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.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

(500) Words Review: Hugo

For a great director, Martin Scorsese finds himself pigeonholed. His 90s crime sagas Goodfellas and Casino, are endearing and enduring pictures, despite the latter feeling like a remake of the former. Perhaps mindful of his marvellous monotony, he is occasionally impelled to move left-field. So now he has embraced 3D.

Far from the last bastion of the three-dimensional resistance, it is nevertheless a drastic departure for the Queens-born New Yorker. Hugo is an explicit family film, with Scorsese playing the little kid whose eyes witness a romanticised 1930s Paris.

Orphan Hugo Cabaret (Asa Butterfield) lives within the walls of a train station and is vexed by the enigma of an unfinished automaton, which is linked to his late father. Suspicion is then aroused when the station’s cantankerous toy stall owner Georges Méliès (Sir Ben Kingsley) becomes disturbed by the boy’s pictorial notebook of the contraption. Recruiting Georges’ loquacious goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo ventures to seek the clues to unlock the mystery.

Although a love letter to cinema, this is also a lecture that feels both pretentious and pushy. ‘You’ve never been to the movies?’ Hugo sneers at Isabelle. Not every child, impoverished or not, ventured to the cinema in the 1920s – its place in culture then was insignificant and interrupted by the Great War.

Treated to a brief history of early film’s power and majesty, it would be interesting to know how this will chime with younger viewers. Even many adults will find the filmmakers’ nostalgia of esoteric cinema too high-brow.

Butterfield himself is part of the problem with his haughtiness. Deeply affecting in 2008s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he struggles to be likable despite the usually certified sympathy-inducing issue of being an orphan. He delivers lines starchily and while this is expected thanks to Hugo’s miserable circumstances, he discovers happiness recurrently yet is unable to set hearts leaping.

Everyone is however handicapped by what is a deeply underwhelming story. The reveal behind the mystique is part of the sermon, and rarely do you care whether Hugo finally discovers the secret behind his father’s parting gift.

Detachment to the emotion is briefly quelled by the brilliance of Kingsley, who radiates the screen with his enigmatic façade and complexity. He and on-screen wife Helen McCrory are an inspired pair, offering palpable poignancy as they return to the past and its pleasures.

Fleshing out the characters is troublesome because it is unnecessary. Scorsese has assembled a talented British cast which is superfluous; their inclusions are a poor effort in adding meat to a thin bone. Sacha Baron Cohen, a not-very-sinister villain, is another character tagged with ‘sympathetic upbringing’ in a forceful bid for redemption.

Unfortunately engaging human elements and thrill factors are rare. Scorsese’s dissolving effects, mise-en-scène and camerawork are virtuoso, but limited to the confines of a train station. An unnatural and gratuitous set-piece occurs for the sake of the format, and thereby lets the cat out of the sack; a tale becomes stumped for magical moments.

British Independent Film Awards: When can we see the films?

British film has experienced a remarkable revival this calendar year. On a commercial scale, the top three films at the UK box office are The King’s Speech, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Inbetweeners. Although the middle film is produced by Warner Bros., it is an unmistakably British franchise.

The quantity of cash raked in by the aforementioned trio is complemented by quality too. Although as someone who hasn’t seen The Inbetweeners film I can’t pass judgement on how it translated on to the cinema screen. But aside from the money-makers, the smaller films have also made it a vintage year for Blighty’s previously ailing and clichéd industry.

It was at the British Independent Film awards on Sunday night where the quality was keenly felt. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tyrannosaur, Shame, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Senna were the best picture nominees and could (or is that should) have the same accolade bestowed upon them Stateside. (Unfathomably, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have not shortlisted Senna for best documentary, let alone best picture though.)

Unfortunately the quandary is that the public hasn’t seen some of them. This is not by virtue of laziness but via the lack of screens showing British films, which answers the question why British pictures were getting marginalised.

TTSS is an exception because it was a British blockbuster. There was palpable zeal ahead of its release thanks to the starry and home-grown cast blending the old (Gary Oldman and Colin Firth) and the young (Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch) as well as two blinding trailers. That’s without mentioning that it is based on an international bestseller and the memory of its revered 1979 BBC series.

Asif Kapadia’s Senna excelled because it innovatively used archive footage to tell the journey of a force of nature who tragically met his demise far too early. But because it was a documentary, it was allotted a limited release – and yet it still set a UK box office record for a documentary of £375,000 on its opening weekend.

Such success should provide ample evidence that the British cinema-goer is not that shallow or vacuous. And yet both Tyrannosaur and We Need to Talk About Kevin, two films which received immense buzz prior to their opening day, were only screened at selected cinemas. The majority of the public cannot justify forking out money on transport to see a film.

Last week I could not find a single cinema in my county (Kent) showing Terrence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea – another British film. It is not a micro-budget production; it features Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in what has been likened to David Lean’s sweeping classic Brief Encounter (1946). Mercifully Lean is not directing in this era, otherwise we may never have known his grandiose gems.

Shame is exempted because it has yet to be released (it played at the London Film Festival, hence why it qualifies for accolades in 2011). Yet that too will inevitably appear only in selected cinemas because it's about a sex addict, played by Michael Fassbender, and acquired the dreaded NC-17 certificate in the US.

Nevertheless, Britain’s own residents are being starved of their own films because presumably we have to engage our brains. Maybe if producers attempted to communicate with their demographic they would allow extended releases. Film in the 21st century is not in rude health, yet on the rare exception when genuine quality arrives, it has already left the platform after a fleeting stay.

Bracketing different cultures into one demographic is ignorant and punishing. Even English-speakers’ attitudes are different. Britain is a much smaller country than America, so its thought process will inevitably differ to those across the Atlantic.

