Archive for February, 2012


Posted: February 28, 2012 in movie reviews

Contraband *** (out of five)

Icelandic wunderkind actor/director/writer/producer Baltasar Kormákur’s remake of 2008’s Reykjavik-Rotterdam, in which he starred and which he produced, casts Mark Wahlberg in Kormákur’s role and shifts the action to New Orleans and Panama, with extended sequences on a large freighter in between. Walhberg’s character Chris is a smuggler who’s gone straight, now living a simple life running a home security company and providing for his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two children. When his young brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) has to dump a smuggled load of cocaine, ending up in debt to a greasy crime lord (Giovanni Ribisi), Chris, naturally, has to smuggle one last time, and, naturally, things get out of hand.

There’s a lot that elevates Contraband above your average expensive star-vehicle thriller, primarily the milieu. Smuggling aboard large freighters is an unusual subject, and, as far as we may take the ins and outs of that trade as depicted here to be accurate, it’s a pretty fascinating one. According to the basic premise of the film, any large freighter operating between the ports of New Orleans and Panama is likely to be carrying contraband, as, unless there is some sort of clear suspicion, the contents of each of the many hundreds of containers on the vessel go unchecked – they are simply rented out to a company or individual, much as you would rent a storage room at a self-storage facility, or a safety-deposit box. The film purports that such possibilities inevitably create a culture of corruption on the vessels, from the Captain down to the cleaning staff, and that anyone on the crew may be involved in any number of shady schemes at any time.

New Orleans is portrayed as an extremely gritty port city, full of shady drinking holes, graffiti-polluted housing projects and working-class suburbs. It looks like a civilized paradise, however, compared to Panama, and it is the third of the movie that the film spends there that is the most enthralling. Panama is portrayed as the essence of wild chaos, most notably expressed by the fenced-in compound of local crime lord Gonzalo (Diego Luna), complete with machine-gun toting guards and an assembly line of counterfeit greenbacks, cocaine and exotic animals, all waiting to be smuggled into the US. It is and exotic and thrilling locale, rarely portrayed in movies, and the scenes there include a very effective action set-piece that is bloody and thrilling. It is also fun to see the progress of a massive freighter through the Panama Canal – because really, when have you seen that in a film?

Kormákur’s talent shows itself best when handling the sheer immensity of his props. The freighter and its containers are used to great effect, their sheer weight and bulk providing action scenes that are highly unusual and innovative. Tension is kept high, and there is a fair degree of suspense. The cast is excellent, including the always fantastic Ben Foster as Chris’ old smuggling buddy and the always awesome J.K. Simmons, playing against type as the surly Captain of the freighter. Landry Jones also makes an impression as a young, intense actor to watch out for.

Unfortunately the storytelling is very muddled in places, and the central villain, as played by Ribisi, is unconvincing and theatrical, which is greatly to the detriment of the film’s otherwise realistic tone (as far as an action thriller can have a realistic tone). Foster is perfect in his role, but you wonder how much better he could have been in Ribisi’s role, and whether Ribisi might have fared better in Foster’s. For some reason Ribisi has been allowed to chew the scenery while the rest of the cast play it straight, and it disrupts the tone of an otherwise tight and genuinely exciting adult big-screen thriller. It is greatly to Walhberg’s credit, as a producer with casting and crewing clout, that he has given the opportunity to an outside-the-box creative such as Kormákur to show off his skills in the context of a big Hollywood spectacle. We’ll hear a lot more from Kormákur, without a doubt. As he said in a recent interview, “Just because I was born on the island [Iceland] doesn’t mean I want to spend the rest of my life telling stories for 300,000 people.”

Buck *** (out of five)

It would be a very hard-hearted person indeed who would not warm to the gentle charms of Buck, a documentary portrait of Buck Brannaman, an extremely gifted horse trainer who spends his time touring the western states of the USA, giving clinics to – and frequently amazing – small groups of owners and their horses and the larger groups who pay just to watch. Buck is a famed and beloved character of the modern west and he is a deeply charming and likable guy, supported by a picture-perfect family, including one daughter who is fast becoming an amazing rider and trainer in her own right. it would all be too good to be true, too rosy and purely delightful, were it not for Buck’s dark backstory, involving an an extremely violent father, who, when Buck’s mother died, became even more of a monster, essentially beating Buck and his brother on a nightly basis until finally an intervention occurred. The way Buck treats horses, with great respect and gentleness, is an obvious antidote to the brutality of his youthful suffering, and it’s greatly moving. The milieu of horse ownership and training in the modern American West is also a fascinating one – everyone, but everyone, really do wear the hats – and overall this low-key, fondly personal look at one of life’s gifted but hardly world-famous personages is a swift ninety minutes well spent.

