I wonder if one was to take the best elements of Michael Winterbottom's films and fuse them into a film of their own, would it be as wondrous as those elements are in isolation? Were he to edit his ideas, focus his attention and trim down his schedule (without, necessarily, his workload), he might land a few more bullseyes. The Look of Love lands somewhere not too far from target, but not quite close enough to satisfy. It has a workmanlike aesthetic, and a plainly boring structure and theme, and seems to opine that all the naked women in London suffice in supplying this film with the spice it needs to make an impact. But there's nothing provocative about topless babes nowadays, nor even fully nude ones, and Winterbottom is even surprisingly prudish at times for a director who has gone the whole hog before. I recall The Killer Inside Me, which wasn't just a film about violence, it was a violent experience, brutal in its content and hazy in its mood, giving us the sensation that we too had just been assaulted. The Look of Love may be a film about sex, but it's rarely a sexual experience. Or it may not be a film about sex, but then why does it waste so much time on the subject? Matt Greenhalgh follows the generic biopic blueprint in his screenplay, which condenses complex lives into a minimum of highly significant scenes, allowing Winterbottom little room to breathe life into the film. Production values are fine, although contribute no more than a bland air of authenticity. Performances are quite impressive, but Imogen Poots should never sing (nor lip-sync) again, and if Steve Coogan has a masterly comic delivery, he also has very little range, and he's hardly testing it here. Some moments have been oddly siphoned by abrupt editing - this, alongside issues such as the join showing on Coogan's wig and Poots' aforementioned sloppy miming, adds to the feeling that this was a rushed production. Please, Michael, edit your ideas, focus your attention, trim down your schedule.
Tuesday, 30 April 2013
Monday, 29 April 2013
There's a special place in hell (or at least there would be) for those who can take a true story and wrangle this much crass sentimentality out of it. If you're the sort who cries at movies, Any Day Now is likely to make you blub, but at what happens, not at how it happens. Director Travis Fine knows how to stage a good, slick, emotional montage over some heartstring-pulling music like every other hack with a big enough budget, but the dearth of creative individuality which he possesses ensures that all his touches fail to enhance the innate emotive qualities of this real-life tale. In fact, they seem to attempt to debase these qualities, and bring Any Day Now into line with dozens of other 'movie-of-the-week'-type films you'll surely have seen. The story: two gay men try to conceal their relationship from the authorities in order to obtain custody of Marco, a child with Down's Syndrome whose neglectful mother has wound up in prison. They succeed, temporarily, which may strike one as remarkable, considering that one of the men is played by Alan Cumming, but which is less remarkable when one considers that Any Day Now takes place in the 1970s, when pretty much every man dressed like a gay man. Their relationship is, of course, discovered, by the one person who has apparently gathered up all the suspicion nobody else seems to harbour and uses it as a licence to glower like a bad Bond villain, and Marco is put into foster care. The tenacious couple endeavour to regain custody, but face every obstacle imaginable, as expected. It's a sad story, no doubt, but Fine gives it such a soap-opera sheen that all the sadness is lost, and it becomes hard to feel as the film so relentlessly dictates we should feel. Fine plays wholly by the book, which yields mostly negative results, although the stock characters he has somehow fabricated from reality do lend themselves to strong performances from the cast, and at least someone understood that casting Frances Fisher in your film in any capacity automatically makes it better.
Sunday, 28 April 2013
Upstream Colour needs a little more sensibility and a little less sensitivity. In strict narrative terms (although Shane Carruth has taken every known measure to avoid conforming to strict narrative terms), Upstream Colour is sci-fi; sci-fi films are built with blocks of innovation on a foundation of reason - those which stand up to close inspection have concepts based on reason, those which crumble are merely flimsy assemblages of neat ideas. Carruth, working technical wonders on a low budget, builds his tower tall, filling, expanding and elaborating upon his concept. But the foundations are absent. In basic terms, there is no point to Upstream Colour. It communicates nothing, it teaches nothing, it's not even fun to watch. All this prowess, the masterful framing, the delicate sound design, the precise editing - in moments, this is an enchanting film to behold - needs an emotional weight attached, something less ephemeral to give it a sense of purpose. What it is is rather closer to an art exhibition than a film. The issue lies in Carruth's rather arch cleverness, as he has most diligently distorted a perfectly straightforward plot in every manner conceivable, and quite why he has done this is beyond me, I confess. The cynic in me imagines it is plain old pretentiousness, and the eartnestness with which Carruth goes about this experiment has convinced me that there's no hint of irony mixed in. Would that make it more bearable? Probably, although it might risk devaluing all that Carruth has achieved with this film - he's a highly skilled filmmaker, and I won't deny that he has surely accomplished exactly what he intended to, which makes it likely that some will connect with Upstream Colour most profoundly. But when I trace this tale back to its origin, and his intentions back to theirs, I find an emptiness and a pomposity (respectively) which I can't at all connect with.
