Monday, 20 January 2014

'12 Years A Slave', 'Gloria', 'Short Term 12' and 'Last Vegas': review round-up

'12 Years A Slave' - Dir. Steve McQueen (15)

A towering achievement and one, I suspect, that will loom large over the careers of many involved - not least writer-director Steve McQueen and star Chiwetel Ejiofor. The film follows Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) a free and comfortably middle-class black man in the mid-nineteenth century - a few decades short of the Civil War and abolition of slavery - who's tricked into leaving his wife and family in New York to perform as a violinist in Washington DC, only to be abducted and sold into slavery. As you can guess from the title, and the fact Northup later published the memoir upon which the film is based, his ordeal is not quickly resolved and we see this man accustomed to a certain level of respect and hyper-polite, cravat-wearing cordiality in the free north subjected to number of horrific, dehumanizing abuses once he is sold down south - a contrast that underlines much of the subsequent tragedy.

Soon we're, along with Soloman, witnessing the rape of enslaved women, children torn from mothers and sold to the highest bidder, lynchings, and many other appalling acts of brutality. And we see many faces of slave ownership too, from the paternalism and impotent liberal-guilt of Benedict Cumberbatch to the blind hate of Paul Dano, who seems to take great pleasure in beating and tormenting the slaves as a means to reinforcing his own fragile sense of self-worth. Then there's the mercurial Michael Fassbender as the alcoholic and unpredictable Edwin Epps, whose religious fervor and cold conviction that his slaves are nothing more than property makes for an especially nasty villain - even if, like everybody else, he's played with great humanity. Obsessed with Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey, Epps ends up using the film's most tragic character as an unwilling pawn in a domestic feud with his wife, played by Sarah Paulson, leading to several of the film's most shocking single moments of violence. Though there is a sense that all involved are victims (though some unquestionably bigger victims that others) with slavery an institution that ultimately demeans everybody.

Perhaps Hans Zimmer's conventional and overwrought score (sections of which are lifted note for note from 'Inception') is the film's only real weak-spot, with McQueen's use of diagetic music (songs sung by the slaves and Soloman's violin playing) much more genuinely heartfelt and raw than any moment the orchestra comes in. Indeed some of the sustained close-ups and long takes are made all the more memorable and stunning because they take place in complete silence. Though ultimately Ejiofor's performance is so strong, telegraphing a great deal of subtle character change over the film's titular time-frame, that it's difficult for anything to spoil it. '12 Years a Slave' is manifestly McQueen's most conventional and mainstream film to date, with his visual artist background and arthouse sensibilities more keenly felt in the cold and self-consciously difficult 'Hunger' and 'Shame'. What this film does is wed the director's compassion for difficult characters and interest in exploring unpalatable human truths with something more heartfelt and genuinely emotional - something built for an audience.

'Gloria' - Dir. Sebastián Lelio (15)

Paulina Garcia gives a sensational performance as the title character - a beguiling turn that earned her the Silver Bear for best actress at last year's Berlin Film Festival, playing a divorcee who combats feelings of isolation and unhappiness with hedonism and a slightly desperate attempt at romance. It's a perfect character study which is warm and humorous and sometimes even triumphant without compromising the well observed reality of the character and her underlying sadness. 'Gloria' is a particular joy due to its nuanced and atypical portrayal of a middle-aged woman, with the title character multifaceted and shown engaging in activities - such as clubbing, drug taking, having lots of sex, drinking, gambling - usually restricted to the under-40s as far as movies are concerned, none of which are played for easy laughs (as is the case in 'Last Vegas' - reviewed below).

A claustrophobic film, during which the camera never strays away from the protagonist (I'd be hard pressed to recall a single shot Garcia isn't in), director Sebastián Lelio has crafted something deeply compassionate and empathetic with a deceptive lightness of touch. It isn't showy and there isn't a loose scene or sequence in it, instead this is a well-crafted character piece told with great economy and forward drive that plants the viewer firmly in the shoes of its brilliant and quietly tragic central character.

