Archive for March, 2011

Layers and Layers of Quality

Posted: March 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

IN A BETTER WORLD *****

 

You rarely get to call a movie perfect, but sometimes one just is. Susanne Bier (After The Wedding, Brothers, Open Hearts) is one of the more thoughtful filmmakers in the world, and here, working from an original script by Anders Thomas Jensen (who wrote the above three films as well), she displays all her powers of intelligence, thoughtfulness, compassion and dramatic comprehension. A doctor, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, in an astonishing, complete performance) works some parts of the year in Africa at a remote medical camp, but finds the moral and ethical challenges there no more exacting than those he experiences, on a quieter scale, in dealing with a bullying situation at his son’s school back in Denmark. Titled Revenge (Hævnen) in its Danish release, the film certainly examines that concept, as well as definitions (and personal expectations) of masculinity – something that runs strongly through Bier’s work – as well as notions of national and family identity. Bier now claims to prefer the new title, but I think Revenge sums up the themes of the story more – although, believe me, this is no Mel Gibson-style take on the subject (eg Payback, Ransom); it examines revenge as a towering notion and gazes at it from every angle, taking in responsibility, humiliation, misdirected anger, righteousness, grief, legality, ignorance and hate. If it’s a thriller, it’s a thriller of conscience. Whipping along with the agility and grace of a gazelle, powered by outstanding performances all round (including those of the two young boys in the center of the story), In A Better World won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – the most obviously deserving award of the night. Completely, unquestionably recommended.

 

NEVER LET ME GO ***

 

It’s a shame when one over-riding directorial choice undermines an otherwise fantastic movie, but that’s precisely what’s happening in Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s magnificent novel Never Let Me Go (screenplay by the excellent Alex Garland). Exquisitely acted by Best Youngish Actor In The World Carey Mulligan, Next Spiderman Andrew Garfield and Better Than You Think She Is Keira Knightley; gorgeously (and chillingly) shot by Adam Kimmel; emanating from bold, original and highly moving source material; and crammed with extremely moving individual scenes and sequences, the Should Be Practically Perfect movie suffers from the overwhelming melancholic tone that is so consistent throughout as to render the experience depressing rather than sad, and, unfortunately, a little flat. There is no denying the heartbreaking content of the story, and the trio of SuperBrit actors are absurdly good at portraying a version of humanity that is at once as close and as far to “us” as a “science-fiction love story” could hope to achieve. Set in an alternative version of our own history, the three young leads play three orphan friends who discover, and deal with, their origins and destiny, alongside having to deal with the normal stuff – like desire, love, jealousy and sacrifice. Making brilliant use of superb locations, weather patterns, costuming and music, I can only imagine the reason this fine film did poorly at the US box office last year was the reputation that must have gotten out that “It’s a downer.” And it is a downer – a heavy downer – there’s absolutely no denying that. I recommend it highly, but not if you’re looking at something light to cheer you up.

 

Battle: Your Brain

Posted: March 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES * 1/2

 

A white US Marine, Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is retiring, with the lingering regret of one of his final missions resulting in the deaths of many of his squad. Meanwhile, aliens are attacking earth. The situation is grim, so Nantz is called back into active duty, embedded into the unit of 2nd Lieutenant William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), whose cheerful corps of multiracial marines include Corporal Jason Lockett, whose brother was one of those who dies under Nantz. Don’t worry about any of this because within twelve minutes, it’s all about battling aliens on the streets of Los Angeles, and that’s what we get for the rest of the film. The set-up is entertaining in the absolute transparency of its desperate appeal to all the different racial demographics in the United States, but the action, accounting for a good eighty percent of the film, becomes truly monotonous, unhelped by shaky hand-held camerawork and aliens who are so faceless and soulless that they may as well be garbage cans shot at by little boys with slingshots. Definitely not recommended.

 

Two New Views on Animation

Posted: March 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

RANGO ***

 

Gore Verbinski is an interesting director. From MOUSEHUNT, THE MEXICAN and the Amercan remake of Japanese horror film THE RING, he landed PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN, which was by no means a guaranteed hit, being a movie version of a Disneyland theme-park ride. It was a hit, however – and absolute monster of a hit, a box-office shattering phenomenon – and the subsequent two sequels were too, making Verbinski and his pirate star Johnny Depp unassailable stars at the very highest echelons of Hollywood. Verbinski passed on directing the fourth PIRATES movie to make this, RANGO, a CGI-animated comedy that seems intended for adults. It certainly feels most like an idea that ws bandied about between Verbinski and Depp during the PIRATES shoots; it is very much all about them. Rango (the voice, and physically-inspired performance, of Depp), an ugly chameleon who is hurled from a car in some part of the American Western desert, finds a town called dirt, becomes its’ sheriff and solves its problems. The plot is a direct quotation of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s brilliant film CHINATOWN (with Ned Beatty standing in for John Huston, in the guise of a wheelchair-bound turtle) and makes endless reference to endless westerns. As enormously fun as the concept is, it suffers from what I find all CGI films suffer from, which is a boring and overdrawn second act, where we have to focus on a story that, let’s face it, is being played out in front of us by computer graphics, however sophisticated. The first twelve or so minutes are inspired; there are some brilliant action sequences, tremendous visuals, and luckily more than a couple of laugh-out-loud jokes; but it goes on for what feels like half an hour too long. Maybe they should make these CGI movies forty minutes, and package them as double features?

