Friday, 28 September 2012

REVIEW - PREMIUM RUSH


A neat little slip of a film - too neat, perhaps, and it slipped through the public's fingers at the box office. Director / co-writer David Koepp is a whizz at fleshing out high concepts like this one, and Premium Rush's plot folds into and out of itself constantly for the first 45 minutes, back and forth through time, elaborating via demonstration rather than explanation. We're initially perplexed - it's all the pieces of the puzzle with no apparent solution, until the final piece is revealed and Koepp can pursue the action sequences (his primary concern) in the knowledge that their causes and results have been granted the same degree of clarity with which they have been blessed throughout. The editing in the action sequences is superb, and the stunt work impressive, but there rarely seems to be much at stake. This is the film's biggest weakness. The film is undone by its lack of stature, and precious little sense of threat or tension, matters of which its slightness and brief runtime do not absolve it. Koepp, trained in family-friendly Spielbergian filmmaking, never once even seems to try to suggest that this won't all end happily, nor that all of its loose ends will be neatly, succinctly tied up. The neatness is thorough, and thus admirable, but dull and predictable, and requires too heavily on coincidence merely in order to exist. His (and John Kamps') screenplay deals effortlessly with plot, no doubt, but isn't half as clever nor as original as it wishes to be with dialogue, which thuds along, soundbite after tinny soundbite. It's also tough to accept Koepp's approach when moments of potential darkness do occur, and he seems to shrug them off. An intelligent film to an extent, but complacent and cliched too.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

REVIEW - TABU


You'd barely know to watch it, but this is obscure filmmaking for the masses. It's about as accessible as any other film this year. Director Miguel Gomes seasons a very traditional tale with moments of surrealism and kitsch, yet is so skillful in embedding them into the tale that they frequently pass by almost unnoticed. In retrospect, Tabu is equally a classic romance, classically presented, and a curious experience, all crocodiles and '50s rock-n-roll and very little dialogue. It takes a long time to get to that classic romance - so long, in fact, that the majority of the first half of the film is focused on a character only marginally relevant to this love story. Despite some odd, self-conscious moments early on, this half (the film is divided into two parts in style, story and chapter titles) is the stronger of the two, unusual, gradually enveloping you in its slight storyline until you care enough about the characters that it may begin its second half, which gains a poignancy, thus, that is carried further as the film progresses. The second half isn't just dominated by narration, it dispenses with conventional dialogue and relies solely upon narration - even as characters sing along to the soundtrack, they're merely miming. Once this initially distancing style is allowed to settle, Gomes and co-writer Mariana Ricardo make full usage of their eloquent, lyrical writing, which comes to, perhaps, better reflect both the film's mood and the characters' than dialogue might have. Music is utilised wisely throughout, and the B&W lensing is as pretty as it ought to be. The cast is marvellous, especially Teresa Madruga as Pilar, so subtle and soulful.

Monday, 24 September 2012

REVIEW - ARBITRAGE


A film that attempts nothing new and gets nothing wrong. It's plain, not entirely straightforward, and concerned more with the people involved in its dramatic story than the story itself. If, by the end, you feel as though things haven't gotten very far narratively, you've missed the point. But writer-director Nicholas Jarecki spells things out rather too clearly much of the time, and without the kind of brio or stylistic ingenuity to allow the film to develop some character. He also struggles to find a focal point for his plot, despite the obvious central character, and each supporting character seems to play an independent part in his life, presenting problems each in turn, which are either dealt with or prematurely (from our perspective) dismissed each in turn. Imagine how much more intensity could have been built had Jarecki found a means of intertwining the numerous subplots, thus creating a more riveting, if conventional, structure. Never mind that conventionality anyway, this film is full of it. The actors don't push the intensity particularly, which may not aid the film but neither does it harm it. By and large, they embrace the lack of detail apparent in their character briefs or in the screenplay, and deliver sensible performances in believable roles. So, nobody's going to win any Oscars for this, then, but nobody's done a bad job either.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

