Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best of 2012 - ARTHOUSE MOVIES

So here's to the wilfully obscure, fragile, indulgent movies that fought the accountants and got made in the teeth of every sound investment principle. Away from the mainstream formulaic releases, the reason we watch hundreds of films a year is to uncover gems such as these.  In retrospect, I can discern a theme, which is of young naive girls left to fend for themselves when their parents abuse their responsibility toward them.

Matteo Garrone's audacious REALITY
First up, Matteo Garrone astonished me with his visual audacity and provocative take on reality TV. His REALITY was one of those films that leaves you reeling - at once surreal and profoundly familiar. He focuses on a small-town guy desperate to appear on the Italian version to the point where he becomes delusional.  There's a rich seam of black humour, a joy in the grotesque, and a deep truth about how in the world of Facebook and Youtube our lives only have meaning if documented. 

Another Italian director, Daniele Cipri, elaborated on the themes of moral corruption and easy winnings with his similarly ambitious, audacious, darkly comic but ultimately terrifying film, IT WAS THE SON.  The movie stars Toni Servilio as the father of a family in a decrepit mafia-riddled town, squabbling over a windfall to the point of insanity. It shows humanity as grotesque and greedy but never with scorn. 

From Italy to Denmark for Thomas Vinterberg's fictionalised account of an innocent schoolteacher accused of paedophilia, THE HUNT. Mads Mikkelsen visibly shrinks into his role as the quiet, downtrodden teacher, and the movie is all too believable.  It serves as a modern fable about the danger of quick judgements and mob hysteria. 

Mexican director Michel Franco's brutal film about schoolyard bullying, AFTER LUCIA, was perhaps the most brutal watch of the year.  It meticulously shows how an escalation of bullying can lead to devastating result, and hinges on a superb performance from teenager Tessa Ia. Every parent of a teenage daughter needs to watch this flick with their kid.

From Mexico to Chile, where Pablo Larrain's superbly researched NO! tells the story of Chile's referendum to end dictatorship from the point of view of the ad exec hired by the pro-democracy campaign.  Gael Garcia Bernal is compelling as the cynical exec crafting Coke-like ads to woo the youth slowly discovering his political conscience.  I had no clue about this episode before the film, but was utterly riveted and can still remember the ad jingles. 

Next up, two films about teenage girls of no mean courage forced to fend for themselves in extraordinary circumstances, symbolic of their times. Aussie director Cate Shortland recreates Germany at the end of World War Two in this German-language drama about a young girl, LORE, whose Nazi parents are apprehended.  She must take her small siblings across the war-torn, lawless countries, as well as grappling with the enormity of the fact that her parents were on the losing side, and all that they told her may not have been true.  It's a deeply affecting, beautifully made picture. 

The second film is Sally Potter's loosely autobiographical GINGER & ROSA, set in highly politicised 1960s London. Elle Fanning has a perfect British accent as sensitive, intelligent, naive young Ginger whose best friend Rosa sleeps with her father causing an emotional crisis. It's a delicate, fragile movie that drips with authenticity and melancholy. 

As brutal as AFTER LUCIA, Scott Graham's tense, austere drama SHELL was astounding. The British drama featured Chloe Pirrie as a teenager in remote rural Scotland living with her widower father: a relationship in such isolation that it become necessarily unhealthy. 

From Europe to the Middle East for Israeli dirctor Rama Burshtein's visually ravishing, intense, claustrophobic emotional drama, FILL THE VOID. The movie stars Hadas Yaron as Shira, a naive young girl in the Orthodox Israeli community.  She is pressured by her family into marrying her deceased sister's widower, and is repulsed, shocked and entranced by the emotions she feels for him and the impact she has on him.  This was perhaps the movie that prompted the most visceral reaction in me all year.  


Back to the USA, and perhaps my favourite film of the year: the poignant, melancholy, deeply affecting buddy movie, ROBOT & FRANK.  Jake Schreier's drama is set in the near future, and stars Frank Langella as a retired burgler suffering from Alzheimer's, called, Frank, who forms an unlikely attachment to his medical carer robot. This movie poses so many profound questions about the nature of memory, and the duties of family, and what constitutes a "real" relationship, but does so with an admirably light touch.  I'm not ashamed to say it got a little dusty in the theatre. 

Finally, two honourable mentions: movies with art-house sensibilities but mainstream releases: Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI and Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM.  Both movies with particular and beautiful visual palettes that tell seemingly fairytale stories of deep import.  Both among the best films of the year. 

THE HUNT was released in the UK in November 2012 but does not have a US release date yet. REALITY will be released in the UK on March 22nd 2013 but has no US release date.  LORE will be released in the UK on February 22nd but does not yet have a US release date. SHELL will be released in the UK on March 15th but does not yet have a US release date. NO! will be released in the UK on February 8th and in the USA on February 15th. ROBOT & FRANK was released in the USA last year and will be released in the UK on March 8th. IT WAS THE SON, FILL THE VOID and AFTER LUCIA do not yet have a US or UK release date. 

The Best of 2012 - GENRE MOVIES


Critics drawing up lists of the best films of any particular year tend to focus on the arthouse wonders and avant-garde. You know what I mean - the latest subtle deeply affecting Iranian agit-drama in which the death of a tree symbolises the ruling neo-fascist kleptocracy. And there'll be more of that to follow. But in this post I want to give mad props to all those film-makers who took the hackneyed genre tropes that make up the vast majority of theatrical releases and reinvigorated them.

First up, CHILDREN'S movies, and PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS!  This is an absolutely hilarious, beautifully created, intelligent kids claymation picture that casts Hugh Grant as a hapless but well-meaning pirate going up against the nefarious Charles Darwin.  This movie has heart, but not in that schmaltzy manipulative Pixar way (controversial!)  It has wit, style, irreverence, a very British sense of humour, and a kickass Queen Victoria.  Why don't we see more of Hugh Grant in roles like this? 

I don't really watch HORROR movies, as I'm totally gutless, so in this category, I'll have to nominate FRANKENWEENIE, Tim Burton's return to form with this poignant horror homage featuring a little boy who re-animates his beloved dog, Sparkie. This is a kids movie that's really for cineastes, with wonderful in-jokes and references, and a genuine love of cinema-history.  Again, no false schmaltz here, but a genuinely tearful experience.  Just goes to show you can make a great film that clocks in at under 90 minutes. Not sure you really needed the 3D though. 

Next, DRAMA. For me the best was J C Chandor's MARGIN CALL. I have an on-going beef with how Hollywood represents my day job, and this is the first (and probably last) time that I've seen the reality of life in an investment bank depicted accurately on screen. If you want to know what really happened in the Global Financial Crisis, watch this film, and realise that we were all drinking the cool-aid.  Also memorable for a genius slippery cameo from Jeremy Irons as a thinly veiled version of Lehman Brothers' chief, Dick Fuld. This is the movie WALL STREET 2 should have been.

