Thursday, 24 November 2011

Intouchables (2011)

Image: Gaumont

This is the based-on-a-true-story tale of a poor young black man from the ghetto who ends up caring for a rich white quadriplegic man, leading to both of them learning new things about themselves. No, no, come back! Admittedly, describing the plot in such a way makes this sound like a mawkish mess of a film to avoid at all costs, but doing so would mean missing out on one of the most effortlessly enjoyable and heart-warming films of the year.
The film begins in medias res with a funny sequence featuring some great Paris driving action. It might be nicked wholesale from Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights but it works, and provides a wonderfully cinematic opening. We meet Philippe, who was paralysed from the neck down in a paragliding accident, and Driss, the wayward young man who looks after him. Next we go back in time to their meeting, and witness how this odd coupling came about.
Driss comes to a job interview for the position of Philippe’s carer solely in an effort to get the requisite amount of signatures to allow him to claim his unemplyment benefit, pinching a Fabergé egg from Philippe’s house while he’s at it. Philippe, however, is impressed with the candid candidate (especially compared to the milquetoast bunch of applicants we see being interviewed in an amusing sequence reminiscent of Shallow Grave) and gives him the job.
Obviously what comes next is not hard to guess at: Philippe teaches Driss to appreciate art and classical music; Driss opens Philippe up to sensual (ear) massages and bling. These scenes could have turned out painfully trite and cheesy, but are saved by the joie de vivre which illuminates them. The writing-directing team of Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have made a truly beautiful film, with some breathtakingly staged moments. An obvious highlight is the paragliding sequence, joyfully set to Nina Simone, but the less grandiose moments are also charmingly done. Driss’s joy at having his own bath is brilliant, as are his endless attempts to bed Philippe’s assistant Magalie.
The filmmakers were gifted with François Cluzet and Omar Sy as Philippe and Driss. Cluzet (who gained the César for his role in Ne Le Dit A Personne) brings a quiet gravitas to his role, perfectly capturing a man who has come to realise that life is about more than mobility. His desires to escape the confines imposed on him by dint of his handicap are realised through Driss, and Omar Sy too is flawless as the hardened, lonely man who learns the importance of responsibility and friendship.  There are some great supporting actors too, notably Audrey Fleurot as Magalie, whose role is a huge contrast to the ice cold bitch she plays in French TV hit Engrenages, and Anne Le Ny, who does a great line in bemusement.
I went into this film worried that I wouldn’t find anything new in it. I rather feared that I’d not be able to shake the mental image of Tea Leaf and Mr Lomax from BBC Two’s Psychoville. It is a credit to everyone involved in the film that such an old formula seems so fresh. This might be due to the underlying truth of the story. Without giving too much away, if the final moments of the film don’t bring a lump to your throat, you are made of stone. It might be that repeated viewings will diminish the film’s impact but for the moment, as La Simone would say, I’m feeling good!
Verdict: Life-affirming, funny, gorgeous and, yes, touching, Intouchables is a slice of pure celluloid joy which, if you let it, should sweep you away.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Contagion (2011)

Image: Warner Bros.

Steven Soderbergh’s reputation is built on constantly flitting between inaccessible art-house and star-studded, big budget blockbusters. Just by looking at the cast you can see that Contagion definitely falls into the latter category, but it’s always tough to predict whether a Soderbergh multiplex movie will actually work.

A virus similar to avian flu starts to spread throughout the world. Scientists race against time to find a vaccine but the virus is spreading faster than they can keep up with it. As fear takes hold, can the world’s governments maintain order and cure the disease?

Part of the appeal of Contagion is seeing Soderbergh take on what’s traditionally a B-movie plot staple. It’s interesting to note how large the influence of 70s horror movies is on Contagion. From the banality of the local government’s bickering over budgets to the masked soldiers disposing of corpses, Cronenberg and Romero loom large over Soderbergh’s epidemic drama. There’s even a hint of John Carpenter thanks to the soundtrack. Perhaps most of all, however, it’s hard to ignore the influence of writers like Michael Crichton and Stephen King, especially during the excellent first half with the international cast of characters quickly realising that the situation is developing far too quickly.

The plot mostly focuses on six characters: Matt Damon’s normal-guy immune widower, Marion Cotillard’s Swiss scientist, Jude Law’s anti-establishment blogger, Kate Winslet’s CDC operative who works for Laurence Fishburne, who in turn places all his hope in Jennifer Ehle’s (The King’s Speech) quick-talking scientist. Add Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars), and Elliott Gould and you’ve got a cast to die for. However, fitting all these actors into a 100 minute movie and giving them enough to work with proves to be a task too great.

