Wednesday, 22 February 2012
Headhunters, adapted from the international bestselling novel by Norwegian author, Jo Nesbo, starts out resembling one type of film – that of the art heist – and soon morphs into another kind, one involving international corporate espionage, a killer who just won't quit and a strong vein of Nordic humour which you'll either get or not.
Roger Brown (Aksell Hennie, who looks for all the world like the offspring of Christopher Walken), works as a headhunter, seeking out the best corporate candidates for positions within his company. He also uses his position as a front for stealing expensive works of art from said prospective employees; no one seems to click when asked questions about their partner's work routine or whether or not they have a dog.
Part of the reason for Roger's sideline as an art thief is his wife, Diana (Synnove Macody Lund). Like the Greek goddess of beauty, she inspires love and devotion in Roger, and he believes this love is conditional on the life they've become accustomed to but can't afford.
Truth be told, Diana would be much happier with a baby than a home worthy of Norwegian Architectural Digest, but whether an aversion to children or an addiction to the money and thrills gained in robbery, Roger avoids the subject of parenthood at every opportunity.
Director Morten Tyldum deftly establishes Roger's double life, including his modus operandi with his security guard accomplice, Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander), and it's an intriguing set up for the film. But then events take a turn when Roger, through the art gallery-owning Diana, is introduced to Clas Greve (Game of Thrones's Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
An ex-employee of a rival company, and a former mercenary, Clas is in Oslo to handle the estate of his recently deceased aunt, an estate which includes a Rubens painting, The Calydonian Boar Hunt; stolen by the Nazis in the 1940s and believed to be worth tens, possibly hundreds of millions of dollars.
Naturally, Roger's interest is piqued – this is the ship he's long been waiting on to come in – but it's while in the process of stealing the Rubens that he happens upon information that will have him rethinking both his marriage and his hiring of Clas; information which sets off a chain of events that sees Roger go on the run as his life turns to shit – quite literally at one point.
I'll say nothing of the twists and turns which the plot of Headhunters takes, only to say that it swings unevenly between an action-based conspiracy thriller and a black comedy, one which I was never quite sure I was supposed to be laughing with or at – or neither.
Still, I'm prepared to give Tyldum's film the benefit of the doubt and assume it's the Nordic sense of humour which in this instance has failed to translate, for as a thriller, Headhunters mostly works: there are some suspenseful moments and audacious action set pieces.
Granted, some of the film's action requires a suspension of disbelief but no more so than its American counterparts. And unlike the recent Contraband, which piled complication upon complication to very little effect, Headhunters is never dull as it proceeds to get crazier and bloodier.
Saturday, 11 February 2012
In the best tradition of bitter sweet, micro-budget romances (think Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, and the Oscar-winning Irish gem, Once), comes Like Crazy, writer-director Drake Doremus' story of post-post graduate lovers thwarted by bureaucracy and the tyranny of distance.
When university students Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin) fall in love in their final weeks of study at a Santa Monica university -- Doremus capturing this first burst of young love in a beautiful montage sequence, where Anna and Jacob ride in go-carts, frolic on beaches and enjoy moments of quiet togetherness -- they want that loving feeling to never end.
But when Anna overstays her student visa -- uanble to abandon Jacob for the summer and return to her native England -- she learns, after a brief trip home, that she is unable to return to the States.
What are the young lovers to do? Technology enables the couple to keep in touch regularly, and Jacob, operating a fledgling handmade furniture business, is able to cross the pond to visit Anna when time and funds allow. And while distance may make the heart grow fonder, just how long can they keep this love alive?
Should they break up, or, as Anna suggests towards the end of one of Jacob's visits, should they see other people? Or perhaps, as Anna's father suggests (Anna's parents perfectly played by Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston), they should get married? Certainly Jacob moving himself and his business to London doesn't seem like a viable option, and marriage would help speed up the bureaucratic process which is preventing Anna's return to America.
