the animated 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox' - took the recognised tropes of that style and crystallised it into something that often flirted with self-parody. Then 'Moonrise Kingdom' came along and seemed to indicate a maturation of his by now well established visual motifs, storytelling themes and even the highly stylised performances drawn from his familiar band of recurring actors. It was a refreshing change of pace, which felt paradoxically both less self-conscious and yet more intensely focused. At a first glance his latest, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', superficially reassembles a return to the larger-scale, ensemble-driven fare that directly preceded 'Moonrise Kingdom', though it's actually a subtle synthesis of the two being expansive, broad, imaginative and, well, grand, whilst also being restrained, focused and tightly wound.

Though bookended in such a way that potenitally makes it a fourth-hand account of events, the film primarily follows Ralph Fiennes as the mannered and enigmatic Gustav H, widely-respected concierge of the titular hotel. After a regular guest and occasional lover (Tilda Swinton) dies in mysterious circumstances, Gustav goes on the run with his faithful lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and - with a big European war looming ominously in the background - attempts to solve the mystery, clear his name and uncover the secrets of her will - the contents of which set of their own chain of murderous events. Even as its focus remains on character detail and small-scale interactions, it's easily the most traditionally plot-heavy of Anderson's films - helping again to separate it from what's come before - and, even if death and grief play a part in all but one of his other movies, it's also one of the saddest - with an overriding feeling of entropy and a sense of sadness at the passing of time.

Fiennes, as the archetypal Anderson protagonist (with a passion for teams, uniforms and all things un-cynical), displays a great gift for comic timing and delivery, fitting in alongside cameos from members of the established troupe - from Owen Wilson to Bill Murray. Though most of the famous faces that dominate the film's marketing campaign have extremely brief screen time, it feels like a calculated use of star semiotics rather than an attempt to boost box office, with recognisable actors imbuing blink-and-you'll-miss-them characters with immediate personality. If a venerable and charming character actor like Bob Balaban pops up on the screen for a moment as an important hotelier it has an effect, and attracts a degree of audience investment in that minor character, that filling the role with an equally competent yet comparatively unknown actor would not. Not to say that's an approach that would suit every movie (sometimes a hotelier only need be a hotelier) but it's entirely appropriate for a Wes Anderson film, where characters are expected to arrive fully formed and to jump off of the screen.

'Only Lovers Left Alive' - Dir. Jim Jarmusch (15)

Languid and atmospheric - with musing about art, literature and music taking precedence over matters of plot - 'Only Lovers Left Alive' casts two supremely watchable actors, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, as Eve and Adam, a pair of above-it-all vampires whose love has spanned the centuries. Making the most out of its compelling leads, slick editing and a terrific soundtrack, the combined effect is something that washes over you for an enjoyable two hours without leaving much in the way of a long-lasting impression. That said, it is interesting to see vampires played as these eternal art critics, whose often downright snobbish opinions are invested with an unassailable amount of cultural capital when compared with us mere mortals. You're never going to impress these guys with a boast that you discovered a band before they were popular, because they knew William Lawes and Schubert and are good friends with a still-living Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).

With their longevity also comes, naturally enough, a nonchalance towards the passage of time and history (and even mortality itself), with a world-weary cynicism directed towards us "zombies" when Adam asks if we've yet started the, apparently inevitable, Water Wars yet. In this version we're the monsters, though not through our violence but through stupidity and ignorance and, worst of all, appallingly bad taste. There's an underlying tension, with violence often a distinct possibility due to the nature of the protagonists, but Jarmusch avoid treading that well-worn path for the most part, instead offering something more contemplative and mood-driven.

'Nymphomaniac' - Dir. Lars von Trier (18)

Technically divided, 'Kill Bill' style, into two standalone parts (volumes I & II), Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' does not really work on those terms. It's one ambitious, lengthy and typically (perhaps knowingly) controversial movie which only makes sense - thematically and narratively - viewed as a complete whole. In it Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a self-described nymphomaniac whose lifelong pursuit of love-free sex has contributed to her questioning whether she is a good or a bad person. On hand to judge is a middle-aged virgin named Seligman, who takes Joe into his disheveled, drab apartment after finding her beaten unconscious in a neighbouring alley. Determined to discover why she believes she's such a bad person he insists that she tell her life-story up to that night - interrupted only by his trite observations and strained analogies - and it's this recollection of events (which feature Stacy Martin as young Joe), mostly in chronological order, that occupy the bulk of the film.

