Sunday, 31 July 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) Review

Holding out for a hero... Hayley Atwell and Chris Evans in Captain America (2011)

Joe Johnston is indubitably the most underrated director in the popcorn business, and it's about time he got some recognition. Ever since the classic Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989) he's been delivering high-profile movies to the masses which somehow get lost amid the rush, yet they rank amongst the best out there. The Rocketeer (1991), with its Metropolis (Lang, 1927) inflected Art Deco design, is a rousing superhero flick in the mould of a classic adventure-serial. Jumanji (1995) is about a board game come thrillingly to life, where stampeding elephants and mustached huntsmen take over New Hampshire. 2009's The Wolfman (a remake of Universal's 1941 classic, with Lon Chaney Jr.) was a romping Gothic treat, boasting some excessively hammy acting from Sir Anthony Hopkins. All in all, Johnston makes slick, exciting summer movies, and he does them like nobody else. So, enter Captain America, his latest, based on the classic Marvel character - and would you believe it? He's turned in another corker...

It's 1942 and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to enlist in the US Army, but is deemed unfit because of his skinny physique and asthma (some nifty CGI reduces Evans in size, and despite some glitches we buy it). He uses fake identities to reenlist time and time again, but is continually turned away on account of his health problems. That is until Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) notices the courageous youngster and recruits him into a super-soldier program, the technology division of which is run by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Rogers soon bulks up to become Captain America, while he also falls in love with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell; utterly charming), a superior officer who helps to oversee his training. At first he's seen as something of a sideshow, and is recruited into a theater troupe, performing shows across the country to raise spirits ("I've knocked out Adolf Hitler over two hundred times"), but he soon takes military matters into his own hands and proves himself a capable hero. From here he determines to take down the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who is - as ever - planning some kind of non-specific world domination. It's kinda predictable, but this matters little. It's the getting there that counts.

The greatest thing about Cap has always been his humanity. Steve is an ordinary guy with those rarest of qualities - humility and dignity. He's specifically chosen to carry the responsibility of strength because as a weak man he understands its importance, and has the moral fibre to be trusted with such weight; to serve his country, which is a loftier calling than dating the girl next door (looking at you Spidey). This is where Johnston's film scores most brownie points (or should that be Eagle Scout?), because it really spends time building our hero as a genuinely likable guy, and somebody who is able to endure and persevere. He gets the shit kicked out of him in a back alley but continually gets back up; not because he enjoys the pain, but because he understands that if you run away from a fight you'll spend the rest of your life running. You have to stand up for what you believe. When all's said and done, Rogers has heart.

Something which really surprised me here was the film's sense of humour, and the fact that Captain America is actually very funny. Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones - pedigree actors on excellent form - are given some really great dialogue to work with, and they clearly relish the chance to exercise their comedic chops and work on a slightly higher level than exposition - they exist to move the plot along, sure, but they're also defined characters, and we believe in them. Tucci is especially good as Dr. Erskine, and scored more laughs in his screen-time than any mainstream comedy has accumulated so far this year. But the film isn't all laughs, of course. In fact, it balances tone perfectly; this is another trademark of Johnston's cinema, and something he's given not nearly enough credit for.

What most will give him credit for, however, is action, and there's plenty of that on offer here. A mid-film rescue mission is thrillingly realised, and cut with precision - thank the lord, an action movie with coherent set-pieces! - but what I really admired here is the design. None of the action sequences are especially original, but they certainly have charm, and that's largely because they take place in steel-built underground bunkers and weapons trains, and our heroes are using Smith & Wesson's, M1 Carbine's and Thompson's; classic military weaponry. The action has a real Boys' Own feel, especially in the final fight which sees Cap face off against Schmidt. It's... shall we say... electrical. There's also a great chase through the streets of New York, and the period 1940's design really impresses here - the shop windows, classic cars and cracked pavements. The colour palette is spot-on, and architecture geeks such as myself will have a great time, especially in the first half. I'm not an expert, so maybe not all of this is accurate, but it certainly feels authentic, and that's what's import.

But the film's ace card is Weaving, playing the megalomaniac (he's even overtaken Hitler) Johann Schmidt / Red Skull. As in Johnston's Wolfman the actor is having a whale of a time here, chewing through the ripe dialogue and this time delivering what appears to be a rather fine Werner Herzog impression; his sub-Bavarian tones actually become quite chilling, and for once I found myself really hating the villain in a contemporary blockbuster. So many of them seem like cardboard cutouts, but this one's the real deal - he's evil personified, and there's little sense that he'll encounter a change of conscience anytime soon. Some may find the performance a little camp, but then, this is a film which presents its most impressive set-piece in the form of a musical sequence.

The perfunctory 3D (retrofitted) is, again, entirely useless, but on the whole Captain America is worth recommending. It's smart, funny and a whole lot of fun. Oh, and the ending is absolutely note-perfect, packing a surprising emotional punch. I wasn't welling up or anything, but I certainly felt a tug on the heartstrings, and found myself wondering about the fate of a relationship in a Marvel movie. Turns out The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) has a lot to live up to...

The Movie Exchange Club Podcast #01 / Mini-Reviews


Recently I appeared as a guest on The Movie Exchange Club, a new Podcast on SuperMarcey.com, which you can listen to here: Movie Exchange Club. In this debut episode the Exchange Club (Me, Marcey, Bede Jermyn and Sam Inglis) allocated a movie to each member which they'd never seen before; we watched them, and then discussed them for your listening pleasure. I was given White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982), Everybody Dies But Me (Valeriya Gay Germanika, 2008) and XXY (Lucía Puenzo, 2007), all of which are reviewed below...

White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982)

Sam Fuller's White Dog is one of the most indecisive films I've ever seen. Does it want to be a borderline exploitative horror, a political drama, or a romance between Julie (Kristy McNichol) and the dog she adopts after hitting it with her car? It's a strange film - as strange as Fuller's 1963 cult classic Shock Corridor ("Nymphos!") - and even now I can't quite get my head around it. Paramount execs were quoted at the time as saying they wanted the film to be "Jaws with paws", and certainly Ennio Morricone's underrated score recalls that film in its alarming strings and mounting dread. But something tells me that Fuller wanted to make a different picture altogether...

