Friday, 29 June 2012

Go see Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at EYE!!!

A happy accident occurred whilst visiting Amsterdam last week, in that my time in the Netherlands coincided with the beginning of a really excellent Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the EYE Institute near the city centre (well, a short ferry crossing from the back of Central Station). There are few things on Earth I love more than the films of Stanley Kubrick, so I made sure to check it out - and was thrilled by what I saw.

Running until September 9th, the exhibition features props, costumes, vintage promotional materials, documentary clips and more relating to twelve of the master's thirteen feature films (nothing on the disowned 'Fear and Desire'), presented with their own dedicated space and positioned in chronological order. The focal point of each section is a large screen upon which clips of that particular movie are projected. Apart from the fact that this gives you the chance to watch key scenes from everything from 'The Killing' to 'Eyes Wide Shut' on a proper screen (a considerable boon considering how rare screenings of these films are), a winsome side-effect is that it's possible to turn 360 degrees on one spot and take in the sights (and sounds) of 'Barry Lyndon', 'The Shining', 'Full Metal Jacket' and 'Eyes Wide Shut'.

Before you get to his feature films, at the entrance there's a room dedicated to the filmmaker's early newsreel shorts - with clips of both 'Day of the Fight' and 'The Flying Padre' - and still photography, with an additional room (fittingly enough positioned near the middle) looking at the great unrealised projects of his career: 'Napoleon' and 'The Aryan Papers'. The fact that these two spaces are included means that, provided they read the descriptions as they progress, even those with little knowledge on the subject going in should leave with a pretty good overview of his career from his teenage years in the 1940s up to his untimely death in 1999.

To give you some idea of the array of treats on show, the exhibition includes: original storyboards for 'Spartacus' drawn by the legendary Saul Bass, spaceship models from '2001', Malcolm McDowell's iconic droog outfit from 'A Clockwork Orange', Tom Cruise's Venetian mask from 'Eyes Wide Shut' (above), Jack Nicholson's famous wood-chopping axe from 'The Shining', the "Born to Kill" helmet from 'Full Metal Jacket' (complete with peace badge) and the special Oscar statuette the director received for special effects in 1968. Each of those items should be enough to entice people with a decent general interest in movies, regardless of their feelings for Kubrick specifically - with each being an instantly recognisable piece of film history.

Hardcore fans of the director will also be pleased to find materials that go a little deeper. For instance, they will delight at the simple pleasure of being able to flick through one of Kubrick's index card filled drawers used to collate his extensive Napoleon research, as well as the chance to look at the pioneering Steadicam used on 'The Shining' and the equally ground-breaking lens used to shoot the candle light sequences in 'Barry Lyndon'.

There are also numerous interesting bits of archive material throughout, including correspondence between the director and some of his collaborators (for instance 'Lolita' writer Vladimir Nabokov and 'Paths of Glory' star Kirk Douglas), pages detailing the breakdown of the production budget for 'Killer's Kiss', and an invitation card to the cancelled premiere for 'Dr. Strangelove' upon which the director has scrawled, with zero detectable sentiment: "NEVER HELD. THE DAY KENNEDY WAS SHOT."

To compliment this exhibition EYE are also screening all of Kubrick's movies over the period of the event, with a discount of a few Euros offered if you buy a movie ticket at the same time as paying the entrance fee (entrance: €12, movie ticket €10, combined ticket €18). I saw '2001' on the big screen for the first time thanks to this offer and, aside from some grating projection issues (the house lights were on for the first 5 minutes, whilst the aspect ratio and focus were being modified well into the opening 20 minutes), it was well worth the price of admission.

If you're a UK based Kubrick fan, it's well worth noting that you can fly to Amsterdam pretty cheaply these days on budget airlines (the round-trip can cost under £50 if you go in the week) and - with the flights only taking 45 minutes from Gatwick to Amsterdam Schipol - it's feasibly something you could do as a day trip without feeling unduly excessive. This exhibition has been touring Europe since 2004 and - as I understand it - there are currently no plans to bring it to the UK, so Amsterdam seems as good a place as any to venture if you're a big fan. Especially since its next planned stop is Los Angeles.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Cinema Al Kolenkit (Donations Welcome!)

