Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Yi jiu si er (2012)
A big budget examination of another little known piece of Chinese history
Labelled 'the Spielberg of China' with 15 box office successes in the last 20 years ranging from family-friendly comedies poking fun at China's materialistic culture to weightier, big budget historic epics such as 'Assembly', 'Aftershock' and now 'Back to 1942', Feng Xiaogang has become the most popular director of mainstream cinema in China. Yet, despite the work of Chinese directors such as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai and Ang Lee, Feng Xiaogang is virtually unknown to Western audiences, something that the Chinese government is attempting to put right by submitting 'Back to 1942' as the country's official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year.
Adapted from the book 'Remembering 1942' by Liu Zhenyun, the film is a historical disaster epic following the fates of refugees during the drought and famine in Henan Province, which devastated the region and left 3 million dead of starvation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). As well as featuring famous Chinese stars such as Chen Daoming (Aftershock) and Zhang Hanyu (White Vengeance), the film is one of the few Chinese productions to boast Hollywood talent in the form of Oscar winner, Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins, recalling Christian Bale's turn in 'The Flowers of War' (2011) chronicling the Japanese attack on Nanking.
The film follows the fortunes of landlord Fan (Zhang Guoli), who with his family joins the mass exodus of people after their village is destroyed by bandits, leaving behind their privileged lifestyle and falling in with the desperate masses as they head west looking for solace and hope. Hoping to lead the refugees is deserter turned priest An Ximan (Zhang Hanyu), though he soon comes to realise the hopelessness of the situation, with starvation spreading, (Chinese) soldiers raiding for supplies, and the Japanese bombing indiscriminately. With Nationalist (Kuomintang) politicians bickering over what to do and how to profit from the situation with their American, British and Soviet allies, it is left to Time magazine correspondent, Theodore White (Adrien Brody), to reveal the true extent of the catastrophe that has befallen Henan Province by venturing into the disaster zone and exposing the full horror of the people's suffering.
Back to 1942 is a hard hitting and unrelentingly grim disaster movie playing through the eyes and experiences of its ensemble cast, switching between the three main stories of Fan, White and the Nationalist and provincial governments at a pace that cracks along, despite its 145 minutes length. Through his earlier work Feng has demonstrated a talent for tapping into public sentiment and mining melodrama on a national scale. The result has been a slew of hit films that have dealt with little known areas of Chinese history and in doing so, reveals a little more about China itself and for a Western audience that is a welcome change from the usual diet of Hollywood teen comedies, superhero movies and remakes.
Feng said recently in an interview that if it were not for censorship, Back to 1942 'would be even more cruel'. I am not sure how this could be possible without the film lapsing into parody. Feng pulls few punches and does a good job of recreating a believable sense of desperation and despair and at times, darkly satirical comedic moments are exposed which puts the viewer in an awkward position as to whether to laugh or cry (the loss of the donkey being a good example). In part this is due to the real horror of the situation, depicted in fairly graphic detail in the film, as the refugees run out of food and trudge onwards through incredibly harsh conditions, being reduced to eating bark and eventually resorting to cannibalism and selling family members for meagre bags of millet in order to survive. Feng presents much of this without fuss or fanfare and the film is all the more harrowing for the way in which it shows conditions spiralling quickly out of control against the backdrop of the government jockeying for position.
Where film can often be politicised by the Chinese authorities as criticisms of the government, Feng does a good job of appearing neutral and never assigning blame for the disaster, nor criticising the behaviour of the Chinese soldiers who frequently rob the refugees for their own survival. Even the casual and indiscriminate violence of the Japanese soldiers is portrayed as a by product of war, rather than as any grand social or historical criticism, which no doubt the Chinese government would have preferred. In doing so, the film has escaped much of the censorship that plagues Chinese directors who are often welcomed as the darlings of the international film festival circuit.
For students of Chinese history, the complete omission of the government's taxation policy is jarring since it made the food shortages far worse, nor is there any reference to Mao Zedong and the communists, ironic given that the refugees are travelling to Shaanxi Province to escape the famine which was the headquarters of Mao's fledgling Chinese Communist Party.
