Tuesday, 25 September 2012

'The Imposter' review:

On a conceptual level, a documentary that turns a very real tragedy into a slick, edge-of-your-seat thriller occupies distinctly grey moral territory. Especially considering the tragedy at the heart of Bart Layton's 'The Imposter' is the disappearance (and presumed death) of a 13 year-old child, Texan Nicholas Barclay, and the French confidence trickster who stole the boy's identity three years later. Yet the film just about carries it off without seeming crass, partly because it focuses on the titular imposter and his gripping story, but mostly because it is so very well made. Energetic, well-paced, stylishly edited together: 'The Imposter' is an entirely cinematic documentary and highly entertaining - even if that ultimately feels a little twisted.

The film tells the remarkable, scarcely credible, true story of how Frédéric Bourdin fooled -among others - the Spanish police, the FBI, US immigration officials (who issued him an American passport) and, depending on your viewpoint, the Barclay family themselves into believing he was the missing Nicholas - all in spite of his thick French accent and wildly different appearance (including having different coloured eyes). It tells how, not satisfied to have merely gotten away with that impressive swindle, he courted the attention of the American media and gave interviews telling a harrowing story of how he was abducted as part of an international military conspiracy, procuring children for the sexual gratification of officers - an outlandish claim which led to an official government investigation into the matter.

Throughout its twists and turns, the film poses questions about the Barclay's apparent willingness to be deceived: did they simply want to believe they had found their child? Or rather, did the family decide to use Bourdin's claim in order to cover up their own murder of the boy? That's a question the filmmakers can't answer definitively, with no evidence ever brought against the family and with Nicholas still officially a missing person, yet the question of how Bourdin had been able to con them - and so many others - despite his own obvious mental fragility and flimsy cover story, hangs over the entire movie.

For his part Bourdin makes for a compelling narrator, telling his story with an infectious enthusiasm, whilst the decision to inter-cut interview footage with polished re-enactment segments only adds to the sense that this is a great true crime thriller that only happens to be a documentary.

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

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

'Dredd' review:

Last year, I interviewed filmmaker José Padilha, who had at that point only recently been announced as director of next year's new 'RoboCop' movie. Naturally, in this age of vapid re-boots, I was concerned that the humour and political commentary of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic might be lost, with the film re-tooled as a straight action movie. A fear he swiftly countered, saying:
“The satire element of RoboCop is, I think, needed today... That kind of social, aggressive satire I haven’t seen done well in movies lately. And it’s almost like the politics and violence in the world is asking for this: 'Someone please make some satire now!' So we’re going to keep that edge.”
He is entirely right: the world - with its financial meltdown, government austerity measures, resurgence of right-wing politics and rapidly advancing technology - is practically begging for something like a vintage Verhoeven movie. We sorely needed a 'RoboCop' or 'Starship Troopers' to come along and savagely poke fun of things, whilst also shamelessly indulging in ultra-violence and gore for our entertainment. An old-school 18-rated science fiction movie, the like of which we haven't really seen since the '12A' certificate was ushered in by comic book movies a decade ago.

Yet, ironically, a comic book adaptation has beaten Padilha to the punch. With the Brazilian's film still nearly a year from release, British television director Pete Travis has swooped in from left-field to deliver all of the above with 'Dredd' - based on 2000AD's Judge Dredd series. Here Karl Urban dons the helmet of the titular fascistic "street judge" in a dystopian future, in a film which is deliciously satirical, whilst also being horrifically and uncompromisingly violent. Like a Verhoeven movie of old, the high-minded political business is indistinguishable from the exploitative, sickeningly fun action stuff. It's funny and sleazy and rarely subtle, with well choreographed action and a tight, disciplined structure. Yet Alex Garland's screenplay is also pretty smart once you get past some (perhaps intentionally) cringe-inducing one-liners.

Dredd himself - a cop, judge, jury and executioner (for those unfamiliar with the character) - is an uncompromising individual, obsessed with enforcing the law to the letter and without question or a shred of compassion. He is a walking Daily Mail column with fire-power, free to threaten the most vulnerable in society from an assumed position of moral authority: he harasses the homeless and sees every law-breaker as nothing more than a scumbag beneath contempt and, often, in need of a good state-sponsored murdering. Yet Garland and Travis tip us off to the fact that we shouldn't necessarily be uncomplicatedly on-side with the protagonist in a number of ways.

