Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Descendants

Alexander Payne returns to the director's chair with The Descendants, another Oscar-standard indie.

Like Payne's earlier films, About Schmidt and Sideways, it follows an over-the-hill male character as they face a crisis in later life and also offers an actor enough challenging material with which they can bag a heap of awards. Jack Nicholson received an Oscar nomination for About Schmidt whilst Paul Giamatti received a Golden Globe nomination for Sideways and now George Clooney is garnering similar favour from the award ceremonies.

Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer with a wife in a coma, two estranged daughters and 25,000 acres of pristine land on Kaua'i which presents a troubling to-sell-out-or-not-to-sell-out dilemma. And for extra drama, King discovers that his wife was having an affair before she fell into a coma. With all that to work with, it is hardly surprising that Clooney has already won the Globe for Best Actor and is the current favourite to take home the Oscar as well.

You would be forgiven for being put-off by the above synopsis. Comas, incest and property law doesn't exactly make for an exciting Friday night at the cinema. That is, unless you have Payne on screen-writing duties. Payne and his co-writers, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (both alumni of improv troupe The Groundlings), manage to squeeze comedy out of every situation, whether it be an unexpected sucker punch, a forced apology between two young girls, a dopey slacker laughing at swear words, a hoard of unexpected middle-fingers or just Clooney running around in flip-flops. Fear not, The Descendants is littered with big laughs and feel-good moments.

Clooney has always been a diverse actor and his role as Matt King allows him to use the full range of his ability. He delivers tears as he cries over his wife, rage as he meets his wife's lover, dramatic speeches about preserving untouched Hawaiian land and plenty of comedy (perfectly-delivered after three films with the Coen Brothers). Whilst his performance is not as raw or brave or disturbing as Michael Fassbender in Shame, it does tick a lot more boxes.

Also, unlike Shame, this is not an opportunity for one actor to shine and Clooney is rather the head of an ensemble. This is an indie flick which means you have a mix of A-listers (Clooney), veterans (Robert Forster), familiar faces (Judy Greer), actors trying to reinvent themselves (Matthew Lillard) and complete newcomers. The best of these newcomers are the three kids: Amara Miller as King's scene-stealing tomboy daughter, Nick Krause as the equally scene-stealing idiot along for the ride and finally Shailene Woodley as King's eldest daughter, who shares with Clooney the emotional weight of the film. Woodley is definitely one to watch for in the future.

Ultimately, The Descendants tackles big issues with a light-hearted approach. It is carried by strong performances, original writing and a life-affirming sense of humour. Watch it, enjoy it, laugh loud, cry hard and treat yourself to a bowl of ice cream afterwards.


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

War Horse

Steven Spielberg revisits war and his sentimental side with this big screen adaptation of War Horse, a much-loved book and now a much-loved play. It is a picaresque story following the adventures of a horse, Joey, who journeys through the Great War meeting a variety of characters on all sides of the fighting.

And therein lies the problem: the lead in this film is a horse.

Quite simply, it doesn't work. It is hard to get emotionally-invested in a film when the lead character has no story arc (because it is a horse) and cannot act (because it is a horse). That is not to say the horse does not perform when required and testament should be given to horse-whisperer Bobby Lovgren for training the horse to make all the right movements. But fun tricks do not constitute acting. 

Hitchcock once said 'Never work with children or animals' which might be going a step too far. Animals can serve a purpose in a film, especially as comic relief, with the most perfect and recent example of this being the dog from The Artist (look how awesome he is!). But you cannot rely on an animal to carry a film unless they are animated. 

Obviously, this is not a problem in the book because the horse is the narrator and the play uses such marvellous puppetry that the audience will never tire of the horse being on stage. But a film adaptation was always going to fail. The character and the spectacle of the other formats are lost and you are left remembering other farcical attempts at getting animals to act: Homeward Bound, Cats and Dogs, Free Willy, Beethoven and a dozen naff adverts. Who would have associated Spielberg with such company?

