Saturday, 26 November 2011

Our Idiot Brother, dir. Jesse Peretz, scr. Evgenia Peretz, David Schisgall, st. Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Steve Coogan

Judging by the whimsical score and Rudd's doofy portrayal of the titular idiot, I presume this film holds lofty ambitions of cutesy disarmament, as loveable dickhead Ned Rockliffe proceeds to wreck havoc on the lives of his three self-absorbed sisters with hiLARious results. But it turns out there's not much going on here either in the way of laughs or precious insights into how muttonheads have feelings too. Christ, even Forrest Gump went to war for his country. When the entirely predictable moment comes when the sisters realise the error of their ways while their brother's in prison, do they go and see him en masse for a heart-to-heart? Do they write him a letter explaining how they never truly valued his unconditional optimism? No, they steal his ex-girlfriend's dog and send it to him. How lame is that? It's like if I treated my brother like shit all his life and then sent him a boxset of Spooks by way of reconciliation. AND THEN the film becomes just smug enough to include bloopers over the closing credits, which made me audibly harrumph at the audacity. In my last review of Crazy, Stupid, Love I posited that great actors can compensate for a lousy script; apparently that's not always the case. 

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Thing, dir. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., wr. Eric Heisserer, st. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgarton, Ulrich Thomsen

Less of a prequel and more of a carbon copy, this Thing asks one pertinent question: what do we expect from prequels? Stray far from the winning formula of the original and you risk making a very different beast, commit to the source material and you're accused of squandering a golden opportunity to expand the narrative universe. More often than not, you can't win. Arguably John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing never needed a backstory in the first place. The film derived its power from literally existing in a void. Like the vast inhospitable Antarctic location, there is no sense of what comes before or after, Day and night roll into one, time stands still. The isolation is keenly felt. Heijningen's version begins promisingly enough with its faithful recreations of Carpenter's sets and Morricone's synth score, right down to the intro credits font, but as the plot unfurls, it's clear we're witnessing an unhealthy obsession. Scenes are cloned almost verbatim and although the CG is gruesomely rendered, it's no match for Rob Bottin's intricately machinated slime-filled puppets. Winstead, as palaeontologist Kate Lloyd, is decent enough but I heard Ellen Ripley's blood coursing a little too loudly through her veins for my liking. Speaking as an advocate of the original, sitting through this was at least a painless experience, yet one I'm not sure I needed to have gone through in the first place.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love, dir. Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, wr. Dan Fogelman, st. Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, Maris Tomei

Whether you are able to resist the shameless sentimentality and industrial-sized portions of quattro formaggi on offer here depends very much, I suspect, on the present state of your current romantic engagements, and sure enough, Ficarra and Requa's distinctly old-fashioned comedy got me in the end. A large portion of the film is spent feeling whether the numerous disjointed narrative threads are ever going to come to a head. However, they tie up neatly in the end, and the shamelessly corny story, never too knowingly cool in its script, wins you over with solid performances from actors who, though we know are better than these roles, give solid and committed performances. For me though, it was all about Gosling; slipping effortlessly between the brooding and the comedic, the actor possesses an easy charm and diversity, really, pictures just lift when he comes onscreen. His scenes with Emma Stone make investing in these characters truly joyous. It's not a particularly heavy watch, but like Ron Howard's Parenthood from 1989, there'll always be some delightful resonating truth to be found within the soul-searching score and earnest find-yourself graduation speeches. You just need to be brave and jettison the cynicism.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Take Shelter, dir/wr. Jeff Nichols, st. Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain

Composer David Wingo's reverb-delayed music box phrases establish a truly unsettlingly eerie mood from the start in Jeff Nichol's introspective and inspirational litany to familial understanding, love and support. We have Curtis LaForche (Shannon on wonderful, tempestuous form) frightened that his apocalyptic visions are either the result of a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, or worse, they're premonitions of a very real future to come. The depiction of his dreams veer dangerously close at times to the jagged shoreline of conventional horror - the difference between waking up with a piece of Freddy Krueger's sweater in your hand and waking up with blood all over your pillow from biting your cheek in fear may be slight - but the physical realism the effect Curtis' nightmares have on him ground this film in a terrifying tangibility. The joy here though, is that nestling amongst the worry, confusion and alarm, there's also compassion, comfort and hope, culminating in an ending that's at once exhilarating and calmingly pacifying; I would proffer this film is not merely about confrontation with demons but about those who are closest to us in times of great physical and spiritual need. Take Shelter is as unnerving as it is moving and instructive.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Cowboys & Aliens, dir. Jon Favreau, scr. Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, st. Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell

Cowboys & Aliens, I'm sure wears its title as some kind of self-meta-referencial, heart-sleeved genre in-joke, and that would have been great if it had been densely plotted, full of trope-defying characters and freshly spun set-pieces. Sadly, it's none of these things. What a shame for a movie that boasts Indiana Jones AND James Bond. AND Quorra from Tron: Legacy. Once more I find myself sighing and repeating that films like this aren't bad films per se, they're just utterly lacking. Ford has some kind of redemptive path we're supposed to be following made totally redundant by the lack of clarity that he was ever such a bastard in the first place, the stoic iciness Craig puts to such effective use as 007 comes off looking like evidence of a severely underwritten part, Rockwell's so bland I though he was Eric Stoltz at first, and I KNOW there's a role for the sublimely talented Olivia Wilde out there just waiting to stimulate her into giving us a performance worthy of her considerable talent; yet, for woe, this is not it. It's ambitious, I'll give Jon Favreau that, and it's a brave man who sets two grand old conventions in opposition, but like a charity fireworks display, it never quite delivers the bang you know in your heart it was never capable of giving but hoped it might. Cowboys & Aliens simply ends up being as uninspiring as its name.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Wuthering Heights, dir. Andrea Arnold, wr. Andrea Arnold, Olivia Hetreed, based on the novel by Emily Brontë, st. Kaya Scodelario, James Howson

Arnold is nothing if not an extraordinary sensory director. Shot on the North Yorkshire moors, windswept heather and bracken, nebulous drizzle and glacial dawn mists are captured and presented with a level of immersion unmatched by the latest 3D nonsense. Like another famous literary twosome sharing auditoriums this week, extreme angst is the order of the day, the difference being that Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship comes burdened with issues of social standing, class, race (in Arnold's version) and jealousy. That and the fact Heathcliff doesn't sparkle in the sunlight. In fact sunlight is the only meteorological phenomenon absent from the film, any semblance of joy or happiness supplanted by confounded misery and despondency at every turn, highlighted by cinematographer Robbie Ryan's chilly mornings over bleak landscapes or blustery rocky capes overlooking wintry dusks. With barely a handful of pages of dialogue to convey the narrative, much of the story is told in vignetted action and the oft-pained expressions of the leads. Solomon Glave as the Young Heathcliff segues neatly into Howson's mature portrayal, Scoledario fares less well at taking over from Shannon Beer's sure-footed performance, but both couples convince well enough and the result is an affectingly tactile slice of scholarly miserablism.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Heartless, dir/wr. Philip Ridley, st. Jim Sturgess, Joseph Mawle, Noel Clarke, Clémence Poésy, Timothy Spall

What to make of 2009's Heartless, an urban Faustian fairytale set in London's East End that liberally borrows from an impressively eclectic set of literary and cinematic tropes and conventions and packages them in some kind of early 90's Screen One BBC drama-cum-70's-era Cronenbergian B-movie? On the one hand it's rather trite to say Ridley's film defies convention, but it's at a deeper, molecular level where things really start to get complicated: sometime during the claustrophobic, hallucinatory horror there's a disconcertingly random yet inspired comic walk-on part by Eddie Marsan; Sturgess' protagonist Jamie Morgan's courtship of Poésy's Tia is at first forgettably quixotic and then turns on a dime in a simple first-kiss-after-first-date scene on the London Underground into something wondrous; Mawle's Louis Cyphre-channeled Papa B comes off as all empty-threated and goth-costumed until he starts biting chunks out of Noel Clarke's disembodied head, at which point HOLY CHRIST do you start taking him seriously. What do all these stylistic non-sequitors add up to? Something genuinely unique actually. It's messy and confused and heavy-handed in its redemption-through-familial-love narrative fulcrum, but it all hangs together when it clearly shouldn't, and that in itself makes this a laudable watch. Bizarre, but laudable. 

