Wednesday, 29 February 2012

War Horse - Steven Spielberg - 2012

Michael Morpurgo's War Horse charts the epic journey of a Devonshire farm horse through the battlefields of World War One, introducing young readers to the horrors of war through eyes more innocent than their own. Having been adapted into a smash hit stage play by the National Theatre that continues to run in the West End it was only a matter of time before the story made the final leap to the big screen and who better to take on the project than Steven Spielberg, master of the sentimental epic. Luring his old friend John Williams out of retirement to continue their collaboration, Spielberg has crafted Morpurgo's story into the sort of old fashioned family friendly epic that he hasn't really made since the early nineties, complete with soaring strings, epic crane shots and sunsets so golden they make your eyes water. In an overlong prologue set in a sentimentalised Devon, we are introduced to Joey the horse and his owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a farmboy who is so steadfast and earnest that he might not be taken seriously by today's cynical audiences but whose simple honesty and love for Joey drives the story. From there Joey is sold to Tom Hiddleston's Captain Nicholls and sets out on a series of adventures across France, encountering amongst others a pair of young German deserters, an elderly French jammaker and his feisty grandaughter and worst of all a German gun team that works horses to death pulling heavy guns. This is all shot by Spielberg and regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski with great reverence, finding an austere beauty in the French landscape that looks wonderful on the big screen and restraining that Spielbergian flair to a few brief moments of genius that communicate the horrors of war without lingering on any of the violence. An execution is lit only by car headlights and shot from above through the vanes of a windmill. A dawn cavalry charge cuts between the shouting soldiers and the empty horses galloping past the guns that have killed the riders, an image juxtapostion that forcibly reminds the audience of the casualties involved without ever showing a bullet hitting a body. And in the finest scene Joey breaks free from the gun team one night and gallops through the trenches and out into No-Man's Land, an exhilerating sequence that is brought to a horrifc close when Joey becomes tangled in barbed wire, a moment that many people will find distressing even though there is no blood on show. Two thirds of the way through we are reintroduced to Albert, now a soldier in the trenches, which gives Spielberg an opportunity to bring to vivid life the dirty, messy confusion of trench warfare, but the real star of the film is Joey. Whenever the horse is on screen Spielberg somehow manages to invest his every look with heartfelt emotion until we all become emotionally invested in his journey and by the end it will be a stony hearted person who isn't moved in spite of the gentle snowfall and the even more golden sunset. Spielberg has taken a break in the last few years but with this coming as it does on the back of Tintin, it seems that the master showman has not lost his touch.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Carnage - Roman Polanski - 2012

Adapted from The God of Carnage a stage play by Yasmina Reza, Carnage puts four apparently civilised middle-class Americans in an apartment for an afternoon and watches them tear each other apart. Of course a dialogue heavy film set almost entirely on one location is not necessarily ideal cinema material but veteran director Roman Polanski keeps the film bouncing along nicely with a constantly roving camera that is mostly enough to hide the piece's inherant staginess. The screenplay, adapted by Polanski and Reza herself, isn't always so successful with occasional lines coming across as too arch and self-aware to ring completely true on screen. For example its very hard to believe that family man Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) would throw his son's beloved hamster into the street just because he didn't like the noise it made. For the most part though the dialogue is sharp and brutally funny and played with maximum zest by four actors working at the top of their game. With so much talent on show its unfair to pick out anyone in particular but Kate Winslet is worth noting for her sudden and impressively realistic projectile vomiting, Jodie Foster for her lethal bursts of bristling outrage, Christoph Waltz for some beautifully sardonic line deliveries and Reilly for almost repeating his success in Chicago and stealing the show away from the three Oscar winners. It might not contain any action but as the four characters argue back and forth, forming and breaking new alliances and exposing their underlying pretensions and hypocrisies, the film is consistently amusing and often simply riveting. Reza and Polanski's underlying agenda is clearly to bring this searing critique of the middle classes to a wider audience and although the theatrical setup and occasionally mannered dialogue might put some people off, the cynical will undoubtedly laugh and the self-assured will undoubtedly cringe.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