Despite these pedantic omissions, Back to 1942 is a gripping telling of a little known period of Chinese history that wears its heart on its sleeve without the film being too melodramatic, or trying to drown the viewer in manipulative tears. No doubt tears will be shed as a result of the horror of the situations that the refugees find themselves in but Feng tries hard to make his film politically neutral and to tell the story as it was. Feng is one of China's most talented directors and the huge budget he has to play with (by Chinese standards) really shows up on screen with some stunning visuals and action. Though grim and quite depressing, Back to 1942 is a worthy addition to the pantheon of epic disaster movies and succeeds in revealing the horrific human suffering behind a monstrous and quite possibly avoidable tragedy.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
A cinematic masterpiece destined to be regarded as a modern classic.
There is a scene in the film when a Louisana plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), confronts one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), about her disappearance. Despite her entreaties to explain her brief absence she is subjected to a whipping. As the lash flays the flesh from her back members of the audience gasp, some whimper, others cry silently, but all recoil back into their seat horrifyingly transfixed by the terror of the scene, as each crack of the whip spills forth a fine spray of blood. The whole scene is the dark heart of the film and indeed, the heart of darkness of the American slave trade. It is also the most powerful scene in thirty years of filmmaking in a film that is simply a masterpiece and destined to be regarded as a modern classic.
Therein lies a dichotomy because cinema is about entertainment and 12 Years a Slave is a gruelling watch a harrowing, unflinching, unsentimental and absorbing examination of the barbarity of slavery. It is emotionally draining and not a film to be viewed for an evening's entertainment, light or otherwise. The director, Steve McQueen, first came to prominence in 1999 when he beat out Tracey Emin to win the Turner Prize and like his artwork, his three films so far Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave reflect the same clarity of vision, emotional intensity and economy of thought. 12 Years a Slave is set up as a grim story of survival, the mood is sombre, the tone is dark and the music (Hans Zimmer's 'Time' from Inception) is perfectly suited to a piece that is a metaphor for a journey in hell.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a freeman living in Saratoga, upstate New York in 1841 when he is persuaded to work for a travelling music show in Washington DC and then kidnapped and sold into slavery after a drunken night out. First into the relatively benign hands of a minister, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and then onto a drunken and violent plantation owner, Edwin Epps. This is where the film differs slightly from Northup's autobiographical account of the same name, because he had a second owner, John Tibeats, an irrational and violent man who nearly killed Northup on more than one occasion. Epps was his third owner but in the film, for the sake of economy, Tibeats is portrayed as William Ford's weasely carpenter (Paul Dano). This is the only detail in the film that differs from the book and astonishingly, the power of the scene in which Patsey is whipped has been diluted by the director, because Northup reports on brine being poured onto her back afterwards a scene of suffering which even modern audiences would have found too hard to watch.
Steve McQueen is ably served by a fantastic cast and special mentions must be given to Sarah Paulson who plays the pitiless Mistress Epps, Lupita Nyong'O (Patsey) and above all, Michael Fassbender, who brings Edwin Epps to demonic life a man who is a violent and sadistic bully whose self loathing, rage and madness is agitated by his lust and abominable treatment of Patsey. A slew of awards including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor surely beckon for Fassbender and both Ejiofor and Nyong'o will be strongly in the running for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Ejiofor effectively portrays the grim determination and quiet dignity of a man struggling to keep hold of his sanity in order to survive his hellish nightmare, and his sense of discombobulation early in the film is palpable. Nyong'o is the touchstone upon which the cruelties, helplessness and capricious nature of slavery are revealed and you will be left wondering about Patsey's fate at the end credits. Sadly, you will be left disappointed consigned as a footnote in history. Both actors deserve the highest recognition for their work.
