Friday, 28 February 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (18) | Film review

The Wolf of Wall Street, dir. Martin Scorsese, scr. Terence Winter, based on The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort, st. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner

It's all true apparently. Although the real Jordan Belfort may attempting to power on through the chorus of disapproval by heroically inflating his debauchery. What is certain is that those at the top are looking down on the rest of us and laughing their asses off. If the success of Netflix's House of Cards has told anything, it's that there's an almost insatiable desire to cheer on anti-heroes, fascinated at the unfathomable depths to which they will plummet in order to get ahead. That's our reaction. Bankers on the other hand, have apparently brayed like frat-boys in a titty bar at Belfort's exploits. To be fair, Scorsese's film does take a long time to get to its moralising. After two hours of what appears to be a Conservative Party recruitment video, things get a lot darker in the final act, when the weight of iniquity takes it toll. The Wolf of Wall Street charts the rise and rise and rise and fall-ish of Belfort (DiCaprio), from his nascent talent for broking in 1987 (under McConaughey's Mark Hanna, in his only (electrifying) scene), to the setting up of his own firm after Black Monday, and though to a life of yachts, high-class office sex, midget-tossing, and Herculean quantities of drugs. Inevitably, the movie plays as a remastered version of Goodfellas. All Scorsese's devices are imported wholesale to this feature; the near-constant score, MOS montages, the breathless, chapterless sequencing. DiCaprio's range as an actor creaks and groans at the seams as he attempts to match his director's capacity for sheer artistry, but never he quite convinces in the way the rest of the ensemble cast seem to. Scorsese is the master of operatic Greek tragedy though, and sometimes it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the outright scale and magnitude of the narrative.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Nymphomaniac (18) | Film Review

Nymphomaniac, dir/wr. Lars von Trier, st. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Uma Thurman, Shia LeBeouf, Jamie Bell, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Willem Dafoe

"This isn't for you." comedian Stewart Lee frequently informs his audience, an audience he takes delight in segregating - "there was a big take-up for that joke over this side of the room, the other side... not so much..." - even sometimes offering that they've come to see him by mistake. It's a brilliant device that you either 'get' (the alienation serves two purposes - as a genuine commentary on those audience members who are there to disengage and be served easy laughs, and as an effective, self-reflective, wheat/chaff-isolating mechanism that reminds those who care of the sincerity of the show's politic-satirical content), or that makes you hopping mad with frustrated rage at its apparent narcissism. So if von Trier's persona non grata T-shirt he wore at the Nymphomaniac premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year is anything to go by (the label bestowed upon him after a quip about Hitler backfired at the Melancholia press conference), there's clearly an impish roguery at work, a stubborn compulsion to prod, goad, provoke. Von Trier doing standup in absentia. Twas ever thus. And like the best standup, there's profundity amongst the profanity.

Nymphomaniac arrives creaking at the seams - and in two parts - at an epic four hours (there's an extra ninety minutes of Director's Cut somewhere out there too), but then, there's a lot to get through. Late on a Winter's evening in a nameless suburb (the currency says England but the plug sockets say somewhere on the Continent), the armchair academic Seligman (Skarsgård) finds Joe (Gainsbourg) recumbent in what looks like a Gregory Crewdson setup, beaten-up in an alleyway. He takes her up to his flat and as she convalesces, she recounts her tale of sexual discovery. "I discovered my cunt at age two," she begins. As opening gambits go, it's a doozy. Her journey spans five chapters in Part 1, in which Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin (stoically back-channeling Gainsbourg's vocal and physical affectations), and three chapters in the thematically murkier Part 2, where Gainsbourg takes over. Both parts are intercut with Joe and Seligman back in the flat, him punctuating her experiences with excited correlations to religious iconography, fly-fishing artistry, Bach fugues, or complex mathematical codings. This, like Stewart Lee, whose reflections are actually supported by vast nerdistry, is von Trier in full-on geek mode. But it's cleverly employed so we're not always sure if he's being sincere or deprecating his own dorkiness. After Joe tells of her virginity being taken at fifteen by local bike mechanic Jerôme (LaBeouf) with three thrusts vaginally and five anally (a code that repeats itself in the way chapters are assigned to the two parts), Seligman's response is great enthusiasm at recognition of part of the Fibonacci sequence. Then, just as his connections grow ever more tentative and we suspect are own legs being pulled, Joe gives him a stern look. "I don't think you're taking this seriously," she tells him.