J. Edgar - Clint Eastwood - 2012

At the twilight of his career Clint Eastwood has been consistently making more interesting and unexpected films than his 20th Century canon would have suggested, a trend that he continues in his lates opus, a biopic of legendary FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover. Flashing back from an aged Hoover recounting his memoirs to a succession of young agents, we discover him as a young man at the beginning of the twenties working in the justice department and lecturing all who will listen on the dangers of radicals and communists. As played with brisk aplomb by Leonardo DiCaprio, young Hoover is a force of nature, manoevering himself into the top spot of the brand new bureau and slowly pushing it into national prominence with a lethal combination of ruthlessness and sheer bloody mindedness. As the story covers nearly fifty years worth of history it was inevitable that not every major event could be included in detail so Eastwood chooses to focus purely on Hoover's personal career and the development of the bureau, only selecting key cases like the Lindbergh kidnapping to illustrate the struggles they had to go through to attain recognition. The interesting twist though is how subtley Eastwood hints when Hoover's motives become outmoded; right up until the end of his career Hoover remains determined to protect America from 'radicals and communists' but without anyone directly confronting him we slowly get the sense from the attitudes and reactions of other characters, the news flashes happening in the background and even the increasingly haggard feeling of the light and design that these attitudes are quickly becoming outdated and Hoover is rapidly becoming a dinosaur. Alongside his political career Eastwood controversially runs a sub-plot about Hoover's relationship with his assistant Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hamer) hinting that the lifelong bachelor may have been a closeted homsexual. Given Eastwood's macho image it is very satisfying to see him handling the pair's relationship with dignified restraint, neither sensationalising it as a scandal or passing judgement on their behaviour but simply sensitively portraying the friendship of two men who feel obliged by their position in society to repress the true extent of their feelings. What Eastwood can't manage is to give the film the same emotional resonance as the masterpieces he created in the noughties; for all the interesting twists and revelations in the story the film never connects with the audience in the same way, leaving it as a very interesting piece of revisionist history but nothing more.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Artist - Michel Hazanavicius - 2011

A black and white silent film that luxuriates in nostalgia for the golden age of cinema in the late twenties/early thirties? The smash hit film at both the box-office and the awards during this season? The Artist is a rare film indeed. Charting the fall of silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) against the rise of engenue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), The Artist uses all the old techniques and trademarks of silent films but with a  few modern twists to tell a sweet, funny and melancolic story that is likely to win over even the most cynically minded audience. The black and white cinematography is beautifully evocative and even though most of the American actors are sidelined, the performances from Dujardin and Bejo are good enough for this not too matter; watching the pair consistently finding ways to deliver some beautifully understated emotions whilst perfectly recreating the larger than life mannerisms of classic silent films is a delight. If there is one problem with the techniques on display its that Hazanavicius has a tendency to hold on shots of people talking as you would in a modern film but obviously this is rendered meaningless in the silent format and so there are occasional moments when the audience is left waiting patiently while the characters just mouth dialogue. It is however the few modern twists that Hazanavicius introuduces that make The Artist so clever and more than just one big nostalgia feast. For example when George is at his lowest ebb Hazanavicius unleashes a series of stylish shots to emphasise the actor's despair; in one case we find the actor reflected in a pool of his own whisky while in another he is harrassed by miniature versions of his own characters. The very best moment however is when George has a nightmare about the coming of sound. Happy in his silent dressing room George is startled by the small noise of a glass put on a table. Suddenly the dog starts barking and everything else in the room begins howling with noise. Outside a chorus line of girls laughs mockingly at George while all he can do is mouth silently. By breaking through the limitations of the silent movie Hazanavicius uses the very technology that changed cinema to accutely reflect the situation the precarious situation that silent movie stars suddenly found themselves in, a device that nicely sums up the film's dual success in both celebrating and rexamining the most significant technological transition in cinema history. And if all this isn't enough to enjoy, the comedy dog is brilliant.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Lovely Bones - Peter Jackson - 2009

Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold’s controversial novel The Lovely Bones is in many ways as difficult a watch as the book apparently was to read. Telling the story of a young teenager who watches her family from the afterlife after she's been raped and murdered, the tale becomes (bizarre as this may seem) ultimately a message of hope that beyond the terrible things people that do to each other there is the possibility to find peace. Unfortunately in trying to communicate this, Jackson rather over eggs the pudding. The afterlife as seen by murdered Susie Salmon (an excellent Saoirse Ronan) is an astonishing vision filled with scenes of exquisite beauty like life-size ships inside giant bottles crashing on a wild coastline and an enormous rose blooming under a frozen lake. However after a while it feels like a lot of these scenes are simply a filler to remind us of Susie's continuing presence since most of the actual plot takes place in the real world in the aftermath of her death. And when a penultimate scene involves Susie united with other victims in a golden cornfield during a beautiful sunset it feels like Jackson is forcing an emotional message onto the film with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Many of Susie's musings in the afterlife revolve around the first kiss which she just missed and now thanks to death will never taste, which lends her narration an aching poignancy that is genuinely tragic especially as she watches her little sister grow past her, but again Jackson overdoes it culminating the subplot with a bizarre supernatural climax that is frankly a little disturbing (though apparently Sebold could be to blame here). The scenes in the real world are mainly very well done with the highlight being the moment when Susie's sister breaks into the killer's house looking for evidence and Jackson expertly creates some nail biting tension through the use of silence so that every creak suddenly registers as an explosion. Other scenes however are tonally inconsistent with a comic relief montage signalling the arrival of Susan Sarandon's grandmother feeling horribly inappropriate at that particular moment. In the end this is still a very well handled presentation of a difficult topic it’s just that, strange as it may seem, a little more darkness might actually have made The Lovely Bones a better film.

Love and Other Drugs - Edward Zwick - 2010

In many respects Love and Other Drugs is just another romantic comedy complete with misunderstandings, fallouts and last minute pursuits but Edward Zwick, hitherto for better known for historical action dramas turns these clichés into something a little more interesting. Ostensibly this is a ground level view of the pharmaceutical industry at the moment when Viagra was being introduced and although this subplot provides a lot of laughs (Oliver Platt's career salesman is a hoot) it always plays second fiddle to the romance between Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. Having already worked together in Brokeback Mountain the pair generates some sizzling chemistry as a couple who connect through their mutual desire for sex. For this isn't a soppy romantic comedy about kissing in the rain, this is a comedy about people who want sex (and lots of it) and only find themselves accidentally falling in love somewhere further along the way. Also giving the film more depth is the fact that Hathaway's waitress is suffering from mild Parkinson's disease - an affliction that inevitably has an impact on any relationship she tries to build, something we witness as Gyllenhaal can’t help but have second thoughts when he realises where this might lead several years down the line. In lesser hands these moments might jar with the scenes of light comedy, but largely thanks to a brittle but incredibly nuanced performance from Hathaway the film deals with these issues in a mature and sensitive manner whilst still leaving room for some fun, making this a rare romantic comedy indeed.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protoccol - Brad Bird - 2011

Five years after the franchsie appeared to fizzle out Mission: Impossible is back for a big and shiny new adventure that drops the number from the title in favour of the much cooler subtitle: Ghost Protoccol. Following on from J.J. Abrams, Pixar veteran Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) makes an impressive live action debut, orchestrating some gripping and exciting action sequences that stand against anything from previous entries in the series and keep the franchise feeling fresh in a stale genre. Highlights include a foot and car chase in the middle of a sandstorm and an extended sequence in which Ethan Hunt is obliged to scale the outer wall of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building. Bird sends his camera swooping, soaring and plunging around the tiny figure on the wall, using the IMAX technology for maximum jaw-dropping effect. The plot which sees the IMF team going rogue in pursuit of a by-the-numbers crazy (Michael Nyqvist making his Hollywood debut) with a nuclear weapon is pretty standard but its delivered by Bird and his cast with enough of a sense of fun that we're taken along for the ride once more. Happily the story also dovetails neatly into the previous film with some surprise cameos, retains all the little twists and turns that keep the films going and ensures that all the team members have their own little character arcs and aren't just additional faces like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q in Mission: Impossible III. Paula Patton sizzles in a sexy green dress at a party in an Indian palace but crucially also retains credibility as an action agent while Jeremy Renner broods with undiscovered secrets, keeping the moments of downtime thrumming with the tension of potential treachery. The screenplay isn't quite as funny as it would like to be but returning co-star Simon Pegg (here promoted to field agent) brings regular smiles and even Tom Cruise himself gets the occasional laugh. Eschewing the infuriating grin from the previous films, Cruise maintains a deadpan serious front throughout that makes his reaction to Pegg's suggestion he climb the outside of the building even funnier. Throwing himself into the action with the dedication and aggression of a much younger man, Cruise moves through dark streets and smoky alleys with a speed and menace that is very atmospheric and, to be honest, a little bit cool. Action thrillers are often criticised for being formulaic but when they are as much big shiny fun as this latest franchise entry, that is surely no bad thing.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Oliver Twist - David Lean - 1951