The London Film Festival brought us the best THRILLER of the year.  ARGO came with the fanfare of the Hollywood machine, cueing itself up for Best Picture. It's basically just a very well put together political thriller, but there's  no harm in being just that. Even though I knew the outcome of the US diplomats trying to escape from Iran, I was on the edge of my seat for the whole film.  And, let's face it, we and the Academy love a movie in which Hollywood saves the day!  With ARGO and THE TOWN, Ben Affleck becomes the best actor turned director since Clint Eastwood, and given the latter's recent poor form, perhaps the best currently working. It's just a shame the phrase "Argo fuck yourself" never caught on. 

Perhaps the most unexpectedly brilliant film of the year was debut director Barnaby Southcombe's City-set NOIR, I, ANNA starring Charlotte Rampling as an enigmatic murder suspect pursued by Gabriel Byrne's rumpled cop.  Beautifully acted and shot, satisfyingly slippery and stylish - a movie whose confidence belies its low budget.

When it came to DISASTER movies, Joe Carnahan's THE GREY blew me out of the water. Taut, spare, tense, emotional.  Who knew Liam Neeson would emerge as an action hero with actual klout, flying in the face of the buff, waxed, pumped up muscle-hounds that fill the pages of Men's Health. Don't go gentle, motherfuckers.

When it comes to BUDDY COP movies, especially those set in LA, you can assume that you're going to get 2 hours of profanity, macho bullshit and corruption.  The genius of David Ayer's END OF WATCH is that it turned that assumption on its head, with a portrait of true, real friendship and integrity.  Sad to say that we live in such a cynical world, seeing two good guys just going about their business is enough to be considered genre-redefining. 

My penultimate choice is a movie from a genre that I think is typically ill served by mainstream Hollywood: the ROMCOM.  I'm not sure why  modern rom-coms are so banal and assinine, when the golden era of precode Hollywood produced such wonderfully acerbic, pugnacious and magnetic relationships. What kind of a world takes us from HIS GIRL FRIDAY to the latest Katherine Heigl vehicle?  Anyways, it was refreshing to see David O Russell give us an off-beat odd-couple in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  Perhaps the cutest moment in this year's cinema is when Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence unconsciously hold hands as they walk into the pivotal dance comp at the end of the flick and each denies they did it first. 

Finally, hands down the best genre film of the year belongs to the franchise that has become a genre in its own right, the BOND movies.  SKYFALL was, to my mind, the best Bond of the modern era.  Psychologically realistic, beautifully shot and superlatively cast.  And yet it had enough irreverence and good humour to understand that just as we don't want stupid gadgets ("What were you expecting, an exploding pen?") we still do want to see a glimpse of the Astin Martin.  Truly, this was a post-modern Bond and worth every second of its three-hour running time. And remember, my dear readers, if you need any advice on mixing martinis, don't listen to that nucklehead Ian Fleming, but head over to our sister site, CYBERMARTINI.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Best of 2012 - GUILTY PLEASURES

Of the 139 movies I watched, some of the worst were the heavily hyped, high production value epics that fell flat. (PROMETHEUS, I'm looking at you.) By contrast, some of the best times I had at the cineplex were watching movies that were balls-out crazy, silly, goofy and spoofy.  These were movies without pretensions of greatness.  Movies without the budgets to look slick.  But they never forgot the real reason why most of us go to the cinema on a Friday night - to have a bunch of fun.


The year began with Michael Dowse's GOON, a film that totally surprised me with its big heart and big laughs.  The movie features Sean William Scott as a stupid, buff ice hockey player whose basic role is to beat people up during the match. He falls for a sassy chick played by Alison Pill before she betrayed the Sisterhood in HBO's piss-poor Newsroom.  GOON is gritty, grungy, chaotic and yet you really care about every single character, not least Liev Schrieber's ageing goon Ross Rhea - maybe the funniest, most moving cameo of the year.  Unjustifiably overlooked - you'd be a fool not to rent goon for DVD date night.

Next up was Baltasar Kormakur's remake of his own caper film, CONTRABAND. Starring Mark Wahlberg as the head of a crew stealing art and shipping them home on a freighter, the movie was fast-paced, very funny and centred on the totally believable camaraderie among the crew.  It's also notable for having another one of those eye-rollingly insane Giovanni Ribisi performances which have become the stuff of hilarity. If there's a sequel, I'm going to be first in line.  The movie also underlines just how talented Mark Wahlberg is, in that he can move between starring in the utterly earnest THE FIGHTER as this kind of anonymous, downtrodden kid brother, to being the mischievous, charismatic leader of a crew. Kudos.

In April, I laughed my ass off watching Phil Lord's loving spoof of 21 JUMP STREET, falling in love with the chemistry between Jonah Hill's  Schmidt and Channing Tatum's Jenko. Indeed, as much as we talk about the McConaughasence, this really was Tatum's year, with this star turn and his producer-writer-actor credit on break-out indie hit, MAGIC MIKE.   21 JUMP STREET "got it" in a way that many TV series reboots don't.  You need to spoof the genre with a generous heart, allowing the audience to fall in love with the central characters and conceit even as they laugh at it.  Also, I'm thinking that Johnny Depp had been waiting YEARS to exorcise his hatred of the teen TV soap with his hilarious piss-taking cameo at the end. 

In June, I had a bunch of fun watching Timo Vuorneslea's IRON SKY, a low-fi Finnish sci-fi spoof about Nazi Zombies.  Let me say it again. NAZI ZOMBIES. Do you need another reason to watch this film? Yes it's script is all over the place, and there as many hits as misses, but when it works it's really hilarious and you have to admire the amazing special effects on such a low budget.  Oh yeah, and NAZI ZOMBIES. 

Perhaps the movie I was most embarrassed to like was the Farrelly Brothers movie of THE THREE STOOGES starring Sean Hayes, Will Sassso and Chris Diamantopoulos.  This isn't a show that entered the British cultural psyche in the way that it did in the USA and I normally don't respond to slapstick humour and dayglow production design. But after a slow start, I really got into the movie, caring about the characters and responding to the light-hearted cultural teasing. Towit, one of the funniest moments of the year was watching the Stooges beat the crap out of the cast of Jersey Shore.  So don't listen to the haters, and watch it!

The penultimate film in this category is a movie that could have been designed for me: a comedy about a bunch of Aussie park cricketers who tour India.  Boyd Hicklin's SAVE YOUR LEGS! has heart, makes you laugh, and reminds you why you love the prince of sports.  Damon Gavreau gives one of the best comedic performances of the year as Stavros but it's the genuine camaraderie between the cast that makes you enjoy the movie.  And as much as there as certain jokes that really work for cricket fans, there's enough relatable material about growing up and getting new priorities to give this movie a wider audience. It's out in Australia on February 28th and I reallty hope it gets a UK release date, ideally during the summer Ashes series. 

Finally, let's hear it for everybody's rogue cop with a heart, Chulbul Pandey. Arbaaz Khan's follow up to the smash-hit, DABANGG 2 repeats the formula of the original almost slavishly but to great effect. Salman Khan is hilarious as the smalltown cop tough on crime and the causes of crime.  Every time he dances by tugging on his belt or puts his sunglasses on the back of his collar, you just have to smile.  And Katrina Kapoor gives us the best item number of the year with Fevicol Se.

