Friday, 20 September 2013

'Blue Jasmine', 'Rush', 'In A World...', 'The Great Beauty', 'About Time' and 'Riddick': review round-up

'Blue Jasmine' - Dir. Woody Allen (12A)

The words "a return to form" seem to have been ascribed to every Woody Allen film since the mid-90s to the point where I'm genuinely surprised any professional critic would actually use them in a review. But what that curious phenomenon seems to show is that however lacklustre some of his recent canon have been perceived as by many - including, from time to time, this reviewer - they've always managed to feature enough reliably great performances, some sharp lines of dialogue and often an ingenious central concept that means they're always somebody's "best since Manhattan" (or whatever the yardstick for Woody greatness is this month). In other words, every 'Curse of the Jade Scorpion' or 'Scoop' has something to recommend it and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Allen's decline have been greatly exaggerated.

I often wonder if, say, 'Melinda and Melinda' had been by a new filmmaker whether critics would have been much more impressed. We'll never know the answer to that one for sure, but it's difficult to argue against the idea that Woody is to some extent a victim of his own successes. That's not to say all of his movies have been golden (there are one or two I can't stand *cough* 'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' *cough*), just that we need to have a little perspective. He's a 77 year-old man who still manages to write and direct  a new feature every single year. I don't single out his advanced years to be patronising, but rather to point out that he's still vital, creative and seemingly just as concerned with pondering the human condition as he was in the 60s - at an age when most of us close ourselves off and become reactionary Daily Mail readers (huge generalisation, but you get my point). Anyway, I say all this to cover my ass before getting into his latest film.

I'm gambling that displaying an awareness of the critical discourse surrounding his movies will lend me a bit of credibility (or else let me off the hook) when I somewhat inevitably say: 'Blue Jasmine' is a triumphant return to form! Woody's best since 'Sweet and Lowdown'!

And it is. To my mind, it's his most perfect movie since 1999. Its closest contender for that accolade, 'Midnight in Paris', is easy-going, charming, inventive and often very funny - but 'Jasmine' vaults over it by virtue of genuine dramatic heft and, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, a lead performance for the ages. It's rare for a Woody Allen film - even a vintage 70s/80s one - to be so tragic, sad and consistently tense as this. It made me uncomfortable and anxious throughout, and the funny lines don't feel like jokes or witticisms in the Allen style, but are born of great characterisation. There's a lot of heart and feeling in this one and no easy answers about life's troubles, nor is there an Allen surrogate figure making sardonic wisecracks to soften the blow. It's a brave and disturbing movie, whilst still feeling like a Woody Allen film - unlike some of his previous attempts at prioritising drama over comedy, such as artistic misfires 'Match Point' and 'Cassandra's Dream'.

Blanchett gives a titanic performance as a force of nature who sweeps through the film delivers lines like "there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming" with an intensity that's nearly frightening. Her part is fantastically well-written to begin with, but she takes the material to another level and manages to make Jasmine a sympathetic character in spite of her selfishness and self-defeating attitude, probably because she really nails representation of the character's mental problems and crippling dependence on drink and pills. The supporting cast is also brilliant, with Sally Hawkins particularly good value as the sympathetic sister and comedian Andrew Dice Clay giving a surprisingly effective performance as her wounded ex-husband. It's a difficult film to find fault with, though I might have taken issue with Hawkins' beautiful San Francisco home (which can't be cheap) being dismissed so often as some kind of shameful hovel had the film not convinced me so thoroughly in every other respect.

No question, this is one of the year's best and it's safe to say we have a clear favourite for the Best Actress Oscar.

'Rush' - Dir. Ron Howard (15)

In keeping with Howard canon to date, this F1 racing biopic - which explores the 70s rivalry between brash, womanising Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and clinical, cold Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) - is a polished, competently put together crowd pleaser that doesn't take any risks. A decent crop of actors, giving charismatic performances, in a "based on a true story" tale of man's triumph over adversity, the will to win and every other hackneyed sports movie cliché available. I'll say this for it: 'Rush' races by, no pun intended, and isn't at all boring, but it's very difficult for me to pinpoint why that is. Maybe it's because it's loud and there are lots of fast cars in it? Perhaps it's all the gratuitous female nudity that serves neither plot nor character? It's probably got the most to do with the pleasure of seeing Brühl's Lauda being relentlessly dickish to various people. Yeah, it's probably the last one.