'Short Term 12' - Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton (15)

More interesting when focused on the kids rather than the equally troubled adult care workers, 'Short Term 12' is an earnest and heartfelt American indie drama about a temporary care home for abused or otherwise traumatised youngsters. Brie Larson stars as Grace, a care worker who finds it difficult to listen to her own advice when it comes to dealing with her own difficult, abuse-ridden past, and she has rightly earned plaudits for the role which she plays with charm and great strength. However the stand-out actor is without doubt Keith Stanfield as Marcus, one of the troubled young people in Grace's care, who unfortunately isn't the focus of the film's main plotline even if he steals every scene he's in. It's tough and emotional without seeming cloying or manipulative, though a few strands are resolved a bit too satisfactorily at the end in a way which, though admittedly heartening, feels dishonest.

'Last Vegas' - Dir. Jon Turtletaub (12A)

Simultaneously offensive to older people - with "look! Old people doing young people stuff is funny!" being the film's only gag - whilst nakedly making a run on the so-called grey pound, Jon Turtletaub's nostalgic and sentimental romp is a waste of a fine cast. Featuring a fun and terrifically watchable Kevin Kline, a typically winsome Morgan Freeman, a suitably slick and slimy Michael Douglas and another lethargic, "where do I have to stand?" turn from Robert De Niro, 'Last Vegas' alternates between brash 'lads gone wild' antics, with wet t-shirt competitions, strippers and the dubious spectacle of veteran actors drinking spirits from an ice sculptures nipples, and schmaltzy, safe, judgmental moralising - the effect being that this is neither an "oh no they didn't!" amoral farce or a bittersweet foray into the trials of ageing and the power of friendship, though it obviously wants badly to be both. Falls flat as a comedy and as a drama, leaving a sour aftertaste.

Monday, 6 January 2014

'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug', 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', and 'American Hustle': review round-up

'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug' - Dir. Peter Jackson (12A)

This second part of Peter Jackson's 9-hour adaptation of what's quite a slender children's book, 'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug' has the same problems as its predecessor bar the songs. It's long, baggy, a bit twee, overloaded with un-engaging CGI chase sequences and full of pointless fan service for Jackson's original 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, with lots of business teasing the origins of things that ultimately happen in those other films. I didn't like the original trilogy - which feels like the sort of derivative, high fantasy trash Tolkien inspired rather than Tolkien itself - and I couldn't stand 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' either, so I won't spend long writing about this one. You're either a fan or not as this point, I would imagine. What I will say is that this second chapter is a marginal improvement on the first, mostly because there's a really terrific CGI dragon involved. True, you have to wait almost two hours (and sit through a lot of Orlando Bloom) to get to that dragon, but it is pretty spectacular when you do eventually get there.

On the subject of the derided high frame rate version (which plays at 48 frames per second as opposed to the usual 24), I was actually pretty impressed by the technology - even if it made this particular film look over-lit and cheap looking, like something you'd see on an HD TV channel rather than a major Hollywood movie. Perhaps the main benefit of watching the film in HFR was that I didn't get any sort of headache or eye-strain from nearly three hours of 3D movie. The other immediately noticeable boon was the fact that HFR seems to completely eradicate the motion blur which you usually get during sequences that involve fast panning shots with lots of action in 3D films. So basically, as it stands, it's a technology primarily aimed at improving the experience of 3D. I think it's also fair to say that the current cheap looking examples of the technology are far from representative of what it could potentially do if a film is lit specifically with the format in mind, as I'm guessing Jackson's films weren't (due to the fact the vast majority will be experiencing them in plain, old 24fps). I'm betting James Cameron will shoot 'Avatar 2' in this format and that's when we'll see it take off, just like 3D did back in 2009.

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' - Dir. Ben Stiller (PG)

The longest, glossiest advert I've ever seen. Ben Stiller's adaptation of 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' treats its audience with contempt, presenting itself as a completely sincere and resolutely anti-cynical movie, about living life to the full and self-improvement (in the most trite and superficial of ways), whilst bombarding the viewer with the most blatant, in your face product placement I've ever witnessed. Live life: Fly Air Greenland! Live life: order a Papa John's! Live life: eat a delicious Cinnabon! Live life: sign up for eHarmony! All movies feature product placement, of course, but 'Mitty' goes the extra mile of dedicating close-up after close-up to prominently branded drink cartons and suspiciously perfect looking airline food and by having the words "Papa John's" be perhaps the most often repeated in the entire movie with the possible exception of the character's name and (urgh) "the quintessence of life".

