Sunday, April 28, 2013

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 4 - UPSTREAM COLOR



Sweet tap dancing Christ, that movie was the biggest pile of pretentious wank I've seen at a festival in years. And reading the critics reviews has only made me more irate. I don't mind films where you have to do some intellectual jigsaw puzzling, and I don't mind surrendering myself to a stunning aural and visual landscape, but there must be some purpose to it, some meaning to it, beyond wilful obscurity. This film isn't so much arthouse sci-fi as an ill defined, loosely assembled jumble of images so absurd as to be laughable.


The story, such as it is, sees a young woman subjected to some kind of mind control and body horror by a gardener with some creepy maggots. He's so mean he makes her knit and drink iced water while nicking her cash. And then, we have another creepy guy who gets the maggot out of her but also does some kind of weird human centipede thang with pig transfusions in between being a sound recordist. Then the woman meets a creepy guy who's probably some kind of dodgy insider trader who inexplicably puts up with her shit. Which leads them back to discovering what happened and alerting the other victims, who then apparently set about pig farming.

I'm not denying that there are some arresting images in the movie, and the weird creepiness of the first act gave me hope. The soundscape is also beautifully done. But the alienating effect of the constant sharp editing, the ludicrous rambling voice overs and the sub Malick shots of nature had me falling asleep in my chair. I can't believe this is what we were waiting for for nine years after Shane Carruth's superb suburban sci fi PRIMER.

UPSTREAM COLOR has a running time of 96 minutes. The movie played Sundance 2013 where it won the Special Jury Prize for Sound Design, Berlin 2013 and SXSW 2013. It will be released in the USA on April 5th.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 3 - IN A WORLD...



You can listen to a podcast review of this film below, or subscribe to Bina007 Movie Reviews podcast directly in iTunes here.


Remember those early 80s action thrillers starring the current cast of THE EXPENDABLES? They always had trailers with some deep-voiced uber-masculine bloke who sounded a bit like the Moviefone man - the trailers spoofed so brilliantly in TROPIC THUNDER. "In a world without hope, emerged a hero..." "In a time of sorrow, emerged a leader..." "In a land beyond the sea, came a man who would rise...." Well, in actress Lake Bell's first feature film, she creates a fascinating and hilarious depiction of the tight-knit micro-industry in Hollywood, where voice-over artists compete to be the "In a world..." guy, and where a girl doesn't really have a chance at all.


Bell stars a well as Carol Soloman, the somewhat flaky daughter of the legendary voice over artist Sam Soto (Frank Melamed), who as the movie opens is given her "Girls" moment and kicked out of his house to make way for his far far younger squeeze, Jamie (Alexandra Holden). Relegated by the industry, but more hurtfully by her father, to doing voice coaching, Carol gets a lucky break when the rising star Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) gets a cold. These leads to a new relationship with production assistant Louis (Demetri Martin), and the marital crisis of her sister, with whom Carol's forced to move in.

What I love about this film is that it does what all good movies do - it creates a fully realised and fascinating world that we didn't know existed before and populates it with characters that are interesting, engaging and have stylised but real relationships. I truly believed that Carol and her sister Dani loved each other - they are so easy in each other's physical space. And I truly believed in the easy camaraderie between Louis and his colleagues at the studio. Even the classic rom-com meet-cute montage date scene seemed casual and unforced. All this speaks to the wonderfully rich art design and the intimate warm-toned photography from Seamus Tierney (LIBERAL ARTS).

In front of the camera, we have a fine cast that are perfectly attuned to Bell's intelligently funny script. The verbal comedy - the play on accents - the deadpan quick responses - it's all really laugh out loud funny. Who's going to forget Bell's Russian Obe-Wan in a hurry? Or Carol's brother-in-law deadpanning that he put his diaphragm in? The little moments of physical comedy are also superb. There's an absolutely classic moment where Carol extricates herself from her partner the morning after the night before that involves a bra that's beautifully observed. And while the characters of Sam and Jamie are undoubtedly caricatures, the actors still inhabit them in such a way as to make us really care about his final emotional breakthrough, and to applaud the fact that she has more depth than we'd thought.

And this brings me to the greatest triumph of all - that Bell manages to craft a very funny rom-com that also has a serious message about women in business and how the way we speak affects how we're perceived, and the opportunities we're given. This makes it sound ponderous and earnest and a drag, but the elegance of the writing means that while it's always there, woven into the cloth, we never feel its weight. 

IN A WORLD... has a running time of 90 minutes. It played Sundance 2013, where Lake Bell won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, and Sundance London 2013, but does not yet have a commercial release date.

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 3 - MUSCLE SHOALS

You may not have heard of Muscle Shoals, but you've surely heard of the music recorded there. Percy Sledge's "When A man loves a woman." The Stones' "Wild horses" and "Brown sugar". Tracks by Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dylan, Bob Seeger, The Dead... If you ever heard a big bass soul sound, or a muddy Southern Rock track, both pulsing with that same blues, that's the Muscle Shoals sound.