While the film excels at showing the (horribly believable) spread of a deadly disease, the wide-reaching script means that none of the characters are developed enough for us to care, and the film relies on the A-listers to connect with the audience. Damon, Winslet, and Fishburne do good work, and Ehle does an excellent job spouting scientific spiel, but Law irritates and Cotillard disappears from the story early on. By the time the second half kicks in and the body count (including, admirably, the name cast) grows, the non-essential storylines become distracting. It feels like several scenes got cut to keep the running time down. Maybe it would have worked better as a mini-series. 

Verdict: Starts very well but peters out before the end. The first half and the star studded cast make it worth a look, if a little disappointing.



Friday, 18 November 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Every day, it’s a-gettin’ closer

Image: Artificial Eye

Director Lynne Ramsay made her name with the highly respected British art-house films Ratcatcher and Movern Callar. Both were stylishly shot, both had tough subject matter, but it was the latter that really put Ramsay on the map. Nine years after her last film, she’s adapted Lionel Shriver’s best-seller.

Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) life is thrown upside down when her teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) commits a shocking crime at his high school. As she struggles with getting through each day, avoiding the parents who lost their children, and cleaning the red paint off her house and car, Eva looks back at Kevin’s life and how he became a monster. 

Well, Ramsay’s certainly stuck with the tough subject matter and she’s also taken on much higher-profile source material. However, she’s sacrificed none of her stylistic verve. The film is a visual treat, with bold reds and blues a consistent presence. Repeated shots of crushed or spoiled food and the nostalgic soundtrack convey fractured domesticity, and the structure is a mostly perfect mosaic of present-day and flashback. 

Kevin may be the one we need to talk about but the film belongs to Swinton, who gives a stunning performance as Eva. Eva is not the perfect mother, far from it. She takes against the (very difficult) Kevin early, and despite occasional efforts to bond, she realises that her son does not like her and that he goes out of his way to upset her. Kevin may be a terrible child as a young boy, and it’s suggested that there was never any other possible outcome, but it’s important that Eva isn’t a patient, saintly mother figure. These scenes in which Eva acts inappropriately contrast excellently with the scenes of her trying to lead a normal life in the face of constant harassment and abuse in the present day. She can’t do anything without being reminded of what her son did, either incidentally or all-too-physically.

Kevin is played by Jasper Newell as a young boy and Miller as a teen, and both nail the unsettling stillness and shocking obnoxiousness that make Kevin such a striking, horrible figure throughout his young life. John C. Reilly is perfectly cast as Eva’s good-natured husband Franklin, who is unable to see the darkness in his son. 

The film’s structure means that you’re constantly being thrown off balance. Unsettling scenes are followed by outright upsetting ones. There are occasional moments that don’t quite work, and it’s hard to believe that Franklin is quite so blind to his son’s disturbing behaviour. However, thanks to Ramsay’s superb direction and Swinton’s stunning performance, it’s a highly effective and unnerving piece of work.

Verdict: Perhaps not as snare-drum-tight as it could have been, but it’s a troubling and unsettling film that consistently finds ways to challenge its audience.



Monday, 14 November 2011

Snowtown (2011)

Small-town horror story

Image: Revolver Entertainment

Real-life horror stories are always a tricky subject. Go too far in one direction and you can be accused of glossing over the unpleasant truth. Go too far in the other and you’re wallowing in a sordid past and exploiting real-life trauma. For his first feature, director Justin Kurzel tackles the story of Australia’s most notorious serial killer: John Bunting.

Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) is the oldest of three brothers in a small town in Adelaide’s suburbs. When his mother Elizabeth’s boyfriend sexually abuses them, Elizabeth (Louise Harris) despairs of a world in which men like him can roam free. She’s quickly won over by charismatic, friendly John (Daniel Henshall), who has very strong opinions on what should happen to people who abuse children. But as John’s true nature becomes clear, is Jamie strong enough to think for himself?

