Tuesday, 31 January 2012

'The Descendants' review:

Seldom do movies live up to that most hackneyed of Hollywood promises: "you'll laugh... you'll cry". But this is one - a film that finds space for some brilliant comic performances and funny dialogue alongside scenes of some poignancy. Alexander Payne's 'The Descendants' is a film with nuance to match its boundless empathy. For instance the Hawaii-set drama begins with George Clooney's Matt King attempting to debunk myths about the Pacific island chain in a voiceover, denying its popular image as some kind of paradise untroubled by worldly concerns such as cancer and heartache. Yet in the same film Payne shows us crystal clear seas and idyllic green vistas, populated by smiling people wearing garish floral shirts, set to sunny local music.

The writer-director isn't interested in replacing one tired cliché with another. Instead he creates an honest and recognisable world characterised by darkness and light: of unbearable sadness and life-affirming tenderness in tandem, with neither ever maudlin or cloying in the least.

Though less acerbic than the director's previous films, 'The Descendants' still follows a suitably Payneian protagonist. His emotionally deficient men (from Matthew Brodrick's beleaguered high school teacher in 'Election' to the two lifelong losers of 'Sideways') always seem to be in the throes of mid-life crisis, and King is no different even if Clooney ensures he isn't so dishevelled (no matter how ill-fitting the flip flops). He may be a wealthy lawyer with a nice big house, yet his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma from which she will likely never awaken following a boating accident - leaving him to take sole care of two troubled daughters, Alex and Scottie (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), for the first time in nearly a decade.

Furthermore, King soon learns that Elizabeth was having a passionate affair and on the verge of suing him for divorce, a detail known by some of their closest friends - heightening his sense of betrayal and shame. He is also in the middle of brokering a huge land sale which will make his disparate extended family - distantly descended from Hawaiian royalty - insanely rich, but for which he is ultimately responsible. There is pressure from his cousins is to sell, turning acres of pristine wilderness into a another soulless luxury holiday resort, and equally pressure from citizens not to.

Hawaii is not an incidental, colourful backdrop to this story, but a principle catalyst for events. Its pastimes claim King's wife, its islands isolate him from family members and its very soil has the power to divide or unite his family. It's in relation to this real estate dilemma, which seems peripheral for much the film, that it (like Kaui Hart Hemmings' original novel) takes its title. It's not enough that everybody in the state seems personally invested in his decision - King is also haunted by history: by black and white reminders of those who came before, forging his connection to the land in the 1860s.

The film hinges on a fine performance from Clooney whose presence in every scene gives the film a degree of subjectivity. For instance, this explains why we don't see or hear much evidence of the supposed state-wide interest in whether or not King will sell his land - it's not really something he's engaging with given the circumstances, though we feel its effect as one of many pressures bearing down on him. Clooney plays King as a man whose mind is always somewhere else, his face often implying a man haunted by dark thoughts.

Several dozen times we hear King being assured by well meaning friends and strangers that "Elizabeth is a fighter and that she'll pull through" - the emptiness of the platitude is being satirised as we soon understand the reverse, and yet there is no bitterness here: what else can you say? A late scene featuring the always-excellent Judy Greer provides perhaps the best example of how compassionately the film looks at human frailty and how our best intentions can be outstripped by the impulses of the heart.

It's as much about quirks of fate as it is coming to terms with loss or taking responsibility. Why should Clooney have inherited all this land through no work of his own and why should he decide what happens to it? Why did Elizabeth decide to jet ski on that day rather than drive the boat as planned? Why should Alex have stumbled upon her mother's indiscretion by chance? When Clooney finally confronts his wife's lover he is told that the affair "just happened". "Nothing just happens" is King's response, giving rise to perhaps the film's definitive line: "Everything just happens."

'The Descendants' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

Monday, 30 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (6/30): 'Chinatown':

Furthering my quixotic "FilmQuest 2012" - a mission to fill the vast, unforgivable gaps in my knowledge of film - is Roman Polanski's 1974 neo-noir classic 'Chinatown'. When I selected my arbitrary roster of 30 films I made it a rule to name no more than one by any given director, meaning that 'Repulsion', 'Cul-de-sac' and 'Rosemary's Baby' will have to wait for a future list. It's fair to say Polanski encapsulates one of those embarrassing cinema blind spots that prompted the list in the first place.

'Chinatown' is the first "classic" Polanski film I've had the pleasure of seeing and now I can see why he's considered one of the great masters of cinema - something that was not apparent upon watching his forgettable 'Oliver Twist' or rote thriller 'The Ghost Writer' (though that film is similar to 'Chinatown' in so far as its an investigation told from a subjective viewpoint). It's one of those rare films that is universally acclaimed for more or less every aspect of its production - and deserves it. What can you say about a film like that? I'm afraid I'll be reduced to simply repeating the obvious.

Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay is intelligent and full of brilliant one-liners ("politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough"). I recently discussed the films of David Fincher with friends who defended the loathsomeness of 90s thriller 'Seven' as being a poem on the decline and immorality of the modern American city. 'Chinatown' is similarly cynical and critical: indeed its hero takes a similar arc to Brad Pitt's idealistic cop in that film, ultimately realising that his attempts to do something good are futile amongst the greed and corruption of 1930s Los Angeles. But the foregrounding of specific, historically-routed political critique stops 'Chinatown' from feeling like the nihilistic ambassador for hopelessness or a cheerleader for empty despair.

The actors are also on career-defining form. Jack Nicholson is at his inimitable best as private eye Jake Gittes (who surly ranks as one of the all-time greatest movie detectives), combining his explosive intensity - that ever-present feeling that he could do or say anything - with an understated, classic movie star elegance. The great director John Huston makes a lasting impression as wealthy patriarch Noah Cross, despite only appearing in two scenes (one of which is at the very end). His courtly and genteel portrayal ensures the character looms large over the whole film.

Faye Dunaway is also perfectly cast as the seemingly poised and in-control femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray, exhibiting an underlying damaged quality that prevents her ultimate reveal as the victim from being out of the blue without robbing it of its capacity to shock. Legendary screenwriter William Goldman has said that good movies feel both inevitable and surprising and 'Chinatown' certainly has this strange seemingly contradictory quality.

And then there's Polanski. The director ensures a dialogue heavy and complicated script holds together without an ounce of fat. He apparently eliminated a Gittes voiceover from the script and tightened up the famous ending: bringing everything to a head in one climactic confrontation instead of over several more complex scenes. He also placed the film's celebrated "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" at the very end. The line had apparently already existed elsewhere in the script but Towne could never quite make it fit - in the end its placement is perfect, capturing the tragic futility Gittes struggle in a single phrase.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

'J. Edgar' review:

Critics have broadly expressed two major gripes with Clint Eastwood's biopic of notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The first, and most significant, has been that it's a whitewash: shying away from his rumoured penchant for cross-dressing, coquettishly skirting around the issue of his apparent repressed homosexuality and backing away from any outright criticism of his controversial practices as head of his increasingly powerful state police force, abusing power to his own ambitious ends. In other words it's one of the 20th century's most powerful and influential men given 'The Iron Lady' treatment.

The second complaint has related to the film's heavy use of make-up and prosthetics to allow the eternally youthful Leonardo DiCaprio to play Hoover throughout his life - a decision which has been accused of burying an otherwise fine performance. On this point I agree at least partially. Armie Hammer (as lover and FBI deputy Clyde Tolson) and Naomi Watts (as life-long secretary Helen Gandy) join DiCaprio in donning the unsettling rubber masks and the effect ranges between eerily realistic to distractingly absurd. You get used to watching these plastic people after a while in their company, yet this isn't a process aided by Dustin Lance Black's time-hopping screenplay. Yet it still doesn't quite bury the performances, which are on the whole decent.

