Friday, 22 February 2013

Pride and Prejudice - Joe Wright - 2005

Given the continuing popularity of the BBC’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1995, a feature film adaptation a mere ten years later was a surprising gamble but one that pays off beautifully. Television director Joe Wright makes a superb debut with this beautifully shot adaptation, neatly distilling the complicated plot into two hours without losing anything from the character arc of that most English of heroines, Lizzie Bennet. Keira Knightley, still best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy has never been regarded as a particularly talented actress, but this is the film that first proved the critics wrong. Lizzie is a role perfectly suited to Knightley's slightly cocky screen persona, but she builds on that to find the warmth, strength and vulnerability in the character and create an empathetic, believable and above all adorable heroine. Crucially she also escapes from the long shadow of television’s Jennifer Ehle. Matthew Macfadyen is a convincingly gruff and moody Mr Darcy and although he may be less memorable than Colin Firth, his down-to-earth directness dovetails very nicely with Knightley’s erudite Lizzie. Of course with so little time some of the supporting characters suffer with the slippery Mr Wickham (Rupert Friend) sadly side-lined and Simon Woods' Mr Bingley reduced to simply being a jovial oaf. On the plus side though Donald Sutherland is a perfectly understated Mr Bennet, Tom Hollander delivers a scene-stealing comic turn as the embarrassing Mr Collins and Judi Dench is predictably brilliant as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, creating a memorable and terrifying dragon in a mere three scenes. Wright meanwhile shows off with some ambitious but elegant camera moves that float around and through the Bennet house, giving us sneak peaks of the beautifully orchestrated mayhem with the minimum amount of fuss. Together with a lovely score, some suitably realistic costumes and unusually lively dance sequences this Pride and Prejudice stands as a definitive Jane Austen adaptation.

Paris, je t’aime - Various - 2006

Love is one of cinema’s favourite preoccupations to the point that it has been beaten into nonsensical cliché by relentlessly mediocre rom-coms and so major kudos is due to the producers of Paris, je taime (Paris, I Love You) for coming up with an original idea: eighteen short films about love in its many forms, all set within different areas of Paris, coming together to form one glorious celebration of the City of Love. Naturally, as in any portmanteau film there are weaker entries – Christopher Doyle's Porte De Choisy is a surreal journey into Chinatown that simply makes no sense, while others including Gus Van Sant's Le Marais are simply a bit dull but for the most part, each film is a warm and witty, yet often tragic examination of various lives caught up in the world's most romantic city. Highlights include the Coen Brothers Tuileries, a silent comedy of misunderstanding involving Steve Buscemi stuck on the metro, Wes Craven's Pere-Lachaise that follows a bickering couple (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell) around the Père Lachaise Cemetery and Alexander Payne's concluding tale 14e Arrondissement, a sad yet funny tale about a lonely American tourist (Margo Martindale). Best of all though are the films that manage to successfully surprise an audience that is prepared for something different every five minutes. For example in Parc Monceau Alfonso Curaron tells his entire story in a single tracking shot yet still manages to subvert audience preconceptions, while in Faubourg Saint-Denis Tom Tykwer breaks down the rise and fall of a relationship into a single montage while keeping another twist up his sleeve. The genius of the film is that it focuses on the characters rather than the locations (always an easy option in Paris) and in so doing presents the city as a far richer and more complex place than a simple travelogue would. If you didn't already love Paris, by the end of Paris, je taime you certainly will.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Men in Black II - Barry Sonnenfeld - 2002

The first Men in Black film was a zany sci-fi comedy tied together with race-against-time macguffin based thriller that was brought to life by the brilliant chemistry between the wisecracking Will Smith and the deadpan Tommy Lee Jones Agent’s J and K, the titular Men in Black. It also had, with K’s touching return to civilian life, a perfect ending that wrapped story and characters up neatly with no need for a sequel. And then the box-office tills started ringing and so seven years later audiences were treated to Men in Black II, made it seems with the best intentions but suffering from all the symptoms of classic sequel syndrome. Thus we find a poor re-run of the original plot, one joke characters from the first film like The Worm Guys and Frank the Pug elevated to supporting roles and the sorry sight of the stars struggling to retain the original spark that made Men in Black so much fun. The first half of the film does at least hold onto a lot of the original’s whimsical humour as the roles are reversed and Agent J is forced to reteach a sad sack postman Kevin that he used to be MIB Agent K but even Smith’s most energetic bouncing and Jones’ saddest expressions can’t keep the film afloat once it gets bogged down in a plot full of more holes than Wild Wild West. There is one genius little moment hidden inside a train station locker but aside from that the film consists of little more than J and K rushing around following clues that don’t make much sense in order to find the Light of Zartha, a new macguffin that involves new girl Rosario Dawson in ways that even she is clearly struggling to understand. Naturally they must find the Light before the villainous Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) who takes MIB headquarters hostage in an attempt to raise the stakes but doesn’t really succeed at anything apart from looking quite good as an underwear model and making the audience long for the enjoyably disgusting Edgar the Bug. There’s a nice final gag involving the Statue of Liberty but that’s about all that can be said for a film that by slavishly following the formula of its predecessor fails on almost every level of originality at which the first film succeeded.