12 Years a Slave is the best film ever made about slavery and retrospect has shown that it needed a non-American to make it to avoid the mawkish, reverential and over-sentimental sensibilities that would have weighed the film down if say, Steven Spielberg, had made it (consider 'Amistad' as a case in point). The slave narrative has had a long and proud history in the canon of black literature from 'The Life of William Grimes' to 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' to works by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe; even Margaret Mitchell's blockbuster book, 'Gone with the Wind', has slavery as its context although it is a shameless apologia to it and literally whitewashes the issue from its pages. I found it personally astonishing then that I had not heard of Solomon Northup's memoire before the film. The historians Sue Eakin and David Fiske have researched and verified the details of Northup's life and the minutiae of plantation slavery in his story, so there is no doubt that his ghost written autobiography is a truthful and accurate account of his ordeal. The film's veracity and honesty is a stark reminder that in America, the issue of slavery must be examined in all its excoriating and shameful detail in the light of day. My, and presumably, many people's ignorance of Northup's story is testimony to the fact that not enough is known or done about revealing the full history of slavery and the unfettered horrors, injustices and brutalities of the Atlantic Slave Trade. 12 Years a Slave is the best film ever made about slavery but there is no real competition to compare it to. The dearth of films about this subject is something that Hollywood should and needs to address. There are a million stories out there to be told. At the very least, it needs to make up for the racist and fallacious diatribe that was D.W. Griffith's 1915 'Birth of a Nation'.
The Film of the Year and the Future of Cinema
The Film of the Year, Gravity is simply a wonderful, astonishing and sensational experience that will leave you perched on the edge of your seat throughout its lean and mean 90 minute running time. In Hollywood parlance, it is also a game changer in much the same way that films like 2001, Jaws, Star Wars, Die Hard, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and Avatar et al changed the face of film making and storytelling forever. The Lumière brothers will be turning in their grave in delight because Gravity is exactly what they envisaged cinema to be a big, bold, larger-than-life visceral experience. It is also what 3D was created for and for once, does the format full justice and more so when viewed on IMAX screens. Suffice to say, it will Hoover up all the technical prizes in awards season and put Sandra Bullock up for Best Actress in a head-to-head with Cate Blanchett for her role in Blue Jasmine perhaps a more accomplished work but Ms Bullock is America's sweetheart and there is no denying the power of her performance which is at once heartbreaking and profound. Alfonso Cuarón was always a visionary as his early Hollywood work on Children of Men showed, but this film is surely his finest moment and has at once, catapulted him into the same technical sphere as George Lucas and James Cameron as geniuses and visionaries of their craft. Cameron called Gravity 'the best film ever made about space' and he is not wrong.
Like all the best films, the idea is simplicity itself. Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, an accomplished scientist who has made her inaugural journey into space to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. She is aided by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), the avuncular captain of the Space Shuttle, and another more experienced scientist, Shariff (Phaldut Sharma). Disaster strikes as debris from a Russian satellite destroyed by a missile strike hurtles and careers into the path of the American mission. What follows in the ensuing 70 minutes is a tense, gripping and heart pounding survival story that will leave you breaking into spontaneous applause at the end credits.
The tag line for the 1978 version of Superman was 'You'll believe a man can fly'. Well, you'll believe that you're in space, not the space of Star War or Star Trek, but the grounded reality of space as we know it. The experience of working in the vacuum that is space is stupendously realised as you spin, hurtle, fly, crash and bounce along with the characters. In fact the effects are so good that I'm surprised that it doesn't induce benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) in the audience.
Gravity is such an enormous technical achievement that in the quieter moments you feel yourself being humbled by the achievements of mankind (the exploration of space) and wishing that you were better at science in school. You'll also marvel at the breathtaking beauty of some of the shots and two stand long in the mind a wide panoramic shot of Bullock and Clooney stretched out into space, tenuously tethered by the straps of a giant Stars and Stripes flag caught on the International Space Station and the onset of the Aurora Borealis on the Earth's atmosphere as day turns into night. Yup, in those moments of quiet wonderment, you'll be ruminating on life, the universe and the existence of God and especially the latter when your eyeballs are blistered with images of such searing and startling beauty that you question whether a Big Bang really did create life, the universe and nature I did anyway. At the end of the film, you realise that you have witnessed an important pivotal moment in the history of film and that film making, cinema and entertainment will never be the same again. In short, you have seen the future and life as we know it will never be the same again.
