Archive for October, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Posted: October 23, 2015 in movie reviews

Bridge Of Spies One Sheet****1/2 (out of five)

Bridge of Spies is heaven in the dark, an extraordinarily well-calibrated historical drama from storytellers par excellence, Steven Spielberg, the Cohen Brothers, and young Matt Charman. How Charman, whose credit list is very, very short, ended up joining the Cohen Brothers writing a huge Tom Hanks movie for Spielberg to direct is, I’m sure, an amazing story – but not as amazing as that told in Bridge of Spies.

As an episode in Cold War shenanigans, you’ll have heard this one told as something along the lines of the Francis Gary Powers incident. While Powers is certainly instrumental to the film, the Cohen and Charman screenplay steps aside and views the story through the prism of Russian prisoner Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and his lawyer, then negotiator for his release, James Donovan (Tom Hanks, in what can now definitely be called A Tom Hanks Role). Not only that, they begin their story a step or two back along time’s path, with Abel’s arrest, and we don’t even meet Powers for about a half hour or so. This not only freshens the story for those familiar with the Powers episode, but gives us a deeply resonant character study in Donovan, and clues to his motivations (the simplest and most wonderful perhaps being that he just liked Abel).

Every craft element on display here is superb. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is the most polished and gorgeous old-school shooting you could possibly hope for, Thomas Newman’s gorgeous music is subtly majestic (it’s such a nice change from John Williams, I have to say) and Michael Kahn’s editing is disciplined and precise. The art direction in all departments is staggeringly beautiful. My jaw dropped in one scene just looking at a visa.

Hanks and Rylance are perfect in their parts – Hanks could do this kind of American Hero standing on his head, which is not to deny he does it beautifully – and the supporting cast, particularly Scott Shepherd as CIA man Hoffman, is universally excellent. Even the lone female of any note in this completely “whitemale” story – The Wife, of course – is intricately realised by Amy Ryan.

There is not a lot of suspense or tension in Bridge of Spies – particularly if you know your history – but it is enormously entertaining and ultimately very moving. It’s like a really decent hefty novel, told in full sentences, with proper paragraphs and chapters and perhaps even hardback. In other words, yes, it’s “old-fashioned”, but really really good old-fashioned. A must-see on the big screen.

thelobster-posters*** (out of five)

The Lobster – particularly the first, superior half – reminded me a lot of Milan Kundera, whom I read a lot of, devotedly, when I was in my early 20s. Yorgos Lanthimos’ slightly surreal, slightly dystopian, slightly funny and slightly profound fifth feature – his first in English – shares those qualities with Kundera (at least as I read him) and Rachel Weisz’s story-book narration – both objective and subjective simultaneously – reminded me of Kundera’s voice, which always had an omniscient quality while also being teasing and witty.

The characters in The Lobster all speak in a way that sounds translated, which may also contribute to my “Kundera effect”. Their delivery is deadpan, formal, relatively flat, and highly deliberate. It’s not just that they may indeed be speaking dialogue that has been translated from Lanthimos’ native Greek. The actors are following a strict line of direction here; they’re all on the same page, aspiring to a slightly mysterious goal, and together, along with the natural lighting (mostly available light was used in the shooting), the absurd elements of the script, and the constant use of highly brazen metaphor, a specific and unique universe is created.

The fist half of the film is set in a lush but chilly resort hotel (placed nowhere in particular but shot in Ireland) where David (a pudgy Colin Farrell), a recent divorcee, arrives to discover his destiny: life with a new partner or life as an animal of his choosing. In the rules of this world, he has forty-five days to find a soulmate within the resort – one who shares at least one major trait of his own – or undergo the transformation. He can choose any animal he wishes, and he chooses a lobster. It’s a good choice, according to the hotel manager (Olivia Colman, once again proving she can do no wrong); “most people choose to be a dog, which is why there are so many dogs”.

These scenes in the hotel are intriguing and often very funny (in a very dry way); Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Jessica Barden, Ashley Jensen (from Extras) and in particular Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia all do specific work here, adhering to the rules of Lanthimos’ game admirably. The second half, which expands the story significantly, is less engaging, and feels longer and more self-indulgent; it also can be a little baffling, which the first half, despite its overtones of surrealism and absurdity, never is.