The most obvious is the fact that they give us a rather more relatable and warm character in the form of rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who goes through the movie questioning and undermining her superior's harsh methods and views on society - even going against the rules to spare a criminal's life. Being from the slums herself, and from a marginalised community of psychic mutants, Anderson is less quick to (literally) judge those who transgress the law. Perhaps her psychic abilities give her more empathy than her sociopathic colleagues? What's more, in stark contrast to the unflappable Dredd, she feels remorse at having to kill. As well as Anderson, we're are also given plenty of other reasons to be suspicious of this world's justice system.

For instance, it's clear that giving police the power to murder criminals on sight has not acted as a deterrent against violent crime. In fact, we see that the Judges of Mega-City One are only able to respond to a small percentage of the crimes occurring at any given time. We also see how those fleeing from the cops of this world have little choice but to resort to all out warfare with the authorities. With no chance of reprieve, or anything like a considered trial, the drug dealers and pimps of this reality take to unloading their sub-machine guns and mowing down pedestrians as soon as they see Dredd in their rear-view mirror. If this wasn't a clear enough critique of right-wing ideology, then the scene in which Dredd and Anderson go to arrest a man for being homeless - only to barely react as he's pulverised by a huge mechanical door - is a pretty clear indication of how skewed the "good guys" of this movie are, from a moral standpoint.

Then there's the fact that Lena Headey's crime boss, Ma-Ma, is pretty clearly a victim of repeated sexual abuse and a drug addict. She's pretty cruel, guilty of lots of bloody crimes and seems to take sadistic pleasure in skinning her victims alive, but she's not uncomplicatedly "evil". She's undoubtedly messed up, yet she arguably needs sectioning rather than murdering. And her major vice is arguably less socially harmful than the law's reaction to it: her gang is responsible for putting a new drug called Slo-Mo on the streets - a chemical which causes the user to experience this grey, concrete world in glittery, multi-coloured slow-motion. It actually seems pretty appealing in context.

Where the movie really shines is that this high-minded and timely political commentary is ever-present without being heavy-handed or suffocating how much sheer fun the movie is. The action is brutal and bloody in a way you really don't see any more - even in stuff like 'The Expendables', which exists solely as a throwback to that 1980s action era. It's handled imaginatively, never gets repetitive and there are plenty of clever twists along the way. It's also fantastic that the premise of this movie is so small-scale: basically, our "heroes" get trapped in a gang-controlled skyscraper and have to fight there way to the boss at the penthouse - much like you might in a 90s SEGA arcade brawler. In many ways it's like a feature adaptation of 'Streets of Rage 2', in a very good way.

This is, in effect, the movie Padilha seemed to promise last year, when talking up his handling of 'RoboCop'. That film, however good it may turn out to be, is no longer being released in a vacuum.  Arguably, 'Dredd' is the strongest mainstream action-satire film since 'Starship Troopers' in 1997 and one of the year's biggest surprises.

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

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

'Anna Karenina', 'Jackpot' and 'Berberian Sound Studio': review round-up

After yet another long absence, here are some more reviews (some more timely than others!). Mainly I'm interested in bigging up Joe Wright's latest, but I'll also briefly mention a couple of others from the last few weeks that I never found time to write about.

'Anna Karenina' - Dir. Joe Wright (12A)

Having leapt out of his period drama comfort zone with the bold and unconventional 'Hanna', Joe Wright has returned to more familiar ground with this adaptation of lauded nineteenth century novel Anna Karenina, also renewing his partnership with Keira Knightley - star of 'Pride & Prejudice' and 'Atonement'. Yet his treatment of Tolstoy's Russian Lit classic is more reminiscent of his under-appreciated 2011 action-thriller than might have been expected, retaining much of that film's dynamism and editing panache. As with 'Hanna', and 2009's patchy misfire 'The Soloist', sound and image are inseparable here, with the line between diegetic sound and Dario Marianelli's score hard to determine.

