Tuesday, 23 October 2012

'Iron Man 3' trailer hits!

Couldn't not post this: the first trailer for next year's 'Iron Man 3' - the first post-Avengers Marvel movie. With Shane Black now taking over as director from Jon Favreau, it seems the third entry has a very different tone to the first two. Darker and more brooding in keeping with the idea that this is the character's darkest hour. Interesting (to me at least) is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr's) monologue here, which references how the events of 'The Avengers' are haunting him and preventing him from sleeping. I like that they seem to be including that movie as part of the character's arc, whilst (at least from this first look) not going overboard.

We also see Ben Kingsley as Iron Man's arch nemesis Mandarin, and somebody sporting a Star-Spangled Iron Man suit which, in the comics, belonged to Spider-Man foe Norman Osborn (AKA the Green Goblin) as he called himself the Iron Patriot. Of course, with Sony holding the movie rights to that character, it is curious which villain is behind the armour this time.

'Iron Man 3' is set to come out in April as the first part of "Phase Two" - the next set of movies that will lead to the next big Avengers adventure. Following hot on its tail will be 'Thor: The Dark World' next summer, then 'Guardians of the Galaxy' and 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' in 2014. 2015 will bring us that Avengers sequel and Edgar Wright's 'Ant-Man'. I couldn't be more of a fanboy at this point. You don't even want to know how much money I've blown on comic books since 'The Avengers' came out...

'Frankenweenie' review:

Like a lot of cinephiles, I've fallen out of love with Tim Burton. I still go to see everything he makes, but these days it's more out of duty than expectation. Sort of like spending an entire afternoon in the dingy kitchen of an old, racist relative. Yet Burton's latest project, a stop-motion feature film version of his own well-received 1984 live-action short, wears the director's distinctive stamp more comfortably than anything else he's made in a long while. This monochrome looking animation, about a boy (called Victor Frankenstein) who brings his dead dog back to life with electricity, flaunts the Gothic horror aesthetic that has become the director's stamp is in full force. Needless to say, Danny Elfman provides the score.

There are echoes of Burton's older (and better) films throughout. Vincent's own campy attempt at filmmaking recalls 'Ed Wood', whilst the juxtaposition of Burton's self-styled oddness with clean-cut American suburbia is like something out of 'Edward Scissorhands'. Look closely and there are even possible nods to 'Mar Attacks!' and 'Batman' amongst smaller visual details. And, of course, the stop-motion form itself brings to mind 'Corpse Bride' and 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (for which he provided the story and look, though Henry Selick directed). However, as nice as it is to be reacquainted with the look and feel of why we all fell in love with his films in the first place, 'Frankenweenie' also suffers by the association.

There are moments of greatness but mostly the whole thing feels like a reasonably accurate YouTube cover version of a song you loved a decade earlier. It means well and it's certainly difficult to actively dislike, but 'Frankenweenie' is mostly just quite boring, when you delve beyond the often stunning visuals and extremely polished animation. Burton has always, often unfairly, attracted criticism for being a visual stylist with am ambivalence towards storytelling, and here that's definitely true. The characters, story - a fourth-hand take on Mary Shelley's novel (if you consider this comes via classic horror movies and Burton's earlier short) - and message (standard "listen to your heart" kids-film-by-numbers stuff) are all less than inspiring and struggle to hold interest.

Worse still, the film seems - in some vague, half-hearted way - to be trying to teach kids how to deal with grief. And yet the ending completely undermines this supposed point, with a last-minute reversal. It feels flatter still if compared to another recent stop-motion children's horror: 'ParaNorman', in which references to old films and horror tropes come out of the characters. In 'Frankenweenie' the characters don't exist outside of being hokey references to horror tropes. After seeing 'Dark Shadows' earlier this year I commented that Burton's characters now seemed like Halloween costumes first and people a distant second, and that's sadly also the case here. The frustrating thing is that the man who bought us 'Beetlejuice' is clearly still in there somewhere, but in a way that makes 'Frankenweenie' even worse than 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' or the wholly risible 'Alice in Wonderland', in that it so knowingly invites direct comparison to those glory days and without substance.

