Thursday, 24 February 2011

Picturehouse Blog posts...

Apologies for the lack of updates since Berlin. I've haven't been resting on my laurels though. Here is a round-up of the non-competition films from the festival that I wrote today for the Picturehouse Blog. If you look at the entry before that one, you'll see another, even longer, round-up of the competition films.

Other than that I've had a job interview, which is potentially amazing, whilst I'm also preparing to again guest host Flick's Flicks tomorrow morning due to illness. I'm also on my usual slot on Radio Reverb tomorrow (9.15am) if anyone fancies tuning in.

I still intend to finish my review of 'True Grit', which I started writing at Berlin airport, but there haven't been enough hours in the day...

Monday, 21 February 2011

Back in Blighty. Here's the Berlin lowdown...

I'm back from the Berlin Film Festival now and glad to be able to update this blog again.

Here is most of the stuff I wrote whilst I was away, as published over on Obsessed with Film:

Winner's Report

The Mortician - UK/USA
Taxi Driver (re-release) - USA
The Guard - IRE/UK
The Forgiveness of Blood - USA/ALB
Unknown - GER/UK/FRA
Odem (Lipstick) - ISR/UK
Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (If Not Us, Who) - GER
Saranghanda, Saranghaji Anneunda (Come Rain, Come Shine) - ROK
Un Mundo Misterioso (A Mysterious World) - ARG/GER/URU
Mein Bester Feind (My Best Enemy) - AUS/LUX
Bizim Buyuk Caresizligimiz (Our Grand Despair) - TUR/GER
Jodaeiye Nader Az Simin (Nader and Simin, A Separation) - IRN
Tambian La Iluvia (Even the Rain) - SPA/FRA/MEX
A Torinoi Lo (The Turin Horse) - HUN
The Future - USA/GER
V Subbotu (Innocent Saturday) - RUS/UKR
Les Femmes Du 6eme Etage (Service Entrance) - FRA
Coriolanus - UK
Pina - GER/FRA
Les Contes De La Nuit (Tales of the Night) - FRA
Cave of Forgotten Dreams - USA/FRA
Yelling to the Sky - USA
Almanya - Welcome to Germany - GER/TUR
Schlafrankheit (Sleeping Sickness) - GER/FRA
Silver Bullets/Art History - USA
El Premio - ARG/MEX
Margin Call - USA

I've also written a full, detailed round-up of the competition for the Picturehouse Blog.

I'll post some more in-depth reflective stuff over the week, as well as my review of 'True Grit', which opened the festival but which I didn't need to review for OWF.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

61st Berlin Film Festival

This is just a post to explain the relative lack of activity on this blog over the next two weeks. Tomorrow I'm flying off to spend 12 nights in Berlin so I can take in this year's film festival. I'll be writing multiple reviews every day which you will be able to find at Obsessed With Film, which will cover (hopefully) every single "in competition" film as well as a number of high profile premières. I add "hopefully" because I have no idea right now how this festival works. In Venice you just rock up to each screening, join the queue and wait to see the movie, though I've heard that Berlin requires you to get tickets in advance, which may complicate things. I'll see what happens and try my best to review every film I can.

There may be some articles and links to my work at OWF up here over the coming days, but I can't guarantee it as I'll be writing everything on my Blackberry (as in Venice) and I'll only be able to properly edit this blog if and when I get to a computer. Regardless, there will be lots of stuff up here about my experience of the festival when I return - so do remember to check back nearer the end of this month.

Until then, auf wiedersehen.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

'The Mechanic' review:

Homo-erotic muscular toplessness? Manly scenes of unnecessary car maintenance? Evil South American drug lords? Homophobic, racist and sexist sub-text (and in many cases text)? A plot revolving around the theme of revenge? A lack of all humanity and compassion? A cruel sense of humour? Insanely violent and yet wonderfully creative martial artistry? It must be this month's Jason Statham actioner, this time 'Con Air' director Simon West's 'The Mechanic' - a remake of a 1972 Michael Winner movie starring Charles Bronson, which I have never heard of and will probably never see.