Saturday, 27 April 2013
It's easier to start with too much and scale it down than to start with too little and scale it up, particularly when you have such specific references as Shane Black does. He strips back the excess of Iron Man 2 and hews this franchise installment closer to Jon Favreau's first Iron Man. The strength of that film was its light-heartedness, its weakness was its action; 2 exploded the action and the CGI, all arrogance and ambition, and wound up a mess; 3 reverts back to the comedy angle but is possessed of a key advantage - a director who understands how to stage a set-piece. Although some are heavily reliant on visual effects (Black bungles parts of the finale in using it as a crutch), all are thrilling examples of lucidity and innovation in action storytelling. Black's method here is the same as his method for the film as a whole: don't get carried away, just stay committed to what you've got to work with. Humour is employed to keep the tone bright, and a strong spacial awareness and comprehension of how place and architecture shape such sequences lifts the film notably. The writing team has devised a novel means of overcoming Iron Man 2's over-abundance of characters, streamlining the narrative with a plot manoeuvre that makes total sense, doesn't screw us over, improves the film, and you'll certainly never see coming. Alas, Black and co-writer Drew Pearce have very little idea what to do with several other characters - Don Cheadle is relegated to the role of sidekick so unceremoniously that any attempts to imbue his character with independent credibility are invariably funny (both intentionally and not, which gives you an idea of how much faith they have in the role), and poor Rebecca Hall is denied the chance to develop her role into something of any value by a daft reveal that you'll certainly see coming. What truly lets this film down, though, is its attitude towards violence. It seems to be the first major superhero movie to actually advocate violence, as good parties enact vengeance on bad, threatening and slaughtering en masse, and international political issues are treated with flippancy. Whereas Tony Stark used to aim to prevent deadly threats in order to protect planet Earth, now he seems all too eager to kill and destroy in order to protect his lass.
Thursday, 25 April 2013
Robert Redford trots out all the big-name actors he can lay his hands on in The Company You Keep, which is either a political thriller wrestling with its inner character drama or a character drama with a flimsy facade of political thriller. The effect of this confusion is one of a naturally straightforward work cluttered with too many familiar faces and too much plot. Writer Lem Dobbs' solution is to roughly sketch each plot strand out and hope that it develops itself - no one component is especially complex, so it's not unreasonable for Dobbs and Redford to expect us to be able to fill in the gaps, but cumulatively it leaves this film constantly stranded in a state of exposition, starting anew with each scene. And, winding our way through all these people and all their connections, we come to realise that this is actually a very simple plot overall, in which all the politicising is of little consequence. It is not of little interest, though, and Redford being Redford, he has called upon an ensemble of seminal figures of 1970s Hollywood liberalism, such as Susan Sarandon and Julie Christie, and you can taste his and their fervour in moments when they're given an opportunity to sink their teeth into some good old-fashioned agitprop. The awkward pacing shudders the film to an inevitable halt towards the end, as Redford resolves his film abruptly, messily, with a series of short, ineffective scenes which thoroughly stamp out whatever tension was there in the first place (not much, actually). Shia LaBeouf is surprisingly likeable when he dials down the corny charm and enthusiasm - truth is, reporters like him do not exist, and the more aware he makes us of this, the harder The Company You Keep is to relax into. It's always fun to follow such a character on his hunt for a high-profile story, unfolding before his and our eyes, but Redford too frequently ditches LaBeouf and instead hones in on himself, on a tedious trek across America, which it would appear he accomplished entirely on foot. Topless. Always one step ahead of those FBI lame-ducks. Definitely not grey. No sir, it's all natural.
Wednesday, 24 April 2013
This riotous comedy is all kinds of dreck, and one of the best reasons to go to the cinema in a long time. Since none of the comedy is scripted, it has a naivety which, matched with its absurdity, makes Olympus Has Fallen a classic for all the wrong reasons. The ineptitude of the screenplay in dealing with political detail is breathtaking, in both its cloth-headed dialogue and its ridiculous premise - North Korean terrorists besiege the White House by basically turning up and barging their way in. A lone fighter plane, apparently on wire strings, takes out half of DC as Gerard Butler, with an accent as American as a haggis in a kilt, bellows at tourists to 'take cover', which is good advice when you're being shot at, if also blindingly obvious. The terrorists pose as South Koreans because, hey, they all look the same, those guys! Among them is an American defector, who has switched sides, or so he tells the President, because of "WALL STREET!" One helpful man supplies us with the clip of the year when he affirms, in paralysing fear, "They've taken the White House!" By this stage, it's good to remember that Olympus Has Fallen doesn't actually get any worse, and that the hilarity does continue, as the disheartenment sets in as you realise there's only going to be yet more R-rated bloodshed. When it's Butler stabbing people's brains out, or bashing their heads in with a bronze bust (now, now!), though, it's apparently more acceptable. And again when he's an American! We never learn if it's a Democrat or a Republican President in office, just that it's an American, and that means he's a darn good guy. The guys get off pretty easy, less so the girls. They bitch and moan about their gossip and fuss about their jewellery and their hair and then they wonder why their men don't listen? Don't they know they're too busy saving the world? A hug and a kiss and a gift will all make up for it, bien sur! The estimable ensemble includes Angela Bassett, #turningitout like she's in a Shakespeare tragedy, deserving of at least one Oscar for this performance, Morgan Freeman, Robert Forster, Ashley motherfucking Judd (holla!) and Melissa "Get your hands off me, I'm a fucking Academy Award winner!" Leo, chucked about like a sack of spuds by those careless Koreans, flailing around like a springer spaniel on LSD. It all concludes with the obligatory countdown timer to the impending apocalypse, sweetly positioned next to a casualty counter, tolling up the number of potential deaths like a strongman game at the funfair, as if someone would actually invent such a machine. What a hoot!
Tuesday, 23 April 2013
All trumped up and ready to go, Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to Blue Valentine is the exact opposite of his debut film. It was all preparation, deep consideration, a film that reached into its characters' pasts as deep as it could; The Place Beyond the Pines derives its sense of depth and drama from its embellishments, from its impressive but uninspired and often intrusive musical score to its moody cinematography and its pretentious triptych structure. Cianfrance stages his film like an opera in three acts, or a novel, using familiar scenarios and set-ups which he can set off balance in post-production (the score is a major player in The Place Beyond the Pines, and often sounds as though it's there to imbue an element of interest to otherwise inert material), and tethering them together, cliche to cliche, with a misplaced air of profundity. In wobbly close-ups of sweaty male visages and long, anguished pauses, Cianfrance shoots to expose the soul of the American male, but his intentions and his methods are shallow, and his entire concept so banal in all its many aspects that he gets almost nowhere, and winds up circling around the same old points again and again, drumming into his audience a belief that there must be some greater meaning to all of this. Just as his grand romantic ambition and his dedication to vapid realism clash uneasily, his portrait of Ryan Gosling's character is flawed - Cianfrance's lens fawns on Gosling, practically beatifying his winsome features, as he simultaneously tries to paint him as a reckless criminal, a callous antihero. It's a muddled portrait of a character created for one purpose and largely utilised for another, and although Gosling's gift may be to suggest a mind full of melancholy behind those wistful eyes, there's a badness to this man that Cianfrance never lets him explore. The second two parts of this film, which focus elsewhere, are more clear about their intentions, and more narratively conventional. They offer disturbing and thrilling developments, and good performances across the board, although an eventual descent into melodrama and a reliance on coincidence throughout prevent The Place Beyond the Pines from ever quite allowing the viewer to relax into this film.
Monday, 22 April 2013
As much as many filmmakers are capable of working within the studio system and producing cinematic works of art which are also financially lucrative, the notion of commerciality is inherently damaging to the creation of art. The vast majority of animated films, notoriously time-consuming and expensive to make, serve their intended audience foremost. Ernest & Celestine is the opposite - it is self-serving, fulfilling its own requirements first, rather than those of the audience. Its capacity for profit-making may thus be limited, but its capacity for pleasing those whom it can reach is naturally increased in so doing. Directed by Benjamin Renner and the duo most famous internationally for the absurd (and distinctly different) 2009 stop-motion comedy A Town Called Panic, Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, from an adaptation of Gabrielle Vincent's childrens' books by Daniel Pennac, Ernest & Celestine is a charmingly casual parable, which wastes not a breath on any superfluous concerns, goals nor activities, and yet is full of breathing spaces, from the unfinished white edges of the frame to the simple, predictable storyline. There's a certain enchantment that can be conjured up by traditional techniques of animation, from the hand-drawn 2D imagery to the familiar story and character types, and Ernest & Celestine exemplifies the easygoing appeal that is achieved when these techniques are treated with sincerity and applied with diligence. This is a delightful film, with a beautiful design and excellent voice work, which approaches its moral lessons with subtlety and a slight (and welcome) wariness, and is characterised by its winning sense of humour and some memorable directorial quirks.
