27 January 2013

Review: Lincoln

(Dir: Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Oh how I miss the Spielberg of old. You know the one, the Spielberg who gave us exciting films that alternately wowed and thrilled us. I don’t need to name names, you know them all. I miss that Spielberg because the one we have now seems preoccupied with weighty serious films whose quality doesn’t stack up anywhere close to his similar older films, and when he’s recently aimed for fun it’s been a real misfire. So here we are looking at another serious drama from the man, this time about a month in the life of Abraham Lincoln. 

Lincoln tells a story from history that is most certainly worthy of being told - the President’s attempt to pass the thirteenth amendment, that will abolish slavery, through the House of Representatives in 1865 and the stand-off with the confederacy over the seemingly never-ending Civil War. This bill was a major turning point in the development of that nation and it’s alternately fascinating and shocking to hear how it was perceived by many, chiefly the Democrats of the time. The film is as much about the politics as it is about the man.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln in what is yet another powerhouse performance from the actor. He acts so seldomly (it’s been 3 years since his last role in Nine), that whenever he appears on screen it’s almost jarring because you find yourself deliberately watching the man and how he inhabits these roles. He’s a master. Everyone today knows how Lincoln looked but not truly how he moved or sounded but Day-Lewis’ portrayal is perfectly believable and he makes it so very easy to see why the people loved him. He’s not alone as Sally Field is excellent too as Mary Todd who has plenty of issues, and the two seem to bounce perfectly off each other. Tommy Lee Jones puts in a performance of note as Thaddeus Stevens, also representing the serious political heart of the film. It’s a strong role and he has some great lines. Lincoln is also a who’s who of decent supporting actors making it always fascinating to see who will crop up next in period dress.

Quality of the acting and worthiness of the story aside, Lincoln has problems. I’m fascinated by American politics but even here it becomes tiresome to watch. It’s a film of verbosity, at times endlessly so, and two and a half hours for what it’s trying to cover certainly feels excessive when presented this way, to the point where I really struggled to retain interest during the middle portion of the film. The scenes in the House of Representatives are always intriguing but there’s so much unnecessary political verbiage outside of this that it makes the film feel too cold and clinical. I should be careful about complaining about that as Spielberg can be far too heavy handed when it comes to ladling on emotion, which does happen a couple of times here, but it really could’ve used a bit more soul somewhere in there.

Lincoln isn’t a bad film, not by any means, it’s just not a particularly great one. It seems to be reaching for the grandiose but suffers from self importance as a result of the part of history it’s covering. It’s right we see this highlighted, but as a film, without the fantastic lead perfomances anchoring it, it would certainly seem a far more hollow affair. They lift Lincoln to a point higher than it deserves as at its core it is an overly weighty and unnecessarily lengthy drama that would’ve really benefited from streamlining how much of this part of history it shows us. Still, at least it’s better than the bland dirge that was War Horse. I really can’t wait for fun Spielberg to come back and rejoin us.

26 January 2013

Review: Les Misérables

(Dir: Tom Hooper, 2012)

As I pointed out last year in my review of Rock of Ages (read here), I don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to musicals. The whole concept ends up being somewhat lost on me as I struggle to engage with singing as the narrative driving force. Maybe this stems from my finding lyrics the least important element of any non instrumental music I listen too? Nonetheless I enjoyed Rock of Ages a lot more than expected, precisely because of the actual song choices, which left me wondering how I’d fare with Les Misérables, a more traditional musical I suppose. I very rarely watch musicals, to the point where I had no prior knowledge of the Les Misérables story, nor I think of the songs. 

Lets say this from the outset then - Les Misérables is hard going. It’s an overwrought and melodramatic story that seems to revel in the way the delivery of the story enhances these emotions. Now there is some interesting themes going on in here – the path of the righteous man / the obsessive nature of another man / the French resistance making a stand. This all has potential yet the only one that feels more fully explored is the former, with the burden on Hugh Jackman’s shoulders as Jean Valjean. His acting here is solid, his singing a little more hit and miss. There were times he was convincing in song, other points not so, but regardless of his voice his delivery and emotion was always spot on, making him enjoyable to watch. His journey is an interesting one. Yet he’s not the highlight.