Aside from that chief flaw, War Horse is everything you would expect from a Spielberg film. His well-honed lens captures World War I every bit as beautifully and horrifically as he captured World War II in Saving Private Ryan. Scene after scene is instilled with Spielbergian touches, whether it is executions masked by the passing of a windmill blade or wide shots slowly revealing piles of dead horses. And Spielberg works with the best so audiences can behold Janusz Kaminski's stunning cinematography and treat their ears to another swelling, emotional score from maestro John Williams.

Due to the picaresque format, characters flit in and out for short stretches of time so they have limited or rushed story lines. This is hardly surprising considering Richard Curtis (who owns the patent for cramming in as many character-types as possible into his scripts) co-wrote the screenplay. Consequently, many great actors are reduced to near-cameos: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston,  David Thewlis, The Reader's David Cross to name but a few. Nevertheless, Niels Arestrup brings a lot of heart to the film as a protective grandfather whilst newcomer Jeremy Irvine impresses as Joey's trainer.

It is not surprising that this has been overlooked by the award ceremonies. It is essentially a pastiche of World War I sketches and an animal is hardly a lead capable of uniting such disparate elements. That said, it is still a Spielberg film and that is always a good reason to go to the cinema.


Sunday, 22 January 2012


Director Steve McQueen reunites with his Hunger star, Michael Fassbender, for this brutal story of sex-addiction. It is an addiction rarely seen on screen and McQueen shows it is every bit as degrading, harrowing and consuming as drugs or alcohol.

Fassbender is more than deserving of his nominations and wins for Best Actor during this ongoing award season. He strips himself down for the role, quite literally, and is a mesmerising mix of ferocity, lust, self-hatred and grief. Whether he will eclipse George Clooney at the Academy Awards remains to be seen but Fassbender has certainly done the mileage, even without considering that he spends a third of the film completely naked.

As for McQueen, he directs confidently, handling all manner of graphic sex scenes with class and works well with the dramatic score which gives a haunting atmosphere to the first and last scenes. McQueen puts in enough directorial flourishes, such as extremely long shots and lingering close-ups with no cut-away, just to remind everyone that this is an indie film. 

That said, some of these are unwelcome and really slow the pace of the film. We do not need to see extended shots of Fassbender jogging or Carrie Mulligan singing and we certainly don't need to hear all the specials read out in the restaurant scene. These could easily have been trimmed to allow for more story.

Story is certainly an area that could have been developed. The concept is very simple: a man is addicted to sex and the arrival of his sister only heightens his addiction. Nevertheless, whilst the scenes with Fassbender and Mulligan are the best of the film, the tension between the brother and sister never reaches the dark climax that audiences are expecting. Equally, their disturbing background – dismissed with a line, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place” – is never adequately explored. Admittedly, ambiguity is often more intriguing than a full explanation but this was a missed opportunity and would have added more substance to the skeletal-thin plot.

However, this film is not expecting to win awards for screenwriting. This is designed to showcase one brave actor at the top of his game and Shame’s sights are firmly set on the Best Actor category.

Ultimately, this is a well-delivered and unforgiving look at sex addiction, boldly driven by a career-best performance from Fassbender. Give the man a gong.


Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's script for Midnight in Paris has won both a Critics' Choice Movie Award and a Golden Globe in the past week so I thought I would post this review I wrote last October.


At the age of 75, Woody Allen is showing no sign of slowing down.

This month, the veteran writer and director returned with Midnight in Paris. It contains all the staples of a Woody Allen classic – romance, quick wit, lengthy focus on forming and deteriorating relationships – but it also introduces a new twist: fantasy.

The story focuses on would-be novelist Gil (Owen Wilson) who is visiting modern day Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Not satisfied with tourist spots or boutique shopping, Gil longs to visit Paris in the 1920s at the height of its Golden Age. Magically, he stumbles upon an antique car at midnight and he is transported back in time to brush shoulders with his literary and artistic heroes.

Allen is clearing having a lot of fun at the helm. The fantastical plot allows him free reign to drop in as many fan-pleasing cameos as he pleases. Therefore, Gil meets the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and – in a scene-stealing performance by Adrien Brody – a very bonkers Salvador Dali determined to draw a rhinoceros. Allen’s writing is sharp as ever and he creates a lot of humour playing with our expectations of these characters, Extras-style.

