Sunday, 31 March 2013

Film Review | The Ides Of March (2011)

I'm a big fan of The West Wing, the US political drama focused on Martin Sheen's President Bartlet and his White House staff. It's the most entertaining, engrossing, well-written and authentic-feeling dramatic representation of the world of politics I've ever experienced. What this essentially means is that I now consciously measure any other politically-oriented dramatic work against The West Wing. Maybe this means  I can be quite severe when passing judgement on political dramas, or maybe it's just that I acknowledge just how high-quality this subgenre can be and don't take kindly to those who try to cut corners when presenting the world of politics. Whilst The Ides Of March could never be accused of corner-cutting, it feels a little too lacking in several areas to be considered a truly great political drama.

The film's greatest strength is by far its cast. Ryan Gosling leads ably, crafting an engaging and, for the majority of the time, believable protagonist in junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers. The supporting cast too displays a cornucopia of talent, with Philip Syemour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and George Clooney (who also writes and directs) all reliably excellent. The tone throughout much of the film is also well struck, with palpable tension and pleasing authenticity created through the aesthetic and cinematographic choices Clooney makes as director.

The Ides Of March's problems come from a few key weaknesses in Clooney's script, which manifest themselves more and more as the film progresses. Some characters lack the integrity to genuinely ring true. Gosling's Meyer, for example, is set up during the film's opening act as a bright young spark in political management who has risen quickly through the ranks of Governor Morris' (Clooney) campaign staff due to his keen intelligence of the world of politics. However, several key decisions Meyer makes throughout the film indicate a serious lack of understanding and experience in the field, and the Meyer we see in the film's final act feels in some ways like a different character to the person introduced at the start. Watch too as Evan Rachel Wood's intern changes personality almost entirely, from sassy free spirit to panic-stricken young trollop in just one scene. It's stretches too far such as these that leave Clooney's script lacking in the tightness needed to achieve a genuinely satisfying level of authenticity.

Ultimately, Clooney's film is enjoyable enough thanks mainly to the cast and Clooney's directorial skill. It's just a shame that the mistakes the film contains hold it back from genuine greatness, as the potential was definitely there. As it is, The Ides Of March is certainly enjoyable, but doesn't deserve to join the ranks of cinema's truly great political dramas.


Monday, 25 March 2013

Film Review | Paul (2011)

Looking through Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's individual filmographies, both men have made some pretty average fare in their careers when going solo. It's when Pegg and Frost work together that cinematic brilliance such as Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz happens. Paul signifies the end of this rule of thumb: whilst it's nowhere near awful, it's also far too often remarkably ordinary.

Pegg and Frost share credits as both writers and stars, playing two British sci-fi and fantasy geeks (not a huge stretch for either of them); whilst there are glimpses of the infectious chemistry seen between the two on screen before, here it never fully ignites, feeling like a somewhat shallow imitation of what the duo have previously offered. Seth Rogen is an actor I can take or leave, and his performance as the voice of the titular alien fugitive does nothing to sway me any further either way. It works, but Rogen is never outstanding and at times feels as though he's simply going through the motions. Kristen Wiig is fine in support, and Jason Bateman's antagonistic secret service agent generally works well too, although a character shift in the final act feels like a stretch too far. Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio's junior agents are less successful, but by no means terrible providing a few minor chuckles throughout.

Script-wise, Paul paints much broader strokes than Pegg and Frost's previous more highly regarded films, which may widen its appeal but also makes it feel much less sharply crafted. The writing is at its best when paying tribute to science-fiction films gone by with enough references to keep even the most ardent film buffs happy - a voice cameo by a certain alliteratively-named director is a particular highlight - but elsewhere lazily falls back onto the blunt and heavy-handed. Easy targets such as the Christian right and intolerant rednecks feel beneath the British twosome considering their more finely honed previous comedic works.

