Friday, 25 February 2011

Film #17 Never Let Me Go


And now for Mark 'One Hour Photo' Romanek's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker-nominated novel. OK, so it's hard to synopsisise the film without giving away a bit of a spoiler - suffice to say it's fundamentally a film about a love triangle between Tommy (Andrew Garfield) Kathy (Carey Mulligan, winsome and lovely) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), three former pupils of the seemingly-idyllic but faintly sinister boarding school, Hailsham. The Britain in which it is set - the film can be dated from the registration plates of the cars, running from the mid-70s to the early 90s - is an exercise in alternative history; we recognise the everyday mundanities but once the key difference between their world and ours is revealed it could be an alien planet (or so so we'd like to think).

We know all is not well at the school from the start - the children wear electronic bracelets are afraid to leave the school grounds and so on, but the central horrific idea is only revealed after about half an hour. I won't give it away, but it really is an appalling thing, which in turn leads to the film being Some Bleak-ass Shit.

Carey Mulligan holds the film together - she narrates - and is developing into a very fine, serious lead actor. Andrew Garfield - an actor that I like immensely - is actually a little forced here and his gawkiness just ends up being annoying, which is disappointing. Conversely, Keira Knightley, who I've never really been impressed by, is better than usual, keeping her facial tics and staginess to a minimum. The support is good, though Sally Hawkins sleepwalks her way through as the teacher who tells the kids what's to become of them.

The plot does raise interesting themes, particularly about moral relativism, what it means to be 'human' and so on, and there is a shadow cast by the genocides of the 20th century (we ask ourselves, 'how could we let this happen?' but of course it already has, and much worse) but as is the case with so many adaptations of 'literary' novels, it fails to deal with these issues more than cursorily. Nevertheless, it certainly looks lovely (kudos to the location scouts who have found perfect settings, particularly the old school building with its lovely red-brick walls around the gardens) and is competently shot, cut and scored.

All the above make the film sound pretty good, and it is good - at least in a quantifiable sum-of-its-parts sense - but in the end it's good in a boring way (as opposed to, say, Black Swan, which is bad in an interesting way). It's an extremely depressing film with zero levity - and for a film to be able to get away with being so unremittingly bleak it must at the very least be profound. Never Let Me Go aims for profundity but, as noted above the film just doesn't have the scope to do this. One of the luxuries of writing and reading a novel is the time taken to wallow in ideas, build believable characters and so on. Films generally cannot do this and it's not a huge surprise that Never Let Me Go fails in its mission. It neither entertains nor edifies.

I commend the craftsmanship, but ultimately it's a:

*****5/10

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Film #16 Brighton Rock


Given the treasured Graham Greene source material and the classic Richard Attenborough predecessor there are lot of people who could be unhappy with Roland Joffe's interpretation. And does it work? Sadly, no.

In short: set in 1960s Brighton, the film charts the ambitious rise of young hoodlum Pinkie (Sam Riley), which is complicated by a relationship-of-convenience he takes up with naive waitress Rose (Andrea Riseborough). Whilst this adaptation has shifted the action forward thirty years from the original setting of the novel, in some ways it is truer to the novel than the Attenborough version (for example, in the explicit inclusion of Catholic redemptive themes). However, ultimately it is a weak adaptation. Maybe I'm just being a bit slow but the plot didn't seem coherent and left too much unsaid. Also, the characters were little more than cardboard cutouts, relics of a different era of cinema when audiences demanded unambiguous goodies and baddies.

In terms of the craft of the film itslef, while the camerawork is sporadically gorgeous (great use is made of the pier, both above and below) the editing is bewildering; I found it difficult to make sense of the chronology (did the events take plays in a matter of days? Weeks? Months? It's impossible to tell). The film seems cut specifically to bewilder and disorientate - fine if you're making an Inland Empire or a Black Swan but in a straightforward plot-driven piece like this it is out of place.

