Archive for the Film Category

Skyfall

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2012 by alexlarman

The first thing to say about Sam Mendes’ tremendous Skyfall is that it makes its predecessor in the James Bond series, Quantum Of Solace, look even worse. Whereas the first film of Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007, Casino Royale, was one of the very best Bond films, Quantum was dull, uninspired and gave every indication that Marc Forster didn’t have the first idea how to direct an action sequence or co-ordinate an interesting plot. With further havoc caused by the temporary cessation of MGM, who own the Bond rights, it looked for a while as if Craig’s excellent, engaged interpretation of Bond would, like Timothy Dalton’s, be left at two films, one good and one poor.

Thankfully, all was made right, and the resulting picture is an exhilaratingly brilliant romp that simultaneously furthers everything Casino Royale did right and cleverly redefines James Bond for the 21st century. The plot – a revenge saga, mainly set in London – is beautifully simple, containing no spaceships, world domination or plots to take over oil franchises. Instead, it contains a near laundry list of good things, from one of the best baddies in the series in the shape of Javier Bardem’s blonde, insinuating psychopath with a very personal grudge against Judi Dench’s stalwart but also fragile M, to Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography which makes this not just the best-looking Bond film ever, but also one of his finest works.

A fantastic cast, including everyone from MI6 mandarin Ralph Fiennes to gutsy field agent Naomi Harris, is given a very strong script to work with, which judges the fine line between seriousness and playfulness just right – it’s a good deal less intimidatingly sober than Craig’s previous two films. It isn’t perfect – the climax is somewhat underwhelming after the brilliance of many of the other set-pieces (including an Istanbul set-to and explosive destruction on the London Underground) and a scene in Macau casino involving giant lizards feels like it’s come out of another film – but it proves, inter alia, that a cerebral director like Mendes can make this sort of pulpy fun both serious and seriously entertaining. Expect it to be a massive, massive hit, and don’t bet against many of the same team returning for the next one.

 

At LFF 2012

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2012 by alexlarman

As I write, the London Film Festival is beginning to wind up. There are still a few big premieres to come, not least Mike Newell and David Nicholls’ new version of Great Expectations, but by and large it’s now possible to look at Clare Stewart’s first season as artistic director (taking over from the estimable Sandra Hebron) and make a few very general comments.

The festival is shorter this time around – 11 days rather than 14 or 15 – which means that the big premieres sometimes come two at a time. (One imagines some of the more committed autograph hunters heading inadvertently to the wrong cinema and being disappointed as a result.) The line-up, as in Hebron’s day, is less about world premieres and more about bringing much-lauded recent films to the masses. This leads to the odd surprising omission – unless either is a surprise film, no Cloud Atlas or The Master – but there is a plethora of good stuff to make up for it. Here were my favourites:

Argo

It now seems very strange to think of Ben Affleck as one half of the much-ridiculed ‘Bennifer’ and star of such rubbish films as Gigli and the aptly named Paycheck. With his third film, Argo, he proves himself one of the most talented directors working today, and a pretty decent actor to boot. Dealing with the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the film explores the remarkably strange true story of how a fake film, Argo, was created by the CIA in a desperate attempt to flee six Americans who had sought refuge in the American ambassador’s house. Mixing edge-of-seat tension with Hollywood satire is a bold move, but rather surprisingly it works beautifully. The cast (Bryan Cranston, Alan Alda, John Goodman et al) are tremendous, and it builds to an exciting and satisfying climax.

Crossfire Hurricane

The Rolling Stones set the record straight in this new documentary. Sort of. Produced by the band, it’s definitely a step up from hagiography, but it soft-peddles a lot of well-known stories (there’s next to nothing about Jagger’s serial philandering, for instance) and finishes rather abruptly in 1981, apparently conceding that they are now less rock stars, and more members of The Rolling Stones PLC. Still, the music’s fantastic, the footage frequently gripping and the new interviews from the Stones off-camera produce some amusing nuances and moments.

Everyday

A new Michael Winterbottom film is an annual occurrence, but thankfully this one is one of his best. Filmed over 5 years, it follows the strained relationship between a husband and wife (John Simm and Shirley Henderson) as he goes through a lengthy prison sentence for an unspecified crime. Simm and Henderson both give nuanced, compelling performances, helped by the Kirk children as their sons and daughters, and it’s an especial pleasure to hear a new Michael Nyman score as well.

Lawrence of Arabia

You know this one’s good, but it’s an absolute pleasure to see the full restored version on the big screen, which genuinely transforms the whole experience. The dialogue is as iconic as ever – ‘Of course it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts’ – but it’s the performances and David Lean’s sweeping direction that make this one of the greatest films ever made.

