Posted: April 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

Transcendence **1/2 (out of five)

This really should be Rebecca Hall.

This really should be Rebecca Hall.

The idea is a terrific one for these times: once we build a really fine AI (artificial intelligence), isn’t it likely that it will exponentially outgrow our intelligence, or at least reasoning abilities, far quicker than we imagined, and when it does, won’t it essentially be our god?

Unfortunately, this excellent set-up is squandered in a miasma of truly, frustratingly obtuse plot holes and ludicrous gaps in logic in Wally Pfister’s debut feature Transcendence, which features Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, and Johnny Depp on a screen (for most of the film at least, or for most of his screen time at least; his screen time, and screen screen time, is limited, and the poster for the film, being just his face, is a joke).Depp plays a Very Smart Tech Guy who is developing such an AI; when an incident early in the film lays him low, he goes virtual, merging his human data – memories, thought patterns, speech idiosyncrasies, visage – with The Machine. Things happen – or, often and disappointingly, don’t.

The new crop of science fiction, placing itself just alongside the now, and including such recent excellent films as Upstream Color, Her and Looper, is very exciting. Why imagine a future when our present is so exhilarating in terms of science and technology? When every day brings a potential new wonder available for less than a couple hundred bucks, where’s the thrill of laser beams and spacecraft? Science fiction is becoming science fact faster than most films’ production periods, and plots dealing with AI are definitely in a race against inevitable achievement. But when it comes, how soon will it enslave us?

Bettany and Hall - the real stars of the film. Hall is the lead.

Bettany and Hall – the real stars of the film. Hall is the lead.

That thought will bring a swathe of movies as that (very close) day draws closer still, and Transcendence will be considered in the cool and present past as being one of the early birds that missed the point of the worm (whereas Her probably got a lot right). After a cool, subdued, intellectually stimulating first act, the film offers an idea so impossible to digest, a concept that so obviously should have been poisoned at the script stage, that it beggars belief (literally) – and then bases the rest of the film around it. It doesn’t recover.

It’s a shame, because Rebecca Hall proves finally that she’s ready for full movie-star treatment. She’s excellent, and does her best to anchor a film that desperately needs one. But even she can’t justify a plot contrivance so absurd it’s an insult to a sci-fi audience. It’s one thing to ask us to believe in witches when you’ve got a tornado, a girl, a dog and a yellow brick road. But when you’re dealing with Wired magazine, the world of TED talks and common knowledge of real-world tech, as this film is in its careful set-up, then to suddenly ask us to believe in what this movie asks us to believe, is to lose us. In this case, it’s all the script’s fault.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman *** (out of five)
mr-peabody-sherman-interviewThe Dreamworks Animation movie Mr. Peabody and Sherman, improbably imported from the Peabody’s Improbable History segments of the ‘60s cartoon The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, starts out very promisingly, with wealthy, über-intelligent dog Peabody and his adopted son Sherman time-travelling at the French Revolution, with much fun had in that hilarious maelstrom of decapitation. A history lesson wrapped up in wacky hi-jinks, this Marie-Antoinettey sequence seems to offer just what parents need: educational entertainment.

The lessons continue, but, surprisingly, they veer from history into quite serious modern moral territory. Within the frame of a bullying story – Sherman being bullied by a blonde pretty girl at his school, no less – we get subtextual musings about mixed race adoption (given that Sherman is human and Peabody is a dog), the use of arbitration in bullying cases, the value of being different, and the notion of parenting itself.

Given that Mr. Peabody has a time machine, however, like Chekov’s gun, it must be used, and when it is we get a bit more “history” as bullied, bully and dog whiz back to Ancient Egypt, Renaissance Florence, and the Trojan War, grazing on time travel concepts and conundrums along the way.

The film has an excellent pro-education, pro-history, pro-science, pro-geek, pro-nerd, pro-smart message, a swathe of historical tidbits, and awesome progressive details such as a schoolmate in a wheelchair for no plot reason (and never commented on as such). It’s got enough jokes for adults to make it through, and – who knows? – you just might learn something.