Peter 'The Queen' Morgan's screenplay leaves nothing unexplained, with race commentators and track announcers enabling the writer to commit the cardinal sin and tell even as he's showing, more or less at all times. You'd expect a bit of hokey exposition in the race commentary, explaining the sport to those unfamiliar or establishing the context of various races in the drivers' careers, but Morgan and Howard go further - having an almost ever-present commentary that updates us helpfully on the simplest of things. I'm exaggerating slightly but the commentary at times says things like "here are the two rivals, the by-the-book Austrian Niki Lauda and his playboy British challenger James Hunt. Of course, they don't like each other all that much after the incident in the last scene you saw, but they both want to win here today, with points to prove on their various competing philosophies on life. One thing's for sure though: the duo have a grudging, mutual respect that will really come into the fore in the third act." And when the commentary isn't doing that the soundtrack is, notably as Bowie's "Fame" plays during a montage of Hunt being famous.

Everything is technically top-notch but there's no character or originality to the way this movie's been put together. You always get exactly what you've come to expect and no more. It is literally a longer version of the trailer. Stylistically it's a collage of bits you've seen (over)used elsewhere. Such as the obligatory bird's-eye shot of crowds holding umbrellas in the rain (because it's pretty) and the low-angle, over-exposed shaky-cam shots of Hunt drinking beer that show us he's on an out of control bender driven by despair. It's like every scene in the screenplay caused Howard to ask himself "now, how has this been done well before in other people's movies?"

'In A World...' - Dir. Lake Bell (15)

The promising directorial debut feature of writer and actress Lake Bell, 'In A World...' is a smart comedy about a vocal coach, Carol Solomon (Bell), who dreams of breaking into the male-dominated world of voice-over work - with no gig as prestigious as narration for the trailers of epic movies. It's a vocation her competitive and egotistical father, Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), is at the top of and - as a terrible sexist with no faith in his daughter - he's grooming another man, Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) to take his place in the industry. So Carol, with the help of a sound technician played by meek, niceguy comedian Demetri Martin, goes against the odds, and against her father's advice, to try and win the chance to say those famous words of the title over the teaser trailer for the film adaptation of a Hunger Games style teen-lit phenomenon.

The voice-over industry squabbling is pretty funny, but the film's trump card is the presence of Bell herself as a confident, likeable lead. Carol is the sort of silly, immature, wisecracking character women don't normally get to play in Hollywood - usually consigned to playing tutting shrews in comedies about 30-something man-babies and rarely getting the funniest lines. It appears Bell's answer to that particular imbalance has been to make her own damn film - and I'm glad she did. Especially as it means we have a female character whose relationships with her father and vague love interest (Martin) are demonstrably equally important as that with her sister (Michaela Watkins). In other words, she isn't defined exclusively by her relationship to male characters even if the film is about her relationship with a male-dominated industry.

Light and breezy, consistently funny and overflowing with charm, the film's only misstep is a final ten minutes in which too many moral lessons are learned and the film's female-empowerment message is spelled out in clunky fashion, when it was already implicitly clear from the synopsis. It's also jarring to see [SPOILER WARNING] the film let Carol's father off the hook in such spectacular fashion when he's spent the entire movie not only discouraging his daughter but actively placing obstacles in her way. Don't get me wrong, you expect some kind of father-daughter reconciliation, but Sam's speech - in which he expresses pride in his daughters' achievements - feels disingenuous after what precedes it, and therefore it doesn't quite pack the feel-good punch you feel the movie is going for.

