Sunday, 28 April 2013

'Iron Man 3', 'Oblivion', 'The Look of Love' and 'Mud': review round-up and 'Thor: The Dark World' trailer

Here's a trailer for this November's terribly exciting looking 'Thor: The Dark World', just because. Now on to the business of reviews:

'Iron Man 3' - Dir. Shane Black (12A)

As much as I love 'The Avengers' and am (as evidenced above) obsessed with the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, 'Iron Man 3' was not a film I rushed into with much expectation or the excitement I already feel for the upcoming Thor and Captain America sequels. Whilst Robert Downey Jnr's Tony Stark has been the most profitable one of the bunch so far for Marvel, with the patchy 'Iron Man 2' the most successful pre-Avengers "Phase One" movie, Iron Man has always left me cold. I've enjoyed the films enough, but I never loved them like I love the others. Perhaps because Iron Man seems to love himself enough for the both of us. That all changed, however, with Shane Black's new sequel to the series, which basically just turns the franchise into an awesome 90s buddy comedy, combining jaw-dropping action sequences - and some of the biggest and most imaginatively conceived superhero set-pieces yet seen - with dozens of genuinely funny and quotable lines. It's exciting, clever, superbly acted (Ben Kingsley's performance, in particular), and as close as you can come to a guaranteed good time at the pictures.

The script somehow blends all the best elements of a buddy cop movie (notably in Downey Jnr and Don Cheadle's team-up), a sort of Capra-esque Christmas movie (it'll sound shit on paper, but Iron Man's pairing with a smalltown kid is entirely winsome), an espionage thriller, a deft political satire (maybe overselling that a touch, but what the film does with Kingsley's villain is inspired) and a classic modern superhero movie. It's a 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' style deconstruction of action movie tropes and a faithful sequel to both 'Iron Man 2' and 'The Avengers' - which it references whilst also managing to be its own thing completely. It bravely takes Tony Stark out of the suit for most of the movie - putting him in more peril than ever before, and allowing him to be more genuinely heroic - whilst also still recognisably being a Marvel comics adaptation. It does a lot of things and it does most of them excellently. And it's probably the only superhero movie to have a satisfying "end boss" fight to boot.

I can't express enough how smart and purely fun Shane Black's movie is: unsentimental and yet full of unabashed heart, in a way that finally made me love this character. His screenplay - co-written with Drew Pearce - is fantastic, not only in its dialogue and character choices (Gwyneth Paltrow is refreshingly allowed to be much more than a damsel in distress), but in the way he contrives such wonderful and unexpected action sequences. Such as when Tony is forced to improvise new weapons after losing his suit and so nips into a hardware store, or when he successfully retrieves part of his suit and has to make do with what boils down to a glove and a boot. Here, for the first time in one of these movies, filmmakers have crafted antagonists who can actually pose a threat, allowing Tony to reasonably deploy his extensive arsenal in its entirety, hopping between suits in a sequence that's fast-paced and unlike anything else in the series to date. Don Cheadle gets more punch-the-air-awesome moments than I thought possible for an actor who was the British one in 'Ocean's Eleven' and Guy Pearce makes a sensational villain. It's just fantastic summer fun.

'Oblivion' - Dir. Joseph Kosinski (12A)

Say what you will about Hollywood "product" being derivative and low on original ideas, but surely nothing - no sequel or spin-off or re-make - is as cynical and brazenly plagaristic as the Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle 'Oblivion', directed by Joseph Kosinski of 'Tron: Legacy' fame. You'd struggle to name a sci-fi movie or video game made in the last two decades that this one doesn't pillage for intellectual property, stealing wholesale plot elements, concepts and designs from the likes of the low budget cult hit 'Moon' all the way up to blockbusters like 'Independence Day'. There's weapon and costume designs lifted from the game series Mass Effect, whilst many will be quick to spot the embarrassingly blatant similarities between Melissa Leo's character - an untrustworthy, disembodied computer-treated voice - and the game Portal. And that's not even mentioning how much it rips off the filmography of its star, as we watch his continued slow fade from relevance.