Ultimately, there's enough to enjoy within Paul to make it worth a watch. The story is episodic and at times unfocused, but managed to hold my interest throughout. If you expect Paul to do to sci-fi what Shaun Of The Dead did to the zombie and horror genres, or what Hot Fuzz did to action and buddy cop movies, then you'll undoubtedly come out disappointed. But go into Paul looking for a lighthearted sci-fi comedy that will entertain without taxing your grey matter too much and you could do a lot worse.


Saturday, 23 March 2013

Film Review | Batman (1966)

With Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy fresh in the minds of many, it's easy to dismiss or even forget that the Caped Crusader's inaugural big screen appearance was a much more lighthearted and comedic affair. 1966's Batman, a feature length adaptation of the TV series which started in the same year, is in many ways a world away from the most recent incarnation of Gotham City and its flying-mammal-themed hero. But there are things that the '60s version of Batman brings to the table that Bale's troubled vigilante never could or would.

It's clear from the very start what kind of superhero film Batman is, with Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) launched straight into a rescue mission which sees them flying the Batcopter, climbing down the Bat-Ladder (complete with "Bat-Ladder" nameplate hanging from the bottom) and utilising Bat-Shark-Repellent to dislodge a shark from Batman's leg. A dark and brooding Gotham this certainly is not. This is unashamedly camp and tongue-in-cheek with intentionally dodgy props (there's more rubber in the shark than in Christian Bale's Batsuit) and a pantomime plot. Batman's approach to the character and his world certainly won't be to everyone's taste, but it lays its cards clearly on the table from the very start, so at least any misery guts out there can switch off within the first ten minutes and do something depressing instead.

West's Batman may not channel the trauma of his parents' death when he was a nipper, but he fills his  spandex Batsuit amply and entertainingly. It's as alter ego Bruce Wayne that West's talent truly shines through, bringing the suave playboy side of Wayne to life better than any big screen Batman since. It's not hard to see from his performance here why West was offered the role of James Bond following Connery's departure (West only turned it down because he felt that Bond should be played by a Brit, movie trivia fans). Burt Ward's support is exactly what it needs to be: memorably full of youthful eagerness, but always allowing West to take centre stage.

Batman offers four of the hero's greatest foes, and four more sublimely extrovert performances. However, with a quartet of supervillains it's inevitable that at least one will feel pushed to the sidelines; sadly here it is Cesar Romero's Joker, who is never given much to do beyond take orders from Burgess Meredith's Penguin. That said, Batman manages multiple villains much better than many more recent offerings into the superhero subgenre.

One or two other key problems mean that Batman never threatens to become a true classic. The plot is regularly meandering and disparate, feeling like a collection of ideas from the TV series connected by a story stretched to fit an overlong running time. A late moralistic message about world harmony feels unnecessarily tacked on, and whilst it's never distracting enough to do any major damage, it does mean that the end of the film feels a little anticlimactic. But these are minor issues. Go into Batman looking for pure, straightforward entertainment and you'll find yourself grinning throughout, with several genuine laugh-out-loud moments that will reside pleasingly in your memory long after the film's end.


Friday, 22 March 2013

Film Review | Four Lions (2010)

At the UK premiere of Four Lions, writer and director Chris Morris stated that not only did he not consider the subject matter of his film controversial, but also that attempting to stir up controversy is "one of the most boring things you can do". Whilst I'm fairly certain that there will be at least some people who would indeed consider a comedy film about a homegrown Islamic terrorist unit to be controversial, I'm inclined to believe Morris completely in his second sentiment. Four Lions is one of the most finely crafted comedy films of the 21st Century, and at no point does it provoke anything other than genuine humour, thought and emotion.

It's the expert writing and direction of Morris which ensures that Four Lions never comes close to descending into cheap shots or ignorant parody. The story, whilst regularly farcical and blackly comic, also feels remarkably authentic and (scarily) really quite plausible in a number of ways. Morris creates real characters who believe in something, whilst at the same time highlighting the fact that what many people think they know about religious extremists - largely thanks to the media - is in fact the distorted caricature.

