Thursday, 22 March 2012

John Carter Review

Spring 2012

Genre: Sci-Fi Blockbuster/Action-Adventure Epic.

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West, Mark Strong, James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds. And The Voices of: Samantha Morton and Willem Dafoe.

Certificate: 12A.

Running Time: 132 mins. approx.

Seen At: Stockport

On: Tuesday, 20th March, 2012.

Blockbuster cinema, produced on a huge scale, really doesn’t happen in any bigger fashion than John Carter. Based on the short story entitled The Princess of Mars written by Edgar Rice Burrows – also the creator of Tarzan – this is a prime example of massive, Hollywood, escapist, sci-fi spectacular, full to the brim with heroes, villains, spaceships and aliens.
  It’s laden to the top with the most amazing special effects, even further enhanced by such a strikingly bold use of its 3D element – whether it’s an arrow being slung high into the air appearing to land only inches from your seat, or the blade of a sword stuck in your face. What this technique succeeds so well in doing, is actually immersing you, as the audience member, within the zeitgeist of the movie itself. This, definitely shares the same wonderfully surreal, hyper-reality atmosphere that a film like the recent TRON remake encapsulated so brilliantly.
  The rise of 3D over the last few years particularly, being utilized as a mainstream tool has certainly split opinion. But I so strongly feel, that it always increases the enjoyment of the cinematic experience absolutely. This is especially the case when subtlety is the main aim, as with Hugo last year, or when it flourishes with a no-holes-barred extravagance as it does here, and I really hope, that three-dimensional longevity reigns proud over the multiplex for many years to come.
  It starts off as quite a traditional Victorian western, in the equivalent of Indiana Jones as, in a rather neat tie-in, a young Mr. Rice-Burrows is seen in a study pouring over dusty textbooks written by his uncle, John Carter – the inspiration for his novels. They tell the tale of our charismatic hero trudging through the desert and discovering what he believes to be his heart’s desire – a cave full of gold – before accidentally stumbling upon a glowing-blue medallion which possesses magical properties. Pushing its button, he’s mysteriously transported to the planet Mars – actually named Barsoom. Suddenly, he’s acquired a new power, the ability to be able to jump high into the air, useful when needing to zoom and leap out of many a dangerous situation. He’s plunged directly into a war between the inhabitants of the city of Helium, made up of two sides, the villainous Red Army of humans, and the Green Army. The Green Army are populated by these tremendously tall, tusked, bizarre-looking, lime-coloured aliens with four arms – known as Tharks. Their faces are so expressive thanks to brilliant CGI animation, every possible emotion is captured perfectly. They’re desperate to preserve what’s left of the capital’s energy resource, but the destructive humans, led by the barbaric Sab-Than, only seek to use it for their own destructive ends, by shooting everything in their path down with a giant, fluorescent-blue gel. An exhilarating opening space-battle sees the two sides pitched against one-another, unleashing the full extent of the havoc, this new superpower can make…
Only the courageous John Carter can stop them of course, by becoming the Thark’s leader, as well as falling in love along the way with the beautiful Princess Deisha.
  Star Wars is clearly a major influence, as is Prince of Persia along with, as mentioned, Indiana Jones.
  I thought Taylor Kitsch was fantastic as Carter – charming, strong and instantly heroic – even if he does announce his name one too many times in these deep, dulcet Southern American tones.
  Dominic West clearly enjoys himself and is wonderfully evil as Sab Than, the villain of the piece, and Lynn Collins is very passionate for her beliefs as the Princess heroine, who’s defiant in her refusal to marry the megalomaniacal Sab Than. They’re surrounded by an impressive supporting cast, including Mark Strong (as a clever shape-shifter), James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds, surprising, as they’re not usually the sort of names you’d immediately associate with this kind of material. The likes of Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton lend their voices as Tars and Sola, two of the Thark aliens.
  My only criticism is the dialogue, particularly the complicated names for characters and places, which is initially quite confusing, but you soon become accustomed to it.
  Visually, it’s simply a master-class in production design. The sets are lovingly crafted with the most magnificently detailed marble structures. Every penny of the colossal budget is up there on the screen, along with a suitably bombastic score to further compliment the picture’s epic quality. To me this is an absolute triumph for Disney, despite the present backlash of reports wrongly dubbing it as a flop.
  Thrilling action, incredible effects, humour and a touch of romance. Superb.