Without revealing too much, the time travel takes on further dimensions as the story progresses and the showcase of great characters never slows down or disappoints. One scene with a very lost private investigator is a particular laugh-and-loud delight.

Determined not to be left behind by Hollywood, Allen has cast rising stars (Tom Hiddleston, Marion Cotillard), established A-list names (Kathy Bates, Michael Sheen, Carla Bruni) and very recognisable character actors (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy are a joy to watch as Inez' uptight parents).

Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams and Owen Wilson revisit their Wedding Crashers chemistry, only this time they are falling apart as opposed to falling in love. Furthermore, Wilson excels as the emotional core of the film. No-one can rival Wilson as the likeable, upbeat, everyman - he practically owns the patent to this role.

It is a shame that Midnight in Paris will be underwatched and unappreciated. It has too much brains, depth and style to please the mainstream rom-com crowd and it will also be overlooked by the Academy. The Academy notoriously dislikes comedy and fantasy, whilst there is no performance as attention-grabbing as Penelope Cruz's Oscar-winning turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (although arguably Marion Cottilard's more subtle presence is just as worthy).

Nevertheless, Midnight in Paris deserves to find an audience. It is charming, sweet, whimsical and thought-provoking with no small amount of magic.

In short, it is a Woody Allen film.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady could have been this year’s The King’s Speech

The British production company behind The Iron Lady were clearly hoping for this: opting for a January release date, bagging an Academy-friendly actress and offering a portrait of another twentieth-century figure who overcame adversity to lead a nation. It is a shame therefore that The Iron Lady is unlikely to achieve any of the critical acclaim or box office of The King’s Speech because the whole film is a huge disappointment.

The Iron Lady makes the mistake that sours many a biopic: trying to do too much. Screenwriter Abi Morgan has attempted to cover the full stretch of Thatcher’s life and, as a result, the story is constantly jumping back and forth in time, showing snatches of her childhood, political career and later senile years. As such, major events in Thatcher’s career – her first election, the Trade Unions, the Falklands – are reduced to montages and skipped over in minutes. Recent years have shown that successful biopics (Ali, Che, Milk, The King’s Speech) limit themselves to a few years or possibly a decade but never an entire life because you cannot maintain the quality of story-telling or drama.

Bizarrely, the story arc given the most screen time is Thatcher coming to terms with the passing of her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). The film is therefore punctuated with hallucinations of her dead husband, which are over-used, distracting and eventually annoying. Why on earth the screenwriter felt the need to insert a fantastical and overtly-sentimental plotline into Thatcher’s life is a mystery. Thatcher is the first and only female Prime Minister, she went to war, won a war, ruled for a decade and her ruthlessness now lives in infamy – was her life not interesting enough?

But the jarring narrative is only part of the problem. 

The whole film reeks of made-for-TV blemishes: voiceovers, montages, lazy inter-splicing of documentary footage, bland set design and a litter of underused British TV stars with little to do. Olivia Colman could have been good as Carol Thatcher if it wasn’t for her laughable prosthetic nose. Generally, the film is lacking in cinematic presence: it has no style, no presence, no look. The director makes amateur decisions, such as placing the camera at a jaunty angle when events are turning chaotic. And there is a strangely-frequent occurrence of characters talking directly at the camera. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who brought us Mamma Mia!, has clearly overstepped. She should stick to the musicals.

All of this is a crushing shame because the filmmakers were onto a winner. Bagging both Streep and the rights to make a Thatcher biopic should have been cinematic gold. And sure enough, Streep is brilliant in the role. She nails all aspects of Thatcher’s character – the formidability, the vulnerability and the senility – which few actresses could pull off so effortlessly. There are even a few laughs up for grabs when the script finally allows Streep a witty one-liner, which she delivers like a whip-crack. It would be tempting to say this performance makes up for the shortcomings but this is not the case. Streep is limited by her material and even Meryl Streep can only do so much with shoddy goods.

