26 February 2013

Review: To the Wonder

(Dir: Terrence Malick, 2012)

A new Terrence Malick film is something to get excited about. Regardless of your thoughts on him as a storyteller he is one of the most impressive visual directors out there. Having released his first film in 1973 (Badlands), To the Wonder is only his sixth film, which hardly marks him out as prolific, but that it follows a mere two years behind The Tree of Life is something of a surprise. The Tree of Life proved to be a highly divisive, over-bearing masterwork. Its graceful visual beauty is beyond compare, embellished by a stunningly beautiful score. On the surface, as a film about childhood, the love for a mother and growing up with an overbearing father, it's fascinating. But the overtly religious message at its core felt stifling. The audacity of including a twenty minute interlude showing the big bang and the birth of life was a stroke of genius and pure visual poetry. Hence I was keen to see what Malick would offer us next.

To the Wonder takes its cue from The Tree of Life, but feels a little more reigned in. It's about a trans-Atlantic relationship between an American man (Ben Affleck) and a French woman (Olga Kurylenko) starting in Paris and moving overseas (we only find out their names in the end credits, which somewhat diminishes the intriguing facelessness of them, hence I won't use them here). When we meet them they're already together in the early throes of dizzying love, and we follow the couple as she and her daughter move to the US to be with him. We experience the joy, destruction and everything in between that comes from love.

It's a story told through short snippets of life; a look, a touch, a few whispered words, a distance, a presence of mood. There is no structured story in the traditional sense, rather the through-narrative shows a relationship in the form of fleeting moments. Similarly there are no proper conversations per se and dialogue is kept to a minimum. What we do get is a steady stream of voiceover from the characters which leaves a mixed feeling. In one sense it provides a different insight into their thoughts and desires, but on the other it veers too frequently into awkward overly religious nonsense. Due to Kurylenko's character a good proportion of this voiceover is in French (maybe even over half), but the subtitles are so small I occasionally found myself forgetting to read them, yet I don't think this had much of a diminishing impact, such is the over-bearing nature of some of some of the spiritualism Malick tries to convey to his audience.

The approach of To the Wonder leads to us perceiving the characters in a slightly different way. Affleck plays the male character in such a closed manner that emotions are mostly kepy hidden deep down making it hard to truly understand him and what he wants. His character has very little personality, which is exemplified by realising his home is entirely impersonal, even when it's full of life. Is he just a cypher for the "average man"? Conversely Kurylenko's woman is full of personality, constantly craving love and attention with a habit of acting like a carefree child. She inhabits the role well but I couldn't help but find the character somewhat frustrating. In many ways it's difficult to see why they're even together, but that's what makes up the journey of life and love I guess. 

Rachel McAdams gets a smaller albeit more interesting role in the film, with a much more likeable character whom I really wanted to see a lot more of. Then there's Javier Bardem's priest, whose presence seems incongruous beyond giving us a physical representation of religion. The focus keeps occasionally shifting to him but to the detriment of the core story, as his part in the bigger picture is left underdeveloped and unnecessary. One can only presume this is due to Malick's brutal editing, with Bardem's character possibly playing a bigger role in an element of the film that got excised?

To the Wonder looks and sounds fantastic, with ethereal and dramatic orchestral pieces accompanying another array of beautiful images; be it Paris in spring, an abbey on a French coastal island or the sunny plains of Oklahoma, it always looks fantastic. Yet again constructing a film via short fleeting moments rather than actual scenes works and fits the subject of the film, because usually what matters most in life and love are the little moments and miniscule details. This style really makes us feel. It is an absorbing film and far more impactful than the blandly average stories about love that regularly fill up our cinemas. There are some distracting niggles and it may not match the grandiose majesty of The Tree of Life, but To the Wonder is another fascinating and beautiful film from the undeniably creative Malick.

