Sunday, 31 October 2010

Another Year - Review

You don't have to be arty, cultured or even 'in the know' to love Mike Leigh's latest, Another Year. All you have to be is honest and human. The opening moments of the film are slightly misleading as we see the brilliant Imelda Staunton - star of Leigh's phenomenal Vera Drake while also being Professor Umbridge of the Harry Potter films to everyone else - being examined by a doctor, awkwardly giving the audience hints into her chequered family life.

In fear of getting quite a harsh, downbeat, examination of a modern broken British family, the focus shifts from her altogether into slightly more upbeat circumstances. The real story is channelled through a man called Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen) - a perfectly happy professional married couple - living their lives through the progressing seasons of one year, each segment told in, almost, a short story narrative, quite reminiscent of September's wonderful Tamara Drewe. The real stars however are the perfect couple's not so perfect friends.

While Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen's causal, witty and ever so knowing chemistry is absolutely tremendous on screen, it was the wonderful Lesley Manville's portrayal of their rather lonely, needy and emotionally unstable friend, Mary, which sets the film apart. It was really quite captivating watching some of her, socially awkward but completely mesmerising, scenes which conjured smiles, sniggers, laughs and occasionally making me close my eyes or turn away, on account of being so hideously cringe-worthy. I mean this in the best way possible, mainly because it was, at times, so relatable.

Almost everyone who watches Another Year will undoubtedly say they have a friend like Mary, hell if you were honest enough you may even observe you are, indeed, that friend. Unless a gross injustice comes Manville's way, don't be surprised to find her listed amongst best actress or best supporting actress categories come award season in the new year.

Equally fascinating but not featured as heavily was Peter Wight's appearance as Tom's long-time friend, Ken. Like a mirror imagine to Manville's Mary, he's a lonely ageing man with his best years behind him, grossly overweight with drinking, eating and smoking habits which just aren't in line with the overly health conscious society we live in today. He is obviously aware of his health problems - seemingly helping him cope with previous family and friends passing away.

Strangely similar to the needy nature of Wight and Manville's characters was the understated performance of David Bradley as Broadbent's estranged and less well-off brother Ronnie. Reeling from the death of his wife and forever battling with his rebellious son feels wry of how he will be able to live without someone caring for him.

The whole movie feels more like a beautifully written play on the West End, than a genuine cinematic experience - substituting intermissions and seasonal transitions for moments of Broadbent and Sheen's ventures into their eco-friendly produce garden full of fruit and vegetables. Gary Yershon's absolutely gorgeous classical score must also be praised, for adding a real sense of elegance to film.

Final Thoughts
Another Year was never about creating another meandering plot going nowhere until the characters inexplicitly discovered some sort of divine, liberating, epiphany. This was, quite simply, a very honest exploration into the modern relationships people can develop with their friends and family - combining the triumphs of love, wisdom and companionship with the painful awareness of loneliness, despair and the realisation of one's own mortality. A real testament to the rich and enthralling talent currently found in this particular era of British cinema. Mike Leigh: Another Year. Another Hit.


See This If You Liked...
Vera Drake

Another Year is in selected cinemas from November 5th 2010.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Burke and Hare - Review

It's always slightly exciting for a child of the 80s - such as myself - when a true legend that helped define one of my favourite decades of films finally returns after a prolonged absence. For his first film in nearly 12 years, John Landis - famous for genuine classics such as The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London and Animal House - brings us the dark macabre tale of the Burke and Hare murders with a slightly comedic twist.

The film, set around the aforementioned body-snatching/murders, portrays William Hare (Andy Serkis) and William Hare (Simon Pegg) as down on their luck con-men who stumble upon a lucrative business of supplying a highly distinguished doctor (Tom Wilkinson) with dead bodies for educational and research purposes. Of course it's never quite that simple and as their social status rises on account of their wealth, the duo also sink deeper into the criminal underworld, annoying the wrong people from the local mob to the Scottish Militia.

If I'm being honest, there's something I really like about Burke and Hare - and annoyingly I can't figure out what - however it's by no means a perfect, or indeed a brilliant, film. Though being a huge fan of both Pegg and Serkis their Irish accents were a bit rough around the edges to say the least, Pegg - perhaps it's time to stop milking the likeable loser persona - occasionally sounded like he was dipping back into his English accent from time to time, which is a shame considering how brilliantly he nailed an American accent in 2006's Big Nothing. Serkis meanwhile actually faired quite well, nailing a semi-decent, if slightly over-exaggerated Northern Irish accent - but being someone from Belfast, I find hearing my home country's accents quite painful on the big screen anyway. Their natural chemistry together was wonderful, even if their characterisations of Burke and Hare felt like they could have been lifted from a staged pantomime.