The most noteworthy member of the cast is Anne Hathway as Fantine. This is definitely a supporting role as she’s not on the screen for that long, but every single second she is she’s fantastic. Her voice is beautiful (I never realised) and the emotion in her delivery alongside her acting elevates this; her rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dreamed’ is scintillating and far and away the best few minutes of Les Misérables. That it comes so early overshadows the rest of the film. All the other cast notables get their solo moments too but my concentration greatly wavered in each as none were anything special - the songs or the performances. Russell Crowe seemed well cast to play a character such as Javert and like Jackman his vocal performance was hit and miss too, yet not as bad as reported elsewhere. Eddie Redmayne’s Marius had the most consistent male voice but his baritone felt a little jarring in context of some scenes. The women seemed to have better voices overall and Samantha Barks stood out strongly as Épinone.

Tom Hooper did a good job staging Les Misérables for film (obviously that opinion comes from not knowing how it’s done on stage), however the way it was shot frequently didn’t work. It’s a film that visually feels too close – nearly all singing scenes are shot with a close up of the actor involved and as that comprises most of the film it was sweet relief to get the occasional wide shot. Sometimes it worked – a very early scene with Jackman in a church comes to mind. Perhaps this was for us to properly see the actors performance as they were singing for real, but it felt like overkill. It also really felt like a long film with the final hour dragging, being another reason I quickly lost interest in some of the solo performances. I guess theatrical audiences can endure because of the interval. 

Les Misérables didn’t leave me swayed by musicals, especially when the story is so overdone at times and could've seriously benefited from some brevity. Aside from Hathaway’s superb turn I didn’t get the emotion that made so many people in the cinema sound like they were in tears. The actors are all decent, quality of their singing regardless, and thankfully there was comic relief from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter to lighten the load. The production felt weighty enough for the story too. All in all it’s a reasonably good film that’s not exactly the easiest or most enjoyable of watches. Unless of course you love musicals, in which case my opinion will be irrelevant to you!

24 January 2013

Review: Django Unchained

(Dir: Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

Quentin Tarantino's reinvention of b-movie genres continues unabated. So far he's tackled blaxploitation (Jackie Brown), samurai (Kill Bill) and pure grindhouse (Death Proof, the vastly under-rated latter half of Grindhouse) as well as making gangsters cool in his first two films and most recently giving us an excellent Second World War film. So where to explore next? Django Unchained is his take on the Italian westerns from the late sixties and early seventies, predominantly influenced by the Django series of films starring Franco Nero as the titular coffin dragging gunslinger. I wish I could remember which Django film I've seen (there are many of them), but it's all a blur with memories merging with that of Jodorowsky's El Topo. Intriguingly with Django Unchained we get hints of blaxploitation too - typical of Tarantino's mash-up approach.

Django here (Jamie Foxx) is a slave, freed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) due to knowledge that will help Schultz catch his latest targets, which ultimately leads the pair into a chain of events where they set out to dupe plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and rescue Django's wife (Kerry Washington). It's a solid enough story in principle with plenty of interesting diversions, that ends up hindering itself by taking one too many unnecessary turns.

From the outset it's clear that Tarantino is sticking to his comfortable tropes with Django Unchained - no matter whether a film is set in Nazi occupied France, Japan or the US in 1858, he approaches it in his own way, even if that does stem from lifting from other sources. That's not a criticism as he's perhaps the most interesting cultural magpie we possess - always revelling in interesting twists on sub-sects of underground culture. The music here lifts from those Italian westerns and throws in something more modern too: of course it works, his soundtracks are legendary. Visually the way shots are framed and the camera moves feels kinda retro but oh so Tarantino. And the dialogue... well let's parlay. No matter where his characters are they're hyper-literate and typically verbose. Yes it's still appealing.

The films two biggest strengths are Foxx and Waltz. You remember that wallet Samuel L. Jackson's Jules had in Pulp Fiction, the one that said "Bad Mother Fucker"? That's the most apt description of Foxx in Django Unchained. He plays it superbly but with some hidden depths in there; a man biding his time to exact revenge. If anyone clocked his surname in the film and thus the lineage he is supposedly the basis of then it all makes sense - can you dig it? Waltz on the author hand is the true silver tongued devil here as he makes Tarantino's dialogue sound easy and is never less than compelling to watch. We all need to thank Mr Tarantino for making us aware of his superb acting ability a mere four years ago.

