Friday, 26 April 2013

Iron Man 3, dir. Shane Black, scr. drew Pearce, Shane Black, based on Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby and Extremis by Warren Ellis, Adi Granov, st. Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley

Another Summer, another Iron Man film, and this time it's up to Shane Black, Predator's geeky radio ops expert Hawkins, to step things up a gear. Not that the Iron Man films need stepping up, but like Downey Jr.'s alter ego Tony Stark, the franchise has a certain defiance in incremental ascension, creaking under the weight of its own success. Iron Man 3 begins with Stark suffering from panic attacks as the fantastical events of The Avengers, what with its aliens and trans-dimensional Norse deities, have left him feeling a bit woozy on his feet. His relationship with Virginia "Pepper" Potts (Paltrow) is now in full bloom, but his insomnian late-night workshop-tinkering is starting to strain their bond. It's not long before The Mandarin (Kingsley), a terrorist fully laden with Bin Laden attributes, comes knocking on America's door, promising all manner of atrocities. The realism (if it can be called that) of the Iron Man world jarred with allusions to Loki's more fantastical story, but in many ways I quite enjoyed Pearce and Black's economical screenplay even if it made for a more disjointed Iron Man experience than expected. Downey Jr. is an actor capable of conveying so much in intonation and gesture where lesser actors use words and action, and even though there isn't a Dark Knight Rises-style scene in which attention is drawn to Stark's armourless fragile humanity, we certainly feel how heavy the load the hero carries. I'm rather fond of Paltrow too, apparently disdained on the web for her goodie-goodie lifestyle advisings, here, a credible companion and worthy sidekick. Additionally, there's a blinder of a bluff played on comparison between trailer and feature (that concerns all things villainous) that knocked me for six in the most wonderful way, and injected much needed levity into proceedings that at times feel leaden with some kind of Scandinavian miserablism. It'll be interesting to see which way Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World go, and indeed the next Avengers film, but one can't shake the feeling Iron Man 3 has ended up, despite the creative and financial orgy that was promised, as just another superhero franchise film.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Elles, dir. Małgorzata Szumowska, wr. Małgorzata Szumowska, Tine Byrckel, st. Juliette Binoche, Joanna Kulig, Anaïs Demoustier

In Małgorzata Szumowska's mildly intriguing Elles, Binoche plays much the same kind of ennui-afflicted middle-class housewife she did in Michael Haneke's Caché and the film actually unfolds in much the same way too, with scenes of routine urban domesticity intercut with more unnerving narrative. Binoche plays Anne, a journalist whose interviews with Charlotte (Demoustier) and Alicja (Kulig), two ordinary young women who've chosen a career in the sex industry, are told in flashback. As the deadline to her article looms and her indifferent husband and difficult teenage boys' presence bear down on her, she loses herself in her subjects' libertarian and carefree approach to sex and sexuality, never truly knowing (like us) if she's fascinated, aroused, repulsed, or a little of all three. Professionals losing themselves in their subject matter is a well-worn trope most often seen in steamy Noiry potboilers in which cops fall for the only viable fatale femme around, but applied here, there's a point (albeit a blurry one) to be made about the desire for abandoned escapism as a liniment for the mundanity of modern marriage. Alas, in its need to show rather than to tell, there's a distinct lack of drive in Elles that makes it hard to engage with the subject matter. Binoche would be captivatingly watchable filling a hot water bottle for two hours, but even she can't enable the movie to evoke in its audience the kind of heart-skipping eroticism that Anne finds so alluring.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Schindler's List, dir. Steven Spielberg, scr. Steven Zaillian, based on Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally, st. Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz

Schindler's List, Spielberg's multi-award-winning film from 1993 is, with no sense of hyperbole, a true cinematic masterpiece. I suspect, much like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's a work that many people feel they should have absorbed but haven't ever quite got around to it. Many will have been put off by its three-hour plus running time or devastatingly bleak and harrowing subject matter. But Schindler's List is an essential watch which educates and informs in a manner Hollywood rarely offers. It unflinchingly reveals the extent of the Jewish persecution and subsequent imprisonment and murder at the hands of the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. 

