Wednesday, 30 October 2013
Inspired by the career of a White House attendant, Lee Daniels' The Butler (its full American title following a copyright kerfuffle) charts the history of the American Civil Rights movement, from the 1950's through to the election of President Obama in 2008, in tandem with the life and career of the titular manservant, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).
From Cecil's childhood on a Southern cotton plantation in the 1920s -- where a sympathetic but no less bigoted Mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) instructs the young Cecil on being the perfect houseboy -- through his 40-odd years as a butler at the White House -- serving eight presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton -- The Butler, penned by Danny Strong, examines the political and the personal struggles for racial equality in the United States.
Privy to the movement's, and America's big moments -- segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Freedom Rides; the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King -- from within the halls of the American seat of power, Cecil is at somewhat of a remove from the bigger picture unfolding across America; his viewpoint filtered through whomever is the current President, who is either mindful of Cecil (James Marsden's John F. Kennedy), or, if not oblivious to his race, than certainly his emotions (Liev Schreiber's Lyndon B. Johnson).
The cameos of noted actors portraying the Presidents -- which also includes Robin Williams (Eisenhower), John Cusack (Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Reagan) -- isn't as distracting as you'd fear. Although little more than extended walk-ons, they aren't amusing for their appearance so much as the often present hypocrisy; their respect for Cecil but their failure to grasp the importance of the Civil Rights movement: Reagan champions Cecil's long-waged campaign of equal pay for the White House's coloured staff even as he steadfastly refuses to oppose the South African government's policy of apartheid.
What Cecil may think about his employers he does not say, perfecting the art of the butler who should make the room appear as though he is not in it. And Whitaker, an actor with distinct facial features and a whispery voice, is perfect at portraying a man so accustomed to not being observed or questioned.
But when Cecil is at home, he's forced to engage. Not just by his colourful wife, Gloria (a fine Oprah Winfrey), but by his impassioned eldest son, Louis (David Oleyowo). Louis, unlike his father, knows what's happening in the real world; he senses the winds of change. When he leaves for university (in the South, no less), he pursues his political leanings (and fellow activist, Carol (Yaya Alafia)), much to the chagrin of his parents.
Louis's arc -- the Freedom rides, a disciple of Dr. King, a flirtation with the Black Panthers -- charts the Civil Rights movement from within, exposing the overt racism at America's heart, and the bravery of those involved in confronting and overcoming it.
It's in these moments -- in the Gaines household with Cecil and Gloria; in the instances where father and son clash over ideology -- the quiet and personal ones, where Daniels' film excels. While the larger construct of of the film, the broad strokes of history, may not always be convincing, the emotional beat of The Butler comes through.
Walt Disney Studios Films
A Norse god from an alien world, fighting side by side with humans and super humans? It really shouldn't work and yet the character of Thor -- a Marvel Comics creation and a member of said super human team, The Avengers -- isn't as incongruous as you'd think. And in the guise of Chris Hemsworth, he's an even easier anomaly to swallow.
The Dark World is Hemsworth's third outing as the hammer-wielding God of Thunder (after 2011's Thor and 2012's The Avengers), and the finely chiselled, blonde-mane man mountain seems to be the most at ease he's been with this character yet. It helps that he has Tom Hiddleston, also back for the third time as Thor's adopted evil brother, Loki, as his sparring partner; the latter playing the salty yin to Hemworth's (rock) solid yang.
The two are forced to bury the hatchet and work together this time to defeat Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a Dark Elf whose previous attempt to submerge the universe in darkness by use of an energy force known as the Aether, was thwarted by Thor's grandfather. And while Malekith escaped, the Aether was hidden somewhere within the Nine Realms (of which Earth, and Thor's home world, Asgard, belong).
But when astrophysicist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, reduced to a mere damsel in distress this time round), who also happens to be Thor's long distance love interest, discovers the Aether in London, unwittingly becoming a vessel for the energy force, Malekith is awakened from his suspended animation and sets about resuming his evil plan where he left off, forcing Thor to spirit Jane away to Asgard and to ultimately turn to his brother for help.
