Thursday, 28 February 2013

'Zero Dark Thirty', 'Lincoln', 'To The Wonder', 'Cloud Atlas': review round-up, plus Academy Award opinion

First up, before the reviews, a brief Academy Award summary just because it wouldn't be polite to completely ignore award season, as I have so far this year!

'Argo' winning doesn't offend me like it has some people. I know it's pretty lightweight, a sort of Sidney Lumet knock-off, but I really enjoyed it even if it's quite far from the best film of the past year (it made my 2012 top 30 though, coming in at 21). I think it found favour with the Academy because it's built to appease (or at least not offend) both right-wing hyper-patriots and liberals. It lays the blame for the situation in modern day Iran at the feet of the US - and UK - whilst also being a punch-the-air CIA success story, and in a part of the world where American successes are hard to come by. Plus, it's entertaining whilst still being kind of worthy, it pokes gentle fun of and celebrates Hollywood, and - though Ben Affleck was snubbed for a directorial nomination - the Academy traditionally loves actors behind the camera.

Ang Lee winning for the twee and shallow 'Life of Pi' (the night's big winner with 4 awards) is a joke, especially given that Paul Thomas Anderson ('The Master') and Terrence Malick ('To The Wonder') weren't even nominated. 'Life of Pi' was one of the worst films I saw last year. And how did it win a cinematography award? How much of it was actually filmed in-camera? It's a triumph of post-production work if anything at all - as a result (and perhaps justly) it won the visual effects award. I didn't rate 'Skyfall', but how is Roger Deakins still Oscar-less?

Can't argue with any of the acting wins, aside from the fact that Christoph Waltz ('Django Unchained') is clearly in the wrong category: he's a co-lead rather than a supporting player. Glad to see Jennifer Lawrence pick one up, though Bradley Cooper is the star performer in 'Silver Linings Playbook'. Would have taken any of Cooper, Jaoquin Phoenix ('The Master') or Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor, so I'm OK with the fact DDL won it - becoming the first triple Best Actor winner in the process. Pretty pleased for Anne Hathaway too: she's not in 'Les Miserables' for long, but she is the best bit. Besides she's due one for missing out back when she was up for 'Rachel Getting Married'. And, though I quite like Waltz and am glad he won another Oscar (just four years ago he was a 52 year-old unknown TV actor and now he has two Academy Awards!), there is no way his performance was on the same level as Philip Seymour Hoffman's career defining turn in 'The Master'. No way at all.

'Brave' shouldn't have beaten 'ParaNorman' in the animation category - or 'Wreck-It Ralph', for that matter. Confirmation that Pixar will win that award every year so long as the film in question isn't related to 'Cars'. I'd have preferred seeing 'A Royal Affair' win over 'Amour' in the foreign film category, but 'Amour' is still a terrific film. Shame Tarantino won a screenplay award for one of his baggiest movies: perpetuating the idea that the screenplay award is about dialogue, when movie writing is about much more than that. For instance, craft, structure and discipline. You shouldn't be able to throw every thought you've had onto a page and beat a pretty perfect film like 'Moonrise Kingdom' to that award. No arguments with 'Searching for Sugar Man' for best doc - loved it. Also, how was 'Cloud Atlas' (see opinion below) not even nominated for Best Make-Up? 'Hitchcock' was, and that's just Anthony Hopkins in a terrible fat-suit. 'Cloud Atlas' is a little more ambitious and interesting than that, even if it's not much else.

For more on the Academy Awards, they were the subject of my latest podcast with Toby King - which you can subscribe to on iTunes.

Anyway... reviews:

'Zero Dark Thirty' - Dir. Kathryn Bigelow (15)

Like 'The Hurt Locker' before it, Kathryn Bigelow's latest foray into post-9/11 US dealings in the Middle East is resolutely A-political. Whether that's in order to avoid splitting the audience (and Academy Award voters) or because she has no clear view on events I can't say, but 'Zero Dark Thirty' - despite strange allegations that it's pro-torture - is clinical, cold and matter of fact, sometimes to the point of being sterile. It's possibly the least testosterone-filled and adrenaline pumping movie of Bigelow's career as, aside from  a tense and deeply disturbing depiction of the Delta Force killing of Osama Bin Laden in the film's final third, it mainly follows the office-bound trials and tribulations of Jessica Chastain's maverick CIA operative. We witness her attempts - apparently based on fact - to persuade bosses to pro-actively pursue fresh intelligence on Bin Laden, then (supposedly) assumed by higher ups to be hiding in remote caves - a decade-long quest that ends in the al Qaeda leaders 2011 death.

