Monday, 28 March 2011

Blu-ray reviews: Charlie Wilson's War + Tamara Drewe

I'm back writing about film now from my internship at video games industry news site GamesIndustry.Biz, where I wrote a number of news items and a couple of features last week. It didn't end up snaring me a job, but it was great experience.

Anyhow, here are a couple of Blu-ray reviews I did in the last week for the guys at Obsessed with Film:

Charlie Wilson's War
Tamara Drewe

My attention is now back on all things film, so I'm sure to have a plethora of reviews up here in April after an uncharacteristically quiet March - two theatrical film reviews being an all-time-low since the blog started at the start of 2010.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

'Alice in Wonderland' Blu-ray review, etc etc

I've been back from a ridiculously nice holiday in Tuscany for the past few days, but I've just started an internship that I'm hoping could become a full-time writing gig (AKA the Holy Grail). I'm still writing day and night but not about film, so I haven't the time to update here in the usual way.

However, before I left for Italy I did write a review of Disney's animated 'Alice in Wonderland' for the folks at Obsessed with Film, which you can read here.

I've already agreed to write reviews for a few more upcoming Blu-rays coming out on Monday, so there will be some more film stuff up here next week for sure. 'Tamara Drewe', 'Charlie Wilson's War' and an anime the name of which escapes me right now (but which is very good indeed) should be among them, so check back for that soon.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

'Norwegian Wood' review and excuses...

Hey all. I have been very busy off late and haven't been able to give my full attention to the (very important) pass time that is blogging. Here is my review of 'Norwegian Wood', which was released on Friday in the UK. I wrote that back in Venice last year. It was one of the first reviews I wrote at that festival and I wasn't as good on the Blackberry back then. Also, I think I'm a bit better at writing now than I was then. Anyway, enough excuses.

My girlfriend and I are on holiday for the next week and then I'm starting a journalisty internship at a video games website, which I hope might lead to something more. I've also got tons of review copies of Blu-rays on my desk which need to be reviewed between now and the end of the month, plus I have some outstanding articles to write for a book on American independant cinema. So expect this blog to be a little low on meaningful content over the next month. But check back anyway in case that proves inaccurate.

Monday, 7 March 2011

'Inside Job' review:

There has been a glut of movies about the financial crisis since 2008. Oliver Stone made his sequel to 'Wall Street', whilst Michael Moore took the opportunity to make a typically polemical documentary about the more general subject of American capitalism. Later this year another star-studded and glossy Hollywood movie about bankers and the collapse of the stock market will be released in the form of 'Margin Call'. But so far the only one of these resolutely topical movies to meet with widespread critical acclaim has been the earnest and indignant documentary 'Inside Job', a film directed by Charles Ferguson and narrated by Matt Damon and winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last month.

A 'must-see' for graph fetishists, 'Inside Job' comes packed with facts and figures - each new revelation about greed and corruption designed to enrage its audience. Unlike the work of that great propagandist Michael Moore, Ferguson's film doesn't try especially hard to energise viewers into positive political action, rather it serves to confirm what 99% of its probable audience either knew or suspected going in: that the American government is controlled by Wall Street and that everyone from President Obama to the IMF to the board at AIG want to keep it that way. In other words it tells us that reform of the banking system is impossible as things stand - even when a reform candidate with a strong mandate takes office at a time when the system's failures are at their most apparent. It's a numbing feeling watching it for that very reason. Damon's sober narration leaves us with a half-hearted rallying cry just before the credits pop up, inciting us to fight for change, but you will in all likelihood have lost hope in civilisation long beforehand in the face of overwhelming evidence of deep-rooted systemic corruption.