Alan Taylor, best known as a director on hit television series Game of Thrones -- and no doubt chosen to helm this sequel (when original choice, Patty Jenkins, departed due to creative differences) because of the tenuous connection between the two properties' sword and sandal fantasy elements -- keeps everything moving (after a slow start) without ever distinguishing himself; The Dark World doesn't have the Shakespearean overtones which Kenneth Branagh brought to the first film, even when most of the action occurs on Asgard and in the House of Odin.
But it does have that same sense of fun which prevents The Dark World from becoming a good versus evil, the world-on-the-edge-of-total-annihilation CGI-driven bore. For all the Asgardian world building in this second outing, it's the human touch which keeps the audience engaged in Thor's second solo outing; Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis, Jane's spunky intern, and Stellan Skarsgard as fellow astrophysicist, Eric Selvig, whose had his marbles scrambled following a previous encounter with Loki, providing much of the film's humour, as does Hiddleston.
The end credits* promise us Thor will be back, and why wouldn't he? Marvel and Disney have made a motza from the Avengers franchise, with the last two films alone (The Avengers, and this year's Iron Man 3), each grossing north of $1 billion at the box office. I doubt The Dark World will do the same kind of business (The Avengers was an "event" film, and Hemsworth is no Robert Downey Jr.) but it's an entertaining enough adventure that should sate the fan boys until Captain America returns in April 2014.
*Note: Do stay through the end credits for not one but two clips. Don't see the film in 3D; the format adds nothing to the viewing experience.
Monday, 21 October 2013
Greengrass' United 93 was my favourite film of 2006. The docudrama-like retelling of doomed United Airways Flight 93 on that fateful day in September, 2001 bristled with drama and emotion without ever being sensationalist or cloying. It was a thriller that never lost sight of the human bravery and tragedy it was portraying.
And although we knew the outcome, such was the skill of the direction, coupled with the no-name cast (and one's own subconscious Hollywood indoctrination: all endings are happy, yes?) that we thought the passengers might make it after all -- even when viewing it a second or third time.
Captain Phillips is also based on actual events: the hijacking by Somali pirates of an American cargo ship; the first US ship to be taken by pirates in some 200 years. And like United 93, while less infamous and far less tragic, the outcome is also known (although if you know nothing of the events aboard the Maersk Alabama, you're sure to find Captain Phillips far more nail-biting).
And like United 93, Greengrass brings his docudrama aesthetic -- not to mention his Bourne-style flourishes -- to this high seas drama; first putting the audience on board the Alabama when it is seized by just four gun-wielding Somalis, and then at sea when said pirates and the titular Captain (Tom Hanks) head for the Somali coast in the claustrophobic confines of a life pod, pursued by American naval ships.
Adapted by Billy Ray from Richard Phillips' book, A Captain's Duty: Somalis Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea, detailing the events, Greengrass' film works as both a thriller and a commentary on the explosive meeting of the First and Third Worlds; Phillips and the pirates functioning as symbols as much as anything else (there's little in the way of back story for either Phillips -- a clunky opening scene let's us know he has a wife (a pointlessly cast Catherine Keener) and kids -- or the hijackers).
Still, Hanks is ideal for the role of Phillips. His 'every man' qualities making the captain empathetic and believable. And it's a solid turn by the actor (even with his inconsistent Boston accent) as Phillips keeps his wits about him in the face of danger and sacrificing himself for his crew.
Feature film debutant, Barkhad Abdi, also manages to register as Muse, the leader of the four pirates who is determined to make the Alabama his big ticket. There is hunger in this man's eyes, both figurative and literal, and either a captain's ransom or a one-way ticket to America will sate that desire.
Captain Phillips doesn't come close to United 93 in eliciting emotion or for producing suspense, nor is it equal to that film generally. But Greengrass continues to excel as a director who effectively marries Hollywood sensibilities with political narratives: producing thrillers for adults and exercising the mind as he quickens the pulse.
Tuesday, 15 October 2013
If evil triumphs when good people do nothing, how minor - or large - is the victory when good people choose do evil things in an attempt to achieve good? That's the troubling question at the heart of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's first English-language film, Prisoners, a thriller and police procedural which may have you questioning your own ethics as it implicates you in its lead character's extreme decisions.