Matters are complicated further as the passage of time (the film takes place over an almost four year period) sees Anna's career as a writer progress, and both form attachments with other people: Anna with her pretty boy neighbour, Simon (Charlie Bewley), and Jacob with his assistant, Sam (Jennifer Lawrence, making an impact with little screen time).
And Like Crazy makes an impact, too. Drake Doremus' second feature, which debuted to acclaim at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, may be small in many ways but its emotional universe is real and affecting, thanks mostly to the two leads.
There's an easy chemistry between Jones and Yelchin. Apparently Doremus began with nothing but a 20-page outline which he relied upon his actors to help flesh out. They may not have the best of improvisational skills, but Jones and Yelchin make for a likeable and believable couple. There's an authentic intimacy between the two, made all the more powerful in the film's final scene which took my breath away.
Like Crazy may not be in quite the same league as those aforementioned films but nevertheless, it won -- and broke -- my heart.
In Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, good people are forced to choose between doing what is right and what is best, a decision further complicated by the Iranian culture in which they live and the faith some of them subscribe to, creating a moral complexity which sees this taut domestic drama play out more like a thriller.
The film opens with Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) petitioning the court for a divorce, which is apparently -- and surprisingly -- easily achieved in Iran if both parties consent. Simin wants to move her family overseas to better the future of her teenage daughter, Termeh (Sarina Fahardi); the divorce proceedings are a result of Nader's refusal to leave Iran while his elderly, Alzheimer's stricken father is still alive.
Until Nader agrees to the divorce, Simin moves in with her mother but arranges for Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a relative of a friend, to work as housekeeper for Nader and nursemaid for his father. And that's when the family's troubles really begin.
Razieh, a devout Muslim who hasn't the approval of her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), to seek employment and isn't sure the Qu'ran approves of her nursing a man who is not a relative, reluctantly takes the job.
But then one day Nader and Termeh arrive home to find Razieh absent and the old man fallen off his bed to which he has been tied. Upon her return, which she never properly explains, Nader angrily fires accusations at Razieh and expels her, physically, from his home, setting in motion a chain of events which sees everyone caught up in Iran's unique legal system.
I wasn't aware of Razieh's secret (the reason why she abandoned the old man) going in to A Separation -- a rarity these days where it's nigh impossible not to know everything about a film before seeing it; especially one as lauded and awarded as this -- and I won't reveal it here.
Needless to say, the title of Farhadi's film is not about the literal separation between husband and wife but the more complex separation between one's heart and head, between faith and belief, pride and humility, and between right and good.
All characters in this complex drama are torn between two positions and make their decisions based on what is best for them. But not in a selfish or malicious manner. Indeed, there are no bad people in A Separation, merely ones who act without enough forethought for the consequences of their actions.
The film's most heartbreaking moment comes when Termeh (played by the director's daughter) learns that she must lie to the court on behalf of her father; you can almost see the young girl's heart break.
A Separation screened at the Sydney Film Festival back in June 2011 where it won the major prize and was also a hit with audiences. The film has since gone on to collect accolades around the world, culminating in this week's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
I missed Farhadi's film back in June (not for lack of trying) and wish I had been able to come to it sans buzz. If A Separation didn't affect me as strongly as it might have, that has less to do with the film and more my own heightened expectations.
For it is an almost flawlessly executed film (it was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars): perfectly performed, emotional, morally complex, and with an insight into a culture we in the West really know little about, but one with hearts and minds as recognisably human as our own.
Much like Closer, Mike Nicholls' 2004 adaptation of the Patrick Marber stageplay, Carnage, adapted from the hit French play, God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, centres on four people you are happy to spend time with in a cinema but wouldn't want the misfortune of encountering for a prolonged period of time in the real world.
In Closer, it was the sexual mores between men and women that was under examination. In Carnage, Roman Polanksi's fun and succinct film (a swift 80 minutes), it's the thin facade of civility which we in the West construct around ourselves to convince others -- and ourselves -- just how evolved we are, and just how quickly that facade crumbles when put to the test.