Perhaps I'm missing the point, but I have a slight problem with documentaries like 'Inside Job' and it isn't a case of apathy or world-weary nihilism on my part at all. I have the same problem with (or indifference towards) the work of Richard Dawkins, in that I just can't see the point in preaching to the converted in this way. One thing the film makes abundantly clear is that the financial institutions involved in causing the crisis, and with it mass unemployment and bankruptcy around the world, have committed large-scale criminal acts - either consciously (which seems probable) or as a result of gross negligence. And yet we also see time and time again through all the interviews (with economists, academics, government officials etc) that the perpetrators are not only still running the world, with no realistic end to that situation in sight, but that they are also wholly unrepentant (presumably because many of the individuals involved became richer as a result of the crisis). Change can only be effected by those at the top and those at the top don't have it in their best interests to effect change.

This dispiriting truth, which I'm assuming a healthy percentage of the audience already knew before buying their ticket, makes it difficult to take anything away from 'Inside Job' other than rage or depression, either that or possibly a sense of overbearing smugness. You can criticise Michael Moore for being brash and manipulative, but at least he has something to say - his films are essays or editorial columns which have a political point to drive home. They want to inspire the audience into action, whether that involves forming some sort of worker's cooperative or voting a certain way in the next election. He also highlights things members of his audience might not know about, such as the history of American socialism. In short: whether you like them or not, Moore's films have a reason to exist. I can see the function they have and I can understand why they are interesting. 'Inside Job' is, by contrast, two hours of someone saying "the banking system corrupt and wreckless." Yes. I agree. What else have you got?

'Capitalism: A Love Story' also went an interesting route in talking about the financial crisis in that Moore used it as a way to discuss the fundamental problems with the ideology behind the system rather than simply providing an annotated guide to the crisis itself. To me that is where the interesting discussion is at and only when we question fundamental things about the way we organise out society/economy can we hope to break this cycle.

Though if a detailed account of the crisis with interviews and graphs is what you're after then there is no better film than 'Inside Job'. It is detailed and well researched, and the interviews are very well done, especially as Ferguson has no difficulty telling truth to power and does so confidently whilst always remaining polite. Unlike Moore you could accuse him of being hectoring of self-important. The best interviews see the likes of economist Glenn Hubbard squirm uncomfortably, struggling to answer questions so obviously aware of their guilt. These are the best scenes but also the saddest, as we see powerful, influential men - who are blatantly aware of their guilt - lying to us brazenly. The section that highlights the conflict of interests within the academic profession is especially good. It is certainly a smartly made movie and unquestionably on the side of right.

If there is such a thing as objectivity then I would have to say that 'Inside Job' is a very handsome film, clearly made by people passionately engaged with the subject at hand and backed up by lots of solid evidence. It must also be said that the pre-credits sequence about the impact of deregulation and privatisation in Iceland is fascinating. I'm not telling you to pass on watching it, not at all. I'm simply saying that you will likely leave the film with the same opinion of financial institutions as you had going in (whatever that may be) - and I personally don't see the point in that. Maybe people crave reassurance that they are right more than they want to be challenged or provoked? I couldn't say. I just know that Michael Moore can move me and inspire me whilst this left me feeling cold and unwilling to engage with an unfair world.

'Inside Job' is out on a limited release in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

'True Grit' review:

The last few years, since the Oscar-winning 'No Country for Old Men', have seen the Coen brothers rebound spectacularly from the dispiriting mediocrity of 'Intolerable Cruelty' and 'The Ladykillers'. In fact, having come out from the other side of that period of creative stagnation, they are arguably now held in higher esteem than ever before, with the duo releasing films with unprecedented regularity and virtually guaranteed a Best Picture nomination every year. Their latest is no different with 'True Grit' - an adaptation of the Charles Portis novel famously made into a 1969 film starring John Wayne - nominated in ten categories at the recent Academy Awards. Although if failed to secure a single statuette on the night, 'True Grit' is an accomplished film and by far their biggest box office success, so far earning over $200 million worldwide.