Most movies feature, say, a Heineken logo in the background (which this does, of course), but leave it at that. However 'Mitty' - which presumably made a high percentage of its money back from the off, entirely from these deals - folds product placement into the narrative directly and at every turn. It features two entire conversations about Papa John's (more specifically about how there's a Papa John's in Iceland, which is depicted as the only place in an otherwise barren land where people come together), a half-dozen phone conversations with an overly-friendly customer service guy from eHarmony (played by Patton Oswalt) which even features a line about how great service they provide is, a trip to Cinnabon (featuring lines like - and I'm paraphrasing - "you need a Cinnabon!" and "that's a plate of delicious, sugary goodness right there, my friend!") and many, many, many others. It's all just shots of Stiller Living Life(TM) (skateboarding, travelling, fighting a shark, looking at a rare species of leopard, playing football with tribesman etc) which marry the aforementioned products to a broadly appealing lifestyle. "Look at Mitty go", the film seems to cry, "be fun like him! Life is far too short! Travel abroad! Meet people! Buy a Papa Johns!"

These aren't the only problems with Mitty. It's not funny (an example of a 'funny line' Mitty wishes he'd said, to his boss with a stupid beard: "do you know who looks good in a beard? Dumbledore." Zing!) and all the character's imagined fantasy sequences are so over the top ridiculous that there's no investment in them when they occur. The romance plot, between Mitty and Kristen Wiig's character, is perfunctory and unearned, and in many ways a little creepy - barely knowing her when he buys her a young son a gift and then dropping contact with her entirely because a man answered her door one time. Wiig, who I generally like, has the thankless task having to perform an acoustic guitar version of David Bowie's Space Oddity, with a pained expression on her face as if it's the most profound song of all time and she's just written it. Most symbolic of the film's dramatic deficiencies is the "nasty boss" stock character who shows up to downsize Mitty's workplace (played by Adam Scott) seemingly fresh from the set of a pantomime. He's so over the top mean to his employees - and Mitty in particular - that it doesn't relate to the world outside of the film at all. It's all bombast and sentiment devoid of real feeling or anything meaningful to actually say about the world outside of its relentless barrage of well-worn platitudes.

'American Hustle' - Dir. David O. Russell (15)

It's been trailed like a derivative, Scorsese-influenced crime film, but David O. Russell's 70s-set 'American Hustle' is best viewed as a black comedy. Every brilliant performance, every hackneyed line, every haircut, every sequence is a little warped, a little odd - from Jennifer Lawrence doing the housework whilst miming along to Live and Let Die to Christian Bale's pot-bellied, comb-over sporting conman seducing Amy Adams in the lost property room of his dry cleaning establishment. That doesn't mean to say it isn't a decent and occasionally tense crime film, with its share interesting twists and turns in the plot, but it reminded me more of the Coen Brothers than 'Goodfellas', being about a group of variously flawed, morality bereft shysters who are often as pathetic and incompetent as they are resolutely unlikable. It's saying something that Jeremy Renner's charismatic local mayor is the only one of the bunch with any integrity and he's the victim at the centre of the big con.

Horrible people screwing each other over for the most part, but the film's refreshingly kind to the political class, who it depicts with uncommon humanity - with the mayor, as flawed and corruptible as he is, doing everything he can to help his constituents, who he earnestly strives to serve. It's careerist cops and conniving criminals who are shown to be the baddies here (even as protagonists), when we're usually sold the idea that organised criminals represent some sort of fraternity of direct, honest, old fashioned men with a strict code, as opposed to the lying, scheming cads that run the country. Instead when Bale's middle-rung financial criminal and Cooper's upwardly mobile, increasingly unhinged cop clash, there's no code of conduct or pretense of cool - nobody is in control or charismatically playing all the angles and holding all the cards. There's only a kind of ruthless, self-interested, survival of the fittest capitalism in play - and it's conscientious, civic-spirited people who get hurt in the crossfire.

Friday, 3 January 2014

My Top 30 Films of 2013: 10-1

For the first two parts of this list see 30-21 and 20-11.

10) Side Effects, dir. Steven Soderbergh, USA

What I said: "Not the film you expect it to be following a twist at the halfway point, 'Side Effects' 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'... The second half 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... Like most vintage Soderbergh, this isn't a film without flaws: but it's interesting, bold and dynamic cinema full of surprises."

