Monday, 13 May 2013
'I'm So Excited' - Dir. Pedro Almodovar (15)
Pedro Almodovar returns to his early trashy sex comedy roots with this unabashedly frothy and disposable little number about an airline cabin crew attempting to calm passengers after it's revealed the plane they are on has a faulty landing gear. In the wake of this news the various colorful occupants of this otherwise routine flight from Madrid to Mexico find themselves diving headlong into hedonistic excess - taking drugs and openly copulating left and right, with three extremely camp air stewards (and their sexually conflicted pilots) leading this descent, both literally and metaphorically.
While it's the Spanish director's least overtly serious movie in some time, there is clearly something else going on here beneath the veil of froth. It's telling that only first class passengers are kept awake for the entire movie, with the rest of the plane put to sleep by the crew before we join the flight - either because the director finds the lives of the extreme personalities and colourful characters at the front of the plane more interesting than those he imagines at the back, or because he is saying something about social class. For the record, I have no idea which. It's possibly a bit of both, but maybe he's saying something about modern Spain and those leading the country to ruin in the wake of a financial crisis that hit his country worse than most.
A real-life scandal surrounding a disused La Mancha airport lingers in the background; a high-profile businessman on the flight is trying to escape fraud charges by heading to central America; one of the passengers is world famous dominatrix; another is a hitman; and all put unwavering, superstitious faith in the words of a spacey and naive clairvoyant. Between these broad, larger-than-life caricatures and the eccentric and debauched goings on of the crew - freely swigging alcohol and staging pre-planned dance routines to their customers bemusement (and anger) - the film paints a picture of a reckless and extremely tacky Spain. A place where nothing works and nobody can be trusted to look beyond immediate gratification (the mechanical fault itself is the result of a distracted and incompetent ground crew in Madrid, as played by Almodovar regulars Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz), but where (SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) everything somehow turns out OK in the end. It's an affable place, but not without frustration. Much like the film itself.
Beyond a gloriously camp set-piece which sees the stewards dancing to Pointer Sisters' number of the English language title, the whole thing feels strangely flat. It seems to want to be this dizzying, extravagant romp - full of naughtiness and cheeky laughs - but it never quite gets there. Some of that may be lost in translation, with Spanish-speaking friends telling me the English subtitles lose a lot of the humour, which comes from the use of language (comedy is a notoriously tough genre to effectively translate), but from my vantage point it just wasn't funny. And not just because I didn't laugh at the jokes, but because I could rarely see where the jokes were - unless, of course, I'm just supposed to laugh if someone talks about bi-sexuality and oral sex. Ultimately it wasn't nearly as entertaining as its premise or the record of its director would suggest, even if there's potentially some interesting social commentary lurking beneath its perhaps deceptively shallow surface.
'Star Trek Into Darkness' - Dir. J.J. Abrams (12A)
The "re-booted" 'Star Trek' - which "re-imagines" the crew of the original Starship Enterprise as super-slick trendies, each with one distinct personality trait and often also a funny voice - is back, along with the world's least inspiring filmmaker ('Lost' creator and Spielberg super-fan J.J. Abrams) and a script born from the minds that brought us the 'Transformers' trilogy (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) and 'Prometheus' (Damon Lindelof). It's promising stuff on paper, especially as this sequel is going the fresh, rarely-trodden path of being "darker and edgier" than what's come before. (Because everything wants to be 'The Dark Knight' so, so badly now.) The director's surely by now self-parodic love of lens flare is back too, along with a lot of others things which return from previous movies and which it would be churlish of me to spoil here.
If I read as unduly cynical about this whole project then I apologise, but I can't take these new Trek films seriously. Or as light-hearted fun. Or as anything else in particular. It's a big bag of ready salted crisps - maybe even those weird old ones where you used to have to add your own salt. It's quite clear that even the makers don't really know who they are trying to please, with fan service and nods to the original series (or should I say "timeline"?) every other second even as they take the bold step of turning it into a straight-up action film - jettisoning all of franchise founder Gene Roddenberry's principles and core ideals into deep space along the way. It's an action flick in Star Trek uniforms and science fiction only because there are spaceships. New Trek (or Nu Trek as I'm now calling it) is superficial and vacuous in the extreme, wearing the clothes of a beloved pop culture icon in quasi-ironic fashion - in crass American high school terminology: it turns the beloved property of bullied nerds into something more suitable for their jock tormentors.
