Saturday, 28 June 2014

In Time - Andrew Niccol - 2011

A new science-fiction thriller from director Andrew Niccol, the mind behind nineties classics Gattaca and The Truman Show, In Time contains some intriguing and potentially thought-provoking ideas but sadly lacks the narrative drive to do them justice. In a voiceover at the beginning Justin Timberlake informs us that humans are now genetically engineered to stop aging at 25 after which Time – in actuality life itself – becomes a currency, earned, bought, traded and stolen like regular money. Niccol sidesteps the obvious ‘how’ question by ignoring it altogether, focusing instead on mundane details of living in this world that sell it far better than B-movie science ever could. In the ghetto district where Timberlake’s Will Salas lives, workers complain when a cup of coffee goes up to four hours, children beg for spare minutes in the street and being three days behind on the rent has a rather more literal meaning. Uptown where Will meets doe-eyed heiress Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) waitresses are tipped in weeks, a hotel suite costs several months and immortal bankers (shudder) gamble decades away in opulent casinos. The rich and poor divide is a rather obvious cliché but Niccol has a lot of fun with the time-is-money connotations, minimising the sci-fi visuals to lend the world credibility, the only reminder that this is science-fiction coming from the glowing digital countdowns on every person’s arm. The wider ideas however are less well developed with obvious points about the socio-economic divide and the dangers of uprooting the system trotted out only to clash against under developed characters like Cillian Murphy’s dogged Timekeeper (policeman) and Alex Pettyfer’s sneering Minuteman (criminal?) without ever really hitting home. Also in the second half when Will and Sylvia go on the run the film starts to loose its way with both the characters – and seemingly the director – spending too much time flapping around searching for a direction; Timberlake clearly takes his new leading man status very seriously and he and Seyfried make a cute couple but they are not charismatic enough stars to paper over the cracks in the story. Ultimately In Time suffers the similar problem that hampered Niccol’s debut film Gattaca – the original concept is great but Niccol does not have the ability to provoke empathy for his characters, a skill that Peter Weir used to turn Niccol’s script for The Truman Show into something magical, and so interesting ideas are wasted on another forgettable thriller.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Waitress - Adrienne Shelly - 2007

A gentle comedy-drama from writer/director Adrienne Shelly, Waitress goes behind the doors of that all American icon – the roadside diner – to tell a gentle but moving drama about small town life. Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell at her most delightful) is a waitress with big dreams and an unwanted pregnancy but although she is predictably helped and hindered in equal measure by her boorish husband (Jeremy Sisto), her waitress confidantes (Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly) and a handsome doctor (Nathan Fillion), her path to freedom doesn’t wander straight down the Hollywood rom-com route. Jenna is the most pragmatic and down- to-earth of the little team of waitresses and as such is bluntly realistic about how unwelcome this pregnancy is to an extent that may shock those raised on a diet of Hollywood sentiment (at one point she seriously discusses selling the baby) but these darker moments are undercut by Russell’s heartfelt performance. Scenes of Jenna enjoying small moments of humour with her colleagues or spilling out her fears for the future in a letter to the unborn baby, turn her journey into something very relatable, perfectly encapsulating the small private tragedies that may not mean much on the grand scheme of things but on a personal level can be crushing. Shelly’s greatest skill as a writer and director though is her instinct for finding the humour underneath almost any character or situation and although some moments don’t quite ring true – Russell’s manic grin after an unexpected liaison just looks weird – the dialogue and delivery is otherwise spot on. Hines and Shelly turn what could have been small-town archetypes into very funny but believable characters that bring wonderful warmth to the screen in every scene they share with Russell whilst Fillion turns up with hilariously awkward charm to play the puppyish Doctor smitten with Jenna but graciously never steals the show away from the girls. Waitress’ biggest selling point though is Jenna’s great skill – pie baking. As Jenna creates a new pie recipe to cope with every stressful situation (‘I don’t want Earl’s baby pie’ with brie and smoked ham is probably the best) Shelly’s camera fills the screen with so many delicious ingredients that it’s hard not to leave the movie and run straight off to the kitchen. In the end of course the film can’t completely escape genre trappings, revealing a sweet sentimental tooth buried under the warm heart but considering what Jenna has gone through, Waitress has done more than most to earn it. Come for the pies, come back for the characters.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Unknown - Jaume Collet-Serra - 2011