In it Jeff Bridges renews his relationship with the Coens, for whom he famously played 'The Dude' in 'The Big Lebowski', starring as alcoholic, wayward US Marshal Rooster Cogburn - the role that earned Wayne his Oscar. He is ably supported by Matt Damon and Josh Brolin as well as the impressive (Oscar nominated) newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the film's narrator Mattie Ross. Ross is a shrewd, quick-witted and idealistic fourteen year old who reacts to the murder of her father - at the hands of an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Brolin) - by enlisting the help of Cogburn after hearing that he is a ruthless man of "grit". With him she fearlessly sets off into the wilderness where they are joined in their mission by a vain and self-satisfied Texas Ranger (Damon).

The language of Portis' novel is a perfect fit for the Coens, with their fondness for colloquialisms and absurdity. For instance, the fast-talking Miss. Ross would not be out of place in many of their previous movies, especially in a scene where her persistence and intellect see her out-haggle a perplexed stable owner. It reminded me of all the other great scenes of customer-salesperson confrontation in their work - in 'Fargo', 'Raising Arizona', 'O Brother Where Art Thou' and, of course, 'No Country' - with clever word play and small-town sensibilities as ever at the forefront. And as with every feature since they penned the screenplay for Sam Raimi's 1985 effort 'Crimewave', much of the dialogue is dryly, sometimes blackly, comic.

Another early scene sees a silver-tongued lawyer interrogating Cogburn in court, with a sly command of language similar to Tony Shaloub's Freddy Riedenschneider in 'The Man Who Wasn't There' or to Clooney's character in 'Intolerable Cruelty'. Again and again as with 'No Country' - even though we are watching a faithful adaptation of a novel - familiar Coen-esque character archetypes emerge unmistakably, discovered in the source material rather than invented. Though if these are perhaps merely superficial comparisons made by a lifelong fan, more vital continuity can be found in Roger Deakins' peerless work as the film's cinematographer and Carter Burwell's restrained and effective handling of the score. "Restrained" is really the key adjective when talking about 'True Grit', which is about as straightforward a story as the Coens have told. It is economical, seemingly effortless filmmaking that verges on the poetic.

Jeff Bridges offers a less sanitised version of Cogburn than the one made famous by Wayne: his alcoholism has clearly taken its toll on his health and his speech is slurred. Though he benefits from inheriting the role in a version of the novel which is willing to explore its darker elements. The Henry Hathaway directed adaptation of '69 (which I do enjoy) retains some of the dark edge - especially in Kim Darby's performance as Ross - but this feels more by accident than design, as key plot elements and dialogue lifted from the novel tease at a moral complexity at the story's heart. The Coen's version understands its source text better and goes to those ambiguous places, though this isn't 'Kill Bill Goes West' either. The Coens haven't made a cold-blooded revenge flick, but a story about the way revenge and blood-lust deform a person's soul.

By fulfilling her desire to see Chaney dead, Ross descends into the metaphorical hell represented by a snake pit and we find, from a bitter-sweet closing monologue, that her life afterwards has come to be defined by this chapter of her life. Like the one-eyed Cogburn, she is forever physically deformed, whilst she is also a spinster. The ultimate tragedy of 'True Grit' is that it's the story of a young, bright and precocious girl damaged more by the violence she has perpetrated and witnessed in her grief than by the catalytic sinful act: death of her father. It is this aspect of the tale that the Coens hone in on, albeit subtly, which makes 'True Grit' the opposite of a John Wayne film in many ways: at its core it is a humanist, wholly non-preachy anti-death penalty film.

I've oft heard it said that the Coens are heartless storytellers: that they don't like their characters and that they are cynical about people. I don't buy into that view at all and if I did I wouldn't be a fan. The Coen brothers, for me anyway, are defined by their willingness to look at all the cruelty of the human experience through the lens of absurdity and stupidity - a bit like the satire Chris Morris or Armando Iannucci. People aren't evil or good in Coen brothers movies, they usually just don't know any better. Bad things are done by people in a state of panic (most murders in Coen brothers movies occur this way) and pre-planned acts of inhumanity always find their way back to the often hapless perpetrator (think of Macy's Jerry Lundegaard in 'Fargo'). Even if, in this case, she is a little girl avenging her father's murder - a goal many filmmakers would find unproblematic.

