Monday, 27 February 2012

The Oscars 2012

So pretty much as expected this year with Billy Crystal hosting for the ninth time after Eddie Murphy's highly publicised acceptance and then rejection of the role after Brett Ratner stepped down as show producer.

The two frontrunner films ended up with five gongs apiece with Michel Hazavanicius' The Artist predictably walking away with Best Picture, Director and Actor, whilst Martin Scorsese's Hugo winning on mainly its technical merits.

There was recognition too for Woody Allen for his screenplay for Midnight In Paris, one of the more left-field nominations The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for best Film Editing, and awards went to two stars of two cult TV shows in the shape of Community's Dean Pelton (Jim Rash for The Descendants) and Flight of The Conchords' Bret McKenzie for Best Original Song (The Muppets).

Maybe the biggest upset of the evening (though rather tame by Oscar's standards) was the Academy choosing Meryl Streep to receive her third win out of her seventeen nominations since 1978 for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady. Surely Viola Davis' performance in the uplifting triumph-against-adversity-by-numbers The Help would have warmed the Academy's cockles with greater efficiency, but then again, maybe Streep's nomination-to-win ratio was just too embarrassing to ignore any longer.

And let's not mention - for one last time I promise - the passing over of Fassbender, Shannon, Paquin, and Von Trier...

Aaaand... relax.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, dir/wr. Kurt Kuenne

Picking apart the individual components of how TV works has been a staple of satirical comedy for some time now, with perhaps most effectively Chris Morris' The Day Today and Brass Eye, and most recently Charlie Brooker as chief analysts into how media is meticulously constructed in order deliver Drama on demand, and push its viewers buttons. Thus there will be many such devices in Kuenne's arresting documentary, commonly used to needle, provoke and evoke, that we wouldn't find amiss on many of the low-rent, shock-doc Channel 5-style fare that are so plentiful these days. Form aside, the content of this engaging and tragic story is honest, immersive and rings on well after its end. Kurt Kuenne intends to make a video scrapbook for Zachary Bagby, the son of his murdered best friend Andrew at the hands of his girlfriend Shirley Turner, but what starts off as a collection of interviews and an attempt at celebrating the life of the deceased soon turns into a real-life crime exposé. As the focus of intent behind the project shifts, we meet a wonderful collection of people who painfully and with much dignity carry us through the horrors of injustice and the consequences of improper child protection legislation and out into a redemptive world where humanity and love prevail.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Woman In Black, dir. James Watkins, scr. Jane Goldman, based on The Woman In Black by Susan Hill, st. Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Sophie Stuckey, Liz White

The esteemed British Horror film company Hammer Film Productions moves Susan Hill's simultaneously overwrought yet bowel-eruptive ghost story from the West End to the big screen with predictably vanilla-ing results. This version chooses to forgo the tricksy task of reinventing the genre and instead goes for a resolutely standard - and literal - haunted-house approach. And so, in keeping with convention, we have movement in the frame's peripheral vision, eerily defaced photos, poltergeist sound design 101, candles and cobwebs. All derivative, but perfectly effective if we had anything resembling any kind of sophisticated characterisation in our protagonist. Alas, we are given Daniel Radcliffe as our narrative guide. Radcliffe would probably make a very competent guide, were he guiding us around, I don't know, Universal's The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter: Islands Of Adventure theme park for example, but here, you can't help shift the thought he's acting at acting. The location work and production design of Eel Marsh House itself however, is first rate, beautifully detailed and chock full of authentically distressed and distressing Victorian toys that provide many of the film's Maltesers-in-face moments.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), dir/wr. Tom Six, st. Laurence R. Harvey, Ashlynn Yennie

