30 September 2012

Review: Anna Karenina

(Dir: Joe Wright, 2012)

I had the fortune of approaching Anna Karenina as a blank canvas, knowing nothing of the story having never read the book nor seen any previous film or tv adaptations of it. I’m not one for reading classic Russian literature and my experience of doing so simply extends to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I also entered the cinema believing I had never seen a Joe Wright film (it was only a few days after that I remembered he directed Hanna), but this meant at the time I didn’t really know what to expect from him, leaving only some vague preconceived notions about what might be delivered based on his history with period dramas.

So, for the uninitiated like I, the story is thus: the titular Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is wife of Russian councillor Alexei (Jude Law), but she falls for young soldier Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leading to an affair that takes them down an inevitably disruptive path. Meanwhile young Kitty (Alicia Vikander) is struggling to find love, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is prepared to shut himself away from it, and Karenina’s brother-in-law Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen) is philandering. These are the strands covered by the film but I clearly can’t say whether this is a fair representation of the novel.

As a film Anna Karenina is very well put together. The costume design is sumptuous with a certain stateliness, there are some great visual moments and the music fits and works well. Acting wise all the players seem decent enough without there being any real stand-outs. Despite all this however, there are a couple of major issues that I really struggled to overcome:

Firstly the lead characters… Karenina starts out as a beautiful, elegant character, moving seemingly happily within the highest echelons of society. The way she struggles with her building feelings for Vronsky is intriguing as it clearly offers something she was lacking, leading to her internal battle of embracing this wild new thing versus the duty and honour to both her powerful husband, whom she doesn’t really love, and their son. But once her decision is made the whole thing falls flat, losing any excitement or intrigue as she realises the impact of her actions and becomes incredibly insufferable and irritating for the rest of the film. How much of that insufferableness is down to the original character rather than Knightley’s portrayal it'd be interesting to know. I wanted to see some genuine emotion from Law’s Alexei, rather than him being so impassively calm and controlled. Vronsky’s arrogance and relentless seducing of a married woman made him impossible to like so I really wanted to see him fail. If these are characters we’re supposed to like and root for then it really didn’t work, but then maybe that’s just my principles overriding objectiveness.

The other major issue at times seemed like it should've been a strength... a good portion of the film is staged like a play; or more specifically staged in an empty theatre, with certain scenes appearing to take place on stage, with other scenes taking place backstage (walking through the streets for example is actually walking backstage) and others out on the floor where the audience would be. There are moments when the camera spins round and we see sets/actors resetting to become something else. It’s clever and fascinating. It doesn’t totally work. Not every scene follows this style with some making no visual reference to the theatrical setting whatsoever, whilst there are a handful of scenes shot in the countryside which felt particularly jarring. This inconsistency becomes very frustrating once your eyes have had the chance to feast on some beautiful outdoor scenery and a sense of space, light and expanse, as it undermines setting other scenes, such as the horse race, in this dark indoor environment, no matter how cleverly assembled they are. It simply needed to be an all or nothing approach for this technique to work.

I actually quite enjoyed watching Anna Karenina, which was unexpected as period films of this nature generally do little for me. But aside from saying how beautiful it looked, the issues I had with it mean I'm going to struggle to say anything more positive. The filmmakers should be applauded for trying something different with their staging conceit, but by not running it through every scene it ultimately failed by being frustrating and jarring. The supporting cast all proved more interesting than the three main characters, especially the Kitty / Levin / Oblonsky storylines. A viewer of course can’t help but bring a bit of themselves into how they interpret what's happening on screen, so it’s fair to say many others wouldn’t have the same issues as I with Vronsky and the Karenina's. The question is, would I have these same character issues with the book too, or was it just the film? I honestly don’t think I’m prepared to find out.

8 September 2012

Review: Dredd

(Dir: Pete Travis, 2012) 

Dredd feels like the sort of film I’ve been waiting all summer to watch. There’s been a lot of good films out but nothing that delivers in the way that Dredd does. At least nothing quite this fun or adult. Dredd may be another entry in the long line of comic book movies we've been offered lately, but it drinks from a very different well to the recent spate of Marvel or DC adaptations.

