Sunday 30 October 2011

Review: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of of the Unicorn

Year: 2011
Director: Steven Speilberg
Screenplay: Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish, Edgar Wright
Starring: Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis

Synopsis is here

I can't lie here. I've been putting this Tintin review off. This is mostly due to me not thinking of anything witty or engaging to say about the film. However the biggest problem is how I wasn't won over with the final product. The motion capture (I'm NOT saying mo cap as I'm over the age of 15) was amongst the best I've seen. We have a group of actors that are clearly game for the project and a director whose more than capable to producing something special. But by the end of the film I was considerably underwhelmed. I found myself asking those questions that those who enjoy the film (and there will be many) will ignore.

My first query came about as soon as we met our intrepid reporter.  Tintin, a character that is known for purposely being a blank slate is portrayed quite accurately as one, but he's also a protagonist who manages to be quite smart. Almost too smart you could say as here we have a character who will question something and answer it straight away almost eliminating whatever mystery that could have been had.

You see, it comes so easy for the boy and while it's great to have such a sprightly and smart character, there never appears to be that element of risk. The stakes don't seem as high as they could be. While that appeared to be fine with me on the page (the comics) or small screen (Animated series) when I was a youth, here I struggled to get to grips with how safe everything felt.

I guess that's why some had/have a problem with the motion capture aspect of the film Much like how many critics talk about the soullessness of CGI, it's difficult for some to get on board with a film that is completely motion captured. I didn't have too much of an issue with the effects. It allows Spielberg to complete set pieces which would be nearly impossible with the usual human mixture. In that bizarre way how life weaves it's web, I watched Tintin a day after hearing the death of a stuntman on The Expendables 2. I'm fine with such aspects limiting such tragedies, I do hope however, that the stories are as formidable as the effects.

Visually, the film is stunning at points and Spielberg manages to add his trademark wit to many of the scenes. It's worth watching; not the main narrative of the story, but whatever may be going on at the side of the screen. Snowy is a dog that at times has his very own adventure going on in the background and one could miss a chucklesome moment because of it.

The performances are also worthwhile. Daniel Craig is clearly having a bit of fun as the bad guy, while Jamie Bell is a snug enough fit for the titular Tintin. It is however the work of Andy Serkis that tops the cast list. Serkis; the Lon Cheney of motion capture, reminds us that he really is one of Britain's best secret weapons. We love to fawn over the work of the likes of Gary Oldman, Judy Dench and the like but ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw him in a weak performance? Serkis provides the film with it's heart which helps illuminate the film much more than it's main character.

I think my main problem with the film is how formless it appears to me. I don't expect rigid three act structure to every film I see, but there's no build or peak to the film. Save for a monologue from Serkis' Captain Haddock and a delightfully full on set piece in the final third, I found myself difting in and out of the film.While I know Tintin is a blank slate in the comics, did he have to be here? Was there anything that could have been done to up the stakes? Why didn't I get the chills I get with other Spielberg projects? Once again I'm in the minority but I found Tintin passable and yet forgettable. However, I'm interested in what Peter Jackson will do with the sequel once he is done with middle earth.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Review: A Dangerous Method

Year: 2011
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton
Starring: Micheal Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Kiera Knightley

For my second (and unfortunately last) film at the LFF, I was quite taken back when; for the screening of A Dangerous Method, we were greeted by one David Cronenberg. So surprised was I, that in trying to take a picture of the great man I only got blurry images. I was a little bit gutted as if I had known that there was a chance of seeing the filmmaker I would have set up my camera properly as opposed to the nonsense I took. This is yet again, something else to log down on my list of shame.

Shame is something that rears it's head within the DNA of A Dangerous Method as the pivotal character of the film Sabina (Knightley) is wrought with it. Carried to hospital kicking, screaming and giggling manically; she is brought to the attention of Dr Carl Jung (Fassbender). It is he, who decides to use the method of "talking cure" from his friend and mentor Dr Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) to try and find the foundation of her sickness. This action correlates and intensifies as the young practice of  psychoanalysis slowly grows from the relationships formed.