White Dog - co-written by Curtis Hanson, who would later go on to direct L.A. Confidential (1997) - is a frequently interesting film, but rarely a very good one. Its tin-eared dialogue ("How did he turn him into a racist dog?") doesn't help matters, but the film really fails in its conceptual stages, with an overly obvious and underdeveloped metaphor about racism. Time and time again we're told that the dog is not the monster, but the trainer is - the man who taught it to attack blacks, likely by manipulating black drunks into beating the dog for a quick buck to meet their fix. But what point, if any, is being made here?

The style is so scattershot that it's hard to tell. The murders - and an attempted rape early in the film - play out like deleted scenes from a B-movie slasher, utilizing P.O.V. shots, shadows and an epileptic score to build atmosphere, always ending on a shot of the bloodied dog. But in the very next scene White Dog can feel like an entirely different film; a melodrama about a fluffy German Shepard and his owner, based on a true life story involving Jean Seberg, who charmed audiences everywhere in Godard's À bout de souffle (1960). Next the film appears to take a solemn stance on the topic of racism, which was met by (inexplicable) charges of being racist in 1982. It was, on the other hand, celebrated by critics. I find both facts hard to comprehend.

As we flit from scene to scene the film becomes more and more inconsistent, and the underdeveloped characters - badly portrayed too, for McNichol is not the best of actresses, especially when she's playing Seberg - do little to engage the audience, who are also condescended by the direction, which hammers home every message with zero subtlety; the church scene, for example, which makes a nod toward a stained-glass portrait of St Francis of Assisi. Where are the relationships here? Why should I care when characters are screaming "The dog busted outta the compound!" like we're in some cheap, grotty action flick that would be found in the bottom of a bargain basement? Like I said, White Dog is an interesting film, but by no means is it a good one...

Everybody Dies But Me (Valeriya Gay Germanika, 2008)

Everybody Dies But Me revolves around three fickle, naive and cruel teenage girls - supposedly friends - and that is why I both loved and hated the film, the feature debut of Valeriya Gay Germanika, who previously directed three documentary shorts. I can't really fault the film on a technical level; the screenplay is layered and honest, the performances raw and believable, and the handheld style observational, when it so easily could have become intrusive and alienating (think of Rachel Getting Married, Demme, 2008). So, it's a brilliant film, right? Well, yes, but that doesn't mean I have to like it...

I'm not one of these critics who has a low tolerance for unlikable characters. Many hate the films of Noah Baumbach, whose characters whinge incessantly about the difficulty of their middle-class lives, but I think the director - a more sensitive soul than many give him credit for - shoots those characters through an empathetic lens, and allows us to be turned off by them. We can judge them because they themselves are judgmental. There's no such feeling within the hermetically sealed world of Everybody Dies But Me, which locks us into the barbed emotional environment of Katya (Polina Filonenko), Zhanna (Agniya Kuznetsova) and Vika (Olga Shuvalova), who are as spiteful as teenage girls get.

My problem lay in the fact that I hated these characters so much and yet was not allowed to remove myself from them; it's like being trapped under ice-covered water, and searching for a crack through which to draw breath. There are nice characters - well, one - but she's used and abused by Zhanna, who is the most difficult girl to deal with. But she's almost the most complex, and this is what makes the film so great - hate them as I do, the characters in Everybody Dies But Me are certainly not cardboard cutouts or stereotypes; I hate them because they're developed, and because they feel like real people. People I'd have avoided in High School.

It's this honesty which means I can wholly recommend the film. The fact that it had such an instinctively emotional effect on me can only be a sign that it worked. Indeed, it's a great film. I just didn't like it.

XXY (Lucía Puenzo, 2007)

I've never seen a film quite like XXY. I've seen films which deal with the same subject matter, but never in such a delicate and poetic way; it's a film which so easily could have aimed for provocation, but its decision to opt for gentle character study is greatly rewarding. XXY tells the story of Alex (Inés Efron), an inter-sexed 15-year-old (she has been living as a girl, taking medication to suppress masculine features) who has recently moved to a small fishing village in Uruguay; the family previously lived in Argentina, but struggled with the way Alex was accepted by the community. Here they hope for a fresh start, and the film begins with the arrival of family friends - including the young Álvaro (Martín Piroyansky), who is conflicted by his feelings toward Alex.

What I loved most about the film was its setting. The film is shot through a soothing blue lens by DP Natasha Braier, who perfectly captures the calmness of the environment. The sea-life theme also runs a bit deeper than setting (which is gorgeous and evocative); Alex keeps clownfish, which are protandrous hermaphrodites, meaning that they are all born male, and some will later become female. The family name is also Kraken, which calls to mind the creature of sea-faring legend and fantasy. The opening credits are also beautifully designed, with a darkly shaded turquoise ocean revealing shadows writhing in its depths.

The drama is perfectly judged at all times, especially in a mid-way love scene between Alex and Álvaro, which takes an unexpected turn. The scene is equally awkward and intimate, and certainly it has repercussions for the rest of the characters, who begin to question the quality of life Alex is destined for. But the most interesting relationships on offer here are the ones between fathers and their children. In one scene Álvaro asks his father, "Do you like me?" "You're my son", the father replies. That answer is never good enough, and Álvaro calls him out. "Let's cut the crap and talk seriously." There's a long pause, and then the father picks his words. "Kind of."

It's that honesty and bluntness of feeling which makes XXY such a wonderful film. It's poignant and affecting, and doesn't offer any easy answers. Life hurts all of us, in complex and unique ways. Alex and Álvaro are proof of this, and their journey is fascinating.