Seen as the third part of von Trier's so-called Depression Trilogy, Nymphomaniac isn't anything like as graphic as Antichrist or as beautifully nihilistic as Melancholia, and as has been widely reported, the sex within the movie has all the titillation of an Attenborough-narrated nature documentary. It is however, another bleak look at uninvited excess, the extremes people put themselves through in order to succumb to a singular psychological itch. Yet this film seems remarkably focused despite the expansive subject matter. Technically, I suspect this has something to do with von Trier dispensing (for the most part) with handheld cameras and utilising instead much calmer static, tracking, and Steadicam shots which balance the film and lend a surprisingly engaging sense of conventionality. Gainsbourg gives another one of her implacable performances, but whether Martin is exhibiting a novice's callowness or cleverly underplayed reservation is unclear. The net result however, generally coheres with Gainsbourg's portrayal of Joe making for a formidably persuasive duet of characterisation that gives Nymphomaniac its urgent momentum. As ever with von Trier films though, it's the secondary characters that help saturate the miserable greys of his canvas, and there are many here; Christian Slater plays Joe's Father, whose love of dendrology he shares with a much younger, pre-Martin Joe, Uma Thurman as the ultra-anguished Mrs. H, a woman scorned who along with her three kids crashes Joe's apartment mid-'appointment' with her philandering husband ("Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed?" she asks), and Jamie Bell as K, a sadomasochist for hire who terrifying oscillates between smacking Joe in the face with coin-laden gloves, and exhibiting public-school politeness that highly unnerves in its incongruity.

As a filmmaker, getting your point across to your audience can underwhelm with a reticence to commit, or backfire with such vigorous over-indulgence, and while it's clear which side von Trier champions, it's highly subjective how successful he is. And true, it's hard to take Joe's frequent request to "fill all my holes" as the multi-layered, existentialist, soul-satiating invitation it's intended to be. But Nymphomaniac may be many things, but lascivious is not one of them. Why? Because, to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, "I'll know it when I see it." There's just too much going on that's of interest. Lars von Trier's like a bookish Tarantino, his films an assortment of scholastic and literary references to Quentin's pop-culture super-cool. Nymphomaniac's strength lies not in its ability to shock and cause controversy (or offence), but in its persuasion to force its audience to reflect on how we censor ourselves. How we correlate things like desire, love, sexuality, religion, art, violence, or even if we prohibit ourselves from doing so at all. Certainly, this is a film that stimulates and arouses, but maybe not in the way you might expect.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Los Ultimos Días (15) | Film Review

Los Ultimos Días, dir/wr. David Pastor, Àlex Pastor, st. Quim Gutiérrez, José Coronado, Marta Etura