Monday, 14 November 2011

Frontièr(s), dir/wr. Xavier Gens, st. Aurelién Wiik, Samuel Le Bihan, Estelle Lefébure

Part of the New French Extremity gamut of horror films, ultra-violent, ultra-gory, and often ultra-silly, it's hard to see 2007's Frontièr(s) as anything more than Gallic torture-porn. At least Gens has the gall to attempt an injection of academia into the proceedings, drawing parallels between the film's Texas Chainsaw-style, Nazi-inspired family hell-bent on creating a master race and its fictional Parisian election of an ultra-right wing president. From potentially uncomfortable and unpalatable yet undeniably fertile ground, the germ of what may have been a new strain of socio-political horror film alas fails to take root and the movie ends up being about nothing more than new and inventive ways to choreograph chasing screaming girls down dark corridors. Pedro Almodóvar's recent The Skin I Live In demonstrated in spectacular fashion how true horror can burrow so deep inside your mind you feel it wriggling away in there for weeks afterwards. It's the age-old adage of less is more and there's a numbing sensation that sets in - similar to the experience of watching Srdan Spasojević's tedious exercise in extremity A Serbian Film - after seeing Karina Testa's Yasmine being beaten, drugged, knifed, kicked, chained and degraded scene after scene. I would recommend instead Pascal Laugier's Martrys which, whilst being equally hard to stomach, at the very least ends up as a film with something contemplative to say about pain and suffering.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Awakening, dir. Nick Murphy, scr. Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy, st. Dominic West, Rebecca Hall, Imelda Staunton

Writer Stephen Volk is probably best remembered as the man responsible for leaving as all blanched and beshitten after the BBC's disowned thriller Ghostwatch  in 1992, yet it's strange that following a project so ahead of its time, predating as it did The Blair Witch Project and all manner of subsequent reality-blurring chillers, he should pen such a derivative and unordinary ghostly tale as this. Surely, I kept telling myself, there was going to end up being more to this than merely a reveal we've already seen in similar tales of the supernatural? And annoyingly, frustratingly, there wasn't. And it's a real pity too. True, there's nothing new about fog-shrouded, lake-fronted country estates as backdrops for bump-in-the-nights, but cinematographer Eduard Grau desaturates and drains all available colour making the whole thing feel like we're peering through a genuine period pea-souper, and all three principles turn in suitably spooky performances, it's just a shame the payoff is so jaw-droppingly predictable. Rebecca Hall is such a fascinating watch too, half the time seeming like she's stepped off the set of a totally different film altogether, yet somehow making the awkward detachment work with her character's sense of loner isolation. An enjoyable thriller then, but it's not half the film it might have been.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Apollo 18, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego, wr. Timur Bekmambetov, Ron Schmidt, st. Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins

More found-footage space-horror blather with all associated clichés present and accounted for. The idea would have made a passable Outer Limits episode, and bares more than a striking resemblance to the X-Files episode Moon some 18 years ago. There is nothing new here. The sense of isolation, claustrophobia and paranoia have all been done before to greater and subtler effect (think pretty much every John Carpenter film) and eschews character psychology for vanilla scares, all shot on what looks like some hipster photography app for iPhone. (Actually, on a more dorky note, can I just ask why the whole thing's shot at 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio? Aren't they shooting on 4:3 full-frame 8mm in 1973? CONSPIRACY!) Recently (I'm talking about real life now) a team of 6 astronauts emerged from a windowless training capsule at the IBMP in Moscow after a 520 day exercise to simulate a time-accurate mission to Mars; surely a very real and extraordinary and terrifying premise such as that is positively pregnant with potential itself, without having to resort to same laboured, lame-ass, retcon history-re-writing exercise? In space, they say, no one can hear you scream. Well they darn tootin' well heard me next door.

