Archive for April, 2013

Revenge of the Ewoks

Posted: April 29, 2013 in movie reviews

IRON MAN 3 **1/2 (out of five)

Here comes Iron Man 3. You’re ready. You’ve been primed, having enjoyed Iron Man and Iron Man 2, almost entirely on the back of Robert Downy Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark (and if you don’t think that’s why, tell me the plot of Iron Man 2). You loved The Avengers, particularly Tony Stark’s zingers, as delivered by Robert Downey Jr. Indeed, we all know, the reason the Iron Man franchise is better than the others all comes down to the casting: it’s Downey’s show, all the way.

A shame, then, that Iron Man 3 only seemingly capitalizes on its main… capital. Thanks to Shane Black’s script, Stark gets a bunch of zingers, but they’re not as sharp as those of the other three flicks in which Stark’s been allowed to quip. Gweneth Paltrow, who plays love interest Pepper Potts (and in a much bigger showing here) said in an interview I heard recently (with Simon Mayo) that Downey improvised hugely in the first two films but stuck more to the script here. They should have let him flow. Obviously, Marvel Studios wasn’t just hiring the actor, but the improvising writer within him, and Stark is simply not as fun this time around, glued to a script that insists on some form, rather than free-form. The Iron Man franchise now resembles the first trilogy of Star Wars flicks: the first was a revelation, the second was actually better, and the third was just a little tired. And had Ewoks.

Certain lackluster choices make one scratch the old head: with the entire universe of possibility, and decades and decades worth of comics to mine, why have Tony’s other home ruined (after the decorative deconstruction toward the end of The Avengers); why confine the villain structure to the by-now-clichéd “in the third installment, you get TWO villains!” model (in this case, portrayed by Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce, both very at ease, and very adept, at this sort of thing by now). Why even have the thing come down to classic displays of physical power, of a fight? We like Tony Stark because of his wit and intelligence, and there is no reason this character could not have been taken in a James Bond / Jason Bourne-like direction, where his brain ultimately (not just in the creation of the Iron Suits) is much more intrinsic to his heroism than his metallic brawn.

It’s not just the lines, it’s the delivery of them, that aren’t quite up to the sharpness of the first two films. I get a sense Downey, who has become a gazillionaire thanks to this series, has grown bored with the sheer infrastructure of such a role, where your job is to be in at least eighty percent of the scenes and sequences, which means almost untold stretches of waiting around until everything’s finally ready for you. Downey famously declared once this franchise hired him that he was “never going back” – ie to small, independent films. I really suspect he’ll break that assertion. An actor’s got to act, after all, and the Iron Man franchise has now become exactly the same, to him, as the Iron Suit is to Tony Stark: a heavy burden, denying him the nimble movement he once enjoyed.Ewoks-endor

Posted: April 29, 2013 in movie reviews

Jagten (The Hunt) ****1/2 (out of five)

The-Hunt-2012Thomas Vinterberg is a supremely gifted storyteller. His 1998 Dogma film Festen remains, for me, a perfect movie, and that film’s screenplay is, I believe, up there amongst the bet ever written. His new film Jagten (The Hunt) is more measuredly paced than that frenetic masterpiece, but it is no less gripping. And at the end of the day it is perhaps even more gut-wrenching.

It helps when one of the world’s best actors is your lead. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a divorced kindergarten teacher in a small town in Denmark, who is falsely accused of inappropriate behavior by a girl in his charge, Klara. As the population turns against him, his life unravels. It’s like the Twilight Zone episode where nuclear panic turns a town into a mob, except here it’s told with realism and a seriously honed eye for the behavior of modern adults (Vinterberg wrote the original screenplay with Tobias Lindholm).

Thomas Vinterberg

Thomas Vinterberg

It is never remotely suggested (or intended) that Lucas is guilty, which is the right choice: the movie is not concerned with “did he or didn’t he?” (and if the inevitable Hollywood remake is, I’m going to rip it apart). This frees Mikkelsen from having to play that false mystery; knowing he’s innocent, he plays it as an innocent man would – the huge caveat being that even innocent men, when faced with inconceivable and life-altering unfairness – can behave in ways that don’t necessarily help their own cause.