That's not to say there aren't people involved who genuinely love the "franchise", just that these people - like those who made/continue to make the 'Lord of the Rings' films - think faithful adaptation of clothing, character names, places and the so-forth represent what something is about, whilst not thinking any deeper about what's actually at that property's core. So here a series that's always been about an idealised and optimistic idea of an evolved human race, that ventures out into space to spread the love and for the sake of discovery, becomes about horrible humans destroying each other because they're a bunch of dicks. Star Trek is, traditionally, a pop cultural counter-point to knee-jerk revenge fantasies, irrational bouts of anger and massive bodycounts - it was humanist, even to the point where it was sometimes a bit preachy and smug. I don't particularly like Star Trek as a thing, but I like this far less. I might not personally like Star Trek, but I have more respect for what it is and what it means - beyond clothing and laser guns and badges - then these people seem to. If anything about these middling films - and both films are 100% OK - has the power to annoy me, then it's that.
Like I say, the film itself is exactly alright - too bland and inoffensive for me to review without ranting around the subject (see Philip French's barely two paragraph write-up in The Guardian) and, like all of Abrams' work, built around so many twists, surprises and mysteries that you can't really properly talk about what happens either without spoiling it. I'll just say there are moments when it's laughable and some where it's genuinely funny. There are bits where it's exciting and others where it's lame. The performances are pretty solid across the board (Zachary Quinto is an excellent Spock and Karl Urban steals every scene he's in as Bones, whilst Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably good to watch as the baddie), though that depends on your tolerance for dodgy accents in many cases. The action scenes are uninspired on the whole and Abrams has some annoying visual ticks (his constantly zooming camera is one such distraction), but the film is not un-enjoyable for much of its length. Just not particularly memorable either. And (potential SPOILER depending on how sensitive you are!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) it leans uncomfortably on another film's reputation.
Sunday, 28 April 2013
'Iron Man 3', 'Oblivion', 'The Look of Love' and 'Mud': review round-up and 'Thor: The Dark World' trailer
Here's a trailer for this November's terribly exciting looking 'Thor: The Dark World', just because. Now on to the business of reviews:
'Iron Man 3' - Dir. Shane Black (12A)
As much as I love 'The Avengers' and am (as evidenced above) obsessed with the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, 'Iron Man 3' was not a film I rushed into with much expectation or the excitement I already feel for the upcoming Thor and Captain America sequels. Whilst Robert Downey Jnr's Tony Stark has been the most profitable one of the bunch so far for Marvel, with the patchy 'Iron Man 2' the most successful pre-Avengers "Phase One" movie, Iron Man has always left me cold. I've enjoyed the films enough, but I never loved them like I love the others. Perhaps because Iron Man seems to love himself enough for the both of us. That all changed, however, with Shane Black's new sequel to the series, which basically just turns the franchise into an awesome 90s buddy comedy, combining jaw-dropping action sequences - and some of the biggest and most imaginatively conceived superhero set-pieces yet seen - with dozens of genuinely funny and quotable lines. It's exciting, clever, superbly acted (Ben Kingsley's performance, in particular), and as close as you can come to a guaranteed good time at the pictures.
The script somehow blends all the best elements of a buddy cop movie (notably in Downey Jnr and Don Cheadle's team-up), a sort of Capra-esque Christmas movie (it'll sound shit on paper, but Iron Man's pairing with a smalltown kid is entirely winsome), an espionage thriller, a deft political satire (maybe overselling that a touch, but what the film does with Kingsley's villain is inspired) and a classic modern superhero movie. It's a 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' style deconstruction of action movie tropes and a faithful sequel to both 'Iron Man 2' and 'The Avengers' - which it references whilst also managing to be its own thing completely. It bravely takes Tony Stark out of the suit for most of the movie - putting him in more peril than ever before, and allowing him to be more genuinely heroic - whilst also still recognisably being a Marvel comics adaptation. It does a lot of things and it does most of them excellently. And it's probably the only superhero movie to have a satisfying "end boss" fight to boot.