The Shortlist: 6 Memorable Movie Avengers

Full article can be read at MultiMediaMouth: 6 Memorable Movie Avengers

Poetry (Lee Changdong, 2010) Review

Full review can be read at Flickfeast: Poetry

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Cinema Strange #14. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)

Buñuel's fascinating surrealist short remains one of silent cinema's greatest achievements...

Un Chien Andalou is a film born out of dreams, which is why 'reading' it (academically speaking, this means to dissect and understand) is such a fruitless and infuriating task. Buñuel - a visionary if ever the cinema saw one - met Salvador Dalí at the Residencia de Estudiantes University in 1917, and they soon became firm friends. One day they told each other of the peculiar dreams they had each experienced; Buñuel had envisioned a cloud slicing the moon in half, "like a razor blade slicing through an eye", and Dalí had imagined a hand crawling with ants (insects were actually a passion of Buñuel's, and they reappear throughout his work). Together they boldly decided to commit these dreams to celluloid, and from this idea Un Chien Andalou was born. For the past eighty years critics and cineastes have been examining and attempting to interpret the film, but I can't possibly comprehend why. Do we really live in a time where every question must be met with an answer, and every image a meaning? Can it not just be that Un Chien Andalou is an illusion - the fractured visualization of fevered reverie, by two of the greatest artists of the 20th Century? Is it not so much more enticing to be baffled by a work of art, and come back to it time and time again? I don't think I'll ever understand Un Chien Andalou, nor do I especially want to. I want to think about it, debate and question it, and marvel at its complexities...

One of the most known facts about the film is that, upon its premiere in Paris, Buñuel hid behind the screen with stones in his pockets, in preparation for being attacked; he actually expected the film to provoke violence in the viewer, as he worried that they would not understand it. Of course, how could they? Even now the film shocks in its bluntly visceral nature. It opens immediately, without warning, to the infamous eye slicing scene which serves as a prologue to the main 'narrative'. The film is introduced, in a fashion typical for fairytales and bedtime fables, with the words 'Once Upon A Time...' and then we bear witness to the sharpening of a razor (by Buñuel himself). Without warning or reason the attack ensues; I'm honestly surprised that there wasn't revolt. It is true that Un Chien Andalou is not exclusively comprised of Buñuel and Dalí's dream material, but this does not mean that their additionally scripted scenes hold any extra meaning, although many would tell you different - including Robert Short, who provides a commentary for the film on the BFI's latest release of L'age d'Or (Buñuel, 1930), on which this is an extra.

As I said in my review of that later film (which is also extraordinary, but suffers from its extension to feature-length), all I can really give is my opinion, and here it is: Un Chien Andalou is a masterpiece, and one of the greatest films of all time. My favoured version is Buñuel's 1960 restoration, with extracts from Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' score, as that music perfectly complements the choreography, and its over-dramatic (and formal) nature lends the surrealism an even greater sense of peculiarity. The camerawork and editing is impeccable in the piece, especially the use of tracking shots and close-ups, which intensify the feeling of each segment. It's a wildly unpredictable farce, and an endlessly entertaining one, which really does reveal new ideas with each viewing. I've seen the film around ten times now. I still don't know what it's about, and I never want to...

Monday, 25 July 2011

VHS Quest #10. Trip To Kill (aka Clay Pigeon) (Lane Slate, Tom Stern, 1971)

Telly Savalas is stomping out crime in Trip To Kill (1971)

The opening credits of Trip To Kill handily reveal its greatest flaw; it is co-produced, co-directed and stars Tom Stern. I don't have anything against Stern personally, as he's had an interesting career, starting out as a CIA Agent in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Ritt, 1965), and graduating to The Entity (Furie, 1982), a creepy Barbara Hershey horror about demonic molestation. Before Trip To Kill he had starred in a number of biker pictures, including Hell's Angels '69 (Madden, 1969), which he had also produced. So here's the flaw (and I imagine it's the same in Hell's Angels '69, although I haven't seen that picture): it's a vanity project. Yes, Trip To Kill is, in case you hadn't already guessed it, nothing more than a showcase for its creator, and boy, does he indulge. I really hoped I'd be uncovering a cool flick here, but alas, I'm stuck watching narcissistic waffle under the guise of a political thriller. The whiff of ego is pungent.

The story (ha!) follows ex-soldier Joe Ryan (Stern) as he returns from Vietnam, decorated after jumping on top of a grande to save his fellow soldiers. Luckily for him it didn't go off, and now the scraggy veteran finds work collecting scrap metal, and at night scours L.A. bars where he meets Angeline (Marilyn Akin), presumably an ex-flame, but this is never properly specified. Anyway, she quit her previous job to become a go-go dancer, and there are a couple of scenes of her topless, so that's a plus. From here Joe is recruited by Redford (Telly Savalas), an F.B.I. operative who's intent on tracking down the head of a local drugs ring (played with relish by Robert Vaughn). Joe has to leave his swinging lifestyle behind in order to stop the bad guys (this happens through awkward plot machinations and stupidity, with many character motivations left unexplained and plot holes unaddressed), but y'know, yada yada yada, the plot ain't what you're looking for here.

So, what should you be looking for? Well, it's hard to say exactly. Given Stern's track record as both an actor and producer one might be forgiven for expecting an exploitation flick; after all, biker movies are about brawn and boobs, and that's a pretty winning formula. Stern's directorial sensibilities are exploitative too, but he seems way too bogged down in the plot to really deliver that kind of movie. It feels like he's trying to make The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978) meets Donnie Brasco (Newell, 1997), but with that seedy 70's edge; neon signs, strip clubs, jumpers and afros. You know what I'm talking about. Yet its worth acknowledging that, of course, Trip To Kill was made years before those movies. So, was it ahead of the curb? Not when you consider Bullit (Yates, 1968), made three years earlier, and The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971), which is much grittier than this effort. Still, the film should be contextualized and I think it would have actually looked pretty good in the early 70's; especially the final action set-piece, where our shirtless hero gets bloodied up in a tactical gunfight which looks like a genuine deleted scene from Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988). Of course, we're way ahead of that one too.