REVIEW - MOONRISE KINGDOM


The films of Wes Anderson are best compared to each other, perhaps only comparable to each other, in fact. They are like so few other films - only his copycats' works - that, essentially, all they are required to do in order to get a pass is to be sufficiently 'Wes Anderson-esque' enough. Yet Anderson's persistent adherence to his unique style of filmmaking creates an unfortunate situation in which he must either produce increasingly superior films in relation to his previous work, or gradually adapt his style without straying too far from his stylistic core lest he become irrelevant. Moonrise Kingdom is the most concise distillation of this style yet, although it fails to surpass the gleeful invention of Fantastic Mr. Fox. His typical compound of rigour and whimsy is curious but thoroughly satisfying (although it irritates many). Anderson, thankfully, refrains from yielding to his most piquant indulgences too frequently here, allowing a small degree of realism to infiltrate his direction, and colour the cast's performances with just the right amount of depth. Never too deep, though - at heart, this is a comedy, and there's not a single humourless moment. Debuting leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward play their roles as children confident in how they want to be seen by others, insecure in their personal philosophies, committing mildly dangerous acts purely for a sense of purpose and self-satisfaction. They have no chemistry, and fool no-one into believing that they know what they're doing - this is the right tone to strike, and well befits the stereotypical Anderson lead character mould: a little pompous, arrogant, cowardly but harmless. The film stutters through a dreary middle section, after the runaways are found, and doesn't get very far thereafter, but the recovery is adequate, and the ending most pleasing.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

REVIEW - KILLING THEM SOFTLY


Nobody particularly needs a dose of social commentary in their cinematic diet. Andrew Dominik, though, is determined to administer some. I don't debate that it stresses a pertinent (if hardly original) issue in contemporary Western socio-economics, nor that it forms an integral part of this film. I just wonder if it actually improves the film at all. Dominik lays it on thick and direct, then retreats as if to allow the message to be absorbed. But there's not nearly enough substance to absorb it in the story he's telling. We witness a narrow chain of events, devoid of suspense or surprise, shot in a pretentious haze, always at least just beyond arm's reach. It's a shame that Dominik senses a necessity to apply such self-consciously artsy touches - his natural touch is not artsy but artful, and his better instincts imbue so many moments with a truly distinct and interesting tone. Entire sequences receive a specific individual treatment - you (almost) always know where you are within the moment, yet rarely within the film as a whole. When this obtuse technique works, the results are excellent - a character's drug trip is seen from his perspective to disarming effect, another's beating isn't seen but felt from his perspective, and powerfully so. But, overall, this is a film that comes to life in moments, sometimes with great vigour, peters away in other moments, and dies on its ass every once in a while too. Dominik does conjure an appropriate atmosphere of dislocation, especially in early scenes, quiet and barren, stripped of all extraneous matter. But he indulges himself in his dialogue too much in some scenes, and his screenplay isn't as clever as he apparently thinks it is (until the cracking last lines). The soundscape is characterised by creative ambient work by Marc Streitenfeld, the photography is intermittently stunning and there's an innovative slow-motion scene that I rather enjoyed.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

REVIEW - WISH YOU WERE HERE


An assured feature film debut from Kieran Darcy-Smith, successful more in execution than in intent - it's a little unambitious. The scenario is a good one. A friend goes missing on holiday in Vietnam; missing person plots are always intriguing, but rarely conclude in a satisfying manner. Darcy-Smith and co-writer / wife / leading lady Felicity Price manage an impressive feat of developing both tales of what happened before the disappearance and what is happening after, alongside conflicting accounts of what happened, misleading accounts and outright lies. Remarkably, the story is told with utter clarity, and the pacing is perfect in maintaining tension and curiosity even as attention towards the mystery wanes as other storylines are concentrated upon. The relationship between the leads (Price and Joel Edgerton) is, almost instantly, the central narrative strand, and its emotional contours compliment those of the Vietnam strand (albeit expectedly, as both characters are living in its aftermath). If events are consistently gripping, though, they're rarely surprising, and frequently rather too predictable to be as resonant as they might have otherwise been. The only real surprise is in the true reason for the disappearance, a development which is as startling as it is disappointingly reliant on coincidence, a feature which is all the more apparent due to the good sense and realism with which it is embellished. The performances are all good, and, at a little over 90 minutes, it's a lean, smart little film, glossily made and likely to appeal to many.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