I'm not convinced by the 1960s setting, either. It just seems tacked on and has little relevance to the story; the same can be said of the Catholic themes, which are very unsubtly introduced. The soundtrack, too, seems misjudged - it leaps from identikit sixties beat-combo sounds to the charleston to honky Bernard Hermann-isms.

Performance-wise, it's uneven. Sam Riley, so good in Control, just can't bring Pinkie to life; we never really get a grip on his motives, or even what the fundamentals or his character actually are. Andrea Riseborough is a wet bag of soppiness, and we're never sure whether she's supposed to be resolute, child-like, sympathetic, winsome or what. On the plus side, John Hurt deos his John Hurt thing, Helen Mirren is stellar (more on her later) and we don't get nearly enough of Andy Serkis, delicious in a silk dressing gown as mob boss Colleone. Perhaps I'm being unfair on the actors though, as the characterisation in general is very flat and there isn't any particularly great dialogue to work with (the mobsters all reminded me of the orcs in the Lord of the Rings trilogy - all cockneyfied sneering and wincing).

So, OK, the film is not very good - but there's something else we can take from it. Helen Mirren is the single element of the film that stops it being a complete failure, and she provides us with a case study in the importance of acting ability in a film. This might seem obvious, but until I started really committing myself to cinema-going I had always placed more importance on the story and the direction.

As the bit-of-posh-who-likes-a-wrong-'un, she has an archetypal role and has to deal with the same problems with character and dialogue that the other actors do. Nevertheless, she is able to give a third dimension to her role simply through her acting talents; it takes an actor of her talents to be able to tell the life story of a character through a look, an expression or a gesture and as such she enlivens the film - a tall, red poppy in a field of chaff.

Nonetheless, this is fundamentally a poor film. Therefore:

****4/10

Intermission - The Oscars: who should win, and who will (in my opinion...)

The 83rd Academy Awards are just around the corner and as ever we can all have a lot of fun debating who'll win, who should've got a shout etc. etc. My picks for each category are below, and also who, if I was a betting man (and I'm not), I would actually back to win.

BEST PICTURE

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
Winter's Bone
True Grit
The Social Network
Toy Story 3

My vote: My favourite film of the ten nominees (and indeed my favourite of the last year) is Toy Story 3, which is probably the least likely to win (a nomination is itself something of a coup for an animated feature)

My money's on: The King's Speech is the clear favourite, outsiders being The Social Network and maybe Winter's Bone

BEST DIRECTOR

Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan
David O Russell - The Fighter
Tom Hooper - The King's Speech
David Fincher - The Social Network
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen - True Grit

My vote: I'd have to go for David Fincher - The Social Network is an excellent film and,. Incidentally I think that Mike Leigh should have at least received a nomination for Another Year

My money's on: David Fincher again - as is the way with the Oscars, he is felt to be due recognition; David O Russell is the dark horse. (N.B. in the unlikely event of The King's Speech not winning best picture Tom Hooper will automatically become favourite in this category)

BEST ACTOR

Colin Firth - The King's Speech
Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
James Franco - 127 Hours
Javier Bardem - Biutiful
Jeff Bridges - True Grit

My vote: All good performances, but I'll have to follow the critical consensus and say Colin Firth. For all that the role is total Oscar-bait, it really is a wonderful performance and Firth deserves the recognition.

My money's on: If Colin Firth doesn't win this then legions of tipsters and critics will be eating their hats. The most nailed-on favourite of all of this year's awards.

BEST ACTRESS

Annette Bening - The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman - Black Swan
Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine

My vote: I'm a little hamstrung on this one as I didn't see all of the films here. Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic in Winter's Bone, though, so she's my pick.

My money's on: I believe the hot favourite is Natalie Portman, but I wouldn't be suprised if this category offers an upset and gives the award to Jennifer Lawrence.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christian Bale - The Fighter
John Hawkes - Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner - The Town
Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech

My vote: Geoffrey Rush was marvellous in The King's Speech, but my dissenting vote goes to John Hawkes for his haunted hillbilly turn in Winter's Bone

My money's on - Christian Bale delivers a very Oscars-ey performance in The Fighter, so I reckon he'll pick it up. Geoffrey Rush is his strongest challenger.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams - The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
Melissa Leo - The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom

My vote: in the absence of recognition for Barbara Hershey I will plump for Melissa Leo.

