Friday, 28 October 2011

'Real Steel' review:

It doesn't matter who is promoting 'Real Steel', whether it's charismatic leading man Hugh Jackman, over-enthusiastic director Shawn Levy or an anonymous automaton of the PR machine, the message about the family robot boxing movie is consistent: "it's not about the robots" they say, "it's a father and son story." This is the standard line for almost any special effects led movie, so I didn't take it all that seriously going in. After all, 'Real Steel' is set in an improbable future in which the world's most popular spot is effectively 'Robot Wars', as machines battle it out in the boxing ring in place of flesh and blood humans. But it turns out, for better or worse, they were all telling the truth. Even if the film begins with a giant robot punching an animal in the face for entertainment in front of a family crowd (an act never scrutinised), it is a father and son bonding movie first and an underdog boxing movie (with fighting robots) second.

Jackman plays a former boxer who never got to fulfil his potential because of all the worldwide robo-love. As a result he's now a jaded robot boxing trainer: down on his luck, owing a lot of money to a lot of people and sort of into Evangeline Lilly's gym owner (though this is never explored). Additionally, he's brash, cocky and arrogant. We meet him on the run from his latest humiliating defeat, as he's told that an ex-girlfriend from more than a decade ago has just died, leaving him in custody of his son (Dakota Goyo) - who he has never met and has less than no interest in. So, being an upstanding citizen, he sells the boy to his wealthy aunt for $50, 000 in order to buy a new fighting robot (this actually happens). But there is a snag as said aunt wants to go on holiday abroad (she seemingly isn't too upset about the death of her sister and - to be honest - neither is the boy, who gets stuck into building robots within minutes), leaving Jackman looking after the kid on a temporary basis.

It's nice to see an entry into the Spielbergian "absent father" sub-genre in which the dad is actually allowed to be a total prick, as opposed to committing the sin of having to go to work rather than play pirates all day (as in 'Hook'). Jackman sells this dickishness with commitment, bravely jettisoning a sizable amount of his inherent likeability for the first half of the movie. As the boy, Goyo is also pretty good (though his haircut and propensity to fix robots makes him distractingly similar to a young Anakin Skywalker), whilst Lilly (of 'Lost' fame) makes a good fit as the best friend/love interest/potential surrogate mother figure. It helps that the robots themselves are well designed too: the upshot being that you can always tell them apart during the fights and they seem to suggest an amount of personality - both attributes lacking in the 'Transformers' movies.

It's also colourful and - with the exception of an unnecessary "payback" moment late on - mostly good-natured, which I guess is the least that could be expected from a director whose filmography is comprised of bland comedies (remakes of 'The Pink Pather' and 'Cheaper by the Dozen', as well as 'Big Fat Liar' and the 'Night at the Museum' movies). But as restless young legs knocked the back of my seat it was clear something wasn't working. You see, there isn't much robo-boxing and some of the kids in the showing I attended clearly didn't care about any of the bits in between. One child loudly summed up the general mood at regular intervals, and in doing so became the afternoon's highlight, shouting "dad, this is rubbish", followed later by "I want to go home!" and "yay! it's finished". The atmosphere generated by these discontented youngsters was curiously counter-productive to the movie's family message, as the dads kept their thankless offspring prisoner in the cinema. Ignoring for a moment the fact that the action scenes (two robots hitting each other) are inherently boring anyway, the slowness of the dominant father and son story is truly crushing.

Some of it's laughable too, but not just with the trademark Levy humour (funny accents, lots of falling over) but with some calculated sub-Bieber dance routines, as the kid engages in bouts of "street" body popping with his best buddy robot, and one cheese-loaded sequence in which the boy goes for a run with the machine and makes it give him a big hug (awww!). The tone is uneven, shifting uneasily between gentle, understated moments of the father and son on the road (in the beautiful rural south of the US) and a sort of '8 Mile' attitude at the "underground" robot fights (why on earth would robot boxing have an underground? What is the difference?). It also doesn't help that the film's message is confused: Jackman personally controls his robot by shadow boxing whereas their major league rival is controlled by a less romantic array of men at computers, with the implication being that battle robots/computers/action scenes are souless and no substitute for human characters - a point undermined, not only by the premise of the film, but by a vague suggestion that the scrappy good guy robot (our plucky, low-tech underdog) has something like a soul.

'Real Steel' isn't a good movie and, to be brutally honest, I've been kinder here than was my first impulse on leaving the screen. But in genuinely trying to give the human story some heft, rather than viewing it as an inconvenience between robot fights, the film deserves some small credit. It might not do angsty drama particularly well, but it's a move in the right direction: in 2011 a family movie with punching robots that isn't full of masturbation jokes, women in hot pants bending over motorcycles and regressive ethnic stereotypes doesn't deserve to be torn to shreds and actually seems strangely quaint.

