30 January 2012

Review: The Grey

(Dir: Joe Carnahan, 2012)

How easy is it to pitch a film like The Grey to audiences? All you have to say is, “Liam Neeson vs wolves” right? Make sure the trailer shows some scenes of Neeson getting down and dirty ready to scrap with the canis lupus, and the audience will come running. Judging by the fact it topped the US box office and how busy the early afternoon screening I attended was, I’d say it’s pretty easy. Sometimes you've just got to love the simplicity of ‘high concept’ films. Or maybe the distributor timed things right, believing that amidst all of the awards season mayhem audiences needed something a little less, serious? Like the recent release of Haywire, the timing is spot on.

Except The Grey isn’t quite as light or fun as the concept/trailer makes it out to be. In essence it’s a standard survival story - survivors of a plane crash somewhere in the inhospitable wilderness of the Arctic must struggle for their lives. But that’s not really their biggest problem. Where they have fallen is right in the middle of wolf territory and they have just become the prey. Man against the elements has become man against nature itself. The setting works very much in the films favour here. Environmental conditions such as the snow and wind heighten the desolation which plays into the strength of the hunters - you can’t always see the wolves but you know they’re there, watching, waiting in the daytime fog or the sheer blackness of night, their howls echoing all around. Create a disorientating environment and throw in something to be fearful of. It’s pretty basic but it works.

But what of the characters, do we care about them? Well, yes and no. Too many of them are thinly drawn, working in the Arctic because it’s away from normal society, but that’s all we know really, maybe the odd bit of personal info here or there. It seems we’re supposed to root for them because they are human, but it doesn’t really work like that. Neeson as the lead, who handily knows a bit about wolves and takes charge of this group of survivors, does a solid job as always. We get a bit more background on his character and he is battling the usual personal demons, although that doesn’t really matter when thrown into this situation, but it does interestingly allow Neeson's character the opportunity to vent his anger at religion & God a couple of times. I’m trying to figure out if it was around Batman Begins that he really started to take on this role of grizzled, raw, older action hero? Maybe it was. In the public consciousness it was Taken for sure, and he does it well, but I didn’t really see it coming from him.

So what haven’t I mentioned? Oh yes, Neeson actually fighting wolves. Well the actual fighting side of things is a bit lacking – The Grey really is more of an 'escape the hunters and try to survive' type of film, so don’t watch it expecting lots of man vs wolf sparring. Not that that’s a bad thing of course. I thought there was a successful mix of real and animatronic wolves used and I regularly had trouble telling what wasn’t real. It’s also worth mentioning that the plane crash was extremely well done and is definitely one of the scarier examples that I’ve seen in a film. One issue to note is that the film is far too long and really does drag at points, struggling somewhat to sustain interest throughout. 

Overall The Grey is a solid slice of entertainment. It may not quite live up to what the trailer promises, but some impressive cinematography and sound design helps make it a mostly interesting film, albeit one that's not worth getting too excited about.

29 January 2012

Review: The Descendants

(Dir: Alexander Payne, 2011)

Alexander Payne is one of those directors who appears to be highly reverred within the film community, yet I’ve always struggled to fully appreciate why. I enjoyed Election a lot, appreciated Sideways to a certain extent, but didn't really like About Schmidt. His films seem to focus on reaching a specific point in life, an age based milestone maybe, and seeing how the characters deal with it. Perhaps when watching these films I wasn’t able to properly grasp the portrayed themes of approaching middle age or retirement? Maybe I just wasn’t ready? However, with a few more years perspective gained I think I’m ready to give them another go, and part of the inclination to do so comes from Payne’s latest film, The Descendants.

The Descendants is an interesting and extremely well put together drama about dealing with middle age crises. The crises in question here are, what happens when your wife has an accident and ends up in a coma? How do you then deal with your daughters when you’re the “back-up parent” and how do you cope with a revelation that threatens to break up your marriage? That is what's facing Matt King, superbly played by George Clooney. As ever, Clooney brings his immense likeability and charm to a role that requires him to portray a seemingly normal family man, thrust into a situation that feels far beyond his control. He looks like he has lived this life and there are years etched into his face and in his greying hair. He becomes this character, and with a lightness of touch manages to bring out the requisite pathos. It’s definitely one of the best performances Clooney has given in a career of excellent performances.

