Monday, 31 December 2012

My Top Five Films of 2012

2012 was an incredible first (and last) year for The Big Fairbanski film website. 

I will now be taking a break from film journalism so I can pursue other projects. 

The Twitter account will remain active, providing you with tweet-sized reviews and film news. You can follow The Big Fairbanski on Twitter here.

In the meantime, you can read my Top Five Films of 2012.

Jack Reacher

Lee Child's much-loved literary hero, Jack Reacher, finally arrives on the big-screen after seventeen instalments of the best-selling thriller series.

It might never have happened but nothing gets a film moving like a Hollywood A-lister and Tom Cruise took a personal interest in the project. Ironically, Cruise's efforts have been rewarded with hugely negative backlash from the fans, mostly because he has cast himself as Reacher despite falling short of Reacher's trademark 6' 5'' height.

The trivial height debate has monopolised the discussion surrounding this film so let's hand over to Lee Child himself for the final word on this issue: "With another actor you might get 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher. With Tom, you'll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height." And if Child is happy with the casting decision, then the Reacher-fanatics should be too.

And Child is right. Cruise is a great Reacher: quick-talking, quick-thinking, remorseless, intimidating and at ease with the action. Arguably, several actors could have handled such a role but few have Cruise's charm and he does well to instil Reacher with likeability and some humour. And Cruise also comes with the added benefit of being a one-man stunt machine so director Christopher McQuarrie can get up close in each action scene without needing to cut away to mask a random stunt actor. 

McQuarrie delivers an impressive first outing for Reacher, handling both writer and director duties. His script introduces the audience to all of Reacher's quirks, whether it be his photographic memory, bad-ass brawling skills or seriously diminutive wardrobe. Plot-wise, McQuarrie has picked an excellent Reacher novel to adapt, Child's novel One Shot, which offers an intriguing set-up but also an action-packed finale to keep the Friday night crowd happy. As such, it is very much a film of two halves.

McQuarrie handles both halves well. We know he is comfortable portraying complicated mysteries - after all, this is the guy who won a screen-writing Oscar for The Usual Suspects - and the opening set-up is well-established and cleverly revisited. The montage listing each of the victims is particularly well-executed. Less expected is McQuarrie's skill with the action scenes, whether it be claustrophobic fisticuffs or a tyre-scorching car chase. McQuarrie lets us feel every broken bone.

The biggest problem with Jack Reacher is the ending, where the film begins to run out of steam. The beginning is strong: a mysterious mass-killing, a wrongly-accused sniper and an enigmatic protagonist who wanders into town. But the twists are resolved about two-thirds into the movie and the final reel resorts to a tedious, bullets-flying, hostage rescue. There is even an added level of silliness as Reacher recruits a random shooting-range owner (Robert Duvall) to assist him in the rescue. Presumably, he used the same dial-a-wisecracking-veteran service that Bond used in the finale of Skyfall. It is a bland ending to an otherwise engaging mystery.

There is also a feeble supporting cast. Rosamund Pike's lawyer is solid but familiar, Jai Courtney's henchman is forgettable and Werner Herzog's villainous mastermind is clich├ęd and, at times, unintentionally funny. McQuarrie has clearly prioritised Reacher, giving him the best lines and all of the hero moments. Hopefully this was a well-meaning attempt to launch a franchise around Child's popular character and not just because Cruise wanted another star vehicle for himself.

Either way, Jack Reacher has succeeded in introducing audiences to Reacher. There is plenty of potential for sequels (sixteen more novels of material are waiting to be adapted) and, based on this evidence, audiences will be open to more.

Jack will be back.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Life of Pi

As special effects continue to develop, more and more 'unfilmable' books become ripe for the big screen. Yawn Martel's Life of Pi is one such example of this. Martel's popular novel has always been perfect cinema material. But his story of a young Indian boy, Pi, and a tiger trapped on a lifeboat for several months naturally required some seriously advanced CGI. It was just a matter of time...

Well, now the computers have finally caught up and Ang Lee has accepted the challenge of the adaptation. The effects are utterly convincing and at no point does Martel's stowaway tiger look anything but real. The same can also be said of the zebra, hyena and orang-utan who are all equally important characters in Pi's story. If they were handled badly then all would have been lost but the sophistication of their animation ensures that we can focus on the drama and not the CGI.