My money's on: a tough call, but I'd probably say Hailee Steinfeld (of course, it's ludicrous that she's even in this category given that she played the lead role, but there it is). Chief competition will probably come from Amy Adams.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Biutiful - Mexico
Dogtooth - Greece
In a Better World - Denmark
Incendies - Canada
Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi) - Algeria

My vote: this is quite an odd shortlist with several notable absences. Of these, I'd go for Dogtooth.

My money's on: despite lukewarm reviews, Biutiful seems to have built up a head of steam.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Mike Leigh - Another Year
Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (screenplay), Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (story) - The Fighter
Christopher Nolan - Inception
Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg - The Kids Are All Right
David Seidler - The King's Speech

My vote: the head says David Seidler but the heart says Mike Leigh (and both for films that relied heavily on the creativity of excellent actors). In the wise words of Napoleon Dynamite: "Follow your heart. That's what I do."

My money's on: David Seidler, though a good punt would be for Christopher Nolan here - If there's any non-technical category where the Academy will recognise Inception, it's here.

BEST ANIMATION

How to Train Your Dragon

The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

My vote: Toy Story 3 (see Best Picture above)

My money's on: Toy Story 3

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy - 127 Hours
Aaron Sorkin - The Social Network
Michael Arndt - Toy Story 3
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen - True Grit
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini - Winter's Bone

My vote: a tough pick here - all are worthy of the win but I'm going to go for Aaron Sorkin's superb craftsmanship with The Social Network

My money's on: Aaron Sorkin

BEST ART DIRECTION

Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Inception
The King's Speech
True Grit

My vote: Though it should really go to The King's Speech or True Grit, I'd like to see this go to Harry Potter 7A
My money's on: The King's Speech, but don't rule out either Inception or True Grit

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Black Swan
Inception
The King's Speech
The Social Network
True Grit

My vote: Roger Deakins did some beautiful filmwork on True Grit, so I'll pick him

My money's on: Roger Deakins. This is his fifth nomination and he's never won, so he is well overdue an Oscar.

BEST SOUND MIXING

Inception
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Salt
True Grit

I'm afraid I have no views on this, other than 'lol' at Salt getting an Oscar nomination.

BEST SOUND EDITING

Inception
Toy Story 3
Tron: Legacy
True Grit
Unstoppable

As above, but for 'Salt' insert 'Unstoppable'

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

Coming Home (from Country Strong) by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
I See the Light (from Tangled) by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater
If I Rise (from 127 Hours) by AR Rahman, Dido and Rollo Armstrong
We Belong Together (from Toy Story 3) by Randy Newman

My vote: Randy Newman, without a doubt.

My money's on: Randy Newman

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

How to Train Your Dragon - John Powell
Inception - Hans Zimmer
The King's Speech - Alexandre Desplat
127 Hours - AR Rahman
The Social Network - Trent Reznor and Atticus

My vote: The Social Network - a superb and unusual score that was a perfect complement to the film. We're it nominated, I would have said Winter's Bone. I was also suprised that neither True Grit nor Black Swan recieved a nod here.

My money's on: As with several other categories it's a shootout between The King's Speech and The Social Network. I'll say The King's Speech (though Hans Zimmer might be a good outisde bet)

BEST COSTUMES

Alice in Wonderland
I Am Love
The King's Speech
The Tempest
True Grit

My vote: nice to see a nomination for I Am Love, but I'll go for True Grit, if only for the man in the bear skin.

