Saturday, 26 November 2011

Review: My Week with Marilyn

Rating: 15
Duration: 99 mins

Much hype has surrounded the release of Simon Curtis's début, which focuses on the troubled portrayal of one of the 20th Century's most iconic figures and how Michelle Williams handles the massive responsibility of fulfilling the legendary role. 

Funded by the BBC, My Week with Marilyn in based around the on-set events of the 1957 feature The Prince and the Showgirl – a feature directed by and featuring Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh). Reworked from the diary entries from the production’s 3rd Assistant Director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), we follow the relationship that forges between the fresh-faced AD and the ever-pressured Monroe in what feels very much like a BBC drama. So much so, it wouldn't feel out of place being broadcast on a Sunday evening slot on said channel, so you can imagine the underwhelmed nature it imposes on the big screen.

A period piece that works with a modest budget of little over £6m is commendable, yet it rarely convinces in set up: the locations (bar it being filmed in Pinewood Studios where the original Olivier/Monroe film was actually shot in) merely offer a whiff rather than full on conviction in comparison to The King's Speech for example. A lack of atmosphere therefore renders it a little stale, relying solely on the capabilities of the actors to carry the already character reliant script.

For Williams - having become one of Hollywood's most talented female leads with acclaimed efforts in Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine ­ it would seem the weight really is on her shoulders whether the picture floats or sinks. For what it's worth, she gives a noble performance bearing a striking similarity at times, as she nails the iconic mannerisms, yet one cannot help but find the portrayal a semi-parody, or at least unintentionally, due to the sheer amount of impersonations and recreations the world has seen over the years.

Kenneth Branagh perhaps offers the most accomplished function as the tyrannous Olivier as he shows a range from calm, broodiness to erupting anger: an Oscar nomination will surely hither his way via a support nod. However, the rest of the cast, including Redmayne as Colin Clark, are limp and largely unlikeable in nature. Never do we find ourselves sympathising with his plight over having to chose between blonde bombshell or lowly wardrobe assistant Emma Watson (complete with dodgy fringe), as it's confirmed that she simply needs more acting lessons to be taken seriously.

What's more is that Dame Judy Dench is painfully underused, with her inclusion feeling a tad insulting and begs the question: why is she even there? In fact, none of the characters come close to actually engaging and emotionally capturing its audience, even during Monroe's darkest scenes: we see a woman who is unsure of herself, but also comes across as both a naive, yet manipulative sexual figure.

The majority of the film runs at a gentle and typical period drama pace considering the nature of its context: overly romanticised and cheesy scenarios raise the cringe factor with a sensibility that doesn't bare much weight in today's world. Admittedly, the mundane events that gradually unfold are acknowledged as non-fiction, but the fact that Emma Watson's Lucy is completely fabricated suggests that the memoirs of Clark were even more laboriously dull than what we see on screen.

Sure to please some audiences and quite possibly enthral die-hard Monroe fans, My Week with Marilyn plods along with a weak and frankly uninspiring narrative that feels far longer than its 99 minute runtime. The biggest problem isn't Williams’ attempt to recreate Marilyn Monroe, but the fact that everyone around her lacks any depth, likeability or redeeming qualities therefore makes the entire concept very difficult to care about and engage with. An Oscar nod for Williams is a cert, but whether she should win based on the film’s merit is another matter entirely.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Review: 50/50

Rating: 15
Duration: 100 mins

Will Reiser pens what appears on the exoskeleton as a controversial choice to encumber a comedy with a premise of dealing with the inevitable woes of a serious illness. Based on personal experiences, he devises a script that also features real-life best pal, Seth Rogen; and if his recent resume is anything to go by, then fusing a hard-hitting subject matter with the foul-mouthed quips of the Green Hornet star has the potential for disaster.

However, the combination of director, Jonathan Levine, the aforementioned writer and co-star, along with the talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, actually gel rather well, with a tasteful offering for what is essentially being dubbed a 'cancer-comedy'.

50/50 centres on lead, Adam (Gordon-Levitt), who -aside from some chronic back-pain - is a fit and healthy twenty seven year old man: he eats sensibly, goes for morning runs, doesn't smoke, and yet is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. Best friend Kyle (Rogen), offers support throughout his ordeal, as he counteracts his overprotective mother - played by Angelica Huston - and seemingly loyal girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), as Adam forges a tempestuous rapport with inexperienced therapist Katherine (Anna Hendrick).

From the outset, the film grasps a balance of light-hearted and sombre tones, exerting the highs and lows of story that will have audiences laughing out loud one minute and gushing with tears the next: it's that emotionally taut.

