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Stressful cinema you can do without
For me it was more of a stressful experience than sitting and enjoying a movie. The cast boasts Anna Paquin (of True Blood fame), Hollywood heavyweight Matt Damon, Jean Reno from Leon and Matthew Broderick. I've got a real soft spot for Broderick because of Election, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of my favourite films, but even the presence of the righteous dude couldn't redeem this film for me. Mark Ruffalo is a favourite of mine too (Shutter Island, The Kids Are Alright, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Ruffalo, Damon and Broderick are scarcely in the film though. It's really all about Lisa: a hormonal teenager who seeks to satisfy her insatiable desire for conflict and drama by pestering all of the people who were involved or affected by a horrific bus accident that she witnessed. Paquin gives a powerful and convincing performance throughout so you can't really blame her for the films failure. You can't simply blame the fact that the character is especially detestable either we've seen anti-heroes and super villains time and time again in cinema, and they can be some of the most engrossing characters to watch. The film's problem is that it focuses entirely on this high-strung, volatile, bitchy adolescent as she goes about a mundane course of day-to-day life, seeking attention and rubbing people up the wrong way. There's no real point to all this. The conclusion resolves to say nothing more than "she's probably like this because of her age and she doesn't get along with her mum" or something. Margaret is nothing more than a character study of a stereotypically hostile, obnoxious teenager. There's no clear controlling idea, it wallows in ambiguity and the attempts to reference Shakespeare are laughably pretentious. It's too long, entirely stressful to sit through and has no real payoff at the end.
Hunky Dory (2011)
don't let the critics put you off
People have complained that this film is too formulaic, it's too glossy and sugar-coated and that it's so steeped in saccharine sentimentality that it will make the overpriced, syrupy Coke that you bought from the multiplex foyer seem sour and flat.
While there is definitely truth in the above statement, I think enjoyment of this (and any) film depends on your attitude. If you go into this film expecting to see some gritty socio-political drama focussing on the oppression of Welsh mining classes, you will be sorely disappointed. You will come out complaining about how populist it is, how it's so conventionally structured and emotionally sensationalist etc, etc.
The poster is a lovely snapshot of a group of idyllic young friends having fun in the blistering summer of 1976. It's all orange and glowing. The trailer gives a taste of how packed the film is with poppy love songs of the era, how predictable the premise makes the plot, how familiar the angsty teenage characters are, how petty the conflicts seem in this hazy summer utopia of a bygone Britain and how indulgently reminiscent it is.
It's called Hunky Dory.
The signs are there - everything about the design screams out feel-good mainstream movie. It is unashamedly populist, unashamedly sensational and is obviously going to be as conventional as any piece of popular cinema. There's nothing subtle about the way the film advertises this sense of style.
To know all this, watch the film then criticize it for the glaringly obvious is lazy criticism, at best. Don't go and see the film if you know you're going to suffer an adverse reaction to the sheer amount of light-heartedness going on. That's like going into a screening of Shrek with your arms folded for the entire movie then coming out in a huff saying to your bemused/horrified children "the guy's an ogre but not once did I see a man's skin being peeled off while he was still alive."
For those more willing to accept this film for what it so blatantly is, I'd say it's an easy, feel-good film with and great 70's soundtrack (from the likes of Bowie and ELO) and superb Welsh accents throughout. A coming-of-age film set in a specific place and moment in British history, it shares an obvious affinity to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Mechant's Cemetery Junction as well as Billy Elliot (a couple of the producers made this film too).
There are a lot of characters so the attempt to squeeze in all of their individual stories is overly ambitious, but the cast are great. Minnie Driver is easily lovable and I get the feeling you'll be seeing a lot more of Aneurin Barnard's face in the future. The ending is a little bit vague and they try and remedy this by giving a 'where are they now' sequence during the end credits which is a bit half-baked (no reference to the recreational activities of the time intended).
Overall, a likable film with some nice messages (namely Karl Marx's sentiment "don't let the b*st*rds grind you down") and a well-polished style that makes for easy watching.
