Thursday, 30 August 2012
(Seth MacFarlane, 2012) A lonely young boy wishes that his Teddy Bear could speak so that they could be best friends forever, and overnight, his wish is made real. Twenty years later, after a flush of 1980s celebrity has faded, boy has become thirtysomething slacker John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) while bear has matured into foul-mouthed pothead Ted (a seamless piece of cgi animation, nicely voiced by director MacFarlane), sharing an apartment with John's beautiful, successful girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). Lori wants John to grow up and get serious about his life and their relationship, but Ted makes that more or less impossible. Then there is the disturbed fan (Giovanni Ribisi) seemingly determined to make Ted his own... MacFarlane can tell a joke, and perhaps the best thing about Ted is its relentless stream of gags he maintains unflaggingly. There are all sorts of gags, too; verbal riffs on pop culture and human behaviour, slapstick, visual jokes, homages to various movies (most obviously Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon), an amusing VoiceOver... In sharp contrast, the narrative here is utterly predictable, following the template of a thousand rom-coms in its treatment of the story of the man child driven to maturity (eventually) by almost losing the woman he loves. Kunis is beautiful and charming in that role, but the part is an embarrassing, misogynist cliche; all Lori does for the majority of the film is nag and make demands of John before her climactic realisation of what is really important. Ted is cheerfully un-PC in it's humour, and the range of targets is wide. These gags are racist, sexist, xenophobic, and often downright hateful in their nastiness. But it's just that quality that gives the movie an edge that works against the fuzzy softness of the narrative. Wahlberg works too, his essentially game likeableness put to good use here. MacFarlane's direction - a couple of inspired pastiches of 80s cliches aside - is efficient, and no more. Problematic and disposable, then, but it is also, on occasion, extremely funny.
Sunday, 26 August 2012
(James Marsh, 2012) Here is a thriller set in Northern Ireland in the awkward period when the Troubles began the slow journey towards an ending of sorts. 1993, here rendered as just as colourless and drab as 1973, the setting for the first scene, and the IRA leadership are guardedly drifting towards agreeing to abide by a peace agreement. Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is a single mother and Republican sister to two brothers who are members of the IRA, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Conor (Domhnall Gleeson). Her mission to plant a bomb on the London Underground foiled early on, Colette is half-threatened, half-sweettalked by British Agent Mac (Clive Owen) into becoming a secret informant for the British. Only her safety is threatened by the suspicions of Brendan (Martin McCann) and the agendas and games of Mac's superiors, most notably Kate (Gillian Anderson). Marsh's film is slow-burning, relatively subtle, sombre, intelligent and utterly humourless. It is perhaps a little too minor-key and tasteful for it's own good, rarely succumbing to the temptation to try try to thrill the audience, instead remaining a bit arty, a bit classy. There are a couple of suspense sequences where Colette may be discovered, but even these are quiet and clear-eyed, lacking the intoxicating charge which is mandatory in the very best, most lurid thrillers. The notable exception is the second scene, introducing Colette in a long wordless scene on the Tube, evoking a keen, visceral sense of paranoia and the physical feel of those trains and tunnels. Marsh is a fine storyteller, never more so than in this scene; there is no dialogue for ten minutes yet it is abundantly clear exactly what is happening. The cast are generally fine, though almost nobody has a convincingly developed character to play. Even Riseborough's Colette is something of an enigma, spending much of the film brooding while staring out windows. Marsh keeps it grim, often finding the beauty in unlikely scenes - a body discovered beneath an electricity pylon in grass made golden by the sun, for instance. Dublin stands in for Belfast - a massive distraction to this particular Dubliner - and Marsh conjures up some interestingly composed frames of the grey landscape, either bisected by tower blocks or studded with identical little houses, while also modulating the tone here beautifully. Almost too beautifully; Shadow Dancer rarely rises above a hushed whisper, and as a result its thrills and pleasures are modest.
