Friday, 18 January 2013

'Les Miserables', 'Quartet', 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' and 'American Mary': review round-up

'Les Miserables' - Dir. Tom Hooper (12A)

It's all swooping zooms and Dutch angles from 'The King's Speech' director Tom Hooper in his overblown, tortuously long production of long-running stage sensation 'Les Miserables' - a tonal mish-mash of bizarre shot choices that just about gets away with it by virtue of some fine songs, interesting production design and top-quality performances. Hugh Jackman - a Broadway song and dance man long before he was Wolverine - is predictably really great to watch as reformed convict Jean Valjean whenever he's on-screen, though it's Anne Hathaway's small but pivotal role as the tragic fallen woman Fantine that steals the show. Hathaway carries the show's signature tune "I Dreamed a Dream" with aplomb, acting it masterfully and creating this adaptation's most genuinely emotional moment, played in unflinching close-up. It's like the video for O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" all over again!

Russell Crowe fares far less well, basically shouting his songs as policeman Javert, whilst Eddie Redmayne is an incongruous presence as the film's most boring character - bland love interest Marius - with his deep voice at odds with his slight build and youthful face. However, he's far less irritating singing "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" - partly because that's his character's best song, but mostly because it's more introspective and he sings it in a more restrained way as a result. Elsewhere, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are perfectly cast as the swindling innkeeper and his bawdy wife. Likewise for Amanda Seyfied as object of Marius' affection Cosette - another bland and mostly thankless role - but she is one of the few people you could believe inspires the sort of love at first sight obsession seen here.

'Quartet' - Dir. Dustin Hoffman (12A)

It is exactly what you might expect it to be: a glossy, middle class fluff with some nice performances and a few charming moments. 'Quartet', for some reason directed by Dustin Hoffman, is a nice little film about old age, which places centre stage the hijinks of high-spirited retired people - the residents of a home for elderly musicians. The beats are familiar: a crisis threatens to close the house, a big reunion concert uniting the home's four biggest stars - opera singers played by Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins - is the home's only change. But there are internal conflicts to overcome first.

For one, the other members don't see eye-to-eye with Smith's harridan - least of all Courtenay's sensitive and dignified old gent, who still harbours deep heartache over their distant failed marriage. Connolly is trying to get it on with everything in a skirt (including their young doctor, played by Sheridan Smith) and Collins - the most tragic figure - is suffering from Alzheimer's. Aside from an ill-advised series of references to rap music and a sequence in which Courtenay explains why opera is relevant to a group of inner-city youths, there isn't really anything here to really irritate or offend those pre-disposed to hate this sort of thing.

'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' - Dir. David Gelb (U)

The slightly unbelievable true story of an 85 year-old man who runs a three-Michelin-star sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, with seats for only eight customers, this interesting little documentary is more than a bit of food porn - even if it's dominated by HD close-ups of various exquisitely prepared minimalist dishes. Beyond the stuff about what goes into making the perfect sushi - from how the ingredients are sourced to the methods veteran chef Jiro employs to ensure the optimum serving conditions - there is a film here about the differing expectations and professional attitudes of generations, as Jiro's son's are press-ganged into the family business seemingly against their interests (at least at first). There's a little bit about Japan's relationship with the sea too, and the over-fishing that has led to certain once-abundant delicacies disappearing from Jiro's menu

Yet what struck me was how apt the film is at demonstrating the relationship between professionalism  masculinity and formal beauty in Japanese culture. In the UK, a man like Jiro - a determinedly hard grafter of working class origins who never takes a day off and strives to do his very best at his vocation - would not necessarily also be such an aesthete. Yet, in Japan, composed, considered beauty - such as the way Jiro's sushi is delicately presented - and masculinity do not contradict each other.

'American Mary' - Dir. The Soska Sisters (18)

Much buzzed-about after impressing at FrightFest last year, 'American Mary' is part torture-porn, part body-horror as directed/written by a pair of identical twin sisters from Canada. As regular readers will know, I'm not a huge fan of horror movies (so take my criticism for all it's worth), but I found this one a bit of a chore. It feels longer than its 103 minute running time would suggest, lurching between fairly tame sequences in which Mary (Katharine Isabelle) - a hard-up trainee surgeon - performs grotesque surgeries, joining the underground body-modification community to pay the bills. As if greed and desperation weren't enough of a motivation for the character, the Soska sisters have Mary date-raped half-way through the movie, enabling the second half to become a revenge fantasy type thing, which leaves a sour after-taste.

Monday, 7 January 2013

FilmQuest 2012: Glass more than half empty...

