Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, dir. David Fincher, scr. Steven Zaillian, st. Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård

Whether or not Fincher's remake trumps Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 version is a matter of opinion, although one can't help feel the game is rigged. Even with the Fincher/Zaillian/Craig pedigree, the nefarious Hollywood machine is up against a highly acclaimed $13m starless European sleeper. What is clear is that Fincher's version is a brilliant, mesmerising watch. As a director, he's always been good at extracting the gleam from the grit (a weirdly old-school Maurice Binder-inspired title sequence, all gelatinous black oil, computer cable tendrils and contorted limbs and figures set this out from the start) and in Mara, he's found his narrative kedge. This is undoubtedly her show. Her Lisbeth is calmer and waifier than Noomi Rapace's original, and at her most spunky or anguished, I was reminded of the film's Swedish title Män som hatar kvinnor - Men Who Hate Women - more clearly than in the original. The twisty plot unfolds with just the right amount of geek hacker-tech (Craig's Blomkvist struggling with Mac OSX tickles), political and corporate deceit, action and villain-soliloquising. Fincher, then, with his eye for spectacular detail, knows how to orchestrate with a fundamental sense of structural and stylistic acumen that marries old-fashioned thriller sensibilities with a keenly contemporary edge (note another unsymphonic Reznor/Ross score) that he's been evolving since Se7en. Like Lisbeth tearing into the night on her bike, his future is so full of rich possibilities.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Edge Of Darkness, dir. Martin Campbell, scr. William Monahan, Andrew Bovell, based on the television series by Troy Kennedy Martin, st. Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone

Shorn of the environmental mysticism that made the 1985 BBC Edge Of Darkness, on which this is based, so memorable, this remains a fairly standard political conspiracy revenge thriller which sees Gibson, heavy-lidded and greying, take out a whole host of ne'er-do-wells in the pursuit of his daughter's killers. It's business as usual as the intrigue goes all the way to the top, up to and including senators and various government officials. It might have been nice if some of the more fantastical elements had been retained (even in the original show, creator Troy Martin wanted the lead character to turn into a tree at the end), and maybe that kind of genre-blending would have resulted in something a shade more novel than what we get. Gibson's been doing this type of thing for many years now - and it shows. In his first lead part since Signs in 2002, it's hard not to see his Tom Craven, unsteady on his feet and radiated, as an embodiment of where this kind of role has taken him - faltering, weakened, unable to carry on. Which is a shame because although it may not be cool to like Gibson at the moment, I've always maintained he's a rather fine actor. Where he goes from here is anyone's guess, but I do hope he has one or two great performances left in him.

My Top Five Films Of 2011

5. Take Shelter - a claustrophobic two hour one-acter, with a great score and mesmerising performances.

4. Melancholia - Von Trier's searingly intense rumination on depression via the end of the world.

3. Perfect Sense - Ewan McGregor and Eva Green lose their senses in this BBCish anfractuous love story.

2. The Skin I Live In - a commanding and melodramatic Noiry psycho-sexual drama from Almodóvar.

1. Another Earth - hi-concept, lo-fi, intelligent and masterly creative filmmaking from Brit Marling.

Commended: Drive, Sleeping Beauty, Attack The Block

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Inbetweeners Movie, dir. Ben Palmer, wr. Damon Beesley, Iain Morris, st. Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, James Buckley, Blake Harrison

The fact this spinoff from the TV series boasted the biggest UK box office opening weekend ever for a comedy film serves as testament to the power of small screen roots and loyal fan bases. One gets the feeling The Inbetweeners Movie attracted people to the cinema who wouldn't normally go, in the same way Philipa Lloyd's Mamma Mia! might have done in 2008. Large groups of friends hanging out in the Multiplex instead of Movida. If nothing else it proves that people are willing to go to the movies as much because of who they're going with than because of the draw of the film itself. Even the brilliant Community, currently on hiatus in the US, carries the hashtag on twitter #sixseasonsandamovie. Here though, if you're not familiar with the prurient antics of Will, Jay, Neil and Simon as they navigate their way through the teenage tundra, there's little to see here other than a never-ending stream of wee, poo, bum, tit, fanny, shag and cock gags that serve instead of a script. And yet, surprisingly, there's an honesty at heart too, much as I tried to ignore it; there's a kind of American Pie-like celebration of loser triumph over alpha male pageantry that's annoyingly feel-good, coupled with the deep, deep embarrassing recognition of some of the schoolboy-dicktalk that's all too familiar.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Company Men, dir/wr. John Wells, st. Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner

The Company Men is an engaging, low-key drama that focusses on the economic climate of the US in the early 2000s through the eyes of several employees of GTX, an industrial manufacturing company that begins to downsize in order to maximise profits. CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) takes home $20m while others lose their cars, homes and sense of self-worth. Plus ça change. Debut director Wells does a sturdy job in conveying the irrelevance of the Always Be Closing mantra in such uncertain and desperate times and there's a suitably maudlin if not a little saccharine score from Aaron Zigman that grounds the action in a palatable TV movie feel. The script could have done with a little more bite to allow this drama to tell us something more we haven't already discovered by watching The Smartest Guys In The Room or Inside Job and some may find it a little hard to muster pity for Affleck when he has to sell his soft-top Porsche to make ends meet, but it works as a snapshot of the human cost of the perilous times we live in. Costner gives a great little unassuming performance as Affleck's blue-collar brother-in-law and Nelson is quietly heartbreaking as one of the laid off who, resigned, cannot see a way out of his predicament. 

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Columbiana, dir. Olivia Megaton, scr. Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen, st. Zoë Saldana, Michael Vartan, Cliff Curtis

From Luc Besson's keyboard comes yet another tale of an impossibly alpine-cheekboned, gun-toting beauty out for revenge. It's a testament to the formula that this still passes muster as an enjoyable saturday night popcorn flick, even if the plot's riddled with more holes than the movie's bullet-ridden sets. After seeing her family slain in front of her at the behest of Columbian scumbag Don Luis (Beto Benites) a young Cataleya escapes (via an impressively choreographed parkour sequence - think Bourne meets Young Apprentice) and vows to avenge her family when grown. Saldana as the older Cataleya is feminine and unstoppable in the way that made Nikita and Sarah Connor such fascinating characters to watch as they exuberantly go through every automatic weapon available, but where the film falls down is weak characterisation, lazy stereotyping and an overarching transparent desire to appease the male teen demographic. One scene even has Saldana coming home and inexplicably doing a salacious dance (she's alone) before checking her pistol whilst sucking on a lollipop. Nonetheless, the action sequences are balletic and slick and it's cleanly edited and shot. Watchable.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Friends With Benefits, dir. Will Gluck, wr. Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, st. Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins

Every time you get fearful Friends With Benefits will take flight and soar above its tried and tested formula, fear not, for like its companion piece, Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached from earlier in the same year, Gluck adheres to convention with satisfactory results. In fact watching Kunis do her adorkable thing is way more fun than Strings's Natalie Portman who, the brilliant SNL sketch Natalie Raps aside, always looks in some discomfort  when uttering expletives (also see, or rather don't, Your Highness). It's a bit of a shame that for a comedy, however lightly intended, that riffs on the nature of romantic cliché and relationship stereotypes in such a knowing way, the film ends up wholeheartedly conforming to them. After the buzz and kineticism of watching the two leads for 90 minutes it almost feels like something of a cop-out to see them so easily walk off into the sunset. But there're some nice cameos from Andy Samberg and Emma Stone as the pair's exes, Harrelson having a ball as the sage gay sports editor, and the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins as Timberlake's Alzheimer-afflicted father, who Six Feet Under fans will know can go from gravitas to airily comedic in a heartbeat. Friends With Benefits doesn't quite get the easy A it was aiming for, but for what it is, it does indeed make the grade.

The Debt, dir. John Madden, wr. Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Peter Straughan, st. Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Ciarán Hinds, Jessica Chastain

A kind of Munich-lite confirmed by the presence of Mrs. Jonathan Ross on scriptwriting duties, whose Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class were both pretty flabby affairs. This sporadically engaging film tells the story of a triumvirate of Mossad agents dispatched to East Berlin in 1966 to locate and capture "The Surgeon of Birkenau" a kind of fictional Josef Mengele. After he evades them, the trio decide to lie about his death in order to boost the national sense of justice and alleviate their own shame at failure at their mission. There's an interesting semi-pertiment link to the present as the group discuss how a well disseminated lie is as powerful as the truth would be destructive, an idea that resounds strongly with Bin Laden's then recent covert dispatch and swift burial. Chastain as one of the three agents forms the empathic core of the film, interest in her burgeoning career well and truly deserved, and Worthington and Csokas give solid support, but it's Mirren who fares less well. Quite simply she's better than the material that makes up the film's present-day flashforwards, and where there's genuine suspense and the thumping sense of something at stake in the 60s set scenes, there's incredulity and hamminess in the present. Props though to Thomas Newman's score and Bond's "Mr. White" Jesper Christensen as the impassive war-criminal.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Margaret, dir/wr. Kenneth Lonergan, st. Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janney, Jean Reno

