Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Warrior - review

From the trailers and tv spots, it would be easy to assume that Warrior is just another typical sports movie that adheres to every cliche that you find in every instalment of the Rocky or Karate Kid series.
And for 120 minutes you could argue that it does. But by the time we get to the final of the tournament, we are so emotionally invested in the family dynamic and what it means to both men to win that Warrior delivers a knockout emotional sucker punch that may leave grown men weeping in the aisles (myself included).
Warrior centres around the increasingly popular world of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and a tournament to determine the best in the world called Sparta (I can't help but feel they missed a trick by not having Gerard Butler involved to welcome people to the fights).
Where this film differentiated itself from the pack is that instead of following one combatant on the road to glory, we are following two... and they're brothers!
Much like The Fighter earlier this year, Warrior uses the sports genre as the backdrop for a story of a family that is torn apart and this tournament just might be the thing to bring them together.
Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a former marine, built like a brick shithouse and complete raging bull with a punch that could knock out an elephant. Brendan (Joel Edgarton) is a former UFC fighter turned family man and teacher. They haven't seen each other in years and both are estranged from their former alcoholic and domestically violent father (Nick Nolte on terrific form), but this tournament sets them on a path to face each other and their issues.
It is not spoiling anything, it's even in the trailer, that the two brothers will meet in the final of the tournament, but it is a testament to the filmmakers that they still manage to bring a level of tension and excitement to the individual fights despite the sense of inevitability, thanks to an authentic, frenetic energy to the camerawork.
Faultless performances from both leads mean that our loyalties are split come the time the bell rings for the final and the outcome of the fight is impossible to call.
To paraphrase the tagline of another epic matchup film, "Whoever wins, we lose... our dignity in the screen. I'm sorry, give me a minute, I have something in my eye".

5 stars

Drive - review

Drive premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May where it was met with near universal acclaim and won the Best Director award for Nicolas Winding Refn. Since then it has been touted by many critics as their "Film Of The Year".
I always worry when films receive such a high volume of praise, because it is then difficult for them to live up to such lofty expectations (The Guard springs to mind here)... but I am delighted to inform you that Drive is one of those rare occasions where you can believe the hype. It is quite possibly the film of the year and definitely the coolest, leaving all other contenders in its dust.
Originally planned to be in the same vein as Fast & Furious, thankfully when Gosling and Refn came on board they decided not to betray the source material's pulp fiction roots and have crafted a thriller that is lean, mean, fast and as cool as a (insert appropriate car here).
Man crush of the moment Ryan Gosling is the unnamed Driver of the film. Whether it is doing stunts for movies, acting as a getaway driver or just driving around at night, that he who he is. No more, no less. His character can be likened to The Man With No Name in the Leone films. It is a very underplayed performance by Gosling, he has minimal dialogue, preferring to let his face and body language tell the story, and his grey satin jacket with a scorpion motif will be as iconic as Eastwood's hat and poncho. You can imagine him arriving town, taking down a score or helping a damsel in distress before riding off into the sunset, but in this case he doesn't use a horse but a Dodge Cavalier instead.
I think it was Godard who said "all you need to tell a story is a girl and a gun" and this is true for Drive... if you substitute "gun" for "claw hammer", fast becoming 2011's weapon of choice (see also Kill List, ).
Suffice to say our driver gets mixed up with a pretty girl (Carey Mulligan) and his quiet, controlled life quickly spins out of control and the road to revenge is peppered with pitstops of extreme violence. Is that enough driving puns?
Refn fully deserves the praise coming his way and his shiny award from Cannes. There is not a single moment of the film where he is not in complete control of what is one screen. He draws great performances out of his actors (Albert Brooks proving that sometimes comedians can do menacing better than the rest), knows that a lingering look between Gosling and Mulligan says more than any dialogue could, when to hold a shot and when to cut away, and as exemplified on BBC Breakfast, he knows that building to these sudden bursts of violence is very important, the lift scene a prime example. Backed up with stunning cinematography that gives Los Angeles a sheen that it hasn't had since Collateral and a terrific electronic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez that is destined to be downloaded by moviegoers straight after the film, Refn looks to be the complete filmmaker and I for one am very excited about his future prospects.
So grab your toothpick, sit down and fasten your seat belts because it's going to be one bumpy, but sizzlingly cool, night at the Drive-In for, yes I'm saying it too, The Film Of The Year.

