Thursday, 26 January 2012

Incendies, dir. Denis Villeneuve, scr. Denis Villeneuve, Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne, based on Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, st. Lubna Azabel, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette

Based on the award-winning play by Mouawad, and one of last year's nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, Villeneuve's extraordinary film set against the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War unfolds with burning intensity and with exceptional performances, particularly from Azabel. She plays Nawal Marwan, first seen in the present day, her numbed expression we put down to the stroke we're told she has just suffered, but that we learn carries an unimaginable weight. The timeline ripples back and forth as Marwan's twins begin to uncover the burden of their Mother's past. The film is also remarkably packaged technically, André Turpin's free-floating camera-work making the most of the location's arenaceous war-torn landscapes. Much like Michael Haneke's Caché, this film has a lot to say about next generations atoning for the sins of their forefathers and how true forgiveness can filter down the timeline, impervious to changing political climates, but the real story here is one of the simple bond between Mother and child, and, when tested, the many forms that might take. With an Eno-esque score from Greégoire Hetzel and workably anachronistic use of a couple of Radiohead tracks, Incendies is a courageous and commendable work.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Descendants, dir. Alexander Payne, scr. Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings, st. George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard

In Alexander Payne's rather bleak film of lost love and the reclamation of dignity, George Clooney plays Matt King, well-heeled due to ancestral ownership of a large wedge of prime Hawaiian real estate and left to look after his two daughters after his wife lapses into a coma following a boating accident. To make matters worse, it transpires she was having an affair at the time. Matt remains at her bedside, unsure of whether to cry or confront her, and frequently doing both. Unassumingly scored using the state's rich musical heritage, soft and undulating strains, Payne clearly goes for a detached, observatory POV, and Clooney pitches a great performance, flitting between icy stoicism and heavy anguish. It's all a bit predictable though and lacks much needed bite and Payne explored the journey of one man's uncertainty of his own self-worth far better in 2004's Sideways, in all kinds of ways a more resonant and thoughtful film. Woodley as Matt's daughter Alex is likewise rather wonderful, playing a role much like her father, as she oscillates between dry obstinance and a desire to engage with, protect and mend her broken family. Nonetheless, they're talking Oscars this year for Clooney and no doubt he'll be on the nominations shortlist when released tomorrow. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Carnage, dir. Roman Polanski, scr. Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza, based on 'God Of Carnage' by Yasmina Reza, st. Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly

Remaining faithful to the source material's theatrical roots, Polanski forgoes widening the arena as in the case of so many dramatic adaptations, and instead shoots Resa's acidic text 12 Angry Men-style in a single claustrophobic room. Two couples, Penelope and Michael (Foster and Reilly) and Nancy And Alan (Winslet and Waltz) meet up to discuss their children's playground spat, Penelope and Michael's flat soon becoming a battlefield for the most bitter verbal sparring since Martha, George, Nick and Honey's inebriated offensive offensives. When one pair of the sniping foursome do make an attempt at a getaway, they're lured back into the apartment, unable to censor themselves. At one point, tall sash windows are opened - for a short while, promising what? Fresh air, an escape? - before being hastily shut. There's the thick stench of bile in the air, and it's not all lingering from Nancy's projectile vomit. The four are generally wonderful, Foster particularly so, her jugular pulsating with anger and indignation, and Waltz gets to eat some more apple dessert, cobbler this time instead of strudel (see Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds). ThematicallyReza's play may not run as deep as Albee's, but Polanski succeeds in illustrating our human (adult or child) capacity for denial, dishonesty and miscommunication. 

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Coming To America, dir. John Landis, scr. David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein, based on the story by Eddie Murphy, st. Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones

Re-watching Landis' Coming To America from way back in 1988, it's striking how much has changed. Pretty much gone is the notion of 'stars' or at least 'star vehicles', and there's much less a notion of specific demographic marketing. Would such a film get made these days? A straightforward, almost childlike fairytale of a prince looking for his bride, but with a rather fruity zinger of a script from Sheffield and Blaustein, and of course, featuring the infamous topless bathers; an R-rated family film. It's still patently obvious what the world saw in Eddie Murphy back then. His easy charm and gift for comedy go some way to assuage the gnawing suspicion he's actually rather limited as an actor. Here, his partnership with Arsenio Hall is one of the great 80's double-acts of the age. Ethically and morally the message may be all over the place, but this is as good going a romp as you get, a ribald farce, often amusing, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and strangely moving in places. Murphy might be more recently associated with Donkey from the Shrek movies, or the string of late 90's unfunny family-friendly flops (Norbit, anyone?), but let's not forget he's the second highest grossing US actor ever and has a great legacy of films to prove it. 

