Friday, 31 May 2013

Film Review | Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 sits in a unique, perhaps unenviable, position in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first Marvel franchise to release a third installment (whilst Captain America and Thor gear up for their first sequels and Hulk waits for yet another reboot with Ruffalo in the role), Iron Man 3 is not only a sequel to the previous two Iron Man films but also to last year's critical and commercial favourite Avengers Assemble. It's also the first film in "Phase 2" of Marvel Studios' establishment of their Cinematic Universe, "Phase 1" having been wrapped up through the previously mentioned assembling of The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr.'s fourth outing as Tony Stark therefore had a huge amount of expectations to meet from several different angles.

There's plenty here to like, thanks in part to the elements already firmly established through the original film and its sequel, as well as Avengers Assemble. Downey Jr. is once again strong as Tony Stark providing a pleasing centre for everything else to orbit around. Gwyneth Paltrow returning as Pepper Potts also does well, although her relationship with Tony doesn't go anywhere new and the character doesn't get much of interest to do until towards the very end of the film. Don Cheadle is another welcome familiar face as Rhodey, although his role here never goes beyond a combination of plot device and foil-cum-sidekick to Downey Jr.'s Stark.

New additions to the cast also vary in their success. Guy Pearce crafts potentially the most successful villain of the series in Aldrich Killian, with Ben Kingsley also doing well as mysterious Osama Bin Laden-a-like The Mandarin, delivering a mid-story twist about which the less you know before watching the better. Less successful is Rebecca Hall as Dr. Maya Hansen, who is given precisely nothing interesting to do after the first ten minutes of the film; and Stephanie Szostak and James Badge Dale as two of Killian's subordinates, delivering well in the action stakes but whose villainous motivation is decidedly unclear.

Shane Black takes over directorial duties of the franchise from Jon Favreau, as well as co-writing the screenplay with Drew Pearce, and on the whole does well. This is a notably darker and more stripped down Iron Man movie to what we've seen before. We see Tony at his most vulnerable since he was imprisoned in a cave in the first installment, which provides some fresh moments of humanity for Downey Jr. to explore within the character but also makes this at times the least humorous entry into the franchise yet. Despite being roughly the same length as the previous two Iron Man films (and a good fifteen minutes shorter than Avengers Assemble) Black does feel as though he's padding things out at times here during the film's second act, especially after the film's pacy opening. The way in which Black moves the character of Tony Stark on in the film's final moments also feels a little too underdeveloped, almost like an afterthought, to resonate as much as it should.

In the end, Iron Man 3 is a mixture of successful and less successful elements, evening out into an enjoyable but flawed action film. For a third entry into the series it holds up perfectly well, certainly better than many threequels in other film series, but also feels as though it doesn't really move the franchise as a whole on to bigger and better things like it could have. Yes, there are some things that are done better here than they have been done previously, but there's also too much that feels like it's just been allowed to trundle along as it always has. Maybe it's because it's the first Marvel film to follow Joss Whedon's multi-superhero spectacular, but Iron Man 3 feels good - occasionally very good - but never great.


Thursday, 30 May 2013

Film Review | Untouchable [Intouchables] (2012)

We're a cynical bunch, us Brits. At least that's how we \apparently like to be seen. If a film isn't showing us the gritty, harsh and brutal side of life in graphic detail through gloomy lighting and a bleached palette, then it must immediately be dismissed as corny and saccharine, a twee and flimsy effort unworthy of our time. Just take the reviews from Empire and Total Film of Untouchable: both magazines give it short shrift, seeing the film as a sappy French fancy for the reviewer to arrogantly dismiss. After reading both reviews (which took approximately a minute and a half - not each, but for both in total) I genuinely feel like I watched a different film.

Admittedly, Untouchable doesn't necessarily break new ground, with Philippe (François Cluzet) and Driss (Omar Sy) forming a classic odd couple: the former a wealthy aristocrat paralysed from the neck down due to a paragliding accident, the latter a young black man from the Parisian suburbs hired to be his carer despite his lack of experience, unsympathetic nature and criminal record. The two form a close bond, with Driss reigniting Philippe's "joie de vivre" whilst learning a few lessons of his own. If this was pure fiction, the set-up might feel a little on-the-nose, but the fact that the story is based on real events alleviates that for the most part.

That said, it would be easy for writing-directing duo Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano to make Untouchable a sugar-soaked shallow mess. Thankfully, that's not the case. The direction, whilst never astounding, is solid and allows the story to be told through the warm and natural dialogue and, above all, the brilliant performances from Cluzet and Sy. Individually both men infuse their characters with authenticity and likability, however it's the chemistry between the two that is the driving force behind the film. The conversations between the pair feel as though you are watching two real-life friends, and there are several irresistibly heartwarming and memorable moments throughout.