Lanthimos is an acquired taste and shows no signs, as his career ascends, of altering his style to expand his audience (which is happening anyway, especially given his move into English and his use of movie stars). This is an accessible, fun and occasionally frustrating entry into his body of work.

Burnt

** (out of five)

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that a protagonist must be at least somehow likeable in order for an audience to spend a movie following them. It should also, by now, be a truth universally acknowledged that Bradley Cooper is an excellent actor (perhaps his three Oscar nominations in that category can move those who still consider him just a funny guy with a pretty face). To me it is obvious that Cooper likes to stretch himself, take risks, rise to a challenge. Perhaps that’s why he took the role of Adam Jones in Burnt, a character who must be the most unlikeable protagonist seen in a mainstream movie in many years. It is a challenge to sit through his appalling behaviour for the film’s ninety-seven minutes. Cooper is always believable, always compelling, but Adam makes you want to punch him in the face.

Adam is the world’s most celebrated chef, newly sober and getting back in the game after a self-imposed exile shucking exactly one million oysters in an oyster shack in New Orleans (a ludicrous dramatic conceit that sets the film’s tone of serious implausibility). His addictions are booze, drugs and sex, and they led him to personal and professional travesty. Now that his penance is complete, Adam seeks out his old colleague Tony (Daniel Brühl), who is Maitre D at the restaurant of his father’s London hotel, and tells him, point-blank, that he’s taking over the place. The road to his redemption is paved from there, but Adam heads along it in a continuing series of terrible behaviours that aren’t funny or clever, simply self-serving and contemptuous.

A love story, with Sienna Miller’s Helene, also a brilliant chef (but nowhere near as brilliant as Adam, who is essentially God to other chefs) is ludicrous, especially after a pivotal scene in which Adam abuses and humiliates her publicly and physically. Helene is a terribly written character, her motivations and actions completely subject to the script’s need to somehow keep our interest in Adam alive. Her behaviour is completely unbelievable.

Steven Knight wrote (my choice for) the best original screenplay of 2013, Locke, and some other fine films and television series including Eastern Promises and Peaky Blinders. But his script here is cookie-cutter and obvious, not to mention supremely formulaic. You can see it all coming a mile away. A lot of the dialogue is very, very “on the nose” (which is a serious disappointment from such a good writer), the characters are stereotypes throughout, and the whole thing feels very passé, especially in the wake of Jon Favreau’s now-beloved Chef (2014). The low point occurs when the film directly steals an iconic moment from Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996).

Yet somehow it’s not a complete disaster. All the actors are deeply committed, and manage to impress even through their one-dimensional character constraints (none more so than Matthew Rhys, playing a rival chef with – surprise! – arrogant, competitive anger issues). There are endless shots of food being prepared – more than any other foodie film I’ve seen – but the basic conflict between the rival chefs, centred on the preparation of food without flame (and instead, in plastic bags and with kitchen machinery that looks like it belongs in a laboratory) is dated, and feels it. Supposedly the script dates back to at least 2007; David Fincher was attached for a couple of years, with Keanu Reeves attached as Adam, before Fincher walked in 2010. Perhaps then it should have been left to wither and die; we’ve seen all this before, and much, much better. Great chefs may be horrible, arrogant, violent, self-centred, pretentious, egomaniacal dickheads, but that doesn’t mean we want to spend an hour and a half with one.

18967542350_58eaea0039_o-1****

If you don’t like your movies to celebrate criminals, avoid Legend, which treats London’s notorious Kray twins as if they were tragic heroes. Which should be pretty obvious by the title.

In yet another stroke of awesome acting, Tom Hardy plays both twins, Reggie and Ronnie, and he does it so well that you seriously do forget it’s the same dude (in Ron’s case, behind the glasses). Reggie is reasonable and smart and caring (was he really this reasonable and smart and caring?) while Ron is a sociopath. He’s also homosexual, paranoid, violent and by far the more interesting – indeed, fun – of the two.