Set in a dour and nondescript Northern European country, that seems to be something between England and the director's native Denmark, von Trier tells this story with his trademark mix of uncompromising, gritty frankness and confrontational, occasionally uncomfortable use of acerbic black comedy (one scene with a show-stealing Uma Thurman could easily be a sketch from Chris Morris' Jam). Divided into individually titled chapters, 'Nymphomaniac' uses different scenarios and brings in a number of disturbing and extreme characters to explore a wide range of sexual practices and fetishes, whilst also discussing (or providing a platform to discuss) attitudes towards them.

There is always, nagging in the background, the question of morality (to what extent are Joe's actions potentially "wrong") though the film makes no judgments in most instances - except when combatively challenging the judgements of others (for instance regarding the subject of so-called 'sex addiction' and, in it's bravest and best scene, attitudes towards pedophiles). Even its ending, that could read as a pessimistic final judgement on humanity - or, at the very least, men - is more even-handed than it might first appear, with denial of experiencing sexual urges the ultimate villain of the piece rather than an interest in or enjoyment of sexual behaviour itself.

'Dallas Buyers Club' - Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée (15)

Sporadic as posts are on this blog, in the time since I saw 'Dallas Buyers Club' both its lead actors - Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto - won Academy Awards for their respective roles in this watchable but fairly telegenic little biopic, made on a commendably low budget and built almost entirely around the charisma and skill of the two actors. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a brash, ignorant and oddly likable Texan electrician who's diagnosed with AIDS and given approximately 30 days to live by the local hospital. Heterosexual and prejudice, he is ostracised by his like-minded friends and forced to abandon his old life. Leto plays Rayon - a transsexual Woodroof reluctantly joins forces with as a business partner (and later befriends) after taking it upon himself to increase his life expectancy (and in doing so make a good living) importing effective yet legally unapproved drugs into America from abroad - giving the FDA and American Pharmaceutical industry the finger during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 80s.

Both actors are terrific, with Leto a big surprise after moving away from acting and focusing on his music career in recent years - and he perfectly underplays a role here that other actors might have made bigger or brasher. But it's McConaughey's film with the actor, whose relaxed charm and good looks had so long seen him associated with dire rom-coms, deservedly receiving mass acclaim - as much for his other recent, stunning work as for this. It's a meat and potatoes, by-numbers, "based on a true story" drama in many respects - solid but unspectacular. Though the two headline performances, combined with the extraordinary nature of the true story itself, make it stand out above similar movies of its kind, and its comparatively slender budget makes it admirable.

'A New York Winter's Tale' - Dir. Akiva Goldsman (12A)

After stunning audiences with his complete inability to sing in 'Les Miserables', Russell Crowe has outdone himself again in the shambolic mess that is 'A New York Winter's Tale' with his complete inability to do an Irish accent - made even funnier by the fact he's acting opposite actual Irishman Colin Farrell, who must've been struggling to suppress the giggles throughout the production. Not that Farrell has too much to feel smug about either, after adding this dreck to a dubious filmography that stands as a mockery to the great talent displayed in films like 'In Bruges' and 'The New World'. Joining them on this ignoble quest to shit away the last vestiges of credibility and integrity are Will Smith - whose last big roles came in 'Men in Black 3' and the Razzie-dominating 'After Earth' - who makes an unconvincing Satan and Jennifer Connelly, who confirms the difficulty faced in finding work for actresses in their 40s (even Oscar-winning ones) by accepting the thankless role of "mum of small child", and only turning up when the movies nearly over.