All Is Lost (2013)
One Man in a Boat
One man in a boat - no back story, no people, (virtually) no dialogue and no unnecessary exposition - just one man against the elements and what a gripping story it is. Robert Redford plays an unnamed yachtsman deep in a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean when he is hit by catastrophe. Why he is there is not explained but that is not important. What follows is an epic struggle for survival between man and the elements. Fans of Robert Redford will be shocked by his aging good looks and this is accentuated by the sheer physicality of the role, which makes you wonder whether he is too old for the part, but Redford carries it off with aplomb. You'll be blowing hard with him as he lifts, climbs, carries, pushes and pulls his way around the boat. For a man three years shy of his 80th birthday, Redford shows that he is still supremely fit.
The director, J.C. Chandor, is fast developing a reputation for lean, mean electrifying storytelling and like his first film, 'Margin Call', another fat free but thrilling examination of the demise of Wall St, 'All is Lost' wastes no time in telling a simple story with skill, verve and edge-of-your-seat tension. What 'Jaws' did for sharks this film will do for yachts. The underwater shots reminds you of the best cinematography of the BBC's finest wildlife documentaries such as 'The Blue Planet' and the camera work of the boat beset by storms are nothing short of miraculous and astonishingly, seemingly free from CGI effects.
The fact that Redford does not talk (with one exception which will have you empathising hugely with the character 'when it rains, it pours') turns the film into an intense character study and makes his plight even more compelling as you start to care deeply about his fate, so much so that by the end of the film, you are desperately hoping for a contrived ending. Does Redford's character survive? You will have to see the film to find out but what I can tell you is that tears will be rolling down your cheek at the closing credits but why......in sorrow or in relief?
With 'Gravity', another man versus the elements (albeit space) film, out in a few weeks time and gaining massive Oscar buzz as one of the best films of the year, 'All is Lost' can also be considered in the same breath as its more illustrious forebear and together with the imminent release of 'Captain Phillips', hearkens back to a time in the 70s when disaster films were all the rage with the triumvirate of 'The Towering Inferno', 'Airport 75' and 'Raid on Entebbe'.
Not another District 9 BUT confirms Blomkamp as a young James Cameron
If District 9 was a political parable about racism so Elysium is a social commentary on rich and poor, healthcare, pollution, overcrowding, immigration and class war: the big themes of today but set in a dystopian future - 2154.
Matt Damon plays Max Da Costa, an ex-car thief and parolee living in Los Angeles who is trying to earn an honest living in a robotics factory, despite attempts to prise him away back to a life of crime. A terrible industrial accident leaves him with only five days to live and desperate to survive, Max seeks an illegal flight to Elysium, a space station that is a luxurious haven for the wealthy from a ruined and wasted Earth, so that he can be cured by a miraculous medical device called a Med-Pod found in every home and which keeps the citizens of Elysium free from disease. To earn his transport Max is commissioned by Spider (Wagner Moura), a local smuggler and hacker, to kidnap an important citizen from Elysium and download information from his brain. To maintain his life in order to complete the mission, Max is fitted with a powered exoskeleton that gives him the strength of the androids that protect the titular space station and some cool weapons. The mission goes awry and Max receives far more than he bargained for. The Elysian Secretary of Defence, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), orders a vicious killer and sleeper agent on Earth, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), to hunt down Max and retrieve the information from his brain that he has downloaded. Cue action, high speed chases and all round mayhem.
Elysium is a good film but does not contain the visceral excitement of District 9. All the leads are good and Jodie Foster plays a deliciously conniving villain. Sharlto Copley is a revelation as the mercenary killer, basing his portrayal on the South African Defence Force (SADF) Special Forces Units that fought the border war with Angola between 1966 and 1989, and eats up the screen with his charismatic dementedness. Copley looks badass and test audiences in America were apparently rooting for him you can see why. Damon is good as the everyman hero and the emotional heart of the film is his nuanced journey from selfish ex-con to self sacrificing hero. Wagner Moura provides good support as the criminal kingpin but it is a world away from his alpha male depiction of Captain Nascimento of Elite Squad fame. The music is good but sounds too much like Inception in parts.