Saturday, 25 August 2012
(Peter Berg, 2012) Aping the peculiar glossy bombast of the blockbuster cinema of Michael Bay, Battleship is a little surprising, proving to be better than anything Bay has made in over a decade. It's still a bloated, sporadically terrible mess of cliches and moments stolen from other films, but there is some wit here and a few capably-delivered action sequences. Based obviously loosely on the Hasbro board game, the film focuses on Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) a young screw-up with impulse control and maturity issues (we know this because characters mention it repeatedly, cringily foregrounding his character arc for the idiots in the audience) who is forced to join the US Navy by his officer brother (Alexander Skarsgârd) and swiftly finds himself promoted to the role of Weapons Officer on a Destroyer. During an International Wargames gathering off the coast of Hawaii, after he has ruined his career and destroyed his chances of winning the approval of the Admiral father (Liam Neeson) of his girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker), an attack by Alien vessels seal Hopper and his crewmates inside a vast forcefield, rendering them, yes, you guessed it; humanities last hope. What ensues is lots of cgi battles and destruction, together with a couple of neat references to the board game - an aerial shot of the two sides in formation as on the board, and a late sequence when the Navy have to fire blind and anticipate exactly where their technologically superior enemy will be in the ocean. Meanwhile Hopper's girlfriend Sam is given something to do, finding herself in a crucial location at just the right time, teaming up with a crippled veteran (Gregory Gadson) and a Scientist (Hamish Linklater in the Jeff Goldblum part) to fight some aliens on land. Added to all this are a few standout sailors (Rihanna and Jesse Plemons) and a revoltingly earnest celebration of ageing US veterans, folded into the generally jingoistic fetishization of the might of the US Military. The characterisation is primitive, the dialogue at times embarrassing, and the whole thing caked in loud music, from Steve Jablonsky's score to a succession of rock songs by the likes of AC/DC, the Black Keys and Stone Temple Pilots over more or less every scene. The aliens (humanoid but for some Star Trek-style adjustments to cranial architecture and number of fingers) and their technology are almost throwaway in their over-familiarity, an early sequence set during a soccer match features perhaps the worst cinematic example of such I have ever seen, and the cast are almost uniformly wasted. Still; it is better than any of Bay's Transformers films (which it most obviously resembles) due to Berg's occasional flashes of wit (the alien missiles looking like pegs from the board game, and Kitsch's misunderstanding of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War", for instance), his slightly more classical style - not quite so many cuts and slo-mo Money Shots as Bay prefers - and a couple of decent action scenes.
Tuesday, 21 August 2012
(Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, 2012) Only a few years ago, Pixar appeared possessed of some sort of magic formula. Film after film rolled off the factory line there; each of them technically wondrous, splendidly entertaining for both adults and children, and yet almost mythically resonant and charged with an emotional power many narratives never quite access. The consistency was staggering, the breadth of vision - from the ecologically-minded dystopian sci-fi of Wall.E to a clever retelling of the Seven Samurai with insects in A Bugs Life to the epic comedy drams of the Toy Story films, each with profound thngs today about mortality, ageing and family - remarkable, and the ability to marry big laughs with pure thrills seemingly effortless. That has changed since the critical and commercial triumph of Toy Story 3. Last years Cars 2 was a fun kids film, but it had few pleasures for adult audiences, and Brave is perhaps the studios most generic, least distinctive film yet. Which isn't to say it's bad. Its good, solid family entertainment, telling the story of young Scottish Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), who lives in the Medievel Highlands and loves riding, archery and generally un-Princessly pursuits, and her battle with her mother the Queen (Emma Thompson), who wants her to follow custom and marry the heir of one of the other local clans. Desperate to keep doing the things she loves, Merida visits a witch (Julie Walters) in the forest, procures a spell to "change" her mother, then watches in horror as that literally happens, and the Queen is transformed into a huge bear. It just so happens that the King (Billy Connolly) is obsessed with killing bears, having lost a leg to one when Merida was a child.. All of that means a film with the traditionally Disney-ish themes of being true to yourself, learning to trust family etc. None of that and none of the emotional beats are remotely new or even particularly interesting. The design and visuals, however, are predictably excellent, albeit far darker, both visually and tonally, than in past Pixar productions. Indeed, the intensity of some of the scarier moments in the second half of the film may be a bit much for some children, and the comic elements are more muted (and, honestly, less funny) than in just about every other Pixar film. But then this is mostly a drama, following a female protagonist (another first for the company), with pronounced horror elements and a heavy use of voiceover. That is sometimes indicative of a film with problems with narrative clarity, which may be the case here - the first act is full of exposition and explanation, talky scenes establishing motivation and mythology, and the action doesn't really kick in until half an hour in, a stretch in a childrens film. The problem is probably one of expectation. Brave is a perfectly fine animated film for children, but it lacks that glow of inspiration that seemed to light previous Pixar triumphs from within. It even compares poorly with a recent production with similar themes and setting from a different company; How to Train Your Dragon was funnier, wittier, more exciting and looked just as impressive. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable to suggest that a Dreamworks Animation would be better than a Pixar Production. But that, unfortunately, is no longer true.