Fortunately the acting by both of the daughters also helps to keep the core of the story, the family unit, believable, particularly Shailene Woodley who plays the eldest daughter Alex. There is a subtle complexity to Alex's character that is slowly revealed as the story develops and helps avoid her becoming the usual one note teen cliché. She is accompanied at almost all times by an older boy, Sid, played by Nick Krause, and he essentially provides comic relief. But there is one fantastic scene later on in the film between Sid and Matt that beautifully reveals why he is keen to spend so much time with a family going through so much hell. This was one of my favourite moments in the film.

Much is made of the Hawaiian setting, particularly as the family visit the island of Kauai, which also serves to provide an additional storyline concerning a large amount of land owned by Matt and his cousins. This touches on the issues of whether or not it's right to sell off some of this native land for development, providing welcome food for thought. It's all nicely interwoven into the overall story of the film, giving the opportunity to show more of beautiful Hawaii and offering an interesting diversion from the main story.

I really liked The Descendants - it’s an engaging and mature film that's very well written and beautifully crafted, although I do wonder if it would have been as good without Clooney in the lead role. Maybe I'm a little biased as he is one of my favourite actors, but I really thought he made this role his own. It’s testament to a skillful director that they can take such a potentially depressing story and not get unnecessarily weighed down by the emotional aspects. There is a lot of emotion in the film, but it comes through when it serves the story best. Maybe I wasn’t ready for Payne’s previous films at the time I watched them, but fortunately that wasn't the case with The Descendants

28 January 2012

Review: J. Edgar

(Dir: Clint Eastwood, 2011)

Since the release of Hereafter it’s become impossible for me to approach any film directed by Clint Eastwood without a degree of wariness. Eastwood is proving to be an incredibly prolific director in these supposed twilight years of his career and has made some recent interesting films (Gran Torino, Changeling), but it seems a by-product of such prolificness is that quality control can fall by the way side. I mention Hereafter as without any exaggeration it’s the worst film I have seen in a good few years. So with this in mind it was with a degree of trepidation I went in to watch Eastwood’s latest effort, J. Edgar, his biopic of the infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover was the man who essentially established the FBI, bringing it to what it is today, as well as being a strong advocate for the use of science as a tool for detecting criminals, such as creating a central database of fingerprints. The film jumps between the key early days of the FBI and Hoover in the 1960’s, particularly in the Kennedy era. Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the title role and puts in an excellent performance. Playing the Director in his formative years he’s believable as a determined young man with a strong ideology and passionate anti-communist agenda, whilst, behind layers of ageing make-up, he convincingly transforms into a 70 year old holding onto his position of office through fear and a desire for control. DiCaprio yet again proves that he's one of the most talented actors working today. 

Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts provide solid support as Hoover’s second in command Clyde Tolson and secretary Helen, both of whom have committed themselves to Hoover and the agency for life. Although it's fair to say they fare less well in the ageing make-up stakes, with Hammer particularly looking more and more plastic as the older he gets. Judi Dench also pops up playing Hoover’s mother and she does well in a small role, but these days she does seem to be becoming more of a caricature of herself, as was also the case in My Week With Marilyn.

The film is really well shot with the colour throughout slightly saturated towards colder colours, giving an interesting effect that heightens the believability of the period settings. I was reminded of Eastwood’s Changeling which had a similar look and feel, both of which Tom Stern was the director of photography on. The direction is on the whole pretty decent, there’s nothing too showy and the film is anchored around a standard flashback structure, although it is a slow film and does really drag into the last half hour, which seems to be a result of the story.