The fact that the film does disappoint is high praise indeed after the high watermark of District 9. There are three main problems with the film. The first is Damon's character. You just don't care enough about him in the way that you did for Wikus van der Merwe, who was transformed into an alien in District 9. The second is the logic behind some of the effects, brilliant that they are. I am unable to fathom how a spaceship is able to land on Elysium when it is supposed to have a (presumably contained) artificial atmosphere. Wouldn't any artificial atmosphere just leak away if it wasn't wholly contained? Moreover, the Med-Pods are too good to be true. One scene involving Kruger will have you shaking your head in disbelief and disappointment. Yes, its science fiction but Blomkamp's films have a veracity that you can believe in 50, 100 or 150 years from now. Third but not least is Copley's character. Kruger is underwritten and does not have enough screen time because when he is on, he is very entertaining indeed.
Although he has only made two films, Neil Blomkamp has cornered the market in muscular, industrial science fiction such is the deftness of his vision. These are not the bright gleaming fantastical worlds of Star Wars, but a gritty, grimy and ravaged look at the near future. An adaption of Judge Dredd or Strontium Dog would be perfect vehicles for him. I suspect Elysium may please and disappoint film goers in equal measure after the ecstatic heights of District 9, but what it has confirmed is Peter Jackson's faith in him as a new filmmaker of extraordinary talent. He is not so much Jackson's protégé as he is the new James Cameron.
Blomkamp's next film, Chappie, about a robot with artificial intelligence who is kidnapped to commit various crimes, has been confirmed and I dearly hope after that, District 10 beckons with the much vaunted Halo trilogy following soon after. Alternatively, I would love to see him adapt Mass Effect to the big screen and even a Warhammer film cannot be too far away with their built in fan boy audiences and global multi-million dollar sales.
The Sessions (2012)
A beautiful uplifting story about disability and sex
The Sessions Film Review A hit on the festival circuit from Sundance to Toronto in 2012, 'The Sessions' was shamelessly overlooked for the Golden Globes and the Oscars this year. Based on Mark O'Brien's 1990 article 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate', the film charts the author's attempt to have sex for the first time at the age of 36 in 1985; not an easy thing for a man crippled by polio from the age of six and having to spend his life lying in a prone position in an iron lung.
This is a grown up film about disability and sex and as such it portrays the yearnings, difficulties and intimacy of achieving intercourse in a funny, frank and completely naturalistic way. Helen Hunt gives one of her best ever performances as the sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene, and should be applauded for taking on a role that requires her to be completely naked in several scenes. In doing so, however, she displays a body unblemished by cosmetic surgery, extreme dieting or gym workouts that women half her age would die for (she is nearly 50). She brings compassion and understanding to the role and the scenes of awkward sex (the eponymous 'sessions' of the title) have a gentle veracity that will have you harking back nostalgically to your very first time. John Hawkes has not made a bad film yet and brings humour and warmth to the role in equal measure. The possibility of love beyond the intimacy of sex is delicately explored and Hawkes brilliantly conveys O'Brien's pain that this may be an unobtainable goal. The triumvirate of fine actors is completed by William H. Macy's portrayal of an understanding, sympathetic and pragmatic priest that acts as a lightning rod to O'Brien's spiritual concerns.
I had not read O'Brien's article before I had seen the film so there was a part of it which I cynically viewed as a fairytale the scenes exploring Cohen-Greene's growing emotional attachment to O'Brien in just four sessions. As a professional sex surrogate I just could not believe that this 'transference' could develop in Hunt's character. Surely there would be a cold detachment? After all, isn't sex surrogacy about resolving a physical problem or need? I was so sceptical about this part of the film that I read O'Brien's article 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate' immediately after the film and to my surprise, 'The Sessions' is a near identical translation of the article. Knowing this transforms the film into a perfect gem.
If there is one slight criticism it is that there is no equality of the sexes. Hawkes, in contrast to Hunt, does not appear naked once; yet the scene in which O'Brien is encouraged to look at himself naked in a mirror would have been the perfect opportunity to see his genitalia. A film that deals with human sexuality and which only shows women naked is hypocritical and wrong. Hollywood still has a long way to go in the equality stakes when it continues to remain unabashed at showing copious amounts of female flesh, yet at the same time being jarringly puritanical at displaying the male form.