So... I failed that FilmQuest 2012 thing I started last January, seeing just 13 of the 30 movies I'd promised myself to check out (for those keeping score, I saw 'Blue Velvet' but never found time to write about it). And it all started so well, with over a third of the list seen by early April. So what happened? A lot of things: a long-term relationship ended, I moved house a couple of times, I started a new relationship, and - perhaps most impactful of all - I fell out of love with writing about film in the second half of last year. This was probably apparent to any regular readers, as posts became less frequent and reviews became shorter (though maybe that's a blessing?).

I might do another post talking about why I stopped wanting to be a film journalist - or any type of journalist - gathering my thoughts about the highs and lows of three years in which I considered that my "career". In fact I'm certain I'll do that as a warning to others if nothing else! But this is about my aborted "FilmQuest", so now isn't the time.

Basically the order of business here is to begin some new sort of quest and to try to stick to it. Whilst I didn't come close to finishing last year's quest in the end, I wouldn't personally write it off as a complete failure: it remains the case that I hadn't previously seen 'Chinatown', 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', 'Goodfellas', 'Unforgiven' or 'Vertigo'. So my life is certainly richer for that experience, I'd say. Yet I still haven't seen 'Rebel Without a Cause' or 'West Side Story' or 'The Sound of Music', to name but a few.

I haven't seen a lot of things, obviously (there are far too many films to see them all), but the point of this list was to address blindspots I felt were particularly uncomfortable: films it seemed everyone else had as cultural reference points but which had somehow never formed part of my upbringing or experience. With that goal in sight I think it's important to complete last year's list over the course of 2013. That means watching:

Blow Up
The Exorcist
Rebel Without a Cause
The Sound of Music
West Side Story
When Harry Met Sally...
Lethal Weapon
Beverly Hills Cop
Mary Poppins
The Passion of the Christ
Dirty Harry
An Officer and a Gentleman
Rain Man
Saturday Night Fever

Those 17 "leftovers" still NEED to be seen, but I should probably add a few more. I won't be so arrogant as to add another 13, but it'd bug me if I didn't at least add three more - rounding this year's quest up to 20. And to get those films I'll simply select the first three I haven't seen off of this list - the all-time US box office 200, as adjusted for inflation (i.e. 'Gone With the Wind' is top and 'Avatar' is 14th). Not including 'The Exorcist', which is already on my list, those films are:

The Ten Commandments
Doctor Zhivago

So there you have it! Let FilmQuest 2013 fare better than its aborted 2012 antecedent!

And speaking of new year's resolutions, I'd also like to:

Write at least one full screenplay
Start a comic book blog/podcast
Update this blog at least 10 times each month

I've written it down now so I have to do it.

Friday, 4 January 2013

'Silver Linings Playbook', 'Jack Reacher', 'Life of Pi' and 'Fear and Desire': review round-up

'Silver Linings Playbook' - Dir. David O. Russell (15)

Really strong lead performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence combine with a smart script to make David O. Russell's relatively unsung follow-up to 'The Fighter' a real charmer. This story of friendship and, later, love between two mentally ill misfits is handled with sensitively without being patronising or sanitised, giving a non-judgemental glimpse at the personal lives of its troubled, bipolar disorder suffering protagonists. The duo's lack of social graces and peculiar home-lives gives rise to some amusing scenes, though overall the emphasis here is on drama - in a gritty, socially real style and following working class characters, making it feel similar to the director's previous in terms of tone.

Even the populist dance contest plotline that sees the two leads come together feels somehow grounded rather than whimsical, though the first half is definitely strongest - dealing more with mental health issues, whereas as it goes on it becomes more about the redemptive power of love and the peculiarities of fate. That's not a bad thing or a worthless theme, by any stretch of the imagination, but the film gets less compelling as it stops being an intense character study - as it is for the first (Cooper dominated) half-hour - and becomes more bogged down in its own plot. All the stuff involving Robert De Niro as a superstitious bookmaker feels particularly unnecessary, and the final scenes - hinging on an unlikely/nonsensical final wager - resort to contriving tension from an odd situation rather than the actions of characters.

