Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Adjustment Bureau

***
George Nolfi scripted the likes of Ocean’s, Bourne and now this, which he has adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story. Reuniting with Matt Damon and wearing the director’s hat for the first time Nolfi has delivered a fantastically-assured debut.

David Norris (Damon) is a Brooklyn-born, no-nonsense candidate for the US Senate. Following the collapse of his campaign he meets a beautiful stranger Elise (Emily Blunt) but dark forces - the eponymous Bureau - intervene to keep the pair apart. These trilby-sporting, mysterious men are there to keep everyone on the right path. If someone strays from “the plan” they step in to make adjustments.

The Adjustment Bureau is a bit of a genre mash-up. It starts as a political thriller, turns into a melon-twisting sci-fi but is, essentially, a love story. Nevertheless, a consistent tone is maintained well. Damon and Blunt have a terrific chemistry and you cannot help but root for the pair of them and their love affair. Blunt is funny, charming and demonstrates even more breadth to her talent. Her character is a dancer and, not ever having professional experience, she trained hard for the performance scenes. She's so good I assumed she'd had some kind of background in dance. Damon convinces as both political bigwig and man on the run. I like this kind of action hero. Norris is someone unused to being in such situations. As I much as I love those guys, he is not James Bond or Ethan Hunt, thus trained for action. Think more John McClane or Indiana Jones – spirited, gutsy and resourceful who, to paraphrase Indy, is just making it up as he goes along. The action is adrenalin-pumping and slick. Shot on a huge number of locations, Nolfi crams in a wealth of NYC along the way.

John Slattery (Mad Men’s Roger Sterling) is well cast as an unfeeling Bureau member. Terence Stamp plays an even colder fish and has some great dialogue to play around with in that wonderful voice of his. The writing, I should add, is skilful and smart. This is entertaining, blockbuster cinema but written for grown-ups.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

****
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel is so good it comes heartily endorsed by the author herself. (NB: This does not happen a lot.)

The eponymous Kevin is a problem from the start. As a baby he screams relentlessly, as a toddler he barely speaks and, disturbingly, he is impossible to toilet train. His mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) is unable to develop any bonds with him. The child’s pushing her away develops into mental torture. And he relishes it. She does have issues too. An intrepid world traveller she does not entirely suit the role of suburban housewife and mother. Kevin’s easygoing father, Franklin (John C Reilly) has no such problems and Kevin turns him against her. As a teenager his behaviour worsens with increasingly dire consequences. This downward spiral culminates in a staggering act of violence at his high school. Subsequently, the fallout from Kevin’s actions introduces Eva to a whole new world of pain.

This is, essentially, more Eva’s film than it is Kevin’s. Swinton is compelling as the tormented mother. Acting as our tour guide through the dark side of family life she doesn’t make her character entirely sympathetic. This gives some credence as to where exactly Kevin gets *it* from. Ezra Miller is unnervingly good as the teenage Kevin. There are two younger child actors who also play him - one as a toddler and one six-eight years – who are also quite brilliant. All three performances help build the character of a fantastically unlikeable child. Initially, the film is an all-out assault on the senses. Jumping wildly around different timelines and with potent-yet-unexplained imagery, it’s almost too much. It brings to mind Nicolas Roeg at his most chaotic. Thankfully it levels out and, as the film progresses, becomes a little more conventional. Still, this film pushes boundaries. However, please don’t be put off. It also possesses a lot of humour and is an immersive watch. Disturbing viewing it may be, but when a story is relatable as this – simply in terms of the “normal” setting – it will hopefully encourage audiences to count their blessings.

It’s a very sad situation when a director fabulously talented as Lynne Ramsay has taken nine years (since her last feature Morvern Callar) to get something made. Interestingly, although the setting is America the film is a British production – from Forward Films and the BBC, with a little help from the UK Film Council (R.I.P.). Although the film has been snubbed by the Oscars it is up for three BAFTAs – Outsanding British Film, Best Director, Best Actress – and I wish those nominees the best of luck on Sunday February 12th.


Thursday, 19 January 2012

Goon

*** 
Amongst the drunkenness, insults, violence (and almost drowning in the testosterone) a sweet little film is here to be found. But you need to look for it. And have a healthy appreciation of and/or tolerance to all of the above. This is a significant cut above your average gross-out frat boy shenanigans. It is a strangely affecting story, not just one on which to pin a series of gags. But let’s not get carried away. It’s a film about an ice hockey player hired to brutalise his opponents.

‘Goon’ is an unofficial ice hockey term for the role of enforcer - the muscle there to protect the talent. Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is a bouncer who finds his true calling doing just that. One night at a minor league hockey match in Massachusetts he takes umbrage to homophobic comments made by a player and soundly beats him in the stands. He makes such an impression that he is hired, for his talents, by the local coach. His adherence to violence is such a big hit with the bloodthirsty crowds that he is soon promoted to a (marginally) bigger league team in Canada. Armed with just his fists and a dangerously-low IQ, Doug relishes his role of protector and helps the struggling team.