Whilst The Human Centipede (First Sequence) held a particular type of undeniably base and claustrophobic fascination, Tom Six creates within this awful sequel a spectacular justification for why it's time the whole franchise was put to rest and Six should go into, oh I don't know, driving a bus or something. I was going to suggest he's locked in some high-rise doing data entry for the remainder of his days, but best keep him out in the open where we can all see him. Gore and humiliation - individually or delicately juxtaposed in tandem - can have a devastatingly powerful effect in the cinema, but only when backed up with a compelling narrative. Even the Saw movies, torture-porn as they may be, are wrapped in some fiendishly clever plotting. Here, Martin's (Harvey) reason for creating a new improved human centipede is that he's obsessed by Six's first film which he compulsively watches and re-watches on his laptop. Even First Sequence actress Ashlynn Yennie turns up, playing herself, and under the allusion she's in England to audition for a new Tarantino movie. Sheesh. It's all terribly meta you see, a social comment on fan obsession and film as Art (this one's in B&W) vs Corruption. Ugghh a terrible, terrible film. Enough please. No more sequences. Thank you. 

Hesher, dir. Spencer Susser, scr. Spencer Susser, David Michôd, st. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu

Hesher clearly has lofty aims as a stoner tale of redemption, though like the titular character, the film is so aimless that the overall package proves to be something of a curate's egg. Gordon-Levitt almost - almost - manages to unshackle himself from the bonds of nice-guy typecasting with a nuanced performance that seemingly brings together all the divine rage and unearthly physicality of an earth-bound guardian angel with the apathy and chaos of a homeless waster unaware of his own mortality. Similarly delicately shaded is Wilson as recently widowed Paul Forney, a mass of drug-induced grief and resignation, as his son T. J. (Brochu, turning in a frightened, emotionally confused portrayal of young pained anguish a gazillion light-years ahead of Thomas Horn's performance of a similarly drawn character in Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close) alternates between a miserable bullied existence at school and days spent scooting around on his bike trying to reclaim his Mother's wrecked car from the scrapyard via tepid stirrings of first love directed at checkout assistant Nicole (Portman). More often than not, Hesher is uncertain of what kind of film it wants to be, and though it gives the story a much needed adrenaline boost of humanity in the last act, the sentimentality comes off as forced and unrealistic. 

Snowtown, dir. Justin Kurzel, scr. Shaun Grant, st. Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Louise Harris

Justin Kurzel's unsettling and often brutal film is based on the true story of John Justin Bunting (Henshall), dubbed "Australia's worst serial killer", and his intricate manipulation of James Vlassakis (Pittaway). Thank goodness there's quite a bit of (beautiful) painterly cinematography and a suitably atonal score (the film was made under the Warp label) to help take us out of the documentary-like realism and terrifyingly natural performances. The film riffs on the famous Hannah Arendt quote - the Banality of Evil - and indeed the violent acts depicted here are seen to be perpetrated by a desparately ordinary group of men, albeit led by the charismatic Bunting. Surprisingly I found not the murders themselves to be the most heinous thing up on the screen, but the mistreatment of Vlassakis, Bunting's unwilling protégé. It becomes almost unbearable watching him be abused, raped and subsequently indoctrinated into Bunting's cruel modus operandi, thanks largely to Pittaway's muted, resigned portrayal. That said, there's nothing terribly new here and the film leaves you with the oily griminess of despair and uncleanliness in your mouth. It's very watchable, but undeniably bleak.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Senna, dir. Asif Kapadia, wr. Manish Pandey, st. Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis

Comprising entirely of archive, stock, and exhilarating raw on-board footage, Working Title's Senna eschews any sense of soapboxing in order to simply celebrate the life of the Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna, who died during the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Of course, archive footage can still be manipulative if stitched together in a particularly cynical way, however this absorbing documentary seeks only to tell the story of an athlete, humble yet ambitious, from his early days in go-karting, to the Formula One era and all the political wrangling that went with.The sport's plentiful supply of race footage enables the film to read much more as a real-time drama through its jerky immediacy than as a meticulously constructed piece of post-event rumination; we even stay with Senna's cockpit camera for a whole lap before the tragic accident unfolds in front of us - it's shocking, sad and, achingly, puts as right at the centre of it all. On reflection, Senna's story, from Ayrton's eager beginnings, through his success and generous philanthropy, and culminating in the extraordinary scenes of a bereft and inconsolable Brazil after his death, quietly and poignantly speaks volumes about the nature of celebrity - the showmen and our heroes.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Immortals, dir. Tarsem Singh, wr. Vlas Parlapanides, Charley Parlapanides, st. Henry Cavill, Stephen Dorff, Luke Evans, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto, Mickey Rourke