I can't express enough how smart and purely fun Shane Black's movie is: unsentimental and yet full of unabashed heart, in a way that finally made me love this character. His screenplay - co-written with Drew Pearce - is fantastic, not only in its dialogue and character choices (Gwyneth Paltrow is refreshingly allowed to be much more than a damsel in distress), but in the way he contrives such wonderful and unexpected action sequences. Such as when Tony is forced to improvise new weapons after losing his suit and so nips into a hardware store, or when he successfully retrieves part of his suit and has to make do with what boils down to a glove and a boot. Here, for the first time in one of these movies, filmmakers have crafted antagonists who can actually pose a threat, allowing Tony to reasonably deploy his extensive arsenal in its entirety, hopping between suits in a sequence that's fast-paced and unlike anything else in the series to date. Don Cheadle gets more punch-the-air-awesome moments than I thought possible for an actor who was the British one in 'Ocean's Eleven' and Guy Pearce makes a sensational villain. It's just fantastic summer fun.
'Oblivion' - Dir. Joseph Kosinski (12A)
Say what you will about Hollywood "product" being derivative and low on original ideas, but surely nothing - no sequel or spin-off or re-make - is as cynical and brazenly plagaristic as the Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle 'Oblivion', directed by Joseph Kosinski of 'Tron: Legacy' fame. You'd struggle to name a sci-fi movie or video game made in the last two decades that this one doesn't pillage for intellectual property, stealing wholesale plot elements, concepts and designs from the likes of the low budget cult hit 'Moon' all the way up to blockbusters like 'Independence Day'. There's weapon and costume designs lifted from the game series Mass Effect, whilst many will be quick to spot the embarrassingly blatant similarities between Melissa Leo's character - an untrustworthy, disembodied computer-treated voice - and the game Portal. And that's not even mentioning how much it rips off the filmography of its star, as we watch his continued slow fade from relevance.
It's a film that allows Tom Cruise - in the increasingly desperate "I'm not too old, honest, look what I can do!" phase of his career - to run really fast across sand, to ride motorcycles wearing sunglasses and to play an ace-pilot-and-ace-marksman-who-is-the-best-at-everything-he-does-and-a-scientist-and-the-saviour-of-mankind-who-is-irresistible-to-all-womenTM. Within the first twenty minutes he's taken two showers and gone for a dip in a swimming pool, and whilst the man is in unquestionably good condition for a fifty year old (much better shape than I've ever been in, for the record), his ab-flexing determination to prove how he still "has it" really isn't at all appealing.
The film itself is at its most tolerable when it epitomises the world of Tom Cruise cliche rather than when it's raiding every modern sci-fi classic for ideas - but mostly it's a bland, flavourless waste of two hours. Sometimes it's at least a slick and reasonably pretty diversion, with Kosinski's bright white Apple-influenced brand of future chic carrying over from the similarly attractive-yet-hollow world of his last film. Yet more often the whole thing is a display of baffling incompetence on nearly every level, with a central premise that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny, clunky exposition monologues repeated in their entirety more than once and twists you see coming a mile away (at least one of which is on the damn poster). The drone robots are fairly cool - with their use in war raising the film's only potentially interesting moral question - and the 'Top Gun' style flying sequences have their moments, but this is definitely one to avoid and, I would predict, one destined to be quickly forgotten.
'The Look of Love' - Dir. Michael Winterbottom (18)
The Steve Coogan/Michael Winterbottom partnership, which has served both so well over the years with the likes of 'A Cock and Bull Story' and '24 Hour Party People', continues with 'The Look of Love': an unfocused and shallow biopic about Paul Raymond - the infamous millionaire who was once Britain's wealthiest man. The film chronicles Raymond's career from - as the film would have it - a glorified circus ringmaster in the 1950s to an ageing property magnate and soft-core pornographer in the 90s, via his 60s/70s heyday as the proprietor of Soho's most sophisticated and talked about gentleman's clubs and publisher of a controversial, and widely read, men's magazine. The main problem with the film, aside from its strange refusal to engage with any social/political issues beyond glib one-liners, is that Coogan - a versatile performer - plays Raymond as indistinct from TV creation Alan Partridge.
Now, I bow to no man in my love of Alan Partridge as a comedy creation, but I'm guessing Paul Raymond was not so similar to Norwich's favourite son and Coogan's decision to play him this way is baffling. Every comic aside, awkward pause and geekish piece of trivia is pure Partridge, albeit a wealthy and successful one. It's a fact that cheapens the movie and renders its few attempts at real drama insincere. This is a pity as the film becomes more and more about the apparently complex relationship between Raymond and his daughter, as played by emerging star Imogen Poots - who steals the film out from underneath its star with a multi-faceted showing that ranges from vulnerable and troubled, to self-assured and downright cocky. The fact that the tragedy of Poots' character takes centre stage - being part of the film's framing device and used as a the catalyst for present-day introspection for Raymond - makes it even more of a pity that Coogan's central performance seems so disingenuous.