That's Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a building contractor and a man's man; the kind of guy who teaches his adolescent son to shoot deer and instructs him to be prepared for anything (Keller's basement filled with enough food, water and fuel supplies to last several months should the need arise).
And when Keller's young daughter goes missing, along with her best friend and daughter of the Kellers' (wife Grace, played by Maria Bello) friends and neighbours, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), he's prepared to do what it takes to find his little girl. If that means taking the law -- and the police's number one suspect -- into his own hands, than so be it.
Alex Jones (an excellent Paul Dano) is a bespectacled young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old and creepily, whispery voice that recalls a Michael Jackson parody. Jones, who lives with is widowed aunt (Melissa Leo), also drives an RV like the one the girls were earlier seen playing on (and which the audience witnessed circling the neighbourhood like a shark looking for prey), and this, his mental state and a scene involving animal cruelty leaves Keller (and us) in no doubt that Jones abducted the girls. And if the police, headed up by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), can't get him to talk, Keller will.
Jones becomes the prisoner (or one of them) of the title; held in an abandoned apartment belonging to Keller where he, and, reluctantly, Franklin, beat and torture the suspect in the hopes that he'll eventually cave in. And Villeneuve makes us both witness and party to this torture, asking us whether we, even if we believe Jones to be guilty, would go to such lengths and such brutality to ensure the safe return of a loved one. Is Keller doing what any one of us would do? Or has he gone too far?
I'm on the record as not being a fan of Hugh Jackman so it should probably be taken with a grain of salt when I suggest that his performance in Prisoners is arguably his best to date (even the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, which earned Jackman his first Oscar nomination, failed to impress). The closest he's come to playing a hard man is as Wolverine, but the tough guy antics Jackman's called on to perform here are not of the comic book variety; they're more real and human, and it's only when his emotions become OTT that he is less convincing.
Gyllenhaal is excellent, too. The role of Detective Loki doesn't provide much in the way of back story or psychology but then again, a detective who has 100 per cent success rate when it comes to solving cases probably doesn't have much time for a personal life: the case unfolds over a matter of days and we only ever see Loki on the job; the only time he gets to emote or unload emotionally is on his Chief or his work desk.
There's the suggestion of a harsh childhood (perhaps that accounts for the constant blinking?) and perhaps his steely determination in the pursuit of the law is a constant battle to right the wrongs once committed against him? Either way, Gyllenhaal makes him dogged in his pursuit of the perpetrator yet quietly noble in his adherence to the letter of the law. Paul Dano and Melissa Leo also give terrific performances but it's a shame how little Bello, Howard and Davis, all fine actors capable and worthy of more, are utilised.
The world in Prisoners is a grim one, even more so than in Villeneuve's previous film, the Oscar-nominated Incendies. Roger Deakins' cinematography amplifies that grimness, barely letting any light in. A lot of the action occurs during the night while during the day, if it's not snowing it's raining, and sometimes both; rendering the landscape -- both physical and moral -- grey, muted and cold.
This combined with the constant knot in your stomach, which expands and shrinks as the film effectively increases and releases the tension (diminished only slightly in the third act where there is twist upon twist and the pennies begin to drop), does not make for a pleasant viewing experience. But it does make Prisoners an experience worth enduring.
Wednesday, 9 October 2013
Becker Film Group
Depending on your point of view, sixteen years is either too soon or just long enough for a film to be made about the late Princess of Wales. It's hard to believe that it was August 31, 1997 when Diana, along with then beau, Dodi Fayed, died in a car crash in Paris whilst being pursued by paparazzi.
That event book-ends Oliver Hirschbiegel's biopic-of-sorts (adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from a book by Kate Snell) covering the final two years in the Princess's life. Or to be more exact, her love life. And not with the millionaire playboy, Dodi, son to the Egyptian millionaire and owner of Harrods, Mohamed Al-Fayed, but Diana's on-again, off-again romance with Pakistani-born heart surgeon, Doctor Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews).
In the wake of her separation from Prince Charles and all but ex-communication from the Palace, Diana (Naomi Watts) is a lonely woman; hounded by the media and only seeing her two boys every few weeks. But then she meets the Doctor. The pair's meet-cute taking place in the hospital where Hasnat works: Diana, visiting a friend, is immediately taken with the man and, if we believe what we're shown here, actively pursues him.
