Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Sitter (2012)

Image: 20th Century Fox

David Gordon Green may now be best known for directing Pineapple Express but many bemoan the fact that he seems to have abandoned the indie dramas with which he made his name. The Sitter, his latest effort, will not make those people any happier but fans of the Rogen/Franco stoner action film will also be disappointed.

Noah (Jonah Hill) is an aimless college drop-out who agrees to babysit three young children so his single mum can go to a party. When the girl he’s trying to sleep with tells him she’ll do it on the condition that he bring cocaine to a party, he takes the kids into the city to get the drugs. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan.

There are a few laughs to be had here but it’s the least funny of Green’s comedies to date, which is saying something for those who didn’t like Your Highness. It gets off to a fair start, Hill’s on decent enough form and he’s got nice chemistry with the kids (especially Where the Wild Things Are’s Max Records) but the film runs out of steam far too quickly. Some uncomfortable stereotypes are trotted out and the unpleasantness remains despite some obvious attempts to redress the balance.

The high point is Sam Rockwell’s enjoyably off-kilter performance as a friend-hungry drug dealer with an underground den/gym/laboratory. But his scenes are too few and far between and J.B. Smoove (Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm) is completely wasted as his partner in crime. A good soundtrack aside, there’s not really a lot to recommend here.

Verdict: Decent performances and a nicely off-kilter turn from Rockwell can’t keep The Sitter afloat.



Carnage (2012)

Image: StudioCanal

A new Roman Polanski film is always something to be excited about, but hearing that his latest opus was to be an adaptation of a Yasmina Reza play inspired doubts. Reza is brilliant, but her plays are well known for their small casts and witty wordplay – would Polanski be able to translate Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) to the big screen, without making it boring or losing the soul of the play?
After a nicely shot opening sequence, in which the credits zoom out over the act of playground violence which serves as the catalyst for the film’s events, with Alexandre Desplat’s nicely bombastic music setting the offbeat tone, things didn’t look too promising. We leap into the story of two couples who have come together to discuss their sons, one of whom knocked out two of the other’s teeth with a stick. For a while it looks like all the actors are going to be doing their default setting roles: the parents of the victim are Jodie Foster, tightly wound, and John C Reilly, affable, while the parents of the “maniac” aggressor are Kate Winslet, classy and quiet, and Christoph Waltz, who munches down loads of cake.
The first fifteen minutes or so roll out in a rather dull fashion. The players do fine, but there’s that niggling sense of awkwardness which is hard to avoid in stage-to-screen adaptations. It isn’t something we can blame on anyone in particular: things which sparkle in the theatre just often come across as a bit flat on the big screen. However, after a while everything seems to click slowly into place. As the film descends into farce – around the time Kate Winslet throws up her apple and pear cobbler (the secret recipe is gingerbread crumbs) – the actors all start giving 100% and the film comes to life.
A strength of the play which is carried over brilliantly into the film is the fickle nature of human relationships – from the initial foursome composed of two distinct couples, the characters begin to reshape themselves, forming new alliances as and when they hit upon common ground. Reilly and Waltz bond over whisky and cigars, while Foster and Winslet laugh at their Ivanhoe-derived machismo. Everybody attacks Foster for her frequent crying, while deep rooted problems in both couples are brought to the fore and mocked by their rivals.
The rest of the film is highly enjoyable and very often raucously funny. Interesting musings arise on the suffering that comes with having a partner and a family. Then it ends. Again, this is something which can’t really be helped, but 80 minutes is an awfully short running time. A familiar issue for anyone who has ever taken a playwriting course is the difficulty in concluding a farce, but Polanski (who co-wrote the screenplay with Reza) could have tried a little harder to neaten out the ending for cinema audiences.
This is a film which will probably improve with repeat viewings, in which the earlier scenes will most likely seem more nuanced. For there is a lot to enjoy herein – Waltz shows far more skill than I have seen him display thus far (no, I don’t rate his performance in Inglorious Basterds particularly highly, sorry about that), while Foster is a neurotic delight. John C. Reilly shows why he has managed to live parallel lives as both a serious and a comic actor, and Kate Winslet vomits with style. Polanski’s direction is subtle but effective, and gives just the right about of movement to what is essentially a one room affair, while the script manages to retain much of what makes the play work so well. It would be nice to see Polanski and Reza work together again, perhaps on an adaptation of her train-carriage-bound two-hander L’Homme du Hasard (The Unexpected Man).
Verdict: Be patient and you’ll be rewarded with a genuinely funny film delivered by a top notch cast, but you might find it all a little lightweight and it’s definitely over too soon.