DiCaprio is blatantly Oscar-fishing at this point, moving between eye-catching portrayals of big historical figures (perfecting accents, mannerisms and peculiar ticks) and heroic leads in thinking man's genre movies, all under the direction of prestigious filmmakers. And whether he's cultivating dodgy facial hair - as in every film between 2006 and 2010 (such as 'The Departed', 'Shutter Island' and 'Inception') - or piling on the old man make-up (also see 'The Aviator'), there is no doubt he's obsessed with destroying memories of him as that baby-faced, pretty boy of 'Romeo + Juliet' and 'Titanic', or the child star of ''What's Eating Gilbert Grape'. Yet he is always convincing and creates fully-formed characters, with his Hoover no exception.

On the first point however, I would have to take issue. With little prior interest in the history of American federal law enforcement, I only know about Hoover what the film has told me. And though it uses the writing of a biography as a framing device to air Hoover's view on some of his more controversial actions (for instance his use of wire-tapping or mass deportation of suspected political radicals), giving an overall sympathetic depiction of his character, the film leaves little doubt that he was, at best, excessive and at, at worst, criminal: driven by dangerous obsessions and a hunger for personal fame. I also think much of the film's apparently skewed take on history (such as its demonising of the American left in the 1920s) can be seen as coming from Hoover's subjective viewpoint (a point ably made by Tolson near the film's climax, as he challenges Hoover's account of events).

As far as the cross-dressing goes there is only one brief visual reference to it, with no shots of DiCaprio in a dress, but there is nothing so ambiguous or cautious about the film's account of Hoover's relationship with Tolson, which is tender and, in its own way, tragic. True, we aren't shown them in the throes of passion, with Hoover played as a deeply repressed and almost A-sexual being - in thrall to his judgemental mother (Judi Dench) and unwavering commitment to "the bureau" - but there is great warmth between them that goes far beyond mere drinking companions.

It is implied strongly that Hoover employs Tolson because he fancies him. The two men are shown to go on holiday together and promise never to spend a lunch or dinner apart. We see them holding hands as Tolson tells Hoover that he loves him - and Hoover is shown to respond in kind (albeit in a whisper). In the same scene, Tolson gets incredibly upset upon learning of Hoover's consideration of a beard marriage - and, crucially, his sorrow is enough for the otherwise unshakable Hoover to abandon his plan. There is no way you could come away from this account of J. Edgar Hoover and not think that Eastwood and Black (who won an Academy Award for writing 'Milk') were of the firm opinion that he was homosexual.

'J. Edgar' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

'Polish Roulette' review:

Polish crime/comedy 'Sztos 2' - released in the UK as 'Polish Roulette' - is a sequel to the original 'Sztos' - its fifteen year old predecessor apparently being a well-loved modern classic in its homeland. Having never seen it I was at a loss for much of Olaf Lubaszenko's energetic and colourful follow-up. From what I could make out, it's about a pair of con men who try to get rich with a series of increasingly elaborate slight of hand schemes (none of which are roulette based, counterintuitively). Set in 1983, under communism, the duo travel around the country getting caught between the corrupt and incompetent government officials and their dissident opponents.

Lubaszenko's hyper-active style of direction ensured that whatever I was missing in the twisty, turny plot (which gets increasingly contrived and bizarre as the climax nears) I was far from bored. His camera is almost always moving: panning, tracking, zooming and swooping around the characters. Transitions between scenes have almost no consistency, with fades, wipes and even 80s music video style graphics (as when one scene parts like a pair of curtains to reveal the next). Some of the zaniest cuts between scenes involve huge CGI postcards coming towards the screen, before we zoom into a new location. It's certainly imaginative and oddly compelling, but very much a mess.

Just as odd is the music with the rule seemingly being that one of the film's half-dozen, disparate themes should come in (very loudly) to fill almost every silence. These musical motifs are short and oft-repeated (sometimes on a loop), with the effect that they quickly become unintentionally hilarious. The lighting is even more incongruous, varying wildly from shot to shot. Some scenes are bright blue and orange, others are red or green with purple skin tones. It's undoubtedly a stylistic choice but it's an odd one that reads as amateurish rather than inspired.

Get beyond a lot of these baffling stylistic choices and obvious technical shortcomings, and much of the comedy is dishearteningly similar to that of recent big English language releases. There's lots of silly drunken dancing (see 'The Inbetweeners Movie'), whilst one memorable sequence revolves around a man accidentally getting off with a transsexual, to the amusement of his peers (see 'The Hangover: Part II'). There's also some business with hash cookies, a visual pun that equates a tank turret with an erection and a scene in which a woman invents record scratching during a moment of intense libidinal bliss (in fairness, that bit's actually quite funny).

Some of the jokes that got the biggest rise out of the mainly Polish audience were somewhat lost in translation for the non-Poles, as you might expect with a comedy poking quite specific fun at the nation's recent history. For instance the biggest laugh was afforded a close-up of a sign in a restaurant, which apparently roughly translated as "People wearing coats will not be served".

Amid the larger-than-life buffoonery and nostalgic nods to fondly remembered restaurant signage, there are some clever bits of satire which take aim at the absurdities of a society disorganised with proud military precision. For instance an announcer at a regional train station repeats on a loop a reminder that the station's clocks do not show the correct time. An idiosyncrasy which aptly represents the spirit of Lubaszenko's charming oddity of a film.

'Polish Roulette' is out in the UK now (exclusive to Cineworld) and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Friday, 27 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (5/30): 'The Full Monty':

It's been just over a week since I started the emphatically named "FilmQuest 2012" column and I've already seen five of the thirty arbitrarily selected major movies that I had been so woefully ignorant of. This time around it's the turn of 1997's 'The Full Monty' - that small ($3.5 million budget) British comedy that ended up an international box office sensation (earning just under $258 million) and became a surprise rival to 'Titanic' at that year's Academy Awards (nominated for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay, winning one for Anne Dudley's score).

In Peter Cattaneo's film six Sheffield lads decide to become male strippers in a society where that seems to be the most dignified remaining option. The disintegration of the city's once-booming steel industry casts a shadow over all the characters, from the suicidal Lomper (Steve Huison) - who lives with his elderly mother - to the mill's former manager Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), whose wife has been in the dark about his joblessness for the last six months. Gerald has bought into the middle class dream and stands to lose his ski holidays, tanning bed and various object d'art. Meanwhile loveable hustler Gaz (Robert Carlyle), the brains behind the stripping scheme, is in equally desperate need of income: in danger of losing access to his son (William Snape) if he can't start making child support payments to his ex-wife.

It's amazing to think 'The Full Monty' is now fifteen years old - because it seems like the relic of a bygone age. One that pre-dates the current vicious level of class hate in this country. I can't imagine one of today's films positioning its heroes in a dole queue as this one does for the instantly iconic "Hot Stuff" scene, let alone with such resignation and little sense of either judgement or condescension. Simon Beaufoy's screenplay reminds us of a Britain hadn't yet been weaned off compassion for the unemployed by a decade of Jeremy Kyle and the like.

In fact way back in 1997 Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy (who plays Gaz's portly mate Dave) were not only shown on the dole, but they could even be seen to shoplift VHS tapes (I told you it was old) from ASDA without fear of losing audience sympathies. We route for them and are never encouraged to doubt their good intentions and kindly character, even as they're also shown to turn down several offers of employment considered demeaning.