This new documentary tries to explain the mysterious, hinting at the topography of the Alabama riverlands, the spirit of the place, the deep authentic blues that comes of rural poverty. It speaks of the tragedy and injured pride that spurred the recording studios creator, RickHall, to succeed. It points to the radical and subversive fact that the famous rhythm section that played on those soul classics was made up of chubby white farmboys. And it shows how they then left Rick and formed their own studio across town. But the best explanation of all is no explanation a it's just the bald statement of fact from Keith Richards: that room just had the sound that you'd been travelling around the world trying to get and never succeeding, until you came to Muscle Shoals.

As we listened to the great tracks, watched archive footage of them being cut, and reminisced with the artists, it was hard not to start believing in some kind of mystical magic to the place. 

To be sure, it would've been good if the documentarians could've pushed Hall and Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler more on why the infamous break occurred. It would've been great if we could've heard more from Jagger and Richards, always super articulate on the history of the blues. And the documentary does seem to just grind to a halt after couple of hours, there being no break up of the band, the usual ending for a rock doc. I also could've done without the musical epilogue of Alicia Keys singing in the room. Her polished look and smooth vocals contrast against the raw power and slightly shambolic look of the singers we've just been hearing, and she doesn't do well in the comparison.

But all I can say is that was a pleasure and an education to spend two hours in Muscle Shoals - a pleasure that even the trite commentary of Bono can't diminish. 

MUSCLE SHOALS has a running time of 102 minutes. It played Sundance and Sundance London 2013 but it does not yet have a commercial release date.

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 3 - A.C.O.D.




Writer-producer Stu Zicherman's directorial début is a heartfelt, sporadically funny but overwhelmingly tepid relationship comedy about a guy called Carter who is still so traumatised by his parents divorce that he derails his kid brother's wedding. Zicherman's contention is that his peer group of thirty something Americans is the first generation to have to deal with errant parents, step siblings and general emotional chaos, leaving hem with, at best, a bunch of practical coping mechanisms that hide deep set neuroses. They are the ACODs of the title - Adult Children Of Divorce. The protagonist in this film is a case in point. On the surface he seems in control, a classic manager of chaos. He's spent his life resenting his parents, protecting his younger siblings and seeking the stable in his girlfriend. But when forced to broker both of his parents turning up to his brother's wedding, he discovers that he was actually the subject of a book on kids dealing with divorce. And his evident continued difficulties sparks a sequel.

There's a lot to like in Ben Karlin and Zicherman's script. There are moments that feel authentic and clearly come from personal experience. Some of the verbal humour is also fantastically on point, and there are a fair few laugh out loud moments, mostly related to Carter's dad who is played by Richard Jenkins, and totally steals the movie. I also admire their courage in not having to tie up all the ends neatly. But set against this we have characters and sub plots that seem to go nowhere (Jessica Alba I'm looking at you), a highly contrived moment of catharsis in the final act, and, well, the casting of the lead actor.

Adam Scott is often the supporting actor in mainstream pictures: the classic decent boyfriend who has a side seat for the action. Maybe it's because he's not a conventionally Hollywood chiselled leading man? I think he's a decent actor but there's just something off about him in this role, and I've come to the conclusion that he's just not likeable or charismatic enough to carry a film. I know that sounds mean, and that many character actors are wonderful when given the stage - not least Richard Jenkins. I also realise that Scott is playing an uptight worriwort, and that isn't a role you'd think of as being fun to spend time with. But Carter is at the centre of this film and one must be happy spending time with him, otherwise the film doesn't hang together. Just imagine what the movie might have been like had it starred Andrew Lincoln or maybe Josh Radnor?

A.C.O.D. played Sundance and Sundance London 2013. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

A.C.O.D. has a running time of 90 minutes.

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 3 - RUNNING FROM CRAZY


RUNNING FROM CRAZY is a fearless film made by two fearless women: legendary documentarian Barbara Koppel and actress Mariel Hemingway. It's the deeply personal tale of Mariel trying to open up the unspoken memories of her family: a childhood lived in the shadow of alcoholism, violence, mental illness and, apparently, in a new revelation, child abuse. These illnesses and disfunctions have of course played themselves out over many generations of the Hemingway family, with the infamous author and Mariel's grandfather committing suicide in the house next to her childhood home. But there's something desperately touching in seeing the very real family trauma that lies behind the iconic image of the larger than life literary giant drinking himself into oblivion. There's also something deeply admirable in Mariel's courage in speaking so openly, often showing herself in a poor light, in order to give her daughters context and hope that there is a way out of this so -called genetic curse.

Koppel benefits from truly unlimited access to Mariel, lots of vintage footage of her sisters and parents, as well as contemporary interviews with Mariel's daughters and sister Muffet. I've rarely seen a subject so willing to be open and to let the documentarian shape the movie, even to the point of the shocking revelation of child abuse - one that I'd suspected watching the film and which seems to explain so much about the elder girls' obsession with their father. Her eldest sister Muffet is still alive but has spent her whole life in and out of institutions for some unspecified psychological problems. And Margot, was a supermodel who suffered substance abuse and eventually committed suicide. 