'Jack Reacher' - Dir. Christopher McQuarrie (12A)

One of the most relentlessly right-wing action movies of 2012, 'Jack Reacher' stars Tom Cruise as the eponymous "hero" - an extra-judicial champion who deals with The Scumbags The Law Can't Put Away, dispensing justice at the barrel of a gun and at the heel of his boot. Here the enemy - as embodied by a brilliant but under-utilised Werner Herzog - invests in public works: making bridges and roads "that no one needs". Here politicians and policemen are corrupt and can't be trusted to get the job done, and in fact come between our hero and True Justice more than once. Here a defence attorney (Rosamund Pike) is made to speak with the families of her client's victims as a condition for getting Reacher's help. It's a film where American prisons are derided as holiday camps and where the rights of gun owners are frequently and fervently championed - with one of the good guys the owner of a gun store/practice range, as played by Robert Duvall. It's the only film I've seen where the hero can casually call a young woman a "slut" and still be considered the hero. I could go on but by now you either get the idea or you don't care.

Reacher is a typical Cruise character to a self-parodic and often hilarious degree: he's the best there is at everything, top of every class at military school, but he's also a bit of a maverick. During one particularly intense phone conversation with a wrong'un, he describes himself as "a drifter with nothing to lose". The ladies universally love him, turning to gawk at him in every crowd scene. He's good at running and driving fast cars, and you rarely see him fail or come off worse in any situation. But there's something different and, I think, quite sad about this particular Cruise role also - in that Jack Reacher is a bit nasty. In playing a character more ruthless and self-consciously "bad-ass" than his usual Cruise has never seemed older or less relevant, even as he struggles to stay hip.

'Life of Pi' - Dir. Ang Lee (PG)

The opening credits sequence to Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi' is the single tweest thing I have ever seen outside of a parody and, I suppose to its credit, the film starts as it means to go on: bombarding the audience with cuteness and whimsy and trite armchair theology from then until the sloppy ending moments. There's just enough bland and vague bollocks about faith and spirituality here to flatter the audience into thinking they're being given something that fits their intelligence, without actually challenging them and spoiling their evening out - but 'Life of Pi' is every bit as vapid as Vernon Kay or people who use the word "detox".

Based on a beloved novel, this is the story of a young man stranded at sea in a lifeboat with only an angry tiger for company. Whilst stranded at sea following a shipwreck - as his family attempted to move their zoo from French-India to French-Canada - Pi (Suraj Sharma) contends with the tiger Richard Parker - an impressive piece of CGI - whilst coming to terms with his own faith: a mix of Islam, Hinduism and Catholicism. The latter part, which could be interesting, is neglected largely in favour of adorable meerkats and flying fish that make nifty (and distracting, aspect ratio altering) use of the 3D.

Lee's film looks amazing - or at least, it looks different to anything else you've seen - but beyond that its empty calories and outstays its welcome well before it stumbles over the two-hour mark. Apparently the original book was once deemed "unfilmable" but on this evidence, to misquote 'Jurassic Park', Ang Lee was so preoccupied with whether or not he could that he didn't stop to think if he should.

'Fear and Desire' - Dir. Stanley Kubrick (12A)

Playing UK cinemas for the first time since 1953, Stanley Kubrick's rare and disowned debut feature can now be appreciated in all its flawed-but-sort-of-interesting glory. This is definitely one for die-hard fans of the director or those with a broader interest in film history rather than casual cinema-goers, a fact re-enforced by the decision to screen this short feature preceded by three short documentary films made by the young photographer as his motion picture career gathered pace. This means Kubrick aficionados can now also see 'Day of the Fight' and 'The Flying Padre' on the big screen, as well as a colour recruitment film made for the International Seafarers Union in 1953, the year after 'Fear and Desire'. The end result is a two-hour programme that's occasionally fascinating and sometimes a bit dull.

As far as existentialist war B-movie 'Fear and Desire' is concerned, it's understandable why Kubrick would block its distribution for so long during his lifetime. It's not a complete car crash, with some really nice photography (as you'd expect) and some eye-catching shots, but its overwritten and amateurish compared to his subsequent work, and pretty abysmally acted. Some recognisably Kubrickian themes can be found here, such as madness and the dehumanising horror of war, but its difficult to know how much of this could be down to the director given that this is the one film he took no part in writing - with Howard Sackler the sole credited author. Visually there are aspects of it that reminded me strongly of early Kurosawa - particularly 'Rashomon', which was such a big deal in the years directly preceding the making of 'Fear and Desire' - mainly in its use of the jungle setting and enigmatic female lead, Virginia Leith as "the girl".

There are some really appealing aspects to the story too, in that it focusses on four soldiers stranded behind enemy lines and their internal combustion under the pressure of what to do next. There is little conflict with the delightfully non-specific enemy - though the conflict we do see is powerfully and viscerally depicted - but instead we spend time with these increasingly mad men who, as far as we can tell, may as well be the villains of the piece.