Another Earth, dir. Mike Cahill, wr. Mike Cahill, Brit Marling, st. William Mapother, Brit Marling

Like Lars Von Trier's Melancholia and David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense before it, Another Earth similarly uses high-concept sci-fi as a peg on which to hang slow-burning human interests. As genre-blending films go it's another belter too. Rhoda's terrible accident and subsequent atonement coincide with the appearance of an identical Earth in our night sky, identical right down to the people that inhabit it. The film posits the idea that whilst the planet is duplicated at a scientific level, maybe human decision and indecision has been allowed to off-shoot down another path. Shot in the over-exposed winterday-blues of digital video and with an unsettling score/sound-design by Fall On Your Sword and Ryan Price, the film does more stylistically with it's $200,000 micro-budget than movies with an extra three 0s at the end of their allocated spend. Brit Marling rightfully earns her new Indie-darling Du Jour status, not because of the faultlessness of her writing and performance, but because she wields a roughly hewn honesty that surely promises even greater things in years to come. Seen as a paean to human fallibility, Another Earth softly needles us into contemplating our own choices. It's a little lean around the edges, yet there's beauty and provocation within the spartan narrative, never anything less than wholly absorbing and sensitively told. 

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Future, dir/wr. Miranda July, st. Miranda July, Hamish Linklater

Sophie (July) and Jason (Linklater), mid-30s and full of hipster apathy, decide to adopt a stray cat in lieu of... what? Kids? Commitment? Just having something to do? The cat, Pawpaw, yes the cat they plan to adopt, disconnectedly narrates the action in a cutesy cat-voice. Elsewhere, Sophie's overlarge comforter T-shirt crawls across the street towards her, whilst Jason converses with the moon. If it all sounds a bit performance art, it's probably because it is, or at least it's how the film started out. Miranda July is an artist, an actor, a musician. a designer and here, a director, and although quite talented as she clearly is, it's hard to see past the indulgence on display. The brilliant Jon Brion provides the languid score that exacerbates the tedium and the film as a whole never quite goes anywhere. That said, that's probably the point; Sophie and Jason sit on their couch opposite each other, both on laptops, sharing the odd private joke, both have no-through-road jobs counterbalanced with higher, unfulfilled aspirations, money's tight and they're wondering what their lives have been leading up to; if The Future is supposed to be a mirror held up to the iGeneration, its idea of what's reflected isn't far off. 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

In Time, dir/wr Andrew Niccol, st. Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Olivia Wilde, Vincent Kartheiser, Cillian Murphy

There's an exciting pertinence to Andrew Niccol's film that's palpably 'of the moment'. With 'Occupy Wall Street' and protests on the steps of St. Pauls' taking place as we speak, here's a film that's essentially all about the redistribution of wealth. Except this is Andrew Niccol, the man who brought us Gattaca, one of the most relevant and intelligent science fiction films of (semi) recent years, and so In Time deals not with dollars, but with time as its currency; in his dystopia, everyone lives until the age of 25 at which time a 365 day clock, a kind of bio-mechanic Tron-green Casio illuminator display somehow 'implanted' under the skin, starts to count down. Time is bought and sold for goods and services. Sadly, such an exciting premise descends into a rather limp and formulaic chase movie with neither the rich literacy nor the smart production design of Gattaca. The cast are engaging in that earnest kind of way, and there's a surprisingly moving scene borne from the most hackneyed of clichés involving Timberlake and his Mother, played by Olivia Wilde (everyone's 25, remember?) which promises character drive and purpose, but woefully delivers neither. One wonders whether artistic integrity was compromised in the face of the Hollywood machine, as regrettably, a thoughtful musing on the nature of the human value of Time has been dressed up as a silly action movie.