Sunday, 18 November 2012

Argo

****
If someone made this up you probably wouldn’t buy it. Director Ben Affleck brings this stranger-than-fiction tale into vivid and very exciting life.

The year is 1979, the setting Iran. Amidst turmoil and revolution, the US embassy in Tehran is invaded. Hostages are taken but some of the diplomats manage to flee. Six such escapees find shelter in the Canadian embassy and the CIA hatches a plot to get them out. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) create a smokescreen. This comes in the shape of a fictitious Canadian film production: a science fiction fantasy called 'Argo'. With the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin) they take a genuine script and develop LA media buzz – all to get the trapped Americans, posing as a make-believe crew scouting for locations, out of Iran.

The film is quite conventional in its form but Affleck’s workmanlike execution creates a fabulous piece of entertainment. The rip-roaring, wild and outrageous story makes for very compelling viewing. It kept this reviewer right on the edge of his seat. From the intense storming of the US embassy to its thrilling conclusion I barely found time to breathe.

It’s a fascinating story. The sheer bizarreness makes for an interesting watch but the film is not without its problems. The six diplomat characters are written so paper thinly you have little idea who they really are. On top of that they’re a bit pathetic and not very likeable. This is a problem because you need to be rooting for these guys. Ultimately, the only person I wanted to see safely out of Iran was Tony Mendez, the man sent in to rescue them. I wish more time had been devoted to fleshing out their parts, especially considering the large numbers we focus on in the CIA headquarters and the White House, many of whom seem rather superfluous.

The film is bathed in delicious seventies detail - much of it subtle which actually delivers more impact. From the off, the era-appropriate seventies Warner Brothers “W” logo sets the tone. As an aside, I never tire of this device. Other examples, FYI, include Fincher using a seventies Paramount logo to start Zodiac and Eastwood using a twenties Universal logo to begin Changeling – each lending an immediate authenticity to the film to come. (And you gotta love the studios for letting them do it.)

I’m a little bemused by some of the near-perfect reviews this is getting, as the script, at times, is a little weak. A lot of the humour falls flat and occasionally it feels a bit TV movie. However, the adrenalin thrills more than make up for it, making Argo a superior piece of work. (Hence four solid stars.)




Sunday, 4 November 2012

Husbands (1970)


****
OK, this might not be to everyone’s tastes. Some may say it’s self-indulgent or perhaps just a show-offy excuse for the actors to flex their thespian muscles. I’ll struggle to argue against either of those accusations but at the same time I can’t help loving it.

The film starts with a death. A friend of Archie (Peter Falk), Ben Gazarra (Harry), and Gus (John Cassavetes) falls victim to the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking lifestyle that they all embrace. The three remaining friends deal with it by heavily drinking and smoking their way through the process of mourning. This magnificent binge carries them from the funeral in New York all the way to London, where they try to drink, gamble and womanise the pain away. It’s also a doomed attempt at shirking the responsibility that comes with middle age.

This triumvirate of acting talent burn up the screen. The three men spar with one another relentlessly – there are struggles of power as each attempts to out ‘Alpha’ the others. Archie and Gus often cruelly gang up on Harry lending credence to the maxim of three being a crowd. They argue, fight and giggle in such an authentic way it feels more documentary than a work of fiction. Some scenes don’t even seem to have a point but it’s so raw and vibrant it does make for compelling viewing. It’s a great drunk film too, capturing the highs, lows and general messiness of a marathon sesh.

It’s often uncomfortable viewing. Scenes run longer than the perceived wisdom might rule. And I mean much longer. You might even describe them as gruelling. But within these scenes appear moments that are just solid gold.

Although barely into the decade - unselfconsciously styled against a backdrop of real locations - it’s a wonderful window to the seventies. As with all of Casavettes’ work there is nothing neat about the film. In a true reflection of life itself, it is scrappy and chaotic with no loose ends conveniently tied up.


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Robot and Frank

****
A worthy addition to the 2012 London Film Festival line-up: this is a sweet and human story that just happens to be a science fiction film.

