Tuesday, 15 February 2011

True Grit Review

The Coen Brothers are on such a streak of form right now. True, Burn After Reading isn't brilliant but "not brilliant" from the Coens still tends to be better than many directors at their best. No Country For Old Men was a triumph, A Serious Man fantastic and now with True Grit they've delivered a superb western and a great film full stop.

The true grit of the title belongs to Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) a tough as nails and hugely intelligent young girl who hires drunk, disorderly but deadly US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to avenge her Father's death by killing the man that did it (Josh Brolin). Joining the hunt is Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), something of a buffoon but who nevertheless displays courage and heart as the film progresses, causing Mattie to wonder if she didn't perhaps hire the wrong man in the first place.

The film is a coming of age story as much as it is a revenge story and it contains so much of what the Coens do best, pitch perfect tone (even as scenes go from dark to funny to tense and back to dark again) fantastic dialogue, economical story-telling and iconic performances. This film boasts what is absolutely a career best turn from Jeff Bridges. Yes everyone loves The Dude and yes he won his awards for the inferior Crazy Heart last year, but Bridges' Cogburn is simply phenomenol. We get the sense of him being a good man but the love of his life is whiskey and whiskey is everywhere to be found. He is at times hilariously uncoordinated, falling off his horse etc, and at times menacingly dark and is utterly compelling both ways. He is matched by Haliee Stenfeld who has an incredibly tricky job of convincing as plucky and tough without losing sight of her age or tipping into parody and at the same time revealing just enough vulnerability to let us see her change throughout the film. She is absolutely excellent and is certainly a talent to watch for the future. Matt Damon too is excellent. His character is that goofy type of character The Coens like to write but Damon always grounds him in something believable so he fits in completely with the rest of the film.

The other star of True Grit is Coens' regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, surely about to receive his long overdue Oscar next week. The film is beautifully shot, from the small scenes in cabins or by campfires to the stunning vistas one expects from a Western. True Grit is one of those films where you believe the characters have been around long before we meet them at the beginning of the part of their lives the movie depicts. With Cogburn in particular, and not just because he is the eldest, you absolutely get the sense of a man who has lived a life, not a character created for the purpose of telling a story. True Grit is elegant, tense, funny and truly a film you can just get lost inside of. In short, it's everything The Coens, at their best, have been delivering their whole career.


The Fighter Review

The Fighter is one of the heavy hitters at this year's awards season, receiving a number of Oscar nominations including Best Film and Director for David O Russell. For my money it is by far the most generic of the nominated films I've seen so far. The King's Speech is pretty safe and unlikely to offend anyone but its story is unique and interesting. Black Swan is, depending on who you talk to, deranged genius or camp hysteria. Either way it certainly isn't formulaic. True Grit is an elegant masterpiece, Inception imaginative and filled with ideas. And in the middle of it all sits The Fighter. Washed up boxer seeking one last shot, family dragging him down but he needs them at the same time... all the cliches are present and accounted for. Yet there is no denying the film has class and is well acted and directed. I think my only issue is all the awards attention the film is receiving which, in an unusually strong year, makes its by the numbers story stand out all the more.

Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a welterweight who has never reached the boxing heights he dreamed of. Christian Bale is his brother Dicky, an ex-fighter himself who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard but who is now addicted to crack. Dicky is Mickey's trainer, when he rememebrs to turn up, and his terrifying Mother (an excellent Melissa Leo) acts as his manager. They are, of course, completely mismanaging him, as evidenced early on when Mickey is coerced into a disasterous fight proper management would never have let him be a part of. Mickey's girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) urges him to ditch the family but, as the film progresses, it becomes possible that Mickey needs his family, in particular his wayward brother, more than anyone realises.

There really isn't a huge amount to say about The Fighter. It does what it does and does it very well. Christian Bale is pretty much guaranteed his Oscar this year and, in truth, there is little denying it to him. He completely sells his addiction in every scene, the way he clings to his one moment of glory is sad without ever becoming pathetic or cloying and what's great about the performance is the way Bale manages to present Dicky as basically a good guy without ever shying away from the fact that he is a total screw up. When we first meet him he has a film crew following him apparently to chart his return to boxing. The reveal of what the film is actually about, as well as the way it pays off, is genuinely affecting. Bale demands your attention whenever he is onscreen and, in truth, I wonder if most of the success of the film isn't due to his performance, the best he has been in a very long time. Wahlberg is Wahlberg and doesn't derail the film, finding a quiet centre in the maelstrom that surrounds him. I was concerned early on that Amy Adams, an actress I really like, was miscast. But after a slightly shaky start she settles into her role as the tough talking bar worker who has Mickey's best interests at heart. The scenes with the rest of the family, his ferocious Mother and gaggle of frightening sisters, were somewhat cartoonish for me. I felt them over the top and ultimately didn't really believe them. What I did like though was the way the family was the film's focus. There is actually very little boxing in The Fighter (but in a nice directorial touch what fights there are O Russell films as if they're TV broadcasts) and this is to its credit as it really did make me care about the relationship between the two brothers.