It's a film that allows Tom Cruise - in the increasingly desperate "I'm not too old, honest, look what I can do!" phase of his career - to run really fast across sand, to ride motorcycles wearing sunglasses and to play an ace-pilot-and-ace-marksman-who-is-the-best-at-everything-he-does-and-a-scientist-and-the-saviour-of-mankind-who-is-irresistible-to-all-womenTM. Within the first twenty minutes he's taken two showers and gone for a dip in a swimming pool, and whilst the man is in unquestionably good condition for a fifty year old (much better shape than I've ever been in, for the record), his ab-flexing determination to prove how he still "has it" really isn't at all appealing.

The film itself is at its most tolerable when it epitomises the world of Tom Cruise cliche rather than when it's raiding every modern sci-fi classic for ideas - but mostly it's a bland, flavourless waste of two hours. Sometimes it's at least a slick and reasonably pretty diversion, with Kosinski's bright white Apple-influenced brand of future chic carrying over from the similarly attractive-yet-hollow world of his last film. Yet more often the whole thing is a display of baffling incompetence on nearly every level, with a central premise that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny, clunky exposition monologues repeated in their entirety more than once and twists you see coming a mile away (at least one of which is on the damn poster). The drone robots are fairly cool - with their use in war raising the film's only potentially interesting moral question - and the 'Top Gun' style flying sequences have their moments, but this is definitely one to avoid and, I would predict, one destined to be quickly forgotten.

'The Look of Love' - Dir. Michael Winterbottom (18)

The Steve Coogan/Michael Winterbottom partnership, which has served both so well over the years with the likes of 'A Cock and Bull Story' and '24 Hour Party People', continues with 'The Look of Love': an unfocused and shallow biopic about Paul Raymond - the infamous millionaire who was once Britain's wealthiest man. The film chronicles Raymond's career from - as the film would have it - a glorified circus ringmaster in the 1950s to an ageing property magnate and soft-core pornographer in the 90s, via his 60s/70s heyday as the proprietor of Soho's most sophisticated and talked about gentleman's clubs and publisher of a controversial, and widely read, men's magazine. The main problem with the film, aside from its strange refusal to engage with any social/political issues beyond glib one-liners, is that Coogan - a versatile performer - plays Raymond as indistinct from TV creation Alan Partridge.

Now, I bow to no man in my love of Alan Partridge as a comedy creation, but I'm guessing Paul Raymond was not so similar to Norwich's favourite son and Coogan's decision to play him this way is baffling. Every comic aside, awkward pause and geekish piece of trivia is pure Partridge, albeit a wealthy and successful one. It's a fact that cheapens the movie and renders its few attempts at real drama insincere. This is a pity as the film becomes more and more about the apparently complex relationship between Raymond and his daughter, as played by emerging star Imogen Poots - who steals the film out from underneath its star with a multi-faceted showing that ranges from vulnerable and troubled, to self-assured and downright cocky. The fact that the tragedy of Poots' character takes centre stage - being part of the film's framing device and used as a the catalyst for present-day introspection for Raymond - makes it even more of a pity that Coogan's central performance seems so disingenuous.

If the purpose of a biopic is to reveal something about its subject, to leave you feeling you know more about a person on the way out than you did on the way in, then 'The Look of Love' has well and truly failed. I leave the film none the wiser about what Paul Raymond was like as a man, with film engaging with this real historical figure the same way it engages with the "swinging sixties": presenting both with crude, cartoonish caricature and seemingly without affection. It certainly doesn't earn its mawkish and manipulative ending.