Frank is an ageing jewel thief. As living alone becomes more of a struggle, his son provides him with a robot to help out around the home. Initially balking at the prospect, Frank soon warms to the idea when he realises the robot may be able to help out in more than just simple domestic matters. Together they hatch a plot that keeps Frank active and the onset of his dementia at bay.

Robot and Frank can be termed as ‘soft sci-fi’. (That means no jet boots and lazer guns, but it is the future, featuring small advances in technology but not too dissimilar to the present day.) This element works well. It’s a very believable vision of the near future, striking a good balance between the known and the unknown.

The mighty Frank Langella (Frank) delivers a nuanced performance opposite the titular Robot. No mean feat considering his co-star is a composite of metal and plastic. Peter Sarsgaard is perfectly cast as the voice of Robot. (Although the two actors have still, to this day, not actually met each other.) Langella is dryly funny and supercool as the tough-as-nails ex-con. James Marsden and Liv Tyler lend solid support as his concerned son and daughter. Susan Sarandon also features, as does Jeremy Sisto, a talented actor I’d really like to see more of.

It’s consistently funny throughout. It also deals with a depressing subject like Alzheimer’s in an engaging but un-patronising manner, and it always makes for an entertaining watch. There are plot points that don’t entirely work but I liked it so much I’m disinclined to pick holes. By and large this is a very charming flick by first time director Jake Schreier, from a hugely original script (from which I predict copycats galore) by Christopher D. Ford.



Sunday, 9 September 2012

Dredd 3D

**** 
Now this is a bit more like it. Director Pete Travis brings us a straightforwardly-plotted, grungier (in a good way) and spectacularly more violent treatment of Judge Dredd. As opposed to the 1995 version: a rambling, glossier (in a not good way), and significantly less violent flick.

Writer Alex Garland cooks up a simple and effective day-in-the-life premise. Dredd (Karl Urban) and young rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) investigate a multiple homicide inside a vast Mega Block in Mega City One. The inappropriately named ‘Peach Trees’ block is run by sadistic drug kingpin, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her fearful gang. They trap the two Judges inside the building and subsequently hunt them down.

Filmed in Cape Town and Johannesburg it is brightly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle with sterling visual effects support. It’s a scary and believable urban future within a radioactive wasteland of a planet.

Karl Urban is the iconic lawman. (In fact, he is the law.) Although judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one, he is certainly most adept at the ‘executioner’ part of that skill set. It’s a lot of fun seeing him maim, burn, gas etc an endless string of bad guys who attempt to take him down. Three words to those bad guys: in your dreams. For this Dredd is badass to the last. Urban is very watchable - no mean feat considering more than half his face is obscured. The filmmakers wisely respect this aspect of 2000 AD’s mythology and Dredd’s helmet stays firmly on throughout. I anticipated the worst when the young rookie was revealed to be a young, attractive blonde but the pairing works well. A mismatched pairing of law enforcers is nothing new but it’s a grand tradition because it keeps things interesting. As the yin to Dredd’s yang, 26 year-old Thirlby more than holds her own amongst all the macho posturing.

The action is intense and the director maintains a thrilling momentum. Tonally it’s pretty serious, while still allowing some killer quips from Dredd. The violence is graphic and downright nasty (as it should be) and brings to mind the likes of Paul Verhoeven, who was always unafraid of creating something truly horrific. In an age where studios pussyfoot around with 12As and PG13s this makes Dredd 3D a rarity: a piece of 18 Certificate/ R Rated blockbuster entertainment. Congratulations to the filmmakers for making it so. Here’s hoping it’s a global smash and we might just see a bit more of this kind of thing.


Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Company Men

***
John Wells, writer of much quality TV (e.g. The West Wing, ER) directs this, his first feature. It is ably written, directed and acted, and certainly captures the zeitgeist.

A major corporation is laying off staff in droves. The successful Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) finds himself out of a job and struggles to find anything new. Another big hitter, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) falls victim to the cuts at an age where you don’t want to be looking for work. This radical downsizing occurrs while much unnecessary expense is laid out elsewhere. Big cheese Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) rails against this putting his own job at risk.

