Tuesday, 19 March 2013

'Oz: The Great and Powerful', 'Bullhead' and 'The Spirit of 45': review round-up

'Oz: The Great and Powerful' - Dir. Sam Raimi (PG)

Anything that's sold as being "from the people who brought you Alice in Wonderland" should be viewed with suspicion if not outright derision, and so it looked like Sam Raimi's prequel to 'The Wizard of Oz' - which sees James Franco as the egotistical, huckster wizard - would be one to avoid. And yet, all told, it's a pretty solid and likable little blockbuster, with enjoyable characters, some decent gags and an interesting cast of characters. Raimi's horror routes are plainly visible too, as he makes his villains - most notably the flying baboons - genuinely scary and manages to pack in a few jumpy moments, whilst his handling of the opening hot air balloon crash (which takes Oz from black and white Kansas to technicolor Oz via a tornado, in keeping with tradition) is like something straight out of 'The Evil Dead'. In fact his style is consistently visible from his fluid camera movements to distinctive use of montage.

In keeping with the 'Spider-Man' director's unabashed love of schlock (he was the producer of 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and creator of the 'Darkman' series, after all) the 3D here is gimmicky and in-your-face, but that's actually sort of fun and refreshing after the recent trend of emphasizing depth. It's tacky and, like  everything else in the film, doesn't take itself too seriously - even as it is rightly respectful of its heritage. The actors acquit themselves well across the board too, with Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams all relishing their roles as OTT witches and even the comedy sidekick characters, such as Zach Braff's motion-captured flying monkey Finley, coming over as charming when they could have been irritating.

Whilst a lot of the effects, notably the character of China Girl, are decent, some of the CGI backgrounds are a bit ropey, particularly as Franco first encounters the flora and fauna of Oz. It's also fair to say the film's message (if you can go as far as calling it that) is mildly troubling - suggesting that people at large are a dumb herd who need to be lied to by their leaders in order to be happy. Yet overall this is at its worst a bit bland and at its best an entertaining diversion. I wasn't bored - which itself is a rarity for a two-hour film of this kind - and it's certainly far better than Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland', even if it's obvious both films have a production designer in common. So take that for what it's worth!

'Bullhead' - Dir. Michael R. Roskam (15)

Matthias Schoenaerts, of 'Rust and Bone' acclaim, stars in this troubling and deeply moving Belgian thriller about meat and hormones. Ostensibly the meat in question is beef and the hormones are the various illegal testosterone supplements used to bulk it up - a dodgy practice Schoenaerts' Jacky specialises in, working with dangerous criminal gangs. But it goes further with Jacky himself a testosterone-filled piece of meat, driven (by horrific childhood trauma) to take the same illegal substances, turning him into a sweaty, aggressive and sex-obsessed bull. Then it goes further still, with lingering shots of Jacky perusing a local red light district - starring coldly at women cavorting in garish window displays - suggesting another layer to the "people as meat" metaphor. There's a similar moment in a care home, as Jacky squares up to a mentally disturbed patient - one of many sequences dominated by Jacky's immense physique and a brooding sense of threat.

In this way 'Bullhead' really seems to be an examination of what makes us functioning human beings - as opposed to animalistic bags of hormones, rutting and smashing in each other's skulls. One nasty and violent change to Jacky's anatomy turns him from one into the other, questioning how much control we have over our bodies and our behaviour. At what point does chemistry and biology take over? Yet, on top of this, it functions equally well as an exciting and intense crime film, slickly put together and impressively acted. In a rare feat, it's as entertaining as it is challenging: psychologically interesting and quietly, unassumingly, philosophical. It's equal parts tense and tragic, with a brutal ending that came like a punch to the guts.

'The Spirit of 45' - Dir. Ken Loach (U)

It can be difficult reviewing politically-minded documentaries without falling into the trap of reviewing (or even merely describing) the subject rather than the filmmaking. Ken Loach's 'The Spirit of 45' is one where that difficulty comes to the fore because, as a film, it's all stock footage and talking heads: edited together very well in service of a point which it presents compellingly, but really its success or failure rests on how you feel about its subject. To my mind, it's a solid documentary that should be shown in schools, as much because of its power and poignancy as a social document, as because of its right-on political message (it rightly venerates and idealises the NHS, and acts as a rallying cry to save it from future privitisation).