When one boy takes to another with a stick, damaging his face and a couple of teeth, the parents of both boys meet to discuss the situation. That meeting takes place in the New York apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly): she's a writer-of-sorts with a penchant for a cause (currently Darfur), and he's the owner of a high-end hardware store who appears jovial enough but may not be as liberal as his wife (or as his wardrobe suggests).
The other couple are Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) Cowan, an investment banker and corporate attorney, respectively. It was their son who was the aggressor so they're naturally more contrite during the meeting, and somewhat more forgiving of Penelope's choice of loaded words and her tone in delivering them.
Well, Nancy is. Alan is more preoccupied with his mobile as he conducts crisis management for a pharmaceutical client throughout the mediation, which not before long breaks down into recriminations: couple versus couple, ideology versus ideology, and eventually, spouse versus spouse.
With an obvious influence being playwright Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where an alcohol-fuelled evening brings two marriages to a head, Carnage adopts a more comic tone as it takes a knife to both the Longstreets and Cowans, and white, middle class self satisfaction and first world problems generally.
And it's good fun. Polanski, shooting in just the one New York city apartment setting (though not actually NY, given the director's legal troubles), may not overcome the material's obvious stage origins but the four actors definitely bring the material to life.
Foster's Penelope, almost imploding with self righteousness and anal retentiveness, and Winslet's Nancy, whose inhibitions and tongue loosen up with the help of alcohol and an empty stomach (easily the film's best moment), get the best of the material.
Not that the guys are slacking off. Waltz, finally escaping Hollywood typecasting as the villain without necessarily dispensing with the menace, underplays Alan's contempt if not his arrogance, while Reilly, seemingly out of his depth at first, comes into his own in the film's second half, when the gloves come off and the pretense of civility is shattered.
If ultimately Polanski's Carnage isn't as satisfying a whole as those individual elements -- by all accounts Reza's play pops in a live theatre -- both its brevity and levity are reasons enough to indulge it as an entertaining diversion.
A remake of the 2008 European thriller, Reykjavik-Rotterdam, the latest Mark Wahlberg action vehicle, Contraband, would seem to have lost something in translation -- and gained some 25 minutes.
The original (which I've not seen) clocked in at just 88 minutes, and was Iceland's submission for the 2010 Foreign Language Oscar. But the remake, with no awards aspirations other than Razzie, runs 109 minutes and gains nothing in the process.
Oddly enough, the leading man from Reykjavik-Rotterdam, Baltasar Kormakur, is the director of Contraband; his ninth time in the director's chair and his first time shooting in English.
But I suspect the language barrier has less to do with the convoluted proceedings as they unfold in Contraband than do the holes in both plot and logic in the screenplay, adapted by Aaron Guzikowski.
Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) is a retired smuggler now home security installer who's made a legit life for himself in New Orleans, with a wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and two young boys.
But when his brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), botches his own smuggling operation and falls foul of Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), a two-bit crim with a hot head and a penchant for violent intimidation, Farraday is forced out of retirement to protect his family.
Setting sail on a freighter, Farraday, Andy, and some of his former crew (including Lukas Haas) head to Panama City where they plan to take delivery of a large order of counterfeit money.
But once there, Farraday's plans are continually thrown into disarray: the money has been printed on the wrong paper and the only viable replacement belongs to another hot head crim, Gonzalo (Diego Luna), who's not about to hand it over unless Farraday helps him out with an armoured car hold-up.
And things just go from bad to worse for Farraday (and sillier and sillier for the audience), including an unplanned drug run by Andy at the behest of Briggs, and the threatened safety of Farraday's family. They've been left in the care of his best friend and best man, Sebastian (Ben Foster), who has had an ulterior motive all along for helping his buddy get to Panama.
