Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Ghost

**** 
Tony Blair described Robert Harris as a “cheeky fuck” for the thinly veiled portrait in his novel, The Ghost Writer. Later, when the film of the book came out Tony Blair joked that it’s hard to be too angry if you’re being played by Pierce Brosnan. Well, quite. In The Ghost The former James Bond plays a former Prime Minister, Adam Hall who is being accused of war crimes in the Middle East. He is holed up on a small island off the US coast along with PA (Kim Kattrall), wife (Olivia Williams), and ghost writer of his memoirs (Ewan MacGregor). The unnamed writer is also the protagonist of this solid thriller.

It’s an impressive script (co-written by director, Roman Polanski). The tension increases relentlessly and the dialogue has a rapier wit. Although there have been adaptations (by others) of his work, this is actually Robert Harris’s first screenwriting credit and it shows. But in a good way. It makes you realise how much repetition and cliché we put up with from Hollywood. This, on the other hand, feels fresh.

I did have a bit of a problem with Ewan MacGregor. He seems a bit young for the hard-drinking cynic, who speaks of “ageing”. (Or is that just me getting old? First it’s the police that look young, then it’s movie stars.) Not only that, his geezerish accent reeks of fakery.

It’s simply good to see an essentially British cast in such a slick production. It’s not often one sees these kind of production values today without seeing a single bonnet or horsedrawn carriage.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Fish Tank

****
Don’t be put off by the dark and depressing backdrop, Fish Tank is surprisingly entertaining. Andrea Arnold’s second feature is far sparkier than the gloomy Red Road. It still deals with dark subject matter and is set on an equally grim estate but has a vibrant energy and is rich in humour. Granted, a lot of the humour is somewhat “gallows”. For example, the family dog is called Tenents, and her little sister’s swearing is undeniably comical.

Mia is a fifteen year-old, living on an Essex housing estate with her unloving mother and aforementioned little sister (who also smokes, by the way). Social Services can’t control her and it’s looking like a one-way ticket to Palookaville. The only enjoyment she gets is from dancing. That’s dancing alone, drunk on cider, in empty flats she breaks into. And sorry no, she doesn’t get discovered by an inspiring dance instructor. This isn’t exactly popcorn. Enter her mum’s new squeeze in the shape of Michael Fassbender. He is someone the hardened Mia begins to soften to. Things don’t get much sunnier but it doesn’t descend into cliché. The tension builds and you never know which way the action is going to lead. At least this reviewer didn’t.

Everyone in it is superb and the director should be commended on drawing great performances from at least two novices in the cast. She also accords her subject matter a dignity and respect, never once mocking or exploiting.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

True Grit

****
Flaring your nostrils and talking fast does not make for good acting. Will someone please tell Hailee Steinfeld? OK, maybe not. She is a child after all. But were I Rooster Cogburn, after a few sups of bourbon I’d have been very tempted to snag “plucky” Mattie Ross in one of the shootouts and put it down to friendly fire. Or whatever they called friendly fire in the late 1800s. Probably something like “Gawd’s way”.

The Coen’s take us off to the Wild West - more specifically injun country - on the trail of a killer (Josh Brolin). Drunk, disorderly, and dangerous Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) leads the way. Stalwart but silly Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) follows and the aforementioned Mattie Ross makes Bonnie Langford seem a lot less annoying. If you can get past Steinfeld mangling her lines, the mismatched three make for a wonderful team. Bridges provides comedy gold, drinking himself into oblivion while getting results, much to the annoyance of LaBoeuf and the girl. Matt Damon brings both hilarity and poignancy to his role, further proving himself to be a performer of impressive wide range.

It’s a good film but not a great one. It was admittedly rushed by the Coens to gain a lucrative Christmas release and it shows. It’s saddening to hear the brothers are kowtowing to that kind of studio meddling. I just wish they’d told that studio exec, in the words of Miller’s Crossing’s Leo, to “dangle”. Early scenes, such as Rooster in the witness chair giving testimony, should have been crackling but instead they’re sludgy and actually obstruct your involvement in the film. Some have criticised it for being too slow in pace but I don’t believe that’s the problem. The pace is fine. It’s just the quality of the dialogue. I'm aware we’ve been rather spoilt over the years by the wonderful words of Joel and Ethan. But annoyingly, that just makes it all the more obvious when the words are less than remarkable. It can’t be that they’ve lost their writing mojo. The recent and sublime A Serious Man script proved that. Things pick up nicely though. Aside from a completely unnecessary epilogue (rushed writing?) the action builds to an exciting climax.


