Sunday, 30 January 2011

Black Swan

***
Amidst the awards hoopla it’s a bit tricky to give an objective view of this kind of film but here goes: Black Swan (BAFTA & Oscar nominated) sees Darren Aronofsky (BAFTA & Oscar nominated) directing Natalie Portman (BAFTA & Oscar nominated) through the lens of cinematographer, Matthew Libatique (BAFTA & Oscar nominated). OK, you get the idea. And, I should add, others involved are also up for gongs. But enough of that…

The film sees Natalie Portman as prima ballerina Nina, preparing for Swan Lake. As she struggles with the darker part of the dual role, the Black Swan things take a turn for the weird. It's a psychological horror where you’re often unsure what is real and what is not. This is Polanski territory but the closest cinematic cousin is 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder. Sadly, however, it’s a poor relation. The “shocks” just aren’t that shocking. There are also unintentional laughs galore which have a nasty habit of descending your disbelief. Saying that, it's a film with a lot of good qualities. As a warts 'n all look at ballet it's unmatched. The dance scenes (both in rehearsal and on stage) are film-making at its most muscular.

Peculiarly, there are an awful lot of similarities with Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler; Natalie Portman is often shot walking from behind just as Mickey Rourke was, there are many parallels in terms of the theme of performance, and it is shot in the most stunning, gritty, grainy Super 16mm (and brutally up close and personal) resulting in a really mesmerising look. 

Natalie Portman is fantastic in the role, as are Barbara Hershey (bordering-on-psychotic-Mommy) and Mila Kunis (free and easy ballerina Lily, foil to the uptight Nina). Sadly, France’s Bobby De Niro, Vincent Cassel (ballet director, Thomas) is given some truly dreadful lines which (dramatically) render his character impotent and makes for toe-curling viewing.

Way back in the late eighties I was talking about a recent VHS rental with my dad: the Alan Parker-directed, supernatural noir, Angel Heart . Brian Goodchild, major film buff (and the person most responsible for nurturing my love of cinema) described it perfectly as “well made trash”. Essentially, Black Swan is just that. It’s an incredibly well made load of old rubbish.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Toy Story 3

*****
I’m a terrible sucker for hype. Should that be ‘victim of hype’? Either way, I’m forever going into a film with way-too-high expectations then being somewhat unfairly critical. Arriving extremely late to this party (viewed on DVD) it had an awful lot to live up to. Some serious plaudits have been showered on the film, most recently its inclusion in the not just Best Animated, but Best Film category in the Oscar nominations. Being a fan of the series, I was actually almost dreading the disappointment but… ah, joy... Toy Story 3 totally delivered. Those magicians at Pixar have taken all the magic ingredients of the first two films, added some new ones, sprinkled pixie dust on it and created something really wonderful.

All the gang are back for another adventure: that’s Woody, Buzz Lightyear etc and it’s just great to see them again after the 11 year hiatus between this and Toy Story 2. Andy, “their kid” is all grown up now, soon off to college, and tragically no longer plays with his poor neglected toys. They all end up in a children’s day care centre. Although nice at first, some sinister truths are soon revealed. I don’t wish to give too much away. (One can only assume if you rent Toy Story 3 you are an admirer of the series. Because of this I don’t want to spoil any of your fun by revealing too much.)

The story enthralled me with its perfect blend of comedy, action and pathos.  I was often on the edge of my seat, and laughed and cried in all the bits where I was supposed to. Yep, the tears really flowed down the cheeks of this hardened, cynical critic. I was truly transported – just as in early cinema outings to the likes of Bambi and Dumbo – and all by the animated spectacle of these already-fake, little pieces of plastic up on screen. Absurd I know, but that’s another magical thing about Pixar – they can make you feel young again.



Saturday, 22 January 2011

Alfie (1966)

***
Am currently enjoying Michael Caine’s autobiography, What’s it all About? This has inspired me to catch up with some of his back catalogue. Alfie, along with The Ipcress File released shortly before, was part of the one-two punch that made Caine a star. He’d already been in the hugely successful, Zulu in which he played an officer (i.e. posh) but in these two films he was given an opportunity to deliver lines in his own accent, especially so in Alfie, thus cementing both his reputation and his screen persona.