The Invisible Woman ***1/2 (out of five)

The-Invisible-Woman-2013-Movie-PosterThe internet has a lot to answer for, that’s for sure, and one of those things is that it’s a lot harder these days to carry on a serious affair with a young cutie when you’re one of the most famous people in the world. But back in Charles Dickens’ day, you could get up to all sorts of hanky-panky and, if you were careful, keep it at least somewhat secret. The appetite for rumour and gossip was there – indeed, the tabloids of the day truly relished scandal every bit as much as they do today – but not only were communications less all-encompassing and cellphones not only not ubiquitous but not even imagined, massive celebrities such as Dickens weren’t known by their visage outside of their own circles. Stephen King goes noticed; Charles Dickens could go un-noticed, despite being, in many ways, even more massive in his time than King is in his.

There’s a great scene in Ralph Finnes’ second film as director, The Invisible Woman, that exemplifies this era-specific aspect of fame. Dickens is at a racetrack, and the race is over. As the crowd mills and he is happily enjoying the company of his friends unmolested, someone spills the beans. The next thing he knows, he is mobbed. But until they were told, nobody knew it was him. He could have been there… with his mistress.2014 - The Invisible Woman - Movie Set

The Invisible Woman herself is Dickens’ mistress, Nelly, played perfectly by the stunning Felicity Jones, and how much you enjoy the film may be coloured by what you think of super-rich-and-famous married-with-ten-children authors having affairs with eighteen year-old young cuties. If such a thing repels you, you won’t find any sympathy at all with Fiennes’ Dickens, which I guess is fine. I neither loathed nor loved him; Nelly is the central character here and it’s her emotional journey you cling to. Of course, if eighteen-year old cuties who have affairs with super-rich-and-famous authors repel you, there will be no lead character here for you to like at all, and you’d best avoid the film entirely.

You’d miss a solid, beautifully shot and acted, leisurely paced costume drama that ultimately can’t hide the fact that its central love affair is illicit. What I found fascinating was its depiction of just how an affair was run in such a situation – in those days, among such people. I won’t give anything away, but the level of complicity among certain people close to the participants is staggering. Or maybe I’m naive, and nothing’s changed.

Fiennes Indeed.

Posted: April 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Grand Budapest Hotel ****1/2 (out of five)

PHCX0XcfxkfDFK_1_mWes Anderson’s masterful The Grand Budapest Hotel is not really about that (fictional) hotel, but about its concierge, M. Gustave H., who actually spends most of the movie not actually in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but having adventures in the most playful Europe you’ve ever seen on-screen. M.G.H. is played by Ralph Fiennes, and, if you don’t come out of the film swearing he’s your favourite actor, it’s because he was your favourite actor going in. This is a case of a director at the absolute peak of his abilities handing a huge, fantastical, multi-faceted, movie-reliant role to an actor at the peak of his abilities, and that actor absolutely, positively nailing it. The film is a wonder and a delight from start to finish, as is Fiennes’ performance, and if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar next year, I’ll have to make some angry calls.

There is a shot in the film – a relatively speedy zoom-in on a cake box – that, to me, sums up where Wes Anderson is at. It’s a punch-line shot, but it’s so fiendishly, brilliantly clever, relying on our deep, ingrained, almost folklorish knowledge of storytelling conventions and the repertoire of classic jokes, that some people will inevitably get it faster than others. Hence Anderson lets the zoom go on too long, allowing people to get it when they get it – and that element becomes a second joke, and, if you see it in a cinema with a healthy house, the staggered laughter at the first two jokes then laughs at itself – a third joke, all achieved with one simple but perfectly planned-out and ascended-to shot containing one sublimely loaded prop.Wes-Anderson-The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-and-His-Secret-Ingredient-Revealed

Inside that cake box is a colourful, perfectly constructed, obviously very sweet little cake, and I’m sure I’d be the millionth critic to compare that cake to the film, but the comparison is so obvious it feels like another of Anderson’s perfect jokes. The film is a sweet confection, light and airy, delicious, fleeting, wispy, as delicate and well-constructed as it is ephemeral, and, like the best dessert, it brings nothing but pleasure and smiles and happiness and love.