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Iron Lady, dir. Phyllida Lloyd, wr. Abi Morgan, st. Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, Anthony Head

The Iron Lady is the latest in broad brush-stroked British biographing. More a montage of greatest hits of the metalled one herself, we see a present day Maggie, desperately fending off the onset of dementia as she recalls the past glories and former tragedies of her career. We see precious little of the nascent imbuing of steeliness in the young Thatcher (her spunkiness is reduced to being the only one of her family bold enough to venture out from under the table during an air raid to replace the glass cloche over a pat of butter). All of it, the strikes, the war, the bombing are ticked off with a curt nod, before segueing back into the present, where Margaret's Alzheimer's is seen to be symbiotically linked with the grief she has clung on to since her husband passed away. Whilst the film may be numbingly pedestrian, Meryl Streep gives a reference-grade performance, an absolute pleasure to watch. In tight close-ups there's almost too much to take in. Like the unseen penetration of an X-ray, Streep's inhabitation of character is immersive and absolute. In long shots her gait, every hesitant waver in step, every gesture is impeccably, undeniably MT. Surely a shoo-in for Best Actress (her 17th nomination) come February 26th?   

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Haywire, dir. Steven Soderbergh, wr. Lem Dobbs, st. Gina Carano, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas

It must have seemed like such a good idea on the page; a lean and limber, post-Bourne, cerebral arthouse flick masquerading as a beat-em-up, with a stoic turn from an American Gladiator that'll pass as a muted, introspective character study, some walk-on starry turns, and a trademark sleaze-chic score from David Holmes. The good news here is that Carano passes muster as a credible action star, and the bone-crunching, lo-fight choreography welcomingly eschews the staple Bam!'s and Kerpow!'s of baseball bat-into-melon foley sfx that have have become the heightened-reality principal in any kind of contemporary action sequence sound design. The bad news is that it's so committed to its mould-breaking cause, it's utterly humourless and lacks much, if any heart at all. Matters aren't helped by a humdrum script by Dobbs, and one dimensional portrayals by Douglas, McGregor, Fassbender and Banderas who should all know better. It's odd too that after the lukewarm reception of 2009's The Girlfriend Experience, Soderburgh should return to gimmicky casting, and for me, nothing has ever reached the heights of his take on Tarkovsky's 1972 existentialist sci-fi Solaris, remade with George Clooney in 2002. At least Haywire marks the one step closer we are to a Soderbergh film worthy once more of his talent.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Tanner Hall, dir/wr. Tatiana von Fürstenberg, Francesca Gregorini, st. Rooney Mara, Brie Larson, Georgia King

Before Lisbeth Salander and impending plum roles, Rooney Mara played Fernanda, a callow and scholarly student at Tanner Hall, an exclusive and hermetic private boarding school secluded away in leafy New England. Her cohorts include troubled childhood troublemaker Victoria (King), lascivious Kate (Larson) and uncertain tomboy Lucasta (Amy Ferguson). Between them they seduce teachers, steal out of school to local fairs, smoke pot, engage in the carnal embracing of older family friends and generally come of age together. Fürstenberg and Gregorini's 2009 film meanders through a hesitant middle-ground between Dead Poets Society and Rushmore, neither possessing enough of the latter's offbeat charm nor the former's down-the-line drama. There's a story in there somewhere, and the girls' isolation and general quasi-Lynchian quality of the dilapidated school itself gives the film an almost Picnic At Hanging Rock vibe, but it's badly let down by pedestrian narrative developments and MOR soundtracking. Mara road-tests her oscillating vacant/engaged style of performance that makes her so compelling to watch, but any real conflict in the film, like the rest of the pupils or staff, is curiously absent.

