Saturday, 31 March 2012
In terms of great Quixotic follies committed in films -- floating a glass church down river, or building an opera house in the South American jungle -- introducing a species of cold water fish to the deserts of Yemen doesn't seem all that ambitious or dramatic. But it sure is expensive.
About 50 million pounds worth. At least, that's the ludicrous sum fisheries expert, Doctor Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), comes up with, mostly as an act of contempt for said fisheries project, and aimed at dissuading Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt).
She's the PR consultant to the Yemeni millionaire, Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked), whose ambitious plan it is to introduce English salmon into his country's waterways for the purposes of practising his favourite sport of fly fishing. Seems you really can have too much money.
But when the UK government's press secretary, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas, relishing her time away from dramatic roles in French films) gets wind of the project (a positive spin on Anglo-Arab relations), seems Dr. Jones has little choice in the matter. Ironically, he has to go with the flow, unable to swim against the tide, or the current, or whatever it is salmon like to throw themselves up against (crazy fish!).
By all accounts, Paul Torday's 2006 novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is a clever satire on modern day political bureaucracy. But in the hands of screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, and director, Lasse Hallstrom -- neither strangers to feel good territory -- the film has opted for whimsical over scathing, and romance over reality.
Which is a shame, because Beaufoy (who penned Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and 127 Hours (2010)) and Hallstrom (1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) are capable of so much more. Admittedly, it's been a while since the Swedish director, responsible for Oscar-nominated fare The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000), brought his A-game to a film set.
For their part, McGregor and Blunt make for a perfectly fine couple even if Dr. Jones and Harriet aren't as quick to embrace the idea as the audience is (he's married, while her soldier boyfriend of just three weeks is M.I.A. in Afghanistan).
I've been enjoying McGregor's revival of late (I Love You Phillip Morris, The Ghost Writer, Beginners), and his Dr. Jones, hovering between OCD and Asperger's, and speaking with a light Scottish brogue (it's been so long, Ewan!) is a strangely charming creation.
And Blunt, doe-eyed and plum-voiced, is as lovely as ever. But I'm still waiting for the day when the Brit actress is given something meatier (the forthcoming Your Sister's Sister, perhaps?) to sink her teeth into. That meat, unfortunately, is not Salmon.
While there are less enjoyable ways to wile away 107 minutes (and fly fishing, anywhere in the world, would be one of them), there are also plenty more memorable things to do with your time than catch Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
Robert Smith: Nazi Hunter. That's one glib way to describe the odd yet oddly intriguing This Must Be The Place, a road movie of sorts with a Sean Penn performance unlike any other.
Penn plays Cheyenne, a one-time pop star who, despite his retirement from the music scene and his self imposed exile in Ireland, has kept his rock and roll wardrobe; a goth-drag combination which would appear to be modelled on The Cure's frontman, Mr. Smith, by way of Edward Scissorhands.
Cheyenne's comatose-like speech and movement, however, would suggest that Penn is also channelling present day Ozzy Osbourne. It's this distinct way of speaking -- a crackly whisper, if you like -- which some may find off putting, even annoying, but stick with it; Cheyenne will prove to be one of the most original and endearing characters of cinema 2012.
Filling his days wandering around his mansion, playing a variation of handball in the emptied swimming pool with his fire fighter wife, Jane (a too little seen Frances McDormand), and hanging with the young Mary (Eve Hewson), whom he attempts to play matchmaker for, Cheyenne also attempts to keep at bay the guilt over the death of a band mate who didn't make it out of the heady days of the early 1980s music scene.
But Cheyenne's life is taken in a whole new direction when he is called home to New York to see his estranged, ailing father. He's too late (travelling by boat rather than flying) as it turns out, but Cheyenne decides to take up his father's life long mission: hunting down the Nazi guard who humiliated him during his internment in Auschwitz.
It's here that Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's film (named for the Talking Heads song; front man David Byrne appears in the film) takes on the form of a road movie, as Cheyenne travels cross-country in pursuit of his man, experiencing a variety of encounters and connections along the way, including Nazi hunter, Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), and single mum, Rachel (Kerry Condon).
Sorrentino, making his first English language film (co-written with Umberto Contarello), says he started with the idea of the life of an elderly Nazi criminal and worked backwards from there; someone to hunt for the Nazi and the unlikeliest person to do so. Hence, Cheyenne. Not just a pop star but one seemingly in a child-like state and floating through life; tethered only by a small suitcase on wheels which he takes everywhere. Yep, this guy has baggage!
But Sean Penn makes this man with the mousy voice and the androgynous look so appealing, so endearing that any doubts -- said voice and look -- are soon forgotten. And Penn, not surprisingly, manages to balance humour and pain almost effortlessly, rendering Cheyenne as human and not a mere gimmick.
Beautifully shot by Luca Bigazzi (the film's final scenes in Utah are stunning), This Must Be The Place has an almost dream-like hue to it, adding to the overall surreal quality of both the story and its protagonist.