The story they decided to tell is my biggest issue with J. Edgar. Hoover appeared to live by the edict that ‘knowledge is power’, and was the king of the wiretap. He is known to have authorised countless illegal recordings of the powerful and famous in compromising situations, which he kept for his own secret files to be used as he required. This seemed to be a way to keep control of his position as Director of the FBI for life, but perhaps it was also to influence societal change (see his hatred of communism or the SCLC), or maybe they were just gathered for his own illicit pleasures? Even if it wasn’t for any of these reasons he was still  seemingly a much despised figure, someone that each newly elected President wanted to replace but ultimately the dirt he held on each meant they were too scared to get rid of him. Unfortunately the film doesn’t go into too much detail on this side of things, which I’d argue is the most fascinating aspect of the man and is ripe for far greater exploration. Instead J. Edgar just gives the impression that this was going on in the background whilst primarily focusing on the shaping of the FBI and the importance of the Lindbergh kidnapping to the agency, and also attempting, somewhat unsatisfactorily, to explore the ambiguity of Hoover’s sexuality.

There's nothing particularly wrong with J. Edgar - it’s a well made film covering a fascinating part of American history, with another excellent performance by DiCaprio. It’s just a shame that it’s ultimately a semi-interesting film about a very interesting person. 

23 January 2012

Review: Coriolanus

(Dir: Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

It’s interesting how just one single creative decision can ruin a film, rendering it's message impotent. This is the case with Coriolanus, the directorial debut from Ralph Fiennes who also stars as the title character. The creative decision in question was to stick with the original Shakespearean dialogue, which ultimately proves to be the films major failing.

Shakespearean dialogue is not the easiest thing to understand when it’s written on the page - it can take multiple readings of a single passage of text just to fully grasp it’s meaning. In the theatre there is undoubtedly a greater sense of clarity for the audience as this is the medium his works were written for. On the screen however the effect can be jarring, as it’s rarely seen and not the way we're used to being talked too. In Coriolanus all of the characters quote thick chunks of Shakespearean dialogue as if ripped straight from the page, and for the entire duration of the film this remains completely impenetrable. After sitting through all 2 hours of the film I came away with a very rudimentary understanding of the plot and what had happened on screen, but no appreciation of what the real story was or any intended deeper meaning. The experience was akin to watching a foreign language film without subtitles and having only a very basic knowledge of the language.

The dialogue issues are further compounded by the setting of the film. Shakespeare’s works have in the past proven to be adaptable to modern day situations and settings, but the placing of Coriolanus is confusing. It’s modern day, there has been war and it’s set in a town or city which is given the name ‘Rome’. Except this looks nothing like what we know of Rome, looking instead rather Eastern European. The story appears to be essentially political, but both the nature of the political processes that are key to the plot and the political positions held by the characters are completely unclear. It may be set in the modern world, but there is nothing here that anyone who is not already familiar with the details and machinations of the original story can grasp hold of to give any sense of familiarity or understanding.

All of this is a shame as the acting appears to be rather good. Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave stand out due to the strong and powerful characters they're playing, but they are ably supported by Gerard Butler, James Nesbitt and Jessica Chastain. Everyone attacks their role with much conviction and passion, all seemingly certain that they're putting in an award worthy performance. However this all proves pretty worthless when the audience is clueless about why these actors are emoting so passionately.

I went into Coriolanus not knowing anything more than what the poster tells you and that the critics were rating it highly. It's a rare occurrence for me to go into a film so blind and it's quite exciting when that happens, but perhaps if I had known more I'd have thought twice about watching it. I wonder if the handful of people who walked out of the cinema during the film were in the same situation? 

Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet proved it is possible to successfully transpose this type of dialogue to the screen in a modern setting, but that had the benefit of being one of the most widely known stories in the world and was done in a very stylish manner. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works and this adaptation lacks any style, shot with a cold realism and some distractingly bad camerawork at times. A heavy weighty drama it may be, but unless you know the story or have the ability to decipher thick swathes of Shakespearean dialogue on the fly, Coriolanus is not a film I would recommend.