Its grasp of history is, perhaps knowingly, simplistic: the so-called "Winter of Discontent" is brushed over and Loach paints the picture of a Utopian socialist republic, suddenly dismantled by Thatcher in the 80s. And whilst I have complete sympathy for, and a certain amount of agreement with, that view it isn't telling the entire story. Though that's not necessarily a bad thing and it doesn't really get in the way of Loach's point. This is a nakedly nostalgic piece about the hopes of a generation and the preservation of an ideal - not a rigorous investigation of British economical policy from 1945-present. And on those terms it is a triumph.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

'The Paperboy', 'Side Effects' and 'Outrage Beyond': review round-up

'The Paperboy' - Dir. Lee Daniels (15)

Trashy, pulpy and a little kitsch, Lee Daniels' follow-up to 'Precious' would be much more fun if it weren't also a little po-faced. For a film that has clear arthouse pretensions, this is the movie in which Nicole Kidman's brash, convict-obsessed Charlotte wees on Zac Efron's besotted face. It's the movie which (in one of the most bizarre, awkward and misjudged scenes I've ever seen) sees Charlotte masturbating in front of the assembled cast during a visit to her incarcerated fiance, played by John Cusack - also feverishly masturbating, as hot-shot newspapermen Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo and their young driver (Efron) look on speechless: confused and a little aroused. It isn't like anything else you've seen and the there are some enjoyably extreme moments, like those highlighted, but this is funny-bad where the "bad" outweighs the "funny" by some margin.

It's replete with heavy-handed montage sequences and imagery that implies some sort of deep meaning but which under close analysis seems to yield very little. There's a Macy Grey narration that could be excised without harming the film in any way and which seems confused about who it's addressing. Why Grey's housemaid is even telling the story in the first place is never made clear by Pete Dexter's screenplay, based on his own novel. There's also the sort of over the top poverty porn that made parts of 'Precious' so baffling and slightly offensive, with every lower-class character a filthy degenerate with a funny accent. It's fun to see Cusack play against type, but it's an excessive performance - though Kidman is stand-out and the rest of the cast solid - but that's hardly enough to make up for the film's many shortcomings: an investigation storyline that goes nowhere; vague commentary on late-60s racial politics that goes nowhere; and a chase sequence in the third act that is quite possibly the least tense and exciting ever committed to film. It's a mess. Shambolic filmmaking.

'Side Effects' - Dir. Steven Soderbergh (15)

Not the film you expect it to be following a twist at the halfway point, 'Side Effects' - the supposed final film of director Steven Soderbergh - is a gripping thriller that takes many an unusual turn, stretching credibility all in the name of entertainment value. Partly a commentary on the power wielded by big US pharmaceutical companies over the medical profession - and on the power of doctors over patients - and the over-prescription of anti-depressants, the cold and methodical nature of the first half is reminiscent of the dry and earnest 'Contagion'. That section of the movie sees Jude Law's charismatic and plausible psychiatrist coming to the aid of a suicidal depressive played by Rooney Mara - a patient, seduced by advertising, into demanding a particular drug which also happens to be sponsoring several of her doctors.

The second half - which I can't really write about here - is tense, gripping and hugely entertaining, though it's undeniably quite contrived and a little silly. Never more so than whenever Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as a rival psychiatrist who looks more like someone's idea of a "sexy librarian" roleplay fantasy than a medical professional. There's something exploitative about some her scenes with Mara in particular, but it didn't hamper my enjoyment of Soderbergh's latest in a run of recent (and varied) successes - that include 'Magic Mike', 'Haywire', 'The Informant!' and the aforementioned 'Contagion'. Needless to say, I hope this isn't the final feature of a progressive 50 year-old director who appears to be going from strength to strength. Like most vintage Soderbergh, this isn't a film without flaws: but it's interesting, bold and dynamic cinema full of surprises.