And if like a dream, it doesn't necessarily make complete sense, the film, and Cheyenne, won't be so easily forgotten.
Thursday, 29 March 2012
20th Century Fox Films
"Are you ready to go back to Titanic?" Hells yeah! Some 15 years after its original release, and in time for the 100th anniversary of the cruise liner's infamous maiden voyage sinking, James Cameron's Titanic returns this month to cinemas -- in 3D.
And while the 3D is unnecessary -- it doesn't muddy the colour palette but it adds nothing to the viewing experience -- it's great to see the film back on the big screen where it belongs; as much an old style Hollywood spectacle as it is a classic romance.
Everything that was great about Titanic -- Kate Winslet's performance, the second half of the film, beginning with the iceberg and culminating in the ship's sinking -- remain so. And those elements that were troublesome the first time around are there too.
Namely the screenplay, which has always been the film's own iceberg, preventing Titanic from achieving true greatness. Cameron would have been wise to have someone else pen his screenplay (or at least doctor it, uncredited), for as Rolling Stone's Peter Travers remarked in his 1997 review, the director has "a poet's eye for visuals and a tin ear for dialgoue".
But enough of the bad, let's celebrate the positive i.e. Kate Winslet. Having already broken out in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994), and securing her first Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actress) the following year in Ang Lee's Sense And Sensibility, Titanic presented Winslet with her first Hollywood leading role. And she shines.
Winslet has gone on to give far greater performances than this, but in the role of Rose DeWitt Bukater, the young woman engaged to be married to a rich but soulless man (Billy Zane), and who finds love with the poor but passionate Jack Dawson (Leonardo Dicaprio, looking younger than ever), she has never been more luminous.
She spends the second half of the film wet and bedraggled, yet Winslet is undeniably beautiful; whether her face is brightened by a distress flare or flushed with, what I believe to be genuine fear, when attempting to outrun a flood of water below decks. She is also refreshingly full figured.
Rose is also tough. She may be a lady but she a has resolve of steel. Full credit to James Cameron, who may not be a wordsmith but knows how to write strong females.
Cameron is also a perfectionist, and he went to great lengths to ensure the look of Titanic was authentic; the production design, the costumes, even the fine china seen in the film was produced by the same company which originally created the dinnerware for RMS Titanic.
Of course, the director comes into his own with the sinking of the ship. Visual effects and CGI have come a long way since 1997, but the vision of the great ocean liner as it cracks, up-ends and finally descends below the icy Atlantic remains an impressive spectacle. The ocean alive with passengers, flailing and screaming -- a literal sea of humanity -- is also quite affecting.
Titanic won 11 Academy Awards including Best Director for Cameron, and Best Picture (Winslet was nominated for Best Actress, and Gloria Stuart, who plays the elderly Rose, for Supporting Actress). Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential probably should have won Best Picture, but the Academy voters were understandably smitten with this throwback to epic, romantic old Hollywood.
Audiences certainly were. Until Cameron's Avatar (2009), Titanic was the highest grossing film of all time, and I'd imagine a great many of those people who saw it in 1997 will, like me, be eager to revisit it, 2D or not.
Note: Until November 2012, the Australian Maritime Museum, in partnership with 20th Century Fox, is hosting an exhibition, Remembering Titanic - 100 Years.
Saturday, 24 March 2012
Available now on DVD and Blu-ray
In terms of recent apocalypse-themed films -- Melancholia, Conatagion, Take Shelter -- the loss of one's taste buds as the pre-cursor to the end of days hardly seems dire. Unless, of course, you happen to be a chef.
But in David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense, Glaswegian chef Michael's (Ewan McGregor) sudden inability to distinguish between filet mignon and a fillet-o-fish is the least of his, and the world's problems.
Seems a pandemic is sweeping the globe which one by one robs the victims of their senses. First, smell, then taste, hearing, and finally sight; each loss preceded by an inexplicable and involuntary emotional outburst.
The disease has the international medical community baffled, including Susan (Eva Green), a Glasgow-based virologist who lives for her work and whose apartment just happens to neighbour Michael's restaurant.
As the world slowly begins to unravel -- the loss of their senses sees most of the human race also lose its common sense -- these two lonely souls find each other. And let's be honest: if you're going to face the end of the world, what better way to spend it than in the arms, or bed, of either McGregor or Green?
Penned by Kim Fupz Aekeson, Mackenzie's Perfect Sense shares thematic territory with Steven Soderbergh's Contagion -- an inexplicably virulent disease grips the globe and brings forth the best and worst in humanity -- although all involved are working on a considerably lower budget than that star-filled disease flick.
Still, Perfect Sense manages to convey a real sense of fear and loss, and unlike the cool, forensic-like Contagion, it works on an emotional level. McGregor and Green's relationship in the face of impending doom is quite affecting, especially in the film's final moments when silence has fallen and darkness is about to.