'Mud' - Dir. Jeff Nichols (12A)

In the very best of ways, 'Mud' - Jeff Nichols' follow-up to the impressive 'Take Shelter' - is a kids film. Not merely because its protagonist, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), is a 15 year-old boy, but because of the way the tale is framed: not simply as a coming of age story, but as a classic boys adventure in the mold of Mark Twain or vintage Spielberg of the 1980s. Or, better yet, 'Stand By Me'. The sort of film that looks children in the eye and treats a young audience with respect, refusing to sand away the rough edges yet not completely forsaking wonder. I have no idea whether Nichols ever envisaged the film as one for all ages - and it certainly isn't being sold that way and may not end up reaching that audience - but 'Mud' is a pretty perfect children's film, featuring a young hero in Ellis young boys can certainly empathise with. It certainly nails a certain time in a boy's life and this is easily as complete and challenging a role as a young actor is ever given, with Sheridan a real talent.

At its simplest, 'Mud' is the story about aimless, working class kids from broken (or breaking) homes who spend their days doing what boys do at that age: they go places they aren't supposed to, stay out later than they are meant to and make grand plans in secrecy. These boys, living on a river, take to playing around on a deserted and snake-infested island, climbing trees and playing with sticks, until one day they find an abandoned boat in a tree and decide to make it their own. The only trouble is a wanted man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has made the boat is home and makes them a deal: they can have the boat with his blessing, if they bring him some food and run some simple errands. Increasingly dangerous little adventures follow, which bring the kids deeper into Mud's difficulties than might be sensible, but - in the great kids film tradition - the kids go through hell to protect their new, social outcast friend from the threat posed by the local grown-ups: the police, the parents and the rest. In Mud McConaughey has a role every bit as memorable and intense as 'Killer Joe'.

'Mud' is a beautiful and moving piece of work. Sincere and populated by warm, genuinely loving characters right through the cast. It goes unexpected places and sidesteps every cliche you think you can see coming along the way. Overwhelmingly it's a film about love - in all its forms - in all its fragility and with all its pitfalls, but which ultimately manages to be warm and optimistic without compromising the gritty stuff. Love is hard and sometimes impermanent, it says. You might throw everything into it and get your heart ripped out, or even find yourself publicly humiliated as a result of unrequited affection. Yet it's worth it: it's the best thing we have and the only thing in this world worth having. That is basically the lesson learnt by the young hero through his trials and tribulations, but all without seeming twee or saccharine in the slightest. Quite an achievement - and a noble one at that.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

'A Late Quartet' review:

The fact that I forgot I'd seen 'A Late Quartet' - and thus forgot to include it in my last round-up - actually speaks volumes for how I felt about it. There's really nothing bad about it. It's solid existential New Yorker angst stuff, with a great ensemble cast featuring the always brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener, and Yaron Zilberman's drama (co-written with Seth Grossman) is smart enough and rarely boring. Yet it's hard to get excited about, being a sort of middle-brow and evidently quite forgettable American version of this year's earlier 'Quartet' - and boasting the same "legendary musical troupe re-group for one final concert" plot-line. The main difference here is that more emphasis is placed on music, and playing instruments with a group, as a metaphor for life and relationships.

I don't really want to spend any more time on this, so here's a trailer for a film I'm really excited about. Noah Baumbach's 'Francis Ha', co-written with (and starring) Greta Gerwig. 'A Late Quartet' could have used some humour, not to mention a bit of Greta.

Monday, 15 April 2013

'In the House', 'The Place Beyond the Pines' and 'Finding Nemo 3D': review round-up and more Joe Blann quiz art

Finally getting around to some more reviews. My January resolution of 10 posts a month has failed spectacularly! Anyway, above is the latest Joe Blann picture round masterpiece from the Duke's at Komedia film quiz - Hold Onto Your Butts (first Thursday of every month). Below are some reviews.

'In the House' - Dir. Francois Ozon (15)

Prior to this one, my only exposure to the work of French filmmaker Francois Ozon was the kitsch and campy 'Potiche' - a multi-coloured 70s-set comedy about sexual politics that really grated on me in Venice, way back in 2010. It's possible that my intense dislike of that film has grown out of proportion since being bored by it at that festival, perhaps as much as a result of its bizarre appropriation by Odeon Orange Wednesday ads as by exaggerated memories of the film itself. In any case, my disdain for his last work almost prevented me from seeing Ozon's 'In the House' which, it turns out, would have been scandalous. It's one of the best films of the year: smart, funny, gripping, with a sly wit - excellently performed and with lots to say about storytelling, writing, voyeurism and more. It's truly excellent.

