Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Warrior 2011

'Not another fight film', right? Wrong! This one's everything it should be...and then some.

The life and times of a fighter has been fodder for the scriptwriter for decades. Rocky (1976) wasn't the first or the best, but was definitely a milestone. And since then, Raging Bull (1980), The Boxer (1997), Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Wrestler (2008) and The Fighter (2010), to name just a few, have helped gather awards, accolades and fame for their lead actors. There's something about a sports drama that really clicks with the public and when the story is about a tough fighting machine and their inner sensitivities and social problems, the magic is doubled!

Warrior wasn't a film I was planning to watch. It had a fairly uninteresting poster, I hadn't seen any trailers for it and though Tom Hardy's name keeps coming up in every conversation I've recently had about good actors, I can not recall him from the many films I have seen him in (except for 2008's Bronson, which was a very good, but difficult film to watch). Anyhow, since everyone recommended it to me, I finally watched it today and have been blown away. 

I feel like I shouldn't give anything away about the story, as it revealed itself beautifully on screen and that is how it should be. Yes, there is struggle and personal trauma and heartache and hope and lots of fighting - but it is different. One thing I can say is that this film stands apart from all previously mentioned fight films - because Warrior splits loyalties in quite an amazing sort of way. There isn't just one warrior that you can happily support. You don't find yourself chanting 'Rocky!' or 'Danny!' along with the rest of the crowds. You are absolutely torn and the end isn't totally obvious, which is testament to how well the film is written.

The choreography of the fight scenes is excellent and keeps the viewer on the edge of the seat. Dialogue is minimal and appropriate. Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte deliver very fine performances - but to be honest, it is the writers' and director's presence that sails this ship. I can't say I'm familiar with much of Gavin O'Connor's work from before this film, but I'm definitely keeping my eyes peeled for next time. So, let it be said, I loved Warrior.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

More Shorthand Rants...2011

Here's a summation of the last few films of 2011 that I have not reviewed thus far:

The Adventures of Tintin - I've been a fan of the comics all my life and so I expected this film to be an epic fail, because I thought nothing would be good enough. Well, I stand corrected. This beautifully animated film, which incorporates three separate comic stories, captures the essence and so much more of Herge's translated adventures. What is quite amazing is that the wit and certain nuances, like background action, have been very carefully transported from page to frame - and nothing about the pace and excitement of the comic books is lost in the process. An excellent adaptation and hats off to Mr Spielberg for this wonderful addition to animated filmdom.

The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo - I have issues with this film. It doesn't help that I have read Stieg Larsson's trilogy and watched the Swedish adaptations - because without them I would perhaps have rated TGwaDT, American-style, to be a first-class thriller with an excellent story, tight direction and strong performances. Perhaps. But unfortunately, as I know (and love) the source material and the earlier, very competent adaptation, David Fincher's much-appreciated attempt just made me VERY angry. I won't delve into the story as its details are available for all to read on the internet and my shorthand rants are more about my opinions than serious reviewing anyway. But I will explain why I'm angry. It's not just that they changed (and weakened) the ending, which is a very important part of any crime / mystery thriller. It's the fact that they have messed with the flow of the story and the characterisations. Michael Blomqvist (played by Daniel Craig) is a man who attracts women wherever he goes - and is comfortable with his slightly promiscuous sex life. Craig's Blomqvist shows no signs of that, which is strange because sexuality is quite crucial to the overall theme of the books. Dragan Aramsky, barely gets a scene or two, whereas in the book, he has a strong presence in relation to Lisbeth Salander. And the changes to Lisbeth's character are unforgivable - her 'special gift' is barely highlighted, her brutal rape scene is tamed down - which really affects the viewers' reaction to her revenge scheme, her immense contribution to solving the case is brushed over because of the need to put Daniel Craig's character in the driving seat and above all, the scene where Michael and Lisbeth lie in bed and he asks her about her past and she pretty much spells it all out for him made me mad, because that one scene destroys everything that the uncommunicative and distrusting Lisbeth ever stands for. Rooney Mara is good - but if you have seen Noomi Rapace do Lisbeth, Mara's rendition does not match up. In fact, the film is a stylish Hollywood flick, which finds the need to glorify the famous male lead's character, downplay the unknown female lead's title role and make the mystery a quicker, simpler solve. If you don't know any better, it's all good - but if you have read or seen the original versions of the same story, this version is just sinful.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - It's unfair to criticise the M:I films for their lack of believability. I mean if you're going to the cinema, by choice, to watch a Mission: Impossible film, I'm guessing you have either seen a previous instalment or have at least heard of the franchise - and so you should be aware that it will be very impossible things that will be made possible. Hence, the title. And this one takes it up another notch. And is all the richer for it! Tom Cruise does crazy stunts at Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world; Jeremy Renner, Michael Nyqvist and Anil Kapoor all get a few minutes of screen time; IMAX cameras and beautiful locations are involved; and the thrill is compounded. It's a win-win formula. After two weak attempts, this is by far the best M:I film since the first one came out in 1996 and is exactly what you should expect from a blockbuster action film.