23 February 2013

Review: Antiviral

(Dir: Brandon Cronenberg, 2012)

We didn’t know it at the time but 1999 signified the end of the David Cronenberg that we all knew and loved. That year saw the release of eXistenZ, a fiercely wild and twisted view of how gaming would eventually overtake our bodies, minds and reality. It was typically Cronenberg and the last film he made to delve into the abstract realms of body horror before he morphed into a director of darker thrillers such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and more verbose explorations of the mind like Cosmopolis (read review here) and A Dangerous Method. This change in direction was certainly no bad thing, but it left a gaping void in the landscape of intriguingly cerebral horror that still feels like it needs filling.

And so we welcome Brandon Cronenberg to the fold, who with his debut feature seems keen to show that he is his father’s son and may just be the person to suture that void. Antiviral feels in many ways like the natural successor to eXistenZ, offering another sharply critical analysis on today’s society through alternative technology. In short, it’s about a world so obsessed with celebrity that bioengineering the viruses of the famous has become worth a lot of money. We follow Syd (Caleb Landry Jones), a salesman / bioengineer for one of these clinics, who accidently becomes embroiled in something that threatens his life.

As a critique on the next level of celebrity worship it’s scarily fascinating. What better way to get closer to your “god” than to have a manipulated version of their cells injected into you? Together there’s a unity as you suffer the same as they did. Viruses become the next logical step for licensing and exclusivity deals, not to mention patents. A media so totally obsessed with covering the (possible) illnesses and diseases of the stars rather than who they’re fucking or what they're wearing. The disturbing question is how many steps are we away from this being reality? It doesn’t feel outside the realms of possibility. 

Antiviral is bathed in the stark verisimilitude of medical white. It’s a world devoid of much colour aside from the radiant glow of the face of celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) and the deep crimson richness of virulent blood being disgorged. It’s the sort of film where blood turns into a weapon. More darkness is let in as the film progresses, representing the declining state of Syd as a result of his proclivity for sampling the goods, which drives the story. Jones is fascinating in the role with a performance that leans more towards the physical, giving the constant impression that he’s never far from the precipice. The pervading sterile whiteness continually helps give an unsettling impression that something ugly is going to happen.

The body horror aspect feels a lot more reigned in than might’ve been expected, which turns out to be a plus. The story is driven by a more medical narrative; something that is pretty disgusting in concept but not so much in physical execution beyond what could be normally seen in any hospital. Cronenberg’s writing and direction is decent, presenting an intriguing story whilst creating enough about his world to make it work. The aforementioned use of colour alongside good camerwork, framing of shots and a decent electronic score, all make for a very good film. How much you like Antiviral will depend on your taste for stories of this nature, but as someone intrigued by such creatively "out-there" ideas it totally worked for me and I'm now eagerly anticipating what the younger Cronenberg will do next.

20 February 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

(Dir: Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Zero Dark Thirty exists in that weird bubble where the audience goes in knowing the outcome, spending two and a half hours literally anticipating it. Yet throughout that time it manages to offer both tension and moments of doubt. That’s pretty good going when you’re telling the story of how the most wanted man on earth was finally brought to justice, but getting that balance is also pretty important in the context of good storytelling.

Starting with a subtly poignant reminder why we’re hunting this man, something clearly intended to put the audience in the mindset of needing to persevere for justice, the story of Zero Dark Thirty covers a decade of intelligence work and frustrations mostly set in Pakistan. It’s resolutely not an action film, building and building to the payoff which is a superbly executed special ops mission stealthily enlivened by the green hue of night vision and the light thud of silenced automatic rifles. This is more about the process than the actual take down which makes for a more interesting story. Knowing it’s based on true events stops it falling into what’s becoming cliche in so many of the recent films hunting terror suspects in this region of the world. 

Zero Dark Thirty is a highly analytical film. It’s about analysis, it’s about details, it’s about the obsession over finding the answer when you’ve enveloped yourself within all this detail. Unfortunately that means it’s also clinical in nature. The story needs something to hang onto so we’re given Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent with the insatiable thirst to succeed in this mission. Chastain is good and continues her trend of being an asset to whatever film she’s in, but here her character is too cold. For most of the film there’s no real emotion expressed and we get next to no background, let alone any specific reason for her obsessiveness. We root for her because she’s doing something that must be done, but perhaps this lack of personality makes her character a cypher for us to project our own need to see justice successfully delivered. Cutting the head off the snake may be a short-term fix but it will temporarily quell a fear now deeply rooted within us. I was left more than curious about this underdeveloped character.