Gaz rejects his ex-wife's attempts to get him doing unskilled labour for a (pre-minimum wage) sum of £2.50 an hour, whilst Dave is mocked for taking up work as a security guard at the aforementioned supermarket: a job he eventually runs away from, shoplifting as he does so, with the moment depicted as liberating rather than debauched. And yet the film somehow never implies that they aren't serious about looking for work. More than anything all of the characters long for their old jobs back. So much so that a good portion of 'The Full Monty' sees its characters hanging out in the abandoned steel mill, with seemingly nowhere else to go. They are a displaced class of men who no longer feel of use or relevance.

Particularly effective (probably the best scene in whole movie) is the look on Gaz's face when he realises he's potentially sabotaged Gerald's efforts at securing a new job. Tom Wilkinson's public breakdown is one of many tender moments that prevents the film from taking unemployment and its pitfalls too lightly. It's overwhelmingly sensitive and kindly disposed towards its characters. A fact which ensures this comedy is never less than watchable even if (to me at least) the jokes aren't very funny.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (4/30): 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest':


The fourth in my series of retrospective reviews bearing the oft-derided (if only by me) name "FilmQuest 2012", this time I'm looking at 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest': the Michael Douglas produced, Milos Forman directed, Jack Nicholson starring 1975 drama set within a mental institution. Funny, sad, disturbing and life-affirming in equal measure, 'One Flew' is one of those rare Best Picture Oscar winners that people seem to unanimously agree is genuinely very good. I guess it would have to be: the other nominees that year were 'Barry Lyndon', 'Nashville', 'Dog Day Afternoon' and 'Jaws' (has there been a better year than that in terms of Oscar?).

Douglas, Forman and Nicholson all won golden statuettes in their respective categories (picture, director, actor), as well as the screenwriters (Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman) and actress Louise Fletcher, for her legendary portrayal of the uncompromising Nurse Ratched. Yet what really caught my eye, as I sat down to watch the film for the first time, was the revelatory performance of one of its few Oscar losers: Brad Dourif as the stuttering, suicidal Billy Bibbet. Dourif's bright-eyed intensity and haunting vulnerability make the ending all the more tragic. If we hadn't just witnessed Dourif's dramatic fall from newly confident euphoria to pathetic, weepy pleading, Nicholson's subsequent attempt to murder Ratched would play as far less sympathetic. As it is, you are - for those few seconds at least - right there with him.

Dourif's impact on the whole film is made even more extraordinary by the fact that, aside from Nicholson and, at a push, Will Sampson (as the Chief), most of the inmates/patients don't have a great deal of individual screentime - restricted to the occasional (often wordless) close-up. But we feel like we've spent more time with them than we have in reality, no doubt thanks to the uniqueness of the actor inhabiting each small role. Alongside Dourif are the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Vincent Schiavelli, Sydney Lassick, William Duell and William Redfield: all of whom look and sound distinctive enough as to form an immediate, unshakable impression.

Despite the ultimate, spirit-crushing lobotomy visited upon Nicholson's Randle McMurphy following his strangling of the nurse, one of the really exceptional elements of 'One Flew' is that the institution is not portrayed as malicious for its own sake. Ratched is stern and rigorously enforces her regime - to the detriment of the patients - yet, until the heartless humiliation of Bibbet, her good intentions are never really in question. You get the sense she genuinely believes her methods are the best way bring stability or order to disordered lives. Here (in a refreshing break from the norm) the system, though it medicates patients into docility and uses electro-shock therapy as a punishment, is not depicted as deliberately cruel.

Perhaps (the forced lobotomy of McMurphy aside) Ratched's greatest act of cruelty is subtle and indirect. Though most of her patients are in the hospital voluntarily - and therefore permitted to leave at any time - none of them express even the faintest desire to do so, thanks to her control over them and the relative security it brings. Through her regime Ratched merely seeks to pacify her wards, with little thought of preparing them to reintegrate with society. This horrifies McMurphy who thinks only of freedom. Though clearly a loose cannon, he's not himself mentally ill: he's a criminal who's had himself committed in order to avoid manual labour and serve the rest of his sentence in relative comfort.

This allows him to witness, and experience, the pitfalls of institutionalisation. It is ambiguous whether he fails to escape the night of the illicit party (falling asleep) or simply decides not to - preferring to stay within this new community in which he has become an important member. Either way McMurphy becomes the unwilling victim of a system that seems designed to make people easier to handle, rather than working to enrich their lives. In this respect the hospital is not too dissimilar from the prison Nicholson's character has left behind.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Stray Thoughts: 84th Academy Award Nominations

Don't usually update twice in the same day if I can help it, but the Oscar nominations have come through and I'd like to chat about them a bit. The list of nominees is up everywhere, as are break-downs of who the favourites are and which films have the most nominations, so I'm just going to offer some stray thoughts, in no particular order:
  • First up, Stephen Daldry's Tom Hanks starring 9/11 film 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' (which I admittedly haven't yet seen) is perhaps the worst reviewed Best Picture nominee of all-time. Currently it has a 46 on Metacritic and 48 on Rotten Tomatoes. I'm not suggesting review aggregating sites are an infallible guide to the arts, but these are despairingly low numbers for a major, prestige picture.
  • 'Bridesmaids' hasn't been nominated for Best Picture despite being overwhelmingly well reviewed and figuring on many major critic's "best of 2011" lists. It's difficult not read this as further proof that Oscar doesn't like comedy. Considering there are 9 Best Picture nominees (including 'Extremely Loud'), this seems like a bit of a joke. By my calculations (and ignoring comedy-dramas like 'Juno' and 'Shakespeare in Love') the last out-and-out comedy to get nominated was 'Tootsie' in 1982.
  • It's great to see Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Terence Malick competing for Best Director.
  • It's equally great to see 'The Tree of Life' featuring in the Best Picture field, considering it's been overlooked by the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. I'm not the film's biggest fan - I appreciate it more than I like it - but in recent years the big award ceremonies have mostly picked the same nominees and picked the same winners. Oscar gets some serious credibility points here.
  • It's really great to see 'Hugo' garnering the most nominations (11), though I suspect it'll be one of those unlucky movies that's nominated in every category and wins nothing. For those keeping score, 'The Artist' (the overwhelming favourite at this stage) is just behind with 10 nods.
  • The excellent Rooney Mara being nominated for Best Actress is a nice touch, though Meryl Streep is sure to pip her to the prize for her showy, award-bait impersonation of Margaret Thatcher.
  • Despite my earlier bemoaning the lack of attention given to 'Bridesmaids', I find it really odd that Melissa McCarthy has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. A lot of people felt she stole the show but I personally found her to be the weak link. Rose Byrne or Chris O'Dowd would have been better acting choices for that one, methinks.
  • I thought 'My Week With Marilyn' was awful - without redeeming quality. So, though I really like Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh, I think it's a bit of a joke that they're nominated here - particularly Branagh's scenery chewing turn as Olivier.
  • Really pleased to see recognition for Christopher Plummer and 'Beginners'. I think he'll win Best Supporting Actor. It's an interesting field though, Branagh aside, with left-field nominations for Nick Nolte in 'Warrior' and newly svelte funnyman John Hill in 'Moneyball'.
  • 'Albert Nobbs' currently has no UK release date, at least according to the usually reliable FilmDates.com. Hopefully its two acting nominations - for Glenn Close and Janet McTeer - will change that? I really hate missing Oscar nominated movies.
  • Glad that 'A Separation' is nominated for Best Foreign Film - the only category it could realistically have been recognised in. Just noticed it also got a nod for Best Original Screenplay, which is a major boon. Nice work.
  • An odd thing I've just noticed looking at the official Academy Awards site: although Best Picture awards are given to producers, Best Animated Feature Oscars are awarded to directors. Why is that exactly?
  • Wasn't 'The Ides of March' supposed to be a big Oscar movie? Only one nomination (for Best Adapted Screenplay). That's two less than 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'.
  • I predict the main winners will be: The Artist (Best Picture), Alexander Payne (Best Director, for 'The Descendants'), Brad Pitt (Best Actor, for 'Moneyball'), Streep (Best Streep in a Leading Streep), Plummer (as mentioned above) and Jessica Chastain (ostensibly for 'The Help', but picking up votes for an impressive year's worth of performances, including 'The Tree of Life').
  • Finally, I'd like to see the following winners: 'Hugo' (Best Picture), Woody Allen (Best Director, for 'Midnight in Paris'), Gary Oldman (Best Actor, for 'Tinker Tailor Solider Spy'), Rooney Mara (Best Actress, for 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'), Plummer (as above) and Jessica Chastain (ostensibly for 'The Help', but really for 'Take Shelter').
If you want to read the full list, check it out at The Guardian.