Friday, 23 March 2012
The trailer for Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror, a knowing but not overtly post-modern take on the Snow White tale, had a horrible trailer. That is, upon seeing it I thought that the film would be a high camp travesty, and sitting through it was going to make my job a chore rather than a privilege.
But while Mirror Mirror is by no means perfect, nor is it the dog's breakfast I had expected it to be. Understandably, the film looks better than it's written (by Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller) or performed -- Singh is nothing if not a visual stylist -- but it's intermittently (and surprisingly) entertaining.
Just turned 18, Snow White (Lily Collins, her look presumably fashioned on a young Elizabeth Taylor) is itching to get out from under the thumb, and lock and key, of her evil stepmother, the Queen (a wildly inconsistent Julia Roberts). She's ruled the kingdom with an iron fist since the mysterious death of the King, Snow's dad, years earlier.
But as we know, the Queen is as vain as all hell, and with the arrival of a handsome young prince, Alcott (Armie Hammer, channelling the charm and goof of a young Brendan Frasier), she finally senses a rival for her beauty. No, not Hammer (although...) but Snow White, whom the prince becomes smitten with.
So it's off with her head! Sorry, wrong Queen. It's out with her gizzards, or so the Queen believes; her man servant, Brighton (Nathan Lane), abandoning Snow White in the woods and returning to the castle via the local butcher.
That's how the young princess comes to meet the seven dwarves (is that a politically incorrect term nowadays?), a motley crew of highwaymen, with names like Butcher, Wolf and Napoleon, who conduct their robberies on stilts and steal most of the film's best lines.
The princess melts their hearts and they in turn take her in, giving her lessons in swordplay while she teaches them that it's okay to steal from the rich (i.e. the Queen) if you give to the poor (it's a kid's film after all). The poor would be the villagers, whom the Queen has taxed to the point of destitution in her bid to maintain the lifestyle to which she's become accustomed.
All of this plays out relatively closely to the age old tale of Snow White, with the requisite happy ending. But it's not so much the story that concerns Tarsem Singh; he prefers to show rather than tell, and he succeeds with the look of the film.
Mirror Mirror is a wet dream for students of production and costume design. Even if it wasn't relatively entertaining, the look of Mirror Mirror would have delighted and enthralled those with a penchant for aesthetics.
Kudos then to production designer, Tom Foden, and late costume designer, Eiko Ishioka; the film is dedicated to the memory of the costumier, who worked on all of Singh's films, and who sadly died in January this year. Those two, and Singh, of course, give us something to bedazzle our eyes, even if the film doesn't.
Not that it's the chore I had anticipated; 106-minutes skips by. And as cinematic revisionism of fairy tales go, Mirror Mirror is far from a disaster. It may not be in the same league as The Princess Bride (1987), or even Enchanted (2007), where Disney dared to mock its own animated fairy tale roots, but nor is it as lifeless as last year's dog, Red Riding Hood.
That has to count as a relatively happy ending, right?
Available now on DVD
I'll readily admit I'm not a fan of fashion, and not just because, as a writer, I can barely afford to keep up with my rent let alone the latest sartorial trends. But I can respect the hard work that goes into the creation of fashion (and the even harder work put in by sweatshop slaves to produce it, and at a fraction of the price it sells for), as well as the industries surrounding it.
Bill Cunningham is not a fashion designer. He is a photographer who has had a life-long love affair with fashion, and for the last 40 years has provided photographs for two weekly columns in The New York Times: Evening Hours, which captures New York's social elite at play, and On The Street, whereby Cunningham randomly shoots the people of New York whom he believes to be expressing a sense of style and individuality. He refuses to dis what anyone wears, choosing instead to celebrate style.
Richard Press's documentary follows the 80-year-old Cunningham as he rides his Schwinn bicycle (his 33rd; all previous 32 having been stolen) through the streets of the Big Apple, documenting fashion where he finds it. The blue dust coat-wearing photographer is recognised by one and all, and has nothing but a good word to say about anyone, nor they about him.
And if there is one thing this charming doco is lacking, it's a real insight into the life of this man of seemingly simple pleasures. Apparently it took Press eight years to convince Cunningham to agree to be a part of the film, which was shot over a two year period and only under Cunningham's stipulations. Not that he's a curmudgeon, he's simply a very private man.
Interviews with colleagues (including Anna Wintour, Vogue editrix and subject of her own doco, The Septmember Issue, and other NY fashionistas) and friends - his wonderful geriatric neighbours in the Carnegie Hall apartments, which they were in the process of being evicted from during the filming, are a hoot - sheds very little light on Cunningham's life away from the camera.
