Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Little White Lies - Guillaume Canet - 2011

The latest stars of French cinema are brought together by rising director Guillaume Canet for this intricate comedy drama that picks apart the all too delicate threads that bind together a group of ostensibly life long friends. As the film opens the group decide to go on their annual holiday despite the fact that one of their number Ludo is in hospital and it’s immediately clear that this single incident is going to pick away at the apparently carefree facade of drinking, eating and sailing. Canet however takes his own sweet time getting anywhere which might irritate the more impatient viewer but actually pays dividends for the characters who are all given ample time to breath, grow and engage with us as three dimensional people rather than the caricatures who often populate these sort of films. This in turn lends the film a richer vein of comedy since it all feels genuine rather than staged and thus for those who take the time to get involved, the long running time slides by in such deliciously funny moments as Marion Cotillard being dragged behind a speedboat and the increasingly desperate failures of Francois Cluzet to cope with a friend’s rather too personal revelation. On the flipside this also makes the undercurrent of tragedy omnipresent in Ludo's absence seem all the more pertinent as the titular little white lies that bind the group together come to light and the shallow nature of their existence is exposed for what it is. A last act stumble sees a character saying all this out loud when it would have been subtler to watch them come to understand this personally, but this isn't enough to detract from what builds to an ultimately very moving and satisfying climax.

Life is Beautiful - Roberto Benigni - 1997

A controversial movie for putting scenes of slapstick comedy in a Holocaust setting, Life is Beautiful is always going to start debates. What starts out as a hilarious Italian comedy in which poor trickster Guido (played by Roberto Benigni the director) woos a beautiful schoolteacher, takes an unexpected dark turn half way through when Guido and his young son are shipped off to a concentration camp. Here Guido struggles to protect the boy’s innocence by pretending that they are taking part in a huge game, using his tireless imagination to constantly turn the horrific reality into something light hearted. It is true that Benigni the director slightly overdoes this on occasion, having Guido chatter on when he is busy working with just the other prisoners or not bothering to show how he miraculously escapes punishment for hijacking the PA system, but the scenes between father and son when we can see how exhausted he is from trying to maintain the pretence are moving because our adult understanding can fill in the dark gaps in his stories; we don’t need to see the horror played out in full. The one concession made towards this is a giant pile of skeletons that Guido stumbles on at night, obviously historically untrue since the Nazis burned their bodies; this serves very well though as a visual metaphor for what Guido is trying to protect his son from and anyway to complain that the film isn't completely accurate historically is missing the point. This is not a film about history but rather about how the human spirit remains indomitable under the most extreme circumstances. With this in mind it is impossible not to fall in love with the irrepressible Guido at the beginning as he and a friend (who sadly drops out later) arrive in town in a runaway car (after being hilariously mistaken for the King en route) and meets his ‘Principessa’ who literally falls out of the sky. What follows is a glorious succession of comedy routines in which Guido utilises his vibrant imagination and manic grin to conjure increasingly dramatic ways to meet and then charm the lady until both she and us can’t help but be won over. Some have complained that this light comedy makes too jarring a contrast with the darker second part but actually the forthcoming Holocaust is hinted at all the way through, right up to the brilliantly ironic image of the Prince’s white horse covered with anti-Jewish graffiti. And to be honest the film needs the tremendously enjoyable first hour to establish Guido’s indomitable spirit as something worth preserving, thus making his efforts in the concentration camp to hide its true horrors from his son ultimately all the more moving.

La Règle du Jeu - Jean Renoir - 1939

Unfairly criticised and dismissed on its release by an audience uncomfortable with how the film made them appear, Jean Renoir's La Règle Du Jeu is now deservedly considered a masterpiece of its time and a landmark piece of social satire. As various guests who are all involved in an interconnected chain of love affairs arrive at a country mansion for the weekend, modern audiences might struggle to connect with these gorgons who seem to respond unnecessarily dramatically towards every passing comment, but this is Renoir's point. It is true that most of us don't have the mansions and estates that Marcel Dalio lords over, but we are all to some extent obsessed with our own feelings and relationships and so as Renoir's camera floats through the corridors and the increasingly frenetic but elegantly orchestrated mayhem, it becomes ever more satisfying to watch these people wind themselves up to an inevitably tragic climax. Dalio would later flee to Hollywood to appear notably as the bartender in Casablanca before sinking even further to play buffoons in second rate war movies, so its especially poignant to see him here in his finest hour as the lord of the manor but unfair to single him out as every performance is filled with the slight desperation of people (actors and characters) who know that they are soon going to lose everything. Sixty years later Robert Altman made his own masterpiece Gosford Park, which spins some of the same themes around a similar structure and which might engage more emotionally but doesn't exude anything like as much bite as this does so many years down the line, a longevity that marks La Règle Du Jeu out as a true classic.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Submarine - Richard Ayoade - 2011