Monday, 30 January 2012

The Best of Baker Street

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

Sherlock Holmes is everywhere at the moment. With Guy Ritchie giving us another frenetic outing in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and the British public currently wondering just how the writers of Sherlock are going to get themselves out of this season’s cliffhanger, someone might want to tip off Topman that this season’s headgear is definitely deerstalker. With this in mind, and with meerschaum in mouth, we take a look at how some Sherlocks from past and present measure up. Here, then, in ascending order, are our top portrayals of Baker Street’s finest sleuth:
Tom Baker in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982)
Having already given us some absolutely top notch business in foggy Victorian London whilst wearing a deerstalker (albeit a Victorian London complete with a mutilated 51st century war criminal and a giant rat in the Doctor Who classic The Talons of Weng-Chiang), Tom Baker really had nothing to prove. It might be for this reason that the man himself feels his performance as Holmes in this BBC adaptation was a weaker moment in his career, but it certainly shows that his range extends beyond his signature performance as the Doctor. His is a gleeful Holmes, who enjoys the thrill of the chase rather than showing off, and as usual with Tom Baker none of the other actors stand much of a chance beside him.
Basil in Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Obviously a bit of a cheat, given that Holmes himself also appears in the film (via voice clips of Basil Rathbone), but Basil of Baker Street is a sadly overlooked Disney character. Helped no end by a brilliant voice performance from Barrie Ingham, Basil is a nicely idiosyncratic hero, capturing the outwardly cold and calculating but inwardly much more caring character of his human idol. Not canonical, clearly, this film prefigures the steampunk aesthetic of some later Holmes adaptations with an army of clockwork robots and a thrilling fight inside the cogs of the clock on the Houses of Parliament.  The film deserves extra praise for being the success which brought about Disney’s 90s renaissance.
Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes (2010)
It seems unlikely that we were alone in being surprised by the quality of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. The sacrilegious casting of an American and the equally worrying choice of Jude Law as Dr Watson seemed due cause for alarm, but we were worrying for nothing. Both actors put in thoroughly likeable performances, with the only minus point in Downey’s portrayal being his sometimes unintelligible accent. Points will be deducted by purists from the film for the storyline which, while tremendous fun, strays far away from canon.
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock (from 2010)
Much has been made of Doctor Who gurus Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s 21st century rejig of Holmes, and it is true that it has made for some great telly. However, while Cumberbatch is unquestionably a good actor, his Holmes spends far too much of his time on the mean and unpleasant side of antisocial. He should be odd, but not repellent. One wonders why Martin Freeman’s Watson doesn’t find himself another lodging with a less monomaniacal flatmate.
Basil Rathbone in Fox/Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series (1939-1946)
Regarded by some as the definitive Holmes, Basil Rathbone certainly has had huge cultural impact (witness aforementioned Basil of Baker Street for an example!). He makes the role his own, and even manages to bring dignity to the later Universal films which transfer Holmes and Watson (and Mrs Hudson) to the 1940s and function for a time as wartime propaganda pieces. The main problem with the series does not lie with Rathbone, but rather with the decision to turn Nigel Bruce’s Watson from a perfectly capable doctor to a somewhat oafish and bumbling foil for Holmes. This appears to have been done to make Holmes seem more brilliant, but conversely it makes him less believable.
John Neville in A Study in Terror (1966)
Neville’s Sherlock is something of an action man – leaping around in the fog after his quarry, engaging in some impressive fisticuffs with a gang of goons (“Brisk work, Watson!”) and finally taking on Jack the Ripper in a rip-roaring punch-up. This is a Holmes with a blade in his cane, both literally and metaphorically, and Neville deserves far more recognition for his go at the role – if he had been offered a canon story to work with he would probably be even further up the list.
Jeremy Brett in The Adventures/ Return/ Case-Book/ Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)
There are many who will accept no other contenders to the Holmes throne. Brett starred for a decade in ITV’s highly faithful adaptations and received high praise from public and critics alike. Given a likeable Watson in David Burke and then Edward Hardwicke, Brett shone in the role, particularly relishing the moments where Holmes gets to highlight his intellectual superiority. Sadly Brett died before he was able to finish the Conan Doyle canon, but his remains one of the most consistently entertaining, albeit rather too cynical, portrayals of Holmes.
Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Peter Cushing actually essayed the role a number of times, but his peak has to be in Hammer’s version of Conan Doyle’s most famous tale. In the same way as he turned Van Helsing from a boring old Dutchman into a committed agent for goodness with a penchant for a good ruck, so Cushing brings out the driven, obsessive dark side of Holmes. He is a joy to watch, subtly portraying Holmes as a hungry man – desperate to nourish himself either intellectually on the case or with a fix of morphine. Crucially he remains immensely likeable and human, proving that with the right actor the complicated character of Sherlock Holmes as written by Conan Doyle can indeed be brought to life.

