Archive for November, 2012

Red Is The New Black

Posted: November 26, 2012 in movie reviews

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part Two *** (out of five)

It may seem a little perverse to go see only the final episode of a five-film franchise, but I reckon you should at least taste the Big Bits of popular culture, and there’s no doubt that the Twilight franchise is one of them, so taste it I did. What was fascinating was how completely involved I became.

The film is corny, terribly staged (will explain later) and laughable at times – a lot of times – but is also oddly, almost insanely involving. I was hooked from the moment it began – from the credits sequence, which has a highly specific look, borne of blood on white snow and the constant birth of natural things such as flowers and leaves and little bugs, filmed in close-up against a very dramatic score – and then the thing just gets more portentous from there. And, somehow, it all works. Sort of.

It’s all very tonally specific, and the tone is bonkers. But it’s so intriguing, and everyone looks so good. Kristen Stewart is simply stunning, and now that she’s a Vampire (no spoiler alert, trust me) she’s great fun to watch – she jumps and jumps and jumps and jumps and jumps… oh, and she’s good at arm wrestling too.

If you’ve already seen the first four, of course you’ll be seeing this one. But if you haven’t seen any of them – why not see this one? It’s crazy fun for less than two hours. Beautiful young people stand around in a very beautiful forest-house (it’s set in Washington State, outside Seattle) discussing the ins and outs of Vampire law as it relates to Bella (Stewart’s) child. The way they stand about is hysterical – because they literally stand about. Because they’re Vampires, they don’t drink or eat (except blood, I guess) – so they literally literally stand about. It looks ridiculous. And yet so beautiful…

The incredible fun of joining this series at its final hour is all about enjoying the crazy ride. Obviously, over the course of the thing, it’s deviated from any sense to total ludicrousness – and it’s a really enjoyable ludicrousness. From the opening minute, I thought, “Wow, this is gonna be the guiltiest pleasure of my week.” I was wrong. It’s the guiltiest pleasure of my year.

God Bless America **1/2 (out of five)

Bobcat Goldthwait is a truly unique filmmaker. His artistic career began as a stand-up comedian, but when he got sick of the persona he created, he began making films, starting with Shakes The Clown – about an alcoholic clown – and continuing with Stay – about the implications of telling your boyfriend you once blew your dog (no kidding!) – and hitting a high point with the somewhat brilliant World’s Greatest Dad, which managed to entice Robin Williams into the lead role of a writer who abuses his son’s suicide for his own success. Can you see a – very dark – trend here?

Goldthwait goes darker still in God Bless America, offering us the story of a pissed-off American Journeyman (Joel Murray) who “goes postal”, and embarks on a killing spree, targeting not the most vicious of America’s population, but the most vacuous. It’s an intriguing satirical idea, and it works very effectively in places, while being tremendously didactic and heavy-handed in others. I’ve charted Godthwait’s career as a filmmaker from the beginning, and when I heard the concept of this I was tremendously excited. It’s a disappointment that the film isn’t simply more clever, more subtle, more truly subversive. It is so angry it wears its anger on its sleeve, as opposed to hidden within its jacket pockets, like its protagonists’ firearms. A little warning, too: although it’s certainly a (black) comedy, it’s very violent.

MAN, AND SUPERMAN

Posted: November 14, 2012 in movie reviews

SKYFALL ****1/2 (out of five)

Sam Mendes’ new film Skyfall, the twenty-third Bond film and the one that marks the series’ fiftieth anniversary, is spectacular, wonderful, daring, touching, and simultaneously a celebration of the entire series while also, in its careful way, a push forward into new territory. Of the Craig Bonds, it is better than Quantum of Solace and either on par with, or just slightly behind, Casino Royale – which for my mind puts it up there in terms of the entire series. It is a masterful achievement.