'Outrage Beyond' - Dir. Takeshi Kitano (TBC)

Not his most cinematic, stylish or daring work to date - being a thoroughly enjoyable and polished, but otherwise fairly standard Yakuza gangster thriller - 'Outrage Beyond' (a sequel to his earlier 'Outrage') keeps Takeshi Kitano on solid and more commercially viable ground following a period of self-reflection and experimentation. In it he plays a former mob enforcer who just doesn't give a fuck - not about the police or his criminal overlords - making him the rogue element in a society built around deference and respect for authority. He's as enjoyable a screen presence as ever, though the film seems to lose momentum whenever he's not on-screen. Most interesting is the way the film portrays the complicity of the police in mob activity, through the schemes of Fumiyo Kohinata's cynical and manipulative Detective Kataoka - perhaps the real villain of the piece.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

'Lore', 'Stoker', 'No' and 'Robot & Frank': review round-up, plus I'm back hosting Flick's Flicks

Time for another brief review round-up, but first I wanted to mention last night's Hold Onto Your Butts Film Quiz and Duke's at Komedia - the second so far. It went very well (from what I could tell) and I had a lot of fun hosting it. If you live in, or around, Brighton you might be interested to know it's taking place on the first Thursday of every month in the upstairs bar of the cinema at Komedia (Gardner Street, North Lain area). Though I really only bring it up here as an excuse to again publish Joe Blann's fantastic picture round (above).

Also, I'm again presenting Flick's Flicks to cover the regular writer-host's maternity leave, so here is the March edition of Picturehouse cinema's online film preview show:

On with the reviews!

'Lore' - Dir. Cate Shortland (15)

People I respect have raved about Australian director Cate Shortland's German-set 'Lore' - a coming of age story that follows the displaced children of high-ranking Nazis as they come to terms with defeat at the end of the Second World - though I found it to be a turgid bore. The premise is interesting enough, with the film taking the perspective of the eldest - the titular Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) - as she tries to shepherd her feckless siblings 900km across the country to their grandmother's house, following the arrest of their parents. However, it doesn't really seem to have anything to say about the situation the characters are in, beyond the obvious - that a generation of Germans grew up with guilt for crimes they didn't commit and that children born of Nazism stepped from the war into a world they didn't understand.

These points are hammered home with a few clunking metaphors, with a porcelain deer standing for innocence/the old ways and its climatic destruction a heavy-handed signifier that young Lore has left both behind. This is also a textbook example of "too-many-endings" syndrome, with yet another little scene every time you think the credits might finally be about to roll. Probably not an issue you'd have if, like many I've spoken to, you found the whole thing engaging and in some way illuminating about the human condition. But I didn't and so the whole thing was a tortuous drag - one of those Euro arthouse movies you see in the first week of a festival and forget by the start of the second.

'Stoker' - Dir. Park Chan-wook (18)

Strangely Park Chan-wook's uber-stylish English-language debut has a few things in common with 'Lore'. Firstly, it's a coming of age story about a young women moving into adulthood and losing their childlike innocence about the world. Secondly, and more specifically, both films feature a sequence in which the protagonist spies on her mother amid a sexual act and almost immediately sets out to replicate it with a relative stranger. But there the similarities end, because 'Stoker' is a stone-cold masterpiece in terms of direction, cinematography, editing and sound design. The plot itself is perhaps predictable and lacking in the sorts of twists and turns many have come to associate with the director of the Vengeance trilogy and 'Thirst', but the way the story is told is of the highest order. Some of the transitions between scenes are simply incredible, notably a shot that seamlessly goes from an actresses hair to a field of grass.

The plot basically amounts to: hyper-sensitive and isolated teen, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, who here looks something like 'Beetlejuice'-era Winona Ryder), is troubled after the death of her father and resents her cold, dissatisfied mother (Nicole Kidman). After the funeral her estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up and decides to stay in their house - only he has a secret and is more than willing to murder to protect it. But what it's really about - in keeping with the title's allusion to Bram Stoker of Dracula fame - is sex and death, both by way of touching lady-necks. Chan-wook is looking at the ability of blood, violence and mortal danger to both repulse and attract us - examining the erotic power of horror. In this context it's only natural that, after a spate of murdering, India comes to associate carnal desire with bone-snapping acts of violence, whilst seeming to fall for her mysterious and deadly new surrogate daddy. In other words, there's a lot going on here.