I'm actually warming to the film as I type this. I was never bored, there are many genuinely funny moments and Christian Bale is standout. It's just that I'd seen it all before so many times, I found it difficult to get really enthused about the film's strengths. In that respect, it reminded me of The Town, fantastically made but way too familiar. I should say though that The Fighter is considerably better. Ultimately there is much to enjoy in the film. Just don't expect any surprises.


Sunday, 30 January 2011

Barney's Version Review

I'll watch Paul Giamatti in pretty much anything. Well, I walked out of Shoot 'Em Up and I didn't see Fred Claus. But whatever, he's one of my favourite actors who absolutely sells me on whatever it is he's playing. That's just as true of his portrayal of Barney Panofsky in Barney's Version as it is of any of the other characters he has played and this is what creates the problem. The character is such an idiot, such a dick in a lot of ways, that I ended up rooting for anyone and everyone else in the film. When I could be bothered to concentrate. Barney's Version is long, tangental and unfocused with a number of plot strands that don't really go anywhere. If it wasn't for Paul Giamatti I'd have probably given up on it.

The film takes us through Barney's life as the producer of a dubious television soap opera (now in its 30th season we're told near the beginning) two disasterous marriages, a third marriage to the love of his life that he single handedly destroys, the fact that he may or may not have committed murder and his eventual mental decline. There are good bits, a few good scenes, some genuinely funny moments, most of which involve Dustin Hoffman who almost steals the show as Barney's lothario, straight talking Dad and, as I said, Paul Giamatti is always reliable and doesn't disappoint here. But I couldn't get over that central problem. I had zero sympathy for the guy. I've seen a number of reviews describe Barney as a "lovable rogue" or some variation on that theme but that, for me, is incredibly euphamistic to the point of it not being true. I didn't like him, I was asked to care about him and I simply couldn't. The film makes a few attempts to redeem him near the end but they are way too little too late and the film ends up being a waste of a great actor giving a great performance.


Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Black Swan Review

Can it be that only 19 days into 2011, I've already seen the best film I'm going to see all year? Black Swan is an astonishing film, frightening, tense, unsettling and disturbing and it catapults itself into my top 5 cinema experiences of all time. It just means eleven and a half months of films that simply don't measure up...

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina desperate to ascend in the company she dances for. Aging Prima Ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) is about to leave the company and company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) seeks his new Swan Queen who, to perform Swan Lake, must be able to dance both sides of the role, the pure, innocent White Swan and the evil doppelganger, the Black Swan. Nina is all technique but is controlled and tightly wound. She excels at the White Swan but cannot tap into those darker aspects of herself in order to convince as the Black Swan. That is how the film starts and over the next couple of hours we experience Nina's psychological and physical breakdown and transformation into the eponymous Black Swan.

From minute one, Black Swan unsettles you and it retains a tone and atmosphere throughout its entire running time that pins you to your seat and simply won't let you move. What's absolutely fascinating about the film is that it's covering very similar territory to writer/director Darren Aronofsky's last film, The Wrestler. Both films examine a very specific, very niche world. Both films examine, sometimes in eye watering detail, exactly what the participants of that world suffer for their sport/art and we see how uncompromising both can be in the way the wrestlers/dancers end up destroyed by their respective vocations. Just as we watched Randy "The Ram" Robinson cut himself with a concealed razor blade to make the audience think he is genuinely hurt in the ring, so we watch Nina tape up her bleeding, battered feet and squeeze them into what on the outside are dainty ballet shoes, as well as watching her physio "pop" limbs back into place. Much of Black Swan occurs in grimy corridors, train carriages, tiny rooms, intimate in exactly the same way The Wrestler was. What's incredible though is that, rather than examining thse things in the form of a character drama, he now examines them in the form of a psychological horror film; a body horror in the tradition of early David Cronenberg and a descent into madness as compelling as The Innocents, Psycho or any of the greats of that subgenre of horror.