Seriously, how stunning is it for any cultural work to stay hip for fifty years? And yet this old war-horse of a series – in this outing, the most “British” it’s ever been – is about the hippest thing on the planet right now, if you go by world-wide box office (the film opened in the UK a couple of weeks ago and this past weekend in the US, and continues to roll out around the world, with the Australian release due for November 22nd). Daniel Craig, resplendent in a suit (man can that guy wear a suit!) is the very definition of cool. There is simply no other comparable cultural phenomenon. No-one was cheering at the end of the sixth Star Wars film in the way audiences are cheering for Skyfall.

The alchemy of this one is very much related to its’ position as the series’ fiftieth-anniversary entry, and a huge amount of loving ingenuity has gone into the script (by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan) so that the film, in its way, encompasses the whole series. So we’ve got a serious, deadly Bond – but he also makes quips. We’ve got the series’ strange, four-act structure (there was always a bonus half hour for one final big set-piece) in perfect place. There are beautifully thought-out acknowledgements of all sorts of tropes, gags and conventions from across the entire series, such as the one-line character who says something very funny when seeing Bond do something amazing, and is never seen again; an enormous amount of sexual innuendo; and, of course, multiple amazing locations and all out favourite characters, a strong villain, and two really beautiful women. Beyond this, there are all sorts of nods and references to previous films, none of which I’ll spoil here, but if you’re a Bond fanboy of any magnitude, they will fill you to bursting joy. (Okay, I’ll hint at one: in a delightfully loopy sequence, Mendes and Craig both have fun referencing – and Craig actually mimicking – one of Roger Moore’s most fondly remembered, and funny, scenes from Live and Let Die).

I have no compulsion whatsoever in declaring Skyfall, in terms of cinematography, then best looking Bond film ever. Roger Deakins (shooting the first ever Bond on digital) creates stunning image after stunning image, taking the film into the rarefied territory of huge, expensive arthouse films that are famous for looking great: films like Amedeus, The Last Emperor, Brokeback Mountain. A fight sequence in Shanghai is the most jaw-droppingly beautiful sequence I’ve seen all year, but it’s consistent, image after image, sequence after sequence. Action movies simply don’t look like this – but, I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, this is no ordinary action movie.

Deakins will be nominated for an Oscar come January, but he won’t be the only one. Adele is extremely likely to win Best Original Song (finally, a new Bond song classic!), and there are obvious technical categories it will be nominated for and could win – editing, sound, sound effects editing – but its Oscar chances could run deeper than that. Judi Dench is certainly possible for a Best Supporting Actress nod, and Javier Bardem would definitely have an outside shot (the mitigating factor being that he already possesses a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a ruthless villain, in No Country For Old Men.) A screenplay nomination wouldn’t be absurd (which I think would have to fall in the “adapted” category, because, even though Skyfall is not based on a novel, by Ian Fleming or anyone else, it is based on a set of characters and situations by Fleming). But here’s where I’ll stick my neck out: With the Academy now nominating up to ten Best Picture contenders, there is no reason Skyfall shouldn’t be among them. I mean, c’mon: I haven’t seen everything the year still has in store, but there’s no way this isn’t certain to be one of the ten best films of the year. For me, it’s already warmly ensconced in the top five, and perhaps in the upper echelons of that.

Bond movies – the good, the great, and the occasional bad – are full of “Bond moments” which burn on your memory the moment you see them and become like the best songs on an album when you’re watching the film for the fourth time. Think of the disposal of Blofeld down the chimney in For Your Eyes Only, eclipsing the rest of that film. Mr. Big inflating and exploding in Live and Let Die. Bond’s death at the beginning of You Only Live Twice. Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in Dr. No. Daniel Craig emerging from the sea (!) in Casino Royale. RosaKlebb’s evil shoe-spike popping out in From Russia With Love. The aqua-car driving up onto the beach in The Spy Who Loved Me. And, of course, the gold-painted girl and Goldfinger’s “No, Mr. Bond, I want you to die.” There are dozens, scores more.

Skyfall is full of “Bond moments.” They’re deliberate, almost scientific, but they work. The weirdest of them exist purely to be Bond moments, and there’s nothing wrong with that (Javier Bardem has a good one or three of these). Oscar-winning Mendes (for American Beauty) was patently interested in making an über-Bond film to celebrate the entire fifty years. Thus we also get – often cheeky – variants on all the elements we grew up with: Bond introducing himself. Bond going to a casino. Bond getting his martini his way. An incredible pre-credits sequence (along with, of course, a gorgeous credits sequence, which makes Adele’s song especially haunting). But we also get to see Bond in quite a few ways we’ve never seen him before, and they’re all hugely entertaining and intriguing new glimpses into his character, as a man rather than as a secret agent.

Bardem makes a terrific villain – always aware that he was playing a Bond villain, as opposed to any other type, I would suggest – sprinkling his ruthlessness and sadism with plenty of humour (and not a little pathos). Dench is impeccable. Ralph Fiennes shows up and does a great job, as does Ben Whishaw as the new Q. Naomie Harris is a pert, adorable presence and banters well with Craig.

And Craig himself… well, Craig simply steals the role for all time – or at least for these first fifty years. Bringing a gravitas, an intensity, and most importantly, a vast inner life to the character that  is light years ahead of the others, his Bond is the first to feel truly real – not just superman, but man, as well.

Master Bates? Roger The Cabin Boy!

Posted: November 13, 2012 in movie reviews

The Master *** (out of five)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s cerebral new movie The Master is beautifully shot and crafted, with sublime period production design and a fascinating, unusual music score by Jonny Greenwood. It features big, powerhouse performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and a surprising, spooky one from Amy Adams. It is also at times almost provocatively undramatic, which results in the two hour and fourteen minute film feeling ponderous, sluggish and, at its worst, pretentious and indulgent.

That’s a shame because the subject matter is rich. Set immediately following the second world war and up to 1950 in the United States, The Master charts the early days of a growing cult that is very obviously inspired by Scientology (while not being about Scientology precisely). The L. Ron Hubbard character is here called Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), who is obviously a charlatan but may or may not believe his own pronouncements, which include believing in past lives extending back trillions of years. The audience’s point of entry into this world is Freddie (Phoenix), a very troubled young veteran who mixes up a mean brand of personal moonshine. When Freddie stows away on a ship being used by Dodd and his close followers, his troubles and his moonshine attract Dodd, who wants to solve the former and imbibe the latter. Solving Freddie’s troubles involves using “The Cause”’s methodology of “processing” (obviously based on Scientology’s “auditing”) and once Freddie tries it, he’s hooked. The men develop a co-dependent relationship, the course of which forms the vast bulk of the movie.

Phoenix’s performance is bold and theatrical, and for my mind over the top, encompassing all manner of physical mannerisms including a snarl and what seems like a sunken chest, which gives the impression, at times, of Freddie being a hunchback. It robs some of the attention you feel should be focused on Hoffman, who is, after all, The Master. Hoffman has worked with Anderson in two of his five previous films and it feels like here he was being given his big, flashy role – the equivalent of Daniel Day-Lewis’ in There Will Be Blood – only to have Phoenix come along and steal all the Oscar talk.

The Master is an intriguing work of the imagination that suffers from divided loyalties. On the one hand, the way a cult grew in post-war America among affluent, educated people is fascinating; on the other, the relationship between Freddie and Dodd is examined in so much depth as to become repetitive and annoying. I found it the least accessible of Anderson’s films, and the least enjoyable, but it’s intelligent and original enough for him to remain a “must-see” director. Although I was at times bored and frustrated, I certainly don’t regret seeing it.