'The Great Beauty' ('La belleza grande') - Dir. Paolo Sorrentino (15)

A total and utter cinematic treat from the supremely talented director of 'Il divo', Paolo Sorrentino, 'The Great Beauty' stars Toni Servillo as a once promising author who got sucked into the decadent Rome party scene after his one great success, 40 years prior, and is now deeply unfulfilled - his lifestyle lacking any real beauty or appeal. He's a man who, in his own reckoning, "wanted not just to be the king of parties, but the power to make them failures": and in that respect he has been a great success. A dominant presence amongst the city's fading intellectual class, all equally unhappy in secret - an isolated, self-loathing and hopelessly vain bunch who you feel have been playing out the same social gatherings for decades.

It's a beautifully sad film punctuated by a bouncy, euro-dance soundtrack, which perfectly encapsulates the gilded cage that Rome has become for its protagonist. And it's also capable of being extremely funny, and more than a little wise with some really pithy dialogue worthy of future quotation. As you might expect from Sorrentino, it's sharply observed and offers a stinging, satirical rebuke to aspects of contemporary Italian culture: from a conveyor-belt approach to cosmetic surgery to the empty pretension of Rome's young avant garde set. Yet it's also a tender and sincere piece in which sex, death and the Catholic church all play a part. And gosh is it pretty to look at.

'About Time' - Dir. Richard Curtis (12A)

It's difficult talking about Richard Curtis' latest twee, upper-class comedy 'About Time', because though I really didn't take much from it, didn't find it at all funny and found elements of it's central premise a little troubling - I'm reluctant to tear a strip off something so faultlessly kind. Yes: Curtis paints Britain as a strange fantasy world, supremely exportable to foreign cinema markets and alien to most people that actually live there, and he does (infamously) tend to whitewash what is - and has been for centuries, by the way - a multi-cultural country. What's more, the idea that only men in the film have the power of time travel is more than a little sexist, and in a peculiarly contrived sort of way - which literally robs female characters of agency during this story. However, I really do think he means well. I think he's overall a kind sort of person with broadly decent intentions, even if I don't seem to share his world-view, and whilst that doesn't make me like his films any more than I otherwise would, it does make me baulk at the idea of kicking them in the groin quite so hard as I might usually enjoy.

One of the peculiar features of 'About Time' is that there is really no conflict at any point... at all. Domhnall Gleason's character begins the film a decent chap and ends the film more or less an unchanged (if slightly older) man. When the plot presents him an opportunity to cheat on his luminescent girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) he wisely refuses it first time around. He's ultimately supposed to be imparting some lesson to us about not wasting what little time you have, punctuated here by his using time travel to get to spend more time with his dapper, wise old father (Bill Nighy) - yet Gleason's character always makes the most of his time with his father throughout what we see of his life. He is seemingly not a man with any regrets and, quite honestly, he's a pretty much the last person in all of fiction worthy of the gift of time travel, given that he pretty much just likes life the way it is. For a film ostensibly about time travel, there are incongruously long stretches where none takes place. Personally I find this lack of any antagonism or conflict refreshing: maybe there should be more films where people are basically decent and are allowed to like each other. But it isn't really the stuff of great drama or, it turns out, comedy.

Yet there's something genuinely sweet about a film where, during the inevitable wedding speech (as compulsory in a Curtis as the American girlfriend, kooky sister and well-meaning but mad old relative) the best accolade a father can bestow upon his son is that he is a kind man. Not a clever man or a wealthy man (though Gleason's character is shown to be both) but a kind one. You can (and should) find fault with many aspects of this film and of Curtis' wider filmography - certainly in his representations of social class and evident institutionalised sexism - but we could all do with a little more kindness and it be very churlish of me to spit from a great height upon something as painfully well-intentioned as this bit of old dross.

'Riddick' - Dir. David Twohy (15)

I'm going to start this one with the positive and then get on to the regrettable, regressive and wrong-headed sexual politics later on, because what 'Riddick' gets wrong it gets so catastrophically wrong that if my kinder comments followed they could seem in bad taste by association. OK? Let's go...