Four Lions' assembled cast provides another major strength. Much has been made of Kayvan Novak's imbecilic Waj and Nigel Lindsay's extremist British Islamic convert Barry, and with good reason: both Novak and Lindsay deliver strong and memorable performances, although both spend more time during the first two acts of the film as clear-cut comedy characters. But for me, the standout performance here comes from Riz Ahmed as Omar, the unit's leader. Ahmed's performance takes in everything from slapstick to pathos, with some of the scenes showing Omar's relationship with his wife and son delivering some of the film's most poignant and emotional moments.

Structurally, the film feels a little hectic and unfocused, especially during the opening and middle acts where it's never quite certain what direction the story is going in. Morris almost certainly does this to reflect the disorganisation and confusion of the main characters, but it still means that Four Lions sometimes feels like a string of very well written and performed sketches involving the same characters that don't necessarily form a definite plot. It's in the film's final act where Morris tightens the film as a whole, delivering a focused and flawless finale which is equal parts comedy and tragedy.

Any flaws are minor, however, and vastly outweighed by the film's successes. Morris has refined his craft throughout his acclaimed career in television meaning that Four Lions, his feature directorial debut, largely feels like the work of a seasoned veteran of the big screen. Morris also deserves serious praise for successfully crafting an original spin on what are well-trodden and much-loved comedy archetypes, and for his sheer audacity and unapologetic film-making. In less skilled hands, this could have been a complete train wreck of monumental proportion; under Morris' proficient control, Four Lions stands firm as one of the most successful and important British comedies ever made.


Thursday, 21 March 2013

Film Review | In Time (2011)

Think of an English idiom either concerned with, or involving the word, time. The chances are pretty high that, whatever expression you're currently thinking of, it's included somewhere within In Time. The chances are equally high that you've just gone through the same process as those who actually wrote the script.

The universe that In Time takes place in is undoubtedly the most creative element of the whole thing. Hardly a surprise: writer, producer and director Andrew Niccol's previous credits include Gattaca (writer and director) and The Truman Show (writer and producer).Whilst In Time's world never reaches the imaginative highs of either of those films it certainly holds together in a compelling and believable fashion. Niccol also doesn't waste time with exposition, instead throwing the audience into the film's construct  with a confidence that genuinely galvanises your interest. It's a shame that this barely lasts halfway into the film's first act.

The problem is that Niccol never does anything interesting or deep enough with the set-up he creates. An appealing premise is squandered through characters lacking motive or intrigue performed by a cast that ranges from weak (Justin Timberlake) to going through the motions (Cillian Murphy, who admittedly does the best he can with a poorly written character). The story never grabs hold, instead just bumbling along becoming more and more unfocused until it reaches its lacklustre conclusion. The message that Niccol seems to be peddling here about class mobility and the poor being controlled by the wealthy feels ham-fisted and generates remarkably little excitement.

All of which leaves In Time as nothing more than a wasted opportunity. It's a real shame that Niccol fails to come up with a story or focus to match the ingenuity of the world in which his film is set, as with some decent characterisation and a well-written plot, this could have been a memorable entry into the action-sci-fi subgenre. As it stands, In Time is a forgettable disappointment.


Saturday, 16 March 2013

Film Review | Devil (2010)

Promoted as the first part of "The Night Chronicles", of which we've yet to see any further installments released, Devil's screenplay is developed from a story by M. Night Shyamalan, who also serves as a producer. But whilst Devil lacks (for the better) the pretention of Shyamalan's recent efforts as director, it also lacks the invention and originality of his earlier, better regarded films.

After a flimsy opening and a first act that feels like it belongs buried deep within a TV movie channel way after most of us have gone to bed, Devil actually manages to settle into a pleasing if unremarkable blend of supernatural horror and claustrophobic whodunnit. Whilst some elements are automatically redundant - a brief subplot involving whether there is a motive for one of the five imprisoned in the lift to be killed seems pointless, considering how blatantly the message that what is happening is the work of the Devil is constantly put across - others work relatively well. The choice to have much of the pivotal action take place within a broken down lift is a positive, although it's never explored quite as much as you'd hope.

