Friday, 28 January 2011

REVIEW: Black Swan

Bitch be trippin'

There will be those who will be happy to see that The Wrestler was a one-off for director Darren Aronofsky and those who won't be. While Black Swan is thematically very similar to that film, the thing that separated it glaringly from the rest of his work and perhaps what won it so much approval, was the guy curbing his operatic instincts, curbing his defining characteristic of searching for that moment of transcendence by kicking the crap out of the boundaries we know to be acceptable excess. Personally, I loved that Aronofsky over The Wrestler incarnation and while I liked that film. It felt muzzled, a film made by a man consciously toning himself down, and I think its safe to say there's none of that in Black Swan.

Having said that I think Black Swan might be more fundamentally flawed then any film he has ever made. Its script employs a series of functioning stereotypes, a supporting cast all there to serve a point rather then be human beings and an uneven script that repeatedly hits all of its ideas on the head with a mallet. And yet, almost through sheer force of will, Aronosfky and star Natalie Portman combine to create something extraordinary, something exhilarating and moving and very occasionally reach a level of beauty that few films could even aspire to. Black Swan is not only more then a sum of its parts, it outright transcends them. And while it is tempting to call it a huge mess, one only hopes there could be more messes like this. Portman, who has given hints at being able to do this every now and again, has truly hit a career best and then some. Its a very sculpted performance, top to bottom a testament to control, ironic in more ways then one, in which she both captures the fragility of Nina Sayers and the burgeoning insanity with pure authenticity, something that if she hadn't would have left some of the more balls-out stylings of Mr. Aronofsky in a no fly zone. One thinks of the phrase 'go big or go home' in regards to Aronofsky here and that's certainly what he does.

And this both hurt and helped the film sequentially, from the outright electric way he captures the ballet, making it feel more exhilarating then the best action sequence and more profound then anything words could say. He just provided the art with all the advertising it needs for the next decade. And yet the same approach is applied to the build, a tripping hallucinatory sequence goes a couple of steps too far, and to the characterization. Barbara Hershey's mother character is the worst victim of this, the movie happy to play to the long dated stereotype of the obsessively clingy mother with thoroughly no dimensional at all. This cheapened the movie for me, Mila Kunis comes and goes, not bad but not al that memorable either, and while Vincent Cassel's European director is yet another appalling stereotype, he manages to at least do something a little more interesting with it. But it's thoroughly Portman's show, and when she and Aronofsky combine at the top of their game for the near wordless and extraordinary last fifteen minutes, the film puts you in a place where previous objection no longer matter, such is the beauty of what you're seeing. The film is flawed to the core, but there's something wonderful here too. But personally, I think something with this much capacity for greatness is easier to forgive, and its rare a film can say fuck you to its limitations in such a glorious, almost magical way.

Rating: 8/10

REVIEW: Blue Valentine

Its kind of like if Jason Van Der Beek had grown up into Christian Bale

At the risk of sounding like the most contemptible dickhead, Blue Valentine is a poem. It's a dark envisioning of two entwined human beings who moment to moment are losing everything they once shared, in almost the most horrifying and heartbreaking slow-burn imaginable. But this about more then the loss of love, as one of the connotations of divorce is realizing one of the most defining choices you'll make in your entire life has been a mistake, and mistake you'll never be able to rectify. If life is about choices, then Blue Valentine is a regretful piece about the consequences of making the wrong ones for the best of reasons. At times it can be a little overt in communicating its message and in hammering home its impact, but ultimately it's a fascinating, rewarding dive into existentialist despair.

Many of the criticisms of the film seem to revolve around the notion that the film puts you in quarantine with these characters, into some horrible intimate space you can't escape from. And while its true that's exactly what the film does, I think its perhaps the most powerful aspect of the film. The fact it never allows you breathing space from the relationship is exactly the point and the film has no interest in exploring things objectively, or trying to intellectualize things. It's about putting you into that place where you can feel the emotions as they do, the frustration and the infatuation in equal parts. Like I said it treats its material as a poem, fascinated by the emotional rift emerging. Michelle Williams, who has somehow managed to go from Dawson's Creek to being one of the most consistently impressive and astounding actresses of her generation, gives another award worthy performance here, where everything is so horrifyingly internal and repressed, yet so visible. She is certainly the most wrenching aspect of Blue Valentine, reacting to Gosling's increasingly volatile presence with such unspoken heartbreak, and while she has no chance at the Oscar, it certainly would be deserving.

