Tuesday, 30 November 2010

'Another Year' Review

In 2004, Imelda Staunton raised shocked sympathy in audiences watching the bleak tragedy of Vera Drake. It’s unflinching portrayal of just how grim life in the 50s could be – caught between a world war and a sexual revolution, was both poignant and devastating. In 2008, Sally Hawkins brought us a buoyant primary school teacher who always stayed optimistic in Happy Go Lucky. Mike Leigh’s latest offering, Another Year, lies somewhere in between – much like the banality of real life it captures so well, its offerings of comedy and tragedy are not so much alternate as embedded, the two interpolated within one another organically.

As the title suggests, the film looks upon just another year in the lives of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen). A typical middle class couple of middle age, they work, they play, and they eat. In doing so, they provide the film with a simple but effective frame that both carries the action and speaks on a fundamental, if explicit, level, on the nature of life. The movie passes through the seasons as we are privy to four individual dinner parties that the happily married couple provided for their friends and family, gathering vegetables from the allotment they devote their free time to maintaining as the time passes from spring to winter, green shoots turning to withered, iced branches by the movie’s end. Already then, something of the real undercurrents to this movie, despite (or because of) its ordinariness, are present – this is a film about life inasmuch as it is a journey wherein we grow old, and – inevitably – die. For some, like Tom and Gerri, it is a life of bliss and comfort that they may well take for granted. There may be threats to the stability in the fact that their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) hasn’t settled down yet at the age of thirty, but by and large, things are looking pretty good. Better than they may realise.

Tom and Gerri’s relationship, manifested in the providing of dinner parties – events of not merely nutritional nourishment, but the nourishment of community and warmth on the part of the hosts, acts as a keystone upon which the lives of their friends and extended family are thus drawn in, and the darker currents of life become present; Tom and Gerri live a life that isn’t only wonderful, but to some of their friends, magnetic in its dreamlike quality when compared to their own lots. Particularly enamoured is the ditzy, annoying, but ultimately endearing Mary, co-worker to Gerri who seems less of a friend than a charity case. Played with aplomb amidst an accomplished cast by Lesley Manville, Mary’s steady descent into utter loneliness – failing to realise Tom and Gerri’s life is their own, or that fellow wanderer Ken (Peter Wight) may offer the security she desperately needs, creeps throughout a narrative that casts her as the protagonist in disguise. Whilst we may be following overtly the lives of Tom and Gerri, it is their lives – and the events of their son Joe who Mary so wistfully desires – that act as the catalysts upon Mary’s own depression and retrospection upon the state of her own life on this earth.

The movie heavily relies on a sense of pathetic fallacy to bring about the idea of the indifferent cycles in life Fate deals us, and without spoiling the ending, winter comes to us all, signalling its presence with the falling of leaves. Like life, nothing much really happens over the course of the film’s more heady seasons, and it was incredibly refreshing to see a film that – largely improvised – relied heavily on the power of gesture acting amidst the inanity of everyday conversation to reveal the powerful emotions of individual lives that lie beneath the veneer of sociability; veneers that of course sometimes crack. Unfortunately, the film perhaps mimicked real life a little too well, as sections of the plot, particularly towards the end, began to drag a little, with no clear end in sight. Overall however, Another Year was a distinctly British character piece that proved largely engrossing and thoughtful, its considered pacing and deception of a free-form plot through banality offering something different to the contrived signposting of most emotional dramas. This was a film that fully revealed the tragedy of ordinary life, the fascinating aspects of the mundane.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

"Last Night"

This time last year, fellow cinephile Nicolas Pierce and I shot the following short film. It's quite a rough little thing, but for all its flaws it has character...