The same cannot be said of the various backdrops. The sunsets, sunrises, starry skies and phosphorescent sea-life are all so brightly-coloured and over-the-top that they look fake... which of course they are. Naturally, they look beautiful and Lee has put together some stunning shots. But they do feel a little cartoon-ish. 

Then again, this might have been Lee's intention due to the ambiguous nature of Pi's tale. If you believe it to be a fairy tale concocted by Pi to protect himself from the harsh reality of his experience then the surreal backgrounds are a very clever inclusion. Lee is therefore presenting Pi's story through a rose-tinted lens, like Pi himself.

Performance-wise, Suraj Sharma is a very likeable and believable Pi, handling the humour and the heartbreak with equal confidence. All of this is even more impressive when you consider that he was acting opposite imaginary characters and surroundings for most of his shooting schedule. The older Pi, veteran actor Irrfan Khan, is just as emotive, particularly when discussing his parting with the tiger.

Adaptation-wise, there are very few omissions, although the scene with the Japanese insurance men, a comical highlight of the novel, is sadly shortened. Meanwhile, the addition of a love interest for Pi is both short-lived and pointless. 

The biggest missed opportunity occurs near the end when Pi recounts the alternative, less-magical version of his story. This would have been the perfect moment to offer flashbacks featuring the human stowaways, instead of their animal counterparts, but instead this is narrated with a long monologue and no cutaways. It seemed like a bizarre decision, considering the film spends time introducing the French chef and kind Japanese sailor. Possibly Lee's hands were tied by the studio and their desire for a PG rating.

Also, it is hard to predict the longevity of such a film. There is a serious lack of re-watchability when it comes to films predominantly involving just one actor and one location. After all, how many people have seen 127 Hours or Buried more than once?

Nevertheless, Life of Pi is set to be a contender during award season, due to Ang Lee's involvement and the challenges involved in making the adaptation. Indeed, it has already received Golden Globe nominations for Best Film, Best Director and Best Score and no doubt Oscar nominations will follow.

2013 could be the year of the tiger.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook is a sophisticated, Oscar-friendly 'rom com', much like Lost in Translation and Before Sunset. It is the sort of film that is designed to challenge actors and has already garnered critical-acclaim by being a hit at the Toronto Film Festival and bagging some early Golden Globe nominations.

The story brings together Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), both suffering from mental health issues. Pat has bipolar disorder and suffers from frequent bouts of rage, whilst Tiffany is a grieving widow who has now resorted to borderline nymphomania. The two meet and help each other overcome their issues, mostly through rehearsals for an upcoming dance competition.

This is a film driven by great writing - courtesy of director-screenwriter David O Russell - and great characters brought to life by strong performances. It is refreshing to see Bradley Cooper in this sort of role, pushing himself as an actor whilst still drawing upon his superb comic timing. He excels alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who makes a welcome return to festival film-making following her recent stint in mainstream action films. Both deserve their Golden Globe nominations and have more than earned some Academy recognition.

The supporting players are just as captivating, with a great turn from Robert de Niro as Pat's father, hooked on football and dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder. De Niro works well with Cooper - both previously starred opposite each other in Limitless - and their scenes vary from tender to hilarious. 

Chris Tucker also shows up, possibly in an attempt to reinvent himself for an indie audience. You may be apprehensive when you see his name on the opening credits - the Rush Hour guy?! - but he comfortably blends into the tone of the film, dialling down his usual loud-mouth humour... but not too much. He steals a lot of scenes as Danny, Pat's friend from the mental health facility.

It may not become an instant classic like Lost in Translation. It lacks an iconic romantic backdrop and Russell's inclusion of a formulaic dance competition leads to a very familiar finale. But in a month bloated with 3-D, big-budget fare, Silver Linings Playbook offers a pleasantly simple piece of film-making: emotive performances, understated directing and an uplifting love story. 

Silver Linings Playbook is cinematic gold.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit trilogy begins with a welcome return to Middle-Earth packed with the humour, horror and heart that we now expect from Jackson's cast and crew.

Any fears that The Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy would flounder like the Star Wars prequels prove unfounded. A possible reason for this is the timing. The Phantom Menace surfaced sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, where LOTR only concluded nine years ago. The smaller waiting period means that Jackson's team is still in the zone, with all of the familiar Oscar-winning players returning: Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (co-screenwriters), Andrew Lesnie (cinematography), Andrew Taylor (special effects), Howard Shore (composer) and the rest. 

