Tuesday 26 July 2011

Review: Tree of Life

Year: 2011
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn

Synopsis is here

Tree of life is not a movie.Not in the conventional sense anyway. A friend of mine went to see it and absolutely hated it* and I can fully appreciate and understand why. I did wonder why she went to see it in the first place. She has a distinct dislike for most art house films and has found herself burned on many occasions due to having one of those fancy pants view as much as you want cards. My argument to that is if your allergic to shellfish, then it's best to avoid the prawns even if it is all you can eat.

I digress and so does Tree of Life which is an epic, sprawling mosaic of a film, fuelled by an ambition that many would like to see again in more modern movies. It wants to ask the big questions and does so with a boldness that has reminded many of Kubrick's 2001. Nature versus nurture, loss, grief, disappointment in father figures, disappointment in living up to father figures, the search of god, the search for meaning, all of this is placed on the backdrop of the very creation of life itself. This is deployed with a fractured, non-liner narrative fuelled with expressionistic close-ups and rhythmic jump cuts.

The outcome of this is a film likened more to an art installation more than anything else. It's also a big ask of the audience to follow Malick down the rabbit hole, as the film is executed in such a way it demands you to make your own assumptions about what you see. The first impression is likely to be one of pretension. With everything the film wishes to say, its whispered word narration which questions the whereabouts of God (the film also starts with a biblical quote from Job) and it's classical music soundtrack. While grandstanding I didn't feel that the ideas put forth were above it's station so to speak. The film has an earnestness that is so hard to come by. The childhood scenes invoke those memories of identity and that trying to figure everything out that every child goes through. The moment we discover that Jack's brother has died** instead of drawn out overwrought scenes of pain that we see in many movies (see say Mystic River) we see the disjointed response that is remembered and considered through memory. What makes these scene work for me is how they call upon my own memories of family and loss. There's something in the film's combination of visuals and music that managed to tap into something within my own psyche and burrowed itself under my skin. Mr O' Brian (a subdued yet commanding performance by Pitt) has elements that mirror my own father to such a point it's frightening while Jessica Chastain's angelic Mrs O'Brien is filmed in a way which reminds me of how I view my grandmother. There's a personal and emotional resonance that comes with the film that effected me deeply. I strongest suspect that not everyone will feel this and I also don't believe everyone will want it either, but all in all it is that aspect that drove the film home for me.

Reviews for Tree of Life have been using the words hymn, operatic and symphony to describe it and that alone should help a doubting viewer decided on if it is the film for them. This isn't a film that entertains and that will put off many who may have paid money to see the new Brad Pitt movie. The fragmented collection of images are more like a piece of music than any typical movie we usually see. I fully understand why some will hate it, more than any other film but for me generates an unbelievably personal response and I also believe it won't be the same for everyone. The film is at times unbelievably grandstanding, and at times a much of a muchness. It meanders and anyone who mostly watches more Hollywood based affair will probably be driven mad with it's construction.

I however found the film deeply involving and visually sublime (I can't think of another film that looks this good), the film performances are brilliant (although one may ask Sean Penn...why exactly?) the big questions are asked with earnestness and honestly and those who are willing to give it time and space and allow the film to wash over you (pompous I know) may find themselves being effected by it in some way. An art film in the purest form I found The Tree of Life an absorbing artistic statement

*She only saw one third of the film due to a tech error so her opinion is void
**We find this out early and is the main drive for the film's "plot"

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Year: 2011
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Steve Kloves
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupet Grint, Bonnie Wright, Ralph Fiennes

Synopsis is here

Note: As always I don't try to add spoilers to my reviews, however, I do mentioned certain aspects of the film that some could consider may say too much to those who have lived under a rock and haven't seen the films/read the books. You've been warned.