Adapting the debut novel by Joe Dunthorne, Richard Ayoade (better known as Moss from The IT Crowd) makes his directorial debut with this precociously intelligent yet quirky comedy about an introspective fifteen year old growing up in Wales in the eighties. Those who grew up in school playing football and getting lots of attention might be dismissive of the protagonist Oliver Tate but anyone who was even slightly more intelligent, offbeat or eccentric will delight in Oliver's awkward and pretentious yet often hilarious and touching (mis)adventures as he struggles to grow up. Craig Roberts is brilliant as Oliver, inviting us into his head with a nervous opening glance into the camera and then perfectly channelling the strange mixture of insecurities, overly analytical internal monologues and strange arrogance that form the psyche of this fifteen year old intellectual. He is well matched by Yasmin Paige (disturbingly last seen in TV's Sarah-Jane Adventures) as the girl in school who fascinates Oliver, apparently giving nothing away beneath a sarcastic and indifferent shield but slowly letting the hurt and pain seep through to us and an oblivious Oliver. Ayoade tells this story with impressive technical economy, utilising an impressive display of freeze frames, jump cuts and other techniques to far greater effect than Jean-Luc Godard and co who are credited with inventing them in the first place. Most importantly though he never gets carried away with his new toys, keeping the focus firmly on his little story and thus perfectly capturing the emotions and confusion of growing up and life in general, making this one of the smartest and finest debuts seen in a long time.

St. Trinian’s - Barnaby Thompson & Oliver Parker - 2007

Shallow as a puddle this maybe but its still an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, particularly with Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and other great British thespians kicking back and having some fun along the way (Russell Brand's cockney overacting is the only misfire in the cast). The story of naughty schoolgirls planning the ultimate heist is neither original nor witty but this updating of the 1950s classic does at least cleverly write the girls to appeal to today's various playground cliques (even if most of them come across as stereotypes). The ever-reliable Talulah Riley is our way into the mayhem as newgirl Annabelle but the show is stolen by ten year old twins Holly and Chloe Mackie who hilariously cause utter mayhem whilst randomly quoting everything from The Italian Job to Gladiator and yet always manage to appear sweet and innocent at the crucial moment. The real star though has to be Everett who enters the pantheon of all time great pantomime dames with his performance as headmistress Miss Fritton. Building on an easy chemistry with co-star Colin Firth, (first developed when they worked together on Oliver Parker's The Importance of Being Earnest), Everett is a force of nature, at once funny, sly and witty, yet passionate and tragic when necessary. It’s worth sitting through Girls Aloud closing the film for the pair's brilliant reworking of Love is in the Air during the end credits. So yes its shallow, but great fun nevertheless!

Sideways - Alexander Payne - 2004

Many romantic comedies exist in a fantasy land where we can enjoy the trials and tribulations of a couple or two but never take them seriously enough to doubt the eventual outcome. Not so Sideways and its story of two buddies on a wine tasting stag weekend complete with their respective mid-life crises. Thomas Haden Church's Jack is determined to enjoy as much sex as possible during his last week as a bachelor, behaviour that both embarrasses and horrifies his best man Miles (Paul Giamatti) – a failing writer obsessed with all things wine related. Both actors are impressive generating an easy chemistry that is very funny to watch but maintaining a beautifully played rising panic behind the eyes as they struggle to cope with the inexorable approach of real life. However with a lot of the comic relief centred on Jack's sex obsession the dramatic weight falls mainly on Giamatti who rises brilliantly to the challenge and delivers his very best performance in a career that has been constantly underrated. It would be easy to become frustrated with the terminally depressed Miles but Giamatti invests him with a tragic pathos which feels all too human in a genre that doesn't normally bother with subtlety - watching Miles retreat into the shell of his wine knowledge because he can't come to terms with the idea that a woman is interested in him is absolutely heartbreaking. The real plaudits however must go to director Alexander Payne who skilfully creates characters that are both funny and tragic but more importantly, utterly real. This is no fantasy and these are real people, and that ultimately is where both their tragedy and the film's success can be found.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope - George Lucas - 1977

The definitive original, this is the seminal film that launched a thousand movie merchandising deals and kick-started adolescence for practically every child ever since, but does it still stand up? The answer happily is largely yes. It’s true that this is still storytelling at its most basic – the plot trundles along the rails of predictability with nary anything approaching a twist in sight, but its Lucas' visual imagination that counts. Be it the entrance of Darth Vader cinema's greatest villain, the splendidly realised clinical world of the Death Star or the Jawas, Tusken Raiders and other background figures that fill out life on Tatooine, Lucas has without doubt created some of cinema's most iconic images. Character wise this (like all the trilogy) suffers from the presence of Mark Hamill's bland Luke and Anthony Daniels' infuriating C3PO but more than compensates with the beautiful Carrie Fisher, a star making turn from Harrison Ford as Han Solo and the adorable R2D2. On a side note it is perhaps indicative of Lucas' skill (or lack of) with actors that he earns his film some gravitas with the respectable presence of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing and then criminally under uses them both. A mention must also be given to John Williams magnificent score which contains not just some of the greatest music ever to be heard on screen but surely some of the greatest classical music ever written. A flawed classic then? Certainly, but most importantly a sign of even greater things to come.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back - Irvin Kershner - 1980