 

HOWL ****

 

This very modest picture from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman is a terrific experiment in docu-drama. Allen Ginsburg’s seminal poem “Howl” is the subject; the telling is unique. Basically, Epstein and Friedman interweave three forms to create a tight glimpse into an important moment in American legal history. The boldest is a telling of the poem, read by James Franco, and accompanied by an animated exploration of the poem’s themes. The next most important is the dramatised re-creation of seminal moments from the obscenity trial that was brought against the publisher of the poem, which is derived entirely from actual court transcripts, and performed extremely well by Jon Hamm, David Straithairn, Bob Balaban (as the Judge!), Treat Williams, Mary Louise Parker, Alssandro Nivola and Jeff Daniels. The least fascinating part – but integral nonetheless – is Franco, as Ginsburg, re-creating parts of an interview that Ginsburg recorded in his apartment as the trial was going on – as Ginsburg, not charged himself for obscenity (the charge was only against his publisher) chose not to attend the courtroom. What Ginsburg has to say about the creation of art – and of being homosexual in the early 1960s in the United States – is potent and fascinating, but the poem and the trial are truly captivating, and if, like me, you’ve never read the poem, you’re in for a treat – and an educational one. An inspiring treatment of an inspiring theme.

 

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST *1/2

 

Oh, how this “Millennium” trilogy started with a bang but ends with a whimper. The third film (after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire) to follow Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist in their journey to the dark heart of Sweden, it is by far the weakest. Slow, tedious, unexciting, talky, ponderous and weakly shot, it suffers the most fatal flaw of all by confining Lisbeth to a hospital bed for much of the film – and then plonking her down onto a seat in her own courtroom drama. Physically restraining Noomi Rapace’s one-was-thrilling Lisbeth in such a way is a crime, robbing us of the most exciting element of the series – watching Lisbeth go about her work with physical gusto, whether it be fighting off punks, engaging in seriously passionate sex (with both genders) or raping those who have raped her. To be fair, the movie is obviously trying its best to be faithful to the source novel, but in this case, it would have been wiser to change things to make them more cinematic. The bulk of the third novel concerns the depths of corruption amongst a certain Swedish faction going back decades, but this is stuff for the page, not the screen, and we end up with a very long film (147 minutes) that feels even longer. The conclusion, when it finally comes, is hugely anti-climactic – for Stieg Larsson, the author of the novels, did not intend to die, and did not intend this to be a “trilogy” – indeed, his “widowed” life partner holds extensive notes of his for the fourth book, and, supposedly, notes for the fifth as well. So the story doesn’t conclude per se… it just meanders off into some generic credits: a strong metaphor for how bored the series seems to have become with itself.

 

WASTED ON THE YOUNG ****

 

Ben C. Lucas’ thrilling debut feature takes the “nasty kids in high school” formula – a distinctly American one – and gives it not so much an Australian but a truly unique spin, one which (were it not for the Australian accents) might take place anywhere, but perhaps mainly in an almost alternative or heightened universe. His main stylistic conceit is that we see no adults in the film – it is entirely populated by seventeen year olds. Set at “the most expensive school in the area” (the film was shot in Perth but makes no reference to its geographic location), there are no parents, no teachers, no cops, and no kids from any other age groups – it is a hermetically sealed world. This is a tricky conceit, and the attempts to explain it (because these are rich kids, their parents tend to be “overseas”, or completely uninterested in their children’s lives) are stretched to breaking point, but this is not a realistic film but a cinematic ride, and once you accept that, it is exciting, terrifying and thrilling. The excellent unknown cast, drawn mostly from the Perth drama school WAAPA, play out an intense drama that encompasses teenage drug use (a lot), sexuality, crime, bullying, the social hierarchy, social networking, technology, revenge, love and guilt. The plot is fast-flowing and often unpredictable, and thus does not need to be ruined by describing here, but the plot’s only part of the fun: there is deep enjoyment to be had with the technical stylisation of the film. Its shots, editing, use of sound, fractured narrative, saturation and intriguing locations make for a full-frontal sensory assault that amplifies the themes of the story without overpowering it (although at times coming close). Some of the imagery is unforgettable (a title sequence involving boys swimming in a pool is mind-blowing) and the cinematography in general lends the film almost a science-fiction feel – which is very much in line with the story’s emphasis on these teens’ use of all manner of technology. The two leads, Oliver Ackland and Adelaide Clemens, are both incredibly truthful and photogenic; Clemens, who looks strikingly like a younger Michelle Williams, seems pre-ordained for major big-screen stardom. Because of the major integration of current technology to the film’s plot (and even its themes), the film will probably date terribly, and seem quaint within five years; for now, however, it is urgent, of its moment, and screaming to be heard. Highly recommended.