hero_GrandBudapestHotel-2014-1Although all the stars of Anderson’s previous films are here (some just for single shots, and some, like Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe, doing seminal comedic work), the film belongs to Fiennes and young Tony Revolori, who nails the Anderson style just as a young Jason Schwartzman did in Rushmore. Later joined by a truly luminous Saoirse Ronan, these jaunty “European” caperers, all speaking in their natural accents (but with the diction that only comes in a Wes Anderson movie, clipped, fully-voiced, complete), have the time of their lives, as do we in their company. A fairytale for adults, this is Anderson’s über-film thus far, utilising the entire breadth and astonishing depth of his imagination to bear exquisite humour and life in every single, immaculately composed shot. Suffice to say, if you don’t like Anderson’s style, you’ll hate this film; if you’re a fan – a “Wesbian” – you’ll be in movie heaven. The only reason this review isn’t five stars is that I’m convinced that Anderson, only 44, still has higher to go.

A Great Muppet Caper

Posted: April 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

MUPPETS MOST WANTED ***1/2 (out of five)
hr_Muppets_Most_Wanted_11James Bobin (who directed eleven episodes – the vast majority – of Flight of the Conchords, and co-created it) has proven to be the perfect director and co-writer (with Nicholas Stoller) for the continuation of the Muppets mythology. As with The Muppets (2011), Muppets Most Wanted achieves the one thing a Muppet fan wants more than anything (and which is so hard to achieve, one would think): keeping true to the Muppets vibe, in every single way – intention, manifestation, ideology, and most importantly, character and sense of humour – that was established in the original television series (1976-1981) and first series of movies (1979-1999).

I wrote at the end of 2011, for my Films of the Year column, of The Muppets: “Jim Henson would be proud. SO funny, and so true to the real nature of the muppets.” Nothing has changed. In the same way The Muppets honoured The Muppet Movie, Muppets Most Wanted echoes The Great Muppet Caper: the Muppets go to Europe, and bump into criminal shenanigans. Like the original films, the second one adds a bit more “plot” to the mix, but, as with Caper’s relationship to the first movie, at its heart, it’s all about show business; even when Kermit the Frog finds himself in a Siberian Gulag, he mounts a Revue with the prisoners, all-singing, all-dancing, all Kermit, the showman – for who is Kermit really, but an admirer, an adherent, a follower, and an artistic descendant… of Jim Henson?

Henson would, once again, be proud, of this very funny, very silly, extremely well-made, colourful, joyous – and did I say deeply silly – movie. Brett McKenzie, who won an Oscar for a song from the 2011 film, again writes very funny (and catchy!) original songs and brings, under his title of music supervisor, great wit to his arrangements of others. It’s all great fun, and it’s all very, very Muppet.jim-henson-beard

NOAH **

noahMy initial hesitation about Noah was the source material. Amidst a lot of silly stories in the bible, that of Noah is one of the silliest. If you don’t agree it’s probably time you read it again: it’s Genesis 5:32 – 10:1.

That’s a short passage in biblical terms, and writer / director Darren Aronofsky has made a long movie in modern terms, though not in terms of the history of biblical movies, which have traditionally been long (The Ten Commandments started at 1pm on most Sundays of my youth, and never finished until about seven the next morning; it was always a pain to try and watch only the Red Sea parting, which was the only reason to try and watch the film).

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS... the one bit that's any good.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS… the one bit that’s any good.

I would never have gone, therefore, to Noah, were it not for Aronofsky. Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan are both in my personal Top 50 of All Time, so he’s a director that I’ll always see. But boy, was I reticent. I didn’t even see The Passion of the Christ, and that was meant to be out there. Why would I see the dumb bible on-screen? But I did.

