Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Image: Warner Bros.

And so Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy draws to a close. It’s made a ton of money and quite possibly won more critical acclaim and fanboy devotion than any comic book movie franchise. But could the filmmaker and his team make a final chapter that would live up to our expectations?

After taking the fall for the crimes of Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has not only retired Batman but has become a recluse in Wayne Manor, neglecting Wayne Enterprises and its charity work. He’s not the only one letting things slip, however, as Gotham is in a similar state of profligate carelessness. But masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) is building an army underground and plans to bring the city to its knees.

Does it live up to our expectations? Well, not quite. While The Dark Knight Rises is a highly entertaining, ambitious blockbuster, it does have the most immediately obvious problems of the Nolan trilogy. Those expecting things to kick off with the same bang as TDK’s bank heist will be wrong-footed, as the script (by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) sets a deliberately sluggish pace for the bulk of the first half, presumably to allow the viewer to become as relaxed as the characters who are in for a shock. There’s an overall bleakness at work here too, as Bruce isn’t struggling to work through his grief, but not even trying. It’s interesting, but it does drag.

This isn’t helped by a not-particularly exciting (but necessary) focus on the Wayne Enterprises boardroom, with environmentally-conscious Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and scheming bastard Dagget (Ben Mendelsohn) vying for Bruce’s ear and power respectively. Bane flits in and out during these early scenes, lacking any truly great dialogue but making a big impression thanks to his size and Hardy’s presence. On the plus side, the long running time allows Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s beat cop Blake room to develop. Finally, as the film reaches the half-hour mark, Nolan starts to tighten his grip on the audience. As Bruce dusts off the cape and cowl and gets closer to Bane, there’s a definite sense of excitement.

TDKR really finds its wings when Bane’s plan is revealed and the second half of the film begins. As Gotham plunges into chaos, Nolan is following a clear path from TDK and again aims for relevance to the current state of things. It (as well as Bruce’s emotional storyline) will be a little on the nose for some but it’s certainly powerful, with the scenes of devastation stunning in IMAX (enough to ignore the plot holes). While the events of TDK directly feed into this film, it’s nice to see that the script also draws heavily on Batman Begins, a film that occasionally gets overlooked in comparison to its sequel.

In terms of the cast, Anne Hathaway makes for an excellent Selina Kyle, nailing the combination of slinky playfulness and survival instinct. Gordon-Levitt is on predictably good form as the only cop in Gotham who can see what’s coming, and series regulars Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and particularly Gary Oldman continue to work well. While their vocal choices will raise eyebrows, Bale and Hardy’s confrontations are absolutely fantastic.

As a final third, The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately satisfying. At its best, it’s thrilling and hugely impressive in its reach. But the first act is undeniably slow and a little muddled in places. For fans of the franchise, this is a worthy finale to a landmark series while still probably being the least impressive instalment.

It’s not the best of the trilogy but TDKR ends the series on a high note. Once it moves past the script issues of the first half, it’s an ambitious, visually stunning and emotionally affecting blockbuster.



Thursday, 12 July 2012

Rampart (2012)

Image: StudioCanal

Rampart is co-written by that behemoth of modern noir fiction James Ellroy so our expectations were pretty high. The last film Ellroy had a co-writing credit on was the compromised but entertaining dirty cop drama Street Kings, but this looked grittier and frankly more interesting. It’s a shame that an outstanding performance from Harrelson is one of the few elements that really stands out in Oren Moverman’s second film as a writer/director.

1999. The LA police department is still trying to distance itself from the Rodney King scandal when veteran officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) is caught on tape viciously beating a suspect. Beset by money woes, trouble at home, and a deepening sense of paranoia, Dave struggles to stay afloat.

First, the good. Brown is an interesting, contradictory character. He “hates all people equally”. He lives next door to his two ex-wives, who are also sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), and his two daughters. While he loves his family, they may not feel the same way about him, particularly his eldest daughter (a strong turn from Scott Pilgrim’s Brie Larson) He’s a womaniser, a heavy drinker, and prone to fits of violent rage. He’s erudite when he wants to be, especially when he’s being confronted by his superiors. Harrelson captures Brown perfectly, a man capable of being charming but clearly dealing with a great many tempestuous personal issues.

But Brown aside, there’s not a great deal here to recommend. It’s loaded with characters that are well played by a well-stocked cast of characters actors including Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, Steve Buscemi, and Ned Beatty, but none of them are explored in any depth. There’s an underlying conspiracy that’s frequently alluded to but the filmmakers don’t seem to be interested in fully unravelling it, or really exploring the investigation into Dave at all. That we’re drawn into Dave’s plight is due to Harrelson’s performance rather than any real character development. The film is made up of brief snapshots rather than scenes that are occasionally very-well done but they ultimately never add to up to enough and Moverman’s stylistic flourishes are distracting rather than involving. Given the talent involved it’s something of a let-down.