FilmQuest 2012 (3/30): 'Vertigo':

We're already at the third entry of my cringe-inducingly monikered "FilmQuest 2012" column, as I right the wrongs of my cinema viewing past by watching 30 big/popular/seminal/oft-quoted gaps in my knowledge-bank. This time it's Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 thriller 'Vertigo' - regularly cited as its director's finest masterpiece. A lofty accolade indeed. Though widely seen as a disappointment at the time of release, its critical stock has steadily risen in the years since, to the point where it's now regularly near the summit of most respectable "best film of all-time" polls.

This rise is evident in the vaunted decadely poll of critics undertaken by Sight and Sound magazine, where 'Vertigo' rated 4th in 1992 and 2nd in 2002. It remains to be seen whether it goes one better, reaching the apex of this year's list, finally toppling regular winner 'Citizen Kane'. In any case its critical stock shows no sign of falling.


It's not difficult to see why this is, with a dazzling use of colour, some distinctive (still imitated) optical effects and Bernard Herrmann's deceptively simple score (recently the subject of a bitter feud after its use in silent hit 'The Artist'). Particularly outstanding is the film's second half in which James Stewart's acrophobia suffering retired cop John Ferguson totally loses his mind, becoming obsessed with a woman who looks identical to his (apparently dead) lover. Kim Novak plays both the Grace Kelly like Madeleine and her more earthy doppelgänger Judy: two women who turn out to be the same person in one of the film's numerous shocking twists.

For the more sedate first half it seems to be a kind of ghost story, as Ferguson is hired by a wealthy, old school pal (Tom Helmore) to spy on Madeleine, the wife he claims has been possessed by the spirit of a long-dead ancestor. It carries on in this vein for an hour of steadily building detective work, as John stalks Madeleine - providing a stunning tour of 1950s San Francisco along the way. By the end of the first half you just about believe the husband's far-fetched account offers the only viable explanation for his wife's behaviour. Then, in an admittedly clumsy confessional letter writing sequence, Judy confides to the viewer that she was posing as Madeleine the whole time, in order to allow the husband to carry out her murder without suspicion (it seems to all the world as if she has obviously committed suicide as a result of mental illness).

One of the rare voices of dissent against the film from the critical community has come from Tom Shone, who wrote: "Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it's all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure." (Thanks Wikipedia!). He has a point, in that "the plumbing" is indeed on-show for much of it, with a lot of the twists explained rather more than might usually be appreciated. Yet 'Vertigo' still deserves to ride this wave of ecstatic appreciation, namely for its tight command of theme: for instance that of duality and the tragic danger of obsession.

Not only is Judy masquerading as Madeleine, but John spends the majority of the third act being referred to by his nickname "Scotty", as if he too is now inhabiting another's skin. Visually Hitchcock suggests this with a number of mirror shots, as well as the recurring image of a painted portrait. And whilst the ghost possession story is revealed to be literally untrue, John does end up possessing Judy, and Madeleine - through his obsession with her - ends up possessing John. Meanwhile, John's dowdy (classic Hollywood dowdy, not real life dowdy) life-long friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) is almost equally obsessive over him, driving her to similarly deranged ends at one point; through painting she tries to become Madeleine in order to possess John. I think even Judy's complicity in the murder of the real Madeleine is driven by an obsessive love of the husband.

For entertainment value I'd be more likely to return to Hitchcock's next film, 'North by Northwest', or his earlier 'Stranger on a Train': both feel more tightly wound (even if the former is actually longer) and ultimately make for more satisfying viewing. I also think the ending is a bit of a cop-out, with Judy plunging to her death from a tower (the same one used to stage Madeleine's suicide) after being startled by a nun walking in on her confrontation with "Scotty" John. The half hour leading up to that moment suggested Judy would have to die as a direct result of John's obsession, perhaps pushed from the tower by him - though I guess that's not something audiences would want to see Jimmy Stewart do to a dame.

Monday, 23 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (2/30): 'Dances With Wolves':

The second film up on the excitedly named FilmQuest 2012 is Kevin Costner's six-Oscar-snaring 1990 Western 'Dances With Wolves'. When setting out my (arbitrary, hastily curated) list of never-before-seen films, I always knew 'Dances' had to be on there. It was a considerable blind-spot, not only because of its huge awards success and immense popularity. It is after all the film critics accuse James Cameron of ripping off wholesale for his world-conquering 'Avatar'. But, more interestingly, this was the movie that gave Costner permission to do whatever he wanted over the following Hollywood decade - facilitating two of the most notorious and oft-derided flops of all-time: 'Waterworld' and 'The Postman'.

The thing I love about Costner - and I do mean love - is that he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. Yes, his films all carry extremely earnest sentiment, none more so than 'Dances': an unwavering elegy to the death of frontier life and Native American culture. But he doesn't take himself seriously in the way we usually associate with stars like (as one obvious example) Tom Cruise. In 'Waterworld' he plays what critic Nathan Rabin memorably describes as a "pee-drinking man-fish". Literally a man with gills who drinks his own urine. In 'The Postman' he begins the film as a bit of a cad and spends most of it trying to run away from responsibility. In that film the "refusal of the call" lasts about two hours. He begins 'The Postman' performing Shakespeare opposite a mule.*

In 'Dances' he's no different. Lt. John Dunbar is a soldier so indept he knocks himself out at one point, bumping his head on a door frame in the dark whilst some kids steal his horse. In another baffling scene, he tries to introduce himself to future wife Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell - the annoying President from the modern 'Battlestar Galactica') only for an American flag to blow in his face. He isn't one of these guys who has to be THE BEST marksman or THE BEST at riding a horse when in front of a movie camera. Even if he invariably ends up some near messianic figure by the end of his movies, he spends a lot of screentime as an unassuming and humble guy who tries his best to avoid violence and get along with folks.

It's difficult not to be impressed by the film's scope, especially in the big hunting sequence which sees hundreds of buffalo (brought in from across the US to re-create the Great Plains as was) running over vast, open landscapes, whilst men on horses ride dangerously close. It's also hard to fault its epic sense of patience. There is no (or at least very little) meaningful conflict for the first 2 1/2 hours of this 3 hour film. Instead, through scenes of gentle, piecemeal interaction with the Sioux nation, Costner's character spends his time learning and watching prior to his eventual assimilation into the group. His sensitive narration is relentlessly good-natured, with an infectious "can-do" attitude. Naive, perhaps, but disarmingly so.