REVIEW - DREDD 3D


Proof that, if the right attention is paid by the right people in the right places, a good film can be made from any material. This is no more than a good film, but at least it is good at all. The hollow dialogue is the usual juxtaposition of cliched soundbites and clunky exposition, and it's spoken with the usual po-faced machismo by the actors, phoning it in en masse. I got the feeling that they knew it was shit, but shit with a purpose, and that the director, Pete Travis, had things under control. Perhaps he did, perhaps it's just the tech crew, perhaps it's a combination of both - one way or another, this film is brimming with creativity. The visual design is marvellous, due, surely, in no small part, to director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle, whose photography in the slow motion sequences is extremely artful. Slow motion is generously employed here, and Travis is dedicated to the device, wringing as much as he can out of it. He uses it at the most opportune moments, showcasing the most spectacular 3D effects simultaneously (a film with '3D' in the title needs to be able to justify it). Indeed, so good are these sequences that I found them not nearly generously employed enough. Much of the rest of the film is rather drab and much of the action unimaginative. The film also lacks any significant amount of narrative drive, or a sense of importance - the scope initially threatens to be expansive, before continuously narrowing, to the point that the final few developments seem thoroughly inconsequential. But, under considerable constraints, not least of which is the requirement to produce mass-market-friendly comic-book sci-fi (rarely a positive thing), Dredd 3D accomplishes a lot more than could ever have realistically been expected.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

REVIEW - LAWLESS


Lawless seeks to string us along for most of two hours. We're continuously hoodwinked by the talented cast and the attractive production values into believing that we're on the path towards excellence, ingenuity, surprise. The biggest surprise, for me, was how far I got until I realised that there were no surprises on offer here. The screenplay, by Nick Cave, aims for profundity amidst banal conventionality; the result is both misguided and misleading. Perhaps the fault lies more with director John Hillcoat, though, who has proven, since The Proposition, that, as a director, he is only as capable as the talent he has around him. He is less a director than a facilitator. As the story stumbles ever onwards, eventually reaching an ending that manages to disappoint already disappointing material, boxes are routinely ticked - characters assume the roles we expect them to, events transpire as Hollywood logic dictates, there's a little humour (not especially successful) and a little nudity, and some violence. The violence is a device in itself, it seems, which is juvenile and dissatisfying. Little is proven in even the most artfully-constructed shootouts, never mind such an inconclusive one as Hillcoat manufactures here. Of the cast, Tom Hardy is betrayed by an unimaginative script, Jessica Chastain dutifully plays a stock character, underdeveloped because we can fill in the gaps ourselves, she's so familiar (how we're even supposed to believe characters like this any more baffles me - they were dated in the '50s), dolled up in costumes which look remarkably fresh for backwoods Virginia (I hate it when movie costumes look like they've never been worn before, it makes no sense), Dane DeHaan redeems himself somewhat after the risible Chronicle, and Guy Pearce does his best drama school drop-out impression in a heinous performance. It's the worst performance of the year. It's the worst performance in years.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

REVIEW - TEDDY BEAR


A conventional film about embracing a conventional life. Our lead character, Dennis, gradually, and painfully, unshackles himself from a life he seems to find comfortable, but obviously senses is damaging him, and makes the most of what the world has to offer an inwards 38-year-old taking his first steps as an individual. The narrative structure is the easy option for the writers, presenting event after fortunate event and not asking the potentially tougher questions, impeding the film from developing the kind of emotional maturity that might have made it more memorable. But Kim Kold, in the (none-more-)central role, displays a level of such expansive understanding of his character that he, alone, contributes a remarkable amount of complexity, yet with a focus that makes his taciturn performance accessible. He gives a thorough, natural performance - when he cries, or laughs, it has an ease that suggests an intensive personal investment in the character. There is an ironically sad scene in a Thai bar that, briefly, has some impact, showing the curious sadness of the arrangements between these Western men and their Eastern women, and a surprising intensity emerges as Dennis begins to wrench himself away from his bitter mother, which is mostly due to Kold's achievements as an actor, always filling in the gaps in the screenplay. But the portrayal of his relationship with his mother is mishandled. Her animosity serves purely to facilitate the plot, and little reason is offered to explain it, despite its prominence and importance within the film.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