Will Farraday make it out of Panama alive, and back to the freighter before it returns to New Orleans? Will they be able to hide their two illegal hauls from both the ship's captain (J.K. Simmons) and U.S. Customs? Will Farraday make it to his wife before she becomes a permanent piece of New Orleans architecture?
Who cares?! Any initial promise the film showed, with its impressive cast list (Ribisi and Foster are deserving and capable of so much more) and its New Orleans setting -- which gives the film a misleading sense of being grounded in a working class reality -- vanishes faster than a cocaine stash overboard during a Customs raid. And so, too, does any interest in these proceedings.
There are only two inevitabilities in life: taxes and death, and the former is a burden you bear from the beginning of your working life. Death, on the other hand, can come at any time but if you're lucky, you'll live to a ripe old age. And it's old age which is the focus of Julie Gavras' comedy of manners, Late Bloomers.
Mary (Isabella Rossellini) and Adam (William Hurt) have been a long time, happily married couple with three adult children and four grandchildren. They're both about 60 years old and look good for their age, especially Mary, a recently retired language teacher; Adam's a partner in a London architecture firm.
But when she suffers from a minor memory lapse, Mary is quietly alarmed. Has her age finally caught up with her? If her mother, Nora (Doreen Mantle), is any indicator, she needn't be too worried. Nora, who lives in the apartment next door to her daughter and son-in-law, leads an active social life and seems to still have her wits about her.
Still, in an attempt to ward off decrepitude, Mary takes up aqua-aerobics and throws herself into volunteer work with her best friend, Charlotte (Joanna Lumley). Conversely, Mary also decides to meet old age head-on: age-proofing her apartment with bath rails, automated beds, and a large-numbered keypad phone.
All of these actions send Adam spinning in the opposite direction. Having recently been commissioned to design a retirement home (his firm's ethos is to undertake projects other firms traditionally wouldn't), Adam's thoughts had already turned to the prospect of getting old.
But rather than embrace it like his wife, he opts to have what is best described as a post-mid-life crisis: dressing younger, throwing in with his 20-something colleagues on a pro-bono museum design project, and drinking Red Bull like it was water.
Co-written with Olivier Dazat, Late Bloomers is the second feature by Julie Gavras, daughter of Costa Gavras, an esteemed director known for his political dramas (see Z (1969) and Missing (1982)). But there's nothing political or radical about Late Bloomers other than its focus on ageing and people of 'a certain age', a subject rarely broached by filmmakers.
Not that Late Bloomers is an overly insightful or even realistic examination of two people's coming to terms with their impending entry into the geriatric club. The lightly comic he said-she said (or, more appropriately, he did-she did) approach is intended to entertain rather than educate the audience.
Still, I have no doubt the intended audience (the post-middle aged through to the so called 'late bloomers') will enjoy the film's mildly comic tone and performances. Isabella Rossellini is an interesting screen presence who makes 60 (which she will be in June) both appealing and alluring. William Hurt, on the other hand, is a little too grizzled and subdued here, and his English accent often wavers.
But the 72-year-old Doreen Mantle (whose resume includes The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Yentl (1983), and a decade on British TV's One Foot In The Grave) provides both them, and the film, with some much needed pep, which I guess underlines the overall point of Late Bloomers: that you're only as old as you feel.
Saturday, 4 February 2012
Much like The Iron Lady, My Week With Marilyn succeeds or fails on whether or not you believe the recognisable leading lady as the recognisable historical figure, in this instance, the most recognisable woman on the planet in 1956, Marilyn Monroe.
And at first it seems as though Michelle Williams, a fine actress who often manages to do so much with so little (see Blue Valentine and the films of Kelly Reichardt), may have bitten off more than she can chew in accepting the role of the blonde bombshell.
Williams has the hair, the curves and the voice (including singing) down pat, but her fleeting presence in the early stages of the film have you fearing the essence of Marilyn may have eluded her.