While no longer adhering to Dogma’s strict rules of engagement, Vinterberg is still an austere filmmaker: there’s no score for this film – no music at all, as far as I recall – and he has a knack for making gorgeous locations feel cold and threatening. But he utilizes, in a profound and novel way, the zoom lens, to underline significant moments that, in lesser hands, may have seemed verbose; here, it is revelatory.

the-hunt1Part of the movie’s intense modes of engagement rest with its absolute accessibility: few films in my recent memory have prompted me to ask myself the classic “What would I do?”  The falsely accused man of limited means is weirdly bound by his stuff: his home, his family (here represented by his son), his dog, his surroundings that make up his life. I thought, quite early, “Well, I’d just run.” But where? And how? And, most importantly, how would that look?

To call The Hunt gripping would be like calling Annie Hall funny. It is, but it’s also so much more than that. In some ways it’s a horror movie, but the horror is simply a real-life mistake, told realistically, and played out as it might actually play out, with literally terrifying results. I was shattered by this superb, impeccably crafted, brilliantly acted, and emotionally devastating film.


Manor Porn

Posted: April 21, 2013 in movie reviews

cheerful_weather_for_the_wedding_xlgCheerful Weather for the Wedding ** (out of five)

England, a country manor, the 1930s: Downstairs, the guests gather for a wedding; upstairs, Dolly (the astonishingly beautiful Felicity Jones) frets and drinks, remembering the summer she fell in love with Joseph (Luke Treadaway), who is not the boy she’s about to marry.936full-cheerful-weather-for-the-wedding-screenshot

It’s hard to understand why this movie exists, except to cash in on the astounding popularity of Downton Abbey; it’s not funny (and I’m not sure it’s meant to be a comedy), barely dramatic, and its ponderous basic story has been told more richly many times before. At a scant 93 minutes, it feels long; it could easily have been told as a short film (it’s adapted from a 1932 novel, which probably should have been a short story).

The estate and surrounds, and most of the people, are very beautiful to look at, the costumes are fine, and there’s so nice old motors; it’s all very English and proper and tasteful, but it doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, just at your patience. If you’re seriously white-knuckling for a dose of English Period Countryside Romanticism while you wait for Downton’s next season to roll, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding will be like methadone: it’s not going to satisfy you, but it may relieve your itch.Cheerful-Weather-For-The-Wedding_19

Terrorism Porn

Posted: April 20, 2013 in movie reviews

HO00002896 Olympus Has Fallen * (out of five stars)

An action flick about an assault on the White House by a group of terrorists sympathetic to North Korea, Olympus Has Fallen revels in, and offers up for our entertainment, all the images that have most disturbed us since September 11, 2001, and which completely and very unfortunately include images from the Marathon Bombings. Thus we watch as the Washington Monument collapses into itself – in slow motion, from many angles, and spectacularly done – in an incredibly deliberate evocation of the collapse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. This is very quickly followed by a suicide bomber blowing himself up – we see his head and chest separate in fine detail – which leads us, lovingly, into images of dead children and innocent (when are they not?) civilians with limbs blown off. Having just seen the real version of this from Boston, surely I must be dying to see it all again, better shot and in high definition, at my local cinema?images

Obviously, the filmmakers involved (and I’m not going to name them, because I’m sure, individually, all are capable of better, and that this turgid film is just a weird collaborative disaster) could not possibly have known that their film would lend in cinemas just when North Korea was saber-rattling and Boston was getting its dose of deadly terrorism. Why they ever thought that this film could be considered entertaining is the really troubling question. It’s the opposite of entertaining. Having just watched real scrolling updates relentlessly regurgitating themselves under the images of real news people who are all doing their job against the obstructions of sleeplessness, inaccurate information and in-ear pieces and autocues being spoken and programmed with the slap-dashery that accompanies a true disaster, the imagined, pathetic conceit of how those elements would go down in a situation like the one imagined by this movie are stupid and insulting.

images-1Later in the film, there are further explosions, creating a “shock moment” – and facial and verbal reactions to those explosions, and that moment – that are once again specifically designed to evoke the shock and terror we all felt during the days of September 11th. This is not simply emotional manipulation, it’s terrorism porn, preying on our darkest memories to sell movie tickets, the deep problem being the movie we’ve paid to see is devoid of any entertainment value whatsoever.