Koppel intercuts the linear tale of how these girls fared with contemporary footage of Mariel living her life with her new partner and her girls. The impact of her childhood is clearly seen, but we also see someone vital, and engaged, deeply loving toward her own girls and deeply involved in raising awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention. There's a marvellous and meaningful scene where we see Mariel really struggling to climb a rock, bare hands, and finally ascending. This documentary is a like achievement. Difficult, painful, but tremendously worthwhile. It deserves a wide audience.

RUNNING FROM CRAZY has a running time of 105 minutes. It played Sundance 2013 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

Friday, April 26, 2013

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 2 - EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES

Up until now, Francesca Gregorini was probably famous, if at all, for making the movie, TANNER HALL, in which Rooney Mara took her new first name from the character she was playing.  But that's about to change. Her new film, EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES, is absolutely wonderful - a slippery, deeply affecting psychological drama that strikes a delicate balance between profound emotion and flashes of laugh-out-loud dark comedy. 

The film centres around the relationship between two women - single mother Linda (Jessica Biel) and teenager Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario).  Emanuel is still grieving for the death of her mother in childbirth, and resents her relentlessly upbeat stepmother Janice (Frances O'Connor).  She is, however, drawn to a boy she meets on a train, Claude (Aneurin Barnard), in a situation that could be a sick-making meet-cute but which actually works.  And she is, fatefully, drawn to Linda.  In a first-act twist which most will see coming, we see the two women bound together in a deep secret, and its desperately pathetic (literally) to see Emanuel strive so hard to keep it, while soaking up the crypto-maternal love from Linda.  All the more sad, we see Emanuel's stepmother shut out of just the kind of mother-daughter relationship she craves.  If all this sounds rather emo and downbeat then believe me when I say that there are moments of the darkest, most wicked humour that counter-balance the deep longing.  There's also a rich seam of visual metaphor that comes together in a wonderfully moving and affecting d√©nouement.

That the movie works at all is testament to Gregorini's delicately balanced script, that matches explicit verbal wit with scenes of desperate grief.  In the hands of a less accomplished director, or worse actors, the movie could easily have fallen into B-movie melodrama, or worse still, a movie we laugh at rather than with.  And here we come to the biggest surprise of all.  I'd only previously seen Kaya Scodelario in Andrea Arnold's gorgeous WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and to my mind, Scodelario was by far the weakest link. By contrast, in this movie she utterly convinces as the clever, sensitive and deeply empathetic teenager who consciously chooses to involve herself in an ambiguous and emotionally treacherous situation.  But the real star of the piece is Jessica Biel.  Of course, I think this is Biel's best performance to date, and some might say that's a backhanded complement given the questionable quality of her back catalogue.  Well, now we know that that reflects the paucity of material offered to her, rather than her talent, because in this film she takes a role that could have become a bad joke and lends it gravity and dignity. I dearly hope that this performance brings her greater opportunities because I can't wait to see what she does with them.

EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES played Sundance and Sundance London 2013. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 2 - PEACHES DOES HERSELF


I have to admit that I walked out of PEACHES DOES HERSELF an hour into its running time.  It's not because I was offended or not into the music.  It's just that I'd gotten the concept, was bored by it, and was thinking to myself, "didn't Malcolm McLaren do all this in 1982?"  And then, over supper, I realised that he and Vivienne Westwood opened their SEX boutique in the mid 70s and that Sid Vicious was dead by 1982.  So adding some LCD Soundsystem angry synth to the balls out gender bending lyrics and teaming it up with some Lady Gaga like performance art isn't really rocking my boat.   I mean, kudos to any creative kid who breaks out of a bourgeois Canadian upbringing and makes it to the performance spaces of Berlin.  And you cannot deny that Peaches is a ferocious singer and stage presence.  There are occasional flashes of visual brilliance.  Her guitarist playing light rays like synths, for instance.  But in general, unless you're a mad passionate devotee of the artiste, this is, at best, all very teenage rebellion. At worst, the film could be accused of cruelty.  Peaches might preach equal opportunities sexual gratification and respect for people of all ages, races, genders and predelictions, but the audience at Sundance London was laughing at the old withered stripper not with her.  Peaches had unwittingly created a rather nasty freak show.

PEACHES DOES HERSELF played Toronto 2012 and Sundance London 2013.   It does not yet have a commercial release date.  The movie has a 80 minute runtime.

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 2 - THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE





The reason people like me go to festivals is for that occasional flash of wonder when a programmer selects a film that would ordinarily have slipped beneath your radar and it rocks your world. That's how I feel about George Tillman Junior's THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE - a movie that made me laugh, cry, despair and marvel in equal measure.

The premise is simple. The two young kids of the title are abandoned by their crack whore mothers during a hot summer in New York. Forced to forage and steal for food, to protect themselves from the cops who would put them into care and the neighbourhood thugs who would do them harm, they forge an unlikely if utterly credible friendship and alliance. The remarkably talented Skylan Brooks plays Mister, the older and more worldly wise of the two. A young kid who looks like he's never had a good night's sleep - a kid of such wisdom and strength and pride that he inspires the grudging respect of the local drug dealer (Anthony Mackie). A kid so fierce that when he finally breaks down it moved me to tears. Mister's sidekick is a young, guileless ridonkulously cute Korean kid called Pete (Ethan Dizon). A kid who desperately needs a protector and mediator.