Like much of The Stath's output, 'The Mechanic' alternates between the intentionally and accidentally hilarious as its functionary plot serves to get its functionary leading man from set-piece to set-piece within a tidy 93 minute running time. The story is as follows: when the shady international assassination company he works for requires him to kill his friend and mentor (Donald Sutherland), "Mechanic" Arthur Bishop (Statham) attempts to soothe his crisis of conscience by adopting his mentor's bereaved son Steve (Ben Foster) and teaching him - in what seems like a couple of days - to become a world class contract killer. But will Steve find out who really killed his father? Will he be forced to kill his new found mentor and friend? Will the killing ever stop?!

Like everything from 'The Transporter' to 'Crank', 'The Mechanic' is at once brilliantly brainless and utterly repugnant. Our oddly charismatic meat-puppet of a hero gruffly whispers what lines he is given and uses his full acting range, going from quite pensive to extremely pensive - often within the same scene. There is one amazing bit of shared screen time for Statham and Sutherland in which the former looks thoroughly confused and slightly disorientated by what amounts to standard fatherly chatter. But it's hard, nay impossible, not to like Statham. To quote Randy Newman, "he may be a fool but he's our fool" after all and I really enjoy watching this slightly naff, extremely ordinary looking British guy in American movies. He's like the Beverly Hills version of a Mitchell Brother, with his designer sunglasses and leather jacket.

The world of 'The Mechanic' is the stuff of reactionary right-wing tabloid fantasy. At one point Steve decides he wants to kill a car-jacker (don't ask) so he parks his car in a poor neighborhood for a few hours and waits until a black guy duly turns up and puts a gun to his head. One target is a super-hard rival hitman, but he has one weakness: he is a total gay. This means that all Steve needs to do is sit near him in a cafe and wait to be hit on. That is seriously the plan... and, in this twisted, paranoid reality, it works. Then there is the film's opening murder (sorry, I mean "job") which takes place in "Colombia, South America", as with last summer's 'The Expendables' and 'The A-Team' South Americans mean bad news. The cavalcade of stereotypes and thinly veiled bigotries doesn't end there. Every woman seen in the film immediately propositions our heroes and beds them within about ten seconds, usually for pay. (Yes, it really is shocking that those Sky Sports presenters were so backwardly sexist in this day and age - because most of our mainstream entertainment is so enlightened and mature, no?)

Arthur is (of course) a cultured killer though. We know this because he listens to classical music and has a swanky modern house. He has his own code and method of doing things (like every other hitman in the last hundred years of cinema before him) that stops him from being just a nasty murderer. Only, doesn't such cold methodology make him a psychopath? Not if you get paid for it, apparently: then it's just business. Maybe that's intended as a satirical comment on the inherent madness of an economic system that forsakes the spiritual and metaphysical for cold market forces... though probably not. It's probably just rubbish, hackneyed nonsense. But it's got tits in it and guns and explosions and The Stath. Got to love The Stath.

'The Mechanic' proves how sodding hard it is to get an '18' certificate from the BBFC these days. Statham threatens to put a young girl's arm in a food processor whilst interrogating her father - in a scene that was genuinely pretty frightening - and the film generally shows you the moments of violent impact most movies forgo in the name of sanitised palatability. We see a man get his head smashed in by an oncoming car. We see a man hit the ground after a fall. We see loads of blood coming out of each gunshot wound. Only it's strangely not particularly visceral or gory because it's all so silly and so clearly CGI. Maybe that's why they get away with the '15'.

For all my flipplantness, 'The Mechanic' is as solidly made - from a production value and direction point of view - a Jason Statham vehicle as there has ever been this side of 'Snatch'. Ben Foster and Donald Sutherland are both good to watch, although the latter isn't in the film for more than five minutes, and (as I've already said) the fight choreography is often impressive, even thrilling. I laughed a lot as I watched it, even if often for the wrong reasons and I was never bored. If you don't care whether a film's heart is in the right place and if you don't mind if the lead actor can't act on even the most basic level, then you might just end up loving the sheer lunacy of this latest explosive, stunt-filled Statham-fest.

'The Mechanic' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out in the UK now.

Friday, 4 February 2011

'The Fighter' review:

It is easy to dismiss David O. Russell's boxing biopic 'The Fighter' as riddled with sports movie clichés. It's the story of an ageing boxer working towards his last shot after years of wasting his potential. Sounds more than a little like 'Rocky'. In fact, based on the original trailer, it seemed that the film was more than a little similar to Darren Aronofsky's 2008 film 'The Wrestler' too, with a similar grainy, documentary aesthetic and with Amy Adams replacing Marisa Tomei as the sexy "white trash" confidant of the fighter pushing himself to the physical limit. Seeing Aronofsky's name attached to the film as an executive producer did little to allay this fear that 'The Fighter' would be nothing more than a derivative (and probably inferior) version of a story we've all seen a thousand times before.