Less would have been more

Posted: November 9, 2012 in movie reviews

Seven Psychopaths **1/2

Martin McDonagh was a post-Pulp Fiction playwright (his trilogy of plays that made his reputation started with The Cripple of Inishmaan in 1997) and he’s now become a post-post-Pulp Fiction filmmaker. You could always see the influence of that filmand Tarantino more generally – in his plays: the dialogue, the juxtaposition between violence and humour, the character types. But McDonagh’s brilliant feature debut, In Bruges (2008) seemed more original: it was influenced by Tarantino, for sure, but had its own voice; it wasn’t Two Days in the Valley, Suicide Kings, or any of the multitude of Tarantino ripoffs that followed like so many bloody corpses in the late 90s. A shame, then, that Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh’s second feature, is so blatantly “in the style of” Tarantino, taking pains to construct a complex temporal structure around a very simple story of bad men in Los Angeles seeking a stolen dog. The film makes no attempt at realism: Woody Harrelson’s Bad Guy – note the goatee and tattoo – is completely a fabrication, a movie image of a Bad Guy, with no real teeth, because he’s such a caricature. But that’s the point, I guess, because the whole thing is so meta: the film’s hero is an Irish screenwriter deliberately named Martin (Colin Farrell), struggling to write a Tarantino-like film without a shootout at the end. All this self-referential stuff is laboured and not nearly as funny as it thinks it is – until the final twenty minutes, which work like a charm. Unfortunately, we’ve been asked to wallow through some stolen and just plain boring material by then. There’s a snappy eighty-minute movie lurking within these two hours, but in its current edit, it’s indulgent, to the audience’s detriment. Christopher Walken, as a dog thief, steals the show.

Ladies of Distinction

Posted: November 4, 2012 in movie reviews

BACHELORETTE *** (out of five)

I hadn’t seen the work of Lizzy Caplan before the two-season series Party Down, which was where I was also introduced to Adam Scott. Scott has landed a regular – and very funny – role on TV’s Parks and Recreation, while Caplan and I haven’t had any sort of reunion since Party Down was cancelled. Both Caplan and Scott are in Bachelorette, a sort of indie-Bridesmaids for the more cynical set; their relationship is similar to the one they shared in Party Down, but where, in that series, Scott seemed to hold the reins, here Caplan grabs the movie and simply runs away with it. I hope she becomes a star in the process, because she is simply a magnificent, refreshing big-screen presence.

She’s certainly not in the company of slouches. As one quarter of a group of high-school friends who have “grown up” to varying degrees, and are thrown back together for the wedding of one of them, Caplan’s joined by Kirsten Dunst (the kind-of mature one), Isla Fisher (the wild one) and Rebel Wilson (the bride). All are terrific. Dunst, with around thirty-three feature films under her belt now, is not only a bona-fide movie star but a legitimately terrific screen actress of depth, precision, vulnerability and grace; she’s come a long way since The Virgin Suicides, and she was already very good by the time she did that. Fisher is a fantastic comedienne of the old school, and her character – the most extreme of the four – suits her particular skills to a tee. Wilson, who was also in Bridesmaids and A Few Best Men, obviously has a lock on wedding comedies at the moment; she’s also got a lock on the “heavy chick” in comedies stretching from independent to hugely Hollywood, a kind of astonishing feat for the creator of Bogan Pride (and one which must be eating at Gabourey Sidibe, who got an Oscar nomination for Precious but has made about a quarter of the movies Wilson has since then). In a way, Wilson’s star is burning brightest at the moment – she is working on big movies non-stop, appearing on all the major US talk shows, and generating a massive fan base – but her schtick – as demanded by the roles she is playing – is definitely samey: sweet, sarcastic, vulnerable, often a little dim. I hope she gets a strong lead role very soon, lest that brightness also burn out when Hollywood finds the next third wheel of ample girth (I look forward to seeing her in the upcoming Pitch Perfect).

The plot is hardly the point here (it revolves around a torn wedding dress); Bachelorette is all about these very fine actresses playing some pretty sad, desperate women who have some pretty funny lines to say. It veers into surprisingly depressing territory for a surprisingly long time around the end of the second act – and doesn’t really come back into  comedic mode – but that gives the movie an emotional heft that is… well, surprising. All of these actresses are going to continue to do great things: if you don’t yet know their work, watch them blossom here.