'Frankenweenie' is out now in the UK, rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

Friday, 19 October 2012

'Hotel Transylvania', 'Liberal Arts' and 'About Elly': review round-up

'Hotel Transylvania' - Dir. Genndy Tartakovsky (U)
Of the current glut of monster-themed animations released in time for Halloween, 'Hotel Transylvania' probably looks the least appealing at a first glance - with neither the Disney/Tim Burton polish and ready-made fanbase of 'Frankenweenie' or the Laika Studios, stop-motion kudos of the amazing 'ParaNorman'. By contrast this is a flat and bog-standard looking CGI animation from Sony, boasting the voice talents of Adam Sandler - as Dracula: proprietor of a hotel for monsters where the misunderstood creatures can be safe from human intolerance. However, closer inspection reveals there is far more of interest here than first meets the eye, even if the film itself can't rise far about meagre expectations.

For starters, the screenplay is co-written by Peter Baynham, whose work with Chris Morris, Armando Iannuccci, Steve Coogan and Lee and Herring made his a key voice in British alternative comedy and whose most notable job as a screenwriter to-date was last year's extremely funny Aardman animation 'Arthur Christmas'. Then there's the director - Genndy Tartakovsky - whose name may not be immediately familiar to all, but whose work in animation will be well-known to most of a certain generation. Tartakovsky was one of the key figures behind all the great Cartoon Network shows of the 90s, working on such favourites as 'Dexter's Laboratory' and 'The Powerpuff Girls', as well as creating the celebrated 'Samurai Jack' and the original 'Star Wars: Clone Wars' cartoon - which is the single best thing to have any connection with Lucas' prequels.

Sadly Tartakovsky's distinctive visual style can only be seen in glimpses here, notably in some of the character designs, but it's still nice to see him move to the big screen and one can only hope that the commercial success of this one could lead him to better things. Yet 'Hotel Transylvania' itself isn't an amazing film - either as a showcase of animation or storytelling. It certainly isn't in the same league as Sony's own 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' and doesn't hold a candle to Tartakovsky's more auteurist TV work. But it is, thanks largely to Baynham, occasionally very funny and what it lacks in polish it makes up for in charm.

'Liberal Arts' - Dir. Josh Radnor (12A)
Interminable tosh of the highest order, 'Liberal Arts' - starring, directed by and written by Josh Radnor - is an extremely smug rom-com about a man in his mid-30s who returns to his old college campus and falls in love with a student called Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Yes, it's the sort of American Indie movie where manic pixie dream girls called Zibby run around falling in love with punchable, naval-gazing author insert fantasy characters. But worse is the fact that Radnor wastes an excellent supporting cast that includes Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney.

For something that so self-consciously longs to be seen as intellectual - with Woody Allen style credits, frequent references to classical music and literature - the film is incredibly dumb. Everything about how Radnor writes relationships feels trite ("sex is complicated!"), based on watching a marathon of 'Dawson's Creek' rather than born of actual experience. Metaphors are heavy-handed and over-extended throughout, while the film frequently gets very cheesy indeed, with one scene in particular playing like a parody of a parody of the 'Dead Poet's Society' episode of 'Community', but without any trace of irony. It's all extremely false and forced and hard to stomach. The college experience, as seen here, is not populated by characters but broad stereotypes that might as well have been stolen from one thousand other lazy American college comedies. Case in point: Zac Efron as the stoner.

There is one good scene with Allison Janney, but otherwise it would be charitable to describe 'Liberal Arts' as a train-wreck. The spoiler-adverse might want to stop reading, but I'd like to give a specific example that sums up how badly written this movie is. During the final stages Radnor realises that Olsen is too young for him (yes, the film is also judgemental and conservative about its central premise) and begins seeing a lady his own age from the local bookshop. As they sit on the floor of the bookstore, during some sort of bizarre after-hours lock-in, with piles of open books all around them, the lady says something like "I love to read" and Radnor responds that he does too. No? Really? The woman in the bookshop likes to read? And the man who spent the entire film talking about books and being obnoxious about Twilight (though without ever saying its name, like a coward) also likes to read?! There is no bit of information - however obvious or small - Radnor feels comfortable to leave unsaid, such is his respect for the audience.

