Thursday, 24 January 2013
The title of course refers to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the likes of which the world had never before witnessed; a tidal wave pushed inland following an out-to-sea underground earthquake which proceeded killed more than 200,000 people across south-east Asia. But The Impossible also refers to the human spirit: it's capacity to endure and it's strength to overcome.
J.A. Bayona's second feature, and his first English language film after the accomplished Spanish horror, El Orfanato (The Orphanage), follows the plight of one family which endured and overcame in the aftermath of the tsunami, putting them -- and the audience -- through the wringer. That family are the Bennetts: mother Maria (Naomi Watts), father Henry (Ewan McGregor), and children Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), an English family living in Japan and spending their Christmas vacation in Thailand.
Actually, the Bennetts are the Alvarez Belons, and not English but Spanish, and much has been made of the anglocizing of the family. But if Maria Belon, who worked closely with Bayona and screenwriter, Sergio. G. Sanchez, doesn't have a problem with this than I'm not sure why we should.
A more persuasive criticism of the film is its "whitewashing"; despite being set in Thailand, The Impossible is very much focussed on the Western survivors and has little time for the locals. They're depiction is never unkind but more cursory; blinkered (though not racist) is a valid argument. But I digress.
Like thousands of others on that fateful day, the Bennetts were going about their (holiday) business -- father and sons in the pool, mum reading a book poolside -- when the wave struck. And the tsunami sequence is one of the most impressive set pieces of cinema 2012. Shot in a large water tank in Europe, the sequence is awesomely realistic as we watch mother and eldest son pushed along by the surging waters, beaten and battered by debris.
Maria and Lucas manage to extricate themselves from the deluge and head for drier and higher ground, rescuing a European toddler along the way before locals rescue all three and transport the severely injured Maria to the nearest hospital. With his mother bedridden (Watts, Oscar nominated, suffers nobly) and his father and siblings presumably dead (Spoiler: they're not), Lucas has adult responsibility thrust upon him, and the young teen rises to the challenge. As does Holland.
The first time film actor, who played Billy Elliott on the stage in England and voiced a character in the English dub of Japanese animated feature, Arrietty (2010), is essentially the star of The Impossible and he more than adequately carries the bulk of the film.
And while we may be viewing the story through a child's eyes, Bayona, in spite of some sentimental tendencies and not-so-subtle emotional manipulation (not for nothing has his direction here been called 'Spielbergian'), doesn't skimp on the scope nor horror of the human and environmental devastation left in the wake of the tsunami.
That a nation, a region, and its people, let alone one family, could not only survive such an ordeal but carry on in the days, weeks and months following is a testament to the human spirit. The Impossible, despite its focus on one family, is a wonderfully heartfelt tribute to all those people.
Monday, 21 January 2013
Opens January 24
If Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009) was a Jewish revenge fantasy, then Django Unchained is very much its American slavery counterpart: an anti-antebellum riposte where the master gets well and truly served; Tarantino taking a big-spurred riding boot to the face of racism and the idyllic notion of the American Deep South, real and imagined.
And like Basterds, which paid homage to the WWII film genre, Django is very much the writer-director-film geek's seemingly unholy yet wholly satisfying marriage of the spaghetti western to blaxploitation. I won't even pretend to have seen half of the films referenced throughout Django Unchained (admittedly, I hadn't heard of most of them), and it matters not if you haven't: Tarantino's film is full-on fun on its own terms.
It's a couple of years out from the American Civil War, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German emigre and former dentist now bounty hunter, has come in search of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). Django, whom we first meet shackled to fellow slaves and wearing not much more than a raggedy blanket and a canvas of skin daubed with the scars of a whip, can identify three men, the Brittle brothers, whom Schultz has been hunting.
After "negotiating" Django's freedom with his owners, Schultz completes his mission -- following a funny-bracing set piece on a plantation owned by Big Daddy (Don Johnson), and a subsequent comic sketch involving a KKK fashion faux pas -- and offers Django a partnership in the bounty hunting business. Waltz is eloquent and loquacious as the bounty hunter who, like another Dr. King, believes all men are created equal. His partnership terms with Django may not be financially equal (70-30) but he can empathise with a man who will doing anything for love.
For Django's ambition is to find and rescue his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) -- named by her original German owners (she even sprechen sie Deutsch) -- and Schultz agrees to help. Sold-off separately from Django as punishment for the pair's penchant for running away, Hilde, as Django affectionately calls her, is his whole reason for living, and Django Unchained is, for all its bullets, blood and bravado, a love story. Perhaps not as epic as the German tale Schultz tells of another Brumhilda, rescued by Zeigfried from a dragon on a mountain top, but like his Germanic counterpart, Django is prepared to walk through Hell fire to get her back.
And Foxx gives an impressive performance. He may be in danger early on of being outshone by Waltz, but the nearer Django comes to achieving his goal of rescuing his wife, and the deeper he gets into his various "characters" (a purple-suited valet, a cold-hearted black slaver), Foxx delivers a subtle progression from beaten down compliance to righteous avenging angel.
Hell, as it turns outs, is Candyland, a Mississippi plantation with a nasty reputation and owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Southern dandy with a mean streak. Actually, he's a sadistic son of a bitch and DiCaprio, who rarely plays the bad guy, has rarely been better than he is here. Candie is heavily involved in the "sport" of Mandingo fighting and with very little time or patience for those who waste or insult his time, money or Southern hospitality, which Schultz and Django, under the guise of looking to enter the Mandingo fighting game, well and truly do.
But it's Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen who is an even bigger villain. Hell, he might just be the best villain of cinema 2012. An ebony Iago to Candie's white-skinned Othello, his Uncle Tom houseboy routine -- he runs the "downstairs" of Candyland -- is a mask for a self-loathing black man who's not about to surrender what semblance of power he's built up over a half century of servitude for the Candie clan; not to a white German dentist-cum-bounty hunter and certainly not to some freed slave with an attitude.
And yes, the 'n' word is dropped as frequently as any throughout Django Unchained, and mostly by Jackson in the film's overly-long and messy third act (where everything comes to a head and goes to hell, and the director's eclectic selection of music tracks start spilling out one after the other like a jukebox on the fritz). But Tarantino, who's been criticised in the past for his penchant for the offensive term (most notably by filmmaker, Spike Lee), may have his best justification yet for the explosive racial epitaph: if not when taking a blowtorch to America's ugly slavery past, then when?
Besides, there is plenty of ugly (gun violence, anyone?) to unnerve and unsettle an audience in Django Unchained. America's history is a bloody and violent one which Hollywood has mostly chosen to sanitize and whitewash. Tarantino may be having his cake and eating it too by simultaneously exposing the ugly truth whilst revelling in it, but depiction isn't endorsement (just ask Kathryn Bigelow) and too ignore the brutally ugly nature of slavery and race relations would be even more offensive.
Still, if you're a fan of Tarantino, or even only familiar with his work, then you pretty much know what you're in for. And then again, maybe not. There's serious intent to go along with the director's usual audacity and bravado. Django Unchained is not a message film by any means but it means to provoke a response beyond instant titillation. But just as Django says of the morally complicated bounty hunting trade, what's not to like?
Wednesday, 16 January 2013
This Is 40 picks up where most rom-coms and fairy tales fear to tread: beyond the 'happy ever after'. A sequel-of-sorts to his 2007 hit Knocked Up, writer-director Judd Apatow's fourth film joins long-time marrieds, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) (friends of the previous film's lead protagonists) as they hit 40, their financial limits and reality.
Not surprisingly, given the current economic climate, Pete's small record label is failing, as is Debbie's clothes stores (actually, one of her employees may be pilfering from the till; odds are it's the one who looks a lot like Megan Fox). Pete is also providing clandestine loans to his father (a scene-stealing Albert Brooks), who's supporting a much younger wife and three Aryan rugrats whom the old man can't tell apart let alone keep up with.
But Pete and Debbie have kid troubles all their own: a moody teen already immersed in the world of social media, and a youngster who, unable to do everything her big sister does, is happy to irritate her at every opportunity (both girls played by Apatow and Mann's daughters, Maude and Iris).
Such every day frustrations leave little time for the release of sexual ones, but This Is 40 isn't a smutty comedy about a lack of sex (though their is sex talk to be sure): it's about the hard work that is marriage; keeping the spark alive -- which is hard when you're partner wants you to check their anus for piles -- whilst balancing everything else. And though everything is played for laughs, Apatow's observations on relationships hit close to home every now and then.
And Apatow wants comedy -- and his films -- to be taken seriously. That's partly the reason, one suspects, that he likes to take 120 minutes or more (see The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People) to say what could quite easily be accomplished in 100; confusing length for import. But there's a reason, Judd, why brevity rhymes with levity, and for the existence of the cliche 'less is more'.
Still, it's not so unpleasant to spend time with Pete and Debbie: Rudd's always been a likeable screen presence, and Mann (Apatow's real life wife) manages to invest her rather shrill character with some empathy, the highpoint being when, flushed with pregnancy hormones, she verbally attacks the classmate of her eldest daughter for his cyber bullying (Melissa McCarthy plays the boy's mum, and pretty much steals the film in a closing credits out-take).
By no means a comedy classic -- it's as imperfect as married life -- This Is 40 will provide many a laugh, some more uncomfortable than others depending on your marital or relationship situation.
Thursday, 10 January 2013
There's something evil at work in Hollywood(land) in 1949 and it's not the casting couch. Mickey Cohen, a Jewish gangster with East Coast mob connections and ambitions of ruling the West, has all manner of illicit and illegal operations in play. From gambling to prostitution and sex slavery, Cohen (Sean Penn, channelling De Niro in psycho mode) has his fingers in many pies. He also has the LAPD in his pocket.
Well, most of them. Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a returned WWII servicemen, is one of the city's few honest cops, not afraid to tackle crime when it takes place on Cohen's turf even if his partner and department turns a blind eye.
But the rotten doesn't go all the way to the top: Police Chief Parker (a growling Nick Nolte: did he suffer throat cancer or is he still in voice character from Over The Hedge?) acknowledges O'Mara's fighting the good fight and appoints him to lead an unofficial -- badges off -- task force to upend Cohen's operations, whatever means necessary.
O'Mara enlists Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), the sole representative of the law in L.A.'s black neighbourhoods, communications expert, Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), veteran cop sharp shooter turned comic book hero, Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), and his eager tag-a-long, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena).
And his chosen 2IC is Sgt Jerry Wooter (Ryan Gosling), an apathetic cop who is roused from his lethargy by the death of his favourite shoeshine, and the fact that the girl he has fallen for just happens to be Cohen's. Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) came to Hollywood with dreams of stardom but now teaches elocution to the gangster.
Stone certainly rocks her 1940s red evening dress, and the chemistry between Gosling (her Crazy, Stupid, Love co-star) softly smoulders, but Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential they are not.
And Gangster Squad is more Mulholland Falls (1996) than L.A. Confidential, which would perhaps explain the appearance of Nolte who starred in the former. But that doesn't explain director Ruben Fleischer's stylistic choices which draw attention to themselves for all the wrong reasons: oddly timed slow-motion shoot-outs and equally as odd stabs at humour. Gangster Squad is more lug-headed than hard boiled. Violent, sure, but noir, neo or otherwise, it is not.
Admittedly, Gangster Squad has had a troubled time getting to cinemas: a delayed release and re-shoots following the shootings in Aurora, Colorado last July; the film originally featured a shoot-out in a cinema which producers deemed too sensitive to maintain.
Those setbacks, however, are after the fact. Gangster Squad's troubles were seemingly inherent from inception. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking the film, written by Will Beal and adapted from the book by Paul Lieberman, was originally a graphic novel. But it's not.
The story of Mickey Cohen versus the LAPD is based on fact but any semblance of reality seems to have been abandoned in pre-production. Fleischer, who made the excellent 2009 comedy, Zombieland, brings an almost cartoon-like aesthetic to proceedings which renders the action intermittently engaging but never once believable.
Wednesday, 9 January 2013
Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people. And the 13-year-old is kind of okay with that. Most of the spectral beings he encounters are a friendly bunch, and his deceased grandmother (Elaine Stritch) is the loveliest of them all. She hangs around to keep an eye on young Norman, hovering above the sofa and watching horror movies with her young grandson.
Of course no one, including his family (mum, dad, and self-obsessed big sister), believes in Norman's conversing with the dead. Nor do his classmates, and school proves to be much more of a nightmare for Norman than the ghosts of neighbours and Blithe Hollow townsfolk long gone. Like in most schools, the odd kid is prone to bullying and isolation, and Norman, a friendless loner, is an obvious target.
But when his estranged, rather weird uncle (John Goodman) informs Norman that a local prophecy involving zombies and a witch's curse is about to take effect and Norman is the only one who can stop it, he becomes the centre of attention; immediately joined in his unwanted quest by Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the 'fat kid' who not only believes in Norman's gift but is delighted to know that he can play fetch with the ghost of his dead dog (never mind if the stick can't actually be fetched).
Neil's older jock brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), Norman's sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and Norman's school yard tormentor, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), also become involved with Norman's mission when the dead start coming back to life and the adult population, gearing up for the annual witch festival (a Blithe Hollow tradition evolving from an unpleasant history), quite easily lose the plot.
Indeed, ParaNorman is a film about bullying and the evils which fear and ignorance breed. Yet it is never heavy-handed. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell deploy a deft touch in delivering a message of tolerance and understanding (a positive and no less timely message given the ridiculous response in some quarters to a character reveal late in the film).
Like Frankenweenie, another macabre animation of 2012, ParaNorman is a stop-motion piece although unlike Tim Burton's film, it deploys some CGI in its creation of Norman's world, both the living and the not-so. And while not in black and white, ParaNorman, produced by LAIKA, the team behind the equally macabre Coraline (2009), has a distinct and no less charming visual style. (The 3D may be unnecessary but one has to accept that any animated studio film nowadays is going to be released in that format.)
And like Frankenweenie, ParaNorman tips its hat to horror films of the past. Those references may not register with the youngsters in the audience (who may also get a little scared at times) but will please their older siblings, mum and dad, and anyone else (regardless of age or whether in possession of a child) who wisely chooses to investigate the paraNormanal activities of Norman Babcock.
Monday, 7 January 2013
20th Century Fox Films
"What if it turns out like Vertigo?", Alfred Hitchcock asks his wife, waking from a nightmare. He's talking about his latest project, Psycho, and the director should be so lucky. Or unlucky, as the case may be. Vertigo was a critical and commercial flop upon release in 1958, but in 2012 a poll of international films critics conducted by Sight & Sound magazine declared it the best film of all time.
Psycho would of course go on to be Hitchcock's most commercially successful film but nobody -- not Paramount Studios, colleagues and friends, nor the director himself -- thought so at the time. What seems like a no-brainer today was considered a giant risk in 1959, so much so that Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), mortgaged their Hollywood home to finance the black and white horror film, released in 1960.
Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi and penned by John J. McLaughlin, based on the book 'Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho' by Stephen Rebello, isn't a biopic as such but concerns itself with a roughly 12-month period when the making of Psycho threatened to destroy a director, a reputation and a marriage.
But as heavy as that sounds, Gervasi sets a jaunty tone from the beginning: Alfred Hitchcock, much like he did with his television series, addressing the audience with his customary drollness. Hopkins, sporting prosthetics and a fat suit, may not be a dead ringer for the Master of Suspense but I believed well enough in his portrayal of a man with creative fires and darker desires.
And while Mirren may never be required to shift out of first gear, her role as the woman behind the man -- and whom history knows very little of in spite of her influence on the director's work -- is empathetic as a woman who craves recognition as someone other than the wife of "the great and glorious Alfred Hitchcock", whilst also longing for his emotional attention.
Toni Collette (as Hitchcock's long-time PA, Peggy Robertson), James D'Arcy (a spookily good Anthony Perkins), and Jessica Biel (as actress Vera Miles) skirt around the edges of the frame, but Scarlett Johansson's Janet Leigh registers slightly more strongly.