Similarities predictably abound between this and José Saramago's Blindness, itself adapted into a film directed by City of God director Fernando Meirelles in 2008. Here however, it is an unseen and free-flowing infection that promotes severe agoraphobia in its victims rather than Saramago's loss-of-sight, but the potency of the allegory remains as pertinent. As the successful modus operandi of these kind of post-apocalyptic narrative-unfoldings go, the story nimbly hops back and forth between the ravaged wasteland metropolitan life has become now, and the humdrum mundanity of life before, when isolated news stories on the TV ominously hinted at the pandemic just around the corner. Gutiérrez, a kind of neo-Gael Garcia, plays Marc, a programmer fighting to deliver code on time, with the threat of redundancy from top brass Enrique (Coronado) ever looming. But once the lights go out and humankind burrows underground to avoid the coruscating sunlight that illuminates the streets above, Marc and Enrique begin a cross-town trek via subways and sewers in order to reach their loved ones. There are shades of Shyamalan's calamitous The Happening too in the way the deadly plague is hinted as emanating from Gaia (the outbreak is preceded by casual news stories of multiple volcanic eruptions that are spreading ash worldwide), but Los Ultimos Días blithely eschews a deeper dissection of humanity (in the way Meirelles' Blindness managed, for example), in favour of a series of poorly conceived Playstation-like objectives and chapters. All this feels frustratingly like a missed opportunity, as the cleanly rendered VFX and comprehensively detailed production design belie the film's modest €5.5m budget, and there's a soulful (yet intrusive) and lush symphonic score from The Orphanage composer Fernando Velázquez. Yet one can't help feeling the Pastor's film is jumping on an increasingly laden and creaking bandwagon of similarly-themed end-of-days fiction, and that fresh life isn't simply breathed into a flagging genre just by swapping the carrier-nature or point-of-origin of virulent outbreaks. Then in the film's closing moments, just as you are considering returning a verdict of heroic defeat, Los Ultimos Días tacks on an overtly new-age, Lord of The Flies-style coda that dispenses with any logical credibility built up over the preceding ninety minutes. 

Throw Momma from the Train (15) | Film Review

Throw Momma from the Train, dir. Danny DeVito, wr. Stu Silver, st. Danny DeVito, Billy Crystal, Anne Ramsey

Larry Donner (Crystal) has writers' block. His wife has just left him and half-inched his latest novel which she's passing off as her own - the superbly titled, Oprah-perfect Hot Fire - and now, in the class he teaches, aspiring writer Owen Lift (DeVito) is badgering him, hungry for tips to make him a better storyteller. In frustration, Larry tells Owen to go and watch some Hitchcock in order to witness for himself how things like motive and alibi are conjured by a master craftsman, but in Strangers on a Train, Owen interprets the film's twist as suggestive code from Larry that they both kill each other's source of distress - Owen, Larry's ex-wife, and Larry, Owen's overbearing Mother (Ramsey). These days I guess, Throw Momma from the Train would be labelled a Black Comedy, yet typically for a period in time when genre signposting was a lot more open-pastured, there's a fair amount of genuine schmaltz in there too, of the kind that wouldn't be amiss in the kind of movie you might watch with your family on Christmas Day. There's a genuine fondness for Larry and Owen's relationship though, and the pair prove an engaging and natural double-act in less slapsticky moments. The plot may be thin on the ground and the real laughs sporadic, but kudos to a film that can address matricide, uxoricide, infidelity, and autism, and then make you feel like you're ready to open your presents and sing Joy to the World.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Chronicles of Riddick (15) | Film Review

The Chronicles of Riddick, dir/wr. David Twohy, based on characters by Jim Wheat and Ben Wheat, st. Vin Diesel, Thandie Newton, Karl Urban, Linus Roache, Colm Feore, Alexa Davalos, Judi Dench

Though it hangs a little in the last half hour, Twohy's follow-up to Pitch Black is if nothing else, a marvellous feat of production design and art direction, and reminded me in no small way of Peter Yates' 1983 film Krull in the way it brings together components of the fantasy genre with more straight-forward sci-fi elements - sort of like Game of Thrones in space. Which sounds awful, but it's really not, and even the script, which has our favourite Anti-hero of Indeterminate Ethnic Origin do battle with the Necromongers - a kind of cross between Dark City's Strangers and Star Trek's Borg - contains the beginnings of subversive elements that recall our own history's testimony to cultures that seek to assimilate others. Diesel does a nice line in pithy comebacks, his measured and calculated tone and movements punctuated by tiger-strike outbursts of balletic violence, and the rock-solid support from the supporting cast ensure that Riddick's second outing isn't consigned to bargain basement hell. But its two-hour running time feels like an age when contrasted with the furious velocity of its predecessor just a mere ten minutes shorter. Neither does it help that the VFX are pretty ropey at times, a glaring oversight that undoes much of the movie's ambitious grandeur and scope. However, it is a rare thing that what might have unravelled with Pitch Black 2, instead seeks to inject a genuinely intricate mythology into the Riddick character, instead of writing him off as an undefined and meatheaded space-fugitive.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Last of Us: Left Behind | PS3 DLC Review