If the purpose of a biopic is to reveal something about its subject, to leave you feeling you know more about a person on the way out than you did on the way in, then 'The Look of Love' has well and truly failed. I leave the film none the wiser about what Paul Raymond was like as a man, with film engaging with this real historical figure the same way it engages with the "swinging sixties": presenting both with crude, cartoonish caricature and seemingly without affection. It certainly doesn't earn its mawkish and manipulative ending.
'Mud' - Dir. Jeff Nichols (12A)
In the very best of ways, 'Mud' - Jeff Nichols' follow-up to the impressive 'Take Shelter' - is a kids film. Not merely because its protagonist, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), is a 15 year-old boy, but because of the way the tale is framed: not simply as a coming of age story, but as a classic boys adventure in the mold of Mark Twain or vintage Spielberg of the 1980s. Or, better yet, 'Stand By Me'. The sort of film that looks children in the eye and treats a young audience with respect, refusing to sand away the rough edges yet not completely forsaking wonder. I have no idea whether Nichols ever envisaged the film as one for all ages - and it certainly isn't being sold that way and may not end up reaching that audience - but 'Mud' is a pretty perfect children's film, featuring a young hero in Ellis young boys can certainly empathise with. It certainly nails a certain time in a boy's life and this is easily as complete and challenging a role as a young actor is ever given, with Sheridan a real talent.
At its simplest, 'Mud' is the story about aimless, working class kids from broken (or breaking) homes who spend their days doing what boys do at that age: they go places they aren't supposed to, stay out later than they are meant to and make grand plans in secrecy. These boys, living on a river, take to playing around on a deserted and snake-infested island, climbing trees and playing with sticks, until one day they find an abandoned boat in a tree and decide to make it their own. The only trouble is a wanted man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has made the boat is home and makes them a deal: they can have the boat with his blessing, if they bring him some food and run some simple errands. Increasingly dangerous little adventures follow, which bring the kids deeper into Mud's difficulties than might be sensible, but - in the great kids film tradition - the kids go through hell to protect their new, social outcast friend from the threat posed by the local grown-ups: the police, the parents and the rest. In Mud McConaughey has a role every bit as memorable and intense as 'Killer Joe'.
'Mud' is a beautiful and moving piece of work. Sincere and populated by warm, genuinely loving characters right through the cast. It goes unexpected places and sidesteps every cliche you think you can see coming along the way. Overwhelmingly it's a film about love - in all its forms - in all its fragility and with all its pitfalls, but which ultimately manages to be warm and optimistic without compromising the gritty stuff. Love is hard and sometimes impermanent, it says. You might throw everything into it and get your heart ripped out, or even find yourself publicly humiliated as a result of unrequited affection. Yet it's worth it: it's the best thing we have and the only thing in this world worth having. That is basically the lesson learnt by the young hero through his trials and tribulations, but all without seeming twee or saccharine in the slightest. Quite an achievement - and a noble one at that.
Tuesday, 16 April 2013
The fact that I forgot I'd seen 'A Late Quartet' - and thus forgot to include it in my last round-up - actually speaks volumes for how I felt about it. There's really nothing bad about it. It's solid existential New Yorker angst stuff, with a great ensemble cast featuring the always brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener, and Yaron Zilberman's drama (co-written with Seth Grossman) is smart enough and rarely boring. Yet it's hard to get excited about, being a sort of middle-brow and evidently quite forgettable American version of this year's earlier 'Quartet' - and boasting the same "legendary musical troupe re-group for one final concert" plot-line. The main difference here is that more emphasis is placed on music, and playing instruments with a group, as a metaphor for life and relationships.
I don't really want to spend any more time on this, so here's a trailer for a film I'm really excited about. Noah Baumbach's 'Francis Ha', co-written with (and starring) Greta Gerwig. 'A Late Quartet' could have used some humour, not to mention a bit of Greta.
Monday, 15 April 2013
'In the House', 'The Place Beyond the Pines' and 'Finding Nemo 3D': review round-up and more Joe Blann quiz art
Finally getting around to some more reviews. My January resolution of 10 posts a month has failed spectacularly! Anyway, above is the latest Joe Blann picture round masterpiece from the Duke's at Komedia film quiz - Hold Onto Your Butts (first Thursday of every month). Below are some reviews.