Friday, 18 February 2011

The Social Network

**
The Social Network brings to mind Zodiac, also directed by David Fincher: a boring film that has no conclusion. It did, however, have a thrilling back story, gorgeous seventies detail and hey, Robert Downey Jr. Sadly, The Social Network has no such merits. It is simply a boring film that has no conclusion.

The subject matter is woefully slight – namely, the creation of Facebook and the lawsuits surrounding it. Yes, I know. ZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzz……. Last stop Snoozeville Central. It is subject matter deserving of a TV movie shown on Five on a weekday afternoon. But this one’s made by an A-list writer, an A-list director, a cast that can act, and $40 mill behind them.

Rich privileged kids are just not interesting. They are hopelessly uncool and have no edge. The law suits are painfully dull. Sadly, we don’t hear a single “Objection, Your Honour!” I’m half-joking. It’s not even a courtroom. There is no judge, just legal teams facing off, and Jessie Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg) mumbling supposedly funny lines while looking distracted in a supposedly “multi-layered” (make that oscar-nominated) performance. Just to burst another bubble, he’s exactly the same as he is in Zombieland and The Squid and the Whale (far superior flicks, by the way) and any other time he’s opened his mouth infront of a camera.

Basically, I only went because it’s important to me that I see every Best Picture nominee. I wasn’t even expecting that much. I just hadn’t anticipated two hours of such soul-destroying tedium. At one point Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker) says “you know what is cool? A billion dollars”. Made me think, you know what is cool? Fight Club or Se7en. Obviously, Fincher shouldn’t take all the blame The brilliant Aaron Sorkin has given a miraculous polish to a turd of an idea.

Don’t believe the hype.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Somewhere

***
I really wanted to love Somewhere but it’s just so infuriatingly patchy. There are moments that made me want to jump for joy, scenes that gave me goosebumps, and jokes that made me laugh like a hyena. But there are also long moments of wrist-slashing tedium. And perhaps that’s the point: this movie star’s life is really not that exciting.

The movie star in question is Johnny Marco played with serious conviction by Stephen Dorff in a role not a million miles away from (and I think he’d agree)… Stephen Dorff. Maximum respect to the Dorff for embracing this self-referential-way-close-to-the-bone piece of casting. When you’ve starred in Space Truckers it must take some balls to, basically, play yourself.

Johnny Marco, star of many an action flick is holed up at the Chateau Marmont with a broken arm. He spends his days spinning round the area in his Ferrari, sipping beer, and shagging anything in a skirt – all the while experiencing existential angst/midlife crisis as much as a shell of a person can. (Which he is.) His estranged 11 year-old daughter turns up in the shape of Elle Fanning. She is delightful and charming and shacks up with him in this place where hedonism is king. (Where John Belushi and Helmut Newton – to name just two - really did “check out”.) To give writer and director Sofia Coppola credit, it doesn’t descend into cheesy cliché but I don’t want to give too much away. The route father and daughter take mostly revolves around their suite in the hotel but also involves a wild and hilarious sojourn to Rome. As I say, some of what ensues is hilarious but a lot isn’t.

Sofia Coppola is touched by genius (i.e. her Pops) and not only is she a welcome force of female directordom, she has created her own genre: she makes films about miserable, rich people. Following Scorsese’s creed, “write what you know” she has once again done just that. As with Lost in Translation it is fascinating to us, the oi polloi. I just hope her next instalment is a tad more interesting…




Blue Valentine

****
This is not the “anti-date movie” or “misery porn” you’ve been led to believe it is. Blue Valentine is not all doom and gloom, I promise. Indeed, there are lows but there are also highs. It simply examines all of life’s rich tapestry. The closest film relation is probably the work of John Cassavetes. As with his work; it is sweet, horrible, touching, uncomfortable, funny etc etc... (Basically, the whole emotional shebang.)