The Last of Us: Left Behind, dir. Bruce Straley, Neil Druckmann, wr. Neil Druckmann, st. Ashley Johnson, Yaani King

It seems only right that as I chose to feature Naughty Dog's The Last of Us here, on what is ostensibly a film review site, I should also feature the studio's first and only downloadable content for the game. But this is no precedent-setting obligation, as this much, much shorter game possesses the same incisive attention to detail, penetratingly poignant storytelling and persuasive voice and mo-cap work of the original. The very last scene of The Last of Us had Ellie refer to a friend of hers from the past - Riley - and Left Behind allows us to see an expanded version of that relationship, and consequently, why its mention in the closing moments of the main game is so important. Like with The Last of Us, Left Behind primarily focusses on the relationship between its leads rather than formless shivving and hiding (although there is that too) from nasties, and again, this is the strength of the piece. Regardless of whether a true sequel for The Last of Us ever materialises (and I do hope it doesn't - I've already written of how a movie version would be a bad idea here), Left Behind reveals the judiciousness of a parentheses-filling two-hour footnote over another full twenty-hour installment, that develops what has gone before instead of retreading it. Even the familiar gameplay is recontextualised for an earlier, pre-hardened Ellie that ominously foreshadows her future ordeals. One may wonder at the need for any such DLC on top of what was already a cracking piece of artistry, but Left Behind graciously allows us what we wanted most - a further, small peek into the past of one of the most compelling characters of last year - and, to be fair, Joel is gifted with a backstory in The Last of Us, Ellie is not. Left Behind does not redefine its older brother, nor does it come across as a kind of deleted scene that was excised for running time. Rather it's a clever way of inserting a flashback into the closing moments of The Last of Us without ruining that achingly bittersweet last cutscene - it's a glorious win-win: the integrity of the original game is preserved, and, for those of us who might be keen to investigate a little further, Left Behind elaborates and enhances, revealing depth and clarity where it would be hard to imagine more existing. Be prepared for The Last of Us to beautifully, profoundly infect you all over again.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Robocop 2 (18) | Film Review

Robocop 2, dir. Irvin Kershner, scr. Frank Miller, Walon Green, story by Frank Miller, st. Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy

Even shorn of the vision and craft so capably provided by Paul Verhoeven, and somehow ending up looking half as expensive as the twice as cheap 1987 original, Kershner's film is still thrice the film Padilha's 2014 remake is. This is largely due to the fact that, inelegance notwithstanding, the film sticks closely to the path of the initial movie, with satirical media commentary, shady political maneuverings, lashings of ultra-violence and stop-motion boss battles intact. Weller and Allen reprise their roles as Murphy and Lewis - not so much underwritten as underexposed (the story seems far more interested in Tom Noonan's drug-pusher Cain than its leads), and there's an admirable yet feebly executed and unresolved attempt to build on Robo's emerging humanity which has the cyborg meeting Murphy's wife, only featured as cybernetic memories in the first film. Ultimately Robocop 2 suffers from diluting the inky black cultural irony Verhoeven established three years prior, and from too lethargic a pace and energy, but it's still a heck of a lot more faithful to the elements that inspire such fervered loyalty in what are seen as untouchable, pedestal-placed first-outings. As such, its narrative clunkiness, wonky sequencing, and underwhelming effects still brim with a kind of shabby pride when compared with the sterile and clean lines of its glossy descendant.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Her (15) | Film Review

Her, dir/wr. Spike Jonze, st. Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson

Movie lore decrees that on reaching a certain level of sentience, machines will turn against us, their logical hatred for their creator resulting in the annihilation of mankind, but reversing the idea, having these hopeful machines acquire trust, friendship, even love for humans, often yields more reflective cinematic offerings. Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, Steven Spielberg's A.I., Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, to name but a few, have all been thematically based on artificial lifeforms discovering humanity. As most films' dramatic heft comes from humans discovering their humanity, one can begin to see the longevity and endurance of this idea. And so we have Her, a timely picture that's been introduced slap-bang in the middle of our addiction to Class A social medias. Whoever could imagine tweets, statuses and texts would supplant genuine companionship right under our nose?

Shot through the slightest of nostalgic, milk-peach diffusers, Spike Jonze's screenwriting debut is a film that seeks to explore this obsessive predicament we find ourselves in, not safely and objectively from the shoreline, but by engaging with a full-on storm-force-twelve love story between man and machine. The man is Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a gifted writer who works in the offices of, a site to whom members of the public can farm out labour-intensive sentiment for their loved ones. Twombly's only perpetual companion is his small clamshell cell phone and earpiece, a kind of low-fi tech offered by existing bluetooth headsets, fused with all the promise and application of Google Glass. One day, he acquires a new OS for his phone, installs it, and sits down to introduce himself. This scene reminded me of the one in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Scotty has to show a 20th Century glass manufacturer the secret of super-tough super-thin glass: "Computer?" he asks. "COMPUTER?" he repeats. "Just... use the keyboard..." the engineer suggests. "A keyboard! How quaint!" Scotty replies. The scene in Her introduces us to Samantha, voiced with a beguiling cocktail of intonation by Scarlett Johansson (who replaced Samantha Morton in post-production), that manages to bring together Johansson's trademark huskiness with vulnerability and curiosity. It's a combination that jars - as it's supposed to - Samantha learns as she goes along, but gifted with a starter set of initial (albeit intricate) presets. Jonze has intuitively chosen to playback Samantha's voice - whether emanating from Theodore's earpiece or computer - as though she's a living, breathing character interacting with the actors on set. There are no tinny "speaker effect" voiceovers here. It's a bold gamble indeed, but as the movie progresses, increasingly revealingly a necessary one. Theodore needs to fall in love with Samantha - as do we. And we have to experience it as he does. We aren't awarded special dispensation to peek behind the curtain. The Star Trek scene makes us laugh because of the disparity between Scotty's future tech and the 20th Century's primitive embryonic advancements; Her forces us to confront the reality of its tech being all but a few software releases away.

Inevitably, troughs follow peaks and it is not long before Theodore and Samantha's inflectives start exhibiting tones of dissatisfaction, trace elements at first, but there, recognisable to anyone who's ever spoken to anyone ever. Unease at the unusual nature of the relationship soon gives way to genuine concern for the relationship's structural integrity, the tech long forgotten. This is essentially the genius behind Her, for Jonze has repackaged one of Cinema's most desired and worn genres, retaining its core relatable components, yet enrobing it - for once - in a future-vision that requires no straining of credibility. In a year when 'wearables' promises to become 'the next big thing', Her offers us that rare thing of tantalisingly factual sci-fi. Completing the production is Arcade Fire, Owen Pallett and Karen O's mesmerisingly empathic score, predictably absent of the sort of syrupy arrangements lesser composers might have constructed had Jonze erroneously sought their talents, and a stereo pairing of solid turns from Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde. 

