Archive | July, 2012

Carnage

30 Jul

 

 

Director: Roman Polanski

Writers: Yasmina Reza (play), Yasmina Reza (screenplay)

Stars: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 80 minutes

 

 

I am suspicious of plays made into films. The theatre and the cinema for me are very different media (and I have a strong preference for the latter). Carnage was originally God of Carnage, a play written by Yasmina Reza and first performed in December 2006. She adapted her play for this film and she got to work with the legendary Roman Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist) and a high profile cast. As the film takes place in the single setting of a New York apartment, very little has been changed in the transfer to screen.

Jodie Foster and John C Reilly (the Longstreet’s) and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz (the Cowan’s) are couples. The Longstreet’s are hosting the Cowan’s to discuss a nasty playground incident involving their sons. The action starts with polite, but stilted conversation between the strangers and then escalates as masks are dropped and real feelings vented. The story is set up to pit personal traits, parenting styles and, ultimately, social classes against each other. The message is that we may talk about being ‘good citizens’ but actually, deep down, we simply don’t care.

This is a good film although I am not sure that anything interesting has been added to the stage play. It feels stagey of course with the single location, but Polanski does well to mix his angles whilst building the tension. The acting is high quality as you would expect. Reilly gets some particularly great lines and the script is smart with lots of quick rat-a-tat arguments. Winslet’s character changes the most over the 80 minutes, but she carries it off. And the Winslet / Waltz couple, and their shaky marriage, are a more realistic pair than Foster / Reilly.

Carnage is not as clever as the makers no doubt think it is. It is funny, but it is not really insightful and it is not provocative. The characters are stamped to some extent with that New York neurotic and brash personality that we have seen before. Foster sticks to her “sense of community” guns throughout, but the others unsurprisingly reveal themselves as hardened, unforgiving and cynical urbanites. It is fun to watch them unravel, but the film doesn’t deliver much beyond that.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

26 Jul

 

Director: Stephen Daldry

Writers: Eric Roth (screenplay), Jonathan Safran Foer (novel)

Stars: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock

Motion Picture Rating: 12A

Runtime: 129 minutes

 

 

There is a power team behind this film. Oscar winner Chris Menges is the director of photography, Hollywood heavyweights Scott Rudin (producer) and Eric Roth (writer) are involved, and the director is Oscar winner Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Reader). The co-writer is Jonathan Safran Foer who is similarly acclaimed (for the novel on which this film is based plus the novel Everything is Illuminated). It is an impressive group and their film has a seriously polished feel to it. It would have been targeted towards the Oscars and unsurprisingly it received a best picture nomination in 2012 (losing out to The Artist).

The story follows a strange 9 year old boy called Oskar on a type of treasure hunt across New York in the aftermath of his father’s death on 9/11. Having completed many city ‘expeditions’ with his dad, Oskar finds a key in his late father’s belongings and sets out to discover the lock. He leaves his grieving mother behind and manages to overcome his many urban fears whilst meeting other survivors of the 9/11 tragedy.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? – try extremely annoying and incredibly trite! This is such a manipulative piece of film-making that it angered me. Some critics have labelled the film moving, uplifting and heartfelt, but I strongly disagree. I become very uncomfortable when any form of mass entertainment aims to squeeze cheap emotion from real life tragedies. This one does just that with 9/11 and throws in some WWII holocaust survivor stories for good measure. It really is a cynical endeavour.

Oskar is highly peculiar, but only might have Asperger’s (as the testing was conveniently inconclusive). His dad (Tom Hanks, who else?) is possibly the nicest dad in the world. Oskar and his grandma talk at night via walkie-talkies. New York opens up and provides an array of quirky characters for Oskar to meet and hug. And so it goes on for 2 hours until the key and lock riddle is solved, Oskar conquers his non Asperger’s fears, re-establishes his connection with his mum and the best picture Oscar nomination is secured.

Safe House

21 Jul

 

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Writer: David Guggenheim

Stars:Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds and Robert Patrick

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 115 minutes

 

As with Liam Neeson, the early 1950’s born Denzel Washington is wearing well and still more than capable of starring in an all-action film. Here he plays an ex-CIA agent that went rogue, but dramatically appears back on the agency grid and in the middle of a messy deal in state secrets. That becomes apparent later in the film as the start is deliberately hazy. The camera follows Denzel around the streets of Cape Town where we get clandestine meetings, long-range snooping, some hand-to-hand combat and an exciting car chase. All of that happens in the first 20 minutes and certainly Safe House gets off to an intriguing start.

