Hyde Park On Hudson tells the story of George VI, the bestammered King of speech fame (Samuel West), who journeys to Franklin D. Roosevelt's country retreat in Hyde Park, New York, wife in tow, hoping to garner support from the president for the impending World War. Roosevelt, disabled with polio, enabled with booze, and possessing of an easy and charismatic charm, is played by a softly spoken, impeccably turned out Bill Murray, in more subtle snarkless mode. Franklin repeatedly requests that his sixth cousin Margaret Suckley (Linney) become his aide of sorts, a person with whom he can banter with honesty, and the presence of whom raises eyebrows amongst the other inhabitants of the house, namely Roosevelt's Mother, and his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams). As the pair grow closer, and their relationship deepens, Michell eases off from showing us too much of his characters' more revealing motivations, probably as a result of the nature of the source material - the real Margaret Suckley's letters from Franklin that were discovered upon her death; one wonders at the myriad of ways intention and purpose might be misconstrued and reconstructed through contextless words and phrases. Nevertheless, Michell directs in the same kind of modality that made Notting Hill such an easy watch; the humour is touching and uncomplicated and the narrative is compellingly familiar and predictable, if not historically uncertain.
Wednesday, 30 January 2013
Monday, 28 January 2013
Flight, dir. Robert Zemeckis, wr. John Gatins, st. Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo
Zemeckis' first R-rated film is announced by a rather gratuitous full-frontal shot of Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), a flight-attendant who wakes up next to pilot William "Whip" Whitaker after an all-night bender of drink and drugs. That Whip goes on to fly a dangerously unmaintained plane that breaks up in mid-air, forcing Whip to execute a heart-stopping manoeuvre and crash-land the aircraft, thus saving the vast majority of the passengers, doesn't stop the authorities from investigating his substance abuse, unrelated as it might be to the accident. Flight clearly aims for Leaving Las Vegas-levels of bleak authenticity and thanks to a predictably engaging and absorbing performance from Washington, very nearly succeeds. Portrayals of spirals into ever self-destructive behaviour rarely fail to stir the emotions, and through Washington, an actor entering his autumnal years with the heavy weight of experience behind his eyes, Whip's history of self-deceit and personal relationship-failure resolutely convinces. However, this being a Zemeckis movie, we are never far from an empathic Alan Silvestri score, or the soft-peddling of some of the more difficult thematic elements. The crash-sequence itself, a bravura feat of film-making that begins at 30,000 feet, is depicted in all its first-person horror (we only see the crash externally from smartphone footage on the news), and the relationship Whip tentatively engages with with fellow addict Nicole (Reilly) is touching in its own way, but the film's last act sacrifices narrative resolution for dramatic closure, tidily tacking on a trite redemptive prediction that, whilst neat, undoes much of the drama that's gone before.
Thursday, 24 January 2013
Zero Dark Thirty, dir. Kathryn Bigelow, wr. Mark Boal, st. Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton
Zero Dark Thirty is quite unlike any American war film you may have seen before. If Ben Kingsley's Cosmo was right in Robert Redford's 1992 film Sneakers, that "the world isn't run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It's run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data.", that his prophetic quote foreshadowed a digital age that was to define how wars are fought and won, then Bigelow's film certainly seems to play out that idea with sobriety and solemnity. It's really not until the film's final moments, when Bin Laden's compound is raided in the dead of night, that we get anything like the kind of gunplay that has been a defining trope of classic contemporary war films, and even then, far from the usual celebration of jingoistic violence. We view the action through a hazy green-tinted, night-visoned lens, the individual muted shots of Navy SEALs' pistols reverberating through the house, the individual clatter of shell casings on the ground, unscored. It is even more remarkable then that in a bid to make Zero Dark Thirty as stoic, realistic, and underactioned as possible, these last few scenes are almost unbearably tense.
We see the film through the eyes of Maya, a CIA analyst in 2003, steely but green, shadowing Dan (Clarke), a colleague at a US 'Black Site' in Pakistan (an unlisted area controlled by the military). Here, in the film's first scenes, we see the much discussed interrogation of a man with alleged links to Saudi terrorists. They're grim and quite difficult to watch, and although Bigelow never gets to the knottier issue of torture as a valid pathway to military success, she doesn't glorify or celebrate it either. That Maya's induction into this world is heralded by Dan calmly asking her to pass him a water-filled jug to aid in the prisoner's waterboarding is a shocking reminder of the means-to-an-end, single-mindedly obsessive objectives of the US government. Later, we also see American politicians denying the use of torture at US bases, and a passing comment about the new administration clamping down on officers involved in such behaviour; such scenes aren't exactly trumpeted, but they're there as a subtly acute reminder.
Jessica Chastain expands on an increasingly impressive body of work in the role of Maya. Neither physically commanding as Sarah Connor or as emotionally unstable as Carrie Mathison, Maya's trump card is her recognisable and human focus and drive. Come the finale, it's a brave decision to have her, not in the midst of the action as tradition would have it, but watching events unfold on a monitor. She's not an action hero (as a CIA analyst she spends the majority of her time actually analysing), but her actions - her whip-smart intelligence, irritation with listless higher authority, razor-sharp intuition - define the outcome and ultimately galvanise the heavy machinery of high-level military decision-making. Zero Dark Thirty is a highly competent thriller, thoughtfully assembled, and tremendously executed. We might all know the outcome of this story, but there're no fanfares, cheers, or victory bells to be heard.
Monday, 21 January 2013
Lincoln, dir. Steven Spielberg, scr. Tony Kushner, based on "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, st. Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones
The American poet John Godfrey Saxe once famously said, "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made", but whereas the recent news that our supermarkets have been filling up our sausages with this and that, Thénardier-style, might put the kibsoh on Spielberg's planned banger biopic, we still have Lincoln, his Saxe-defying, three hour dissection of how constitutional law is constructed. Scripted by Tony Kushner, author of Angels In America, and engineered by Spielberg's usual team of Kennedy, Kamiński, Williams, and Kahn, this is probably his most unSpielbergian picture to date. There are virtually none of the iconic visual or stylistic flourishes that pepper his earlier canon. Even the sombre Munich back in 2005, with its carefully marked sense of cultural and political period was clearly delineated as his, albeit maturing, work. Here, for the most part, we have Lincoln in dark rooms of greys, browns and blacks, surrounded by his team, strategising how best to push through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and abolish slavery for all time. The opposition he meets is considerable. As ever, when viewed from an era of (relative) political enlightenment, ("What next, giving women the vote?!"), we marvel at our ignorance then, but with Obama currently attempting to push through similar constitution-ammending legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the fierce antagonism that has since emanated from the Republican National Committee and the NRA, we see clearly illustrated patterns that reach right back through history - the fear of change, the rejection of progress, the safety of the status quo. Whilst Lincoln is dense, wordy, and possibly overlong, it's also riveting, in a kind of hypnotic way, but more than this, Daniel Day-Lewis, craggy and goateed, turns in a performance of such grace and passion; a later scene in the film in which the President tours the battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia is beautifully choreographed and scored, Lincoln's face a picture of desolation, his trademark imposing height reduced to a shattered slump as he sits astride his horse and wends his way through a field of soldiers gutted and gone. Ultimately, Spielberg and Day-Lewis are surely dead certs for Oscar glory and Lincoln is every bit the stately, ennobling, heritage film it should be.
