Tuesday 31 January 2012

Review: The Grey

Year: 2012
Director: Joe Carnahan
Screenplay: Joe Carnahan, Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Starring Liam Neeson

Synopsis is here

Joe Carnaham is a director I have time for but find myself at a loss with his recent movies. I missed his debut feature Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane but found his second feature Narc immensely enjoyable. The A Team and Smoking Aces are high energy distraction pieces that do what they're meant to do and nothing more, but I always have the feeling that they could have been more memorable. Right now, I cannot for the life me tell you anything that happened in those films.

For me I get the feeling that with those films, that while the budget got bigger, the focus seemed to sway slightly.  So much "stuff" had to be packed into Aces and A Team, that when it starts spewing out, you don't know what to put your attention. The A Team; with it's nostalgia monkey on it's back, reminded me why I enjoyed The Losers more. While Aces, was a mass ensemble piece that had a lot of names in the cast, but didn't spend any real time with them. A frustration as when Carnaham does allow his characters to breathe (Narc) he gets something out of them. The final aspects of Smoking Aces featuring Ryan Reynolds' character hint at something the film never really looked at wanting to achieve.

With that in mind we come to The Grey, a pared down nature action thriller; which, could have been leaner, but doesn't pull back with it's punches. Canaham's film (which at times borrow tropes from the horror genre) works because it cares about the plight at hand as opposed to filling the feature with trivial flash.

Such a stripping of gimmicky reminds us that Carnaham is an appealing director visually. He and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi kept me on my toes with the stark beauty of the Alaskan backdrop.  they capture the near hopelessness that these men will face. When bad things happen (and they do, often) Carnahams camera doesn't look away, instead it lingers on the pain unflinchingly. A scene featuring Neeson giving clam to a dying moments after the plane crash is grim and uncompromising. At times I found the film difficult to watch, in the way a good horror film should be.  

However, other times the film is difficult to watch because of haphazard editing. Action sequences featuring The Greys main threat; the wolves, are choppy, awkward and hard to decipher. in fact those scenes (while featuring some effect jump scares) are really mangled close lumps of flesh and cgi. The film works better when the focal point is firmly placed on the men, and the clam before the storm. The mirrored balance of the gang of rouges and the animal hunters that trail them bring out some of the best moments of the film.

The characters involved aren't complex at all but it's the actors that are cast that give them the humanity that's needed. We are told that these men are men that are unfit for mankind. To drop them in such extreme conditions, we witness what spurs them on and what drives them. Small, tender things, many stemming from their relationships with women or family. That their alpha male machismo is not only threatened by such forces of nature but asks them to relate back to such softer moments, hint at the difficult contradictions of masculinity that Narc probed at times. Liam Neeson; a man whose been kicking ass and taking names since 1990 (Darkman) brings the grounded leadership and awareness that such a role needs, while Frank Grillo provides sufficient conflict in the human ranks.

I'm not the best when it comes to Man vs Nature features. In fact my copy of Southern Comfort is still in my cupboard unwrapped, I haven't seen Deliverance in years and The River Wild has never pipped my interests. But The Grey is the perfect type of feature to see out a chilly January. Canaham's retreat back to what made him a worthwhile prospect, that human aspect, makes us want to stand by these characters through the harshness of the terrain in front of them.

Monday 30 January 2012

Review: The Descendants

Year: 2011 (UK Wide Release: 2012)
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller

Synopsis is here:

It is said on The Descendants IMDB trivia page, that George Clooney went for the role of the womanising Jack in Alexander Payne's last movie, Sideways. Payne decided ultimately that the role should go to someone lesser known (Thomas Haden Church). In my view, it worked. I wasn't distracted by any stardom at all and Church pulled off a fine performance that combines well with Paul Giamatti's sadsack Miles, and won an Oscar nomination to boot.

Seven years on, and Clooney finally gets his chance to work with Payne in The Descendants, a dysfunctional family feature, which judging by the material and Payne's previous work (Election, About Schmidt), should be a clear bread and butter deal for all involved.

However, The Descendants; a film full of great small moments, gorgeous photography and a superb supporting cast filled with bright young things (Shailene Woodley) and wiley veterans of the game (Robert Forster on brilliant form) is lacking somewhat. For me the reason appears to be Clooney.

I'm not against George Clooney in the slightest, I think that he is an movie star that; much like Tom Cruise, is treated with ignorance because they do not often fall upon gimmicky quirks and do not give the same types of performances that you expect from seasoned character actors. When they are given something in which their charm and charisma are give a chance to show prominence (Clooney - Out of Sight, Cruise - Magnolia), they really do excel in the role. Here Clooney tries his hardest to pull off something more workaday, more everyman   and while he still manages to pull off a few nice moments, he feels like he's trying to squeeze into a role that is marginally too tight for him. It just didn't fit right with me.