Caught up in this time of great upheaval is Oskar Schindler (Neeson) - an industrialist, womaniser and opportunist who spies a great way to swell his coffers by using free Jewish labour to run a factory making army mess kits. Over time, and through Schindler's relationship with Itzhak Stern (Kingsley), a Jewish businessman he employs to run his administration, the entrepreneur begins to realise the magnitude of what it is each worker in his factory might represent. Much of this change of heart is subtly expressed and well hidden from Oskar's superiors who might raise alarm; his generosity and convivial nature, skills essential to grease palms and endear himself to those who're in a position to enable his business interests, soon become weapons with which to bribe and purchase favours and individual factory men, women and children. Neeson navigates Schindler's journey to enlightenment with sensitivity and quiet resignation. There's never any explicit anger in what he sees. Only the muted but certain decision that something must be done. Kingsley likewise is arguably the more compelling character. His Stern is obedient in the presence of his master, sensing goodness, not daring to hope it's true. And rarely has Ralph Fiennes been quite so hypnotically engaging as in his portrayal of Amon Goeth, the designated SS officer to steward the concentration camp at Płaszów. Goeth is a gruesome character but also something of an enigma. We're never sure if his hostility drives his own misery or whether it's the other way around. His conversations with Schindler (who neatly suggests he use forgiveness rather than violence as a way of exhibiting authority) seem to resonate with Goeth, at least for a while, and one questions Oskar's later reasoning that it's the war alone that has brought out Amon's uglier side. But the film is really about the Schindlerjuden - those that were to owe their lives to Schindler. We follow some of their individual narratives through the film and come to realise how ultimately, their importance as simple names on a list. How an inked name can make the difference between life and death.

Artfully binding Schindler's List together is Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg's long-time cinematographer and John Williams, his long-standing collaborative composer. Together, through high-contrast black and whites and violin-led musical elegies, the pair lend the film its desolate beauty. In uncertain times, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the need for tolerance and liberty. No other film has ever been so important.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Upside Down, dir/wr. Juan Diego Solanas, st. Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst

What a shame that such an inventive and hi-concept idea, bursting with ideas visual and scientific, needs to arrive laden with such leaden storytelling and the incredulity that the film-makers can't even manage a simple love story without reducing it to double-take, head-scratching plot developments and one-dimensional characterisation. Adam (Sturgess) and Eden (Dunst) are two characters from households very much unalike in dignity; 'Up' is prosperous and affluent while 'Down' is poor and disadvantaged. No doubt Cameron and Osborne would have 'Down' as a crime-ridden utopia of filth, corruption, and degeneration, but Solanas depicts it as a sort of Industrial Britain - sooty, oily, but with the kind of decent hardworking folk you might find in a Hovis ad. These are two worlds on top of each other. Down is up and up is down. Think Ellen Page folding a city on to itself in Inception. A single immense tower block that houses 'Transworld' (a kind of Murdoch-owned conglomerate) is the only structure that links the two worlds. The allegorical setting is the perfect setting for a troubled love affair, frustratingly unimaginatively utilised.  Sturgess and Dunst appeal but the script appears to have been written by a group of first year Drama School students thrown together to devise a story by way of a first-day induction exercise. Many of the patchwork of ideas that make up this ungainly melange are actually half-way decent. There's a notion, for instance, that although each subject's homeworld gravity acts upon and stays with them no matter which world one is in, there might exist bees whose pollen acts as a kind of organic antigravity matter, but once used as a crude Macguffin, it's discarded. With a plot that was ironed out and carefully reconstructed this could have been something really very special, a sci-fi movie that taps into the kind of multi-world trans-physics dream-weirdness we've all experienced when asleep, but alas, Upside Down is nothing more than a glorified (albeit successful) VFX showreel.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Citadel, dir/wr. Ciaran Foy, st. Aneurin Barnard, James Cosmo, Jake Wilson, Wunmi Mosaku

Most definitely a film of two halves, Foy's urban horror begins by ratcheting up near-unbearable levels of malevolence before the whole thing unravels in the second half and, regrettably, Citadel becomes just another monster movie. Tommy (Barnard) and his pregnant wife Joanne are about to move out of their mangy old tower block when she is set upon by hooded youths. The baby survives the attack and Tommy attempts to raise the child himself, still tormented by the (possibly supernatural) same gang. Foy's blinder is his film's desolate setting; the juxtaposition between minimal cast and vast expanses of space are unsettling in the extreme. Initially it seems that Tommy and Joanne are the only ones living in the block (they're the last occupants to leave the condemned building), but even the snow-covered estate Tommy moves to after the attack seems to be similarly uninhabited. Bus drivers - caged into their cockpit - are surly and uncooperative. Everything is in a state of stagnation and decay. The figures that congregate around the looming tower blocks are effectively creepy. It's an old ruse to keep their faces hidden and movements unnatural, but coupled with Tommy's nascent agoraphobia, it's particularly unsettling. However, once a sweary and bearded priest (Cosmo) shows up and appears to have Information That Confirms The Evil, we're onto a strictly predetermined path that leads, unsurprisingly, back into the belly of the beast and once more unto the menacing citadel where Tommy must confront his fear. I have written at great length how great horror ideas all too often run out of steam rather than build on innovative and successfully chilling concepts, and Citadel sadly is no exception. There's a great performance from Barnard as the troubled Tommy, pushed into solitary fatherhood whilst mourning his wife, torn between the fierce and unconditional love and protection for his child and the inner and outer monsters that torment him, and there's a vague whiff of politicised class commentary might the film have had the cajones to explore it further. But alas not even a suitably shuddery tomandandy score can rescue Citadel once it's unhooded.