The Help, dir/wr. Tate Taylor, based on The Help by Kathryn Stockett, st. Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain

There's a great quote from Stewart Lee regarding political correctness, how it's a blunt instrument but ultimately one worth wielding. The same may be said of the neatly bound and palatable Hollywood staple of Triumph Over Adversity. Is it such a bad thing that history is sweetened? Tate Taylor's The Help benefits from such a broad approach. We see oppression and institutionalised racism, abhorrent of course, but the film stops short of ever going into darker territories. To this end Thomas Newman's earnest score soars in just the right places, and there're some winning performances from Stone, Davis and Chastain in particular. It's easy to dismiss this as a film middle-class white folk can watch and feel good about themselves or a film that somehow does a disservice to black domestic workers by showing a fictionalised account rather than genuine testimony, but like Stewart Lee says, it may be a blunt tool, but if just a few people research the Civil Rights era of America in the early 60's after the credits roll, isn't that worth something? The Help isn't smug or preachy. It isn't (too) heavy handed in its message. Its packaging may be easy-open, but it's honest, sincere and moving filmmaking.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Deathwatch, dir/wr. Michael J. Bassett, st. Jamie Bell, Laurence Fox, Kris Marshall, Andy Serkis, Hugo Speer

What a cast! Billy Elliot, DS Hathaway from Lewis, Adam from the BT 'family' adverts, Gollum and the bloke with the megacock from The Full Monty stuck in a captured German trench during WWI and plagued by hellish hallucinations à la Event Horizon or The Shining. Writer/director Bassett nails the unsettling, claustrophobic environment with an absolutely first-class set, all mud, rain and barbed-wire adorned, but where's the plot? While we're at it, where're the characters? Most of them spend the majority of the time running around in the dark through the fog in a state of disorientation and one suspects it's the same story off-camera too. Whilst The Shining is the definitive haunted house film and Event Horizon neatly shifts the action into space, Deathwatch barely flirts with the idea of war as a literal hell, and instead turns it into some strange Shyamalanesque ghost story, complete with hokey 'And The Pattern Is Set To Repeat!' ending. Nor is it weird enough to trouble the likes of Yellowbrickroad - a truly wacky paranormal romp that's genuinely unique and thoroughly unsettling if ultimately unsuccessful as a movie. I kept wanting a heroic horse to leap into the trenches and give me something to cheer on, alas no, not an equine in sight.

Restless, dir. Gus Van Sant, wr. Jason Lew, st. Mia Wasikowska, Henry Hopper

With its indie-cool detachment, bizarro subject matter and whimsical score Restless makes for an easy target for naysayers, although strangely, these weren't the things that irked me. Simply that Henry Hopper is simply not accomplished enough an actor to elevate Van Sant's picture to loftier heights. Wasikowska fares somewhat better, building on her extraordinary debut in HBO's In Treatment and breathing life into an otherwise bloodless part. Plotwise, think Lars And The Real Unwell Girl, as Enoch (Hopper), surly and alienated following the death of his parents, teams up with Cancer patient Annabel (Wasikowska), him to find some kind of cathartic resolution to his grief, her to find a release from the well-meaning treatment of Patients With Terminal Illnesses, and go out with a bang, or at least having experienced Something Real. Their ensuing relationship is by turns genuinely affecting and pretty predictable, and there's an irritating MacGuffin in the shape of Hiroshi, the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot and Enoch's only friend. One of the many points the film tries to make is how there can be beauty at the point of death in celebrating life lived, but maybe a subtler approach would have had a greater impact than this all too self-conscious effort.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Shame, dir. Steve McQueen, wr. Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen, st. Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