In my recent Total Recall review (see here) I debated the merits or otherwise of remaking films. To a degree what I was saying there is relevant here. The character of Judge Dredd comes from the rich source material of over 30 years of 2000 AD comics, and first made his way onto the screen in 1995 in the wildly derided Sylvester Stallone starring Judge Dredd. It may have been a very long time since I last saw it but I’m not left with the best of memories. And so this is the perfect scenario in which someone should have another go at this story/character with the genuine opportunity to improve things. 

Fortunately Dredd has nothing to do with the last film and instead benefits from a nice economical story, with no bullshit or extraneous padding. There have been three homicides in one of Mega City One’s 200 storey tower blocks and Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) heads to the scene with Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), the rookie Judge he is assessing. But this block is run by crime lord Ma-Ma (Lena Heady) who doesn’t want the Judges to leave alive, so shutters up the entire building and sets the many criminal residents on them. Thus it’s a simple fight to survive.

This is a film that doesn’t need anymore than this to work. To some the plot may sound very reminiscent of this years The Raid, and essentially it is pretty much the same, but the approach and style is very different. The Raid is more martial arts based and with a sense of gritty realism amidst the impressive choreography, but it does get a little tiresome. This on the other hand is firmly rooted in sci-fi and fantasy and is more concerned with firepower, and there’s a lot of that.

Urban is perfectly cast as Dredd. He sounds unequivocally tough whilst being physically imposing, and with the body amour factored in he looks like an immovable beast. There are some shots of him walking with intent down smokey corridors filmed from behind, and he just looks menacing. We’re given no back story on him whatsoever and know no more than he is something of a legend amongst the Judges and he enforces to the letter of the law. But best of all the helmet stays on for the whole film. This really heightens his mystique and keeps him every so slightly dehumanised, which means he has no flaws and is like a machine in his righteous drive to deliver judgement.

The rest of the cast work well. Thirlby never once wears a helmet so this balances things out by giving us some humanity to root for, whilst she also gets a bit of back story and the need to express some emotion. But it’s only enough to hook us in and not bore us. Heady makes for a good villain. Thanks to her time in the likes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Game Of Thrones, she finds herself fitting into this sort of universe well and is always enjoyable to watch. Plus it's nice to see this sort of role given to a woman for a change.

The general aesthetics of Dredd successfully represent the gritty struggling dystopia of its universe, but more importantly it doesn’t pull any punches tonally. This is a film unafraid of brutality, with some graphic violence and bloodletting, which is something you want to see associated with this type of character as it only enhances his hardened nature. Entertainment, the distributors, should be applauded for embracing an 18 certificate here in the UK. The score is strong too, based around electronics, noise and deep bass, providing even more atmosphere and edge. At times the film does verge on being over-stylised but considering the genre it sits in it's not really an issue.

Dredd delivered on the promise of the character. It’s dark, it’s brutal and it’s got lots of good action, which combined with the perfect casting of Urban creates a wholly satisfying package. Thankfully it washes away memories of the limp nineties film and justifies this second attempt to make something based on this character, whilst not feeling remotely Hollywoodised. It’s a satisfying watch; I thoroughly enjoyed it and already look forward to watching again. Judgement has been passed.

Note: I watched the 2D version. Yet again here is a film that didn't seem like it would benefit from being watched in 3D, apart from the unnecessarily over-stylised scenes added solely for the 3D effect. Plus it's quite a dark film so the extra darkness added by the glasses likely won't help picture clarity. 