Room 237

In which various scholars, film critics and interested parties discuss their theories of what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is really about. Theories range from the quite sensible (a metaphor for the slaughter of Native Americans) to utterly barking (the entire film is Kubrick confessing to faking the moon landings), but it’s elegantly and intelligently staged and frequently funny.

Seven Psychopaths

Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to the brilliant In Bruges is a messier, more sprawling beast, which will probably need repeated viewings to tell whether it’s a work of near-genius or just an entertaining mess. Mixing elements from his plays The Lieutenant Of Inishmore and The Pillowman, it revolves around alcoholic Irish screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who finds himself embroiled in a bizarre dog-kidnapping scam run by Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, even as he tries to write the titular script. As with Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, things get very meta, very quickly. It’s stuffed full of good lines, great performances (especially a restrained but somehow still barking Walken) and nice ideas, but somehow the whole thing seems permanently on the edge of descending into complete incoherence; it bears the hallmarks of a script that McDonagh has revised over and over again, without ever truly finding the heart of it. Yet it has the same enjoyably profane sensibility that informed In Bruges and some hugely effective quieter moments, which give the film an elegiac quality at points.

On the basis of these, it’s fair to say that Stewart’s next season at the LFF will be that old canard, ‘eagerly awaited’.

A Tale Of Two Posters

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on March 19, 2012 by alexlarman

The eagerly awaited upcoming Norwegian Jo Nesbo adaptation Headhunters has a fairly striking poster:

Except that we’ve seen pretty much exactly the same poster somewhere else:

Who said that marketing originality was dead?

Oscar Hopefuls – 2012

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2012 by alexlarman

So, the film awards season draws near again, kicked off in earnest by the (hopefully) irreverent Ricky Gervais taking the mick out of various celebrities as he hosts the Golden Globes for the third and apparently final time, and ending with the grand dame of them all, the Oscars. As ever, it’s been a funny year for seeing what is on the radar, and what isn’t. The excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Drive haven’t had much of a showing so far, while the mediocre-looking The Descendants has attracted what seems like an undue amount of attention. Indeed, it’s been a year where slight films have prospered, with Woody Allen’s pleasant but unexceptional Midnight In Paris being lauded to the skies, apparently on the grounds it’s better than anything he’s done in years. Well, at least it isn’t Match Point or Cassandra’s Dream.

Anyway I’ve now seen a few of the more obvious hopefuls, and have a few thoughts on each:

The Artist

Apparently the current frontrunner at the Oscars, Michel Hazanavicius’ charming film has attracted much attention because it’s both in black and white, and silent. (Purists might note that it’s also filmed in academy ratio of 1.33:1.) I’d hesitate to call it the epoch-defining classic that some have called it, but it’s undeniably extremely compelling. It retreads the time-honoured story of A Star Is Born, with the difference that the fading actor George Valentin (played, in a star-making turn, by Jean Dujardin) is a thoroughly decent and honourable sort, and that the up-and-coming star, Peppy Miller (the equally charming  Bérénice Bejo) wants nothing more than to do right by the object of her affection. It isn’t as deliriously feelgood as the reviews might suggest, with an air of gentle melancholy being the pervading atmosphere, but it’s a lovely tribute to the good ol’ days of Hollywood, helped by indelible supporting performances by John Goodman (as a cigar-chewing studio head) and James Cromwell (as Dujardin’s loyal chauffeur). And, of course, the dog (Uggy) is excellent.

Girl With A Dragon Tattoo

Early reports indicated that uber-producer Scott Rudin and David Fincher wanted to set up a new franchise with their American (although, crucially, not Americanized) adaptation of Steig Larsson’s best-selling trilogy, but that this franchise would be defiantly R-rated and adult, containing all the charming details that the books are known for, not least anal rape, incest and serial killing. This has been borne out, perhaps rather too well, given the film’s as-yet uncertain box office performance. Its main draw is the astonishing performance by Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, the presumably autistic computer hacker who is recruited by disgraced journalist Michael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to help solve an age-old murder on a Swedish island. Mara, playing down her usual good looks, is appealingly vulnerable at the same time as being tough, and is helped by Fincher’s muscular direction, incorporating his usual touches of jet-black humour; a serial killer, preparing to dispatch his victim, puts on Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ as mood music. Only a rather superfluous globetrotting last act spoils it, but the strengths until then (including a nicely judged performance by Christopher Plummer as the patriarch of a truly rotten family and the stunning credits sequence) are considerable.