All of these films were released in 2012 and are available to rent and own with the exception of SAVE YOUR LEGS! which will be released in 2013 and DABANNG 2 which is currently on theatrical release and has not yet been released on DVD.


The Best of 2012 - DOCS

I watched 139 films in 2012 and despite the grinches and naysayers, I thought this was a great year for film.  So much so that I refuse to indulge in a trite Top 10 list, or grinch my way through a Bottom 10 of the year.  Instead, here's a list of all the films that moved me, impressed me, surprised me or made me laugh, split by category. It's a list that reflects my own tastes - often puerile, anti-hippie-vegetarian, politicised and eccentric.  It's far from comprehensive - I watch very little horror, even less action and due to an ankle injury mid-year, missed a lot of summer blockbusters. But it sums up my year in movies and I hope gives you a few left-field suggestions for DVDs and Festival screenings turned mainstream releases in 2013.


To begin, it felt like 2012 was a great year for DOCUMENTARIES. In March, I watched two superb docs during the Sundance London Festival.  Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern's film of LCD Soundsystem's valedictory concert at Madison Square Garden, SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS, introduced me to the best band of the decade about a decade after everyone else caught on (doh!) and led to a month of round the clock listening.  Sometimes it feels like I'm Losing My Edge is the soundtrack to my professional life.  The Kids Are (indeed) Coming Up From Behind. More closely related to my dayjob as a greedy capitalist bastard, Lauren Greenfield's THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES was a surprisingly touching look at the excesses of the credit-fuelled property boom and subsequent bust - a microcosmic counterpart to the superlative MARGIN CALL.  Back at the multiplex I cried like a baby during Kevin MacDonald's MARLEY, in memory of a rejected man who became a legendary musician and spread love, perhaps all too freely for his children's taste.

This was also an exceptionally strong year for docs at the London Film Festival.  Shola Lynch's FREE ANGELA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS reaffirmed my admiration for Angela Davis and the principled articulate protests of the 1960s and 1970s, in sharp contrast to the amorphous, inarticulate Occupy movement of today. Alex Gibney produced a similarly hard-hitting documentary looking at the Catholic Church's tragic mishandling of child sex abuse, by working out from the original US court case.  MEA MAXIMA CULPA was a necessarily painful watch for those who, like me, still consider themselves members of the Church, but given the recent allegations about Jimmy Saville at the BBC, raises important questions about all institutional cover-ups.  FREE ANGELA and MEA MAXIMA CULPA touched subjects close to my heart, but it was a testament to just how well put together Nick Ryan's THE SUMMIT was that I was fascinated by his K2 mountaineering disaster doc.  It doesn't yet have a UK or US release date which is a crying shame.

My final three documentary picks are about larger than life eccentric geniuses who defined their eras and fundamentally changed their art.  The first is Charlie and Lucy Paul's portrait of Gonzo artist, Ralph Steadman, FOR NO GOOD REASON.  The film-makers show Steadman drawing, and capture an in-depth with Johnny Depp that examines his famous relationship with, and resentment of, Hunter S Thompson.  A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a fantastically innovative animated biography of Monty Python's Flying Circus member Graham Chapman - openly homosexual when that was still a crime, but a closeted alcoholic. Bill Jones' doc is as irreverent and witty and surreal as a Python deserves.

But hands down the most balls-out insane doc about the most balls-out insane man is the aptly titled BEWARE OF MR BAKER.  Poor Jay Bulger spent years chronicling the angry drummer's tirades, vitriol and bile, while also reminding us just how revolutionary a man he was, principally with the legendary supergroup Cream.  Ginger Baker is also the only man who has threatened to smash a broken bottle over the head of the man who shot his doc on stage at the London Film Fest.  He also inspired the character Animal on The Muppet Show.  Legend come to life. Watch it.

THE SUMMIT, FREE ANGELA & ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS, NO GOOD REASON do not yet have a commercial release date.  A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY went on limited release in the US in November and goes on release in the UK in February.  MEA MAXIMA CULPA  and BEWARE OF MR BAKER went on limited release in the US in November. MARLEY went on global release in summer 2012 and is available to rent and own. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES THE HITS went on release in the US, Canada and the UK earlier this year and is available to rent and own.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

ROBOT & FRANK


ROBOT & FRANK is a delicate film that breaks your heart, makes you think, and all with the lightest of touch.  It's also an astonishingly assured debut feature from Jake Schreier (director) and Christopher D Ford (screenplay).  Set in the near future, Frank Langella plays a retired cat burgler called Frank, afflicted by Alzheimer's but charmingly no-nonsense and wily.  His concerned son Harrison (James Marsden) buys Frank a Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to get him onto a routine and make sure he eats right.  Frank is wary at first, but eventually warms to the Robot who provides him with companionship, and indeed, facilitates a return to crime - ripping off their smarmy yuppie neighbours.  

The movie works on many levels.  At its most obvious, it's a loose sci-fi film, although those viewers looking for detailed applications of the laws of robotics per Asimov will be disappointed. Instead, the film is more concerned with the emotional implications of forming an attachment to a robot, and plays more like the most intelligent buddy-movie you've ever seen.  All this despite the fact that Robot is always reminding Frank that the friendship can't be real because Robot is, well, just a robot.  The sad fact remains that for Frank, Robot is a much more real emotional presence than his distant son or irritatingly right-on daughter (Liv Tyler). There's also a light critique of urban yuppies moving to the country, an a melancholy lament for the printed word that touched a chord with me.

Frank Langella gives a charismatic central performance as Frank. He's charming and grouchy all at once, but never in that mean grinchy Clint Eastwood way.  He always keeps us guessing as to how much Frank really knows what's happening, and how much his Alzheimer's is taking over.  I really loved Peter Sarsgaard as Robot too.  He has a melancholy tone to his voice that's just perfect - there's empathy if you want to read it that way, but neutrality if you don't.  I cared about the two of them, even though Robot was telling me not too. Special mention too for Susan Sarandon who gives perhaps the most challenging performance in a small role as a librarian that Frank befriends. 

Overall, ROBOT & FRANK is one of those surprising rare birds - a fragile movie that wears its deep thinking lightly and creates memorable characters and stirs deep emotions. I'm not ashamed to say that in two deeply poignant scenes near the end of the film, it got a little dusty in the theatre.

ROBOT & FRANK played Sundance 2012 where Jake Schreier won the Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize, and Sitges 2012 where he won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film.  It was released earlier this year in the USA, Canada, France, Kosovo, Kuwait, Taiwan, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. It opens in Hong Kong on January 31st; in Portugal on March 7th; in the UK on March 8th; and in Spain on May 24th. 

ROBOT & FRANK has a 89 minute running time and was rated PG-13 in the USA. 


Friday, December 21, 2012

PITCH PERFECT

Do yourself a favour and watch THE BREAKFAST CLUB instead.