The most famous of the many versions of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, David Lean’s adaptation expertly fillets the author’s complex and rambling plot to create a simpler but more cinematic storyline that sits nicely within the hour and forty-five minute running time. Thus the opening section of Oliver’s story in the workhouse with Mr Bumble and the now legendary ‘Please Sir, I want some more!’ are covered in careful detail but then once he (John Howard Davies) escapes to London we are quickly and efficiently introduced to his alternative father figures, the sinister Fagin (Alec Guinness) and the kindly Mr Brownlow (Henry Stephenson) and from thence forward the focus is resolutely on Oliver’s quest to escape from one and return to the other. Developing in confidence after Great Expectations, his first successful Dickens adaptation, Lean takes great pleasure in contrasting the relatively quiet and refined world of Pip and Mr Brownlow’s London with the darker, rougher and noisier world of Fagin and Bill Sikes (Robert Newton). In Lean’s eyes this is a visibly dangerous environment for Oliver to struggle through, complete with myriad shadowy alleys and crumbling buildings that when crowded with the hordes of extras that regularly flood the screen ably evoke the dark heart of Dickens’ Victorian London. The film has become most notable however for Guinness’ transformative and debatably controversial performance as Fagin. With his hooked nose and wheedling voice it’s easy to see Guinness as representing the stereotypical image of a Jew but looking at the performance today when such stereotypes are no longer commonplace its possible to see that this interpretation perhaps doesn’t do it justice. Taking a huge step forward from the amiable Herbert Pocket who he played in Great Expectations Guinness delivers a fascinating performance that is hammy in many respects but hints at such layers of cunning, slyness and affection that it’s hard not to be riveted, particularly when he’s playing opposite Newton’s Sikes with whom he develops an excellent rapport. Newton is all bluster to Guinness’ wheedling, bringing coarse and brutal Sikes to life with scary intensity but interestingly hinting at the vulnerability underneath of a man always on the run whose only true friend is a dog. Having found a dog that surely must be one of the most expressive over to appear on screen (some of its reaction shots are hilarious), Lean cleverly uses him to depict the horror of the infamous murder, panning off the action so we never see the actual deed but simply witness the dog’s terrified attempts to escape a device that rams home the chilling impact of the moment without having to risk being censored by showing it on screen. This film might not be the most faithful adaptation of the novel but with the use of such devices to tell the story cinematically it surely one of the most striking versions both visually and performance wise.