Sunday, 20 January 2013
A hit at last year's Sundance, Greenfield's insightful film tells the cautionary tale of David Siegel, holiday-apartment timeshare king, and his wife Jackie, a former Miss Florida, who along with their eight children, plan to live in the largest domestic house in America, a sprawling monument to extreme opulence, and set within spitting distance of the Disney Castle and their nightly firework display. The twist here, rather than merely selling a story of unbridled greed that continues onwards unchecked into eternity, is the impact the recession has on the Siegels, their business, and their dream home. Whilst Schadenfreudian impulses are predictable and possibly unavoidable, and any concession to pity feels like betrayal against those whose lives have genuinely been wrecked by the economy, there's something rather tragic about a family undone by the over-extention of their reach. One particular scene has Jackie attempting to cobble together a semblance of celebration for her husband's birthday; the majority of maids have been let go, anaemic fried chicken broils away greasily in foil roasters, and all around, the waste of their many pets litters the house. Like some terrible meteorological disaster that strikes with no discernible interest in who or what succumbs to it, The Queen of Versailles not only shows wealth as a rum cure-all salve, but also a rather sad portrayal of blindsiding insatiable success.
Friday, 18 January 2013
Django Unchained, dir/wr. Quentin Tarantino, st. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Compared against that other Oscar-studded study on slavery Lincoln, Quentin Tarantino's seventh film as writer/director seems pulpier than usual. Given his fondness for the Western and all its associative manners one can see liberally strewn in his back catalogue, from stand-offs to Morricone, it was surely only a matter of time before he made his own. Django Unchained (the "D" remember, is silent), puts Jamie Foxx in the role of a slave, liberated from bondage by the bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) in order to track and kill the next marks on his list. The two form a mutually beneficial partnership; Django will partner with Schultz for the Winter and then Schultz will help Django track down Django's wife Broomhilda (Washington), being held by wealthy plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (DiCaprio). The first half is as gleefully trashy as one would hope. In Waltz, Tarantino has found one in a handful of actors who's able to turn his smug-smart prose into deliverable poetry. These first scenes are among the best, with Schultz managing to out-smart, draw and philosophise those who stand in his way. The introduction of Candie in the film's second half would really have been a chance to raise it up a notch, to give Schultz a villain worthy of his superheroism, but DiCaprio never grapples with the language with any real perception of Tarantino's bullet-time wordsmithery. He may have told Krishnan Guru-Murthy (just prior to having his butt shut down) that he reckoned he was in the sweet-spot performance-wise, but Django Unchained feels more like a side-step than the exhilarating breakout it might have been.
Wednesday, 16 January 2013
Les Misérables, dir. Tom Hooper, scr. William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer, st. Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Here's a recipe for success if ever there was one; take the second-longest running musical in the world, add an acclaimed director fresh from delivering one of the most triumphant British films ever in 2010's The King's Speech, mix in a cast of A-listers that'll pull the crowds, but pique enough "What? They sing?" curiosity, and negotiate an Awards-season release date that massages its credibility. Of course, haters gonna hate - especially those who cling to West End memories like life rafts - and indeed, not all their neuroses concerning the film go unfounded, but for the most part, Les Misérables succeeds as a bona fide blockbusting spectacle, substantial on heavy-spread emotional interweaving narratives, and possessing a grimy gutter-chic production design that's sorely missing from the stage show. Pruned of the set changes and applause between numbers that help break up the theatrical experience into more manageable amuse-bouches, Hooper's film is relentless but never tedious. And rightly so, for there's a wealth of plot to get through. The much talked about 'live sound' is a winner too. To explain; songs are traditionally recorded beforehand in the studio and then mimed on-set when it comes to film the scene. Hooper's film has the actors singing live, on-set, with the orchestra as the element that's dubbed on in post-production. As you might expect this enables the singing to be more immediate and cemented into the fabric of the story - great for actors wanting their sung and unsung performances to be commensurate with each other, and great for those members of the audience for whom musical numbers distract from the drama. The film's centrepiece is the much publicised one-take, full-frame rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream", arguably Les Misérables' most famous (but not best) song, and beloved of Drama School auditonees nationwide. Anne Hathaway, shorn, ragged and crumpled like John Hurt's Winston Smith, is more astonishing in this three-minute segment than in the rest of her impassioned but average wider performance, and despite myself, moved me if not to tears, than certainly sad sniffs. Also worthy of note is Jackman as Jean Valjean. It's no mean feat to go from Wolverine's ruggedly icy stoicism to Valjean's humble fragility, yet he manages it, sustained in no small part to a voice of control and resonance. It's rather more difficult to assess Russell Crowe as Javert; not as instantly dismissible as Helena Bonham Carter as Helena Bonham Carter playing Mme Thenardier, there is something of the foundation-rocked inspector flickering behind the eyes, but it's too distant and suplexed by a ropey singing voice too come through. With it's multiple, multiple deaths and intricate, searching themes that take in everything from poverty and class, ambition, survival, guilt, parenthood, redemption, and loves lost, found, returned and unrequited, Les Misérables is a palpable hit, but the real star is Boublil and Schönberg's enduring and ageless source material.