It doesn't help when everyone else is wonderfully cast and clearly have their game faces on. Woodley and to a lesser extent Amara Miller play the two sisters of Clooney's Matt King with just the right balance and pitch. They're not brats, merely difficult children dropped into a complicated situation. They act out accordingly, and there's a subtle sense of growth with Woodley's performance that really stands out. Elsewhere, Robert Forster is knocks an emotional monologue right out the park. So much so, that it's still the strongest scene I remember, hours after watching the film. Perfectly capturing the complexities of the issue at hand.

But it's scenes like this that stand out the most in Payne's film. The opening narration reminds us that just because people live in "paradise" doesn't mean they experience it. It doesn't make the pain any less real. This awkward and convoluted situation only seems to be made worse as these characters are painted against the beautiful backdrop of Hawaii. The opening shot is of a close up woman beaming happily as she rides the waves in the motorboat which causes her unfortunate accident and the upcoming chain of events. This is the only time we actually see her concious, as the coma she is placed in not only renders her silent, but creates an enigma around her as we witness all the characters react with each other due to what they know and what they don't.

This is where the film works best, and why the moments with Forster and Woodley are so affecting in their own way. We see such an overview of this woman in the films 115 running time that when we see their responses to the grief we warm to them. But it's strangely why Clooney didn't hit the spots with me. As the film goes on, I don't sense the weight or burden on his shoulders. Such a role would be difficult to cast and even harder to put across on screen. Clooney, whose managed to lose himself in roles (Syriana, his work with the Coen's), is just slightly off key.  He doesn't feel so much Matt King, more Clooney trying to schlub up.

But it's hard to be the everyman epicentre in a picture like this, with a screenplay that nails those private issues of family so well. Late on, we are given a line by Beau Bridges that reminds us that blood is only thicker than water when money isn't involved. The line rang so true, I scoffed louder than usual. But it is that what Payne does well. Next time, however he may wish to see what a lesser actor is up to.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Review: Haywire

Year: 2012
Director: Steven Sodenbergh
Screenplay: Lem Dobbs
Starring: Gina Carano, Micheal Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Micheal Fassbender, Antonio Banderas

Synopsis is here:

Haywire is a film, which I found easier to like more than love. I can sense that many; expecting something a little more conventional, will find it extremely easy to hate. But let me say one thing, it's a Steven Sodenbergh film, one should expect something a little different. Take away those Ocean films and even his more mainstream features still can feel like a round peg in a square hole. Despite how that sounds, I do mean that is a good way.

Lean, mean and tightly crafted, Haywire is a volatile piece that doesn't outstay it's welcome. During it's stay however, we do get to jump and jetset around a variety of different locales to a retro 60's David Arnold soundtrack. All this while we follow Mallory, an ex-marine cum private sector special trying to find out (violently) who double crossed her, during her last job and why. To quote Bad Boys 2: "shit just got real".

Looking for anything too in-depth in a film like this; is much like eating a dry cracker to rehydrate yourself. My second paragraph has told you nearly everything that happens within the movie. This comes at a price however as the film does hit anything past the superficial. The film just doesn't give us enough to get a hold of. I found myself comparing the film to The Limey (also scripted by Lem Dobbs), a genre exercise which is equally as straight edged as this. However, despite Sodenbergh's 1999 feature being more experimental than this (non liner editing and the like), it still manages to have a solid emotional centre through Terrence Stamp's amusing yet strikingly sad performance.

The only strikes that land here are from the fists of the hard hitting Gina Carano whose one note performance is understandable considering the tightness of the script and lack of acting experience but struggles if the film even sniffed at trying to hit a station above ass kicking. The story is very typical spy affair, while it's difficult to find anything within the character of Mallory that stands out other than the obvious.

Is the first time casting of the MMA/Former American Gladiator a piece of stunt casting? Yes and No. In comparison to the likes of Brittany Spears (Crossroads), Christina Aguilera (Burlesque) or Mariah Carey (Glitter) Carano has not got the inbuilt fan-base to lie back on, nor does it feel like an expansion of a brand (although considering her maxim spread I may be wrong). Carano has a certain look and build that fits the character she plays. Having an known actress could have been distracting, particularly as the fight scenes are edited and shot in such a way to emphasise Carano's talents. However Gina is no Thespian and it shows, making it feel at times that Sodenbergh hired her because, why not? With this said, none of the acting really rises above a certain level.

Despite this the film is gorgeous to look at, happily hops from place to place in an amusing James Bond fashion and the fight sequences are expertly put together in long, unflinching, unbroken takes. There is a gimmicky feel to having Carano in the part but it is amazing to watch her in full flow. While the linked photoshoot may cause fapping within the teenage boy sector, Sodenbergh takes away the blatant sexuality. This gives us a character who can be looked at in the same way as any male figure if they were placed in the same position. It would be nice if the character, performance and story could catch up with the gender politics.