PITCH PERFECT is a movie made possible by the massive commercial success of the TV show GLEE, and BRIDESMAIDS. It combines a female centred gross-out humour and bonding comedy with remixed and mashed up show tunes, all with a day-glo tongue-in-cheek sensibility.  It's a movie that both mocks and loves GLEE and all its antecedents.  This was going to make it a tough sell for me. I love musicals as much as the next man, but I don't get on with GLEE. I don't like that hyper-pop-music style of singing or the caricature characters. But I *did* like BRIDESMAIDS, so I went into PITCH PERFECT with high hopes.

My viewing experience. I could see characters and lines and pratfalls that were making everyone else laugh, and an intellectual sense, I could vaguely admire them, but I just wasn't laughing. Maybe it was that I couldn't buy Anna Kendrick - the sweetest, most wholesome actress working in cinema today - as an emo rebellious teen?  Maybe I didn't really care about the thinly manufactured rivalry between the all-male victorious campus glee club and our gang of uptight, old-fashioned female acapella singers?  I knew that as much as Kendrick's Beca claimed she was too cool for school, she was eventually going to alienate and then re-woo her sweet boyfriend Jesse (Skylar Astin). And, OF COURSE, we were cueing up for a final showdown where the girls get it together, mash up monster pop hits and take the prize.  In between all that predictability, the vomit jokes and the fat jokes weren't floating my boat.  And are we really okay with some of the racially tinged jokes about Asians?

In fact, the only real joy I got from this movie were Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as the scabrous glee contest commentators - genuinely edgy and unpredictable!  That, and the fact that it prompted me to go back and watch THE BREAKFAST CLUB, which is to this mush as Adele is to Lea Michele.

PITCH PERFECT opened earlier this year in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, the Philippines, Cambodia, Slovenia, Iceland, Singapore and Portugal. It is currently on release in Australia, Israel and Brazil. It opens this weekend in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the Czech Republic. It opens on December 26th in Belgium; on January 3rd in the Netherlands; on February 1st in Spain; on February 7th in Argentina and Sweden; on February 21st in Denmark and Lithuania; on March 22nd in Norway and on May 8th in France.

DABANGG 2


Watching DABANGG 2 is like watching an episode of The A Team. The plot is nonsense, the tone camp, and the audience knowing. But the end result is a bunch of mindless fun that delivers exactly what it promises. In the case of DABANGG 2, that's a funny spoof of 70s Bollywood cop-hero dramas, masala films and "item" girls. And, given that modern Bollywood is at home with Hollywood cliches, the shooting style and score reference Spaghetti Westerns and spoof Zach Snyder's over-stylised bullet-time photography. In other words, this is a film able to mock the faux heroic in Indian and US cinema history, while lovingly recreating the cheap thrills of those genres. It's a film with its heart on its sleeve and its sunglasses clipped to the back of its collar.

The plot, such as it is, sees our hero, police officer Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan) relocate to a provincial town with his new wife Rajjo (Sonakshi Sinha) and father. Chulbul picks up where he left off in the original wildly successful movie, besting up mafiosi with wild abandon, incurring the wrath of local politician and goon Baccho Singh (legendary screen villain Prakash Raj). Naturally, Baccho retaliates against Chulbul's family resulting in an epic final fight.

The movie sticks very closely to the formula that made the original a success. Salman continues to combine self-mockery of his pumped up physique with a childish sense of humour. Some of the best scenes in this film see him prank call his father, for instance. The vainglorious hero continues to dote on his wife and have a childish giggle while at the same time murdering goons in outlandish fight scenes.

The close similarity extends to the movie's score, which mirrors every song from the original film, reprising playback artists, lyrical motifs and musical themes. Composers Sajid-Wajid are back in charge, and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's reinterpretation of the first film's breakout hit, Tere Mast Mast Do Nain, Dagavaaz Re is simply beautiful. And in place of Item Girl Munni (who cameos in another song) we now have Kareena Kapoor in Fevicol Se, an instant classic item number which shows that Kareena is the best at self mocking, hilarious item numbers.

Overall, DABANGG 2 is not going to win any awards for its deft plotting or originality.  And if anything, the pacing and direction by debutant, Arbaaz Khan, is less deft than with the predecessor, helmed by Abhinav Singh Kashyap. But for all that, DABANGG 2 has cracking songs, and loveable, ridiculous hero, who respects his old sweet father. What's more, in its ability to ingest, mock and worship Bollywood and Hollywood history, it provides a more sophisticated brand of entertainment than might at first appear.

DABANNG 2 is on global release.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY 3D HFR

He looks pretty bored too.
I came to THE HOBBIT as a fan of Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and a fan of fantasy in general.  But even the most ardent fan must admit that when read in retrospect, JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit is an enjoyable but slight work.  It is, after all, a short-ish children's story about a group of dwarves  going off to battle a dragon who has stolen their gold.  On the way they meet goblins and trolls and the adventures largely consist of riddles and tricks rather than epic battles. In fact, even though it later became the stuff of epic-world building, The Hobbit isn't epic. It's small and intimate and cracks along at a rapid pace.

I was, then, rather worried about Peter Jackson's decision to "open up" the novel with lots of back story to THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  It seemed to me that the tightly written book with its rambunctious tone wouldn't survive having the dark, brooding, heavy backstory of Middle Earth being hung from its slender frame.  And I was right.  Watching THE HOBBIT is like watching a childhood friend being excruciatingly slowly stretched on a wrack until his bones snap.

Of its three hour run time, the first forty-five minutes are just prologue.  Old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) starts to write his story for Frodo (Elijah Wood) on the eve of his final birthday party in Bag End.  All this creates moments of recognition from THE LORD OF THE RINGS that are fun for the superfans, but still we are frustrated that the story isn't moving.  Indeed, it's ironic that even when Bilbo begins, he doesn't start with the dwarves coming to collect him for their quest, but rather with their own backstory.  In other words, we have back story within back story(!): the tale of how Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dwarf Prince, witnessed his granfather's mountain empire taken over by Smaug The Dragon, and was betrayed by the elf Prince Thranduil (Lee Pace.)

Sixty years earlier and the dwarves finally make it to young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the story can begin.  But over the remaining two hours, we are in very tedious and tonally inconsistent territory - with the childish japes among the trolls interspersed with earnest conversations at Rivendell with Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee.)   At the end of it, the dwarves just about make it to the mountain where the real story can begin - Bilbo's fateful meeting with Gollum, and most important of all, his decision to spare Gollum's life.  Even then, the movie doesn't end but creates a final act involving Orcs and Eagles.  

The result is a film that feels like one damn Orc chase after an other. Unlike THE LORD OF THE RINGS, there is no natural build-up to major battle scene so everything lacks tension.  The humorous passages are far too few, and the earnest foreshadowing of LORD OF THE RINGS feels too much like a faint echo of a far greater work. In fact, to my mind, the only things that save this film are the pivotal scene between a masterful Andy Serkis' Gollum and Bilbo, and the brilliantly funny turn by Sylvestor McCoy as the mushroom-eating, super-rabbit chauffered wizard Radogast The Brown.  The rest of the film is basically just arse-numbingly dull.

A quick technical word for the cinema-enthusiasts. I watched the film in 3D which was definitely a plus as a lot of the scenes (butterflies, eagles, rabbits) really suited it. As for the High Frame Rate (filming at 48 frames per second rather than 24 frames per second), it's a mixed bag.  In scenes that were interior or night-time, with subdued lighting, the clarity and brightness afforded by shooting at 48 FPS offset the typical murkiness that comes with wearing 3D glasses. But in daytime scenes in full sunshine, the 48 FPS footage was so bright that it looked like cheap TV and the make-up and special-effects were all too obvious. 

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is on global release. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

LIFE OF PI


I believe that LIFE OF PI is director Ang Lee's most technically accomplished  emotionally arresting and finely balanced film.  It surpasses even LUST, CAUTION.  LIFE OF PI must also be one of the most beautifully rendered adaptations - and all the more surprising because the novel upon which it is based was widely regarded as "unfilmable".  Ang Lee, using a screenplay by David Magee (FINDING NEVERLAND), has responded with a film that is both faithful to the content of the book, but also to its sense of wonder and its examination of the slipperiness of faith, identity and storytelling itself. 

All this might make the film sound rather dry and earnest, but it is anything but.  Because at its core, this is a movie that asks us to fall in love with a young boy, admiring his resourcefulness and compassion.  That boy is the eccentrically named Pi Patel, born in French India on the verge of independence.  He embodies the loose infinite multiculturalism of India - creating his own patchwork faith of Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam - much to the chagrin of his liberal humanist father.  The family travels with their zoo animals to America in search of a better life, but a storm hits, leaving Pi the only survivor about a life boat with a vicious Bengal Tiger. He is clever enough to be wary, to survive, thanks in no small part to his patchwork faith. And, in the movie's framing device, tells his story, or versions of it, to the French-Canadian writer who will choose which tale to tell.

Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall have an easy familiarity as the elder Pi and the writer.  But the movie really belongs to Suraj Sharma who plays the teenage Pi who finds himself on the boat alone with the tiger, and holds our attention for over an hour.  It is a performance that feels utterly natural and compelling and draws us into the story. We care passionately about how he will fare, just as we care about the tiger "Richard Parker" - and because of that, we follow him even as his tale becomes bizarre and magical.

In the epilogue, the movie asks questions about the nature of storytelling and the value of faith. I might not agree with the answers it gives, and they have certainly caused some controversy.  But one cannot deny that the movie finely balances spectacle and provocative ideas in the most charming package. This is clearly one of the films of the year, and the best of Ang Lee's career. It also shows what an imaginative director can do with the appropriate use of 3D and CGI rendering when his intention is to marry it to the material rather than shamelessly cash in on higher cinema ticket prices.

LIFE OF PI was released in November in Canada, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, the USA, China, Hong Kong, Macedonia, India, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and Spain. It is released on December 14th in Vietnam; and on December 19th in Belgium, France; on December 20th in Belarus, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Thailand, the UK, the UAE; on December 21st in Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Mexico, Sweden and Venezuela; on December 25th in Denmark and Norway; on December 26th in Austria and Germany; on December 27th in the Dominican Republic and Peru and on December 28th in Turkey. It is released on January 1st in Australia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama and Russia; on January 3rd in Bolivia and Chile; on January 4th in Guatemala, Honduras and Philippines; on January 10th in Argentina; on January 11th in Poland and on January 25th in Japan. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Geek-gasm! STAR TREK INTO THE DARKNESS - First look still!



Super-excited to see the first still from the J J Abrams' Star Trek sequel,  STAR TREK INTO THE DARKNESS. Zachary Quinto is on the left, reprising his role as Spock and Chris Pine is on the right, reprising his role as Captain James T Kirk.  The most exciting bit is seeing BBC TV's Sherlock,  Benedict Cumberbatch, as the villain John Harrison.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS


THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is not a movie you're going to enjoy on date night, sober. It's the kind of  movie that requires a few beers and a college dorm room so that it's inconsistency and sheer ridiculousness becomes a virtue.  It'll also help if you, the viewer, has a much of a geeky knowledge and love of The Shaw Brothers martial arts flick, and also with to pay homage to Gordon Liu.  This movie may be "presented by" Quentin Tarantino, but don't be fooled. RZA's directorial d├ębut is not like KILL BILL - tightly written, slickly produced, allowing all viewers a point of access. This is definitely a B-movie - not grungy enough to be pure blaxploitation wushu, not well-made enough to be taken seriously.  The plot is stupid, character development non-existent and the leading man (RZA himself) has about as much charisma as former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.   But when the movie works, in one or two key scenes, it really will make you laugh out loud, and the martial arts sequences are all excellent - as they should be, considering they star many of the genres most famous fighters. 

The movie is set in "Jungle Village" - a dirt poor town in 19th century China, that happens to have a kick-ass freed slave blacksmith (RZA) and a super luxurious whorehouse, presided over by Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu). It also houses the Blacksmith's hooker/sweetheart (Jamie Chung).  The blacksmith is forced to make kick-ass weapons for various rival gangmembers, not least Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and the late Golden Lion's real son The X-Blade (Rick Yune). Into this potent mix comes the Governor's gold shipment, which the Lion gang attempt to steal from the Geminis, and who knows where Mr Knife's allegiances lie?

The real fun of this film lies in a gloriously overweight Russell Crowe playing Oliver Reed playing Mr Knife. Pure Comedy Gold, especially in his interaction with Lucy Liu's proto-feminist brothel-keeper.  Crowe and Liu are joined by the wonderfully camp Bryon Mann in taking this movie about as seriously as it requires i.e. not very much, and all three are having a ball. It's a shame the other characters didn't join suit.  Sadly, whenever they're not on screen, you just get heavy exposition and boredom while waiting for the next fight scene. But these are worth waiting for. MMA star Dave Bautista is used to great effect, and I'm guessing we'll all remember what Gemini stance is from now on.

Overall, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is far from a classy flick, but it drips with love of the genre and if you're in the mood to go with it, with a beer in hand, it's more than a fun time. And please will someone give Crowe more roles like this?

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS was released in November in the USA, Canada, Kuwait, Spain and Germany. It opens on December 7th in the UK, Ireland and Australia. It opens on January 2nd in France and Belgium; in January 11th in  Bulgaria; on February 8th in Sweden and the Netherlands; and on February 21st in Argentina and New Zealand. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pantheon movie of the month - LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946)


Paul Thomas Anderson has cited John Huston's post-war documentary, LET THERE BE LIGHT, as a key influence on the themes, style and dialogue of his film, THE MASTER. With that in mind, I hunted downloaded a copy of the restored film from the wonderful people at the US National Film Registry, to see if it would shed any light on that elusive, troubling work.

The movie is an hour-long black and white documentary produced by the US Army Pictorial Services, in 1946, designed to show their troops the "after-care" that the traumatised might receive before re-entering civilian life. The movie was ground-breaking in three respects.  First, it was the first film to show the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, in an era when that was very imperfectly  understood.  Second, it the filming took place in a segregated hospital on Long Island, in an era when the US Army was still segregated. Thirdly, despite being shot by the director who is most closely associated with the rugged, mythic American Man, it shows a desperately affecting sensitivity to, and respect for, the men, in an era when they might have been written off as flaky or cry-babies, or just plain mad.

It was clearly seen as too ground-breaking. Suppressed by the Army until 1980, as being too honest a portrayal of the damage war can do to men, and therefore "bad for recruitment".

LET THERE BE LIGHT takes the form of group and single interviews with servicemen struggling, like Freddie Quell, with PTSD, as well as fly-on-the-wall footage of classes they attend and treatment they receive.  The movie imposes a redemptive arc on the men, from admission, through drug therapy, hypnosis and eventually to being released rehabilitated.  But viewers know that all is not well. The men are ashamed of their problems, unable to articulate why they're so hurt, and even as we see them sent back to "real life" we know they are ill-equipped to cope.

It's a deeply affecting film. None of the men are as physically broken as Freddie Quell, presumably because the US Army would not have allowed them on film. In fact, what strikes us is how articulate and composed they are - how respectful and trusting in the institution that has maimed them - and indeed how naive they are about how civilian society will treat them.  One particular soldier, an African-American man, speaks calmly and movingly about "breaking out" of the narrow social circle in which he was constrained before the war.  Another soldier has complete belief that any potential employer, by virtue of his having attained the position of being an employer, will be intelligent and sensitive enough to understand his psychological problems.  All of which speaks to a time when people were more polite and more respectful or organised and established power structures.

The influence on THE MASTER is clear. Freddie Quell is shown in early scenes that echo the interviews and treatment in LET THERE BE LIGHT.  He emerges a deeply broken man unable to diagnose let alone cope with his PTSD.  This was as I had expected.  What I found more fascinating was that some of the treatment Freddie receives in The Cause also echoes the US Army's methods in the documentary: hypnotherapy, positive reinforcement, and the talking cure.  Seeing both films together makes Quell's attraction to The Cause somehow more understandable. He has been conditioned by his Army treatment to respond to such direct orders and paternalistic care. He has merely substituted Lancaster Dodd for his Army doctor. It's fascinating and heart-breaking stuff.

LET THERE BE LIGHT is available in a cleaned-up but still woefully scratchy 58 minute version thanks to the fact that it won a place in the Library of Congress' US National Film Board Registry.  (Link above). It can also be found on YouTube. It will also be included on THE MASTER blu-ray and DVD with 20 minutes of previously cut footage.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

PEOPLE LIKE US

Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman (STAR TREK) makes his directorial debut with the occasionally hilarious, but tonally uneven and overlong dramedy, PEOPLE LIKE US.  The person I watched the movie with judged it "the worst movie I've seen in some time".  I agree that it was a wearying watch, and had more endings that LORD OF THE RINGS. But every time I gave up on this over-wrought drama, a scene would take place that once again got me into it.  This flick isn't a failure - it just drowned any spark of life in melodrama.

Perhaps the movie's real problem is its central conceit - damaged brother discovers he has a half-sister and a nephew after his father's death. But instead of coming clean about their family ties, he insinuates himself into their lives until the sister is in danger of falling for him.  This is the classic plot contrivance that only ever happens in cheap films, and prevents the movie doing what it really wants to do - which is to portray real , authentic damaged people struggling to come to terms with an emotional crisis.

The movie stars Chris Pine as Sam, a resentful son commissioned by his recently deceased father to give $150,000 to the sister he never knew he had. That sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) is a recovering alcoholic with a whip-smart son called Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario). Chris Pine is the weak link in the set-up with his limited emotional range, and while Banks is the better actress, she's far too glossy to convince as a struggling single mum.  In every case, they are both upstaged for comedy by Michael Hall D'Addario (the coolest screenkid ever, with the best screen entrance for a schoolboy since Malcolm McDowell in IF...), and for drama by a dishevelled and conflicted Michelle Pfeiffer (Sam's mum).  Her role in the estrangement of her husband from his illegitimate daughter is beautifully written and played, and it's sad that it is resolved in such a hammy way.

PEOPLE LIKE US opened earlier this year in the USA, Italy, the Philippines, Chile, Norway, Germany  Denmark, the UK and Ireland. It opens this weekend in Turkey.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Overlooked DVD of the month - A ROYAL AFFAIR


Nikolaj Arcel's Danish costume drama may have been overlooked upon release by this blog, but it has quietly won praise at Berlin and now finds itself a contender for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Oscars.  This obliged me to check it out, and I have to say, I was struggling to understand what the fuss is about.

The movie plays as a conventional, earnest, rather plodding historical drama, based on a true story, set in the 18th century Danish court.  Pretty but naive English princess Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) is married to the Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), a socially awkward, mentally unstable but well-meaning young man.  She dutifully gives him an heir, but falls for the Court Doctor, Streunsee (Mads Mikkelsen), a radical Enlightenment thinker. This gives us the "forbidden love" material so beloved of publicists, and of course once an illegitimate child is born and the established aristos become jealous of Streunsee's power, it doesn't end well for the lovers. But by far the more interesting story is that of the King's unhealthy friendship with Streunsee, and Streunsee's rather ambiguous personality.  Far  from a wholly good hero, liberating our heroine, and Denmark, with enlightenment thinking, Streunsee is a deeply imperfect man.  He reinstalls laws of censorship as soon as the libeliste attack his relationship with the Queen, and shamelessly manipulates the King.

The weakness of this film is that Vikander and Mikkelsen have zero screen chemistry. Their romance is incredible (literally - I didn't believe it) - if anything a romance of the mind rather than the heart.  And this banal transgressive love story sucks up time that could have been given to court intrigue.  As for Mikkel Boe Folsgaard's performance, it's certainly the best of the three, but has none of the deep sadness or brilliance of, say, THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE III. 

Indeed, this film suffers in general by comparison with other costume dramas set in the same period. In particular, the similarity of the young foreign princess married to a difficult man - the illicit love affair - the libelists - the palace intrigue, casts this film in an unfavourable light relative to Sofia Coppola's radical MARIE ANTOINETTE. That movie broke the mould, and since then, a conventional, if polished historical romantic drama, just seems rather anaemic. 

A ROYAL AFFAIR played Berlin 2012 where Mikkel Boe Folsgaard won the Silver Bear for Best Actor, and Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay.  The movie also played Toronto and Telluride. It is Denmark's official submission for the Oscars.  It opened earlier this year in Denmark, Estonia, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, the Netherlands, Iceland, Israel, Norway, Belgium, Poland and Spain.  It is currently on release in Spain and the USA, and opens this weekend in France and Hungary. It opens on December 10th in Slovenia and in Argentina on April 4th. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2

Bella's journey from whiny reactive teen to Ripleyesque super-mum.
And so the fantastically successful commercial juggernaut that is Twiglet drifts to a close, with this polished, camp but ultimately rather silly final film.  The movie picks up in media res, with our previously whiny, reactive, pathetic heroine Bella (Kristen Stewart) opening her colour-enhanced, fake-eyelashed eyes as a sparkly vampire, all her spider-senses tingling.  The first forty-minutes of the flick see her hop skip and jump through a new world of heightened colour and smell, astonishingly controlling her urge to feed off humans, and coming to terms with the fact that her child, Renesmee, survived because her old flirt-friend and werewolf (Taylor Lautner) "imprinted" on her.  And where's Bella's husband in all this?  Looking on smugly as his "new-born" wife kicks ass and looks hotter than ever.