It all ends, not with a whimper but a beautiful bang as this franchise despite my reservations and issues with it in the past has come good. More than good I feel as this film (in collaboration with part 1) is the most accomplished entry into the Potter series. To me the other films were stuffed with the priggish middle class boarding school elements, seemingly Scooby Doo like shaggy dog stories about prisoners of the order of the stone of secrets (or something), a lead character whose passiveness and general lack of spark have caused frustration and of course the problematic imbalance cause by having to stay close to the material and yet still having to pull in those who haven't read every book. These final films have succeeded in my view.

For me there's so much to take in within the Deathly Hallows part 2. Not only the most visually striking film (check out the first bombardment of Voldemolt's army on Hogwarts) but it's the one that brings the most spectacle. Nearly every set piece is executed with a conviction and style that was missing before (although some of those effects are still a bit patchy). Part two is also the film that truly brings all the emotions and themes to life. At one point when Harry walks through the ruins of his once grand school Yates films and spies  the grieving of his colleagues and their loved ones, Yates manages to compile the imagery in such a way that one could feel wrong or intruding on such a private and sombre moment. In this; still considered a mainstream family film, we have a character looking at death and fate with a maturity which reminds us that a popcorn film need not have to be dumb to be enjoyable.

Lofty themes are approached broadly but effectively as Yates' film touches of not only fatalism and the inevitability of one's own death but also how events of previous generations can bring forth strong reverberations. Within the film we finally see the tragic reasoning behind Snipe (Rickman's best performance of the series) and the true complexity of his relationship to Harry. During this scene we are then given a substantial amount of information (all the films have always had issue with exposition and this is no different) to which even Potter himself exclaims that he himself is willing accept his fate; that is, he's ready to die. Such an exclamation displays how high the stakes are and raises the poignancy of everything tenfold. There was nothing put forth so intriguingly in previous entries.

The film doesn't stop there, also giving us the well known but very effective dualism of both the hero and villain. That the two are so strongly intertwined that they shouldn't really exist without each other, is at it's strongest here. The most appealing thing about this factor being that the only thing that separates the yin and the yang is quietly shown in a transition, one in which one character is told that help can be found only for the next shot to be one of the other character stating that they don't need help at all. Integrity counts above all the magic we see. 

Loftly thematic ramblings aside, the film is consistently entertains. The first 15 minutes aren't the strongest and the humour isn't the best placed this time round (the overall tone is too serious for it) but once we enter the halls of Hogwarts for the last time, I found myself transported to it's world. The film is wonderfully paced throughout; the action is tightly packed and has a distinct sense of place which means unlike your Battle L.A's and Transformers movies, you can follow what's going on. 

The cast still has the same blessings and curses that where bestowed upon the franchise 10 years ago. The older circle outclasses the younger group every time. Only an actress like Maggie Smith could give "it's good to see you" the grounding it has. Rickman is as I mentioned before brilliant, while it's taken far too long to see Fiennes' perform in full glory. His gleefully sadistic Voldemort has been the perfect foil for the later films. Most of the older cast say very little but this is clearly as their stronger moments were in earlier films. This kids have moved from cardboard ten years ago to vaguely passable now. Radcliffe in particular is seemingly swallowed up by the films scope. It's not all his fault as Harry has never been the strongest character, despite the films being all about him. However there's no true horrible displays by the three "kids" and praise should go to Matthew Lewis as Neville.

So we come to the end of the Potter franchise with a genuinely satisfying final film, one that doesn't have too many, rung out multiple endings and a emotional tug (despite my ongoing frustrations with passable Potter himself) that doesn't have that manipulative feel about it, although the kisses between couples do feel a bit cheesy and forced. To the this journey without the books was also interesting as with no other real connection to the material other then the movie, it was engaging to interact the series without the nagging non-objective view that many fans who haunt the blogs and message boards of "muggles" who just couldn't get behind the series. 

But I must say to those who may have given up the gryffindor ghost that Deathly Hallows made me glad that I stuck with it. I won't say I fully get everything and it's doubtful I'll be revisiting these films for generations to come like many others certainly will (looking at the reaction of the fans, this may the closest thing to Star Wars will see in a long time) but for me after the sweetly touching final codec that transpires back at Kings Cross station, I can safely say that the journey wasn't perfect but the destination was worthwhile. 