War Horse (2012)

Image: Disney

The play War Horse is universally acclaimed, loved, and has reduced many of our friends to floods of tears. Our concern for the film was that Steven Spielberg’s not a director known for reining in excessive sentimentality.

On a farm in Devon, young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) forms a special bond with a horse his father (Peter Mullan) buys to spite his landlord (David Thewlis), and proves everyone wrong when he trains him. But when the war comes Dad sells the horse to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), which puts the horse on a journey that includes soldiers from both sides as well as civilians.

While it’s certainly guilty of this to some extent, there are also moments of moving humanity. Things get off to an unsatisfying start, with family life on the (sort of) hard-scrabble Devonshire farm being exactly as clichéd as we feared. But once boy and horse are separated, things pick up and Spielberg starts hitting the right notes. The scenes with Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) are the high point with a poignant depiction of a unit not ready for 20th Century warfare. But the subsequent chapters, including the German teenage soldiers who decide to desert and the jam-maker and his granddaughter, don’t quite get that balance right despite good performances.

It’s not without its touching moments. The scenes in the trenches and No Man’s Land are powerful, as you’d expect. When Spielberg presents moments of humanity, both tragic and heroic, in the face of war, you remember how great he can be. But too often sentiment gives way to sentimentalism.

War Horse is a solid enough family film with a wealth of acting talent but it could have done with a firmer hand on the syrup.



Thursday, 26 January 2012

Shame (2012)

Image: Momentum Pictures

The last time writer/director/artist Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender collaborated they brought us Hunger. It was a visceral, daring debut from McQueen with a star-making turn from Fassbender. Their new film has earned them a lot of praise on the festival circuit, as well as plenty of controversy.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) lives alone in New York. He’s successful; he has a nice apartment and a high-powered job. His computer is loaded with pornography and his life is a string of one night stands and encounters with prostitutes. Then his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay. 

Shame received the dreaded NC-17 rating in the States and it’s likely that there’ll be a fair few people coming to see it purely based on that notoriety. McQueen has been vocal about wanting to tackle this subject matter and talk about how the accessibility of sex and pornography has affected our society. But while the subject matter is vital to the story, we would argue that Shame is not an issue movie; it’s a drama about two broken people. 

The performances from Fassbender and Mulligan are perfectly matched. We’re introduced to Brandon through a series of intercut sequences including a visit from a prostitute and his morning routine, but the most striking of these is his subway ride where he and a young woman make eye contact. While she goes through curiosity, excitement, and guilt, Brandon’s expression never changes. 

Then there’s Sissy. She’s as open and in need of attention as much as he’s cold and in need of solitude. Brandon’s personal space is a world to be protected, to Sissy it’s just as much hers as it is his, they’re family after all. She needles him because she wants comfort, he snaps at her because he wants to be left alone. While Brandon’s incapable of having a meaningful relationship, Sissy’s incapable of letting any relationship go. She has noisy sex with Brandon’s boss (a superbly odious James Badge Dale) while Brandon paces in the next room. But perhaps the best clue to their relationship is in the nightclub where she sings "New York, New York". Brandon starts to weep.

She tells Brandon that family are supposed to look after each other, he asks her when she’s ever looked after him. The disappointment and disgust he feels towards her scare and unsettle Sissy, but she’s aware that he’s projecting. “We’re not bad people,” she tells him at a key point in the film, “We just come from a bad place.” Whatever happened in their past, Sissy needs him to be there as support because she can’t face it while he needs her to leave because for the exact same reason.