'Real Steel' has been on general release in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

'Contagion' review:

In the 21st century, doomsday scenarios don't come much more frightening than the threat of a sudden worldwide viral outbreak. More than two decades since the end of the Cold War, the atomic bomb ceases to seem like a credible threat to our day to day lives - however frightening the prospect of those weapons might remain. But a deadly and highly contagious epidemic, rapidly spreading around the globe in the age of frequent air travel and increased global trade? That danger resonates stronger than ever with the public, as the sensationalist tabloid reporting on SARS and Avian Flu in the last decade can confirm. It's a fear that helped propel 'Contagion' to the top of the US box office last month, with Steven Soderbergh's latest star-studded ensemble movie exploiting our paranoia with deadly precision as we witness a queasily realistic depiction of a disease which kills tens of millions of people in less than a year.

Opening shots focus on human interaction and with great economy depict the dozens of ways such an outbreak might spread, as people shake hands, hand over money or serve food. These sinister close-ups turn everyday items and normal social behaviour into something out of a horror film. The ominous electronic score composed by Cliff Martinez (whose work was so crucial to the success of 'Drive' earlier this year) helps compound this air of tension as the sickly (and soon-to-be-dead) Gwyneth Paltrow makes her way from Hong Kong to Minnesota, stopping in Illinois along the way for some extra-marital sex, unknowingly providing us with one more example of how such an infection might be passed amongst the population.

In the wake of this first death we are introduced to nearly a dozen scarcely connecting characters who could feel more like experimental lab chimps than people, each existing to show us another face of the tragedy in a film which is primarily concerned with the mechanics of how such an event would take place and how the authorities might seek to contain it. They are for the most part ciphers, but the calibre of actor Soderbergh can attract ensures that performances are strong across the board, with Matt Damon (a grieving husband), Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne and Elliott Gould (as assorted determined scientist types), Bryan Cranston (a military man) and Jude Law (an online conspiracy theorist) helping to add personality to this determinedly sterile, macro account of events. And with one Oscar winner already in a body bag shortly after the credits, it's clear that even A-list status might not be enough to ensure survival.

As the year rolls on and the death toll climbs new problems emerge off the back of the epidemic, including widespread social unrest (looting, arson, violence, murder), political scandal and manipulation of the media - courtesy of misinformation and distrust spread by Law's popular blogger. Meanwhile doctors struggle to provide a cure and supermarkets run out of food. The wide-ranging consequences of the outbreak - presented in a hyper-realistic way - only heighten our fear of such an event, which here turns major cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco into something resembling a third world war zone. Though in spite of the film's pursuit of gritty realism, Scott Z. Burns' dense, medical jargon heavy script is still (I think playfully) peppered with disaster movie clichés ("it's figuring us out quicker than we're figuring it out!"), the best of which sees one city official oppose telling citizens to stay in their homes in the run up to Thanksgiving ("the busiest shopping week of the year!").

If his public declaration that he is retiring from cinema (pending completion of his next two projects: 'Haywire' and 'Magic Mike') is to be believed, 'Contagion' looks set to be one of Soderbergh's final films, which would be a great pity: he's often been as interesting as he is prolific. After all, he's been responsible for works as diverse as 'Sex, Lies and Videotape', 'Traffic', and 'Che', in a career spent alternating between the defiantly commercial likes of 'Ocean's Eleven' and such wilfully obscure titles as 'The Girlfriend Experience' and 'Bubble' (an experiment in simultaneous theatrical, DVD and TV on demand releasing). A few of his films have been near great, whilst others can be chalked up as folly without too much cause for controversy, but Soderbergh - one of a few directors who acts as his own cinematographer - is always worth a watch. And never more so than with 'Contagion'.

It feels slightly too long (I was surprised to find it only lasted 106 minutes) and, in terms of narrative focus, it's every bit as scattershot as its director's filmography - with some characters unceremoniously forgotten, whilst others reappear just as you've forgotten they were in the film to begin with. Yet it's gripping, frightening, filled with haunting images and, I suspect, it will come to be seen as the definitive film about worldwide medical crisis. If the worst should happen and such an event does take place in our lifetimes, you will likely here someone say "it's just like in that movie 'Contagion'" as an army roadblock closes your town. It certainly left me wanting to stockpile supplies and seal the exits, too frightened to touch my own face. And that's the sign of a good film.

'Contagion' is out in the UK now where it is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

'The Ides of March' review:

The story of a wide-eyed idealist's transformation into a dead-eyed cynic, 'The Ides of March' is George Clooney's fourth film behind the camera and, based on the play Farragut North, marks a return to the type of earnest liberal outrage that marked his one unequivocal success to date as a director: 'Good Night, and Good Luck'. It's also the first major movie tangibly stained with the disappointment that has followed the euphoria of Barack Obama's 2008 election victory, with Clooney casting himself as a presidential candidate who similarly promises much but - even during the nomination process - is forced to concede many of his closely held ideals in order to become president.

With its focus on the American electoral process - with terms like "delegates" and "primaries" bandied about - Aaron Sorkin's seminal TV series 'The West Wing' is an obvious point of reference and indeed that show's legacy is felt here in some of the fast-paced banter between the candidate and his staffers, as well as in the breathless walk and talks that see strategy mapped out in corridors. But whereas Sorkin depicted political aides who fought passionately for their ideals in spite of a flawed system, here the fall of Ryan Gosling's campaign strategist paints a more pessimistic picture of American political life, with the relatively young and (we're told) brilliant campaigner coming to disregard his principles through a combination of ambition and betrayal. And whilst 'The West Wing' is, at its core, about a group of highly intelligent and well-meaning Democrats who always have each other's backs, 'The Ides of March' follows a group of highly intelligent and well-meaning Democrats who will sell out the few friends they have the moment their political careers are jeopardised.

The resolute heartlessness of Clooney's film will come as a surprise to many, with an overwhelming mood of hopelessness surrounding the fate of his characters and the suggestion that genuine friendship is impossible in high-end politics. Almost no one appears to have been satisfied ultimately, not Philip Seymour Hoffman's highly strung campaign manager, his underhanded political rival played by Paul Giamatti or Evan Rachel Wood's tragic and sexy young intern. In this world those with the least scruples are those who seem to get ahead - with Marisa Tomei's investigative journalist (portrayed as little more than a gossip merchant) and Jeffery Wright's ambitious, mercenary senator emerging from the thriller's twists and turns unscathed. That all the double-crossing schemers depicted are supporters of the same political party only heightens the sense of despair.

It's not as accomplished as 'Good Night, and Good Luck' or as inventive as 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind', but with snappy, quotable dialogue ("you can start a war, you can bankrupt a country, but you can't fuck the interns! They get you for that!"), good performances from the uniformly excellent cast and Clooney's assured, unfussy handling of the material, 'The Ides of March' is an entirely decent political thriller. Be warned though, it's not exactly a "feel-good" movie. After all, when one of Hollywood's most outspoken liberals loses all faith in politics, what hope is there for the rest of us?!

'The Ides of March' opens on Friday (28th October) in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

'The Adventures of Tintin' review:

In the popular imagination Steven Spielberg was once a name that stood for high-class family friendly adventure, with the Hollywood powerhouse having helped to redefine the modern spectacle-led blockbuster in the 1980s: directing the iconic likes of 'E.T.' and the 'Indiana Jones' trilogy, whilst producing 'The Goonies', 'Gremlins' and 'Back to the Future'. Yet in 1993 everything seemed to change for the filmmaker who suddenly "went serious". He'd always had a wider ranging filmography than he's given credit (including films as diverse as farcical comedy '1941', TV-made horror 'Duel', David Lean-style epic 'Empire of the Sun' and the romantic drama 'Always'), but snaring the Best Director statuette at the Academy Awards that year - for the black and white and grimly serious 'Schindler's List' - seems to have provoked an almost wholesale abandonment of the superior family fare that was his particular genius.

Aside from two poorly received sequels - 1997's 'Jurassic Park: The Lost World' and 2008's 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' - the years since his austere holocaust epic have yielded well-meaning slavery drama 'Amistad', sentimental WWII drama 'Saving Private Ryan', forgettable Israeli vengeance thriller 'Munich' and the melancholy, Kubrick-devised 'AI: Artificial Intelligence'. Even his returns to comparatively light material have been more adult-focussed than his reputation might once have suggested, with the Tom Hanks comedies 'Catch Me If You Can' and 'The Terminal' and Tom Cruise sci-fi movies 'Minority Report' and 'War of the Worlds'. Even his output as a producer has become more cynical and less winsomely old fashioned, as best displayed by the putrid, morally/creatively bankrupt 'Transformers' movies and the humourless, overblown 'Cowboys and Aliens'.

