Friday, 26 August 2011

You Don't Know Jack, dir. Barry Levinson, wr. Adam Mazer, st. Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Danny Huston

Another piece of essential viewing from HBO - does their output produce anything else? - a TV movie from 2010 detailing the life of doctor Jack Kevorkian and his single-minded mission to open people's eyes to physician-assisted suicide, in his mind, a basic human right. If the bias is a little one-sided, I would counter that to a tree-hugging liberal such as myself, the waters weren't that murky to begin with, nevertheless, the subject of euthanasia remains a topic that remains, maybe not off-limits, but certainly taboo and controversial. This is probably the first time I've seen Autumnal Pacino displace his trademark shouty persona for something infinitely more humbling and subtle. Don't get me wrong, his Jack Kevorkian still has that old Corleone danger behind the eyes, dogged and determined, and utterly ruthless in his passion for what he believes is right, but it's a bit of a shock to see him white-haired and Armenian/Michigan accented, shuffling about in slippers, high-waisted slacks and seeming to have great difficulty in getting geese off his porch. Levinson displays remarkable sensitivity too, neither shying away from nor sensationalising the subject matter, and there's great support from Sarandon and Goodman. Whatever your moral or political views, I would suggest this is essential viewing; poignant and entirely compelling.  

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, dir. Rupert Wyatt, wr. Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silva, st. James Franco, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, Andy Sirkis

Were he alive today, I wonder what Pierre Boulle would have made of the enduring appeal of his novel La Planète de Singes. I doubt he could have predicted that, by his own admission, his unfilmable sci-fi novel would spawn an Oscar winning adaptation in 1968, four sequels between 1970 and 1973, an imaginative but muddled re-boot in 2001, and now this, a second re-boot, once more laden full of content pregnant with possibilities for yet more sequels. I wrote a while back about Hollywood looking too much to its past for inspiration, and indeed there is something wearing about rehashing the same old, albeit fertile, ground; poor Boulle's novel, like many before and after it, has become a cash-cow for the great Hollywood machine. It's sad and its transparent nature as a commodity is embarrassing and ungainly. So what are we left with? Well, as a movie, Rise works surprisingly well. The first thing to say is that, unfortunately, we're still a long way off photorealistic CG characterisation; while intimate close ups of Serkis' Caesar work brilliantly, with every palm-crease and follicle strand being meticulously detailed, long or group shots of the marauding apes lack a feeling of mass and momentum. And it's a shame because there's something endlessly fascinating about the well-trod cautionary tale of Animal and Human. Franco and Pinto don't really do much, Cox is in full-on Rent-a-villain mode, Lithgow does his furrowed brow thing, and Andy Serkis, well when finally the tech's there, I'm sure we'll be talking Oscars once more.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Beaver, dir. Jodie Foster, wr. Kyle Killen, st. Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence

So what's the difference between this and Craig Gillespie's Lars And The Real Girl from 2007, The Beaver's closest thematic twin? Why so universally panned and Lars so universally adored? After all, the plots share so much of the same psycho-exploratory DNA. Why is a talking puppet so much harder to buy into than a blow-up sex doll? It turns out the reasons are sound - and numerous. Although it's not quite the unmitigated disaster it's been made out to be, The Beaver misfires on a number of base levels. Firstly, Kyle Killen's script doesn't have the economic restraint that made Nancy Oliver's Lars dialogue sound so heartfelt and unaffected. Again, both films share an airily oddball score, but whilst David Torn's score for Lars never allows whimsy to over-season empathy, Marcelo Zarvos' score for The Beaver is too knowingly quirky to help give any accurate emotional context to the proceedings. Foster's role as The Wife, Meredith, seems to have been graciously, unceremoniously hacked to shreds to allow this to be Gibson's show, and likewise Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence's romance, already the flimsiest of side-plots, simply has no room to breathe. Ultimately The Beaver, like its protagonist, doesn't really know how to fit in; its hesitancy and reluctance to commit promotes a sense of awkward unease that's pretty tough to shift.  