There is little joy to be had from The Iron Lady. It could have been a dramatic history lesson about the eighties, a tour de force character study of an infamous twentieth-century figure or an inspirational tale of one woman’s fight against misogyny. It attempts all but succeeds at none. The terrible poster says it all: aside from Streep, this is any old iron. 

Oscar Season deserves better.


The Artist

What better way to kick off Oscar Season than The Artist?

Like last month’s Hugo, this is another tribute to silent cinema, a celebration of the movie industry’s simple beginnings and nostalgia for old-school Hollywood. As such, The Artist is not just great cinema – it is about cinema. And it is truly wonderful.

Despite the aforementioned comparison to Hugo, the two films could not be more different. Scorsese used all the latest cutting-edge technology when designing Hugo: CGI, green screen, digital cameras and it was in Real 3-D. Meanwhile, The Artist goes one step further in its homage to silent cinema by telling the story mostly through silent cinema. As such, audiences have to adjust to inter-titles for key snatches of speech, 1920s editing techniques (fades, wipes) and the film is shot in 1:33 aspect ratio. No IMAX treatment for The Artist. All of these methods add to the film’s charm and personality and suddenly a new generation of cinemagoers are acclimatised to a forgotten genre of movie-making.

The actual story of The Artist relates to a pivotal moment in cinematic history: the arrival of sound in Hollywood and the production of ‘talkies’. We follow George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a successful silent movie star, who gets cast aside by his studio as they hunt for new faces to headline the talkies. Meanwhile, Valentin falls in love with one of his fans, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who becomes his peer then rival and finally his successor as the talkies grow in popularity along with her newfound stardom. It is a tragic-comedy narrating one man’s downfall and touching upon such core Hollywood themes as love, loss, success and failure.

Admittedly, that sounds like quite a lot of story to convey without dialogue. But never fear, the cast more than meet the challenge. Dujardin brings natural charisma and Hollywood good looks to Valentin but his acting is what matters. He has already bagged Best Actor at Cannes and deservedly so. Dujardin manages to convey more in a look than many actors can do with a stack of monologues. The series of botched takes where he falls in love with Peppy is a particular treat. Meanwhile, Bejo is adorable as Peppy and audiences will fall in love with her along with Valentin. The pair has natural chemistry having worked previously with director Michel Hazanavicius on the OSS 117 French spy parodies and the scenes they share are a joy.

Hazanavicius himself deserves a commendation for achieving the near-impossible: telling a story about the introduction of sound without using sound. The whole film is incredibly well-executed, embracing the limitations of the 1920s format in order to pack in plenty of story. Hazanavicius also gives free rein to Ludovic Bource’s score which is fundamental to The Artist’s success, carrying the pace along with much of the emotion.

More importantly, Hazanavicius’ experience directing comedy on the aforementioned OSS 117 films is also put to good use. The Artist has a pretty depressing storyline in which we follow one man lose his fortune and hit rock bottom. But light-hearted relief is never far away. As such, we have lots of cheesy posing in the films-within-the-film, some fantastic dream sequences (one of which involves placing a cup down on a table and is an early contender for Scene Of The Year) and regular support from Valentin’s performing dog, notably a fantastic Lassie moment. This could be the first year in which an animal is nominated Best Supporting Actor.

The Artist is destined to sweep the awards throughout Oscar Season, having already performed brilliantly at Cannes and the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. And in many ways, this hype is a good thing and will ensure The Artist finds an audience outside cinephiles. But this film isn’t typical Oscar fodder. It is void of politics, biopic, big names or Loud Acting. The foremost intention of The Artist is to entertain, charm and remind 21st century-audiences of the simple magic of cinema.

And for that, it deserves to be labelled a masterpiece. After all, silence is golden.


Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

America has a habit of remaking great foreign language films. These remakes are nearly always inferior to the original but they usually find a market because it is a sad fact that cinema-goers are put off by subtitles. As such, The Grudge, The Ring, Let Me In and even Mirrors have all enjoyed box office success despite their foreign language originals being unquestionably superior. 