Gosling I found a a little more problematic. I think there's seeds of a fantastic performance, but the honest moments are too fleeting and I sense that occasionally Gosling's ferocious acting style lead to him being more involved in the mannerisms then the emotions, and in such an emotionally raw environment and opposite a performance as strong as Williams', there was more then one moment I caught him 'acting' so to speak. And this detracted from the film a little I think. Having said that I can imagine that many a viewer watching this would be blown away by what Gosling does, but I think the core of this film was a realist relationship depicted poetically and his performance served to hurt that ethos at times. Similarly the film's structure is designed for such maximum impact that it can feel a little overwrought at times, but that's all the negatives I want to bring up about a film his purely ambitious, a film this purely heart-wrenching and a film this emotionally honest. A brave work in any context for sure. Raw as fuck.

Rating: 8/10

REVIEW: Morning Glory

In which I make it two paragraphs before mentioning the film I'm reviewing. But I'm aware of it so its cool.

I think Star Wars owes Harrison Ford a lot more then it lets on. The problem with movies that create these fantasy worlds and populate them with these arch, good vs evil stories is that the world and characters inevitability feel synthetic or slight, and there's no room to breathe. Put that up against the Lucas standard of dialogue and moralizing, than Ford's trademark douchebag Han Solo became the only character that wasn't extremely upstanding or extremely reprehensible, and thus the only option a viewer over 12 could get behind. Ford has the streamlined persona of an old-fashioned movie star, and that the sense that he's playing 'Harrison Ford' in every role he ever plays is part of his success.

Ford has shown no real desire to explore this persona either. Whereas it could be argued that Tom Cruise only plays himself, for example, Cruise has shown a desire to explore all aspects of that construct, from the traditional heroic incarnations to the darker shadings. Ford has played the lovable asshole in every role he's ever played, except when he reached 50 and the dynamic switched to grouchy asshole. But it's all cut from the same remarkably specific cloth, and I doubt there's an actor in the last 75 years with his level of repute to have a career so complacent. It's not necessarily Ford's problem and as 2-d shticks go, I do enjoy this one. And its certainly the most enjoyable aspect of Morning Glory, a film that feels cliched in spite of its subject matter being one of the less explored aspects of the entertainment industry, at least in recent years. And that never ending soundtrack spike of soul music was pretty fucking annoying.

I guess may main problems lie with Rachel McAdams, who gives a performance that can never really escape the notion of trying too hard, with just way too many exasperated shrugs to communicate that she is in fact a bit of a ditz. I like McAdams in spite of her never really having done anything to warrant me too, and to be fair she's preferable to Diane Keaton, who as she always seems to these days gets away with too much mugging. It takes Ford's weary cynicism to make the thing start working in any capacity, bringing something better out of McAdams and an insufferably twee tone. I kind of enjoyed the film's ode to selling out too, in that the lesson of this movie is that making popular television is more important then making great television, in other words the anti-'Network'.

It's not terrible, and if this kind of thing is your kind of thing then a good time can definitely be had. And I much prefer this kind of feel good movie, that seems to be genuine and plays as moderately intelligent, then to the more standard fare. I think the word is allowable.

Rating: 5/10

Monday, 17 January 2011

REVIEW: The Green Hornet

Cool guys don't pay attention to explosions.

The Green Hornet is a mess. A mesh of ill-fitting ideas and styles, crippling inconsistencies and weak, predictable plotting. But what it did have is an infectious sense of goofy fun, that between the slacker energy of Rogen and the unique stylings of Gondry, make that sense of fun infectious and step by step you find yourself caring less and less about the things that are wrong with it, which is nigh on everything else. The scenes of ass-kicking somewhat pale in comparison to the scenes of hanging out and goofy misadventure though, and it succeeds much more as a comedy then a Superhero movie.

I get the sense though Rogen wanted to do something new with The Green Hornet, yet the only aspects that succeed are the familiar Rogen mainstays, the mismatched buddy pairing, the larger then life slacker persona shtick. The Green Hornet is sort of like a less hilarious Pineapple Express shoehorned into a superhero movie, with James Franco replaced by Jay Chou. Chou is taking a lot of shit for this film, and yes his mastery of the English language leaves much to be desired, but I felt he generally got the energy right, and I've seen pairings with less chemistry for sure. The two had a fairly unique vibe and Chou was at least capable of being funny. Fairing much worse are the supporting cast, from the hideously wasted Tom Wilkinson as Rogen's one-note cartoon of a father, to Cameron Diaz and Christophe Waltz. Diaz seems to be here because someone in the studio pointed how there was no gender with boobs at all in this movie, and thus her role is just forced in, serving no purpose except to wear tight clothing. But the use of Waltz is much more frustrating. Inglourious Basterds should be him about five years of villains in hollywood, and I feel he is good enough to give us a decent rogue's gallery. But this, well like Diaz the character serves no purpose, they just needed a villain on the poster. The character is two-dimensional and flat and Waltz just looks bored.