'In the House' - Dir. Francois Ozon (15)
Prior to this one, my only exposure to the work of French filmmaker Francois Ozon was the kitsch and campy 'Potiche' - a multi-coloured 70s-set comedy about sexual politics that really grated on me in Venice, way back in 2010. It's possible that my intense dislike of that film has grown out of proportion since being bored by it at that festival, perhaps as much as a result of its bizarre appropriation by Odeon Orange Wednesday ads as by exaggerated memories of the film itself. In any case, my disdain for his last work almost prevented me from seeing Ozon's 'In the House' which, it turns out, would have been scandalous. It's one of the best films of the year: smart, funny, gripping, with a sly wit - excellently performed and with lots to say about storytelling, writing, voyeurism and more. It's truly excellent.
It stars the affable Fabrice Luchini, who seems to specialize in playing oblivious middle-class intellectuals, as a French literature teacher and failed author who is intrigued to find one piece of homework not written by a vacuous moron and becomes obsessed with the student responsible (Claude, Ernst Umhauer). Convinced that Claude has raw talent in need of guidance, Luchini takes him under his wing, giving him extra hours outside of school. However beneath this inspirational 'Dead Poets Society' style love of education and artistry there is also a slightly grubby aspect to proceedings: Claude's writings to Luchini take the form of an ongoing serial based on the student's real life obsession with and manipulation of the family of one of his classmates. So, in aiding Claude, Luchini is actively encouraging this increasingly destructive venture into another's family home and doing so partly to satisfy his own voyeuristic interest in the soap opera of their lives. A saga upon which he and his art gallery manager wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) are hopelessly hooked - filling the void left by their joyless, sexless marriage.
In telling this story Ozon's film is always fresh and imaginative. For instance, we occasionally witness the same events told by Claude in different ways, responding to the directions of his tutor. His style of storytelling and preoccupations also change in reaction to Luchini's advice. We see Luchini pop-up and offer critique to his student, even as events in the titular house unfold, in a device that feels like something out of the best Woody Allen comedy. There's obviously something about storytelling as voyeurism going on here throughout - and also the way the same events can be warped and manipulated when described to an audience, but what I found especially intriguing is the way Ozon's screenplay - based on a Spanish stageplay by Juan Mayorga - eventually finds a way to come full circle and investigate the homes of the protagonists: their growing obsession with this one, pretty ordinary family, ultimately saying more about their own unhappy lives. Literature as theraputic release or as harmful self-delusion? The ending left me uncertain.
'The Place Beyond the Pines' - Dir. Derek Cianfrance (15)
High expectations for Derek Cianfrance's epic follow-up to 'Blue Valentine' were undermined by my increasingly aggressive indifference to the growing hipster cult of Ryan Gosling. But, for reasons that become clear about a third of a way in, 'The Place Beyond the Pines' isn't really the spiritual successor to 'Drive' it's been marketed as in some places, on account of "the Gos" playing an ace motorcyclist-turned-criminal. It's much better than that: a cross-generational tale of fathers and sons - of consequences and regrets. Ambitious, sprawling and never less than compelling. It's the tale of one ostensibly bad man who will do anything for his son, even if it means breaking the law. And one clean-cut good-guy who will do his utmost to defend the law even if it means neglecting his son. There's more to it than that, especially in the third act, but it's an interesting central dichotomy.
Visually it's stunning, as shot by Steve McQueen's regular DP Sean Bobbitt, and somehow structurally tight in a way that belies its long running time. Factor in the fact that both Gosling and the recently Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper are on top, career-defining form and it's potentially a modern American indie classic. It's not the crime thriller a lot of people will be expecting (it's really a fairly patient and introspective drama), yet 'Pines' isn't for want of horribly tense moments or spectacular sequences - notably a one-take car chase shot from the perspective of police cars in pursuit of Gosling's motorcycle. To say much more about it at this point would be to risk spoiling it, so I'll just leave it there for now.