However, every rule has an exception: enter David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Fincher’s film is that rare example of a remake which can hold its own against its five-star original. Much of this is down to Fincher’s trademark directing, which brings heaps of style and a typically cool soundtrack to the mix (provided by Oscar-winning Social Network composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). There is no better example of this than the Bond-style opening credits which blend oil-soaked images to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. The use of Enya is great too.

It is also testament to Fincher’s storytelling abilities that the audience still remain gripped by the plot. For many, this is the third time that they are hearing this story following Stieg Larsson's book and Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 Swedish original. However, Fincher’s typically fast-paced narrative ensures that the audience does not get bored and as such the film flows better than the original (although purists will argue it is less loyal to the book).

As for the performances, Rooney Mara has a tough job following Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. Mara is admittedly impressive but, despite receiving rave reviews, she brings nothing new to the role.

Daniel Craig, however, is brilliant as Mikael Blomkvist. This is his most Depp-like performance and Craig instils his character with numerous character ticks and nuances: dangling his glasses from one ear, catching a bottle as it rolls off the fridge, not bothering to name the cat he adopts. Aside from the six-pack, little remains of his Bond persona and Craig delivers his most quirky, vulnerable and human performance in ages.

Ultimately, the original is still the definitive five-star masterpiece that it was two years ago. So think of this as its respectable US cousin: slicker, better-looking and more accessible. In short, it has been given the Fincher treatment and it deserves to find the audience of its predecessor.


Monday, 2 January 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Spy films have grown serious of late. The Bourne films have boasted a handheld, shot-on-location hyper-realism whilst even the good old Bond franchise has toned down its hallmark gimmicks for the gritty Daniel Craig reboot. Thank goodness then for Mission Impossible.
The Tom Cruise spy capers have helped fill the void for those lamenting the loss of traditional Bond films. They keep alive many of the much-loved motifs: ridiculously attractive field agents, unfeasibly cool gadgets, over-the-top set pieces and a healthy dosage of one-liners. It is almostthe American answer to the Roger Moore Bond era.
However, note the emphasis on almost. The Mission Impossible films are still suffering from the same mistakes, four films and four directors into the series. Ethan Hunt is as bland as ever, regardless of how much charm Tom Cruise injects into him. He is essentially a cardboard cut-out action man. This is great for film-makers and has allowed four completely different approaches to the Mission Impossible films but barely connects with the audience. Even Bond had martinis, cars and a catchphrase.
Also, the villains are lacking yet again. The evil mastermind (played by a miscast Michael Nyqvist) is forgettable and his henchmen even more so. They are merely an excuse for punches to be thrown and offer no memorable scenes or dialogue or trademarks between them. In short, this series is desperately lacking a Blofeld.
But nobody goes to see these films for the characters. The Mission Impossible films have always delivered on action and fans will not be disappointed. This time, cool set pieces include: a Moscow prison break, a Kremlin heist, a sandstorm chase scene, a car lift melee and the much-publicised climb up the Burj Khalifa. Each delivers, although clearly they were planned first and the story was loosely tailored around them. As such, the film feels like a sketch show. Even the unrivalled Burj Khalifa scene is tainted with lengthy scenes of exposition explaining the logistics of the plan again and again.
Nevertheless, director Brad Bird can walk away from this film with his head held high. Having previously helmed Pixar favourites The Incredibles andRatatouille, Bird was an unusual choice for a live-action Tom Cruise vehicle. However, animated films are not without their action scenes and Bird’s experience clearly shows in his confidently-executed direction. Bird was also a writer for The Simpsons and knows exactly how to inject some humour into proceedings, mostly through Simon Pegg or just Tom Cruise banging his face in action scenes. Animation directors are finally being taken seriously and Bird has paved the way for Andrew ‘Finding Nemo’ Stanton’s live-action debut with John Carter due next year.
Ultimately, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a mixed bag like its three previous instalments. But the Mission Impossible films have always been an excuse to showcase a director at their best: Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams and now Brad Bird. The latest instalment promises two hours of bonkers action, good-looking stars, Bond gadgets and fun. And on that, it delivers. Mission accomplished.