My money's on: The King's Speech

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Gasland
Inside Job
Restrepo
Waste Land

My vote: the notion that Banksy could win an Oscar is intriguing, but I'd like this to go to Restrepo

My money's on: I have a feeling Inside Job is high-profile and zeitgeist-ey enough to take this one

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

Killing in the Name
Poster Girl
Strangers No More
Sun Come Up
The Warriors of Qiugang

To my eternal shame, I have seen none of these so can't really give a view.

BEST FILM EDITING

Black Swan
The Fighter
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network

My vote: King's Speech for me here, as close to a perfectly edited film as you'll get.

My money's on: it's Kings' Speech vs The Social Network again. I'll say Social Network.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Day & Night
The Gruffalo
Let's Pollute
The Lost Thing
Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary)

My vote: Much as I enjoyed The Gruffalo, it wasn't a patch on Day & Night - a wonderful piece of old-fashioned cartoon ingenuity

My money's on: Day & Night

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

The Confession
The Crush
God of Love
Na Wewe
Wish 143

As with documentary short, I'm afraid I've seen none of these.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1
Hereafter
Inception
Iron Man 2

My vote: Inception, Inception, Inception - whatever else you might think of the film, there is no denying the transcendentally extraordinary special effects.

My money's on: Inception has to be the firm favourite here.

BEST MAKE-UP

Barney's Version
The Way Back
The Wolfman

My vote: I'm surprised at the absence of Black Swan in this category; my choice would be Barney's Version here.

My money's on: The Wolfman.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Film #15 James Cameron Presents: Sanctum

I am not an ideal person to review this. I don't like caves, I don't like films set underwater, I don't like the later work of James Cameron (who, to be fair, only 'presents' and produces the film) and I don't like 3D. Prejudices declared, then.

In short, the film involves a cave-dive in Papua New Guinea gone horribly wrong. You don't really need to know any more as the story is ultra-straightforward, with sub-Cliffhanger characterisation and dialogue. And while it's good to see Ioan Gruffudd on the big screen (he once roundly trounced me in a game of snooker, but that's another story), the performances generally involve lots of histrionics, lots of gurning and not much else. The 3D looks good, and the film wasn't retrofitted, which I suppose is positive news, but I just felt very uncomfortable and bored throughout. Don't bother.

**** 3/10

Film #14 Just Go With It



In homage to Spinal Tap: Shit Sandwich.















Oh, a proper review? Well, if you've seen the trailer for this, then go no further - you don't need to see the film. The premise, and essentially the plot, is contained therein.

I'm not going to waste to much time on this one, suffice to say that it is entirely awful. There is not a single redeeming feature about this film. I didn't laugh once, the plot is stupid, misogynistic and patronising. The performances are about what you'd expect: Adam Sandler plays Adam Sandler (i.e. a dick), Brooklyn Decker plays A Pair Of Breasts, and there are some dreadful children who are just crying out to be shoved up a chimney. Jennifer Aniston - a good actress who really, really, needs to be in a decent film soon - and Nicole Kidman are not waving, but drowning.

The ending? I didn't see it. It's the first walkout of the year; all of a sudden I was struck by the urge to do some grocery shopping; ordinarily I will try and sit through the whole film (and to be fair I made it through The Dilemma) but this abomination is nearly two hours long, and half way through enough was enough. It's holds the accolade of being only the second film I've ever walked out of (the other being The Passion of the Christ).

'Starring Adam Sandler' is now basically shorthand for 'fucking dreadful movie'. Truly he is a waste of the planet's oxygen supply

Worst film of the year so far. A thoroughly deserved:

0/10

Screening notes: watching this as I did during half term week, there were a good number of 12-15 year-olds in the theatre and to be fair some of them found bits of it funny (e.g. the bits involving making fun of ugly people/homosexuals/ethnic minorities). Draw your own conclusion.

Intermission: How To Sell A Banksy

A quick plug for a friend's film project - How To Sell A Banksy.



The website is here FYI

Film #13 True Grit



"I mean to kill you in one minute, or see you hanged at Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience. Which'll it be?"

"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!"