The acting is atrocious across the board. Gerard Butler – who should have, with the career boost given to him by 300, at least tried to emulate Russell Crowe (who got a similar boost with Gladiator) and do adult thrillers – instead has chosen to be a run-with-a-gun man, and he’s even terrible at that; he’s the worst leading man in memory, gritting his teeth and chewing his lines like I did when I was seven years old, copying Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, except I was better. Morgan Freeman does not play the President until – spoiler! – the President (Aaron Eckart, slumming) gets taken hostage and all of a sudden, whoa and behold, Morgan Freeman is once again playing the (acting) President. So can we just get it over with, please, and elect Morgan Freeman the actual President? ( Also, why in the world did Oscar-winner Melissa Leo accept her role as a crying, screaming “terrified woman”?) The musical score (again, I will not name names, as I assume everything about this film is a compromise, and a bad one) is possibly the worst score I can ever remember, but it does have to underline – or overstate – lines such as “He just opened the gates of Hell.”imgres-2

Spoiler alert, sort of: towards the end of the film, Butler’s character does a “cheer moment”. But no-one in the (proper, paid, Saturday afternoon) audience I saw it with cheered. They were stone-cold silent. Why? Because it just felt horribly racist.

It even got worse from there, in the downhill slide towards the ostentatious, self-important credits. The film ends – spoiler alert? – in applause for the hero. This morning, I saw the residents of Watertown applaud the police officers who caught Suspect Two. That was real. Olympus Has Fallen isn’t just a fiction, falsehood or even fantasy: it’s just fake. In the end, it was The Cops, collectively, who caught Suspect 2 in Watertown. According to Olympus Has Fallen, all that was needed instead, then, on September 11th 2001, and probably on D-Day, was just One Man With a Gun.

Mad Men Versus Bad Men

Posted: April 17, 2013 in movie reviews

No **** (out of five)

no_ver2No is not the fastest-paced modern-historical-political thriller you will have seen in a while; that prize will surely belong to Argo, and can sit next to that film’s many Oscars. But there’s a reason that Pablo Larrain’s film, set amongst the plebiscite for Pinochet in Chilé in 1988, was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Oscars, and that’s because it’s incredible filmmaking on an incredible subject. It’s not easy material but it’s truly fascinating, and expertly done, albeit not in a way that could even pretend to absorb a massive world-wide audience.

How much do you actually know about Chilé? How much do you seriously know about Pinochet? If, like me, your answer is “Not enough”, this is the film for you — but wait! Essentially, your history lessen will be filtered through a Mad Men lens: how the Plebiscite on Pinochet was fought through Television Advertising. And yes — this is a fascinating inherent concept for a Feature

Larrain’s huge conceit is to shoot the film – in its entirety – on the same videotape system that was available to his actual subjects in Chilé in the late eighties, which is to say, crappy visuals all around. The genius of this approach is that when he combines his footage with the actual footage – meaning crappy videotape – of his subjects, it blends together seamlessly. Beyond seamlessly. It’s like you’re watching someone go back in time and make the cinema verité documentary of real history, with the technology of the day. It’s an astounding illusion. Gael Garcia Bernal gives an excellent performance as the ad man trying to sell the country the end of a dictator, but all the cast are completely believable.

No-movie-stillThe less you know about Chilé’s modern history, the better for your experience of watching this remarkable film; I didn’t know how things were going to turn out, and the suspense had me clutching my armrests like I wanted to strangle them. Along the way, No, eschewing music, traditional pacing, pretty images, and what we might think of structure, can, at times, feel a little slow and meandering; stay with it. It’s intensely rewarding.

To Sea, Or Not To Sea

Posted: April 11, 2013 in movie reviews

Kon-Tiki *** (out of five)

Kon Tiki PosterIf you’re in need of a couple of bursts of all-over goosebumps, Kon-Tiki is your surest bet at the moment. This old-fashioned and beautifully shot adventure yarn, based on the truly incredible true story of Thor Heyerdal, Norway’s great adventurer hero, is a real rouser. In 1947, Heyerdal and five other men set out to prove that Peruvians were the first to discover Polynesia by building a balsa wood raft and sailing the currents from Lima until they reached the islands. Adventure ensued.jakob-oftebro-tobias-santelmann-kon-tiki-01-1900x1267

