Sunday, 30 June 2013

Stand By Me, dir. Rob Reiner, scr. Bruce A. Evans, Raynold Gideon, based on The Body by Stephen King, st. Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss

Could Stand By Me be the best coming-of-age movie ever made? Quite possibly. For a film that's so remarkably thin on plot - four friends go looking for a dead body, find it, and go home - Stand By Me is impossibly packed with numerous mediations on adolescent ambition, failed parenthood, and childhood friendship, told from the perspective of four kids on the verge of discovering just how wide and deceptive the parameters of burgeoning adulthood can be. Anchoring Reiner's sensitive yet far from condescending handling of preteen movie tropes are a quartet of triumphant performances from the four leads - the shy and softly-spoken Gordie (Wheaton), Phoenix as the cool miscreant Chris, Vern - the comic but never mocked relief (O'Connell) and Feldman as the perpetually furied Teddy Duchamp. All four children, it is inferred, have been let down in some way by their elders. In fact, in the world of Stand By Me, adults are venal, insensitive or just plain absent. Dreyfuss joins the ranks of the likes of Stewart, Hurt and McKellen in the jostle for the honeyed VO crown, and as the older Gordie, narrates the film with a reserved modesty which can veer from desperately deadpan, to desperately heartbreaking with the most gossamer changes in intonation and timbre. Composer Jack Nitzsche modulates the classic Ben E. King title track with dreamy glass harmonicas and delicate string-work, and The West Wing's longtime cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth's panoramic lenses make the most of the fecund Oregon landscape. You can set off on a voyage of discovery of your own hoping to find a more soulful movie about the tricksy transition between boy and man, but you won't find it.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Purge, dir/wr. James DeMonaco, st. Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey

What begins as a deliciously ripe allegorical tale that plays on a fundamental mistrust of outsiders, ever heightening class and inter-class tensions, and America's obsession with constitutional rights, rapidly descends into an ugly mess of plot collapses and lapses of sense. This is a huge shame as the central premise within The Purge, as audacious as it might be in its 70s B-movie conceptual pretensions, has a great set of razor-sharp satirical teeth. In 2022, crime and unemployment is at an all-time low. The economy flourishes, and things are about as utopian as they get. This is, we are told, due to an annual 12-hour "purge", a government-sanctioned half-day of lawlessness where anything and everything goes - penalty free. On news magazine shows, talking heads discuss how man's innate savagery is tempered by allowing this periodic cathartic release of ultra-violence to stand. In the hours leading up to the event - imagine the Queen's Jubilee but with semi-automatics - news anchors fervently discuss the cleansing nature of the purge, and the Sandin's neighbours openly angle-grind homemade machetes. Had the film been more about the terrifying fanatical way credence is leant to the purge as a quasi-religious day of spiritual absolution or the Republican dream of allowing society's weakest and poorest to be Darwinially expunged from their streets, and less about James Sandin (Hawke) and his one-dimensional family of morons, this would have been a corker of an entry into the tired home-invasion canon. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Terminator 2: Judgement Day, dir. James Cameron, wr. James Cameron, William Wisher, Jr., st. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong

For a director that is said to sideline his actors in favour of the technical aesthetic, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and indeed his Alien sequel five years earlier, remain two of the most 'human' sci-fi actioners I've ever seen. Just as someone like Spielberg is often frightened of pushing a more adult agenda and in turn often overspoons the syrup, Cameron, certainly in these two films mentioned, seems to have got the delicate and refined mixture down pat. In the case of the hugely successful sequel to his own 1984 film about the relentless killer cyborg sent back in time to kill the mother of mankind's future saviour before she gives birth to him, Terminator 2 stands as a more enjoyable, less gushy ET; it's a boy and his hyperalloy combat chassis. For what really sets this film apart, and what sells the franchise's enduring mythic architecture is how the end of humankind as we know it is distilled to the plight of a mother and her child (Aliens features a similar setup), and more specifically, the child and his surrogate father. In Hamilton's desperate and driven Sarah and Furlong's moody miscreant John, we have characters that seamlessly run the entire gamut of emotions over 120 minutes. Just look at the psychological journey Sarah makes. From inmate teetering on the brink of insanity, to reluctant and dispassionate mother, to merciless killing machine, and finally to ultimate family protector and provider. But it's Furlong that gives flesh to T2's endoskeleton. At first, the T101 is all about furthering his own misadventures ("Cool! My own Terminator!), but this quickly gives way to a deeper bond. Who hasn't wished that their Fathers were completely focussed on them and their interests without a job, friends - or dare I say it, a wife - to distract them. As Sarah notes, this machine "would never leave him... It would always be there and it would never hurt him, never shout at him or get drunk and hit him, or say it couldn't spend time with him because it was too busy. And it would die to protect him." By the time we hear John's tearful "I order you not to go" speech at the film's end, like his mother Sarah, he too has crossed a threshold. That there is time to pause and feel this, amidst all the noise, is truly impressive filmmaking. And what noise. And what relentless pacing too - especially in the film's final act - itself a three-part orgy of sound and fury that goes from the Cyberdyne building shootout, to an infernal steelworks (via a breatless SWAT-van/helicopter freeway pursuit), and the emotional payoff of the Connors' earlier re-setting of the Terminator's CPU that gives him the ability to learn from his surroundings. Schwarzenegger, for his part, has never done so much by doing so little, and his "I know now why you cry" speech at the film's end gets me every time. Then there's Brad Fiedel's clanking industrial synth score - cold and machine-like when it needs to be, then at times, warm (though still artificial) and mournful. It's his career-defining score. Above all, Terminator 2 teaches us that there is a fruitful relationship to be had between R-rated action and a narrative with heart, and that Box Office success isn't always to be found by trading one off against the other. It also reminds us to treat science-fiction as, at its core, a human drama - despite what convention may lean on you to do otherwise. As a story that explores and dissects the very fabric of humanity in all its splendour and frailty, when all the while incased in a glossy midnight-blue-drenched veneer, Terminator 2: Judgement Day is the ultimate infiltrator.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Man of Steel, dir. Zack Snyder, scr. David S. Goyer, story by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer, st. Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Russell Crowe