So begins M.D.C.'s classic hardcore track "John Wayne Was a Nazi", a famous dialogue excerpt from the original 1969 True Grit. Back in the late seventies and early eighties Wayne was a great figure of the rightist establishment for young cultural rebels to kick against. But it seems that these days The Duke no longer casts the same shadow over American culture. Maybe it's a tribute to the performance, but Jeff Bridges is utterly baggage free as the grizzled U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in this new adaptation of Charles Portis's novel (note - not a remake of the original film).

The story is simple, as a Hollywood Western should be. Set in late-nineteenth century Oklahoma, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks to avenge the murder of her father by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, wheedling beautifully like a cowboy Ratso Rizzo), a renegade stable hand who has lit out for Choctaw territory with a gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, delicious). She hires Reuben 'Rooster' Cogburn (Bridges), a U.S. Marshal with 'true grit' to do this, though she insists on accompanying him out into injun country. The pair also pick up bounty-hunting Texas Ranger LaBouef (Matt Damon) whose upright priggishness needles both Ross and Cogburn as the three set out in pursuit of Chaney.

Much of the critical reception has focused on Bridges and Steinfeld; Bridges is excellent, as you would expect from an actor of his experience and status. Being a character actor (or as they're called outside of Hollywood, 'an actor') he doesn't bring the same baggage to the screen that John Wayne did, thus he is able to have a great deal of fun as a drunken, cussin' and shootin' diamond-in-the-rough. Steinfeld has received a great deal of praise (and an Oscar nomination) for her schoolmarm-ish performance; for me it wasn't quite the phenomenal tour-de-force that is being touted - really she is rather one-note and occasionally a little forced - but I'm being a bit mean: she really is very good indeed.

However, I would also draw attention to Matt Damon (AKA The Frighteningly Ubiquitous Matt Damon, currently starring in this, Hereafter and The Adjustment Bureau as well as narrating financial armageddon documentary Inside Job) who does a very good job of being unlikable and arrogant as Texas Ranger LaBouef. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper both put in sterling turns, and it's nice to see Leon 'Police Chief of Malibu' Russom pop up in a minor role, though sadly there is no expert tossing of mugs.

An oddity worth noting: Bridges has received the 'Best Actor' nomination, where Steinfeld, perversely, is up for 'Best Supporting Actress', despite being the film's protagonist and narrator (presumably the marketing folks believed she'd have a better shot at winning for support and hope she'll 'do an Anna Paquin')

Now the direction and so on: Jonathan Franzen, writing about professional chefs, noted that members of the culinary professions were the mitochondria of society - in it, but not truly of it. I'd make the same comparison of the Coen brothers regarding Hollywood. I doubt they will ever be truly establishment, despite their proven track record of making money from artistically sound films, and also despite making at least four films that I'd consider truly great (FYI: Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men).

It's interesting that at this point in their career - as close to mainstream acceptance as they ever will be - they have directed a picture in the archetypal genre of establishment Hollywood, albeit forty or fifty years too late. The notion of anachronism as rebellion is an interesting one, as fans of The Chap will agree, and I doubt this will kickstart the genre (indeed entire books could be written on the fate of the Western post-1970, as it was seemingly killed off by the Sergio Leone and Mel Brooks).

So, while this is a thematic departure for the Coens - it really is a straight-up and irony-free - it is still identifiably a Coen creation. The story is typically well-crafted and their love of idiosyncrasy in dialogue and character is plainly visible, as is their penchant for mixing the humorous with the dark. One of the joys of watching a Coen brothers picture (and a trait they share with Milos Forman) is the care and attention given to minor, and even non-speaking, roles. Two long-time Coen collaborators also deserve praise: composer Carter Burwell for probably his best score yet and cinematographer Roger Deakin who will hopefully pick up his first Academy Award (on his fifth nomination) for gorgeous rendering of both landscape and physiognomy.

It's by no means the best that the Coens have done - and I'm not 100% sure it should've received quite as many Oscar nominations as it has - but it's a lovely little stop-gap picture sitting proudly in the second rank of Coen movies, alongside A Serious Man, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Barton Fink.