It's over the top, elements of it are pretty trashy and the plot perhaps jumps the shark at least a couple of times, but 'Side Effects' is Soderbergh as a kind of Hitchcock for the RED Camera age, crafting a tense, high-concept thriller that keeps you guessing from start to finish. Or at least it keeps you guessing from the moment halfway through when it becomes clear that's the type of film this is, with the opening sections feeling like a genuine, straight attempt to chronicle the experience of one woman who falls prey to Big Pharma. It still is that film, of course, even as the plot takes a turn for the extreme, but it works on a less literal and procedural level than something like 'Contagion'. Through its twists and turns we still see the immense power of the pharmaceutical companies, who exercise a frightening control over doctors and those diagnosed with mental health issues - so it still has something to say about contemporary America. Yet the great joy of the film is the way it takes obvious pleasure in setting up a seemingly straightforward polemic (patient = victim, Big Pharma = bad), only to subvert our expectations and do something more interesting instead.

9) The Place Beyond the Pines, dir. Derek Cianfrance, USA

What I said: "Visually it's stunning, as shot by Steve McQueen's regular DP Sean Bobbitt, and somehow structurally tight in a way that belies its long running time. Factor in the fact that both Gosling and the recently Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper are on top, career-defining form and it's potentially a modern American indie classic. It's not the crime thriller a lot of people will be expecting (it's really a fairly patient and introspective drama), yet 'Pines' isn't for want of horribly tense moments or spectacular sequences - notably a one-take car chase shot from the perspective of police cars in pursuit of Gosling's motorcycle."

At the time of release, conventional wisdom seemed to be either that 'The Place Beyond the Pines' was only good for the first of its three distinct sections or that it was only let down by a baggy final third. I can see where that criticism stems from, of course. In the first instance, the narrative shift that occurs early on moves the film away from the one that was trailed and highly anticipated - and some people aren't going to be as interested watching a Bradley Cooper movie about a put-upon, workaday cop as they are a cool Ryan Gosling movie about a renegade, bank robber on a motorcycle with Eva Mendes for a girlfriend. On the second notion, the final chapter - which brings the children of Gosling's robber and Cooper's cop (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively) into conflict - is certainly a slower burn than the previous two and isn't about cops and robbers at all, shifting focus to more divisive cinematic fare: angsty teenagers. But these three connected yet distinct little dramas, which appropriately enough come one after the other with a sense of legacy, tell a compelling story about fathers and sons - and that's what 'The Place Beyond the Pines' was really about all along. Not photogenic, young pretenders to the throne of James Dean or the perils of being "one good cop in a corrupt force", but it's about choice and consequence and what we leave behind - it's about how the decisions of the father effect the life of the son. It explores these ideas moodily and beautifully over three acts that form a more fascinating whole and which would lose all meaning in isolation.

8) In the House, dir. Francois Ozon, FRA

What I said: "Ozon's film is always fresh and imaginative. For instance, we occasionally witness the same events told by Claude [Ernst Umhauer] in different ways, responding to the directions of his tutor. His style of storytelling and preoccupations also change in reaction to [Fabrice] Luchini's advice. We see Luchini pop-up and offer critique to his student, even as events in the titular house unfold, in a device that feels like something out of the best Woody Allen comedy. There's obviously something about storytelling as voyeurism going on here throughout - and also the way events can be warped and manipulated when described to an audience, but what I found especially intriguing is the way Ozon's screenplay - based on a Spanish stageplay by Juan Mayorga - eventually finds a way to come full circle and investigate the homes of the protagonists: their growing obsession with this one, pretty ordinary family, ultimately saying more about their own unhappy lives. Literature as theraputic release or as harmful self-delusion? The ending left me uncertain."

The word that springs immediately to mind when I think of Francois Ozon's 'In the House' is 'clever', though it isn't smug or overly self-conscious about it as it weaves deftly between fantasy and reality, multiple accounts of events and stories within stories - exploring how we project our own perceived inadequacies and disappointments onto the art we create and, sometimes, onto lives of complete strangers as they exist in our imagination. It's also slyly funny and charmingly perverse in the director's usual style, as ever resting just on the border of camp.

7) The Great Beauty, dir. Paolo Sorrentino, ITA

What I said: "It's a beautifully sad film punctuated by a bouncy, euro-dance soundtrack, which perfectly encapsulates the gilded cage that Rome has become for its protagonist. And it's also capable of being extremely funny, and more than a little wise with some really pithy dialogue worthy of future quotation. As you might expect from Sorrentino, it's sharply observed and offers a stinging, satirical rebuke to aspects of contemporary Italian culture: from a conveyor-belt approach to cosmetic surgery to the empty pretension of Rome's young avant garde set. Yet it's also a tender and sincere piece in which sex, death and the Catholic church all play a part. And gosh is it pretty to look at."