The film is an examination of a couple’s relationship, jumping back and forth in time between the honeymoon period and when things go sour. The ridiculously talented Ryan Gosling and ridiculously talented Michelle Williams play that couple with ridiculous authenticity. TV’s Young Hercules and Dawson’s Creek’s Jen have a come a long way, baby.

The film is co-written (along with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) and directed by Derek Cianfrance who you haven’t heard of till now because he’s been developing the film for fifteen years. Not exactly sure of the how’s and why’s for that timeframe but am guessing the man is a serious perfectionist. He should be commended on his tenacity for making the film he wanted to make. It’s a thing of beauty. I just hope he doesn’t become a latterday Kubrick or Terence Malick, in terms of low output. Then again, is quantity a small price to pay for quality?

Highly recommended.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Fighter

****
In case you were wondering, this isn’t David O. Russell’s version of The Wrestler. It’s a bit more conventional. And thank the ghost of Harry Carpenter for that. Not knocking The Wrestler in any way (I love that film) but we don’t want our boxing flicks too arty, right? Damn straight.

Mark Wahlberg plays 30 year-old welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward. His older half-brother is Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), former boxer who once took on Sugar Ray Leonard but is now the friendly neighbourhood crackhead. Micky is talented but down on his luck. It seems the problem is not him it’s his family, who wouldn’t look out of place scrapping on Jerry Springer. Junkie Dicky is his trainer, pitbull mother (Melissa Leo) is his manager and his seven sisters hang around like a bad smell.

The Fighter provides some refreshingly un-clichéd fight scenes. No mean feat for such a done-to-death genre. Hats off to Mr Russell for that, and a very welcome back to him also. His last feature was I Heart Huckabees way back in 2004. It seems that had Mark Wahlberg not taken a chance on him (in this his pet project) he may have been relegated to the annuls of movie folklore in a not good way: Clooney almost punched him out on Three Kings, and he bullied Lily Tomlin to tears on Huckabees (embarrassingly, for the entire world to see on YouTube).

While the focus is very much on Micky, more time is given to the shenanigans outside of the ring. It's about the fighter, not about the fights. And it all just works. There isn’t a bad performance in the film. All the nominations are richly deserved. And while this might not be the deepest film in the world it’s not shamelessly award-chasing. It’s solid gold entertainment punching comfortably within its division.

the-fighter-poster

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Other Guys

****
The Other Guys sees Will Ferrell re-teamed with long time collaborator, writer/director Adam McKay. The pair successfully worked together on the likes of Step Brothers, Talladega Nights and most notably Anchor Man: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. If you’ve never seen any of the aforementioned I doubt this one’s for you. Mark Wahlberg is a welcome addition in his first comedy lead role. He slips into the genre with ease while bringing much needed action chutzpah to what is, of course, an action comedy.

While super cops (played by Samuel L Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) kick serious action butt, happily destroying large sections of New York, Ferrell and Wahlberg play the titular other guys: a forgettable pair of losers. As the opportunity rises for some new heroes to emerge, they do just that by chasing a corporate scumbag played by Steve Coogan. Solid support is given from the likes of Eva Mendes as Ferrell’s unlikeliest of hot wives and Michael Keaton as their captain who is a joy to see back in a comedic role and you just want to see more of him.

As we are dragged from one expensive action set piece to another, it’s too silly to really care about plot or even the characters. It’s not much more than a series of SNL skits with added ‘splosions’. This makes me wonder what was the point in spending quite so much money. (No small potatoes at an estimated budget of $100 million.) In the DVD extras Adam McKay name-checked Midnight Run as something of a Holy Grail in terms of action comedies. (I agree.) If that’s what he was aiming for he came up way short. The carefully drawn characterisation in that film (of Charles Grodin and De Niro’s parts) is lacking in The Other Guys

It is, however, incredibly funny (hence four stars) with humour often coming from waaaaaaaay left-field which does unsurprisingly halt the film’s action forward thrust. But look, the leads are a “forensic accountant” and the other has a brilliantly stupid catchphrase of “I’m a peacock, you gotta let me fly!” so analysing a movie like this too much would just be plain silliness.

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