I could happily spend another two hours in the company of Mister and Pete. I totally believed in their friendship, shared their occasional joys and felt their many setbacks deeply. Kudos to Tillman Jr for finding them and coaxing such wonderful performances out of them. Kudos as well for managing to stay just the right side of manipulative sentimentality. The film never descends into Poor Joe the Crossingsweeper territory, neither does it pile melodrama onto melodrama as PRECIOUS did. The result is a beautifully shot, intimate, high stakes drama that is genuinely felt and totally unforgettable. You need to see it.

THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER AND PETE has a running time of 118 minutes. The film played Sundance 2013 but does not yet have a commercial release date.

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 2 - TOUCHY FEELY



Lynn Shelton's TOUCHY FEELY is a patient quiet film about deeply felt or resisted emotions.  I suffered through the slow-paced first hour of its slight run time, but came to love that aspect in retrospect as it paid off with a wonderfully cathartic crescendo in its final 20 minutes.  

At first glance, the story seems simple - even trite.  A family - brother, sister, the brother's daughter - quietly suffer their emotional crises in isolation.  The brother and sister take ecstasy,  while the daughter listens to a heartfelt, and suddenly, we have emotional breakthrough.  

What gives the movie a depth that belies this premise are the strong performances from all the major characters, and a particularly well crafted denouement.  Josh Pais is particularly impressive as the brother, Paul, a middle aged dentist afflicted with desperate awkwardness and rigidity.  A chance occurrence leads him to question his ability to heal, and opens him up to Allison Janney's character, and some of the most wonderful quiet humour comes from seeing this deeply unconventional man thrown into the world of the unconventional.  There's a short tour de force scene where Paul contemplates taking the pill.  There's no dialogue: you get everything you need from Josh Pais' physicality. It's wonderful to watch.

I also particularly liked Ellen Page's performance as the daughter, Jenny.  The character of the caring girl to guilt ridden to admit she wants to go to college, suffering too from unrequited love, goes against type for Page, who has previously only played feisty, witty girls.  Here she is so repressed and bashful as to be literally pathetic and its her catharsis that anchors the superb final twenty.

Which brings me to Shelton and her collaborators.  There's something quietly wonderful about the delicacy with which they weave together Tomo Nakayama's songs, the intimate visuals, and the final scenes to relate the emotional opening up of the characters at the end.   If only there had been a little greater urgency or economy on the opening sections, this could have been a truly great film.

TOUCHY FEELY has a running time of 88 minutes. The movie played Sundance 2013 and will be released in the USA on September 6th.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 1 - HISTORY OF THE EAGLES PART ONE


The Eagles are one of those great iconic bands of the 70s, with a discography littered with all-time classic soft rock - Hotel California, Take It To The Limit, Take It Easy - to name but a few.  Softer than the Rolling Stones, with a vocal harmony that confirms how far the Mumfords are rip-off merchants, the group seemed to be constantly be pulled between a desire to rock out, and their country, bluegrass hearts. These tensions, combined with ten years on the road, pushing themselves to musical excellence, resulted in a break-up in 1980 that was one more nail in the coffin of the 70s.  

Alison Ellwood's new documentary is a pretty straightforward, over-long and pedestrian affair. To be sure, it benefits from interviews with all the bandmates, through the groups various iterations, and the key producers, managers and collaborators over the years.  I was truly educated as to their musical influences, drive for success, and in particular the crucial songwriting and managerial partnership between Glenn Frey and Don Henley - the alpha dogs whose leadership irked Don Felder so much.  It's also always good value to see the vintage footage of guitarist Joe Walsh ripping up hotel rooms and relieving the plainchant on-going tension within the band.  

The problem with the film is that it's just unbelievably unexciting. It's just a basic linear mash-up of vintage footage and contemporary interviews. It never conveys the excitement, anarchy, craziness of the tour or the passion of the musicians.  Watching it, I was often reminded of the music docs I watched last year - not least the Stones doc CROSSFIRE HURRICANE.  I had issues with that pic - not least the easy ride it gave the Stones over Altamont - but you can't deny that with its voiceovers and more free-form style, it conveyed more of their energy and gonzo lifestyle than this doc does for The Eagles.  We needed a spark of creativity - a sense of the sheer craziness and wonderful energy of that era.  And it never came.

HISTORY OF THE EAGLES PART ONE played Sundance 2013 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

SUNDANCE LONDON 2013 - Day 1 - THE LOOK OF LOVE



I find Steve Coogan fascinating but I suspect he finds himself even moreso. Why else does he persist in authoring projects where he plays refracted versions of himself? The chippy Northerner with unreal talent, parleying that into success with radical and daring work - super confident to the outside world and yet always eager to tell us just how well-read he is - commercially brilliant but with a controversial and unconventional private life. Charming, subversive and slippery. That's my take on Coogan. It would also be a good description of the character Coogan played in Michael Winterbottom's superb Tony Wilson biopic, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. And it's also a good description of the legendary Soho strip club owner and property mogul, Paul Raymond - the subject of the latest Winterbottom-Coogan collaboration.