McQueen’s New York is an intensely visual and lonely place. Reflective surfaces abound, distorting Brandon’s image. He’s constantly on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out. As the film reaches its climax and Brandon trawls the New York night, McQueen reduces that distance as Fassbender’s performance grows increasingly raw. It’s a beautifully open portrait of a character that deserves the praise it’s getting.

Verdict: A superb drama with stunning performances from Fassbender and Mulligan, Shame is a harrowing examination of two broken souls. 



Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Oscar Nominations 2012

Oscar is back, folks, and ready for action.

Costume Design: Fohnjang Ghebdinga

Here are the nominations:

Performance by an actor in a leading role

Demián Bichir in “A Better Life” (Summit Entertainment) 
George Clooney in “The Descendants” (Fox Searchlight) 
Jean Dujardin in “The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) 
Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Focus Features) 
Brad Pitt in “Moneyball” (Sony Pictures Releasing)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role 

Kenneth Branagh in “My Week with Marilyn” (The Weinstein Company) 
Jonah Hill in “Moneyball” (Sony Pictures Releasing) 
Nick Nolte in “Warrior” (Lionsgate) 
Christopher Plummer in “Beginners” (Focus Features) 
Max von Sydow in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (Warner Bros.)

Performance by an actress in a leading role 

Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs” (Roadside Attractions) 
Viola Davis in “The Help” (Touchstone) 
Rooney Mara in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (Sony Pictures Releasing) 
Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady” (The Weinstein Company) 
Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn” (The Weinstein Company)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role 

Bérénice Bejo in “The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) 
Jessica Chastain in “The Help” (Touchstone) 
Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids” (Universal) 
Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs” (Roadside Attractions) 
Octavia Spencer in “The Help” (Touchstone)

Achievement in directing 

“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) Michel Hazanavicius 
“The Descendants” (Fox Searchlight) Alexander Payne 
“Hugo” (Paramount) Martin Scorsese 
“Midnight in Paris” (Sony Pictures Classics) Woody Allen 
“The Tree of Life” (Fox Searchlight) Terrence Malick

Adapted screenplay 

“The Descendants” (Fox Searchlight) Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash 
“Hugo” (Paramount) Screenplay by John Logan 
“The Ides of March” (Sony Pictures Releasing) Screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon 
“Moneyball” (Sony Pictures Releasing) Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin Story by Stan Chervin 
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Focus Features) Screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan

Original screenplay 

“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) Written by Michel Hazanavicius 
“Bridesmaids” (Universal) Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig 
“Margin Call” (Roadside Attractions) Written by J.C. Chandor 
“Midnight in Paris” (Sony Pictures Classics) Written by Woody Allen 
“A Separation” (Sony Pictures Classics) Written by Asghar Farhadi

Achievement in art direction 

“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) Production Design: Laurence Bennett, Set Decoration: Robert Gould 
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” (Warner Bros.) Production Design: Stuart Craig, Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan 
“Hugo” (Paramount) Production Design: Dante Ferretti, Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo 
“Midnight in Paris” (Sony Pictures Classics) Production Design: Anne Seibel, Set Decoration: Hélène Dubreuil 
“War Horse” (Touchstone) Production Design: Rick Carter, Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

Achievement in cinematography 

“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) Guillaume Schiffman 
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (Sony Pictures Releasing) Jeff Cronenweth 
“Hugo” (Paramount) Robert Richardson 
“The Tree of Life” (Fox Searchlight) Emmanuel Lubezki 
“War Horse” (Touchstone) Janusz Kaminski

Achievement in film editing 

“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius 
“The Descendants” (Fox Searchlight) Kevin Tent 
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (Sony Pictures Releasing) Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall 
“Hugo” (Paramount) Thelma Schoonmaker 
“Moneyball” (Sony Pictures Releasing) Christopher Tellefsen

 Achievement in costume design 

“Anonymous” (Sony Pictures Releasing) Lisy Christl 
“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) Mark Bridges 
“Hugo” (Paramount) Sandy Powell 
“Jane Eyre” (Focus Features) Michael O'Connor 
“W.E.” (The Weinstein Company) Arianne Phillips