Thanks to its perpetual feel-good tone and positive outlook, it's true that Untouchable may avoid focusing upon some of the more unpleasant aspects of both men's lives - we see Driss spending time with some unsavoury characters at moments throughout the film, but these scenes never attempt to tackle the social problems inherent in what we are being shown. Nor are we ever shown much at all of the less pleasant side of Philippe's quadriplegia. But the lightness of touch and honesty within the characters means that this is unlikely to detract from your enjoyment of what is a genuinely entertaining and funny film. Lovers of gritty and depressing cinema, look elsewhere: Untouchable is endlessly optimistic and simply joyous.


Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Film Review | Room 237 (2012)

The Shining is one of those films that has firmly embedded itself across the entire spectrum of cinematic notoriety. Even casual moviegoers are likely to recognise at least some of the references to lines, characters and scenes that crop up in popular culture fairly regularly. At the other end of the scale we have the fanatics, the obsessives and the theorists; those who have watched and rewatched Kubrick's horror masterpiece to the point that they no longer see a narrative, more a collection of interconnected clues to a greater meaning behind the film. Rodney Ascher's Room 237 rests its focus upon a quintet of Shining enthusiasts who enjoy analysing the film to within an inch of its life. Sadly, the documentary can't live up to the movie geekgasm it seems to promise.

The theories presented range from the fascinating to the tenuous to the downright laughable. Some seem to have a fair amount of evidence within Kubrick's film, such as the choice to add several references - some overt, some subtle - to Native American culture not found in Stephen King's source novel. The leap to then declaring The Shining as being about the genocide of the Native Americans is quite a large step further, however; moreover, a step which requires a fair amount of gap-filling and dot-joining on the viewer's part. Other theories pieced together through over-obsession can only be viewed as crackpot (Kubrick filmed the Apollo 11 moon landing footage, and The Shining is "littered" with hints and clues towards this), whilst one section about playing the film simultaneously forwards and backwards on top of each other feels like Kubrick devotees clutching at straws and in all honesty is just plain dull.

If you haven't watched The Shining recently, do so before watching Room 237, otherwise references to some incredibly specific elements of the film will almost certainly be largely lost on you. Most of the citations are accompanied by footage from The Shining to illustrate whatever theory is being presented, but all the same it's better to have some frame of reference as to where each part being analysed appears within the original film. The use of footage from other Kubrick films, as well as several other sources, is neatly done and is probably Room 237's greatest strength.

It's a shame then that several other parts of the film fail to impress. Ascher immediately throws you straight into each interviewee's separate theories without any preamble or introduction, making the film's opening feel somewhat limp and disorientating. Ascher's choices from there fail more often than they succeed. At no point do we see any of the five speakers, not only making it difficult at times to differentiate between who is actually talking, but also more importantly makes it hard to develop anything more than an arbitrary engagement with those involved. Ascher also remains entirely without agenda or indeed purpose, making it difficult to know exactly how he wants us to view the ideas and people he's presenting to us. The theories are put forward without any exploration of the lives or personalities of those putting them to us, which ultimately makes them far less interesting than they could be.

In the end, Room 237 feels like something of a wasted opportunity. Numerous interesting questions (such as why Jack appears in the New Year's Eve 1921 photo) and factoids (Kubrick reportedly preferred the shorter European cut of The Shining, which actually removes some parts analysed here) are completely ignored, which will surely disappoint many who were hoping for some theories regarding these most notorious of mysteries surrounding Kubrick's film. But the biggest failing of Ascher's film is its execution. As a documentary, Room 237 is amateurish to the point of feeling at best like a special feature on a non-existent DVD or Blu-ray edition of The Shining, at worst like an extended YouTube video.


Film Review | Tyrannosaur (2011)

Paddy Considine the actor has attempted a diapason of roles, from revenge-consumed former soldier Richard in Dead Man's Shoes to one half of the "Andys", the detective double act seen in Hot Fuzz. Considine the director opted very much for a bleak and heavily realistic tone closer to his dramatic work with Shane Meadows for his feature debut. It's one decision of many which make Tyrannosaur surely one of the strongest inaugural works seen from any director in some time.

Considine's film is confident and mature showing an understanding for the director's craft that perhaps even surpasses his acting ability, with shot after shot crafted expertly and presenting the bleak and angry version of Britain Considine clearly wants us to see. It's hard to place Tyrannosaur geographically to one place: despite being filmed in Yorkshire there's very little to tie the film to that part of the country, and many of the actors perform using their natural accents making things even less clear. It's a clever choice from Considine as director, giving the film's message about the nature of humanity a feel of universality.

