Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Romeo and Juliet - Carlo Carlei - 2013

It has been over fifteen years since William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet appeared on the big screen in Baz Luhrmann’s seminal modern dress adaptation and so a new version promising Italian locations and original Medieval/Renaissance costumes was naturally cause for much excitement. And on that score at least, Carlo Carlei’s new film in a resounding success – the locations are rich and varied, forming a beautiful backdrop for the beautiful story and the costumes are frankly dazzling, lighting up the screen in sumptuous detail. And then the actors open their mouths… Shakespeare is hailed as the world’s greatest playwright and his works have been produced continuously over the last 400 years, a testament to both the power of his stories and the richness of a language that, although archaic in appearance, can still communicate the emotions of his characters four centuries later. Julian Fellowes, increasingly infamous creator of Downton Abbey however disagrees. Julian feels that while he can read Shakespeare because went to Cambridge and “had a very expensive education”, the rest of us poor people who have only been enjoying Shakespeare’s words in performance for generations clearly cannot and so he has had the gall to rewrite Shakespeare’s verse into a cod medieval poetry of his own devising. The famous lines are still there but when the rest of the verse just sounds like a jarringly awkward version of the real thing all of the magic and enchantment is lost, long before the realisation hits that Julian is openly insulting the audience every time an actor speaks. Of course good actors can bring life to any script to a certain extent but sadly, bar one, this Romeo and Juliet fails miserably on that score as well. Paul Giamatti perfectly captures the mixture of charm, guile and integrity that makes up Romeo’s mentor Friar Laurence but he is the only one that stands out. Hailee Steinfeld, in her first role after the Oscar nominated True Grit, is at least the right age to play Juliet and certainly possesses the charm and good looks to carry it off but sadly she struggles with even Julian’s sub-Shakespearean verse, failing to inject any life into the clunky rhythms. Douglas Booth, introduced as Romeo in a dust haze with Brad Pitt’s pecs and Angelina Jolie’s lips, is even worse, spending the whole film looking one wind machine short of an eighties power ballad and inexplicably repainting the Sistine Chapel during his banishment. In support Damian Lewis playing Lord Capulet is memorable only for his truly terrible pudding-basin haircut whilst US TV pinup Ed Westwick undoes all his efforts to turn Tybalt into a menacing villain with an unintentionally hilarious choice of weapon. Modern cinema is filled with terrible films that don’t credit the audience with any intellect but a terrible film that patronises and insults that intellect? Now that is rare.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Red Dust - Tom Hooper - 2004

Long before he hit the big time with British period dramas The Damned United and The Kings Speech TV director Tom Hooper made his feature film debut with Red Dust, an adaptation of the 2000 novel by South African author Gillian Slovo. Set in Slovo’s present, over a decade since the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the story uses a fictional court case to examine the work of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a legal body that would grant amnesty for crimes committed under the Apartheid regime if the full extend of said crimes was confessed by the perpetrator but convict if it was discovered the truth had been hidden. Given that he’s a white middle class Oxford graduate Hooper may not seem the obvious choice for a sensitive race drama but he proves to be a surprisingly effective choice, utilising his preferred wide angle lenses to capture the swirling colours and tumultuous emotions of a South African township in fascinating detail and drawing carefully nuanced performances from his international cast. The nominal star is Oscar winner Hilary Swank who plays New York lawyer Sarah Barcant as she returns to her homeland to represent the ‘victim’ in the TRC’s latest hearing but happily she is smart enough not to try and dominate the film, downplaying Sarah’s discomfort at being forced to confront the past she ran away from and providing strong support for Chiwetel Ejiofor playing South African MP Alex Mpondo. Already showing the gentle charisma and natural command of the screen that has since made him a star, Ejiofor delivers a fascinating performance as Alex, towering with a dignified determination to see justice done for the crimes committed on him and his lost friend but shaken with the private fear that he may be in some way responsible; its Ejiofor that holds the attention as the truth about the past is slowly revealed and Ejiofor whose emotional journey makes Red Dust more than just a historical document. Hooper is careful to steer the film away from taking one side or another, pitching his version of events firmly in the grey area that all human conflicts end up; Alex is naturally presented to the hearing and to the viewer as the ‘victim’ but it quickly becomes clear that the truth is far more complicated both on a personal and wider level. Similarly his ex-torturer (Jamie Bartlett) is quickly shown to have his own agenda for pleading amnesty but is equally given the chance to show there is some humanity behind the ‘monster’ label. As a snapshot of a social conflict that South Africa is still trying to escape from, Red Dust is a fascinating film and with its delicate control and lack of a grandstanding agenda, probably Tom Hooper’s finest work to date. 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Damned United - Tom Hooper - 2009