"I didn't just want to go to parties. I wanted to have the power to make them a failure." One of the best lines in a film full of them, most delivered with urbane wit by star Toni Servillo, playing a jaded intellectual who, on turning 65 at the film's outset, reflects on the dissatisfaction of his life to that point. He might be a self-styled king of parties, holding sway over the nightlife and certain intellectual circles in the most glamorous corners of Rome, but Jep Gambardella is otherwise a failure in his own estimation: with love and literary inspiration (he is said to have written one great novel) both abandoning him in his mid-20s, plunging him into a state of perpetual apathy and empty encounters with women. Sorrentino blends the modern (kitsch dance music and CGI flamingos) with the classically beautiful and culturally refined, painting a portrait of a modern day Italy rife with contradiction. Here we're shown a devoutly religious state that revels in licentiousness and hedonistic excess, with both equally vacuous. There's a sad overriding feeling of entropy over the whole movie, as if Rome and Jep, who have both seen better days, are both about to crumble into the Tiber. Yet, as you'd expect with something called 'La grande bellezza', it's also inherently life-affirming and, well, beautiful.

6) No, dir. Pablo Larrain, CHI

What I said: "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 - [Gael Garcia] Bernal's Rene successfully uses the language of vapid, feel-good empty consumerism rather than engaging in traditional political discourse... 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."

As the morally ambiguous protagonist of Pablo Larrain's latest masterpiece, Gael Garcia Bernal is perfectly cast. Not only is he a fine actor and effortlessly charismatic screen presence, but his place here also serves to represent the film in a microcosm. Much like the shallow, US-influenced political ad campaigns devised by his character were a break from the daily grind of life under the dictator, he represents the only bit of Hollywood glamour in the film's otherwise grainy and dour reproduction of 1980s Chile. It's star semiotics exploited to the movie's great benefit. Supporting Bernal is Alfredo Castro as his opposite number, playing the same role for the other side of the campaign and almost equally morally blank - Castro, the haggard star of Larrain's previous two Pinochet films ('Tony Manero' and 'Post Mortem'), in both of which he plays deeply disturbing psychopaths, is an altogether different animal in front of the camera and they play off each other brilliantly before even a word is spoken. As much as it's a good account of events that happened very specifically in Chile in 1988, what's brilliant about 'No' is its timely look at a culture of style over substance and of the victory of comfortable consumerism over political idealism. The dark beauty of 'No' is that it ends with the overthrow of a murderous tyrant and asks us if we really got a happy ending. How you win and how you argue are vitally important.

5) Mud, dir. Jeff Nichols, USA

What I said: "'Mud' is a beautiful and moving piece of work. Sincere and populated by warm, genuinely loving characters right through the cast. It goes unexpected places and sidesteps every cliche you think you can see coming along the way. Overwhelmingly it's a film about love - in all its forms - in all its fragility and with all its pitfalls, but which ultimately manages to be warm and optimistic without compromising the gritty stuff. Love is hard and sometimes impermanent, it says. You might throw everything into it and get your heart ripped out, or even find yourself publicly humiliated as a result of unrequited affection. Yet it's worth it: it's the best thing we have and the only thing in this world worth having. That is basically the lesson learnt by the young hero through his trials and tribulations, but all without seeming twee or saccharine in the slightest. Quite an achievement - and a noble one at that."

A breathtaking coming of age movie set on the Mississippi River, 'Mud' is about two young boys (played by the impressive Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who encounter a charismatic fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) holed up in the wreckage of a boat they had hoped to salvage for themselves. In an effort to get "their" boat back the boys agree to help this mysterious stranger, who calls himself Mud, bringing him supplies and getting messages to his lover, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), based in the nearby town. Before long Ellis, the boy played by Sheridan and the film's emotional centre, becomes personally invested in the success of Mud's romance with Juniper, not least of all because he needs his adolescent faith in everlasting love reaffirmed at a time when his parents head towards divorce. 'Take Shelter' director Jeff Nichols has spun an old-fashioned yarn - about boys playing by the river, picking up sticks and hiding a secret in their den - that's as much a bittersweet rumination on the nature of love as it's about growing up.