Achievement in visual effects 

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” (Warner Bros.) Tim Burke, David Vickery, Greg Butler and John Richardson 
“Hugo” (Paramount) Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman and  Alex Henning 
“Real Steel” (Touchstone) Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor and Swen Gillberg 
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (20th Century Fox) Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White and Daniel Barrett 
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (Paramount) Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Matthew Butler and John Frazier

Best motion picture of the year 

“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) A La Petite Reine/Studio 37/La Classe Américaine/JD Prod/France3 Cinéma/Jouror Productions/uFilm Production, Thomas Langmann, Producer 
“The Descendants” (Fox Searchlight) An Ad Hominem Enterprises Production, Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers 
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (Warner Bros.) A Warner Bros. Pictures Production, Scott Rudin, Producer 
“The Help” (Touchstone) A DreamWorks Pictures Production, Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and    Michael Barnathan, Producers 
“Hugo” (Paramount) A Paramount Pictures and GK Films Production, Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers 
“Midnight in Paris” (Sony Pictures Classics) A Pontchartrain Production, Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers 
“Moneyball” (Sony Pictures Releasing) A Columbia Pictures Production, Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers 
“The Tree of Life” (Fox Searchlight) A River Road Entertainment Production, Nominees to be determined  
“War Horse” (Touchstone) A DreamWorks Pictures Production, Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers

Best animated feature film of the year 

“A Cat in Paris” (GKIDS) Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli 
“Chico & Rita” (GKIDS) Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal 
“Kung Fu Panda 2” (DreamWorks Animation, Distributed by Paramount) Jennifer Yuh Nelson 
“Puss in Boots” (DreamWorks Animation, Distributed by Paramount) Chris Miller 
“Rango” (Paramount) Gore Verbinski

Best documentary feature 

“Hell and Back Again” (Docurama Films) A Roast Beef Limited Production, Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner 
“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” (Oscilloscope Laboratories) A Marshall Curry Production, Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman 
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” An @radical.media Production, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky 
“Pina” (Sundance Selects) A Neue Road Movies Production, Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel 
“Undefeated” (The Weinstein Company) A Spitfire Pictures Production, TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas

Best foreign language film of the year 

“Bullhead” A Savage Film Production, Belgium 
“Footnote” (Sony Pictures Classics) A Footnote Limited Partnership Production, Israel 
“In Darkness” (Sony Pictures Classics) A Studio Filmowe Zebra Production, Poland 
“Monsieur Lazhar” (Music Box Films) A micro_scope Production, Canada 
“A Separation” (Sony Pictures Classics) A Dreamlab Films Production, Iran

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score) 

“The Adventures of Tintin” (Paramount) John Williams 
“The Artist” (The Weinstein Company) Ludovic Bource 
“Hugo” (Paramount) Howard Shore 
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Focus Features) Alberto Iglesias 
“War Horse” (Touchstone) John Williams

David Walker: Brides on Fire

"Brides on Fire" is David Walker's first London solo exhibition. Mixing street and fine art, Walker has created a collection of striking portraits. This Bride is our favourite.

The Darkest Hour (2012)

Image: 20th Century Fox

At first glance, this was not without promise. A good young cast, including Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), Olivia Thirlby (Juno), and Max Minghella (The Social Network) and the Moscow setting got us interested. But alien invasion films have been having a hard time of it lately (Skyline, Battle: LA). Would this be any different?

Dotcom entrepreneurs Sean (Hirsch) and Ben (Minghella) arrive in Moscow to sell their social networking concept. Two things screw up their plans: Firstly, it turns out they’ve been conned by their contact Skyler (Joel Kinnaman). Secondly, energy-hungry invisible aliens descend on Moscow turning people into ash. Sean, Ben, Skyler, and new friends Natalie (Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor) attempt to escape the city.

There are some nice ideas floating around The Darkest Hour, mostly to be found in the little details like the flat that’s been turned into an electrical shark cage to shield the survivors’ pulses. But the script keeps feeding the talented cast such wooden dialogue that only serves to explain what it is the characters are physically doing and what they are about to do. Hirsch carries most of this weight, with such dynamite one-liners as “We’re all freaking out. But I’m keeping my freak-out on the inside”, while Thirlby mostly gets to cower in the corner with Taylor and wait to be rescued. When characters start getting killed off we haven’t actually been given any reason to care.