In broaching the little talked about subject of disability and sex, 'The Sessions' should be de rigeur for all spotty adolescents. Yet, because Helen Hunt is seen completely naked, the film attracts an automatic 'R' certificate in the States restricting an intelligent and sensitive drama to a limited audience. There is something very wrong about the cultural and social norms of the United States when films showing scenes of graphic, gory and gratuitous violence can attract large teenage audiences; yet a naked woman and the most beautiful and natural act in the world are regarded as taboo.
The Sweeney (2012)
'You're nicked, yooo slaaags!!!'
You're nicked, yooo slaaag!! An update of the iconic 1970s TV series of the same name, 'The Sweeney' successfully transposes itself to the modern steel and glass settings of the London Docklands and the Square Mile in an entertaining Brit actioner. Nick Love is no stranger to directing stories about hard men as films from 'The Business' and 'Outlaws' attest and in this reimagining of cops versus robbers, Love imbues 'The Sweeney' with an excitement and brio that compares favourably with more famous overseas fare such as 'The Shield' in Los Angeles, 'CSI New York' and 'Spiral' in Paris. Indeed, I predict 'The Sweeney' will lead to a glut of similarly themed dramas with the same monochrome look and central London locations that Love uses so successfully in this film, but which themselves are clones of American TV slo-mo tracking shots, swooping camera work and aerial vistas of gleaming skyscrapers and cityscapes at night; bright, shining pin points of light.
Ray Winstone plays Detective Inspector Jack Regan, who with his partner, Detective Sergeant George Carter, played by Ben Drew (of Plan B fame) are members of the Flying Squad, a branch of the Metropolitan Police that deals with violent crime and armed robbery. Both are called to investigate the violent heist of a jewellery shop which results in the slaying of an innocent bystander. The trail leads to Allen (Paul Anderson), a former gang leader and adversary of Regan, who is now on parole but who seemingly has a cast iron alibi. Mayhem ensues as gun battles break out in Trafalgar Square, reminiscent of the bank job in Michael Mann's 'Heat', but this time from the viewpoint of the policemen and a final showdown in a caravan park in Gravesend, Kent. Of course, there are a few twists and turns along the way with Winstone growling his way through the plot and a couple of 'Yooo slaaags!' pleasingly thrown in for good measure, as he is investigated by Ivan Lewis (Steven Macintosh), a cuckolded Internal Affairs officer who believes that he is more villain than copper.
Seemingly perfect casting doesn't always work out, but Winstone is to the manor born as the cynical, hardboiled veteran, who has been around the block a few times and whose methods are seen as positively Neanderthal by more enlightened policing methods. The tagline; 'Sometimes you have to act like a criminal to catch a criminal' is mouthed by his sidekick, Carter and although clichéd is nonetheless entertaining for it. His affair with his colleague, Nancy (Hayley Atwell), and the wife of the Internal Affairs officer investigating him, is just credible if viewed on an emotional level, but the physical acrobatics between them is laughable, made more so by Winstone's bulky frame and large (passion killing) pants! Ben Drew is nicely cast in a slightly understated role as his partner-in-crime, presumably to offset Winstone's intensity, but I think a better actor such as Tom Hardy would have made the role far bigger and introduced a new and interesting dynamic if the story had been told from the perspective of Carter, instead of Reagan. Their relationship is complex and I think more screen time could have been devoted to telling their back stories, if only to explain Reagan's apparent childless and single status. Clearly, the job of catching villains has consumed his life to the point where it has become an obsession and where the line between right and wrong has become blurred, with any means justifying the ends, but this trajectory (or decline) still needs to be told. In doing so, I would also have made one departure from the TV series and that is to create a stronger ensemble cast with more compelling characters. Having said that, 'The Sweeney's is an enjoyable and high octane romp with genuine moments of tension (the hunt in the underground car park, for example) whose box office success should lead to further sequels and perhaps, a more rounded development of the characters.
You will need to disengage your brain from the plot points because Regan would have so lost his job in any number of myriad ways throughout the film, but once you do, you will realise that London is a creditable and brilliant location for police shoot-em ups like these to be made that are on par with its more illustrious American counterparts. TOWIES will love this film since Essex is the home of petty criminals and wannabe gangsters with some history of gangland crime (the Rettendon murders, for example). You'll be coming out of the cinema shouting 'Yooo slaaags!!'