Action thriller Taken surprised the world by reintroducing character actor Liam Neeson as a surprisingly effective action man, far more charismatic in late middle age than Bruce Willis has become and now that role has been cemented with this engaging suspense thriller that unlike Taken engages the brain as well as the adrenaline. Stomping and growling his way around Berlin as an eminent biochemist struggling to reclaim his identity, Neeson is a joy to watch, acquitting himself admirably in the fiercely kinetic car chases and fist fights and crucially keeping the film grounded when the plot is in dire danger of becoming silly. The story is predictably but enjoyably absurd for two thirds of the run time but then director Jaume Collet-Serra pulls a bravely bizarre twist out of the bag which achieves the desired effect of knocking the audience sideways but dangerously risks losing their suspension of disbelief at the same time. Happily though whenever things get out of control their is always someone around to distract from the plot’s absurdities; ex-Hitler Bruno Ganz brings some welcome dry wit as an unlikely ally while Frank Langella has so much fun playing a moustache twirling villain, complete with everything but moustaches, that its hard not to cheer him on. And then of course there is Berlin itself which more than twenty years after the end of the Cold War still has a frisson of old school glamour hanging over it, a relic from myriad spy thrillers that delighted in leaving the audience lurking in dark alleyways with a morally dubious woman. Unknown throws a couple of glamorous blondes into the mix, gutsy Diane Kruger and icy January Jones, who help and hinder in equal measure but its Neeson that takes the film up a level bringing an intelligence to the action man role that makes him the natural successor of Cold War Stars like Caine and Burton. When Collet-Serra can't hide the contrivances of the plot its Neeson that powers us through and its Neeson that makes this an undeniably entertaining ride. Long may the stomping and growling continue.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Red Riding Hood - Catherine Hardwicke - 2011

Having joined the Hollywood mainstream by kick-starting the Twilight franchise and getting hundreds of tweens horribly over excited (shudder), director Catherine Hardwicke attempted to reinvent the traditional fairy tale Red Riding Hood in the same vein by making Red a young girl on the cusp of sexual awakening torn between two identikit brooding young men and a really big wolf. The decision to make the famous wolf a werewolf in Red’s community is such a good and obvious one (it must have been done before) that an innocent member of the public could go in under the misapprehension that the Twilight director had moved on but it quickly becomes depressingly clear that Hardwicke has simply plonked the Twilight love triangle into a new environment, turning something that could have been a chilling new take on a classic story into a melodramatic slushfest. Lumbered with performances hammier than a Christmas meat counter and a script that carpets the film with clichés thicker than the ever falling snow, Hardwicke does little but try and ladle on the atmosphere, throwing around snowy forests, lots of wooden things, and an over abundance of smoke machines in a vain attempt to make something other than the boys look good on screen. Playing Red (or Valerie), Amanda Seyfried channels her inner Bella Swan to deliver all her lines very earnestly but leaves little impression beyond big eyes and heaving bosom, whilst the rivals for Valerie’s affections (Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons taking turns to have an expression) are so wooden they almost blend in with the scenery. Happily the supporting cast kindly come to the rescue and compensate for the lack of acting from the leads by going to the other extreme and having a scenery chewing competition. Julie Christie gets good marks as Grandmother, ambling implausibly alone in the woods and trying too hard to make every line creepy, but the winner is Gary Oldman who has a ball channelling his inner Peter Cushing as werewolf hunter Father Solomon, tearing apart lines, characters and wolves with equally hammy relish. Occasionally the film finds the right notes with moments like a village celebration that is filled with a wild mixture of discordant music and dancing, evoking the feel of distant and dangerous lands where fairy tales might just be true, but more often than not the lumbering central romance drags away any real sense of mystery or horror, leaving the film much like the Twilight franchise – too tame to have any real impact.