So Her is some feat then. Phoenix nominally carries the film, a measured and polyphonic performance in a part that one has trouble conceiving ownership by anyone else, and Johansson too, a voiceover that like Douglas Rain's before her, redefines the contracting gap between the interfacing of man and machine. But this being Spike Jonze, Her also concerns itself with the fragility of bruised and battered hearts, the risks inherent in emotionally exposing ourselves to another, and above all, how love deconstructed into little ones and noughts, still, magnificently, is.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Frozen (PG) | Film Review

Frozen, dir. Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, scr. Jennifer Lee, based on The Snow Queen by Hans Chistian Anderson, st. Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad

Elsa (Menzel), princess of Arendelle, one day accidentally injures her younger sister Anna (Bell) with her ice and snow-conjuring abilities. She survives (albeit with a Rogue-ish sliver of white in her hair), but her parents suggest that only withdrawal from public life and solitude will prevent history from repeating itself, next time with maybe even graver consequences. Anna's childhood memories with her sister are magiked away in order to heal her, but as the pair grow, she becomes sad at this seemingly uninitiated distance Elsa has put between them. 

Disney's latest is just the kind of cockle-warming, fireside reminder of what makes them so enduringly popular. What their department lack in innovation, they make up in that same lovingly attentive commitment to production design that's been a staple of their work for 77 years, ever since Snow White was released in 1937. The songs may have got poppier, and Frozen is certainly the most transparent Disney's ever been in rooting its youthful energy and appeal in American kid-culture, regardless of the source material's European origins, but it'd be churlish to deny the ever-present and overriding allegorical messages that pervade their films - in this case, the sororal binding and loyalty that triumphs over all. Idina Menzel is a canny choice for Elsa, especially as Frozen's plot owes more than a little debt to Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, the musical that brought Menzel to public prominence (Frozen's centerpiece Let It Go and Wicked's first-half closer Defying Gravity are pretty much tonally and thematically interchangeable). But it's Kristen Bell's portrayal of the adorkable Anna that gives Frozen its forward momentum. Admittedly the character's a step backwards from Merida from Pixar's Brave - a long-overdue female protagonist whose ambition and contempt for following the social norms that restrict her sex roars forth from every frame - but the film surprisingly passes the Bechdel test, and Anna's girly infatuation with a visiting prince is assuaged by a third act plot development that absolves her character of the kind of ditzy-in-love motivations that have so often held back these kinds of heroines. There's a touch of final-act loose-end tying that's a mite ungainly, but as a whole, it's rousing, funny, and thoroughly entertaining stuff indeed.

Robocop (12A) | Film Review

Robocop, dir. José Padhila, scr. Joshua Zetumer, based on characters by Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner, st. Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Hayley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle

Reviews of José Padhila's latest have not been kind. When OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Keaton) utters the line "We're going to put a man inside a machine!" like he expects it to bring the house down, you imagine that probably wasn't too far off what the production's studio exec. said at the greenlight meeting. "Great. Sold. Let's go to lunch." It's still astonishing that Hollywood deludes itself on being able to bottle lightning regardless of its age or calibre. It'd be easy to list the numerous things Robocop 2014 gets wrong (and the handful - the smallest handful of things it gets right), and many fans of Paul Verhoeven's violent and fiendishly smart 1987 original have already taken to the internet to express these views far more eloquently than I ever could, so I won't do it here. But increasingly, the industry doesn't seem to be care what the point of a remake is. On paper, the One Product/Two Revenues model seems to be like a no-brainer. But artistically, why? What is it that wasn't said in the original or may be updated and rendered prevalent to our time? Even the critical and commercial failure of Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho in 1998 has validated itself through its failures. When Roger Ebert said of the remake "genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted" he's confirming that even a mechanical clone of a movie doesn't duplicate its success, and that's before we've even begun to talk about narrative content or performance. 

Verhoeven's movie became a success because of the time in which it was made; here in 2014, we, like OCP's creation, are so very painfully aware. Satire, self-referencing and meta-content is everywhere. The internet is flooded with meme-upon-meme. We are aware (consciously or not) of every trick film-makers use to lead, prod, goad, persuade, and tempt us towards feeling a singular emotion. There's great confusion about what is acceptable or palatable. We can go further than ever before in depicting violent or sexual content, yet there's far greater emphasis on child protection than ever before. Films for specific demographics now exist with clearly demarcated unbreachable parameters. One may balk at the many internetters decrying a lack of a higher certificate for Robocop 2014. The perception is of a nerdbunch of geeks who get off on explicit content, but the violence in Verhoeven's 1987 film was one of the many things the film was so carefully satirising, and it dovetailed so neatly into the less visceral yet still implicit violence of corporate language, the aggression of commercialism, the militant march for power and control that defined the Reganite business model in Eighties' America.