There are also some artistic flourishes which work well. The film makes interesting use of slow motion, especially in the opening Vietnam sequence, and light sometimes over-saturates the frame to allow the world a heightened feeling. There's also a great underwater dream sequence, and an impressive P.O.V shot at the end of a (terribly edited) dune buggy chase, but hopefully you'll see a trend emerging. These are moments - fleeting seconds - in a 90-minute movie, and they amount to little overall. To be honest, those light-saturation moments feel like accidents, and co-director Slate could have been the real artist here. In fact, I wonder how much he was actually given to do - the spotlight does always seem to flatter Stern, even in his most down-and-out moments. But the biggest problem with the film is its uneven nature (both visually and tonally), and the fact that it's really, really boring.

Yes, you heard me. Boring. A movie with Vietnam, strippers, gunfights and Telly Savalas scenery chewing - somebody actually made that boring! We plod from scene to scene with no fluidity or coherency, and the bad script ultimately makes this one a snoozer. As a political thriller it's lightweight and somewhat disreputable, and as an exploitation flick it's far too self-absorbed, allowing too much time for (absurd) plot development, and not indulging in what the audience wants - violence and nudity. It's a deeply confused film, weighed down by the self-satisfaction of its leading man, and we're left wondering about the motivations of the characters, and why we should even care. The script stinks, plain and simple, and that's a real shame. Trip To Kill could have been awesome. With full respect to the man, I just wish it wasn't a Tom Stern movie.

The Shortlist: 5 Best Films Directed By Actors

Full article can be found at MultiMediaMouth: 5 Best Films Directed By Actors

Friday, 22 July 2011

Horrible Bosses (Seth Gordon, 2011) Review

Alfred Hitchcock proves a peculiar inspiration for revenge comedy Horrible Bosses (2011)

If you're going to call your movie Horrible Bosses then you'd better make sure that A) you have some bosses, and B) that they're pretty damn horrible. Hell, if you're going to make the audience believe that three ordinary schlubs like Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) are going to kill said bosses, they'd better be positively execrable. Simply put, you'd better make The Devil's Advocate (Hackford, 1997), but with laughs. So, has Horrible Bosses succeeded? Let's find out...

If you've seen the trailer then you've pretty much seen the first fifteen minutes of the film, but for those of you who haven't, the setup works like this: Nick works for Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), a manipulative, power-hungry psycho who works his employees like the minimum wage slaves they are (in his mind). So yes, this is basically Spacey revisiting his Swimming With Sharks (Huang, 1994) role. Dale works for Julia Harris (Jennifer Anniston), a nymphomaniac dentist who is obsessed with getting her assistant into bed, despite him being engaged. Provocative, slutty and completely potty-mouthed, she is, as the poster proclaims, a maneater. Kurt works for Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell), a sleazy, coke snorting maniac who's entirely vain and self-obsessed, despite sporting a disastrous (but hilarious) combover. He's only running the business to accumulate enough wealth to live his dream: sitting on the beach sipping cocktails.

So, we're introduced to the bosses in swift and funny fashion, with Farrell landing the most laughs as his scenery chewing dickwad, whose crazy eyes and vile mannerisms prove the actor as a true comic talent, if that hadn't already been confirmed by In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008). The script flits between the three (likable) leads with ease, and I found myself getting onboard with it, but then the movie forgets both its comic ace card and central plot device (not to mention its selling point): the bosses. Yep, you'll be having a great time for the first fifteen minutes, and like me will probably be looking forward to seeing what extremes the bosses reach. But then the film all but forgets about them and shifts the entirety of its focus to Nick, Dale and Kurt. They have great chemistry, sure, but... the movie is called Horrible Bosses. Should there not be an attempt to reinforce our protagonists cause for murder? I mean, even forgetting narrative, shouldn't the film have more sense than to abandon its funniest characters just shy of the quarter-way mark? It's crazy, and I just can't imagine what the filmmakers were thinking.

On the other hand, perhaps more screen-time with the bosses would have bogged the film down, and I appreciated the 90-minute running time, seeing as we're living in an age of the bloated summer comedy (Funny People, Apatow, 2009, and Bridesmaids, Feig, 2011, I'm looking at you), where plot seems to be abandoned for the sake of another puke joke at around the time we need to be leaving the theater. Horrible Bosses actually has a solid idea at its core, and its three screenwriters (not a crowd, surprisingly) take it to unpredictable places, and all within a neat running time that won't numb your bum or have you staring at your watch. This also means that, while there aren't loads of laughs in the film, they're closer together, and that's a good thing.

Horrible Bosses is probably the best Hollywood comedy of 2011 so far, but hey, it's been a crappy year. But the chip on my shoulder should be aimed at the garbage I've been subjected to before Gordon's film, and it's worth noting that a mainstream, star-studded, 15-rated comedy can be genuinely entertaining without being morally bankrupt or packed with innuendo. If you're looking for dick jokes then you'll get them, but you'll also get something a bit edgier and darker than your standard fare (I say again, Farrell's gonzo turn is a treat), and the final shot had be bearing a grin a mile wide, which I really hadn't expected. Also, when was the last time you walked out of a Hitchcock-inspired revenge comedy and said: "I wish it had more Jennifer Anniston." Yep. I thought so...

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Norwegian Wood (Anh Hung Tran, 2010) Blu-Ray Mini-Review

Love walks a long and winding road in the beautiful Japanese drama Norwegian Wood (2010)

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me...

There are so few films in which a kiss feels real. So often they feel apathetic; like the obligation of a contract, or the sealing of a paycheck. If an actor is playing a character in love, should love not gleam from behind their eyes, which are, after all, the windows to the soul? There are so few films where I actually believe in love as something real, and something which exists in our world. Norwegian Wood, based on the 1987 novel by Haruki Murakami, is a film in which love feels real; a film which exudes passion and soul, but favours naturalism. The intensity to each moment, especially the lingering silences as characters lean in to kiss, is that rarest of things in the cinema - a moment which reflects life, and honestly.

