Tuesday, May 29, 2012

MOONRISE KINGDOM


Wes Anderson was, for me, a film-maker like Tim Burton.  A man with a distinct and beautiful visual style but whose tendency to rework the same themes, with the same actors, playing essentially the same characters, had begun to pall.  I particularly hated his last live action film, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, for its self-absorption, narcissism, rather exploitative attitude toward its Indian context, and ultimately for just being dull. With this in mind, I went into  MOONRISE KINGDOM with barely any hope that I would find the kind of film - at once whimsical and yet also profound (echoes of Tarsem Singh's THE FALL!) - that I had fallen in love with while watching THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS.

Well, my fears were groundless. MOONRISE KINGDOM is a simply wonderful film.  It is, of course, beautifully designed, rich in background detail, empathetically scored, and well-acted.  It affects a sweet yet knowing innocence - it's full of characters struggling to deal honestly with themselves and their loved ones - it deals with the darkest of emotions but it drips with hope - in friendship, in people doing the right thing - in family.  It's as if everything that began to feel so clich├ęd about Wes Anderson has finally been re-united with sincere emotion - and that this emotional authenticity has cut through the stagey-ness of the costumes, locations, soundtrack - and transformed a whimsical confection into something altogether more lasting, provocative and memorable.  It's as if Wes Anderson finally gave in and just told the story he always wanted to tell - about first love.

Suzy B (Kara Hayward) falls in love with an eagle-scout called Sam (Jared Gilman) one golden summer in 1965. The carefully hatched plan to leave together triggers a sequence of scrapes, jams, shenanigans, emotional revelations and deeds good and ill.  

Anderson perfectly captures that intensity of feeling when you're a kid and you feel nobody understands you apart from this one perfect person. Suzy's trying to escape her family - her kid brothers, her distant father (Bill Murray) and the mother (Frances McDormand) she suspects of sleeping with local policeman (Bruce Willis). Sam's an orphan and a misfit with a good heart. In one of the most affecting scenes, written in exact mimicry of how we speak at that age, Sam tells Suzy he loves her but she's talking nonsense for hating her parents. Suzy and Sam run away together.  They're at the age and living in the time when you're hold world fits into a suitcase, and you take your're favourite adventure stories rather than clothes. When you can place you're entire life into the hands of another person without second-guessing yourself.  

There's a deep vein of melancholy running through the film. Most of the adults seem desperately lonely, none moreso than Ed Norton's majestically decent scout leader.  The exception is the almost mechanical Social Services, played by Tilda Swinton with steely efficiency. But the kids are in their own world, where all things are possible, and where adults barely skim the surface, except as occasional constraints and only too rarely as facilitators. There's excitement and wonder and threat and crushing disappointment. As the movie builds to a pivotal final scene (superbly scored to Britten's Noye's Fludde) I realised that I deeply cared about these kids.  I wanted desperately to know what they happened to them, and not just to download the soundtrack they were listening to. It's been a long time, but we finally have a Wes Anderson movie that makes us feel as well as admire its surfaces.  

MOONRISE KINGDOM opened Cannes 2012. It is on release in France, Germany, Ireland, Turkey, the UK and he USA. It opens next weekend in Belgium, Iceland, Hungary and the Netherlands. It opens on June 6th in Sweden, on June 8th in Norway, on June 15th in Greece and Spain, on June 21st in Russia, on June 2nd in Portugal and Lithuania, on August 16th in Slovenia and Argentina and on August 30th in New Zealand.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

THE DICTATOR

THE DICTATOR is hands down the funniest, cleverest movie Sacha Baron Cohen has ever made.  I was always a bit uneasy at films like BORAT and BRUNO. I felt it was somehow exploitative to frame ordinary members of the public, and the humour too often descended to the most base level. I'm thinking in particular of the scene where Borat hands his charming Southern hostess a bag of what she thinks is his own shit. That isn't satire or even good physical comedy. It's just cruel and crass. Luckily, Sacha Baron Cohen is now so famous that he can't get away with that kind of stunt-movie. The result is his first fully scripted feature - a movie that I feel is more tightly written, better performed, and more politically on point than anything he's done to date. 

Cohen plays a dodgy African dictator in the mould of Gadaffi called Aladeen.  In the opening scenes we see him lording it up in his home state to great comic effect, before journeying to the USA.  His evil sidekick switches him out with his body-double, in order to get at the oil reserves, forcing Aladeen to live a "normal" American life until he can regain access to his entourage.  This allows Cohen to simultaneously take the piss out of Western greedy capitalists and hippie liberals.  The capitalists don't care who rules, or what promises of fake democracy are made, so long as they can get the oil rights. The hippie liberals are so busy being nice and not offended that they can't even take offence when they should, or recognise a fake offer of watered down democracy when they see it.  Everyone has a price.  Love conquers all but doesn't really.  And America is the biggest joke of all - "a country built by blacks and owned by the Chinese" where it's recent history of democracy - wealth redistributed to the rich through the developed world's only regressive tax system; a presidential election decided by judicial fiat; where its ethnic minorities are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates; and citizens are held indefinitely without trial. The skill is that Cohen can make all these subversive assertions but still keep the tone of the film light-hearted and have us consistently laughing out loud.  Kudos.