Babel - Alejandro González Iñárritu - 2006

The Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel tells how men in their arrogance attempted to build a tower to reach heaven and so God punished him by scattering them across the world and creating languages so that they could no longer communicate. Now in 2006 Alejandro González Iñárritu takes this theme for his third film, a fascinating if somewhat depressing parable about the failure of people to communicate with each other and how despite this, seemingly disparate lives are connected across the globe. In Morocco two brothers playing with a rifle aim at a bus and accidentally shoot American tourist Cate Blanchett in the neck. Meanwhile in California the children of Blanchett and her husband (Brad Pitt) are illegally taken into Mexico by their nanny who is desperate to attend her son’s wedding, while over in Japan the original owner of the rifle struggles with his deaf mute teenage daughter. Iñárritu cuts carefully between the four stories, giving them all equal weight and drawing out some interesting parallels between the different problems the characters encounter whilst struggling to communicate, be they among families or among wider classes and cultures. Initially Pitt and Blanchett are drifting apart following the loss of a baby and in an unexpectedly sweet moment it is only through this horrible accident that they begin to connect again. Meanwhile Pitt is struggling against the communication barriers that we all fear whilst on holiday, desperately trying to find help for his wife in a land with none of the instant services he takes for granted are readily available. In the most ironic communication malfunction the incident is blown out of proportion into a potential terrorist threat by the news, a twist that eventually has tragic repercussions for the simple Moroccan family that caused the accident. In comparison the story of the deaf Japanese girl seems to be a rather obvious metaphor for communication failure but Iñárritu coaxes an astonishingly brave performance from newcomer Rinko Kikuchi to create a moving portrait of a girl who just wants to fit in and attract boys but feels forced to extremes by her disability. The film is undoubtedly a little too long which isn’t helped by the fact that all the stories are heavy going at times and a lot of the characters are profoundly unsympathetic, but the various resolutions are ultimately both moving and thought-provoking, making this Iñárritu’s most accomplished film so far.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

An Education - Lone Scherfig - 2009

A small yet perfectly realised period piece, this tale of a schoolgirl (rising star Carey Mulligan) going through an early fast-track education at the university of life runs on fairly predictable lines but is told with enough zest and vitality to make it seem fresh. A sterling cast bring an array of characters to vivid, funny, creepy and heart-warming life (often with very few scenes) to such an extent that the film transcends any simplistic moral message. Danish director Lone Scherfig has a fine eye for the mundane detail of ordinary sixties London life but more importantly successfully manages to keep the balance between the light tone established in the jazzy opening credits and the darker areas that the film explores later. In an all too rare leading role Peter Sarsgaard is perfect as David, the older man who charms schoolgirl Jenny, always remaining nicely understated as he ingratiates himself into Jenny’s life and our interests and only hinting very slowly at the cold menace and pathetic ideals that make this man a paedophilic predator. However it's Alfred Molina as Jenny's father who almost steals the show playing Jenny’s father. Initially coming across as the fairly standard grumpy parent complete with an amusing range of small minded aphorisms and excuses, Molina eventually reveals the heart of the man underneath in a beautifully played moment in which he breaks down whilst having the familiar one-sided conversation through the door of his errant daughter. Never before has a close-up of custard creams had such an emotional impact. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as David’s friends provide cynicism and glamour respectively but even against such famous faces it can't be argued that the film belongs to Mulligan. As vivacious schoolgirl Jenny she is simply astounding, delivering a performance of incredible depth and complexity that perfectly encapsulates that borderline moment when the girl straining to be a women can’t quite leave the schoolgirl behind. Every tiny nuance of emotion is registered in Mulligan's expressions, taking us into her every thought and feeling so that we can’t help but be swept away by the excitement of her new life just as we can’t help but remain sympathetic when she goes too far. Somehow retaining a lightness of touch despite where she ends up, Mulligan makes Jenny one of the most charming leading ladies of recent years and proves beyond doubt that she is a major talent on the make.