The plot concerns three friends; Toru (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and Kizuki (Kengo Kôra). Upon hearing The Beatles 'Norwegian Wood' Toru remembers back to his youth in the early 1960's, when Kizuki committed suicide and he fell in love with Naoko. Yet the couple's grief sends them in different directions, and Toru also falls for a young woman named Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), with whom he has an on/off relationship. I haven't read Murakami's source novel, so can't comment on Norwegian Wood as an adaptation, but the screenplay is layered and subtle, and I would hope that the text has been translated well. The film is a masterclass in muted emotion, with dialogue used sparingly enough for the audience to recognise its importance.

Where the film falls down is in its aesthetic, which is beautiful, but a little too formal for my tastes. So many shots seem to have been composed with artistry in mind, positioning characters in the center-right of the frame, intensely staring at each other while the deep focus photography heightens their surroundings. It's a very static film, and many of its images would feel more at home in an art gallery. If its compositions weren't so rigid Norwegian Wood might have been a great film, but too often I was distracted by the background, which Tran seems overly concerned with. Jonny Greenwood's score is also a problem, as it frequently sounds like he's still orchestrating There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007), and tonal shifts created via music seem out of synch with the onscreen action. Still, the performances are outstanding. They portray love as something intangible and painful, which I appreciate, because that's exactly what it is.

The Disc/Extras
DP Ping Bin Lee is well served here; the Blu-Ray looks beautiful, and is definitely my preferred format for watching the film. The extras are pretty decent too. You have your standard stuff - trailer and a poster gallery - but also a sufficient Making Of doc and footage from premieres, including Japan and Venice. Nothing to set the world on fire, but it's more than I'd expected, and rounds off the package nicely.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Friday, 15 July 2011

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates, 2011) Review

The saga finds its end in the stunning Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

I was 10-years-old when Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone (Columbus, 2001) hit cinemas. Forgive my nostalgia, but those were great times; times of innocence and optimism, when fantasy was tangibly close to reality, an idea from which age formally resigns us. I remember seeing the film at the cinema with my parents where, as an avid fan of the books, I was instantly swept up in the magic. I remember the first time we see Hogwarts, the first encounters with Snape (Alan Rickman) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and most of all I remember that chess board, and the red jumper Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) wore when Quirrell's (Ian Hart) head grotesquely births the form of Voldermort. Blimey, I even remember that first Quidditch match. How I loved, and will now miss, revisiting Hogwarts each term. Over time the series has matured and I, like Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), have grown older. Walking into the cinema this morning I acknowledged a peculiar feeling in the pit of my stomach which, despite everything, I hadn't counted on. It wasn't the fear of not getting in, although this seemed possible as my screening was incredibly well attended by adults and children alike, all eager fans of the series, a fact I could tell by the expressions of sadness and excitement decorating their faces. But I did get my ticket, and as I took my seat - C13 - the feeling became more prominent. I realized, dramatic as it sounds, that this was the end of an era, and so I needed Deathly Hallows: Part 2 to be a fitting conclusion to the story which sparked my imagination all those years ago. Thank Dumbledore then that Yates' film is every bit as good as we wanted and needed it to be. There are niggles here and there, sure, but they mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. This, for everyone, but especially for those who have grown up with the series, is the masterpiece we've been waiting for, and it left me deeply moved by its conclusion. Indeed, I don't quite know what to do with myself now that it's over. I know even less how to do this review...

If you've read this far then you probably won't need the plot explaining, so I'll keep the word count down on the assumption that you're a fan, and know where we're up to. Much has been made of the fact that Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is essentially a two-hour action sequence following on from the more expository Part 1 (2010), but nothing could be further from the truth. The first third of the film, despite a few set-pieces, including a spectacular dragon breakout from Gringotts, is a measured and contemplative affair, shaded in moody tones and unfurling in deep silences. Deathly Hallows, the first part included, is absolutely stunning to look at, and some of the early interior shots in this film are packed with feeling; almost as if the four walls are withholding a pensive sadness, looking out at the introspective characters who carry the burden of all that has come before. DP Eduardo Serra shoots through a lens of grey and blue, drifting between hyperreality and all-out fantasy with ease. The first couple of scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione could even pass for Bergman which, I assure you, isn't a comparison I make lightly. I'm reminded of the way characters sit in a Bergman film, and the stillness with which they are observed. The attention lies with language, which is multi-layered and confrontational. In fact, I'm most reminded of that bible quote - 1 Corinthians 13:12 - which inspired Bergman so often: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly..." Christians would interpret the quote as being about our relationship with God, but to me it's about coming-of-age, and therefore suits the series denouement perfectly.

When the action arrives it is on a scale unprecedented for the franchise. Hogwarts assembles a defensive stronghold, led by McGonagall (Maggie Smith), while Harry and co. search for the remaining Horcruxes to weaken Voldermort. There's really a cause to celebrate the CGI here, because it's some of the best I've ever seen. My problem with CGI has previously boiled down to the fact that it lacks weight, and its presence does not lie in the frame, so I find myself disconnected from the action. No such thing happens in Deathly Hallows, for two important reasons. Firstly, the CGI (which is superbly rendered) really does carry weight due to its combined use with in-camera effects - such as the way a spell (digitally created) will knock a character across a room (achieved, classically, by wires and gym mats), and this means that it's consistent with the rest of the onscreen world. But secondly, and most vitally, the effects are used to reinforce the drama, which is how the film fundamentally separates itself from 90% of other contemporary blockbusters. The story is always at the forefront of the picture - when the characters exchange blows we understand the emotions behind their actions, because they are fully developed, and we care about them as people. Basically, it breaks down to this: the effects are there to serve the story, rather than the story existing for the sake of effects, à la Green Lantern (Campbell, 2011).