Some of the scenes of deserted Moscow are quite effective and there’s an endearing low-fi aesthetic to the home-made weaponry but it doesn’t make up for the leaden script. By the time the aliens actually reveal their true faces the dodgy CGI is the least of the film’s problems.

Verdict: A promising concept is wasted in this uninspired effort.



Monday, 23 January 2012

The Iron Lady (2012)

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga/Fohnhouse

How do you make a film about Margaret Thatcher, one of the most reviled politicians in British history? Do you take the Oliver Stone approach and try to cram in everything, or do you attempt a more personal portrait of the woman rather than the leader?

Baroness Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is suffering from dementia. She’s haunted by hallucinations of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), and over the course of a couple of days she remembers her life from her childhood as a grocer’s daughter to her ignominious exit from 10 Downing Street.

Well, those hoping for a close examination of Thatcher the politician will be disappointed. Writer Abi Morgan (The Hour, Shame) has decided to frame the story of Thatcher’s career with the story of her struggling with dementia and loneliness, thinking back on a life spent on her career rather than with her family. It’s an interesting angle to take and the first fifteen minutes of the film are certainly affecting. Streep is as excellent as you’d expect, and works very well with Broadbent’s genial hallucination of a husband. It’s when we go back in time that the train goes off the rails.

The scenes with wide-eyed young Maggie work to some extent, thanks in large part to Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd’s chemistry. But the filmmakers seem nervous about spending too long in the past and keep returning to Streep in her old-age make-up, drinking too much and struggling to keep a grip on what’s there and what isn’t.  This over-reliance on the framing sequences begins to work against the film as we’re brought back a few too many times. It grows increasingly frustrating as Roach turns into Streep and we’re whisked through her time as Prime Minister in a series of increasingly over-stylised and rushed flashbacks. Stock footage and music of the time are used to convey the world outside Downing Street but the filmmakers are more concerned with showing Thatcher’s scheming cabinet haranguing her as a choreographed pack of obnoxious toffs (I’m not debating the accuracy of that). There are several nicely observed moments but because the film is so cautious not to lean too far one way or the other, the Thatcher-in-power sequences manage to avoid substance almost entirely.

Streep is superb and her portrayal of Thatcher is faultless. The film is at its best when she’s on screen with Broadbent and Olivia Colman (Tyrannosaur), who puts in excellent work as her daughter Carol. However, the decision not to fully examine her time in power means that it feels as though we’re flitting between two films: a moving drama about a once-powerful woman struggling with dementia and solitude, and a glossy, stylish biopic. We’d rather watch the former without the latter.

Verdict: It’s not without merit and Streep is excellent. But a strong start aside, this is a disappointingly slight film for such a controversial subject.



Friday, 20 January 2012

W.E. (2012)

Image: StudioCanal

It’s hard not to take your preconceived notions into a film. Even though we’re not supposed to, we get excited about new films from people we like, and we have the opposite reaction to ones from people we don’t. We haven’t seen Madonna’s first film, Filth and Wisdom, but general consensus was not great. However, we tried to keep an open mind for her latest.

New York, 1998. Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) is married to a very successful, famous doctor (Richard Coyle) but their relationship is not as rosy as it seems. She finds comfort in her obsession with Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), and in flashbacks we see how Wallis risked and gave up everything to be with the man she loved: Prince Edward (James D’Arcy).

First of all, it’s unclear what W.E. wants to be. It’s certainly not a historical drama, with roughly half of the running time given to Cornish’s Wally. It often feels as though Madonna is aiming for magical realism, with Wallis appearing as a sort of spirit guide to offer Wally some words of wisdom but this is refuted when she snaps “Wake up! This isn’t a fairytale!” and slaps Wally. The “not a fairytale” point is also rammed home with the physical and mental abuse from both Wally’s drunken bastard of a husband and Wallis’ first husband, who drags her naked from the bathtub and savagely beats her. This then sits utterly at odds with the more fairytale moments, such as Wally being able to call up a friend and ask her “How well do you know Mohamed al-Fayed?”