Saturday, 20 April 2013
An intelligent, ambitious but wayward ensemble piece, centred around the real-life case of Eluana Englaro - a complex story of a woman in a coma and the moral, religious and political debate on whether or not she ought to be legally mandated treatment. Brush up on your history before this one, Dormant Beauty is not going to fill in the gaps for you. Indeed, Marco Bellocchio uses Englaro's story to fill in the gaps in his narrative, which concerns a number of plot strands, some inter-connected, most only connected by Englaro. As a means of bridging several sub-plots, this is innovative and successful, much more so than the contrived solutions offered up in many similar films. A lack of clarity doesn't diminish the potency communicated in the myriad of arguments, often subtly presented, and always integral to the corresponding character. A smart cast picks up on the riches in Bellocchio's screenplay, and contributes to each sub-plot functioning on its own terms, in its own way. The issue lies with the film Bellocchio tries to craft out of each of these. One particularly troublesome one involves a suicidal drug addict and a devoted doctor (who looks so like Patrick Dempsey it's extraordinary), which becomes muddled and blunt, weighed down by over-elaborate philosophical dialogue and supposedly thought-provoking moralising, which is handled much better in the other plots. On the other hand, Isabelle Huppert appears in another, which is enough to recommend it to the highest. She has the ability to blaze through so little as a sideways glance, and is only becoming more beautiful with age. Bellocchio's visuals are nicely varied, and his sound mix crisp and immediate, but much of this feels like stylistic intrusions on a human story, as do occasional moments of crass comedy.
Thursday, 18 April 2013
It's the little things that count. What sets Fede Alvarez's remake of Sam Raimi's cult classic apart from the majority of equivalent modern horror movies is perspective: comedy and commitment. Tongue in cheek and chainsaw in hand, Evil Dead builds steadily to a relentless barrage of bloodletting and belly-laughs, and Alvarez shies away from neither. When he meshes the two, it's a delight. Good horrors scarcely come bloodier than this; only torture porn and the New French Extremity can rival it, and the cumulative worth of every film in either of those sub-genres is hardly higher than this one film's worth. As icky as the violence is, Alvarez's touch isn't sadistic. He uses violence as a comedic tool, and paints his film with blood, rather than splatters it. Mostly, should it serve no purpose other than to sicken viewers, he positions the gory details out of our sight. Riffing on Raimi's original, his imaginative and even artistic eye generates some memorable images, which, in terms of cabin-in-the-woods horror movies go, actually hews this Evil Dead closer to Lars von Trier's Antichrist than Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods at times. Generally, Alvarez strands the less integral scenes somewhat, and doesn't imbue them with the same verve as he does this film's best moments, but his tone is never less than satisfying, and lead actress Jane Levy is a terrific presence, chewing up scenery whether as a young woman going through a harrowing cold turkey experience, or as a demented demon, slicing her tongue in half, vomiting blood, and drinking in some killer one-liners.
Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Oblivion is a drizzle, and I wanted a downpour. Balancing sci-fi, romance and action, Joseph Kosinski proves a decent director of all three, to varying degrees, but leaves visible seams between them, and probably could have done with trimming them all to some extent. That he takes his time allows each aspect of Oblivion to develop in turn, which is most welcome, but it stretches the runtime considerably - the net effect is one of a botched epic, with all of the bricks and none of the mortar. Tom Cruise is at ease in a role that prises out thankfully little of his usual saccharine schtick, although some early scenes are blighted by it. Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo - a cast all thoroughly at ease. But this just exacerbates the dramatic inertia, and the sensation that Oblivion's narrative has been pre-determined by convention. Even the twists, which supposedly ought to turn the whole thing on its head, are predictable and bathetic. The mythology which underpins Oblivion is not devoid of value, but Kosinski expects both too much and too little of his audience, explaining when there's no need to explain, then leaving major plot points suspended, vague, when there's certainly a need to explain. Thank goodness for Andrea Riseborough, who reliably lifts this film to a higher plain every time she's on screen. All the technical and design wizardry grows ever less impressive as things progress, but Riseborough's contribution in a potentially dud role is what makes Oblivion worth sitting through, even as Kosinski eventually jettisons her for cliched action scenes and crude sentimentality.