The film's strongest element alongside the direction of Considine is in its cast. Peter Mullan's performance as anger-infused alcoholic widower Joseph is incredibly powerful, creating an enigmatic anti-hero by turns both inspiring and repulsive. Olivia Colman opposite him as Hannah is quite simply extraordinary in a demanding role, delivering incredible raw emotion throughout. Completing the trifecta is Eddie Marsan as Hannah's husband James creating surely one of the most loathsome male characters seen on screen for some time through an unsettlingly authentic turn.

Considine's choice to make his film relentlessly bleak and unforgiving allows the director to produce some incredibly effective and hard-hitting drama, but it's also the main factor that holds the film back from perfection. Watching Tyrannosaur could never be accurately described as enjoyable. It's a film to appreciate, admire and applaud, but its persistently harrowing nature does make it hard viewing at times. When the lightest and most upbeat moments of a film happen during a funeral and wake, you know you're in for a punishing cinematic experience. Occasionally too Considine threatens to allow the brutality of Tyrannosaur's world to overflow into the ludicrous; it never happens, but the film teeters on the brink once or twice.

If you can take Tyrannosaur's perpetually angry and savage perspective, this is a film which will reward you with some of the finest contemporary British cinema you're likely to experience. It forms an astounding debut for Considine as a director, and will leave you excited for the actor's next venture behind the camera.


Saturday, 18 May 2013

Film Review | The Imposter (2012)

The Imposter isn't one of those documentaries, such as 2010's Inside Job, that relates an account of an event which is simply too important not to be told. The Imposter's story is the very definition of truth being stranger than fiction, a tale of the unexpected that in reality only genuinely affected a handful of people but that is so out there as to be utterly compelling for anyone hearing it. But having irresistible subject matter isn't enough for a documentary to succeed. Thankfully, The Imposter has a lot more going for it than just its story.

Deserving of first mention is the film's primary talking head, Frédéric Bourdin, the man who managed to pass himself off as seventeen year old Texan Nicholas Barclay, missing since he was thirteen, even though Bourdin was actually twenty four, French and had several other notably different features to Nicholas. Bourdin is enigmatic whenever on camera, simultaneously charming and despicable; you'll find yourself willingly drawn into his version of events through his swaggering patter, despite the fact that the film regularly reminds you either overtly or subtly that the man you are watching and listening to is a habitual liar and swindler. All moralistic questions aside, director Bart Layton has struck on a consistently compelling screen presence in Bourdin.

Layton's choices elsewhere also work incredibly well. Dramatic reenactments of real events can at times feel jarring in documentaries, but thankfully this is never the case here. Layton's direction feels stylish and highly crafted throughout the recreated scenes making them much more than the perfunctory afterthoughts sometimes seen in lesser documentary efforts. The casting of Adam O'Brian as the younger Bourdin in these segments is also uncannily accurate and incredibly effective.

Elsewhere in the film Layton makes some expert choices which belie this being his debut feature-length documentary. The only voices we hear are those of the people involved, meaning that the way Layton allows the story to unfold feels incredibly organic and without agenda. And yet the director is clearly in control throughout, crafting his film in the style of a thriller or crime drama. Layton only occasionally allowing himself to linger on slightly unnecessary elements a little too long - a sequence focused on how Bourdin felt attending an American school, for example, feels out of place and uncharacteristically schmaltzy in tone. Any issues however are minor, seldom seen and easily forgiven. This is a captivating and high quality documentary which tells a fascinating tale with genuine skill.


Sunday, 5 May 2013

Film Review | 127 Hours (2011)

127 Hours received a fair amount of attention upon its release, being as it was the first film released by director Danny Boyle after Slumdog Millionaire won him Best Picture and Best Director (and six more to boot) at the Oscars two years earlier. But whilst the influence of Slumdog Millionaire and several other previous Boyle works can be seen within 127 Hours, it never manages to reach the heights of the director's most successful films.

The strongest element within the film is undoubtedly the central performance from James Franco - pretty vital really, seeing as Franco spends a large part of the film as the only person on screen. After a largely functional opening act in which Aron Ralston (Franco, and upon whose account of his real life experience the film is based) is set up as something of an arrogant twat, it's down to the acting and directing team of Franco and Boyle to make the next hour of the film work. Franco steps up to the plate admirably: whilst Ralston is not always likable, the actor's performance keeps things interesting and does well to show Ralston's physical and mental deterioration over the five or so days he spends trapped by a fallen rock.