Also, due to a framing device and the convenient lack of ageing of certain Tolkein characters, we are also treated to plenty of familiar faces, including Ian Holm's Bilbo, Elijah Wood's Frodo, Sir Christopher Lee's Saruman and, of course, Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf (back in playful Grey mode after ending LOTR in his serious White form). 

Most crucially, Jackson himself returned, after briefly handing over the reins to Guillermo del Toro. Great though del Toro is, it just wouldn't have been the same with a different director at the helm. But with Jackson back, The Hobbit seamlessly embodies everything that was great about LOTR, whether it be the grotesque monsters, over-the-top action, slapstick humour or the tear-jerking whimsy of a Baggins.

All of this helps maintain the same feel as the original trilogy, which is where the Star Wars prequels drastically failed.

Bizarrely, many newspaper critics have launched lukewarm reviews at this return to Middle-Earth. It is hard not to see this as a shallow attempt at salvaging integrity. Why can't these critics just sit back and enjoy three hours of pure entertainment?

Most criticisms are levelled at the film's length and the trilogy expansion in general. Yes, The Hobbit began life as a 200-page children's book. But LOTR fans did not spend nine years waiting for a children's film. And Jackson's team operate at such a high level of production that it would be a shame to reunite for one or even two films. So, thankfully, Jackson and New Line made the last minute decision to commit to a trilogy.

Naturally, those 200 pages needed fleshing out in order to make a trilogy. But none of the additions feel forced. The flashbacks are welcome, allowing us to see Erebor in all of its splendour and witness the fight for Moria. The dwarves are thankfully given unique personalities, as opposed to the largely homogenous mass of dwarves in the book. Plus, Gandalf's story is told, shedding light on his unexplained absences in the book when he would vanish for great stretches. Gandalf's side-quest is of particular interest, as it involves the White Council's debate about the Necromancer, which foreshadows the return of Sauron and does some nice LOTR cohesion.

It is testament to Jackson's films that amidst all of the 3-D, faster frame-rate trickery, the audience are always left talking about the performances. Martin Freeman performs a career-best turn and certainly deserves the critical-acclaim for bringing the laughs and tugging at the heartstrings. Freeman even holds his own against Andy Serkis' Gollum, brilliant and textured as ever, who could have stolen the riddles scene from a less-accomplished actor. A further special mention must be given to Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown, the animal-loving wizard, who is pure bonkers. He does get some darker moments too and who better to blend dramatic with deranged than a former Doctor Who incarnation?

A slight gripe could be made about the dwarves. Sadly, despite all of the efforts to give them a unique appearance and character, a lot of these personalities have been sidelined and are only evident to those who have read the interviews in film magazines. Some of the dwarves only have one line each and it feels a little depressing watching these professional actors kitted out in prosthetics, only to run around and swing axes. But that is why Jackson famously releases Extended Edition DVD box-sets, with plenty of unseen footage polished and integrated into the main edit. Add it to your 2013 Christmas list now.

An Unexpected Journey gloriously kicks off a new Middle-Earth trilogy and whilst the journey might be unexpected, the high level of film-making was exactly what we expected from Jackson's team. There is plenty left to cover in the next two films (spiders, Mirkwood elves, Beorn, Lake-Town, Smaug, Bard, the Battle of Five Armies) and next December cannot arrive soon enough.

Thankfully, the road goes ever on and on.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II

And so cinema's most bizarre love story finally draws to a close, bringing despair or relief to cinema-goers around the world.

This final instalment ramps up the weirdness to another level. The sparkly, super-powered, supermodel, whooshing vampires are all correct and present but now with a boosted cast list incorporating vampire cousins from across the globe. The Bella-Edward-Jacob love-triangle is finished (one girl's choice between necrophilia or bestiality) but mostly because Jacob has fallen in love with Bella's newborn baby. And for a further dash of strangeness, Bella and Edward's vampire-human-hybrid baby is growing at an accelerated rate. In short, it's business as usual for Stephanie Meyer's creations.