Monday, 22 November 2010

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' Review

Things are coming to a close for young Harry Potter. Having already bid farewell to us over three years ago in print form, the ‘boy who lived’ (and seemingly did little else half the time?) is entering his swan song on the silver screen also. He may have done a good job of circumventing the majority of puberty, but even he can’t magic his way out of this final confrontation; a speccy with a scar that looks like it was drunkenly drawn on the night before, battling a man who chose to make himself look like a snake (an indirect choice resulting from a deadly cocktail of Crystal Meth and PCP rather than drink). It’s easy to be flippant about Harry Potter, particularly as someone who grew up with, and, sometimes, grew weary of, the wizarding adventures that quickly turned from storybook fantasy to textbook franchising. There are, essentially, three types of Harry Potter fans; those there from the start who still cherish every minute of the phenomenon, those who came along for the ride with the movies and don’t know the twist ending (Harry is a diabetic who forgot to eat his biscuit and tripped out into a tragic coma), and those, like me, who maybe sometimes feel they are now ‘too good’ for Harry Potter, despite the fact that, deep down, they actually rather enjoyed the books, and are more than a little bit jaded that the past few films have just been rote text-to-screen productions that lack any real charm or personality. For that third group, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One may very well be the two hours that restore your love of not only the books, but of the idea of Harry on screen. For the other two, it’s a mixed bag – this isn’t the Potter Chris Columbus first prepped us for, and, to a degree, it may not be the Potter that even those who read the books expected.
Despite the fact this is actually part one of a double-decker close, the movie wastes no time attempting to fill the viewer in on the events of its lacklustre predecessor, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Harry and the gang are on the lookout for the horcruxes that contain the fragmented soul of Voldemort, who has now publicly returned to instate his dictatorship of fear and Muggle oppression. What follows is a fundamental shift from the formula established over the past six films; forgoing the usual hi-jinks of Hogwarts life in lieu of the new political landscape and general sense of apocalypse, Harry, Ron and Hermione soon find themselves trekking across the English countryside in a much darker, more mature storyline. The more sinister elements of the storyline, glimpsed in the earlier David Yates’ films, return with new vigour, but perhaps the greatest similarities lie in the climax of The Prisoner of Azkaban, resulting in a Potter film that finally forces home the underlying truth of the series; these are children who have had to grow up as soon as they could, in order to confront the fears their parents couldn’t handle. It is an incredibly serious take on the coming-of-age drama that only really seems to be fully acknowledged at this point; the seventh film in the series. This is a bleak film, and I would hesitate to label it as a kid’s movie; the mortal humanity of wizards is shown – perhaps for the first time – from the outset, whilst the inherent sexual tension of an intimate friendship between two guys and a girl is maturely – and explicitly – handled. As a ‘young adult’, it was nice to see attention paid to something that, despite it being a natural (and expected) part of growing up, even Rowling seemed hesitant to touch in her frequently sexless portrayal of teen life. For once, the movies have taken the spirit, rather than the prose, of the books, and, to my mind, it has paid off dividends – the realisation (in several senses) of Ron’s masculine insecurities on screen makes for one of a number of frankly fantastically handled action sequences in the movie. For some, this acknowledging of murky teenage angst in a series that began with three little kids eating Pumpkin Pasties after a trip to the merry Goblin bank of Gringotts may not gel easily, however.

Yet the loss of innocence is perhaps the major theme in a film that takes its time to move across its narrative (refreshing in a series that crammed and excised with a heavy hand in order to previously meet within the two-hour attention span of its younger audiences). The sparse, icy forests that Harry, Ron and Hermione skulk through, when alternated with the claustrophobic streets of London – alien in their urban pollution against the grandiosity of Hogwarts, creates an atmosphere of intense loneliness and despair that is only furthered by some stellar photography that, at times, borders on Arthouse pretentions, with a suitably minimalist score to boot. Of note is the extended opening shot of Bill Nighy’s eyes (a conscious refutation of popcorn editing?), and a beautiful wide-perspective shot at the movie’s denouement on a beach made grey with January sky, the tide well out. The splitting of the final story in two has allowed for a first in Harry Potter movies, and perhaps even children’s fantasy; ambient cinema that works more as a mood piece than straight narrative. Whilst I don’t agree with the criticism that this feels like only half of a movie, I somewhat understand the logic behind it if audiences are looking for the same dense narrative approach of the earlier instalments.
Yet this is not to say that the movie is one long, slow, sombre train into a wizard’s equivalent of depression. The film still carries a sense of humour that is perhaps all the more endearing against the disturbing subject matter, and a handful of well choreographed action sequences. Humour and thrills come together in perhaps the high point of the movie, when our three heroes infiltrate the Ministry of Magic – now akin to a National Socialist headquarters - with the use of the chameleonic Polyjuice potion. The bemused actions of our heroes are punctuated with a fantastically sinister turn by Peter Mullan as Yaxley, the Minister of Justice, his trademark rage boiling barely beneath the surface being another example of this movie raising the emotional stakes. Even Daniel Radcliffe manages to quell the usual complaints of a wooden Harry, offering someone a little bit more human, able both when things are comic and on the road to despair.
However, after being offered an accomplished piece of ambient cinema, I cannot help feeling hesitant for Part Two. (If you’re wondering how much I lap this kind of ‘emotional wash’ type cinema up, check out my Enter the Void review). With all the pieces methodically laid down for the endgame, what remains now but for the final confrontation to happen? Having gorged on a wonderfully individualist Part One, will Part Two just offer the stock element of the fantasy genre; the epic showdown between good and evil? Yet maybe one mood piece is enough, and if Part One is anything to go by, at the very least, Part Two will be beautifully shot and choreographed. Perhaps this swan song will be one to remember after all.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