Yet even as he readies the "worthy" award bait 'War Horse' for release just in time for back-slapping season, this year Spielberg makes a welcome return to his old stomping ground: bidding to entertain children worldwide all over again with an animated adaptation of 'The Adventures of Tintin'. Whilst he's long held an interest in animation - producing the fondly remembered Don Bluth films of the 80s ('An American Tale' and 'The Land Before Time') and several terrific 90s TV series (including 'Tiny Toon Adventures' and 'Animaniacs') - this comic book adaptation marks his debut directorial effort in the medium (as well as in 3D), and has seen him work closely in collaboration with fellow live action specialist Peter Jackson - the planned director of the film's sequel, should it perform as expected at the box office this winter.

'Tintin' finds its director in playful mood, subtly referencing some of his earlier films with neat visual touches, and it's no surprise if the film feels as though it's channelling a younger Spielberg. After all, his adaptation of this material has had a long gestation period, beginning with the acquisition of the film rights as early as 1984 - a year after the death of the books' author Hergé, who named the American as the material's ideal director. Over the years it's been touted as a live action film (the original concept would have seen Jack Nicholson as alcoholic Scott Captain Haddock) before finally winding up a dazzling example of motion capture, courtesy of Jackson's New Zealand effects outfit WETA. Drawing material largely from the books 'The Crab With the Golden Claws', 'The Secret of the Unicorn', 'Red Rackham's Treasure' and - unexpectedly - 'The Castafiore Emerald', the adaptation sees intrepid reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his faithful dog Snowy trying to discover the significance of a small model ship stolen from by the mysterious aristocrat Sakharine (Daniel Craig).

Sakharine (a red herring non-villain in the original) is hoping to uncover some legendary pirate booty, whilst also settling a score with the oblivious, self-pitying drunkard Captain Haddock (mo-cap veteran Andy Serkis), whose ship he has stolen. This inter-generational feud plot-line is in an invention of British screenwriters Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright which serves to give a scrapbook array of original elements something of a dramatic through-line and a clear baddie. It's a change that will drive die-hard Tintin fans nuts, but it's a smart move from a narrative point of view. That the grudge match is resolved in a credibility stretching battle between two cargo cranes (staged as a colossal sword fight) is a pity, but the idea itself is compelling.

On the whole the changes are on a smaller scale and relate to the order of events rather than the spirit of Hergé's books. The characters are photo-realistic renderings in the artist's own distinctive style of caricature, which are stylised enough to avoid the ugly, unsettling "uncanny valley" effect felt strongly in the recent Robert Zemeckis animations (such as 'Beowulf') and characters, like the bumbling British detectives Thomson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), are portrayed faithfully. As the titular hero Bell acquits himself well, portraying him as a capable young adult where so many other adaptations over the years (notably the rubbish French-Canadian animated series) cast him as irritatingly boyish. Snowy is also deployed well - an effective aid to his master and an equally effective excuse for lengthy spoken exposition (in this respect Snowy is the original Chewbacca/R2-D2).

The stand-out bit of action is an extended flashback as Haddock enthusiastically relives an encounter between his 17th century ancestor Sir Francis Haddock and a pirate ship on the high seas. The jaw-dropping and inventive choreography of this sequence is much more high-octane than its source equivalent and - as some would have it - marks a departure from Hergé's more grounded and meticulously researched world. Though coming via Haddock's drunken storytelling and delivered with a great sense of fun, the filmmakers come away credibility intact.

Tintin is apparently virtually unknown in the US, so Spielberg might (with some justification) have sought to Americanise this very European series in the course of adapting it. However fans will be pleased to learn that the story begins in a timeless (non-specific early twentieth century) Europe, with Tommy guns and classic cars (Tintin doesn't have an iPhone 4) and exclusively features actors with quintessentially "old world" accents. The tone of this adventure varies between brightly coloured 'Indiana Jones' style Saturday matinee action, broad pratfalls and the oppressive mood of film noir, with this blend meshing comfortably. It's also the most gutsy children's film in a while and doesn't talk down to its young audience (note the irksome, charmless 'Happy Feet Two' was trailed beforehand as if to highlight the current low standard of kids movies). For instance, Tintin wields a gun - a surprise considering the director infamously replaced guns with walkie-talkies digitally in his "20th Anniversary Edition" of 'E.T.' - and Haddock slurps whiskey like there's no tomorrow.

It's fair to say that there are too many frantic chase sequences and the film feels a tad long, but overall Spielberg and Jackson's take on the material is respectful and makes for suitably exciting viewing. It is easily the most unashamedly fun Spielberg has been since 'Jurassic Park' almost two decades ago and, though I suspect it's going to prove an interesting sidestep rather than a sign of things to come, I'm very glad he's snuck in this elaborate caveat ahead of the inevitably yawnsome 'War Horse'. A film which may well win him another Oscar and confirm my suspicion that - in terms of award recognition - it's better to be a passable dramatist than a world class showman. How different things might have been if he'd received Academy recognition for 'E.T.' At least we have 'The Adventures of Tintin'.