Without doubt the greatest sequel of all time, The Empire Strikes Back is surely responsible for the now common practice of making all sequels darker – it’s simply a testament that this still stands up as the finest. Benefiting from not letting George Lucas near the actual script, the film is mercifully free of the clanging dialogue that often plagues the Star Wars universe and instead focuses on taking the established characters to new emotional depths, a task at which it succeeds marvellously. The developing relationship between Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher), delicately underscored by John Williams, is often hilarious to watch but still deeply moving in its build up to the climactic scene in the carbonite freezing chamber, a moment that is still heartbreaking to watch. Alongside Darth Vader's iconic reveal, it is in fact surprising how dark Lucas is prepared to take it after the fun of the first film; the fact that it works though and in fact stands up as a better film suggests that Lucas understands better now how to balance the tonal differences for dramatic effect. Thus this is also the film that introduced two more iconic figures in Jedi Master Yoda (played by puppeteer Frank Oz) and bounty hunter Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) alongside some even snappier flying from the Millennium Falcon and the impractical but super-cool AT-ATs. It is typical of Lucas' imagination that after the deserts of A New Hope he goes for the complete opposite and buries the characters in snow, but this is in no way to the detriment of a film that succeeds in being both emotionally engaging and relentlessly entertaining and frankly what more can cinema offer?

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi - Richard Marquand - 1983

The final part of the epic saga of Star Wars has divided opinions more than any other with the main debate raging over those infamous Ewoks: are they cute and adorable or annoying and somehow inappropriate for the Star Wars universe. In truth the film does spend longer in their village than really necessary but the pitched battle at the end when they take on the full force of Imperial might with homemade weapons is a much more exciting sequence than the concurrent dogfight with Lando in the Millennium Falcon. The moment when one Ewok discovers his friend will never get up again is surely one of the most heartbreaking in the entire series. Across the rest of the film the revelation of Luke and Leia's real relationship is as clumsily handled as one might expect from George Lucas but otherwise this stands up alongside The Empire Strikes Back as one of the very best Star Wars films. The opening sequence in the palace of Jabba the Hutt is tremendous, filled with a myriad of fascinating background characters that are glimpsed all too briefly as well of course as the famous bikini which is still as sexy as it was nearly thirty years ago. In the climax Ian McDiarmid has a whale of a time camping it up as the evil emperor while the redemption of Anankin Skywalker is touchingly done without pushing it over into maudlin sentiment. All in all it has to be said this remains a brilliant finale to one of the greatest trilogies of all time and as such shouldn't be so easily dismissed. Even if you don’t like Ewoks.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Blue Velvet - David Lynch - 1986

A noir-tinted thriller from legendary surrealist director David Lynch, Blue Velvet hacks open the dark underbelly of traditional small town America and finds a queasy mix of dark humour and disturbing violence. Right from the opening shot which descends below the tranquil view of white picket fences to focus on ugly bugs burrowing away underneath, it is clear that nothing can be quite what it seems and so we soon discover after nosy protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) finds a severed human ear on some wasteland. Despite being warned off Jeffery can’t help but investigate and so gets drawn into the seedy world of tormented singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and the psychopathic Frank Booth. Returning to the screen after years in a drug fuelled wilderness actor Dennis Hopper attacks the part of Booth with alarming intensity, bizarrely sucking on an oxygen mask when he gets carried away and unleashing a torrent of unchecked raging vitriol that is quite terrifying to behold. With Hopper’s now iconic stream of profanity blowing everyone else off the screen it takes a while to remember anyone else involved which is a shame because Lynch’s most subversive character is probably Jeffrey himself. Ostensibly the bland Maclachlan is playing the traditional square jawed American hero, a view that is strengthened when he falls in love with Laura Dern’s pretty college girl, but as he becomes obsessed with the damaged Dorothy we soon begin to see that Jeffrey, the personification of American everyman, is as twisted as everyone else in his own way. Whereas Frank and Dorothy are obviously trouble with their very external demons deliberately placed by Lynch in an obviously bad side of town away from 'civilised people', its Jeffery with his outwardly normal demeanour covering an internal desire for Dorothy that leads him to spy on her changing and eventually return for masochistic sex, that is in Lynch’s eyes the darkest character. The mystery that Jeffrey stumbles through feels patchy and perfunctory and doesn’t always ring true (its certainly a puzzle as to why Dern would forgive Jeffrey when she discovers what he’s done) but when the film is viewed as an exposé of Jeffrey’s – and by implications middle America’s – hypocrisies, this doesn’t really matter. The film ends as it began with those white picket fences which might make it easy for some to brush away Lynch’s dark forebodings but is unlikely to make the experience something easily forgotten.

The Beach - Danny Boyle - 2000

Danny Boyle travels along way from home for his next film, adapting Alex Garland’s thriller The Beach and creating an intriguing story that works both as an exotic adventure and as an examination of the concept of paradise and how far some are willing to go in order to maintain it. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Richard, a typically shallow, thrill seeking American who has come to Thailand in search of excitement and discovers a hidden community that have laid claim to a secret tropical paradise as home. Despite an ominous appearance from Robert Carlye in the first five minutes the film initially seems to be a straight romantic adventure as Richard drags a beautiful Frenchwoman and her boyfriend along in an attempt to find said mysterious beach. However once Boyle has got his central trio to paradise and passed the first moments of wonder and delight, he gradually starts introducing increasingly darker elements so we begin to see how this community which has been drawn together by a pursuit of shallow pleasures, copes with the pressures of nature, life and the outside world. A later segment with Richard going through an Apocalypse Now style meltdown isn't quite so effective, but with DiCaprio neatly subverting the pretty boy image he hadn't quite shed at this stage in his career, The Beach is still a thrilling and at times chilling exposure of human nature and the darkness that lies at the heart of paradise.