Eastern Promises - David Cronenberg - 2007

Gangster films have been hugely prolific in American cinema, giving us with films like The Godfather and Goodfellas scenes and characters that have transcended cinema and entered popular culture. It is both refreshing and shocking therefore to encounter similarly recognisable figures and scenarios in Eastern Promises which focuses with alarming intensity on the activities of the Russian mafia right here in London. Eschewing the epic scope of the American classics Canadian auteur David Cronenberg has created a smaller and more self contained thriller that simply follows Anna, an ordinary midwife (Naomi Watts) as she becomes drawn into the world of the Vory V Zakone, a Russian criminal brotherhood that superficially resembles the more well-known Italian Mafia families. Cronenberg remains tightly focused for the most part on the characters but when violence does erupt he handles it with his usual dispassionate intensity, creating moments that are often difficult to watch. Watts brings quiet dignity and strength to what is in many ways a conventional heroine role, not only providing the film with eyes and ears into this strange and brutal new world but with an emotional heart as well that ensures she doesn’t disappear amongst the more charismatic gangsters. Viggo Mortensen is in fine form as the impassive driver Nikolai who is apparently responsible for handling Vincent Cassel's violent and immature mob son but quickly proves to equally efficient at any number of activities; disposing of a corpse sans distinguishing features is only one. The most enjoyable aspect of the film is the slow discovery of how many cards Nikolai has up his sleeve, a character arc that culminates in the longest section of violence in which he fights off two Chechen assassins in a bath house whilst completely naked, proving more than ever before that Mortensen is one of the toughest men in cinema. German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl is a treat as the outwardly charming Semyon, shuffling around his restaurant like any other genial old man, showing grandchildren how to play the violin and tempting Anna with homemade soup. However as we start to learn about Semyon’s shadier business dealings, Mueller-Stahl starts to hint at the menace and cold efficiency behind those impassive watery eyes, creating a character that is less exciting but far more nuanced than Marlon Brando’s famous mob boss. With an intriguing little sub-plot about the meanings of tattoos and a very tragic and disturbing background story about human-trafficking all worked in as well, Eastern Promises is a very efficient ninety minutes worth of film that deserves to make it into the pantheon of gangster classics.

The Abyss - James Cameron - 1989

The film that started James Cameron's long held and long mocked obsession with the sea and all things diving related, The Abyss is an odd blend of science-fiction and action that is still absorbing despite some decidedly mixed special effects. The film starts off in classic disaster movie fashion with Ed Harris and a motley crew trapped at the bottom of the sea along with a wrecked nuclear submarine, some deranged marines and some weird but elegiac creatures of mysterious origin. Cameron handles these creatures relatively well by never showing them in great detail, so they always retain an air of mystery and more crucially don't show up the flaws in the eighties CGI budget. Come the ending though Cameron bizarrely attempts a huge leap with both the effects and the plot (which is strange given the slow drip of the plot up to this point) and brings the creatures bursting into the light of day which certainly makes for an impressive climax but is confusing after the tense and threatening tone that he has maintained for most of the film. For the most part the film remains consistently engaging thanks to the talented efforts of Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who go through a highly predictable relationship arc but still manage to make it touching, and the well, efforts of Michael Biehn who delivers such an extreme performance that he might as well have the word villain tattooed on his forehead – whatever happened to his career after this? In the end though it seems that Cameron is more interested in finding an environmental message to ram home with the action and spectacle rather than creating something ordinary like good writing; which ironically makes the film kind of like a forerunner for Avatar...

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Sleeper - Woody Allen - 1973

One of Woody Allen's earliest films, Sleeper is a surreal juxtaposition of sci-fi and slapstick that showcases the star at his craziest before he settled into the more incisive work later of his later career. Here we find Allen's classic neurotic cryocenically frozen during a routine ulcer operation and woken up 200 years in the future where he suddenly has to cope with giant vegtables, a rampaging pudding and hordes of incompetent boiler suited police. These scenes are so ridiculously zany that the audience might be left occasionally baffled but if one scenario falls flat Allen very quickly stumbles into another one with a manic and increasingly desperate bewilderment that is very funny to watch. As a performer Allen is a great physical comedian (one genius highlight sees him trying to escape with a ladder that's too short) with a funny walk that puts John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson to shame but at this stage he is noticeably not yet such a skilful director. For example the many chase scenes are all sped up in the style of a silent move which is a clever idea but eventually becomes repetitive, while Allen's assumption that his manic bluster remains funny after the first time is a little embarassing. It is in the writing though that Allen's skills really shine through for the first time. The script is filled with some brilliantly wicked one-liners that Allen plays dead straight, showcasing a dazzling wit that is still very funny years later. Athough several of his films have included fantastical elements, Allen never really dabbled in science-fiction either before or since which makes Sleeper's achievements within the genre all the more remarkable. Whatever other problems he may have encountered Allen successfully sells the very bizarre sci-fi concepts on show, subtly lampooning ideas that would probably be treated seriously in a straight film and making Sleeper one of Allen's cleverest and most enjoyable films. Despite the silliness!