Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Other Boleyn Girl - Justin Chadwick - 2008

The first big success from novelist Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl famously retells the story of King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn from the perspective of Anne’s sister Mary, an older girl who was Henry’s mistress before he became entangled with Anne but who history has forgotten in the wake of Anne’s infamous fall from grace. Given its popularity (Gregory has produced a string of historical novels about little known historical women in its wake) it was inevitable that a film adaptation would follow but sadly Gregory’s detailed world proves to be too complex to translate successfully to the big screen. Cramming hundreds of pages into two hours of cinema, it was perhaps inevitable that director Justin Chadwick would be forced to focus on the story thrust rather than the complex politics and historical detail that made the book so fascinating but when this comes at the expense of the characters as well the film begins to look increasingly poor by comparison. Eric Bana is a fine actor and a charismatic choice to play King Henry but he has little to do other than brood in corners and storm down corridors so its hardly surprising that he spends most of his time chewing his own beard in confusion. Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman are also good choices to play Mary and Anne, both box-office stars but fine actresses in their own right, both capable of delivering perfectly adequate English accents but they are not given the space to develop one character trait each. Johansson’s Mary is meek and Portman’s Anne is feisty but neither of them gets any deeper below the surface of characters that both historical accounts and Gregory’s story indicate were highly complex women, both in their own way ahead of the time in which they lived. The film is very pretty, recreating the period in perfectly adequate detail as numerous costume dramas have before but with no depth to the characters there is very little going on here to engage the audience emotionally, even when the story veers into speculation with hints of incest and betrayal that won’t be found in textbooks. As a star studded historical romp The Other Boleyn Girl maybe passable but on any other level the film has sadly little to offer, the latest in a long line of book-to-film adaptations that cannot compare to the original. 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom - Justin Chadwick - 2013

Nelson Mandela is a world icon, a revolutionary leader and politician whose lifetime struggle for racial equality in South Africa inspired millions and so it was only matter of time before that story was adapted for the big screen. Working from the book Mandela himself wrote during his 27-year imprisonment, Long Walk to Freedom director Justin Chadwick ambitiously attempts to cram an entire life story into two and a half hours and in so doing does justice to the great man’s character and achievements but leaves the film suffering as a narrative much as he did with his previous film The Other Boleyn Girl. The first hour in particular crams in so many events and details that it is hard to get a grip on Nelson’s character or keep track of the passage of time; bouncing from brief establishing scenes of Nelson as a young lawyer and a ladies man (the film deserves credit for not idolising Nelson but including his human flaws), Chadwick follows him through one marriage and into a more significant second and charts his rise through the ranks of the ANC (African National Congress) at such speed that characters barely have a chance to register before they are pulled onwards by the demands of the story. However the second half of the film after Nelson has begun his prison sentence plays much better as Chadwick is forced by the narrative of history to slow down and let the characters and relationships – particularly that of Nelson and his second wife Winnie – speak for themselves. London born Idris Elba is perhaps a surprising choice to play the South African leader but he has the charisma to carry it off, successfully handling the South African accent without issue and bringing great charm, warmth and strength to the role, although he never quite lands any of the emotional punches that the story demands. Happily Naomie Harris playing Nelson’s second wife Winnie is even better, tearing up the screen every chance she gets and committing to Winnie’s journey with a raw intensity that at times is heart wrenching to watch. The latter scenes are hampered by terrible makeup jobs on the actors to make them appear old, (Elba looks like he has been wrapped in plastic) but find a good narrative rhythm, achieving, a nice balance between the rising momentum of the anti-apartheid movement and Nelson’s personal sadness as he and Winnie begin drifting apart. Long Walk to Freedom serves as a fitting tribute to Nelson’s life and achievements, particularly given that he tragically passed away shortly before release, but as a film it does not achieve the emotional impact his story deserves and so is unlikely to be widely remembered. 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Whiplash - Damien Chazelle - 2015