Men in Black 3 - Barry Sonnenfeld - 2012

In a cinema climate where the summer blockbuster season is dominated by billion dollar franchise sequels, the last thing anybody expected or to be honest really wanted was another Men in Black film, a full ten years after the first sequel collapsed into a disappointing mess. Predictably Men in Black 3 cannot match the effortless light comedy of the original but there are at least enough good moments to ensure that this goes against the law of diminishing returns. The first twenty minutes after the credits in which Agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones back in black) get caught up in a gun battle in a Chinese restaurant with some mindless alien thugs and a big angry fish is frankly very dull with Jones seemingly running on autopilot, Smith desperately trying to bring some feebly written shtick to life, and both of them looking embarrassed that they can muster even less chemistry than in Men in Black 2. However just as despair starts to set in the much heralded time-travel plot kicks into gear, J jumps back in time to 1969 and everyone on screen and off perks up and starts to have fun. Despite some awful sixties clichés, staggeringly bad plot holes and feebly drawn characters (pity Alice Eve trying to invest a funny hairdo with personality) we actually get some moments that finally feel like classic Men in Black. Comedian Jermaine Clement is largely wasted as villainous Boris the Animal, a role that demands little more than snarling menacingly from behind some admittedly excellent makeup but Josh Brolin playing the young K does an excellent impression of Tommy Lee Jones, effortlessly generating the dry chemistry that Smith and Jones lost a long time ago, Michael Stuhlbarg steals every scene as amiable psychic alien Griffin and Bill Hader makes a brilliant cameo as Andy Warhol in this film’s equivalent to the train locker, a genius MIB spin on the artist’s legendary Factory. The finale unexpectedly twists to include a personal revelation for J that is typically fumbled in delivery, negating the desired emotional impact but it at least demonstrates, along with the more imaginative plotline, a desire to take the franchise in a new direction when the inevitable Men in Black 4 eventually comes round. Let’s just hope they can manage a better script.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Apocalypto - Mel Gibson - 2006

It’s very true that Apocalypto is a terrifically brutal and often excessively bloody film but focus exclusively on this aspect as many have done is to ignore some of the film's greatest strengths. Historical epics have been filling cinemas ever since the days of D.W. Griffith but its rare to find one, outside the work of Ridley Scott at least, that luxuriates so extensively in period detail. Every aspect of Mayan society is brought to exquisite life in astonishing detail to create a world that bursts off the screen with vibrancy, life and yes violence. This was a society that was built around the idea of human sacrifice so in fact most of the gore, while difficult to watch, never feels less than integral to the world that Gibson has created; despite all the stabbing, maiming and ripping out of hearts, only a moment with a jaguar ripping a man's face off feels truly unnecessary. The language is also another part of this – having the dialogue delivered entirely in Mayan completes the illusion that we are watching a real civilisation and after all for most Western audiences this can be no different from watching any other foreign film. Controversy aside, notice should also be given to Gibson's skills as a filmmaker. After the stolid Passion of the Christ its good to see the director cut loose and deliver some genuinely pulse-pounding action. The first half delivers a beautifully tense build-up as the principal characters are kidnapped from their tiny village and enslaved in a chain gang that marches inexorably closer to an incomprehensibly huge city but the highlight is the grand climax as one slave (Rudy Youngblood) runs for his life. Turning the sequence into a thrilling and relentless chase that forms the final third of the film, Gibson shows an expert control over the pace that marks this as his most accomplished work to date, which despite the criticism, is hopefully what Apocalypto will be remembered as.