The Coen brother's films are not only among the best made, most sharply written of the modern age, but they are actually also among the most moral, the most honest and least blithely pessimistic films about our species. 'True Grit' is just such a film and a damn fine one. A one-eyed drunk should be able to see that.

I saw 'True Grit' open the Berlin Film Festival back in February and it has been out in the UK for several weeks since then, having been rated a '15' by the BBFC. Here is something I wrote about the press conference from Berlin.

'Animal Kingdom' review:

If you think of all the great American crime films centred around a family - actual or metaphorical - you will almost certainly be thinking of films surrounding charismatic and honourable men. Violent men, sure. Frightening men, certainly. But the characters of 'The Godfather', or 'Goodfellas' or of 'Miller's Crossing', not to mention any Cagney film, are ultimately anti-heroes operating corruptly but within a corrupt world.

At their most heroic (or satirical) they come to embody the entrepreneurial spirit and even the American Dream as in 'Scarface'. And, as devoutly religious men, they always have some sort of arbitrary moral code - a line they will not cross. Either they won't sell drugs or they won't whack a guy in Church or whatever. American gangsters socialise themselves into a world of rules and meaning: one where their murderous, destructive actions are re-defined and sanitised.

As an audience we are always compelled to empathise with a film's protagonists, even if they take the form of an exhausted and delusional Adolf Hitler in 'Downfall' or the racist and paranoid fantasist Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver'. In this same way the bank-robbing Cody family of Oscar nominated Australian crime drama 'Animal Kingdom' are still relatable as human characters, yet writer and director David Michôd refuses to glamorise them and is cynical about trite ideas of 'family loyalty'.

Operating under the gaze of 'Smurf', a vaguely incestuous, ever-smiling matriarch played by Jacki Weaver (whose performance earned her an Academy Award nomination), the Cody clan - with the exception of the sheepish Darren (Luke Ford) and the conflicted young 'J' (James Frecheville) - are shown to be ruthless and we see that they would sooner turn on each other than go to prison. 'Smurf' doesn't even shed a tear when she learns that her estranged daughter, J's mother, has died from a drug overdose.

It is this death which sees J move in with his grandmother and uncles and become caught up in the world of crime his mother tried to keep him away from. Only he has been taken in by a criminal organisation well past its prime and soon realises he might have been safer staying his own, as an increasingly gung-ho police force closes in, threatening to wipe out the family. Pressure on the Cody family only increases when, in a revenge attack for the murder of a criminal associate, three of the brothers - lead by the dead-eyed and psychopathic 'Pope' (Ben Mendelsohn) - murder two young policemen in a cowardly, seedy act under cover of darkness and devoid of all honour or glamour.

Soon J, who was not directly involved in the attack, is targeted as a key witness to this double murder by the well-meaning Detective Leckie played by Guy Pearce. The central drama revolves around whether J will lie to protect his family or whether he will be persuaded by Leckie into testifying against them in court. It's all about where J fits into the food chain in a Darwinian world. As Leckie tells him "you may think you're one of the strong creatures. But you're not: you're one of the weak ones." Like Tahar Rahim's Malik in the similarly gritty and uncompromising 'A Prophet', J must adapt to his environment fast if he is to survive.

'Animal Kingdom' plays out as a battle between two charismatic competing opposite forces, who also happen to be embodied by the film's two most compelling actors: Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver. Neither of whom dominate in terms of screen-time. Weaver has been earning the plaudits for a performance which manages to convey menace under the surface whilst her character is all smiles and sweetness. Weaver doesn't simply make 'Smurf' so nice that it becomes unsettling in itself, which wouldn't work as we have to believe 'J' really buys into her persona, but instead she seems sincerely nice, loving and sympathetic with the stage actress somehow conveying an inner complexity somewhere behind her eyes.