But then Simon Curtis's film, penned by Adrian Hodges from two memoirs by Colin Clark, settles down, focussing on the week in question and bringing Marilyn the woman into sharper focus.
That week was when Monroe, in England for the summer of 1956 to shoot The Prince And The Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), absconded with the production's third assistant director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), to escape the pressures on and off the set.
Beautiful, talented but highly insecure, Monroe relied on her entoruage (including acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and agent Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper)), to keep her confidence high and her moods in check; pills and alcohol playing a far greater role than soothing words. But in the young, naive and far-too-honest Colin, Marilyn seems to find someone in whom she can confide, someone "on her side".
And it's in these scenes where Williams's Monroe transitions from solid impersonation to a full-bodied character, capturing the mix of womanly wiles and little girl lost residing in the same woman; a woman who knows that 'Marilyn' is just an act but one the rest of the world, including current (third) husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), can't seem (or want) to get beyond.
Surprisingly good also is Kenneth Branagh. Cynically, I originally believed that the Brit actor-director's turn as Laurence Olivier was garnering awards attention (Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA nominations) in much the same way that Morgan Freeman did two years ago for playing Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood's Invictus (2009): a form of manifest destiny.
Whether intentionally or not, Branagh's career has been modelled on Olivier's -- a young actor-writer-director keen to bring Shakespeare to the masses via film -- so to play his hero in film sees his career trajectory come somewhat full circle.
Branagh may not look like his idol but he capture's the man's self possession and insecurity, simultaneously commanding of those around him and yet exasperated with the antics of his leading lady, whom he wishes to impress, seduce and, hopefully, have some of her stardust rub off on him. It doesn't hurt either that Branagh's Olivier gets the lion's share of the film's best and funniest lines.
It's these two performances (both Oscar-nominated), and the film's behind-the-scenes look at world of 1950s filmmaking and the inherent nostalgia -- something to be found in so many 2011 films: Hugo, The Artist, War Horse, Midnight In Paris -- which makes My Week With Marilyn the enjoyably sweet film that it is.
Much like last year's Bill Cunningham New York, Cindy Meehl's documentary, Buck, focusses on one man who has made his passion his life's work.
Buck Brannaman, like photographer Mr. Cunningham, seems to be one of those fortunate few who successfully subscribes to the adage 'find something you're good at and try to make money from it', although one suspects Buck (and Bill) would do what they do regardless of the financial rewards.
Buck is an advocate of natural horsemanship, or in more romantic terms, he's a horse whisperer: able to bend the untamed horse to his will without the use of physical duress. He hosts clinics where, rather than 'breaking a horse in', Buck uses the term 'starting', and his approach speaks as much to the animal as it does the owner.
Not so much believing that horses are people too, Buck very much subscribes to the notion that the horse is a mirror into the soul of its owner. He doesn't get all mystical about it, but he's often proved correct in his theory that if the horse is troubled, the owner probably is too.
Not that Buck Brannaman is without his own dark past. Abused by his father, who had Buck and his older brother perform rope tricks on television and as part of a travelling show, he was fostered out following his mother's death when he was still a child.
Buck's now elderly foster mother appears in the film (she tells a wonderful joke in the closing credits, where we are also see that Buck and his brother are still in touch, although he doesn't appear in the doco), and her and her husband's approach to child rearing (they raised 23 foster children, all boys) no doubt influenced Buck's world outlook.
Rather than dwell in the past or repeat the cycle of abuse, Buck chose a positive path, one which benefits both horse and owner - and his family. He's married and a father, with a wife and teenage daughter who intermittently join him as he travels the United States helping "horses with people problems".
Buck may not be a hard hitting documentary but it has its hand-to-your-mouth moments, one in particular involving a disturbed horse that even the 'horse whisperer' cannot save. But as a study of someone who loves what he does and does good in the bargain, it serves as a wonderful example to us all.