'About Elly' - Dir. Asghar Farhadi (12A)
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's recent international acclaim, with last year's Golden Bear and Oscar winning 'A Separation', has ensured his previous feature - 2009's 'About Elly' - a limited UK release. Which is a good thing, because it's every bit as good as the director's follow-up: naturalistic acting from a terrific ensemble cast, rich, three dimensional characters who behave consistently and whose differing moral positions are portrayed with empathy, and a tight story which wrings the most moral head-scratching and human drama from a simple set-up.

Here we follow a group of middle-class friends from Tehran as they go on a weekend getaway to the seaside, bringing along a relative stranger - Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) - in order to introduce her to their recently divorced friend. However, when Elly goes missing (presumed drowned), the group is forced to confront how little they really knew about their guest. There are moral dilemmas and grave twists that will be familiar to those who saw 'A Separation' (in a good way) and, like much contemporary Iranian cinema, the film is rich with social critique for those willing to look below the surface.

On the most recent Splendor Cinema podcast (#109) I likened this craftily hidden critique in Farhadi's films to Spielberg's 'Jaws' in that what makes both so compelling is found in what they are not allowed/able to show the audience. In 'Jaws' Spielberg can not show you the shark. CGI was not available then and a rubber monster would have looked stupid, so John Williams' score and clever camerawork fill in for the beast. And it's probably his best movie, even though he has since been able to do whatever he wants and with all the money and technology in the world. In short: artists seem to work better with strict limitations than with complete freedom. That's why some of the best Hollywood films were made during the Hays Code years or at the height of the HUAC. Likewise, Farhadi and his peers can not openly discuss gender inequality, for instance, so they tell us stories that stand on their own merits but which are incredibly detailed and textured when studied up close. Farhadi can't show you the shark, but he sure knows how to imply the shit out of one. One of the best films I've seen this year, without doubt.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

'ParaNorman', 'Killing Them Softly', 'Holy Motors' and 'Looper': review round-up

Going to Spain for a week tomorrow, so this'll have to be a(nother) quick round-up affair of the films I've caught over the last week...

'ParaNorman' - Dir. Sam Fell and Chris Butler (PG)
Truly special. This stop-motion animated feature from Laika - the chaps who produced the almost equally great 'Coraline' - is one of the best films of the year. The story of an unpopular, small town boy with the power to see and speak to the dead, the titular Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), this horror-comedy is riotously funny, beautifully animated and accompanied by a lovely Jon Brion score (is there any other kind?!). It's also unexpectedly emotional, with a progressive liberal politics at its heart which is extremely unusual for a mainstream American film - especially one primarily aimed at children. 'ParaNorman' isn't so much packed with "gags for the adults" a la Dreamworks, but instead pitches gags about sex (and sexuality), death and bigotry at the kids, confident they will be appreciated. Like all the very best children's movies, it doesn't speak down to its young audience.

The stunning character animation, detailed (and gloomily lit) scenery, clever script and well-cast voices would be enough to recommend the film, but the fact that it has such a delightful message - with the baddie ultimately being intolerance and fear of difference (rather than a nefarious person) - is what sets it apart. Especially as it has the strength of its convictions and seemingly none too worried about causing offence. The film is also terrifically well paced, with an economy of storytelling reminiscent of vintage Pixar.

'Killing Them Softly' - Dir. Andrew Dominik (18)
Following the uncontested brilliance of both 'Chopper' and 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford', New Zealand-born Australian Andrew Dominik cements his status as one of the most interesting directors working today with darkly comic crime drama 'Killing The Softly'. Though Brad Pitt is nominally the star, playing an ice-cold hitman with unsettling easy charm (much like the year's earlier 'Killer Joe'), it's really an ensemble piece, with each scene (almost without fail) revolving around two characters having a conversation. In a way, it's 'Coffee and Cigarettes' with some action and a tightly wound plot, but what it's most reminiscent of is a Coen Brothers film in the mould of 'Fargo' or 'No Country For Old Men' - having that same weight between humour (usually coming from how something is said rather than anything resembling a joke) and tension.

