Saturday, 30 June 2012

Take This Waltz, dir/wr. Sarah Polley, st. Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Luke Kirby

Where do you draw the line between contentment and coasting? Polley's incisive and clever film explores this no-mans-land of marital ennui with real depth and a keen observation for relationship minutiae. Williams plays Margot, a freelance writer who lives on a street bursting with foliage and birdsong. Inside, seemingly perpetually lit by cozy afternoon sun, her hard-working husband Lou (Rogen) perpetually slaves over the stove, working on a cookbook. A chance meeting with Daniel (Kirby) on a plane leads to the even chancier discovery that he is Margot's neighbour, and a relationship begins. As to what kind of relationship it is, is ultimately unclear. Like Margot, Polley's script advances and retreats, sowing seeds of possibility that Daniel might be Margot's soulmate one minute, dismissing it as a trivial fancy the next. Winningly, the film is low on the kind of affair-hystrionics that bury so many dramas of this kind; Williams gives Margot a real sense of the kind of confused, sprawling emotion that rings so true when we meet people who make our hearts flutter. It's also surprisingly objective, painting both husband and wife in turns as attentive and sometimes a little dim at failing to read each other's flare-like signals of discomfort. Relationships can take years to manage, nurture and cultivate, but only a second to walk away from; Take This Waltz asks us to consider the point at which that care and effort becomes delusion, blinding us from seeking out something more elsewhere. It's discomforting indeed, but Polley imposes no judgement over her characters; however, to see them, as we see ourselves, make a decision and live by it, only serves to highlight what an inexact science love is.

Beyond the Black Rainbow, dir/scr. Panos Cosmatos, st. Michael Rogers, Eva Allan

Somewhere deep in a laboratory bathed in red and orange hues, Dr. Barry Nyle (Rogers) watches over telekinetic patient Elena (Allan). They've both been immersed in some kind of black goo that seems to have elevated them to a higher plane of consciousness, and the now obsessed Dr. Nyle seeks answers of his own. This highly stylised and hallucinatory movie comes from a first-time filmmaker, the aptly named Cosmatos. The deliberately measured pace of long pans, zooms, pull-backs and dissolves root this film in a distinctly retro period of Sci-Fi (indeed it is set in 1983) and Cosmatos has no problem in sticking to his own glacial pace. The woozy, vertiginous mood is augmented by Jeremy Schmidt's analogue-synth score that recalls John Carpenter's early music, or Howard Shore's under Cronenberg. In fact the film owes a large debt to Cronenberg in its fusion of claustrophobic horror with new-age psychological-futurism. Of course it's all as impenetrable as the films it clearly takes inspiration from, and this will either delight viewers as a lovingly-crafted love-letter to Sci-Fi of yore, or confirm for non-believers that it's a genre beloved of artists who think far too much of themselves.

Detachment, dir. Tony Kaye, wr. Carl Lund, st. Adrien Brody, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Blake Nelson, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle

What Tony Kaye's first film American History X lacked in subtlety, it made up for in sheer brute force in strength of conviction. Detachment follows in much the same vein - a damming indictment against a failing education system and the subsequent fallout that the young endure. Whilst not as explicitly brutal as X, this is nonetheless psychologically exhaustingly relentless, and paints the bleakest of pictures, as the teachers here find their enthusiasm and selflessness no match for the terrible might of disillusioned and aggressive kids. This is a wonderfully cohesive ensemble piece, but it is Brody who gives the most compelling and restrained performance as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher, at once stoic, fiercely intelligent and moral who's slowly being consumed from the inside due to a childhood trauma. There is some outstanding filmmaking here, not least Rebecca Foster's animated blackboard drawings that are liberally sprinkled throughout the film, and Jade Healy's theatrical approach to production design which gives us, in the film's final moments, the classroom as an abandoned, crumbling wilderness. There are niggles - like Aaron Sorkin is so often accused of, Kaye too is all too transparent in his use of Henry as a mouthpiece with which to vent, and just when you wonder whether this is merely a truncated form of The Wire's 4th season, Isiah "Clay Davis" Whitlock turns up on cue to give an address about juking the stats, in a woefully misguided casting decision. However, like Sorkin's The Newsroom, blunt the socio-political message may be, but it is one that needs to be clarioned from the rooftops in ringing tones; many films aspire to disturb us from apathy, this one truly should.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Iron Sky, dir. Timo Vuorensola, scr. Michael Kalesniko, Timo Vuorensola, st. Julia Dietze, Christopher Kirby, Götz Otto, Peta Sergeant, Stephanie Paul, Udo Kier