The rest of the cast are incidental, appearing as and when needed and consisting of a variety of recognisable faces. All are consistently solid. What’s more curious is the debate that has arisen over torture as an acceptable interrogation method and whether it was actually used in order to get to this result. The way it’s portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty is probably tamer than elsewhere (24 comes to mind in that respect) but it was obviously happening and yielding results. The film never feels like it’s approving of it as there are no judgements made, we’re just getting a reportage of the events.

I’ve always found Kathryn Bigelow an interesting director, having in particular been a big fan of both Point Break and Strange Days since the early to mid nineties respectively. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t her best work, nor is it her most satisfying. When it comes to the climatic event it creates a rush of emotion that should be expected due to the importance of what we’re seeing and thanks to the journey we’ve been on, but any competent director would achieve that with this story. It seems to lack something she usually brings to the table. This is a film detached from personality which is probably a good thing as involving an emotional angle would only serve to negatively distract; nonetheless the clinical execution still holds it at a distance from the audience. Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating, absorbing and thrilling journey. It’s very good, yes, but best picture quality, no.

18 February 2013

Review: A Good Day To Die Hard

(Dir: John Moore, 2013)

"Yippee-ki-yay motherf-----!" Yeah that's the way it is now. Over the past week so much has been written online about Fox's decision to neuter A Good Day To Die Hard in the UK by releasing a 12A cut of the film, rather than the unedited R rated version being shown in the US. Now I'll hold my hands up, I'm part of both the problem and the solution behind this. 

Problem: back in October Fox badly edited Taken 2 to secure the 12A rating and despite my better judgment (considering I didn't like the first film) I went to see it. It was fucking awful (read my full review here). It went on to make an obscene amount of money at the UK box office (over £23m), vindicating Fox from a business perspective. By going to see A Good Day To Die Hard I'm clearly helping exacerbate the problem, but this is the sort of film you want to see on the big screen. 

Solution: six weeks into 2013 and we'd already seen new Schwarzenegger and Stallone films released in the shape of The Last Stand and Bullet To the Head. Now neither film is a patch on either actors classic work but both still offered solid adult orientated entertainment. I supported them at the box office because I want to watch films like this, but relatively speaking hardly anyone else did - we're talking £538k / £429k opening weekends, which is pretty poor. This begs the question where the audience for such films has gone? 

Now lest we forget, the Die Hard level of movie making is about business and not art, so Fox's decision makes perfect sense. However that's not to condone it because we're talking about a Die Hard film here, something that is resolutely adult in theme and nature. Any fan of film should find it very difficult to approve of the artistic integrity of a piece of work being compromised in such a manner. So how much is A Good Day To Die Hard actually compromised?

The answer is somewhat but not totally. Linking back to my opening statement, Die Hard is responsible for one of the most famous film catchphrases of recent decades and it seems thoroughly weird that this can't be properly uttered in the fifth Die Hard film. Now of course swearing isn't the be all and end of all of a film, but when the word 'fuck' is uttered three times and 'shit' almost as many, the inability to allow us to hear the word 'motherfucker' is just plain fucking stupid, as at least that one has more context. The other affected area is the violence, which feels a little more mindless if anything. A huge plethora of guns are fired in the film with bullets continuously flying everywhere, yet rarely do you ever feel the true impact of these. It only serves to make the film feel as if it's lacking something.