In the movie's second act, Bella's in-laws, The Cullens, gather up a brood of global vampires to testify to the fact that Renesmee isn't an  out-of-control, dangerous child vampire, but actually a half-human cute little moppet.  Their aim is to reason with the Vampire world's equivalent to the Papacy, led by Michael Sheen's hilariously camp Aro, that Renesmee shouldn't be killed, and failing that, to do battle.  This leads us to the final act of the film, which seeks to give fans of the almost absurdly bloodless novels a humdinger of an action sequence, while also remaining faithful to the more talky, banal denouement of the book. Suffice to say that, as one would expect in this world of emasculated, proto Christian revival vampires, all ends happily for the good guys, and even for the bad guys, because basically the entire plot motivation of this movie has been a gross misunderstanding. 

There's a lot to like in this instalment of the series. Production values are top notch.  Guillermo Navarro's photography of Bella's newly heightened world is beautiful; the bleach blonde dye jobs on the Cullens are less cheap; the CGI wolves are superb; and the Volturi superbly over-the-top.  The acting is just fine, with the exception of Stewart who really does sell it well. Michael Sheen is, of course, stunning, and Dakota Fanning seems to share in his sense of mischief.  I can honestly say I had a fun time watching this movie.

Of course, it doesn't really hang together.  Aro's speech to pre-emptively kill the unknown quantity that is Renesmee kept cracking me up as a caricature of Tony Blair's pro Iraqi war campaign.  The knowing homo-eroticism of Lautner stripping off for Charlie (Billy Burke) broke any seriousness this movie might have had.  And, as with the X-MEN movies, I'm always struck by the disparity and ill-use of the super-powers handed out to the different characters.  Bella has self- control and a defensive shield. Awesome. But this other guy can CONTROL THE ELEMENTS!!! I mean, isn't that game over for the Volturi right there? And as for Alice's power to see the future, so crucial in allowing the screenwriters to have their cake and eat it, if she can see various potential outcomes, doesn't that rather confuse which  of her prophesies to believe in?

Ah well, I guess this isn't a movie we should think about too deeply.  In today's recessionary climate it seems like a nostalgic throw-back to the boom years in which it was written - when beautiful people drove beautiful cars, and a virginal young girl who waited till  marriage would be gifted a beautiful cottage stocked with pretty handbags and shoes. I mean, who needs an education anyway? And let's not even get into the sheer creepiness of poor Renesmee being promised, in utero, to a guy who's already gone through puberty.  To all those pop-culture commentators praising Bella as a modern heroine I say, no no and again no.

But like I said, better not to overthink it.   Better to enjoy the camp hilarity of Sheen's maniacal laugh and Gap ad models ripping each other's heads off. 

BREAKING DAWN PART 2 is on release pretty much everywhere except Armenia, Cambodia, Germany, Singapore and India where it opens next week; Hong Kong where it opens on December 20th and Japan where it opens on December 28th. 

Sunday, November 04, 2012

THE MASTER


Paul Thomas Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD was something like cinematic perfection. It had a brutal force, a bravura confidence, an unforgettable visual and aural palette. It was a movie dominated by a charismatic evil man - an Oil Man - a man bending the world to his very will.  At times it felt like Paul Thomas Anderson was in step with his on screen persona, throwing the conventions of genre cinema aside, reinventing the grammar of cinema with his disdain for mere dialogue and petty narrative conventions. The bar was set high for THE MASTER.  And our prurient interest fuelled by early reports that about the founding of a cult similar to Scientology.  It was almost too much for the art-house addict to handle: a take-down of Scientology from our most pioneering and uncompromising director. And one who had directed Tom Cruise in his closest-to-the-bone role in MAGNOLIA.

The result, is sadly, so much less than the sum of its parts. A salutary lesson in what happens when an uncompromising artistic vision ultimately fails in its execution and resolution. A mis-step to be sure.  A tragedy, when one considers the nuggets of performance that hint at what this movie could have been.

As the film opens we meet Freddie Quell, a traumatised WWII vet, washed up on the West Coast: alcoholic, sex-obsessed, with an ungovernable temper, a drifter.  As played by Joaquin Phoenix, he is quite literally bowed and beaten by life, his shoulders turned inward, his clothes ill-fitting, his face riven by lines, his voice so broken one can barely understand him.  It is a brave choice, but an unsuccessful one.  Phoenix seems to play "at" his character, rather than inhabiting him. Worse, he seems to be acting in a register - in a movie - entirely different to the other characters in the film.

He meets them after half an hour of drifting, when he jumps on board the luxurious cruise ship of The Master, the cult-leader Lancaster Dodd. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays him as a charismatic bon vivant.  We feel that he does love the people he is helping, even if, as the movie progresses, we hear hints that he has been fraudulent - even if, as his son suggests, he is just making it up as he goes along.  He certainly cares about Freddie. Indeed he needs Freddie, much to his family's disquiet. 

The problem is that the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster isn't as interesting or as sinister a it needs to be to form the centre of the film - perhaps because of Phoenix's bizarre performance - perhaps become of Anderson's weak script.  I was far more drawn to the relationship between Lancaster and his wife, Peggy, superbly portrayed by Amy Adams as the most quietly poisonous wife since Winona Ryder's May Archer in Scorsese's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.  There are moments when one believes that it is Peggy who is truly THE MASTER, but those moments are never allowed to open up. Even in a movie of a 145 minute running time, Freddie Quell keeps crowding her out. The way in which Peggy exerts her power is from a chair in the corner, with the subtlest of touches. And it reminds us  of how unnerving and profound this movie can be, when it will only be quiet.  A similarly memorable scene occurs between Lancaster and his acolyte Helen (Laura Dern). She questions the change of a single word in The Cause's doctrine and is summarily dismissed by Lancaster.  To see her face crumple, and his irritation sparked, it is to see the genesis of oppression and a heart breaking.

What else can we say about his strange, long, sometimes beautiful, oftentimes bewildering film? I'm not sure the 65mm photography is really put to good use.  There are some gloriously coloured shots of the sea, and of dark rooms from DP Mihai Malaimare Jr (TETRO) but nothing to rival Robert Elswit's fire-drenched skies of THERE WILL BE BLOOD.  (How sad that THAT couldn't have been filmed in 65 mil.)  I also rather disliked the use of female nudity in this film. I'm far from prudish but was any of this necessary?  I also understand that many critics have had problems with the movie's ending, and while I agree, I think this is just symptomatic of far deeper problems.  

The sad truth is that Paul Thomas Anderson just didn't know where he was going to take this story, or what his point was. Neither did he have the taste or the courage to recognise that Phoenix's performance was skewering his film.

