Saturday, 25 April 2015

Sphere (1998) | Film Review

Sphere, dir. Barry Levinson, wr. Kurt Wimmer, Stephen Hauser, Paul Attanasio, based on Sphere by Michael Crichton, st. Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone, Peter Coyote, Liev Schreiber

Alas infuriatingly more derivative than its source material, Levinson's adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel is nevertheless an occasionally effectively taut slice of psycho-sci-fi replete with an A-list cast, who, admittedly, have seen better material. Riffing on everything from Alien to The Abyss, the film finds mathematician Harry (Jackson), marine biologist Beth (Stone), astrophysicist Ted (Schreiber), and psychologist Norman (Hoffman) being flown out to the middle of the ocean where the Navy have discovered an unidentified three-hundred-year-old spacecraft embedded in the coral. It transpires it has picked up some kind of probe on its journey (the titular sphere) and gifts the power of physical manifestation to its unwitting wielders. The film is handsome enough and the quad-ensemble charismatise themselves out of narrational and budgetary failings with aplomb, but there's an all-pervading feeling the film can't help but go down with its own ship. On the plus side, Elliot Goldenthal's score sturm and drangs the urgent intensity along nicely, and Peter Coyote does a suitably hissable line in scuzzball egotists, and there are some nifty, if subtle VFX effects. But for a film that ostensibly seeks to explore the calamitous notion of unrestrained free will, there's precious little soul to go around. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar recently proved that heart makes a capable stand-in for logic, but Levinson's film, though at times possessing of slivers of inspiration, remains as cold and unwelcoming as its kilometre-deep underwater habitat.

Heat (1995) | Film Review

Heat, dir/wr. Michael Mann, st. Al Pacino, Rober De Niro, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Ted Levine, John Voight, Val Kilmer

Obviously there's far too much to say about perhaps the greatest crime movie in the history of Cinema than can ever be written. And people have written a lot about Heat, Mann's breathtaking fruition of his original 1979, 180-page treatment, that went on to find its way into the world in a truncated version as L. A. Takedown, a 1989 TV movie, before finding its way to the greater public in all its three-hour glory in 1995. Heat is one of those rare moments in film in which not only do all the production and creative elements align to form a sublime and cohesive whole, but also when artistic intention syncs with public reception. Time has not undone Heat. It still looks like it might have been made last year and what's more extraordinary, audiences, with their fickle and fleeting preferences, I'm sure would still mark it out as a thing of extraordinary construct. The story is pure cops 'n' robbers. Pacino plays Vincent Hanna, a dedicated and canny LAPD lieutenant hot on the trail of Neil McCauley (De Niro), a career criminal of comparable intellect. While on the chase, Hanna has to confront a relationship in tailspin with his wife Justine (Venora), as well as with his volatile and vulnerable step-daughter (played by freshly-post Leon-ed Natalie Portman). McCauley isn't as alone, surrounding himself as he has with an extended family of loyal lawbreakers, but he is lonely, drawn into an existential crisis of commitment to his mantra ("Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.") versus a regular-Joe relationship with graphic designer Eady (Brenneman). Mann's film is a profound duet for his two protagonists, different sides of the same coin, something the famed coffee shop scene expertly and efficiently dissects. Perhaps Heat's success comes from its broad, literary tone where the writing is poetic but never portentous, and the imagery is inescapably arresting (filmed by the great Dante Spinotti). On top of that, Mann's great and enduring love for the ECM and 4AD record labels gift his scenes with mesmeric underscore from Terje Rypdal, Lisa Gerrard, and Michael Brook. Heat then is total triumphant, immersive cinema, as expansive as a Shakespearean tragedy, as meticulous  and complicated as a Straussian opera. In another universe, it might have been conceived as an acclaimed and elaborate graphic novel. Mann's exposé on Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco-industry whistle-blower in The Insider comes a close second, but Heat remains his - and the genre's - finest hour.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) | Film Review

Avengers: Age of Ultron, dir/wr. Joss Whedon, st. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany

The latest instalment in the seemingly unending yet highly polished Marvel oeuvre is Whedon's second crack at the whip, a tale that sees the Avengers assembling once more to save us puny humans whilst getting off a line of smart-assery or five. By now the narrative beats should be familiar, and although Avengers: Age of Ultron might not show us anything desperately new, the established ensemble still has enough charisma to rock your world. The plot, always more interesting when revealing fissures in the teamwork, revolves around Loki's sceptre - specifically the contents of its nucleic gem, which Hydra have wielded to turn twins Pietro ("he's fast") and Wanda Maximoff ("she's weird") into sinister agents. Stark (Downey Jr.) sees the gem's alien A.I. as the last piece in his Ultron project - a robot steward of the Earth that might allow the Avengers to retire in peace. But Ultron (exuberantly voiced by James Spader) becomes self-aware before his time and, well, let's just say it all hits the fan to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars. The blitz and boom of the many explosive set-pieces are as deftly orchestrated as ever, but it's in Ultron's quieter moments where it really shines; Whedon undoubtedly writes zingers of one-liners, but revelations of the Avengers' hopes and nightmares are where the characters and the fragility of their bond are really sold; Taylor-Johnson and Olsen imbue Pietro/Quicksilver and Wanda/Scarlet Witch with shifting rage and conflicted allegiance; a Black Widow flashback allows Johansson to expand on a superhero's early trauma and sacrifice; Ruffalo's Banner has real poignancy this time round as the grim reality of the Hulk's destructive nature comes to the fore; Renner's Hawkeye gets a touching and humble side-story; and perhaps best, most subtly of all, Stark's gung-ho arrogance and assumed leadership really begins to piss off his costumed colleagues. All of which leaves us where? Well not an avid reader of the source material, I am none the wiser. But the only way is forward, and that means the stakes have to rise and there have to be enough tragic consequences to make the struggle feel real. And if by that time Marvel are still casting actors of this calibre, wow, wouldn't that be something.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Κυνόδοντας (Kynodontas) Dogtooth (2009) | Film Review

Dogtooth, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, wr. Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou, st. Christos Stergiolou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia. Mary Tsoni, Christos Passalis

Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Lanthimos' Dogtooth is an exercise in mesmeric, rubber-necking awfulness. Where the surreal allegory begins and distressingly realistic documentation of abuse ends is unclear, and there's certainly more in the director's shot, composition, and screenplay that suggests further insight than just sensationalist gawping at the wreckage, but like Tom Six's Human Centipede with which this film shares the terror of unspeakable acts that occur in the remote confines of manicured-lawned suburbia, there's a real compulsion to bear witness whatever the terrifying outcome. The plot concerns a father and mother who have imprisoned their two daughters and son within the boundaries of their home with the simplest of tools; they operate a home-schooled bespoke vocabulary of terminology with certain words being assigned absurd, surreal meanings; their oldest, unseen sibling lives just beyond the tall hedgerowed perimeter; tales of cats as human-hunting apex predators keep the children inside, and like some bizarre, organic coming-of-age skin-shedding, only the loss of an incisor can permit an exit from the grounds. In keeping with the woozy, dream-like concept, cinematographer Thimios Bakatatakis bathes the pastoral familial back-yard in milky greens and whites, while Lanthimos delights in skewing his frames, cropping faces and heads, and bleeding sound from one scene to the next. The result is a rather bleak look at the fragility of child-raising - fertile subject matter for this unusual horror film. We are asked to consider the confidence we have in biological protocol and inevitable cultural normality as illusory and as delicate as the mere whisper of an idea rather than an ordained certainty. Like most works of fiction that shock us out of complacency, Dogtooth isn't pleasant, but it sure stays with you.