For all the unfortunate comparisons with The King’s Speech, the historical stuff is marginally more successful thanks to an excellent performance from Riseborough. It’s a whip-smart, powerful, intelligent turn that’s both strong and vulnerable and it deserves much better than the script that it serves. And the script (by Madonna and Alex Keshishian) is awful. The handsome set-design and Madonna’s often impressive eye for light and dark are consistently let down by dialogue that is beyond wooden. The writer/director does address the accusations that Wallis and Edward were racists and Nazi sympathisers, but only by broadly refuting them. The very talented Cornish (Limitless, Bright Star) fares worse than Riseborough, suffering from a character whose only real characteristics are that she is obsessed with Wallis Simpson and that she was supposed to find a Prince Charming and have a child but has ended up in the clutches of a cruel, violent adulterer. Any guesses on whether that nice (but frankly rather voyeuristic) Russian security guard (Drive’s Oscar Isaac) with a dead wife and a nice apartment will offer an escape?

Putting the script aside for a moment, the production design is very impressive and there are some striking visuals. The idea of taking Wallis’ perspective is a good one. But, again, the terrible script scuppers any chance for a success.

Verdict: Over-long and tonally inconsistent, it’s only a very fine performance from Riseborough that manages to wring some emotional truth and nuance from a woeful script.



Thursday, 19 January 2012

Jonathan Yeo: You're Only Young Twice

In his latest exhibition Yeo explores the world of cosmetic surgery.

The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Image: Artificial Eye

OK, the inevitable shark jokes. Let’s get those out of the way. In all seriousness, this is an adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play by one of Britain’s most respected directors. Expectations were high but word at the festivals was somewhat muted. 

The film starts with Hester (Rachel Weisz) attempting suicide. When her neighbours save her life, she reflects on how she ended up leaving her wealthy, respectable husband William (Simon Russell Beale) for young, brash pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). The challenges of the day are far from over, and she must decide what she wants.

First things first, this is a lovely film to look at. Terence Davies and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister have done tremendous work establishing mood and atmosphere. It’s all quite arch and overdone, which is appropriate given the melodramatic material, but it’s beautiful nevertheless. As Hester lights a cigarette we follow the smoke into her memories. Tears are illuminated in the warm glow of a fire. Hester’s red coat stands out as she walks the dark, wet streets of London alone. 

It’s the structure that’s slightly off. It’s never quite able to shake off its staginess, despite some rather abrupt cutting during the first twenty minutes. Once it hits its stride around the halfway mark it suddenly becomes very involving. Weisz is excellent as Hester, aware of the foolishness of her situation but unwilling and unable to do anything differently. She’s confronted by her husband, whose anger gives way to acceptance and pleading, and insulted by her lover, who finds her desperate love for him suffocating. It’s in these longer scenes between the characters that the film really comes to life.

But there’s something that doesn’t quite work. The leisurely pace is to be expected but the fact that it’s quite so uneven is a disappointment. After building up an impressive head of steam during the second act the film slows right down to a crawl for the final third. The inevitability of the conclusion is crushing but it makes the languorous pace a little frustrating. 

It’s exquisitely photographed and boasts three fine performances, but it’s never consistent enough to fully engage the viewer.

Verdict: Weisz, Hiddleston, and Beale are excellent, it’s beautiful to look at, and it’s got some wonderful scenes. It just doesn’t quite hold together.



Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Life in Pictures: Leonardo DiCaprio

With his new movie J. Edgar about to hit the big screen, we look back on Leonardo DiCaprio's film career. There has been much debate as to whether he is in fact the new "King of the Wood", so we thought we'd jump into the ring and throw a punch in DiCaprio's favour.