Washington’s co-star is Ryan Reynolds who plays a junior agent managing a rarely utilized safe house and to which the apprehended ex-agent is taken. Once that location is compromised Reynolds grabs the hand-cuffed Washington and goes on the run. He tries to deliver him back to his CIA senior colleagues, but it’s clear that other parties to the original dodgy deal are in pursuit, heavily armed and deadly serious. In essence the final 60 minutes is one long chase with 2 or 3 large set-piece shootouts and some decent close quarter combat.

The Director of Photography of Safe House is Oliver Wood who’s best known work to date was completed on the 3 excellent Bourne films. His cinematography on Safe House is highly reminiscent of those films and the long Bourne shadow falls all over this movie. That’s unfortunate because this film is not a patch on the Matt Damon trilogy. It is fast paced and the South African locations are interesting, but there is no real plot and the few ‘twists’ are well sign-posted. Washington is good in the flashier role, but Reynolds is typically unconvincing.

Rampart

16 Jul

 

Director: Oren Moverman

Writers: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman

Stars: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and Sigourney Weaver

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 108 minutes

 

 

 

There was a time about 15 years ago when I read anything and everything by James Ellroy. My devotion started with the phenomenal book The Black Dahlia, was whipped along by the great LA Confidential and came to a sweet conclusion with the highly impressive American Tabloid. I loved the rat-tat-tat of Ellroy’s feverish writing. He seemed like a man possessed and he mostly wrote about men possessed or paranoid or both. He wrote about crime. His world was dirty and dark, a Los Angeles that we rarely see. His ‘heroes’ all had flaws, they all had issues. And one type of hero consistently emerged from the fray – the righteous, but brutal policeman driven to seek out and punish men that abused women.

Here with Rampart we have a film written by Ellroy that is set in LA in 1999 and that focuses on one LAPD police officer called Dave Brown. He is a classic Ellroy character and this film sifts themes from Ellroy’s back catalogue. Brown is brutal, possibly racist, and almost certainly misogynistic, he has little respect for those above him and he is comfortable cutting any procedural corner. The story of Rampart is his story, but also that of the 1990’s LAPD and of America after Rodney King. It is an intense place and time.

In the role of Dave Brown, Woody Harrelson is astonishing. He is completely wired. Both body and mind are taut. His police officer is of a different time, he’s far too out there for colleagues and bosses and whilst no one wants to deal with him he is stubborn enough not to leave the force of his own volition. Brown unravels through the film following a heavy handed piece of street justice and opportunism and his descent is the story of the film and the Rampart division where he works.

Rampart is not an easy film to watch and certainly does not follow a traditional narrative arc. It jumps around, it’s loud then quiet. There is a stunning section in an underground sex club that assaults the senses. That section and the character of Dave Brown had me thinking of Michael Fassbender’s Brandon in Shame, another difficult, but impressive film. Harrelson carries it all superbly and he is supported by fine actors including Robin Wright, Ben Foster and Sigourney Weaver. The composition of shots and the colouring of this film are strong too. This is not for everyone, but lovers of Ellroy will be deeply satisfied with the bad lieutenant at hand.

Anonymous

14 Jul

 

 

Director: Roland Emmerich

Writer: John Orloff

Stars: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and David Thewlis

Motion Picture Rating: 130 minutes

Runtime: PG-13

 

 

Although I am English, and rightly proud of Shakespeare, I did not come to this film with a snobby attitude. It’s important to make that clear because my criticisms of it, and I have a few, are not the result of having my English nose put out of joint by a crass American film-maker. Others may have been quick to judge, and Anonymous hardly lit fires at the UK box office, but I am happy to listen to the odd conspiracy theory no matter the originator and especially if laid out in a great film.

The conspiracy theory in Anonymous is that Shakespeare was a fraud. The director Roland Emmerich, the end of the world go-to guy behind Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, believes that Shakespeare was a front for the real playwright the Earl of Oxford. The theory is that because writing was seen as an impoverished activity at the time, and because the artistic Earl grew up with puritans for guardians, he could not present his own works. As a prologue to the film Emmerich also postulates that Shakespeare did not sign any of his plays, was in fact almost illiterate, and that he did not bequeath any works to his wife in his will.