Indeed, if this wasn't a film about "the most famous woman in the world" (a line oft repeated in Diana you could use it as the basis for a drinking game) you could be forgiven for thinking that this segment of the film -- where Hasnat sneaks into Diana's palace in the back of her car, and she ventures out in a brunette wig for nights on the town with the Doctor and clandestine visits to his apartment -- was a boy-meets-famous girl rom-com of the Notting Hill ilk (sans intentional laughs, though there are a few unintentional ones).
But a romance between a jazz and hamburger loving heart surgeon and a real life princess cannot be. Hasnat craves his privacy and Diana, whether by design or by choice, cannot be anything other than famous. The arguments between the pair over their two separate, vastly different worlds go round and round, padding out to almost two hours what is already a thinly stretched drama.
It's in the wake of her last break-up with Hasnat that Diana flees the country, accepting in invitation to holiday with Dodi Fayed. And it's in these sequences, where Diana is shown to manipulate the media, and Hirschbiegel recreates the now infamous photos of Diana and Dodi frolicking in their swimwear aboard the millionaire's boat off the Italian coast, that the film suddenly, albeit briefly, develops a pulse (perhaps because we know the end is nigh?).
There are arguably several things wrong with Diana but one has to lay most of the blame at the feet of screenwriter Jeffreys. The dialogue is unforgettable at best, and laughably bad at worst. Understandably all conversations between Diana and Hasnat are speculative but one wonders what may have been had a writer of the calibre of Peter Morgan, who famously penned The Queen (2006), been entrusted to breathe life into both the story and the characters.
As always, Naomi Watts is solid in the titular role but you need more than a passing resemblance to the historical figure you're portraying to make that person 'real'. It doesn't help that Princess Diana is so fixed in most people's minds that, even if she had donned prosthetics, Watts would be still be pushing a large rock up a very steep hill.
In that respect, Naveen Andrews has the easier task; playing an actual person but one whom few people could actually identify. Andrews manages to make Hasnat Khan both charming and stubborn but he stumbles whenever called upon to quote poetry or the Quran, and comparing life and love to jazz.
For some, particularly the British, it was always going to be 'too soon' for a film about the Princess of Wales and never time at all for a warts-and-all one. Diana isn't hagiography as such but nor does it challenge the memory of woman who still lingers in the public consciousness.
That's probably why a non-British filmmaker was chosen to helm the project. And if German director Hirschbiegel dared to make a film centred on the final days of Adolf Hitler (Downfall, 2004), he probably had even fewer qualms in taking on this challenge.
Still, Hirschbiegel brings little in the way of directorial flare to the telemovie proceedings of Diana, a film that's not as bad as you'd expect it to be but not particularly good either. And whether you're a Brit, a Diana fan or just a curious movie-goer, you -- and, for that matter, the Princess -- deserve better.
Friday, 4 October 2013
Roadshow/Warner Bros. Films
Alfonso Cuaron's return to filmmaking after a seven-year absence (2006's Children of Men was his last, a film I shamefully admit to not having seen) is proof-positive that the Mexican director wasn't kicking back: Gravity, a disaster thriller set in space, is a feat of technical wonders so precise and exquisite you just know it required maximum thought and planning; achieving the desired result of having you simultaneously asking 'how'd they do that?' as you gasp in awe (and possibly for air).
Opening with an-almost 13-minute take -- a ballet of rotating camera and floating actors, with the Earth as a stunning backdrop -- Cuaron introduces us to the three member team of the Explorer: veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), 2-I-C Shariff (Paul Sharma), and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), medical engineer and space flight first-timer.
Stone is understandably nervous, a condition both helped and hindered by Kowalski's jocular repartee with mission control in Houston (the voice of Ed Harris, a clever if obvious touch). But her fears are soon realised and superseded when Houston announces Russia has just destroyed one of their obsolete satellites and the subsequent debris is headed their way.
What ensues is a series of action set pieces as Stone and Kowalski (and soon - SPOILER - just Stone) battle both debris and rapidly depleting oxygen reserves in a bid for survival. What becomes a relentless fight for life by Stone is an equally relentless ordeal for the audience as Cuaron throws everything at his heroine and the screen (one of the rare times that 3D has been perfectly deployed in a film).