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Review: NEDS

Year: 2010 (U.K Release 2011)
Director: Peter Mullen
Screenplay: Peter Mullen
Starring: Conor McCarron, Peter Mullen

Synopsis is here

If Richard Ayoade's Submarine is getting plaudits for being a coming of age flick with an arthouse/indie twist that the Brits usually avoid/not bother with. NEDS should be applauded for being the type of coming of age film that the Brits know and love; gritty, personal, visceral and provocative. Praise should also go to Mullen for delivering a film which is also punctuated with darkly humorous asides (fight sequences played out to glam rock classics) and evocative symbolism; with the films last shots alone being compelling, troubling and truthful while maintaining it's bizarre tone.

NEDS ponders the question that was asked so directly in The Wild One (1953) "what are you rebelling against? The film's lead John McGill (Conor McCarron) has an answer, it slowly becomes clear that he wants to claim identity on his own terms. Unfortunately, he is locked down by a society that seems that its has already decided upon how it wants to see him. An intelligent boy with one eye on the future, John is lamentably trapped within an area where physical violence and threats from other kids are the normal, other parents who look at his working class background with scorn, a brother with a gang reputation that  proceeds him and an alcoholic father who lack of presence as a dad an aggression towards his wife is as negative as a father who is absent. There's so much pushing against the young man that it's no surprise; like a shook up bottle of coke, he is pressurised to go off when opened.

Mullen layers a quiet intensity throughout the movie, which is best seen in the sequences involving John and his Father (an always great Mullen). We do not see much of this character through the run time, but the presence and gravitas Mullen gives him creates a perfect storm-like atmosphere. We don't only get a full establishment of the family life quickly, but we also sense the how long the turmoil has lasted.

Mullen's performance is the type of display one would expect of a man of his talents, however it's brilliant to see him going up against a young contender like McCarron. In a debut role, McCarron almost effortlessly balances swagger, intelligence, fear and ferocity as if he was a veteran. Much like Thomas Turgoose in This is England (2006), this is a performance that doesn't hold any of the pretension an well verse child actor could have and is loose enough to allow the character of John to breathe as a fully formed, flawed lost soul.

NEDS isn't a film with visual bombastics and Mullen's look of the film is an efficient one, the captures the grim grey look of a 70's Scotland. It would be interesting to watch this next to Ratcatcher (1999) and compare the more romantic visuals of Lynne Ramsey to Mullen's more matter of fact affair. It's also interesting that both films show such a troubled Scotland and are careful not to search for easy answers within their stories. I must admit at one point I was worried that NEDS could boil over to either false hope or over exaggerated nihilism. However, like it's lead character the film carefully balances over a knife edge to it's powerful and yet still ambiguous climax.

British features have been hoping into genre flights of fancy recently and for that I've been grateful. However, it's always worth while to see British film get down and dirty in that underbelly that we do so well. 

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Year: 2011
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Shia LeBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey

Synopsis is here:
"God, I really wish I could go loose on this one. He's like Napoleon and he wants to create this insane, infamous mad-man reputation. He wants to be like Hitler on his sets, and he is. So he's a nightmare to work for but when you get him away from set, and he's not in director mode, I kind of really enjoy his personality because he's so awkward, so hopelessly awkward. He has no social skills at all. And it's endearing to watch him. He's vulnerable and fragile in real life and then on set he's a tyrant. Shia and I almost die when we make a Transformers movie. He has you do some really insane things that insurance would never let you do". - The Infamous Megan Fox Quote for GQ.
It's incredible how much insight that quote can give on not only Fox (I believe she was out of line) but Michael  Bay and the Transformers franchise (most important word). It's been murmured before that action takes place over everything on a Michael Bay set and that includes of course acting and story. It's also interesting that Bay himself claimed that his 2009 juggernaut Transformers: Revenge of the fallen had missed the mark. I find that particularly revealing because two years ago it was the marketing  of that film that Bay had issues with. Now, on the event of the third instalment of the very VERY marketable series (good ol nostalgia and kids); it was of course the writers strike that caused such a weak film.