Snowtown is a tough watch. Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant are set on immersing the audience in this small town and rarely has an area with so many wide open spaces felt so claustrophobic. They show just how easily the neighbourhood was won over by this monster with his cheery smile and friendly attitude. The scenes in which the locals sit around the table and discuss what they would do to sex offenders, egged on by John to do better than whoever spoke before them, are horrifyingly believable. The filmmakers have stressed their aim to show nature vs. nurture, and we’re shown just how open Jamie and his family are to John’s apparently kindly but strong influence on their lives. The film’s very much a portrait of a family gone wrong. It’s heavy on perverted domesticity, with the characters constantly cooking and eating. Jamie’s in need of guidance, and Elizabeth is in need of companionship. In his own psychotic way, John provides both. Unlike the thematically similar but very different Animal Kingdom, there’s no friendly detective to provide Jamie with any morality. There’s no police presence at all. There’s only John.

Then there’s the frank depictions of sexual abuse and violence. From the advance buzz surrounding it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Snowtown is a horror film, but for the most part the film stays admirably clear of gore and violence (apart from an early scene with some ominous animal butchery). For the bulk of the running time, we see the aftermath rather than the action and we hear the goodbye messages that John forces his victims to leave. However, this does not last, and squeamish viewers will find the last half hour very upsetting as Jamie uncovers the full extent of John’s crimes.

The casting of unknown actors is very successful. Pittaway’s completely convincing as a blank-faced, amiable teen and continues to impress as Jamie goes through the emotional wringer. Henshall is terrifyingly magnetic as John Bunting, never once going too far in either direction, while Harris is superb as Elizabeth, whose protectiveness can’t hold up against John’s insinuating combination of charm and force.

It’s hard to watch and it’s unpleasant throughout, but it’s a thoughtfully made and expertly handled study of innocence corrupted. There are a few moments of stylistic indulgence that slightly jar with the otherwise naturalistic tone, but otherwise there’s little to fault.

Verdict: Not for everyone, but this real-life story is handled with care and skill. The actors are superb and the atmosphere unrelenting.



Friday, 11 November 2011

Texas Killing Fields (2011)

The ground is sour.

Image: Entertainment Films

Texas City detectives Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) find themselves investigating a series of grisly murders which end up in the Killing Fields, a notorious stretch of bayous. 

It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve had a decent police procedural movie. Texas Killing Fields is directed by Ami Canaan Mann, whose father Michael has given us some of the best examples of the genre with films like Heat and Manhunter. If Ms. Mann’s feature debut doesn’t reach the heights of her father’s best work it’s no fault of the director, rather a patchy script. 

After a solid start the film becomes increasingly incoherent, jumping from one storyline to the next and leaving the audience to fill in the gaps for themselves and generally giving the impression that scenes are missing. It’s just as well that Mann shows that she has talent to spare behind the camera as she conjures up a highly impressive atmosphere. The film may be set in Texas City but the only metropolitan lights we see are in the distance and out of focus. The oppressive heat is broken only by torrential rain that washes any traces of clues from the crime scenes. Then there are the Fields themselves. Mann makes the most of the amazing location, with its skeletal blasted trees and oozing swamps. There’s also some nicely placed Gothic horror as the locals recoil from the idea of having anything to do with those bayous, referring to the ground as poisoned.   

The central pairing of Morgan (Watchmen, The Resident) and Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) works well. Morgan plays the religious family man who’s relocated from New York and Worthington plays the hot-tempered local who’s divorced from Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), a detective from the next county. It’s easy to predict which of them will end up going to the edge, but it’s good to see Morgan in a lead role and Worthington works better here than he has in any of his recent films. Chastain (Tree of Life) doesn’t have much to do but she convinces as a tough cop, while Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire, This Is England), Jason Clarke (Public Enemies), and Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks) do decent work in underdeveloped roles as possible suspects.

One of the better subplots pairs Morgan with excellent young actor Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick Ass, Let Me In) as a young girl who Brian looks out for. Moretz gives another impressive performance as her character drifts through the film and into trouble. But her storyline also suffers from a script that can’t decide where to focus. The film is certainly entertaining, even gripping in places, and it’s very well directed and well acted. Some scenes, such as a horrifyingly slow-build discovery of an intruder, are superb. It’s just a shame that this solid, enjoyable detective movie could have been excellent with a better screenplay.

Verdict: It’s highly watchable throughout, has some nice twists on genre staples, and Mann is a director to watch. But it needed a more focused script.



Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Interview: Aardman Animations' David Sproxton

Ahead of the release of its latest flick, the festive Arthur Christmas, Fohnhouse caught up with Aardman Animations co-founder David Sproxton to talk origins, influences, and favourite characters.