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Ondine, dir/wr. Neil Jordan, st. Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda-Curus, Stephen Rea, Dervla Kirwan

What do you do when an impossibly beautiful sea-nymph gatecrashes your fishing trip and starts singing Sigur Rós at you? From this implausibly over-fanciful opening Neil Jordan manages to weave something of an effective and absorbing tale, taking in along the way nods to fantastical Gallic myth and the dreary humdrum normalcy of rural Ireland. Colin Farrell plays Syracuse (an awkward nod to the film's mythological allusions, but one that nonetheless sustains the illusory tone), a quiet, no-nonsense fisherman with a lush of an ex-wife (Kirwan) and a disabled daughter (Alison Barry, quite quite brilliant). As in all good fairytales, it is simple chance that crosses his honest existence with that of Ondine's; but is she genuinely a creature of water, or something else? Cinematographer Christopher Doyle bathes the film in chilly coastal greys and slate blues, nimbly sidestepping travelogue blandness, and similarly, Kjartan Sveinsson's acousto-ambient score plucks and swells in harmony with the rolling waves and biting winds; it reminded me of Julio Medem's Lucía y el Sexo, another film where the meteorological sense of location whips off the screen and billows around the room you're in. If there's a bitterness to reality crashing in at the eleventh hour and upsetting the reverie, it is but a small bother to an otherwise tremendously beguiling film.

Monday, 22 August 2011

YellowBrickRoad, dir/wr. Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton, st. Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Laura Heisler

There's something undeniably spooky about whole colonies just vanishing. As a fictional conceit it's weird enough, but history tells us its actually happened, for example in the case of the Roanoke Colony or the Mayans. So when we're told at the outset in a typed mockroduction that in 1940, the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire walked up a mountain trail leaving everything behind, and were later... partially found, we have a pretty good idea what we're getting ourselves in for; there is no mystery here, strap in and enjoy the predictable outcome of the group of redshirts who are attempting to uncover the truth. The big surprise is just how Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton create their supernatural environment. The filming location, a remote region of Pittsburg, makes for a desolate setting, yet curiously abundant with life; the action is played out under vast woodland canopies and rolling grassland, all adding a Happening-esque haunt, the idea of nature looking back at us. And then it starts to get weird - I won't spoil it by saying how - but it's an audaciously batshit sound-design tactic that'll really get under your skin. Predictably, the very end is something of a letdown, once again falling into the classic pitfall of being unable to match the chilling buildup with a satisfying denouement, but actually, it's ok; it's the thought that counts.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Solitary Man, dir. Brian Koppelman, David Levien, wr. Brian Koppelman, st. Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Danny DeVito

After decades of playing characters of ambiguous (often sexual) morality in films like Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction and Disclosure or Faustian types undone by their own charisma and power like in Wall Street and The Game, it's interesting that maybe for the first time in his career, we have a Michael Douglas film that explores head on an imagined aftermath of one of these characters' lives. It may be glib to suggest that this is some kind of redemptive voyeurism a la Mickey Rourke in which we see art atoning for real-life indiscretions, but there's little doubt that there's something fascinating about watching one of Hollywood's leading men explore the nature of his Autumnal years and muse on his place in the world. The idea is that whilst women age and lose their looks, men are free to practise their cavorting and carnal embracing pretty much until their heart stops beating, but Solitary Man takes that notion and turns it on its head. We see Douglas' failed car salesman Ben Kalmen eye up pretty much every PYT going; a libido fuelled by fear and desperation rather than a healthy voracious appetite. He schmoozes and sleazes his way into beds with the exuberant enthusiasm of a toddler peddling his trusty old trike, unaware of how close he is to the abyss. This is a moving account of how we deal with the advancing years, humorous, absorbing, and possibly Douglas' finest role to date.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Super 8, dir/wr. J. J. Abrams, st. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler

In a time when Hollywood is being derided more than ever for looking to the past for inspiration and not paying enough attention to forging brave new creative and thematic paths, it's deeply satisfying to watch Super 8 and be reminded that there is still much that filmmaking from bygone years has to teach us. In this case, it's pacing and characterisation; there's a satisfyingly reassuringly slow build up, punctuated by the Great Grandmama of train crashes, after which we're hurtled through ninety minutes of Flight Of The Navigator -style action and adventure. It seems a little disingenuous to call Abrams a shameless cribber when Spielberg himself has a producer credit, and not even being the perpetrator of the Greatest Series Finale Disappointment In Event Television History can sway me from admitting the man clearly knows in which direction to point a camera. Super 8 is nostalgic and lean filmmaking, intelligently plotted, and if ever there was a film to turn me on to CGI, this could be a contender. It's also gracefully and sensitively performed. So anaesthetised as we have become to expecting alpha-male leads, and more recently, alpha-female leads (but still, you know, like, hot ones) in this kind of genre, it's great to see a film populated with kids, as insecure and fearful of the world as their adult counterparts.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Julia's Eyes, dir. Guillem Morales, wr. Guillem Morales, Oriol Paulo, st. Belén Rueda, Lluis Homar

I always get the feeling that when I tell people I like my horror, I think they imagine me snarling and slavering over every dismemberment and decapitation like Commodus watching the Barbarian Horde, getting off on the gore. And saying you're in it for the psychological thrill and not the gore-nography, well, that's like saying you read Playboy for the articles. Which is why I like to call Guillem Morales' film an atmospheric and moving Psychological Thriller instead. The bulk of the tension riffs, as all good chillers do, off our primal fears - in this case, the dark and one's ability - or inability - to see into it. Before I really knew what it meant, I remember reading the Nietzsche quote "When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you." and being utterly terrified by the literal image of staring into a void, desperately trying to see into the darkness, beside myself with fear as to what I might see. With that in mind, there's a great second act in the film when Rueda's Julia, post-op, is told not to remove her blindfold lest any light leakage damages her new eyes; the bandaged Julia is pretty much centre-frame for the following twenty minutes, not alone and vulnerable as most horror conventions would have it, but interacting with other characters, who in a masterfully Hitchcockian touch, have their faces obscured, just out of shot, masked by opening doors and so on. We strain and peer, but the screen remains resolutely 2D, offering us instead tantalising blurry glimpses of faces and side profiles. It's a ridiculously simple conceit, and one that had me as tachycardic as any ghoul or goblin ever has.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Conviction, dir. Tony Goldwyn, wr. Pamela Gray, st. Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver

There sometimes comes a point when watching a film when initial unease gives way to willing immersion, when suddenly, it slips into gear and all is well. Whether this is down to subjective perception or a shonkily edited first act is debatable, but when it happens, regardless of the overall quality of the film, it's like slipping into a warm bath. And indeed, there comes a point in Conviction, just as you're beginning to get hung up on its limited Made-for-TV aspirations, when the humanity of the story comes to the fore and you realise that this is what will be driving the film for the rest of its duration. And what a wonderful human story this is. In a month when questions have been asked about the cause of the London Riots, parenting, class and education, we have in Conviction a pair of characters whose unwavering sibling love for one another transcends the sub-standard quality of their upbringing. Like 1993's Indecent Proposal, Conviction asks a similar water-cooler question: would you be willing to give up your life in the pursuit of seeking justice on behalf of a member of your family? Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell make a fine pairing, indeed the success of the film rests on the plausibility of their bond, but this is Rockwell's film. Transitioning from cocky hell-raiser to a man broken by the weight of incarceration requires a skill and sensitivity rarely found in today's leading men, but skills we have come to recognise as gloriously part of the package from the great actor.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Your Highness, dir. David Gordon Green, wr. Danny McBride, Ben Best, st. Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, Charles Dance

Director David Gordon Green is apparently quoted as having said that the entire dialogue was improvised with only a bare-bones outline having been written by McBride and Best. Well that explains it then, for Your Highness is crass, dull and absolutely, terminally unfunny. True, what an individual concedes as 'funny' is entirely subjective, and what is supposed to be funny often divides and polarises opinion in a way no other art form does. In this case, the abrasion between the film's Noble Knight's Quest timeframe and profane frat-boy sex-speak is funny for about, oh the first minute or so, and then becomes tedious, before you're finally just filtering it out altogether, after which you're left with, well, not much really. It's the cinematic equivalent of finger-flicking the salmon off the top of your nigiri-zushi straight into the bin only to be left with boiled rice-mounds. Tasty. But the real shame is the talent on display being flushed away before our very eyes. Portman, about whom I admit with a heavy, yet still defiantly amorous heart, is the Empress of bad career moves, upsettingly comes off worse out of all this. Like her role in Don Roos' The Other Woman back in 2009, it's another spectacular misfire. And don't get me started on Charles Dance, who hams and bill-pays his way through his thankless turd of a role.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Cove, dir. Louie Psihoyos, wr. Mark Monroe, st. Ric O'Barry