What Levine achieves with his script, is to create a crowd pleasing, witty story that's articulately directed and tastefully told. The casting choices are spot on, with Gordon-Levitt consistently great, with a possible career best. Similarly, Rogen puts in an altogether refreshing performance that differs from his typical roles: specifically cheap, overt laughs, instead providing a bulk of the comic relief whilst retaining a dignity that adds credibility to both the film and him as an actor. Huston plays a much smaller, yet equally effective role that perhaps depicts the most engaging of relationships: that between a mother and son. One of the most emotionally charged scenes occurs between the two in the third act that'll test the more hardened audience members.

However, whilst the mother-son, boyfriend-girlfriend, best friend-best friend dynamics are winners, the portrayal of said female roles are typical and not so inventive: Huston's overbearing mother still tries to wrap her adult son in cotton wool, overreacting to the events that unfold. We have the committed girlfriend that  - without question - will stand by Adam in his time of need and attempt to shape him into the man she deems desirable. And finally Katherine is introduced as the quirky, emotionally unsure professional that constantly crosses the doctor-patient boundaries as the inexperienced practitioner senses something more intimate brewing.

That said, there are several positives to speak of, including the fundamental elements: the sharp script and strong acting drive the narrative forward and rarely give in to full on conformity. The narrative is a little neatly devised, though, but entertains enough to disguise this with a smoothly paced and enjoyable story. As devastating as the subject matter is, 50/50 is a little nonchalant in its portrayal: the severity of the Adam's life threatening cancer isn't at the forefront of the plot for its entirety, with the occasional scene of sickness, lethargy, attending chemotherapy and losing his hair never quite convinces with its true severity, playing second fiddle as the use of a Hollywood make-up team remind us of his battle.

50/50 is well-rounded, engaging and hugely enjoyable considering its traumatic theme. The narrative, however, feels effortless without stuttering, which sees Gordon-Levitt shines in a challenging role, as his performance is accentuated by a strong cast: notably a fine contribution courtesy of Rogen. In fact, the pair team up to create a likeable duo, as this comedy-drama proves maturity and sincerity, coupled with frequent hilarity can actually go hand-in-hand superbly.


Friday, 11 November 2011

Review: Snowtown

Rating: 15
Duration: 119 mins

The most recent success to emerge from Australia has undoubtedly been 2010's Animal Kingdom, which gained an Oscar nomination amidst some very positive thoughts from the critics. Its visceral, hard-hitting and utterly raw look at real life events aren't dissimilar to what we see in Justin Kurzel's Snowtown. 

However, what we witness more explicitly here is the unforgiving nature of the narrative and just how believably unnerving it is: a number of scenes will have you squeamishly refraining from the more graphic moments of what is essentially a very difficult film to watch. The other applicable comparison is to Eric Bana's role in Chopper, as both come across as enthralling, yet disturbing at times.

Based on the true murderous past of Australia's most notorious serial killer, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), the film documents his life as well as those around him that he affects during this blood-stained legacy: his wife, her children – specifically Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) – as well as Bunting’s associates, who later become accomplices; we are dragged into the family home that shocks from the very beginning.

Depending on your approach to films based on reality, you might benefit from reading up on the subject matter prior to the film: it will provide a clearer idea as to what takes place off-screen, as Kurzel prefers to remain – at times – ambiguous regarding the subject matter. In fact, characters and locations are seldom introduced and are done so with a nonchalant vagueness unsuited to traditional narrative structure. This works well in the context of the intimate and intrusive style of the direction: we see what the characters see, especially during times of discussion and violence, too. Snowtown is voyeuristic as we pry into this convoluted family set-up. The camera intrudes on the unforgiving, shocking nature of the narrative, forcing audiences to tolerate an uncut, uncensored grimness that defines the movie.

The story progresses at a slow and imbalanced pace, yet feels oddly at ease with the portrayal of the leads and indeed the events that take place. At times the experience feels a little mundane, but that merely serves effectively to contrast the more gruelling and extreme scenes that are hard to absorb.