5 stars

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - review

In terms of cinematic release schedules and high profile film festivals like Venice and Toronto, September sees a shift from the mindless Summer blockbuster to the potential Awards contenders looking to be on critics' Top Ten lists and winning BAFTAs and Oscars come the end of the year.
And the first major contender has arrived in the form of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Smart women are often referred to as "thinking man's crumpet", and by that rationale Tinker Tailor et all is the "thinking man's spy film". The world of George Smiley is a million miles away from that of James Bond or Jason Bourne. This is espionage devoid of gadgets, car chases, computers, parkour and fist fights.
This is a world where shadowy men meet in smoke filled rooms, speak in codenames and people have to steal paper files, paper ones!
Another name for this film could have been Oldman's Eleven, as it has one of the best casts of recent years, possibly all time, and the common factor is that they all wanted to work with Gary Oldman. This is a cast that includes an Oscar winning King, Dobby The House Elf, Bane, The Elephant Man, Sherlock Holmes and "that guy who is in every British film" Mark Strong.
Out of the supporting cast Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy make the most of their screen time but this is Oldman's film.
He has long been one of Britain's most dependable actors, mixing quality turns (Sid And Nancy, Immortal Beloved, The Dark Knight) with a few paycheck films to afford a new kitchen (The Unborn, Lost In Space, Red Riding Hood). In films like True Romance, Fifth Element and Leon, he can go a bit over the top, "EVVVVVVERYONNNNNE!" but in TTSS, this is Oldman at his most calm and collected. It is a very internal performance and he does so much with just a look or a gesture, procesing all the information until he is ready to make his move. A masterful, understated, unshowy performance.
Tomas Alfredson who directed the wonderful Let The Right One In, has surpassed himself in creating an authentic British period thriller, one that is thankfully devoid of misjudged CGI cats. So much thought and detail has gone into the look and production detail that you can smell the stale cigarette smoke or taste the Wimpy burger being served on a plate... yes there is a scene set in a Wimpy!
Alfredson also resists the temptation to dumb the film down for audiences either. This is a complex and labyrinthe plot (based on the novel by John Le Carre) that has sometimes-difficult-to-place flashbacks so you will have to pay attention so don't mess around with your mobile phone or you'll be completely lost and whatever you do, don't see this with one of those friends who spends the whole movie asking stupid questions like "Who is that guy?" or "why is he doing that?".
It's rare to complain that you wish a film was longer but I could have quite happily sat through an additional 15-20 minutes in order that certain plot elements were developed a bit more. It is harsh to criticise such a well made film but due to such dense and complicated source material (the TV series took 6 hours to reach the same conclusion),but it is difficult to resolve all the plot threads into a neat tidy bundle without feeling like it is over rather quickly, indeed some characters don't get enough screen time to provide credible threats, and this is where a little bit more time could have been used.
But I find it harsh to criticise a film of rushing the climatic reveal and fallout when it ends on such a wonderful sequence set to the tune of "La Mer", the original French recording of what is popularly known as Beyond The Sea. Breathtaking stuff.

4 stars

Thursday, 15 September 2011

NT Live: One Man, Two Guv'nors - review

Alternative content i.e. live satellite screenings of operas, concerts and theatre, are now big business for cinemas. Offering the chance to see sold out or one off performances at premium ticket prices is both an attractive and lucrative programming choice for cinemas these days.
Earlier this year I had the chance to see Danny Boyle's Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller live via satellite and it was a terrific show but spoiled by transmission problems (a hazard of live productions).
Thankfully now that the future of The Belmont Picturehouse was secured, they have invested in upgrading their satellite equipment and on tonight's results it looks like these problems are now a thing of the past.
And a good thing too because One Man, Two Guv'nors was one of the best evenings I've ever spent in a cinema... which is odd because it wasn't a film that I was watching. Instead it was one of the funniest pieces of theatre I've ever seen, made all the better by being transmitted live.
The camera work by the NT was excellent and really got you close to the action that you wouldn't be able to get from sitting way back in the stalls. It was used to great effect when James Corden's character Henshall has an argument with himself and the camera cuts back and forth from two different angles in a similar way to the famous conversation between Gollum and Smeagol in LOTR: Two Towers.
But all that would count for nothing if the play wasn't any good and I can honestly say that I have laughed that much in a cinema screen since South Park The Movie. Tears were literally rolling down my cheeks (ask the people sitting next to me if you don't believe me).
One Man, Two Guv'nors is adapted from the Italian "Commedia del Arte" Servant of Two Masters from 1743 and set of Brighton in 1963 were failed Skiffle Band member Frances Henshall (James Corden) ends up working for two rival mobsters and tries to keep the two from finding out about the other.
It is a classic old school comedy of errors as Henshall sinks deeper and deeper into trouble as he attempts to keep both Guvnors sweet, mainly due to the fact that he is not the sharpest tool in the box.
I'm going to hold my hands up now and say that I wasn't a huge fan of James Corden before tonight. I thought the Horne & Corden show was terrible, the whole Gavin & Stacey thing kind of passed me by and I avoided Lesbian Vampire Killers like the plague. But tonight my opinion did a complete 360, Corden was absolutely fantastic, easily coping with both the verbal and physical sides of a very demanding (and exhausting) role which included a lot of interaction with the audience, both narrating his worries and breaking the fourth wall completely and bringing people up on stage to help cover his tracks. Perhaps his true talents belong on the stage as he worked the entire auditorium, having them in the palm of his hand and they loved his little asides and knowing glances to them. It was delightful to see him try to stop himself "corpsing" on stage when Oliver Chris (who nearly stole the show as Guvnor #2 Stanley Stubbors) stitched him up a treat with an ad-libbed "oopsy-diddly-daisy-do" when Corden dropped a bottle. Again it was one of the joys of seeing live theatre, something you just don't get with a film., no matter how good it is.
The script is very tight, hilarious, and outstandingly performed by the entire cast and has a wonderful rockabilly soundtrack performed by a band that captures the feeling of the show and entertains during the interval and scene changes.
Overall, this was one of the best (and by far the funniest) pieces of theatre I have seen and would throughly recommend trying to catch it if there is an encore screening at The Belmont Picturehouse soon.
Based on the audience numbers and feedback from tonight's performance (and the bonus fact that you can now enjoy a drink in the screen), I would say that the future is very bright for this new thread of alternative content. Indeed I will be there on Sunday October 2nd for the 25th Anniversary of Phantom Of The Opera live from the Royal Albert Hall.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to look into buying tickets for One Man, Two Guvnors at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh at the end of October. These cinema screenings may be "the next best thing to being there" but if they are going to be that close to Aberdeen I might try "the best thing" too!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Jane Eyre - review