Rating: * * * *

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Bel Ami Review

Spring 2012

Genre: Period Drama

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci, Kristen Scott-Thomas, Colm Meaney and Phillip Glenister.

Certificate: 15.

Running Time: 102 mins. approx.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Saturday, 10th March, 2012.

Having already obtained a massive following, and achieved a definite ‘heartthrob’ status with teenage girls the world over, thanks to the phenomenal success of the Twilight saga, Robert Pattinson changes tone completely with his latest project. So much so, that the presumed intended audience of those same teenagers, may be somewhat put off by this much more mature, strictly adult material.
  Set in 1890’s Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, a time of revolutionary change, young Georges Duroy, arrives in the French capital with a view to making his first fortune. He starts writing for a local newspaper office, thanks to being employed by the spiky Mr. Forestier (Philip Glenister). While at a party, he catches the eye of Forestier’s wife Madeleine (a huskily-toned Uma Thurman), along with two other of the committee members wives Clotilde (Christina Ricci), and Virginie (Kristen Scott-Thomas)…
  What ensues is a dark, witty, dangerous, biting satire on sexual politics and the struggle of gender in social stature. Extremely steamy shenanigans are abound for our surly, pensive antagonist, as he embarks upon suitably saucy affairs with all three women! Cue plenty of horse-drawn carriages, scantily-clad vixens, tense dinners at tables and buxom cleavages.
  Although of course, it’s clear from the outset that for Georges these lustful escapades serve only the function of quenching his insatiable thirst for power…
  This is an absolutely brilliant, fascinating study and insight into the social, hierarchical values present at the time, displaying how attitudes often changed between the ‘sexes’. At one point, the film inclines to suggest that it is women who had a certain dominance over men, before the pendulum of opinion occasionally swings back into the men’s favour, to establish a fair balance. Dramatically gripping, it is not only the relationships that are addressed in the narrative, but also more traditionally political and even topical issues, such as the thread concerning the financial future of  Argentina. This film can be likened to several others, such as 1999’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s wonderfully witty An Ideal Husband, or most obviously, Stephen Frears’s 1988 melting-pot of scandal and seduction, Dangerous Liaisons, with John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer. But if that could colloquially be described as a love-triangle – then this is more of the quadruple variety, as our slimy suitor finds himself canoodling with three beautiful women.
  The performances are fantastic, particularly from the three actresses. Uma Thurman provides Madeleine with the perfect amount of crazed passion, being both sophisticated and malicious by turns. The encounter closest to actual romance or even love, occurs with Clotilde, the most gentle and likable of the three temptresses, beautifully played by former child-star Christina Ricci. Clotilde is as opportunistic as she is vulnerable, in a heartbreakingly wonderful performance from her. The always magnificent Kristen Scott-Thomas is the one that really stands out though, as Madame Virginie Rousset, a character she expertly underplays so subtlety, until the explosive fallout, when the consequences of all the infidelities reach a shocking dénouement with an array of verbal fireworks.
  The only performance that’s a little less impressive is Robert Pattinson in the role of Georges. He’s impressive at times, but there are frequent scenes where, he’s doing little else apart from looking ominous, without enough reasoning or foundation as to exactly why this character is the way he is.
  The attention to period detail is exquisite. It’s a great testament to the production design that the film was actually shot in Budapest and London, and yet it’s set entirely in Paris. The costumes, especially the dresses, are colourful, intricate and richly textured. One of the most outstanding elements is the unrelenting, tension-filled score, full of excitedly droning violins that really emphasize the suspense.
  Even though it’s a period piece, the issues it raises such as gender, unrequited love and the class-divide, all feel very contemporary, almost modern.
  This film’s received a much underrated reception – it’s exceptionally acted, riveting and compelling to watch.

Rating: * * * *

Monday, 19 March 2012

This Means War Review

Spring 2012

Genre: Action-Comedy-Romance

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy, Chris Pine, Chelsea Handler, Rosemary Harris and Til Schweiger.

Certificate: 12A.

Running Time: 98 mins.