As the film shows us, Raymond had an uncanny ability to make money, pushing the boundaries of UK legislation in producing nude shows and magazines. Cleverly investing the money in property, he became Britain's richest man. But this is contrasted with his literally pathetic personal life, as signalled by the movie's title, THE LOOK OF LOVE. And here we get into the most slippery territory of all.

Despite running strip clubs and porno mags (a description he always, somewhat disingenuously, denied), it's not clear that Raymond disrespected or degraded women. He seems to carry no malice. Both of his long term partners, his wife Jean (Anna Friel) and his girlfriend Fiona (Tamsin Egerton), left him because they tired of what were up until then consensually open relationships. He never leers or gropes or openly exploits. There's something charmingly honest and open about him.

If anything, his sad fault seems to be a more general lack of empathy - a kind of emotional neutering. When his wife leaves with his son, he seems to simply turn off any remembrance of him. When his illegitimate son turns up, he's charming for one night, as one might charm a business acquaintance, but then shakes his hand and sends him on his way. He seems to love his wife and girlfriend, but not to the point of giving them the monogamy that they want.

And then there's the pivotal relation with his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots), who longs for a career as a singer and is groomed to take over his empire. Paul seems to love her but in a completely unboundaried way that involves exercising no parental discipline. When he catches her doing coke with a marvellously bearded and sinister Chris Addison, he just tells her to do the best quality, and is seemingly blind to her inner despair.

In the end, what do we learn about Paul? That he was a charming, highly talented businessmen with very messy relationships. It was arguably better to be ignored by him than loved by him: his love involved a fair amount of delusion and denial. I felt bad for him. I wondered if he succeeded in impressing himself? Whether knowing Ringo Starr had designed his flat reassured him that he'd arrived. But this was a man so conscious of his own public image, so polished and repressed that one hardly scratches the surface with this film.

And what of the film? The production design, score, casting are all superb. I love the way Winterbottom's fluid handheld camera brings us right into the action and emotion, and the editing that beautifully juxtaposes a funeral with a wedding. But the movie is not as consistently high energy as 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE or A COCK AND BULL STORY nor as formally daring as TRISHNA. Rather, it's a basically linear biopic that largely reduces a complex man to one tragic relationship. And sadly, when that relationship takes centre stage roughly half way through the film, it dramatically loses pace.

THE LOOK OF LOVE has a running time of 101 minutes. The movie played Sundance 2013 and will be released in the UK on April 26th, in Australia on April 27th and in the Netherlands on August 22nd.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

IRON MAN 3

I had a great time watching IRON MAN 3. What I love about the movie is that after the Whedony alien-esque craziness of AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, we get a much more intimate, personal film, in which a handful of key relationships underpin the story. I mean, the evil villain has a personal motivation.

All of this is down to writer-director Shane Black, the guy who wrote the Lethal Weapon movies and trademarked his brand of authentic buddy movie action comedy. He hasn't directed anything since his cult comedy-noir KISS KISS BANG BANG., which not unco-incidentally also starred Robert Downey Junior aka Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Taking over from the franchise's original director, Jon Favreau, Black makes the story smaller, funnier, less action dependent (although there are still some exceptionally good set pieces) and more anchored in the performances. The result is a movie that has some of the psychological depth of Christopher Nolan's Batman with none of its turgid self-congratulation. 

So, down to business. The movie picks up where AVENGERS ASSEMBLE left off. Tony Stark has saved New York from aliens, but he's suffering from PTSD and a girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) seriously unimpressed by his withdrawal into tinkering with his Iron Man suits. Meanwhile, the US is apparently being threatened by a nasty Bin Laden like terrorist (Ben Kingsley) although the fact that the suicide bombers can regenerate Terminator style, hints at the involvement of an Evil Scientist (Guy Pearce). 

So far, so predictable. Where the movie gets interesting is when it undermines the importance of the suit. Still a prototype, it repeatedly malfunctions at key moments, leaving Stark to fall back on his core skills: making cool simple stuff. It's in this middle section that the movie's at its best: as Stark goes all McGyver aided by a smart kid with whose he has real chemistry.

In fact, the movie can be seen as something of a buddy film in three parts. First, Stark has good banter with his Knight Rider style posh English computer cum valet, Jarvis (Paul Bettany). Then he meets his emotional and verbal match in the cute kid. And finally we some brilliant wisecracking with Don Cheadle's Iron Patriot.

I guess the overriding theme of the flick is that suits are cool but that having a few good mates is better. That, and that science starts out pure but ends up weaponised. The latter has been heavily done already in this franchise. The former is a refreshing change. And despite the epilogue, I certainly hope we see more. 

IRON MAN 3 is on release in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, Finland, France, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Taiwan, Argentina, Bolivia, Bosnia, Chile, Croatia, Denmark, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Peru, Portugal, Macedonia, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Bulgaria, Estonia, India, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Romania, Spain and Vietnam. It opens next week in Germany, South Africa, Thailand, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Ukraine and the USA. It opens on May 9th in Poland.