Harrelson gives a stellar turn, and the supporting cast is impressive. The rest of the film, however, is a disappointment.



Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Marina Ambramović: The Artist Is Present (2012)

Seeing eye to eye.

Image: Dogwoof

(This review is an extended version of our write-up from Day 3 of Sheffield Doc/Fest).

Documentaries on artists can easily fall into one of two traps: they either focus on their glamorous personal and love life, or they lionise their body of work to the point that they become the most significant person in their field. With a subject like performance artist Marina Ambramović, the personal and the professional is almost indivisible, a fact which Matthew Akers’ documentary demonstrates from very early on.

Ambramović is renowned for pushing herself in her work, not only baring her body and her soul but also putting herself through intense physical strain. Starting with the build up towards her three-month long show at New York’s MOMA, Akers spends the first half showing us how her work has developed over the years, from her two-handers with her ex-lover and collaborator Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay) to her expansion into more theatrical performances. Akers spoke in a Q&A after the film about not wanting to present a hagiography and during this first half he justifies her reputation as “The Grandmother of Performance Art” with clips of her most famous pieces.

We weren’t too familiar with her work before watching the film and it was fascinating to see archive footage of her challenging and often bizarre performance art. Friends and contemporaries discuss works such as Rhythm 0, in which she presented the public with 72 harmless and harmful objects and allowed them to do whatever they wanted to her, and another in which she drove a van around a square for 16 hours while shouting random numbers through a megaphone. Clearly there is enough archive material to fill a documentary, but the focal point of this film is her show The Artist is Present, which takes up the bulk of the second half.

It’s certainly a fascinating piece. Abramović sat motionless (except to look up and down) in the Museum of Modern Art all day for three months, looking at whoever sat opposite her. During the course of the show we see the physical and emotional strain she endures, and the often-hysterical reactions it provokes in the audience. One wonders if anyone (with the exception of James Franco) wasn’t reduced to tears.

The problem with the second half is that, by necessity, Abramović figures less. The focus is shifted to observing the effect The Artist is Present has, rather than the artist herself. It’s tricky to depict something that is so much about endurance and restraint and, for the most part, Ackers does a good job, but after such a lively, engrossing first half, we found ourselves missing the artist. It’s a well-made look at a fascinating subject but it is, finally, a little uneven. However, the charisma, strength, and creativity of Abramović makes it a film that’s definitely worth a look.



Thursday, 5 July 2012

Magnum on Set

Image: Magnum Photos

This image of Charlie Chaplin on the set of Limelight is part of the current film exhibition Magnum on Set at the London Film Museum in Covent Garden.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)

Image: Universal

It’s been four years since Jason Segel proved his comedic leading man chops with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and his reunion with co-writer/director Nicholas Stoller finds him in similar territory.

Tom Solomon (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are perfect for each other and have just got engaged. But when Violet gets her dream job, it means relocating from San Francisco (where Tom is a successful chef) to Michigan. Tom loathes their new town and as the strain on their relationship grows, the wedding keeps getting put off.

You’d be hard-pushed to find a more charming, likeable leading pair than Segel and Blunt. They’re funny, they’re adorable together, and they’re totally believable as a couple. And given that they’re supported by Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt and Community’s Alison Brie, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this has all the makings of a hilarious comedy.

Well, it’s not quite that. The Five-Year Engagement is a choppy, overlong movie that starts really promisingly before dragging its feet through a second half that seems to be running out of jokes. Once it’s clear that Violet isn’t going anywhere and Tom isn’t cheering up, it doesn’t really feel like the filmmakers know what to fill the time with. However, the two leads are so good together that even when it’s running out of steam, it’s still watchable. Their chemistry is fantastic, and there’s a lot of very funny physical comedy. Segel’s never been afraid of sacrificing vanity for a good joke, and Blunt is just as game as he is. So while it may rely heavily on Segel growing mountain-man mutton chops or Blunt getting shot in the leg with a crossbow, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.

Essentially, if you’re a fan of the two actors, we can recommend this. For the most part it’s funny, likeable, and sweet. However, there are definitely big problems that become increasingly apparent as it goes on. It definitely looks as though there was a lot of chopping and changing in the editing room, but it’s difficult to argue too much with a film that has Emily Blunt and Alison Brie having a heated argument as The Cookie Monster and Elmo.

It’s got a great first half and it’s certainly enjoyable, if overlong and a bit muddled, but thankfully the cast makes the film worth sticking with.



Monday, 2 July 2012

Edited: Brits Behaving Badly

Image: Sony Pictures

To coincide with the release of The Amazing Spider-Man, which sees Rhys Ifans take on the role of Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard, we’ve put together a quick little post featuring some Brits who are good at playing bad.