It stars the affable Fabrice Luchini, who seems to specialize in playing oblivious middle-class intellectuals, as a French literature teacher and failed author who is intrigued to find one piece of homework not written by a vacuous moron and becomes obsessed with the student responsible (Claude, Ernst Umhauer). Convinced that Claude has raw talent in need of guidance, Luchini takes him under his wing, giving him extra hours outside of school. However beneath this inspirational 'Dead Poets Society' style love of education and artistry there is also a slightly grubby aspect to proceedings: Claude's writings to Luchini take the form of an ongoing serial based on the student's real life obsession with and manipulation of the family of one of his classmates. So, in aiding Claude, Luchini is actively encouraging this increasingly destructive venture into another's family home and doing so partly to satisfy his own voyeuristic interest in the soap opera of their lives. A saga upon which he and his art gallery manager wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) are hopelessly hooked - filling the void left by their joyless, sexless marriage.

In telling this story Ozon's film is always fresh and imaginative. For instance, we occasionally witness the same events told by Claude in different ways, responding to the directions of his tutor. His style of storytelling and preoccupations also change in reaction to Luchini's advice. We see Luchini pop-up and offer critique to his student, even as events in the titular house unfold, in a device that feels like something out of the best Woody Allen comedy. There's obviously something about storytelling as voyeurism going on here throughout - and also the way the same events can be warped and manipulated when described to an audience, but what I found especially intriguing is the way Ozon's screenplay - based on a Spanish stageplay by Juan Mayorga - eventually finds a way to come full circle and investigate the homes of the protagonists: their growing obsession with this one, pretty ordinary family, ultimately saying more about their own unhappy lives. Literature as theraputic release or as harmful self-delusion? The ending left me uncertain.

'The Place Beyond the Pines' - Dir. Derek Cianfrance (15)

High expectations for Derek Cianfrance's epic follow-up to 'Blue Valentine' were undermined by my increasingly aggressive indifference to the growing hipster cult of Ryan Gosling. But, for reasons that become clear about a third of a way in, 'The Place Beyond the Pines' isn't really the spiritual successor to 'Drive' it's been marketed as in some places, on account of "the Gos" playing an ace motorcyclist-turned-criminal. It's much better than that: a cross-generational tale of fathers and sons - of consequences and regrets. Ambitious, sprawling and never less than compelling. It's the tale of one ostensibly bad man who will do anything for his son, even if it means breaking the law. And one clean-cut good-guy who will do his utmost to defend the law even if it means neglecting his son. There's more to it than that, especially in the third act, but it's an interesting central dichotomy.

Visually it's stunning, as shot by Steve McQueen's regular DP Sean Bobbitt, and somehow structurally tight in a way that belies its long running time. Factor in the fact that both Gosling and the recently Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper are on top, career-defining form and it's potentially a modern American indie classic. It's not the crime thriller a lot of people will be expecting (it's really a fairly patient and introspective drama), yet 'Pines' isn't for want of horribly tense moments or spectacular sequences - notably a one-take car chase shot from the perspective of police cars in pursuit of Gosling's motorcycle. To say much more about it at this point would be to risk spoiling it, so I'll just leave it there for now.

'Finding Nemo (3D)' - Dir. Andrew Stanton (U)

It's not really a new release as far as I'm, concerned, so I'll keep it extremely brief. Andrew Stanton's classic - one of the vintage Pixar films - returns to cinemas, and I was delighted to find it was as funny and charming as the first time around. The gags come thick and fast, and range from the knock-about and silly, to the existential and witty, and more often than not they work. The animation and attention to detail - particularly the work the animators have done acting the various characters facially (no small ask considering all the characters are still recognisably fish) - is terrific and still holds up very well, even given Pixar's constant boundary pushing in the decade(!) since the film's original release. The 3D isn't really noticeable in all honesty so, given the damage the process seems to do to the vividness of the colours, I'd have rather seen it re-released in 2D. But don't let that put you off: like I say, It's barely noticeable - though that does call into question being asked to pay extra for the privilege...

