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.