Visionary director Tarsem Singh has always struggled to lavish as much attention upon story as he does his films' remarkably elaborate and magnificent visual aesthetics. His first feature, The Cell in 2000, at least works narratively as a perfectly serviceable psychological thriller, and 2006's The Fall features the alluring pairing of Lee Pace weaving a messy and fragmented yarn to young fellow-patient Catinca Untaru. There are some echoes of Vintage Tarsem here, reflected in the heavily stylised set-design or ornate costuming, but one feels that in expanding his focus to the Herculean scope of Greek mythology, narrative and character focus is sacrificed in the face of having such a gargantuan story to tell - as it stands, a story that liberally picks and mixes from various Classical tales, and is about as exciting as a deflowered oracle. The film also delivers good on its promise as seen in the theatrical trailer to provide us with much 300-esque slo-mo thumpery which very quickly tires the eye and dulls the brain. Having said that, stylistically it's all rather splendid and unique as usual but I was rather hoping that Tarsem Singh films became something you watch and not just something you look at.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, dir. Stephen Daldry, wr. Eric Roth, based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer, st. Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow

From the moment young Oskar Schell (Horn) packs a tambourine into his backpack as he sets off to complete a scavenger hunt, invented by his Father (Hanks) as a kind of interactive character-building exercise, you'll have registered this film's employment of whimsy as a lubricating agent aimed to offset the use of 9/11 as a narrative backdrop. So is it anything more than prosaic and predictable Oscar bait? Possibly. But it turns out it doesn't really matter, as Oskar is so unlikeable (every other word is snarkily hissed out in haughty tones), one very quickly ceases to care. Oh but he's hurting, yeah? Yes but this is a movie, not real life, and you alienate your protagonist from your audience at your peril. Edit in Alexandre Desplat's full-fat and gushing score, redonkulous plot-holes and it's nigh on impossible to take Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close with any level of sincerity. The film doesn't denigrate any memories, and I don't think it's insensitive to the legacy of September 11th. But in the same way that the usage of Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah is lazy writers' shorthand for *Insert Generic Emotion Here*, any work of fiction concerning 9/11 needs to work extremely hard and incredibly cautiously to avoid the same fate.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Hugo, dir. Martin Scorsese, scr. John Logan based on The Invention Of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, st. Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Christopher Lee

Movies about movies seems to be Hollywood's latest passion at the moment. In one corner we have Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist - a glorious slice of silent cinema wonderment, and in the other we have Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a quirky gallic tale of identity and belonging-cum-biopic of turn-of-the-century pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès. Leading the way with eleven nominations in this year's Oscar race, Hugo has quite clearly touched hearts and misted eyes through its Amélie-like wide-eyed curiosity, but like a cinematic version of an iPad textbook, while Hugo imputes information beautifully, it fails to invoke any sense of genuine sentiment. And it's hard to say why exactly. Butterfield is suitably urchained enough as Hugo, Grace Moretz pulls off an endearingly plummy Brit accent, and Sir Ben makes no concession to the fact this is primarily a kid's film, and turns in a performance that threatens all manner of menace, depression and rage simmering under the surface. The problem I suspect lies in John Logan's adapted screenplay that feels joltingly mistranslated in places. Some of the plot devices are knitted together in a way that's just plain clumsy and there's no sense of a real through-line. It's visually and aurally richly detailed however and is sure to make for thoroughly pleasant viewing on a future BBC1 Christmas Day schedule.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Chronicle, dir. Josh Trank, scr. Max Landis, st. Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly

So what does Chronicle bring to the superheroic table? Not the idea that power becomes unstable under the instability of its wielders - hardly a new trope of the genre. Instead of sexing-up a well-trod path, Trank's film is a sobering, rather bleak view of teen isolation and social acceptance. After discovering something neon and ultrasonic in an abandoned sink-hole, Andrew (DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Russell) and Steve (Jordan) wake to find themselves with extraordinary ESP abilities. Predictably, jocund experimentation turns sour when the troubled Andrew, fuelled by despondency at his Mother's terminal illness and subsequent paternal abuse, seeks refuge in his newfound powers. The near-exhausted Found Footage delivery system of Chronicle, here gets something of a facelift, as not only can Andrew manipulate his documenting camera at will (eg. free floating and vom-free crane and steadicam shots) but also the idea of digitally charting one's life in a social networking age has a particularly strong resonance. It's also slyly realistic, from the grey mistiness of a supermarket car-park to the dark griminess of Andrew's house, Chronicle is light-years away from the vibrancy and high-contrast world of traditional Hollywood superhero fare. A low-key and surprisingly effective slice of indie sic-fi.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Dangerous Method, dir. David Cronenberg, scr. Christopher Hampton, st. Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassel

Cronenberg's most recent film may lack the visceral body-horrific flesh-melding of his earlier ventures but is nonetheless compelling for it. In this adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure, what began in 2002's Spider as Cronenberg's move into a more psychological area of his unique brand of corporeal exploration, here comes full circle, a study on the founders of analytical psychology. Fassbender plays Jung, Mortensen his friend and fatherly mentor Freud, and Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient and lover. As with all Cronenbergian fare there's a detachment from the subject matter that sits right on the cusp of the absorbing/ambivalent interface, and I imagine many will be put off by Knightley's accent and hysterics. I might just be tempted though to stick my neck out and state that she's rather fantastic here, in the film's first half at least, struggling to calm her psycho-sexually-induced fits and seizures as she remembers the paternal punishment that has inadvertently lit up prohibited areas of her cortex. There's a fine line between melodramatic over-egging and a genuinely proficient physical performance but I'd say Knightley comes down the right side of it. Elsewhere, Mortensen's impassively broody and Fassbender continues to hone his Damaged Individual persona down to a fine art.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Sunset Limited, dir. Tommy Lee Jones, scr. Cormac McCarthy, st. Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson

Whilst it does seem that, sadly, Radio Drama seems to be in decline, Film and TV seem to be increasingly looking to the stage either as a source of inspiration. Most recently, Steven Spielberg turned out a faithful (yet anaemic) version of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, and Roman Polanski's Carnage, based on the play by Yasmina Reza, just opened yesterday in the UK to rave previews. Here, McCarthy's two-hander gets the HBO treatment - essentially a 90 minute, single-locationed filmed play. Lee Jones and Jackson play 'White' and 'Black', the latter having just saved the former's life as he tried to throw himself in front of a commuter train - the titular Sunset Limited - right before the story opens. Back at Black's flat, the two trade volleys of bite-sized existentialising and debate the meaning of suffering, the human condition and where, if at all, they intersect with belief and spirituality. Like Estragon and Vladimir in the wasteland, the flat is set up to be some kind of limbonic waiting room, whilst outside we hear rain, car alarms, raised voices and finally a dawn chorus. There's also something poignant about having two aged action-movie veterans inhabit the frame together. If it all sounds a little heavy and portentous, it is, but it's also unsettlingly and seductively compelling.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Cronos, dir/wr. Guillermo del Toro, st. Frederico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook

1994's Cronos tells the story of antique dealer Jesús Gris (Luppi) who stumbles upon an amulet, a handheld clockwork sarcophagus that contains a living and eternal-life-giving organism. One suspects that beneath the melodrama and generic vampiric troping, there's an earnest film lurking beneath the undead flesh, indeed Tomas Alfredson's 2008 cross-genre Let The Right One In owes a large debt to this early 90s take on the myth, exposing the humanity from deep within the inhuman, though here, it's sometimes hard to see. Jesús' grand-daughter, the near-mute and aptly named Aurora (Tamara Shanath) acts as the film's emotional and moral conduit with a need to protect her grandfather being as ingrained as a need for affection, but Perlman's comedy henchman routine and Brook as an ineffective master villain undermine the feeling there's much of any value at stake. Still, conceptually it's light-years away from the mire and mucus of the recent Twilight saga (it's over now, right?) and it's imbued with an entirely unselfconsciously European air of breezy indifference. We know that del Toro has gone on to bigger, better and more coherent projects, but this serves to remind one of where the kernel of his unique visions took root.