Seriously Mean Streets

Posted: November 4, 2012 in movie reviews

END OF WATCH **** (out of five)

David Ayer writes (and directs movies about) cops. Usually L.A. cops. Most often they’re corrupt. His perp sheet includes Training Day and Street Kings (as director) and the stunning L.A. Riots-set Dark Blue (as writer). He spent his teenage years in South Central (yo!) and he writes the streets well. His dialogue is terrific and feels genuine. And his casting – particularly of the minor characters – is sublime. Like The Wire, it feels like Ayer has gone into the real mean ‘hoods and found the real gangstas to play the villains in his films.

End of Watch is his most gritty, realistic, “street” film yet. But it veers markedly away from his previous work by focusing on a couple of ethical, clean cops who are actually out to make a difference, not a buck. Brian and Mike (Gyllenhaal and Peña) are cop-car partners who truly like each other, their work, Los Angeles, and the life that binds them so closely together. Young, idealistic, and dedicated, the movie opens strongly with them essentially being “blooded”: they have to take down a couple of thugs in a shootout, guns blazing, and the shooting – investigated, as all L.A. police shootings are, as a homicide – is ruled fair. They’ve tasted the invigorating side of police work, the side that isn’t issuing tickets; they’ve experienced the action, and they want more.

The way their story is told to us is as found footage, and it’s the only element of the film that doesn’t work fluidly. If you don’t like “shaky-cam”, this will present a problem; it’s one of the shakiest pictures in years. The justification for the conceit is also pretty shaky. Brian is enrolled in college, and he’s supposedly shooting his day to day routine with his partner for a project in his filmmaking class. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s Los Angeles, everyone’s a filmmaker, even cops! – but the concept jumps the shark the moment we go into the car of some of the bad guys – somewhere Brian simply isn’t. A lot more justification occurs of the “Man, put your phone away!” variety, and it’s simply laboured – and unnessessary. If Ayer wanted to make a handheld movie, he has every right, as Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93, Bourne 2 and 3) does, to simply make one. He doesn’t need to waste time shoehorning the concept into an otherwise extremely taut script.

Like his other films, the street characters are played by a remarkable panoply of real-life types who speak in a thrilling, totally believable patois that’s at times hard to follow – which doesn’t matter; we always get the drift. These are citizens of the “other” Los Angeles, the one that’s in Boyz N The Hood, not The Player. It’s not just drugs and guns that are dangerous in this world, it’s everything; the world itself is the fiend, brilliantly and devastatingly demonstrated in a scene when our boys investigate the plight of a couple of missing children.

Gyllenhaal and Peña’s camaraderie is the glue that holds the whole (intentionally, and effectively) episodic thing together, and the scenes spent in their squad car with them  as they riff with each other (Gyllenhaal doing “what Hispanic people talk about” being taken down by Peña’s “what white people talk about” is just brilliant) are some of the best in the movie. They’re funny, real, and engaging – we like these guys, which is a monumental shift for David Ayer characters. We support them. Heck, we might even be willing to cheer for them.

Of course, a more determined plot sets in, and when it does, the tension and suspense ramps up considerably. But the story isn’t what’s so effective about End of Watch. It’s the performances, the milieu, and the details. It’s the locker room, the standard-issue equipment, the competition, the hierarchy, and the strange human dynamic. People join the police force for different reasons, and it becomes (movingly) apparent that these two guys have been very lucky in being matched up – they legitimately like and respect each other, and they’re both in the game for similar reasons, albeit with very different personal lives. It’s a very modern buddy movie, but it’s a buddy movie nonetheless. There is excellent and surprising work from David Harbour and Anna Kendrick (as non-gangstas), but, really, it’s all about Gyllenhaal, Peña, and the thugs. And, of course, the mean streets themselves.

The film was shot – depending on who’s telling you – for around fourteen million dollars, and despite its wide release and heavy marketing, it’s got an independent, auteur feel, like something that slipped through the system on its own terms. It’s also tremendously fun – as long as you can find the fun, as the lead characters do, in this grim, violent, and often depressing world.