IRON MAN 3 is rated PG 13 in the USA and the running time is 130 minutes.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

SPRING BREAKERS



Almost every review I read of SPRING BREAKERS after watching it described the movie as a kind of "fever dream" which is presumably lifted from a PR-prepared media packet and says more about the laziness of the mainstream critics than the film itself.  For me, the film was less a fever dream than an elaborate revenge fantasy with feminist overtones that belied its apparently sexploitation vibe.  The subversive message, and the careful balance between absurdist humour and the deeply sinister had me on the edge of my seat.  SPRING BREAKERS may, then, occasionally, be deliberately bad, but it's not a bad film, and every provocation it makes is deeply thought out and played out with utter conviction.

The movie is written and directed by Harmony Korine - the writer who worked with Larry Clark on the controversial but brilliant teen sex and AIDS drama, KIDS. He brings that same authenticity to SPRING BREAKERS, with its willingness to examine the allure, the stupidity and the decadence of teen culture all at once.  As the movie opens, we meet four teenage girls desperate to escape their banal lives and go on vacation to Florida.  Somewhat improbably, three of them decide to commit a robbery to fund their trip. It's not an immoral act so much as an amoral act - they seem to live in a world without consequences or impulses other than those originating in their own desires.  This behavior continues in Florida - they get drunk, get high, and it is only by a whisper's breath that they aren't raped.  To be sure, there's plenty of simulated exploitation in the way they're photographed by the over-riding message we're getting is not to be titillated but shocked at their stupidity and awed by their luck in not coming a cropper.

The exception is Selena Gomez' rather obviously named Faith, who is an evangelical Christian.  She goes along on the trip funded by crime, and is at first the most mesmerized by the promise of Spring Break - the idea of freedom away from home.  But, tellingly, she's also the first to see the danger inherent in the girls' open-ness.  What I love about Korine's treatment of this character is that in the context of the MTV does Cancun shooting style of the film - all lurid color  thumping soundtrack, close ups of girls getting pissed and showing their tits - it would have been easy to mock Faith's naivety and, well, faith. This is  in fact what we see the other girls do.  But in fact the movie has an unspoken respect for Faith, and she is allowed to escape with her morality and beliefs in tact.

The remaining three girls continue to come off as frighteningly stupid and ripe for exploitation as they take up with James Franco's rapper, Alien aka Al.  This may well be Franco's greatest performance - combining as it does some really sinister movements with laugh out loud humor.  When Alien tries to groom Faith, persuading her to stay, he comes off as a deeply sly and manipulative character dripping with hatred of the white trash teens.  Then again, as we get to see him more, we realise that he's in fact far more naive and ripe for exploitation than the girls. In fact, he's a rather pathetic figure.  Franco also has the best lines of the movie, as he articulates his value-structure in terms of the American Dream. It's a speech so funny, so pathetic, so damning of American consumerist culture that it's worth repeating:

"This is the fuckin' American dream. This is my fuckin' dream, y'all! All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit! I got... I got SHORTS! Every fuckin' color. I got designer T-shirts! I got gold bullets. Motherfuckin' VAM-pires. I got Scarface. On repeat. SCARFACE ON REPEAT. Constant, y'all! I got Escape! Calvin Klein Escape! Mix it up with Calvin Klein Be. Smell nice? I SMELL NICE!"

In that speech we see that Alien is as bound up in a fantasy as Faith is. She wants to escape her banal life by coming on Spring Break and staying there forever, and Alien has apparently succeeded in just that mission.  It's so absolutely right that he would compare himself to Al Pacino in Scarface, although he's blind to the true meaning of that story. And how subversive and glorious to cast pretty teen cover boy Franco as the metal-mouthed rapper, aspiring to the perfume ad perfection that Franco, in real life, did so much to perpetuate.  

As the film moves into its second act, we see Alien and the three remaining girls go on a spree of robberies, which are evidently idiotic insofar as they incite the wrath of a competing drug gang.   While the girls appear to think they're in a rap video, come first-person shooter, Rachel Corine's Cotty soon learns different and she too departs.  As much as I loved that Faith was allowed to leave, I was equivocal about the message Harmony Korine was giving in allowing Cotty to escape relatively unharmed, both in this later pivotal scene, and in an earlier Girls Gone Wild moment that could so easily have ended in rape. This is the only small criticism I would make of the film.

Faith, Cotty and Alien are clearly delineated because, for all their delusions, they are deeply human. They care.  They love. They are scared. By contrast, Vanessa Hudgens' Candy and Ashley Benson's Brit are so interchangeable that it's barely worth learning their names.  But they are memorable because unlike Cotty and Faith and Alien they are utterly without morality, utterly without regret or fear or love or delusion.  They are what they are - natural born killers.  They don't go to Florida to escape themselves, but to become more fully what they always were: first-person shooters who are more than aware of the stereotypes their gender and dress give off, and more than happy to humiliate any man who seeks to exploit them as a result.  Their proto-feminist revenge is a fantasy - by this point the film has let go of any anchor it might have once had to reality, but it is deeply emotionally satisfying and cathartic, at the same time as being horrifying. After all that gyrating and objectifying it is the girls who are objectifying the men, and not as sex objects but as targets in a video game.  