THE MASTER played Venice, where Paul Thomas Anderson won the Silver Lion, and Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. It also played Hollywood and Toronto 2012. It opened earlier this year in the USA, Canada and Israel. It is on limited release in the UK this week but opens wider in two weeks time. It opens on Nov 9th in Australia and Turkey; on Nov 16th in Chile andd Poland; on Jan 6th in Portugal; Jan 10th in France, Greece, the Netherlands and Norway; on Jan 18th in Iceland; on Jan 31st in Denmark; on Feb 7th in Argentina and Italy; on Feb 15th in Brazil and Russia and on Feb 21st in Germany and Hong Kong.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

SKYFALL


Despite my pseudonym, I am not in fact a great fan of Bond - rather I named myself after my friend Caspar who famously crashed his car pulling out of Frankfurt airport when distracted by an Aston Martin, and was forever after known as Caespi007.  For me, Bond was a pathetic fantasy denying Britain's post-Suez decline.  A man more in the tradition of Flashman - slick surfaces, sport fucking and sado-masochism.  The movies were, in general, even more ridiculous, with their wonkish gadgetry and porn-name Bond girls.  Some were entertaining in an ironic way, but let's face it, as spy thrillers go, this was a long long way below the standard set by John Le Carre's Smiley. Smiley lived in a world of decay, corruption, failure and bureaucratic incompetence. There was a sense of honour and of love, but it was struggling to survive. 

Of the recent Bonds, CASINO ROYALE was a superior reboot but only because it was trying to be a Bourne film.  Moreover, the dumbing down of the Aston Martin to a Ford, and baccarat to poker, struck me as anti-Fleming, insofar as one cared at all about the heritage of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  We all know that QUANTUM OF SAUSAGE (HT @djeremybolton) was impenetrable, dull nonsense, and undid much of the goodwill that CASINO had rebuilt.  What then could we expect of SKYFALL, helmed by Sam Mendes, a wunderkind British theatre director of middling reputation as a cinema director, starting with the acclaimed AMERICAN BEAUTY and sliding into obscurity ever since? 

The early signs were good - a cast list full of English thespians of the highest calibre - Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney.  A script from Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (CASINO ROYALE) and John Logan (RANGO) that was going to tackle head-on the incompatibility of kiss kiss bang bang Bond with the age of Bourne.  And photography from perhaps the best DP working today: Roger Deakins.  All was shaping up for a Bond that was in tune with London 2012 and the Diamond Jubilee - a country presided over by an implacable matriarch, learning to be proud of its imperial heritage without making the mistake of being shackled to it, looking to a very different future with some slight degree of confidence. 

The result is a movie that is perhaps the most thoughtful and reflective of the Bond series.  A movie that can look upon its heritage with fond humour but safely put it aside.  A movie that is conservative - passionately making the case for on the ground espionage; for men with the experience to tell them when to, and when not to, fire the bullet; for leaders with the balls to take the tough calls but also with the good sense to know they are accountable. It's the kind of movie, in short, where Bond can do his job with just a gun and a radio, but ultimately also uses the rockets in his Aston Martin DB5, and doesn't feel the need to apologise for either. It's the movie in which a joke can be made about the ejector seat, but in which ultimately we are rather pleased to see order restored - M, Moneypenny, Q and Bond, in a tastefully old-fashioned leather padded room.   This was a Bond I could get on board with.

In fact, SKYFALL may well be the Bond I've seen. It had wry humour; real emotional development; perhaps the most sleazy, scary villain in the canon; precious little cheap sex; and real consequences to actions. It felt plausible in a way so little Bond feels plausible.  The acting was superb. And the cinematography deserves an Oscar. I had a thoroughly good time - laughed, cheered, was moved, was scared.  It was the complete entertainment experience.  



The plot has reflection and consequences and sheer heft built into it from the start.  In the precredits sequence, as Bond (Daniel Craig) chases down a man with a MacGuffin, we see M (Dame Judi Dench) take two brutally hard but necessary decisions, resulting in Bond's apparent death. He goes off on a drinking binge post-credits only to emerge when a terrorist attack on MI6 turns into a very personal attack on M. It appears that a rogue former agent (Javier Bardem) seeks vengeance on M precisely for taking those brutal decisions that put the country before the agent.  Bond is broken, unfit and old; M's "fitness for purpose" questioned by her political superior, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes); and even Q (Ben Whishaw) mocks the idea of exploding pens and the necessity of on the ground fieldwork when the world's battles are now fought with computers. 

Through all this M is our unwavering moral compass. She never questions that her decisions were right, but also fully acknowledges their human cost.  Bond is, through her faith in him, reconstituted from broken man to polished active agent, able to acknowledge that the world has changed, that the new Q is valuable, and to see his own worth within the modern machine.  Mallory is a good example of just how well-thought act the script is - that a minor character with only a handful of scenes can challenge our prejudice about him every time we meet him.  Ralph Fiennes is superbly slippery in the role.  The screenwriters do a similarly superb job with Bond girl Eve (Naomie Harris) who begins as an irritating incompetent, and raises our suspicions of typical Bond misogyny, until we realise that it's all part of her character development.  Ben Whishaw is, as always, a scene-stealer as geek hacker Q. And as for the villain, Javier Bardem has created a character as outlandish as Scaramanga, or Anton Chigurh, or Hannibal Lecter - all of which this movie consciously references.  In a tour-de-force piece of CGI work we see just how damaged he is.  He is at once the most pantomime villain of the series - but also the most scary, sleazy and unnerving.  He is the Bond villain that surpasses all others - just as Heath Ledger's Joker redefined Batman villains.

Behind the camera, Adele provides the strongest theme song in years, with Paul Epworth's orchestration echoing, but never quite pastiching the old Shirley Bassey numbers.  Daniel Kleinman's opening credits sequence is also one of the most memorable of the recent Bond outings.  But most of all the superior quality of this film is down to DP Roger Deakins, long-time collaborator with the Coen Brothers.  You can see this most of all in the Shanghai, Macau and Scottish sequences.  In Shanghai, he captures that exciting neon brightness of the modern metropolis - every glass surface reflects luminous advertising - the city has the unreal air of Newton Thomas Sigel's LA in DRIVE.  In Macau, Deakins has Bond arrive at a casino against a backdrop of darkness surrounded by soft orange lanterns that takes one's breath away.  And in Scotland, we see Bond silhouetted against burnt orange night sky that reminded me of some of the most arresting visuals from Robert Elswit's THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

Is everything perfect? No.  Naomie Harris and Daniel Craig do not have enough sexual chemistry to carry off the shaving scene. And the Scottish scene starts off a little A-Team.  But these are all minor quibbles in what is an incredibly beautiful, superbly written and acted film that lifts the standard of the Bond series and puts it on a much more sustainable footing. Kudos to all involved. 

SKYFALL is on release in the UK, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Iraq, Iceland, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malta, Norway, Oman, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea and Sweden, the UAE, Switzerland.  It opens next weekend in Italy, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Serbia, Spain, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Chile, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Slovenia, Uruguay, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Estonia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Taiwan, Turkey, Venezuela and Vietnam. It opens in November 9th in Jamaica, the USA, Albania, Canada and Pakistan, It opens on November 15th in Cambodia; on November 22nd in Australia and New Zealand; on November 30th in South Africa; on December 1st in Japan; and on December 6th in the Dominican Republic.