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

When would you say you got your big break or your foot in the door, and was it an arduous journey to get to that point?

Probably the work for Channel 4 was the real break, although getting to make the Morph series gave us work (at a very low salary) for a couple of years. The C4 work led to commercials which gave us more financial security.

You met Nick Park at the NFTS, but had you had any formal training yourself prior to setting up Aardman Animations, or are you and Peter Lord self-schooled animators?
We had no formal training at all and Peter who is very artistic hadn’t even been to art school. We both have academic degrees. We meet Nick when he asked us to come in to give a “seminar” at the NFTS… we felt like the blind leading the blind!
Would you be able to just outline your respective roles within the company? Do you mainly work as a cinematographer and the other two as animators, and have those roles evolved over time to include or exclude other elements of the production process?

Whilst I used to do a great deal of lighting and photography, I’m afraid I’ve found myself doing more managerial stuff, although the bulk of it is creative rather than admin, I’m pleased to say. I do keep an eye on how we shoot and light stuff and manage the technical group here.
Pete and Nick both direct and help in the development of our feature films.

You mentioned in one of your podcasts on the Aardman website that you and Lord were like a one-man band in a cut off industry with little pockets of people. Would you say the industry had changed much?
It has changed. There are more people involved and many, many, more companies. But many are also still quite small. However people know more about each other now and what’s going on and there is a great deal more exchange of information and knowledge than there was when we started and hundreds more college courses.

Is it harder to get a break today?
It’s much easier to get your work seen (YouTube and the rest) but whether its easier to get a break I don’t know. There are many more opportunities out there but also hoards of people trying to get through the same doors as everyone else. Probably, on balance, if you’ve got talent it’s easier now to find work in the industry at some level than it was when we started.

Did you have any mentors coming up?
We were helped by the BBC producers we worked with on early projects and a couple of good advertising agency producers when we got into making commercials, but nothing that you would call formal mentoring.

Who did you admire in the industry?
We loved Ivor Wood for the work he did and the way he worked, with a very small team making lovely kids series. On the bigger scale Ray Harryhausen was an influence. Personally, I admired the work of Freddie Young, a director of photography who shot many of David Lean's films.

Where does your creativity come from/what inspires you?

I guess being brought up in a pretty liberal household, with space to make things was part of it. Otherwise I guess it’s what you are born with and what you make of it. I take inspiration from all sorts of things but most from seeing how people can come up with all sorts of stuff when pushed and the ingenuity of man.

Do you have a favourite Aardman character(s) or project?
I still love the film The Wrong Trousers and it’s been great taking those characters into another world of television through the World of Invention.  We have a great deal on at the moment and they are all interesting projects in their own ways.

You’ve worked in advertising and the music video world/MTV era - as have many others who have gone on to forge highly successful film careers. For those wanting to work in the industry, would you say that those avenues still create as much exposure for practitioners today?
It’s all good practice, with different demands, budgets and schedules, so it’s good to take those opportunities when they arise. You can never have too much practice and working with all sorts of different people on different projects teaches you a huge amount.

Are there things in your career that have been instrumental in your success?
It’s a matter of making your own luck, looking out for opportunities, working with others as a team and not being defeated by rejection letters.

With all you’ve achieved, people are inclined to call you the UK’s equivalent of Pixar. Would you agree?
We are a big company within the European context. Have we been as successful as Pixar, almost certainly not. But it’s nice to be compared to that powerhouse of creativity.

Considering your origins and the digital realm you’re now entering, how would you sum up Aardman Animations, and where would you like the company to go?
We continue to build on our success, to create strong characters to drive stories for the big and little screen.

What tips can you offer this generation of filmmakers/industry hopefuls?

Keep practicing, try hard then try harder and keep going….

Do you have an ethos?
Be fair, be kind and treat others as you would be wish to be treated.
Somewhere we have a mission statement.!

Final question. Is it still as much fun?

Oh, Yes, on a good day!


Friday, 4 November 2011

The Ides of March (2011)

What do you believe in?

Image: Entertainment One

Politics has always been a great playground for filmmakers. They get to confront their idealistic, good-looking heroes with high-stakes moral conundrums like: How do you know who to trust? How far are you willing to go? Who are you willing to hurt? So suffice it to say that The Ides of March doesn’t have a stunningly inventive premise. However, with a cast and crew this talented, it was always going to be worth a look. 