Margin Call, dir/wr. J.C. Chandor, st. Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci

Margin Call may have been filmed on a (comparatively) modest budget, but the themes the film deals with are as far-reaching and cosmos-calling as any grand sci-fi opus. Set over a period of just 36 hours in an unnamed (*cough* Goldman Sachs *cough*) trading firm, Chandor's film, as chilly as it is elegant, charts the discovery and initial tremors of the financial crisis of 2008 that, as time has borne out, was to unrelentingly ripple across the face of our planet. It's effectively a dissection of big business damage limitation, as the CEO and board's primary instinct is to minimise liability and dump their toxic products asap and the little people be damned. There's no time here to listen to any Glengarry-style worker woes (the film begins with a floor-wide layoff). Instead, the workers are presumed to be at the top of their game (or certainly at base camp with all the kit and a fair wind) and justly reaping rewards. In the same way that Frank Pierson's HBO marvel Conspiracy managed even within a privileged syndicate of SS officers, politicians and lawyers to demarcate heroes and villains, Margin Call similarly gives us a clearly identifiable root-forable hero in the shape of Spacey's Sam Rogers, the only one who seems remotely concerned about anything other than his own skin. The film doesn't give much of a sense of life outside the office walls - the general public reduced to the flickering city lights and car headlamps that form a luminescent backdrop to corner office über-views; that's us, and we have no place in this world. Electrifying, bitterly fascinating and utterly imperative viewing.

300, Zack Snyder, scr. Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon based on 300 by Frank Miller, st. Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro, Michael Fassbender

Sparta, where the pants are small and the chests are hairless and oiled. Kind Leonidas (Butler) collects 300 of his finest soldiers in order to orchestrate a pre-emptive attack on God-king Xerxes (Santoro, pierced and androgynous) after drop-kicking a Persian messenger down a well. Spartans are proud and are indoctrinated in youth to show no fear and regard any personal weakness as irredeemable failing, and so off they trudge; 300 soldiers against a gazillion Persians (whose mobile court tents hold all manner of exotic malformations and erotic deformities). Any symbolism of East/West aggression and superiority as well as any allegorical homophobic undertones are clearly bunkum. Snyder has selected a great story, skeletal and sinewy in its uncluttered depiction of bravery and nationalism, and forged a visually arresting and dynamic piece of pop-photoplay. Even if the trailer-y choreography and hyper-stylised mise-en-scène suggest the importance of form over content (which compared with later efforts from Snyder such as Watchmen and Sucker Punch make it seem like a Director finding his eyes), there's enough on display here to entertain and even to wonder at.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Cloud Atlas, dir/scr. Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, based on Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, st. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

Films that attempt to encompass a gargantuan slew of concepts, narrative techniques and styles are nearly always doomed to polarise their audiences. Maybe it's something to do with only being able to concentrate and absorb a finite amount of information during a given time. With a novel, you can pause, digest, skip back if needs be, return to it again and again at your leisure, consuming it in variably-sized chunks of your choosing. The problem with Cloud Atlas (and it is a problem) is that the film gives us such a wealth of interconnecting stories and an orgy of A-listers in different guises liberally strewn around the chapters, that sometimes you can't see the sky for the gas. The Wachowskis' adaptation of Mitchell's novel comprises six individual timelines ranging between 1849 to 2321. Within those timelines, the self-contained stories are inter-temporally linked to the other tales outside their timelines either narratively via character or theme, or formatively through the multi-role-playing of the actors. To this end, the frequent prosthetic- and wig-slathering that the Wachowskis' employ predictably works best when it's subtle or unnoticed. At times working like an unkempt Magnolia, replete with urgent melodic scoring, Cloud Atlas builds towards some kind of apex where the stories converge. The ultimate aim is, of course, to illustrate how actions and events can ripple through space and time and effect others' actions and decisions, yet to its detriment, none of the stories are very compelling. Additionally, aside from a commanding performance from Bae Doona as a replicant prole (in one of the film's more successful and sci-fi sections) the acting is strictly pedestrian and uninspiring. Yet Cloud Atlas does truly fascinate with its sheer scale of ambition. If the film complete underwhelms as much less than the sum of its parts, then it is also the scope and vision of the individual sections where the film also triumphs. As frustrating as it is to feel like you're watching six overlapping movies, the care, design and attention to detail applied to each component is undeniable and exhilarating. There is a great film deep within Cloud Atlas that exists in a different universe, a different edit that coheres more and confounds less; the one we are presented with in our reality is at best serviceable.