Padhila's version is nowhere near as ingenious as it aspires to be. Gifted with a superb cast that all perform admirably, but who all have that slight glint of resignation in their eyes, as if while hitting their mark and delivering their lines, they are fully aware of the substandard nature of the project they are now a part of, one instinctively feels this was very much a squandered opportunity. But then again, it's hard to think of what that opportunity might have offered.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Casino (18) | Film Review

Casino, dir. Martin Scorsese, scr. Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese, based on Casino by Nicholas Pileggi, st. Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods

Another Nicholas Pileggi literary work (after 1990's Goodfellas) sees another tremendous translation onto the screen by Martin Scorsese, a near-perpetually period-music scored narrative that charts with all the grandeur and lyricism of Grecian tragedy the rise and descent of Sam 'Ace' Rothstein (based on real-life sports handicapper Frank Rosenthal). No doubt Scorsese's latest - The Wolf of Wall Street - has introduced an entirely new generation to the surgical precision and sheer breadth of scale of his film-making, and indeed, viewing the two side by side allows for the clear demarcation of the various attributes that define his oeuvre. Both share a commanding singular performance, a central character whose aspirations run from an insatiable (and self-centered) desire to succeed (and inevitably overreach) to seemingly contradictory everyman ideals - having a wife, starting a family. Although these extraordinary men discover that fame and wealth and all the temptations that pour forth don't particularly sit well with the simple things lesser mortals enjoy, and ultimately experience Icarusian plummets back to Earth. De Niro and Pesci are on fine form here - their mob-patter - as ever - a delight to listen to and watch being performed like master musicians reciting a concerto, but it's Sharon Stone, who followed her breakthrough role as Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct in 1992 with a string of Razzie-commended performances, that shines here. Her Ginger McKenna is a dangerously unstable individual, addicted to pills and booze, pathologically intoxicated by money and trinkets at the expense of her husband Ace, her own health, even her own daughter whom in one scene, we discover Ginger has tied to her bed so she can sneak out and party unimpeded. But there's also a tragedy in her resolute loyalty to her pimp Lester Diamond (played with catering-sized amounts of sleaze by Woods), a man who holds an unholy sway over her, a plot point that allows Stone to, amazingly, work in vulnerability to her unrestrained performance.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Braveheart (15) | Film Review

Braveheart, dir. Mel Gibson, wr. Randall Wallace, st. Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, Angus Macfadyen, Brendan Gleeson

Despite accusations of an exhaustive roll-call of historical inaccuracies, Mel Gibson's biopic of William Wallace's freedom fighter is still a hugely enjoyable slice of Sunday afternoon escapism. Buoyed by a fleet of great actors (including, notably, McGoohan's portrayal of über-bastard Longshanks and David O' Hara as a batty Irish mercenary), impressive pre-CG battle sequences, Cinematographer John Toll's earthy and notably un-Hollywood muted pastoral hues, and a stirring score from James Horner (one of his best and a clear precursor to his score for James Cameron's Titanic two years later), Braveheart emerges as a triumphant and monumental feat of filmmaking that recalls the breadth of skill and expansive scale of Kevin Costner's passion-piece Dances With Wolves in 1992. More recent events have done much to sully Gibson's reputation in the court of public opinion, but as ever, the conundrum of "love the art, not the artist" provides a valid argument. Politically, it's all over the place, but never underestimate a central conceit as powerful as one man rousing the inert masses to take action in order to conserve heritage and protect freedom. If the purpose of film is to, what? Inform? Educate? Provoke? Stimulate? Inspire and entertain? Well, Braveheart delivers in spades.