19 January 2012

Review: Shame

(Dir: Steve McQueen, 2011)

It can be exciting watching a film by a first time director who shows a certain level of skill and personality that sets their work apart from most other new directors. But what happens when it comes to their next film, can they live up to the previous work or will they fall into the 'sophomore slump'? Enter Steve McQueen. His debut feature, Hunger, about the IRA hunger strikes in 1981, was a stunning piece of work. A difficult, challenging film that at times seemingly blurred the line between the visual arts and traditional filmmaking, as McQueen drew on his background as a video artist to create something fresh and visceral. So how do you follow that? The answer is with Shame.

Shame is a film about addiction and it’s debilitating effects on a life. It’s about sex addiction, an addiction with seemingly less public awareness and also less coverage in film than the more popular alcohol or drug addictions. In many ways McQueen’s style is ideal for a film covering this subject, as he manages to make both New York and the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seem impersonal and desolate, whilst ensuring the many sex scenes are cold, calculated and desperate, lacking the standard idealised Hollywood glow of carnality.

The acting throughout is excellent. Fassbender brings a naked rawness to the role, like in Hunger, that is all too believable. He seems trapped by his disease into acting out these impulses and forced desires - he can’t help it as this is the only way to tame what is inside him. Full credit must go the McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan for not giving us a back-story and a reason as to why Brandon has come to be like this. The reasons are unimportant, what matters is that this is how things are and he is heading down a negative path towards more desperate situations and a greater, potentially destructive, emotional void. This is all vividly brought to life on screen by Fassbender's perfectly judged performance.

Carey Mulligan continues to impress as Sissy, Brandon’s sister, who is strongly burdened by her own issues and has a deeply fractured relationship with her brother. There is a brilliant scene where, on stage, she sings a scintillatingly slow cover of New York, New York, through which she conveys all manner of deeply hidden emotions. The camera lingers, unmoving, on a continuous close-up of her face, singing, for at least half the song, before cutting away to show Brandon's reaction. It’s a masterful scene, aided by Mulligan’s impressive voice.

Throughout the film McQueen shows how adept he is at placing his camera. There are many scenes with long takes. No cuts away, no insert shots. This adds to the realism and helps make his films so compelling to watch. He has something interesting to say visually in an unconventional way and he knows how to use this tool to the benefit of the story.

Shame is a very dark, very cold film and its challenging and explicit nature makes sure that it's not a film for everyone. I was reminded somewhat of David Cronenberg’s Crash and its cold, detached view on sex, that if you scratch the surface of, reveals many hidden depths and holds a certain power over the viewer. I suspect Shame will offer something similar with repeat viewings, as even after watching it a first time it has a lingering power. Put simply, Shame is fantastic.

18 January 2012

Review: Goon

(Dir: Michael Dowse, 2011)

Goon is a hell of a lot fun. That statement could simply be my review, but I liked the film so I'll give it a bit more of a review than that. 

The “sports comedy” genre doesn’t stand out as one of films greatest genres. It’s heavily clichéd and whether you like a film or not can frequently depend on what you think of the sport involved and how heavily the film focuses on it. Personally I’ve always had a vague fascination with ice-hockey. Not enough to ever get into watching it, and I’ve unfortunately never seen a game live, but it’s still one of the sports that intrigues me most, meaning the concept of Goon appealed to me. 

Goon manages to achieve a good balance of showing enough of the sport for it to remain interesting and not alienate those who don’t know it, but also to show enough of the human side to allow us to care about the lead character Doug. Seann William Scott is perfectly cast as the slow-witted but decent and well meaning Doug, who is just looking for his place in this world, which turns out to be fighting and taking hits on the ice. He has a sweetness about him, particularly in the scenes with Eva (Alison Pill), which works its way through the films core, which is much to Goon’s credit as this helps to perfectly offset the copious amounts of bloody violence on the ice. And there is a lot of bloody violence, which actually provides a basis for a fair portion of the comedy. But don’t let that put you off, the film is very very funny and it’s been a while since I laughed out loud so much in the cinema. The supporting cast is solid, particularly Liev Schreiber as the bad-ass experienced enforcer on a rival team, who Doug will have to inevitably go up against at some point.