The Krays’ reign (of terror) was at its height in the 1960s, and the film takes place mainly in the second half of that decade, not bothering with their early years (to its benefit, for my taste at least). The main narrative is constructed through the prism of Reggie’s relationship with young East End lass Frances (played very well by Emily Browning) with Ronnie’s release from a mental hospital and subsequent loose-cannon behaviour running alongside as a sort of “B” story. But you don’t come to a movie about the Krays for a love story or a treatise on mental illness, you come for the criminal activity, and that is ticked off episodically. You get all the highlights – the controversy with Lord Boothby (a perfect John Sessions), the alliance with the US Mob (represented London-side by Angelo Bruno and played snakily by Chazz Palminteri), the murders (although the relationship with Frank “The Mad Axeman” Mitchell is not represented, which is strange, as it’s so juicy) – and, thankfully, a bit of context in the form of the boys’ beloved mum and dad (Jane Wood and Jon McKenna). Ronnie’s homosexuality runs as a dominant theme throughout, and the creation of his own queer mini-gang within The Firm is an important and intriguing sideshow. Taron Egerton, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald and Paul Bettany are all along for the jaunty ride.

Legend is written and directed by Brian Helgeland who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for LA Confidential, and it shares with that film a glossy sheen and sense of heightened style. Everything is very colourful and very bright and the tone is fun, fun fun. These Krays are funnier than they are scary, and Hardy’s dual performance, especially as Ronnie, is even more theatrical than his usual heightened style. If this version of the Krays’ story had been based on a graphic novel I would not have been surprised – it’s got that sort of tone. Instead, it’s based on John Pearson’s 1972 book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, which, in line with the resulting film, thoroughly glamorises the Krays’ lifestyles, and which was, indeed, the result of their wanting someone to write their “official autobiography”!

I have no qualms about gangster movies that glorify the gangsters – I’d have to sacrifice a significant chunk of Scorsese’s oevre if I did – and I didn’t have a problem with the breezy, happy-go-lucky tone of Legend. Indeed, I had a lot of fun throughout. But that does come at the price of any sort of real insight or emotional resonance, and the events towards the end of the film, which should have been kind of shattering, instead simply signalled to me that the story was winding up. Scorsese pitches us Glamour Gangsters too, but he always manages to include some heavy dark truths that ultimately keep us aware that we, the taxpayers, are on the right side of morality. Legend suggests we may actually be the mugs.

thewalkposter*1/2

Don’t see The Walk. See Man On Wire instead. And if you’ve seen Man On Wire, see it again instead of seeing this completely redundant, ham-fisted, embarrassing (and boring!) re-telling of the same story. The Walk is so bad that it’s not only a stain on Man On Wire, it’s also detrimental to that perfect film, because some people may see The Walk at the expense of seeing Man On Wire, and that would just be a horrendous shame – a crime, really.

Man On Wire was a 2008 documentary by James Marsh based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach The Clouds, about his wire-walking life and particularly and spectacularly his mind-blowing walk between New York’s World Trade Center Towers in 1974. It’s a stunningly realised, exorbitantly entertaining, thrilling, suspenseful, gorgeous and hilarious movie – as I say, a perfect telling of this incredible true story. Petit is a truly unique screen presence, and the things he did to make his walk happen – the planning, the recruitment of “accomplices”, the break-ins and stealth moves and ultimate triumph – were documented enough to grippingly accompany his own extremely vibrant talking head.

Thus, given that the story’s been perfectly told, The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’ dramatisation, is totally redundant – but it’s so much worse than that. The film is dreadful: overlong, didactic, simplistic, stultifying and very VERY VERY emphatic. Each scene is played at full volume in a cartoonish style that desperately underlines, bolds, screams and punches every single point and effect Zemeckis is trying to make, as though he’s trying to get through to a roomful of deaf babies. The dialogue is appalling, the music atrocious, and the performances… oy. Joseph Gordan Levitt has obviously spent a lot of time studying Petit, and he certainly captures his “Frenchness” and makes a good attempt at his spirit, but everything is so geared up, so amplified, that at times he’s as much playing Pepe Le Pew as the enigmatic Frenchman.