'The Adventures of Tintin' is released in the UK from tomorrow (October 26th) and has been rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

Monday, 24 October 2011

'We Need to Talk About Kevin' review:

If we accept that it exists at all, is evil born or is it made? If a teenager commits mass murder, should we blame the parents or society or the media or some innate badness that lurks inside of the individual? Whilst not addressed explicitly, these questions are at the forefront of Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's long awaited third feature, 'We Need to Talk About Kevin': an adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel, starring the inimitable Tilda Swinton as Eva, whose sociopathic son Kevin (Ezra Miller) massacres students and teachers at his high school.

Told from the perspective of Eva, Ramsay's film is less concerned with the troubled Kevin and his motivations than it is with the effect the ordeal - and the boy's almost equally traumatic upbringing - has had on his mother. Routinely attacked and insulted on the street - with her house and car vandalised at the film's start - it's only a slight exaggeration to say that Eva's life is a living hell, not least because she lives with the knowledge of what her son has done and seems willing to accept society's judgement of her. Even as a toddler, Kevin prefers his more natural and easygoing father (John C. Reilly) to his reluctant mother, a best selling travel author who is suddenly housebound by an unwanted baby.

Ramsay tastefully avoids depicting the horrific event itself (or indeed many of the preceding horrific events), but even so she manages to make even the most banal instances (a drive through suburbia, a trip to the supermarket) intense and frightening throughout. This has a lot to do with punchy editing, jarring musical choices and a stand out performance from relative unknown Miller.

If Christopher Nolan ever wanted to bring back the Joker in his Batman films, Miller with his contemptuous eyes and debauched grin would be the perfect candidate to replace the late Heath Ledger. He still looks intelligent and sinister even when he is called upon to look void of emotion. For much of the film Kevin is something of an emotional black hole, showing neither joy nor sorrow and incapable of empathy or compassion. Near the end, whilst he awaits transfer to an adult prison, we witness his only show of emotion by virtue of the fear in his eyes. Until that point it's tempting to conclude he isn't human but some sort of demonic force - a divine punishment for Eva's seeming lack of a maternal instinct.

'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is a masterclass in terms of the creation of anxiety, but for me at least the question of what the film is really about remains. The product of a collaboration between three distinctive and highly celebrated female artists (Swinton, Ramsay and Shriver), I'd hesitate to say the film is about what can happen if a career woman forsakes a traditional motherly role - surely that's not the intention here? I'd certainly hope not. But if Eva is not being held responsible by the film, which draws frequent parallels between her behaviour and Kevin's, then are we left with this uncomfortable - and I think dishonest - idea of innate "evil"?

If looked at as an exploration of Kevin's motivations the film is weak and the conclusions trite: he plays violent video games and is inspired to violence by the lure of being on television. Instead it works best as a look at how society reacts to a mother in this situation - you need only look at how the media is especially vitriolic against female murderers as opposed to their male counterparts - and how she comes to see herself. The backflashes which scour Eva's past, from the opening (pre-Kevin) scene of blissful content at the Tomatina festival in Spain to the height of her disconnect with Kevin as a teenager, are perhaps examples of this mother's own futile search for answers.

'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is out now in the UK and it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Telegraph feature: The "top 10 Plague films"

To coincide with today's UK release of Steven Soderbergh's US box office hit 'Contagion' The Daily Telegraph got me to compile a "top 10" list of movies similarly themed around the idea of a deadly epidemic. The best thing about this assignment was the fact that it finally made me watch Alfonso Cuaron's 'Children of Men' which, it turns out, is really amazing.

Don't be fooled by the title though, more than half the films in this list are pretty awful. The "top ten" thing is just what the sub editor on the site has called it. (I've already had a friend call me out on making some shocking picks!)

You can check out this feature here!

I wrote a very similar piece about end of the world movies back when 'Melancholia' came out last month - which you can read here.

Oh, and if you've also been wallowing in an ignorant stupor for the last five years, I would urge you to watch 'Children of Men'.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Mark Kermode on latest Splendor Cinema podcast!

BBC Radio 5's Dr. Mark Kermode - the UK's most beloved film critic - dropped into the projection booth at the Duke of York's cinema earlier this week to make an appearance on the Splendor Cinema podcast.

We was in Brighton to promote his latest book - the in equal parts hilarious and infuriating The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex - and kindly chatted with Jon and I on the latest show which you can stream here or download from iTunes (which should have happened automatically if you subscribe to the show).