Wright's bravura camera-work - at times a little self-conscious, but always technically impressive - is now indelibly linked to the soundtrack in a way only matched in contemporary movies by Paul Thomas Anderson. Because Wright continues to develop this approach, 'Anna Karenina' feels like the evolution of his style rather than a retreat back to the comfort zone. In fact, if anything, the way Wright has chosen to stage this adaptation feels more experimental and imaginative than anything he's attempted previously. The whole thing is presented as though it's occurring within one old theatre, with the sets changing around the actors. Yet the film never feels stage-bound or overly theatrical, with this conceit instead increasing the sense that this tragic love story is larger than life. This stylistic choice (which could sound irksome on paper) never seems in the least contrived or heavy-handed either, carried off with a disarming lightness of touch. It's consistently implemented, yet it never upstages the story or characters.

Of course, at just over two hours in length, this is an abridged version of the story, told in broad brush-strokes, yet that is also to its great credit. This isn't an overly literal adaptation, committed to bringing the book's events to the screen in as much detail as possible, but rather Tom Stoppard's deft screenplay boils the thing down to its essential elements and Wright uses the tools of his trade to incite the viewer to feel Anna's all-consuming passion for Aaron Taylor-Johnson's dashing Count Vronsky - and all the feverish madness that it brings. It's a visceral and emotional telling of the story, rather than an intellectual one, but it works extremely well. Arguably Tolstoy's command of realism and his political/spiritual consciousness is a casualty of this treatment (though neither is wholly absent), but this version gets everything else right.

It certainly works as a character study, supported by a fine central performance from an actor in form, with Knightley impressing recently in films are varied as 'Never Let Me Go' and 'Seeking A Friend for the End of the World'. It also benefits from an eye-catching supporting turn from Jude Law as Anna's jilted husband, confirming once and for all his chops as an interesting character actor when not asked to be a leading man (for another example of this phenomenon, see: Colin Farrell). And, though I don't usually mention costumes, hair and make-up (things I generally have little interest in and next to no understanding of), the work here is uniformly brilliant, with a range of interesting hairstyles and moustaches to suit every finely tailored cavalry officer's uniform. I can't vouch for whether or not real Russian aristocrats of the era looked like they'd stepped off the cover of Sgt. Pepper's, but these guys look fantastic. Special mention goes to Matthew Macfadyen's extraordinary and enviable facial hair (below).

'Jo Nesbø's Jackpot' - Dir. Magnus Martens (15)

Spinning out of the decidedly un-Tolstoyan literary world of ubiquitous Norwegian scribe Jo Nesbø, whose work inspired the bewildering WTF-fest that was 'Headhunters', comes 'Jackpot': another Scandinavian crime thriller of indeterminable earnestness. This strange Christmas movie (released in the UK at the height of summer), sees a collective football bet - between some leather jacketed nutters who work in a Christmas tree factory and their meek friend - end in betrayal and bloody violence, with the now customary mix of ultra-violence, bizarre comic interludes, lost in translation regional humour and gritty social realism. As with 'Headhunters' earlier this year, I enjoyed it without really understanding a) whether I was watching it properly, b) what was going on at all on a plot level and c) whether it was supposed to be hilariously funny.

I don't know whether either film is objectively "good", but both are utterly insane and highly watchable. Both made me cry from laughing and neither go where you would expect them too. What's more, the characters are, to a man, morally bankrupt and generally quite foolish - with the most appealing in this case being Henrik Mestad's sarcastic and world-weary detective. All in all, a good time at the pictures.

'Berberian Sound Studio' - Dir. Peter Strickland (15)

An interesting curiosity that leaves much to be unpacked and pondered upon, Peter Strickland's second feature - following his roundly-praised low budget Romanian debut 'Katalin Varga' in 2009 - is a psychological thriller of sorts. In it Toby Jones plays a nebbish sound technician from the UK, whisked to Rome in order to create sound effects for a Dario Argento style horror movie. The tone and look of this 70s-set piece is pitch perfect, with a lot of fodder for cinephiles in the details. Jones, so often a scene-stealing supporting player in bigger budget movies, excels in the central role. The story, however, is incredibly slight and the whole thing is aimed at the intellect rather than the heart. That isn't a criticism exactly, but it perhaps explains why I have difficulty getting excited about it beyond appreciating the excellence of its constituent parts. Highly polished and completely unique, but more to admire than love here.