Saturday, 29 December 2012

Last Action Hero - John McTiernan - 1993

What would normally be a standard Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, Last Action Hero rises head and shoulders above the pack thanks to a deliciously witty script that takes pleasure in sending up both the genre as a whole and Schwarzenegger in particular. Irritating fanboy Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) finds himself projected through the cinema screen into the latest movie of his idol, action hero Jack Slater (played by Arnie at his most derivative), and spends an annoying amount of time running after him trying to make him understand why he always knows what's going to happen next. There are some nice side gags (Sly Stallone as The Terminator!) but the film doesn’t really take off until Jack is dragged back into the real world along with the standard scenery chewing British villain (Charles Dance having a ball) and has to learn the hard way that in real life injuries are genuine and nothing ever explodes after just one gunshot! Arnie plays along gamely, endeavouring to pretend as Jack that he doesn’t know who Arnold Schwarzenegger is, gracefully sending up his own image when the ‘real’ Arnie arrives for the premiere of the latest Jack Slater film and even at one point playing Hamlet in Danny’s fantasy which is very funny but hopefully the closest Arnie will ever get to the Bard’s lines. Unfortunately the film also indulges in the sentimental moments that are generally the weakest part in any Arnie film, stopping every so often so that Jack and his new friend can learn life lessons from each other and so the film slows right down, sadly losing the frenetic pace that director John McTiernan generates in the action scenes. However with pastiches and cameos galore ranging from F. Murray Abraham gleefully mocking his Oscar winning performance as Salieri to Ian McKellen doing his best impression of Death from The Seventh Seal, Last Action Hero is still a lot wittier than most standard Arnie or McTiernan movies and all the more fun for it.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Tomorrow, When the War Began - Stuart Beattie - 2011

A group of pretty Australians are forced to become guerrillas in this glossy adventure film that successfully transfers Hollywood production values into a home-grown movie. The characters have no more dimensions than a soap opera but they are all played with enough freshness and verve by the young cast (unknown outside Australia) to overcome the occasionally po-faced script and keep the audience engaged as the country is invaded by enemy troops and the group is forced on the run. Director Stuart Beattie works hard to ensure that the film is not just about fighting and more fighting but that the characters are given some emotional credibility as they struggle to survive and adapt, both to the situation and each other; the moment when de facto leader Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) finally breaks down after days of trying to be an impromptu commander is actually quite moving. Crucially Beattie tells the whole story from the perspective of the teenagers so we are left as much in the dark about the mysterious invaders as they are – a ploy that makes the barely glimpsed soldiers all the more scary but also makes the simple idea of coming home to find houses deserted much more threatening and at times almost thought-provoking. To the rest of the world casting the faceless soldiers as Asians may come across as a little stereotypical but given both Australia’s global position and previous history with the Japanese this is perhaps understandable. Also mustering some effective action to bolster the occasionally predictable character dynamics, the film treads a fairly low key path to create both a self contained narrative whilst also leaving in the potential for a sequel or even a franchise. And given that the story contains no superheroes or monsters but just ostensibly ordinary people, this would be no bad thing.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird - Robert Mulligan - 1962

Adapted from the enormously popular novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird is a gentle and deeply moving tale about growing up during the Depression in the Deep South that works brilliantly as both a touching portrait of the loss of childhood innocence and a sharp critique of the institutional racism that was still prevalent at this time. It’s a story filled with small but colourful characters from the tragic but noble Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) to the secretive Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his first film role) but carried by youngsters Mary Badham and Philip Alford as Scout and Jem whose natural charm and innocence is a delight to watch. The pair’s relationship with their single father, peaceful lawyer Atticus Finch, forms the backbone of the film and it’s the wonderful scenes of family interaction that make the story so much more than an anti-racist slogan. As played by Gregory Peck in possibly the best performance of his career, Atticus is a firm but gentle and endlessly patient figure, developing a warm and quiet chemistry with Badham and Alford that is by turns wryly humorous and sweetly touching. Peck’s finest moments though come in the famous courtroom showdown during which his one-take speech pleading passionately (if a little naively) for racial understanding can’t fail to stir the audience off screen but tragically falls on deaf ears in the jury box; the coda in which the black community acknowledge his efforts is simply heart-breaking. Kudos is also due to director Robert Mulligan whose simple and slow approach to the story effectively recreates a child's nostalgic view of small town Deep South where a mad dog down the street is the most exciting event of the summer. Following Lee’s cue and shooting entirely from the perspective of the two kids enables Mulligan to approach the issues at stake from a fresh perspective; rather than forcing an anti-racism message to the forefront Mulligan keeps it on the backseat until the courtroom, letting the children's incomprehension of the racist attitudes show up how stupid these ideas really are. It’s unlikely that a film this slow and this subtle would be made today – issue dramas are expected to be 'serious' and 'hard hitting' - and thus the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird achieves so much within a simple framework of childhood memories makes it a film to treasure.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Hall Pass - Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly - 2011