Monday, 17 October 2011

Blu reviews: variety is indeed the spice of life...

Pretty much every Monday I have Blu-ray reviews up at WhatCulture! and often a DVD review in the Saturday edition of the Telegraph newspaper - and I don't usually make a song and dance about it here, save for putting links up on the "Reviews" pages.

However, this week I was struck by how, being a "film critic", you can go within hours from writing a review of Season 3 of 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars' - a fantastically fun and very silly CGI animated series for Cartoon Network - to penning a much more dry and academic sounding appraisal of the works of Nagisa Oshima. Two of Oshima's films are released today: late 70s sex thrillers 'In the Realm of the Senses' and 'Empire of Passion'.

Somewhere between the two, I also wrote about the earnest 2009 Oscar nominee 'The Messenger', belatedly released in the UK today, and low-budget thriller 'Retreat', which was released in cinemas on three days ago.

I don't know what this variety of movies and critical styles says, but it seemed interesting to me anyway! I think it's the only way I can maintain doing this. If I had to write exclusively about high-handed arthouse fare or mindless blockbusters I'd probably pack it in.

Friday, 14 October 2011

'Retreat' interviews: Bell, Murphy, Newton & Tibbetts!

Just over a year ago I visited the set of thriller 'Retreat' in glorious North Wales. Over at What Culture are the interviews from that trip - embargoed until today - with Cillian Murphy, Jamie Bell, Thandie Newton and first-time writer-director Carl Tibbetts. I'll post a review of the film itself in the near future.

'Retreat' is on limited release today in UK cinemas and comes out on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday. It's been rated '15' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

'The Three Musketeers 3D' review:

Few will be surprised to learn that 'The Three Musketeers 3D', directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (the force behind the 'Resident Evil' movies and 'Alien vs. Predator'), is terrible. So terrible in fact that Orlando Bloom is by far the best thing in it, stealing the show as the villainous Duke of Buckingham. There are far too many set pieces in this artless affair, which are as uninvolving as they are silly, whilst almost no time is spent developing any of the (many) characters in a vaguely steampunk re-imagining of the Alexandre Dumas novel.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, we spend very little time in the company of titular trio Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans), with Anderson apparently not interested in them at all outside of the fights. Instead he forever cuts between the camp courtly antics of King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) struggling to woo his demure Queen (Juno Temple), interminable scenes of exposition between Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) and Milady (the director's wife, Milla Jovovich) and an excruciatingly wearisome romantic sub-plot that finds D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman) attempt to earn the affections of the world's most non-descript and joyless woman (Gabriella Wilde) whilst fostering a deep, juvenile resentment for Comte de Rochefort (Mads Mikkelsen) after an insult to his horse. Oh, and "funnyman" James Corden is in there too as comedy relief character Planchet, just to make things seventeen times less charming.

Introduced via freeze-frame in the style of early Guy Ritchie, the Musketeers come over as pathetic brawlers who murder lots of jobbing town guards for sport and without the slightest consequence, somehow earning the witless gratitude of their child king. Their personalities are boiled down to: the bitter one, the ladies man and the hungry one. The only thing they have going for them is that they aren't anywhere near grating as the film's cocky, American-accented version of D'Artagnan, who is reminiscent of Christian Slater as Will Scarlett in 1991's 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves'. The deliberateness of his colonial accent is made apparent by the fact that his father is also American, despite being played by the English Dexter Fletcher. I only mention this because it stands out in a movie where everyone else is resolutely old world, with the thinking probably being that US audiences won't care unless there is an American character to cheer for (an assumption I believe doesn't give American audiences enough credit or respect).

Some of Bloom's bitchy dialogue and Waltz's deliciously sarcastic delivery raises a smile, but not enough of one to make nearly two hours of anodyne action and sloppy storytelling an attractive prospect. To give Anderson some lukewarm credit, he showed with 'Resident Evil: Afterlife' that he is at least one of the few directors out there who is trying to give 3D a go (shooting on actual 3D cameras rather than relying on the dreaded post-conversion process and framing his shots with stereoscopy in mind) and he resumes that effort here, with 'Musketeers' a resolutely 3D affair from beginning to end. That said, for all his enthusiasm he doesn't bring much imagination to the process, having swords point "out of" the screen a lot and staging much of the action place down long corridors to give the audience an ostentatious and meaningless sense of depth.