4) Bullhead, dir. Michael R. Roskam, BEL

What I said: "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... '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?"

An odd one this, because 'Bullhead' is a bit uneven with some odd bits of toilet humour (possibly lost in translation) that confuse the tone and, in my view at least, some fairly needless police procedural drama - but when it's squarely about Mattias Schoenaert's intimidating cattle farmer Jacky you can't take your eyes off the screen. Such a titanic physical performance, with the handsome leading man somehow turning himself into this large, sweating, panting man-bull in front of director Michael R. Roskam's camera, Schoenaert's leaves you devastated by the year's bleakest, most intensely upsetting finale. It also has an interesting central premise that it explores in a variety of ways, with the idea that humans are bags of meat controlled by little more than hormones feeding its way into depictions of the sex trade and a retirement home - which is less heavy-handed in practice than it sounds on paper.

3) Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuaron, USA

What I said: "Essentially 'Gravity' is the story of one human's clawing, panting, sweaty fight for survival against desperately long odds, as Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone - a small-town medical engineer with minimal NASA training - tries to avoid being struck by a calamitous cloud of satellite debris and somehow make it back to Earth without a spaceship after her mission goes horribly wrong. Though Stone has some very real, physical challenges to overcome - such as a depleting oxygen supply and the aforementioned debris field - the chief obstacle she faces is her own weary indifference to life itself. The film is about what it takes for this person to make the difficult decision to live when lying down and dying would be much easier - and, even, more comforting. Through various visual metaphors and lines of dialogue we come to see Stone as someone eager to shut all of the world out in some doomed bid to return to the womb: where George Clooney's charismatic, veteran astronaut sees wonder, Stone appears indifferent and complains of feeling physically ill. At its heart this is a small-scale story about an introverted, deeply personal problem - albeit projected onto an epic and exciting story."

Beyond admitting the unmistakable fact that it's a groundbreaking technical achievement destined to redefine how we depict space on film and that it's almost peerlessly tense for its whole running length, many who saw (and even enjoyed) 'Gravity' have sighted "the script" (by which people tend to mean dialogue and story, even though everything that happens in that movie will be in the screenplay) as a terrible, near-embarrassing Achilles heal. The argument runs that Alfonso Cuaron's film is a shallow, silly thrill-ride and nothing more. First of all: so what if it is? Most heavy, life-changing dramas are not spectacular technical achievements that empty the entire cinematic toolbox in order to excite and astound us and keep us on the edge of our seats. But secondly: no, 'Gravity' isn't dumb or shallow or badly scripted or poorly written. It's simple and the characters (all two of them) are fairly broad archetypes, sure, but the story told in 'Gravity' is not a perfunctory excuse to take the audience on an amusement park ride. It's a human drama that uses this extreme situation as a way to tell a character-driven story in a total-cinema, sensory experience way. At its heart this isn't a movie about a rookie astronaut trying to get back to Earth against all odds: it's about choosing to live when it might be easier not to. It's about finding something to live for, whatever that might be. I saw 'Gravity' twice and found it extremely moving in part because of its directness and disarming simplicity.

2) Stoker, dir. Park Chan-wook, USA/UK

What I said: "'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, 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."

I pretty much cover why I loved 'Stoker' in the excerpt above. As with 'Gravity', it's a technical achievement of the very highest order - in this case due to incredibly imaginative, seamlessly implemented editing choices and especially terrific sound design. There's also a really visceral quality to the whole thing which will come as no surprise to fans of Park Chan-wook's previous Korean language movies, with sweat, dirt, blood and sex ever-present characters alongside a brilliant cast of actors - each of whom I've seen many times before and never been struck by. But here Matthew Goode is a sinister force of nature, Nicole Kidman is deliciously watchable as the protagonist's cold mother, and Mia Wasikowska is brilliant too, seemingly channelling early-90s Winona Ryder to perfection. I always describe it to people as a vampire movie without any vampires, due to its fascination with the awakening of female sexual desire and the relationship between sex and death, as well as the fact that Goode places his (apparently massive) hands around the necks of his victims. It's a fairly straightforward movie on a plot level, but there's a lot going on under the surface of 'Stoker', which makes it such a rich and rewarding experience.