'Finding Nemo (3D)' - Dir. Andrew Stanton (U)
It's not really a new release as far as I'm, concerned, so I'll keep it extremely brief. Andrew Stanton's classic - one of the vintage Pixar films - returns to cinemas, and I was delighted to find it was as funny and charming as the first time around. The gags come thick and fast, and range from the knock-about and silly, to the existential and witty, and more often than not they work. The animation and attention to detail - particularly the work the animators have done acting the various characters facially (no small ask considering all the characters are still recognisably fish) - is terrific and still holds up very well, even given Pixar's constant boundary pushing in the decade(!) since the film's original release. The 3D isn't really noticeable in all honesty so, given the damage the process seems to do to the vividness of the colours, I'd have rather seen it re-released in 2D. But don't let that put you off: like I say, It's barely noticeable - though that does call into question being asked to pay extra for the privilege...
Also, on a related note, the new 'Toy Story' short that precedes the film is really, really funny. Probably the best one yet - and a perfect antidote to 'Spring Breakers' (you'll know what I mean if you've seen it).
Tuesday, 2 April 2013
Was in Moscow on holiday last week, hence the above shot of the "Mosfilm" studio logo - the only cinema-related part of that trip (though I did see some interesting cinemas around the city). Didn't go into the studio though, as I'm not organised enough to arrange a tour in advance, it turns out. Anyhow, below are reviews of the two films I've seen in the days since my return:
'Spring Breakers' - Dir. Harmony Korine (18)
Four vacuous college girls, three of whom are played, subversively, by former Disney/ABC tween idols, rob a fast-food shack in order to fund their dream spring break in Florida, with debauched and vaguely nightmarish results. This is the basic outline of the garish, pink-neon collision of Britney Spears and dubstep that has turned out to be indie filmmaker Harmony Korine's most mainstream and, simultaneously, most divisive film to-date. It subverts and critiques - sometimes perfectly - a certain shallow, money-obsessed sector of popular culture, whilst also, much of the time, seeming to revel in it - something it also does with the frequent slow-motion shots of topless college revelers and occasional gangland violence. Is it's heart, if it has one, always in the right place? Does the camera leer maybe a little too long at the titular girls, forever clad in bikinis, to undermine whatever satire is taking place? Possibly, but I don't think Korine really cares and it doesn't spoil his film.
This is a shamelessly trashy and exploitative movie that just works. It entertains, amuses and shocks in equal measure, and with regularity, throughout its tight running time, not least of all when James Franco is on screen as self-styled hustler and d-list rapper Alien - a role he completely vanishes into and for which he deserves award recognition. Some bits are really spot-on at pinpointing the seedy, mutually destructive nihilism and cultural bankruptcy of the American Dream - such as when Franco and the girls gather around the piano for an earnest performance of a Britney ballad that all present really do seem to believe represents a high cultural watermark. Another great scene consists solely of Alien showing off his increasingly pathetic "shit" in his mansion: an itinerary that includes different coloured shorts, several aftershaves and "Scarface on repeat". His extreme, gormless pride at this haul is the perfect rebuttal to MTV Cribs and everything it represents.
'Trance' - Dir. Danny Boyle (15)
James McAvoy's fine art auctioneer follows protocol and attempts to secure an artwork valued at £25 million during an armed robbery, lead by Vincent Cassel. During the chaos McAvoy hides the painting and is dealt a nasty blow to the head by Cassel - causing him memory loss, with predictably frustrating results for those looking to recover the valuable piece. Enter Rosario Dawson as a hypnotherapist who promises to be able to delve into McAvoy's subconscious and bring his memory back. She boasts that, with a susceptible subject like McAvoy, she can convince anybody to do just about anything. And so begins a tedious and predictable labyrinth of twists and turns, as the film asks us to ponder which one of these variously unsympathetic characters is really pulling the strings.
It's a Danny Boyle film, so it's all hyperactive camera movements and bizarre, possibly improvised, camera angles, none of which seem to mean anything or relate to what story is being told. There's a to-camera narration from McAvoy that feels like something out of a mid-90s British crime flick, but that comes and goes until it is completely forgotten. The musical choices are jarring and total rubbish. And it includes a nude scene that gives 'The Paperboy' a run for its money in the "Oh My God Did That Just Happen" category - a bizarre sequence I will never forget that sees McAvoy waiting (for ages) for Dawson to emerge from a bathroom, with the soundtrack a mix a of smooth, sexy-time music and the sound of a shaver. Don't worry if you haven't guessed what she's doing: Boyle will show you in close-up. The only thing funnier than this scene is the contrived justification that comes later.