'The Three Musketeers 3D' is up there with the very worst of cinema experiences, if only because it's flavourless, calculatedly inoffensive and instantly forgettable - likely the sort of thing I'll pick up a DVD box for in a few years time and wonder "have I seen this?". It's a total mess in terms of narrative, the good guys are blank non-entities and it has nothing whatsoever to offer in terms of spectacle. It also has one of the most optimistic and cumbersome sequel hooks since Roland Emmerich cut to a hatching egg at the end of his god-awful 'Godzilla' remake. It'll doubtlessly turn a tidy profit with its European funding, embarrassing CGI work and TV actor-lead cast implying it didn't cost that much to make, but I expect a lack of public enthusiasm will keep Buckingham's airship armada from ever reaching Calais.

'The Three Musketeers 3D' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is released in the UK from Wednesday 12th.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

'Tyrannosaur' review:

Olivia Colman is lovely isn't she? I don't know her personally, but what I mean is she seems lovely on the telly. Turning up in TV sitcoms, as Sophie in 'Peep Show' or the vicar's wife in 'Rev', I am never in any doubt that her characters are basically good and beyond harmless, probably in part thanks to her big, friendly eyes. She certainly isn't someone you want to see beaten, raped and literally pissed on by Eddie Marsan in a grim, socially real, British movie about social isolation and domestic violence. But here we are.

I'm fairly sure, unless you're some sort of psychopath, there aren't any people you wish to see in that situation, but for me that goes doubly for lovely, smiling Olivia Colman. Which is one of the many reasons Paddy Considine's debut film as a writer and director, 'Tyrannosaur', can be pretty hard to take. Terrifically acted and deeply moving, but a tough watch indeed.

In it Colman is Hannah, a devout Christian woman who leaves her middle class house every day to work in a drab charity shop on the rough side of town - probably just to get away from her vicious husband James, played by an especially scary Marsan. James is possessive and spiteful and some of the things he does to Hannah defy belief, existing outside the realms of even your cruelest imagination. The violence in 'Tyrannosaur' may be less explicit and frequent than scenes in the similarly grim 'Kill List' (also from Warp Films), or even the recent thriller 'Drive', but it's far more hard-hitting because it's based in a deeply upsetting reality. And it somehow keeps getting worse, with the level of abuse suffered by Hannah still being revealed right up to the very end.

It is working at the charity shop that Hannah meets Joseph played by Peter Mullan, who is the sort of unpredictable, violent and all too recognisable old drunk that spends his days drinking in the corner of his local boozer, babbling incomprehensibly to himself. He is the opposite of harmless and when we first see Joseph he is kicking his dog to death in the street. After a chance encounter he befriends Hannah and we get to glimpse the underlying tragedy of this disturbing individual you'd be wise to cross the street to avoid. Both characters - and even the sickening James to an extent - are depicted with considerable compassion and deeply affecting empathy, with neither straying into caricature.

Mullan is for all intents and purposes the star of the film, which mostly takes his point of view - and he is excellent in it, with the sometime director (of 'The Magdalene Sisters' and recently 'Neds') able to portray this dog-kicking racist as rounded and human without undergoing some unlikely third act u-turn. With that in mind it seems unfair to single out Colman in this review, but there is nothing to be done about that because, for me at least, she is the heart of the movie and the key ingredient. It is really something that she can play this doe-eyed Christian victim without making her infuriating or wet in the least, and the more we care about Hannah the more wretched much of what you see will likely make you feel.

On this first showing, it would seem Considine is a very comfortable director of actors and an intelligent writer of characters. If he has displayed any similarity with his friend and frequent collaborator Shane Meadows, then it is in the fact that he has used his debut feature to take the side of elements of society most would not willingly gravitate toward, and he has done so with confidence and a keen eye for social detail.

'Tyrannosaur' is rated '18' by the BBFC and is on general release in the UK.

Friday, 7 October 2011

'Midnight in Paris' released today!

For the best part of the last two decades almost every Woody Allen movie - with a few exceptions - has been hailed as a "return to form", so much that the claim rings a little hollow. However, 'Midnight in Paris' merits that claim. It's his freshest and funniest film in a long time, raising some genuine big laughs as opposed to knowing titters, and Paris is photographed as beautiful as you'd expect from the man who for long idealised New York for the popular imagination. It's been rewarded for its quality too, grossing over $100 million in the US - making it Allen's most commercially successful film since the 70s.

I reviewed it after seeing it upon its French release earlier this year (appropriately enough in a Pathé multiplex in Montmartre, Paris), but today sees it finally released in the UK. I urge even the most casual Woody Allen fans to go and see it.