REVIEW - ANNA KARENINA


Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is one film, then another. The first and second films balance each other out, until the second runs too long. That first film is all colour and movement, indeed, too much colour and movement - it froths about on the surface of the screen, beautiful but hollow. Wright makes a distinct effort to treat his version of the story in an original fashion, but his treats and tricks are rarely as original as he might hope. He ought to know - he's used them all before. The artificiality conjured by the relentless redecoration and the choreography is clever in its content but distracting in its effect, as though Wright wants us to know just how clever he is. As a result, by the time he stops trying so hard and we are able to begin to concentrate on the story, it's already underway. It's like walking into a play half an hour late, and appropriately so, as Wright makes every effort to enhance the theatricality of his film by, literally, staging it. Once things calm down, his filmmaking seems to run out of puff, so, while it may briefly be relaxing, it eventually becomes dull, particularly as the focus continually turns away from Anna and onto less compelling subplots. Anna Karenina is a story about the mind of one woman, hardly even what she does but why she does it and, more importantly, what it does to her. To relegate this aspect is to deprive this film of its greatest strength. Wright is a strong enough director to make things work even when he loses grip, though; even his recycled material has its qualities. A dance sequence may recall Pride & Prejudice - this time, the artifice is less startling and, thereby, less impressive, but this sequence nevertheless grows into one of the film's best. Keira Knightley is good as Anna, if no more, and Jude Law barely seems to register - even the other actors don't appear to notice him. I wish I hadn't noticed Aaron Johnson, who's normally a good actor, but so anachronistic here that one almost expects to see a pair of trainers at the bottom of his costume. He plagues every scene he's in. Fortunately, he's not in every scene and the production and costume design are. The sets are as intricately detailed as in the finest Chinese martial arts films, and among the most exquisite in any film I've seen. The costumes look like Christian Lacroix and John Galliano's wet dreams. But this is just surface glamour. I can understand how some may love this film but I merely admired it.

Friday, 7 September 2012

REVIEW - CHICKEN WITH PLUMS


As sweet as its title, which is to say that it is sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. There is a fulfillment evident in every frame that indicates the care with which this film was made - understandable, since the writer-directors are Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud, adapting from her graphic novel as they did with Persepolis five years ago. Each scene is a wonder in itself; perhaps the tonal variations between these scenes result in a less satisfying film than this might have been, but many moments of beauty add up to produce a quite beautiful film. The visual design is so delicate, as is the emotional structure - we learn the basic facts of the narrative very early, then Parronaud and Satrapi reveal each crucial little complexity one by one, imbuing our knowledge of both what has already transpired and what we know will transpire with a poignancy that, at first, may seem beyond this story's reach. The early scenes are blunt and progress briskly, but with a peculiar lack of energy or sense of wonder. But, as we are drawn deeper into the story, scenes seem to swoon past, all luscious colour and tragic romance. It's sumptuously shot, and such is the abundance of gorgeous imagery that this is surely equally attributable to the director of photography, visual effects team, production designer and directors, and the entire technical crew does an outstanding job. Mathieu Amalric is well-cast, although his charismatic wide eyes are deceptively distant - there's a constant feeling that he is either unwilling to share his character's thoughts and intentions, or is incapable of it. But what a joy the supporting cast is, and Maria de Medeiros in particular is quite touching; vitally so, as her tale is as important as his in establishing the rich emotional texture of this film. She gives her character an individual purpose. The scene involving the titular dish would be the most moving scene in any other film, but this one has many more, and most, if not all, of them will catch you by surprise. A sad but lovely film.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