So why doesn't Django Unchained feel as satisfying as his other films? The problem seemingly lies in the journey we have to take to get to the end result. Some scenes go on too long with unnecessary dialogue and the story meanders at times, meaning I ended up feeling bored at points. Apart from one scene early on, there are none of the tense high-quality set pieces that Tarantino is renowned for, such as the bar scene with Michael Fassbender in Inglorious Basterds. Likewise the inevitable mass shoot-out feels more forced than the stunningly choreographed The House of Blue Leaves fight at the end of Kill Bill: Vol.1. Everything here feels like it's been done better before by Tarantino.

Django Unchained has all the right constituent parts but doesn't fit together quite as easily as it should. Watching it felt somewhat like how I imagine trudging across empty states on horseback felt at the time - a journey enlivened by the visitors you meet and sensory treats, but a sapping trek nonetheless. Waltz and Foxx are always thoroughly engaging, whilst DiCaprio and Jackson are good too alongside a typically fascinating group of supporting actors. The film also gains depth by not shying away from the racial issues. But I remain on the fence about the film as a whole. It's entertaining, frequently funny and suitably ultraviolent as well as having some great ideas and throwbacks, but it would've seriously benefited from tighter editing. Although it's good, it's just not as enjoyable as any of Tarantino's other films in which you've seen him do everything here better.

18 January 2013

Review: Gangster Squad

(Dir: Ruben Fleischer, 2013)

I sat watching Gangster Squad with a curious smile on my face. Now that smile is partly explained by it being a decent and fun film, but the reason it was a "curious" smile is down to feeling like I was watching a James Ellroy story brought to life. Ellroy is my favourite author and I've gushed about his writing before (see the start of my Rampart review here), but there's something very reminiscent about his work in Gangster Squad. Admittedly it's very Ellroy-lite as it mostly lacks the unrelenting darkness or labyrinthine plotting of his stories, but the setting, presence of Mickey Cohen and of driven male characters with a strong moral code all mark striking similarities. We haven't really seen that much Ellroy on the screen so I'll happily take a lighter derivative if offered. 
It's 1949 and East Coast gangster Cohen (Sean Penn) is on his way to taking over LA. All the right people are bought so as a last resort Nick Nolte's police chief sets up an off-the-books squad to take down Cohen's operation by any means and run him out of town. Easier said than done of course. The most notable aspect of Gangster Squad is the fantastic casting. Penn is clearly in his element here. Behind some clever layers of make-up to heighten the look of a weathered and beaten ex-fighter, he stalks and rages leaving you anxious and totally transfixed. The character is presented with the requisite presence here - slightly showy and over-the-top but desperate for power, and if it's true to real life it's easy to see how he got to this position. Although when you look at pictures of the real Cohen he of course lacks the "Hollywood sheen" (Paul Guilfoyle offered a much closer likeness in L.A. Confidential).

What about the squad? Led by Josh Brolin's Sgt O'Malley, Brolin cuts a solid lead as a man driven to do what's right and make sure the LA of his dreams doesn't get corrupted beyond recognition. He's suitably commanding and has a classic look and presence that makes him feel right at home in period pieces such as this. Then of course there's Ryan Gosling's Jerry, who brings the style and cool. As ever Gosling is a joy to watch on screen and electrifies every scene he's in, particularly when he's together with Emma Stone's Grace who offers some nicely balanced depth to what might otherwise have been a typically throw away character. Plus she looks beautifully elegant. The rest of the squad; Robert Patrick's aging gunslinger and his protégé Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi's wire-tap expert family man and knife wielding Anthony Mackie are all interesting but perhaps too underdeveloped. They're developed far enough to make the story work, but as ever with characters who feel it's their duty to rip out the vile underbelly that's infecting their city, there's a lot more that could've been explored.