Tuesday, 19 March 2013
'Oz: The Great and Powerful' - Dir. Sam Raimi (PG)
Anything that's sold as being "from the people who brought you Alice in Wonderland" should be viewed with suspicion if not outright derision, and so it looked like Sam Raimi's prequel to 'The Wizard of Oz' - which sees James Franco as the egotistical, huckster wizard - would be one to avoid. And yet, all told, it's a pretty solid and likable little blockbuster, with enjoyable characters, some decent gags and an interesting cast of characters. Raimi's horror routes are plainly visible too, as he makes his villains - most notably the flying baboons - genuinely scary and manages to pack in a few jumpy moments, whilst his handling of the opening hot air balloon crash (which takes Oz from black and white Kansas to technicolor Oz via a tornado, in keeping with tradition) is like something straight out of 'The Evil Dead'. In fact his style is consistently visible from his fluid camera movements to distinctive use of montage.
In keeping with the 'Spider-Man' director's unabashed love of schlock (he was the producer of 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and creator of the 'Darkman' series, after all) the 3D here is gimmicky and in-your-face, but that's actually sort of fun and refreshing after the recent trend of emphasizing depth. It's tacky and, like everything else in the film, doesn't take itself too seriously - even as it is rightly respectful of its heritage. The actors acquit themselves well across the board too, with Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams all relishing their roles as OTT witches and even the comedy sidekick characters, such as Zach Braff's motion-captured flying monkey Finley, coming over as charming when they could have been irritating.
Whilst a lot of the effects, notably the character of China Girl, are decent, some of the CGI backgrounds are a bit ropey, particularly as Franco first encounters the flora and fauna of Oz. It's also fair to say the film's message (if you can go as far as calling it that) is mildly troubling - suggesting that people at large are a dumb herd who need to be lied to by their leaders in order to be happy. Yet overall this is at its worst a bit bland and at its best an entertaining diversion. I wasn't bored - which itself is a rarity for a two-hour film of this kind - and it's certainly far better than Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland', even if it's obvious both films have a production designer in common. So take that for what it's worth!
'Bullhead' - Dir. Michael R. Roskam (15)
Matthias Schoenaerts, of 'Rust and Bone' acclaim, stars in this troubling and deeply moving Belgian thriller about meat and hormones. Ostensibly the meat in question is beef and the hormones are the various illegal testosterone supplements used to bulk it up - a dodgy practice Schoenaerts' Jacky specialises in, working with dangerous criminal gangs. But it goes further with Jacky himself a testosterone-filled piece of meat, driven (by horrific childhood trauma) to take the same illegal substances, turning him into a sweaty, aggressive and sex-obsessed bull. Then it goes further still, with lingering shots of Jacky perusing a local red light district - starring coldly at women cavorting in garish window displays - suggesting another layer to the "people as meat" metaphor. There's a similar moment in a care home, as Jacky squares up to a mentally disturbed patient - one of many sequences dominated by Jacky's immense physique and a brooding sense of threat.
In this way 'Bullhead' really seems to be an examination of what makes us functioning human beings - as opposed to animalistic bags of hormones, rutting and smashing in each other's skulls. One nasty and violent change to Jacky's anatomy turns him from one into the other, questioning how much control we have over our bodies and our behaviour. At what point does chemistry and biology take over? Yet, on top of this, it functions equally well as an exciting and intense crime film, slickly put together and impressively acted. In a rare feat, it's as entertaining as it is challenging: psychologically interesting and quietly, unassumingly, philosophical. It's equal parts tense and tragic, with a brutal ending that came like a punch to the guts.
'The Spirit of 45' - Dir. Ken Loach (U)
It can be difficult reviewing politically-minded documentaries without falling into the trap of reviewing (or even merely describing) the subject rather than the filmmaking. Ken Loach's 'The Spirit of 45' is one where that difficulty comes to the fore because, as a film, it's all stock footage and talking heads: edited together very well in service of a point which it presents compellingly, but really its success or failure rests on how you feel about its subject. To my mind, it's a solid documentary that should be shown in schools, as much because of its power and poignancy as a social document, as because of its right-on political message (it rightly venerates and idealises the NHS, and acts as a rallying cry to save it from future privitisation).