The entire support cast was littered in an impressive who's who of British comedy including the likes of Bill Bailey, Jessica Hynes, Hugh Bonneville, Ronnie Corbett, Stephen Merchant and Reece Shearsmith. While also including some real veterans of the screen such as Christopher Lee and a cult-favourite of mine, Tim Curry.

It comes to no surprise the infamous and almost institutional Ealing Studios made the film, as it at times came across as a film the studio could have quite easily made with Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness and co back in 50s and 60s. Unfortunately because of this, the film takes formulas which feel tired and dated, not quite on par with the real wit and edginess the majority of these comedy actors can effortlessly produce. However I did find it really hard not to smile anytime Ronnie Corbett was on the screen, as the way he conducted himself was very much in a similar mould to his legendary Two Ronnies sketches with, the now departed, Ronnie Barker.

At times the film also lacked a bit of cohesion, not sure whether it wanted to be a dark comedy or some bizarre parallel retelling of William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Made all the more knowing from the sub-plot involving Isla Fisher's determination to produce an all female production of the Scottish play - a slightly cheeky nod towards Edinburgh's richly vibrant Fringe Festival. The Gothic undertones were faintly in keeping with movies such as, Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow and the Hughes Brothers adaptation of Alan Moore's From Hell (not to mention the opening Halloween weekend of its release), it's just a shame Burke and Hare just simply didn't have the cinematic panache to match these films - perhaps through a combination of a lower budget and rustiness of John Landis.

Final Thoughts
Not dark enough to be a black comedy, but not slapstick enough to be a laugh a minute. Burke and Hare certainly isn't John Landis' finest moment of his career, and could quite possibly mark a tragic, whimsical end for the once infamous director's sparkling career. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis lead the ensemble well in a mostly entertaining affair which unfortunately could've been made for television at Christmas and nobody would probably be able to tell the difference.


See This If You Liked...
Sleepy Hollow, From Hell, Sherlock Holmes

Burke and Hare is in cinemas everywhere now.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Tron Night - Belfast


It’s not every day Belfast moviegoers are treated to a world exclusive event on the film calendar, but on October 28th 2010, a select few – including myself – had the chance to sample over 20 minutes of Disney’s upcoming sci-fi extravaganza, Tron: Legacy in 3D.

After a short introduction by a rep from Disney, the film opened with a short message from the film’s director, Joseph Kosinski, then launched into – what I imagine is – part of the film’s opening scene involving Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and – an old character from the original Tron – Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). Not much of the film’s true potential was exploited during in these moments and indeed it wasn’t even shown in 3D but nevertheless it did set a dark and mature tone for what was to come, as we see Sam entering his father’s old games arcade, looking no different to how it was presented in the early 80s.

From here we see Sam whisked away into the world of Tron, or ‘The Grid’ as it is often known as. In the next scene the leading protagonist is taken captive by some guards and flown to a detention centre in one of the command ships seen in the original film – and updated to quite amazing effect. From this Sam gets suited and booted into the typical Tron gear and forced to battle in the games, in a gladiator-esque arena, sparking a visually glorious fight scene which completely blew me away.

The third and, unfortunately, final scene the audience were given a taster of was one of the highly anticipated lightcycle chases Tron is probably most famous for. Due to the crashing and derezzing debris scattering all over the screen, the frantic and brilliantly realised action really showed off the true potential of 3D. Something, in my honest opinion, even James Cameron’s Avatar failed to do last year. The chase climaxed with Sam finally meeting his estranged father, and hero of the original film, Kevin Flynn (the legendary Jeff Bridges) for the first time in nearly 20 years. Despite all the spectacular special effects being shown off during the film’s preview, this scene also demonstrated that Tron: Legacy has a deeper and more emotional side which is sure to add weight to the overall story.

To finish off, the display closed with the video to Daft Punk’s latest single – taken from the film’s soundtrack – Derezzed, which spoiled the audience further of what is to come when Tron: Legacy hits our shores in mid December.

From those 20+ minutes, it was clear Disney have truly invested a lot of time and care into this long awaited sequel. The world Joseph Kosinski has created is imaginative, dark, brooding and not totally out removed from the world of The Matrix. What really got me however was the sheer scale of the feature, undeniably epic in proportions – and despite its mind bending Stanley Kubrick-esque moments, it looks like it’s also set to be a heck of a lot of fun also.

It’s hard to really pick apart what was essentially a glorified, extended version of the footage we have already seen in the previous two trailers so we’ll leave the nit-picking for now. My only real complaint? It was only 20 minutes! I’m on my hands and knees begging to see this film in its entirety now. This was something really special.

Tron: Legacy will be released worldwide December 17th 2010 - along with my full review.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Jackboots on Whitehall - Review

It always frustrates me to no end, some people's insistence on making films that are apparently. to coin the tired phrase, 'so bad, it's brilliant,' when in reality they're simply just bad. Unfortunately for d├ębutante directors Edward and Rory McHenry, Jackboots on Whitehall certainly falls into that latter category.