Alfie is a funny old film. (That’s funny peculiar.) I had expected it to be dated but not anticipated it being so inherently nasty. The character of Alfie is not just a womaniser he’s a real scumbag. We follow him jollying around London from woman to woman, taking some diabolical liberties like, for example, sleeping with an ill friend’s wife. No sooner are said women in bed with him than they are often down on their hands and knees scrubbing his floors or making his tea. Not only that, he breezily insults them, often referring to the females in question as “it”. The insults are directed at them and to the audience. I suspected the device of talking directly to camera, breaking the all-important fourth wall might be a bit naff and theatrical, but it’s not. It works fantastically, lending humour, drama and pathos to all the necessary parts.

It takes an American, in the shape of brassy Shelley Winters, to put Alfie in his place. (This clearly didn’t harm the film’s wild success in the US.) Her killer brush-off redeems the film entirely and Alfie doesn’t get away with it all completely. There’s a very unpleasant scene with a creepy Denholm Elliott playing an illegal abortionist, and he loses his son to a kinder soul, happy to raise him with one of the women that he used and cast away. These are just some of the events that prompt him to reflect, “what’s it all about it?” (Cue the music…)

The film is directed by Lewis Gilbert, who went on to direct two of my favourite Bonds: You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me. The film shows he’s very capable of producing world class entertainment. It is rich in colour and texture and doesn’t, as is often the case with British cinema, look like TV. Caine lights up the screen and makes a deeply unpleasant character not exactly sympathetic but very watchable. Joining the barbecue of stardom at a not-exactly-young 33 years, he relishes the role with a cocksure swagger, as if he knows he has most certainly arrived.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Greenberg

****
Greenberg is directed by sometime writing partner of Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach. It is also written by Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, taking time out in LA soon after a nervous breakdown and house-sitting for his brother. It’s the first time in a non-straight-up-comedic part that I’ve seen Ben Stiller completely inhabit a role. The character is frustrated and angry but haunted and damaged, and he plays it with remarkable conviction. Although his behaviour is often toxic you still find yourself rooting for him. No mean feat for an actor. Rhys Ifans lends strong support as an old friend, as does the lovely actress, Greta Gerwig with whom Greenberg begins an affair. Also, LA is something of a character in the film. A very normal LA, that is. We see no flashy or glamorous, dangerous or exciting sides of this town. It’s seen as just another place where people live and get on with everyday stuff.

At times it’s an uncomfortable watch. To be completely honest with you dear reader, I did see a few too many similarities between myself and the neurotic hero. (So the squirm factor might just be personal.) And while not laugh-out-loud funny it is has a rapier wit and is very amusing. It also has a lot of heart.

Baumbach is a helluva talent. If you haven’t seen The Squid and the Whale please rent it. With the likes of Woody (75 years old) and Clint (80) still behind the camera, Noah Baumbach is still young in director’s terms and am sure he has a lot more to offer. I look forward to seeing it. 

 

The American

*****
Although some might argue the notion of a career criminal taking on that “one last job” is a cliché, this is not your run-of-the-mill Hollywood story. The trailer I saw for this (involving a high-octane montage of George Clooney working out and pulling guns etc) is rather misleading. Yes, he does work out and pull guns but this film is not all about the action. It’s been described as an examination of existential angst. Call me shallow but I’d say it’s just a damn good thriller.

Clooney plays Jack, the American of the title and a hitman lying low in the small town of Castel del Monte, a sumptuous location in Italy’s San Grasso mountain range. Acutely aware that he is, as Lethal Weapon’s Roger Murtagh might have put it more bluntly, “getting too old for this shit” he takes on a final job. As the laconic anti-hero attempts to keep his head down in this friendly little town, the dialogue is sparse. This brings gravitas to even the most mundane of exchanges. I agree with recent comments that it has all the marks of a western. Switch the location, change a few logistics and it’s not hard to imagine Clint as the lead. The film also takes its own sweet time in terms of pace and I’ll admit that it might not be to everyone’s tastes. Personally, I was entranced from start to finish. The performances are all superb, and the nuts-and-bolts workings of Jack’s professional life feel hugely authentic making the whole thing completely gripping. As do the more intimate scenes in which he ignores his employer’s advice, “don’t make friends”. It’s an alternately warm, cold, witty, incredibly tense script by Roland Joffe adapted from Martin Booth’s novel, A Very Private Gentleman.