'Jackass 3D' Review

Halfway through Jackass 3D, Sean William Scott popped up on the screen in referee gear, and it was then that I realised the cinema doors were a portal into 2001, and I was 12 again. The fantasy quickly faded, however, upon closer scrutiny of the man formerly known as Steve Stifler. This guy had put on a bit of weight. He was looking a little bit meeker - not tired, but his face looked a little more care worn. This guy, and the guys around him, had got old. So was revealed one of the two moments (prior to the end credits) that perhaps summed up Jackass 3D. The other was a quick, simple skit in the opening sequence; Steve-O jumped into a fan, it broke, and he fell down. In the original Jackass movie, released in 2002, the same stunt was performed in a corridor. Here, it was in a studio environment amid bright colours and confetti, the rest of the cast grinning at the audience in fancy-dress. Jackass 3D is, in every sense, a reunion party (its release celebrates the ten year anniversary of the show), not only of the physically irresponsible daredevils, but of a certain mode in MTV history that has since been replaced by the tanned ideology of Jersey Shore and My Super Sweet Sixteen. The edgy MTV a lot of us grew up with is gone, but not forgotten - the movie even opens with Beavis and Butthead informing you to put on your 3d glasses.

This is of course wonderful for people who were there when Daria aired, and who rocked with laughter the first time Johnny Knoxville tried to roller skate jump over a concrete sewage gate. But this is very much a generational thing, and it is telling that the major demographic for the movie is the under-25s. Jackass is not only dumb, silly, guy-fun, but it is dumb, silly, guy-fun that perhaps only really makes sense to those who grew up with the post-Tony Hawks skater culture and often failed even to perform their first Ollie (myself included). There are gags a – plenty, many of which had me laughing out loud, if not holding back the urge to shout in empathic pain or else hold down my popcorn. This is classic Jackass stuff, and some of the pranks are as iconic as those of the show’s former years (one particular highlight being the use of a jet engine as a mortar).For everyone else, Jackass 3D, just like its parent series ten years ago, will be disliked and disregarded as cheap pain-pornography, and they would be right to label it as such. 

Yet this ‘same as it ever was’ approach ran the risk of alienating its original fans also. In the rush to return to some glory long past, Johnny Knoxville and crew repeatedly remind us that, 'Hey, they were on Jackass - ten years ago now!', through visual cues, ‘college humour’, and prank rehashes; the fan jump at the start isn’t the only thing you might remember. Porta-loos once again form a staple part of the programme, as well as the anti-social grandpa routine. Sometimes these re-hashes come off as both nostalgic and exhilarating at once - as in the climactic ‘Poo Cocktail Supreme’ stunt - but the old-people skits of the first Jackass movie felt tired then, and when they reappeared here, it was one of a number of moments in the film where I was concerned that my attention wouldn’t hold out for the full stretch. Jackass 3D however, manages not to outstay its welcome, but ends on something of a high note. 

For all this rehashing, the end credits suggest a lot of material was excised, and one cannot help wondering why. Most of these pranks fail in the clips we’re shown, and when coupled with the shots of crew members bearing their infant children in their arms, the lingering knowledge that these guys have got old suddenly becomes a little more sobering. They’re no longer the elastic balls of energy we remember them as, no matter how hard they pretend to be. Its clear that this was very much a labour of love - no amount of money could justify the pain these people put themselves through - and everyone gets involved on camera, even Spike Jonze. The final product is likely exactly what was intended: Jackass 3D is dumb, irresponsible and illogical. It is, in short, everything you loved or hated about the first series, ten years later.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

First 'Green Lantern' Footage

So the first clips of the Green Lantern movie with Ryan Reynolds have hit the web, courtesy of Entertainment Tonight, and frankly, things are starting to look a little worrying. This movie feels like its riding on the bad-ass charm of Reynolds and little else, goading the viewers with little cries of "Hey, you all said he was the best thing in Wolverine Origins right? Eh?" Hmm. I had my doubts with the costume upon the initial photo reveal; it looked far too much like something Burton's Superman Lives might have come up with had they been working with turn of the century CGI, rather than corny casted muscles intertwined with the fibre optics from a cheap Christmas tree. Maybe a little harsh, but I know I wasn't alone in being unsure of how this organic approach to the costume was going to work out, and after seeing the new clip, its still hard to be won over. Something about it just seems slightly off - whether or not that's down to the quality of the clip remains to be seen, but that face-paint domino mask just seems odd against the pulsating muscle suit that comes with it. If the art direction is pushing the alien element of the Green Lantern Corps, then why not extend that to the mask?