Set in an alternate reality of World War II, the film tells the tale of the occupants of a small rural village, which could well pass for the inhabitants of The Archers, as they try and take back a now Nazi-occupied England starting with the defence of Hadrian's Wall - with the help from the last remaining Gurka unit in England, a volunteer American, a mysterious Frenchman, Winston Churchill and a bunch of angry Scots.

Admittedly on paper it had potential to be a lot of fun and oh do I love a good World War II film, from serious pieces such as A Bridge Too Far and Saving Private Ryan to more light hearted features such as Kelly's Heroes and Inglourious Basterds. Unfortunately with Jackboots on Whitehall, the writers seemingly must have spent too much time trying to rip off every film they had watched the weekend the script was conceived, than trying to carve out a genuinely hysterical satire piece which could have been a laugh a minute if delivered with much more panache.

Borrowing obvious cues from Matt Stone and Trey Parker's modern classic, Team America, for its unique animation style, the film then goes on to reference countless other films such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Gladiator and most notably Braveheart - even poking mild fun at its central character famously played by Mel Gibson.

The film was also guilty at times for typically bowing to the odd perceived stereotype which has become monotonous and, for lack of a better word, horrid in recent times. However if you insist on doing it, you might as well be funny about it - which for the most part this wasn't. The English had their bad teeth, sat in the village pub and generally were all very Tally-ho about the whole affair. The American was ignorant, crude and just plain obnoxious. The Frenchman was inaudible, yet suave, managing to seduce whatever ladies came his way. The Scots were ginger, angry, alcoholics apparently still living in some mysterious dark age. Then of course the Germans were all zombified psychopaths with a fetish for S&M. We've all seen it time and time again, and unfortunately in much funnier contexts. Only thing missing was an ensemble of drunk Leprechauns accusing the Nazis of stealing their pots of gold...

And all this is a genuine shame, because the young directors must have went to amazing lengths to attract the stellar British cast which featured in the movie. Such heavyweights as Ewan McGregor, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike, Richard E Grant, Timothy Spall (his first of two Churchill portrayals in the coming months), Stephen Merchant, Tom Wilkinson, Alan Cumming, hell even Richard O'Brian was brought back from the depths of The Crystal Maze to appear in this. Shamefully it just wasn't enough to save the film from some horrendously bland jokes and equally piss poor story-telling.

Perhaps I am taking the whole thing a bit too seriously, and yes I admit, I find it really hard to find a comedy film which makes me genuinely laugh uncontrollably. Less critical souls might appreciate spending 90 minutes turning the brain off and letting this absurd insanity unfold on screen, but alas I can not on this occasion. Winston Churchill: The Hollywood Years made me laugh more than this, and lord knows that's damning criticism if I ever heard it.

Final Thoughts
A star-studded British cast cannot save Jackboots on Whitehall from being a mostly bland, predictable, uninspiring World War II satire, playing on cultural stereotypes which stopped being funny 20 years ago. While it is commendable for being the first film to use solely animatronic puppets on-screen, one thinks that's all it'll be remembered for in the years to come.


See This If You Liked...
Team America, Winston Churchill: The Hollywood Years, Braveheart

Jackboots on Whitehall is showing in selected cinemas across the UK now. Belfast visitors will be able to see the film in the Queen's Film Theatre from Friday October 29th, 2010.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole - Review

Though I sometimes don't act like it, I honestly do admire Zack Synder as a film-maker. His films are always visually extravagant affairs, while his ambition to make stories with a real epic scale to them must always be commended.

However, he does have a history of making a certain type of film, be it his Dawn of the Dead remake or highly successful adaptations of 300 and Watchmen. All the films are essentially littered in brutal yet stylised violence as well as oozing tonnes of sex appeal. So whenever it was announced Synder was attempting a children's fantasy film about owls, many eyebrows - including my own - were raised. The results however were really quite remarkable.

The story - loosely based on the series of books by Kathryn Laskey - tells the coming-of-age journey of a young owl named Soren (Jim Sturgess) as he's captured by a malevolent renegade movement known as the 'Pure Ones', eventually unravelling an adventure which leads him to the legendary Owls of Ga'Hoole. I must admit I've never read the books the film was based on, so I can't comment on the accuracy of its adaptation. However upon viewing the movie I certainly intend to sit down with them, on a cold winter's night, sometime in the near future.

One of the aspects that instantly strikes me with Legend of the Guardians is how amazingly dark the story is. Strangely it was often reminiscent of watching Don Bluth's masterpiece The Secret of Nimh for the first time when I was a child, for its unsettling suspense and horror. I always feel the best children's films are the entries which aren't afraid to break boundaries and scare its core audience a little. Such films as the Walt Disney classics, Snow White and Pinocchio, Jim Henson's Labyrinth and Dark Crystal films or even more recently, the wonderful Henry Selick production of Neil Gaiman's Coraline.