Carnage should not have gone wrong. With three Academy Award winners (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) and an Academy Award nominee (John C Reilly) making up the entire cast, there was obviously no dearth of acting talent. Adapted plays often provide for exciting film scripts. And Roman Polanski is often touted as one of the great directors of our time. Yet, the entire film felt flat, the premise really stretched and the acting very over-the-top. I had high hopes - which were unfortunately dashed.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - They're back! With another fun-filled, bizarre and witty script, slick direction and cool actors! Just like last time! And this time they brought Stephen Fry and Noomi Rapace with them. Yay!

Young Adult is an indie film, with Charlize Theron playing the title role. She is Mavis Gary, a 30-something writer, who moved out of small-town Minnesota to the 'big city' Minneapolis many years ago, and returns home after a divorce and a lost job, to reclaim her high-school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who has since fallen in love, got married and had a baby. Theron is absolutely brilliant as the delusional and lonely woman, pretending nothing has changed and trying to relive her very popular teenage years. She is very ably supported by Patton Oswalt, who plays social outcast Matt Freehauf, the one person in the entire town in front of whom Mavis is able to confront reality and face her life. The scenes between Mavis and Matt are reason for a few laughs, but as with director Jason Reitman's / writer Diablo Cody's previous venture, Juno (2007), Young Adult is as much about the laughs, as it is about the complicated characters that are people. It's an excellent film - and Charlize Theron all but sparkles in it.

New Year's Eve - Garry Marshall follows up 2010's Valentine's Day with another ensemble film that boasts a who's who cast and a razor thin story. There's no point going into it - and it's enough to know that this one has enough Oscar winners and heartthrobs (just like the previous film) pulling enough heartstrings and providing enough 'cute' moments to make it worth a single viewing, if your other option is a plank and certain death.

The Artist is the sort of film that comes around only once in a long while. A clever, thoughtful, labour of love, carefully put together and at the top of its game. Enough has been said and written about it, so it's no mystery that its USP is the fact that it's a silent, b&w film, with a story about the silent, b&w era. Within it, is a bit of a Greek tragedy - the story of a hero, his success, his ego and his failure. But as with all good films from the era it depicts, The Artist has love, happiness and hope. And an amazing little dog called Uggie, who will be retiring soon due to a mysterious neurological illness. No, I'm serious. The film is entertaining, gripping, simply beautiful...and beautifully simple. Michel Hazanavucius, as writer and director, has earned his stars and so much more. And his cast is just brilliant. Jean Dujardin may have acted in many French films already (including the fabulous Little White Lies in 2010 - where he was mostly in a coma), but this one film has made him into an international star, pretty much like Christoph Waltz after Inglourious Basterds (2009). Berenice Bejo is not only beautiful, but full of an old school charm that lights up the screen. And together they have an unbelievable chemistry that makes The Artist a delight to watch. This one should not be missed.

The Descendants is the sort of independent film that is bound to get Oscar nominations because the Academy likes to boast of a varied taste. Of course, I'm simply offended that the Academy's heart and mind is closed to truly off-beat cinema like Drive and Shame, but I can rant about that elsewhere. The Descendants is a story about a man struggling to keep his family together, keep everyone happy and do the right thing, even when he learns of some horrific truths and has to face his worst nightmares - in a paradise-like Hawaiian island. Although the success of this film is heavily dependant on the lead, George Clooney, everyone on screen has delivered an excellent, controlled performance, whether it is the young actors Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause, or the entire older ensemble (including the wonderful Beau Bridges). The Descendants is a sweet film, a story about life - good, bad and ugly, as it is - narrated by and seen through the eyes of 'regular Joe' Matt King (Clooney). Despite the sadness of the realities of life, there's always reason to rejoice and smile - and so you come out of the film with a silly smile on your face, because that's just life!

Melancholia, another of Lars von Trier's studies on depression and desperate human behaviour, this time against the backdrop of the impending end of the world, stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan and Alexander Skarsgard and stalwarts like John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling. At times entertaining, but mostly interminable, this is yet another film by the Danish auteur that has failed to make me feel...well, anything, despite the excellent cast.

J. Edgar is the next instalment in Clint Eastwood's a-film-a-year average - and like many before it, it is mediocre and uninspiring. Charting the life and times of J. Edgar Hoover, FBI's founder and first Director, the film reveals his intelligence, his contributions and his secrets. The story and methods of storytelling in the film are quite interesting, whether it's the narration or flashback-in-flashback, yet for some reason it feels like a flat line after the initial 20 minutes. Had this been a documentary, I would have complained about its blandness, but for a commercial feature film it is almost unforgivable to be so flat. The make-up used to age the actors is abysmal, the acting is decent but again nothing brilliant and this joins the long list of films directed by Eastwood that leave me feeling confused about why they were made. Leonardo Di Caprio does justice to his role, but since his greatest weakness as an actor has been adopting accents, I could see the effort in his acting throughout the film. To be fair, the film doesn't take sides and does not try especially hard to make Hoover out to be the good guy or the bad guy, but its monotone left a lot to be desired. So, in summation, J. Edgar is neither a good film nor a bad film - but possibly a redundant film. Watch at your own discretion.