The Aristocats - Wolfgang Reitherman - 1970

Pretty much a remake of Disney's previous hit Lady and the Tramp but with cats replacing dogs in the central roles, The Aristocats is it has to be said by far the better film. Set in a beautifully hand drawn Paris which is all the more charming because we can still see the pencil lines, we are drawn into the romance between Duchess (pampered mother of three adorable kittens) and Thomas O'Malley (wisecracking alley cat) as they make their way home after a catnapping. And that is pretty much it with Duchess and Thomas proving (thanks to a wittier script) to be more engaging than their dog counterparts, so much so that scenes of comic relief with the villain and two dozy guard dogs feel overlong without them. Of course no Disney film would be complete without songs and director Wolfgang Reitherman has sensibly chosen to stick with two or three well placed gems rather than using as many as possible to pad out the story, an idea that pays dividends when the results are as catchy as 'Everybody Wants to be a Cat' - surely one of the finest in the Disney catalogue. It’s true that this might not be commonly regarded as one of the Disney greats but at heart it’s a true classic.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Analyse This - Harold Ramis - 1999

An amusing comedy from veteran Harold Ramis, Analyse This never hits the glorious heights of Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day but still has a ball throwing together the Italian mob in the form of Robert De Niro and a small time psychiatrist played by Billy Crystal. The end product is rather a messy and a little too long but beautifully satirises the Italian-American gangster movies that made De Niro's name. The great man demonstrates an unexpected flair for comedy (years before he put on a dress in Stardust), playing in gangster Paul Vitti someone that he has to all intents and purposes played endlessly before, but turning a different light on them to reveal that essentially they're all just regular guys deep down. De Niro's withering cut downs of psychiatric theory get the film's biggest laughs (Freud might never recover) but Ramis gets away with a well paced Godfather homage and a deliciously funny climax in which Crystal confuses a table full of gangsters by talking shop. On the down side the film is mired by the unnecessary presence of Lisa Kudrow (still playing Phoebe) as Crystal’s fiancé and awkward scenes of the comedian struggling to play the straight man to De Niro, but it must be said that while Analyse This is hardly comedy genius, it is at least much more clever and sophisticated than the likes of Caddyshack.

All the President’s Men - Alan J. Pakula - 1976

One of the most famous conspiracies of recent history is the Watergate cover-up (to the point that the word Gate is tacked onto every new scandal that breaks) and All the President's Men endeavours to tell the story from the point of view of the men who cracked it. This mainly involves Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman making a lot of phone calls and door to door visits in order to slowly fill in an enormous jigsaw with so many names that it’s occasionally hard to follow despite the slow pace and long running time. This is all very interesting but oddly, bar a few visits to a sinister underground car park to visit the mysterious Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the film is strangely lacking in tension or any real sense of drama. Redford and Hoffman are both fine but are slaves to the investigation and thus don't have much time to put much detail in the characters, leaving the only human input to Jason Robards' sardonic editor. Director Alan J. Pakula elects for a minimalist approach to shooting, choosing for the most part to sit back and let the camera simply observe events unfold before he eventually ends the film abruptly just as the investigation is finally making an impact and fills in the ending with title cards. This is without doubt a vital piece of history and a story that needs to be told but sometimes it’s hard not to wonder why Pakula and Redford (who produced) didn't just make a documentary.

Adaptation - Spike Jonze - 2002

After the success of cult classic Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief, a memoir by journalist Susan Orleans, but when channelled through his warped mind the end result is a bizarre and twisted yet wryly humorous examination of the process of adaptation itself. Rather than focusing purely on Orleans’ narrative Kaufman centres instead on himself struggling to adapt the story whilst suffering from a bad case of writers block and with Nicolas Cage as his onscreen persona he tears apart the twisted and pathetically sad neuroses of a writer terrified that he can’t match his previous success. In a rare excellent performance (suggesting its bad career choices not bad acting letting him down), Cage plays not only Kaufman but also his fictional brother Donald whose upbeat attitude to writing a cheesy serial killer script makes an amusing contrast to the insecure Charlie. In some of the cleverest scenes director Spike Jonze recreates the shooting stage of Being John Malkovich complete with cameos from Malkovich, Cusack and Keener and discovers Cage as Kaufman hunched awkwardly in the corner, an outsider lost on the inside of Hollywood. Cage balances both roles with great panache, generating great chemistry with himself and thus dominating the film to the extent that the sections with Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper (who won an Oscar for this) feel dragged out in comparison. Appearing in extended flashbacks as the original writer Orleans and the orchid hunter John Laroche who she becomes fascinated and obsessed with, Streep and Cooper occasionally feel like they’ve got the raw end of the deal, stuck with the ‘official’ story, but the two veterans develop an interesting relationship that is at times randomly funny – Streep hooked on drugs is a sight – and surprisingly thought provoking as Kaufman teases out more ideas around the theme of adaptation. Devoting his life to illegally hunting rare orchids, the battered Laroche with his missing front teeth gives us an insight into how these flowers have had to adapt to survive and we begin to see that actually he has a lot in common with them. Running parallel to this we see Orleans wilting in New York with her stuffy husband before she finds a new lease of life travelling with Laroche in Florida and begins to blossom, adapting to a new environment in much the same way that Laroche’s plants do. As the film progresses nuggets of Orleans’ musings about her adventures in Florida spur Kaufman the character into taking his screenplay off in different directions but it’s not until near the end that the different storylines come crashing together for a surprisingly dark final sequence that veers weirdly into action thriller territory, a move that may confuse some viewers, but clearly in Kaufman's world nothing can be easily wrapped up. It may be difficult to get a grip on but Adaptation is still one of the most original films from Hollywood about Hollywood, making it a second hit in a row for the elusive Charlie Kaufman.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Constantine - Francis Lawrence - 2005