Black Pond (2011)
an independent black comedy surely set for cult status
An incredibly impressive debut film from youthful newcomers Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley. Black Pond is a delightfully grim black comedy about the Thompson family, who're embroiled in a tabloid scandal about the death of a new family friend. They say that truth is stranger than fiction and, while this IS fictional, it has a realistic plausibility and a documentary style which makes the almost farcical events seem hilariously absurd in contrast with the repressed sobriety of the upper-middle-class English milieu. It's one of these films that will have you grinning like a Cheshire cat all the way through, giggling and snorting like a child who's just heard an old man fart during a quiet church service and eventually letting out a proper belly-laugh every now and then. Colin Hurley, Amanda Hadingue, Simon Amstell, Will Sharpe (writer/director/actor) and the whole cast are excellent and Chris Langham makes a long-awaited return to film (with the controversy of his own personal ordeal with negative publicity perhaps adding its own somewhat dark undertone to the film almost definitely NOT a conscious effort by the producers though!). It's a fine example of typically British satirical wit and exemplary of the potential of indie cinema, considering it was made on tiny budget of £25,000. The lack of money means this film will only be seen by few people on its limited release, but as it gathers rave reviews and serious respect, it will no doubt earn cult status by the time it's out on DVD. More like this and more from Sharpe and Kingsley please!
unsuspecting and deeply affecting
I had absolutely no knowledge or expectations for this film before watching it and I think this probably augmented the shock that came with its viewing. To sum it up in one word, I'd say this film is unsuspecting. The characters, plot and action are all totally plausible and the realist style lulls you into a sense of suspended disbelief which makes the impending violence all the more shocking. When I say violence, I don't just mean a Hollywood-style orgy of blood and guts everywhere. This isn't sensationalist torture porn like the Saw films. Tyrannosaur's violence is real and conceivable, like it could actually happen. But it happens when you least expect it and by those whom you least expect it from. The resultant effect is a shock that stays with you well after the film is finished. The cast are incredible. Peter Mullan gives authenticity to a character so filled with rage it would seem impossible for people like him to really exist. Eddie Marsan is one of the most provocative villains I've ever seen on screen and Olivia Colman's performance immediately tricks you into forgetting what Peep Show is, much less remembering that she was in it. I left this film thinking Paddy Considine HAS to make more films. The direction if faultless it has the same oppressive grey landscapes as you would expect from any social realist film and focuses more on faces, expressions and economic storytelling than superficial flare. His writing is top notch too. He has a way of clearly highlighting the issues and themes (domestic abuse, anger, lust and love) and presenting them in a fresh, engaging, inspiring and shocking form. Tyrannosaur is a damn good film but it's not enjoyable in the conventional sense of the word. It's affecting more than anything. You're moved, frightened and shaken by the things you see. You physically and emotionally react and this, I think, is what makes a good film.
The Descendants (2011)
typically Payne-ful but forgettable
Alexander Payne, best known for his low-key life-crisis films Sideways and About Schmidt, stays in his comfort zone with this film but opts for a slightly more family-friendly style. The Descendants follows the story of a middle-aged Hawaiian lawyer Matt (George Clooney) whose wife has been knocked into a coma and will eventually die. As he struggles to bring his somewhat dysfunctional family together to deal with her impending death, he finds out his wife was cheating on him. The backdrop to this is an on-going legal process in which his wider family are trying to agree on whether to sell a sizeable and beautiful piece of Hawaiian land inherited from royal ancestry. This film delivers a sentimental human drama whilst avoiding clichés. The trailer and opening sequence states this as the premise: "my friends think that just because we live in Hawaii, we live in paradise. Are they insane? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed-up, our heartaches less painful?" etc. The picture does seem a little too sugar coated though. Its saccharine idealism overpowers the raw edge and potency which typifies Payne's earlier films, such as Election. I get the feeling that even though I can relate to the characters on an emotional level, there's still an irreconcilable gulf between me and the Hawaiian upper-classes on a material level. I subconsciously dismiss the film as self-contained escapist cinema, making it as forgettable as it is enjoyable. It's one of those films where you feel like you've really enjoyed the experience, but can't remember much of it afterwards. It still retains Payne's unique essence, however. His originality, off-beat humour, lovably flawed characters, understated action and witty dialogue. The story world is very rich, but delivered in an easily digestible plot. Seeing the seemingly emotionally inarticulate protagonist deal with the complex social pressures bearing down on him is sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, but always entertaining. While not as cutting as some of his earlier films The Descendants adds another refreshingly frank and plausible feature to Payne's consistently commendable filmography.