Yates also has a tremendous sense of space, and the scope of his central battle is impressive. The fight begins with a wide shot of the forcefield protecting Hogwarts, which soon takes fire from the thousands of dark souls comprising Voldermort's army. Their magic bolts ascend through the air, illuminating the frame with danger, and soon the legions are forcing their way into the school. Tracking shots are brilliantly employed here, as they allow the viewer time to absorb the full scale of the attack. They also help to establish location, and the focused editing, rather than the frenzied chopping which dictates most modern action cinema, ensures that the battle is paced and coherent. Yet the thing I loved most about the battle - and what I wish it did a little more - was the way in which it frequently paused for thought, allowing the characters to interact and intelligently assess their situation. In these scenes Yates focuses, using close-ups, on the faces of our protagonists, which he can now do with confidence because Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have become very fine actors, and embody their parts perfectly. I only wish this scope extended to side characters, as the camera often pans across a location seemingly for the sole purpose of acknowledging that somebody is still alive; Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), being a noticeable example. But admittedly this would have slowed the film down, and overall the battle is expertly judged and visually breathtaking.

There's another scene during the battle which I want to discuss over this next paragraph, but it involves *SPOILERS*, so skip ahead to the end if you haven't already read the book or seen the film. After several hours of battle many familiar faces have fallen to their knees, including Snape - whose death really pushes the boundaries of the 12A rating - and Harry is called by Voldermort to the Forbidden Forest, where he realizes he must die. What happens next is truly audacious, as Yates takes us to a form of celestial resting place, which I resist calling heaven for now. Harry wakes, bathed in light, in a ghostly version of King's Cross Station, where his magical adventures began all those years ago. I can't fully describe the location to you, but it is pure white, and unpopulated except for Harry and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The most striking moment in this scene caused my audience to take a sharp intake of breath, and I admit to having done the same myself. Drawn by an unusual sound emanating from under a lone bench, Harry investigates to find the whimpering foetus of Voldermort, crunched up to protect itself. The red of its skin, bathed in blood, is all the more frightening for being placed against the pure white surroundings, and I came to realize another thing. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is not only an example of perfect blockbuster entertainment, completely uncompromised in its vision, but is also a work of art, crafted by a brave and intelligent filmmaker who truly cares about the story he's telling. With this moment Harry Potter - the franchise - confirms its cinematic importance, and has ensured its lasting power.

So, we've come to that final set-piece. I feel like a lot of reviews have been dishonest in describing the Harry vs. Voldermort showdown, so to some it may feel like an anti-climax. The scene is pulsing with emotional energy, and is actually quite brief, lasting for no more than a couple of minutes. Once again Yates focuses his camera on faces, observing the fear and anger which possess them. It's not about the act of violence itself, but rather cause and effect - flashbacks reinforce Harry's psychological state, and for once don't feel like a cheap gimmick. Alexandre Desplat's score is also vital here; he could have gone overboard with dramatic strings and choral opera, but instead he underplays the action, stirring the soul with subtle tones. In fact, I can't remember the precise music used in this scene - to me, by memory, it is entirely silent. I also feel like I should take this time to praise Ralph Fiennes, who has really defined the last few films with his haunting, slit-nosed Voldermort, who stalks the land of the living like Death himself. His vocal performance is so impeccably realised and his physical movement so chilling that it's impossible to recognize the actor; he's truly immersed in the part. Oscar would never award this kind of film outside of technical categories, but he really is working on that level, and deserves a supporting nod.

The last time we see Hogwarts it is in ruins; for me recalling photos from WWII of bombed-out cathedrals and town halls ripped apart by gunfire. The shot lingers long enough for the viewer to, in their mind, say goodbye. But the epilogue, set 19 years later, brings the series full circle and ends on a welcome note of hope. Platform 9¾ evokes so many memories, and the shot of a chocolate frog leaping across the trains interior window was enough to bring a tear to my eye. I'll miss this place, I thought to myself. More than I ever thought I would...

NOTE: The film has been retrofitted into 3D, but you'd be doing yourself a gross injustice by seeing the film that way. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a film cloaked in shadow; its depth arises from darkness, and seeing the film in 3D - where the image would be dimmed and reduced in size - would greatly damage the cinematography, and even affect the tone of the piece. This is a film which has to be seen how it was shot. It's the cheaper option and the better option, so please, for your enjoyment, pay for 2D.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Friday, 8 July 2011

Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010) Review

Is there anybody out there? Godard's latest proves an indulgent bore (Film Socialisme, 2010)

Over the course of his illustrious 50-year career nouvelle vague instigator Jean-Luc Godard has been tagged with one word over and over again: pretentious. That word gets thrown around a lot, and I often think to myself that it's lost all true meaning. So let's get the facts straight. Pretentious: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc. than is actually possessed. Kim Newman once said, referring to Don Levy's seminal 1967 obscurity Herostratus, that being pretentious is sometimes "absolutely essential. Somebody has to go too far to set the limits." I'd have to agree with him and, in some cases, go further. A film like Antichrist (von Trier, 2009), for example, is wantonly pretentious, and yet from that pretension it gives birth to ideas about grief and the nature of evil. That film provokes thought, antagonizes and sparks debate. More to the point it polarizes, and that means it's doing something. So Film Socialisme is not a bad film because it's pretentious. It's a bad film because it's pretentious and yet says nothing, provokes no thought and dulls the mind. It is a self-serving vacuum.

I'd attempt to explain the plot, but the film doesn't have one. This isn't a problem in and of itself either, as I'm not of the school of thought which dictates that narrative is the single most important aspect of a film. The aforemntioned Herostratus is a fine example, but an even better one is Herzog's Fata Morgana (1971), which is a shifting dreamscape of a movie, guided by narration, yes, but designed as an enveloping experience for the viewer; a gorgeous canvas onto which you can react and create individual meaning. That film is a sensory experience and for those who invest in it an incredibly emotional one. It doesn't have a plot because narrative isn't its purpose. Neither is it the purpose of Film Socialisme, so to scold it for not having a plot would be silly, but it does lack any kind of thesis or principle. L'age d'Or (Buñuel, 1930), as another example, is made up of a series of surreal images and has very little in the way of formal structure, but behind every frame is an idea - a metaphor; a symbol; a message or analogy. The artist is making a statement whether you understand it or not. But the images in Film Socialisme are illogical; unthreaded and meaningless.