War Horse

Or, Spielberg makes a British film. Based on both Michael Morpugo’s novel and, more obviously, the National’s ever-running show, it showcases most of his strengths and most of his weaknesses, often at the same time. As ever with Spielberg, the casting (Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, Mullan, Niels Arestrup) is impeccable, the production values superb and the action scenes brilliantly choreographed and executed. Unfortunately, by choosing to make literal what both the book and play treated at least partly metaphorically, there’s a certain clunkiness, not least in the first act, which plods almost as much as the rejected shire horse that the titular thoroughbred Joey is bought instead of. As he forms a bond with his young owner (Jeremy Irvine, less impressive than some young Spielberg stars), and the wicked landlord (David Thewlis) schemes to evict the family from their cottage, you wonder why on earth the director bothered. As it goes into more episodic territory with the arrival of WWI, it offers tremendous set-pieces and indelible cameos, even as it serves up unlikely plot developments and all the sentiment you’d expect from a collaboration with Richard Curtis. Still very worth seeing, mind.

 

A Tale Of Two Sherlocks

Posted in Film, TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 3, 2012 by alexlarman

Sherlock Holmes is now big business, lads and lasses. It was clear from the rapturous reception given both to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ 2010 TV reinvention of the character that there were still substantial audiences who wanted to see new or reimagined exploits of 221b Baker Street’s great inhabitant. Granted, they were entirely different in outlook – Ritchie’s film was a laddish caper that leant heavily on the charisma of Robert Downey Jnr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, whereas the Gatiss/Moffat series had a stunningly multi-faceted performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as a strange, apparently autistic Holmes – but both succeeded admirably as highly enjoyable mainstream entertainment.

Now, we see the next installments of both, in the shape of the film sequel A Game Of Shadows and the subsequent tranche of TV adaptations. The USP with the film was the much-heralded appearance of Holmes’ nemesis, ‘the Napoleon of crime’ Moriarty (who had appeared briefly in a cliffhanger at the end of the TV series) in an entirely original plot, whereas the BBC version adapted three of the most famous stories, beginning with a version of A Scandal In Bohemia, where the titular scandal is relocated to Belgravia. But which one wins?

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it’s the TV version by a substantial distance. The second Holmes film was much anticipated in the casting of Moriarty, with names such as Brad Pitt and Daniel Day-Lewis being bandied about. The eventual choice – Jared Harris – is a fine actor, who does a more than capable job in the part, but there’s a slight sense of ‘oh…’ to his appearance. This partly works in the film’s favour, but the problem comes when this sort of gimmicky, lightweight entertainment tries to play it at all seriously. Thus, Moriarty has the odd interesting character quirk – he makes a potentially fatal delay to feed pigeons in the park, and appears more genuinely moved during opera than when organising countless deaths – but by and large, he’s an identikit villain, with a Bondian scheme that becomes clear during the finale. The various action scenes are fine, the banter between Downey Jnr and Law again amuses and some of the locations are stunning, but it’s one of those frustrating sequels where the potential to deepen and darken has been muffed. Oh, and Noomi Rapace has about the most perfunctory female role in recent memory.

Not so the TV series. The first three episodes scored more highly in their reinvention of Holmes and Watson and the creation of their milieu than they did in terms of the plotting; the first ended with a run-of-the-mill denouement, the second one wasn’t particularly good and the third ended with a strong cliffhanger but the unexpectedly bizarre characterisation of Moriarty as a camp, psychopathic Irishman. This cliffhanger is resolved for laughs rather than thrills immediately, and then we’re into a rollicking yarn involving Holmes meeting his match in the character of Irene Adler, aka ‘The Woman’, a high-class dominatrix who has the unlikely goods on virtually every figure at the highest echelons of British society.

The episode, written by Moffat, fairly barrels along, with Irene Pulver’s icy, brilliant Adler a worthy match for Cumberbatch’s Holmes. It incorporates a stunningly choreographed scene of slow-motion violence (a possible hat-tip to the films?), Mark Gatiss dialling it right down as Holmes’ icy brother Mycroft, a warm and sympathetic Martin Freeman as the ever-exasperated Watson, a very satisfying denouement and a pleasingly ambiguous final scene. On the basis of this, the next couple of Sunday evenings are about to be very good fun indeed.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Posted in Film with tags , , , on December 17, 2011 by alexlarman

Or, as we mortals call it, Mission Impossible 4. 15 years after the first installment in the franchise, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has – once again – accepted an impossible challenge, this time to stop a Swedish madman from creating nuclear war between the US and Russia. That this hoary old plotline, familiar from countless Bond films, has been revived comes as little surprise, as the series has thrived on implausibility and absurdity from the start, sometimes knowingly and at other times with the straightest of straight faces. Even if those faces are sometimes – in a ta dah! moment – revealed to be someone else’s, concealed under an all too accurate mask.

The storyline here is really wafer-thin, frequently incomprehensible and apparently there as an excuse for Cruise and his team (Jeremy Renner as mysterious ‘analyst’ Brandt; Simon Pegg as tech-nerd and comic relief Benjie; Paula Patton as the obligatory woman) to travel between exotic locations including Moscow, Mumbai and Dubai on the trail of Michael Nyqvist’s vaguely camp villain. But you’re not watching a film like this for Chekhovian insights into unexpected quirks of character. Instead, you’re watching it for the action scenes. And these certainly don’t disappoint.