This ultimately ends up being Devil's downfall: it never goes far enough down one route to become more than overwhelmingly average. The scares are neither frequent nor effective enough to make this a genuinely successful horror, nor is director John Erick Dowdle's tongue nearly far enough into his cheek for this to pass as an entertaining B-movie homage. The story is too simplistic and its characters too lacking in depth or detail to allow the audience to engage on more than a rudimentary level at any point either. By the time Devil lays its cards on the table in the final fifteen minutes, the reaction it receives will be more akin to the end of The Happening than The Sixth Sense.

Devil never does enough right to be truly memorable, nor does it make too many mistakes to be considered awful. At just an hour and a quarter in length it never has the chance to become tedious, but this also highlights the slight nature of everything presented here. In the end it sits, much like a broken lift, between the basement of oblivion below and the penthouse suite of greatness so far above.


Friday, 15 March 2013

Film Review | Duel (1971)

Considering the near god-like status Steven Spielberg now holds in the world of film directing (a status unconvincingly backed up by his less-than-consistent filmography since the mid 1990s), and following his most recent multi-Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed work, Lincoln, it's in many ways fascinating to return to the director's earliest work. Before every film he released was an event, and before he could command studios and budgets to his every need, what was Spielberg capable of creating as a young and inexperienced director? Duel, recognised as his first feature film directing credit, may not be perfect, but over forty years since its release it shows his skilled direction in fledgling form.

Despite being a director unafraid to explore a variety of genres, Spielberg has always been best at bringing monsters to the screen. Duel is his first attempt at doing this, and even though the monster here is in vehicular form, echoes of the director's many successes here reverberate through to his later, more well-known works such as Jaws and Jurassic Park. Spielberg effectively and imaginatively transforms the hulking tanker truck into a menacing and memorable behemoth, particularly through his skilled choices of both camera angles and cinematography.

Duel is regularly at its best when focused purely on the truck and its chosen prey, David, played ably by Dennis Weaver. The actor's performance is strong and authentic and especially impressive considering the large amount of time Weaver spends as the only person on screen. Weaver believably sells his character's descent into mental instability and paranoia, questioning his own sanity more and more during the film's first two acts, as well as convincingly building a hero versus nemesis relationship with the truck itself, as well as its perpetually unknown driver. And in terms of pure action, of course, the film offers plenty of entertaining and well-crafted car chases.

Despite its many strengths however, Duel hasn't aged as well as many of Spielberg's other films. The entire scene at Chuck's Diner feels outmoded, hitting the brakes unnecessarily and far too hard after the tense and heart-pounding opening, whilst adding little to the story overall. Spielberg's choice to at times have Weaver deliver David's inner monologue as a voiceover also feels blunt and dated, especially when placed alongside many of the director's more refined choices. The climax too, whilst suitably exciting and adrenaline-fuelled, provides something of a messy and morally dubious conclusion that doesn't satisfy as much as a lot of what has preceded it.

As a directorial debut, however, Duel stands up remarkably well whilst at the same time foreshadowing much of the success Spielberg would have later in his career. It's faults can't be ignored, but they can largely be forgiven due to the simple yet incredibly effective and innovative thrills the director crafts. Duel is the opposite of epic, focusing on a tense and insular story of an average man unwillingly thrown into conflict and danger; it also shows that, even though Spielberg now chooses to surround himself with grand tales, elaborate settings and technical wizardry, he doesn't actually need them to tell a great story.


Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Film Review | Inside Job (2010)

Some documentaries tell stories that deserve to be told, even if they're stories that you didn't know existed before you watched. Other documentaries tell stories that the filmmaker wants to tell; to expose a truth, right a wrong or just tell you about something they want to make a film about. And then there are rare documentaries like Inside Job, which tell stories that define a moment in history, that absolutely have to be told and that will be told in one way or another whether people want to hear them or not. They're often the hardest stories to tell, and so you always hope that when they are told, the person telling them does so in the right way. Thankfully, in making Inside Job, director Charles Ferguson manages just that in expert fashion.