Keanu Reeves is not, bless him, a man with the greatest acting range, seemingly turning his back for good on the comedy excesses of the Bill and Ted adventures and limiting himself to somewhat wooden hero figures. However grumpy chain-smoking demon fighter John Constantine fits this style perfectly – think Neo with a grudge – and thus a new antihero is created, Reeves delivering a fairly intense and slightly twisted performance that is still cool enough to engage Reeves; Matrix fans. Around him director Francis Lawrence spins an overly complicated and often ridiculous plot that doesn't entirely make sense as various deities of heaven and hell fight over Rachel Weisz’s soul (or something like that) but the whole complicated mess is entertaining enough for this to not matter. On the plus side the androgynous Tilda Swinton is perfect as a mysterious Angel Gabriel, while Peter Stormare makes a brilliant cameo appearance as Satan – oozing charma and depravity in equal measure, but on the down side we have to put up with an early Shia LaBeouf performance as a feeble comedy sidekick, jabbering away in incomprehensible 'street talk'. Effects wise Lawrence cleverly makes the decision to go easy on the CGI which means that the demons have a greater impact when they do appear but crucially the story and the action are never buried under the effects. At the moment it seems this was just a once-off but hopefully in time we'll see more of this pleasingly dark 'superhero'.

The Constant Gardener - Fernando Meirelles - 2005

City of God director Fernando Meirelles makes his English language debut with this adaptation of a John le Carre thriller that peers into the murky world of international pharmaceutical companies and their abuse of the unwitting Africans used as guinea pigs in the development of new products. Beyond this though the film is also a tragic romance as gentle diplomat Justin (Ralph Fiennes) is forced to prove his feelings for his crusading wife (Rachel Weisz winning an Oscar) after she's been killed in dubious circumstances. With practically the whole relationship playing out in flashback, Weisz and Fiennes successfully establish a depth of feeling in just a few scenes together that gives the film an emotional power above and beyond that of a standard political thriller. Forced to go on the run in the latter part of the film as his inquiries get out of hand, Fiennes maybe an unconventional action hero with his soft eyes and diminutive frame but this simply makes the film all the more believable. Played out against the rich colours of Kenya, Justin's journey cannot quite achieve the serious emotional weight of City of God but still manages to expertly deliver a perfect balance of head and heart that suggests Meirelles' career will be on the up for a long time to come.

City of God - Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund - 2002

An epic gangster masterpiece that astonishes at every turn, City of God tells the eye opening story of various characters growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro amidst poverty, crime and drug trafficking but also warmth and humour. Our narrator is Rocket, an aspiring photographer who dreams of escaping from the slums and the gangs that killed his brother but is reluctantly drawn to telling the stories of those around him. These include the sociopathic Lil 'Ze, the fun loving Bene and the tragic Knockout Ned, all part of a larger vibrant picture that teems with life and an exuberance (even in violence) that is fascinating to watch. The real genius is in the storytelling however. Debuting director Fernando Meirelles is confident enough to introduce characters then withhold them, trusting you to remember them when the right time comes and then throwing them into scenes that are expertly shot and edited with an aplomb that put the likes of Martin Scorsese to shame. Neither does Meirelles shy away from the all too real brutality of this world. Equally balanced with the heart and the humour of Rocket's narration are frequent bursts of violence that are deeply shocking (one scene with very young children on the end of a gun is particularly horrific) but also sadly revelatory of a world where death means very little. Many have compared this film to Goodfellas which is a mistake. City of God is a far better film than Goodfellas.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Hugo - Martin Scorsese - 2011