7 September 2012

Review: Total Recall

(Dir: Len Wiseman, 2012)

Remakes. Is there anything else that can inspire such passionate ire and annoyance in film fans? They represent the potential dismay of a classic being butchered, when all the while there is a yearning for something original that could’ve benefitted from this money and distribution. But why does this attitude only seem accentuated in relation to film? Theatre has a long history of staging various versions of classics. Music has always embraced cover versions, and don't forget the importance of "standards" in jazz or how many versions of some classical pieces have been recorded. Why is art in these mediums not perceived as having a “definitive version” in the same way film does? Yes theatrical productions are usually temporal but music is recorded and thus permanent. Which leads to another debate… adaptations of books.

Some adaptations of books are seen as sacred, but surely there should be no issue with attempting another reinterpretation. Why is it ok to constantly recreate and reimagine Shakespeare and his ilk, but multiple attempts at something more modern get frowned upon? After all no-one sets out to make a worse film than what has come before. However the biggest question amidst all this must surely be, why remake something that’s already considered great, when the time, effort and money could go into making something fantastic out of something that previously didn’t work? From a business perspective the answer is of course money associated with something already perceived positively, but I struggle to imagine there’s much creative satisfaction from doing this.

All of this is entirely relevant to the new Total Recall, which when announced was seen as a remake no-one wanted. The original 1990 Paul Verhoeven film is perceived as something of classic of that era - it’s not a perfect film by any means, but is both of sufficient quality and in possession of that something special that makes any effort to try and improve on it somewhat futile. But lest we forget this was based on a Philip K. Dick short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, so the argument of trying to make a better adaptation of the source should still stand. Except here it doesn’t really – the original Total Recall was a loose adaptation of this story, taking the original concept and spinning it into a different direction. Whilst this new version is actually a reinterpretation of the original film, with further deviations from the path.

Entirely set on Earth at the end of the twenty-first century, it takes the familiar story of bored nightmare-suffering labourer Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), who visits a company called Rekall in order to implant fantastical new memories in his head about being a spy. Except things take a turn for the confusing as he struggles with his identity, and his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) turns out not to be who he thought she was. The core of the story is the same but the biggest difference is no-one goes to Mars here, or even has visions or thoughts of going there. There is the intriguing conceit of a gravity elevator linking the Colony in Australia to the United Federation of Britain which travels through the core of the Earth – at least in lieu of Mars we get something a little different and very sci-fi-ish in concept. 

Being Earth bound the story ends up seeming a little less exciting because it’s presenting a new dystopian vision of the future without the exotic curiosity that comes from alien landscapes. The story is essentially one long bog-standard chase sequence, punctuated by big overblown CGI set pieces. At times this gets a little tiresome but it moves along at a fast enough pace to keep attention from wandering too far. The shady political plans of Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) try to add a bit more depth but they are skated over a bit too quickly. Cranston is reliable as ever and since he started earning serious credibility from Breaking Bad, it’s always satisfying to see him pop up in films. 

Farrell is sufficient in the role of Quaid; or rather this version of Quaid. He’s played similar roles before and he always kind of fits them in a somewhat non-descript but semi-watchable way. That is to say he never wows and he never really offends. When making the inevitable comparison it’s clear he lacks the big personality that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to the original, which was a key aspect that made that film work so well. Beckinsale is enjoyable to watch and actually plays a bigger role than expected. Jessica Biel also plays a key character but she doesn’t really stand out here.

Total Recall 2012 is competently made but it seems intent on just being a chase movie about a man running to/from his past, ending up feeling like a lighter version of the original. This also applies to this version of Quaid who is written in a pretty stock way, but this suits Farrell’s brand of “average action hero”. I liked the aesthetics of the Colony with its similarities to Blade Runner, but here is a film overwhelmed with the burden of CGI which reduces the enjoyment of a number of action scenes. Does it compare to the original Total Recall? No. The two feel like very different films that happen to have similar stories. The lack of Mars isn’t really a weakness as it’s positively replaced by something hitherto unseen on screen, but this was an element that didn’t need replacing. Total Recall proved an entertaining watch and I did enjoy it, but it’s difficult to enthuse about something when it feels like a weaker imitation of what’s come before without adding anything new. As remakes go this one was unnecessary.