The Delta Force sequence is breathtaking in its construction, and totally morally ambiguous - it's basically a group of well-armed men slaughtering the occupants of a family home as they sleep and plays as about as heroic as that sounds - but the rest is fairly forgettable, if reliably performed by the award-nominated lead. Chastain is a commanding presence, though most of her discussions with bosses are cliché dick-swinging contests won by the shoutiest person in the room, rather than Aaron Sorkin-style exhibitions of smartest-guy-in-the-room cleverness. It could have benefited from the latter given how talky it is, and how interesting much of supporting cast are: Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Frank Grillo are all decent in it but have very little to do.

In regards to the much-discussed scenes of torture, I don't think Bigelow, or writer Mark Boal, has an overtly pro or negative stance (though you could certainly make a compelling case for anything other than a negative stance being morally dubious) as far as we can glean from the movie. Torture is certainly depicted, but ultimately generates no intelligence that isn't ultimately already in the CIA's possession. Besides, whilst the military personnel involved, along with Chastain's character, don't seem to have any problem with the practice, the torture itself is suitably uncomfortable to watch - much like the Delta Force raid. Neither are presented as performed by uncomplicated good guys. In fact I'd be very surprised if anybody - even on the extreme "kill them all for what they done" far-right - found much cause to celebrate the military action as depicted here. The film's only real crimes are against reasonable running times, as it out-stays its welcome by a good 40 minutes. But that's a consistent problem with 95% of recent movies. For further reading, see 'Lincoln' and 'Cloud Atlas' below.

'Lincoln' - Dir. Steven Spielberg (12A)

This will be a very short review, as Spielberg's 'Lincoln' is an otherwise forgettable (if robustly constructed) film that will be remembered for an amazing central performance: Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic, as is much of an impressive supporting cast. His Abraham Lincoln is believable and a character, not a caricature - something that can't be said for every Day-Lewis creation. We have no real way of knowing if this is what the most-celebrated US president sounded like or moved like, but this portrayal is entirely convincing and, perhaps more significantly, wonderful to watch. In fact it's the only thing that kept me gripped in what's really a dry courtroom drama about the horse-trading and back-room politics involved in passing a law. The Civil War setting is interesting and the law in question - the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States - is obviously of great historical importance, but Spielberg's telling of these events suffers from an uncharacteristic lack of dynamism and narrative drive.

'To The Wonder' - Terrence Malick (12A)

Full disclosure: I'm not a great lover of Terrence Malick's ouvre, finding that I appreciate his work far more than I enjoy it or even like it. In that respect 'To The Wonder' is true to form: a plot-light, narration-heavy visual poem, replete with awe-inspiring visuals (including the classic: long grass in a suburban American backyard at magic hour) and deeply, earnestly contemplative about the meaning of existence, the director's relationship with God and our place in the universe. This one deals in typically big themes via Javier Bardem's conflicted priest and Olga Kurylenko's lovelorn immigrant - covering existential despair with over the top free-spirited joie de vivre. Yet it's more satisfying for me as a subject for post-film conversation than as a viewing experience itself.

To me its whispering narration, mostly in French and Spanish this time around, coupled with inspirational visuals of people frolicking in nature, give it the feeling of a particularly lavish perfume ad or an especially bombastic mobile phone commercial. Which isn't to say the film itself is at all superficial or pretentious: I think Malick is entirely sincere and honest in what feels like a very personal exploration of - among other things - marriage as an intrinsic part of faith and faith as an essential component of marriage. It's just that, as with the similar (if infinitely more grand and ambitious) 'Tree of Life', the themes that are closest to Malick's heart couldn't be further from my own. Spirituality and faith are often no more than buzzwords in American movies, and Malick is to be applauded for examining these concepts seriously and devoid of superficiality (I'm thinking of you 'Life of Pi'), but they don't particularly interest me as a militant atheist.