Wolf Whistle

Posted: February 21, 2012 in movie reviews

My Week With Marilyn *** (out of five)

Michelle Williams is astonishingly good as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Not only are her physical and vocal mannerisms brilliantly in line with those of Monroe, she brings huge compassion to the part. Her Monroe is capable of great joy – and is tremendously talented – but burdened by absolutely savage self-confidence issues; coupled with a reliance on all sorts of medication, she is seriously vulnerable. It’s really quite an incredible performance, and a seriously brave one: would you be willing to take on the role of someone whom history has recorded as among the most alluring and beautiful people to have ever lived?

It’s a great shame the film itself can’t equal the brilliance of Williams’ performance. Based on two books by Colin Cook, My Week With Marilyn and The Prince, The Showgirl and Me, this relatively small-scale British film purports to tell the true story of the unlikely bond that developed between Cook and Monroe while he was the 3rd Assistant Director on Laurence Olivier’s strange comedy The Prince and The Showgirl (1957). The material has already been filmed, as television documentary The Prince, The Showgirl and Me (2004) and the material certainly has plenty of promise: the clash of wills between the world’s most bankable movie star and the English Theatre’s most highly regarded practitioner; an inside look behind the facade of a great movie star troubled by multiple demons; and the scandal of a potentially romantic liaison between said 30 year old movie star (recently married to Arthur Miller) and a 23 year old babe in the filmmaking woods.

That material is all there, but it’s not told in any sort of a thrilling manner. The clashes between Olivier and Monroe – usually about her coming late to set – become monotonous very quickly, and are devoid of wit. The peek behind Marilyn’s facade fares better (thanks entirely to Williams) but it’s all stuff we already know: pills to make her go to sleep, pills to calm her down, shifty Hollywood types giving her the pills. And the sniff of sex is vacant: the film makes it very clear that Cook and Monroe never slept together (which may just be Cook the Englishman’s civility and taste rising above salaciousness).

Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier is ripe and fruity: it’s a part he was born to play, and luckily he manages to keep it just this side of hammy (though why he’s nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for this is anyone’s guess: it’s hardly a stretch). Eddie Redmayne is fine, if not particularly outstanding, as Cook (though his incessant smiling, even when faced with bad news, becomes quite annoying) and Zoë Wanamaker makes an impression as Marilyn’s acting coach, the “legendary” Paula Strasberg. Unfortunately, every American character besides Marilyn is played by a British actor with uniformly terrible accents, which unfortunately gives the production a cheap and shoddy veneer.

It is intriguing that this film and The Iron Lady co-exist this year, and that both Williams and Meryl Streep are up for Best Actress at the Oscars. Both were American movie stars imported into relatively modest British productions, and both far, far outshone those films they were in. My Week With Marilyn is entertaining enough – it’s a good story, and there’s that outstanding performance – but it is very apparent that it simply could have been better, and that’s a frustrating thing.

A final note: the script spoon-feeds us, to its detriment. No actress should ever have to utter such a statement of theme as Williams does here: “Why do the people I love always leave me?”

The Grey **** (out of five)

The Grey, the new film from Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The A Team) features some astonishing sequences, spectacular cinematography, excellent performances and heartfelt ruminations on mortality, faith, masculinity, hope, family and existence. It also has really really cool wolves.

The set-up couldn’t be simpler: an Alaskan Airlines flight carrying a motley crew of swarthy oil drillers from their far-flung camp to Anchorage crashes on route, leaving eight survivors stranded in the frozen wilderness – surrounded by very scary wolves. Liam Neeson plays Ottway, a lost Irish soul whose job as a wolf-sharpshooter for the mining company gives him an understanding of the wolvish mind, allowing him to lead the men in their only quest – to survive.

The Grey is bleak and uncompromising. It is superbly crafted, but beyond that, the script is terrific, constantly surprising us with scenes of great invention and intensity. Early on, we watch Ottway help one of the wreck’s injured die; it is staggeringly effective. A later scene – a nighttime face-off between men and wolves – is astonishingly beautiful, just as it is truly terrifying. Throughout the film, the script veers sharply from the directions you expect it to go; the familiar premise gives way to something that’s bold and original – not at all formulaic. Yes, the survivors aren’t all going to get along all of the time; yes, some of them – perhaps all – are going to die. Beyond those basic tenants, however, anything goes – and a lot of it does.