Double Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver is also on hand to add to an Australian-rich cast, making her biggest impression since 'Animal Kingdom' in a brief but memorable role as India's aunt, in a film where every actor is perfectly cast. Matthew Goode in particular is a great physical presence, both charismatic and attractive whilst also always seeming like a genuine threat: he seems to loom several feet over the rest of the cast (pretty much all-female) and his hands - so often seen wrapped around the throats of victims - seem enormous. Wasikowska and Kidman are also excellent, particularly when playing off against each other.

'No' - Dir. Pablo Larrain (15)

Chilean writer-director Pablo Larrain's highest profile film in the UK to date, partly thanks to the casting of an internationally recognisable star in Gael Garcia Bernal, 'No' continues his run of films on the Pinochet era - following the disturbing and darkly funny 'Tony Manero' and 'Post Mortem'. This time his focus is on the end of that political epoch, as Bernal plays an advertising executive tasked with sexing up the "No" campaign during the 1988 plebiscite that would signal the end of the bloody dictatorship. Larrain's regular star Alfredo Castro also returns, here (naturally enough) as the suitably shady and morally ambiguous snake devising the pro-Pinochet camp's own adverts, though not even he can steal the show from the charismatic Bernal's withdrawn and equally ambiguous lead. Is he truly invested in the political campaign for which he is working? Or is he just out to win - furthering his fame within the advertising world?

In attempting to do the unthinkable and aid the "No" cause to victory - in an election assumed by most to be a formality, only staged to legitimise the regime's power - Bernal's Rene successfully uses the language of vapid, feel-good empty consumerism rather than engaging in traditional political discourse. This alienates a lot of campaigners on his side of the political fence, who feel he is ignoring the thousands of people "disappeared" by the regime, but Rene's lack of faith in the Chilean electorate is eventually rewarded. The film's final shots ingeniously play on our concerns about his victory, seemingly pondering whether a victory gained with empty, cynical consumerism can only lead to an empty, cynical and blandly consumerist society. It's a compelling point that renders the campaign's victory - almost a happy endpoint for the director's loose "Pinochet trilogy" - bittersweet.

The decision to shoot the film on 80s cameras is likewise ingenious, allowing the fictionalised drama to blend seamlessly with contemporary news footage and the original campaign clips themselves. In featuring the original adverts - with their crude comedy sketches, cheesy imagery and despicably catchy jingles - the film also becomes a historical document and a sort of documentary about that period in the nation's history, further enhancing how engrossing and fascinating the whole thing is. Along with the aforementioned 'Stoker', this is one of the best films I've seen so far this year. I can't wait to see what Larrain does next, especially now that he seems to have closed the book on that grim part of Chile's national history.

'Robot & Frank' - Dir. Jake Schreier (12A)

Without wishing to seem condescending or damning with faint praise, 'Robot & Frank' - a first feature for its writer Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier - is a gentle and nice little movie. It's supremely pleasant but without being in the least twee, and it's wistful and nostalgic without being maudlin. Frank Langella, the Frank of the title, gives a subtle, un-showy central performance as a retired cat burglar and former jailbird suffering from dementia given a healthcare robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) by his concerned son (James Marsden). Both his hotshot lawyer son and flaky, bo-ho daughter (Liv Tyler) are mostly absent from his life and Frank slips in and out of remembering who they are during their brief visits and phone calls - but, despite early  reservations, Frank soon finds a renewed lease of life through his interactions with the robot. Especially after discovering his suitability for a life of crime.

It's wryly amusing and occasionally moving, especially in the closing stages of the arc involving Susan Sarandon, but beneath the deceptively light and easy feel there are actually a lot of interesting ideas and themes at play concerning our relationship with technology, the fragility of memory and how our society treats the elderly. It's actually a movie with quite a lot to say about these things, yet it never beats you over the head with any of them. It's certainly an easy recommendation and rounds out a really good week of cinema-going!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

New Trailer: 'Iron Man 3'

Got a movie quiz to write for this Thursday, and lots of other work on at the moment, so I'll have to wait before reviewing the awesome 'Stoker', the boring 'Lore' and the fascinating 'No'. In the meantime, feed off my undying Marvel comics obsession and love of all things Avengers by watching the latest trailer for Shane Black's 'Iron Man 3'. On the strength of the trailers alone I'm already confident it's better than the second one.

This one went up today: