Not Shot In Hollywood

Posted: November 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

Maps to the Stars *** (out of five)

Sans titre - 5David Cronenberg’s new film starts with incredible promise. Indeed, for the first few minutes I was approaching ecstasy, thinking that I was in for a Hollywood satire to (finally!) rival The Player. Dead-on (and dead-pan) gags involving child stars, tenuous Hollywood “connections” and the like had me (and the critics around me) laughing out loud. Had Cronenberg made a flat-out comedy?

He hadn’t, and Maps to the Stars, while certainly maintaining a satirical edge throughout, drifts into more recognisable Cronenberg territory, which will be no bad thing for Cronenberg aficionados. However, unusually for him, Cronenberg didn’t write this one – it’s based on a novel by Bruce Wagner, who also wrote the screenplay. Wagner specialises in tawdry Hollywood take-downs, and  Maps to the Stars is very representative of his work. It’s a good match for Cronenberg, but there’s no room in the story for anyone grafting machinery into their vital organs, so don’t go waiting for Cronenberg “body horror” or you’ll be very disappointed.

Maps tells the story of a child star, Benjie (Evan Bird, a creepy young actor who looks like his name) who is attempting to get back into his own franchise, Bad Babysitter, after a stint in “home rehab”. Meanwhile, in another part Hollywood, an ageing actress, the excellently named Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance) is trying desperately to win the role her famous dead mother played in a remake of one of her most popular films. Their paths cross for a number of reasons, but the theme here is buried family secrets emerging, like ghosts, from the past.

Technically very simple – Cronenberg uses an almost entirely still camera and the simplest of framing and cutting, along with a minimalist sound design – Maps lacks the style and flair we associate with the master Canadian auteur. But the money here is in the performances. Moore gives a very strong performance indeed (though whether she deserved to win at Cannes over Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night is disputed by me at least) and there are solid turns from Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Olivia Williams and the genuinely Cronenbergian Bird. In a sly joke, Robert Pattinson, who spent most of Cosmopolis in the back of a limo, plays a limo driver.

It’s fun and bizarre and laugh-out loud funny at times, and while it’s certainly far from mind-blowing (and Cronenberg has been mind-blowing many times: The Fly, Eastern Promises, Crash, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, The Dead Zone, Videodrome, Scanners…) it’s always fun to watch this resolutely original director at work. He’s never made a movie in Hollywood, and he shot this Hollywood tale, like almost all his films, in Toronto. Which just makes perfect Cronenbergian sense.

Not Really About Poo

Posted: November 18, 2014 in Uncategorized

frShR-hs_400x400The Mule ***1/2 (out of five)

Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson’s The Mule, written by Sampson and co-star Leigh Whannell, is a strange, gently comedic period piece that does its period proud. Set in 1983, it tells the (supposedly true) tale of Ray, a simple bloke who makes the terrible mistake of agreeing to bring some heroin back to Australia from Thailand to appease his footy club mates. When he gets busted, he makes the painful choice to try and wait out the period the Australian Federal Police can hold him, by “holding it in”. The suspense of the film, bizarrely, is thus whether Ray’s gonna poop before he’s set free.

While this may sound like an idea best left at the pub (or the bong), the film is surprisingly tender, much less a rude comedy than a loving evocation of the Aussie character in the early 80s. The story is pretty distasteful but the acting – and the design – is anything but. It’s really easy to get the ‘80s wrong on film but here, everything is right. Amazing details fill every frame, from the food to the wallpaper, the cars and the beer cans – let alone the clothes and hairstyles. It’s evocative enough to make the film entertaining on design merit alone. Paddy Reardon, the film’s production designer, deserves awards for his work here.

As Ray, Sampson has a pretty thankless role, albeit a brave one, spending most of the movie on a hotel bed in a constipated sweat. He retches and heaves and burps and farts and generally does himself no favours in the glamour department. This gives generous room for the supporting cast to supply the flavour, and they provide plenty. Whannell is deeply sleazy as the team member with the drug scheme, John Noble is truly icky as the club boss, Geoff Morrell gives a great ‘80s suburban dad with a longneck problem, and Georgina Haig is a sparky presence as Ray’s appointed lawyer. But the film is completely stolen – in the best possible way – by Ewen Leslie and Hugo Weaving as the two main cops assigned to get the evidence out of Ray. Using most of the cop techniques we know and some we haven’t seen before, this pair are perfection, by turns comic, threatening and surprisingly human. Kudos to all involved for recognising the possibilities of a project that, on the page, may have appeared simply as a film about two dudes waiting for another dude to poo.