Perhaps Godard's film is not to be taken as a whole, but even on a scene-by-scene basis it fails to engage. A photographer deconstructs and reassembles his camera with the frame rate slowed down and the editing accelerated. Is this to suggest the passage of time, or are we being asked to ponder the action? I ask: why should we care? Later in the film we watch a video of two cats sat on a white blanket. The following shot reveals a woman lying on her bed, watching the same video of the cats. Is Godard trying to make a statement here, about fakery, technology or the nature of movie-making? No to all, and this is confirmed when the woman begins imitating the cats, rolling around her bed and meowing. Film Socialisme continues along this path for 100 minutes, but never enlightens. Not once did it leave me with a question that I felt the need to answer. The film has been shot digitally by DP's Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas, and occasionally the visuals impress - look at the striking use of blue in the above image, for example, where the deck of the ship reflects the sky above. This reminded me of the flawless compositions in Lé mepris (1963) where colour, architecture and framing are used to give a singular location a mirror-like effect. But this also reminded me how much I love Lé mepris, and how I miss the old Godard.

I wish I could have liked Film Socialisme, but this is not the work of artist setting the limits. This is the most rigid and tired of films, assembled by an artist whose vitality has been lost with his relevance; he's bored, and so are we.

Trust (David Schwimmer, 2010) Review

Love lies bleeding... a teenager is manipulated with tragic consequences in Trust (2010)

Last year Catfish (Joost, Schulman, 2010) highlighted the dangers of social networking, specifically the way in which identity can be manipulated online. Indeed, on the Internet we can be whoever we want to be. We can change our name, our age and even our personality. Search Google Images for a photo to upload to your profile, or even pose as a friend. It's a nasty thing to do but it happens every day, and Catfish, whatever you thought of that film, made a clear point about the emotional devastation this can cause for the victims; how it breaks down relationships, rather than builds them, which is what social networking sites are supposedly for.

Catfish was about Facebook, but Trust is decidedly non-specific about the network Annie (Liana Liberato) uses to meet Charlie (Chris Henry Coffey), who tells her that he's sixteen. Slowly, as he gains her trust, he increases his age to twenty, then twenty-five. Annie is cautious, but the Internet has allowed her to idealize her suitor, especially when he sends her photos of himself. Eventually, behind the back of her parents (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener), she decides to meet Charlie, who turns out to be thirty-five. In a series of awkward sequences he charms her over coffee, hands her a present (skimpy red underwear) and takes her back to a motel, where he forces her into having sex (and, in a creepy reveal, turns out to be secretly filming it). These sequences are creepy not just for the quality of the acting, which finds Coffey sliming his way into our subconscious, but also because of the ill-judged writing...

Firstly, I don't believe in Annie's naïvety. It feels too much like innocence-in-extremis, as if she's an avatar representative of all the young girls who've been groomed online. She has a strong identity, and Liberato, a brilliant actress, invests her with depth. But as soon as we get to the mall she abandons all logic and becomes a whimpering fawn - she suddenly becomes a victim at the whim of the filmmakers, too easily manipulated by Charlie's sickly come-ons, and we lose faith in her character. It doesn't help that the motel scene may border on exploitation for some, and certainly the camera lingers on certain aspects longer than is really necessary, or comfortable. I also don't believe that Annie, who clearly struggled against Charlie's sexual advances, would go to such lengths in defending him later in the film. I understand that her psyche would probably try to repress the memory, and perhaps even change it to make the pain more bearable, but Annie's insistence that she loves the man is a little difficult to swallow, and her increasing stupidity is alienating.

It becomes even more difficult after the 40-minute mark, when the film loses all focus and wanders its way toward the finish without a defined message or point. Schwimmer has come from a televisual background, which is evident in his directorial style, and given the increasing histrionics of the story, which foregrounds father Will (Owen) for an unnecessary sub-plot which at one point threatens to turn into Death Sentence (Wan, 2007), and side-lines characters such as psychologist Gail (Viola Davis), who could present an interesting dynamic but instead becomes a plot device, it starts to feel a little bit TV Movie Of The Week. We flit between characters with no rhythm, and it becomes silly, especially in a brilliant sequence where Will attempts to find Charlie using a website called 'Pervert Tracker', which seems to hold all available sex offender information (including addresses) and is available to the public at all times. As clunking plot devices go this one is second only to the scene where FBI Agent Dawson (Max Bassett) leaves vitally classified information lying in a cafe for need of a bathroom break, where you can practically hear the gears shifting. It's a shame, because those central relationships are really well developed, and the family have a believable dynamic.

Trust is a well intentioned film, and kudos to Schwimmer for taking it on when many of his contemporaries would have backed down. This is a subject matter which needs to be dealt with, and for the first half Trust does it confidently, honestly and without melodrama. Then it loses focus, and I lose interest. Many have criticized the final shot but for me this was the film's boldest move. I shan't reveal what it involves, but it speaks the film's scariest truth, and almost makes up for the floundering which has come before...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010) Review

Lubna Azabal turns in a powerhouse performance in the devastating drama Incendies (2010)

Based on Wajdi Mouawad's epic 2005 stage play 'Scorched', Incendies follows the journey of twins Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulain) as they, in the wake of her death, begin to unravel the mystery of their mothers life. Although it is set within the current Middle Eastern conflict, Incendies is worlds away from the likes of Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009), never naming the country where its tale unfolds and refusing to engage with political ideology. Its conflict is in the home, and its mystery, involving illicit romance and Christian militias, plays out under a veil of pensive silence.