A faithful and entertaining adaption of a British comic book icon
'Citizen, littering is against the law, the sentence is 5 years maximum security'
'Citizen, you have violated penal code 4412 and the penalty is...DEATH...BLAM BLAM'
It was lines like these delivered by a faceless, po faced frown that made Judge Dredd the greatest and most iconic British comic book creation and easily up there with Marvel's more celebrated figures. Indeed, if the comic 2000 AD had been an American creation, Dredd would have been as illustrious as Spiderman and the Hulk. The good news is that Pete Travis has made an entertaining and exciting film that wipes away the travesty of the Stallone portrayal (made all the more risible by the fact that it was directed by an Englishman) and retains much of the iconography of the Dredd character: the permanent scowl, the lip curl, the low growl, his complete incorruptibility, the Lawmaster motor cycle and his Lawgiver in action; probably the coolest side arm in film.
The story is simple a rip off from 'The Raid' and involves Dredd (Karl Urban) investigating three seemingly ordinary homicides in Peach Trees, one of the mega tower blocks in Mega City One which houses thousands of people, with a rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) whom he has to assess. They arrest a gang lieutenant who is responsible for the murder of the three homicides and to prevent him from being taken into custody and revealing that Peach Trees is the central production and distribution point for Slo-Mo (a highly addictive and hallucinogenic drug that appears to slow down time to a tenth of a second), the gang leader, Ma Ma (Lena Headey) orders the assassination of the two Judges. The tower block is put into lockdown trapping the Judges inside. Their only way of escape is to advance up the tower block to destroy Ma Ma and her criminal gang. What follows is a pleasingly high body count as bloody mayhem ensures from within.
Urban has nailed the sensibilities of the comic book creation (replete with deadpan humour), but it is clearly an imitation of Clint Eastwood and his 'Dirty Harry' character of the 1970s (upon whom the creator, John Wagner, modelled his character upon). The fact that Urban sounds so much like Eastwood cannot be unintentional and is slightly off putting if only because you are thinking about it throughout the film. Thirlby, playing the iconic Judge Anderson with the ability to read minds, is a fine counterpoint to Dredd's cool detachment and gives the film its emotional heart in the development of their paternalistic relationship. The effects of the drug, Slo-Mo, provides ample opportunities for the CGI artists to do their stuff and show bullets ripping through flesh, blood spurting from ruined arteries and bodies smashing onto concrete (you'll love and laugh at Ma Ma's demise).
Overall, Dredd is a faithful adaption of the comic book hero and its box office success should lead onto ever more thrilling sequels that mine the comic's greatest stories. Roll on 'Judge Death' and 'The Cursed Earth'!
The Artist (2011)
A glorious look back to old Hollywood
Anyone who loves cinema will love 'The Artist'; a gem of a film that harks back to the early days of Hollywood. Fitting then that a Frenchman should have made it since the Lumiere brothers are credited with the world's first public film screening on 28 December 1895. Judging by this film, it appears that the heart and soul of cinema still reside with the French, a medium that has always been viewed as high art and culture in France and much respected and patronised by all sections of French society. You only have to look at the flourishing film industry in France to realise this, something that the British government can learn lessons from in developing the British film industry.
The story is simplicity itself charting the fall of a great silent film star to be replaced by a young Hollywood starlet who embraces the 'talkies' as the future of film. It's a feel good movie, a history of Hollywood and a love story all rolled into one. All films should be made like this with an involving storyline, characters you care about and a feeling of happiness at the end. Both the costumes and the music complete its throwback to 1930s Hollywood glamour. The film will surely be played in cinemas with a live orchestral accompaniment and this will be a sublime experience indeed.