Much of the writing bothered me too, particularly for the more serious scenes where the dialogue was pretty risible. Wilkinson's dialogue was horrific, as was much of Waltz's. And outside of his own character, Rogen didn't seem to be able to write for anyone all that well. But the scenes between Rogen and Chou, and a couple of neat visual tricks by Gondry make this at least an enjoyable film, so if fails at everything else, it does entertain. A fun ride if you don't pay attention to where you're going. That's probably the nicest way to say it.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Next Wednesday Instead Podcast: Episode 8 - Breaking The King's Speech in a 127 Hours

In which we talk at great length about Stephen Graham's accent and a little about Breaking Bad

Saturday, 8 January 2011

REVIEW: Season Of The Witch

Beatniks (Nic Cage) Out To Make It Rich

OK we know what kind of Cage film this is. Its the kind that pays the rent on his three castles in Romania or whatever. Its the kind that makes bottom tens of the year lists and the kind that people bring up when they tell you how shit an actor Cage is. As a fan of the man's work, its the kind I have to nut up and charge on through, and the kind I have to give the haters their due for. The terrible writing, the awful supporting cast and suspicious looking CGI effects are all on the checklist, but oh well. The next Bad Lieutenant can't be too far round the corner right? Right? guys?

GUYS: Bangkok Dangerous sucked.

ME: So does your mum. The funny thing here is that I don't think Season Of The Witch is quite at the level of the worst Cage slumming. Dude's set himself such a low standard in recent years Season Of The Witch feels positively Shakespearean compared to The Wicker Man. Its still complete balls, but not quite the most balls a Cage film has ever been. Compliment much? Positives include a fairly cool opening Crusades montage, schlocky and amusing performances from Ron Perlman and Claire Foy as the titular witch. Foy in particular has a lot of fun in her paper thin EVIL role. Until of course the film turns her into a lame CGI monster. Shit I just spoiled Season Of The Witch. Like you'll see it anyway, fuckers. Foy wasn't mind-blowing or anything, but she was a fun, camp villainness, so why you've got to turn her into an I Am Legend monster with wings. Cage just looks bored and is here for dollar, and everyone else is pretty bland.

Oh except Stephen Graham of course. Who has an American accent. In 13th century, black death stricken europe. Despite Graham being English. And everyone else being english. And America not existing yet. WHAT THE FUCK. Somebody made this choice, because that cartoon Al Capone doesn't come out of Graham naturally. Somebody said, I think this 13th century peasant should be an American, but played by an English actor. If it was Graham, then somebody said yes to a moronic idea. Yes maybe his natural scouse would have been distracting, but do a generic english one. If you can't do that, well you can't do an American either so what's the FUCKING PROBLEM. All I can assume is that nobody gave a shit, including Graham. Surely the most ridiculous thing in cinema ever.

GUYS: Dude what the fuck you just talked ten lines about an accent. That's half the review. Show some critical integrity. Drive Angry is going to suck.

ME: The film is pretty much a generic road movie, in which cast members die in order of famousness, This portion of the film is just generic and bad, but Perlman and Foy provide moments of passable. Its in its final fifteen minutes that it turns into the comedy of awful you kind of dream it will be, from plague infected kung-fu monks to Foy turning into I Am Legend to the lamest showdown and laughable moment of phoned in Cage sincerity you ever did see. It canonballs into terrible, and there's not much left to say. Except maybe that Drive Angry is going to be awesome.

Rating: 3/10

REVIEW: The Next Three Days

It's a dificult life on the inside.