Tommy Lee Jones is at his most fantastically curmudgeonly, and with good reason. The company he helped build no longer has any scruples. When the chips are down he’s just the kind of no-nonsense grumpy old man you’d want on your side. It’s a quality cast. Cooper displays a marked vulnerability. Mario Bello’s character has the unenviable task of doing the sacking and manages to make the role human. Rosemarie DeWitt lends support as Bobby’s wife. Currently to be seen in Your Sister’s Sister, it’s good to see her featuring in a lot more roles this year. She is supremely talented, exudes a sparkling intelligence, and… ok, she’s a crush I’ve been nursing for some time. Regarding Kevin Costner - for an actor at whom there have been more than a few accusations of vanity he certainly seems happy to appear on the sidelines lately. (Here, as Bobby’s blue collar brother-in-law he barely features.) He’s been damn good in these smaller roles too. There’s not much to like about Affleck in this but that is due to the writing. Unattractively cocksure and disrespectful to all I would have liked to have seen him go through something a little more humbling than having to sell the Porsche (boo hoo).

Some of the scenes that are supposed to be of an uplifting nature and/or comedic are a little cringey and feel shoehorned in. (Pressure from the studio perhaps?) But luckily there aren’t too many of these moments. The director seems more concerned with the serious stuff, and he’s great at it too. The film is perhaps lacking a bit of heart but the corporate intrigue is exciting and earns it a very respectable three stars.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Haywire

*** 
Having already used a porn star as a lead (Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience) Steven Soderbergh now casts another non-actor: mixed martial arts fighter, Gina Carano.

Mallory Kane (Carano) is a black ops specialist in a private agency used by governments, headed by the shady Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). Dark forces frame her for murder and set her up to go rogue. Just like they planned, she goes on the run. The international intrigue bounces her from Barcelona to Dublin to the US.

The cast is impressive; Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Mathieu Kassovitz and Michael Fassbender all put in brief but memorable turns. It’s wise casting since Carano is literally supported by such talent. She is not a brilliant actor but she’s certainly no worse than say, Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal. What, unfortunately, shines a light on her lack of skill is the superior filmmaking. The aforementioned action stars were never in films of any pedigree and their basic acting styles fitted neatly into the basic directing styles. But an Oscar winner, of course, helms Haywire. Actually, there are moments when Carano shows real sparks of finesse by doing very little. Think Clint or Arnie at their most minimal. But the bad outweigh the good - too often we witness a sore lack of presence and/or charisma in the leading lady and this, ultimately, is what lets the film down.

But hey, it’s not a think piece. It’s a film about a kickass female agent who systematically beats ten bales out of a long string of guys. Within this, her specialist area, Carano clearly has the stuff. As agile and deadly as a cobra she makes fast work of any opponents. Soderbergh shows the fights without editing too choppily (Christopher Nolan take note). This gives the carnage room to breath and we really get a chance to see her dazzling moves. I liked that little is made out of her being a woman. She’s not the best female agent she’s simply the best agent. At one point she remarks, “I don’t wear the dress” telling us her skill set involves her fists, feet and trigger finger.

It is a serviceable thriller but a cold film. Emotionally, Soderbergh employs a very distant approach, which also left me quite removed. Adding to this, long time collaborator David Holmes produced a very sterile score. But it’s perfectly watchable, and has an ending that left me wanting more.



Monday, 20 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

**
Judging by the box office figures few will agree with the following. Hack director Christopher Nolan delivers another work that propels him further skywards to inexplicable success. Well, his success is not entirely unexplained. Granted, he has talent. He has a good eye. He can direct actors (except when it comes to anything remotely comedic). As both producer and director he’s very capable of orchestrating lavish and complicated set-ups (but he doesn’t know where to put the camera). It may look attractive but attractive doesn’t necessarily serve the story. His timing – and this is what really oils the wheels - is always just that bit off. Bathed in high-end gloss to deflect his lack of technique, TDKR is plodding in its direction. Even when all hell is breaking loose it’s hard to be drawn in.

Batman (Christian Bale) - having taken the rap for a murder he didn't commit - has retreated from Gotham City. A sequence of events brought about by the fiendish Bane (Tom Hardy) brings The Caped Crusader out of retirement.