It's a phenomenally violent film in short bursts, though the emphasis is on characters having conversations - about sex, money and business - against the backdrop of the 2008 recession and Obama/McCain presidential election. The whole thing is, as you might expect from the man behind 'Jesse James', shot incredibly stylishly, though without fetishising violence - again, like a Coen movie, there is an abiding humanism. There are no strictly good or bad people, just opportunists, idiots and dispassionate businessmen for whom hiring a contract killer is greeted with a world-weary sigh. Here murder, adultery and theft are just good capitalism. 'Killing Them Softly' is a modern American fable.

'Holy Motors' - Dir. Léos Carax (18)
Something like a pretentious French arthouse version of Joss Whedon's TV series 'Dollhouse', 'Holy Motors' sees Denis Lavant in the Eliza Dushku role, as a man who spends his days playing a variety of characters for a living. Riding around Paris in a white limousine, Lavant applies various make-ups between his various extreme roles, with the audience never really getting a glimpse of who he really is. It plays like a collection of bizarre, unrelated short films and, ultimately, it's exactly as involving as that sounds.

There's a sequence where Kylie Minogue sings a wistful song to Lavant on a rooftop, which is possibly a hint at the "real life" of his character but which is arguably more theatrical than anything else we see. There's a scene where he, as a dirty vagrant from the sewers, abducts an American model, played by Eva Mendes. In another chapter he's cast as a Ray Park style movie fight choreographer, providing green screen motion capture for what might be a freaky CGI animated horror-porn film.

It all sounds more exciting and funny on paper than it really is. It is at least visually striking, in a way that sometimes recalls Jeunet (the earlier, darker stuff), and boasts an undeniably compelling lead, yet 'Holy Motors' left me cold and wondering what it all amounted to beyond the trite observation that we are but actors playing parts.

'Looper' - Dir. Rian Johnson (15)
A time travel, sci-fi, action blockbuster from the maker of 'Brick' (and... um 'The Brothers Bloom') Rian Johnson, 'Looper' sees Joseph Gordon Levitt living in the US in 2043, where he works as a future hitman, responsible for killing people sent back in time by the future mob, from thirty years in his future when time travel is invented and when the bodies of the murdered are apparently harder to get rid of. And it's all going swimmingly for him - up to his eyeballs in drugs and prostitutes - until one day he's faced with having to kill his own future self, as played by Bruce Willis. After (spoiler warning) failing to kill his elder self, Levitt ends up on the run from his employers and becomes determined to correct his mistake and get his self-centred life back. However, Willis starts him on a course that will change his future and ultimately help him grow as a person. Awww.

The central character arc is very nicely played out, with younger Levitt-Willis and older Willis-Levitt hating each other in a way that is interesting. The elder version thinks his younger self is stupid and selfish, whilst the younger one wants this balding old man to, like, shut up and die already. It's also true that Johnson writes some quite clever new ideas into his time travel rules, even if a lot of what's going on makes no sense and requires total suspension of disbelief (it's very quickly impossible to imagine how the film's convoluted central premise could be a convenient solution to any problem). For instance, why is it that these hitmen (Loopers) are asked to assassinate their future selves ("closing their loop")? Wouldn't it be much simpler for everybody involved if the mob put somebody else on that assignment? Less poetic, for sure, but it would make more sense and cause fewer problems. But then, I suppose, we wouldn't have a story.

That's part of the problem with 'Looper': the drama and the plot feel contrived to an extreme degree. There are leaps in logic, science and probability that don't suit a film as ostensibly "smart" and "serious" as this. Jeff Daniels is brilliantly cast against type as a mob boss and Willis is great fun to watch as the cranky older guy, especially in some of the later action scenes, but the film is baggy in the middle and there's business with a telekinetic child that's only silly.