But a one-on-one interview near film's end, where the subjects of family, religion and sexuality are broached, gives us a glimpse of the man behind the lens. Catholic guilt may have curtailed his pursuit of an openly gay lifestyle, but one also gets the feeling that so consumed is Cunningham with photography and fashion, the idea of love - or even sex - never really occurred to him.
And that adds a tinge of sadness (and humanity) to a film, and man, that is charming and, yes, inspirational. For what could be more inspirational than finding something you love to do, and being paid to do it well into your ninth decade? Like someone who finds a style that suits and adopts it permanently, Bill Cunningham found his passion and stuck with it. Now that's a trend I'd be happy to adopt.
One good turn deserves another, and kindness is its own reward are two rather trite adages which could easily apply to the non-trite Le Havre, the droll and fable-like new film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki.
The film takes its name from the French port city of Le Havre, and it's here where Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) makes a humble living as a shoe shine. But when Marcel's wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), is admitted to hospital with a seemingly terminal condition, he finds he has little time for grief. Or rather, fate presents him with a welcome distraction.
That would be Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an African boy who, along with his family, has travelled from his homeland concealed in a shipping container. The French authorities discover the immigrants but Idrissa makes a break for it, later discovered, wet and hungry, by Marcel.
The kindly shoe shine decides to take the boy in, with the aim of getting him to family in England. But even with the support of his neighbourhood -- the drinkers at the local bar, the proprietors of the fruit and veg shop, and fellow shoe shine, Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen), who also happens to be an illegal immigrant -- Marcel's mission is complicated by Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the dogged police inspector, ironically dressed in black, determined to capture the illegal runaway.
Le Havre is the sunny side of the same coin as Philippe Loiret's 2009 film, Welcome, (http://thelennoxfiles.blogspot.com.au/2010/03/film-review-welcome.html) which took a rather more angry approach to the issue of the Sarkozy government's policy of dealing with illegal immigrants in France. In that instance, a Kurdish teenager attempting to make his way to London, via Callais, by any means necessary.
Kaurismaki's treatment, while mildly comedic, is no less effective; a gentle rebuke of the 'stop the boats' rhetoric which has also infected Australian politics of late. Without any heavy-handed didacticism, Kaurismaki celebrates the innate goodness of people and shafts the unblinking nature of political bureaucracy.
The reward for Marcel's innate goodness may seem implausible if you don't go along with Kaurismaki's fable-like tale, but I did and Le Havre warmed my heart considerably as a result. Here's hoping it opens the hearts and minds of the Monets among us.
What is it about Michael Fassbender and sex? Obviously the German-born, Irish raised actor exudes sex appeal, from his turn as the Brit actor-playing-German in Inglorious Basterds to his Magneto in X-Men: First Class. Now, having played a sex addict in last month's release, Shame, he's playing Carl Jung, protege of Sigmund Freud and one of the forefathers of modern psychoanalysis, in A Dangerous Method.
Not that's there's a lot of sex in David Cronenberg's film version of Christopher Hampton's screenplay (adapted from his own stageplay). That is, not a lot of actual sex. For Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortensen, who one could easily mistake for Ed Harris) spend a great deal of the film discussing, analyzing and debating (in person and via written correspondence) the nature of human sexuality.
A Dangerous Method charts this relationship, which begins as one of reverence by the younger Jung for the elder statesman Freud, but which develops into one of animosity and rivalry as the student seeks to explore other avenues of assessing the human mind. "Why must everything relate to sex?", Jung laments at one point about his mentor's philosophies.
Of course, Jung isn't entirely turned off to the connection between the mind and the genitalia, and it's a connection he comes to explore, figuratively and literally, with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient at his Swiss clinic.
Sabina, all jutting jaw and flailing limbs, arrives at Jung's clinic to be treated for hysteria in the film's opening scene, and Knightley's overtly physical and thickly-accented (Spielrein is Russian) performance will polarize -- you'll either go with it or laugh at her.
But I believe it's one of the actress's strongest screen turns yet. For mine, she bests both Fassbender and Mortensen (which is no mean feat) by giving Sabina a spark which their Jung and Freud severely lack.
Spielrein becomes the married Jung's lover but she also progresses from patient to colleague, pursuing her own studies into psychoanalysis and challenging both the theories of Jung and Freud. She also further complicates the relationship between the two men, though not as the result of a love triangle as the film's poster art would have us believe.
I'm sure there is much in A Dangerous Method that will be of interest to those familiar with the works of Jung and Freud, and who have a greater understanding of psychoanalysis than me.
And I can appreciate the notion that the brain is the most important sex organ, and we're limited more so by what our mind allows than does society. But Cronenberg and Hampton's talkative exploration didn't fire my imagination (or my loins). Personally, I could do with a little less conversation and a little more action.
Sunday, 11 March 2012
In 1998, screenwriter, Andrew Nicoll, and director, Peter Weir, gave us The Truman Show; a film about a man who, unbeknownst to himself, had lived out his entire life as the leading man on a television show broadcast live to the world, 24-7.