Lots of Winter, Little Sleep

Posted: November 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

20140709171245-WinterSleep_PosterCineart_DEFWinter Sleep ***1/2 (out of five)

It’s imperative that you know that Winter Sleep is three hours and sixteen minutes long. That’s twenty-seven minutes longer than Interstellar, and Winter Sleep has no spaceships. It also has either no laughs or one laugh, depending on whether you find one particular moment funny. But it’s got immaculate drama.

The length is a problem, or will be for most punters, especially since the film is composed almost entirely of two-handed dialogue scenes. “Why not a play?” you may ask – fairly – and yet the answer is that the film is deeply cinematic. Taking place for the most part in an astronomically photogenic hotel built into the Cappadocia Mountains, in Anatolia, Turkey – and looking for all the world like the set of the next Star Wars film – there is huge scenic beauty and intrigue on display. But beyond that, vitally, the film’s director, Nuri Bilge Ceylon, working with cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, shoots long, delicate, intricate dialogue scenes in a way that makes them mini action movies of the mind. A subtle dolly here, a tiny pan there – it’s incredibly precise formalism, and it’s beautiful.

The plot concerns a pretty horrible man, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, who is kind of like a strange Turkish über-serious Danny DeVito with height), an ex-actor, now running his inherited hotel, and his dealings with his (limited) staff, his hot young wife, his cranky sister, and the tenants of a house he also inherited. As he pisses everyone off, he runs into hot water, slowly (!), and seemingly obliviously. If the film has suspense, the question is: will he see the error of his ways?

I’m not convinced the film is concerned with suspense. “Chekov” is credited as a co-writer, even though it’s not discernibly based on any particular Chekov play, and I think Ceylon is simply implying that he’s working in a Chekovian mood. He’s drawing a portrait of one man through his interactions with others, at the pace of life, but with the occasional dramatic highlight.

The highlights, when they come, though! They’re intense, hugely dramatic, and, interestingly enough to say for a film like this, thrilling. There are savage moments, devastating moments, and enervating moments. There are also – given the world we’re in, which is entirely “real” (there’s no CGI contributing to these amazing mountain dwellings) many simply stunningly gorgeous moments.

A lot of the drama in the film – a lot of the tension – comes from the delicate dance these people constantly do around each other in relation to notions of societal status. Aydin, as a wealthy landlord and a retired celebrity of the arts, has the local prestige of a minor Lord, and a deeply unsettling scene depicts the question of whether one of his tenants will kiss his hand (the film is set in the present day). This was exotic stuff for me and will be for most Westerners. It all adds up to the strange beauty of this strange, beautiful film.

No Time To Lose

Posted: November 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

Two Days, One Night **** (out of five)

two-days-one-night-french-posterThe Dardenne brothers have a swathe of awards and some pretty amazing films to their credit including The Kid With a Bike and L’Enfant, but Two Days, One Night will almost certainly be their most accessible film, partly because they have a true international movie star – Marion Cotillard – as their lead and partly because their thrilling, suspenseful plot is just so damn good.

Talk about a lesson in pure screenwriting. Within the first three minutes of the film we meet Sandra (Cotillard) and discover that she’s losing her job – unless she can persuade the majority of her sixteen colleagues to forego their annual bonuses, which will, in effect, subsidise keeping her on. It’s Friday afternoon and a vote will be held Monday morning. She has two days and one night (starting the next morning) to go see as many of them as possible and convince them to, essentially, act against their own best interests for her sake. Nothing is on her side, in particular suspense’s greatest ally, time.

The rest of the details emerge more gradually, but only just – everything in this film is urgent. The Dardenne’s are absolute masters of “show, don’t tell” and the way Sandra’s world is revealed – the extent of her family, what her job is, where she lives, and why she’s potentially on the chopping block – is as precise and delicate as a Matisse stroke. You find out what you need to know when you need to know, and you find out by way of a gesture, a look, a prop, a word. No-one ever speaks exposition. Characters speak when they have something to say.

Cotillard, in every scene and essentially every shot, is simply brilliant, and if she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination it’ll only be because of the modest nature of this sublime film. The large supporting cast are all unknown to me and literally perfect; the Dardennes’ style is hyper-realism and they all appear to have stepped out of life itself. And if the final scene doesn’t have you white-knuckling your armrest, you simply must be dead.

Three Movies In One!