Focusing on the 2008 financial crisis, Ferguson's film holds a wealth (pun partially intended) of potential before it even begins. This is history. In the future, economics professors will teach whole semesters on this event - in fact they probably already are. Indeed, there was every chance that Inside Job would turn out like a motion picture economics lecture, squandering its potential through financial jargon and stuffy delivery. Thankfully, Ferguson manages to avoid this pitfall almost entirely throughout due to a series of smart choices.

Having Matt Damon on board as narrator is the first thing the director does right. Damon's familiar tones, nonthreatening yet with the necessary gravitas to make sure this never feels flimsy or exploitative, act as a perfect guide through the duration of the film. Ferguson's script and style toe a fine line superbly, neither patronising the viewer nor leaving them behind in a whirlwind of intricate economics. Complex ideas are broken down in a way that makes them not only understandable, but also really quite interesting even if you haven't got a degree in economics. Ferguson knows that his subject matter is so incredibly important that it must maintain this fine balance of simultaneously being informative and compelling, and manages it admirably for the vast majority of his film. Only towards the very end does Ferguson falter slightly, as the section focusing on economic academia noticeably loses some of the vitality of what has come before, but the director quickly regains his stride for a strong and poignant finish.

Ferguson also never holds back in his choice of interviewees. He doesn't just settle for underlings who saw what was happening from below and deliver hearsay and happenstance accounts. He jumps unafraid straight into the lion's den and comes back with a fistful of feline tails. It's a brave decision which pays dividends. Ferguson doesn't get everyone he wants, but those he does get on camera, from influential members of the Bush administration to the Prime Minister of Singapore, are about as heavyweight as you can get. Ferguson also times his reveals of who refused to take part impeccably, allowing their absence to speak volumes.

We the audience should be incredibly grateful that Ferguson grabbed hold of this period of history and documented it on film before anyone else, as Inside Job is informative, unrelenting and irresistable both in content and execution. Had someone like Michael Moore made this documentary, the audience would come away twice as angry but none the wiser as to why. Ferguson explains why we should be angry, but never allows Inside Job to be a call to arms. This is refined documentary making, factually rich and rhetorically superb whilst also aesthetically beautiful at points - Ferguson's shots of countries such as Iceland and Japan are truly artistic, something you might not expect in a film about financial crisis. Inside Job ends up not only being one of the most important documentaries of recent times, but thankfully also one of the very best.


Monday, 11 March 2013

Film Review | Argo (2012)

A couple of weeks before Argo won Best Picture at the 85th Academy Awards, director Ben Affleck stood up in front of an equally prestigious audience of peers to accept the Best Film award at the BAFTAs. Towards the end of his speech, Affleck told the audience: "This is a second act for me, and you have given me that. This industry has given me that" - a clear and honest reference to the director's former critically chequered career in front of the camera. In humbly acknowledging not only his youthful errors but also the objectivity and respect his recent directorial work has been received with by the industry, critics and audiences, Affleck clearly showed how he has developed into a balanced and mature member of the film industry; it is a balance and maturity which is openly reflected throughout the vast majority of Argo's running time.

This is a grown-up film that deals with sensitive issues by and large in a skilled and meticulous fashion. Affleck's casting of himself in the lead role as CIA operative Tony Mendez works well providing a solid presence around which the threads and characters of the story can gravitate. Affleck's largely understated performance also allows the fine performances of his supporting cast to come to the fore. Veterans Alan Arkin and John Goodman put not a foot wrong between them, crafting superb characters from a relatively small amount of screen time. The half dozen ensemble of largely unknown actors playing American diplomats trapped in early 1980s Ayatollah-led Iran also do incredibly well as a collective. It's Bryan Cranston, however, who gives the performance of the film as Mendez's senior Jack O'Donnell. Cranston's performance grows more and more compelling as the film progresses. Having never seen Breaking Bad, Cranston's signature TV drama, I can't compare his performance here to what he's like in that, but let's just say I'm pretty much sold on buying the first season solely on the strength of the actor's Argo turn.