I'm spending the next week in Amsterdam, in order to visit the Cinema Al Kolenkit festival - a human rights focused event being run by a good friend of mine. I've been writing copy for the festival programme and might also be volunteering in some other capacity (will find out when I get there), so it should be a very interesting and fulfilling event for everybody involved.

It's certainly a very nice project to find myself involved with, with the aim being to bring some art and culture to a stigmatised district of the city (and for free!), with many of the featured films being directly about communities coming together and urban renewal.

Cinema Al Kolenkit is a very small non-profit event that's been set up by a friend of mine in the name of a good cause, so - if you feel so inclined - feel free to make a small donation here. I'm sure even 1 Euro (80p?) would be wonderful if you feel you can spare it.

The upshot of this is that it looks like another week without updates for this blog, though there will hopefully be some reviews and interviews from Kolenkit when I return next week.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Out of the Office...

Dear loyal readers,

I am not going to be posting on this blog for the next week due to an exciting development. Instead I'm going to be editing and writing full-time for WhatCulture this Monday to Friday. It'd be swell if you were to follow me over there and read all my features and news posts in order to make me seem popular and successful. If you feel so moved, you are encouraged to "Like" things I write on Facebook and "re-Tweet" them on Twitter.

You can keep track of articles I've authored at WhatCulture by click here!

Thank you and I'll be sure to update here again at the end of the week.

Friday, 8 June 2012

'Rock of Ages' review:

Did this really happen, or was it just a horrible dream? 'Rock of Ages', the star-studded adaptation of a popular stage musical, is a dreadful movie. A film where every beat is played for humour but nothing is even remotely funny. A film that takes actors as good as Paul Giamatti and Alex Baldwin and makes you wish you never had to look at them again. It's a cringing and overlong slog which takes various 1980s hair metal classics and proceeds to turn them into the sort of creakily staged, amateurishly performed ditties made famous by Halifax ads. It feels so hollow and inherently false that it somehow resembles a karaoke cover version of itself. It lacks atmosphere, charm and any small trace of entertainment value. It's not clear which demographic this film is for, but I know I never want to meet them.

The story - little more than a thinly veiled excuse to move the characters between "I Love Rock and Roll" and "Don't Stop Believing" - runs as follows: smooth-skinned small-town girl (Julianne Hough) meets smooth-skinned small-town boy (Diego Boneta) after both move to LA to make their rock dreams come true. They immediately - as in during their first day together - fall in love. However, they are just as easily broken up by the sort of contrived misunderstanding usually reserved for the dying days of a hokey sitcom - as boy sees girl emerging from the dressing room of "rock icon" Stacee Jaxx: Tom Cruise reminiscent of his pathetic and empty character from 'Magnolia', only this time you aren't supposed to feel uncomfortable.

In the mix are Baldwin and "funnyman" Russell Brand, as comedy relief and owners of a once-awesome, now lovably ramshackle concert venue in danger of closing its doors unless X amount of money is raised, etc etc. For some reason a mother's organisation, lead by the mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wants to shut the place down, even though it's more smiley and non-threatening than the cast of 'Glee'. Oh, and the mayor is played by Bryan Cranston for some reason, with his appearance here somehow even more thankless than his brief turn in 'John Carter'. He literally has nothing to do and his sub-plot - that he enjoys kinky, extra-marital sex - comes to nothing at all. Not only does it not have any sort of resolution, but it doesn't even connect with the other plotlines. It's just one of many cut-away gags that must have seemed funny at the time.