Posted: November 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

Interstellar ***1/2 (out of five)

interstellar

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s space opera for a post-Spielberg generation is a gargantuan spectacular, an über-film that wants to be too many things at once to get all of them right. The results are uneven, veering from astronomically enjoyable to sloppily sentimental. Ultimately, the spectacle is far more satisfying than the story.

What the film gets very, very right are its impeccable other-planet based action sequences, of which there are surprisingly many, given the film’s marketing, which suggests more 2001 and less Gravity. The film does pay obvious and intended reference to Kubrick’s great work – the silence of watching huge machines slowly moving through space, and, later, a blatant and respectful homage to 2001’s famous “Space Child” – but that’s where the similarities end. Interstellar is an action / family / sci-fi movie with a lot of plot, a lot of dialogue, a lot of specific set-pieces, and a very traditional story structure in the classic Spielberg mould. 2001 was none of these things, having barely any action, plot, dialogue or any sense of traditional structure. 2001 was an extremely expensive experimental movie, whereas Interstellar is an extremely expensive adventure yarn.

Unfortunately, that yarn, which, when it’s ripping, is a ripping yarn indeed, is undermined by a story so determined to make us feel all goosebumpy, while also being equally determined to present a “true” imagining of executive producer and consultant Kip Thorne’s theories of space-time travel utilising “wormholes” and black holes, that it ends up as three movies, and blows the film out to an astonishing 169 minutes, which is the film’s greatest flaw. There’s too much of it, and its great parts butt up obviously against its mediocre sections.

Of those three movies, the action movie is brilliant, the “hard” science fiction story is good, but the family (goosebumpy) fable is wildly undisciplined (unlike much of the other stuff). The “hard” science fiction geeks will hate the family stuff, the handkerchief crowd will zone out for the geeky sci-fi, and the action fans, at least, will know when to go to the bathroom. And you will need to go to the bathroom.

Director Christopher Nolan is clearly swinging for a masterpiece here, and the results are bloated and indulgent. Brother Jonathan Nolan originally developed the script for Spielberg and you can tell: it screams “Spielberg movie”. Spielberg similarly once made a script intended for Kubrick, AI: Artificial Intelligence. He made that film very well, but Kubrick’s version would have been less schmaltzy. I have to imagine Spielberg’s version of Interstellar would have been either less schmaltzy, or less “hard sci-fi” geeky, or less action-y, because he would have had the discipline to not cram all three into the same movie. But Spielberg’s won his Oscar. Christopher Nolan feels like he’s trying way too hard to get his.

The design and cinematography are spell-binding (though not as breath-taking as those elements were in Gravity, which seems, bizarrely, like a “perfect little film” compared to this). There’s an awesome robot who’s a little bit R2D2 and a little bit HAL; great spacecraft; great other planets; and an intriguing take on a future Earth. Hans Zimmer’s score, like the one he did for the Nolans’ Inception, is monumental, horror-movie infused, at times over-the-top, but always suited to the film’s style. The sound mix has problems, though: a surprising amount of the film’s spoken lines are muffled and unintelligible, which, when they’re dealing with heavy quantum physics, is especially frustrating.

Matthew McConaughey brings leading-man charisma and great technical skill to his role as a farmer dad who has to go to space to save humankind; his character Cooper’s essential choice – being with his family versus saving the world – is a theme hammered to death by the script but dealt with on an acting level with boldness and grace. Anne Hathaway makes his co-pilot surprisingly credible and sympathetic considering the major pitfalls of the role; Bill Irwin voices the robot perfectly and young Mackenzie Foy is excellent as Cooper’s beloved daughter. The rest of the cast fare less well, though a lot could be due to the dialogue they’re often lumbered with. Michael Caine, in particular, has to shovel a huge amount of really terrible expositionary mumbo-jumbo, and doesn’t come cleanly out of it. At least – thank god – he wasn’t asked to offer up his “American” accent.

Gorgeous, infuriating, exciting, confusing, stirring, boring – it’s the film that’s got it all! It’s sure to be around at awards time – certainly in some technical categories, certainly not in any screenwriting ones – and it’s totally worth your twenty bucks. Whether it’s worth three hours of your time will be up to you.

The Crack Reporter

Posted: November 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

Kill The Messenger **** (out of five)

tumblr_mvz0vzKLoA1qeuvq0o1_r3_500The unpretentious, no-nonsense adult realism of Sidney Lumet permeates the style of journalism thriller Kill The Messenger, and that’s a delightful thing. Michael Cuesta’s clean, smart and vivid portrait of Gary Webb, a journalist for the San Jose Mercury News who, in the mid-80s, broke a story involving the CIA, crack cocaine and Nicaraguan rebels, and then faced the consequences, is precise storytelling. It’s full of crack actors doing sweet, professional turns, has an enticing aesthetic, and provides plenty of food for thought.