Not to be confused with the other Metal Man film on offer this Summer - Alan Partridge's Chap of Steel, the latest incarnation of Superman falls to 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch director Zack Snyder, a man whose trademark visual excess is lauded and indeed often promoted over his ability to produce equally rewarding content. We're supposedly old and wise enough now to know what a fraud movie trailers can be. Whether we do so subconsciously or not, our minds make thousands of calculations per second as we watch them. We forgive the clunky expository scenes edited together to explain plot, the wisecracks, the forced sexuality of its stars, the artificial rhythms that montage every gun fired and explosion exploded in order to ramp up the trailer's conclusion. And from this mess of information we filter out things that please - a certain visual aesthetic, a literary design, an intricate dialogue. And then there are trailers, beautifully constructed ones that hold back, that are all about establishing mood and colour, that promise greater things. And we dare to hope. When Man of Steel's Howard Shore-scored teaser hit in Summer 2012 and later, the full trailer in April this year, we threw caution to the wind and allowed ourselves to be moved.

After all, there was so much riding on this. Snyder has been teetering on the keen edge of credibility for some time now, and his films have delighted and divided in equal measure; the Superman franchise, if there was any need for a reboot at all, was calling for something a shade more substantial than Bryan Singer's 2006 film Superman Returns; and arguably, in dark times, an authoritative arbiter of peace with an infallible moral compass, bedecked in the nation's colours, carries a resonating emotional heft. As the debate rages on outside the cinema auditorium as the US prepares to arm Syrian rebels, might this not have been the perfect serendipitous time to show off a little humanity and alternatives to violence and destruction, as the trailers sensitively suggested? Apparently not. Man of Steel is sadly, an ungainly and grossly miscalculated misfire - both in Superman canon and Snyder portfolio.

In an overlong prologue, Jor-El (Crowe) and his wife Lara (Zurer) eject their son into the stars just as General Zod (Shannon) attempts a military coup on Krypton's decaying planet. On Earth, adopted by the Kents, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, the young Kal-El learns to control his sensitivity to stimuli and surpress his desire to reveal his true nature, convinced as Kent Sr. is, that he would be rejected by humanity were they to find out. After being imprisoned and subsequently, accidentally released, Zod and his cabal travel to Earth in an attempt to hunt Kal-El down and harvest the home-world Krypton's blueprint for life from Superman's cells. Man of Steel is curiously a film of two very different halves. The first sets up life on Krypton and Clark's time on Earth (along with flashbacks to his childhood), and the second is an unholy miscellany of noise and fury as Zod and Kal-El lock capes. There are elements in the first half in which you believe this kind of slow-burn setup is warranted; Costner plays Jonathan Kent with a quiet sensitivity. You really believe he's a man who fears for his son's life and lacks the faith in his own species to embrace the unknown. Interesting too is the way we are shown a young Clark dealing with his peculiar abilities; it's grimly fascinating to see how the X-Ray vision and heightened sensory capabilities we all know and love, and that are so ably wielded by an adult Kryptonian, manifest like some kind of degenerative mental disorder in a young boy. And then there's Jonathan's repeated message of restraint to his adopted son. There's a fine line between the cinematic franchise's 'don't reveal yourself' Macguffin-mantra and a deeper 'diplomacy not aggression' political ideology, but it's an element to the film that offers some kind of potential antithesis against the ravages of Hollywood superhero excess - and an ideal that's swiftly obliterated once Zod and Supe start punching twelve shades of living shit out of each other for what feels like days. 