Excuses aside as Bay has roared back with the third and final (maybe) feature of this vapid and overlong saga of films. What's changed and what can we expect? The short answer is very little. If you've had a problem with these films before then there is NO change here. We have robots and they fight each other while human actors mug and feign the ability to portray real emotion for the material. The 3D cameras may have stopped some of the schizophrenic editing that Bay likes to employ but besides that what you see is once again what you get; empty, over-long spectacle. For the third time we have a transformers film which runs far too long on the dumb plot it is given. Those who think other wise will take to comments pages and bemoan that bloggers and writers are taking it too seriously and it's just about the carnage that develops. I call shenanigans.

Why? Because if such was the case you would throw out the plot wouldn't you? Not have anything there except the robots fighting right? What you'd get is a 50 minute film of just special effects banging against each other. If the only reason to watch is the films last stretch (a 40+ minute Robo smackdown) then why pay (in both earthly currency and soul dollars) for all that alleged plot, supposed acting and poor attempts of emotional engagement?

To be fair, the film starts out interestingly enough. Following suit from X-men: First Class, TF:DOTM starts off by mixing fiction with reality. Melding the space race (and an awful Buzz Aldrin cameo) with the Transformers mythos. The film series has struggled with this idea for three films, but the use of effects and the points of history used (1972 when the space race ended and Chernobyl) actually help try and give a certain amount of grounding to proceedings. As plot points within the whole film it's not much, but it almost gives us a foundation to stand on.

This rug however, is yanked away pretty quick as Bay wants to re-introduce us to what made many of the critics (and myself) dislike these flicks so much. We once again get dubious homophobia (See TF2 and Bad Boys 2, annoying stereotypes (didn't like the black/red-neck robots? check out our ridiculous British ones who are considered "assholes" in the movie), unbearably juvenile "comic" relief (also those parents are back) and a story that doesn't really add up even on basic aspects. If Transformers and everything about them run on energon, I get annoyed when at one point army men can check energon levels without hesitation, only to have that moment ignored later on. Such aspects can be small and nitpicky...but can also take you out of a movie.

As can annoying lead characters such as our dear friend Sam Witwicky who is one of the most grating lead characters of the year. In a film like this when it's all about the explosions LaBeouf's Sam has little to do. However when the spotlight is on this character we have two modes; in the beginning we get obnoxious arrogant ass mode in which Sam does his best to make sure that we as an audience dislike him intently. The second half of the film we get shouty Sam in which LaBeouf (who usually has a nice screen presence) yelps, mugs and generally pulls faces like Kermit the frog. Although at least Shia is an actor, because as much his performance isn't great here, he is Olivier in comparison to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Whiteley, picked for her bum and boobs, not only provides zero chemistry with her co-star but also has problem spouting much of the dialogue convincingly. This may have been less of an issue for someone who is an actress, but consider the fact that this is her first film, with a director notorious for focus on the pyrotechnics. That is no way for a model to be introduced to a major Hollywood film.

This aside at least the payday is good for a list of actors that looks like the Coen brothers phone book. Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and John Turturro turn up to pad the thinning material out. Patrick Dempsey must owe Kruger a bunch of favours for being in both this and Scream 3 while Alan Tudyk and Ken Jeong to be on the butt of the unfunny gay jokes. Jeong who plays Wang (hur hur geddit?) also gets a departure that is so insensitive for the sake of a few jokes I was slightly aghast.

This leaves us to the 40+ minute reason why many have shelled out cash for this two and a half hour movie. Bay excels here with set pieces the remind us that when it comes to action, he always delivers something worth watching (once). His visuals still suffer from his hyperactive camera movement, but they have however been colour graded up from garish to bright. The Robots gleam, shine and rust and fight in the way you'd expect an effect worth millions should to. I will admit that the moment when Shockwave began to crash through a skyscaper I was impressed to a point.