Zemeckis is often tonally linked to Spielberg, but Spielberg always knows how to dole out his Spielbergian moments, whereas Zemeckis here seems to want every single moment to be a Spielbergian moment. It’s tasteless, crass and annoying. By the time Petit was stepping onto the wire for what should have been a hugely cathartic sequence, I was wondering when I’d get a chance to clip my fingernails. Terrible.

The Martian

Posted: October 5, 2015 in movie reviews

PHIIVE4Rs7PJMO_1_l****1/2

Easily and obviously Ridley Scott’s best film since Black Hawk Down (2001), and instantly joining that film, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner and Alien as among the best of his 23-film oeuvre, The Martian is big-screen, all-ages, mass-market entertainment at its best. It excels in every department – cinematography, script, VFX, sound, design, editing – but perhaps most of all in casting. How’s this for a role call:  Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover – all of them perfectly cast, bringing dimension and heart to a tale that is simultaneously monumental and bracingly simple.

Oh, there’s Matt Damon, too, and, to judge by the poster, he’s the only one in the movie. That’s not what’s going on at all. This is not Castaway In Space, and it’s not even Robinson Crusoe. Damon’s spirited, jaunty, cocky yet vulnerable botanist astronaut Mark Watney is stuck by himself on Mars, yes, left there alone when his crew had to split the red planet fast, leaving him for (presumed) dead; but there’s a whole lot of action going on down on Earth – at NASA, not in mundane living rooms (we don’t waste time with Mark’s family or civilian friends) and, in the second half of the film, stuff happening among the crew who left Mark behind, and who are still in space, on their way back to earth.

Jessica Chastain leads this crew, and on Earth, Jeff Daniels plays the Director of NASA, and both embody compassionate leadership as expertly as you could possibly want. Each is surrounded by well-meaning, highly intelligent and competent co-workers, all devoutly determined to bring Mark home alive. Conspiring against them are not clichéd evil politicians, let alone evil aliens, but the simple constraints of time and space: Mark’s only got so much food, NASA can only get to Mars so fast – how’re we gonna do this?

Watching them figure that out while we watch Mark, on Mars, try to extend his resources to give the folks back home more time forms the dramatic spine of the movie, while also providing the chance to revel in scientific detail that is always fun and never dull (and this from your humble reviewer who gave up high school science and math at the first opportunity – the “tenth grade” – spending his final two years baking in languages and history). For the emotional side of things, we’ve got Mark’s crew, who have to deal – in their no-nonsense, astronaut-trained way – with having left Mark behind, and now with having to possibly aid in getting him back.

There are so many things – again, clichés – that could have been in this movie that simply aren’t. No wife and child back home to fret and cry, no President concerned about getting re-elected, no relentless reporter determined to get the big scoop, no Russian space program using NASA’s screw-up to score points on the international scene, no frivolous crap. By confining the story entirely to employees of NASA, Scott keeps the movie’s focus laser-sharp and free of sentimentality… and then, to let it breathe, he allows us to laugh.

This movie is funny. It has way more laugh-out-loud moments than many a Hollywood “comedy”, and they all come from an authentic place, arising organically from situation and character. I saw the film with a Sunday crowd of civilians and they were vocally loving it. Some of the laughs had legs, rolling and extending, filled with surprised delight – no one expected this sci-fi tale to be so funny, so joyous.

The Martian isn’s nearly as tense as Gravity, because it’s not trying to be that film. It’s nowhere near as dense as Interstellar for the same reason. The Martian is its own, unique and wonderful beast, with a bizarre (in the best possible way), unique tone that is full of fun and wonder. It’s a feel-good romp with lashings of science, a sci-fi flick with laughs, an ensemble comedy, a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. It’s incredibly refreshing to come out of it impressed with the cast, the one-liners, and the story rather than the special effects (which are excellent, by the way). Ridley Scott has found new joy and buoyancy with this delightful tale. You’ll come out smiling, and singing the ‘70s disco hits that (completely organically) permeate the film. ‘70s disco hits? If that surprises you, you’re in for many, many more treats. Highly recommended and one of the best films of the year.