The great tragedy is that the performances are pretty good - they're just underwritten, spectacularly disserviced by Goyer's unimaginative screenplay. And Crowe's gravelly "they will rise behind you" speech, so wonderfully showcased in the trailer, and that supports the idea of the human race embracing the unknown and the fearful, pretty much falls apart when there's barely any interaction between Kal-El and the Earthlings - their reactions to Superman being reduced to woefully clunky 'he's our friend'-type commando-speak or the dumb expressions on Metropolisians as they survey the unfolding carnage around them. The climactic mano-a-mano Kryptic cockfight between Zod and Superman is merely a rehash of the tedious Neo/Smith confrontation at the end of The Matrix Revolutions, in which the knowledge that neither hero nor villain is capable of doing any significant damage to the other renders the entire sequence utterly pointless, and only serves as an excuse for endless scenes of urban destucto-porn. Superman III's climactic scene from the 1983 film in which Superman, suffering a shift in persona, has his 'pure' form fight with his 'corrupted' self is thrice the sequence the entirety of Man of Steel is, and why? Because it's intimate, choreographed and possessing of delicate emotional clout. It's the movie scene equivalent of seeing your Father cry as a child. You're desperate for good to have the will to triumph over evil. 

Man of Steel is then a huge disappointment. It's sloppy, choppy and badly composed and framed. It proves that no amount of photo-realistic CGI can ever serve as life-giving form or content, and it reduces Superman to by-numbers iconography when, as Bruce Wane's Alfred suggests, there is immense worth in becoming more than just a man. But worse than all of this, much worse, is that it's just dull. For a character that's so rich in possibility, a boring Superman film is truly an astounding feat in itself. You'll believe a man can fly, but you just won't give a damn.


Saturday, 8 June 2013

Chimpanzee, dir. Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, wr. Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, Don Hahn, nar. Tim Allen

Deep in the African rainforest a young chimpanzee is orphaned, leaving, remarkably, the group's alpha male chimp to pick up adoption duties. With the cute-factor dialled to 11 and gorgeous cinematography that pops off the screen with a clarity and depth that rivals the best of the beeb, Disney's Chimpanzee can hardly fail to amaze and enthral. However, in place of Attenborough's deeply resonant and mellifluous tones, we get Tim Allen's  condescending and simplistic voiceover that soft-pedals the science in lieu of an overly-sentimental story. True, the Disney badge probably signifies the film's intentions as accessible child-friendly fodder, but surely the beauty of an Attenborough script is its propensity for the beautifully minimal and instructive? One may well raise an eyebrow at the irony of an iron-clad multinational hell-bent on stamping every corner of the globe with a Mickey silhouette, but the educational value of this effort remains assured.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Ginger & Rosa, dir/wr. Sally Potter, st. Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Alessandro Nivola, Annette Bening

What begins as an intimate but coolly clinical observation on teenage friendship and trust soon segues into something altogether more overwrought and underwhelming in Sally Potter's latest, a film built with great performances without a suitably firm script as a stable foundation. Ginger & Rosa tells the story of two girls - Fanning as a burgeoning, flame-haired member of the emerging liberal intelligentsia, and her best friend, played by Englert, a dark-haired mischief-maker, eager to confront the early-Sixties sexual revolution head-on. As the Cuban Missile Crisis rears its head, both are drawn to the sense of community and passion the CND has to offer, but Rosa soon finds herself more attracted to men than marches, with designs in particular on Rosa's Dad, Roland (Nivola). The most fascinating part of Potter's desperately uneven film is this relationship with Roland and his daughter and the poetic and intimate way they interact, neither of them acquiescing to their obvious Father/Daughter roles. Roland, a writer and former political prisoner himself, engages with his daughter as a master might with his apprentice, although this highbrow exchange of respect derails once he attempts to rationalise his relationship with Rosa. Much like in Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, it is unclear where the impending potential East/West apocalypse is the cause for Ginger's anxieties regarding her transition into adulthood, and the short prologue showing a devastated Hiroshima ties in nicely with the industrial wasteland Ginger spends her time reflecting. At the age of 15, Fanning surely has much more yet to give, but her portrayal of Ginger is persuasively maudlin, if a little, like Christina Hendricks who plays her mother Natalie, uncertain in her accent. If it wasn't so wayward in its pacing and incongruously histrionic finale, Ginger & Rosa would have sparkled in its solemnity instead of being the frustrating curiosity it is.