Plenty of cinephiles would happily see a Michael Bay flick receive the transitory time on screen as has befallen Paddy Considine’s directorial debut or Lynne Ramsay’s return after almost a decade. Mark Kermode, on his popular Radio 5 Live podcast, listed Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin as his film of the year in October. The problem was nobody could see it.

Not that anyone should choose to, but you can’t holler ‘The British are coming!’ because how great do we know Britain has become again?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

(500) Words Review: The Rum Diary

For those perturbed by the dysfunctional nature of The Rum Diary, the clue lies in the title. The original book itself is a fictional serialisation by Hunter S Thompson of his stint at the San Juan Star in 1960, in between unabashed hedonism. If you seek a coherent story, look elsewhere.

But here’s the irony: it’s not incoherent. Not nearly enough. Johnny Depp’s Paul Kemp consumes 161 miniatures from the mini bar, necks 470 proof alcohol and takes a haunting trip (‘Your tongue is like an accusatory giblet’), but the madness is tame. And the alcohol seems diluted.

Already the film has tanked in the US, indicating a growing weariness with Depp’s career path the past decade. It’s also a symptom of not countenancing atypical storytelling, courtesy of Withnail and I writer and director Bruce Robinson’s return to cinema. The clash of cultures doesn’t appease the sensitive souls across the Atlantic – this is Robinson’s first film since 1992’s Jennifer Eight – an experience he found so horrific that he swore never to direct again. A promise he held for 17 years before accepting Depp’s offer to return to the chair.

Robinson admitted that he used just two lines from the novel and preferred to imbue the screenplay with his own surrogate imagination of Thompson’s. As a task, he succeeds, however rather than utilise a discombobulating Gonzo-inspired narrative, the film’s intentions become muddled. Various tones are meshed to such arid proportions that all the steam on the Thompson Express is spent within the first hour.

And again Depp’s Pirates shtick re-emerges in what is becoming laziness on his behalf. It backfired spectacularly in Alice in Wonderland and here the monotony to which audiences have grown accustomed to fails once more. He awakes in his trashed hotel room, hungover and eyes bloodshot, but his enviably toned torso and floppy hair obliterates the shock factor. In fact, he has rarely looked more like his in Cry-Baby (1990) greaser.

The support is insufficient too. Amber Heard’s vivacious eye candy is just that whilst Aaron Eckhart, still attracted to crooked roles, has also succumbed to the boredom that Depp invariably induces. Michael Rispoli (Sala) and Giovanni Ribisi (Moburg) energise proceedings and understand the Thompson ethos as Kemp’s debauched cohorts yet Richard Jenkins, a gifted comic actor, is utterly miscast.

Easy targets such as the American Dream, although an interesting subject matter when handled deftly, act as a redundant cliché taking up too much of the running time. Possibly a comment on the modern state of journalism and its ostensible impotence, it is nevertheless an incongruous inclusion.

Sharp dialogue and raucous set-pieces lift the 16mm retro image of Puerto Rico, but the rum has been spiked with pretentiousness.

Friday, 4 November 2011

(500) Words Review: The Adventures of Tintin

The last time audiences flocked to a Steven Spielberg-directed flick, they trudged out disconsolate at the soul-shattering shambles that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Although occupied with producing commitments, he hasn’t been this profligate since a well-deserved four-year sojourn after 1993’s Schindler’s List. Maybe he was soul-searching.

But as the old adage goes, form is temporary and class is permanent. Spielberg began shooting The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn two-and-a-half-years ago, which possibly illustrates his determination to settle back into the director’s chair. And in the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of Hergé’s roving Belgian reporter (Spielberg purchased the rights 18 years ago), the hallmarks have returned, but all too blatantly.

An amalgamation of the tales The Crab with the Golden Claws and the two-parter The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure, Tintin (Jamie Bell) and faithful dog Snowy investigate Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig)’s fascination with a model of the Unicorn ship. Swiftly embroiled in danger, the intrepid duo collaborate with the quaffed and grizzled Haddock (Andy Serkis) to unravel the mystique and mystery behind the 17th century vessel.

Hergé commented before his death in 1983 that Spielberg was the only director who could do justice to his comic creation. Evidently citing Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), that film is a recurring presence in a motion-capture adventure 30 years later. An escape sequence on a tramp steamer and a chase through African territory, although enjoyable, are animated rehashes benefitting from Michael Kahn’s rip-roaring editing.

Significantly, the latter two acts never hit the heights of the opening half hour. The noirish lighting, in what is assumed to be Brussels, sprinkles an element of danger upon proceedings as the story gathers momentum with balance and dexterity. But this isn’t matched by the globe-trotting travails in the continental heat, further handicapped by imbalanced recollections of Haddock’s ancestor.

One caveat with the motion-capture gimmick is that it is devoid of emotion-capture. And it is no coincidence that the sole actor who excels at this is the seasoned Serkis. Craig adopts a menacing tone as Sakharine but his nefariousness is limited to a couple of obligatory gestures that are deliberate prerequisites at the behest of 3-D; which is superfluous.

Serkis is the chief humourist too in comparison to the dry Tintin. Despite eponymous billing, the quiff plays second fiddle to Haddock, who showcases swash and buckle. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are supposed to be funny as bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson but are anything but. They even look uncomfortable behind their unrecognisable facet.

Visually, it is not the treat one would expect its creators to provide (Peter Jackson supervised and will direct the sequel) when they have both pushed the cinematic boundaries time and again. Although Super 8 was an antidote was retro chic, it was a spiritual remake of ET, and now Tintin flirts with donning a fedora. Influences are essential and homages are nostalgic, providing you’re Quentin Tarantino. Not if you’re Steven Spielberg.