That remarkable film, one of that year's best, inadvertently gave birth to something altogether remarkable in a different way: reality television. Not too long afterwards, we had Big Brother, where a group of people occupy a house, observed and listened-in on 24-7 by TV cameras, and Survivor, where voluntary castaways on some island paradise compete in immunity-rewarding games, both in the hopes of winning a large financial prize.
If those two programs were amalgamated and taken to the nth degree, then the result may very well be The Hunger Games, an annually televised event which pits 24 teenagers against each other in a battle for survival, or more precisely, to the death. There can only be one winner.
In the not-too-distant future following a civil war of sorts, the United States has been divided into 12 districts, each falling under the control of the Capitol, a fascist regime not unlike the kind that would result from a Sarah Palin presidency.
In honour of the new regime, and penance (re: punishment) for the peoples' revolt, the Hunger Games are held, selecting one male and one female (known as Tributes) from each district to compete for the honour of victory. That's how, in its 74th year, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself competing for her life.
Actually, she volunteers in place of her younger sister who is chosen, and along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is taken to the Capitol for grooming, in the art of hand-to-hand combat as well as quite literally. For reality TV, as we know, is all about personality.
Katniss and Peeta have Hamitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games winner from District 12, chaperone Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks), and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) in their corner, to instruct them in the art of winning, not just the Games but hearts and minds; sponsorship from wealthy Capitol viewers could be the key to a Tribute's survival.
Peeta knows how to play that game but Katniss, more comfortable hunting game than collecting friends, is a little slow to adjust. But once the Games proper begin (a fair way into this 142 minute film), the girl from District 12 with the bow and arrow comes into her own.
And so does the film. Director Gary Ross (2003's Seabiscuit), adapting the first in Suzanne Collins' trilogy of young adult books, takes his sweet time establishing the world of the Hunger Games without really informing his audience all that much. Presumably he's working under the impression that the majority of those flocking to see The Hunger Games have read the source material.
That would explain why little time is spent explaining how this new America came about, or why the people of the Capitol seem to have been styled by Lady Gaga while those in the Districts dress like Depression-era breadliners.
It would also explain why actors such as Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland (breaking a long-running streak of dieing in the first act) are relegated to colourful though unfulfilling cameos.
Still, when the Games begin, the film jolts to life. The sequence which sees the 24 competitors released into the wild, is as savage and unnerving as anything you'll see on screen this year. While some competitors, like Katniss and Peeta, head straight for the woods, others attempt to arm themselves with the weapons left for them. And bloodshed ensues, with half of the Tributes dead in the opening minutes of the Games.
Even Tom Stern's shaky-cam cinematography, which blurs these brutal acts (and secures a more friendly rating for the film in the process), can't blunt the actual horror of the film's very premise: kids killing kids in the name of entertainment.
The remainder of The Hunger Games is, for the most part, a highly tense affair as Katniss hides out in the woods, making short-lived alliances and alluding almost certain death. To say any more would be too spoiler-ish but given that there are two more books -- and if this first entry is a success (and all signs suggest it will be), two more films -- the Games are set to continue.
Hopefully that will mean a little more fleshing out of the history of this world created by Collins, and the characters who populate it (Aussie Liam Hemsworth is another saddled with a thankless role as Katniss's best friend, Gale Hawthorne).
Lawrence, on the other hand, brings the same sort of grit and determination she did to her Oscar nominated role in Winter's Bone (2010), although with decidedly more glam. Indeed the similarities between the two characters -- their home lives, inner strength -- are quite striking.
Not that I'm suggesting Lawrence will again be a nominee this year, not for The Hunger Games at least; it's not that type (or quality) of film (seriously, let's not lose our heads, people).
But to its credit, The Hunger Games is big budget Hollywood entertainment which caters (panders?) to its target audience whilst also managing to have more on its mind than explosions or cheap thrills. It's also that rarest of creatures: a Hollywood blockbuster centred around a strong female lead.
With Survivor still going strong on US television, and Big Brother making a return to Australian screens later this year, the appeal of reality TV would seem to still be strong, providing the perfect environment for the release of The Hunger Games. That, and the already strongly established readership for Suzanne Collins' universe, would seem to suggest that the odds of box office success are certainly in the film's favour.
Written and directed by Welshman Gareth Evans, The Raid is an Indonesian action film. An almost non-stop barrage of action to be precise.
That action takes place within the one apartment building as a police SWAT team covertly enter the premises with the aim of taking the building -- one floor at a time -- and apprehending the major crime baron ensconsed on the top floor. It's Attack The Block, literally. And it's a hellava lot of bloody good fun.
Of course, it's not too long before the police presence is known (CCTV is everywhere, plus the residents are only too happy to rat them out and stay in good with their crime lord landlord) which sees us not even half way into the film before the majority of the squad are wiped out -- both by gunfire and machetes -- and just a handful are left.