Gangster Squad is a stylish looking film too, successfully recreating LA in it's all end-of-the-40's glory, but at times it does feel too over-stylised and almost gives the impression that you're watching something shot on a film set. There are also a few scenes where it moves into obvious digital handheld territory which visually jars, leaving unfortunate comparisons to Public Enemies' failed visual approach. The story also could've used a bit more meat and development - the end result is fairly streamlined but there's so much more here to potentially tell. It doesn't pull its punches however and is fairly graphic at times, but is honestly all the better for this as in reality it wasn't all sharp suits, dames and perfect Hollywood glamour.

Ultimately Gangster Squad is a well put together and highly enjoyable film. You could argue that this sort of thing has been done better before in the likes of The Untouchables or start comparing it to recent(ish) noirish classics such as L.A. Confidential, but it seems futile to complain that it's inferior when it delivers on what it's trying to with solid action, a bit of comedy and such a good cast. It feels just that touch more pulpy and the better for it. And yes it may lack the weight of an Ellroy story but I'm happy that it seems to exist in the same world. With Zombieland Ruben Fleischer marked himself as a director to watch and no matter what you think of 30 Minutes Or Less (I liked it), he backs this up with Gangster Squad which is definitely worth your time.

1 January 2013

Top 10 Films of 2012

2012 was a year of high quality films, although looking at the list I have assembled below it seems the quality was more regularly coming from independent / foreign directions. Thanks to the launch of Letterboxd earlier this year, which functions as something of a filmic diary, I have recorded every single film I watched in 2012, mainly out of a curiosity to find out how many films I do actually watch in a year. (It's an interesting site worth joining if you're a film geek.)

All this tracking has told me that in 2012 I watched 258 individual films, but only watched 7 of these more than once. To break it down further, I saw 43% of those films at the cinema (that equates to 112 cinema trips in 2012, not quite the most for me in a year, but a ridiculously high number by most people's standards, but bear in mind I have a card that lets me go as many times I want for a very reasonable set monthly fee) and 38% watched via rentals. I genuinely feel like I've done a good job of watching as many of 2012's films as I could.

Below are my 10 favourite films of 2012, with the only criteria being that they must've been released in the UK during 2012 - some may argue there were better films released, but best is a very difficult thing to quantify, so these are simply my favourites, for a variety of reasons.

No single film stood out as an absolute favourite and I couldn't order them, so they're simply presented in alphabetical order:

Beasts of the Southern Wild:
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exultant celebration of life and survival, amidst the devestation meted out by nature. Taking an eclectic selection of characters, the charming six year old Quvenzhané Wallis excels as a force of nature herself, already having to face up to the realities of life in this washed out Southern delta. Director Benh Zeitlin lets his camera fluidly follow events and feel like its documenting life, which alongside the excellent music, results in a film of beguiling lyricism and humanity.

The Dark Knight Rises:
Wherever you think The Dark Knight Rises sits in Christopher Nolan's recent Batman trilogy in terms of quality, it's not only a damn good film but quite possibly the best "big budget" film of 2012. It's certainly the best superhero film of the year. Nolan had mountains of expectation on his shoulders after the success of The Dark Knight, but with this final film he still manages to give us a compelling villain (Bane), craft a decent thriller and use a version of the Catwoman character in a clever and effective way. I'm still not entirely satisfied with the final hour or the ending, but it wholly delivers on both spectacle and entertainment making it great fun to watch. [Read my full review here]

The best thrillers are tightly wound coils of tension offering a controlled slow release, and Headhunters is an exemplar. Telling an intriguing story with a compelling lead character, it manages to keep the audience guessing whilst throwing in all manner of hooks and thrills, with enough darkness and violence for it to mean business without being overpowering. The Norwegian setting further helps give it an enigmatic quality, but anyone who has avoided it because it is foreign is missing out. Headhunters is hands down the best thriller of 2012. [Read my full review here]

Holy Motors:
Holy Motors is one of those films that dares the audience with its intriguing narrative. Although that of course depends on whom the metaphorical audience really is. As a love letter to film and acting in general it excels; as a Lynchian-lite exercise in confusion it is enticing. Holy Motors is one of the most "out there" films of the year as well as one of the most surprising, and like at least half the films on this list, features a performance from Denis Lavant that can count among the years best. This proved to be cinema at its creative best in 2012. [Read my full "review" here]

The Hunt:
The Hunt was probably the most thought provoking film I saw in 2012. Beautifully measured in its approach it creates a challenging scenario around alleged child abuse, showing how the life of one man can be completely ruined by just a few words. The film doesn't make judgements but explores both sides of the events that unfold, making it the responsibility of the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Mads Mikkelsen is fantastic as the man whose life is thrown into turmoil, showing an interesting depth and deservedly winning the best Bast Actor award at Cannes this year. The Hunt is seriously high quality filmmaking that is best watched with an open mind.