Cruise is the only bright spot and, though fifty next month, he embodies his shirtless rock god character with an energy and commitment not matched anywhere else in the cast. The film is still bad when he's on-screen, but at least it feels vaguely alive. It's disappointing that Zeta-Jones doesn't get to sing a few more songs, given how she won an Oscar for her show-stealing role in 'Chicago', but anyone who sits through one of Baldwin and Brand's duets will know that "the ability to sing" was not a prerequisite for appearing in this movie. This garish, ugly, waste of talent with no redeeming qualities of a movie.

'Rock of Ages' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is set to be released in the UK on June 13th.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

'2 Days in New York' review:

Chris Rock and Julie Delpy form an appealing on-screen couple in '2 Days in New York', as local radio personality Mingus and struggling artist Marion - two perennial malcontents whose fragile equilibrium is disrupted by a visit from the latter's French family, to amusing effect. Rock, a big talent who's never really found Hollywood a perfect fit, really shines here, playing laid-back and charming where he would usually be typecast as loud and manic. Delpy, who wrote and directed this sequel to her earlier '2 Days in Paris', is radiant as ever and with that same attractive quality of not taking herself - or her status as a glamorous movie star - too seriously, whilst paradoxically giving the impression of having a tremendous intellect.

A lot of the film's humour is self-depreciating, but not in a way that feels condescending to the audience: Marion's worries and concerns, about her fading beauty and embarrassing relatives, seem genuine, even autobiographical in spite of her undeniable elegance. There is a deeply personal feel to '2 Days in New York' that is best exemplified by the continued casting of Delpy's real-life father (Albert Delpy) as Marion's father Jeannot - a scruffy but adorable old gentleman who falls somewhere between an unkempt vagrant and a beloved grandpa. A Los Angeles resident and naturalised US citizen, Delpy writes the cross-cultural comedy in a way that feels authentic, if exaggerated for comic effect.

In fact the whole things fritters unevenly between a small-scale, dialogue-driven romantic comedy, in the tradition of Woody Allen, and a much broader farce - perhaps in the tradition of older, zanier Woody Allen. Both aspects work and are funny in isolation, but the mix between urbane maturity and the bigger, more whimsical moments makes the film feel scattershot.

'2 Days in New York' is on a limited release in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

'Casa de mi Padre' review:

My appraisal of Will Ferrell's Spanish language oddity 'Casa de mi Padre' is now up at What Culture. The comedy, which spoofs Mexican soap operas - or "telenovelas", also co-stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. It's pretty funny and made with obvious love, but most of all it's an interesting one-off: a strange movie with niche appeal.

Anyway, read my full review here.

'Casa de mi Padre' is released in the UK on June 8th, rated '15' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

'A Royal Affair' is Better Than the Marketing

Far be it from me to criticise Metrodome Distribution. After all they are to be applauded (and loudly) for bringing one of my favourite films from this year's Berlin Film Festival to the UK, in the form of Danish monarchy drama 'A Royal Affair' ('En Kongelig Affære'). Yet their handling of it troubles me, at least in terms of how it's being marketed. I reviewed that film back in February on this blog and could hardly have been more fulsome in my praise, concluding:
Everything about 'A Royal Affair' is stunning. Its ambitious scope in terms of subject matter, its intelligence, its brilliant cast of actors (I'll now happily watch anything with Alicia Vikander in it), and its lavish production values. I cried at the end, with the once vital Caroline separated from her children and living in exile, and I laughed far more and far harder than I have at the last dozen or so comedies. The story of a doctor who gives a king new confidence and inspires him to greater things, it could easily be billed as Denmark's answer to 'The King's Speech'. It's far better than that.
Yet I'm not certain the trailer (above) or theatrical poster (below) would have sold it to me. There's nothing wrong with either from an editing or design point of view, in fact both are stylish and sophisticated. But therein lies part of the problem: they aim to attract the traditional "heritage" cinema or "costume drama" audience. "Utterly seductive... an epic story of forbidden love" runs a quote from Radio Times, whilst the central image plays up the idea that this is the tale of a love triangle in fancy dress. Yes, I see the angry mob in the background, with an ominous fiery orange glow enveloping the stars, but the overwhelming impression this poster gives is that this is the tale of how two men court the same woman. Were that the case I don't think I would have been so moved by it, nor as thoroughly entertained.