Seen At: Didsbury

On: Sunday, 4th March, 2012

Over the last few years, there seems to have been a real market for action films or comedies with a slant on competitive love, ever since Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie teamed up for the catalyst that sparked their real-life romance in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. We’ve had Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl living in a hitman-peppered suburbia in the very funny and underrated Killers, Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise in Knight and Day, Helen Mirren firing machine-guns galore in R.E.D. (Retired, extremely dangerous),  and finally, Angelina again, teaming up with Johnny Depp in The Tourist.
  Now, the director known only as McG (known for the Hollywood remake of Charlie’s Angels), provides us with the action-comedy love-triangle scenario, in a premise that’s uniquely designed to appeal equally, to both men and women.
  The women can enjoy the presence of the two good-looking males, whilst also relating to Reese’s dilemma of having to choose between them, whilst the men admire the rough-and tumble spectacle of all the guns and action sequences – and Reese Witherspoon’s sunny, optimistic spirit radiates throughout any film she’s in.
  It’s interesting, but nothing new of course, that two or more spy movies are out at the box-office at the same time. We have the rather gritty, and at times hard-hitting Safe House with Denzel Washington, and at the other end of the spectrum, there’s this – glossy, commercial, populist cinema, that’s funny, purely entertaining and to make a refreshing change from heavier fair, absolutely nonintellectual, and just fun to watch.
  I’ve always loved spies and secret agents as a genre in film. From frothy, glamorous fantastical blockbusters like this is, such as the Bond franchise or Mission: Impossible and Spy Kids, but it’s wonderful to see it rise to such a prominent level of acclaim, both critically and with audiences thanks to the electrifying Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy last year.
   Incidentally, the best performance in this film by far, comes from the absolutely terrific Tom Hardy, who played a secret-agent of a completely different sort, Ricki Tarr in Tinker, Tailor. During publicity, Hardy expressed his interest in wanting to star in a lighter film, in contrast to the serious, heavy roles with which he’s associated.
  The basic premise is quite simple. Two highly skilled but impulsive cops FDR and Tuck (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) find themselves confined the office after compromising a mission (cue an energetic opener full of sharp one-liners and a flurry of gunfire).
  They run into Lauren (Witherspoon) who decides to get back into the dating game, one for the cops to discover they’ve both been dating her, only for their competitive streak to come to fruition, as they strike a deal not to inform the lovely Lauren that they know each other…
  The action sequences are full of pep, but are only shown in fairly short bursts, which mean they’re engaging – whilst never allowed to become fully exhilarating…
   The majority of the comedy comes from chat-show host Chelsea Handler as Lauren’s logical best friend, particularly in the scenes when she asks Lauren to attempt to choose between her prospective boyfriends by listing their flaws.
  It’s the caper, the parodying and referencing of many Hitchcockian moments that I found the most interesting aspect. Pine at one stage mentions The Lady Vanishes, and, similarly to The Tourist, it seems appropriate to say that the closest film I can liken this to, even though it doesn’t quite live up to it is the great 1959 triumph – North By Northwest, with a similar mixture of comedy-caper, romance and thriller.
  The thriller sub-plot doesn’t really develop, but there is a very charismatic, if underused, turn from Til Schweiger as the menacing villain.
   At its heart, this is a highly enjoyable, mainstream, Hollywood, glitzy star-vehicle for Witherspoon, Hardy and Pine, who all really appear to be relishing in the fun that’s to be had.
  It’s often amusing, loud, and colourful popcorn fodder.

Rating: * * * *

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Safe House Review

Spring 2012

Genre: Action-Thriller

Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendon Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Robert Patrick and Sam Sheppard.

Certificate: 15.

Running Time: 114 mins.

Seen at: The Trafford Centre’s Odeon.

On: Thursday, 1st March, 2012.