I'm not really a huge fan of period costume dramas. I mean who really wants to watch a movie where Sarah Jessica Parker stresses about what she'll wear during her time of the month? I jest, I jest!
My main dislike for the genre comes from memories of my mum and sister endlessly watching the TV series of Pride & Prejudice when Colin Firth became the nation's heartthrob as Mr Darcy (although I wouldn't rate him as an actor until A Single Man).
In my eyes, period dramas consisted of nothing more than women in tight corsets and men in jodpurs walking wistfully on moors whilst pining for a lost love.
However as a film critic, I should try to put aside personal opinion and view each film with an open mind. And I'm glad I did, as Jane Eyre has a lot going for it.
I'm not one for reading the classics (my favourite book is High Fidelity) and so I wasn't familiar with the story of Jane Eyre but my interest was initially peaked by the first trailer that was released early this year which gave the film a rather mysterious, creepy vibe more akin to The Woman In Black than Pride & Prejudice. The second trailer was a more typical trailer that focused on the love story between Jane and Rochester. Just goes to show what can be achieved through the power of editing!
As expected with this type of film, the cinematography is gorgeous (and yes there are plenty of shots of our two lovebirds out enjoying the scenery), the costume and production design is faultless and there is fine support from Judi Dench and Jamie Bell but what really drew me into the story were the performances of the two leads.
I was very critical of Mia Wasikowska in Alice In Wonderland (as I probably was with everything to do with that film) but after seeing her as Jane Eyre, I'm willing to put that dire performance down to the fact she was overawed by having to act against green screen. She is very reserved and holds her own against the older and formidable Rochester, unwilling to let slip her true feelings which could be her undoing. Her accent is also faultless and is much more impressive than Anne Hathaway's recent attempts in One Day.
The main draw of the film for myself, and for countless women across the land probably, was Michael Fassbender. He stole the show in Inglourious Basterds, did a Christian Bale-style transformation in Hunger and is destined to become a huge star this year thanks to appearing in 100+ films this year and winning Best Actor at Venice yesterday.

His Rochester is smouldering, brooding and aloof. There is a mystery to him and a sense that there is something dangerous under the surface waiting to unleash itself. He reminded me a lot of Laurence Olivier's Maxim De Winter in Hitchcock's Rebecca.
If I was to have one criticism of the film, it is that I would have preffered it to focus more on the mysterious happenings of Thornfield (screams in the night, random fires, etc) than the love story... but that could be down to me being a heartless shell of a man, much like Jane feels Rochester to be initially!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Troll Hunter

The problem with the "found footage" film is that by its very nature, the ending is predetermined. The fact that someone has mysteriously discovered some lost footage and "edited" it together to make a semi-coherent piece of film implies that things didn't work out too well for the person/persons behind the camera. For example: Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Apollo 18, the list goes on and on.
Whilst all of these films are typically very low-budget and will feature at least one "running around screaming shaky cam" moment, the trick is to make them entertaining. As James Cameron said about the likes of Titanic and Apollo 13 where the ending is already known, "it's not about the destination, it's about the journey".
And in this respect, Troll Hunter is easily one of the most enjoyable films in this particular genre.
Starting off in a similar vein to Blair Witch it follows a group of Norwegian students looking to film a story on local bear attacks but stumble upon a secret. The government uses "bear attacks" to cover up the existence of Trolls.
At this point the film could have gone down the cheap and easy horror route and have them spend the next 70 minutes running around the woods in the dark trying to escape trolls... they only do this in one scene. Instead the film plays out like a weird mix of Brother Grimm meets The Office.
It's success lies in the character of Hans, the country's number one Troll Hunter who becomes the students focus for their documentary. They follow him on his rounds, whether it be figuring out why certain trolls are migrating or having to put down a troll that is endangering local people. Hans is "getting too old for this shit" and is a wonderful counter balance for the three wide-eyed students who are amazed at the existence of these mythological creatures, he has the demeanour of a man who has "been there, done that", and much of the film's humour derives from his interactions with the students and his prey.
At 95 minutes, the film zips along at a good pace, there is some subtle character development (which is rare in this type of film) and a surprising amount of action (and trolls) for a film of this budget.
Although it is Norwegian, subtitles shouldn't prove too much of a distraction as "troll" is the same in both languages!

3 stars