I really can't overstate how well this combination of genres works. The natural horror of what a ballet dancer puts herself through morphing into the body horror of her mental descent is utterly compelling. It walks that fine line of actually being comical but never loses its grip on what it's doing. So much of the film can be read in multiple ways and it's to the film's credit that you are as engrossed in Nina's situation as you are. 80% of the film is shot in either over the shoulder shots or big close ups, and the whole film feels like it's invading Nina's psychological as well as physical space as a result. The net effect is to completely unsettle, as well as leave us in no doubt that we are experiencing this film purely from her point of view. Regular Aronofsky collaborators Matthew Libatique and Clint Mansell contribute enormously, as they always do, their photography and music respectively adding massively to the overall tone and atmosphere of the piece.

In terms of performances, there really isn't a weak link. The film rests on Natalie Portman's delicate shoulders and her performance is utterly fearless. Her slow breakdown is completely believable and, as "big" as this film goes, her performance never felt overwrought or hysterical. The most interesting character after Nina for me was her Mother, played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey. This relationship throws back to Carrie as Piper Laurie's religious fanatic sought to closit and undermine her telekinetic daughter. But this character is way more interesting because of the way her motives are so ambiguous. She was a ballerina who, she tells us, gave it all up to raise her daughter. But we have no way of knowing how true that is. Maybe she's as over protective as she is because she knows the psychological toll the role of the Swan Queen takes. Maybe she suffered the same and its left her unhinged, crying to herself, painting those strange pictures in her room. Or maybe she's just a Mother and it's experiencing her through Nina's eyes that warps our view of her. Barbara Hershey plays it such that most interpretations of her are valid. Vincent Cassel is suitably sleazy as the company director, opening Nina up to her raw sexuality, possibly to get the best show he can, possibly for his own gratification, but, strangely, also finding moments of compassion in the small looks and glances he gives his "little princess." Mila Kunis also has a difficult job as Lily the company dancer and understudy to Nina who may be trying to steal the role away from Nina, or who may not even exist at all. As Nina seeks to find her black swan, it's possible that she externalises her own inner darkness into an imagined persona. Again, Kunis plays it such that a case can be made for either interpretation.

Black Swan is an incredible mix of horror film, art film and thriller. It is unlike anything I've seen in a very long time and, true I only saw it last night, but I can't stop thinking about it and I know it's going to stay with me for a very long time. It's a film that will mostly be overlooked by the awards season and that's absolutely to its credit. This is a dark, strange, compulsive and, let me say it again, unsettling film that demands to be seen in the cinema. Not for everyone perhaps but it was certainly for me.

19 days in and 2011 has peaked... It was good while it lasted.


Thursday, 13 January 2011

127 Hours Review

There was a part of me watching 127 Hours that struggled to sympathise with its protagonist Aron Ralston. "It'll take more than a 6 day desperate fight for survival with your arm trapped underneath a boulder culminating in you cutting that arm off, to impress me" I said to myself as I munched my popcorn and guzzled my coke zero. True, the most dangerous thing I'd done that week was to walk 50 yards down from the clearly marked zebra crossing only to then cross the road anyway, laughing in the face of danger and oncoming traffic as I thought to myself, Aron WHO? In all seriousness though, the problem is that, at the start of the film Aron is presented as, well, a bit of a dick. He doesn't tell anyone where he's going when he sets off into the Utah wilderness. Why not? Because he's Aron Ralston and he doesn't need to, that's why not. Pestering phonecalls from his family? No time for those! Clearly this is the deliberate set up for the "spiritual journey" our character will go on in the course of his crisis but it's a risky ploy as the danger is in alienating the audience. One assumes this is the way the real Ralston was in real life but since when have the movies let the truth get in the way of a good story? It's therefore credit to co-screenwriter and director Danny Boyle, as well as the charm and likability of James Franco, that the film is as engaging as it is.

Boyle the director, employs many of his now familiar techniques (odd camera angles, split-screen, thumping soundtrack) to infuse the film with energy and vibrancy. This works in the early scenes as we watch Ralston bask in the adventure of the outdoors as well as after he falls into the rock crevice and becomes trapped where these techniques distract us from the static, single location. Whilst immobile, Ralston uses every bit of his common sense and knowledge of the outdoors to extricate himself from what instantly appears to be a hopeless situation. The best thing about the film for me was the way, what are normally small things, take on massive, life or death consequences in the context of Aron's predicament. Frequently we enter our protagonist's head and watch him think back to regrets he has about his past as well as to consider a future he may never have. This kind of thing can often feel like filler but in this it genuinely works to up the emotional stakes of the film. By the time he makes the impossible decision to amputate the trapped arm and free himself, you absolutely feel not only his desperation, but also his sheer willpower, mental strength and desire to live. The amputation scene is predictably grim but not gratuitous. Danny Boyle has never been one to shy away from any violence in his stories and this could have been close to unwatchable. Instead convincing sound effects, tremendous acting from James Franco and a few choice shots, sell the horror of what he is forced to do.