Neither tatty enough to be dismissed outright, nor containing the requisite satirical nous to be wholly engaging, and setting aside for one moment any suggestion of tastelessness, Iron Sky remains something of a curiosity. The Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow CG sets and quasi-Austin Powers farce, complete with outlandish plot (defeated Nazis retreated to the moon in 1945, and now they're back) too often and frustratingly fail at making a connection, yet maybe this is what happens when a film such as this is crowd-sourced; the rudderlessness and over indulgence in too many disparate ideas is evident. There are some completely bonkers ideas though, which against my better judgement elicited a muffled guffaw; at one point a character gets pulled out of an airlock, the rush of expelled air reducing her to a brassiere and bloomered state of undress, very Carry On, and in another, the 2018 US president's (Palin - tee-hee) aide struggles with a re-election campaign that forces her to gather her staff in her office and perform a Downfall parody, which for once, given the film's subject matter, doesn't come across as an idea over-flogged. It would have been nice for Iron Sky to have the strength of its convictions and commit to full on, balls-to-the-wall Spaceballs goofiness; the sad reality leaves it with little to recommend.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Five-Year Engagement, dir. Nicholas Stoller, scr. Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, st. Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie

The latest in a glut of romantic comedies aimed squarely at 30-somethings on the verge of committing, either to uncertain careers, family plans or each other, continues with this quietly charming film, blessed with both a charismatic cast and an uneven, yet earthy screenplay courtesy of Segal. He plays Tom, one of producer Judd Apatow's trademark loser types, happily relationshipped with elegantly goofy Violet (Blunt). Their decision to tie the knot gets pushed and pushed as Violet's career takes off. This is a film in which, rarely for a rom-com, love is taken as a given; it's the living it as part of a real-life working scenario that makes this such a fascinating watch. Largely, the film rests on the easy grace of the leading pair - particularly Blunt, whom one suspects could charm her way out of the most egregious of tax-avoidance scheme public humiliations. There's wonderful support too in the shape of Parks And Rec's Chris Pratt and Community's Alison Brie as Tom and Violet's respective siblings, awkwardly making a far better fist of things than our leads. It's the little details that ring truest though; uncomfortable bed-based fights, little displays of support both genuine and feigned, and how individuals constantly re-evaluate and rank of all the different components that makes a relationship worth fighting for. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Wrath of the Titans, dir. Jonathan Liebesman, scr. Dan Mazeau, David Leslie Johnson, st. Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Édgar Ramírez, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Ralph Fiennes, Liam Neeson

More mythical titan-slaying with the same heartless approach to proceedings as its predecessor, Liebesman's effort provides us with another batch of LOTR-inspired CG monsters, rocky vistas and GCSE characterisation. To be fair, I suspect Worthington is something of a half-decent actor in search of a script befitting his talents, although why he keeps returning to this dross, who knows? Elsewhere Neeson Gandalfs it up big-style along with Fiennes, who similarly adds a beard to his Voldemort persona and hopes no one notices he's in Auto Potter-mode. Ultimately it's a great shame that the rich tapestry of Greek mythology has been reduced to this dumb point-and-shoot actioner. Only some great artistry in the design of the labyrinth holds much merit - a sea of shifting and grinding stonework that shifts across all vectors. Even then, once the Minotaur makes his appearance it's with the same dull imagination of the rest of the creatures. It's all very humourless and heavy, as though Hades has spewed forth a cloud of ash and brimstone so low in pressure, it's depressed everyone to a near-comatose state. If there must be a third film (and I fear there must), I pray to the gods they change things up a bit.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, dir/wr. Steven Spielberg, st. Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr

With the re-release of Jaws currently turning the water golden for an entirely new generation of movie-goers, I thought I'd take a look at the 30th Anniversary Collectors Edition Blu-ray of the film, lovingly restored by Sony. I remember reading Alien Heart, a short story by Philip Ridley in which a film-buff's promising date comes unstuck when the girl falls asleep during Close Encounters, actually an acutely accurate illustration of the film's polarising effect; I'm not so sure I understood what was going on when I saw it for the first time aged 12. Was this a horror, as the abduction sequence showing 3-year-old Barry Guiler's house being invaded by unearthly lights and sound seemed to suggest? Or an adult drama? Roy Neary's dinner-table breakdown, with his son silently crying as he watches his father lose it remains one of the most powerful sequences I've ever seen, even if at the time I didn't fully comprehend the emotional dynamics of a family on the verge of collapse. Then there're the lights. And what lights. The hilltop view of the state of Indiana experiencing a power outage section by section is a direct reference to the awesome luminescence of the Mothership we see in the film's final act: only in darkness can we see the skies. But what Close Encounters really seems to be about is communication. Spielberg commented that if amicable communication can be successfully made with extraterrestrials, why not warring foes on our own planet? Contact has become something of a clumsy device on which to hang misplaced patriotism in recent Sci-Fi attempts - how quickly does it all seem to break down into just another war film. Yet here we have a bittersweet tale of enlightenment. Bittersweet as, unusually for Spielberg, the family thread is left unresolved: Neary indeed abandons them as they feared he would. But for Neary, he is presented with an opportunity to discover answers. Like Moses, he too hears a big, booming voice from the sky. His faith drives him on, up to Wyoming's Devil's Tower where he is greeted by a greater intelligence, and he leaves this Earth with his faith intact. Whatever our spiritual differences, or maybe because of them, this film is essential viewing.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Jaws, dir. Steven Spielberg, scr. Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb, st. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton

Over the 37 years since its release, Spielberg's film about the big fish has been called many things: seminal, the Original Summer Blockbuster, the last word in primal terror. Yet as well as being all of these things, it's also model storytelling, classically mythical. There's a monster that's eating people. Three mismatched strangers, specialists in their fields (Hooper the scientist, Quint the sea-dog, Brody the law-enforcer), set out on a quest to face their own personal demons, but also to work as a team to bring down the beast. On the way there's beautifully judged space and time to explore each of these fascinating men in turn, and then together as a group. The film is terrifying in a beautiful way, in a way similar to Ridley Scott's compelling Alien design or the now-familiar trope of showing destruction, carnage or horror as art (see Von Trier's Melancholia). It's about fear, but I might say it's also about the rebirth one experiences once that fear is confronted. The effects may look shonky to younger viewers, but as ever, there's a wondrousness in tactility. In this new, restored version, you would do well to revisit or experience this near-perfect film on the big screen.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Man On A Ledge, dir. Asger Leth, wr. Pablo Fenjves, st. Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Anthony Mackie, Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Génesis Rodríguez

A kind of Fugitive-lite, Leth's film is a competent low-calorie, Saturday night thriller. Somewhere in the generic plotting is a half decent film begging to emerge were it in more assured hands. However, sustained by a solid cast portraying, for the most part, ill-foundationed characters, things amble along with neither much needed breathless urgency nor tiresome lumber. Essentially a heist movie, Man On A Ledge has Worthington play Nick Cassady, an ex-cop accused of and imprisoned for stealing a $40m diamond from businessman David Englander (Harris). Seemingly with nowhere to turn, he climbs out onto the ledge of the Roosevelt Hotel in order to... what? Jump? Publicly proclaim his innocence to the amassing crowds below? Or something else? Shades of The Negotiator too as Cassady forms an uneasy alliance with Lydia Mercer( Banks) an out-of-favour detective whom he convinces to aid him uncover the subterfuge from within. It's all very predictable, derivative and in a way, joyless; you feel it would have made a season highlight had it been part of a network TV show. As a film, it passes the time, but time would have passed anyway.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