Jeremy Irons/Scar (The Lion King)
The campest baddie in the land. Scar proves that it’s possible to be sinfully delightful and comical as a villain. Who could resist watching a slothful, ineffective, bearded lion parade around with an inept trio of hyenas?

Anthony Hopkins/Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of Lambs)
He may not be seducing us with the quintessential British accent, but this great performance is worthy of a mention.

James Mason/Phillip Vandamm (North by Northwest)
Calm and collected. The best type of evil. You almost think he’s normal.

Joan Collins/Alexis Carrington (Dynasty)
British villainesses are lacking, and so we thought we’d throw a random bit of Alexis Carrington into the mix. She infiltrated the small screen and made a big impression. Whether TV or cinema, drama’s drama, and Dynasty was one of the biggest.

Christopher Lee/Saruman (Lord of the Rings)
The man of many menacing faces. His villainous ways are too many to mention, but the list wouldn’t be complete without an appearance from him.

David Bowie/Jareth (Labyrinth)
The movie that made a million kids go mad. Davie Bowie stars as the goblin king who steals Jennifer Connelly’s baby brother, forcing little Jenny into a giant maze full of fugly goblins. Sitting on his throne with a crystal ball not saying much, sporting a Tina Turner-esque mullet. You can imagine. Frightening.

Ian Mckellen/ Magneto (X-Men)
The arch-enemy of Professor Xavier and his men, Magneto is intent on mutating the whole of mankind. Played by Sir Ian, the X-men movie gave the metal bender a 21st century revamp, with a British twist.

Alan Rickman/Severus Snape (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
The Harry Potter saga is over but Severus Snape definitely made his presence felt. Rickman’s played evil more than once but we thought we’d go with his most recent performance.

Malcom McDowell/Alex (A Clockwork Orange)
Alex DeLarge, leader of the violent “droogs”. Be wary of anyone coming towards you wearing a bowler hat, white shirt and trousers, and a codpiece... the movie sparked a lot of copycat behaviour.

Glenn Close/Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians)
She's not British, we know, but in order to play evil she had to adopt an English accent - and the many women fortunate enough to have stepped into the De Vil’s shoes have had to play British in order to portray one of the most, if not most, iconic villainesses. And don’t forget, while Streep is in a league of her own, before The Devil came Ms. De Vil.


2 Days in Edinburgh

Image: FG/Fohnhouse

After the excitement of Sheffield Doc/Fest a couple of weeks ago, Fohnhouse decided to board a bus heading further north to continue the adventure at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Arriving in the early hours of Friday morning gave us time to soak up the calm atmosphere of the city centre and enjoy a mouth-watering chocolate twist before our day got underway. After picking up the all-important press pass we hotfooted it over to the local cinema to catch Pixar’s latest creation Brave, which had its European premiere and closed the festival on Saturday night.

Image: FG/Fohnhouse

As expected Brave is another visually arresting, meticulously realised animation showcasing the astonishing capabilities of Pixar’s technology and further proving why they are head and shoulders above the rest, and why we love them. The narrative, about a girl who must learn the hard way that actions can have serious consequences, doesn’t resonate as much as previous Pixar stories, but the luscious, green, lifelike Scottish landscapes, the soundtrack, and a few furry animals make this a fairy tale that’s, nonetheless, far from average.  

From a valiant tale we moved to a film about one of the most captivating cities in the world. 7 Days in Havana chronicles the Cuban city over 7 days with a different director bringing his eye to a day’s proceedings. Not every story in this montage is a triumph, but it’s an interesting way of looking at a region and highlights the diverse characters and experiences of the inhabitants.

More successful in its entirety was Day of the Flowers, a tale of two Scottish sisters who travel to Havana to lay their father (his ashes) to rest. Funny, sexy and vibrant with a spark of danger and misadventure, Flowers was a charming end to a very Latin afternoon.

We decided to end our film run with the French drama Le Reste du Monde (The Rest of the World). Now, seeing as how we Wandercats are self-confessed Francophiles, we were excited to see what Damien Odoul’s film had to offer. Sadly, it doesn’t offer as much as we would have liked. Based around a family with a few secrets and issues, Le Reste du Monde is slow, a little tedious, and not nearly as interesting as a dysfunctional family drama should be. The cast do put in good performances but ultimately the end couldn’t come soon enough.

After four films we had to say goodbye to the cinema in favour of an interview with Brave director Mark Andrews and producer Katherine Safarian. The full interview will be posted in the coming months, but Andrews and Safarian talked about their challenges making a film set in the highlands of Scotland as well as the impact Pixar and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had on their lives.

Our interview with the Pixar duo brought us to the end of our time in the North, but before we boarded our bus back to the familiar streets of London Town we had a few hours to soak up the sights of the city and sample a so-called culinary delight: pizza in batter. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you sample the latter, but Edinburgh’s a beautiful city and we’ll definitely be back for future festivals.

Image: FG/Fohnhouse