Tuesday, 16 April 2013
You rest your entire film's success on one man's story, and you had better hope that his story is worth the effort. You rest your entire film's success on Michael Shannon, and you're off to a good start. Shannon has been down this road before, sure, but The Iceman is so reliant on and transfixed by him that the few scenes without him dry up in an instant. He carries this flabby film from start to finish, with a performance that is as familiar as it is brilliant, which is to say that he phones it in, but that Michael Shannon phoning it in is worth a hundred other actors' best efforts. As this is factual account, the filmmakers insist on chronicling every important development in the adult life of this Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer unremarkable beside his emotional detachment and the fact that he got caught rather than killed. Whether or not these characters were more interesting specimens in reality, I can't tell, but on film they are portrayed as carbon copies of genre tropes, from the snivelling friends to the clueless family to Ray Liotta - you always know where you are when Ray Liotta turns up, and that's rarely far from the bottom of the barrel. Ariel Vromen kills time, literally, by skipping through the years with nonchalance, as Shannon's facial hair changes and Winona Ryder ages not a day, although that's one real-life detail they got right. James Franco turns up for a cameo, because that's what wild-card virtuoso intelligentsia types do in low budget genre movies like this.
Monday, 15 April 2013
Comedy out of context. The danger in adapting Shakespeare is that you let him do all the work - with Much Ado About Nothing, the danger is in trusting that he's actually done the work. Joss Whedon inherits all of this cumbersome play's faults alongside all of its favours, and produces a film that is its equal in effect and technique if not in artistry, and not as you might expect. In short, everything in Whedon's Much Ado is of enormously variable quality. Individual performances range from lively to lacklustre, the cinematography from creative to customary, the music from sweet to sickening. The cast copes awkwardly with some of the verbal comedy but marvellously with the physical, especially Amy Acker, but Whedon seems unsure of where to pitch the tone of the humour as the story takes its wild swerves through a series of extraordinary developments which barely got by in the original play, never mind in this modern setting. Treating it rather po-faced is a mistake, as the cast simply isn't up to the challenge, while treating it as farce is a risky move, which is only halfheartedly made here. Whedon strolls where Shakespeare plodded, and dries up where Shakespeare danced. The imbalance thus continues, although it does contribute to a rather more coherent work than its source. Yet, it is lacking in the bold frivolity necessary to make the first half soar, and self-consciously goofy performances detract from the beauty of the language. He does make a vast improvement in one regard, drawing out the abrupt ending most considerably, and considerately, extending it to a much more suitable size. The update to the 21st century and the black-and-white photography are mere affectations, and they mesh uneasily with Shakespeare's florid text. This is mildly worth seeing for its cute comedy, and then worth avoiding for its irritability.
Sunday, 14 April 2013
Dror Moreh's essential documentary probes issues of morality and security in the modern world with greater reach and greater lucidity than perhaps any film before it. Whether or not it is art, and that must always remain a subjective decision, it is certainly a record of indefinable importance. What is so extraordinary about it is the candour with which its subjects speak - all leaders of the Shin Bet, whose awareness of the magnitude of what they are revealing fails to stifle them. We are receiving information, old but still not irrelevant, familiar but not in such detail, a top secret document completely un-redacted concerning an ongoing true story. Moreh's technique is clear and focused, and his style is deathly serious, thus both encouraging and respecting the content of what is being spoken by these fascinating men. He falters a little in occasionally over-egging the drama, as slick as his efforts may be, but that narration, those words... they suck you in, to the point that you think Michael Bay could have directed this film and it wouldn't have mattered - nothing can detract from the power of those words. The moral and political ambiguity of their roles and the reflection permitted by time enable the men to speak with as much balance and intelligence as authority, and so The Gatekeepers doesn't suffer from its one-sidedness, as it is, indeed, the story of one side. Under such circumstances, it would have been difficult, not to mention inappropriate, for Moreh to pass judgement, but his refusal to do so is laudable, as these matters are far too complex to be categorised so neatly as either right or wrong, and that too must remain a subjective decision for each viewer to make, or even choose to make. You see, this is our world, today. It's not the past. It's how we get by. It's how I am here to write this review, and you are here to read it. So, right or wrong, we have been affected by what is depicted in The Gatekeepers. We are the beneficiaries of these questionable methods, one way or another. Who are we to pass judgement? This film shows that not even those responsible feel in a position to pass judgement.