4:44 Last Day On Earth, dir/wr. Abel Ferrara, st. Willem Dafoe, Shanyn Leigh

Ferrara's dreary film has Dafoe's Cisco and Leigh's Skye, a bohemian artsy couple spending their last days on Earth in their apartment before the apocalypse. The clock is ticking - at 4:44am the following morning, the world will end, apparently due to the ozone layer being finally stripped away. She spends her remaining hours painting vast floor canvases pausing only to select a new dress to change into every 20 minutes, he watches Al Gore on telly (the man was right) and noodles away on a variety of Apple products, before Skyping the mother of his child and yelling at passers-by from his balcony. The stock footage of riots and global gathering's make this a predictable and wearisome watch, and so earnest is it in the feeling it's portraying the end of days in this new, low-key, lo-fi way, that compared with, say Melancholia, this really does end up delivering a whimper to Von Trier's bang. The location work is pretty decent actually, the under-lit flat lending a very real claustrophobia to proceedings, but its script is so limp it's practically gaseous and the whole thing feels like a rather dismal advert for a telecoms company.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott, wr. Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof, st. Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron

So, 33 years in stasis and Ridley Scott returns to the beast's lair. Over the last few months we've been bombarded with trailers, teasers, teasers for teasers, on-set stills, not to mention some rather natty viral videos. Not that it's been needed - there was no way a prequel to one of the world's most seminal Science Fiction movies was ever going to breeze by unnoticed, however, teased we were, salivating and eager to suit up once more. Scott claimed in the run-up to the film's release that Prometheus contained the slightest trace of Alien DNA in its veins; this was emphatically not a prequel, rather a tangent from canon, however official. Whether sincerely meant or a canny attempt at distancing the film from Alien, and thus heading off any potential comparisons should Prometheus fail to deliver, we don't know. What is clear is that whether Prometheus delivers at all is very much dependant on if you view it as a standalone movie, inspired by thematic strains the director knows best, or an deliciously irresistible forerunner to Alien.

The first thing to mention is that, predictably, Prometheus is exquisite to look at. From the opening aerial shots of a fecund, verdant Earth, to the intricate design of the ship itself as android David (Fassbender) prowls the corridors, passing time as the crew sleep. Every airlock, every helmet, glove, HUD and GUI has been clearly lovingly designed and executed. Purists might complain the production design lacks the grime of the original, but I would suggest that it feels like Scott's palette has opened up since '79. The advancing of tech has meant there's more to take inspiration from, new ways of moulding sets and props, new ways of texturing, layering, weathering. It feels like Alien made today. The premise, should you have managed to avoid the glut of marketing material, has archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green) discover a star-map detail present in several unconnected civilisations around the world. Rashly interpreting this is an open invite to come say hello, off the crew jet to LV-233 in the hope of meeting our creators. 

What happens next actually unfolds rather pleasingly. There are a number of genuinely chilling moments including a heart-in-gullet surgical procedure that astutely plays on primal fears of confinement and internal claustrophobia; think something nasty in you, in a coffin. Narratively, things just about hold together and overall Lindelof and Spaihts do the lineage proud, neatly augmenting and expanding backstory, whilst never being too overt, or worse, cheating us with palmed cards of story extension. The film is also indebted to the wonderfully nuanced performances by Rapace and Fassbender. Shaw is passionate and driven, too soft to be a natural heroine even, and her character is written with clever nods to the franchise's thematic detailing on motherhood and birth. Rapace is an actor of extraordinary ability, Scott's camera often allowing her expressive face and soulful eyes to fill the entire frame. Likewise Fassbender, man of the moment, is as intelligent and enigmatic as Ian Holm's Ash. Watching him act through the many layers of emotion and motivation both organic and artificial reveals how rarely robot characters are allowed as much depth of personality and thought as their human counterparts. It is with a heavy heart then that gaping plot holes abound and scenes segue together with all the grace of a drunken showgirl. Guy Pearce's much touted turn as Weyland of Weyland/Yutani fame might just as well have been left on the cutting room floor for all the narrative propulsion and sense it makes, and an on-screen caption that lists the crew of the Prometheus as being 17 in number sets a clearly unattainable goal at being able to give enough screen-time to each of them to make us invest in the humanity at stake. And then there's an ending which, given the smarts on display in the previous 120 minutes, leads into sequel territory with an unsettling heavy hand.

The stakes being so high to begin with, Prometheus was never going to live up to expectation. All there was was the promise of recapturing the past. But films aren't made in 1979 any more and detractors might feel betrayed by the inevitable passing of time, ageing of creators, and advances of process. Alien will always be there, waiting for us on our DVD shelf; Prometheus acknowledges its heritage, and proceeds to forge its own path. It's not perfect, but great art rarely is.