Time is everything in an action thriller. Too talky and slow - then you don’t have enough action, or, too many explosions – and the narrative just becomes secondary – and that’s really my main contention with this film.
  The plot’s premise itself is quite thin – a ruthless ex-cop, Tobin Frost has gone rogue (don’t they all?) in South Africa, so, straight laced Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is charged with the post of keeping him under ‘house arrest’, which predictably, doesn’t last…
 The characterization and performances are mixed. As the icy-cool, aptly-named Tobin Frost, Denzel Washington is effortlessly charismatic, but he’s not being stretched or challenged in any way, and Ryan Reynolds is just stilted and rather bland as the non-descript moral centre, playing a character who is at least written as far too squeaky-clean, and is therefore unengaging. Frost on the other hand is the far more interesting character, so much so, that the audience will inevitably take his side, as opposed to our unremarkable hero’s.
  More impressive are the underused supporting roles, namely Brendon Gleeson adding considerable gravitas, it’s always great to see Robert Patrick, best known as Terminator 2’s liquid-metal-bending T-1000 of course.  The best performance however, comes from an understated Sam Shepherd, peering over his glasses disapprovingly – growling a few words and strolling away with every scene he’s in.
  Where the film literally ‘accelerates’, is in its action sequences. Whether they bang, punch, rev or strangle their way frenetically onto the screen. They’re in the form of swarming shoot-outs, violent hand-to-hand combats, head-drowning, a wince-inducing confrontation with shards of glass, or two breathlessly-paced car chases, you certainly feel right in the middle of the action, thanks to some of the fastest-paced editing I’ve ever seen on screen. The scenario in question occurs when Matt locks a hand-cuffed Frost in the boot of his car, with the police in hot pursuit. Eventually he breaks out and attempts to strangle Matt, which leads to some unique driving skills being on display… Plaudits should definitely go to cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Richard Pearson – for hammering home this sense of exhilarating voyeurism.
 The problem is, apart from the set-pieces themselves and a clever spin on a hostage situation at Cape Town’s football stadium - there’s little else in between.
  There’s a lazy love interest element, which is actually quite half-hearted considering it’s the supposed romantic angle of the narrative.
  Even more frustrating however, is the fact that far too many vital strands of plot are continually under-wraps. Key characters repeatedly refer to a computerized ‘file’ everyone’s desperate to obtain, but it’s never clear what it contains. Consequently, several characters’ motivations evaporate, never presenting the traitor with their own agenda.
  Stylistically though, the reveal of the traitor’s identity is suitably quick and shocking, as is the fate of their latest victim – on the brief receiving end.
  The score captures the hustle-and bustle flavour of Cape town and ramps up the tension, particularly when the idea of identity within a crowded street scene is experimented with.
  Overall, it’s slightly too long, and the dialogue is often used as padding before we jump to the next bout of action, but if fans of Washington are looking to be entertained, rather than made to think, then this case of style over substance, is likely to appeal.

Rating: * * *

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Review

Winter 2012

Genre: Comedy/Drama.

Starring: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie Dev Patel and Maggie Smith.

Certificate 12A.

Running Time: 124 mins.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On: Saturday 24th February, 2011.

Assembling the crème da-la-crème of the British acting elite, John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) gives Dame Judi Dench another wonderful role to play. This time he and screenwriter Ol Parker have crafted what is essentially a very ordinary person in Evelyn, a recent widow who decides, along with six others, to spend her twilight years in the Indian hotel of the title, having been promised five-star luxury… Only of course, upon arrival, the sight which greets them is literally crumbling into ruin.
  Much comedy arises from the inevitable clash of cultures involving food, love, loss, occupation and transport to name but a few.
  There’s a couple, worrying about their ever-advancing years (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), an MP with a secret (Tom Wilkinson) an ageing lothario who says he’s ‘early forties’ (that’s presumably born in the early forties!), glamorous granny the flirting, quixotic Madge (Celia Imrie) and the racist Muriel (Maggie Smith).
   The script (based on the novel These Foolish Things (penned by Deborah Moggoch), does contain very funny lines, particularly from Smith. Dench does so effortlessly what comes so naturally to her; drawing the audience deeper into a completely relatable character, ensuring we’re on the side of someone who is directly at the heart of this never-overly sentimental comedy, which works well, as its often seen from her point-of-view. Penelope Wilton is particularly excellent as the disparaging Jean.  
   The only stumbling block with the film is one of tone. One minute, it occasionally will make you laugh, teeter on the very precipice of sentimentality, and then go into an almost mournful state. It’s been marketed on posters and in trailers as predominantly a ‘feelgood’ comedy with frequent visual laughs, more in the British ensemble, Richard Curtis-type mould. But the result is a decidedly mixed hybrid of drama followed by comedy – an uneven ‘dramedy’ – somewhat reminiscent of Calander Girls crossed with East is East.  I don’t think it’s really that much of a spoiler to say that one character does die – although it may not be who you think. The characters are also a little too middle-class for me, obviously of some wealth, and everything concerning ‘an emotional journey’ or ‘finding themselves’ quickly becomes rather over-familiar and clichéd, with various instances involving the difference between Wi-Fi, 3G and broadband.  But oddly, does probably reflect a particular quadrant of the population’s reality rather well – even if it does so with a warm, tinted glow.
  It also offers a superb advertisement for India, truly capturing its hustle-and-bustle crackpot quality, where the zeitgeist seems experimentally rudimentary, but full of colour, celebration and music.
  Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, has his own sub-plot involving arranged marriage, but he really does well at playing an eager young man, desperate in the plight to make the best of himself and the hotel.
   The demographic for this film is interesting. Obviously, there will be a certain age-range of senior citizens that propel this film up the box-office. It’s currently enjoying its rightful place right at the top, but I think it also reinforces what the film tries to say – that life transcends age, as this touching film ultimately does.
Rating: * * * *