I loved this film. I loved the intelligence with which it mimicked an exploitation genre but subverted it.  I loved the day-glo cinematography and the use of voiceover with its lullaby repetition - similar to Malick.  I loved the uncomfortable mix of menace and pathos and dark humor - the sharp turns that catch you unaware and the moments of intimacy and authenticity.  This is a memorable film and a powerful film and deserves to be seen.

SPRING BREAKERS played Venice and Toronto 2012 and was released earlier this year in France, Italy, Denmark, Spain, the USA, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Serbia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Canada. It i s currently on release in the UK, Ireland, Poland, Romania, the Netherlands and Norway. It opens on April 26th in Lithuania, May 2nd in Portugal, Singapore and Mexico, on May 9th in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Russia and on June 15th in Japan. 


SPRING BREAKERS has a running time of 94 minutes and is rated R in the USA.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

TRANCE


Oh dear. Danny Boyle - the man who made cynical, fearful Brits realise that the Olympics might not be a completely embarrassing omni-shambles, and managed to turn a sinister tale of child exploitation into a Bollywood song-and-dance feelgood Oscar-winner, has fallen on his face with this pretentious new psychological thriller, TRANCE.  Comparisons with Boyle's impressively tense first feature, SHALLOW GRAVE, do his latest movie no favors. Where GRAVE had emotional stakes, memorable characters and a style that served its substance, TRANCE is all fur coat and no knickers (quite literally so, in a crucial plot twist.)

James McAvoy plays Simon, the unreliable superficially likeable hero of the heist - a gambling addict that does an inside job on his auction house, nicking a priceless painting but getting koshed on the head by his accomplice Franck (Vincent Cassel) in the process. Suffering from amnesia, the gang take him to a hypnotherapist - Rosario Dawson's Elizabeth - hoping to get him to remember what he did with the painting. In the process, we see Elizabeth emerge as a femme fatale, Franck reveal his vulnerable side, and Simon reveal his inner nastiness. It's all very slick, very twisty and, because all three characters look rather nasty for much of the runtime, rather alienating.

The problem with the film is that by the time you realise that there are real emotional stakes, and that the people that you think are rock-hard and manipulative are actually acting out of hurt and self-preservation, you simply don't care. And just as you're not caring, you start to think back to all the little scenes of the film that make no sense.  And that you want to go home and look up the IMDB message boards to figure it out.  Good films aren't about solving the puzzle.  The puzzle is just the MacGuffin upon which we hang the emotional drama.  And if we're too busy working out which bits ape THE MATRIX, or INCEPTION or MEMENTO or ETERNAL SUNSHINE, and which bits just don't work at all, or whether they really got away with turning pubic styling into a major clue, then as a director, you've failed to grab my interest in a way that is meaningful. 

TRANCE is currently on release in the UK, Ireland, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, Russia, Brazil, the  USA, the Netherlands and Canada. It opens on April 18th in Kuwait, Lebanon, Estonia and Lithuania; on April 25th in Portugal, Macedonia and Serbia; on May 1st in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore; on May 3rd in Mexico; on May 9th in France, Argentina and Romania; on May 16th in Greece; on June 6th in Hungary, Poland and Sweden; on June 13th in Croatia, the Netherlands and Turkey; on August 8th in Germany; and on September 12th in Italy.


TRANCE is rated R in the USA and has a running time of 101 minutes.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

It turns out I was almost perfectly primed for Robert Redford's earnest new thriller, THE COMPANY YOU KEEP. I'd spent much of the year compiling playlists from Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont, as well as reading Thomas Mallon's superb fictional account of Watergate, and in doing so became fascinated with the politics of the time, the apparently high stakes, the desperation of the students being koshed at Kent State.  What would it have taken to turn a liberal-thinking, frustrated student into a militant radical along the lines of Baader-Meinhof?  This seems to be a fascinating question.  If I ad been alive then, how would I have reacted?  This isn't the first time I've been obsessed with this kind of practical historical moral dilemma.  I've always wondered whether I and my friends, Oxbridge contemporaries, would've been tempted to spy for the Soviets when faced with the seemingly unstoppable march of European fascism.

At any rate, for whatever personal obsessive reasons, THE COMPANY YOU KEEP found me primed.  As the movie opens a middle-aged woman (Susan Sarandon) hands herself into the FBI, admitting culpability in a radical political bank robbery that took place in the 1960s.  In doing so, she threatens the anonymity of her fellow radicals.  The most prominent of these is a small town lawyer played by Robert Redford, who in a Bourne-like road thriller, has to evade the gaze of both the Feds and Shia LaBeouf's investigative reporter, as he races to connect with his former lover and fellow radical, played by Julie Christie.  His road trip takes him across America and back through time, uncovering the complicity of cops and students alike.  