REVIEW - SAVAGES


You can't polish a turd, so the saying goes. And if that turd is your own screenplay, no amount of directorial trickery can save it. Perhaps Oliver Stone was once the director to accomplish just that. At the least, he showed the promise of developing into such a director, but, whereas, at his best, his writing indulged his wildest, most provocative, subversive fantasies, the writing here is perfunctory and shallow, a platform for an array of sexy, soulless visuals, impressive but forgettable. The only fantasies here are those of an unimaginative adolescent - the sex, the cars, the drugs, the violence - and their realisation on screen is flat and thoughtless. Stone tries (not very hard) to inject freshness into the film via his trademarks, like the flashy editing and deceptive plot, but he shoots himself in the foot in that very process: his trademarks have become just that because he's been using them since the early '90s. They sure ain't fresh any more. And there's nothing new nor exciting about a storyline in which the expected twists involve little more than snitching villains and one of those irritating devices wherein the movie rewinds and tells you that what you just saw was mere hypothesis and this is what really happened. The bland leading actors are all show, there to look good and look good looking good, and Stone treats them just so. They eventually become supporting characters in his film, which is to its benefit, as at least the other actors (Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, Demian Bichir) seem to be trying. There's a lot of ugly behaviour from a lot of pretty people, and none of it has much lasting effect. Stone's so eager to press on, he doesn't allow any individual moment to run its course and take full shape - this worked in Natural Born Killers, for example, as the individual moments weren't the point, it was the overall experience, but his ideas are too conventional now and his filmmaking lacking in energy and humour. Indeed, this film, so ripe with opportunities for humour, is one of the least funny films I've seen in a long time.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

REVIEW - BACHELORETTE


A shameless retread of Bridesmaids in which the filmmakers evidently believe that their confidence can a good movie make. It cannot. Every element of this film has been so specifically considered and defined and constructed that the whole film loses the spontaneity and brio for which Bridesmaids is famed. The dialogue has such heft that every time a joke lumbers into earshot, the actors have to prepare themselves for the oncoming linguistic onslaught, ever aware that these are JOKES and they have to TRY to be FUNNY. If Leslye Headland's screenplay is a misjudgement, though, her direction is an incompetent muddle - she seems unsure of whom and when and what in even the most basic of scenes. Were the scenario any more complex, the plot would be impenetrable, and, when one unscrambles this mess of random characters and motivations and occurances, it's as simple a plot as they come. There's no clarity; it's only in hindsight that one realises what any of it was about at all. The only moments of such realisation that occur during the film are when its blatant unoriginality rears its ugly arse and greets you with a slap in Kristen Wiig's face. In its latter half, these similarities increase in number, which is a shame as the film is beginning to improve by this point - it springs into life out of nowhere and accelerates and accelerates, finally deciding upon a pace (frantic), rather than jolting between several, and a tone (callous). The callousness might be the best thing about Bachelorette. It's much funnier than any of the actual HUMOUR and lingers nastily like it ought to - when bulimia saves the day, it's a victory for bad taste. Leading us into battle, blind drunk and high as a kite, is Isla Fisher, content to let the other actors flounder in an unrewarding script and relish her few moments of scattershot comedic brilliance. Headland knows what she wants out of Fisher...unfortunately, it's not a lot though. Actually, Headland knows what she wants out of everything in this film, but confidence in bad material doesn't make it any better.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

REVIEW - COMPLIANCE


Compliance achieves what, I expect, most films based on true stories (as this one is) strive to achieve - it makes us think. Anyone can read a Wikipedia article and digest the facts but, in the re-enactment of events such as those depicted in this film, one engages the mind and can begin to ask, 'What does this film have to say about me? What do these people represent in my life?' It is, perhaps, such emotional provocation that has prompted so many to walk out of screenings; the emotion provoked, I believe, is fear. Fear that we too would tow the line in the belief that it'll make things easier, drop our moral guard for an undetermined length of time rather than face an unknown punishment. Writer-director Craig Zobel has a remarkably simple task to hand - this is such a sensational story, he needs change only so little (and, thankfully, he does change only so little). The characters are developed so thoroughly purely through their words and actions, and Zobel's stance on each individual is admirably non-partisan: he keeps Becky a pleasant character throughout, knowing that her own compliance will indict her in our minds, yet tempered by an understanding that it is only her fear of authority that has driven her to such degrading submission, and how many of us would risk taking the long way out and spend a night in a cell for a crime we did not commit. Zobel is skilled at simultaneously presenting a situation from several people's perspectives - we relate both to Sandra's suspicion and to Becky's terrified frustration in equal measure - and his truthful dialogue rarely sounds scripted. The cast is accomplished, particularly Dreama Walker as Becky, and Ann Dowd who is marvellous as Sandra, a faultless performance. Pat Healy can't rise above the hokey conventionality of his role, though, and the film may have been that bit more satisfyingly cruel had it ended on a more sour note - in reality, this all ended with no convictions, and a lot of money-grabbing to compensate for the severe emotional distress. All those wrongs don't make a right.