An embarrassingly crass failure of a comedy, this latest effort from the Farrelly Brothers sees them plumb the very depths of the toilet from which they pull most of their humour to create a film that can only called a ‘comedy’ because the word ‘disgrace’ has yet to be regarded as an official genre. The plot which follows the adventures of two bored husbands when they’re granted a ‘hall pass’ meaning a week away from marriage, does at least have a wry line of humour buried somewhere about how childish men can be about sex regardless of how old they are but the Farrelly's mostly avoid this for endless scenes of Owen Wilson and newcomer Jason Sudeikis humiliating themselves in the fruitless pursuit of women far out of their league. Whether it be attempts at toilet humour that weren't even funny in the school playground, the ridiculous notion that one lady would even put up with Wilson's nauseatingly sleazy attentions, let alone agree to sleep with him, or the insulting assumption that the audience would actually root for these two pathetic guys, all in all the film adds up to a rather painful experience. Childishness aside though (the box office figures sadly suggest that there are plenty of people who only need the sight of a big black penis to make them laugh), Wilson at one point even goes so far as to claim rights to a girl over someone else simply because he has a steady middle class job rather than a working class job and artistic pretensions, a statement so outrageously offensive that it’s hard not to attack the screen in an effort to break Owen Wilson's stupid nose. Again.

Monday, 3 December 2012

American Beauty - Sam Mendes - 1999

A fresh examination of the darkness at the heart of small town America but without the fantastical elements popularised by films like The Stepford Wives and Blue Velvet, American Beauty betters both of those films with its tragi-comic depiction of a mid-life crisis brought on by a daily routine of nothing but mundane existence. Kevin Spacey in an Oscar winning performance plays Lester Burnham, an ordinary middle-class drone going through the motions with his ambitious wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and grumpy teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) when an unexpected sexual attraction to Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) awakens a need to revaluate his empty life. What follows is equal parts funny and cringe-worthy as Lester suddenly begins to have fun flying in the faces of what’s expected of him at home and work but reverts to being an awkward and slightly pathetic teenage boy whenever Angela is around, unable to cope with her overt sexuality when he hasn’t felt anything for so long. Spacey handles this balance perfectly, never shying away from the creepy nature of his obsession but finding levels of pathos underneath that ensure he never loses the audience’s empathy, showing them instead a window into the sad confused soul of a man who has simply lost his way in life and therefore is latching onto the only real feeling he can grasp. Suvari herself delivers what is still her finest performance as Angela, slowly peeling away the super-confident exterior to hint at the vulnerable girl underneath struggling to come to terms with the effects of her sexuality. Bening also deserves a mention for the subtle nuances she uses to ensure Carolyn’s frustrations are believable and the character doesn’t simply become a two-dimensional harridan whilst Birch once again pulls off the trick off finding heart within the stereotypically grumpy teenager that has become her trademark. In fact Jane’s growing attachment to withdrawn next door neighbour Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley, also delivering a performance he has yet to better) eventually provides a touching counterpoint to Lester’s tragic downfall. The real star though must be director Sam Mendes who uses his theatre background to great effect, carefully observing the characters with the camera from a short distance and giving full space to the performances and Alan Ball’s marvellous script. It’s hardly fair to call Mendes’ first film his masterpiece given his continually fascinating output, but for sheer elegant quality this is tough to beat.

Away We Go - Sam Mendes - 2009

A change of pace for director Sam Mendes after the intensity of Revolutionary Road, Away We Go also follows a young couple struggling to find a little happiness in an altogether more comfortable relationship. Burt and Verona however are very much in love and are entirely content to spend the rest of their lives in each other’s company as they prepare for the arrival of their first child. As played with beautifully understated warmth and charm by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph the pair are a delight to spend time with as they bicker and banter their way across America in search of a suitable home to raise the child. Burt is a little goofy and over-excited at the prospect of being a father (Krasinski get a big laugh every time he jumps out on Verona in an attempt to raise the baby’s heart rate), Verona is more pragmatic, wryly tolerant of Burt’s antics yet utterly dependant on his support and together they form what is a very rare sight on the cinema screen: a perfectly happy, refreshingly normal relationship. The drama, such as it is, comes from the variety of amusing and alarming eccentrics Burt and Verona meet on the way and the often disturbing approaches to parenting that the pair are recommended. Allison Janney treads a fine line of dark comedy as a boisterous Southern mother who happily swears and makes fun of her kids in front of them whilst Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey have a happy Montreal house full of adopted children (look out for the lovely maple syrup analogy) that covers a tragic personal secret. In the most bizarre scenes the couple go to meet Burt’s distant cousin LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and are increasingly freaked out as she introduces them to her free love approaches to life and parenting. Mendes plays out the scenes for maximum cringe worthy awkwardness before breaking the tension with a gloriously farcical chase with a toddler in a pushchair that gets the film’s biggest laughs. It’s the gently humorous moments between Burt and Verona that are the best though as they work together to overcome the depressing views of parenthood that they witness and simply find a place that’s right for them. It has to be said that the film doesn’t have the same dramatic punch of Mendes’ earlier work but the gentle chemistry of Krasinski and Rudolph and Mendes’ assured direction ensure that what in lesser hands would have come across as maudlin and overly sentimental, is instead something a bit special.