" This year, they went with the outsiders." This is maybe a misquote, but on the night Paul Haggis won his Oscars for Crash in early 2007, he said something very much to that effect. Haggis is many things bad and good, but what you can't call him is an outsider, at least creatively. He has one of the most mainstream voices in film history and his flirtations with subject matter that was edgy forty years ago only adds to this feeling. He's not an untalented man, but any allusion to the idea that he sees himself as a maverick artist is what really made people hate him out of principle. And boy do we hate him. After winning an Oscar (because you can't very well give it to a film about pretty boys fucking each other in the mountains can you?) Particularly as a writer/director, you are supposed to be golden. But an instant and ferocious backlash rose up, against Crash and Haggis himself, destroying the legacy of that film to the point where a mere five years later no-one can admit to liking it and retain credibility, and Haggis well he's making thrillers that make twenty million and fuck off right out of here.

And I'm going to say that, maybe we over-reacted a little bit. Crash is self-indulgent, its smug and its as trite as hell. It's what a mainstream writer writes when trying to write something REAL. But have we destroyed a promising populist film-maker's career based on one moment of obscene unwarranted praise. Last time I checked lots of you think Million Dollar Baby is awesome right. His superior follow-up In The Valley Of Elah came and went almost un-noticed, almost on principal, and now The Next Three Days is coming and going with even less people noticing. Haggis can do mainstream well, and as long as he isn't telling me what he thinks about the world, he can have some interesting things to say. The Next Three Days is a tightly executed thriller, that races along well, contains good performances from Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks and is the kind of film that cinemas could do more of. Genuinely exciting thrillers.

Its maybe a little long, but this Haggis is one I can get behind, one that lowers his expectations to tell an affecting and coherent story. Its never going to be the best film ever, but its solid to good filmmaking that deserves more recognition then none at all. But then as they say it comes back around, and perhaps now karma is making him pay. Or very angry bloggers have claimed their first film-maker victim. One or the other.

Rating: 6/10

REVIEW: The King's Speech

Firth about to drop some sick beats.

Not too many people are going to criticise The King's Speech, and nor should they. But I submit that the King's Speech is the best kind of pedestrian film-making that is possible, that lets the subject matter do the work for it and allows its sheen and gloss to make you think a hollow experience is a meaningful one. If Oscar-bait were a movie genre, it would be as cliched as the worst romantic comedy, right down to the cynical ways it repeatedly forces tension into the central relationship for no other reason then because. The King's Speech would be as white-bread if it were made in 1935 as if it were made now, and I think it was in a way very awkward film how it broached royalty and the character, a little too respectful to do anything of real value. Yet Oscar-bait is a genre that will last forever because despite all that. You've got the performances. As you always do, standing there almost nullifying any criticisms you can have about these things. Oh well.

And its because I think this film has its problems that I think all the actors are deserving of all their awards attention and more. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush both pretty much elevate their material with their presence, and while this is hardly a stretch for either - It seems Firth has played the stiff upper lip with a secret sensitive side for his entire career - and Rush well he's just playing the most likeable mentor in the world, a dude almost angelic in his busting of chops and ability to empathize with Firth and become a surrogate father figure. The role is basically are more layered Alfred The Butler, but Rush seems to somehow exceed being excellent in it. He's both funny and capable of great pathos and despite the story not being about him at all, I'd say he walks away with it. Its one of those performances of such warmth that only great actors can give, because otherwise it would just appear insipid. Firth is typically great, and although his work is less impressive then in last year's A Single Man, if he wins an Oscar I'll be fine with it. The movie also uses Helena Bonham Carter as a secret weapon, sure she's the supportive wife when she needs to be, but by bringing her in every now and again to K.O a joke , it makes this the most hilarious rendition of the Qieen Mother on celluloid, and another moment of awesomeness for Ms, HBC. Shout out too to Guy Pearce in a marginalized role.

But one can't begin so scathing and then comprehensively praise, so in the face of the tornado of positive praise, here I go. The King's Speech is deeply formulaic, to the point where it became noticeable. If it were dealing with less worthy subject matter, this would pounced on and devoured, but no, its importance gets it a pass. It may be an instance of execution overcoming intent, and the final product has painted over enough of the cracks to get by, and it certainly has a strong as balls ending, owing an hefty assist to Beethoven, but I don't know. It felt much more bare bones then it needed to be, and while I fully accept the need to dicuss duty in films about the royals, I tire of their lionization, of the acension of duty as a value rather then the subject, and I felt it was too easy to make David the villain merely because he didn't share the same values. Oh well. Its still an exemplary showcase for great acting, and has more then one moment of rousing awesomeness. I'm just not sure it warrants the adoration it demands. Or maybe I shouldn't write these reviews on my phone as I run from the police. Who knows.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, 7 January 2011

REVIEW: Its Kind Of A Funny Story

Everyone goes a little mad sometimes.