This is pure speculation, but I imagine director, Anton Corbijn made the film he set out to make, without any kind of interference from either its financial backers or Clooney. At least if there was I bet Corbijn never conceded to stray from his vision. This is the follow-up to his assured debut feature, the Ian Curtis biopic Control and I’m shocked and very saddened to hear his announcement that he only wishes to make one more feature film. 


Friday, 14 January 2011

Whip It

****
As with so many child stars it all could have gone so wrong for Drew Barrymore. Well, actually it did. She was in rehab at 13 and attempted suicide at 14. Yes, it went wrong but she didn’t just survive, she came back with a vengeance. Not only is her acting career in exceedingly healthy shape but she got behind the camera for this in 2009. Whip It is her directorial debut and it’s a great film. Ellen Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a small town, Texan 17 year-old who is being regularly shoved into fifties-throwback beauty pageants by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Unbeknown to her parents she becomes involved in the world of roller derby in nearby Austin and thrives in the all-girl, all-contact-sport under her new moniker, Babe Ruthless.

The roller derby scenes are actually the weaker aspects of the film. What Barrymore’s clearly very capable of is directing actors and the wordier scenes push all of the right buttons. It helps to have a solid cast. Oscar-winner, Marcia Gay Harden is great as always. The somewhat underrated Daniel Stern (probably best known as the bungling burglar in Home Alone who’s not Joe Pesci) gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Bliss’ dad. Barrymore does act in the film but she only has few lines. This seems a wise move. Directors crashing into the foreground often have a bull in a china shop effect, wrecking the illusion of the film. Exhibit A: Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction.

Not quite sure how to define this one. Is it a teen movie? Not really. Is it a chick flick? Well, sort of. I quite like a film to be impossible to pigeonhole. Sadly, I suppose that’s why it didn’t set the box office alight (although it was a modest success). But it’s fun, funny and smart, and should appeal to the demographic that has a heart, a brain and a sense of humour. 


Inception

**
Christopher Nolan makes big, dumb, popcorn movies. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but his efforts to make films deeper than your average blockbuster is starting to look a bit desperate. Making said films profound is a trick he almost pulls by making them dark, serious and complex meditations. Inception is a preposterous story about Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a corporate spy who can enter and steal information from people’s dreams. There’s also nothing wrong with preposterous. When I seek entertainment preposterous often works well for me. Bizarrely, for all it’s crazed spectacle it did little to entertain this reviewer. The visuals are pretty spectacular, but the characters are not. The whole notion of being in dreams (where most of the action takes place) actually works against the drama of the film. The worst that can happen is when a character is killed in a dream, they will wake up. So no one is in any real peril. Now, that is a bold concept for an action film. Next thing you know, we’ll be seeing Nancy Meyers make a romantic comedy in which no one finds anyone the least bit attractive, and doesn’t have any jokes.

I should add though, it’s really refreshing that such a big film is neither re-make nor sequel. It’s admirable in this day and age to have created such huge Hollywood product from absolute scratch. Of course the reason Nolan was trusted with the $160 million budget was due to the vast success of his last film. In case you missed it, that one was a dark, serious and complex meditation on a man who dresses up as a bat.


Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Harry Brown

****
The greatest thing about Harry Brown, and there are a lot of great things about Harry Brown, is that it’s a bona fide Michael Caine film. You may have guessed he’s not supplying solid support to some young buck like y’know… Batman. He’s the starring role. And that’s post-Oscar, knighted, and in his late seventies. It’s also wonderful to see him in (and I mean this in a nice way) a nasty little, London crime flick. Amidst the gritty grime he’s still every bit the movie star, and by returning to his roots in Elephant and Castle he brings a truckload of authenticity to the role. On top of that, Caine owns the film.