Friday, 2 March 2012

A Dangerous Method Review

Winter  2012

Genre: Period Phychological Drama

Starring: Micheal Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Morttensen, Sarah Gadon and Vincent Cassel.

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 100 mins approx.

Seen at: Didsbury.

On: Saturday, 18th February, 2012.

Originally associated more with his film’s iconographic zeitgeists of the  exploding heads of aliens in several cult-horror classics of the ‘creature-feature’ sub-genre, such as Shivers, Scanners, The Dead Zone and his most commercially successful to date – 1989’s The Fly, David Cronenberg has moved into somewhat grittier, more psychological territory in recent years with A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises.
  He teams of with Viggo Mortensen a third time here, again in a radically different setting, this time in 1906 Vienna.
  Young academic Carl Jung, is theorizing the founding of a study known as ‘the talking cure’, new therapy methodology, first utilized on the hysteric patient Sabina Spielrein, haunted by visions of her austere father.
Whist this may not be Keira Knightley’s best film (Atonement and The Duchess manage to delve substantially deeper into the overall arc of characterization), it’s certainly her best ever performance.
Within the first quarter-of-an-hour, her presence on the screen is visceral with authenticity. Eyes-popping, posture-contorting, mud-slinging and chin-jutting into disconcerting positions as Sabina is physically unable to articulate her emotions.
  Repression, is certainly a recurring theme throughout, which in fact manifests into the sexual, as she is horrified by her frisson-like excitement at the prospect of being beaten. It is an absolutely astonishing performance from Knightley.
  Whenever real-life events are enacted on-screen, I’m always intrigued by their level of accuracy. Here for example, a portion of the dialogue exchanges were taken from several actual letters of correspondence. This  is a successful cinematic translation of one of the most fascinating periods in history, significantly occurring at the axis of the turn of the twentieth century, a time of monumental change, scientifically, psychologically and socially. It charts the fusion of two of the time’s great contemporaries, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and their polarizing opinion on the emergence on psychoanalysis.
  Viggo Mortensen initially expressed his own intimidation at portraying such a well-known figure as Freud, but he is so skillfully subtle, automatically capturing every nuance, whether it be a slight incline of the head, raise of the eyebrows, and of course, contentedly chomping on his inimitable cigar.
  The film’s predominant focus however, is Micheal Fassbender’s interpretation of Carl Jung, in particular Jung’s ever-increasingly intimate relationship with his patient, Sabina.
  Obviously, it has been widely advertised, especially in the theatrical trailers, that the film’s, shall we say steamier scenes (of which there are a few) do involve some more alternative elements to the act of love-making. In fact though, nothing is gratuitously or explicitly shown at any point, and the sexuality of the film is just as psychological as it is physical – if not more so.
  The screenplay, by Christopher Hampton is based upon his own play entitled ‘The Talking Cure’. While it is dialogue heavy, it is that very  dialogue, particularly when exchanged between the two academics, which make for a thrilling and refreshing component. ‘Please don’t feel you have to restrain yourself here’  remarks Freud as Jung piles yet another piece of meat onto his plate.
Vincent Cassel adds the lightness of humour, and Alexandre Desplat’s extraordinary score places you directly amongst the gripping tension beneath a bubbling atmosphere.
A gripping account of a fascinating subject, ravishingly shot and superbly realized. Already one of the year’s very best. 

Rating: * * * * *