Its Kind Of A Funny A Story feels like the sort of film that bred like a virus in about 2004, but numbers have dwindled of late. Featuring a skinny white teen protagonist, preferably rich but at least middle class, contending with emotional alienation/mental problems only to be redeemed by a manic pixie dream girl from the other side of the tracks. Some good came off these films but often they were way too self-indulgent to amount to anything much. It's kind Of A Funny story is a bit more laidback then these films are usually, and wisely it pushes the focus from the teen lead to the adult supporting cast, becoming a sort of an emo One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

Maybe I've had enough time off from privileged whining to find it endearing again, but for its familiarity and faults, the film is a kind of charming experience. Mostly because of an excellent performance from Zach Galifianakis but also because its its a film that doesn't insist on itself too much ,a couple of photo montages and fantasy sequences aside, and seems content in being a small story about a guy learning to get over himself. Which is a story that we don't see that often, particularly in indie teen movies, but I found it to be a nice touch. And its a testament to Keir Gilchrist's performance that I didn't want to throttle the guy. But back to Galifianakas, who I much prefer in roles like this then his bigger, broader mainstream comic persona. Specific persona's like that grow tired quickly, as Jack Black and Will Ferrell will testify to, but Galifianakis seems to show a desire to actually be an actor, not above taking supporting parts, cameos, or even a regular role on a TV show. His career shows an almost inspiring lack of ego, and while the big hits I grow weary off a little, as downplayed mental patient Bobby he gets to shine the most. Still funny, but its the dramatic stuff where he adds to the film rather then seek attention, a la Jim Carrey in dramatic roles. And this is my favourite performance he has given yet. An interesting development.

What brings it down is the day to day of it, the parents who don't get him, the Emma Roberts character, who is the thinnest sketch of a manic pixie dream girl and that relationship has drastically less depth then the one between Gilchrist and Galifianakis, which I guess could be a cool thing. But ultimately just too many indie by numbers happening in ways I've seen them happen before. And to be anything more then a 'yeah its alright' film something has to pop, but the greatest compliment I have is I enjoyed how laid back it was.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, 6 January 2011

REVIEW: 127 Hours

So guess what I did this week...

I think everyone remembers where they were when they first heard the story of Aron Ralston. Sort of the survivalist equivalent of the JFK assassination. It's certainly something you never forget. A tale of the most horrifying proportions, you almost couldn't imagine anything worse then getting trapped on a boulder for six days in the desert, with options of either cutting off your arm or being found in a couple of years just a skeleton in hiking gear. Yet also a tale of the most awesome proportions, about a human being who was simply too much of a badass to be defeated by something as feeble as certain death. And if you are going to point to an instance of the human spirit triumphing over all else because fuck that, this wouldn't be the worst example to bring up.

Whether it would make a great film though is a different question. By its very nature, the film can't go anywhere and while a great performance was almost inevitable. How does the story of a man trapped under a rock last 90 minutes? Suspicion arose further for me when Danny Boyle's name became attached, because while he is a brilliant director, he's not one for restraint. I thought it would hinge of whether Boyle could bench the hyper-kinetic visual style for a film and just let the horror of the situation sell itself.

Couldn't be more wrong.

I'm tempted to say that this is actually Boyle's most visually adventurous, balls out iteration of his expressionism on Red Bull shtick. And it worked perfectly. 127 Hours is one of the most striking films you'll see all year, said on January 6th, but it doesn't sacrifice the story to make this happen. Ralston's story is told and then some, thanks to some career best work from James Franco, whose renaissance from wooden as Keanu Reeves Harry Osborn and star of Annapolis to actor so consistently awesome, daring and unpredictable that he's definitely got to be considered one of the most interesting actors going, but he does something new here. He delivers a performance that just carries the thing so wonderfully, in turns stoic, pathetic, badass and heart-breaking. Even hilarious in one particular scene. After this, Franco has to enter the conversation to be considered as one of the best actors of his generation, something the inevitable and deserved Oscar nomination that will come off the back of this film will help no end.

As for Boyle, there are perhaps a couple of occasions that his style went too far down Oliver Stone way, but why it worked so well is because it made the experience so visceral, so brutal and so uncompromising. You hear, see and feel everything. And there was me thinking this could only be done right if you verited this bitch. That's why he's Danny Boyle I suppose. A unique piece of film-making to be sure.

Rating: 8/10