One of those survivors is the baby-faced Rama (Iko Uwais), who has an expectant wife at home and a surprise waiting for him in the building. He may not embody the archetype of a Hollywood action hero, but Rama is a Mighty Mouse, as adept with his fists and feet as he is with a gun and machete.
Fittingly, the Mighty Mouse's biggest obstacle to survival is Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), another pint-sized dynamo whom you don't want to cross fists with. Ruhian has two major set pieces (the second with Uwais), and both are awesome displays of highly choreographed action. Not quite balletic but beautiful in their own bloody, bone-crunching, skin-tearing kind of way.
Call it The Bourne Effect, but a lot of action films of the '00s have succumbed to the hyper-edited style which cuts the action together rapidly without clearly distinguishing what's actually going on.
The Raid makes for a refreshing change. All of the action set pieces are so precisely choreographed, every action and reaction is discernible no matter how quick fire the movements: the action is the point of the film (though at a mere 100-minutes, it's almost too much).
Re-named The Raid: Redemption for its US release makes it sound like a sequel, or more appropriately a video game given the high level of action and the various (literal) levels it takes place on.
And that's not meant as faint praise or a backhanded compliment: The Raid works as an exercise in perfectly executed, relentless action. That may mean that character development is minimal but when it's this stylish and this much fun, it's forgiveable.
20th Century Fox Films
Eat, Pray, Love: The Senior's Edition could be one way to describe The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A sweet, charming and relatively inoffesnive concoction (save for some cultural stereotyping and casual racism), directed by John Madden and adapted by Ol Parker from a novel by Deborah Moggach, it centres on a disparate group of British seniors who head to India to make the most of their grey pound, and what years they have left.
Evelyn (Judi Dench) is recently widowed and bereft of both a husband and a pension; Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a high court judge who impulsively decides to pack it all in and return to a country, and a love, he left four decades before; while Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are a not-so-happily married retired couple whose daughter's start-up internet company has pretty much finished their savings.
There are also two singles, Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), who've come to India in the hopes of finding love, or more precisely, a sugar daddy for Madge, while Norman hopes to work his way through the Karma Sutra.
And then there's Muriel (Maggie Smith, playing cockney and looking for all the world like Michael Caine in drag) who has come to India on a surgery exchange program for a hip replacement. And you just know it's not the only change the racist old biddy will undergo.
Of course, all of them will undergo some form of transformation or awakening - some as a result of meeting each other - whilst residing at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a once glorious now ramshackle hotel operated by Sonny (Dev Patel). He's a young man with a dream of returning the establishment to its former glory, and proving to his disapproving mother and the family of his girlfriend, Sunaina (Tena Desae), that he is worthy of their love and respect.
While no more illuminating than the recent Late Bloomers, which also focussed on the issue of embracing one's golden years, Marigold Hotel is far more entertaining. It's undeniably enjoyable seeing seasoned pros like Dench, Smith, Nighy and Wilkinson having fun.
Granted they never shift out of cruise control (the screenplay never stretches any of the performers nor the audience) but they make the most of what they've been given. Dench and Wilkinson, in particular, manage to invest their characters with some pathos, and Nighy gives one of his least annoying performances ever (I'm not a fan of the lithe, usually too-cool-for-school actor).
Also in cruise control is John Madden. Best known for directing the Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love (1998)(which DID deserve to win Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan!), the Englishman has only directed four other films before Marigold Hotel; last year's The Debt (also with Wilkinson) the most recent.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel may not induce any great film offers but here's hoping this trip to India is as reinvigorating for Madden's career as it is for his film's characters.
J.C. Chandor's directorial debut Margin Call arrives with the distinction of an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a nomination it no doubt earned for making a complex subject -- commodities trading and the on-set of the GFC -- easy to understand as well as giving it a somewhat human face.
And no doubt my natural antipathy for all things economics is the reason why the film never fully engaged me.
For in spite its impressive cast -- Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, and Zachary Quinto -- its even handed treatment of the Wall Street types responsible for the GFC (traders are people too!), and its ability to make these financial goings-on both accessible and almost thriller-like, Margin Call still had me at arms length.
When Eric Dale (Tucci) is unceremoniously let go from his post with the investment bank he's been with for two decades, he passes on information to a young risk analyst, Peter Sullivan (Quinto), suggesting he take a look at the numbers but with the warning to "be careful".
Sullivan does just that, doesn't like what he sees, and after informing his next in command, Will Emerson (Bettany), who in turn informs his senior, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), sets off a panic within the ivory-lined walls of the boardroom of the (fictional) bank they work for.
Seems the company has been repeatedly trading outside of their risk parameters (or something: economics, not my forte) and it's now only a matter of time before it catches up with them, which isn't necessarily news to bank execs, Jared Cohen (Moore) or Sarah Robertson (Baker).