On a different tact, Ben Affleck is completely bland (or perhaps his character is just incredibly cold to the point that he isn't required to express any emotion) and his character poorly defined, whilst Rachel McAdams is in it for barely ten minutes - making it odd that in some cases the marketing has billed them as the stars, especially given that Kurylenko narrates the majority of the piece and features more prominently from start to finish. In many respects the film is about her character's journey from flighty and infatuated love-obsessive to wounded and disheartened romance cynic.

'Cloud Atlas' - Dir. Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski & Andy Wachowski (15)

Nothing says the Wachowskis like ambitious and expensive folly, and so in the spirit of the 'Matrix' sequels and the unfairly maligned 'Speed Racer' comes the cluttered and confused 'Cloud Atlas', made in collaboration with German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (of 'Run Lola Run' and 'The International' fame). There's so much to be curious about here: for instance, the principal stars all play a half-dozen different characters, often changing race and gender as the film cuts between time periods - from the 1800s to the far-flung, post-apocalyptic future. It's a sci-fi blockbuster, romantic tragedy, period drama, espionage thriller and a slapstick comedy about bungling pensioners - all in one movie. But this is both the appeal and, it turns out, the problem. Many (if not all) of these disparate elements are interesting, but combined they have the effect of drowning each other out, whilst the constant cutting leaves it feeling messy and unfocussed.

Basically it doesn't quite work as a whole, only really succeeding as a curiosity: but, for many, this curiosity won't extend for the film's near three-hour running time. Furthermore, the stories only really have one point: that we should set aside intolerance of difference and embrace the fact that we are all essentially one single race, united in our struggles. That's why it is actually anti-racist for (as an example) Jim Sturgess to get made up to look Korean, as opposed to deeply troubling: because the fact that we're all the same is the movie's entire point - which it attempts to amplify through the repeated use of the same actors in vastly different role across the span of human existence. But this presents two problems, as I see it.

The first is that this message, if - like most of the audience, I presume - you already believe it, doesn't require a three-hour, $100 million demonstration in which Tom Hanks incongruously plays an Irishman, a Scotsman and a futuristic caveman. The second difficulty is that, by venturing into the bigoted sci-fi future, and the bigoted ultra-distant future, the film suggests that this war against difference is intrinsic to the human experience and never destined to change. In other words: we'll always be racists. And that's a bit pessimistic for my taste.

Friday, 15 February 2013

'Wreck-It Ralph' review:

Jeez! This blog - and its humble author - just can't catch a break, gentle reader. Since making my hubristic turn-of-the-year pledge to update more regularly (10 times a month, said I!) I have been beset by horrid seasonal flu-like illness and (as of tomorrow) a major house move - complete with lack of internet for the immediate future. So I can't see my output improving any in the near future. So it goes. Anyway, this confluence of events also meant that I haven't yet seen award season hotties 'Zero Dark 30' and 'Lincoln'. Anyway, I did at least see Disney's latest home-grown animation, 'Wreck-It Ralph', whilst at a customarily dry 2013 slate presentation in London last month. So here's a review of that film, seeing as it's just now on general release on this side of the pond.

'Wreck-It Ralph' is to the video game arcade what 'Toy Story' was to a kid's bedroom, in that it takes place in the imagined downtime of the various game characters, after the patrons have left the arcade. Our hero is one game's villain, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly)  - whose daily routine involves smashing up a brightly coloured apartment building so that Fix-It Felix ('30 Rock's loveable Jack McBrayer) can save the day: earning glory and the love of the game's citizens. But Ralph is frustrated by his lot. Why shouldn't he be the hero? Especially as, by some cruel quirk of sociology, his in-game villain status leaves a very real impression on his neighbours in the game. Understandably, Ralph doesn't want to be the bad guy any more. He wants adulation and sometimes a bit of birthday cake. And so he quits his game to see if he can make it as a hero somewhere else.