The wolves (and there’s a lot of wolf action) are beautifully rendered. I don’t know to what degree they’re composed of real wolf, animatronic wolf or CGI wolf, but the effect is perfect. They’re ferocious and terrifying but also possessed of dignity and grace. Whether in long shot, galloping in a pack down the snowy tundra, or in extreme close-up, growling threateningly (the sound design for them is also fabulous), they’re always real characters – and real adversaries. Whatever the amounts of CGI used, they don’t look or feel like CGI. If they had, the movie might not have worked at all. As it is, I think it has every potential to become a small, timeless classic. It’s inventive, brutal, stark and vital; it never panders to any pre-conceived notions of what we may want out of a wilderness survival movie – The Grey is its own particular take on that trope, and it does it very, very well – and with freaking excellent wolves.

No Sex Please, We’re Addicted

Posted: February 14, 2012 in movie reviews

SHAME **** (out of five)

If you’ve heard that Steve McQueen’s new film Shame is about sex addiction, and you don’t think that’s for you, you may rob yourself of an extraordinary experience. It is certainly about a character, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) who suffers from sex addiction – but the film is about addiction in the broader sense, and it immediately joins the classics of the genre, including Requiem for a Dream, The Man With The Golden Arm, Drugstore Cowboy, Days of Wine and Roses and Leaving Las Vegas.

In style and tone, however, it is like none of those films. McQueen and Fassbender (previous collaborators on the incredible film Hunger, about hunger-striker Bobby Sands) have placed Brandon in the thick of a dense, lively, über-populated Manhattan and managed to make him simultaneously a Prince of that city and also its loneliest inhabitant. A man with all the trimmings – a terrific and highly lucrative job, an awesome bachelor’s apartment, and, perhaps most importantly for the film to work as it does, incredibly handsome features supporting great physical charisma – Brandon’s addiction to getting off is heavy, intense and unforgiving. He’s the kind of guy who orders a prostitute the moment the girl he’s just laid has left, and whacks off while he waits for her to arrive.

Any and every compulsion you’ve had can be recognised in Brandon’s behaviour, which, like cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, food and “recreational” drugs, can seem harmless – and an enormous amount of fun – before the grim relentlessness of the thing kicks in: when it just won’t take a break, you don’t get a break, and when you become a slave to something fun, you’re still a slave. It would be easy to fob off Brandon’s particular addiction – “I’d rather be addicted to sex than crack!” – until you see this film, which reminds us of the dangers – and potential hell – of any of them. Addiction’s devil is addiction itself.

Carey Mulligan, traipsing into the film as Brandon’s sister and upsetting his finely constructed, “functioning addict” lifestyle, proves yet again to be just… well, along with Michelle Williams, just the best, most exciting younger screen actress currently busying herself with the world’s great directors. Every second of every moment of her performance is simultaneously so carefully calibrated and yet so freshly spontaneous, you can only say about the Oscar Nominations (for Best Supporting Actress) this year: not being nominated, she was – well and truly – robbed. I can’t quite come to terms with her talent; it’s a little beyond reach.

Fassbender’s role is much larger than Mulligan’s – he’s in every scene; the film is resolutely about Brandon – and his performance is no less perfect, even as it is far less showy. It’s not a heavy-dialogue film, and Fassbender’s face has to do much of the work in silence, whether he’s aggressively staring down a potential lay on the subway, lying spent after a sexual encounter, or – in the film’s most devastating scene – listening to his sister sing. (I have no doubt this scene was shot with two cameras, one on her and one on him, simultaneously, and when you see it you’ll see what I mean: the intercutting of the two is so sublimely perfect that the take used seemingly has to be the same for both actors).

Of course, there are also a lot of shots of Brandon’s face while he’s having sex. The exclusion of Fassbender from the Best Actor Oscar nominations this year may have something to do with the intensity of these long-held moments: “Is that acting, or are we just watching a guy getting off?” Given the intimate relationship between McQueen and Fassbender – the trust that I’m sure the two share – it would not surprise me that, in closed set conditions, Fassbender was experiencing a close simulation of what Brandon was in these scenes – but still, we are undeniably watching Brandon’s experiences in these amazingly intimate moments – a character’s experiences – and, whether or not Fassbender was being stimulated to orgasm on-set or not, Brandon’s orgasmic expressions – which become increasingly despairing – are no less interpretive than Jean Dujardin’s expressions of joy or sorrow in The Artist. These actors, in very different ways, are using their silent faces to tell a very heartfelt story.