Its grasp of history is, perhaps knowingly, simplistic: the so-called "Winter of Discontent" is brushed over and Loach paints the picture of a Utopian socialist republic, suddenly dismantled by Thatcher in the 80s. And whilst I have complete sympathy for, and a certain amount of agreement with, that view it isn't telling the entire story. Though that's not necessarily a bad thing and it doesn't really get in the way of Loach's point. This is a nakedly nostalgic piece about the hopes of a generation and the preservation of an ideal - not a rigorous investigation of British economical policy from 1945-present. And on those terms it is a triumph.
Thursday, 14 March 2013
'The Paperboy' - Dir. Lee Daniels (15)
Trashy, pulpy and a little kitsch, Lee Daniels' follow-up to 'Precious' would be much more fun if it weren't also a little po-faced. For a film that has clear arthouse pretensions, this is the movie in which Nicole Kidman's brash, convict-obsessed Charlotte wees on Zac Efron's besotted face. It's the movie which (in one of the most bizarre, awkward and misjudged scenes I've ever seen) sees Charlotte masturbating in front of the assembled cast during a visit to her incarcerated fiance, played by John Cusack - also feverishly masturbating, as hot-shot newspapermen Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo and their young driver (Efron) look on speechless: confused and a little aroused. It isn't like anything else you've seen and the there are some enjoyably extreme moments, like those highlighted, but this is funny-bad where the "bad" outweighs the "funny" by some margin.
It's replete with heavy-handed montage sequences and imagery that implies some sort of deep meaning but which under close analysis seems to yield very little. There's a Macy Grey narration that could be excised without harming the film in any way and which seems confused about who it's addressing. Why Grey's housemaid is even telling the story in the first place is never made clear by Pete Dexter's screenplay, based on his own novel. There's also the sort of over the top poverty porn that made parts of 'Precious' so baffling and slightly offensive, with every lower-class character a filthy degenerate with a funny accent. It's fun to see Cusack play against type, but it's an excessive performance - though Kidman is stand-out and the rest of the cast solid - but that's hardly enough to make up for the film's many shortcomings: an investigation storyline that goes nowhere; vague commentary on late-60s racial politics that goes nowhere; and a chase sequence in the third act that is quite possibly the least tense and exciting ever committed to film. It's a mess. Shambolic filmmaking.
'Side Effects' - Dir. Steven Soderbergh (15)
Not the film you expect it to be following a twist at the halfway point, 'Side Effects' - the supposed final film of director Steven Soderbergh - is a gripping thriller that takes many an unusual turn, stretching credibility all in the name of entertainment value. Partly a commentary on the power wielded by big US pharmaceutical companies over the medical profession - and on the power of doctors over patients - and the over-prescription of anti-depressants, the cold and methodical nature of the first half is reminiscent of the dry and earnest 'Contagion'. That section of the movie sees Jude Law's charismatic and plausible psychiatrist coming to the aid of a suicidal depressive played by Rooney Mara - a patient, seduced by advertising, into demanding a particular drug which also happens to be sponsoring several of her doctors.
The second half - which I can't really write about here - is tense, gripping and hugely entertaining, though it's undeniably quite contrived and a little silly. Never more so than whenever Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as a rival psychiatrist who looks more like someone's idea of a "sexy librarian" roleplay fantasy than a medical professional. There's something exploitative about some her scenes with Mara in particular, but it didn't hamper my enjoyment of Soderbergh's latest in a run of recent (and varied) successes - that include 'Magic Mike', 'Haywire', 'The Informant!' and the aforementioned 'Contagion'. Needless to say, I hope this isn't the final feature of a progressive 50 year-old director who appears to be going from strength to strength. Like most vintage Soderbergh, this isn't a film without flaws: but it's interesting, bold and dynamic cinema full of surprises.
'Outrage Beyond' - Dir. Takeshi Kitano (TBC)
Not his most cinematic, stylish or daring work to date - being a thoroughly enjoyable and polished, but otherwise fairly standard Yakuza gangster thriller - 'Outrage Beyond' (a sequel to his earlier 'Outrage') keeps Takeshi Kitano on solid and more commercially viable ground following a period of self-reflection and experimentation. In it he plays a former mob enforcer who just doesn't give a fuck - not about the police or his criminal overlords - making him the rogue element in a society built around deference and respect for authority. He's as enjoyable a screen presence as ever, though the film seems to lose momentum whenever he's not on-screen. Most interesting is the way the film portrays the complicity of the police in mob activity, through the schemes of Fumiyo Kohinata's cynical and manipulative Detective Kataoka - perhaps the real villain of the piece.