Monday, 31 October 2011

Alexander - Oliver Stone - 2004

The tale of the conquests of the legendary Alexander the Great is a fascinating one, but sadly on this evidence one too great for the big screen to handle. Oliver Stone's sprawling epic traverses most of Asia but in attempting to tell the whole story can't escape the feeling that this is simply key episodes tied together by Anthony Hopkins' meandering narration. For example a significant section of the film (at the beginning or in the middle depending on which cut you watch) is devoted to the battle of Gaugamela, recreated by Stone in gloriously exciting colour and detail with eagle-eye cameras that soar over the battlefield to show off the epic scope of the victory. But there is so little time before or after the battle to emphasise what’s at stake that it just comes across as a particular big episode in the jog through Alexander’s life. Colin Farrell, despite the criticism, is actually fairly good as the legendary hero with his trademark nervous energy well-suited to a man driven by his restless ambition to conquer half the world. Obviously his Irish accent is hardly typical of the time, but it’s certainly a more comfortable fit than a standard Hollywood American drawl. In support Angelina Jolie does a fine job as Alexander's frustrated and malevolent mother Olympias struggling to maintain her influence over him as he leaves his kingdom far behind, but the rest of the cast have little chance to make an impact. Alexander's generals all come across as potentially interesting characters, but there is simply no time to give them any chance to shine with only Elliot Cowan's Ptolomey making any impact at all (though its difficult to believe he could grow into Anthony Hopkins). The most credit however must go to composer Vangelis who brings his trademark synthesizers to create an epic and stirring score that lends the film a mythic quality that Stone can't quite reach in his filmmaking. Alexander's exploits are legendary and its only Vangelis' themes that help the film transcend the history lesson format, so although the film can only hint at the story's mythical grandeur, this is at least enough to whet the appetite to find out more.

Adventureland - Greg Mottola - 2009

A cynical but sweet natured comedy about growing up at the arse end of society, Adventureland will speak volumes to anyone who's ever been stuck in a dead end job serving ignorant people. For the first half the film is filled with refreshingly believable faces from the unattainable girl who everyone fancies to the depressed nerd who nobody notices, all led by Jesse Eisenberg's frustrated student whose attempts to pay for his ambitions in a world that doesn't give a damn are made bleakly funny by their current relevance to so many people. Irritatingly though the film takes a left-turn into Hollywood plotting in the second half, a move that could easily distance many viewers since its a lot harder to relate to Eisenberg's character when things (seemingly) fall into place so easily. Still director Greg Mottola should be applauded for his lo-fi ambitions (apparently this was written from his own experiences); many moments will ring true for all those who work in a theme park, cinema or anything similar which just makes it a bit sad that he didn't have the courage to follow his convictions all the way through. It might have resulted in a more depressing ending, but that might not have seemed so far-fetched.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Across the Universe - Julie Taymor - 2007

A Beatles musical set in 60s New York and Vietnam sounds like a ridiculous idea, but in the hands of Julie Taymor it becomes an astonishing rock opera that brings Beatles classics to a whole new audience whilst simultaneously delivering a beautiful love story, a nostalgic paean to a lost era and a celebration of great music. Getting the negatives out of the way first, the film is a little too long, sagging in the middle with extended psychedelic scenes that randomly involving Bono and Eddie Izzard. Brilliant as the two of them are, neither of them advances the story any way at a moment when we want to be pushing forward with the relationships. Taymor conjures up some crazy images of giant cows and blue men to accompany Izzard's rendition of For the Benefit of Mr Kite, but her surreal ideas work better when in camera. A case in point is Strawberry Fields. Though maybe not the strongest song in the film, Taymor combines images of Max (Joe Anderson) in Vietnam and Jude (Jim Sturgess) angrily painting still life as they sing that speak volumes about both characters and the worlds they've found themselves in. Shots of a row of bleeding strawberries and strawberry bombs falling on villages are far more emotionally effective than the usual standard war imagery. But it’s the music that drives the film and for both regular audiences and Beatles fans Across the Universe doesn't disappoint. Producer T-Bone Burnett and composer Elliott Goldenthal have reorchestrated the classics giving them a whole new power and beauty. Highlights include a gospel rendering of Let It Be, Jarvis Cocker's take on Come Together and I Want to Hold Your Hand, intriguingly turned into a soulful ballad about a girl coming to terms with her homosexuality. Surreal and daring, Taymor's film is bound to turn as many people away, but for those who like films with imagination as well as heart, this is a rare treat.