Aronofsky lets you know from the get-go that he’s going to show you “a story”. Using big CGI monsters (“The Watchers”, which are to stone what those big tree-men in The Lord of The Rings were to bark), sped-up film, silhouette, overexposure, obvious green-screen, a narrated, cartoonish prologue and a hundred and one other tricks, this artful director lets you in on his artifice. We’re not trying to be real here, he sees to be saying. This is just a fun story. As such, it plays not dissimilar to an animated feature.

noahs-beaver-problemMy big problem is I never care in animated features, and I found it impossible to care here, because the story is so – well, silly - and the characters are also – well, silly – lumbered with dialogue that’s really silly. As the extremely dull (and confusing!) set-up droned on, complete with long-white-haired-and-bald Anthony Hopkins havin’ a cuppa tea with Russ, it became obvious that caring for anything happening was never going to happen, at least for me.

Perhaps if I was a true believer – a literalist – it might have helped. The problems of old-school bible movies unfortunately are here in abundance. Just like that parting of the red sea, the flood is the only good bit here, and that’s the bit you’ll be waiting for when Noah plays on the telly for eons to come.

Oh, and Big Russ? He’s fine. He’s got Charlton Heston lines and he does what Charlton Heston would do: speak gravely and deeply, look very concerned, and squint.Noah_Russell_Crowe

 

NYMPHOMANIAC (Parts I and II) ***1/2 (out of five)

hr_Nymphomaniac-_Part_One_23A solitary, mature gent (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a bruised and slightly bleeding woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alley at night. He takes her to his rather depressing flat, puts her in bed with a nice cuppa tea, and listens sympathetically and attentively, occasionally offering his own insights and queries, as she tells him her life story through the prism of her sex addiction, with particular emphasis on her relationship with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). So much of that sounds ludicrous, and much of the first twenty minutes of Nymphomaniac, Part I are (absolutely unintentionally) laugh-inducing. But then, somehow, like into the clutches of a very strange mini-series (the cinema release of Nymphomaniac, Parts 1 and 2 has been released as a single, nearly four hour, film), you get hooked, or at least sort of mesmerised. It’s episodic, vague and self-indulgent (perhaps pretentious?) but there’s no denying that it’s also original, committed and borne of a highly determined voice.

That’s the voice of Lars Von Trier, of course, Denmark’s (reasonably) self-proclaimed most original and provocative filmmaker, whose festival press-conference antics belie the skill he has as a filmmaker when he wishes to show it. Melancholia, his last film, was pretty excellent; AntiChrist, his film before that one, was pretty awful. He’s made at least one masterpiece: Breaking the Waves, and one true piece of totally provocative cinema, The Idiots. Father of Dogma, iconoclast, maverick, fool: he’s all of these, a hodgepodge of concepts, as is this film, sometimes to its great benefit, sometimes to its deficit, but always intriguing.movies-lars-von-trier-nymphomaniac

The film is set in a sort of Danish England or English Denmark (in Part Two we definitely see London, or at least English, streets), but it’s really set in the arthouse, or in Von Trier’s mind. Skarsgård’s apartment, and the alley in which Gainsbourg is found, are both obviously, unapologetically sets (though not to the extent of Dogville, when Von Trier took the artifice of film to its natural conclusion). Most of the characters speak with British accents, but with Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, you can always tell they’re not British, and Shia LaBoeuf’s accent, certainly unintentionally, is sometimes Australian, sometimes South African, and sometimes something to make any dialect coach gouge her eyes out.

I don’t know how much LaBeouf had to pay Von Trier to be in his film, but, accent aside, Von Trier gets the best work from him he’s ever done (and possibly the only good work of his other than for John Hillcoat in Lawless). Jerome is a complicated, slippery character, and LaBeouf’s dubious qualities – his utter rootlessness and seeming mystification at how the real world works – complement Jerome’s silver-spooned, baffled existence, a boy in a man-boy’s body, capable of all the physical things a man can do (the sex act being the big one here) while incapable of grasping even a fraction of its emotional and psychological complexities.