******* 7/10

Monday, 21 February 2011

Film #12 Hereafter

I shouldn't be writing this review.

You shouldn't be reading this review.

We should instead be on our knees, praying that Clint Eastwood doesn't pop his clogs without making another film; it would be very sad if this cinematic titan's last offering to the world was the half-baked claptrap that is Hereafter. It is emphatically not a good film.

So, seeing as we're not wasting any time, the good news:
  • It features several actors who I'm happy to see getting some big-screen action, including:
    • Steven R Schirripa (Bobby 'Baccala' Baccalieri, of Sopranos fame)
    • Niamh Cusack
    • Richard Kind
    • Matthew Baynton (off of Gavin and Stacey)
  • It features the lovely Charles Dickens's House Museum in Bloomsbury
  • Err...
  • That's it
And the bad news:
  • Matt Damon is at his "Matt Damon" worst
  • It feels uncharitable to point it out, but the standard of acting from the younger members of the cast is wince-inducingly poor.
  • The story - the problem is not that it's packed with morally-questionable, hokey tosh. This would be forgivable were the script and the structure not so extroardinarily saggy and flaccid.
  • I am mystified as to why this has been nominated for a special effects Oscar. Most of the film is bog-standard effects-wise, so I assume it's for the opening tsunami set-piece. For me, it didn't work at all; the CG was too obviously present and anyone who's seen those documentaries with real-life tsunami footage will recognise the classic failure of making the effect both more visually impressive and less actually horrific.
  • It's a cheap shot, I suppose, but as ever London is highly-unconvincingly drawn in a Hollywood flick (as is Paris, though we do have at least a couple of minutes before the first Tour Eiffel shot).
Poor.

**2/10

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Film # 11 The Fighter

I'm a sucker for a boxing movie. I loved Raging Bull. I loved Rocky. I loved Fat City and When We Were Kings and I even loved Ali.

Unusually, then, I wasn't looking forward to this - mostly, I think, due to a Christian Bale aversion that I've been nurturing over the last eight or nine years. I loved him as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho - a role he comprehensively owned, yet has stalked him ever since - but such is his tendency to put in ostentatious scenery-munching 'performances'. However, before we get into all that, the movie:

The story is largely true: set in the somewhat depressed post-industrial town of Lowell, Massachussets, Mark Walhberg plays Micky Ward, a'stepping stone' boxer who is (mis)managed by his mother, Alice (oscar-nominated Melissa Leo), and dogged by the failings of his charismatic but feckless crack-addict (and former title-contender) half-brother Dicky Ecklund (Bale). After Micky shacks up with love interest Charlene (Amy Adams) tensions begin to rise as it appears that if Micky wants success, he may have to leave his family behind.

Well, I enjoyed the picture immensely. It's a lovely bit of big-tent, old school Hollywood storytellling, with a compelling story, a great script, brilliant performances all-round (even Bale, whose gurns, yelps and tics somehow feel right for the character) and some impressive touches from director David O. Russell. I loved the interpolation of a (real) documentary made by HBO on crack addiction in Lowell, and I admire his intelligence in hiring a filming unit purely for the boxing sequences, employing exactly the same equipment and techniques that would have been used for HBO fight-night broadcasts in the early-to-mid-nineties.

Back again to the performances, as mentioned above Bale is bearably good, and Wahlberg is a sturdy straight man, carrying the film's emotional core. Amy Adams is impressively feisty (though her character is much better drawn than a standard romantic foil in the first place) and Melissa Leo thoroughly deserves her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination as a kind of Irish-American Carmela Soprano. The coven of sisters she rules over are also superbly grim, and while we're making Sopranos references it's also worth giving a shout to Frank Renzulli, one of that series' formative writers, making a big-screen debut as a Wahlberg's Legitimate Businessman manager.

So as you can see, I liked it. It's accessible and entertaining, even if it doesn't have that watch-it-time-and-time-again factor.