Tuesday, 15 January 2013
The Sessions, dir/scr. Ben Lewin, based on "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" by Mark O'Brien, st. John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
Hollywood is certainly no stranger to either the subject of disability or sex as long, of course, as they remain disparate and segregated. And whilst actors displaying their front bottoms can be seen as either 'gratuitous' or 'brave' depending on the tone of the film, nothing screams 'Award-calibre Performance' like the depiction of some kind of physical or mental illness. It's difficult to know where cynicism ends and noble intent begins, but all too often, soft and yearning orchestral motifs and narratives from the 'Triumph Over Adversity 101' school of plotting take precedent over the addressing of such subject matter that can be at once sensitively and brutally portrayed. In many ways, sex and disability is a bit of a hard sell for an industry that's so strictly governed by a set of bizarre and nonsensical criteria that supposedly relates to matters of taste; sex is fine as long as it's between a consensual heterosexual couple, rape is more problematic, sexual violence more problematic still, female sexual empowerment and liberalism - forget it. Likewise, disability or terminal illness is always conveyed with 'spirit-of-humanity' earnestness, or worse, condescension; no one wants to see the piss and the shit and all the more visceral realities of disease, let alone god forbid, moments of intimacy. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cottilard's frank and erotic love scene in last year's Rust And Bone did much to dispel the myth that certain sexual activity has no credible place on the screen. Their scene was sensuous, understated, and light years from all the glossy vanillaed fucking that we see in neatly choreographed and carefully framed scenes from more mainstream movies. If then disability and sex is the last taboo, Ben Lewin's The Sessions splinters it into a million pieces with dignity, welcome wry humour, and a lyrical, emotional core that never declines into mawkishness or cloying sentimentality.
Man of the moment John Hawkes, so memorably and disturbingly hypnotic in films like Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone before it, here contorts and ensconces himself in the guise of Mark O'Brien, poet and polio victim, and on whose essay, published in 1990, this film is based. The setup is extraordinarily simple - bar a few flashbacks, the action oscillates between three primary locations; Mark's church, where he informs a compassionate but addled priest (H. Macy) of his intention to 'become a man' via a sex surrogate; Mark's simple ground floor apartment, containing as its centrepiece his iron lung (a terribly imposing construction of steel and glass, both casket and life-giver), and the homely residence of Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt), the professional stimulator Mark employs. In her modest study, she conscientiously dictates notes from the sessions she shares with him, noting progress, occasionally pausing at the magnitude of just what it is they're sharing. At times it's hard to tell who's more out of their depth. The sessions themselves are shot with meticulous inhibition, even if the participants themselves are scared half to death. Watching Cheryl coax Mark from timidity via a number of 'body awareness exercises' is a moving experience - part sex-seminar, part compelling insight into carnal awakening - but mostly it reminds us, able-bodied as we probably are, of the little things that comprise real human contact, the headiness of touch, sweetness of breath, and electricity of skin over skin. At first, Cheryl seems stoic, businesslike even. We begin to instinctively seek out the moment when she'll crack, and the two will succumb to one another. Ultimately, that Cheryl doesn't fall for her client, despite being deeply moved at his plight and relentless optimism, proves to be The Sessions' trump card, a winning diversion from convention, and one that recontextualises her earlier formality as creditable professionalism. To use an earlier ranking, Hunt would most definitely qualify for a 'brave' rating, not for what she bears externally, but for what she offers emotionally. She has a beauty, a resilience and intelligence that we fall for, utterly. For us men she's the holy grail of sexual partners; someone who banishes our neuroses and embraces us completely. One can only imagine the pain of not being able to touch her back. But this is Hawkes' film, though I suspect he'd never be so modest as to receive ownership of it. It's interesting to note how he quite literally does more with his face that most actors do with their whole bodies. Lewin cleverly refrains from aligning the camera with Mark's recumbent position on his gurney. It's a subtle but constant trick, silently commenting on how one views and is viewed, made even more noticeable during the only times we see his head face on - when he's in bed during the sessions, blissful and apprehensive, Hawkes' eyes darting from object to object.