After making several films that are acknowledged classics and forming legendary collaborations with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese’s latest film is… a kid’s film. In 3D. This is needlessly to say, something of a surprise. But when you look a little closer and see that Hugo is an intricately realised period piece designed as a loving homage to the history of cinema of which Scorsese is a known devotee, the film becomes something worth anticipating. Right from the opening shot in which the camera drifts over Paris to the Gare du Nord station, travels down inside and along the platform with an incoming train, moves through the busy concourse and tracks up to find Hugo (Asa Butterfield) peeking through the number four in a huge all-seeing clock, this film is a visual delight. Filled with gloriously nostalgic shots of the twinkling lights of Paris, some beautiful old steam trains and a fascinating microcosmic complex of lives playing out in the station concourse the film is filled with the sort of wonderful little details that immediately want to make you watch the film again. Whether it’s Christopher Lee as a venerable bookseller, Emily Mortimer personifying sweetness as a flower girl or Sacha Baron Cohen finding both comedy and menace as Hugo’s nemesis the Station Inspector, every bit player in this rabbit warren of a world is a fresh delight in a story overrun with them. Butterfield who previously played a similar role in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas unsurprisingly fits nicely into the shoes of the earnest Hugo but Chloe Moretz with her more varied CV of foul-mouthed assassins (Kick-Ass) and lonely vampires (Let Me In) is an unexpected pleasure as Hugo’s friend Isabelle whose grumpy grandfather may provide the key to a mysterious automaton. Keeping with the old-fashioned tone the dialogue between the two children is oddly mannered at times but the open sincerity of the performances makes it feel natural in this world and Moretz even manages to mine several laughs from Isabelle’s obsession with using long words. Discovering that grumpy grandfather (grumpy Ben Kingsley) is the aged George Melies the children set out to lift him from a cynical depression and newly appreciate his amazing achievements, a plotline that serves as an obvious parallel with what Scorsese sees as a rediscovery of the pure magic and wonder that cinema can create. Somehow however this works and scenes like Hugo hanging off a clock face like Harold Lloyd or watching the famous short Train Coming into the Station and then dreaming a modern 3D twist imbue these classics with fresh life that is both invigorating and exciting to watch. Most importantly however Hugo celebrates the pioneering work of Melies, recreating his working techniques in a fascinating flashback and resurrecting the classic Trip to the Moon so that a new audience can appreciate its whimsical charm and simple magic. Much like this review Hugo may be too long for some people but with Scorsese trawling through the whole history of filmmaking to produce this veritable feast of wonders, it is definitely a film worth luxuriating in.

Hot Fuzz - Edgar Wright - 2007

The genius idea of taking action heroes to a quiet English country town (it’s not a village, there’s a Somerfield for Pete’s sake) creates a hilariously funny film that perfectly melds action and bloody violence with great gags and characters. The fast-paced shooting and editing that director Edgar Wright developed with his TV show Spaced and debut film Shaun of the Dead works brilliantly for what is essentially a reinvention of the buddy-cop action movie, giving the film a pace and a zip lacking in more pedestrian genre entries. Coupled with one of the most audacious yet hilarious twists in recent cinema, Hot Fuzz demonstrates the kind of originality that can be achieved by simply pulling out the old clichés and placing them somewhere new. No wonder Wright was able to attract a who's who of British acting talent to fill out his village right down to the minor characters, with veteran character actor Jim Broadbent, Wicker Man star Edward Woodward, Raiders of the Lost Ark villain Paul Freeman  amongst the famous faces worth spotting around town. In the leads once more Simon Pegg and Nick Frost deserve a nod for cementing their position as cinema's double act to beat while Timothy Dalton is clearly having the time of his life as the most hiss-worthy villain this side of Bruce the shark. Together they form an ensemble that others can only dream of. And for something this much fun? Why the hell not.

Forrest Gump - Robert Zemeckis - 1994

A heart-warming classic from director Robert Zemeckis, best known at this point for the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump is one of those rare beasts – a film that has been embraced by both critics (it won six Academy Awards) and audiences around the world. Forrest the man is an ordinary person from small town Alabama notable only for having a very low IQ who in an extraordinary performance from Tom Hanks (deservedly winning all the awards) sets out on an extraordinary odyssey through twentieth century American history led only by his heart. Meeting three presidents as well as Elvis and John Lennon on the way, fighting in Vietnam and accidentally becoming a successful businessman afterwards, Forrest becomes an American cultural phenomenon whilst not really understanding why, his simple innocence proving to be both a shield against the world and a means for us as an audience to look again at recent history with a freshly unclouded perspective. This journey may seem overlong at times but never stops being amusingly witty – clever special effects allow Hanks to appear in news footage alongside JFK, LBJ, Nixon and Lennon – and gently touching as Forrest struggles to keep hold of Jenny, the love of his life. Jenny as played by Robin Wright is in many ways Forrest’s polar opposite; brutally aware of the realities of the world from an early childhood with an abusive father, Jenny begins her own journey through the counter-culture movement and the rising drug scene, experiencing America at its worst even as Forrest in contrast comes to personify all that it celebrates. As she frequently turns her back on Forrest to run off with a fresh set of dubious acquaintances it’s easy to dismiss Jenny as a bitch, someone who chooses to destroy her own life rather than accepting Forrest’s love for what it is but Wright’s performance rises above this interpretation to show us a broken woman tragically incapable of keeping her feet on the ground until its too late. It’s always clear that Jenny loves Forrest but a roving spirit and a constant need to escape means that she can never been content settling for a simple life with him so their all too brief scenes together are always shot through with an aching poignancy. Mention also should go Gary Sinise who in an all too rare screen appearance plays Lieutenant Dan, Forrest’s commanding officer in Vietnam whose struggle to come to terms with post-war life becomes a touching example of how Forrest’s guileless innocence and faith can melt the hardest of hearts. It’s easy to be cynical about such sentimentality, especially when it seems to be all that Hollywood churns out, but when it stems from a character as simple and genuine as Forrest its impossible not to be moved.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe - Andrew Adamson & Marilyn Fox - 2005