*******7/10

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Film #10 Barney's Version

I'm back, refreshed from a Highland retreat and fully recovered from a yellow-fever-jab-related bout of 'flu-like symptoms'. I have a bit of a backlog of reviews to post, so expect a flurry of activity of the next week!



First up: the oddity that is Barney's Version, an adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel of the same name. It's difficult to summarise briefly what the film is about, suffice to say we are shown various episodes in the life of Barney Panofksy (Paul Giamatti), a Jewish native of Montreal who moves from trading in olive oil in 1960s Rome to becoming a TV producer back in Canada in the 80s and 90s. Support comes from Scott Speedman as Barney's novelist friend Boogie, Dustin Hoffman as Barney's feckless ex-cop dad, plus Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike as, respectively, Barney's first, second and third wives.

First the good news: the performances are great. Giamatti is, as always, a saturnine delight; Rosamund Pike, the love of his life, is warm yet statuesque. Dustin Hoffman reminds us that he was once an actor, before all the TV adverts, sitcom cameos and that Fokker business. Minnie Driver is scarily convincing as a JAP (or JCP, presumably) and Mark Addy also appears as a beefy detective with a grudge and a stick-on moustache.

The film also looks and sounds lovely, and being story of Jewish Montreal we are treated to a couple of mid-period Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack. The dialogue is curious, realistic and often funny, and we enjoy spending time with the characters (or at least we enjoy watching how they choose to fuck up their lives).

But there are problems. I suppose the oddest thing about the film is that it was ever made in the first place. It is a thoroughly uncinematic story, if indeed it can be called a story at all. For one thing, it rambles through about fifty years of Barney's life, and while there are themes and motifs there is no real plot as such. There is a kind of murder-mystery going on, I suppose, and we see various infidelities and also the onset of Alzheimer's but in trying to bring to screen an episodic novel (with, as the title would suggest, an unreliable narrator) we just end up watching a collection of delightfully-performed scenes rather than a proper movie.

Also, the director, the star and the screenwriter have somewhat quixotically tried to make Barney genuinely three-dimensional. Whereas in most movies he would just be a schlub, here Barney is both faithful and philandering, principled and venal, smart and stupid. As such it suffers from chronic film-of-the-book-itis: a novel has such a luxury of audience attention and time that genuinely lifelike characters can be created. Films, on the other hand, are more-or-less required to deal in archetypes - if you're telling  a story over a period of 80-110 minutes (and your film should be really special - Godfather-special - to be longer than that) there is simply no time to show a character from every angle, or if you do then it will be a the expense of something else.

Despite all of these problems I did enjoy the film - but I don't think it's for everyone. Essentially, if you like Paul Giamatti, watch it, if you've never heard of Paul Giamatti, don't bother.

******6/10

Screening notes:

1. I was at a fairly early weekend showing and the cinema was therefore full of parents and children queuing up for Tangled, the latest Disney. Interestingly, the majority wanted to watch the 2D rather than 3D version and there was a bit of box-office drama as the first two 2D showings had sold out completely. An early rumbling of the end for gratuitous 3D? Let's hope so.
2. Conversely to the above, the Barney's Version screening was pensioner-heavy and I was treated to a lovely pathos-ridden running commentary from a pair of old dears behind me - normally unwelcome but here offering a curious counterpoint to the all the arty-smarty stuff on screen.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Intermission: Confessions of a Multiplex Slut

Confession time.

Okay, so I'm only in month one and I've already missed a film. Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton in Morning Glory, in case you're wondering. I will endeavour to catch up with it on DVD later in the year.

Extenuating circumstances? Well, I'm struck down with a mini-bout of 'flu at the mo, so I'm confined to barracks for the time being.