But when the Board finds out, the Head, John Tuld (Irons, hamming it up; close your eyes and you'll hear Scar from The Lion King) decides they should stop buying and sell all their assets for as much as they can get. The downside? They will be creating a economic black hole the likes of which Wall Street, and the world, has never seen.
All of this action, which takes place over a 24-hour period, and mostly on the one floor of a New York office high rise, plays out like a thriller though instead of action set pieces we get dialogue -- a lot of dialogue -- and a lot of exposition. So much so, that at times Margin Call felt more like an HBO telemovie, or even a stage play, than a cinematic feature.
Which brings us back to that Original Screenplay nomination. Deserving? I don't think so, not when you have a character explaining his role within the company to another character who does virtually the same job. The film also ends with arguably the most heavy-handed metaphor since Scorsese had a rat make a last minute cameo in The Departed (2006).
That metaphor involves a spade and Kevin Spacey, giving his best performance in years as a man stuck between a rock and hard place upon realising he mortgaged his integrity many financial years ago.
Spacey is also the best in show among the solid cast, who make Margin Call a solid if not enriching investment.
Sunday, 4 March 2012
20th Century Fox Films
With a title like The Rum Diary, based on a memoir by Hunter S. Thompson, and populated by alcohol-swilling expatriate American journalists in sunny Puerto Rico 1960, it should come as no surprise that this film is chaotic and undisciplined. And it's also a lot of fun.
All of these elements may also explain why director Bruce Robinson, hand picked by star and producer, Johnny Depp, came out of virtual retirement to direct his first feature in 19 years. That last film was Jennifer 8 (1992) but Robinson is best known for the cult classic, Withnail & I, regrettably a 'should've seen but haven't' film for me but one which is also about colourful characters experiencing the '60s through an alcohol/drug infused haze.
Paul Kemp (Depp) is a wannabe novelist who successfully applies for a journalist position with The Suan Juan Star, an American-run newspaper catering to the American colonialists who flock to Puerto Rico to stay in the beach front hotels, and rarely venture outside of them.
The paper's ethos, as set out by the editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), is 'only good news is good news' but Kemp, with a thirst for excitement superseded only by his thirst for alcohol, wants to write about the real Puerto Rico - poverty, corruption, civil unrest, cockfighting - and not the Horoscopes column he's been assigned.
And moving in with Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi), two fellow journalists in various stages of having gone native, opens his eyes and mind to the sensory pleasures of the South American paradise. But a meeting with Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) exposes him to the dark side of its colonial interests.
Sanderson works in PR, and he wants Kemp's help in selling the country's untouched islands to US investors as future tourist destinations (because that's what Puerto Rico needs, more hotels and Americans). But if Kemp isn't seduced by the smarmy charms of Sanderson, nor the money he's offering, he's more than willing to be courted if it means he gets to flirt with the PR guy's girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard), a smoky-voiced young blonde.
These various plot lines may not always work cohesively, or with any real urgency -- they certainly push the film's running time beyond the necessary -- but this Puerto Rican sojourn remains mostly fun.
Depp, in a relatively straight role compared to his Tim Burton catalogue, gives us a hint of the man (and actor's friend) Hunter S. Thompson was before he become "Hunter S. Thompson" (the memoir was penned before the writer discovered his gonzo-voice), thankfully leaving much of the colour and quirk to Rispoli and Ribisi, and beautiful Puerto Rico.
Thursday, 1 March 2012
Walt Disney Studios Films
The phenomonal success of James Cameron's Avatar (2009) must have been viewed as a double-edged sword by Disney Studios for their own in-the-works 'Earth man-involved-in-alien-civil-war' film, John Carter.
Once the property of Paramount, the project -- an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, the first in a series of pulpy Western/sci-fi/fantasy adventures published in 1917 -- had been an on-again, off-again affair since the mid '00s with a succession of directors attached and then unattached before the rights fell to Disney and they settled on Pixar alum, Andrew Stanton (of Wall-E and Finding Nemo fame).
If the similarities in story with Cameron's film were a concern for the House of Mouse, Avatar's all-conquering performance at the international box office must have been enough to ease their doubts. It is also probably the only reason that John Carter arrives in cinemas in unnecessary 3D, for the film itself -- a space opera set predominantly on Mars -- gains nothing from the extra dimension (other than $$$).
While prospecting for gold, former Confederate soldier, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), stumbles upon a gateway which teleports him to Mars, or Barsoom as it is known to its many various inhabitants, the first of which Carter encounters being the Tharks: four-armed, 12-foot tall noble savages which were no doubt inspired by Burroughs' own observations of native Americans.
The Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), take in the strange looking but impressively gifted Carter (Mars' lighter gravity allows the former soldier to leap tall buildings in a single bound - if there were buildings), amusingly calling him 'Virginia' after confusing his home for his name.