There are some glaring problems with 'Dances'. For instance, why does it take this white man - a stranger to these lands - to find the buffalo for the Sioux? They've been looking for them for a while and their absence is a great source of concern - so why are they so incapable of tracking them? They don't even seem to be looking all that hard. There is a paternalistic aspect to the film which sits uncomfortably with me and it's generally a little patronising when "other" cultures are depicted as being so unambiguously wonderful. No community or society will be without its own social problems and inequalities.

Yet as two Native American tribes clash at the film's midway point, Costner opines that this is a noble kind of war: not governed by a "dark motive", but fought for control of resources (access to the food supply). Isn't that the case with every war? Isn't the war in Iraq about resources? And when he says taking part in this conflict has taught him who he is for the first time, isn't he romanticising an act of war? And shouldn't that be bad whatever adornments the two sides are wearing? With this considered 'Dances With Wolves' regrettably stoops to presenting an all too colonial view of the Indian as noble savage.

It's peddling the same sort of shallow, consumer-friendly brand of spiritual tourism that sees wealthy, white twenty-somethings visit the world's shanty towns and slums, wearing sarongs and waxing lyrical about how "real" all the people are down there - so free are they from our "westernised consumer bullshit" (along with plumbing, education, healthcare etc etc). Yay for them! No doubt Costner's on-screen epiphany didn't prevent him from going back to his mansion and having a nice hot bath. I very much doubt he now lives off the land, using every part of every animal he slays, gleefully drinking the blood from each still-beating cattle heart as a symbol of his one-ness with the universe and instinct-based macho pride. But I digress.

Overall I liked 'Dances With Wolves'. It's overlong without a doubt, whilst John Barry's repetitive and obvious score grates, but its heart seems to be in the right place even if it's history and morality are patronising. Costner is an interesting and righteous kind of American hero and his choices are sometimes laughed at with little consideration of their bravery. A common thread through all of his movies is that he plays true believers: men with hope in a hopeless world, who invariably come to carry the hope of others on their shoulders. Had I seen 'Dances' earlier it might have irritated me. But seeing it in an age of unprecedented cynicism verging on nihilism, it's refreshing to see Costner's irony-free brand of filmmaking with a conscience.

*Another odd parallel between 'The Postman' and 'Dances With Wolves' that I couldn't fit above: Costner seems to have a thing about widows. In both movies he beds a woman in mourning. God knows why, but there it is.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

'Black Pond' review:

An eye-catching debut from co-directors Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, 'Black Pond' tells the story of a middle class family who are accused of murder after a disheveled stranger comes to dinner and asks them to bury him in the woods. We don't see very much of this event enacted, with most of the drama being split between time before and after Blake (Colin Hurley) dies. Mockumentary style interviews with members of the Thompson family talk us through the aftermath, whilst more straight forward drama sees us through the days prior. There is also an imaginatively shot dream sequence, some primitive but effective animation and a sub-plot involving a friend of the family, Tim (played by Sharpe), undergoing very odd psychological analysis under the care of comedian Simon Amstell.

If this sounds like a bit of an uneven mish-mash of styles, it's because it is - though never less than entertaining and interesting. These different strands don't gel smoothly and the tone is inconsistent, though each isolated sequence is shot with an ambition that belies the film's patently low budget. What binds it together is the entirely consistent and rigorously explored theme, with all the stories - of the Thompson family, Tim and Blake - about the tragic impermanence of life and love. A theme which is developed with subtle humour, brilliantly observed depictions of human behaviour (in particular, middle class family dysfunction) and in a way which is genuinely heartfelt.

Among a uniformly impressive cast, former 'The Thick of It' star Chris Langham, unseen on our screens for several years due to a damaging and widely reported court case, is especially stunning as the father. It's great to have him back. As with his under-siege government minister on that TV political satire, he plays a good-natured blunderer - a sweet man whose shortcomings (in this case his inability to express love to anyone other than the family dog) play as tragic. You get the sense he is always trying his best and repressing any negative feeling at his own expense. Both characters struggle vainly to maintain a sense of order and propriety. Both characters are also very funny, with Langham a master of comic timing who can be relied upon to make the smallest moments count.

Yet the film's emotional centre is arguably represented by Colin Hurley, whose shambling, detached, emotionally distant character is portrayed with the utmost sensitivity. He's slightly weird without ever being dangerous, with Hurley never overplaying the crazy or maudlin aspects of Blake. It's a rounded, sincere and gimmick-free performance worthy of accolades.

Like Ben Wheatley's unsung gem 'Down Terrace', 'Black Pond' suggests the emergence of some exciting talents whose next moves will surely be watched with increased interest.

'Black Pond' is rated '15' by the BBFC. Though given a limited release in November, it's still playing one-off shows around the country.

Friday, 20 January 2012

David Fincher Pantheon: Splendor Cinema Podcast #85

Tomorrow Jon and I are recording our 85th Splendor Cinema Podcast, adding another director to our rapidly expanding "Pantheon" (previous entrants include Kubrick, Kurosawa and Capra). This time it's David Fincher's turn - so we'll be going through his (relatively small) filmography, rating our favourites. Jon wrote a short summary of Fincher's career and style on his blog and I promised to do the same. So here we are.

With the exception of 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (which I saw in 2008 and am in no hurry to see again), I've seen all of Fincher's movies, from 'Alien 3' to 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', quite recently - many of them for the first time. The first thing I would say about him is that he's not what you might classically call an auteur (if such a thing even exists). He seems to me like a hired gun with a highly developed sense of style - a point seemingly reinforced by the nature of his next project: a big Jules Verne adaptation for Disney.

At one point in his career you might have been able to pinpoint a particular genre that he specialised in (the thriller), but some of his best films don't fit that mould comfortably even if they generate the same tense atmosphere - as is the case with 'The Social Network' and 'Fight Club'. In fact most of his recent choices - excluding the down and dirty 'Dragon Tattoo' - have tended more towards dramatic Oscar-candy, albeit with moodier-than-usual lighting.

Not that I'm complaining about his newer stuff. Personally, I like a degree of light and shade in my movies, so I find some of Fincher's most acclaimed early work near unwatchable (or at least unenjoyable): unremittingly grim, hyper-cynical and mean-spirited. In particular I'm referring to 'Seven', which is at times not even two steps removed from torture porn. The twist is predictable, the characters are no more than recognisable archetypes and the views they express (which are ultimately vindicated by the ending) range from nihilistic to downright anti-social.

Its champions will say it's "dark" - an overused catch-all term that usually assumes instant cachet to anything heartless (or anti-sentimental). But when everything and everybody in a movie is horrible, forgive me for not wanting to spend any time there. Even his take on the determinedly nasty 'Dragon Tattoo' has more heart than 'Seven'. I much prefer his two subsequent thrillers: 'The Game' (great, if implausible, premise and a sense of humour) and 'Panic Room' (great and slightly more plausible premise which uses limited space ingeniously).

But for me his greatest film to date is 'The Social Network': because it sees him marry his grungy vision of the universe and undoubted technical brilliance to what might otherwise have been a filmed stageplay. He elevates already great material, with Aaron Sorkin's Facebook entrepreneur story not naturally cinematic - clever as it is. By combining Sorkin's talky, smartest-guy-in-the-room internet nerds with the atmosphere and look of 'Zodiac', you get a really brilliant, intelligent, gripping movie. A fact not lost on the makers of 'Moneyball', who repeated the same trick last year.

