Monday, 6 February 2012

(500) Words review: The Artist

In an underwhelming film year, cinephiles have taken to heart love letters to cinema’s beginnings. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was bestowed with 11 Academy Award nominations, despite its callous haughtiness impeding any love, as it morphed into a lecture. A black-and-white and mostly silent film, The Artist is one behind on 10 submissions.

Hollywood continues to irk even members of its industry with its CGI, quantity-over-quality modus operandi, which has intensified adoration for something as banal as Michel Hazanavicius’s latest picture. That’s not to say The Artist is a bad film. Au contraire. It is charming and a form of escapism within escapism away from the technical ineptitude of many 21st century directors.

And yet it is also very familiar. Actor George Valentin is marginalised once talkies blare out from the studio backlots and becomes depressed, suffering personal and materialistic torment whilst a peripheral silent film extra emerges as a star. It is Sunset Boulevard minus the noir.

Had this been a dialogue-driven film, it would be unmemorable. However seeing an orchestra accompany on-screen soundless film in the opening sequence and Hollywoodland presented in its gorgeous black-and-white Golden Age is undeniably nostalgic.

Technically, it is a superbly made film that it renders the plot as irrelevant. One can surmise how events will conclude, but there are some genuinely impressive feats to behold that quibbling about it feels foolhardy. One shot of Valentin stood motionless on a staircase as the world moves around him is simple yet meaningful mise-en-scène that is also satirically pertinent. Why do most filmmakers shy away from such a practise?

The dapper humour of Jean Dujardin and his dog (played by Uggie, who is deserving of his own Oscar) is genuinely amusing and energises proceedings. Nonchalant supporting turns from actors as diverse as Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell and Missi Pyle ensure that the comedy is three-dimensional.

Bérénice Bejo, the female lead and object of Dujardin’s affections, is surely destined to make waves stateside in light of her resourcefulness as Peppy Miller. As poignant as she is vivacious, when Valentin pencils a faux-mole above her lip to provide her with an iconic trademark, she evokes memories of Rita Hayworth’s introduction in Gilda. And it’s that wistfulness which has seen The Artist strike a chord with lovers and haters of art cinema.

Her and Dujardin’s climactic dance is the key to the naysayers’ hearts. The pair practised fastidiously for five months in the same studio which Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly used for rehearsals when filming Singin’ in the Rain, and the end product is hypnotic. The choreography, pace and clickety-clack soundtrack will be remembered as the film’s money moment.

Much was made of Kim Novak’s distress at the use of Bernard Herrmann’s Scene d’Amour from Vertigo when the actress accused the Hazanavicius of filmic ‘rape’ in an interview with Today. Its inclusion for those familiar with Hitchcock’s masterpiece is a distraction, despite it complementing the specific sequence adequately. Images of a crazed James Stewart simply aren’t welcome though.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

(500) Words review: Shame

Sex-fuelled Shame may be, but sexy it is not. Charting the plight of addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender), it revokes the stigma that was that instantaneously prompts humour and is synonymous with Michael Douglas. But in depicting one of human beings’ greatest pleasures, it illustrates the emptiness confidence and forwardness can induce.

Brandon’s life is carefully regimented: work, w**k, s**g, sleep. He is an attractive introvert whose magnetism radiates in whatever environment. In one of the film’s opening scenes, he exchanges glances with a pretty commuter on the train. What begins as a mutual attraction soon spirals as he fixes his glance on the initially flirtatious blonde, who soon becomes uncomfortable under the watchful eye of a sexual predator.

The arrival of his self-harming sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) however disrupts his lifestyle, and soon he has the burden of his sole immediate relative to contend with, haunted by a past event. Mulligan, who has avoided the glamorous route since her 2009 breakthrough An Education, is a fractious foil for her on-screen sibling as the washed-up and starry-eyed Sissy, but both are helpless to aid one another.