After the huge popularity of successive Christmas releases of the three Lord of the Rings films, producers quickly pounced on C.S. Lewis’ classic children's story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to fill the void and created a beautiful big screen adaptation in the land that brought Middle Earth to life – New Zealand. The problem with Lewis' original novel is that unlike the epic volumes of his friend J.R.R Tolkein that needed to be trimmed for the cinema, the Narnia story is often light on detail, necessitating extra scenes here to stretch the story to a cinematic length. While these might upset the purists, ultimately they remain true to the spirit of Lewis' vision and thus never feel like action for actions sake – indeed the scene of the children saying goodbye to their mother as they are evacuated to the country can't fail to raise a tear. The children themselves are mixed. William Mosely and Anna Popplewell as the elder siblings Peter and Susan veer between bland and irritating but their overly mannered performances are more than compensated for by the others. Skander Keynes is perfect as moody younger brother Edmund, finding depths of expression that puts the elder kids in the shade, while Georgie Henley's Lucy is adorable – her sheer joy and delight upon discovering her new world is irresistible. The CGI work on the animals is astonishing, showing up the feeble work on the previous BBC film and while there might be some slip-ups in the backgrounds these are minor quibbles: sink back into the magic of a reinvigorated Narnia and you can't fail to be moved.

The Castle of Cagliostro - Hayao Miyazaki - 1979

The debut film from Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki who would later go onto to be the guiding light behind the legendary Studio Ghibli, The Castle of Cagliostro marks the start of an almost unparalleled unbroken run of animated masterpieces. Working not from an original idea but rather a television series about the ongoing escapades of roguish adventurer Lupin, Miyazaki eschews any of the fantastical elements that would later become a defining feature of his films to purely create an enormously exciting action adventure in a beautifully rendered landscape filled with the sort of atmospheric castles, lakes and cliff tops that would soon become his trademark. Narrowly escaping from another adventure Lupin is overtaken by a runaway Princess and having failed to save her from being recaptured swears to rescue her from the titular castle and thus is drawn into the dastardly schemes of the nefarious Count of Cagliostro and his band of creepy (if rather ineffectual) clawed ninjas. Taking time to squeeze in an action heroine randomly disguised as a maid, a permanently angry Interpol agent trying to stop a money forging operation and a macguffin involving two rings that must be reunited for a lost treasure to be revealed, the plot bounces along at a fair pace, crucially never losing the lightness of touch that ensures it remains entertaining. Lupin himself is an immensely engaging protagonist, throwing himself into his self-appointed mission with a healthy disregard for the consequences and confronting the bad guys with a mischievous sense of humour that is great fun to watch; in a nice touch that suggests Lupin is a hero for all ages, there are even hints that he’s a serial womaniser. Given that Miyazaki had rather less creative control over the material here than he would later demand, the fact that he has managed to produce a film that still feels as joyously imaginative as his more famous work surely makes this an early testament to his genius.

Cars - John Lasseter - 2006

As you might expect from a Pixar product this is an animated film of the highest quality with some frames lavished with so much detail that’s its easy to forget that you’re not watching live action. Indeed some of the vistas of the old highway Route 66 where the majority of the film takes place are practically works of art in themselves, all bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia for a way of driving that has practically died out. However this is also the root of one of the films many problems; creating a story about cars is all well and good and obviously popular with the kids (this has been Pixar’s most successful film yet merchandise wise) but unless you actually have fond memories of driving Route 66 or whatever the British equivalent is, this is unlikely to engage on the same level as most of Pixar’s other work. Also and perhaps more alarmingly the funniest moments in the film all take place during the end credits when Pixar’s previous films are recast with cars, the film itself and in particular the overlong middle section set in Radiator Springs is quite sweet and charming but hardly ever laugh out loud funny, which given the pedigree of returning director John Lasseter is something of a disappointment. For one thing the hero Lightning McQueen is for the most part a profoundly unsympathetic protagonist so it is more difficult to actually care about his plight than say Nemo's dad or Wall-E who face struggles we can actually relate to are thus are much easier to warm to. It is somewhat indicative of his persona that Owen Wilson who provides Lightning’s voice is just as annoying as a car as he is as a person. Alongside him is the bizarrely named Larry the Cable Guy whose character tow-truck Mater must be one of the most unfunny comedy sidekicks ever created and the legendary Paul Newman who in what would prove to be his final role plays aging race car Doc Hudson. Naturally Newman brings some very welcome gravitas but it is very tempting to listen to Doc’s reluctance to talk about his past glories and hear the screen legend’s embarrassment at what he has been reduced to. After all this it must be said that the film is redeemed somewhat by some good racing action and an ending that surprisingly avoids the predictable victory ending, even if this is in order to ram home the heavy-handed friendship message. However from a studio that had set such a high standard this, though still better than many other films by Pixar pretenders, will still stand as a relative slip-up.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Outlaw Josey Wales - Clint Eastwood - 1976