Before he won awards all over the shop for The King’s Speech TV director Tom Hooper made his first step into mainstream cinema by taking over from Stephen Frears on The Damned United, an engrossing biopic of football manager Brian Clough and his infamous rivalry with Leeds United. Sports films are often only accessible for fans of the particular sport but happily The Damned United, whilst never achieving the heights of sporting classics, can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of how interested they are in footballing history. Hooper delivers some competent football action, reducing the games to a few crucial events whilst maintaining the excitement and energy of good football and not loosing sight of the crucial characters on and off the pitch. Coming close on the heels of his performances as Tony Blair and David Frost, chameleon Michael Sheen delivers another astonishing impersonation as Clough, drawing his cheeks in and delivering a pitch perfect Northern accent to play the legendary manager as a talented but arrogant berk with a winning combination of charisma, vicious wit and Timothy Spall that ensures he never entirely loses audience sympathy. Spall plays Clough’s long-suffering assistant Peter Taylor and although Spall looks nothing like the real Taylor he forms a delightful double act with Sheen, softening Clough’s rough edges and bringing a sentimental heart to the film even where its unlikely one existed in real life. Based on a largely imagined biography by David Pearce, there has been some debate as to the historical accuracy of the events depicted with Clough’s family publically speaking against the film in general and in particular the portrayal of his relationship with Taylor but when taken as a work of fiction The Damned United is an enjoyable film that is less about football and more an affectionate tribute to the behind-the-scenes world in all its crummy but beautiful glory and ‘the best manager that the English national side never had’. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Brighton Rock - John Boulting - 1947

Adapted from Graham Greene’s atmospheric 1938 thriller, Brighton Rock introduces a hitherto unseen criminal underworld into the picturesque seaside town, mixing traditional tourist sites like the pier and the racetrack with the sort of lowlifes normally associated with American gangster films. Shot by director John Boulting with the expressionistic qualities of the classic Hollywood noir, Brighton looks beautiful but with a weirdly sinister edge that makes previously innocent seeming sites appear in a whole new seedy light; a stick of Brighton rock has a darker purpose than satisfying a sweet tooth, a fairground ghost train takes on a new edge when not everyone comes off alive and, in a literary image from the novel translated beautifully for the big screen, the dark wash of sea batters the pier and the cliffs like an omnipresent threatening beast. This town is not populated by the glamorised gun-toting gangsters that normally haunt the movie screens, these criminals are a lot further down the ladder, grounded in a very British working class that we can recognise; small time gangster Pinkie Brown may have furious ambitions of running his own criminal empire but his gang, whose only real activity is skimming the profits from bookies in return for ‘protection’, operates out of a rundown boarding house and fights off rivals with cutthroat razors. In the skilful hands of Greene and Boulting however this very British take on the gangster movie is just as exciting as anything else the genre has to offer, particularly since in the character of Pinkie, Greene has created a fascinating anti-hero that is unlike anyone seen before or since. Those used to seeing Richard Attenborough as the dashing mastermind in The Great Escape or the avuncular grandfather in Jurassic Park will be shocked to see the national treasure transformed to play the psychopathic Pinkie. Staring out from dead eyes and a hard face that contains an almost terrifying lack of warmth, Attenborough doesn’t quite find the extreme bitterness of Greene’s character but with hints of a furious intensity behind his deadpan delivery he effortlessly dominates the audience and the gang whilst showing nothing but scorn for either, relying on his natural charisma to keep the audience on side even as we are distressed by his attitude towards Rose (Carol Marsh), the impossibly na├»ve waitress whom circumstance throws in his path. Marsh plays nicely against Attenborough, perfectly embodying the sweetness and innocence that makes Rose such an interesting contrast with Pinkie, but unlike Attenborough she doesn’t have the charisma to carry the emotional weight of the character’s journey and thus the film becomes all about Pinkie rather than about their relationship. Since the rise of Guy Ritchie the British gangster movie has been reborn in a completely new style, which makes Brighton Rock with its uniquely intense leading man and unabashed focus on the dark side of a forgotten England, more important than ever. 

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief - Chris Columbus - 2010

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels are the next in a line of teen sensations adapted for the big screen in an attempt to fill the void created by the end of Harry Potter and this time the studio even went to the trouble of hiring ex-Potter director Chris Columbus to try and get it right. The concept that the legendary gods and monsters from Greek mythology are still around today in modern day America is an engagingly witty one but sadly aside from the occasional clever gag or neat idea Percy Jackson does not have the necessary charm or imagination to compete on Potter’s level. Riordan has taken the myth that the Gods would come down to Earth, cop off with mortals and create demigods in the process to its logical extreme and imagined said demigods in the same vein as the teenage wizards in Harry Potter (only duller and American), training at the awfully named Camp Half-Blood and earnestly hoping hijinks will one day ensue. All of the teenage leads, particularly Logan Lerman in his first leading role as the titular Percy, are predictably bland but they have at least already past the childish years that restricted the early Potter films, while Columbus is smart enough here to just try for some chemistry, holding back relationship developments for the inevitable franchise. To fill out the bit parts Columbus has managed (as he did with Potter) to attract an excitingly starry cast, including Sean Bean and Steve Coogan as bickering gods Zeus and Hades, Pierce Brosnan as Centaur teacher Chiron (which is as bizarre as it sounds) and Uma Thurman as Medusa who has inexplicably relocated to a rundown garden centre on the East Coast. The Land of the Lotus Eaters – one of the many dangers initially encountered by Odysseus – is cleverly reinvented as a Las Vegas casino, but sadly most of the other ideas feel half-hearted or fall flat as Riordan’s vision is revealed on repeat viewings to have little depth beyond the obvious ‘cool twist’. Aside from a bad Minotaur Columbus does at least create some excellent special effects, including a breath-taking new vision of the Underworld, but that is not enough to save Percy Jackson from the saddle of mediocrity. Harry Potter he is not.