20th Century Fox Films
Love is battelfield, Pat Benatar famously sang, and when two best friends who also happen to be C.I.A. operatives clash over the same woman, it proves to be the case. But all is fair in love and war - with the emphasis on the latter.
Following a botched operation in Hong Kong, agents FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are assigned to desk duties. Tuck decides the forced down time might be a good time to seek out some romance, and signs up to an online dating service.
That's how he comes to meet Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a product tester by day, who decides she also needs some loving following the news that her recent ex-boyfriend is now engaged to be married.
It's following her successful first date with Tuck that Lauren meets FDR (waiting in the wings should his buddy need rescuing) and sparks also fly. Pretty soon Lauren, encouraged by her incorrigable married friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler), is dating both men, unaware of their connection.
And soon enough, Tuck and FDR also become aware of the situation, but rather than FDR doing the honourable thing and ending his involvement, Tuck insists they both continue to date her - it won't affect their friendship.
Of course it does, and as things begin to heat up between each couple, tensions escalate between the once inseparable friends; each enlisting a trio of underling agents to spy on and undermine the others' romantic assignations with Lauren. Before long it's spy planes and sleeper darts at 20 paces.
If you've seen the trailer for This Means War then you've practically seen the entire film, for it reveals all but which man Lauren will eventually choose. Not that it matters. Witherspoon's Lauren seems to be the proxy through which Tuck and FDR can consummate their bromantic feelings for one another. Seriously, Freud would have a field day with these guys' relationship.
But director McG, and his four screenwriters, don't delve too deeply into that minefield, preferring to keep the laughs and action the focus of this rom-com. And surprisingly, it works. Pine and Hardy are both good fun (and easy on the eye), and Witherspoon is a good sport, even if any (lesser) actress could have filled the role.
Opening two days early on Valentine's Day, This Means War is a perfectly inoffensive if innocuous date night film.
Icon Film Distribution
Alive meets Jaws. That's one thumbnail description of the Joe Carnahan-Liam Neeson feature, The Grey, a survival tale with wolves instead of a shark. And while that description may sum it up succinctly, it misses the point of the film entirely.
When a plane carrying workers from an Alsaskan oil drilling operation crashlands in the frozen wilderness, only eight men walk away from the wreckage. Lucky for them, one of those men is Ottway (Neeson).
Hired by the oil company as a sniper to keep wolves and other aggressive wildlife from attacking the workers when in the field, Ottway is a good man to have around in a crisis. Level-headed, stoic and no bullshit, he also knows a thing or two about wolves.
That knowledge will come into its own soon enough when Ottway realises they have crashed inside the territory of a pack of wolves (a mix of real and not-so convincing GCI animals) who don't take kindly to outsiders, and start taking out the interlopers one-by-one.
Rather than fight, the survivors (which include Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts and Frank Grillo) choose flight, heading into the nearby woods where Ottway believes they have a better chance of fending off the wolf pack. But it's Mother Nature who will test these mens' physical and psychological fortitude.
There's little about Joe Carnahan's The Grey to suggest this is the same guy who directed the 2010 film version of The A-Team. That action film folly also starred Neeson, who deserved better, and perhaps the star felt Carnahan was capable of more also.
With a screenplay co-written with Ian McKenzie Jeffers, based on his own short story, Carnahan has made a film which matches both the beauty and horror of nature with man's similar capacity for good and evil, as well as his deep-rooted desire to survive no matter the situation or what awaits him should he do so.
That's not to say The Grey is without its share of bumps (the quasi-existensialism is sometimes too much) or action film cliches, but the reliably stoic presence of Neeson, who can bring gravitas to the silliest of situations (see 2008's guilty pleasure, Taken), goes a long way to overcoming those obstacles. Like Ottway, he's a good guy to have around in this type of situation.
Note: there is a very brief scene post-credits which doesn't really add anything to the film but may provide some form of closure for those who need it -- and those who don't want to be left out of the post-film conversation.