The Way is Emilio Estevez's first film since Bobby (2006) and does make me wonder why he doesn't direct more and get more credit for his work. The film is about a father's reluctant journey to complete something his dead son started. It is a very simple story, nothing we haven't seen before - but it's Martin Sheen's very controlled and compelling performance, a host of interesting characters and neat direction that make this a worthy film. It's not ground-breaking, but is still very good.

Moneyball surprised me because I had not seen a single trailer in London cinemas and besides a poster with Brad Pitt on it, I knew nothing else. Considering Pitt has been less than impressive in recent years, I was not expecting anything. What I got was a smart, engaging script, excellent cinematography, good performances and a very decent film. Of course it was the end credits that revealed that Aaron Sorkin and Wally Pfister had a lot to do with my enjoyment of the experience - but Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman were in top form and based on a true story, this film is definitely worth a watch.

I Don't Know How She Does It should be re-titled, 'I don't know why she does it'. Sarah Jessica Parker plays Kate, a wife, a mother and a successful career woman, who has to make choices all the way in striking a balance between her personal and professional life. As predictability requires, she also has to make a choice between a sometimes difficult marriage to husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) and a possibly smoother relationship with client Jack (Pierce Brosnan - still looking good). Cliche-ridden and offering nothing new, the film is perfect for a mindless Sunday afternoon - but nothing more.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Haywire 2011

I feel like I must say something in protest against everyone's praise for Haywire, a fairly bad action film that is currently being touted as artistic, stylish and totally bad-ass.

So, it's an out and out action film - and I know I'm not supposed to expect an intelligent storyline or great dialogue, but honestly, even a Steven Seagal film scores higher on these accounts. Then of course, there's the action. For a film that's relying only on its lead's fighting prowess (she's a retired MMA fighter), the action is sparse and short-lived, and mostly not so exciting.

But back to the actors and their acting - so there's Gina Carano delivering scene after scene with no expression; and a host of very attractive leading men - Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor (ok not all were so attractive) and Channing Tatum (someone had to match Carano's wooden expressions after all) - most of whom get pounded by Carano at one point or another. Nobody, and this includes Fassbender, even tries to act well. Of course, it is meant to be a throwback to the '80s action-filled B-movies, which is obvious by the way it's been filmed - (mostly badly), with lots of discoloured, over-exposed shots, apparently using 4K Red One cameras - and by the story, which is unbelievably weak and flawed. Now if this was anyone but Steven Soderbergh at the helm, I'd have been convinced that it was simply a bad film - but with him sailing this ship I know he wanted to make it the way it's come out.

I am actually very confused by this new trend of homage films. When Scorsese makes Shutter Island (2010), or Soderbergh makes Haywire, what exactly do they bring to cinema? They're making redundant films really, by re-creating something that already exists, without really adding to it. When a Tarantino pays tribute to old cinema or when a Refn makes Drive (2011), I see the motivation, I see the homage and I see the creativity, because those films are not replicas of the past. Haywire brought me nothing new and actually just bored me to death.

Anyhow, it's getting decent reviews and people are enjoying the realistic-but-not-sufficiently-impressive action much more than I did - so maybe this needs to be seen and judged without my prejudices.

Margin Call 2011

With a stellar cast and an incredibly well-written script, Margin Call is an impressive first (feature-length) film by writer/director JC Chandor. Set in the recent past, and covering just over one day in the life of an investment bank (shades of Lehman Brothers), it depicts what may have been one, or many, firm’s part in the financial crash of 2007-08. While there is a decent explanation for how things went so wrong, the story is not necessarily about the ‘how’, but rather the ‘who’. It sheds some light on the characters who are often directly or indirectly responsible in such situations, and why they make the decisions they do.

From the very first scene, the film is like a who’s who of character actors – Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Paul Bettany (with an awful accent that veers from British to Australian without warning), Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker (with a very consistent American accent – Bettany, take note!) and Jeremy Irons. Intentionally or unintentionally, the film has a token female (Demi Moore) and a token ethnic presence (Aasif Mandvi) working in Risk Assessment, while the rest of the cast is completely white male. Whether this is or isn't a true depiction of the environment the film is focusing on is not the subject of this review; it is merely an observation.

The film is well-paced and the story utterly gripping. The best thing about the script is that while there is some explanation of the mechanics of the financial world, the terminology is not dumbed down for the viewer - and the audience is expected to have a basic level of intelligence. And in line with that thinking is the characterisation of the key players - no one is made to look like the good guy or the bad guy. There are no clear 'villains' - and just about no one is innocent - which makes everyone very human and their actions comprehensible.

Considering the lack of marketing for this film (at least in the UK), it really came as a surprise package. Definitely worth a watch, even if only on DVD.