But this comes at an expense of once far too many, almost non-descript robot characters with no real personalties. Too many human characters who aren't very interesting/likeable who chat about nothing for a long time, needless crotch shots, lingering arse shots alongside unintentionally amusing lines and sequences due to a  bad script. We are constantly told to switch our brains off to films like this, but I keep asking myself at what point did it become the norm that we must be brain dead in order to enjoy a film? Why is it that the hallmarks of such a genre; may have been b-movies in disguise, but still maintained structure, characterisation as well as decent action? This film is 157 minutes long and yet we constantly get told to ignore two thirds of this because some things blow up for just over one third.

Transformers: Dark of the moon almost shows that Megan Fox may have been fired but she may also be right about Bay, a director with many films that seem to only exist in one note stereotypes, bland humour and chaos. We see close-ups of character's faces but they seem devoid of any emotional connection. Conversations feel clumsy and nobody resembles a human. Some ignore this based on a bizarre ideal that you should pay full price for nearly half a movie, especially if it's in 3D IMAX. I know many who are happy with the trade off. I say more power to them. This way of thinking has Dark of the Moon most probably becoming the 7th film to break the billion mark in worldwide grosses. Who needs friends when you've got fans.

Friday 1 July 2011

Review: Bridesmaids

Year: 2011
Director: Paul Feig
Screenplay: Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Chris O Dowd, Rose Byrne, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy

Synopsis is here

Bridesmaids is like most Apatow graced features; there's a lot of swearing, some low brow humour and a lot of heart. The only difference appears to be that instead of the typical man-child leads usually given, we instead follow an oddjob group of girls (led by Kristen Wiig) as they stumble over obstacles and clash their particular personalties before a friends wedding.

The gender switch had many column ichers hyping and writing as there is a strong belief to some that not only the mainstream American comedy is struggling, but that the female gender, may or may not be particularly funny in the first place.

The latter half of the argument, I find similar to the race argument that pops it's head up from time to time. The media world is dominated by in real life by a certain cultural group and mindset, so of course the art and entertainment reflects said group the most. It has it's disadvantages and outrages as you expect, but for the most part it's understandable. The problem is for me (and I believe many others) is when the dominance becomes a full on stranglehold on whatever minority. So when something like Bridesmaids slips out, makes money and is generally liked there is a certain amount of shock.

I was a little shocked myself as while Bridesmaids has some laugh out loud funny moments (two brilliantly put together set pieces on a plane and wedding dress store) as well as some smaller titter worthy scenes, I was adequately amused no more, no less. My issues have nothing to do with the gender of the cast (although a refreshing change), I just felt that as a film, it could have been a little tighter, some of the characters could have been a little more prominent and not all the jokes worked on me as much as I had hoped.

With this said, in my opinion Bridesmaids is far superior to the Hangover 2; particularly in cast, with breakout star Melissa McCarthy being a much better trade off compared to Zack Galifiankis as her character actually has something to do (it seems lot of of Galifiankis' appeal is that he has a beard and slightly off-kilter appearance). Rose Byrne shows she has more than enough chops to hang out with a comic clan, and while largely ignored, the pairing of Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey share some nice banter with each other. The film is a grand display for one Kristen Wiig. Now finally given a stage to show more prominence, Wiig shows off a great balance of slapstick, timing and pathos. Wiig manages to give the role of Annie the neurotic tendencies you'd expect from a Bridget Jones style character, but none of the irritation.

There is enough within Bridesmaids to show that American comedy is doing fine in the right films. Gender arguments aside, there's also a great amount of sweetness to be found in the characters that helps elevate humour, which is what some comedies have been missing. It didn't stop the feeling I got that Bridemaids loses some laughs in the latter half and that the film could have been raunchier and less meandering at points. But as a whole Bridesmaids was certainly worth the ticket price.