Happily this prejudice, whilst not completely unfounded, only tells part of the story: 'The Fighter', it turns out, is a terrifically good film. It can't escape the trappings of the genre narratively or formally (as felt keenest in the obligatory training montage), but the acting is of such a high standard that you overlook its minor trespasses and enjoy what is an entirely entertaining yarn. The film follows the true story of welterweight boxer "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and we witness the highs and lows of his relationship with his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a drug-addicted former pro and Micky's trainer. It is the web of relationships between Micky, his brother, his mother (Melissa Leo) and his girlfriend (Adams) that is the focus of this drama, which spends comparatively little time in the boxing ring.

This is probably a wise decision as it is outside of the ring that the interest lies as we see Ward pulled between the different forces in his life who all project their hopes and aspirations on the meek and sensitive brawler. Wahlberg is superb in the main role, playing a character so painfully reluctant to express himself or fight his own corner, but the more obvious show-stopper is Bale. Christian Bale not only took himself to the physical limit to embody the part, again losing a lot of weight as he had for roles in 'Rescue Dawn' and 'The Machinist', but he completely loses himself in the character. At times he could seem close to going too far, but he never does and the film's most tragic, poignant moments of emotional honesty fall to him - none more effecting than his realisation that he no longer his brother's idol.

Melissa Leo is also impressive as a terrifying matriarch who holds an uncomfortable sway over her nine adult children and who transparently favours her eldest son - the town hero due to his former glory. The film doesn't judge its characters, all of whom are varying degrees of messed up, but if anything it gives Leo's character an easy ride. She assaults her husband in an act of domestic abuse that is played as slightly comic - in a way that would be unthinkable were roles reversed - and there is more than a suggestion that she is willing to put Micky in harms way if she can make money from it (it appears that Micky's bouts pay for his mother's upkeep) though she is never held to account for that, or even shown to be especially apologetic. Yet Leo imbues the role with flashes of vulnerability - or at least self-delusion - to ensure that she is much more than just a monster.

Amy Adams, as Micky's girlfriend, is equally brilliant in the opposite regard. Her character Charlene is for most of the film a positive counterpoint to Micky's possessive family: she helps him to break away from them and act in his own interests. Yet there is more than a hint in Adams' performance - and in the film's screenplay - that she is potentially just as damaging and manipulative a force in his life. The relationship drama at the heart of this movie isn't about good and bad or right and wrong, but about reconciliation between both sides. Micky, in eventually asserting himself, tries to bring everybody together rather than abandon his family for Charlene or go it alone - a more emotionally mature and complex resolution than we are used to seeing, though it may spring more from the fact that the film is based on real life events than the ingenuity of the writers.

The writers do deserve a lot of credit though, as there are some smart and funny lines in the film. Such as when Eklund tries to con a family of Cambodians with a pyramid scheme and is defended against the charge of racism by a friend who says, assures them that "white people do over white people all the time". There is a really nice and subtle exchange between Micky and Charlene too after he picks up on her talking about a former roommate by saying "the army?" before she corrects him with "college" - the idea that someone from his poor neighborhood could go to college being so unexpected. It's a piece of social commentary in a film that makes a feature of America's oft-derided white poor whilst never becoming mawkish or condescending.

'The Fighter' warrants its Oscar nominations, though it justly only stands a chance at winning in the supporting actor categories, where Bale and Leo are surely favourites to win. It is a fairly generic film enlivened by its committed cast, but in some ways that is its principle joy: it is a straightforward, comforting underdog story during which you'll want to punch your fist into the air and cheer on the hero.

'The Fighter' is out now in the UK and has been certified '12A' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

How to win an Oscar: "It's good to be the king!"