Credit to Jay Baruchel who, alongside Evan Goldberg, has written a great little film - clearly a passion project for him that was definitely worth the time and effort bringing to the screen. Goon is better than your average sports comedy... hell, it's better than most recent non-sports comedies too. Don't miss it if the chance to watch it comes your way.

Review: War Horse

(Dir: Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Bland and average. Not words you’d typically associate with Spielberg right? Usually his films have something about them; something that makes him one of the most loved directors in history. Lately though he seems to have lost this 'something', most noticeably with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but also with the recent disappointing The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. So what to expect from War Horse, the 2nd Spielberg film in 3 months? On paper this seemed like the film to get him back on track, taking him again into familiar territory (yes the fourth Indiana Jones film can be deemed familiar territory too, but there was perhaps too long an absence from the franchise and too weak a story), but alas it seems that we now have to live with the idea that Spielberg is no longer the 'master' he once was.

War Horse is certainly the most blandly average and forgettable Spielberg film I’ve ever seen. It’s competent from a technical perspective – the sets look believable, the sound effects work well, the camerawork is solid with a couple of beautifully framed shots and the horses manage to hit their marks and do what they should. The issue chiefly lies with the story which doesn’t really work as a film. The opening half hour leads you to believe that Jeremy Irvine’s character, Albert, is the lead. Not so. He quickly disappears from the story only to appear again much later – the lead character is actually the horse, Joey, which you follow throughout the film on its journey, as a variety of characters are brought in and then quickly discarded.

This is the problem. There are some potentially interesting stories to be had from these characters, if there’d been more focus and actual time spent developing them, but they all appear and vanish too quickly before you get to know them or can develop any attachment. So you’re left to care about a horse, which is, just a horse. It can’t act, it can’t show any emotion, it does what it’s forced to do with grit and that’s fine, but when there’s no human element to hang the story on there’s no reason to give a damn. The film just plods along like this, leading to an ending that is so contrived it’s incredulous and laughable.

Despite this there is one highly memorable scene in the latter part of the film, that shines like a beacon in a sea of mediocrity. I won’t ruin it, but it effectively manages to show the futility and pointlessness or war whilst also being fairly humorous and poignant.

So we’re left with a film that on the surface appears to be very well put together, but as it progresses and you wish to dig deeper you realise there isn’t actually much there across it's excessive 140+ minute run time. The theatrical production has received many plaudits and I imagine this story would potentially work easier on stage than it does on screen. It’s not a bad film, it’s just not a good film either. It’s an exercise in mediocrity and we all know Spielberg can do better than that.

1 January 2012

Top 10 films of 2011

These are my top 10 films of 2011. They are listed in alphabetical order, apart from my film of the year which sits proudly at the top. My criteria for inclusion was simply a UK release during 2011, and I should be clear in saying these are my favourite films of the year, as opposed to saying these are necessarily the "best" films of 2011. As this is my first blog post, I hope this is interesting reading!

Black Swan
It’s no understatement to say this, but Black Swan blew me away. It’s brave and electrifying filmmaking that doesn’t feel like anything else out there. The way the camera moves, particularly in the stunning dancing scenes, puts you right in the middle like nothing I've seen. The soundtrack, as you’d expect, works and enhances everything perfectly as it should. Natalie Portman thoroughly deserved the Oscar she won for this role, her performance judged perfectly at each stage of the story – vulnerable, desperate, confused, sensual, aggressive. Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey all offer spot on support. The rush as the story approaches and reaches its conclusion is like nothing else I experienced this year. I can say unequivocally that Black Swan is the best film I saw in 2011. 