Note: Head to Movies.com for a an interesting article on Carano's role within the movie and in the action movie dynamic.

Friday 13 January 2012

Review: Shame

Year: 2011 (2012 Release)
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: Steve McQueen & Abi Morgan
Starring: Micheal Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

Synopsis is here:

Note: Slight spoilers are abound in this review. I don't speak of the plot explicitly, but what I do say does touch on areas of story more than I usually do. Well to me anyway.

I haven't read any reviews as of yet* but Shame has been making quite a stir with many critics. I'm quite surprised; as to me, the film, a character piece about sex addiction has more than a touch of the conventional about it. McQueen's film does well to show that sex addiction is just as wretched much like any other type of excessive behaviour. With this said, by doing this, the film sometimes feels like we've seen this been done before with the usual suspects. It's not hard to feel that one or two moments within the films final act could easily be found in a typical drug piece. However, McQueen's use of space and setting; along with Fassbender's scintillating performance makes help make this feature a captivating one.

McQueen's view of New York we see in this film is a isolating and smothering one. We never really release how suffocating it is until a critical scene involving Fassbender's Brandon running on a late night jog. It is the most invigorating moment of a film that relies on the stillness of it's camera. We see Brandon not only trying to break free from the situation within his apartment; involving his equally emotionally broken sister (a devilishly child-like and selfish display by Mulligan), but also trying to break out of his own damaged spiral. As he runs down the gridded system, it's almost like an old cartoon where the character moves and yet runs past the same repeated background forever.

Brendon is an deeply affected addict; locked in routine he cannot break free from. He is constantly restless (spy the red bull can often in his hand), and his sisters disruptive involvement in his life has only caused more problems. He feels shame not only for his addiction, but for whatever tragedy which both stuck him and his sister in New Jersey. The scenes between the two of them are drenched in anxiety. They do not interact like brother and sister, they can't console each other when the reach breaking point. The simple fact that they cannot find an emotional connection with each other has infected all their other attempts of finding a meaning full relationships in other areas of their lives. Both of them try and utilise sex as a way of starting something meaningful and can't seem to understand why its so destructive.

Brandon is absorbed with sex; and his excess has reached such a peak, that it doesn't even seem to be about "getting off" or "conquests". We don't know what his job is, but does it matter? It's not as if he concentrates on it, distracted in meetings, often late with reasonable excuses, we're as adrift in the haze as much as him. We watch him on a train in a scene involving a young (married) girl which switches from playful to predatory in a moments glance. We sense the tone in uncomfortable close ups; not only in this scene but so many others. The camera lingers disturbingly when we would like it to cut away. The sex although clearly constructed at times is never romantic or erotic. It feels like a weight that needs to be shifted. The endorphins released after the act clearly do little to lift the cloud. Fassbender carries this metaphorical bulk effectively in nearly every scene. His body language subtly awkward, conflicting thoughts flutter in each glance. Mulligan's outward display neatly counterbalances this. This is the best I've seen from her. Her childish manner is attention seeking but with good reason. He rages at her because his covers blown. "you trap me in a corner" he exclaims. What he hate is the fact that he's exposed. She doesn't understand but often reacts just as sharply. The chemistry between the two is a foil that works remarkably well within the film
Where Shame slips it's in certain moments within it's final third. In what should be a pivotal scene is seemingly shoehorned into proceedings, almost to give the film somewhere to go. It shows the film at it's most conventional but also highlights a slight imbalance between the characters we've been watching. While the hints to something deeper lie in between the lines of Shame, there's an act given to us that feels that one more piece of the puzzle may not have hurt.

However, this is part of the "fun" of Shame. I need to watch again because I fear I've missed something. The final moments are a recall of the train scene. It's a tease. We witness the girl again in similar circumstances, but something's different. The positions have been altered slightly. Her posture has not only changed, but challenges us in so many ways. We look at her reactions compared to before. The final moments focus on Fassbender's Brandon's face which is equally as provocative. I hope the cartoon went to a different setting.

*Since writing this I have read Ashley Clarke's exceptional piece on Shame, which is here

Friday 6 January 2012

End of 2011 Videocast - Part 1

As some may know, I do a audio podcast named Cinematic Dramatic, which can be found on Geek Planet Online and Itunes. This year myself and co-host Iain Boulton have decided to bring out a Videocast of what we liked and disliked of the last year. This is Part One, which is of our individual picks from our respective top tens. Part two will feature the picks that appear on both of our lists.  Forgive our faces, they are clearly much more acceptable on an audio podcast.