The excellent cast are important in the film's success, but are just one part of what is Affleck's film through and through. The director's skill at capturing the ultra-hostile environment of Iran in the late '70s and early '80s is startling, bringing home the atrocities in a punishingly matter-of-fact fashion. It's almost a shame that Affleck feels the need to draw direct comparison between historical photographs and shots from his film during the closing credits, as if he is desperate to ensure you know that what he's shown you is based in fact. It's okay, Ben, we believe you. The film strikes the perfect balance between drama and realism during the first two acts, although things perhaps slow down a little too much during the middle section. Affleck more than makes up for any slackening of pace by ramping up the tension during the final act, surely one of the most nail-biting and squirm-inducing forty minutes of film you'll watch this year. It may for some be too much of a departure from the realism of earlier in the film, but there's no denying the gripping, heart-pounding nature of the finale Affleck creates.

There are a few minor missteps that hold Argo back from genuine greatness. Goodman and Arkin - two of the film's strongest attributes - are largely sidelined after the film's first act, leaving me wanting more of both and feeling as though the skills of these Hollywood patriarchs hadn't been utilised to their fullest. It would also have been interesting to see a little more of the background to some of the characters featured, particularly Mendez, whose family serves as a plot device rather than supporting characters. These are largely forgivable qualms though due to the consistent quality, maturity and craftsmanship resplendent throughout Argo. This is a genuinely excellent film; whether or not it's a film deserving of the praise and accolades recently lavished upon it is a question that will be answered by time more than anything, and is also a question I am not currently in a position to answer having yet to watch the film's main competition during awards season. But there's no denying the spectacular career transformation Ben Affleck has made, nor the defining moment Argo deserves recognition as in the director's life and work.


Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Film Review | Knight And Day (2010)

Maybe Knight And Day isn't the kind of film that was made for close scrutiny. Maybe it's the kind of film that should be allowed to just rattle along at a fair pace and provide middle-of-the-road action with little brain activity required. But when a film contains such insultingly lazy writing and direction as this, making some major errors that even the most pedestrian of shoot-em-'up popcorn flicks manage to avoid, it deserves everything that's about to be thrown at it.

Tonally, the film is a mess. Director James Mangold seems entirely unable to decide what style of universe he wants his film to inhabit. One minute we're presented with tense realism as Cameron Diaz's June finds herself frantically evading shady CIA operatives with questionable motives; the next she's having meta statements about killing people with big guns spouted at her by Tom Cruise - last seen this manic atop Oprah Winfrey's sofa - as rogue CIA agent Roy Miller. Mangold doesn't do any better in reigning in the tone of his characters: Diaz is a ditz who can't be trusted with a machine gun in one scene, then shooting at bad guys whilst straddling Cruise on a motorbike a few sequences later. Cruise's Roy meanwhile runs the gamut of mental stability to the point of driving the audience a bit loopy themselves.

Things go from bad to worse when the focus is shifted to the script. Writer Patrick O'Neill is either a very weak writer, a very lazy writer, or both. If you're reading, Mr. O'Neill, here's a tip: if you can't think of a way to move from one scene to the next, don't just choose to drug one of your characters, switch to their point of view, then have the screen fade to black then fade in again somewhere else. It's indolent and amateurish. The worst thing is, this doesn't just happen once, but becomes a regular occurrence happening at several points in the film. Plot holes are left gaping, at times even seeming to be intentionally pointed out as if that makes them okay. This is more than just lazy writing; it's downright insulting to the audience.

With such major flaws as this, Knight And Day becomes impossible to enjoy on more than the most scant and rudimentary levels. Even the title is a half-baked idea (I'll leave it to you to discover which half). Serious talent such as Paul Dano has no business being wasted providing minor support in dross such as this. Much better lightweight action fare of this ilk has been made before and since, meaning that there's really no justification to recommend Knight And Day for any reason. Just watch something else: chances are it'll be more worthwhile than this.