The fact is, it's becoming clear that I just won't be able to watch absolutely everything. This month alone I've got three overnight trips away with work (I do have a job in real-life), a long weekend in a remote Scottish cottage, the significant other's birthday and, of course, St. Valentine's day (upon which you will not catch me anywhere near a bloody cinema screen). Then in April, I'm out of the country for two weeks - Uganda, thanks for asking - so I will no doubt miss one or two of the big Easter releases as well. And then there's who-knows-what after that.

But I'll do my best. I'm going to try and catch The Fighter and Hereafter (or maybe Tangled - but I have a feeling that'll get a long run) tomorrow or Thursday before heading for the Highlands on Friday morning.

I will do this. 95% of it.

Film #9 NEDS



I came to Neds - that's an acronym for Non-Educated Delinquents, by the way - with some horrible premonitions of Danny Dyer-ish geezers 'n' violence nonsense. Thankfully it's nothing of the sort - rather Neds recalls such coming-of-age-in-the-underclass films as City of God, La Haine and the first twenty minutes of Goodfellas.

Set in 1970s Glasgow (or rather the council estates of Cardonald, an outer suburb - we see little of Glasgow proper), we follow John McGill, the middle child in a poor but respectable working class family. A bright boy with good prospects, he is hampered at school by the reputation of his tearaway older brother Benny. Conversely, outside the school gates his brother's name gains him protection and respect; he becomes part of a gang, the Young Car-D and goes quite spectacularly off the rails (while never quite escaping his swotty past).

The plot sounds like it could be formulaic and yawnsome - the good-lad-gone-bad story is a staple of soap operas and teen dramas the world over. However writer/director Peter Mullan confounds these expectations through an extraordinary eye for period detail (he drew on his own, similar experiences growing up tough in Glasgow), bold characterisation and some riveting storytelling.

Mullan also shows some unexpected flourishes - a fight in a youth club where we hear only the cheesy glam-rock disco; a glue-induced hallucination of Christ on (and off) the cross. I'm intrigued to see what film he will take on next - it would be great to see a Peter Mullan western or caper movie, such is his visual flair and gift for black comedy.

At the heart of the film are the performances. The kids - including newcomer Conor McCarron in the lead - are without exception brilliant. The adults, who are played with a somewhat melodramatic tenor, are also very good. Mullen himself plays the hateful alcoholic father with uncanny verisimilitude - how much it's based on his own (alcoholic) father is difficult to say, but tellingly he can't quite bring himself to plunge the knife into the old man at the end of it all. Keep an eye out also for Gary Lewis, playing a teacher here but whom you may recognise as proto-ned McGloin from Scorsese's Gangs Of New York.

It's worth singling out McCarron's performance in the lead role. His transformation from Walter the Softy to Tommy DeVito is unstilted enough to be believable and is a great example of gradual unhingement; early in the film, on finding a knife, he has a mini Taxi Driver moment in front of the mirror but we can see through the bravura; the scene is echoed toward the end as he out-Bickles Bickle in an extraordinary and terrifying sequence (apparently based on a real event), gaffer-taping a kitchen knife to each hand and marching bare-chested into enemy territory. (As an aside I should also note that, as in Goodfellas, the casting director has done a cracking job in finding a young actor - Gregg Forrest - to convincingly play the lead as a primary-aged child).

If I was feeling uncharitable I could say that the story is a little baggy - for example the unnecessary subplot where McGill befriends an upper-middle class boy only to be subject to the prejudices of the Glaswegian bourgeoisie. Also, in the end there is little resolution - after what seems to be a finale of mighty confrontations (with his father, his erstwhile friends and a rival gang), there is a lengthy coda finishing with a somewhat pat (if unexpected) visual metaphor in a safari park. McGill's future remains uncertain and while he's experienced transcendence, exactly how much this has changed him is not clear. I'm not sure if this the lack of redemption is a good thing or not (indeed, it brings up broader questions of the duty of the storyteller to the audience - it's essentially a Bildungsroman without the Bildungs), but it certainly provokes thought long after viewing

Neds is undoubtedly a tough film. But it's also gripping, fascinating, stylishly directed and beautifully played. Therefore:
********8/10