Sunday, 19 August 2012
(Tony Gilroy, 2012) In the considerable absence of both the star and key director of the first three Bourne films, series writer Tony Gilroy has crafted a sequel which is in fact a clever spin-off. In so doing, he recalibrates many of the elements which made the original films such pleasurable popular entertainments, to extremely mixed effect. The template for Bourne films is surprisingly strong and Gilroy perhaps departs from it a little too much. His story takes place in the same universe and timeframe as Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Ultimatum and fleetingly includes some of the same characters but it focuses on new, if somewhat familiar, players. Chief among those is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an "Outcome" Agent from another one of what emerges are many US Defense Training Programmes creating perfect killers (or "assets" as the lingo of these films has it). Cross has been altered and augmented by "chems" partly designed by a Dr Martha Shearing (Rachel Weisz) which make him more physically efficient and mentally sharp. Both characters find themselves on the run from the suits in Governent (led here by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach) when Bourne's actions expose the entire programme to risk, and the decision is made to destroy it and kill everyone involved. Cross needs his chems - his junkie-like desperation is one of many interesting angles Gilroy takes on this story - and he needs Shearings help to get them, leading them to Manilla in the Phillipines. The first act is by far the best and most intriguing in the film - Gilroy interlaces the events from The Bourne Ultimatum while drip-feeding the audience information about this other corner of the Bourne universe. We see Cross battle the elements alone in the Alaskan wilderness while Shearing examines another Outcome Agent and the Bourne mess unfolds, sending Defense Bureaucrats running for cover, trying to shift the blame. What Gilroy does brilliantly here is something Greengrass only suggested; he depicts the upper echelons of US Government as an explicitly corporate entity, characterised by the impersonal blandnesses of meetings in generic conference rooms, dominated by business-language and the sort of terms that reduce human life to abstraction without any emotional weight. As such, Norton's character doesn't really have any character; he is the ultimate corporate executive, intelligent, calculating, hard-working and utterly without morality, he is all about the bottom line. This seems a sort of extension of Gilroy's work on the terrific Michael Clayton; another film where one man goes up against the terrifying might of an enormous Corporation. That was a drama with thriller elements, whereas The Bourne Legacy is an action-thriller, and Gilroy's approach is a bit of a problem. For this is very much a Writers film, full of long scenes where people talk in rooms. The best example is a jarringly lengthy interrogation of Shearing by two agents in her home, during which tension slowly grows until the action explodes with Cross' arrival. Another is Cross and Shearing's long exchange in the car as they first escape, which is crucial to the eventual emotional charge their relationship bears but still seems a mite overlong. Greengrass would probably have cut these scenes down, but Gilroy indulges himself, which damages his films pacing; this film feels a lot longer - due mainly to middle-act drag - than the punchy, staccato briskness of the three originals. Also less punchy are the films action sequences; some may find the refusal of Greengrass' death-by-a-thousand cuts shakycam style refreshingly classical and coherent, but it renders the action scenes here good, when in Greengrass' hands, they might have seemed great. They may even have the faint whiff of obligation; Gilroy doesn't seem to relish them, and he even fails to include the blistering hand-to-hand fight so central to each of the previous Bourne films. That's a shame, since Renner is a fantastic action lead, convincingly rugged yet capable of an impressive emotional range. He suggests Cross has a great deal of internal conflict even before his bosses try to kill him, but once the hunt is on, he has little to do beyond run, jump, punch and shoot. He and Weisz have some chemistry but both are a little wasted here. Visually, Gilroy is competent and nothing more. While DP Robert Elswit makes predictably beautiful use of the Alaskan mountains, Manila is never really evoked the way Greengrass effortlessly did with Moscow, Tangiers or Berlin, and there are no really memorable or startling images here. It all peters out after that gripping opening, and is disappointingly bereft of any climactic confrontation - Cross and Shearing just want to get away, setting up an obvious possible sequel - even if the scale of the final action set-piece is impressive. It's never boring, is filled with interesting ideas and good moments, but The Bourne Legacy is a definite step down from the first three Bourne films.