Also, on a related note, the new 'Toy Story' short that precedes the film is really, really funny. Probably the best one yet - and a perfect antidote to 'Spring Breakers' (you'll know what I mean if you've seen it).

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

'Spring Breakers' and 'Trance': review round-up

Was in Moscow on holiday last week, hence the above shot of the "Mosfilm" studio logo - the only cinema-related part of that trip (though I did see some interesting cinemas around the city). Didn't go into the studio though, as I'm not organised enough to arrange a tour in advance, it turns out. Anyhow, below are reviews of the two films I've seen in the days since my return:

'Spring Breakers' - Dir. Harmony Korine (18)

Four vacuous college girls, three of whom are played, subversively, by former Disney/ABC tween idols, rob a fast-food shack in order to fund their dream spring break in Florida, with debauched and vaguely nightmarish results. This is the basic outline of the garish, pink-neon collision of Britney Spears and dubstep that has turned out to be indie filmmaker Harmony Korine's most mainstream and, simultaneously, most divisive film to-date. It subverts and critiques - sometimes perfectly - a certain shallow, money-obsessed sector of popular culture, whilst also, much of the time, seeming to revel in it - something it also does with the frequent slow-motion shots of topless college revelers and occasional gangland violence. Is it's heart, if it has one, always in the right place? Does the camera leer maybe a little too long at the titular girls, forever clad in bikinis, to undermine whatever satire is taking place? Possibly, but I don't think Korine really cares and it doesn't spoil his film.

This is a shamelessly trashy and exploitative movie that just works. It entertains, amuses and shocks in equal measure, and with regularity, throughout its tight running time, not least of all when James Franco is on screen as self-styled hustler and d-list rapper Alien - a role he completely vanishes into and for which he deserves award recognition. Some bits are really spot-on at pinpointing the seedy, mutually destructive nihilism and cultural bankruptcy of the American Dream - such as when Franco and the girls gather around the piano for an earnest performance of a Britney ballad that all present really do seem to believe represents a high cultural watermark. Another great scene consists solely of Alien showing off his increasingly pathetic "shit" in his mansion: an itinerary that includes different coloured shorts, several aftershaves and "Scarface on repeat". His extreme, gormless pride at this haul is the perfect rebuttal to MTV Cribs and everything it represents.

'Trance' - Dir. Danny Boyle (15)

James McAvoy's fine art auctioneer follows protocol and attempts to secure an artwork valued at £25 million during an armed robbery, lead by Vincent Cassel. During the chaos McAvoy hides the painting and is dealt a nasty blow to the head by Cassel - causing him memory loss, with predictably frustrating results for those looking to recover the valuable piece. Enter Rosario Dawson as a hypnotherapist who promises to be able to delve into McAvoy's subconscious and bring his memory back. She boasts that, with a susceptible subject like McAvoy, she can convince anybody to do just about anything. And so begins a tedious and predictable labyrinth of twists and turns, as the film asks us to ponder which one of these variously unsympathetic characters is really pulling the strings.

It's a Danny Boyle film, so it's all hyperactive camera movements and bizarre, possibly improvised, camera angles, none of which seem to mean anything or relate to what story is being told. There's a to-camera narration from McAvoy that feels like something out of a mid-90s British crime flick, but that comes and goes until it is completely forgotten. The musical choices are jarring and total rubbish. And it includes a nude scene that gives 'The Paperboy' a run for its money in the "Oh My God Did That Just Happen" category - a bizarre sequence I will never forget that sees McAvoy waiting (for ages) for Dawson to emerge from a bathroom, with the soundtrack a mix a of smooth, sexy-time music and the sound of a shaver. Don't worry if you haven't guessed what she's doing: Boyle will show you in close-up. The only thing funnier than this scene is the contrived justification that comes later.