Absolute Power - Clint Eastwood - 1997

The closest Clint ever came to blockbusters was with overly complex yet cheesy thrillers like this and as such, Absolute Power is typical Eastwood. Pulling together a top-drawer cast, Clint tells the story of a thief who witnesses a crime at the very top of the governmental tree and the subsequent cat and mouse games over the truth. Clint, with his usual skill for finding the right parts, easily inhabits thief-with-a-conscience Luther Whitney and he is ably supported by Laura Linney and Ed Harris as unwitting pawns in the game. Opposing him Richard Jenkins makes an excellent cameo as a loose-cannon assassin while Gene Hackman recycles his villainous turn from Unforgiven as the philandering president, though unfortunately his early film attempt at a sex scene feels awkwardly unconvincing which is not a great start. Oddly though, the worst part of the film is the ending in which Clint, forced to suddenly tie up a lot of strings, tries for an ambiguous approach that doesn't do justice to all the characters and feels confusingly abrupt given how gently Clint teased out the tension in the earlier scenes. Up until then the film still functions as a perfectly good thriller – it’s just clear that this won't be one of those for which Clint is remembered.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence - Steven Spielberg - 2001

A science-fiction odyssey through a world in which robots can pass as ordinary human beings, A.I. was originally slated to be directed by the visionary Stanley Kubrick but after his death it was picked up by the no less talented but more mainstream Steven Spielberg, a move that in retrospect was debatably a mistake. For the first two hours though the film is pretty good as we follow the journey of robot boy David from creation, abandonment and eventual discovery of some sort of identity. Haley Joel Osment is superb in the leading role, coming across as creepily inhuman but plaintively sad as he yearns for something he can never achieve. In support Jude Law who is normally not the strongest of actors is surprisingly good as robot gigolo Joe, nailing the movement and mannerisms of a machine far better than he has many humans only to have many scenes stolen by David's moving and talking toy bear (Best. Teddy. Ever.) Thrown out into a strange and horrifying world, the trio set out on an odyssey through environments that a genuine joy to explore; whether it be the wondrous vision of a submerged Manhattan or the surprisingly graphic horrors of the 'flesh fair', all are filled with the sort of intricate detail that is normally the reserve of Ridley Scott. After two hours though the film then seems to come to a natural if sombre climax with what is probably the most striking image of the film: a tiny pod trapped under a giant underwater Ferris wheel. However Spielberg then chooses to continue the film for another twenty minutes, creating a coda that feels as tasteless as it does saccharine, helped in no small part by a heavy-handed Pinocchio parallel that Spielberg has been attempting to make with David. By drawing out the film to such an extent just to give David a happy ending in fact cheapens the emotional power of the first ending at the bottom of the sea as well as the complex themes of identity, love and humanity that have permeated the film up to that point. It feels very much as if Spielberg has given in to his commercial instincts rather than daring to make something refreshingly different. It is doubtful whether Kubrick would have made the same mistake.

A Single Man - Tom Ford - 2010

An intriguing and gently emotive film debut from fashion artiste Tom Ford, A Single Man follows George, an English professor throughout the course of a single day after the death of his lover. Ford shoots in mostly muted colours and shows off his eye for fashion with his use of extreme close-ups in soft focus that examine the bodies of the characters with an attention to detail and nuance that more experienced directors rarely bother with. Colin Firth has always played repressed Englishmen and although George is similar to his past characters in some respects, Firth has found a whole new depth here, communicating writhing emotions perfectly with the most subtle gestures and glances. Watching George fall apart on the inside while maintaining a surface veneer is much more heartbreaking than raging histrionics would be; credit is also due here to Matthew Goode who as George's lover communicates the entire length and emotional depth of their relationship in just a few flashbacks. Considering the subtlety of most of the film, the ending could feel a little rushed which is a shame because the emotional journey is intact and complete with a tragic irony, but Ford seemingly just ran out of steam. As a film debut though this is an impressive achievement, thoroughly deserving what awards it has picked up so far.

A Serious Man - Ethan Coen & Joel Coen - 2009

In any other hands, the story of a man watching in horror as his life falls apart around him whilst he fails to do anything about it would probably be a serious and ultra-depressing drama. Seen through the eyes of the Coen brothers however, A Serious Man is a darkly funny black comedy which stands as a loving tribute to a sixties Jewish community whilst at the same time mischievously sending it up. Interestingly for the first time the Coens have cast a group of unknowns so without a Clooney or a Turturro to add unnecessary star wattage, the film is actually one of the most believable in the Coen canon. Leading man Michael Stuhlbarg is a sweet, if slightly effeminate leading man who, whilst crucially never losing sympathy is someone whose misery we somehow feel justified in laughing at. As ever with a Coen film though it’s the supporting players who are the real joy; from a pot-smoking sexpot neighbour to Fred Melamed's absurdly affectionate family friend who gives Stuhlbarg soothing hugs while stealing his wife, every part is miniature creation of comic genius. They might have abandoned their regular collaborators but on this evidence the Coens are riding as high as ever.