Martyn Conterio; founder of the wonderful film site Cinemart (can you spot the cheap plug), mentioned to me that he considers A Dangerous Method to be the quintessential Cronenberg. I'm not so sure. To me it's clearly one fascinating (and talky) part of a grander overture of his themes (repressed sexuality, the body at fault from the inside), especially in this section of his career, where it is the mind that is diseased (Spider = memory, Eastern Promises and A History of violence = personality and character) and yet there is a dryness in the film that is difficult to shake off. Cronenberg himself stated at the beginning that it is up to us to decide whether we consider the film good or bad. I indeed liked whats going on but considering previous efforts I was surprised how cold the film felt.

Many of the films scenes involves our three leads, hashing things out calmly with analysis and talk (sprinkled liberally with some light S&M), that nearly always end as a revelation or small discovery for each of the characters. Scenes are presented stylishly with many a face in extreme close up, conversing with someone else further back, mimicking Freuds "talking cure". It is obvious that these conversations shared are councilling sessions or as you could consider in Jungs case (much to Freuds disgust) confessionals with characters discussing their moods, methods and reasoning in such an analytical way that you are constantly held at a distance. Sometimes, it's a tad too much.

Cronenbergs film is very restrained, which is fair enough as we don't need exploding heads. However, considering the pedigree of the director at hand, the amount film holds back, diminishes much of the impact that could have had. In comparison to Spider; which did so well in making sure that the main character's surroundings, became his own personal circle of hell, you get the feeling that we could have got even more with this than we receive.

The film's main strengths are in it's casting. Mortensen strangely feels like how I would expect Freud to be despite never seeing a moving image. His cool wit, help defuse some of the film slightly when it wonders into it's pondering a little too deeply. Fassbender is fine here however with word coming from journalists about his second turn with Steven McQueen, and from what I've seen in other features (I love him in Fish Tank) I once again expected the world from him. Here, he is a little distilled. Knightley plays a character that I feel some will find frustrating at first, although she becomes stronger as the film continues on. It's her arc which is the strongest. Some of the films stronger scenes rely of Sabina's hold on the rigid form of Freud and the slightly more emotionally conflicted Jung. This isn't just the female as the prize and Knightley almost straddles both positions of damaged and healer, although her "mania" (all jutted out jaws and arching arms) feels slightly cartoonish at times. This is still a brave endeavour from a girl who is more believable here as a psychiatrist, than a pirate. 

For me, A Dangerous Method; much like Crash holds you at such an arms length that it's not as engaging as one would hope for. A late emotional moment caught later on, involving Jung sits awkwardly with the rest of the films goings on. The film feels most at home with a charming little conversation with Fassbender and a quick cameo from Vincent Cassell. The conversation involves sexual liberation by breaking past the social constraints we've built up for ourselves. With Cassell playing the devil on shoulder, the idea that allowing total expression and response from sexual pleasure and bypassing the our human rules harks us back to a young Cronenberg playing with sex slugs in Shivers making similar points with cheaper special effects. Despite the response not being as strong, it's interesting to see how the mighty have evolved.

Note: I really loved how the title itself means more than it lets on and can be applied in a variety of ways. Ebert mentions the same aspect much more eloquently about A History of Violence. Also it was interesting how the title cards were presented to us a similar approach was used in Spider. Nothing major just some observations.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Review: Carnage

Year: 2011
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C Reily, Jodie Foster

Synopsis is here:

The film is simple. Two couples meet to civilly discuss a violent incident involving their children. Both couples dislike each other as well as their own relationships but seem compelled by their hate to remain in the room they are in. There is nothing stopping these people to leave the house (one couple almost make it twice) and yet they remain to take chunks out of each other. Their conversation devolves into childish squabble at a swift pace, covering all sorts of uncomfortable areas and philosophies. Awkward glances transform into emotional sideswipes, forced politeness descend into racial slurs. Much like Bunel's "The Exterminating Angels" Polanski gives us a brisk 80 minutes to remind us that our so called civility that we love to utilise to lord above other people (or animals) is fragile veneer nearly always willing to crack when the right pressure is applied. The film is a claustrophobic black farce with four characters who make the bastards in Closer look like Care Bears. Polanski hasn't had this fun in ages.

This is the Polanski of old, back in the apartments (see Repulsion or The Tenant) while liberally sprinkling in that enclosing feeling that haunted the images of Knife in the Water. As Polanski turns the screws you can literally see the walls crumble around these characters, so relentlessly absorbed in their own little worlds that they come across as just as childish as the kids they came to talk about. The mud is slung thick and fast and the dialogue rolls off the fork tongues with devilish glee. Polanski remains uncomplicated visually as the actors do the heavy lifting.