The French leads, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, have the look of 1920s Hollywood film stars and resemblances to Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow are not accidental (Dujardin's plays George Valentin, but there is also a heavy Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly vibe, as the ending of the film makes clear). Bejo's character, Peppy Miller, also echoes the youthful vibrancy and age of Hollywood at its height. The film and its stars have already garnered many critical awards at film festivals around the world and I am sure will be favourite to win at the Oscars. It will, however, be impossible to separate Dujardin's performance from Bejo's and both should win the main acting prizes along with Best Film, Best Director and Best Music. The film will bewitch the voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences because it is a warm, nostalgic reminder about the Hollywood of its youth an age in which cinema was tightly entwined in the zeitgeist of its time where anything was possible, no less the American Dream.
Take This Waltz (2011)
An enjoyable, thought inducing drama about love and marriage
Followers of Michelle Williams' work will quickly realise that 'Take This Waltz' is a companion piece to 'Blue Valentine' but in a very different way. Where 'Blue Valentine' dealt with the very painful break-up of a marriage, 'Take This Waltz' deals with the pain of true love longing, desire, guilt and separation. The constant in both films, however, is Williams' superb central performance, and I for one, haven't seen an actress perform a better role this year naturalistic and intense, every gesture full of meaning. With the summer blockbuster season coming to an end to be replaced by the annual Autumn glut of Oscar worthy heavyweight drama, Michelle Williams has already staked her nomination for Best Actress.
Williams plays Margot, a young freelance writer, who on an assignment at the beginning of the film, meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), an artist and rickshaw driver, who lives across the street from her in Little Portugal, Toronto. The chemistry between the two characters is palpable from their first meeting and this leads Margot to examine the state of her marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen), her husband of five years and a budding cookery writer.
The title of the film; 'Take This Waltz', is a metaphor and this is made beautifully clear in a pivotal montage near the end of the film. The opening scene really gives the end away but it is not the end result that is important but the emotional journey which the lead protagonists go on in the ménage a trios that develops between Margot, Daniel and Lou. Luke Kirby gives off a strong West Coast, slacker cum 'Friends' vibe and in doing so is perfectly cast as the handsome, square jawed, young antagonist. Seth Rogen is a revelation and should seriously give up the inane comedic roles of his past, to concentrate on more dramatic fare such is the depth of his performance.
An independent actress of some note herself, the writer and director, Sarah Polley, has attempted to use this vibe to make a romantic comedy-drama that examines the complex realities of relationships, love and marriage. For the most part, she has succeeded because the film is a bittersweet portrayal of the nature of true love that manages to avoid the simple clichés of similar stories. It is also thought provoking and will have you discussing it earnestly in the bar afterwards.
The fact that you will do so highlights what I initially considered to be two big problems in the film. The first is the relationship between Margot and Lou. Both have a wonderful sense of humour and a great rapport with one another, but there is something missing a carnal intimacy that is not satisfactorily explained in the script and which, therefore, undermines the credibility of the relationship between the two leads. This can lead to confusion as to where the problem might lie, but after further reflection, it is clear that Lou is to blame for the (physical) dissatisfaction that Margot feels in her marriage, but the complete lack of sexual intimacy from Lou is never explained. This is perplexing and is obviously the hook which attracts Margot to Daniel and as one scene clearly demonstrates; the monologue in which Daniel reveals his true feelings to Margot, and which incidentally will have you blushing like a teenager after your first kiss, the lack of a physical relationship with her husband is counterpointed by the promise of the red bloodedness of Daniel. At first, I was disappointed that such a simple narrative structure was used to engineer the attraction between Margot and Daniel, but I did not see the additional layer of meaning that the end of the film would reveal in all its delicious, ironic glory.
The second 'problem' I had with the film lay with its dénouement. To say more would be to give away a big spoiler so all I will say is that the opposite decision would have been more challenging to explore in my opinion, but again, the script justifies this beautifully with a fierce criticism from Margot's sister-in-law, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), which puts in doubt the judiciousness of Margot's actions. A sagacious statement earlier in the film; 'Even new things turn old', comes full circle at the end and it is clear that Margot has tragically fallen between two stools. Overall, 'Take This Waltz' is an emotionally charged, thought inducing and enjoyable dramedy that on further reflection reveals deeper and deeper layers of meaning, which the script skilfully brings to a satisfying if somewhat imperfect end. The film is a brilliant antidote to some of the dull blockbusters of the summer. Go and see it!