Though even 'The Social Network' is not without Fincher's worst excesses. The slow-motion boat race in the middle may be an example of bravura technique, but it feels out of place and showy in the middle of that movie. This same over the top streak can be glimpsed in all of Fincher's films (perhaps with the exception of the unfairly maligned 'Alien 3'). For instance that pointless zoom inside the keyhole during the break-in sequence of 'Panic Room'. There are a million and one similar moments in 'Fight Club'.

Perhaps the one film where all these visual ticks and grand camera movements work completely is 'Zodiac', which uses lots of CGI (like pretty much all his movies) to allow for extremely elegant, long, otherwise impossible (or at least impractical) tracking shots. The best example of this dramatically tracks a single taxi cab across San Francisco zooming closer gradually from an aerial view until we're inside the car.

To hear Jon violently disagreeing with me about 'Seven' and for a little more depth on some of the films I've skimmed over here (like 'Fight Club'), download episode 85 of the podcast when it becomes available early next week.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (1/30): 'Do The Right Thing':

The first entry in my (generically named) "Film Quest 2012" column is Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' - one of those big, famous movies I've wanted to see for ages but just never caught up with. I came to it with sky-high expectations (having heard it classified a seminal movie) and it comfortably beat them. It's hilariously funny and, at once, genuinely thought-provoking.

With 'Do the Right Thing', Spike Lee made one of the most intelligent and rounded films about simmering racial tensions in the United States. Looking beyond the problem as black versus white, Lee highlights a complex myriad of tensions that also involve Italians, Latinos, Jews and Koreans. It's a fractured, racially segregated community but, interestingly, it is a community. This isn't African American life as commonly depicted - with gangs, drugs and guns - but an affable collection of oddball characters (in the best sense) without malice.

As if carefully weighted social critique weren't enough, it's also full of inspired dialogue, full of memorable one-liners ("I want some brothers on the wall"), and shot in a distinctive, eye-catching way (lots of bright, primary colours). It's artful and very composed, without seeming too contrived or stilted. A contemporary tale about life on a predominantly black street in the late-80s, mercifully free of "urban" clichés and depicting a wide range of black characters far more subtle than the caricatures and paper-thin archetypes that remain prevalent to this day.

What's really interesting about 'Do the Right Thing' is that Lee seems himself torn between the militancy of Malcolm X (Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" is prevalent on the soundtrack) and the tolerance of Dr. King - even ending the film with two powerful, contradictory quotes from the two civil rights leaders. Likewise it's a film comprised mostly of patient discussion (notably involving John Turturro's bigoted and self-contradictory Pino) and high-spirited discussions about ethics - but which culminates in violence, death and destruction.

But you've got to feel for Spike Lee. In their infinite wisdom, Academy Awards voters saw fit to award Best Picture to 'Driving Miss Daisy' in 1990. That less confrontational/critical film, about a kindly old white lady teaching her kindly black chauffeur how to read, garnered four awards from nine nominations. Lee's masterpiece drew no awards from two nominations. None of the terrific black ensemble cast was nominated either, despite brilliant performances from Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito and Lee himself.

One down, twenty-nine to go.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

'Haywire' review:

With the most perfunctory of plots and a pleasingly slender running time, Steven Soderbergh's action-thriller 'Haywire' feels like little more than a slight, if effective, vehicle for its authentic female action star. Gina Carano - a former champion mixed martial artist in her first major film role - gets to beat up a lot of people and looks great doing so, wiping the floor with the likes of Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum in a series of brutal, brilliantly choreographed punch-ups.

She plays Mallory, a contract killer working for a private firm (headed up by Ewen McGregor) who handles contracts for a secretive US government agency (headed up by Michael Douglas). Bill Paxton plays her father - a writer of trashy thriller novels, Antonio Banderas is a shady, Spanish antagonist and Michael Angarano is some average guy she steals a car from/speaks exposition at during a terrific driving sequence which ends unexpectedly.

After a routine assignment, Mallory finds herself framed by the agency without much of an idea why. Like Jason Bourne before her, she spends the film travelling around world cities (Barcelona, Dublin, San Diego) in an attempt to uncover the conspiracy and get revenge on those who betrayed her. Unlike the Bourne films there isn't a lot of character work going on here, with a half-dozen stars given very little screentime, but the action scenes are so far ahead of the curve (and the film so brief) that it would seem a little churlish to complain.

In what seems like a direct challenge to the modern action movie, Soderbergh shoots his hyper-realistic fight scenes with an unfashionably immobile camera - give or take a few lengthy tracking shots. He allows action to unfold within the frame for long spells, giving us an unobstructed view. This decision is no doubt influenced by the fact that he's not having to play tricks in the edit to convince us that Carano can kick ass: she really can and we're allowed to see that.

The choice of a non-actor in the lead is reminiscent of the decision to cast top porn star Sasha Grey as the lead in 'The Girlfriend Experience' - Soderbergh's film about a highly paid sex industry worker. Both represent a bold gambit, especially seeing as how the rest of the cast (along with that of last year's ensemble hit 'Contagion', not to mention the 'Ocean's Eleven' series) confirm Soderbergh's ability to draw from Hollywood's A-list - but in this instance it's vindicated without a doubt.

As well as the fighting, the use of various inner-city locations is also eye-catching. They are all shot in a recognisable and spatially consistent way which feels bracingly ordinary. For instance Mallory escapes pursuers by running through the back of a Burger King, emerging in front of an HMV, during her jaunt through Dublin town centre, ultimately escaping by taxi. Soderbergh creates a very realistic world - one in which Mallory picks up bruises in fights and is winded after falling on her back. This only heightens the excitement and (illusion of) authenticity throughout.

'Haywire' is rated '15' and out now in the UK.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012

I'm not generally one for New Year's resolutions: those (often diet-based) promises people typically make to themselves on January 1st and have given up by Mid-February. But it just occurred to me that it could be fun and worthwhile to set myself a target in terms of film viewing this year.

As someone who aspires to write about film full-time, I'm regularly embarrassed when somebody name checks a "classic" movie and I have to confess that I've never seen it. In the past I've even nodded and smiled when such a reference is made, pretending to get it. Sometimes I get away with it: "It's like that bit in 'Top Gun!" say they. "Ha ha ha! Yeah!" say I (I haven't seen 'Top Gun').

In order to address this social problem/cinema blind spot I've compiled a list (in no particular order) of 30 films I feel - for whatever reason - I should have seen by now. It'll be my solemn goal over 2012 to watch all these films (again, in no particular order). Many of these have come up in conversation with friends as described above.

In the interests of interest, I'm going to keep it relatively mainstream. Lord knows there's a lot of great "world cinema" I'm yet to see - and I'm working on that too.

Behold some awesome gaps in my knowledge. My completely arbitrary list is as follows:

Top Gun
The Full Monty
Blow Up
Do the Right Thing
The Exorcist
Blue Velvet
Rebel Without a Cause
The Sound of Music
West Side Story
When Harry Met Sally...
The Rock
Con Air
Lethal Weapon
Beverly Hills Cop
Mary Poppins
Dirty Dancing
The Passion of the Christ
Dirty Harry
Dances With Wolves
An Officer and a Gentleman
Rain Man
Saturday Night Fever
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

My aim is to watch all of these over the year and, when I do, I'll cross them off the list and write a short review. I'm terrible at naming things so I've gone with the generic sounding moniker "FilmQuest 2012".

There are, of course, many more famous and iconic films I've never seen. If this goes to plan I might do 30 more in 2013.