A History of Violence - David Cronenberg - 2005

Initially this seems like another standard thriller - an ex-gangster has to return to his old ways in order to beat off the hoods threatening his family etc, but Cronenberg has more going on here. As Tom Stall's old life, personified by Ed Harris' chillingly understated Carl Fogerty insinuates itself into his new world, Cronenberg uses the classical thriller structure to examine the effects of violence on what is to all intents and purposes, a typical American family. Stall junior turns on the school bully who has always tormented him but ends up resorting to more extreme methods to help his father. The seemingly perfect marriage between the Stalls (Mortensen and Bello, both excellent) breaks down as Bello’s character Edie is horrified to discover the past her husband has hidden from her. Here the changes violence can do to a person are tragically represented by two sex scenes, a before and after if you will, the first gentle and fun, the second shockingly brutal as Tom turns increasingly into the gangster he buried in order to cling onto what he holds dear. The killer scene however is the very last. Returning home from a trip into the past to finally sweep away the skeletons in the closet, Stall has to face his family again in a scene that is entirely wordless but speaks volumes.

28 Days Later - Danny Boyle - 2003

A zombie movie with a difference (for a start the infected are technically still alive), 28 Days Later aims for more than guts and gore by focusing instead on the problems of coping with the apocalypse and how far some are prepared to go to ensure survival. That's not to say there's a lack of shocks (the thrilling realisation that these creatures can run as fast as humans is a particularly fine dramatic coup), but Boyle's flashy editing style means that the violence comes in sharp bursts and never lingers on the gore. Instead the focus is firmly on the surviving characters with Megan Burns as a teenager forced to grow up horrifically quickly and Christopher Eccleston as a soldier who can turn from charming to threatening at a second's notice standing out as notable highlights. The film's core however is the development of Cillian Murphy highlighted in two brilliantly shot, edited and scored sequences that book end the film and mark the extremes of his character Jim’s journey. In the first Jim wanders through a deserted London, a world now filled with surreal images of familiar sights that are normally covered in people, a lost and lonely figure in an empty landscape. Come the end Murphy is again on the move but this time he is the hunter, stalking through a mansion during a fierce rain storm after enemies both human and not. In between we witness in Murphy's eyes the destruction of a man's soul in the face of practically everything human being wiped off the face of the earth and at the end in that rain storm it is this remnant of humanity that lasts as Boyle's most chillingly memorable vision of the apocalypse

21 - Robert Luketic - 2008

A mildly interesting thriller about a group of card counting students taking the Las Vegas casinos by storm, 21 is a revealing look at a system that is essentially cheating in all but name. Rising star Jim Sturgess is a likeable leading man, making an essentially bland protagonist a watchable character and comfortably sharing the screen alongside veterans Fishburne and Spacey. Typically Spacey steals the film as the group's mentor who might just have his own agenda creating a nice relationship/rivalry with Sturgess as the protégé getting out of hand. Its a shame however that the rest of the group don't much chance to make an impact, with only Kate Bosworth getting decent screen time in the traditional love interest role. Director Robert Luketic manages to make an essentially static game like Blackjack cinematic, though he fumbles the preliminary exposition in favour of pace so its unlikely anyone will actually be able to follow how Sturgess is winning. Instead Luketic attempts computer enhanced shots of the cards in action which, whilst not taking away from the story, add nothing to a film that just needs to have more faith in its narrative drive. If he'd taken more interest in making the film exciting character wise rather than technically, Luketic could've had a more successful end result.

2012 - Roland Emmerich - 2009

In what must be the ultimate disaster movie of all time, granddaddy of the genre Roland Emmerich piles every conceivable natural disaster into one long film. Thus we are granted earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves and Woody Harrelson all crammed into an epic running time and surprisingly it’s actually very good. Yes the plot and the characters are entirely predictable, but this is the sort of film that reminds you why clichés are clichés - when they're done well they're awesome. So be prepared to laugh and cry your way through as the latest disparate bunch of characters, led by John Cusack at his dishevelled best are united by an apocalypse and learn to find themselves, rediscover each other etc. The bonus here is that the disaster movie has never had a bigger canvas. Emmerich uses every tool in his CG arsenal to pull off simply spectacular scenes of devastation with highlights including LA being swallowed by the Earth, Yellowstone Park going nuclear and the complete submersion of the Himalayas. The only wrong note is the destruction of the Vatican which not stands out as the worst piece of CG rendering in a CG heavy film, but feels uncomfortably like a dig at those who find comfort in prayer in dark moments. They say that when you've seen one disaster movie you've seen them all. If that's the case, 2012 is definitely that movie.