Prelude-to-a-Wholesome-EveningUma Thurman plays in her natural American accent, and does some brilliant work in her own “Chapter” of Part One (the whole film – both parts – is subdivided into chapters). She gets to show elements of her emotional range that I literally can’t recall seeing since Dangerous Liaisons. Although her character is on a mission of vengeance, this is a world far away from Kill Bill, Volumes One and Two – although that resonance will not have escaped either Thurman or Von Trier, and may have even been why she was cast. The whole film is extremely conscious of its place within the world of cinema, and in Part Two in particular Von Trier goes full-bore into this meta-mode, visually referencing, at times shot for shot, Melancholia and AntiChrist, which, together with Nymphomaniac, make up his self-described “Depression Trilogy” (and if you watch all three in a row you’ll definitely feel pretty blue afterwards).

Nymphomaniac-24-photo-by-Christian-GeisnaesThe cinematography is exquisite and, given the huge range of characters, the acting is excellent: naturalistic yet always aware of what the Von Trier Universe demands. Jaime Bell – little Billy Elliot himself – forever banishes that dancing coal-miner’s son from his palette with his character in Part Two. Extremely dark, “K” is a man who exists to gratify women with a very particular need. The entire film takes a leap here, and if “K” was badly cast or performed, the whole thing could have fallen brutally apart, but Bell comes through with shining colours, giving his depraved character an essence that could not have been on the page. Either expect him to get a lot of villain offers next – or to never work again. He’s terrifying, and not because of what he does, but because of why he does it – and since that is never stated, it’s all to do with Bell’s performance. Whatever sickening stew of backstory and fractured neuroses he had going on in his head, we can see it in his eyes, starkly contrasted with the barren whiteness of his grotesquely under-furnished lair. Did I mention he’s terrifying? Terrifying. Watch Billy Elliot and Nymphomaniac Part Two as a double feature and have your brain fried.

The other acting revelation of the film, and the real lead actor in Part One, is Stacy Martin, who plays Joe as a very young woman in the flashbacks (and thus has the vast majority of Part One’s screen time). Besides being totally acceptable as a young Gainsbourg, she’s just excellent. I think Von Trier must be a truly terrific director of actors, because he somehow gets them all on the same page – his page – and it’s a strange, difficult, at times demented, at times stodgy, and at all times elliptical – page. Martin gets the vibe in every one of her many, many scenes, and her inner life during the crucial sex scenes is every bit as layered and fractured as that we could feel during Michael Fassbender’s Shame sex scenes (watch that with this for an afternoon of sexual addiction movies, then go out and hang yourself).

Unfortunately, for the most part, the framing scenes between Skarsgård and Gainsbourg are interminable and ludicrous, sounding too literary, too pretentious and portentous, too written. Von Trier wrote the whole thing himself, and it’s strange how clunky this dialogue feels compared to some of the naturalistic banter of the flashbacks. Perhaps he allows some improvisation, some times. Since the whole movie is in flashback, our sense of suspense is muted; Joe is wounded, but, honestly, not very severely, and she certainly doesn’t seem at all traumatised or even mildly shaken. Skarsgård, after a couple of tiny shots on the alley set, is confined to one room for the whole film, and he and Gainsbourg do their best, but, seriously, in a four hour film, these are the scenes to use to go to the bathroom, or better yet, to the bar.

Despite the shamelessly provocative marketing, this is Von Triers’ least sensationalistic, most mature film since Dogville, and it is never titillating or “sexy”. Nymphomaniac is trying to say a lot, and along the way it achieves all sorts of brilliant notes. Some of the scenes are truly exceptional, mini-masterpieces; some of it is turgid. It’s far too long. I suspect, over the four hours, most people will fall asleep once or twice, to be awoken by the sounds of rooting, rutting, whipping or crying. Perhaps this is a good way to experience it, in a fractured dream (or nightmare) state. Really, it should have been placed into theatres in two parts, as its title intended, perhaps a month or six apart, as Tarantino did with Kill Bill’s two volumes. At four hours, it’s all too much. But at two by two, it’s totally worth taking in. That’s how I did it; I’m not sure I could have made it through the other way. Von Trier is promising a five and a half hour cut still to come. I’ll have moved on. Von Trier doesn’t move on, continuing to delve into his obsession – men and women and their union in sex and violence. He’s a one-theme director, and he’s absolutely, resolutely, and wonderfully one of a kind.