There have been a lot of mixed reactions to this film. There's a reason for that: it's both good and bad. I didn't enjoy it but staying away from the obvious tendency to judge this film based solely on the fact it's Madonna who's directed/co-wrote it there are some diamonds in the (very) rough. The film tries to take two story lines which are set in completely different times and places, and merge them into one film. One of these plots are really good, the other really bad. The good one is the story of Edward VIII who abdicated from his place on the throne in order to marry a commoner, Wallis Simpson. The bad one is the story of an ordinary New York woman who's in the process of leaving an abusive relationship. The second story is trashy, melodramatic pulp. Any relation between these two story lines is contrived and every time it cuts between the two, it feels very awkward, forced, meaningless and confusing. It's a real shame, because the story of the Edward VIII is an extremely interesting one. There's so much there to write about: his controversial lifestyle, marriage to Wallis Simpson, abdication, relationship with George VI and the rest of the royal family not to mention his alleged Nazi sympathies and friendship with Adolf Hitler! As a straight historical drama, this story would be truly riveting and I personally think it deserves a big budget treatment. It could even do well as a glossy romantic drama or a gritty political drama or a mixture of both. I do appreciate that Madge has tried to tell this story (which has been done in film and TV before) from an alternative perspective: through the eyes of Wallis Simpson. This is a credible idea but the film doesn't focus enough on it. Instead, it's needlessly confused by a boring, ambiguous plot featuring a deluded and emotionally erratic protagonist nobody can relate to. The film is occasionally historically inaccurate and utterly bizarre in places. There is a point where a news reporter states that Edward is succeeding King George III, when it is in fact King George V (the former died more than a century before). There are also several absurdities and moments of sheer bad taste, most notably a scene where Edward and Wallis are popping pills at a party as they dance to the Sex Pistols in the 1930s! The fact Madonna chose the song 'Pretty Vacant' is probably more fitting than she'll realise. There is a consistent stream of these absurdities which cause serious detriment to the film's tone and coherency as if it wasn't already hard enough to understand. There is no conclusion to this film either. By the end nothing is resolved, everything becomes wholly ambiguous and no explanation is given as to the meaning or core purpose of the film. Just before the credits role, as the camera pans up from nothingness to yet more nothingness, you're left thinking "what was the point in all of that?" Credit where credit's due though: the film has some nice cinematography. The fashion and costume design is great too. It's visually very good and you can tell there are some people working on this film who know what they're doing, but it's all wasted on a rotten script. The film seems to concentrate on fashion, materialism, aesthetics and stylistic elements more than telling a compelling story. It's just superficial. For me, the bad outweighs the good, and W.E. appears as nothing more than an opportunistic derivative of a sub-plot from the King's Speech, with potential that would never be realised here. Madonna's film is brash and contrived at best, random and pointless at worst.
Fiennes has made Shakespeare not only accessible but utterly thrilling
Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare without Shakespearean language. It might be difficult to understand exactly what the dialogue is during parts of Coriolanus, but there's no difficulty following the meaning. The action, the direction and some powerful performances most notably from Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave carry the film and more than compensate for the language barriers. Some people walked out about halfway through but the climactic third act made it well worth the perseverance especially Redgrave's moving monologue as the formidable matriarch Volumnia.
Gerard Butler was pretty forgettable in this. Whether that's because he isn't exactly of thespian discipline or because his character isn't particularly pronounced in this play, is up to you to decide. Perhaps he and Jessica Chastain are nothing more than a bit of totty to sell the film? Perhaps that's just a bit cynical.
James Nesbitt added an interesting, somewhat unexpected dynamic to the play with his enigmatic nuances of jest and malice. Also worth a mention was the little-known Dragan Micanovic who played a minor character, Titus, but delivered a couple of pivotal lines with engrossing presence.
The real star of the show is obviously Shakespeare. His poetic prose courses through your mind and adds fuel to the fires of his drama. His characters are bold and consistent, truly agents of their own destinies. The subject matter resonates with political allegory and the film's release is timely and relevant. The play set in a present day context highlights the tribal social system which still dominates our affairs. The story also works to express the futility of war.