I have an odd relationship with Danny Boyle's films. I tend to admire them more than I genuinely like them. 127 Hours continues this trend insofar as I can't imagine returning to it very often but I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would and it's definitely worth your time.


Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The King's Speech Review

I'll admit I can sometimes have it in for a film before I see it. I like to think that, once in the cinema, I can have my mind changed if the film is genuinely good; Kick Ass is a good example of a film I fully expected to hate and that won me over. It's not that I expected to hate The King's Speech, it's just that it seemed like the kind of Oscar-bait movie the months of December and January tend to serve up, films professing their own worthiness whilst acutally not doing too much of anything. Imagine my surprise when The King's Speech turned out to be a highly engaging, witty, wonderfully written and acted movie.

It's 1925 and Albert, Duke of York (a career best Colin Firth) tries to deliver a speech to the Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium but is thwarted by his terrible stammer. His wife Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother (played with a fantastically light touch by Helena Bonham Carter) seeks help from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) whose unorthodox methods of treatment have made his reputation preceed him. This relationship forms the cornerstone of the film as Lionel attempts to break down deep seated fears and insecurities within "Bertie" as Lionel insists on calling the future King, as well as treating the mechanics of the speech impediment. Their relationship develops alongside an incredibly tumultous period in royal history, and indeed British history generally, as King George V (Michael Gambon) dies and is succeeded by Albert's older brother David (a slightly over the top Guy Pearce) who is enamoured by American divorcee Wallis Simpson. When David abdicates to marry Mrs Simpson, Albert assumes the throne, putting enormous pressure on Logue's ability to cure the reluctant king of his affliction. This pressure climaxes when Britain declares war on Germany and Albert, now King George VI (but still Bertie to his family and Logue) must deliver the nation's first wartime address.

Imagine Rocky but instead of boxing it's speech therapy and instead of a nobody from Philly it's a reluctant King and you have The King's Speech. Actually that's incredibly unfair to David Seidler's intelligent screenplay (based upon his play) great acting from the leads and spot on direction from Tom Hooper. The film makes you genuinely care about the fate of the new King. You are absolutely rooting for him to knock the speech out of the park and, as he speaks into the microphone, Logue all but conducts him, utilising every trick and technique they have practiced to get him through this most important moment of his life so far. It's a truly fantastic sequence and provides a genuinely heartlifting finale without resorting to sentimentality. The history of the piece is fascinating and details such as the encroaching nature of the newly invented radio upon the Royals, adds life, texture and believability to the world of the film.

Geoffrey Rush has long been one of my favourite actors and this is one of his best performances. His desire to "better himself" is perfectly judged, his warmth and humanity genuine and never cloying. His strange treatment methods never lapse into the contrived (as can so often be the way with films like this when there's a "wacky doctor" "going against the establishment") and his amusingly bad attempts at performing Shakespeare never lapse into parody due to his obvious love for the Bard. The revelation though is Colin Firth. A dependable actor, he has never particularly stood out for me. He was good in last year's A Single Man but was let down by the film. Here, the writing and directing support him every step of the way, and he creates a character of humour, intelligence, pain and bravery. You feel everything he feels without him playing obvious "repression" or, at the other end of the spectrum, lapsing into hysterics. Like everything else in the film, it's perfectly judged and he has set himself up as the man to beat at this year's Oscars.

The film isn't breaking new ground and it definitely is the kind of "awards bait" movie I mentioned at the start of this review. But they are the worst things you can say about it. Subtle, warm, funny and heartwarming, The King's Speech is that rarest of things; a great story well told.


The End Of 2010 (But Not In A Roland Emmerich Way...)

It's been a while hasn't it?

A lean couple of months kept me out of the cinema but here's a very quick catch up before we get to the new year.


This is one of those films where there is loads of hype and I just don't get it. A great cast make it just about okay but when even someone as good as Julianne Moore can't make her character convincing, you know there was trouble on the page before anyone stood in front of or behind a camera. Unconvincing is in fact the best word I can think of to describe this film.



Dear God...



A friend of mine described it as "dramatically redundant" a phrase I quite like. A fancy light show with an admittedly great soundtrack. My advice? Buy the soundtrack.

And that literally was it! 2010 was not a great year at the movies. The highlights were there, Inception, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, but they were few and far between. So, 11 days in, what is 2011 serving up so far?