Saturday, 13 April 2013
Often, it's better to walk into a film knowing nothing at all about it - not its characters, not its plot, nothing. But with White Elephant, there's one thing you ought to know: It does get on track. It just doesn't quite know which track to take for a while. Sputtering through its early scenes, which have the feel of one of those 'Previously on...' bits at the start of a TV show, it settles in the slums of Buenos Aires, and centres around a group of community workers, specifically two priests. From here, we observe two separate stories entwined - that of the priests and that of the slum, the former being the more prominent, the latter providing atmosphere and tension more than anything else. This is a misguided track, unfortunately, as Pablo Trapero shows a deft hand at distilling the mood of the slum, and at persuading strong performances from the large ensemble. The priests, their tepid, stale stories of personal growth and change, their wan sincerity, one suffering from an illness he dare not divulge lest it distract people's attention from worthier causes, the other wrestling with the sexual attraction he feels towards his female co-worker, who has 'LOVE INTEREST' stamped on her forehead from her first appearance, in case we trusted the writers to dream up such an implausibility as a woman with an agenda of her own. The screenplay ticks off cliches until at runs out of them, so the film has to end. Trapero has a knack for depicting hardship and discomfort, whether it be the brazen brutality of a police raid, or the plain old misery of a long car journey in driving rain. Little details like these, or cigarette embers briefly flickering through the air, barely even registered, enliven White Elephant, although their impermanence renders them largely irrelevant. Michael Nyman provides the score, which is to say he reuses an old score and writes a few new bars, employed only twice; it is typically impressive stuff from Nyman, but almost comically out of place. It's like watching Ken Loach with Carmina Burana on in the background.
Thursday, 11 April 2013
The candour of the title says it all. A Hijacking is nothing more than a fictional account of the hijacking of a Danish cargo ship in the Indian Ocean. Something as straightforward as this would represent boldness and daring in the Hollywood system, but the Danes work from a different system entirely. They have a knack, in their films and television output, for capturing reality. Not one word rings false, not even when the subtitles stumble, as the vocal syntax is so fluid and frank. Not one performance rings false, not even for a moment, no matter how menial nor how demanding the task set before the cast. Were it not for the professional production quality (professional, but not flashy), A Hijacking would be pure cinema-verite. A thorough understanding of the complexities of such an ordeal is displayed in the screenplay, both from the perspective of the hostages and from those tasked with freeing them. The emotional understanding alone is excellent, with simple scenes suffused with such a layering of sentiment that one would be inclined to sit back and marvel at Tobias Lindholm's intelligence, were it not for the fact that A Hijacking is just too affecting, and too gripping, to allow one to detach oneself emotionally. Tobias Lindholm also co-wrote Thomas Vinterberg's recent The Hunt, which manifests a very similar balance of riveting drama and social, psychological depth. Crucial to its success is that it is never clear how or when the situation will be resolved, nor what the results will be once resolved. A slight jolt off-course near the end ensures that not even your most astute estimations will be quite accurate, as one last layer is added, Lindholm unwilling to waste a single moment of his masterful film.
Tuesday, 9 April 2013
The kind of throwaway thriller that Hollywood churns out for a dime a dozen, only director Eran Creevy seems to have eaten up his big (or bigger) budget opportunity to make a British equivalent a little too hastily. His ambition to emulate sucks all the originality out of this film - what originality such a tired concept ever had - and just as he acquires a Hollywood slickness, he also acquires a pompousness that is surely only half-forgivable when there's an actual reason to be pompous. The cynic in me assures me that Creevy's reach does not merit praise while his grasp lags behind, certainly not when he's reaching for something as shopworn as this. He works from a blueprint, one which was never particularly interesting anyway, and doesn't deviate once. Wouldn't you know that the streets of central London are curiously deserted for the nighttime car chase? That the villain is employed to deliver the inevitable (and rather essential) explanatory monologue at gunpoint? That the police never show up until immediately after the fight has finished? That, in numerous heavy gunfights, only a handful of shots are landed? That not everyone is to be trusted... mais non, Creevy's plot encompasses every single cast member, to the point that you could tick off character after character involved in some form or another until there were none left. And that the only female characters of note are the daft grandmother and the obligatory sole female police officer, who spends her last few moments morphing into a love interest and then a seductress? Of course, isn't that the only means of persuasion she has at her disposal? The blokes have their guns and gurns, all she has is tits and teeth. That it's Andrea Riseborough in the role only made me want to slap Eran Creevy more. After this pretentious smudge on the careers of almost all concerned, he deserves one.