And it is that reticence which prevents Steve McQueen’s second debut film from achieving greatness. The dynamic between Brandon and Sissy is as compelling as it is confounding. There are incestuous hints as they confront one another naked as if it were second nature, complemented by a tenderness that is borderline Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s all guesswork.

Guarded, Brandon daren’t divulge his torment to any of his conquests or confidants. He feigns ignorance when his adulterous boss (James Badge Dale) informs him that his work computer was removed due to the sheer volume of pornography that corrupted the hard drive. It flirts with the possibility of resembling an AA meeting however the question ‘why?’ is never answered.

Fassbender, arguably the greatest actor in the world at the moment, gives a fantastic and fearless performance. He is charming, repulsive and scary yet his dialogue-free moments wallowing in his own self-pity are so poignant that he effortlessly draws sympathy.

When Brandon is engaged in an orgy and on the cusp of climax, he suddenly looks, via a combination of lighting and expressive acting, skeletal. It is the denouement to a degenerative and desperate night, and he finally reaches depravity in what may or may not be the addict’s moment of clarity.

McQueen’s long takes don’t daunt his actors. Fassbender, Mulligan and Badge Dale revel in the extended license for expression, and the film is more believable for it. Sean Bobbitt, his cinematographer on the testing Hunger, returns to capture the seedy and the swanky New York locales.

Harry Escott’s suite which accompanies Brandon is a sensationally cinematic 12 minutes of music that proves that the violin is an instrument unparalleled in tugging on the heart strings. Although a tracking shot following Fassbender’s protagonist jogging through the sleepy streets of the Big Apple is hamstrung to the sound of an incongruous classical melody.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

(500) Words review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

‘I can’t take it anymore,’ mourns Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) after he receives another pressed flower reminding him of his torture. Almost immediately Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song then plays over an anarchic, Bondian credits sequence, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s tone is firmly established.

Tauter and sleeker, David Fincher’s version is so impressive an upgrade on the 2009 Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bruising novel that even Lisbeth Salander might say ‘thank you’.

Smarting from a libel loss, Daniel Craig’s journalist Mikael Blomkvist is summoned by Vanger to his home in Hedestad to investigate the 40-year unsolved murder of his niece Harriet. Promised damning evidence to aid his libel appeal, Blomkvist explores the ‘detestable’ Vanger family, eventually with the aid of punk hacker Lisbeth (Rooney Mara).

Benefitting from a bigger budget, Fincher’s gritty version is more filmic than Niels Arden Oplev’s equivalent, which resembles a TV movie more as a subsequence. Steve Zaillian’s script wisely eschews dwelling on Lisbeth’s past and although the film’s too long, this is not the fault of the tidier screenplay.

Jeff Cronenweth’s unmistakable cinematography from Fight Club and The Social Network heads outside from dank apartments to confront the biting Swedish winter with chilling gusto, but he is definitely the indoors type. This is exemplified by the key scenes involving rape and the victim dealing with the aftermath.

These are visceral to the point of genuine discomfort. Some attendants had to exit their screenings briefly, so traumatic was the scene composition and Mara’s display of helpless distress. Yorick van Wageningen, who plays the predatory perpetrator Bjurman, admitted that he locked himself away in his hotel room sobbing after filming it.

Mara is sensational. Her unassumingly dry humour and quietness for someone so loud in appearance are juxtaposed considerately within an exceptional performance. Whereas Noomi Rapace lacked likeability, Mara’s incarnation is sweeter and more affecting, that slight frame and shyness draws greater affection and ironically yearns for mollycoddling.

Support is strong too. Craig exudes a bumbling charm whilst rocking chic investigative garb for the middle-aged man in one of his best roles for years. He revels outside of the PG-13 comfort zone taking on grittier roles – be it a bleeding Bond, a roughed-up drug dealer or a crestfallen hack, the greater the demand the greater the performance. And on the subject of great performances, Plummer’s is a deliciously concise turn that, like Mara, balances gravitas and jocularity expertly.

Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor return to augment Fincher’s atmosphere with another understated score which encompasses the Scandinavian wilderness and mystery lurking within the Vanger estate. Meanwhile the use of Sail Away will have tarnished whatever affection you may previously have had for Enya’s finest.

Disappointingly the whodunit factor is ignored when the film may have benefitted from the fillip of tension. But as an impartial and moderate examination of femininity, it is a fascinating dissection of female vulnerability and determination.

Friday, 30 December 2011

(500) Words review; Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

When an incursion into the Kremlin goes awry, secret spy force IMF is shut down and its agents disavowed. Framed yet unbowed, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his three allies have mere days to prevent slick terrorist Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from unleashing nuclear disaster on America’s West Coast.

The fallout from JJ Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3 didn’t centre entirely on the plot and selfishness of Cruise on screen, but off of it too. After the release, Paramount owner Sumner Redstone decided not to renew Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner’s distribution rights, apparently appalled by the actor’s recent antics, particularly his appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Five years on and Cruise hasn’t learnt his lesson. Jeremy Renner, cast to ease the strain on the movie star’s wilting 49 years, is actually marginalised despite afforded a good portion of hands-on duties. It’s not that he isn’t unlikeable, but the Cruiser hogs the screen ad nauseam and you could be forgiven for assuming you were witnessing The Tom Cruise Show.

It is director Brad Bird who is the star of the show rather than his self-indulgent leading man, thanks to the execution of the film’s bedazzling set-pieces. The use of CGI is so meticulous and believable during the explosion on Red Square that it is a reminder that the method can be so much more than paint-by-numbers gratuity.

Bereft of visual trickery however is Cruise ascending and running along the Burj Khalifa. The film’s money moment, in IMAX it is so immersive that you’re expecting to plummet back down to earth with him, such is the intensity of the vertigo-inducing effect. This is where Cruise’s dedication to rewarding his audience is sustained, where as both an actor and a star, he regains credibility.

Veering away from Abrams’ darker territory, the mundane, bad-Bond plotline ensures a banal final act, which sags horribly given the electrifying sequences in Russia and Dubai that preceded it. Anil Kapoor makes a camp cameo as a playboy that is incongruous even amidst the flippancy of proceedings, while product placement sabotages the finale.

Complementing the tone well though is Simon Pegg, back on form after a recent unfunny slump, although Renner and Paula Patton aren’t as comfortable backbiting as they are fighting.

Nyqvist’s terrorist too is a conundrum. His motives are unclear and as an adversary for Cruise, he isn’t allowed sufficient screen time to impose his cerebral superiority, which makes his sudden physical prowess feel distinctly off piste.

Fun and frothy, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a mild improvement on the third instalment of the franchise, but despite the grand scale fails to convert the series into essential espionage viewing. Pixar alumni Bird directs his live action debut with typical audacity and impossible imagination, but this winter blockbuster fails to warm the cockles throughout the three acts.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Experiencing IMAX - The Dark Knight Rises Prologue

It is with regret that the IMAX showing of The Dark Knight Rises prologue and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was yours truly’s first experience of the format. Because it is the greatest cinematic experience I’ve ever experienced.

Superior than the magic of my first visit to the pictures for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or any gratuitous three-dimensional picture, it is a breathtakingly immersive treat. And at £15, is undeniably reasonable.

Generic cinema adverts were shown in 35mm and once ended, suddenly the spotlight fell upon the usher, who announced that there would be a few trailers prior to the IMAX premiere of Tom Cruise's fourth outing as Ethan Hunt. He then added the cherry on top of the richly iced cake: that prior to the film was The Dark Knight Rises prologue. This set off cheers.