Boyle, on the other hand, has less success. His style is a mishmash of cues from his cinematic canon: the opening act has a very similar feel to The Beach; Ralston's flashbacks to various moments throughout his life echo Slumdog Millionaire's style; and his increasingly surreal hallucinations and visions are reminiscent of Renton's drug-fuelled experiences from Trainspotting. But herein lies the problem: Boyle's eclectic direction never gels in a pleasing enough way, nor is it ever as successful as the previous films it recalls. Ralston's mind unravels, but we never get anything as iconic or inspired as The Worst Toilet In Scotland or Allison's dead baby crawling on the ceiling. And whilst I accept that Ralston's flashbacks are there to show how his current experience is changing him as a person, they equally serve to reinforce that the person we're watching has for the vast majority of his adult life been a bit of a tosser.

True, there are more successful moments here. Ralston's interviewing of himself on an imaginary talk show - partly to reveal he too realises his previous tosser-like behaviour, partly to distract himself from the boredom and hopelessness of his situation - is a particular highlight. Much has been made of the gut-wrenching scene depicting Ralston's now famous self-sacrifice, and this too is one of the film's strongest scenes, although if you've been subject to any of the hype surrounding it you're likely to be at least a little underwhelmed. 127 Hours ends up as the approximate sum of its parts. It's worth seeing to experience Franco's breakout performance as a leading man; but ultimately Boyle not only fails to impress nearly as much as he has done in the past, but also manages to constantly remind you of that fact through the choices he makes.


Film Review | Raising Arizona (1987)

The story goes that Ethan and Joel Coen wanted their second feature film to be as different to their debut, Blood Simple, as they could make it. If that was indeed the case then Raising Arizona in that respect is a near-comprehensive success, being as it is a fast-paced, madcap comedy packed with cartoonish characters and oodles of symbolic references. But whilst Raising Arizona in many ways distances itself from the Coen Brothers' first film, there are plenty of stylistic choices which make it clear "The Two-Headed Director" of Ethan and Joel are once again in the driving seat.

Raising Arizona regularly flies in the face of cinematic conventions. The opening credits appear over ten minutes into the film's running time, by which point we've seen H. I. "Hi" McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) go to prison three times; marry Ed (Holly Hunter), the officer who takes his mugshot after each arrest; unsuccessfully try to start a family; and set in motion a plan to steal one of the "Arizona Quints" recently born to furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife. The rest of the film doesn't trouble itself much with plot, allowing itself to meander here and there following the lives of the McDunnoughs and focusing on the problems Hi constantly faces in looking after his infant "son", keeping his wife happy, and staying on the straight and narrow.

This is the Coens' first screwball comedy, a subgenre they would revisit more than once later in their careers, but their character-driven inaugural effort still stands up over twenty-five years after its release thanks to the vibrant and at times surreal script as well as comprehensively excellent performances from the cast. Cage deserves high praise for his turn as antihero Hi, achieving a satisfying balance between the comedic and sympathetic throughout. Hunter also does well developing a charming on-screen relationship with Cage whilst impressing with some delightfully over-the-top comedy moments of her own. Able support comes from the double act of William Forsythe and future multiple-Coen-collaborator John Goodman as escaped convicts the Snoats brothers, acting for most of the film like a pair of miniature devils on the shoulder of Hi as well as carrying out one of the most memorably bungled bank robberies in movie history.

The Coens pack their second film chock-full of intriguing questions for the audience. Why does Leonard Smalls' (Randall "Tex" Cobb) name recall the man-child protagonist of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men? Is there an intertextuality between this work and Steinbeck's as characters from both unsuccessfully strive for the American Dream? Or is it just sly ironic humour - Steinbeck's Lennie has an obsession with rabbits throughout his novel, and Smalls' introductory scene in the Coens' film sees him dispatch an innocent bunny with a disproportionate amount of firepower. The Coens' despicable bounty hunter poses another enigma later on when it is revealed he shares a tattoo with Hi during a punch-up between the two. Does this represent a duality between the characters, with Smalls reflecting what Hi could have become had he not strived to follow the path of good? Or is it just another piece of surreal Coen humour, an unexpected way of halting the violence for a second as the two characters display just as much bafflement at the revelation as the audience?

Perhaps this is the beauty of Raising Arizona. It's not the Coen's tightest or most powerful work; but it can be studied and picked apart to your heart's content, whilst at the same time providing genuine highly-crafted entertainment that can be enjoyed without having to analyse it in any way. Most of all, it's arguably the first Coen Brothers movie that feels like a "Coen Brothers movie" through and through, with all the directorial and artistic panache that you'd expect. It's a film best summed up by its own theme song: Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" played on the banjo Deliverance-style. It could be a well-thought-out comment on the characters' ideologies within the film, or it could just be a Coen-flavoured oddity. Either way, it's a complete hoot.