Snowtown is a brutal, no holds barred depiction of the life of a notoriously brutal criminal. The honesty of Bunting is unhinged, as Henshall portrays the real-life killer with a chilling realism. However, praise should be awarded to Pittaway, whose young, vulnerable victim is the surprise performance. Gripping and wholly unsettling throughout, it's perhaps what isn't shown that proves most powerful of all.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Review: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn 3D

Rating: PG
Duration: 107

A movie version of the beloved Hergé books and television show has been on the cards for a number of years. Stemming back to the early 80's where Spielberg hired E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial writer, Melissa Mathison, to pen a script, the maestro has seen the process through thirty years on to direct the $130m spectacle. Now sees a collaborative effort from three fine, young talents that form the basis for the story: Shaun of the Dead writer/director, Edgar Wright, Sherlock and Dr. Who series scriber, Steven Moffat, and Attack the Block visionary, Joe Cornish.
It's an experience of firsts; Spielberg tackles an animated feature as well as Tintin seeking his debut in Hollywood, but will the hype and expectation be met? Recent chatter suggests the beard is losing his touch: a man past his best, especially after affiliation with such atrocities as Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

From the opening title sequence, it's clear how faithful and lovingly crafted the feature is: a tonally perfect score juxtaposed with classic cartoon-style animation that smoothly takes us into the film, which at times you could mistake for live action: the animation and attention-to-detail is that believable, in a largely uncomplicated in a charmingly nostalgic adventure.

In fact, Spielberg plays to his strengths as he expresses a aesthetic similar to Indiana Jones and perhaps what the fourth Indy instalment should have been. He doesn't seem encumbered by recent criticism, either: instead assuming a back-to-basics approach that proves more than satisfactory, especially combining it with the jaw-dropping visuals courtesy of (producer) Peter Jackson's Weta Digital (Rise of the Planet of the Apes).

The animation is consistently a sight to behold and at times you could mistake it for live-action: it's that well made. Smooth, cleverly constructed scene transitions are used to blend the action into something tonally in keep with Hergé’s work and add to an escapism that feels neither forced nor whimsical. One particular scene late on in the third act is a true spectacle that races at top speed during the thrills of a chase, taking innovation and sequencing to a new level.

Whilst The Secret of the Unicorn offers very little in original story telling and structure, it makes up with an enjoyable narrative and likeable characters. However, you perhaps won't warm to Tintin (Jamie Bell) as much as you will to Andy Serkis's Captain Haddock who features as the story's dominant protagonist with the best one-lines. Cuddly-looking mongrel, Snowy, also proves equally winsome as a sidekick detective, as these personas balance out the - at times - juvenile comedy. Fortunately, the majority of the humour comes across as amusing rather than childishly annoying.

The 3D does enhance the experience, especially said impressive action sequences, but - as with every other conversion - the picture looks dark and drab. Yet another unconvincing use of the format, the visual aspect of the third dimension was pleasant, if not entirely necessary.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn presents nothing original in its manner of storytelling; it's family orientated, yet appeals to a mature audience with a charm and sensibility that remains faithful to its source material. Spielberg bounces back from less acclaimed recent efforts with a beautifully looking, hugely enjoyable adventure.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Top 10: Most Volatile Film Characters

Within the realm of cinema there have been characters that range from the beloved, to the feared to the sheer hated; an entire range of emotion can be evoked, and has done so for an entire century of moving images.
Perhaps the most rewarding feeling is being able to engage with our on screen heroes. For example, the complexity of Rutger Hauer’s portrayal– and final speech– in Blade Runner evokes empathy towards a character otherwise deemed a villain. Even the criminal dexterity of Michael Corleone in The Godfather allowed us to warm to his family sentiment and moralistic values beneath the murder and crime. Similarly Michael Clarke-Duncan’s heartbreaking turn in The Green Mile had audiences weeping into their popcorn.
However, removing the likably flawed protagonist in its classical sense, and venturing towards the other end of the Donnie Darko themed ‘Love-Fear’ spectrum, there lies something far sinister; something that also engages but in a more terrifying way; a way that has audiences quivering in anxiety, determined not to sign their own death warrant with an unfortunate moment of eye contact with such volatile, unpredictable individuals.


Actor: Michael Douglas

Film: Falling Down
In a tale of a man who reaches breaking point with the pressure of conformity, and constantly getting screwed by ‘the man’, William decides to take his personal frustrations out on just about anyone, whether it be a local Korean shop owner demanding too much money for his produce, or a fast food restaurant failing to provide him an option of the breakfast menu just after the cut-off point, they all feel the anger he has to vent. All with the aid of a bazooka and semi-automatic machine gun, obviously.
Never… Overcharge him for a soda. He’ll still pay, but boy, will he be pissed.

Actor: John Goodman
Film: The Big Lebowski
Somewhat of an emotional mixed bag, the jovial elements of Nam Veteran, Walter, clash explosively with his short fuse and prone nature to erupt at the smallest of things. Easily set off, the most unnerving part in the Coen classic is his inability to allow a fellow bowling competitor to score points after stepping over the line. Naturally he pulls out a gun and holds it to his face as he marks it down as zero. It was a league game, after all.
Never… Question his ability to attain a severed nail-varnished toe by 3pm.