But Carter is treated as little more than a pet until enemy forces, led by Sab Than (Dominic West), under the influence of the supernaturally-powered Matai Shang (Mark Strong, who really should fire his agent), attack the Tharks. Carter comes to the Tharks' rescue, and that of Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
Dejah just happens to be Princess of the Mars city of Helium, and promised to Sab in matrimony by her father (Ciaran Hinds). But the strong-willed Princess has other plans, escaping Sab's clutches during the skirmish and finding in the pale (Dejah's kind are more or less human save for their red spray tans) yet impressive Carter a possible champion for her people.
Cue Dances With Martians, as Carter and Dejah, in the process of uncovering the mysteries which brought the Virginian to Mars, prepare to bring about the downfall of evil on Barsoom by rallying the natives, and predictably falling in love along the way.
And while I didn't fall for in love with John Carter, I'll readily admit I enjoyed it for the most part. At 132-minutes it's too long but if you go with it, you're bound to have a reasonably good time. The source material is a mish-mash of Western, sci-fi, fantasy and romance, and all those elements blend persuasively if not always perfectly on screen.
The romantic leads, however, are easy on the eye, even if they aren't fully fleshed out (well, except for Collins' cleavage; bound to become this generation of young boys' Princess Leia in bikini). Kitsch, best known for his role on TV's Friday Night Lights, makes for a muscular, handsome and relatively wooden hero although not without charm and humour. And Collins, other than being a beauty, gives Dejah a girl power injection and smarts (Dejah happens to be a scientist too).
Comparisons with Avatar will be both expected and not unwarranted with John Carter, but given that Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel pre-dates that 3D extravaganza by almost 100 years (and that Avatar shamelessly "borrows" from other sources, Dances With Wolves and Fern Gully to name but two), claims of plagiarism are rather redundant.
And if John Carter never reaches the epic-ness of Avatar (other than in its bloated run time), I'm not sure that can be counted as a failing. For if the original intention of Disney and Andrew Stanton was to bring Burroughs' space opera to life, with all that that entails for a modern audience -- CGI creatures, requisite explosions, and a none-too-healthy serving of cheese, camp and Kitsch -- then John Carter is, by and large, a triumph.
Of course the audience, and thus box office figures, will determine if John Carter is a success (and sequels ensue). And that will always be the case, whether you live on Earth or Barsoom.
Icon Film Distribution
Pride is the deadliest of the seven sins, and Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) has it in spades. But pride also cometh before the fall, and the Roman general, recently dubbed Coriolanus in honour of his efforts fighting insurgents in the city of Corio, is about to take an almighty tumble off the pedestal from which the government -- though, pointedly, not the people -- of Rome have placed him.
While Caius has strong support from both Senator Menenius (Brian Cox), and his mother, Volumnia (a commanding Vanessa Redgrave), some members of the parliament (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) and the citizens of Rome are less enamoured with the man.
They appreciate his war efforts but not his attitude to their plight, and when Caius refuses to beg for their endorsement for a Senate seat, people power prevails and the General must accept banishment from Rome or face execution.
But Hell hath no fury like a proud General scorned, as Caius seeks revenge on Rome by forming an uneasy alliance with Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), leader of the the Volscian insurgents and his sworn enemy (we witness the pair do hand-to-hand combat at the battle of Corio).
Fiennes, making his directorial debut, and screenwriter-of-the-moment, John Logan (Hugo and Rango), adapting William Shakespeare's play, wisely decide against a self-consciously "modern" setting (like Richard Loncraine's 1930's set Richard III (1995) and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996)) for Coriolanus.
Instead we get the recognisable concrete jungles and corridors of power of an international capital. And Rome (actually Belgrade, Serbia and shot by The Hurt Locker's cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd) has never looked so drab and unappealing; its people demonstrate in the streets for food, and civil war is waged on the outskirts of the city and throughout the country.
All of this provides Coriolanus with an immediacy and modern relevance, and yet I failed to be fully engaged. Admittedly, I'm not as Shakespeare savvy as I'd like to be but it wasn't the language I struggled with. Indeed, the only time the film came to life for me was when Redgrave was on screen.
The veteran British actress can recite the Bard as easily as she breathes and her Volumnia, proud yet overbearing mother who revels in the reflected glory of Caius's triumphs, provides an oomph which the battle scenes and bloodletting didn't.
Redgrave also manages to make Jessica Chastain (this being one of six films the actress appeared in in 2011) seem anaemic by comparison, although the role of Virgilia, Caius's loyal yet cautious wife, isn't that fullblooded to begin with.
Coriolanus may also appear to be a safe choice for Fiennes' directorial debut -- like Redgrave, Shakespeare's words flow freely from the actor's tongue -- but familiarity hasn't bred contempt. It's a boldly executed film, and could easily work as introductory Shakespeare in school classrooms as well as engaging a cinema going public who (think they) don't get the Bard.
But like the good people of Rome, I failed to be won over by the many virtues of Coriolanus.