Image: Fohnjang Ghebdinga

This film is, without a doubt, DiCaprio’s standout piece from the early years, when a starry-eyed boy just wanted to make it big in Hollywood. Set in the fictional town of Endora, the film sees the young ‘un take on the role of a boy with a developmental disorder. Although the film gave the actor his first Academy award nomination, the rave reviews didn’t translate at the box-office.
We know that DiCaprio has since gone on to star in critically acclaimed modern classics; however, pre-millennium, the American sent pulses soaring as pubescent girls clambered to catch a glimpse of the baby-faced heartthrob – even if it was only via a cinema screen.
Baz Luhrmann’s contemporary re-telling saw DiCaprio step into the shoes of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lover. Critics were in two minds over it; but audiences (girls, girls, girls) lapped it up.
The monster smash. Little needs to be said about this movie. James Cameron, Kate Winslet, DiCaprio, and foggy car windows. That’s a wrap.
Athos, Porthos, D’Artagnan, and the other one feature in this film, in which Leo plays King Louis XIV, a desperate man trying to keep his identical twin brother, Philippe (also DiCaprio), off the thrown (where he rightfully belongs). The film was panned by critics – it is a pretty silly movie – but girls, girls, and more girls enjoyed it.
The epic flop after such great expectations. Directed by Danny Boyle, the movie sees the lead head out on a beach tripping adventure. Starting in Asia, we follow Richard (DiCaprio) as he makes his way to a secret paradise island. With the help of two French backpackers, he goes off in search of this weed filled haven, finds it, indulges in some sex, drugs and rock and roll, and then ends up back in The United States sitting in a café. Yeah, not our cup of tea either. Cool psychedelic soundtrack though.
This Steven Spielberg helmed project marks the beginning of a young DiCaprio starting to come into his own. Based on the life of trickster Frank Abagnale, Jr., Catch Me If You Can shows a more sophisticated, cool DiCaprio in front of the camera, who’s in total control of his incarnation.
The movie was a box-office success, raking in six times the budget. Wow. Crime does pays – at least in this case!
This American war epic saw DiCaprio take on the role of an Irish immigrant battling against a Cutting gangster. While the film has its flaws, and isn’t Scorsese or DiCaprio’s finest film, the actor, although not the star of the film, puts in a strong performance - albeit with a dodgy Irish accent.
Leo’s back in embodiment mode with the air based ride, as he gives us a glimpse into the life of aviation pioneer Howard Hughes. The movie saw Scorsese back in control of his subject and DiCaprio firmly on the ascent to establishing himself as a bankable leading man.
One of our favourites from the DiCaprio catalogue. Based on the conflicts in Africa, which arise from the trade of diamonds from mines in African war zones, Blood Diamond sees Leo play a cunning South-African smuggler, who becomes possessed after hearing about a million-dollar find. This guerrilla tale tackles a provocative subject and highlights DiCaprio’s prowess and conviction as an actor as he excels in the role of the selfish man, having already played the vulnerable, the sexy, the extremist and more.
The Departed is a film that is as much about the actors as it is the renowned crime helmer, Martin Scorsese, who, after decades of making classic films, finally walked away with the Oscar for best director for his work. The film went on to become Scorsese’s highest-grossing movie, as well as one of the biggest for leading man Leo, who, wasn’t bad, by the way!
For this turn, DiCaprio reunited with Titanic co-star Kate Winslet to show us the struggle of trying to live out the American dream. DiCaprio delivered an emotionally charged, desperate performance, that sits comfortably in a highly respectable, versatile filmography.
With this psychological, gothic thriller, Scorsese had some fun with us. As two US Marshals step of the boat and into bedlam, the audience is simultaneously thrown into a labyrinth of flashbacks, hallucinations and haunted houses. Mix that with the criminally insane, a few movie references, and an outstanding performance by a consumed leading man, on the hunt for a missing patient, and you’ve got yourself one corker of a film.
Like Titanic, Christopher Nolan's summer smash needs no introduction. It was big, bold, profitable and toyed with many levels of our unconscious minds. It's not as clever as some would have you believe, but we still enjoyed it - and it hasn't done its lead any harm.

Having rummaged through old DVDs, and trawled through online states, the verdict is in. From DiCaprio’s body of work, it’s fair to say that he can stand in the ring with the big boys for a bit of sparring; however, he’s far from delivering the knockout blow (it's Ali's birthday so we're in a boxing state of mind).
If status is measured by the quality of films alone, DiCaprio could possibly emerge victorious. But, if box-office deliverance is anything to go by, his takings (bearing in mind half of the revenue was made from one sinking ship), pail in comparison to the likes of Captain Jack Sparrow, not-so-funny man Will Smith and couching tiger Tom Cruise, who seem to have opted for careers in the lucrative lane rather than the thought provoking equivalent.
Nonetheless, DiCaprio is one of the finest actors of our generation, and so, seeing as we’re not money minded, we’re going to crown him the new king. But look out Leo. Gosling's making moves behind you.