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an incredibly talented media mind working on the presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). Stephen believes that Mike will be a great president, but when he takes a meeting with rival campaign head Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), events are set in motion that will make him question his loyalty and how far he’s willing to go for what he believes in.

For his fourth film as a director Clooney has assembled a mightily impressive supporting cast to surround, confuse, and manipulate the fresh-faced Gosling. There’s Philip Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti as rival foul-mouthed, conniving campaign managers (genius casting), Marisa Tomei as a savvy journo, Evan Rachel Wood as the too-good-to-be-true intern, and Jeffrey Wright as a Senator with an eye on a cabinet position. Then, of course, there’s Clooney as the charismatic governor and Gosling, in his third film of the autumn, as the likeable hero who’s suddenly faced with some tough choices. Clooney makes great use of the actor’s ability to turn charming warmth into sudden coldness.

As Stephen finds himself in murkier and murkier waters there’s all the whip-smart dialogue, barnstorming performances, and moral quandaries that you’d expect from a film in this genre. Where The Ides of March really impresses is in its willingness to follow those unpleasant problems through to their conclusions. It’s bleak, it’s cynical, and that’s what makes it stand out. We’ve all seen the film in which the young aide finds out that their idol isn’t as squeaky-clean as they thought. But in The Ides of March, no one is squeaky-clean. Everyone’s got a motive, everyone’s got an angle, and everyone wants to win. In a post-West Wing world of political drama in which we expect to find at least one wise, benevolent figure, if not a whole team of them, this film is surprisingly chilly and bleak.

It’s also clever enough to anticipate an audience that’s familiar with a film of this type. While some of the plot twists are a little predictable, there are a good number of small deviations on the formula that play on our knowledge of the genre, although that’s perhaps not too surprising as Clooney has starred in one or two himself. So while the story is familiar, it keeps you on your toes as it moves quickly towards Stephen’s moral crossroads.

Verdict: It’s not surprising that the cast and the direction are excellent. What impresses is how committed Clooney and co are to the dark tone and depicting the harsh reality of compromise.



Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Future (2011)

Image: Picturehouse Entertainment

Despite this being only her second feature film after Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July has already become something of a polarising figure. Either you find her world-view intriguingly off-beat and bewitching, or you find it infuriatingly self-indulgent, twee, and kooky. The Future has proven to be divisive on the festival circuit and as fans of her previous work we were looking forward to seeing whether this film would confirm our interest or shatter it. 

35-year-olds Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are on the verge of adopting a cat. When they’re told that they have to wait thirty days, they decide to try to fit as much artistic and spiritual fulfilment in as possible. As Sophie tries to fulfil her dancing aspirations and Jason goes door-to-door for an environmental campaign, can their relationship survive them focusing on themselves and not each other?

The Future is a love-it or hate-it film. Yes, that’s a simplistic statement, but after having watched it it’s difficult to imagine any reaction in-between. The thing that’s been picked up on the most often is that the film is narrated by Paw-Paw the cat (voiced by July), who sees Sophie and Jason very differently from how they see each other. You’ll either find the idea of a cat narrating a film for adults unbearably self-consciously quirky, or you’ll be charmed by the novel way of showing how unwittingly selfish these two individuals are.

The idea of a month-long self-fulfilment quest is an inherently narcissistic one, but we all have a yearning for time alone to develop ourselves and to figure out what we want our lives to be. Unfortunately for Sophie and Jason, this time pursuing their own interests shows how precarious their bond is. While Jason ambles quite happily into a strange friendship with an old man selling his belongings, Sophie finds herself frustrated by her inability to even start her “30 days, 30 dances” YouTube video and tentatively reaches out to single dad Marshall (David Warshofsky). July and Linklater are superb, with the former taking on a less likeable role than in her prior film, and the latter handling a tough third-act sequence with impressive plausibility.

July isn’t interested in simply showing a relationship under strain, however. Throw in a talking moon, a little girl digging a hole in the ground to sleep in, and a yellow t-shirt that threateningly pursues Sophie and you’ve got a knowingly surreal and comically offbeat film that will doubtlessly irritate as many as it will seduce. What did we think? For us, it was a beguiling, funny, touching film.

Verdict: Love July? You’ll love this. Hate her? Avoid at all costs. If you’re unfamiliar with her work but think it sounds like something you’d enjoy, give it a chance. It’s hard to say if you’ll love it or hate it, but we loved it.