In reality A Good Day To Die Hard is lacking a lot more than the impact of its violence. It's lacking the spirit and essence of a Die Hard film. The masterful first two films (I'm a big fan of Die Hard 2 even if some find it derivative) had John McClane stumbling into a situation, which this fifth film tries to emulate, but it's done in such an awfully contrived way that it's no longer about McClane saving the day, it's about him unnecessarily falling into something that has no real bearing. It's a bland plot. Add onto this the introduction of McClane's son Jack (Jai Courtney) and we get thickly ladled on paternal bullshit and awkward attempts at comedy. None of this is helped by Courtney who is such a wooden actor. He fits the part physically but that's it, and was a lot better playing silently menacing in Jack Reacher. Here any attempts at expressiveness fall flat.

As action films go A Good Day To Die Hard is extremely brash and noisy. It's also bordering on the superhuman with some of the craziness we're expected to believe the McClane's survive. It's ironic that this series started out offering a more realistic angle than the over the top action movies of the eighties, but now audiences seem to want the realistic Bourne style action, the Die Hard franchise has transitioned itself further into overblown nonsense. The action here is bland but not entirely without enjoyment, such as the decent and destructive car chase early on. But despite being a fairly short film it lacks the focus and tension that's come in the past from having a single primary setting. Even using the wider confines of an entire city Die Hard: With A Vengeance wholly succeeds at this by proving it's all about the story.

A Good Day To Die Hard is adequate as big budget modern blockbusters go, meaning it’s more than content to blow shit up, story be damned. But that alone does not make a good Die Hard film, despite offering some level of fun. The story is inconsequential here and the lack of a compelling villain or any real threat, something integral to all four previous films, is a major issue. This isn’t even a result of the tamer UK rating, despite the limiting impact it has on some of the action; it’s just not a particularly good film. Sadly it seems the final quarter of Die Hard 4.0 / Live Free or Die Hard (depending on which regional naming you prefer), easily the worst part of that film, has served as the biggest inspiration for A Good Day To Die Hard. It’s a shame really, especially when both Stallone's and Schwarznegger’s most recent efforts have proven more enjoyable than a new Die Hard film and a weary seeming Bruce Willis, who of the three is arguably the one whose definitely still got it. Disappointing really.

10 February 2013

Review: Hitchcock

(Dir: Sacha Gervasi, 2012)

If there’s one good thing to come from two films about Alfred Hitchcock coming along at the same time, it’s how they’ve inspired me to rewatch some his films and discover the many I’ve never seen. Bearing in mind it’s the second weekend in February, this year alone I’ve watched Dial M For Murder, The Birds, Strangers on a Train and Rope, three of which were new to me. And I have no desire to stop there. I always find it perplexing why multiple films about the same subject come along at once - the two films about the legendary director are Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as the man, and the BBC / HBO co-production The Girl, with Toby Jones taking on the role. Both films are based around the process of him making one of his classic later films, albeit with slightly different primary angles, meaning both feel remarkably similar especially as they’re set a couple of years apart.

The focus of Hitchcock is the prelude, process and struggle of making Psycho, obviously his most famous picture. It’s a film no-one thought should be made or released yet it turned into such a success, proving that Hitchcock knew how to perfectly judge what (his) audiences wanted to see. As he is keen to point out, darkness and horror is inherent within all men, but his chosen approach is to sit in the corner and watch / film it unfold. This is also where Hitchcock overplays its hand - Psycho is notoriously based on the life of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein and here we see Hitchcock having imaginary conversations with Gein, allowing us to question his own psychosis and what’s driving him to finish the picture. But it’s an unnecessary touch that doesn’t really work or offer much explanation other than this perhaps being a parallel to how he sees himself.

An element of psychosis also comes from his relationship with his wife Alma, played convincingly in Hitchcock by Helen Mirren. She is his life and rock and he feels he’s losing her to another man, Danny Huston’s Whitfield Cook. This also becomes another game, similar to what’s played out in many of his films, which ultimately fuels his feverish madness. Interestingly their relationship is a key element of The Girl too, but there the overbearing weight of the issues come from his fascination with his blonde leading ladies. That plays less of an important role in the story we're told here but it does underlie everything that takes place. The girl in question in Hitchcock is Janet Leigh, played well by Scarlett Johanssen, looking every bit the classic early sixties movie star.