At times, Redford's ability to call in cameos from marquee name actors - Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci - became a little distracting, but ultimately the clear lines and swift pacing kept me on track.  Whether or not it was plausible that a man of Redford's age could successfully go on the lam as he did, I was hooked by the bait of the final meeting between Redford's mellowing father and his still-radical former lover.   The final confrontation is essentially a talky set-piece, but I found it fascinating.  I loved the genuine respect and even-handedness accorded to each side of the debate, but was all the more disappointed when that was undercut by the final choice of a main character.  Ultimately, we are left with the question of whether familial concerns trump wider political concerns, and the movie clearly comes down on one side of this question.  It is, then, a deeply bourgeois piece, and the worse for it.

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP played Venice and Toronto 2012 and opened last year in Italy. It opened earlier this year in Sweden and is currently on release in the UAE and the USA. It opens next week in Israel and Portugal and on April 18th in Australia and Brazil. It opens on April 26yth in Finland, on May 2nd in New Zealand, on May 8th in Belgium and France, on May 23rd in the Netherlands, on June 7th in the UK, on June 20th in Argentina, on July 11th in Greece and on July 25th in Germany.

The movie is rated R and has a running time of 120 minutes.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES


Writer-director Derek Cianfrance follows up his critically acclaimed, intimate, raw portrait of an unraveling marriage, BLUE VALENTINE, with what he describes with a male melodrama about fathers and sons.  Both movies are an unflinching examination of real people making bad decisions for the best of reasons. But where VALENTINE feels brutally real, PINES has a self-conscious symmetry - a deliberate interweaving of plot points and characters that lifts us out of the real and into the archetypal.  This is a movie that is architectural - whose structural underpinnings are it's point - and that willingness to put the whale-bones outside of the flesh almost, but not quite, threaten to obscure our emotional response to the material. That it doesn't, speaks to the fine performances at the heart of the movie.

As the movie opens, we see a bravura tracking shot of Ryan Gosling's motorcycle stuntman, Luke, walking through the back-alleys of a circus, his small-town fans cheering him as he enters the tent. Three stuntmen will ride bikes over and around each other in the tight confines of a rotating metal framed ball  - an elaborate metaphor for the feat that Cianfrance is trying to pull of with this film.  

The first act of the film is Luke's story.  He rolls back into town to find he fathered a baby after a one night stand with Eva Mendes' Romina. She's living with Kofi (Mahershala Ali) - an archetypal good father who can provide everything Luke can't - a house, stability, commitment.  Somewhat predictably, Luke falls into bank robbery, tutored by Ben Mendelson's Robin, with immediate success but ultimately catastrophic results.   The hackneyed tale of a heist gone wrong is elevated by Ryan Gosling's absolute commitment to the role, the high-energy cinematography, the creeping sense of foreboding and, perhaps surprisingly, Eva Mendes.  There's a scene where Romina is asking Luke how he's going to take care of her, and Luke begs her not to talk down to him, not to assume he's as worthless as everyone else thinks he is, that is absolutely heartbreaking.  It's heartbreaking because we see how desperate Luke is to break the cycle of absence and neglect that he lived through, and heartbreaking because we know that Romina loves Luke, but that she loves her son, and his future, more.  

In the second act of the film we focus on Avery (Bradley Cooper) - the cop that gets shot in an altercation with Luke.  He's also a young father, also trying to do right but caught up in nefarious shit. His story is also mired in predictability - Ray Liotta cast as a corrupt cop - and the pace is much slower.  I have always thought Bradley Cooper a good actor, but at first I thought his performance in this segment fell rather flat. I just wasn't convinced he'd found the character. And then I realised that this was exactly what we were meant to be falling, because Avery hasn't found his character.  He's a guy constantly defining himself against other's expectations.  His father, a judge, wants him to be a lawyer. The police chief wants him to be a hero.  The rozzers want him to take the cash. And he thinks he wants to just be a good dad.  Turns out, he wants more. It's a subtle performance, and one that's nicely complemented by Rose Byrne as his wife.

In the final act of the movie, we fast forward to the present day, where Luke and Avery's sons are now teenagers at the same public school, although from radically different economic backgrounds. Indeed, Avery is now a man of some power and complacency, and his son  AJ (Emory Cohen) is a sinister, drug-fuelled bully.  Already exploited by AJ, when Luke's son Jason (Dale DeHaan) figures out their fathers' relationship he flips into a spiral that brings Avery face to face with his past in a lurid, melodramatic denouement that is at once utterly unrealistic and majestic.  Bradley Cooper is masterful in his final scene.

What should we make of this film? Clearly, it's macro structure forces it into highly stylised pairings and plot points, but this is not a weakness.  It gives colour and provocation, and doesn't alienate us because each section is so filled with deep emotion and finely shaded moral dilemmas.  In other words, this movie has heart as well as style.  In fact, it's something of a tour de force. 

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES played Toronto 2012 and is already on release in the USA, France, Denmark, Finland and Spain. It opens this weekend in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Norway, and Sweden. It opens on April 12th in the UK, Ireland, Greece and Lithuania.  It opens on April 18th in Russia. It opens on May 2nd in Croatia; on May 9th in Australia; on May 24th in Poland, Taiwan and Japan; on June 14th in Turkey; on June 20th in Germany and on June 28th in Mexico.

The film has a running time of 140 minutes and is rated R in the USA.