Norway’s most expensive (and successful) film, nominated for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film, Kon-Tiki takes a straightforward approach to its story, eschewing heavy analysis for sharks and whales. Like any person driven to undertakings that risk their own lives and those of others to prove a point, make a name for themselves, and satisfy their grandiose egos, Thor was obviously a complicated and strangely driven man, and a film could have been made that dealt with his personal psychology in a deep, and potentially dark, way; this is not that film. Kon-Tiki satisfies itself in that regard with one scene where Thor is challenged by one of his crew as perhaps being a little obsessed; other than that, it prefers to be a straightforward, story-based account of a man who is a Norwegian legend. It’s amazing his story hasn’t been properly told on film before.

kontiki500As Thor, Pål Hagen is strappingly handsome (he strongly resembles the British actor Matthew Goode) and appropriately focused, without ever hinting at any particular turmoil of the soul. His five raft-mates are all excellently played and their ever-growing beards are rich and believable (the beard and tan continuity on this film must have been a serious challenge). Their interplay never approaches the antagonism of those onboard in The Perfect Storm; there are minor tiffs and tantrums but in general, they seemed to be a good bunch. They’re accompanied by a crab and a toucan, a typewriter and an 8mm camera; Thor’s book become a bestseller and his documentary won an Academy Award.

Thor's actual documentary of the actual excursion.

Thor’s actual documentary of the actual excursion.


In what might be considered a very practical move or a colossal waste of time and energy (on what was already a pretty challenging film set), Kon-Tiki’s dialogue scenes were all shot twice, once being in English. I don’t know whether the actors were all hired on the condition they spoke English or whether some of them spoke phonetically; if you know the way the film was shot, you are unfortunately left feeling you’re getting the “cheaper version”: you can’t help but feel these actors all provided better takes in their native tongue. I personally can’t see why this choice was made, and a worldwide onslaught of box-office takings won’t convince me otherwise; people will see this film for the story, not for the fact that the actors speak English. (For that matter, I’m surprised that Australia, a country famously open to foreign-language films, is getting the English version, which can’t help but be considered the lesser cousin to the original language cut).kon_tiki_restaurant

If you’ve recently seen Life of Pi you’re in for many similarities: when your story is almost entirely set on a small craft at sea, sharks and whales (as danger) and phosphorescence (as wonder) are par for the course. There was much more calamitous event in that movie; the Kon-Tiki (Thor’s raft) was, after all, gently riding currents for the most part, and didn’t have a tiger. But this is truth, not fiction, and, like all good pictures about true heroic voyages, be they to space, into the desert, or to the bottom of the sea, it’s intriguing, inspiring, and, yes, ultimately goose-bumpy. Very goose-bumpy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. See it on the big screen.

Don’t Fall Asleep

Posted: April 6, 2013 in movie reviews

Trance ** (out of five)


In twenty years, if you were to tell me that Danny Boyle had told his long-standing First Assistant Director to go make a movie “in the style of Danny Boyle”, and he had done so, and that the result had been Trance, I would’ve believed you. Boyle was busy making the London Olympics, after all, and somebody had to make this dumb movie. Unfortunately it was probably him.

Are we or are we not a Gang of Criminals?

Are we or are we not a Gang of Criminals?

Faced with a script that wishes it was ludicrous but is actually silly, and indeed wishes it was silly but is actually stupid, Boyle tries to cover the whole thing with style; the film is composed of endless shots in reflective surfaces, blue-soaked rooms are countered by orange walls; Dutch angles, strange compositions and of course Boyle’s trademark billowing music and endless building cacophonies dominate, and in this case sublimate, any chance we have at grasping the story. It’s all designed to instill suspense and tension when, inherently and unfortunately, there is absolutely none.

James McAvoy plays an auctioneer who finds himself caught up in a hot spot with a bunch of crooks led by Vincent Cassell; when a blow to his head damages his memory, hypnotist Rosario Dawson is hired to plumb the depths of his brain (see where this is going — and I mean in the ludicrous sense?)

Am I in Pulp Fiction? I WISH.

Am I in Pulp Fiction? I WISH.

Casell is never particularly good when acting in English and, here, he seems to try different accents to keep himself amused. Dawson is terribly, laughably wooden and MacAvoy simply looks like he doesn’t know what in the world he’s meant to be doing. Doyle was directing the Olympics during this. It’s not only ludicrously obvious that he didn’t direct his actors, it’s also ludicrously obvious that he didn’t care about this film. It’s bad.

There are many, many Danny Boyle fans all over the world, and they –and I! — have come to expect so much. He is one of the most exciting directors in the world. This is him slumming, badly; avoid.