An anonymous and pallid New York serves as the backdrop in Steve McQueen's distressingly compelling tale of self-destructive compulsion. Fassbender plays Brandon, externally exquisitely manicured but harbouring a tumultuous and self-stoking dark passenger in the form of an incessant pursuit of carnal relief. Into his world comes Sissy (Mulligan), Brandon's sister and an equally disturbed individual. Writers Morgan and McQueen wisely omit specifics but allude to some unspoken childhood trauma that has dictated why these two are the way they are. Brandon's sexual encounters are perfunctory, brief, pure transaction. The one promise of something approaching a real relationship comes in the form of work colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie). The pair's first date is playful, honest, a burgeoning salve waiting in the wings. Fassbender and Mulligan are a pair that can convey so much in a look or a lilt of the head, in fact there's a sparsity of dialogue on offer here. Much is expressed as contorted grimaces over wretched writhing flesh. Shame makes for grim viewing indeed, but it's also a formidable dissection of one man's attempts at vanquishing, or at least managing his demons. Fassbender and Mulligan both give expansive and raw performances, and Harry Escott's wonderfully elegiac score contribute to this remarkable film.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

War Horse, dir. Steven Spielberg, scr. Richard Curtis, Lee Hall based on War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, st. Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch

There's a bittersweet acceptance that came with the knowledge Steven Spielberg was going to adapt the National Theatre's acclaimed 2007 production of War Horse for the big screen. Never would such a story be in safer hands, yet the joy of the NT show lay in the very cinematic nature of the production, from John Tams' embedded folk, to Handspring Puppet Company's astonishing equine creations and equally impressive operators. Looking back, the story's shamelessly sentimental story of one boy and his horse set against the backdrop of WWI is of course, classic Spielberg material. Characterisation has been somewhat sacrificed here at the expense of spectacle, obviously, as there were just far too many sequences in the show aching to be expanded upon and enhanced, but it's the beasts themselves that Spielberg thrusts front and centre, magnificently shot by longtime collaborator Janusz Kamiński. Not since John Carpenter's husky from The Thing do I remember seeing such intelligent (and in this case, moving) animal performances. It also comes across as a very British film, from John Williams' channeling of Vaughn Williams and Tallis for his score, to the lush photography of the fecund Dartmoor landscape. Ultimately War Horse ends up being what it was always destined to be in the hands of such an instructive storyteller, a hugely enjoyable fable, lovingly crafted and performed, nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

A Separation, dir/wr. Asghar Farhadi, st. Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini

At times during this emotionally exhausting drama, Director Farhadi and his actors make us forget we are watching a construction, such is its intensely immersive power. Intimately shot on handheld cameras and portrayed with terrifying realism, A Separation takes us into the household of Nader and Simin, a middle-class Iranian couple on the verge of the titular separation. Their 11-year-old daughter and Nader's Alzheimer-afflicted Father find themselves caught in the crossfire when pregnant Razieh, employed to look after the house-bound patient, is accused of neglect. What plays out is a volley of accusations and counter-accusations from both sides fuelled by pride, piety, stubbornness and misplaced indignation. The culture may be different, but the way people behave remains the same. Everybody lies. Farhadi's film is a car-crash in slow-motion illustrating how deceit and conflict ripple out on a cripplingly destructive path. Scenes depicting the chaos and confusion of an overburdened and at-capacity people's court are particularly effective as we see the poor judge unpick their (and others' no doubt) domestic woes with tired impartiality. The argumentative theatricality may be tough going for some people, but it all builds to an effective and predictably bleak conclusion.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Artist, dir/wr. Michel Hazanavicius, st. Dean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo

I suspect there's a whole swathe of today's younger generation that won't feel compelled to see The Artist, Hazanavicius' faithful reconstruction of a 20's-style silent film. If the idea of comparatively accessible fare like Another Earth or Martha Marcy May Marlene disinterests them when Rihanna's just around the corner in a film called Battleship, what chance does a wordless, single-plotlined romance have? The Artist's form is painstakingly recreated; there's the native 1.33 aspect ratio, scratchy inter titles, a beguilingly simple story, two adorable leads, even each reel seems to have been subtly colour-corrected to simulate individual canister distress. The Academy are clearly chomping at the bit, waiting to lavish awards on it, and as charming as The Artist is, I fear the recognition may be at the expense of worthier films this year. But no matter, their hearts are in the right place and the message is clear: remember what we used to be about before Transformers? Which is why I would make The Artist mandatory viewing before anyone's allowed in a multiplex for the first time. It's a blunt instrument, but think of it like a Cinematic Hazard Perception test. For the film says so much about Stars and their ego, studio systems, unresting movie technology and audiences' mutating desires, ambition, pride, and love, and all without saying a word.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, dir. Brad Bird, wr. André Nemec, Josh Appelbaum, st. Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner

Best known for directorial duties on Pixar's Ratatouille and The Incredibles, Brad Bird turns his keen animator's eye to live-action with exhilarating results. If I'm honest I wasn't holding out much hope for a decent fourth outing. 1996's first instalment had a kind of Euro-Hollywood cool about it but the next two left me pretty hemmed and hawed. There may come a time when simply getting out of a chair is a stunt for Tom but for now, here he is, guns sculpted and kicking Ruskie ass. My one quibble might be that the cast is a little slight - there's not much for Renner to do, Paula Patton as the girl member of the IMF quaternary similarly struggles with an underwritten part and Pegg, though great, will always provide hearty comic backup before anything else in these types of films. Nevertheless there're some excitingly choreographed sequences, the centre-piece of which being the much touted Burj Kahlifa Tower sequence which elegantly daisy-chains a giddy exterior window suction-glove climb, a palpitating simultaneous dual-floor meeting bluff and a gloriously disorientating chase through a Dubai sandstorm. As recent talks of the upcoming Sam Mendes Bond Skyfall paint it as a return to the spy-thriller formula, there's a space opening up for globe-trotting action-excess and the Mission: Impossible franchise fills it perfectly. 

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Real Steel, dir. Shawn Levy, scr. John Gatins, based in part on the short story 'Steel' by Richard Matheson, st. Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly

In the near future, baying mobs gather in arenas to watch robots deck the drive-belts out of each other. Aside from this, not much else is different - selfish and stubborn single dads still deny paternity for example. Here, Jackman's Charlie Kenton sells off his fatherly obligation in return for looking after his estranged 11-year-old son for the Summer. Valuable life lesson learning inevitably ensues. Real Steel cracks opens a catering pack of schmaltz and makes sure everything is suitably saturated in its syrupy goodness. But there's heart here too, and one guesses exec producers Spielberg and Zemeckis, who've been turning out this kind of impassioned fantasy for years now, might have had something to do with it. And sure enough, nothing tugs at heartstrings like a mended familial bond, even one as crudely depicted as this. Jackman looks a little lost sometimes, furiously describing the obviously absent-whilst-filming CGI whilst he's performing in the way you might reassure yourself nothing bad's going to happen as you shortcut through the park on your way home. Goya as Kenton's son Max shows a bit of moppet-like grit, and Lilly has little to do than laugh and cry as the bad bot bows out and Father and Son are reunited beneath a shower of sparks and the smell of WD40. As comforting and with all the nutritional value of a stadium hotdog on a rainy day.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Beautiful Girls, dir. Ted Demme, wr. Scott Rosenberg, st. Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Rosie O'Donnell, Lauren Holly, Martha Plimpton, Natalie Portman

There's an honesty at work here, as much from Rosenberg's down-the-line script than as a byproduct of being a film made in the 90s. And what a time that was. A time when the cinematic sex and violence of the preceding two decades was being dialled down yet audiences' senses weren't yet honed to today's razor-sharp level of perception. Nowadays mature themes are still dealt with (mainly through Foreign or Independent fare rather than the latest Hollywood output) but the almost imperceptible subconscious fleeting acknowledgement of watching something challenging still registers first in our minds, after which we're happy (or not) to observe how the issue is sensitively and cerebrally dealt with (or not). Here, the side-plot of potential contemporary contention (though tellingly not at the time of release) is Hutton's 29-year-old Willie Conway musing on whether Portman's 13-year-old Marty might be a soulmate-in-waiting. Sounds hideous, yet it's dealt with through several smart and endearing scenes. Marty is unnaturally wise (perhaps so obviously so it allows us to breathe a little easier) - 'an old soul' as she puts it - and helps Willie figure out what he wants from life during his return home for a high school reunion. Elsewhere the guys and gals of Knights Ridge, Massachusetts butt heads in typical Martian vs. Venusian fashion, but it's Willie and Marty's kinship that give this film a bit of zip.