Anthony Hopkins is extremely good in the role, bearing a great resemblance and nailing the mannerisms. Toby Jones is of course a great actor, and as good as he was in The Girl, Hopkins just has the sheer overbearing presence to nail the characterisation here. In both films the man himself doesn’t come across well, with his awkwardly creepy presence, fascination with blondes and his cutting attitude, but it’s always portrayed with a sense of intelligence and decorum. What I find more fascinating is what it was the people whom he allowed close to him had? Nonetheless his genius as a director remains undisputed.

As a film about the process of making a well loved classic Hitchcock is a fascinating exploration. From that perspective it’s also a lot more satisfying than The Girl which lacks the production value for it to feel quite as effective in that area. But as an exploration of the man it feels underwhelming. What it was that drew him to continuously make such morbid films is left unexplored, yet each film was surely an exorcising of his demons, whatever they may be. Hopkins is great of course but only within the context of how we see the man portrayed here, making Hitchcock an interesting film that doesn’t go far enough. However if it inspires you to go back and rediscover his films then it should be considered something of a success.

1 February 2013

Review: Hyde Park on Hudson

(Dir: Roger Michell, 2012)

It’s intriguing how in the last two years a couple of the films selected as Gala performances at the London Film Festival have gone on to be poorly reviewed and underperformers at the box office. You’d expect that to be selected for such a position in a prestigious festival that a certain quality would be inherent. What particulalry comes to mind is Fernando Meirelles' 360, opening film of 2011, which received a critical mauling and made zero dent in the UK box office taking in only £25k on its opening weekend. Hyde Park on Hudson is another of those, positioned as the Centrepiece Gala in 2012 and with a less than favourable 40% on Rotten Tomatoes (if you find that site a useful arbiter of critical opinion), I have a feeling it too won’t do well at the UK box office (edit: just to prove that point it opened with £135k at no.15 in the UK). All this makes you start to wonder why these films are getting selected for such high profile screenings.

Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes score suggests however. It’s a slight film and you can imagine critics expecting more of it, particularly as it concerns a US president and British royalty. Perhaps it suffers from surfacing around the time of the far weightier Lincoln? (Read a review of that here.) Much like Lincoln though, Hyde Park on Hudson’s key strength lies with the acting. Bill Murray plays the polio riddled Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, constantly constricted to chairs as his legs no longer work. He’s not played for sympathy but is both likeable and affable. There is no politics or even power really, this is more about the man and his desire to escape from the pressures around him. Murray’s performance is high quality and enjoyable to watch, even when our perceptions of him start to shift into less favourable light. 

The film is seen through the eyes of Laura Linney’s Daisy who quickly falls for the man. Linney is decent but we learn little about her character aside from her thoughts about FDR. It takes a while but the film finally comes alive when English royalty, in the shape of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), arrive to spend two days in the country with the Roosevelts. At first it’s a comedy of manners as the uptight Queen is less than impressed by the Americans and the idea of hot dogs in particular, all of which is mildly amusing, but it turns into something more interesting about two afflicted men of power. West plays the King well – inevitably his performance will be overshadowed by Colin Firth’s Oscar winning portrayal from The King’s Speech, but this is a version of the man who’s scared but has his prickliness thawed out more easily. The scene where he and Roosevelt open up to each other is fascinating and the best in the film. It’s within these moments that the heart of the film seems to lie.

The rest of Hyde Park on Hudson is played out too lightly. Although Daisy’s relationship with FDR is the crux of the story it really isn’t that interesting, aside from one dramatic scene, and if anything it’s under-explored as a result of so much attention being given to the visit of the royals, which actually turns out to be a good thing. Colman also puts in a good turn as the coldly aloof Queen in an alien land. The way the film was shot proves somewhat distracting, with an over-reliance on hand-held cameras and too much unnecessarily shaky motion, which only really works in the driving scenes. However Murray’s performance is the anchor here and he reminds why he has always been such a compelling actor; quietly in there he is the warmth of the film. Hyde Park on Hudson felt like a gentle break away from all the high drama found at the cinema recently. Pleasant, subtle and nothing more.