Such is the breadth of circuitous narrative threads, proficiently woven characterisation and social commentary on display in Lonergan's sprawling, studio-confounded 2007 drama, it's tough to take it all in. The story concerns precocious Lisa (Paquin) who plays catalyst to a tragic accident and seeks to indignantly and ferociously repair the damage she has caused. Lonergan seems to want to focus on the bigger picture of wagging tongues, unbridled and uncensored, and how detrimental to the cause they can be, but ekes out the message through numerous network narratives. Paquin here is an elemental force of juvenile righteousness inhabiting a multi-veneered role far suited to her talents than Sookie Stackhouse. The big hitters - Broderick, Damon, Janney and Ruffalo - although memorable enough in what amounts to little more than cameos, play second fiddle to the compelling Smith-Cameron as Lisa's mother Joan. Watching the sparring contest between them, hissing and spitting through several breathtakingly performed scenes of intricately observed histrionics is at once exhausting and achingly sad. There's a disjointedness to the film's form and many will find the languid plot development disconcerting, but like Lisa herself, it's rather irresistibly hypnotic to watch.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Ides Of March, dir. George Clooney, scr. George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, based on Farragut North by Beau Willimon, st. Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright

I quite like Gosling's bright-eyed idealist Junior Campaign Manager, naive, skilled yet inexperienced, but I also like Clooney's Governor Mike Morris, assured, charming and velvet-voiced, but which is better? There's only one way to find out! Labyrinthly-plotted, Sorkin-esque, political thriller-genred FIGHT!!! Those wily politicians are at it again, promising an end to terrorism and the use of fossil fuels, part of a healthy marriage, and edgily vague about whether God exists, while their team mill away in the background, backstage, out of the spotlight, living the campaign, and skeletons dance a merry jig in closets. The Ides Of March is just unpredictable enough to be enjoyable (thanks to the dumbest cut of a spoiler-laden trailer if ever there was one) thanks to the film's theatrical roots and some engaging performances by the terrific ensemble cast. Clooney shows flair as director, and Gosling just gets more and more watchable with each passing part, but the highlight is Rachel Wood, so brazenly Machiavellian and icily contemptible in Mildred Pierce earlier this year, here a sorrowful lament to young ambitious idealism, betrayed by those that ought to know better. It does little more than to reinforce the adage that politics is a dirty business, but the fall from grace and loss of innocence of those unwittingly complicit packs a punch.

À Bout Portant, dir. Fred Cavayé, wr. Fred Cavayé, Guillaume Lemans, st. Gilles Lellouche, Elena Anaya

À Bout Portant is a sinewy thriller, ostensibly an extended chase movie wherein hapless husband and expectant father Samuel (Lellouche) finds himself on the hunt for his kidnapped wife with various criminal organisations and corrupt police officials in hot pursuit. Cavayé's trump card in an overcrowded post-Bourne world is making Samuel a resourceful nobody, driven by his primal instinct to protect his family, rather than a highly trained super-spy. Similarly, the unrelenting and breathless action is grounded in a kind of desperate reality rather than all manner of automotive and acrobatic pyrotechnics we've come to expect from this kind of film. In one wonderfully observed moment, after eluding the cops on the underground, Samuel pauses to catch laboured breath, and vomits profusely. These little touches coupled with Anaya's radiant, doe-eyed portrayal of Nadia, Samuel's wife, seal the deal. There's no shortage of serpentine plot developments either with Cavayé and Lemans playfully toying with conventions of good, evil, innocent and guilty and there's a great little part played by Claire Pérot as an ambitious detective diligently channeling her inner Lisbeth, worthy of a spin-off of her own. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

Final Destination 5, dir. Steven Quale, wr. Eric Heisserer, st. Nicholas D'Agosto, Emma Bell, Miles Fisher