Doug is unfathomably stupid and Scott underplays it well. He is often incapable of finishing a sentence and this kind of scrappy, unpolished awkwardness makes the film quite endearing. The scraps are bloody and graphic and there is good tension created out on the ice. Its obvious relation is 1977‘s Slap Shot but I think this is actually a better film. Proudly sporting the number 69 on his back, Doug is a whole lot funnier.

Love interest is supplied by Alison Pill – a refreshingly real young woman and a quirky talent. She and Scott achieve some genuine chemistry with neither punching above their weight. Notable mention to Kim Coates, native Canuck and a face you might know for always playing a slimebag. As the Highlanders’ coach he gives good sleaze. Liev Schreiber is an intimidating physical presence as Doug’s nemesis, veteran tough guy Ross Rhea. But I must say Jay Baruchel (also writer/producer) has perhaps a little more screen time than he should have. It doesn’t surprise me that Evan Goldberg is one of the scribes behind this - he also transcended the usual genre trappings with Superbad. And I sincerely look forward to director Michael Dowse’s next project.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Artist

*****
There’s a lot of buzz surrounding this film in terms of gold statuettes, and it genuinely deserves the excitement being generated. I went in thinking perhaps it might be a bit gimmicky but couldn’t have been more wrong. Director Michel Hazanavicius has embraced the silent movie medium. It’s outrageously self-referential and in a way that is bold and daring, never smart-alecky.

The year is 1929. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie star. He is handsome, funny, charming, and at the top of his game. He is also undeniably arrogant. After churning out hit after hit with his best friend and co-star (Uggie the Dog) something happens: talkies. Silent film is history and he becomes a relic of a bygone era. All the while the talented Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), with whom he has developed more than just on-screen chemistry, is becoming a huge talking movie star.

Dujardin is magnificent in the lead. The 2011 Cannes Jury Head (one Robert De Niro) told him he, personally, wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. The performances are all incredibly well judged; Bejo possesses the necessary star quality, John Goodman was born to play a cigar-chomping movie mogul, and Uggie the Dog is quite enchanting. (Some commentators have suggested the canine be nominated for an Academy Award.) The performances are ‘bigger’ than in a talking picture but they are also realistic. It’s a very peculiar thing. And don’t get too excited (like I did) about Malcolm McDowell being in the film. He’s not in it for very long.

The film stands alone. It’s really quite unique. The other revisionist silent movie that springs to mind is Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie – a comedy that has some good gags (e.g. the only word spoken aloud in the entire film is done so by Marcel Marceau) but it lacks any kind of authenticity. The Artist, on the other hand feels genuine. The director has made it look and feel like something from the period. It’s in black and white of course, and the squarer-than-usual 1.37:1 aspect ratio makes it all the more tangible.
 
Although I was enjoying the film from the off, it did take me a little while to get used to the rhythms and cadences of its ‘speech’. My friend who I saw it with, suggested it’s akin to watching Shakespeare - which I think is a good analogy - it just takes a bit of time to tune in. It’s incredibly funny, by the way, and often in a subtle and sophisticated way. It is also, as perhaps the style lends itself to being, honest and pure – a really wonderful film.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The Rum Diary

****
It may not be to everyone’s taste but, for me, the triumvirate of Hunter S Thompson, Bruce Robinson and Johnny Depp could only mean gold. NB: If you’re expecting something along the lines of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas you might be disappointed. Without the psychedelic spills 'n thrills this is less-crazed, more pared-down and has no narcotics. (Well, almost.) But if Fear and Loathing and Withnail and I had a lovechild it might look something like this.

It is 1960 and Hunter S Thompson alter ego, Paul Kemp (Depp) travels to Puerto Rico to write at the San Juan Star. There he shares a scuzzy apartment with photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) who, like Kemp, is fond of a drink. And by that I mean, raging alcoholic. (It seems everyone at the paper is.) The titular rum flows like water and makes them all a little mad, bad and dangerous. He hooks up with shady businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and is recruited to write promotional blurb for his island development. As he gets in deep with Sanderson he also gets closer to the man’s girlfriend (Amber Heard).

Having last directed (ill-fated serial killer flick, Jennifer Eight) in 1992 it’s a helluva comeback for Bruce Robinson. The workmanlike direction makes it hard to believe he’s ever been away. Robinson’s work, certainly in the case of Withnail and I, mirrors Thompson’s in it’s blurring of truth and reality. He was the ideal candidate to make this film. He also knows a thing or two about drinking.

Johnny Depp is basically doing his Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing – but down a notch - since both characters basically are Thompson. And boy, he does it so well. He is so damn funny in this film. His voice is spot on, and it’s a weird voice. Nobody ever spoke like Hunter. It can’t be easy to deliver lines. Everything that does come out of his mouth is either loaded for effect or weighted with deep significance. And the script is beautiful. Robinson masterfully adapted it for the screen utilising so many killer lines in a way that doesn’t ever feel shoe-horned in. No surprise really – like Thompson, Robinson was born to write. Let’s not forget his script for The Killing Fields was Oscar-nominated.

Thompson may currently be firing off a few rounds with Hemingway, he might be arguing with Nixon, or perhaps he’s working with God, developing a super strain of Adrenochrome. Wherever the hell he is, I like to think he would be duly impressed and give his blessing to this cinematic gem.


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