In order to ram home the theory, and to contrast the two principals, the Earl of Oxford is portrayed as the tortured and brilliant wordsmith whilst Shakespeare is shown to be boorish, ignorant and a show-off. This is heavy handed stuff and the handling of Shakespeare is a major miss-step. The character is unbelievable and the acting of it by Rafe Spall is poor. Rhys Ifans does far better with Oxford and his is the stand-out performance in the film. He does not carry many films, let alone period ones, and he is a revelation in this.

Besides Ifans, there is little to commend the film. The slow-moving story jumps back and forth in time to show various past relationships and on-going feuds and conspiracies, but it does this so badly that it’s nigh impossible to follow the threads. At times it feels like an Elizabethan reality TV show with the affairs, bastards, treacheries and over-acting. The wider shots of London ca. 1600 also look far too much like CGI. It has that unreal Shakespeare in Love feel to it, but it is not played as a romp or a comedy which more than allowed the earlier film to get away with it. Whatever your take on the Shakespeare as a fraud theory, this really is not a good film.

The Thing

13 Jul

 

Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

Writers: Eric Heisserer, John W. Campbell Jr.

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton and Ulrich Thomsen

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 103 minutes

 

 

Prometheus, in cinemas now, is a form of prequel to Alien in that it sets up the abandoned spaceship and fossilized alien to be found by Sigourney Weaver in the 1979 classic. This reboot of The Thing operates in the same territory. It explains the presence of the alien life-form / virus that is encountered by Kurt Russell’s team in the Antarctic in 1982. There is a pattern here, but not necessarily a trend, although we shall see what gets dug up next. The trick is not that difficult; identify a popular sci-fi, horror or action movie released between 1979 and 1989, write a knowing prologue to it and benefit by marketing the ‘new’ film with a massive nod to the original.

In this case the nod is more of an almighty head-butt – the ‘prequel’ has kept the exact same title. That’s hardly subtle, but the original The Thing was far from refined (classic John Carpenter). It was, and is, one part horror and one part monster movie with some sci-fi hokum thrown in for good measure. And this time around the director is hugely inexperienced so it’s unsurprising that they have stayed close to the original. I wonder if the team behind this considered recycling the 1982 tagline as it has always been one of my favourites; Man is the Warmest Place to Hide. Brilliant.

Kurt Russell held the original together with a typically hard-boiled performance and he is missed in this one. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as scientist Kate Lloyd, does a decent job stepping in for Russell, but her transformation from unassuming PHD into the resourceful and kick-ass leader is a real stretch. The make-up and CGI is better and this time some of the mutating humans are genuinely gruesome to look at. It has some nice horror moments, such as an attack by a severed arm, and the film moves along quickly enough. The Antarctic landscape is refreshing for this genre and there are a lot of flame-throwers – sorely underused in most horror sci-fi yarns.

Perfect Sense

2 Jul

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Kim Fupz Aakeson (screenplay)

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Eva Green and Lauren Tempany

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 92 minutes

 

 

 

This is an odd little film that had a limited run in cinemas. IMDB labels it as drama / romance / sci-fi and certainly it covers those bases. The drama and the romance are delivered by way of the relationship between scientist Susan (Eva Green) and chef Michael (Ewan McGregor). This is the heart of the film. Michael is cocky, but charming and he pursues the rather severe Susan, a neighbour to his Glaswegian restaurant. They fall into bed quickly, sexual chemistry to the fore, and later they fall in love.

The sci-fi element concerns a mysterious global epidemic that shuts down human senses. At first people lose their sense of smell – severe olfactory syndrome or SOS as it is labelled – and then go taste, hearing and finally sight. In advance of losing one’s senses the affected suffer strange, but related episodes of a psychological trauma. Before losing taste people devour food feverishly and before losing hearing they scream and rant uncontrollably.

This is an art house film and as such it contains strange and clever camera shots, archival footage and it jumps back and forth in time. All of that is handled well and the film mostly looks good. Unfortunately the sound quality, certainly on my DVD, was dire and not helped by an over-bearing soundtrack and some heavy Scottish accents. It might have been on purpose, but I often found it too difficult to follow the dialogue – my own sensory challenge.

Eva Green, surely the world’s best looking scientist, improves through the film, but Ewan McGregor delivers a good performance from the first minute. Together they become a plausible couple and their relationship seems natural in what are highly abnormal times. Their descent into sensory darkness and Glasgow’s fall into anarchy become poignant and for an odd little film it managed to move me by the end. This is an interesting and touching film about love.

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