Craftily casted, all four performances are finely tuned, with all managing to gain laugh out loud moments, be it the bash faux homeliness of John C Reily or the droll one liners of a carnivorous Christoph Waltz. Winslet as the cold, status fuelled wife of Waltz gets the best moment of physical comedy (I didn't expect such a moment from a Polanski film) while Jodie Foster lets loose as a passive aggressive bleeding heart liberal whose whiney protests for peace through culture brought some of the most amusement from myself.

My opinion of the film is simple. One of the two films I've seen this year at the London Film Festival (work commitments have slimmed my viewing) is a tightly wound, hystercal black comedy, from a director who even nearer 80 has not lost his sharpness when it comes to the middle class climbing up the walls of their closed in apartments. I'm not sure I've laughed harder at times this year.

Monday 3 October 2011

Review: Warrior

Year: 2011
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Screenplay: Gavin O'Connor, Cliff Dorfman, Anthony Tambakis
Starring: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton

Synopsis is here

I had the wonderful pleasure of watching Warrior in a cinema all to my self today. While I understand that the U.K is going through an Indian summer of sorts with all this sun despite going into October, my love of cinema always beats out my wish for a decent tan. It was a joy to have a screen to myself for a film like Warrior; the problem however, is that I had the cinema all to myself. Much like two years ago with Whip it, I found myself watching a sports film that does almost everything right and yet, empty seats...Their loss I guess.

It's not just here in the U.K either though, as Warrior's takings in the U.S were very weak also with takings that would make a premiership footballer wet himself with laughter. I've not looked into any of the reasons offered to why Warrior failed but it's pretty unfortunate for a film which has all the traits of a modern update of Rocky. Much like Stallone's crowdpleaser, Warrior comes out as America is in a state of discombobulation. However while Rocky came out during the back end of Watergate and the Vietnam War and won over audiences who had been gorging on a diet of brilliant (yet ambiguous) American new wave. The fact that Warrior has struggled to set the box office alight against a backdrop of economic stress and middle eastern wars while millions was spent on horrid nostalgia fuelled multi-metal nightmares with dubious philosophies shows that not only William Goldman is still right and "nobody knows anything", but in terms of film viewing we have a vastly different audience when it comes to going to the cinema.

I really hope Warrior finds a fanbase on DVD as despite it's flaws, the film is an highly entertaining Drama in a similar vibe to The Fighter and The Wrestler. It has a more intriguing family dynamic, but is unfortunately held back by the typical cliche minefield that the sports film can bring. The film is very obvious in it's direction with it's clear as a bell indicators (family photos and the like) and we can guess what's going to happen a mile off. It doesn't help that the film makes sure that our "split loyalties" fall heavily over one of the fighters. Ambiguity is not an option. We can also add to the list that for a film that is 140 minutes long, the central conflict feels slightly abstract. I'm a bit surprised more wasn't made from it.

None of this however, detracts from the fact that Warrior has three solid performances that make sure that make the drama work. Tom Hardy's dark and brooding performance show that it's not only the frame that make him a prime choice for Bane. Joel Edgerton (last seen in the brilliant Animal Kingdom) is on winning form here as he has what I would consider a harder part to play. Nick Nolte is the glue that holds everything together and gives an Award baiting performance. Usually such displays can annoy but Nolte hits the nail on so many scenes that it's more than worthwhile.

Warrior is very much a film of it's time, with it's fighters not only dealing with their relationship problems (this is a family of men ripped apart by aggression), but also the socio-political issues we face at this very moment. Hardy's Tommy is a post 9/11 fighter whose past is troubled with what was seen in the wars of the middle east, while Edgertons Brenden paints a worrying picture of a man whose hit hard by the economical downturn. The idea that those who teach the next generations cannot sustain themselves is something is is quickly hitting home, with a pivotal scene in a bank proving that those below the breadline are merely statistics in the green tinted eyes of the banks.  The film plays out such moments with more than enough confidence.

My review of Warrior comes across as more negative than it should be. The film is solid, glossy, life-affirming entertainment all the way through. The MMA fighting hasn't reached the visceral punch that certain boxing films have but for the first MMA feature, the fights have enough crunch to them. The drama is held up by great performances and the film has Kurt Angle as a silent Russian cage fighter (what's not to love about that?). The film does what a decent sports drama should do and that's having you punching the air at all the right moments. As I had the screen to myself I did so with gusto.