1) Frances Ha, dir. Noah Baumbach, USA

What I said: "Co-written by Baumbach and luminescent star Greta Gerwig, the film depicts Frances as she drifts between temporary, low-wage jobs, flits between various apartments and generally struggles to belong in the world of adulthood that she is nominally now considered part of. A wannabe dancer who looks destined to fall short of being quite good enough to really make it, this is the story of a wide-eyed kid who is gradually coming to the realisation that they might not get to be an astronaut and may have to accept being just another normal person. But that's OK. Baumbach and Gerwig deliver this timely and sobering message with a lightness of touch and touching humour that stops it from being in any way bleak: Frances maybe a bit of a fuck-up, but she's a loveable fuck-up and one I can certainly relate to. This isn't simply one of the best films I've seen this year but, personally, it's the rare kind of film I can see making a lasting impression in the way very few films can lay claim. Usually, at the very best, films find ways to challenge or perhaps just effectively articulate how you feel about the world. But, for me 'Frances Ha' seems to bring into sharp focus truths about myself that actually help me better understand the world I live in and my own place in it. That's a rare thing for a film to do."

A supremely personal choice for my best film of the year, 'Frances Ha' is not pure cinema in the way 'Gravity', 'Stoker' and 'The Great Beauty' can claim to be - I still haven't seen it on a big screen myself, regrettably seeing it via a DVD screener instead - but nothing reached down into my soul this year like Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's bittersweet, black and white comedy-drama. It's a movie that speaks, I think, to a fairly common problem faced specifically by people around my age (late-20s) downwards: that of aimlessness and dissatisfaction with your confused place in world. A sense that your place in the world isn't what you were promised - by the media, by the education system, by your parents. Gerwig's frustrating-yet-lovable Frances perfectly encapsulates this struggle to come to terms with reality and accept defeat, to some extent, in regards to her dreams, in that she will never be the dancer she has always dreamed of becoming. But the movie isn't pessimistic or downbeat in telling this story, and that's probably why it works. This isn't a tale of unrelenting, self-absorbed woe (that would be boring and irritating), but ultimately a testament to how falling short of your own lofty expectations is perfectly OK. It's somehow always realistic and a little tragic, whilst simultaneously being uplifting and optimistic. And that's why I love it. It isn't a denial of life's disappointments, but it's defiantly upbeat in the face of them.

For the first two parts of this list see 30-21 and 20-11.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Genuine Cuteness Vs Contrived Cuteness

I've been thinking a little about why Disney's 'Frozen' didn't work for me and I've realised that - equally grating as the bad Broadway-style pop songs - is the way little children are presented at the start of the film. Specifically the toddler version of Princess Anna, whose big round face, massive eyes and constant shrill giggling feel like the product of somebody typing the word CUTE into some sort of character generator machine. Make no mistake, children are (or at least can be) cute. Real children, that is. Children are one of the hardest things to get right in media - films and video games in particular - because there is a really fine line between genuinely cute movie children and cynically cute children, born of contrivance and engineered to manipulate an audience.

The difference between the two should be clear, but I'm going to provide video examples anyway to illustrate my point.

First, here is a clip of Mei from Miyazaki's 'My Neighbour Totoro':

Mei is cute because she behaves like a child. The animation is subtle and perfectly observed. She is dumpy and clumsy in a very realistic way that causes you to recall actual children you know, and her one, loud, exaggerated shriek of delight in the above clip also rings very true. The clip I really wanted, but could not find, was perhaps the best example of this genuine, organic cuteness born of creating a compelling, young character (as opposed to going about it in reverse): the bit where she puts on an oversized straw hat, picks up a trowel, slings a big bag over her shoulders and tells her dad she's "just off to run some errands". Perfect. Just the sort of strange thing a child might actual say.

Here is what happens when it all goes horribly wrong. Here is an egregious example of contrived cuteness...

I didn't know this character was called "Agnes", but immediately found loads of clips and pictures by typing "Despicable Me cute girl" into Google. This is appropriate, because Agnes is not a character. She's a high-pitched voice and big eyes, saying the word unicorn every second line. She isn't designed to resemble an actual child. She's designed to appeal to people who go "awwwww" when they see a picture of a particularly photogenic animal.

Disney usually don't fall into "The Agnes Trap", but young Princess Anna is exactly this way. Yes, I'm fixating on something really small at the start of the film, but I expect better of Disney animators. Rant over. Return to your cat pictures, internet.