Then the screen expanded into IMAX format for two trailers: Puss in Boots and John Carter. Nobody seemed receptive to these because the adrenaline had already taken over, and sans BBFC clarification, the Warner Bros. logo suddenly appeared, but portrayed as ice cracking. There is a short speech made by Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon eulogising Harvey Dent in 35mm, before fading to black. Subsequently, the screen enlarges once more for the sequence.

Christopher Nolan shot the majority of The Dark Knight’s action sequences in IMAX and has promised that roughly an hour’s worth of footage will appear in the conclusion to his Batman saga. The marker he has laid down with The Dark Knight Rises prologue (ie. the opening six minutes of the film) is innovation personified.

Introducing the Caped Crusader’s latest antagonist Bane (Tom Hardy), it resembles the opening to The Dark Knight’s bank heist, from playing with identities to painting a twist on a raid. Parts of Hardy’s dialogue are unintelligible due to Hans Zimmer’s intense score and the airborne setting, but critiques have over-exaggerated the ‘problem’ of Bane’s mask muffling his voice. Sounding gentlemanly, with some Cary Grant from North by Northwest thrown in, his primal outburst is however bone-crunchingly fierce.

Blending Bondian grandeur with Inception’s vertiginous audacity, it is a remarkable and epic exhibition of stunt work and – most impressively – seemingly free of CGI. A director who refuses to resort to painting by numbers unless absolutely necessary, Nolan has again afforded cinephiles a treat – only in the highest resolution on Britain’s largest screen.

For one who usually sneers at Americanised audiences clapping pointlessly (ie. a plane landing), it was testament to the majesty of the six minutes and teasing montage that I, and many others, did applaud an amazing feat on film.

(500) Words Review - Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Are you there Moriarty? One of fiction’s finest nemeses was already lurking (appropriately) in the shadows in Sherlock Holmes as a precursor for the events of his belated unveiling. As effective as Mark Strong’s black magic espouser Lord Blackwood was, he was playing second fiddle from the off. Guy Ritchie declined to accentuate anticipation at the arrival of Professor James Moriarty with a calling card a la the Joker, because he is Holmes’s rogue gallery.

Compelled to stop his newfound archenemy (Jared Harris) from instigating war, peace is not the sole source of concern for the sleuthing Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr). Domestically, his right-hand man Watson (Jude Law) is an increasingly sporadic presence, long moved out of 221B Baker Street ahead of his impending marriage. Yet ever the calculated conniver, Sherlock ensures that his friend’s stag party is pertinent to his assignment and unavoidably Watson is thrown into the thick of it as they trek across Europe, squabbling with and saving one another.

Funnier and sharper than the franchise’s opener, the ying-yang chemistry of Downey Junior and Law is filliped by Stephen Fry as Holmes’s brother Mycroft, but essentially playing Stephen Fry. Husband-and-wife team Kieran and Michele Mulroney energise proceedings with punchier dialogue that supersedes the four-pronged team that penned Downey Junior’s debut.

Often as is the case once the hero is established though is the finery of the villain. Harris’ casting triggered disappointment when names veering from Brad Pitt to Daniel Day-Lewis had been linked to the role, but he is perfect. Deliciously reptilian with a rasping voice which evokes his father’s vocals, he is an intimidating cerebral beast who is merciless when ostensibly charming.

Avoiding the banal ‘darker’ route, the Mulroneys nevertheless permit the antagonist a devious torture scene to the soundtrack of Die Forelle in what is an innovative exhibition of cinema’s megalomaniac. Unfortunately Harris is not allotted enough screen time to quench the appetite for his villainy.

Partly this is owed to Noomi Rapace’s gypsy girl Simza, established in a fit of feminist desperation in order not to alienate the female audience. Whereas Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler complemented Downey Junior with wily wit, Rapace is superfluous and haphazardly chosen to embody the film’s emotional arc.

Chaotic too, is Ritchie’s directing. Wisely forbidden from scrip-writing duties, the studio have got complacent and allowed him license to his motifs after cautiously keeping a short leash in the first outing. That unconscionable editing and ‘gritty’ sound effects that personified Snatch’s worst moments returns, while the interruption of slo-mo during the set-pieces predictably derails momentum. Hans Zimmer’s barnstorming score is consequently diluted.

Bromantic, subtly camp and featuring a thrilling sequence aboard a train, the final act fizzles out and is bereft of a desired duel between two of fiction’s most revered characters, but A Game of Shadows is an improvement. However with Ritchie at the helm and the Moriarty card already played, Holmes may be reaching for the violin rather than the magnifying glass.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Underrated film quotes: The Prestige

Sandwiched between his first two Batman blockbusters, Christopher Nolan added another string to his bow with 2006’s The Prestige, an art house film with an A-list cast. Not only a phenomenal adaptation of Christopher Priest’s dizzying novel about duelling magicians, it achieves the remarkable feat of improving upon the source material. Priest himself declared, ‘Holy shit. I was thinking, “Oh, I wish I'd thought of that.”’

If you haven’t seen the film yet, then don’t read any further. Buy it from Amazon (£4.28). Watch it. Then watch it again. And again. Chances are that you’ll then scour the web for illumination on The Prestige’s illusion.

For those of you who have, the film’s twists are staggering, with the crescendo a worthy rival to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995). When Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) reveals that he is actually two identical twins, the finale delicately explains the essence of his and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman)’s raison d’être not just on stage, but in life.

Hinging on the benign voice of Michael Caine’s stage engineer Cutter, the end monologue bedazzles its audience. ‘Now you're looking for the secret,’ begins his voiceover as Borden examines the abandoned building filled with tanks and now ablaze, with Angier’s corpse strewn across the floor. Gracefully, the image studious Borden dissolves into the mountains of Colorado Springs, where the multitude of those top hats lay in the chilly winter.

‘But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking,’ he continues cryptically. Again the dissolving effect returns, back to the building and the neatly arranged tanks, the fire beginning to bellow. And there, in one container, is one of Angier’s cloned stiffs; a bubble of oxygen floating to the surface.

‘You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.’

Cut to black. Finis. Cue Thom Yorke’s Analyse (how appropriate) and general bafflement in the auditorium. Was there something hidden? Have I been tricked? Is Angier still alive? I really need to see that again.

Five years on from its release, it is perhaps too raw to place the quote in cinema’s elitist pantheon, but for film scholars it is 31 words of complex ambiguity. When Borden reunites with his daughter, the loose ends are seemingly tied up. Nolan however embraces uncertainty like a comfort blanket and can’t resist stamping his motif on the ending.

In less than 30 seconds he creates a perception illusion which will remain open for debate as long as he and his dexterous scriptwriter brother Jonathan remain mum. For a filmmaker so humble when in the public eye, it’s unkind to decide that the enigmatic epilogue is vanity at his behest because it complements the film’s thoughtful tone perfectly. After all, the tagline for The Prestige and its opening line is, ‘Are you watching closely?’

Whereas most film lines are memorable for their machine-gun delivery, coolness, or solely due to the actor’s dulcet tones (ie. any Clint Eastwood quote), The Prestige’s signature is made memorable for the setting. Its author isn’t on screen, which intensifies its strength as an unforgettable statement courtesy of the craft that it is supplemented by.

There’s also the urge to cast doubt on a happy ending; another recurring theme in Nolan’s films. His pictures, irrespective of their tone, contain a haunting quality and those 31 words apply that to The Prestige, despite its ostensibly buoyant ending for the wronged Borden. That brief glance of suspicion from Bale transfers to the viewer, and the significance of Cutter’s words are upgraded to defining. And worthy of dissection.

The mini-speech even compelled some to feel cheated. Roger Ebert, possibly the most renowned film critic in the industry, was just one of them. It may not chime with the popcorn crowd who might find it overly pretentious, but that’s because they aren’t looking. Whereas we are.