Guy Pearce is by now a Hollywood veteran of sorts and so he has understandably been overlooked in favour of Weaver, a relative unknown, in terms of critical acclaim. Yet he is equally if not more impressive as Leckie, another impactful supporting role in a career which has recently come to be defined by impactful supporting roles, following 'The Road', 'The Hurt Locker' and 'The King's Speech'. He is understated and commands your attention the way only a really gifted, natural-born screen actor can. In fact his presence raises the class of the whole film and makes his few scenes among the most memorable.

The whole thing has a moody and oppressive atmosphere which builds into something quite tense and 'Animal Kingdom' is a handsomely made film. Although one pivotal tragic scene involving J's girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright) is mishandled and far-fetched, meaning that it fails to have the desired impact. That scene also seems completely needless - in terms of the character's actions rather than the story - which could be intended to increase the tragedy, but just left me frustrated. However, the fact that the film so rarely strays into cliché is to be applauded, whilst the final shot is ingenious and immensely satisfying.

'Animal Kingdom' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out in the UK now.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Beames returns to March's Flick's Flicks...

Due to illness and injury I have again hosted an episode of Flick's Flicks. I don't mock TV presenters any more. Put me on The One Show and I'd be total rubbish.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Oscars 2011: 'The King's Speech'? Really?

If you don't already know all the results from Sunday night's Academy Awards show then I'd suggest you check out the full list on Deadline, but I'll summarise it for you here anyway. The night was dominated by the towering mediocrity that is 'The King's Speech', which scooped both of (what should be considered) the major gongs, bagging Best Picture and Best Director (for Tom Hooper). It also snared Colin Firth a well-deserved statuette for his eye-catching performance as the film's titular stammering monarch.

The plucky British film is certainly an amiable enough winner, with endearing lead performances and some deft repartee in its (now Oscar winning) screenplay. It is ridiculously popular too, having just broken the £40 million barrier at the UK box office - which is a huge sum - and earning long standing ovations wherever it has played (including 20-plus minutes in Berlin last month). I personally enjoyed the film too, albeit with reservations about its handling of history and romantic portrayal of the house of Windsor (as reluctant "indentured servants" serving an expectant, fawning public). But aren't award ceremonies supposed to reward "art" and not just pander to commerce? Isn't commerce its own reward?

OK, to clarify: I'm not suggesting 'The King's Speech' isn't "art" or that it only won because it has out-grossed its major rivals - 'The Social Network', 'Black Swan' and 'The Fighter' - and on a smaller budget (reportedly around £8 million). I'm just saying that the film is inoffensive, establishment fluff and that the virtuosity of its making pales in comparison with many of the other nominated movies. Possibly all nine of them. It's like a pleasant TV movie. It's like an HBO film that would quietly win a bunch of Golden Globes before disappearing into obscurity. Except it is apparently now considered the best piece of cinema of the last twelve months... and this makes me sad.

For instance, Darren Aronofsky's 'The Black Swan' is a more deserving candidate: a perfect synthesis of sound and image that cuts deeply into you emotionally and takes you to places you don't necessarily want to go. It's perfectly paced, with not a single unnecessary moment, as it manages to be both beautiful and horrifying in equal measure. Is Darren Aronofsky a better filmmaker than Tom Hooper? Almost certainly. At the very least, his next film will be interesting even if it is a 'Wolverine' sequel. Is there any guarantee that Hooper will ever again scale these heights? No. Yet he also beat David Fincher to the Best Director prize.

'The King's Speech' is a glossy, mum-pleaser of a film about an imagined past - in which Churchill was a staunch supporter of George VI and where Edward VIII pro-Nazi leanings can all be blamed on acceptable, establishment-sanctioned hate figure Wallis Simpson. But Fincher's 'The Social Network' is relevant and looks at the world we live in now. It justly won Best Adapted Screenplay for writer Aaron Sorkin, but it could and should have received so much more for its tightly handled, restrained camera work that turned a 'film about Facebook', mostly concerning nerds arguing with lawyers, into a dark and compelling thriller of Shakespearian proportions. I say with some certainty that filmmakers will still be referring to 'The Social Network' in several years time, whilst 'The King's Speech' will likely be consigned to mentions in dry academic books on heritage cinema.