Sunday, 7 April 2013
If Bernardo Bertolucci's canon can be separated into projects which interested him and projects which impassioned him, Me and You occupies a position in the latter category. It's not a particularly passionate work of his, but it does disclose a respect for his subjects, two half-siblings, whose not-especially remarkable lives are tenderly presented, and altered, over the course of one week in a basement, almost completely alone. No political text nor subtext, no graphic sex and nudity, no China! Just two rather different but distinct young people, whose era may not be that of Bertolucci's prime, but whose concerns are readily understood by the sympathetic director. The '70s soundtrack, sparingly used, is perhaps the most plain indication of where we stand, as is the inventive but sensitive cinematography, but Bertolucci's mark radiates from within these characters' hearts and minds, despite the fact that Me and You is not an original screenplay, but an adaptation. Noisy, callous Olivia intrudes upon introverted Lorenzo, her younger half-brother whom she has not seen for years, as he camps out in the basement of his apartment building, seeking respite from a world that may make some effort to consider him, but on its own terms, not his. This is a tough lesson for a teenager, one which Lorenzo is better at coming to terms with in solitude, he thinks, and away from the smothering endeavours of his mother. She thinks he's on a school ski trip. Olivia is a disturbing presence at first but Lorenzo grows to accommodate her, initially out of sympathy, eventually out of love. He learns something from her, too, perhaps identifying their similarities - both feel abandoned by their parents and rejected by society, even though Lorenzo's situation appears much cushier than Olivia's. Bertolucci is more measured in approaching this story than he normally might be, and seems at ease with its slightness, bordering on dramatic aridity at times, and thereby enables the strongest analysis of his film's characters for many years.
Saturday, 6 April 2013
Harmony Korine takes his shock-jocking to the mainstream with Spring Breakers, a film designed to be nothing more than just a design - gaudy reflections of a youth culture whose intent to horrify and bewilder its elders is buried so deep below its latent conservatism that the deeper you probe, the emptier it gets. But it's all about having fun, right? Indulging the desires of a generation of sexist homophobes with a love of firearms and a fear of genitalia. I can buy into it to an extent. I can buy into the underage drinking, the rampant drug abuse, the rough, raucous dance music - the only thing more fun than watching must be joining in. But Korine is so steeped himself in this culture that he perpetuates its defects. He spreads the satire on when it comes to violence, but his attitude towards sexuality is jarringly cautious. Indeed, it's a reflection, and not an advancement, not a new spin on an existing subject. But who's to shock with this, with what we already know? It takes a lot more than kids doing coke off a half-naked student's abdomen to cause the kind of provocation that Korine wants to. He attacks and celebrates this all from the inside, restricting him in his search for a tone. Shooting its load way too early, Spring Breakers can't find any adequate sustenance for its runtime, and ends up seizing hold of passing plot strands, descending ever further into banality. Casting Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez may be an attempt at subversion, but it works, because the four leads all do. Casting James Franco was just stupid, though. There's an 'artiste' beneath the gold teeth and braids, a performer playing dress-up, relishing an opportunity to do something unexpected. Franco's naive arrogance draws you out of the film every time he's in shot. A memorable scene involves him fellating the barrel of a gun, an action at which he proves curiously skillful... Sound and visuals somewhat rescue the film, being of greater and more focused ambition than Korine and his cast - the soundscape is alternately seductive and brutal, and Benoit Debie's photography is expectedly brilliant, with its sickly pastels and sickening neons.