The film has been rated '12A' by the BBFC and you can catch it at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse from next Friday.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

'Melancholia' review:

"Life is only on Earth and not for long" says Justine (Kirtsen Dunst) somewhere near the apocalyptic conclusion of Lars Von Trier's 'Melancholia'. Though much has been made of the film's superficial similarity to Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life' - which also premièred at Cannes earlier this year and to more unanimous acclaim - this pessimistic musing on life, the universe and everything is as close as the films come to sharing theme. Malick conveys a reverence for life, whilst the Dane sees the stars as no more magical than the act of going to the toilet. Both may feature awe-inspiring CGI renderings of immense planetary bodies, but Von Trier's film is not about the grand religious concerns that defined Malick's; the director has long spoken of his struggle with depression and this, like 2009's 'Antichrist', is the cinematic product of that suffering.

An arch-provocateur with a, shall we say, dark sense of humour, Von Trier's claim to mental illness has been reported sceptically, with critics wary not to end up the butt of some obtuse, private joke. However, as someone who has long struggled with depression, I found 'Melancholia' to be a deeply affecting and well observed portrait of the condition - and as such it must rank as the filmmaker's most sincere work to date. Whilst 'Antichrist' was arguably a nihilistic, despairing outburst, 'Melancholia' is not merely depressing but about the experience of depression. With it Von Trier not only captures the feeling of being depressed but, crucially, captures the responses of others to a mental disorder that, like many others, is still not easily understood.

It'll no doubt test the patience of those unfamiliar with depression or lacking in empathy for someone with the condition. As Justine, Dunst is selfish, sulky, irrational, irresponsible and unfaithful - and all within the course her opulent wedding reception which takes up the opening chapter. Many will find her behaviour too frustrating to bear, though it's peerlessly well observed. As are the various reactions to it.

As her free-spirited, partying father, John Hurt avoids potentially depressing conversations with his daughter so as not to spoil his own mood, running away from his daughter at every turn. As the mother, Charlotte Rampling seemingly has her own problems with the illness: she has embraced a sort of hyper-rationalism that has robbed everything of joy and meaning, which is similar to Justine's own (literally) world-weary position later in the film. As her sister Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg is condescending, unhelpfully terming Justine's lowest points as evidence of "causing a scene" and even expressing contempt for her. Meanwhile Claire's husband John, played by Kiefer Sutherland, thinks Justine is just a nuisance and potentially a destructive influence upon their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr).

Several characters seem to mistake Justine's mental state for an expression of want. Her well-meaning new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) buys her a plot of land where he claims the environment will make her happy. Claire and John believe the expensive wedding reception they have thrown her should raise more of a smile (John mentions more than once that his land hosts an 18 hole golf course). Her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) gifts her with a promotion during the occasion, but again this is not much of a boon. Here Von Trier's sharp sense of humour is in evidence as he satirises trite aspirations and our desperate attempts to give events meaning. Later Justine ridicules Claire's need for some sort of ceremony as the apocalypse nears, sarcastically suggesting they light candles and listen to classical music.

All of these interactions highlight popular, tragically Victorian misconceptions about mental illness: that it isn't illness at all but a failing of character or a sign of weakness. Justine's response is usually to find solitude, though she also takes comfort in the young Leo - presumably because he is not sitting in judgement of her. Justine's attempt at marriage doesn't survive the reception and, six months later, we find her no longer willing to fight this chronic sombreness and the film refocusses on Claire - now herself distraught by the threat posed by an oncoming planet.

It is not a spoiler to mention that the Earth is destroyed in 'Melancholia': it's an event that takes place (and quite majestically) at the very start of the film, with the human drama on the planet's surface played out as an extended flashback. The conceit here is that a hitherto unseen planet has come into view from its position behind our sun and is on a collision course with the Earth, though really this apocalypse forms part of an extended metaphor, emphasising the gloomy mental state of Justine and Claire. The planet serves as a great, oppressive weight pushing down on them throughout. The world outside Claire and John's impressive grounds is never seen and both attempts to leave (by horse and later by golf car) are halted by some unseen power, which I would suggest is representative of a depressive's tendency to sink into themselves and shun the outside world.

Von Trier has long been able to dazzle critics with his technique and 'Melancholia' is an immensely beautiful film, comprised of haunting and truly spectacular images from start to finish. Taken at face value the impending apocalypse plot is also dramatic and terrifying. But more significantly, what we have here is his most candid and revealing film. It's thought-provoking, personal, earnest and far less oblique than some of his previous work. It's a shame this movie has been overshadowed by those ill-advised and misjudged attempts at humour during that infamous press conference earlier this year that saw Cannes declare him "persona non grata". The Danish director occasionally seems to be his own worst enemy and 'Melancholia' leaves me in no doubt at all why that is. I haven't been able to get the film out of my head in the days since I saw it, making it easily the most powerful film of the year so far.

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