Standing uncomfortably in the middle of all this cinematic horror is poor Jessica Brown Findlay, a young, British actress who actually comes out of this looking fairly good but who probably won't find putting this on her CV a terrific boon going forward. There's far more that's wrong with this tonally inconsistent, shallow and cynical exercise - which spends most its time peddling comforting nonsense about how special each and every one of us are and culminates in a quest to save a sweet, little photogenic child from imminently terminal cancer - but those criticisms can be neatly summed up into a dismissive "everything is total rubbish". Which saves us all a lot of time.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

'Her', 'The Lego Movie', and 'The Armstrong Lie': review round-up

'Her' - Dir. Spike Jonze (15)


You meet somebody for the first time and instantly hit it off. As feelings develop, you nervously pursue a romantic relationship. The early days of that relationship are filled with laughter and a spirit of adventure - you never want to be apart from that person, who now occupies all your waking thoughts. Months go by and you settle into a bit of a muted groove. You get a phone call from that person whilst at work, and they can tell you don't want to talk. It's become slightly awkward all of a sudden, or at least there's a strange distance developing between two supposedly intimate people. Eventually it ends, possibly when one of you has outgrown the other. In Spike Jonze's 'Her', Jaoquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly experiences something exactly like this with Samantha (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) - the difference being that Samantha is a sophisticated OS (operating system) rather than a traditional human partner. But the rhythms and patterns and core experience of the relationship seem to be exactly the same in Jonze's non-judgmental and highly plausible account of the not too distant future.

Anyone expecting something broadly critical of our perceived contemporary over-reliance on and obsession with smartphones and computers is in for disappointment. This isn't a piece about the perils of technology, going for trite and easy targets - such as the widespread idea that we don't pay each other enough attention anymore because we're more interested in our Facebook pages. Instead it's a sincere exploration of love as a concept that looks at how this "form of socially acceptable insanity", as Theodore's sympathetic friend Amy (Amy Adams) puts it, works and what it means. If anything, Samantha's status as a non-human - as a more advanced, faster-thinking intelligence - enables the exploration and interrogation of entrenched concepts about the nature of love and traditional relationships. For instance, Samantha's ability to seemingly love potential thousands of people and fellow AIs with equal strength simultaneously (and Theodore's jealousy and indignation at this development) calls into question the possessive and perhaps selfish nature of most human love.

That's not to say the film is completely uncritical of why a person like Theodore - who Phoenix embues with tenderness, warmth and a certain lovelorn, world-weary sadness - might choose to date an OS over a human being. Through interactions with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) we learn that he has difficulty expressing himself to others in person and finds people difficult, something also demonstrated by his career as a successful writer of other people's letters for the (I hope) fictional - with letters here almost de-romanticised as a method of communication that permits distance and perhaps even insincerity. That he's apparently a very good and well respected writer of other people's letters speaks to the fact that Theodore is not somebody who has trouble understanding emotions or feeling them, but that his difficulty lies with expressing himself openly. With the exception of a few isolated scenes (and one of those is an awkward date with Olivia Wilde's Amelia), Theodore is generally depicted alone among anonymous crowds or in his spacious apartment. But it's a sort of sun-soaked, almost triumphant isolation that seems extremely appealing, as he casually saunters around a very clean version of Los Angeles.

Perhaps dating an OS is giving him unhealthy permission to retreat further from public life, or perhaps it's the perfect relationship for somebody who's more comfortable keeping people at arms length. Do we all crave a relationship we can switch on and off? That we can put in our pocket and take on our travels? How you feel about that probably depends on your own feelings on technology and its rapid integration with every aspect of our lives, as much as it does your current mood regarding other human beings and the state of your love-life. Jonze certainly doesn't seem to be judging either way with this eerily prescient look at the future of love which, like all good science fiction, has just as much to say about the present day. 'Her' seems to show us a world we might soon inhabit, where complex relationships between humans and increasingly sophisticated synthetic life become the norm - and that's mostly OK.