Webb is played by Jeremy Renner, very well. Not so much a crusading journalist as an ambitious reporter who chances upon – well, a great big chance – Webb was imperfect but had strains of nobility, and Renner plays him with a palette of many greys. Like the film, his performance is not at all showy, but completely absorbing in its workmanlike professionalism. He’s strongly supported by Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (when does she get to be a big star?) and a likeable Oliver Platt, with one-and-two scene cameos from Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Robert Patrick, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff and Ray Liotta! No doubt they were all drawn by the tight, suspenseful script which treats its audience like adults, and smart ones, too.

Cuesta’s cut his teeth on some very fine television, directing multiple episodes of, among other shows, Six Feet Under, Dexter and Homeland. I’ll be looking forward to his next feature, because Kill The Messenger is an excellent piece of work.

War is F**ked.

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Uncategorized

Fury **** (out of five)

fury-headerDavid Ayer has written some hardcore men-with-men films: U-571 (a submarine in war movie), Training Day, Dark Blue (an excellent and thrilling look at the LAPD during the Los Angeles riots) and End of Watch (which he also directed) among them. He likes to write (and now direct) men in uniform, in camaraderie, in crisis, and his politics always find sympathy with his men, even if they’re corrupt, anti-heroic, criminal, or worse. All of these men have dirty jobs, Ayers’ films seem to say, and the men are gonna get dirty doin’ ‘em.

This theme repeats itself in Fury, which is to tanks as U-571 was to submarines and End of Watch was to LAPD squad cars. Set in a tank (named FURY) in the very, very waning days of World War Two, it is a post-Saving Private Ryan anti-war film that manages, in its third act, to become an old-fashioned World War Two rabble-rouser where instead of lamenting man’s inhumanity to man, you’re cheering on our (anti?)heroes to shoot them Nazis but good.

The structure is simple, and repetitive: tank travels and we get to know the men inside; tank sees action; repeat… up until a certain point. There are two scenes in the film’s first two acts that deviate from this essential structure, and they are both very fine, examining two sides of what the war has done to the tank’s commander, Don “Wardaddy” Collier. These scenes are original, which is important, because much of the rest of the film’s set-up is not. We meet a crew, and they get a new man, who may as well have been named “Audience Surrogate” but who is actually called Norman, is as fresh-faced as they come, and played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a young clerk, baffled to be assigned to the machine-gun of a tank, and will have to become a man by the end credits. “Wardaddy” Collier will be his teacher, mentor, Jedi-master.

As Collier, Brad Pitt has been prettier, cuter, hotter and sexier, but he’s never been as manly-man handsome as he is here (with the possible exception of his role in Inglorious Basterds, which was the comic version of this). He’s very good, despite being lumbered with the film’s most portentous lines. Subtlety is not Ayer’s thing – at all. He wants his themes understood by everyone and he makes sure you get everything, even if he has to spell it out, which he does. As such, although a film of great clarity, it’s not actually a film of great depth. War is f**ked, and men in war do f**ked-up things: that’s about it.

But it’s exceptionally well crafted and each individual sequence is superb. There are half a dozen enormously entertaining set-pieces at least. In one, Ayer gives us a portrait of the nuts-and-bolts second-to-second tactics of close-range tank battle in a way that Peter Weir gave us ships in broadside combat in Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World. In another, we really get to see what tanks can do to a gorgeous little German town.

And then there is the finale, that third act, which jettisons war-as-hell and brings us war as adventure. It is a perfect half hour or so of movie, deeply soaked in an understanding of good climaxes from the full spectrum of action-oriented war films since they began to be made. The ensemble acting here, from the tank’s crew, feels awe-inspiringly authentic, never more than when these men are simply doing their jobs: loading ammo, firing ammo, and being terrified. Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf are the actors, and they’re great. Supposedly there was an enormous commitment made before production in creating the crew, involving boot-camps, actual tank training and the like, and it is reported that Ayer established a cult-leader like presence on set, admitting to playing “emotional games” with his men. Whatever the method, it worked.

This great last act may also be the one that turns you off, precisely because it is heroic. I bought into it all the way, and actually felt it was essential, because the first two acts are, frankly, relentlessly bleak. In the end, Fury is a war movie as much as an anti-war movie, and a damned fine one.