Directors will generally rely on a Second Unit Director to shoot stunts and complicated action set-ups. Stunt legend Vic Armstrong, for example, has over fifty such credits. It’s what these guys do. It’s what they specialise in. Nolan, however, insists on directing everything himself. In this his eighth feature, instead of utilising the expertise and infinite wisdom of a seasoned veteran, Nolan does it. And it is a big problem. Take the opening aerial set-piece of TDKR – it has a strong idea, real spectacle (i.e. non CGI) and potential for serious thrills but the director fudges it. It just about conveys what is happening but does so very clumsily denying us any real gratification. And it’s not just the action. Everything he does leaves me cold. Nolan lacks heart and soul. Michael Caine sobbing does not equal ‘emotional’. (The last moment of which actually had me laughing out loud.)

The Dark Knight Rises is a pompous and overly serious telling of material from a comic book. Nolan really takes the fun out of it. On the rare occasions where a funny line is quipped he should – in the style of the sixties TV series – splash a large “CLUNK!” across the screen. He’s about as good at comedy as Richard Curtis is at violence. If I may offer a spot of advice to the director, try easing up on the score too. The film has wall-to-wall music. Any sense of drama is drowned in it - ironically, with an instantly forgettable Hans Zimmer score. (I challenge anyone to hum it.) This is indicative of Nolan overdressing things. He also attempts to cover the poor quality of stunt direction by quick edits. If I were to describe his direction in a nutshell it would be “all show and no go”.

I can’t think of another big budget filmmaker who has re-used such a large number of actors. It’s a cool thing to do unless you’re casting them simply because they are part of this ‘company’. Step forward Marion Cotilard. Hopelessly miscast and given large portions of technical exposition that I can only assume was some kind of punishment for the French actress. Bane is a good villain but he has the most incongruous voice. It’s so important – with his mouth obscured - to believe that the voice is really coming from him but it does not fit the man at all. Part Sean Connery, part John Merrick, with a dash of Gandalf it feels in no way connected to this fearsome thug.

Nolan doesn’t “transcend the genre” because he’s doesn’t deliver the genre conventions in the first place. He lacks the requisite artistry. While discussing the aforementioned my friend suggested I might be jealous of Christopher Nolan. Now in all honesty, I am little. Who wouldn’t be? But my problem with the director is not jealousy. He’s not fulfilling his potential so I’m just disappointed.








Sunday, 29 July 2012

Midnight in Paris

**** 
I can see why this is Woody Allen’s most successful film in a long time. It’s a bit daft, a lot of fun, and straightforwardly high concept. That concept being: each night as the clock strikes 12 a writer is transported from contemporary Paris to the city in the twenties where he rubs shoulders with his literary heroes.

Hollyood screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) is holidaying in Paris with cold fish fiancĂ©e Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her ghastly parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). To make matters worse, they bump into Inez’s pretentious friend Paul (Michael Sheen) who hangs around like a bad smell. Suffice to say, it’s not the greatest trip. Although Gil loves the city, he’s on a very different page to his travelling companions. Separated from the others one night, something magical happens and he ends up partying with the likes of Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Each night he slips away to enjoy an adventure into the past – a time he considers to be The Golden Age.

Although the film is charming the means by which Gil makes this magical transition to the twenties is, admittedly, a bit crap. It’s not the lack of spectacle of his time travelling that’s a problem. We need nothing as dramatic as a DeLorean reaching a speed of 88mph. Or even, for that matter, any explanation for the time shift. The simplicity of it is a good thing but I don’t think Woody entirely sussed out how this universe functions. Couldn’t he have got Damon Lindelof to do a tweak? (Joke.) At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter because the film is so much fun. Colourful cameos abound in a plethora of icons of the arts. As well as the aforementioned, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) are just a few of the others. All of these famous names are played with enough seriousness to convince and Allen’s direction keeps things light.

With Allen staying behind the camera Owen Wilson is effectively ‘The Woody Role’ just as say, John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway or more recently Larry David in Whatever Works. This time, though, with Wilson (obviously) not a Jewish East Coaster, I thought we might be in for something different but - just like John Cusack etc - every line he delivers sounds like one that Woody should deliver himself. Admittedly, it might be my own issue but it did draw me out of the film somewhat. Quibbles aside, Midnight in Paris is a delight and proves that Woody Allen has still got it.
 