My major quibble ahead of seeing Gravity was the casting of Bullock. A fine comedic actress, her dramatic roles are few and far between and not entirely convincing (you will not persuade me that she deserved to be nominated for an Oscar for The Blind Side, let alone win the Best Actress award in 2009). But she is perfectly fine here, as a woman out of her depth and fighting for survival whilst also haunted by a family tragedy. Bullock does what the screenplay asks of her, but this is not a performance film (nor is the screenplay, co-penned with Cuaron's son, Jonas, the film's strong point).
Gravity is, however, a technical marvel. Cuaron perfectly combining all the filmmaking elements -- cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), editing (Mark Sanger, along with Cuaron), sound editing, production design (Andy Nicholson), and visual effects -- to produce an almost perfect whole. Even if he doesn't manage to provide quite the emotional connection, or the maximum level of suspense (this reviewer was never on the edge of his seat), the beauty of the imagery Cuaron provides in Gravity is enough to warrant seeing it in a cinema and, yes, in 3D.
Wednesday, 2 October 2013
Tennis is my sport of choice and it is littered with great rivalries: McEnroe and Borg; Navratilova and Evert; Sampras and Agassi; Federer and Nadal. In most of those instances, the rivalry rarely extended off the court. Whilst happy to beat down on the other during a contest, they were just as likely to be the best of friends afterwards.
Not so James Hunt and Niki Lauda. In Formula 1 racing in the 1970s, there was no greater rivalry than that of Hunt and Lauda: the popular pretty boy Englishman and the super-serious Austrian coming up together through the ranks of the sport, and cultivating a genuine dislike for each other; fuelling their on-track performances and exciting the media and race-going public.
That rivalry came to a head in 1976 when tragedy would befall the defending F1 world champion, Lauda, and Hunt would have to prove that he was more than just a contender. It's this season that is the primary focus of Ron Howard's Rush, a terrifically enjoyable look at the world of F1 even for those who haven't the slightest regard for the sport (or, like me, don't really think it is a sport. Driving cars round and round real fast? Whatever!).
Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a man of charm and good looks; a ladies man with a penchant for fun. He also happened to be a very talented driver, albeit one with more ambition than drive. Lauda, on the other hand, was never the life of the party. Taking up the sport despite his wealthy family's protests, he bought his way onto the Ferrari team and immediately set about telling his new employers all that was wrong with their cars.
He was too honest to be popular and too focussed on winning to be interested in chasing women (though he does marry Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), following a proposal as romantic as an oil change). Lauda was dubbed 'The Rat' because of his prominent front teeth but even being compared to a rodent couldn't faze the Austrian; rats, after all, are intelligent and it requires more brain than brawn to win a car race.
Peter Morgan's screenplay divides its time equally between these two men of contrast, managing to make us care for both when the action turns to the track. And Howard literally puts you in the driver's seat: hurtling around race tracks in Monte Carlo and Tokyo, in dry heat and misty rains; where danger or possibly death awaits you at every sharp turn.
I'm not sure how much of these racing scenes involved CGI but they are convincing and thrilling, rev head or not (props to cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and editors, Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill). And whether or not you question their athleticism, you can't deny these men their courage (or foolhardiness).
As in the 2010 documentary Senna, about the brilliant but brief Formula 1 career of Argentinian driver, Ayrton Senna, who was killed mid-race doing what he loved, Rush never shies away from the reality that death is a F1 driver's constant companion (Hunt believing his proximity to death is part of his appeal to women).
And like that doco, Howard manages to make his film as accessible and thrilling to novice and fan alike. He's helped immensely by his two leads, perfectly cast as evidenced by actual footage of the two racers during the film's closing credits. Hemsworth proving he's more than just beefcake, and Bruhl making what should be a very unlikeable character truly admirable (and pipping his more famous co-star for the chequered flag in the process).
Perhaps there's something about the 1970s which brings out the best in Ron Howard? Apollo 13 (set in 1970) and Frost/Nixon (set in 1977) are arguably the director's best films, and Rush certainly deserves a place on the grid and in the director's Top 5.