Monday, 16 January 2012

'Dreams of a Life' review:

In 2003 a 38 year old woman named Joyce Vincent died watching television in her small London flat, situated above a shopping centre in Wood Green. She wasn't discovered for nearly three years - and then only by people seeking her eviction from the premises for failing to make rent payments. When they found her the TV was still on, playing to Vincent's skeletal remains, which were surrounded by unopened Christmas presents. Immediately questions were raised.

Why hadn't anybody noticed her missing? Didn't her family wonder where she was? Why didn't any of her neighbours report the smell? Or question the why the television had been on constantly for so long? Why hadn't the electricity been disconnected? If she were so isolated, who had she planned to spend Christmas with? What did her story say about British society? Questions abound, prompting documentary filmmaker Carol Morley to run a newspaper ad asking for anybody who knew Vincent - in any capacity - to get in contact.

The result is 'Dreams of a Life': a haunting and moving look at Vincent's life as seen through the eyes of ex-boyfriends, colleagues and acquaintances told almost as a stream of consciousness. Early on Morley establishes that we might never know the facts surrounding her death in any detail: Vincent's body was so badly decomposed by the time of its discovery that a cause was not ascertainable (though a possible asthma attack is one theory), whilst insight into her past is limited by the fact that surviving relatives preferred to remain anonymous. With this in mind the film is a patchwork of often contradictory accounts which reveal far more about the nature of friendships - and how little we know about the people around us - than they do about Joyce Vincent, who remains something of a tragic enigma.

Depending on who is speaking she was either too trusting or had problems trusting others. People similarly can't agree on whether or not she was a decent singer, where she worked or who was in her circle of friends at any given time. Several speculate that she lived several parallel lives, having multiple 21st birthday parties with different sets of mates all oblivious to each other's existence. One man considers her the great love of his life, whilst another bestows that honour upon himself. She was a bubbly, happy, confident person - or perhaps a deeply damaged, reclusive individual. Did she quit a high paying office job in order to go travelling abroad with 20 mates or did she simply start working as a cleaner? Maybe all of these things are true. Possibly few of them are.

What is clear is that Joyce was an attractive and capable woman with aspirations of being a professional singer. At one time in her life she apparently rubbed shoulders with Nelson Mandela, conversed freely with Isaac Hayes and dined with Gil Scott-Heron. She was well liked, had a wide circle of friends and, by all accounts, the manner of her death came a huge surprise to those she knew who couldn't believe the lady from the newspaper reports was their Joyce.

This raises an eerie question which, once contemplated, is difficult to erase from your mind: could this happen to you? It also causes you to ponder how much your friends really know about you and, even, the transitory nature of friendship itself. In many ways her story, whilst extraordinary, is understandable. After all, she was young and fit - if one of your friends of a similar age stopped responding to text messages or hadn't been down to the local pub in a while, would you ever wonder whether they had died? I suspect you'd assume they'd moved away, gotten a new job or - for one reason or another - changed their phone number. You'd probably imagine they just didn't like you any more long before you ever considered anything as drastic as Vincent's chilling story.

Morely's film works well as a loose, dreamlike musing on isolation and the fallibility of memory. I think it deliberately seeks to raise more questions than it answers and it succeeds if accepted on these terms. I expect it's rather less satisfying if you're seeking a straight examination of "the facts". In which case the speculative dramatised reconstructions of Vincent's life up to her death, in which she's played by actress Zawe Ashton, are certain to grate.

These sequences are hit and miss in any case, with the worst far too obvious and maudlin - such as when Vincent is imagined singing "My Smile is Just a Frown" into a hairbrush for several minutes before breaking down in tears in her depressing flat. But they can't spoil this thought-provoking glimpse at the cold anonymity of 21st century city life taken to a horrifying extreme.

'Dreams of a Life' has recieved a limited release in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

'Shame' review:

From Steve McQueen, Turner Prize winning video artist and director of the universally acclaimed 'Hunger', 'Shame' is a stylishly shot, cold and uncomfortable look at an empty existence defined by the nebulous disorder commonly known as "sex addiction". New York executive Brandon (Michael Fassbender) spends his every waking moment watching porn, soliciting prostitutes and masturbating in the work toilets. He can't so much as look at a woman on the subway without straying into a world of crass sexual fantasy from which the film offers no escape.

He is handsome, lives in a clean modern apartment and the women he beds are uniformly gorgeous yet his sexual encounters are framed as dirty and sinister. Brandon takes seemingly no pleasure in what he's doing, with sex reduced to a shameful compulsion and a barrier preventing the development of lasting relationships with people - who include his equally fucked up sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan. The problem is most of the people in his life - from his irritating sibling to his arrogant jock prick of a boss (James Badge Dale) - prevent this from seeming like too much of a loss.

Co-written with 'The Iron Lady' screenwriter Abi Morgan, the film's view on sexuality seems the product of deep, unhealthy repression - the sort of judgemental, prudish take on sex that we've spent the last decade or so trying desperately to move away from as public discussion of all-things bodily becomes increasingly frank. The way the film attempts to paint Brandon's acts as depraved is absurd at best. We're first encouraged to view his sexual appetites with suspicion after he asks a woman to undress "slowly". "What a sicko!" seems to be the message, backed up by Harry Escott's suitably ominous and rueful score. Later Brandon is shown to reach his spiritual, emotional and ethical nadir as he enters a gay sauna and is felated by a male stranger - a plot point which feels as homophobic as it does judgemental. Who cares where he sticks his nob so long as it's consensual?

Accepting for a moment that hyper-sexuality is a modern social ill and meeting the film on its own terms for a moment, I still think it's ill-conceived: a ponderous bore. McQueen favours long close-ups which, I suppose, might be said to provoke discomfort or even (and I think this is supremely condescending) give the audience time to think about what they're seeing. The effect is that we are often shown over a couple of minutes what we might have just as easily discerned over a couple of seconds - inflating the running time at the expense of engagement.

'Shame' is out now in the UK, rated '18' by the BBFC.

Friday, 13 January 2012

'War Horse' review:

I fundamentally don't care whether a wide-eyed village simpleton (Jeremy Irvine) finds his 'orse. Especially not amongst the horror of the First World War. And yet here is 'War Horse': a film that time and time again asks the audience to put the fate of the titular steed, Joey, above that of the on-screen humans. Upon hearing of a man's death in battle via letter, Irvine's farm boy hero is only moved to say "he was riding Joey when he died" - fearing for the horse and instantly disregarding the man. At the height of the idiocy, a doctor is asked to leave a makeshift hospital full of dying soldiers to tend to Joey. Who bloody cares about this horse?!

Apparently everyone, for in this story Joey touches the lives of several different people, on different sides of the conflict, heralding chaos, death and misery wherever he goes. As based on the acclaimed Michael Morpurgo novel-turned-stage play, it's supposed to be the story of man's inhumanity to man seen through the eyes of an innocent animal. Yet Steven Spielberg's overwrought and overlong melodrama (as penned by the apocalypse signifying double-act of Richard Curtis and Lee Hall) makes it feel as though he's somehow the cause of all these problems rather than an observer - with more than one owner facing death or ruin before 146 laboured minutes are done.

Unless you automatically gawp and coo at the merest sight of an animal, you won't give the slightest toss what happens here. The human characters, with little screen-time to speak of, are painted as the thinnest caricatures: Benedict Cumberbatch as the shouty, plummy officer, Tom Hiddleston as a softly-spoken, well-meaning aristo, Emily Mortimer as the put upon farmer's wife, Peter Mullan as the drunken old farmer and so on. Though they all make a decent show of it - particularly the increasingly ubiquitous Cumberbatch.

Tonally it's all over the map too, shifting between the most wholesome Hovis advert never made and gritty, 'Saving Private Ryan' style battle sequences in which people crawl through mud crying and riddled with bullets. To give you some idea of what a mess it is, here are four isolated scenes listed in chronological order: some comedy business with a wacky goose; an artful shot of two children being executed; a short sequence in which a cute French girl tries to teach Joey how to jump; the battle of the Somme.

The increasingly self-parodic John Williams relentlessly underpins all this with his most cloying score to date, leading to an extraordinary disconnect between what's being depicted (usually a handsome horse running) and what we are obviously supposed to feel. The worst thing though is that Spielberg is just not built to tell a story about moral equivalence, the futility of war and the commonality of all men. He needs to create baddies and sell us goodies we can cheer for. The result is that the worst war time atrocities are shown committed by the German army whilst Joey is in their care - with a commander who smokes a cigar and might as well laugh maniacally at the end of every sentence.

A decent early action scene manages to convey both the historic potency of the cavalry charge and its obsolescence in 20th Century warfare within an expertly staged five minutes. But the film's best sequence sees a German and British soldier meet in no man's land in a mutual effort to free Joey from some barbed wire: they joke together and end the encounter wishing each other well. This is what the heart of the material is supposed to be about but it's not what Spielberg has been gearing us up for. Under his direction this is reduced to the story of a "magnificent kind of horse" and makes for the purest kind of hogwash.

'War Horse' is out now in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

'Moonrise Kingdom' trailer:

For me a new Wes Anderson movie is cause for celebration, so the release of a first trailer (below) for the upcoming 'Moonrise Kingdom' is really exciting. It's his first movie since 2009's 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' and first live action film since 2007's 'The Darjeeling Limited' - also co-written with Roman Coppola. Cast regulars Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray are joined by Bruce Willis, Ed Norton and Tilda Swinton, in this 60s-set tale about a couple of kids who run away together, prompting a massive search.

Anderson fans will immediately notice that the titles are written in a different font from that used extensively in his first six features. It's also interesting that the film looks so different visually, with washed out colours giving it an almost instagram look, as regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman is still behind the camera. Otherwise it looks and feels like a Wes Anderson film to the smallest detail.

I love that the scouts in the film seem to continue Anderson's childish love of clubs and gangs, notably explored in 'Bottle Rocket', 'Rushmore' and 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'. I can't wait for this.

Monday, 9 January 2012

'Tabloid' review:

"You know, you can tell a lie long enough til you believe it" says Joyce McKinney, the larger than life subject of Errol Morris' frequently hilarious and slightly creepy documentary 'Tabloid'. A former Miss America participant from the deep south, McKinney was at the centre of a major sex scandal in the late 70s, still known as "The Case of the Manacled Mormon", after being arrested in London for kidnapping and raping a Mormon missionary who she was obsessed with.

She has always maintained her three-day love affair with Kirk Anderson (who resembles Rainn Wilson), who she was accused to tying up in a Devon cottage, was consensual and that his accusing her of kidnap was the result of brainwashing from his church. Whatever the truth of the matter (which possibly lies somewhere between the two accounts), her story became the centre of a war between two tabloid newspapers: The Daily Express and The Daily Mirror, who competed to fill their pages with the most lurid accounts of her sexual escapades.

Morris builds his documentary from a mixture of archive materials (photography and footage) and talking head interviews with McKinney, the private pilot hired to fly her to England (apparently impressed by her "totally see-through" blouse), an excitable member of the Mormon church and a pair of old hacks from both newspapers at the centre of the story. Yet even with such seemingly limited scope, it's highly cinematic thanks to slick editing and imaginative use of sound and graphics. But it's McKinney herself - and her bizarre story, which takes several unexpected turns - who is the star attraction, making 'Tabloid' so ceaselessly entertaining.

Underneath the light and exploitative surface there is seemingly a story of great sadness here, with the subject either mentally disturbed or genuinely jilted by the love of her life - and either way it's clear she was the victim of the worst kind of muck-raking journalism, regardless of whether she courted a degree of celebrity throughout her extraordinary life. Yet even if it makes us complicit in her exploitation, McKinney is the best kind of unreliable narrator, seemingly convinced by her own stories (even as she admits owing a lot to high school drama classes), making for an obscenely funny and endlessly surprising 87 minutes.

'Tabloid' is on a limited release in the UK, rated '18' by the BBFC. It's released on DVD next month.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

'The Iron Lady' review:

There are few political figures hated more vehemently than Margaret Thatcher. She has her defenders, but even twenty years after being forced from power by her own party, Thatcher's name provokes strong emotions. Perhaps now - with public services again being cut as the country lives through recession and mass unemployment - isn't the most sensitive time to release a biopic celebrating her life. And yet here comes 'The Iron Lady', courtesy of writer Abi Morgan and Phyllida Lloyd, the director of 'Mamma Mia!'.

The film - as everybody surely knows - stars 16-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep as a softer, prettier, more smiley version of Thatcher, who exists somewhere under ten pounds of make-up. Taking power in 1979 she comes over as something like Julia Child (the ungainly, nasal TV chef Streep impersonated in 'Julie & Julia') with pre-emptive missile strike capability and big hair. More effective are the scenes in which Streep plays a modern day version of the former leader: an old lady grappling with dementia alone in her flat. It'd be difficult for even the most ardent socialist not to see the humanity here, which in some respects makes the film resemble 'Downfall' - the German film that chronicled the final days of Hitler.

It's strongest in these moments, as frequent backflashes through Thatcher's political life are oddly neutered in a way which should infuriate her supporters and detractors in equal measure. Possibly mindful of the divisive nature of her politics, this Weinstein-backed Oscar bait prefers to see her life through a less complex prism: one of the first female leader of a Western power - an undeniable watershed achievement, even if she did little to aid working women during the 80s. But with Thatcher's social policies still felt by Britain's poorest communities, making a film predominantly about Thatcher's gender - and her girl power rise to the forefront of a male dominated world - feels roughly equivalent to focussing on Hitler's vegetarianism.

There is some stuff here about whether or not she was so guided by principle and singular conviction as to be obstinate (a word she gets right away in a crossword), whilst Morgan's screenplay even deserves some credit for its framing of the sinking of the Belgrano as a terrible decision which prolonged the Falklands war and caused the deaths of many British serviceman (as well as 300 Argentine sailors). But otherwise, beyond presenting protesters and Labour MPs as red-faced shouty men, the film tries very hard to run away from politics. Prominent Tories have been irked by the film's portrayal of Thatcher's mental decline, with the leader shown going very clearly mad during a cabinet meeting (the film's strongest sequence), but it's overall unlikely to offend anybody too severely.

How you feel about Streep's Thatcher will no doubt have more to do with your politics going in than anything in the film itself, which isn't helped by its tepid ITV drama atmosphere. Perhaps the most damning indictment of 'The Iron Lady' is that it isn't even attempting to be as incendiary as its subject. We might have expected a film that would, at the very least, provoke discussion. I'd be very surprised if too many audience members found themselves thinking about this disposable pap too long after the fact. Though it should go without saying by now that Olivia Coleman is brilliant as daughter Carol, while Jim Broadbent, who plays husband Dennis, is good value as ever - only Streep's reputation and inevitable Academy Award nomination (and possible win) are keeping this film from cultural oblivion.

'The Iron Lady' is on a wide release now and rated '12A' by the BBFC.