It would seem a little churlish of me to chastise The Cove for its lack of argumentative objectivity in the face of such compelling evidence - in this case, that dolphins' higher intelligence and sociability make their violent slaughter each September in the quiet little Japanese cove of Taiji, utterly reprehensible. The truth is the killing of animals all over the world, for whatever purpose, is defined by all manner of political, economical and cultural legislations - the issue of whether it should be happening at all being rarely pure and never simple, and undoubtedly, the greyest of grey areas. Nonetheless, The Cove makes for essential viewing, if only for the extraordinary plight of Ric O'Barry, the man who brought the television show Flipper and in effect, the whole notion of dolphins as a culinary and entertainment commodity, to the masses. A man undone by his own remarkable compassion and empathy towards the animals, it's O'Barry who is seen to be driving the undercover operation to expose what actually happens in the cove, and it's terribly sad and humbling to see a man attempting to atone for what he believes was the unleashing of this Pandora's Box into the world. There's also the usual terrifying - yet also terrifying in its familiarity - issue of corruption, with Politicians playing both sides for their own gains, but after seeing exactly the same thing in food production (Food Inc.), the environment (An Inconvenient Truth), and the financial crisis (Inside Job), why should we be surprised anymore?

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Sucker Punch, dir. Zack Snyder, wr. Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya, st. Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung

Do you remember when you were fresh out of MI5 and one of your first missions was to acquire and surveil your target in a crowded and public area? The thrill of the chase? The adrenaline? Except you were never in MI5 were you. You were nine, and your mum had just asked you to get a bag of frozen peas from aisle 3. Your target was Mr. Elliot from school who you'd seen by the avocados. And this is the primary beef I have with Sucker Punch; the only thing worse than being told at the end "It Was All A Dream", is being told at the beginning. And so we are set up to believe there is never anything real at stake. Or rather there is, but we are invited to view it filtered only through derivative action sequences that, yes, play out like a video game. Real Drama is sacrificed for something far less substantial and it's material utterly beneath Zack Snyder whose Watchmen I adored. Drama resides in conflict, and if there is none, or we aren't made to feel strongly enough that one exists, one that truly matters, how are we supposed to care? And frustratingly, Sucker Punch isn't quite as salacious and tawdry as it's made out to be, in fact there are some clever nods to something approaching the opposite, but they're hard to make out through the fishnets and fighting. So I get it, but misdirection is one thing, the real sucker punch is that's the whole act.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Duel, dir. Steven Spielberg, wr. Richard Matheson, st. Dennis Weaver

2011 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most economically chilling films in history - Duel - Spielberg's first feature, about a travelling salesman menaced in his car by a behemoth of a tanker truck. And that's it. For ninety minutes. It's definitely a film you want to avoid telling others of the synopsis first. Yet it's utterly, fascinatingly absorbing. Part road movie, part psychological horror, there's an edgy realism to the film, so much so in fact, that on re-watching you forget just what a white-knuckle ride the story will eventually become, and spend the first act wondering how on earth it'll build to the terrifying climax you remember. Aside from the obvious allegories of Good and Evil, I spied this time around a hugely contemporary thematic leaning I doubt Spielberg had in mind all those years ago; with more cars on the road, more roads being built, construction, traffic jams and almost daily terrible, terrible driving as the norm, it seems now fitting to see Duel as an almost operatic approach to aggression and rage. There's also the non-too subtle (yet again I suspect unintentional) environmental message - it's a petrol-tanker truck chasing a guy called "Mann" after all. It was also made for $400,000, shot in 10 days, edited in another 10, and then immediately aired as part of ABC's Movie Of The Week. What a triumphant start to a career.