There are no outro montages, no codas, no epilogues come the end of the film. Just an ending as sincere as its beginning, with Mark's narration telling us all we need to know. For a film that does its best to be unremarkable, The Sessions is very, very remarkable indeed.
Gangster Squad, dir. Ruben Fleischer, scr. Will Beall, based on "Tales from the Gangster Squad" by Paul Lieberman, st. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, Robert Patrick
Watching Gangster Squad reminded me of the first time Napster came on the scene; all the music you could ever want, for free! Where to start?! I felt like how I imagine the hosts of The Gadget Show might feel in Foxconn. Watching as talent after talent was introduced produced that same feeling of giddy intoxication. OK, so Penn's Mickey Cohen was more De Niro Capone than I had expected but by my estimation, a lighter prohibition-era gangster film in the same vein as The Untouchables was long overdue. Then, that familiar feeling again. Too much of a good thing's a bad thing indeed. Fleischer seems unable to orientate his film in a particular tone or style, a fact made worse by the bloated amount of talent on display. Think about how much you notice when an actor is adrift in an underwritten role. Now apply that to a whole cast. For the most part, the authenticity of period is intact and dynamic, but the film suffers from a dreadful script (that includes a creakingly awful voiceover), prosaic plotting, and the kind of boxing-and-coxing of familiar meet-the-team-and-their-special-skills tropes that annoy and distress. By the by, one day Emma Stone will make a period film and she'll be transcendent instead of her beautiful modern self; this is not it.
Friday, 11 January 2013
The Impossible, dir. J.A. Bayona, wr. Sergio G. Sánchez, st. Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Much has been made of The Impossible's alleged whitewashing of indigenous victims (our protagonists are UK tourists) and focus of events. The fact that 150 UK citizens perished in the disaster compared to the 170,000 estimated Indonesian dead is neither here nor there, as this is a film whose primary role is (as insensitive as it may seem, but let's not kid ourselves) to entertain, and not necessarily to educate or inform. One may argue however, that lifting true stories, no matter how extraordinary, clean out of real life and packaging them in multiplex-friendly two-hour parcels of narrative, demands a certain level of tact and respect. The nature of history and commitment to its truths obliges you. The singular most compelling reason to label The Impossible entertainment in this context is Fernando Velazquez's almost constant and overbearing score that bullies the viewer into an emotion well before one might have arrived there naturally. It's the filmic equivalent of being severely harassed by your boss for tardiness before you have the chance to tell him you were violently mugged on the in way to work. Even the near-unbelievable sequence of events that see the Belon family divide, survive and ultimately triumph, surely highly implausible if they were fiction, may be forgiven due to the way the film explores how lives - and yes, to an extent Western middle-class complacency - can be suddenly and destructively forever changed in a heartbeat. To this end The Impossible contains some of the most convincingly horrific footage of the unfolding cataclysm I have ever seen committed to celluloid. The torrent of unrelenting water that freely ravages the landscape, blending trees, buildings, cars and people into a murky, muddy soup is truly shocking. In early scenes - some of the best in the film - Maria Belon (Watts) and her son Lucas (Holland) are swept into this watery hell and proceed to form a beautifully mutated reversal of roles as the son becomes his mother's guide and protector. Bayona's previous film - the acclaimed The Orphanage - dealt with similarly themes of families ripped apart and coming together again, but in the smaller budget and lesser-known stars, found an intimacy and longing sadly absent from this film. The Impossible then, is in many ways an unforgettable film in its depiction of nature's terrifying and deadly power; as a piece of drama, it's prescriptive and not a little overwrought.