Actor: Robert Carlyle
Film: Trainspotting
This self-proclaimed hard-knock Scot (I mean Begbie, not Carlyle himself) thinks he’s invincible throughout Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Edinburgh heroin addicts and social misfits written by Irvine Welsh. Highly unpredictable, he’ll happily pummel you to the floor should you sup a pint the wrong way. Speaking of which, the most extreme depiction of his crazed personality is when he downs a beer before lobbing the empty over his head and into the crowd below. Even then he doesn’t go quietly, but insists on humiliating the livid victims with a beat down. Just a quiet night at the local, then.
Never… Buy him a pint.

Actor: Robert De Niro
Film: Taxi Driver
Psychotic probably best describes one of the more well known of De Niro’s characters. Created during his peak period with Scorsese, Taxi Driver offers an unnerving intensity of cabbie loner, Travis, who ultimately breaks under societal corruption. In one of cinema’s all-time classic scenes, the man stares at his reflection culminating in the unforgettable “You talkin’ to me?” monologue. Even more chilling is that the entire scene was improvised, too. They do say there’s a fine line between genius and insanity.
Never… Look like you’re about to talk to him. In fact, don’t even look at him.

Actor: Paddy Considine
Film: Dead Man’s Shoes
One of the rawest British talents of his generation, Considine exudes such an authenticity to his performances; it’s hard not to be completely engrossed and equally terrified at the same time. Writer/director, Shane Meadows, takes us down a horrifying path of one man’s thirst for revenge against a gang of bullies who torture his disabled brother. The ex-soldier knows how to scare the shit out of the small-town gang, before showing the world and his dog he has no problem disposing with each and every one of them in a brutal and systematic fashion.  The most notable scene takes place in a cafe. Richard sits. A cocky member of the gang swaggers in. He stares at him intensely before retorting to “What the fuck you lookin’ at?” with “YOU, YA CUNT!” Brilliant.
Never… Mess with his family.

Actor: Sylvester Stallone
Film: First Blood
Stallone’s simple story of Vietnam drifter, John Rambo, becomes anything but, as he is provoked by a local Sheriff (Brian Dennehy), who in turn becomes the catalyst for Rambo’s explosive custody breach and subsequent escape into a hunt-or-be-hunted scenario in the nearby forestry. Unafraid to kill to survive, his skills and techniques are second to none. When threatened, he won’t hesitate to calmly slit your throat, so be careful where you tread out in those woods.
Never… Antagonise him without just cause.

Actor: Jack Nicholson

Film: The Shining
One of Kubrick’s best as well as Nicholson’s; this psychological horror from 1980 shows a perfect blend of psychosis, insanity and isolation buried beneath the exterior  of a seemingly ordinary man. A mental breakdown in the most extreme form climaxes in an attempted slay of his family in one classic scene where he chops into the bathroom door, before poking his mad-man face through, spouting the inaugural words “Here’s Johnny!” The definition of an axe-wielding manic, if ever there was one.
Never… Give him access to wood-chopping equipment.
Actor: Joe Pesci
Film: Casino
Joe Pesci knows how to do unstable down to a tee. So in Vegas-set gambling/gangster debauchery, his character, Nicky, is truly in his element. Whether it’s mercilessly stabling someone in the jugular with his own ball point pen, he’s definitely a fella you should not mess with. The most notorious act of violence he embarks in has to be crushing a man’s head in a vice to teach him a lesson. It’s ok though, as he only popped his eye out his skull a little. Sure he made a complete recovery.
Never… Give him access to a vice. Or a clamp.

Actor: Gary Oldman
Film: Leon
Luc Besson’s assassin-thriller not only focuses on a fascinating relationship between hitman Leon (Jean Reno), and a young Mathilda (Natalie Portman), but incorporates a truly mentalist villain, who also happens to be high up in the police rankings. Stansfield looks deranged from the moment we clasp eyes on him and as we learn of his ruthless intent towards Mathilda’s family, we witness the chilling composure of a real monster. His creepy neck-clicking way of taking his ‘happy pills’ warns us all to be careful when you breath, let alone stand in his presence.
Never… Give him a reason.
Actor: Joe Pesci
Film: Goodfellas
A second entry for the man and perhaps one of the most fearfully intimidating characters of all time and certainly the most unpredictable; Pesci establishes himself as one of the iconic wise guys in Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece. Prone to snap in an instant, a cold-blooded killing here and there is always on the cards; with the scariest thing is how he’s based on a real person.

Even the portrayal of an incompetent burglar succumbing to a 10-year-old Macaulay Culkin later that year couldn't dispel the immense tyranny generated here. Well, maybe a little.
Never… Suggest he’s funny. Ever.