I like to see an ageing legend play his age. Although the viewing experience can be bittersweet, it’s much sadder to see a star refuse to play “old”. There’s not a lot of dignity, for example, in doing love scenes with an actress half your age. Here Caine gives good dignity as ex-marine and Northern Ireland veteran, Harry. He also gives good rage as he opens a can of whoopass on the hoodies terrorising his estate.

The film does a rare thing: while painting a damning portrait of violence it does supply some undeniable thrills. Luckily though, it doesn’t get silly. Death Wish this ain't. It’s grounded in reality but is also very cinematic, and for that we should thank the talented Gary Young for his taut and savage script. Also, it’s a fine directorial debut from Daniel Barber. He gives the film a distinct look without self-consciously shovelling on the style. He also draws strong performances from both established actors, such as Liam Cunningham and Emily Mortimer, and newcomers like Ben Drew AKA: singer/songwriter, Plan B. Of course, the most riveting performance comes from the lead man. Seemingly weighed down by a lifetime’s baggage, he’s learnt what it’s all about, sized up the big men (albeit the ones out of shape) and blows more than just the doors off.








Sunday, 9 January 2011

TRON: Legacy

**
Why exactly is a first time director helming one of the most expensive films of all time? That was what I was asking myself before seeing TRON: Legacy and am now asking myself even more so, after having viewed the film. Actually, I was asking myself that question during the film (as well as a number of other exercises to keep from falling asleep or leaving the cinema before the completely unnecessary 125 minutes were up). It seems the titular 'Legacy' is to carry on the tradition of the 1982 snoozefest by making a film that makes watching paint dry seem a far more attractive option. 


In 1989 Kevin Flynn, software pioneer and CEO of ENCOM (Jeff Bridges) disappears. Twenty years later his son, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund, a poor man's James Franco) goes after him, entering the virtual world inside a computer. The underwritten scripting of Sam is only surpassed by the lack of snap and zest he brings to the role. Actually, this is also surpassed by first timer, Joseph Kosinski's direction who directs these early sequences with all the excitement of an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. (One of the weaker episodes.) Once inside we do get to see some excitement as Sam is forced to battle gladiator-style for his life. For a short period we, the audience, are actually entertained. Following this we're severely short-changed on action. (Although there are short bursts.) The bulk of the rest of the film tortures you with excruciating expositional dialogue. I would expand on this but frankly, life is too short.


To be fair to TRON: Legacy, it's a good looking film. The production design is also good but, teasingly, just short of great. The special effects are pretty good, too. Although, the CGI'd young Jeff Bridges is horribly jarring which is a shame because him as bad guy, Clu is a neat concept. The early action sequences in the computer are directed solidly but it seems Kosinski relies on the "oohs" and "aahs" expected from viewer reaction to bright, shiny things. Without the dazzling spectacle, were he directing something visually simpler (e.g. police procedural) he may just be shown up to be downright clunky - something of an anti-Midas where everything he touches turns to lead. Although this notion is unlikely, with his re-imagining of 1979's The Black Hole in the offing. Then again as TRON: Legacy is still limping toward re-couping it's production and marketing budget, three weeks after its release, who knows? Joseph Kosinski may be forced to direct something a lot less bright and shiny...


tron small Tron Legacy Sets its Release Date

A Quick Word on 1982's Tron

Before we get to the TRON: Legacy review let's spend a moment on the original - 1982's Tron


Ah, Tron: the film that sported ground-breaking effects and a striking look that's still pretty strong. The film that inspired John "Pixar" Lasseter to embrace computer animation (for that alone we should be eternally grateful to all involved). The film that might have achieved classic status were it not for the fact that it's so downright dull. Disney, it appears, are painfully aware of this fact and have attempted to hide every single copy on the planet, in fear that the original snoozefest will put people off going to see the new one. (As far as I'm aware, an unprecedented move from a studio.) If you were hoping to catch up with it before the sequel, the DVD seems to be only available from private sellers on the web and will set you back at least twenty quid, even for a used copy. And the Blu-Ray? That's available in your dreams.


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