Monday, 7 January 2013
Sinister, dir. Scott Derrickson, wr. C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson, st. Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Thompson, James Ransone
What to make of this low-budget yet moody and stylish British chamber horror piece? Author and left-wing commentator Owen Jones has resolutely denounced Eden Lake as a movie "arguing that the middle classes could no longer live alongside the quasi-bestial lower orders." Certainly protagonists Jenny (Reilly) and Steve (Fassbender) with their three-quarter length chinos, glamping kit and 4x4 are deliberately set out to provide a visually symbolic class counterpoint to Brett (O'Connell) and his coterie of hoodies. It certainly seems that Jones' argument doesn't quite hold water once the rest of the gang, uncouth as they may be depicted in earlier scenes, are seen to be going along with the more violent proceedings out of pure fear of their psychotic ringleader. Their reticence to fully engage in the barbarism comments more on classless peer-pressure than anything else. It's worth a mention too that O'Connell, who demonstrated the same kind of dangerous borderline lunacy as James Cook in Skins, is terrifyingly persuasive here as Brett - an unpredictable torrent of rage and murderous ferocity. Similarly, Fassbender predictably perfectly pitches Steve as just the kind of well-meaning white-collar hero we might think of ourselves as, and like many of those characters he shadows - Deliverance's Ed Gentry or Straw Dogs' David Sumner - finds himself out-environmented in unforgiving and foreign rurality. It's only in the film's final scenes does Eden Lake slip into the stereotyping one hoped it wouldn't. And this is a great shame as by and large, it's a well-crafted and well-performed chiller, slight but effective on the social commentary, commendable as shiver-inducing entertainment.
Sunday, 6 January 2013
There is an overwhelming kineticism to Denis Lavant's pseudo-clowning performances that is exhilarating to watch. Like the best performers, be they artists, musicians, dancers, actors or even sportspersons, there is a will to slow down their art and saviour it in all its minute, glorious detail. Longtime collaborator Leos Carax's esoteric, offbeat film has Lavant cast as Mr. Oscar, a kind of transitory Time Lord, who travels from location - or 'appointment' - to location in an o'er-stuffed limousine that resembles a post-hurricaine RSC costume store, chock full of theatrical apparati. Upon arrival, Oscar, having conscientiously applied make-up and costume, is let out to 'inhabit' the character within an unsuspecting environment, people for whom the world continues as ever. To say much more about the individual scenarios would rob one of the disconcerting effect one experiences of having the crutch of cinematic convention unavailable. Holy Motors is, yes, totally unlike anything you may have seen before, and most definitely completely nuts. But curiously for a film that so drastically departs from traditional narrative, it's the more poignant moments that will end up staying with you, and the movie as a whole, surely benefits from repeated viewings. Holy Motors might even end up having something rather profound to say on the nature of routine and the transience of our everyday lives - much more than any other film in 2012 you thought might.
Thursday, 3 January 2013
5. The Imposter - eerie documentary about a curiously motiveless deception.
4. Michael - unfussy and objective portrayal of a pedophile hiding in plain sight.
3. Shame - brings the unflinching depression, humiliation and pain of addiction into sharp focus.
2. Sound Of My Voice - Brit Marling's cult-themed follow up to last year's Another Earth.
1. Take This Waltz - a bruisingly aching depiction of the volatile nature of love.
Commended: Holy Motors, Rust And Bone, Moonrise Kingdom, Skyfall, The Master