Besides that, the clip reveals very little else. As expected, Reynolds is the cheeky chappy falling in love with his new found power (as well as Blake Lively) and...that's it. Kilowog and the Guardian homeworld make a brief appearance, but there's very little in this clip to make you go 'wow' in a movie that's supposedly pushing the Superhero genre into galactic avenues. This was a common criticism of the (different) footage shown at Comic Con, and it's a little disconcerting to see that the same traces of disappointment are present six months later. We'll just have to see where things go with this one, but I fear its a strong sign that the Superhero movie in its current form is ringing its death knell. Maybe the Brannagh-led Thor will shake things up a bit.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Glancing shot: Metropolis

Things are a bit hectic at university at the moment. Despite that, I don't like leaving the blog unattended for lengthy periods, so here's just a little something to whet my imaginary readers' appetites. 

Just before I left home for another year's study, I had the pleasure of watching the newly restored cut of perhaps the greatest science fiction film of them all. Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) doesn't really need an introduction; even if you've never heard of it, you'll probably recognize Walter Schulze-Mittendorff's Maschinenmensch, or robot woman - the iconic female of cold steel, gazing into the void. There is much more to this film than just great art design (and by great, I mean visionary use of the Art Deco movement) however. From its fairytale storytelling down to its sweeping score, Metropolis is a flippin' masterpiece. To attempt to analyse exactly why its so fantastic would, at a certain depth, take away from the movie's wonder, and for myself to write on it, I feel, would be to do it a further disservice. Instead, I've found a great little clip on YouTube (containing some of the newly restored footage) that offers something of a culmination of the reasons why this film is, and always will be, magical. Babel is here!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'Easy A' Review

Anyone who went to school knows that kids love to gossip. Gossip is a currency; if you have it, people listen. This in turn of course means that if you make it, people will talk – rarely to your benefit. High school can be a pretty tough place to get through, and we all manage it however we can. Easy A is the latest in a long line of films to deal with this ubiquitous problem / coming of age phase / absolute pain in the ass, and from the outset it vies for its spot as the latest in what is a very prestigious procession. But does it deliver?
The plotline is inspired by, and makes frequent references to, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – think of this as Hester Prynne in the 21st Century, without actually having any sinful, sinful sex. Our wry narrator, Olive (Emma Stone), is instead trapped in a lie she can’t escape, so decides to make her own profit grinding the rumour mill, in turn setting herself up as the school ‘super-slut’ without actually seeing a male member. It’s an interesting twist on a familiar conceit that offers the light cynicism noteworthy teen movies always bring onboard; the knowledge that high school is at once ridiculous and life-consuming, and there’s not much we can do to change it. Each decade’s irony is of course specific; Heathers and Clueless both bore the hallmarks of their time, and it cannot be denied that Easy A has a slot with its man-child brethren in Superbad and The Hangover. What’s refreshing here, however, is the firm female perspective the film gives us, the self-indulgent slacker type being the counterpoint to our heroine.
Yet here is where the problems start to appear. Those of you who are as obsessive over the Brat-pack as I am, may have cottoned on to the fact that this blog's title is a reference to the classic feel-good film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), possibly the best in John Hughes' formidable line-up. These movies are adored by all who watch them, and rightly, as the pinnacle of light teen story-telling. And of course, Easy A wants to be a John Hughes movie. Sure, it makes (explicit) acknowledgments to the contrary half way through in the deflation of 80s teen movie values, but, as the ending attests, all Olive really wants is to be living the John Hughes dream. That she can’t is partly, as acknowledged above, a generational thing, and for this the film can't be blamed. The responsibility it does bear however is that, whilst often laugh out loud funny with a magnetising, charismatic lead, what made Hughes’ best films work was that they were ensemble pieces with heart beneath the witticisms. Easy A pays for its incisive portrayal of the school rumour mill, Christian fanatics and back-stabbing friends by losing any sense of real companionship between characters. For the majority of the film, Olive is flying solo, the few figures of support she has, Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) and long-time crush Todd (Penn Badgley) being little more than bit parts. On that note, what exactly is Malcolm McDowell doing here as the – barely acknowledged - school principal?
This glaring weakness is further revealed through issues with pacing in the movie. The narrative takes the frame of a web cast where Olive relates the past few weeks to us in a series of episodic chunks with a brief commentary in between. This works quite well as a frame, but the episodes themselves have a piece meal, disparate quality to them; after a punchy beginning, the movie drags its heels between plot turning events until the final third, where everything starts coming together a little more.
This is not to say that Easy A is a bad movie, far from it. The jokes hold their own from start to finish, abating the usual fear that ‘all of the best bits went into the trailer’, and Emma Stone is, frankly, fantastic in the lead role. It’s a shame she couldn’t star in an actual John Hughes movie. Overall, Easy A is perhaps the best teen movie to come along since Mean Girls, proving to be entertaining despite lacking the heart it desperately needs.