'Riddick' is the third entry in a series kept alive only by Vin Diesel's 'Fast and the Furious'-led star-power, as he attempts to ham-fistedly bludgeon his character from the well-received 2000 sci-fi/horror 'Pitch Black' into pop-culture significance. The logic seems to be that if night-vision afflicted convict-turned-anti-hero Richard B. Riddick(TM) appears in enough movies and video games, and is presented as a sufficient enough "badass", he is guaranteed to enter the pantheon of cult movie heroes, alongside Bond, Indy and the dog from 'Marley & Me'. It's an interesting theory, even if it doesn't seem to be panning out that way (there's no evidence people are any closer to caring). Regardless, Diesel has his fans and 'Riddick' does enough to satisfy that audience - even if it's destined to do next to nothing for anybody else.

That said, there's something strangely hypnotic about the film's opening 40 minutes in which a mostly-silent Riddick (a wise scripting choice, given Diesel's difficulty emoting and reading lines) stalks the arid wasteland of an anonymous alien world killing increasingly large CGI beasts. Birds, fish, dogs, giant scorpions: Riddick can best them all when it comes to punching and stabbing and running and grunting. Like a survivalist's wet dream, Riddick spends a significant chunk of the movie living in a cave, crafting weapons out of bits of bone. In all seriousness, it seems like it might be an attempt to chronicle ancient man's assent to the top of the food chain, as he's tormented by various creatures before becoming the area's main predator. At which point he sets his sights on greater quarry: man.

Then we get the slightly less compelling, but still oddly watchable second act in which Riddick is mostly absent and presented as some sort of horror movie monster (we occasionally see an outstretched hand), as he stalks two teams of bounty hunters who have been dispatched to the planet to capture him. One of them is a lady (Katee Sackhoff) and, as we learn through clunky and grotesque banter, she is a lesbian. This will be important later. In this section the film feels like a low-budget, over-lit, cheesy-as-fuck version of the original 'Alien', with Riddick filling in as the unknowable antagonist. Which is pretty jarring and unusual given it's a movie called Riddick and the third film in which this character has appeared, but I've got to admit I have a lot of admiration for this because it's so unexpected as to verge on brilliant.

A 'Wall-E' style first act in which our hero barely speaks and doesn't interact with any other humans, and then a second act in which he mostly disappears and the film shifts focus to being about a bunch of new characters. That's sort-of marvellous. Note: also of considerable joy to me, there's no more to the plot of this movie than the fact that Riddick is stuck on an alien world and wants to get off it. It's simple and doesn't waste time with an unnecessary, convoluted nonsense: the goal is clear and when it's reached [spoiler warning!] the movie ends. Right away. That sounds like a very simple thing to praise a movie for, but it's amazing how many modern films can't tell a simple story and don't know how to end without half an hour of various characters meeting to say goodbye. It's as if studios think we view every movie as some beloved relative and it's feared we all need sufficient closure before we can let go.

I've got to say, if that's all the film was - and if the last act was just Riddick punching mercs and monsters and stealing a spaceship - then 'Riddick' would probably get a mostly enthusiastic review from this critic. However (and it's a huge however), you run into difficulty when your edgy, amoral, loner anti-hero starts dispensing rape threats and it's not something the film can ever (read: should ever) expect to recover from. When Riddick is captured by mercs at the start of the third act, he grimly explains - in tedious and predictable fashion - how he's going to kill various male elements of the cast. But for Sackhoff's lesbian, tough-girl he has something else in mind: basically he says he's going to "go balls-deep" in her, and she's going to ask him to "real sweet-like". He also gloats that he saw her nipples earlier in the movie, perving whilst she was showering (in a gratuitous topless scene). This is just creepy. Not charming. Not funny. It's unpleasant and leaves a very bad taste. He is trying to intimidate (and simultaneously woo?) a woman by bragging about seeing her tits to room of her co-workers whilst she is present. That's literally what our hero is doing in that scene. She is defiant, at first. But... you know how the film ends, right? Of course you do.

Sackhoff's lesbian straddling Vin Diesel and asking him to fuck her is the film's sad, loserly idea of the ultimate display of masculinity for our hench male hero. He turns a lesbian whilst ascending into a spaceship from a battlefield strewn with the corpses of all the space aliens he killed. Teenage male empowerment fantasies simply don't come any less subtle or mature than this. It's the highest possible calibre of gross, macho bullshit. It spoils what is otherwise a pretty weird and (if not always for the intended reasons) entertaining movie.

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