As Mel Brooks always says, "it's good to be the king" and so it might prove for Best Actor hopeful Colin Firth at this month's Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Firth was unlucky not to win last year for his understated performance in Tom Ford's 'A Single Man', being beaten to the prize by Jeff Bridges. But though Bridges is again nominated alongside the Englishman this time around, the circumstances surrounding the "race" couldn't be more different. This year it is Firth who has been earning all the major gongs en route, including the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award (pictured above). Both are reliable Oscar indicators, but the latter is more significant having gone to the eventual Oscar winner on the last six occasions. In fact since its founding year in 1994, the winner of the SAG Best Actor award has gone on to win the equivalent Academy Award on twelve occasions out of sixteen - one of the "mistakes" being when Benicio Del Toro won in 2000 for 'Traffic' and he ended up winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year for the same role anyway.

Yet being the winner of the SAG award isn't the only bit of history which suggests Academy Award glory for Colin Firth on February 27th. There is also the matter of what he is nominated for: 'The King's Speech' in which he plays stammering reluctant-monarch George VI. After all, actors portraying British royalty have form when it comes to the Academy Awards. Judi Dench infamously won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1998 for what amounted to an eight minute cameo as Elizabeth I in 'Shakespeare in Love'. Her success in winning that award was attributed by many as a sympathy vote for having been snubbed the previous year for her role as Queen Victoria in 'Mrs. Brown', for which she had been nominated in the Best Actress category. Helen Mirren finally sealed her place among the Academy Award winners in 2006 for her performance as Elizabeth II in 'The Queen', whilst Australian Cate Blanchett was nominated for her breakthrough role as Elizabeth I in the 1998 film 'Elizabeth' and again in 2007 for the film's sequel.

This love affair with the Royals doesn't end there either: Charles Laughton won his Oscar in 1933 for the starring role in 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' and Richard Burton was nominated for playing same monarch in 1969 for 'Anne of the Thousand Days'. One of Peter O'Toole's eight nominations (without a single win) was for playing Henry VII in 1964 film 'Becket' and Kenneth Branagh was nominated for his portrayal of Henry V from his 1989 film of the same name. Indeed Helen Mirren was previously nominated for portraying Queen Charlotte in 1994's 'The Madness of King George', with Nigel Hawthorne also nominated for his role as the titular loon. Don't forget that this year also sees Helena Bonham Carter nominated for her role in 'The King's Speech' playing the late Queen Mother.

Of course, many of those mentioned didn't win the ultimate prize - although I most definitely think Colin Firth will - but they still prove that, if you want to be recognised by the Academy, playing a member of the British royal family has never hurt anybody's chances. I predict that when the inevitable film about Princess Diana is made that role will be one of the most coveted in all of Hollywood for this very reason. So Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Emily Blunt and all the other young British actresses need to start pestering producers and getting their names out there now if they want a golden statuette of their very own - for a feature that is practically guaranteed fourteen Oscar nominations and destined to be the toast of middle-England somewhere in our not-too-distant future.

Why this is is open to debate, but I think it has something to do with the assumption across the Atlantic that clipped Britishness is synonymous with "class" - that is in terms of style and not just social standing - and that British actors are automatically brilliant screen actors due to their inherent stagecraft, brought with them from the birthplace of the Bard. A good example of this curious assumption can be seen in the fact that Laurence Olivier was nominated for nine acting Oscars, winning one, despite the fact that he was as hammy a screen actor as there has ever been. It is the reason why it's OK to nominate Sir Ian McKellen for playing a wizard in 'Lord of the Rings' and Alec Guinness for playing a space-wizard in 'Star Wars' despite the fact the Academy wouldn't traditionally nominate those types of movies in acting categories. "Doesn't he speak beautifully?" Academy voters must say to one another all the time as they cast their votes.

It is ironic then that Colin Firth is nominated for playing an upper-class monarch without the usual eloquence. But don't be fooled by the stammer, Firth's King George has still been afforded a much nicer, cleaner British accent than his arrogant, playboy brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) who has a much more gratingly posh (and more realistic) aristocratic accent. It could also be said that the principle joy of 'The King's Speech' is born from the unusual sport of watching a man learning how to speak so pleasingly - and to the great approval of cheering crowds. This pleasure, when married to assumptions of British class and stagecraft and applied to the gravitas of playing royalty (which comes imbued with vaguely Shakespearian overtones by default), in part explains why 'The King's Speech' is not only an Oscar favourite: it is a highly exportable commodity for those in the former colonies basking in an unseemly collective nostalgia.