Fiennes has done well to translate Coriolanus from the stage to the screen and he hasn't stretched it too far so as to alienate it from the original text. Stylistically, the film is quite gritty. The focus is mostly on the actors, their eyes, their expressions and their delivering of lines, but there are a few purely cinematic moments (fight scenes in particular) which justify the adaptation to the screen. There are a couple of truly violent moments in the film which blast the cobwebs off the old play and hook the modern, desensitized audience into the story.
Coriolanus is a tense and violent political wartime thriller which makes Shakespeare not only accessible but utterly captivating. A credible directorial debut from one of the industry's finest working actors.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Prophetic, symbolic and magnificent. An avant-garde masterpiece
The Tree of Life starts something like a fragmented family drama. It soon moves onto an incredible sequence which is almost like an abstract portrayal of the history of the universe, narrowing down to a history of the Earth. Malick takes all the many patterns of life and existence from microbiotic organisms to interstellar structures and creates the most majestic collage. (I couldn't help being reminded of that sequence at the end of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The film evolves to focus on the story of Jack, son of a God-fearing American couple. It follows his journey from birth through childhood as he grows to makes sense of the world and struggles with his complicated adolescent emotions. The main plot follows Jack and his family, but the film remains universally relatable as it encompasses truly vast themes: life, death, love, hate, childhood, adulthood, parenthood, god, religion, nature, man, gender, sexuality, guilt, fear, shame, happiness, forgiveness, sacrifice the list goes on.
Nearer the end it becomes highly symbolic, most notably repeating representations of doorways, passageways, bridges, circles, planets, suns, stars, waves, water, trees, hands, the sky and other loaded imagery which will inspire a complex of interpretations.
Ultimately, The Tree of Life is wholly philosophical and its messages are prophetic, discursive and intuitive. The juxtaposition of the greatest and smallest pieces of the universe gives the human drama a context that is humbling to say the least. Malick incredibly manages to underline the relative insignificance of man, whilst presenting an emotive human story. Malick has created an avant-garde masterpiece with mainstream appeal.
Tarantino would be proud
Nicolas Winding Refn has obviously been influenced a lot by Tarantino. Not just because of the intermittent scenes of graphic violence, but because of the use of a widescreen aspect ratio, long shots, a mostly still frame and slow cutting. This visual stillness and the disquieting introverted calm of Ryan Gosling's character provide a sobriety which balances out the occasional bit of mutilation. Drive handles some of the most disturbing portrayals of cold-blooded murder in cinematic history with undeniably cool style. I was immediately most reminded of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs but the film could be paying tribute to any one of Tarantino's twisted takes on gangster drama.
An 80s-esque electro soundtrack mixed with the neon-pink titles and cityscapes cry out to placed next to Tarantino's filmography as well as classic gangster dramas like Scarface. Like Al Pacino's Tony Montana, Gosling's driver starts the film as a nobody. Unlike Pacino's egomaniacal anti-hero, however, Drive's hero is consistently relatively meaningless. The main song in the soundtrack, A Real Hero by College, sums up the driver's story as it plays over an unsurprisingly down ending with the lyrics "you've proved to be a real human being and a real hero" repeating over and over.
Gosling, along with Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman provide captivating characters to drive along a fairly minimal plot. As much happens off-screen as it does on-screen in this film and that really allows the audience to invest their own imagination into the film to fill in the gaps; making for a more rewarding viewing experience, in my opinion. A very solid effort by director Winding Refn, Drive is satisfyingly sure of its genre and cinematic influences.
The Artist (2011)
celebrating the beginnings of cinema as an art form
The Artist is not trying to be an authentic silent film, but instead wishes to present a novel but respectful nod to the silent era of Classical Hollywood. It is full of references and reads like Hazanavicius' love letter to an era of filmmaking which he and we are indebted to. In a time when films like Avatar are attempting to revolutionise cinema by making IMAX 3D the next coming of sound, I'm surprised The Artist was even made. But I'm glad it was. To me it serves as a much-needed look back at the essential beginnings of the art form. Already receiving considerable popular success, The Artist could herald the beginning of an era when mainstream filmmakers and audiences alike become more aware and influenced by the origins of cinema. Apart from all that, The Artist also stands alone as an altogether sad, funny, compelling and entertaining film.