It's fair to say that this Twilight film, like the rest of the franchise, is clumsily-handled. Actors are chosen for their ability to pout over their ability to act, the script is full of laugh-out-loud dialogue delivered with straight faces and an infinite amount of silly decisions are made. Why must the vampires whoosh everywhere? Why is so much focus attributed to an anonymous rock-climber in the opening five minutes? And why does the baby have a CGI face? Considering the legions of female fans, the baby would have been the perfect opportunity to get the audience cooing and aahing. Instead, they turn the baby into a motion-capture monstrosity which is anything but cute. No wonder the Volturi want to burn the damn thing. What was director Bill Condon (an Oscar-winning writer, a Globe-winning director) thinking?

But it is hard to review a Twilight film. No one is expecting a five-star film. The single aim is to keep the Twi-hard fans happy and Condon has certainly achieved this, particularly by ending with a final Edward-Bella montage of highlights from the rest of the franchise.

Even better, the boyfriends are finally rewarded with a big battle, after years of being dragged to the cinema along with their wallets. The Cullens face-off against the Volturi in a limb-pulling, neck-twisting, decapitating, bloody finale, which will cause momentary outrage amongst the female audience ("This doesn't happen in the book!") until a clever resolution is offered. 

And in fairness, there are some notable moments of comedy, particularly offered by Billy Burke's Charlie, who has long been a highlight of this series, when faced with a stripping Jacob.

The important thing to note is that the franchise is complete. Careers have been forged, money has been made and the films now belong to the fans. Twi-hards can watch the DVDs forever more and everyone else can safely return to cinemas free from gushy, adult-friendly, chick-lit franchise adaptations.

Well, at least until Fifty Shades of Grey starts rolling...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


Ben Affleck’s directorial career is going from strength to strength with Argo rounding off a trio of impressive flicks.

Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both criminally under-watched, saw Affleck leap from a personal small-town kidnapping story to a Heat-style citywide tale of cops and robbers.

But with Argo, Affleck takes an even bigger leap into new territory. 

This is his first film set predominantly in a different country, in a different time and with thousands of extras. Affleck has to negotiate the trappings of adapting a true story, whilst adhering to historical and cultural accuracy. He has also picked an obscure, little-known story to adapt and has to make that both relatable and entertaining. Without doubt, this is his most ambitious directorial outing.

However, Affleck’s confidence has been building and he impresses from the get-go. Decades of Iran’s history is tidily narrated through comic book-style storyboarding. This then launches into a siege of the Iranian US embassy, cranking up the tension with fast-paced, hand-held camera cutting, as the workers desperately try to shred documents and escape. It is a heart-stopping opening, rivalled only by the nail-biting final reel. As seen in The Town, Affleck is a master of suspense.

Affleck has also spent enough time in mainstream cinema to know how to convey a complicated story to a Friday night crowd and his script handles the exposition well, whilst also finding time to drop in one-liners and a bit of humour. “Argo f*ck yourself” is one such quote that has popped up on many a Facebook newsfeed these past few weeks.

Affleck’s rise to the directorial A-list is attracting a lot of talent and numerous familiar faces appear throughout. It is testament to Affleck’s integrity that he doesn’t just cast his Hollywood mates. Instead, he has selected much of his cast from popular TV. The supporting players can be recognised from shows such as Mad Men, Heroes, Scrubs, Friends (Joshua!) and Breaking Bad. Most, however, are unknown actors, cast for their likeness to the historical counterparts in order to maintain the documentary feel of the film.

As great as some of the actors are (Bryan Cranston has fun as a growly FBI agent, whilst John Goodman and Alan Arkin get the biggest laughs), you will struggle to remember any of their characters’ names. But Argo isn’t aiming for any nominations in the Best Actor category.

No, instead, Affleck has his sights firmly on Best Director.

And who can blame him? It has been a while since he won Best Screenplay for Good Will Hunting and he had to share that golden statue with his best mate, Matt Damon. Argo suggests Affleck fancies another stroll onto that stage.

His intentions are clear in his adherence to the winning Oscar formula: true story, critically-impressive, political commentary and America saves the day! The Academy will be lapping this up. Affleck has also chosen such a bizarre true story to adapt (retrieving seven Americans from militant Iran by posing as a film crew) that he also ticks the originality box as well.

Not that this is a criticism. Like the better Oscar-winning films, Argo never feels conceited when telling its story. Affleck’s pride as a story-teller would never allow for that. Plus, despite its Academy friendliness, this is still accomplished film-making, reminiscent of both Eastwood’s classical style and Gus Van Sant's documentary approach.

The Oscar race has begun. And Affleck’s directorial talents argoing to get noticed.