And that infamous shower scene registers strongly both times Gervasi references it: firstly, the actual shooting of the scene where Hitchcock takes matters into his own hands, and then when the first public audience bears witness to the murder scene that would alter many a person's bathing habits for years to come.
Hitchcock is not a serious study of the man or his methods -- it's essentially a comedy with dramatic elements -- and his legion of fans and serious students of film should look elsewhere if they want a deeper insight into both his creative genius and his psyche.
But like My Week With Marilyn (2011) -- which followed the exploits of the blonde actress over an English summer whilst shooting The Prince and the Showgirl -- Hitchcock provides an entertaining behind-the-scenes, slice of life look at the making of one of the most admired and influential films and its equally loved and influential creator.
Tuesday, 1 January 2013
20th Century Fox Films
A boy adrift at sea for 227 days with no one for company but a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The premise of Life of Pi, a bestselling novel by Yann Martel, must have seemed unfilmable, and indeed, many directors - Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie), M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), and Alfonso Cuaron (The Prisoner of Azkaban) among them - all passed on the project.
But with a resume a diverse as any -- Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain -- and no stranger to a challenge and no prisoner to genre, Ang Lee has proven to be the right man for the job. And while ostensibly Lee has distilled the book into that very brief synopsis, he has made a film that is about so much more than an Indian boy and a tiger together at sea.
Pi (first-time actor Suraj Sharma) finds himself all at sea when during a storm the ship he and his family (father, mother and older brother) are travelling on -- from India to Canada -- sinks. The tiger, named for the hunter who captured him, was one of the animals whom Pi's father was bringing with them from their home in Pondicherry, India where they owned and operated a zoo.
A zebra, orangutan and hyena also survived the ship's sinking and scrambled into Pi's and Richard Parker's lifeboat, but you don't need to be David Attenborough to deduce what happens to those three. Even out of its element, nature -- and Darwinism -- will out and those at the top of the food chain remain; Pi and Richard Parker spending the next days, weeks and months coming to an understanding about how their worlds -- a lifeboat and a makeshift raft -- will now co-exist.
The pair's time at sea makes up the bulk of Lee's film which is framed by a modern day sequence set in Canada, where an older Pi (played beautifully by Irrfan Khan) recounts his seafaring adventure to a writer (Rafe Spall). This tale also includes Pi's childhood in India where the young boy developed a fascination for various faiths and a belief in an ecumenical god.
And faith is one thing that helps sustain Pi while he is at sea but Life of Pi is not a film about religion. It is spiritual, yes, but it is not concerned with God. The devil, however, is in the detail. A more beautiful looking film you will be hard pressed to find; Claudio Miranda's cinematography is simply stunning while the 3D is some of the best ever deployed in cinema. Never distracting or for novel effect, the 3D expands and informs the universe which Pi and the tiger inhabit.
As does the CGI work in the film: Richard Parker is, of course, not a real tiger but you'll have trouble discerning between the real tigers which were used during the shoot and those which are rendered by computer.
But you'll have no trouble believing in Pi. Sharma, who only attended the auditions for the film to accompany his brother, brings the necessary wide-eyed innocence to the role of a boy who becomes a man yet never loses his desire to believe in the best of all things. And the sting in the tiger's tale will let you know why.
Like The Grey, Joe Carnahan's impressive yet sadly overlooked film released earlier in 2012, Life of Pi is a tale of survival; of man versus nature; and of man versus himself. Despite the differing looks and approaches of each film -- one is as cold and stark as the other is vibrant and beautiful -- the two make for an excellent double bill: as studies of man's capacity to thrive against the odds, to find hope where it seems impossible, and to seek solace in faith whether from the heavens or from within.
That Life of Pi left me less moved than I had hoped to be is just as much a failing on my part as it is the film's. Ang Lee doesn't do easy emotion and as much as this has been produced as a family film, Life of Pi doesn't dumb down its intent to please an audience. I can respect that, and highly recommend Life of Pi as a journey well worth taking.