The film opens to the ethereal tones of Radiohead's 'You And Whose Army?' as a gentle panning shot delivers us into the eye of a damaged young boy, whose reflective stare speaks of sadness and anger. There are three dots on his ankle, and these will prove essential to the plot. It's a striking sequence, as good opening as the cinema has ever produced, so it's a marvel that Villeneuve's film only gets better with each passing minute, and delivers a shattering denouement that you'll be pondering for weeks afterwards.

The narrative moves back and forth between two time periods with seamless cohesion; its complexities are unfurled with a lucid hand and Villeneuve has such a clear understanding of storytelling that even the sharpest twists in his tale take the form of slow realizations, dawning upon the audience like they do Simon and Jeanne. It's not a mystery, like many, which sets out to be smarter than the audience, or shock them with a cunning reveal. Its twists hold tragic consequences, and speak of an all-too-prevalent horror. The chilling ending may border on melodrama, but you buy into it, and the revelation will hit you like a knife to the gut.

The two time periods it flits between are Simon and Jeanne's investigations in the present and the younger days of their mother, whose arc moves through the 1970's and 1980's. Every time we see her it's a potential spoiler, so I shan't reveal too much here, but that fact should speak for how tightly composed the narrative is; you won't want to look away for a second.

What I admire most about Incendies - apart from its even-handed political stance and refusal to flounder in self-serving ideology - is how cinematic the film is, and how Villeneuve has translated Mouawad's three-hour play to the screen. Indeed, I can't imagine this story in the theatre. The use of landscape, subtle shifts in colour, the claustrophobic nature of rooms holding secrets, floating camerawork and starling use of music - how could this ever be recreated on the stage? Obviously I haven't seen the play, but I'd be fascinated to.

The performances are terrific, especially Lubna Azabal as mother Nawal, who has the tough task of lending weight to the mystery Simon and Jeanne are unfolding; if she isn't convincing we might lose interest in their emotional dynamic, but Azabal - who English audiences may know from Paradise Now (Abu-Assad, 2005) and Exiles (Gatlif, 2004) - sells every moment, and completely disappears into her character. Gaudette perhaps has the hardest job, as Simon has the least screen-time, but he still manages to create a fully-rounded and believable character.

Beautifully shot by DP André Turpin, Incendies is an engrossing, considered and haunting mystery. One thing I can say for sure: you'll never listen to Radiohead in the same way again.

Incendies was released into UK cinemas on June 24th. This review was originally posted on Essential Writers, but due to an unfortunate maintenance failure on that site I have now reassigned the review to E-Film Blog.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Potiche (François Ozon, 2010) Review

Liberation, passion and politics meld in Ozon's Technicolour marvel Potiche (2010)

Potiche begins with the beautiful Catherine Deneuve, track-suited and repressing a fine 70's coiffure, jogging to the sound of what appears to be shopping channel music. It's 1977, in fact, and she marvels mid-flex at the sight of squirrels and deer joyously fleeting through the surrounding forests. The score softly crescendos into tinkling tones reminiscent of melodrama, and she begins to be inspired, writing poetry into a little black notebook. Like the animals, she thinks she's free, and takes happiness for granted. But like so many women of the time Suzanne (Deneuve) is actually terribly oppressed; an item of decoration, a cleaner and looker-afterer. Potiche, directly translated, means 'trophy wife'. Ozon revels in playing with the iconography of his ex-Belle De Jour (Buñuel, 1967), and in doing so he's delivered his best film since 5x2 (2004)...

Yet the Ozon film Potiche most recalls is 2002's 8 Women, with its striking Technicolour palette and adaptation from the stage (8 Women from Robert Thomas, Potiche from Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy). But there are significant differences too. 8 Women was, like a play, confined to a singular location, and was a story about women in trouble; women facing the charge of murder, and seeking innocence via song. It's an uplifting work, harking back to a classical age of filmmaking, but it has darker undertones and the women's trapped nature is telling. That opening scene in Potiche does more than unravel Deneuve's iconography then; it also unshackles the story from its theatrical roots, placing us in an exterior impossible to the stage, and tells us that this is a story about empowerment. Suzanne may be relegated to the mantelpiece once she gets home to her histrionic husband (Fabrice Luchini), but on her own terms she has strength. It's a story of liberation more than anything, and that's a message we can get behind.

It's also a message handled with maturity and emotional dexterity, and one which never comes off like a lecture, yet it's only the surface of Ozon's latest. This is a picture of resplendency, joie di vivre and dry wit which allows tone to inform content; the upbeat nature of the film reflecting Suzanne's ascent through her husband's business, after he is committed to hospital following a union strike in which he was taken hostage. Oh, by the way, the business is an umbrella factory, which in several scenes recalls a Deneuve-starring Jacques Demy classic from 1964.

Really, underneath the exuberant decor, humour and breezy pace (the film even ends in song) Potiche is a lament for aging, and the most important relationships in the film are between Suzanne and her distanced children, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) and Laurent (a delightfully camp Jérémie Renier), who arrive home from their busy lives (failing marriages and flings with bakery girls) to assist their mother in business. Suzanne wishes to keep her children near in what she feels is her proudest time. There's a moment near the beginning of the film where Joëlle tells her mother of never wanting to be like her, and asks if she's really happy. Suzanne replies yes, but really she is stifled beyond self-recognition, unaware of the point she has got to without any achievements to call her own. Throughout the course of Potiche, especially in her brief encounter with ex-flame Maurice (Gérard Depardieu), who recalls to her memory a more sexually promiscuous past, Suzanne comes to realise and accept her age, her place and why she has to change things. Yet her ultimate fate is anything but mournful for age; in the spirit of what has come before, she embraces her biggest challenge yet, and shows no signs of stopping...

Potiche was released into UK cinemas on June 17th. This review was originally posted on Essential Writers, but due to an unfortunate maintenance failure on that site I have now reassigned the review to E-Film Blog.