THE DICTATOR is on release in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK, the USA, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Armenia. It opens in Hong Kong on June 7th, Singapore, Brazil, Italy and Taiwan on June 15th, France on June 20th, Spain on July 13th, Argentina, Greece and Colombia on July 20th, Cambodia on July 26th, Mexico on August 10th and Japan on September 7th. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

MIRROR MIRROR


Once upon a time, a long time ago, a visionary called Tarsem Singh made a movie of such beauty and pathos that it broke my heart. Ever since THE FALL, I've been hoping for him to create something as simultaneously whimsical and powerful, but in vain. IMMORTALS was quite simply unwatchable - dull narrative, bad acting, absurd casting - but worst of all, Singh traded in his singular visual style for a cheap rip-off of Zach Snyder's 300

MIRROR MIRROR isn't as bad as IMMORTALS, but it's still very, very disappointing. The good news is that the movie looks wonderful and has a visual wit that was entirely absent in IMMORTALS. I simply adored Eiko Ishioka's stunning costumes (sadly her last film before she died), and I loved the imaginative touches of dwarves using expandable legs, and a mirror that leads to an alternate dream reality. I even loved the casting of the gamine Lily Collins as Snow White, the not unattractive Armie Hammer as the Prince, and was intrigued to see how Julia Roberts would interpret The Queen.

The problem with the movie is, however, a fatal one. The script simply doesn't match the production design. I think the problem is that Jason Keller (MACHINE GUN PREACHER) and Marc Klein (A GOOD YEAR) wanted to write a SHREK-like post-modern post-feminist fairy-tale, where ageing queens go for extreme Hollywood makeovers and the dialogue is full of attempts at wry wit. But this stands in sharp contrast to the design of the film, which takes a childish delight in all things magical and wondrous and beautiful. The result is a film that is tonally all over the place, sparse on laughs and awkward in its romance. A tremendous waste of a beautiful production and yet another disappointment from the man who gave us one of the best films of the last decade. 

MIRROR MIRROR is on release everywhere except Japan where it opens on September 14th.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

DARK SHADOWS - Enough already.


When was the last time Tim Burton made a half-decent movie? 2005's CORPSE BRIDE? Well that was animation.  1994's ED WOOD?  And yet I think of myself as a massive Tim Burton fan.  Maybe it's just because I like the idea that in the botoxed, day-glo Wood that is Holly, there is still room for a camp-goth weirdo.  But I guess, like an abused wife, it's time to realise that he may tell you he loves you, and that he's sorry, and that it won't happen again, but that you have too much self-respect to go back yet again to hurt and disappointment.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe. But the mind-boggling stupidity of DARK SHADOWS - the two hours of grating boredom -  have unleashed two decades of pent-up anger, sorrow and regret.  Tim Burton used to be radical. He used to be subversive.  Now he's just predictable, banal and worst of all, aimless. Where once there was auteur vision, now there's just a shapeless, nonsensical mess.

DARK SHADOWS may well be worse than JOHN CARTER.

Ok, so let's take a moment, calm down, and start this review again.  Once upon a time a long time ago, there was a camp-horror TV series called "Dark Shadows".  Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer fell in love with it. It centred on a 17th century guy called Barnabas Collins, living in then-contemporary 1970s Maine with his formerly rich, impoverished, odd-ball family.  Clue lots of fish-out-of-water comedy, and some good old hammy romance-vengeance as the witch who originally cursed Barnabas continues to purse him.

In this remake, which was can only presume is loving and a fan-fic, Depp takes on the role of Barnabas, Pfeiffer the current matriarch and Eva Green the witch, Angelique.  The film is, as one would expect, beautifully designed, with the exception of Green's shockingly bad blonde wigs. (Second only to Cersei's bad wigs in HBO's Game of Thrones, season one.)

The problem is that the story zigs and zags with no apparent logic.  The movie is tonally all over the place. Is it a spoof? A straight comedy? Is it even trying to be spooky at all? Some characters are under-used and under-developed (poor Jonny Lee Miller as Pfeiffer's brother is a case in point).  Other characters have major plot reveals that are dictionary definitions of non sequitors (Chloe Moretz as Pfeiffer's daughter).  And the key romance between Barnabus and a contemporary nanny just has no emotional purchase on us whatsoever.  This movie is a mess. And not a mess in the manner of a quirky indie movie, whose rough edges are part of its charm.  A mess that is frustrating and boring to endure.

Avoid.

DARK SHADOWS is on global release everywhere bar Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, where it is released on June 22nd.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

ALL IN GOOD TIME


ALL IN GOOD TIME asks you to suspend your disbelief that a young couple could reach their wedding night as virgins.  It tries to make this easier by setting the film in a second generation Asian community.  As a member of that community, I was still incredulous.  Still, if you can force that issue from your mind, what you get is a genuinely funny, rewardingly spiky bittersweet drama about love - between husbands and wives, and parents and children.  These issues - miscommunication, the setting of boundaries - make this a movie with far wider appeal than a specialist Brit-Asian film. 

For the first half of the film the movie is a solid comedy and centres on the young virginal newlyweds, Veena and Atul, trying to get their end away in a cramped family home. But as we move into the second half of the film we the comedy dissolves into drama, as their marital difficulties prompt their parents to reconsider what their early married life was like, and what married life has settled into. I love how even in the early, explicitly funny laugh-out-loud scenes, we can always see the undercurrent of tension, and that even in the second half of the movie, which is far more emotionally tense, we still get wonderful flashes of humour. This speaks to the skill of the two playwrights - Bill Naughton of the original and Ayub Khan Din's adaptation. And I particularly admire the director, Nigel Cole (MADE IN DAGENHAM) choosing to end on such a conflicted, bittersweet note.

The casting is good all round. Vina (Amara Karan - ST TRINIANS) and Atul (Reece Ritchie - PRINCE OF PERSIA) are suitably gauche and sincere.  Meera Syal is brilliant as always, as Atul's mother Lupa. But it's Harish Patel as his father Eeshwar who steals the movie. As in BRICK LANE, it falls to Patel to play a character who is at once ridiculous but also deeply felt, and the emotional anchor of the piece.  He is quite simply outstanding.  

ALL IN GOOD TIME will be released in the UK and Ireland on May 11th.