Thursday, 9 August 2012
(Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2011) Part of the magic of the cinema of the Dardennes Brothers is the way they seem to conjure stories from nothing. Take The Kid with the Bike as an example. It observes a few months in the life of Cyril (Thomas Doret), a 12 year old boy living in foster care at a childrens home in Seraing, Belgium. He is obsessed with finding his father (Jermie Renier) who has left his old apartment and changed his phone number. Eventually he meets Samantha (Cecile de France), a hair dresser who is kind to him, and who agrees to let him live with her at weekends. From these simple elements, the Dardennes create a modern sort of fairytale about innocence, trust, love and responsibility, as Cyril has to learn to let his father go and accept the love Samantha is offering him. The story puts the characters through some emotional and physical violence - Cyril is a damaged boy with a propensity for lashing out - which goes some way to leavening the formulaic nature of that arc of ultimate redemption, and includes a typically low-key and banal criminal episode near the narratives end. By this point, the Dardennes methodology is a smoothly running machine, their blocking, camera placement and cutting all near-invisible. The story and characters are all, making the cast crucial. Young Doret is magnetic in the lead, his soulful face utterly watchable and enigmatic, and the Dardennes frequently allow their camera to follow him for extended passages as he wheels through the suburbs on his bike. De France and Renier offer excellent, authentic-seeming support, the latter appearing to revisit his character from the earlier The Child. This is a film filled with shots of adults stealing looks at a young boy, always evaluating and wondering about him, just as the audience is. It feels slightly different from their earlier films; it is set in Summer and as such, features an airier, brighter and more colourful view of the Industrial town of Seraing. Much of the action takes place in a vivid, leafy housing estate on sun-dappled days and warm nights, and the film includes music, previously not part of the Dardennes armoury. Here they use Beethoven's Adagio, from the Fifth Piano Concerto, and while it adds a layer of emotional resonance, it simultaneously appears both overly sentimental and manipulative. That isn't entirely a criticism, for it is one of the factors that helps make The Kid with a Bike a truly moving experience.
Wednesday, 1 August 2012
(Cristián Jiménez, 2011) It's a confident film that tells you what is going to happen at the end right at the start. Or maybe just a complex one. Cristián Jiménez's Bonsái happens to be both confident and complex. Based on the novel by Alejandro Zambra, it is unashamedly literary, and that device - revealing a climactic narrative point in the first scene through a voiceover by a narrator who doesn't feature in the rest of the film - feels like a literary one, establishing the voice of this film straight away. Bonsái is a romance of sorts, following Julio (Diego Noguero), an aspiring twentysomething writer in Santiago, through his daily life. He sleeps with his neighbour Blanca (Trinidad González), works in a bookshop and applies for the job of typing up the transcript of the famous novelist Gazmuri's new book. He is unsuccessful in this application but pretends to Blanca that he has gotten the job and begins to write his own novel in longhand, which he can then type out and claim as Gazmuri's. In flashbacks to his time in University we see Julio meet and fall in love with Emilia (Natalia Galgani) and realise that the novel he is writing is about this relationship, from which he has never quite recovered. This story allows Jiménez to tackle literature and it's role in our lives as a theme - Proust is quoted, cited and teased by the film, and Julio seems somehow to be using books as a shelter, preventing him from fully embracing adult life and letting go of his College years. The central love story is sensually charged and given the kind of earnest adolescent seriousness that is instantly recognisable but also redolent of a dozen classic art films. There is a pleasing touch of the nouvelle vague here, both in the way Jiménez shoots a love scene using jump cuts and in the thematic entwining of love and art. Also pleasing is the strand of dry black comedy running through the narrative, which often verges over into a poignant melancholy; from Diego explaining the sunburnt chest with the imprint of the Proust he suffered after falling asleep reading on a beach to Emilia on their first encounter to the painful disintegration of their relationship is a distance nicely bridged by the film. The death of a relationship is beautifully evoked, without melodrama or anything too obvious. Jiménez is subtle. His lovers argue about kissing and Jiménez starkly depicts their new distance through the contrast of the distance between their bodies as they sleep together. The bonsái plant of the title is an obvious (and again, very literary) metaphor, but it has a duel purpose here, explicitly - and contentiously, between the characters - symbolising the struggle for survival of a relationship, while also suggesting the way a writer of fiction prunes away fact, twisting and manipulating reality into something he finds more appealing. Julio learns about his relationship with Emilia by turning it into a book - the moment when Blanca tells him something about his own story he himself has not realised is a lovely one, and there is the optimistic sense at the end of the film that he may finally be ready to get on with his life. It is a clever, touching, nicely observed story which does a good job of balancing the headily youthful swoon of first love with the quieter disappointment of life a few years later, when optimism has faded and reality sets in. Jiménez directs the whole thing with a precise feel for the tone and emotion of each scene, but he also has a fine sense for texture and place and lets loose a few jolts of pure, exuberant style which makes Bonsái an exhilarating piece of personal cinema. It's one of those films where scenes of a lone character wandering a city and sitting at cafe tables are never boring but instead feel like snatched, true moments of everyday life in all its small beauty. There is never a false note from any of his cast.