What's truly great about 'A Royal Affair' - aside from the stunning performances - is that it doesn't feel at all stuffy and period bound. In fact it feels modern and dynamic. And whilst period films tend to be conservative and usually play up a romanticised view of the past, this one is all about radical political philosophy: the ideals of the enlightenment versus the grip of the ruling class in eighteenth century Europe. This is the story of how a German radical basically exploited his friendship with the insane king of Denmark in order to institute a raft of audacious reforms which quickly (and, as fate would have it, temporarily) transformed one of Europe's most politically backward countries into its most progressive. And all before the French Revolution. If you can't find a way to make that sound exciting to an audience, let alone in the fractured Europe of 2012, you have no business selling movies.

Is the titular "royal affair" important? Well, yes of course; But it isn't what the film is about. In fact even the central love story - not really a "triangle", because the king doesn't really give a damn - is mainly explored in terms of how it compromises the idealism and integrity of Johan Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). For instance, after the affair becomes a convenient stick for the German's political opponents to beat him with using the newly free press, Struensee is driven to enact new censorship laws in an effort to safeguard his own interests. It's about how power corrupts and how absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's about the canny knack of the media and the aristocracy to mobilise the poor against their own interests - a theme that resonates very strongly today. And it's being mis-sold willfully, because the people who made the poster know and understand all of this.

'A Royal Affair' is a young film being sold as an old one for an easy buck. The market for historical costume epics is tried and trusted, whereas the appeal of eighteenth-century-radicalism-morality-fables is far less certain. I understand completely where Metrodome are coming from and I hope this release proves incredibly lucrative for them, because this film deserves to find an audience (even if it's the wrong one). I suspect many of those coming to see it on the basis that it's a scintillating love story for the ages will still enjoy the less cosy film they see before them, but the sadness is that 'A Royal Affair' could be written off by many who would find great appeal in its musing on ideology and the nature of political power.

Perhaps the image on the poster is not at fault, but rather it's the pull-quotes around it which need changing. "Utterly seductive" should be replaced by "politically incendiary" and the word "revolution" should appear somewhere. And instead of "their love would divide a nation", how about "their friendship would divide Europe"? And the word "love" (which appears twice) should not appear at all. Not because there is not a love story, but because focusing on that relationship and ignoring the ideological debate is ironically the exact same thing the yellow press does within the film. There's no doubt the marketing department played it very safe with this one and I hope it doesn't work against one of the year's best films.

'A Royal Affair' is rated '15' by the BBFC and will be released in the UK on June 15th.

Monday, 4 June 2012

'Men in Black 3' review:

'Men in Black 3' doesn't make any sense. I don't mean the time travel plot which, even if the rules are seemingly being made up as it goes along, is easy enough to follow. But it don't understand in on a much more basic level: it's existence makes no sense at all. And for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that the (largely forgotten) original films came out over a decade ago, meaning that their audience has long since grown up, whilst the kids of today surely have no idea who these characters are. Perhaps that wouldn't be a problem if this were just a brand new adventure featuring our besuited heroes, slap-happy xenophobes Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones), but the story and its intended emotional beats require some vested interest in the relationship between these two characters. In fact Columbia seems to be marketing this sequel mainly on the strength of Josh Brolin's eerily accurate impersonation of Jones as 1960s era K - something a ten year old in 2012 could care less about.

The second reason this movie makes zero sense is thus: Will Smith is the biggest movie star on the planet. He is the only guy left in modern post-star Hollywood capable of guaranteeing a hit movie by the mere fact of his presence. Since 2002's 'Men in Black 2' every movie Smith has starred in has grossed over $160 million. His is a star so popular that even vehicles as messy and bloated as 'Hancock' and 'I Am Legend' were substantial global mega-hits. And, prior to his return to Barry Sonnenfeld's sci-fi comedy franchise, he had been away from movie screens for four years. In other words: he could have named his next project. He could have made anything he wanted. Every major studio must have been hassling him with offer after offer. Quentin Tarantino supposedly approached him to star in his upcoming western. And he chose to make 'Men in Black 3'. Just think about that. For a man who has several times stated a desire to one day run for president, that betrays an astounding lack of ambition.

Anyway, by now it's clear I'm stalling having to write about the film itself and that's because there isn't an awful lot to say. I'll lead with the few positives. 'A Serious Man' star Michael Stuhlbarg is pretty funny as Griffin, an alien who can see the future with a fairly entertaining twist: he can see all possible futures simultaneously. This paves way for some neat visual moments (as he enjoys a future baseball game in an empty stadium), some entertaining comic bits (as he frets about whether various absurd and unlikely events might come to pass) and a few nice character details (such as his multiple layers of clothing, presumably in preparation for every possible future). He is easily the best thing in the movie.

Then there's the fact that the villain, Boris the Animal, is played by 'Flight of the Conchords' funnyman Jermaine Clement. Though Clement is underutilised he does at least read lines in an entertaining way. Another plus is that several of the most irritatingly wacky supporting characters from the two previous movies have been written out, with the talking pug dog and the vaguely Hispanic cockroach guys the most welcome absentees. Unfortunately they've been joined on the casualty list by Rip Torn (whose Agent Z has been killed off between sequels), though the actor's recent legal troubles probably account for that. The problem is that his replacement is Emma Thompson who, though an infinitely superior dramatic actor, doesn't exactly bring the funny. Her character, Agent O, is also embroiled in 1960s shenanigans (played by Alice Eve) and is supposed to have been a long-term friend and love interest of Agent K - something which is undermined by the fact she's never been mentioned at all previously.

It's also to the film's detriment that, as good as Brolin's impersonation is, there is nowhere near enough Tommy Lee Jones. His sly, taciturn delivery is an essential part of what originally made the J and K partnership watchable - whereas Brolin is cast as a younger, less grumpy version of the character who doesn't really have the same appeal alongside Smith's hyper-chatty hero. Barry Sonnenfeld's handling of action and spectacle also leaves much to be desired. For instance, several scenes include shots which establish nothing more than that our hero is "very high up" - quite a mundane form of threat in a film featuring lazer-gun totting aliens and quite a boring one for an audience that's presumably just seen 'The Avengers'. Then there's the stuff we've seen before in the series - as little silver guns make aliens explode - and stuff we've seen done much better dozens of times elsewhere - such as a car chase through the streets of New York (the characters might be riding impractical futuristic motorbikes, but they're still basically just motorbikes).

The very worst thing about 'Men in Black 3' I've saved until last, and that's its basic premise and single joke: that difference is inherently hilarious and that usually the "different" are not human. The film continues the series' proud tradition of revealing how everybody with a funny face or voice or a different ethnicity to the protagonists is in fact in an alien. See that Chinese guy? He's a hideous alien! Hahaha. See that supermodel? Models are all aliens! Hahahaha. Lady Gaga? Tim Burton? Those weirdos are aliens! Hahahaha. Repeat for almost two hours. And these freaky people can be exploded and punched without consequence or guilt because, well, they're not from around here. It's basically a light family comedy about ultra-violent immigration officers.

'Men in Black 3' is out now in the UK, rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

'Prometheus' review:

A running theme among the half-dozen trailers that have teased Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus' is that they've tended to be more alluring and spectacular when focused on the numerous eye-catching shots of spaceships and strange alien worlds, whilst offering only fleeting glimpses at the story and characters. It turns out that's because 'Prometheus' has no story or characters. It has a basic sort of "plot", I suppose: astronauts head to a distant planet in order to find answers about the creation of mankind. And it has characters in the sense that there's a reasonably impressive international ensemble cast thanklessly filling the various spacesuits - including Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron.