Benjamin Franklin once said, "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes and another Final Destination movie." Okay so that's a bit of a lie - if you own Vodafone, you can avoid taxes. Yes, as the deaths advance in increasingly inventive fashion, so the characters and narrative threads between them thin to gossamer strands. Fast forward to Final Destination 38 and I'm pretty sure it'll just be 100 minutes of back-to-back slayings. Either that or the carnage will have blown to such epically contrived proportions by then, they'll do a back-to-roots reboot à la Casino Royale in which one person slightly bruises from being hit with a shuttlecock or knocks their funny bone from walking into the boot-mounted bike rack on a parked car. Either way you can be sure Tony Todd still manages to wrangle a part in it, shuffling his pensioner frame on set, still delivering his dialogue with the same trademark subwoofer tones, and still spouting the same old bollocks about death not liking being cheated. It'll probably be released in 4D by then which will enable the viewer to watch every frame of the film simultaneously in 1/25th of a second, and instead of old-school 3D glasses and a screen, each cinema seat comes with a mini orbitoclast you jab into your eye socket and electronically deliver the film directly to your frontal lobes while underpaid ushers mill about the aisles mopping up the blood and inevitable soiling. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene, dir/wr. Sean Durkin, st. Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a hauntingly claustrophobic one-note psychological thriller about a young girl who escapes an abusive cult, and moves in with her sister (Paulson) and her husband (Dancy). Whether members of the organisation have staked out her new home or whether her mind has been completely broken at the commune by the charismatic leader Patrick (Hawkes) is unclear. The trauma of how abusive cult manipulation stays with its victims is viscerally depicted through a terrifyingly persuasive performance by Olsen, but some of the larger plot holes, although cumulatively contributing to the woozy dreamlike atmosphere, are too wooly to totally ignore - and there's an ending that'll test even the most hardened fans of open-endedness. Sundance companion films Another Earth and Take Shelter both feature the same type of ambiguous ending but where they are locked in with the overall tone and colour of the rest of the film, MMMM's ending seems a little too obviously enigmatic. That said, it's a compelling character study of susceptibility and suggestibility.

Friday, 2 December 2011

50/50, dir Jonathan Levine, wr. Will Reiser, st. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Angelica Huston

Just when you think you've smugly got this film sussed out, there's a subtle and fluid gear change around the halfway mark; the smut and superficial bromance is replaced by what is, at its core, a remarkably simple and heartbreakingly poignant shift in tone that delicately explores the spectrum of emotions and experiences Gordon-Levitt's Adam Lerner faces in the days leading up to his last chance op. When he finally succumbs to the Kübler-Ross model his stoicism has tried so hard to keep at bay, the film side-steps an impressive count of insipid Cancer Movie clichés, the most satisfying being the way the relationship is developed between Adam and his trainee counsellor Katie McKay; she too has been unceremoniously flung into the deep end and asked to simply manage. Kendrick's shy dorkiness and the way Gordon-Levitt can turn on a dime from pragmatism to fear are the film's life-giving beating heart. Rogen too, eternal frat-boy that he is, retains credibility as Adam's twatish yet loyal friend Kyle, and Dallas Howard is suitably shifty as the girlfriend with one foot all too readily out the door. Hollywood has run the gamut over the years in how it depicts death and dying, and Levine's propensity to score transitional scenes with songs from the "MONTAGE" playlist on his iPod aside, here's a film that's satisfyingly direct and honest.

Moneyball, dir. Bennett Miller, wr. Steve Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, based on Moneyball by Michael Lewis, st. Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill

I must confess I do find it rather hard to fully engage with a sports movie. Detractors of Sorkin's short-lived Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip claimed its Achilles Heel was that unlike in The West Wing, whether or not a weekly light entertainment show airs in time was not high stakes enough to make for compulsive, compelling viewing; a background in Theatre means that I empathise with the pressures of mounting a production on a very personal level, and similarly, were I an avid consumer of agony and ecstasy, maybe I'd feel some of the pride and exhilaration that goes with team supporting. That said, Moneyball is an intelligent and involving biopic of the Oakland Athletics baseball team's general manager Billy Beane (Pitt) and his attempts to cobble together the ultimate team, not by buying players with the league's meagre cash flow, but by using Peter Brand (Hill) and his Microsoft Excel skills in selecting affordable but overlooked batsmen solely by their high base percentages. There're whispers of Sorkin's trademark wordsmithery to be found if one listens hard enough, and the performances are assured but muted. There's some clever intercutting of stock game footage that reinforces the story's real-life roots, but there's a lack of palpable excitement that might have injected some more drama into this slow-burner.