Another Earth
The melancholic, existential nature of Another Earth is something that really appealed to me. Brit Marling gives a great central performance and is totally believable in her role, and was clearly justified in her idea that if she wanted to act in a great role she’d have to write it herself. I love the way the film was put together and shot, but more than anything, the use of sound and music was some of the most effective I heard all year. This is a terrific film, definitely worth seeking out.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Some of the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year. It felt like a classic adventure film, albeit with more modern style technology, but that all played to it’s strengths. Chris Evans was great casting, perfect as both the “weedy” Steve Rogers and the all action Captain America, and Hugo Weaving also made an interesting villain as the Red Skull. On a second watch I noticed how fake some of the effects and backgrounds looked, presumably due to them rushing to make deadlines, but in a film of this nature that didn’t detract. I’d really like to see future Captain America movies set in a similar time period as I thought it really worked, but unfortunately I don’t think we'll be seeing that.

Yes Drive is effortlessly cool. Yes the cinematography and soundtrack are both superb. Yes Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan are both scintillating. But the best thing about the film is what’s not said. The silences. The spaces between. It doesn’t give the audience any concessions, making them work when they didn't expect to have to, and then shocking with moments of ultraviolence. This is definitely one of the best films of 2011 and one which I’m most keen to revisit when it arrives on bluray. 

Never Let Me Go
The concept of Never Let Me Go is a fascinating one but fortunately the film manages to exist on multiple levels. It’s easy to debate the surface “science fiction esque” concept and the ethics surrounding it, but the core story of unrequited love proved to be the driving force of the film and ultimately heartbreaking. Both Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield were excellent although I remain unconvinced by Keira Knightley, but then perhaps in this film that was the function of her character? (Note: I've not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel which the film is based on.)

Rabbit Hole
Who would’ve thought a film about the slow destruction of a couple’s relationship after the death of their only child could end up being anything other than a sombre dirge? Well it wasn’t. Despite a lot of grief to wade through, Rabbit Hole ended up being curiously uplifting and was anchored by 2 of the best performances all year from Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman. I was quite surprised by how much I really liked this film.

The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almodóvar is one of those directors I’ve given very little time to in the past, and not for any reason in particular. But The Skin I Live In should change that as it was one of the most intriguing films I saw all year. An unrelentingly dark story that kept me guessing the entire way through, with great performances from Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya. It’s almost certainly one of the most stylish films of the year with every frame beautifully crafted.

Super 8
There was a lot of buzz around the release of  Super 8, mostly because the trailer pitched it as a throwback to the classic 80’s Spielbergian family film. Fortunately the hype was justified and the film delivers. At times (particularly at the start) it feels remarkably adult. The relationship the kids have is natural and totally believable, which makes it funny and touching. The fact that the film gets this side of things right means that the rest of the plot works fine with an interesting mystery feel, even if it isn’t exactly original. The film loses me completely in the last 15 minutes, which is a shame, but it’s by virtue of the fact that it gets everything else right that it’s on my top 10 of the year list. It’s also worth saying that the train crash remains one of the most impressive things I saw at the cinema all year!

Thor was always the film in 2011 that had as much potential of being awesome as it did of being awful. Fortunately it veered towards the former. This was as highly entertaining as Captain America but with the added dramatic gravitas of Anthony Hopkins as Odin and the fish out of water comedy of Thor on Earth. Yet again Marvel got the casting right with Chris Hemsworth, and choosing leftfield directors for these big superhero films (in this case Kenneth Branagh) proves to work. Marvel may be on a roll at the moment, but I remain quietly sceptical about whether this can or will extend to The Avengers.

True Grit
Something has been missing in recent cinema; the ultimate classic Hollywood genre, the western. There have been a couple in recent years, but True Grit really is the best we’ve seen in a long while. Jeff Bridges yet again gives another superb performance, but the real highlight is Hailee Steinfeld. The story is essentially carried on her shoulders and she is brilliant. It’s crazy to think that this is her debut and that she somehow didn’t win an Oscar. But it’s not just the acting... did I mention how good the cinematography is? What about that it has an unexpected funny streak running through it? True Grit proves that westerns are still a worthwhile and interesting genre.