It is hard not to use an excess of superlatives for Shame, and it is impossible to avoid the chestnut “it won’t be for everybody”. It’s dark, even brutal, and it makes you examine parts of your own psyche that you might not love to dwell on. Needless to say, it also features a lot of semi-explicit sex. McQueen also favours long takes and lingering close-ups, so if you like your addiction dramas told apace, you may want to rent Requiem For a Dream instead. The fact that it’s not for everybody is reflected in its Oscar nominations: none. But for my mind, it’s something of a masterpiece, and, as tough as it is, demands to be seen, and on the big screen, where Brandon’s self-imposed isolation in the beautifully shot, bustling Manhattan is augmented by an operatic score that at times is as massive, overwhelming and domineering as addiction itself.

CHRONICLE *** (out of five)

A film I literally had no knowledge of until it came out worldwide last week, the “found-footage” thriller Chronicle is surprisingly fresh and original. Its basic premise is so good that it’s surprising that it hasn’t really been done before: what if three teenagers inherited awesome super-powers… and then, rather than fight crime or get rich, they used them for the mundane concerns of skipping stones, impressing girls and getting even with bullies. It’s a witty conceit, which is at its best in the second act, post-power inheritance and pre-requisite conflict and resolution. But since the whole thing is only eighty-four minutes, it never has time to run out of steam or lose our interest. Debut feature director Josh Trank, all of twenty-six years old, came up with the story with fellow youngster (and screenwriter) Max Landis, son of John, and while the enterprise has the whiff of second-generation Hollywood insiders making a calling-card film for privileged entry into the studio system, there is no denying its originality, commitment, and sheer entertainment value. Watch unknown Dane DeHaan, as the most troubled of the three superteens, quickly become the next big thing.

Arts and Crafts

Posted: February 3, 2012 in movie reviews

Martha Marcy May Marlene ****

Sean Durkin’s debut feature is a subtle and genuinely disturbing look at the effects of a cult on the mind of a young women (Elizabeth Olsen, in a genuinely amazing performance that, perhaps in another year, may have gotten an Oscar nomination).

Taking place in a present haunted by flashbacks, Martha (Olsen) tries to adjust to the normalcy of her sister’s household after spending two years in a rural cult ruled with loving menace by Patrick (John Hawkes). The cult’s methodology becomes more apparent over the course of the film, as does the obvious mental and emotional damage that has been wrought on Martha.

To say anything more of the plot would definitely be to the film’s detriment; what’s worth knowing if that this is an extremely accomplished work by someone who obviously has a lot invested in their subject matter (Durkin’s short film Mary Last Seen was shot at similar locations and involved a woman and a young man on their way to joining a cult; in essence it is the prequel to this feature). The cinematography is intimate and revealing, concentrating so intently on Olsen’s features that it would be impossible for her to get away with anything inauthentic in her portrayal, but there’s no fear of that: she never takes a wrong step, and Martha’s confusions are clear to us as they are desperately detrimental and terrifying to her.

Hawkes is in his usual, excellent form as the cult leader Patrick, and Sarah Paulson is very creditable in the difficult role of Martha’s sister Lucy. The Connecticut and upstate New York locations are well used, and the end result of the whole experience is very disturbing. You’d never call this a horror film; if you had to put a label on it, you’d probably reach for “psychological thriller”, but it’s powerfully original, and well worth seeing.


The Artist ***1/2

Now freely being regarded as the film to beat for Best Picture at the coming Oscars, Michel Hazanavicius’ silent film bears the heavy burden of hype pretty darn well. I can only imagine how delightful it must have appeared to those people who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival last year, especially those who, hopping from screening to screening, may have had no idea of what they were in for. The more surprising the film could be to a viewer, the more likely it would be that the result would be wonder and delight. As it is, if you haven’t seen the film by now, you’ll much more be likely wondering just how a silent film is going to keep you entertained for one hundred minutes than anything else.

The answer is with a simple storyline and extremely appealing performances. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo play a couple of film stars in the late 1920s, one whose star is falling with the advent of talking pictures, one whose star is rapidly rising. They sort of cross paths in the middle, and a long-simmering relationship develops – one that is fairytale sweet, with some classic bitter along the way. The premise has been seen before (most memorably in Singin’ In the Rain), but the telling of this story of silent to sound by using silence to sound is a clever one, and extremely well done. While not always aping the style of films from the period (there’s a tracking shot of a running dog that seems a little too advanced for the late twenties, and another, a reflecting shot of Dujardin, that simply hadn’t been done yet), it certainly evokes the style with great respect, down to the style of the acting (Missy Pyle and John Goodman in particular could have stepped right out of a 1928 “backstage” picture).

It’s really a director’s film, and Hazanavicius deserves all the accolades coming his way. He’s done something bold, and he’s pulled it off with aplomb and grace. If the slight story may not have worked in a more “modern” telling, it’s perfectly suited to the chosen form here – an occasion when style really does triumph over substance.