'The Lego Movie' - Dir. Phil Miller and Chris Lord (U)

The worst thing I can say about Phil Miller and Chris Lord's hyperactive and characteristically gag-heavy 'The Lego Movie' is that the trailers were unquestionably front-loaded with all the best jokes. But that's not really the fault of the movie itself, which is still packed with funny moments, charming characters and surprising Lego character cameos (which I won't spoil here). It's also way more subversive and socially aware than you expect from a movie based on a toy license - with the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) using an army of robotic micro-managers to ensure optimum social conformity. In the same vein, it's a love of chart music and chain restaurants that tips off ass-kicking heroine Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to the fact that generic, smiley Lego construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) might not in fact be "the special" - a prophesied "master builder" who will restore free-thought and fun to a land oppressed by the tyranny of the instruction manual.

The animation is superb, with Miller and Lord using an almost stop-frame aesthetic to bring the toy world to life, but through CGI doing things you might never be able to do with traditional animation methods. The world is filled with amazing details, like the ocean made to resemble a pattern of tessellating blue and white Lego studs, whilst supporting characters like Benny the Spaceman (Charlie Day) and, yes, Batman (Will Arnett) are given life and personality that defies their limited Lego brick designs. Perhaps the best bit is that, without giving anything away, the writer-directors have managed to not only make a supremely enjoyable animated movie using the visual style and various licenses of the Lego brand, but also a film that is ultimately about Lego itself. Without being at all cheesy or seeming cynically motivated in the least, the film quickly becomes a celebration of imaginative play, creativity and childhood itself, with an enthusiasm that's infectious.

'The Armstrong Lie' - Alex Gibney (15)

Whilst not ostensibly as 'important' as his acclaimed and invariably powerful docs on corporate corruption, WikiLeaks or wars in the Middle East, Alex Gibney's look at the scandal that threw the career and reputation of cancer survivor, humanitarian and former multiple Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong into disrepute is still a compelling watch, whether you care about cycling or not. That's because, in true Gibney style, 'The Armstrong Lie' is more about our willingness (and the willingness of the news media) to be deceived by an appealing narrative than it is about sport and illegal doping practices. A cancer survivor who wasn't expected to make it comes back into the sport he never threatened to be the best at and, not only does he become a champion, but he completely dominates for the best part of a decade. It's a hopeful story about life after cancer and man's resilience in the face of adversity, so heartwarming and inspirational that everybody wanted to believe it.

That's the secret behind the Armstrong lie of the title: in spite of years of investigative journalists uncovering evidence of the athlete's use of performance enhancing drugs, in spite of testimony against him from former friends asserting that he used these drugs extensively throughout his seven Tour wins, and despite his public hiring of an Italian doctor known to be a specialist in developing ways to help cyclists cheat under the radar - he got away with it (to some extent, right up until the moment he confessed on Oprah in 2013) precisely because we all collectively willed it to be true. In his narration, Gibney admits that he was also in the thrall of Armstrong's public persona and larger-than-life success story - willing his subject to win, against the critics and fellow cyclists, during his ill-conceived 2009 comeback to professional cycling (which was originally supposed to be the focus of Gibney's documentary before the truth about Armstrong's use of drugs became public).

Armstrong is an interesting subject who, though he comes across thoroughly badly (in retrospect) in archive footage of interviews and press conferences - as he aggressively defends himself against allegations of drug use to the point where he frequently goes on the attack - is nonetheless an entertaining public speaker and frequently a charismatic presence on camera (for instance, when passionately explaining why kids love bikes). His is certainly a larger than life story worthy of telling, if in reality that's for vastly different reasons than we originally thought. What does seem clear is that the entire sport was rife with doping at the time in which he competed and your sympathy for Armstrong ultimately rests on how much you respect a professional competitor's "will to win" above all else and how much weight the "everybody else was doing it" defence carries.

Ultimately public anger at Armstrong, over and above his perhaps equally crooked fellow athletes, is perhaps completely justified and long overdue. Not only because he used drugs to build a reputation that made him a fabulously wealthy and powerful global celebrity (like no cyclist before or since), but because of what he actively tried to make himself represent and the damage his corruption does to whatever genuinely noble causes he was involved in. Gibney's doc gives him a forum to mount his case and it's one that is selfish, delusional and supremely arrogant. In retrospect the whole thing - the hero worship, the story, the celebrity, the sporting triumph - all seems so hard to believe. Gibney's film exceeds its bounds to become the story of our collective gullibility in the face of attractive mistruths.