Friday, 13 July 2012

Magic Mike

****
As Britain is pelted with heavy rain what better reason to go and see a film set in sun-drenched Florida in which, erm… lots of guys get their kit off. Inspired by lead man and producer Channing Tatum’s experience as a 19-year-old stripper in said Florida, he plays stage-monikered Magic Mike.

The masterstroke is that Mike is not the newcomer - that comes in the shape of supporting role Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a green teen overwhelmed by a life of thongs and baby oil. This shrewdly avoids the hackneyed, rags-to-riches fairytale seen many times before, from the sublime (Boogie Nights) to the ridiculous (Showgirls). Mike himself is thirty, an established stripper and smart entrepreneur. He mentors Adam and they embark on a rollercoaster of sex and drugs that segues seamlessly in and out of the job. Their manager Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who also strips, is another ten years older. We basically see the full age spectrum of male stripperdom. Matthew McConaughey is given ample opportunity to take more than just his shirt off and, no surprises there, but he’s very good at it.

It was never going to be the biggest stretch for Tatum but the part still requires acting and he makes for a likeable lead. With the right casting and confident direction - as proved in 21 Jump Street - he is capable of a star performance. He achieves nice chemistry with Cody Horn and truly shines on stage, busting insane moves as he peels off layers of clothing. The stripping scenes are priceless. Director Steven Soderbergh handles them with a perfectly pitched level of humour and excitement. Where something absurd like Flashdance – which upped the ante for cinematic effect - was grounded in no reality at all, this feels pretty authentic. These set pieces are bombastic and outrageous but they do feel believable.

The film in general is a lot of fun. It has an alluring energy and not just in the stripping scenes. (Those do indeed have tremendous zip and erm… bounce.) The story is a little slight but that kind of suits the subject matter. It’s all about the surface: less of what’s under the skin and more about the well, skin. Soderbergh also manages some stunning visual flourish. What could have been a damp squib in another director’s hands is brought to dazzling life, and this directorial pizzazz makes me increasingly troubled by the director’s threatened retirement.

Magic Mike is that rare beast – a film that will thoroughly appeal to both sexes. (And it’s not the sole reason for this but, for your information, it has plenty of eye candy for everyone.) Recommended to anyone old enough.


Sunday, 8 July 2012

Snowtown

***
This haunting debut from director Justin Kurzel deals with a series of grisly murders in South Australia in the late nineties, seen through the eyes of 16 year-old Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway).

Charismatic psychopath John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) heads the small group responsible for the killings. When he goes out with Jamie’s mum (Louise Harris) he becomes part of an already-problematic family. He proceeds to be just the wrong kind of father figure the boy needs. Paedophilia seems to be on the rise in the area so Bunting offers the family protection and leads the local community in doing something about it. All the while he has a dark agenda of his own.

The film eschews much exposition for the sake of an extremely economic script. Keeping the details lean is good in some ways. For example, it creates a haunting atmosphere and shocking events appear out of the blue with little or no build-up. But it often lacks the requisite information to make sense of the story. However, seeing it from Jamie’s point of view means you are only allowed glimpses of what is occurring thus giving an incomplete view of events. So just like Jamie we are often left, appropriately, in the dark. Although this technique may be intended, I’m guessing it also may have sustained substantial cuts. For example, in one scene Jamie is seen to have been injecting heroin and this is treated as nothing new but we see no progress towards something so significant. Saying that, it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking. This violence - handled so casually in such a realistic environment - chilled me to the bone. The poor suburb in which the film is set is captured with a beautiful trashiness and the cast lends further authenticity. Pittaway gives a very mature performance for such a young man and Henshall is thoroughly believable as the seductive bad guy who takes him under his wing.

Following in the footsteps of Animal Kingdom this is another fresh and fascinating look into the Aussie criminal underbelly making British and American criminals look a little tired in comparison. It is a rich vein that I hope will get tapped much further.

Sunday, 24 June 2012