Sunday, 30 December 2012

Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson, wr. Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, st. Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman

I find it hard to get a handle on Wes Anderson films. There's no doubting that amongst the current crop of indie film-makers, his is a unique voice. And whilst I also appreciate his surgical approach to colour, composition and camerawork along with a canny ability to show us the difference between endearing eccentricity and vanilla kookiness, his films often leave me cold. Not since Rushmore in 1998 can I say I've ever been moved by one of his films. Moonrise Kingdom is essentially that same paean to awkward adolescent stirrings, though experienced a few years back from Jason Schwartzman's 15-year-old Max Fischer. Gilman and Hayward play Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, a pair of 12-year-olds who meet, as in all the best love stories, quite by accident (although rarely at a church performance of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde) and plan to elope the following Summer. Precocious and knowing kid-characters need all the skillful handling of nitro-glycerine when it comes to audience-empathy, but Anderson's trump card (or rather trump-technique) is not allowing us too long a glimpse into his protagonists' psyches. Sam and Suzy are both loners, separated from those around them by age (the adults) as much as by their interests (Suzy likes stolen library fiction, Sam paints watercolours). A few years older and these characters might potentially irk as infuriatingly Alternative (which says more about a contemporary cynicism that changes as often as the tide than anything else) but in Anderson's hands, and thanks to two exceptional performances, Sam and Suzy come across as honest and utterly loveable. The Britten is woven through the film and provides a literary musical bedrock (that Alexandre Desplat complements quite nicely), and the film is bathed in pastel Summer hues that effortlessly recall our own personal childhood misadventures (back in the day when we had Seasons). The supporting cast are as great as you'd expect from Willis, Murray et al, but this is really about the hugely talented younger cast that sell the movie, and that'll have you wondering where and why it all goes wrong for us adults.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Deadfall, dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky, wr. Zach Dean, st. Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam, Kate Mara, Treat Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek

Despite the credible cast, Deadfall is uneven at best, utterly baffling at worst. Bana and Wilde play siblings Addison and Liza on the run from a heist when their car flips and leaves them stranded near the Canadian border in less than hospitable conditions. After deciding to split up and reconvene on the other side, the film lurches from scene to increasingly unbelievable scene like some feverish hyperthermic dream. Addison arbitrarily kills people on the way which is strange for a man trying to keep a low-profile, whilst Liza, who may or may not have Stockholm Syndrome after watching her brother kill their abusive father in their youth, shacks up with ex-boxer and ex-con Jay (Hunnam), freshly released from prison and himself on the run from the authorities. Elsewhere, sheriff Becker (Williams) mobilises a task force to track down the fugitives and cruelly and inexplicably excludes his deputy daughter (Mara) even though she's quite clearly able and resourceful. The disparate scenes attempt to interlock in a clever way but come off more Restoration Comedy than Greek Tragedy, and by the time the whole cast is on set for the final showdown, any semblance of rationale or motive has frozen over long ago, proving as stony and unyielding as the icy landscape. 

Dredd, dir. Pete Travis, wr. Alex Garland, st. Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Wood Harris, Lena Headey

Not quite the Judge DRaid clone it was feared to be from the initial trailer, British director Travis nevertheless roots this Lone Outmatched Warrior fable in a singular environment, bringing all the focus to bear on the titular inexcitable Judge - one of many law enforcers who roam the vast dystopian Mega-City One and mete out the appropriate arbitration and suitable punishment on unsuspecting criminals before you can say "due-process." Dredd and rookie Cassandra Anderson (Thirlby) are sent to the Peach Trees slum towerblock - a kind of post-apocalyptic Westfields - run by Madeline "Ma-Ma" Madrigal (Heady) who's peddling a drug that once inhaled, makes time run at 1% its usual speed: good for music-video aesthetics, bad for falling to your death from the 200th floor. There's a healthy dose of Verhoeven-esque late-80s violence on display here, and Paul Leonard-Morgan's dubsteppy score and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography capture the apartment setting in all its squalid griminess. Urban is fine as Dredd as far as chin-gurning goes, but Thirlby fares better as the stoic apprentice with handy telepathic powers. It's just a shame that Heady - a dab hand at playing unstable ├╝ber-bitches as demonstrated in HBO's compelling Game of Thrones - isn't given more to do than mutter under her breath and appear for the all-too-brief boss fight at the end. It's also puzzling how the rest of Mega-City One, when we do see it, seems to be a sunny and rather pleasant place to reside, but I fear such curiosities are secondary to watching Ma-Ma's goons use gatling guns fuck shit up.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Brave, dir. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, scr. Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi, st. Kelly Macdonald, Julie Walters, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane

Pixar Animation Studios have come a long way since their renderings of human characters like Andy and Sid in 1995's Toy Story. Now, laden with immense critical acclaim, the legacy of Steve Jobs' sage leadership, and the creative experience of almost twenty years of storytelling, it seems nothing is beyond its artists' stylus'. It's regretful then that some of their most enthralling artwork is contained within such a pedestrian format. Yes, it's a fairytale in the richness of those traditions, but one gets the nagging feeling that where Pixar movies have excelled has been in the escape from the constraints of such formulaic narration, whether it's portrayed a beat-up maintenance droid contemplating life and loneliness on an abandoned planet, or a clown-fish and his Dad simultaneous coming of age. Brave's first third however, beguiles and enchants as the young princess Merida (Macdonald), distraught at the idea of duty and tradition, finds solace in archery and tomboy-pursuits, whilst her Mother, Elinor (Thompson), stoically attempts to prep her only daughter for adulthood. Such parental/offspring clashes are well-worn indeed, but the animation, voice-work and smart observational nuances more than sell the frustration of conflict. Soon after, Merida encounters a witch deep within the forest, and before things get too embroiled in a rich Mother/Daughter psychological tapestry, we're presented with a altogether more fantastical second half that, in truth (and although it may captivate younger viewers), flattens the mood. A rather mixed bag then, Brave never lets fly as true as one of Merida's arrows, but at least it can't touch Cars 2 for sheer bloodlessness.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, dir. Peter Jackson, wr. Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, st. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis

It's probably fair to say that 'origins' films, unless they're kickstarting a tired franchise, rarely work - reason being, there's a reason film-makers prefer to cut to the chase; that's where all the narrative meat is. And few can doubt that The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of the RingThe Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, and The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King provided a hearty repast indeed, not to mention enough for several walk-in freezer-fulls of future cinematic grub, with all their home-video extended-edition chewiness. One's curiosity then was piqued indeed on the news that Peter Jackson was planning on bringing J. R. R. Tolkien's prequel The Hobbit, or There And Back Again to the big screen, via not one, but three gut-busting films. How 310 pages of Hobbit translates to 9 hours of film (compared to Rings' 1571 pages) isn't so much as important as how Jackson is going to make us care again, given how we know how things are going to end up, and at what cost. There's undoubtedly still immense joy to be had from watching the artistry at work; Weta once again outdo themselves in the sheer scale and detail of the Middle Earth landscape and creatures fair and foul that reside within, and amongst an able cast, Martin Freeman's ultra-naturalistic style of performance works wonders against the hyper-fantastical setting and grounds his Bilbo Baggins with persuasive authenticity. Yet, and here's the rub, it's woefully short on tension, and several wonderfully orchestrated scenes are simply stretched out to unnatural running times. Repeatedly. Bilbo's confrontation with Gollum is a shudder-inducing reminder of what a thrillingly twisted character the ex-hobbit is (and the superlatively intricate work of Andy Serkis' mo-cap) but their game of riddles de-tensions itself by over-extension. Similarly the Dwarves' escape from the goblin underworld is achingly long, even teetering on the verge of parody. That said, it's engaging enough, and Howard Shore's music is still as melodically thunderous as it ever was. and many of the first trilogy's leitmotifs are re-used to provide ominous links to future characters and events. But with the Lord Of The Rings triumvirate sitting at numbers 6, 21, and 30 of the top 50 all time worldwide Box Office charts, it's hard not to hear the cranking-up of the great Hollywood machine, and the clinking of newly-minted coin. Even at ultra-sharp 48fps, complete with that Saturday Morning Kitchen look, I suspect The Hobbit isn't doing anything new, but time, critical opinion, and financial stats will tell if there's been an excess of supply for limp demand.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, dir/scr. Stephen Chbosky, st. Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller

With its warm colour palette and choice cuts of 90s alternative music, there's something very familiarly nostalgic about Chbosky's film, based on his own novel. The style too, an amalgamation of coming-of-age tribulation, high-school navigational woe and quelling of demons past is likewise, nothing terribly new, but handled with sensitivity and convincing performances from the three leads. Watson largely proves that she's got the chops for fleshier roles, now that the spectre of Hogwarts has begun to fade from view, and shows off a credible American twang to boot. Lerman too, as Charlie - the titular wallflower - (last seen in Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief) cruises along with a quietly low-key performance until the film's third act plot development allows for some impressive flexing, but it's Ezra Miller, who gave Damien Thorn a run for his money in Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin, who gives the triumvirate of friends its beating heart as the "gay as a three-dollar bill" Patrick. Some of the dialogue does occasionally slip from the meaningfully evocative voice-over patter we've come to love from these sorts of films, to merely cringe-worthy and over-yearning facsimiles of better written screenplays, but where The Perks Of Being A Wallflower succeeds is in its ability to tell an old-fashioned story of adolescence in a way that still persuades and provokes.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire, dir. Val Guest, wr. Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest, st. Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd

Val Guest is of course responsible for bringing that other seminal work of British science fiction into the cinemas - The Quatermass Xperiment - but whereas that film owes a debt to American 50s paranoia (and a more literary source in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), The Day The Earth Caught Fire is an altogether more stoic affair. The 1961 film concerns a team of journalists, who see a story about twin US and USSR atomic bomb test detonations sending the Earth off its axis and spinning toward the Sun, as the ultimate scoop rather than as an opportunity to save mankind. In these dark days of deep mistrust for the press, this rings particularly true. Yet the reporters here are altogether less cynical and more weary than today's McMullans. They carry on reporting, steadfastly attempting to report fact without spin or augmentation because that's what they do, and that's how humanity (but particularly the British) know how to deal with impending doom; get our heads down, keep calm and carry on. Guest also wisely (and unusally) keeps the boffins and politicians off-screen, allowing the course of events to be viewed through less knowing eyes. The film is surprisingly low on action by today's apocalyptic blockbusting standards, but does mirror a growing trend to offer a more existentialist, cerebral and character-driven sci-fi narrative in lieu of green-screen pyrotechnics. The bookended scenes, post-produced in a dark-orange sepia tone, provide a clever and effective way of illustrating the planet's plight, and there are a slew of great performances of overlapping naturalistic journo-banter that sell the tired resignation. For my money, the ending is dampened slightly by Universal's insistence of the addition of sound effects that give a definitive ending to the story, especially when the final image of the movie is strong enough, but The Day The Earth Caught Fire remains one of the more absorbing and seminal pictures of the British science fiction canon.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Cosmopolis, dir/scr. David Cronenberg, based on Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo, st. Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Juliette Binoche

Twihards will, I fear, be hard-pressed into enjoying this kind of searingly brooding portrayal from their favourite be-glitter├ęd actor, even though through all the density of language and narrative, it is Robert Pattinson who emerges from the mire the most inspiring. Cronenberg's film takes place almost exclusively inside the stretched limousine of billionaire Eric Packer, a businessman whose gradual disillusion with his work and the world around him is marked by a stubborn insistence that he travel across town in order to get a haircut. There's little of the body-inavsion weirdness that usually permeates Cronenberg's movies save for an erotically awkward non-contact scene in which Eric and his chief of finance get each other hot and bothered whilst he's receiving a prostate examination from his travelling doctor. The focus here, in contrast to Cronenberg's previous work, is on the spectre of capitalism rather than the threat of corrupted flesh, and this idea is beautifully played out in the many claustrophobic and beautifully designed vignettes Eric shares with members of his inner cabal. The language, adapted by Cronenberg from DeLillo's novel, is nebulous and poetic, and Howard Shore's score with Canadian band Metric throbs and whirrs away menacingly in the background. It might all be a little too impenetrable for some people, and certainly, as a sequenced narrative, it's held together by the loosest of stitches, but Cosmopolis is an arresting watch and as hypnotic and technically thorough as anything in the Cronenberg canon. 

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Things To Come, dir. William Cameron Menzies, wr. H. G. Wells, st. Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Pearl Argyle, Margaretta Scott

Based on his novel The Shape Of Things To Come written in 1933, Wells' film is considered by many to be a landmark in British science fiction - a masterly exercise in visionary production design and a stark foreshadowing of everything from the Blitz, through viral epidemics, to a technologically-driven society obsessed with scientific advancement. Things To Come shares much with that other great European science fiction great - Fritz Lang's Metropolis - certainly in scope and sociological themeology, even if Wells did write a rather scathing review of it in the New York Times in 1927, saying, "I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier." Certainly the black-shirted John Cabal and his posse of techno-saviours that arrive at the obliterated Everytown (read: London) at the halfway mark and demand the surrender of all independent sovereign states with the express desire to begin a "new world order" raises, in this day and age, many an eyebrow. The first act however, greatly unsettles with When The Wind Blows-style prophecy, as the Press warning of imminent war is intercut with busy Christmas high-street preparation. Yet there is still a valid message of the dangers of a race over-reaching itself in its desire to progress that time has not dulled, and the inspiration many a celebrated sci-fi film has taken from Things To Come is noticeably clear.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, dir/wr. Lorene Scafaria, st. Steve Carell, Keira Knightley

Armageddon is, on reflection, a perfect tonal match for Steve Carell's perpetually hangdog face, a face that coveys such abject resignation, it's a wonder you don't glass yourself in the neck at the futility of it all the moment he appears onscreen. End Of Days films are nothing new, and you'd be forgiven if you thought you were being sold SAFFTEOTW on the promise of it being a bit funnier as the trailers suggested. However, the film kicks off with alarmingly ordinary depictions of extraordinary reactions to the news that the end is nigh; Carell plays Dodge Peterson (great name for a character unable to escape the predicament of a seventy-mile-wide asteroid) whose wife has literally just run out on him. His friends host a party and casually and jovially take heroin and encourage their children to chug martinis; at his dull insurer's job, a body crashes onto the bonnet of his car as he pulls up in his parking space; his boss stoically offers up a redundant position of CEO as his staff sniff and weep around him; after attempting an overdose, Dodge wakes up in the park with a dog tied to his ankle accompanied by a note that reads "I'm Sorry". You can guess what he names it. SAFFTEOTW is full of these little details, and even when necessity dictates that the rather predictable plot must move the story forward, it's still a pleasure to see the intricacies remain in sharp focus. There's great use of some rather obvious musical choices too, and although I suspect you're meant to believe Dodge and Penny's (Knightley) relationship is the stuff of hitherto undiscovered fairytale romance, I still bought it as a depiction of two people desperate not to be alone as the lights go out. It doesn't quite know what kind of a film it wants to be, but it undoubtedly makes an impact.