The Hunter: 
I was happily surprised by The Hunter, as rather than being a survival drama set in the wilderness, it offers a meditation on man versus nature and shows how someone coldly detached from the world could be rehumanised. It also makes us question the value of environmentalism when it detrimentally affects livelihood and tradition. Willem Dafoe puts in one of the best performances of his long career in a rare lead role, which alongside the stunning Tasmanian scenery, results in a fascinating film to watch. [Read my full review here]

The Perks of Being a Wallflower:
Considering the other films on this list The Perks of Being a Wallflower may stick out a bit, but I'll admit a certain affinity for high school movies and this is one of the best of recent years. It succeeds by not feeling clicd or overly ribald, as there's a real depth and complexity to the characters that goes beyond most films of this nature, and the cast do an excellent job. Based on a well loved novel, the author Stephen Chobsky not only wrote the screenplay but directed the film too, allowing his intimate understanding of the characters to perfectly translate to what we see on screen. This was a film whose world I did not want to leave when it ended.

Samsara, in its extremely limited release, may have slipped by virtually unnoticed, but it proved to be one of the most beguiling films of 2012 and certainly the best documentary. As a collage of some of the most stunning and beautiful images of our planet; of nature, humanity, wildlife and the man-made, it was a jaw-dropping visual treat, but combined with an evocative score the experience turned out to be transformative. Seeing it at the BFI IMAX certainly helped provide sensory overload, lulling me into a trance like state, and I left the cinema in awe of the beauty of our world and with my eyes filled with wonder. One of my favourite cinema experiences of the year.

To say Shame was robbed during awards season early in the year is something of an understatement. Yes it's a challenging film about the exploration of a man's descent into personal hell as a result of his sex addiction, but the astonishingly raw performance by Michael Fassbender and superbly off-beat direction by Steve McQueen really deserved so much more recognition. Shame is a dark, almost bleak film, but its desire to go places rarely explored on film in such an unflinchingly honest way puts it head and shoulders above virtually all of the "safe" films heralded in those awards. [Read my full review here]

Silver Linings Playbook:
Take away the confused marketing that didn't really know how to sell the film and you realise that Silver Linings Playbook excels by skilfully being many things - an exploration of mental illness, a sports movie, drama and romance. But aside from David O.Russell's expert direction and writing, it all hinges on the acting and characterisation, with Bradley Cooper giving one of the performances of the year, alongside a superb Jennifer Lawrence and the best Robert De Niro has been in quite some time. This is a carefully considered, intelligent, heart-warming film that I did not want to end.

Note 1: I wasn't able to review everything I watched this year, so I've only linked to a review where I did manage to write one.

Note 2: the number of films appearing in this list with "hunt" in the name is entirely coincidental - or perhaps just a representation of their quality!

Note 3: purely for interest, the films that almost made it into my top 10 that I really had to debate over including were: Argo, Dredd, Margin Call and Sound of My Voice.

Note 4: also read The Worst Films of 2012 and The Most Over-Rated Films of 2012.

The Most Over-Rated Films of 2012

There were some films I saw in 2012 that the media (and certain portions of Twitter) ecstatically lavished praise on, to my eyes inexplicably so. These are films that I thought were merely pretty good or just flat out didn’t like; I certainly don’t consider them worthy of being called “brilliant” or receiving 4 or 5 stars as they did elsewhere. Below, in alphabetical order, are the films released in the UK in 2012 that I felt were the most over-rated:

The Avengers
I feel like something of a lone dissenting voice in saying that The Avengers is over-rated, but to a degree it was one of the films I was most disappointed by in 2012. Having loved the five preceeding Marvel films that acted as a superb build up to The Avengers I had such high hopes for it, but what we were given was a very average modern action film (read excessively CGI heavy) with some occassionally decent character interactions. It definitely felt like a step back from the excitement of the character driven origin stories of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger etc. As such I didn't find The Avengers particularly satisfying. It's not a bad film, it's just merely good and in my eyes, as the lesser of all the films that came before it, it's certainly not worthy of the mountains of excessive love it received. [Read my full review here]

Coriolanus was evidently not widely seen but it was greatly loved by critics, as well as inevitably garnering BAFTA nominations. It's the archetypal film you'd expect critics to fawn over (much like The Master or Amour, both of which were over-rated too but good enough to not need inclusion here) - excellent British actor turns his hand to directing lesser known Shakespeare play, in original language no less. Admirable but a massive failure unless you were already familiar with the story, because transposing a not entirely clear political story to a strange modern time made it confusing as hell and thoroughly boring. It didn't help that it wasn't particularly well directed either. Ralph Fiennes gets point for trying here but the result was both testing and tedious. [Read my full review here]

The Imposter
This is where I remain at a total loss as to how some films get such immense praise lavished on them. The Imposter is a reasonably interesting documentary that's well assembled, but seems to hinge entirely on the fact that the story it's reporting is pretty incredulous. But after you're over that fact it ends up feeling unsatisfying, much in the way Catfish left the viewer irritated. At least it was wise enough to follow Man On Wire's lead in terms of presentation, but I can't see any reason why its gathered such glowing reviews. Are people really confusing quality with the decision to tell a seemingly unbelievable real life story? I hope not, but either way you should be wary about being fooled by The Imposter. [Read my full review here]

Life of Pi 
The biggest concern about Life of Pi appeared to be that it's story of a boy lost at sea in a row boat with nothing but a man-eating tiger for company was unfilmable. Concerns were justified as the story does not translate well (I've not read the original novel). In filmic form it proves to be a completely arduous journey. The first thirty minutes or so are compelling, and the capsizing of the ship is stunningly dramatic, but from that point onwards the story proves very difficult to stay engaged with as it becomes plain boring and is weighed down by overbearing proselytising about God. This ultimately leads to a conclusion that is entirely frustrating and unsatsifying, making it feel like a wasted journey. Life of Pi's only real strength is visually, as it never looks anything short of stunning with fantastic special effects and the rare appearance of tasteful and effectively used 3D. I clearly didn't see in it what all these people raving about it did.

The Raid
I'll say this from the outset, I did like The Raid (or for some reason The Raid: Redemption if you live in the US), as it is a pretty decent throwback to action / martial arts movies of old, but it has plenty of issues and if you believe what you read then it's supposedly the best action movie for many many years. Except it's not and in 2012 alone Dredd was a better action film. The Raid pays the price of a very poor plotting decision early on in the film, and some of the fights aim for over-the-top epic but end up tiresome and unbelievable. Yes it's more steeped in reality than the fantastical Dredd, but doesn't really benefit from that, ultimately dragging too much. Are we in over-hyped territory simply because a Welshman went to Indonesia to write and direct a throwback martial arts movie? Perhaps. Either way it's a good film that's a long long way away from being one of the years best.

To some, writer / director Ben Wheatley appears to be the greatest thing to happen to British filmmaking in some years. In reality he's a director with a decent visual eye who really struggles to tell an interesting or engaging story. Sightseers works really well visually but it's a thoroughly bland film with highly irritating characters; billed as a comedy it lacks virtually any humour, suffers from very average writing and is a film sitting in the long shadows of a number of far superior American movies with similar plots. The appearance of this film on best of the year lists appears to defy any perceptible logic as this really is one of the most mundane and tedious films I saw in 2012. [Read my full review here]

Young Adult
This is a film entirely marred by a deeply unlikeable lead character. In a sense Charlize Theron does a great job in this role if this is how the character is supposed to be perceived, but her childish petulance and arrogance grates right from the get go making it impossible to actually enjoy watching Young Adult. Whether or not it's a good representation of thirty-something existential crisis, the story is underdeveloped without any sort of decent ending and only Patton Oswalt makes it bearable. Reviews were resoundingly positive for Young Adult yet it's a chore to watch and at its core deeply ungratifying. Disappointing considering the calibre of talent involved. [Read my full review here

Note: also read The Top 10 Films of 2012 and The Worst Films of 2012.