127 Hours - Danny Boyle - 2011

It’s hard to talk about Danny Boyle's latest film in which a man escapes from a canyon where he's trapped by cutting off his own arm without mentioning said mutilation, so why try? Boyle uses his trademark shooting and editing to great effect here, taking us into the slowly melting mind of adventurer Aron Ralston as he stands trapped for 127 hours. Although in the final moments it gets harder to understand where his hallucinations are coming from (did anyone get what the boy on the sofa was about?), crash cuts to extreme close-ups of diminishing water and a dropped knife highlight in vivid detail both the intensity and the absurdity of his predicament. Once again Boyle also demonstrates his superb ability for sourcing appropriate music, blending well-placed pop songs (Bill Withers, 'Lovely Day' is a beautifully ironic choice) with an original score by Indian composer A.R. Rahman that brings a more intense and exotic heart to the piece than a conventional classical soundtrack would. The sound is also used to gruesome effect in the climactic scene; Boyle doesn't shoot the scene focusing on the gory on the aspect but rather how physically difficult it is to cut off an arm and a few sharp twangs on the soundtrack is far more effective than buckets of blood in highlighting how agonising it is. Kudos must also go to James Franco for leaving behind his usual wooden acting style to recognisably invest enough pain and emotion into the part that we can feel that this is a real person going through the ordeal. However this is Boyle's film through and through and its good to see that after the comparatively conventional Slumdog Millionaire he is back finding fresh ways to tell unconventional stories.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

12 Angry Men - Sidney Lumet - 1957

An astonishing film achievement, 12 Angry Men puts twelve extraordinary actors in a room for ninety minutes with only a brilliant script for company and watches them clash. Watching one man slowly turn the odds on a guilty verdict makes for riveting viewing as Lumet leaves them nowhere to hide from his ever probing camera. Inevitable as the final verdict might seem, the real pleasure is in the dialogue as more and more details of the case are uncovered and more and more doubts are raised by Fonda's probing questions. All the performances are excellent, but its the clashes between his calmly incisive Juror Number 8 and Lee J. Cobb's barnstorming Juror Number 3 that prove the most memorable moments and even some delicious moments of humour, as 8 expertly trips up 3 to leave his argument looking weaker. The look of realisation on Cobb's face is worth the viewing alone. Lumet's direction also can't be overstated. Faced with an essentially theatrical script of twelve guys sitting round a table arguing, Lumet understands and avoids the temptation to cut outside the room and instead successfully wrings last drop of tension from every moment so the audience is on the edge of their seats as much as they are in any standard action movie. Genius.

10,000 B.C. - Roland Emmerich - 2008

Roland Emmerich, master of the epic-blockbuster picks up every quest-movie cliché and plonks them down ten thousand years in the past for this, his latest epic. The setting is undoubtedly fantastic, with beautiful landscapes of mountains and deserts augmented with generally well realised CGI to create everything from a stampeding herd of woolly mammoths to a vast ancient civilisation over which the camera swoops like an eagle. Travelling these landscapes watched over by an omnipotent Omar Sharif, a young hunter D’Leh (Steven Strait) quests to prove himself to his tribe, save the girl he loves, fulfil his destiny etc, and basically ticking off the story beats as they pass by. This isn’t to say that it’s dull but Emmerich clearly takes the whole thing so seriously (if it’s not the effects or the set dressing it’s the po-faced dialogue), that he forgets to have any fun with it. The largely unknown cast emote with great earnestness which at least means that there are couple of memorably stirring moments – the image of D’Leh silhouetted on top of a sand dune at the head of an army as his lover sails helplessly away is a highlight – but this emotional satisfaction is dearly earned. Emmerich appears to have entirely left behind the sense of humour that make for example the characters in 2012 so engaging, and instead focused on would be dramatic moments like our hero going nose to nose with a sabre-toothed tiger that just come across as ridiculous. Without this dash of humour that make so many of his characters recognisably human, Emmerich misses his mark on this quest, ably creating the epic scale that the genre demands but only hinting at the heart inside.