It all reminds me of when 'Shakespeare in Love' beat 'Saving Private Ryan' to Best Picture in 1998. Spielberg's WWII movie, whatever you may think of it, will stand the test of time even if only for its jarring opening twenty minutes. Whereas nobody watches or talks about or even vaguely remembers the John Madden directed 'Shakespeare in Love' now, let alone in fifty or one hundred years. Incidentally 'Shakespeare in Love' and 'The King's Speech' have one major thing in common which could be said to account for the 'unlikely' success of both: the backing of Harvey Weinstein. A notoriously hard campaigner when it comes to winning Academy Awards with Miramax and now with The Weinstein Company, Harvey and his younger brother Bob have again fought to the last minute to lobby for votes in Hollywood. It is no exaggeration to say that without their backing 'The King's Speech' would not even have been on the radar of many voters.

The Weinsteins know what they are doing and, although they are obsessively keen to promote themselves as producers of 'prestige' films, this Oscar payload will earn them and 'The King's Speech' many more millions. Especially after the heavy-weight producers (no strangers to feuds with the MPAA) agreed to cut some of the film's comedy upper-class swearing in order to facilitate a PG-13 certificate re-release stateside. And so whilst The Daily Mail heralded the film's Oscar success by saying "for once Oscars night belonged to a small budget, independent movie that was a labour of love", 'The King's Speech' is far more powerful and successful than the underdog-favouring British press would like to admit amongst all the self-congratulatory anti-Hollywood vitriol.

This brings me back to my "art vs. commerce" point. 'The King's Speech' is benefiting from sailing in that perfect storm of being inoffensive enough that it was universally liked, whilst also being a commercial success story. The fact that it's about kings and queens is also a bonus, of course. But shouldn't the Academy award films based on artistic merit alone? Well, I guess that's subjective in any case and you could, rightly, point out that the Academy did exactly that. Not everyone has to agree with me that 'The Social Network' and 'Black Swan' were far and away the superior examples of the art form. Yet I feel that is the case and quite strongly, with Sunday's result feeling to me like a depressing one for cinema.

It's also a depressing win for the British film industry as a whole. No it seriously is - or at least should be. 'The King's Speech' is one of the last films to have been backed by the now defunct UK Film Council and so it seems that this oh-so-establishment film is, ironically and quite accidentally, also one in the eye for the budget-cutting Tories. Some have even expressed concern that this might be the high-point before a long period of woe for British film. In any case, I think it's depressing for UK film for another reason entirely: 'The King's Speech' is arguably the single least relevant of the ten Best Picture nominees.

Consider the other nine. 'Winter's Bone' is the kind of 'gritty' social realism, about poverty and strife, that Britain used to be famous for. 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3' are both examples of state of the art visual effects and exciting story telling on a huge (dare I say 'cinematic') scale. 'The Kids Are All Right' is a thoroughly modern story about something parts of America still has huge problems with, as it follows a homosexual couple raising their two children. '127 Hours', directed by another British Academy Award winner Danny Boyle, is also based on real-life events and yet it is a contemporary story filmed in an (in my opinion excessively) vibrant, high-octane, fast-cutting style.

Boxing biopic 'The Fighter', like 'Winter's Bone', also makes a feature of white American poverty oft-unseen in popular culture, whilst the Coen brother's Western 'True Grit' may be more firmly rooted in the past than 'The King's Speech' in terms of its setting, but its cinematography and production design is among the very best around. I've already made the case for 'Black Swan' and 'The Social Network'.

I bear 'The King's Speech' no ill will whatsoever; not that I fancy my ill will would be of the least concern to the film's makers in any case. It's a perfectly enjoyable Sunday afternoon kind of movie. "Nan is coming round" you may at some point say, "lets stick 'The King's Speech' on." It's 'nice'. It is, as James Franco said, 'safe'. But just don't expect me to believe that it's a peak example of the art form I love and that which the Academy Awards are supposed to celebrate.