In the live-action directorial debut of Pixar whizz Brad Bird, there’s a vim and energy to the scenes of derring-do that is pretty much absent from most modern thriller filmmaking. Three set-pieces in particular – an opening jail-break scored in part to Dean Martin’ s ‘Ain’t That A Kick In The Head’; a climatic fight in a stunningly futuristic car park; and, best of all, a terrifyingly vertiginous external heist at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa – are pretty much the best things that I’ve seen of this ilk since Inception, and in some respects they top even that, because there’s a wit and playfulness to much of the action that is a world apart from the CGI-heavy ‘robot fighting robot’ sturm und drang that is synonymous with so much blockbuster product.

I’d hesitate to call this a great film, or even a particularly good one. It drags between action scenes, there are presumably remnants of an excised twist that never quite comes and Cruise, while still athletic and limber at 49, is beginning to seem faintly ridiculous in his desire to remain an action hero forever. (As a random example, Gregory Peck was 46 when he played Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, a role that seems associated with a vastly more mature actor than that of Ethan Hunt.) But, if seen in full jaw-dropping excess at an IMAX cinema, this is pretty much a must-see, at least once.

Hugo

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , on December 7, 2011 by alexlarman

Martin Scorsese has been on an exceptional run of it lately. After the flawed-but-occasionally-interesting Gangs Of New York, he has set himself up as a maker of exceptionally well crafted mainstream films, normally starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but has also dipped into music-related projects as eclectic as the recent George Harrison documentary Living In The Material World and the Rolling Stones’ concert film Shine A Light. He even won the much overdue Best Director Oscar a few years ago for the excellent The Departed.

He’s certainly a man who can do whatever he wants, joining a select few including Spielberg, Nolan and Fincher in a club where they can make passion projects at ludicrous expense and know that their commercial success or failure is all but irrelevant to their personal prestige, as the artistic quality of the films is likely to be high. All the same, Hugo (renamed from the book’s title The Invention Of Hugo Cabret) is a surprising departure. His first foray into what appears to be children’s films, as well as his first 3D film, it suffers from a slow opening and unfortunate detours into irrelevance, but has a central theme and message that represents Scorsese at his most heartfelt and sincere. Quite who it’s aimed at is anyone’s guess.

It begins with much exposition. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in a 1930s Paris train station after the death of his mechanic father (Jude Law, in a tiny cameo) and the disappearance of his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone, similar). Making a living of sorts by petty thieving and avoiding the station master (Sacha Baron Cohen), he seeks to mend a broken automaton that his father brought home from a museum. Unfortunately, his plans are thwarted when the miserable toyshop owner, Georges (Ben Kingsley) confiscates his notebook as a punishment for Hugo’s stealing. His only hope is to elicit the help of Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) in an attempt to retrieve the notebook, repair the robot and see if, as he suspected, his father left him a last message.

The above summary doesn’t really do justice to what Scorsese’s grand aim is. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Georges is in fact Georges Melies, founder of modern cinema but fallen on hard times when the film begins. Thus, about halfway through, Hugo turns into a wonderful and thrilling paean to the early days of silent cinema, conveying the fun and excitement of an unknown world in which anything seemed possible and everything could be achieved by hitherto unsuspected means. The film’s helped by excellent performances by Kingsley, Helen McCrory (as his wife and muse) and Michael Stuhlbarg (as the Melies-obsessed academic responsible for his eventual rehabilitation). It’s some of the most heartfelt and affecting stuff you’ll see at the cinema this year.

However, it bears comparatively little resemblance to the children’s film around it, which Scorsese doesn’t seem particularly interested in. Butterfield and Moretz are both fine, if increasingly peripheral, presences, but it’s the oddity of casting Baron Cohen, in a substantial role, that really mystifies. The character as portrayed is a wounded WW1 veteran with a leg support, a fierce dog and a penchant for sending unaccompanied children to the local asylum. Fine, a cartoonish Dickensian stock villain, to add some otherwise absent jeopardy. But there seems no rhyme or reason for his presence in the film, which bears no relation to the central plot, or his eventual rehabilitation as a sympathetic figure of sorts. It’s perfectly possible to see a Chris Cooper or a Ray Winstone doing very well in the role, as a bitter older man haunted by the memories of the trenches, but Baron Cohen’s arch and rather annoying performance doesn’t convince at all, meaning that all the various chase scenes, while visually impressive, are just so much padding.

So, a curate’s egg, then. But the good stuff is so good that one hesitates to describe this as a misstep, more as a fascinating curio that will always occupy a unique place in Scorsese’s extremely distinguished canon. Unless he makes Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipfellas, that is.