A lengthy Western directed by and starring Clint Eastwood in its prime, The Outlaw Josey Wales is definitely overlong but eventually a patient audience is rewarded with a fascinating character study of one man and the past he can't leave behind. In setting up the character of Josey Wales – refusing to surrender to the Union troops because he still burns for revenge against the renegade captain who destroyed his family - Eastwood meanders all over the place taking his own sweet time to bring the fleeing Wales into Indian territory and hook him up with the first of a band of misfits he collects as the film goes on. Chief Dan George is both sad and humorous as the chief Wales meets and for no apparent reason travels on with, acting as both a conscience and a sounding board for the typically morose Wales. Clint's performance is masterly, effortlessly finding the balance between the callous outlaw he's become and the human underneath - a reminder that this is an infinitely more complex character than The Man with No Name that made him famous. This humanity is steadily brought to the fore as the film progresses and Wales begins to see in the mismatched group of characters he has collected that there might be life beyond the act of vengeance and it’s in this realisation that the film demonstrates both real class but more importantly, real heart.

Ocean’s Thirteen - Steven Soderbergh - 2007

After the embarrassing mess of a European tour that was Ocean’s Twelve it is reassuring to find the gang back in Las Vegas for the third outing in the trilogy and a relief to report that the return home also means a return to the slick fun and games of Ocean’s Eleven. After Reuben (Elliott Gould) is driven to his deathbed by callous new kid on the block Willy Bank (Al Pacino) the whole team reunites (with the exception of Julia Roberts, which if we’re honest is no loss) to avenge him and remind Bank of the special code honoured by the men who shook Sinatra’s hand. To do this by simply robbing Bank’s new casino is clearly not enough (since the film would then become a remake of the first one) and so the team come up with an even more complex plot to rig the entire place in favour of the gamblers and so bankrupt the place on opening night. Interestingly (and perhaps in response to criticism of Ocean’s Twelve) Soderbergh elects to set the mechanics of this plot out in the opening half hour in a discussion between Clooney, Pitt and returning guest star Eddie Izzard so the audience is never in much doubt as to how the film will ultimately turn out; impressively Soderbergh still manages to then make the film engaging by focusing instead on the myriad little subplots that all need to come together to make the heist work. Not all of these moments are convincing of course, its hard to believe that Ellen Barkin’s hardnosed PA would melt so completely into the arms of a hook nosed Linus (Matt Damon), while some scenes like those of the Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) starting a riot in a Mexican factory are just plain bizarre. Others however like the moment when Basher (Don Cheadle) desperately tries to distract Bank from noticing his wanted poster on a screen behind him perfectly recreate the blend of light comedy and suspense that made the first film so successful and keep the audience on their toes, even as they are guided down the path Soderbergh laid out in the beginning. With all the cast back on good form and Pacino slipping nicely into the fold (his confrontation with Andy Garcia crackles with a tension reminiscent of their time together on The Godfather), Ocean’s Thirteen draws a curtain over the last film and marks a comfortable return to the glossy style of film one.

Ocean’s Twelve - Steven Soderbergh - 2004

The first sequel to his 2001 glossy crime caper Ocean’s Eleven, this new film finds director Steven Soderbergh getting the band back together for a new jaunt that this time takes them around Europe in a struggle to repay Andy Garcia (understandably grumpy) all the money they stole from him the first time around. This starts off promising with an apparently impossible burglary in Amsterdam and a suitably sexy Catherine Zeta-Jones as an Interpol agent closing in on the boys but rapidly tails off into a confusing mess of half-hearted heist ideas, nonsensical plot convolutions and a final twist that is less of a dramatic surprise and more of a disappointing anticlimax. The Amazing Yen (Shaobo Qin) is put in a bag and accidentally sent to Spain in the luggage van for no apparent reason other than he presumably had nothing else to do. Robbie Coltrane turns up to talk coded messages in a bar in a scene that (surprise) falls flat because we can’t understand what he’s talking about. And Julia Roberts who plays Tess Ocean is at one point forced to pretend that she’s… Julia Roberts. Alongside Bruce Willis who randomly turns up playing himself. In another film this might come across as an interesting piece of self-referential postmodernism or something but here it just feels like an embarrassingly crass attempt to be clever and funny; unsurprisingly it’s neither. Clooney and Pitt deliver some good banter as usual but this isn’t enough to make the film anything like as engaging and amusing as the first film and sometimes even they seem to struggle when faced with an unimaginative subplot revolving around Vincent Cassel’s rival French thief. The cast apparently all had a great time staying at Clooney’s Italian villa but this for once doesn’t translate into onscreen chemistry and with Soderbergh largely ignoring the lavish beauty of his locations in favour of his tight shooting and editing style, there isn’t even much for the audience to look at. Given Soderbergh’s rather mixed back catalogue this is hardly surprising but given their collective reputations one would have hoped that some of the cast would at least know better.