Thursday, 4 April 2013
Dripping oh-so-steadily through a plot barely sufficient for a short film, The Host is a dreary experience. There's barely a moment that couldn't have been at least trimmed a little, as Andrew Dominik seems to pause on every beat, giving us time to take in all the little details... little details which aren't even there. The big details? We already took them in, long before the scene even started, back when we predicted what was going to happen, and thought that surely no film could ever be so dull as the one we were imagining. But The Host is. Aliens have taken over the Earth and a few humans lead a resistance. Their resistance amounts to living in caves and growing wheat, defending themselves against an invading species whose intentions appear to be to cuddle us into extinction. They're a peaceful race, incapable of lying and of violence, and they have rid the world of war. They also have great style, and can be identified by their shiny Lotus cars. And we're supposed to side with the tetchy, petty, scruffy humans? The aliens do actually carry pepper spray (or the like) to help capture the humans, but this doesn't violate their peaceful nature since the cans have the word 'PEACE' printed on them. Saoirse Ronan plays Melanie, who is so determined to resist the invasion that when she jumps several stories out of a window, she does greater damage to the tarmac than to herself. When her car veers off the road and flips over several times, she gets out and walks off. She spends days in the desert with very little water, and ends up with chapped lips. Her greatest test is yet to come, though, as she is forced to choose between two hunky boys! The Host is such a bore, its defining scenes, around which it is all staged, involve kissing. That's what we've been waiting all this time for. A kiss. Dear me! Dominik does little to drag himself out of the stinking bog that is Stephenie Meyer's source novel; it would seem that Shakespeare could adapt one of her works and it'd still be a turkey, so Dominik's efforts were DOA. There are, however, plentiful scenes of comedy, as Ronan takes on the role of two girls, one body, whose internal duologues are a hoot.
Wednesday, 3 April 2013
Watching G.I. Joe: Retaliation, it's depressing to see how far we've come. Once upon a time, visual effects of this standard would have been an unreachable dream. To think of the artistry with which effects of bygone days, so revolutionary in their time and so quaint in ours, were treated. And yet they were always aids to the story, a part of the experience, whereas nowadays, too often are VFX employed as the entire experience, embellished with hunky guys, sexy girls and crafty stunts. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is one action set-piece after another, with occasional filler in the form of ill-judged scenes reliant on dialogue, that fusty relic of the medium. The action is even more incoherent than the storyline, edited to form an assault on the viewer and jazzed up with random loud noises, as if director Jon Chu was trying to convince us that something important was happening. Characters are rarely shown in transit - they appear on cue, sometimes at the other end of the earth, exacerbating the film's baffling sense of time and pace; reshoots near the start establish this film's unstable structure. Bruce Willis also appears, and has even less screentime than in his Ocean's Twelve cameo. Making a more substantial appearance are guns, which have a repulsive prolificacy in Retaliation, and the contrast between how dear Channing Tatum's demise (tragic) is depicted and the destruction of London and of presumably millions of people (trivial) is dumbfounding. This film's ignominious devotion to firearms is one of its many fun-sapping characteristics, which stand in stark contrast to the daffiness which Stephen Sommers brought to The Rise of Cobra, and which clearly yearns to break free in Retaliation. Chu never quite settles on which tone to strike - just how fantastical does one push it? Much further, I say, as it's way too deep into ridiculous territory as things are, with little to none of the action believable. Stupid, non-sensical, morally ugly, sexist, homophobic, racist and callous, and all in a bad way.
Tuesday, 2 April 2013
Aren't fictional characters always so much more interesting than real people? The more you know a person, the less you care to know, I suppose. In the House offers us a perspective on a family that is not our own: it is that of another one of the film's characters. Despite the fact that much of what he provides us in regard to narrative actually occurs, it functions as a fictional story within a factual framework - that is, it becomes the film, and the frame becomes a reality. As the machinations of the plot which drive this reality become ever more obvious, though, and as the lines between the two are blurred, Francois Ozon steadies his ship by emphasising the comedy that is slyly prevalent throughout, and he reveals a delicate touch with some self-referential meta elements which could have invalidated the quality of the entire film. This family, so crudely drawn, so colourful, so predictable, becomes so much fun to behold, even as we know that In the House is more about the other characters, specifically Germain, the teacher; his awareness of his position in his own story allows him to keep up with us, ensuring that he discloses what we learn about him (we learn a little more still) and that he doesn't begin to leech our sympathy. I had such admiration for Claude, Germain's student, but wished he had been as sharply drawn as the other figures, in the end - he remains motiveless for his actions, and acts in an uncharacteristic manner in the film's coda, which jarred for me. Ozon also loses his grip in the preceding scene, where his attempt at melodrama is flimsy, and his attempt to simultaneously satirise it is ill-advised. He ought to have left it alone, as he does with much of In the House, and consistently to its benefit otherwise. He lets those fictional characters, 90% non-fictional anyway, earn our sympathy, wholly unknowingly, which is what makes them so interesting. It also aids those particular actors' performances, but the cast on the whole is impressive.