It's this quest that takes Ralph through various colourful and amusing game worlds, some based on actual games and others excellent facsimiles, with the most of the film taking place in one of the latter: Sugar Rush, an adorable candy-theme go-karting game featuring the genuinely cute Vanellope von Schweetz, as voiced by the great Sarah Silverman. It's after meeting Vanellope, a peppy little girl with a sad story and can-do attitude, that the up-to-now selfish Ralph starts to re-evaluate his priorities and discovers what actually being a hero means. It's a familiar arc, but it plays out here with real warmth and doesn't feel forced or hackneyed.

It's sweet and tells its story smartly, but where 'Wreck-It Ralph' really sings is with the sight gags, inspired puns and myriad of game references. It's an out-and-out comedy in an age where a lot of the classier animated movies - vintage Pixar, 'ParaNorman' - are increasingly dramas-with-jokes (not a criticism) and it converts an unreasonably high number of jokes to actual laughs. (More than most live-action comedies released in the past decade - though I realise that isn't necessarily too much of a yardstick.) It's a joy from start to finish. A little slice of happy, but without being overly saccharin... well, the least it can be considering it's a Disney movie set predominantly in a candy land featuring an adorable little girl teaching a surrogate father figure how to be a better man. But it pulls it off, without being too earnest and without smirking. It's a very genuine little movie made with obvious love of video games.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Hold On to Your Butts - Film Quiz

Hosted my first film quiz at the Dukes at Komedia tonight - though I'm struggling with flu and was probably not terribly easy to understand in the packed upstairs bar (we had to turn people away!). I think it went well. Anyway, I just wanted to post the amazing art work my friend Joe Blann did for us. The above poster and the below picture round (best picture round ever, no contest). Enjoy!

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

'Django Unchained' review:

Been a while, etc. Saw this a few weeks ago, when it was released in the UK, and even recorded a podcast about it - which subscribers to the old Splendor Cinema iTunes feed may well have already listened to - but a combination of work, holiday and illness kept me from posting a written appraisal. See below:

There is a good film buried somewhere within the three hours of Quentin Tarantino's typically self-satisfied western. Indeed, the first hour, which sees Jamie Foxx's slave Django pressed into the service of the ever-watchable Christoph Waltz's eccentric German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, moves along at a good clip and is every bit as stylish, cine-literate and entertainingly violent as the filmmaker's acolytes would have you believe. The duo have a pleasing on-screen chemistry and their various (slightly wacky) escapades - though episodic and mostly inconsequential - are fun. So much so that I would quite happily trade the subsequent two hours of film for four half-hour TV episodes, in which these unlikely partners round up a new bunch of low-lifes each week against a Spaghetti Western backdrop. That would be better than 'Django Unchained' - the bloated and scattershot film from an ego-maniacal director, seemingly operating without checks on his power. Case in point: his truly risible cameo as an Australian people trafficker. Though the less said about that the better.

One of the appealing things about the first third of 'Django' is that, much like the enjoyably disposable 'Inglourious Basterds' before it, there is an overriding edge of sillyness and even moments of satire - both best exemplified by an amusing (if disposable) KKK skit - that help to undercut the unrelenting nastiness of Tarantino's characters and apparent world-view. In other words, it's easier to sit back and laugh at people's skulls being staved in when the overall piece is irreverent and daft, as opposed to when these actions are supposed to be cool. That last word, "cool", is key in terms of my relationship with Tarantino. The more desperately and self-consciously he seems to be trying to sell cool, to create cool characters and write cool dialogue, the more tragic and ultimately disturbing I find his films to be. The ever-present themes of Old Testament justice and revenge are difficult for me to stomach when taken seriously. Being asked to see them as cool is, to my mind, unpalatable.

And so we come to the latter stages of the film, in which Django fights violence and intolerance with the same and [SPOILER] wins. Leonardo DiCaprio's energetic and typically intense performance as the villain goes some way to offsetting the tedium of the second half but po-faced revenge fantasy blood-lust and a politically dubious finale - in which black collaboration with slavery essentially becomes the main villain of the piece, via Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen - leave a sour taste well before the credits roll and the horses dance. Throw in some baffling musical choices and the director's aforementioned cameo and 'Django' stops being irreverent fun and becomes, at best, sloppy and boring and, at worst, pretty hateful. It certainly wants a good edit.