A thriller set in a studio jazz band does not sound like the most exciting concept to grab audience and awards attention but with his breakout feature Whiplash director Damien Chazelle has successfully created just that. Starting life as a short film at Sundance in 2013 where it garnered the critical buzz to secure funding for the feature, Whiplash takes a simple premise more commonly found in Sports movies – ambitious student vs. truculent mentor – and adjusts it for the highbrow environment of a prestigious music college to fascinating effect. Miles Teller plays ambitious drummer Andrew Neimann who is thrilled when infamous band leader Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) picks him to be a new alternate for his studio band but quickly learns that the road to success is far rockier than he envisaged. Fletcher is a brilliant creation, fluctuating between dazzling charm and psychotic rage in a heartbeat and Simmons relishes every moment of the character’s contradictory nature, chewing up the screen in a performance that leaves the audience giggling one minute at his outrageously inventive swearing and stunned to silence the next by his moving tribute to a past student. Teller is equally committed, working as hard as the character to achieve drumming perfection for his tyrannical new master in a shockingly intense performance that at times leaves blood, sweat and tears literally dripping from the drum kit but with a career doing largely frat-boy comedies he does not have the charisma to stand up to Simmons. Chazelle is keen to emphasise just how physically gruelling Neimann’s work is, utilising frequent sweaty close-ups and cutaways to increase the tension as Fletcher intensifies his attacks, that make the film incredibly intense to watch but sadly don’t make Andrew relatable in the way Chazelle seems to want. Harshly dumping his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist, sweet) in order to dedicate more time to drumming and single-mindedly seizing any opportunity to unseat his competitors in the band, Andrew slowly becomes as ruthless as Fletcher, which makes the shifting dynamic between the two satisfyingly blurred but distances the audience emotionally. Chazelle successfully uses this relationship to question whether the end can ever justify the means when pursuing perfection and doesn’t ever resort to easy answers but he cannot quite manage to wrap the story up satisfactorily, pushing on after the inevitable explosive confrontation for a further inconclusive climax that doesn’t have the intended impact. However as a fascinating examination of artistic egomania, anchored by a great performance from Simmons, Whiplash is an interesting watch.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Lesbian Vampire Killers - Phil Claydon - 2008

Lesbian Vampire Killers? Even before the film starts the title resigns everyone to a film so blokeish it may as well be served with beer and pizza, and director Phil Claydon sadly does nothing to lift this expectation. Matthew Horne and James Corden resurrect their Gavin & Stacey double act to play Jimmy and Fletch, two non-descript lads on a hiking holiday that lands them in a plot that doesn’t really bother with a story but opts instead to mash together every vampire cliché that ever existed with the single 'twist' that the monsters are all lesbians. Theoretically this could be a good idea since the vampire genre is always ripe for sending up, but sadly the writers have hardly any of the wit or imagination to pull this off and so the end result is little more than 80 minutes of crude humour and lascivious shots of sexy women whose tragic lack of character borders on the offensive. Horne and Corden might protest otherwise but Jimmy and Fletch are essentially more OTT versions of Gavin and Smithy and while they may generate some laughs from their natural chemistry, their characters largely come across as charmless versions of the characters we’ve come to know and love/hate from TV. Jimmy's relationship with love interest Lotte (MyAnna Buring) is sweet but she is hamstrung with lines that are so terrible that its hard not to pity her and hope she escape’s into a better film, while Horne is otherwise so relentlessly pathetic, despite being meant to be a hero, that he rapidly becomes annoying. Corden has the good fortune of spending a large amount of screen time with the great Paul McGann who plays a vampire-hunting vicar (although he mainly just looks angry to be there) but when every other line becomes another cheap sex gag or a chance to cover him in slime, Fletch quickly becomes tiresome. Lotte aside, the girls have nothing to do except look incredibly sexy as both humans and vampires before being killed and dissolving into what looks suspiciously like spunk (heaven only knows who thought that would be funny seventeen times over) and so any hope for anything more mature is quickly lost. In fairness its unlikely the film was ever intended as more than a mindless guilty pleasure and as such it is passable but on any other level this probably the worst vampire film since the Buffy movie.