Yet there can be little doubt that 'Prometheus' is a triumph of design and special effects rather than human drama. The film looks stunning, with the CGI spaceships and beautifully crafted interior sets having a sort of painted concept art look. But for all its self-important posturing around issues of faith, god and the nature of creation, the film's pretense at being this summer's "thinking person's blockbuster" comes to nothing. During its few cod philosophical exchanges - some of which should make your toes curl - the film's grasp of the deeper issues never seems to want to venture beyond truisms. It's a shame because the set up suggests something much smarter, or at least more interesting.

Rapace, as scientist Elizabeth Shaw, is the ship's blindly faithful Christian, whilst her lover and fellow scientist (played by Logan Marshall-Green) is supposedly the on-board skeptic as they search for humanity's alien creator. Meanwhile, Fassbender is David, a humanoid robot whose behaviour is modeled on his creators, something he seeks to perfect by watching old films in his downtime. A wrinkly old Guy Pearce is his creator and surrogate father, as well as the head of the huge corporation financing the mission. Charlize Theron has her own nascent "creator" issues as the stern and possibly treacherous leader of the expedition. Given that this is nominally a prequel to Scott's seminal 'Alien', it's entirely appropriate that it should explore that franchise's theme of motherhood and the destructive, violent act of creation itself: it's a melting pot of strong character archetypes with competing ideologies, which seems primed to react - only there is no heat.

Potentially interesting characters die left and right with scarcely a decent scene to their name. Supposedly sensible people react in increasingly irrational and oddly inhuman ways as the film goes on, for instance when a group of characters voluntarily give up their lives without any clear indication of why (in fact they don't really even ask for one, but as a united group blindly accept death at the merest asking). The film lurches messily between fussily directed action scenes which lack either the body horror of 'Alien' or the excitement of a crowd-pleasing summer movie, almost as if the filmmakers lacked the courage to devote any screentime to the potentially divisive "let's all talk about religion" thing the movie seemed to kind of want to be about originally. There are nods to various big ideas and questions here and there, but they are extremely tentative.

Then there's the handling of the film's various alien creatures and their multiple messy incarnations which lack credibility even if you suspend a whole universe's supply of disbelief. (Those sensitive to SPOILERS might want to avert their gaze now.) How does this reproductive cycle work?:

1) There are rows of eggs full of black goo.
2) A human man eats the black goo and becomes a sort of crusty monster.
3) The crusty monster man has sex with a human woman and she quickly gives birth to a tentacle monster.
4) Left alone for (presumably) a few hours, said tentacle monster becomes enormous. It then latches onto a huge white alien and eats his face.
5) Once partly-devoured by the tentacle monster, the big white alien's body yields a chest-bursting, quadrupedal alien not dissimilar to the original "xenomorph".

Please explain how that makes any kind of sense. I genuinely want to know why I'm supposed to think anything other than "this sure is a random sequence of events" at this point. Even if you accept that this primordial gloop is simply enabling the rapid evolution of an organism (and that's a leap you have to make yourself), doesn't it sort of imply that the "xenomorph" would then also become something else entirely different the next step along the chain? So then why do all the Aliens in the sequels look the same? Are they supposed to represent the pinnacle of evolution? I'm honestly not trying to be pedantic in the least - I just want to know how this could possibly make sense, even in the limited way a film about sexy future-spacemen warrants.

A friend of mine said that (one of) his problem(s) with 'Prometheus' is that it raised far more questions than it answered, at least pertaining to the way it links into 'Alien' continuity. I disagree. It's not a problem that the film raises more questions than it answers - after all, so does '2001'. The problem is that the questions it raises are invariably very silly, all relating to the who-could-care-less world of the 'Alien' mythos. Whilst it labours to provide trite and convoluted answers to the grander, more universal questions that are perhaps best left enigmatic. It should have been the other way around.

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