Overall the voice acting was tremendous, Jim Sturgess' sincere and naive qualities worked well with the film's leading protagonist. Geoffrey Rush channelled his best moments from Pirates of the Caribbean as Soren's slightly eccentric, battle-worn mentor, while Helen Mirren was rather sinister as the wife of the chief villain, Metalbeak. Joel Edgerton's portrayal of the main antagonist was the personal highlight of the film for myself, adding real weight to the dark and deadly imagery associated with his character.

The animation was simply breathtaking. I found myself completely engrossed in the world Synder and his team had created on screen. The beautifully realised fantastical realms would not look out of place in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. Carrying on from their impressive feats with 2006's Happy Feet, animation studio, Animal Logic take the photorealism of the owls' movements and facial expressions to spectacular heights, dare I say, even giving the people at Pixar a run for their money.

Despite the dark emotional story, the film wasn't entirely perfect. Though I did like there being a lot of focus on the villains of the tale, this came at the expense of slightly whimsical portrayals of the so-called Guardians themselves, so much so I didn't even have the chance to catch their names until doing this review. There was also a few gaping holes in the plot, like practically zero drama and tension placed on the parents of the main character and his siblings upon their disappearance. It also begs the question, if the film featured humans in the roles instead of the novel use of owls, would it still have the same kind of emotional impact as a feature?

However, one does have to stress this is, primarily a children's film, told from a child's perspective and in this respect, Snyder has performed his duties brilliantly. And encase you forget Zack Snyder is the director of this outlandish feature, the film is littered with his own personal trademark quirks, such as - yet again - his insistence on slowing all the action down for much fuller effect. There was also a few cheeky nods in designs and camera shots to, arguably, his most famous film to date, 300.

For once I wasn't actually being a stubborn old cynic, going out of my way to not see the film in 3D, but surprisingly the film wasn't actually being shown in my cinema in 3D. This did little to hamper my enjoyment when watching the movie however, and being objective you can see where the format might have indeed enhanced the feature for a more rounded experience.

Final Thoughts
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is an old fashioned story of good versus evil, with a deadly folk tale of sibling rivalry buried, underneath the grand backdrop, which could undoubtedly be explored in potential sequels to come. I doubt this will go down as the film Zack Snyder will be remembered for, but through making this with such subtle storytelling craft, spectacular animation and ultimately remembering who is core audience is, Synder has suddenly went up in my estimations as a film-maker, now capable of much more than the comic book adaptations he is now infamous for creating. Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable family films I've seen in the cinema all year.


See This If You Liked...
The Secret of Nimh, Happy Feet, Lord of the Rings, Dark Crystal.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is in cinemas everywhere now

Red - Review

The latest film from Robert Schwentke, ambiguously titled RED - short for Retired and Extremely Dangerous - both surprised and disappointed me in various capacities. Surprising in seeing the level of genuinely top class acting talent scattered throughout the film, surprising also in being one of the few DC Comic adaptations not released by Warner Bros (DC's parent company) and surprising in how much fun it ultimately was. However it also disappointed me for being, annoyingly, like every other action film I've came across throughout 2010.

The film tells the highly charged tale of retired CIA agent, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), struggling to adapt to his lonely and rather pedestrian life, after spending years jetting off to various destinations killing people. Through, seemingly, boredom Moses strikes up a relationship with his pension officer (Mary-Louise Parker) over the telephone which through inexplicable events leads to them meeting under intense circumstances.

Being on the run from the US government, Moses calls in favours from old friends. The insanely paranoid Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), the wise and battle-worn Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) and an ex-MI6 agent Victoria (Helen Mirren). After jetting around the country with seemingly little direction or purpose, the team eventually discover why they're being targeted leading to some predictable but, nevertheless, satisfying conclusions.

It must be said Bruce Willis lead the line brilliantly in this film, putting in an old school Willis performance. Fans of the Die Hard films will undoubtedly be entertained by his contribution in RED. Though there's striking similarities unlike his most iconic on screen persona, Frank Moses is arguably a more likeable soul than John McClain, much more relaxed and romantic at heart as well as ultimately just looking for some companionship after years of being a cold hearted killer. His on screen chemistry with Mary-Louise Parker was terrific despite the slightly awkward yet comedic introduction the pair have in the film's first act - something which, bizarrely, wouldn't be totally out of place in most romantic comedies.

The real strength of the film however was in Frank's relationship with his older colleagues. John Malkovich was truly brilliant when he hit his hysterical best. He often delivered the best lines and made the film a lot more zaney and frantic, which worked wonderfully to counteract Willis' cool persona. Morgan Freeman on the other hand was simply playing the Morgan Freeman we've seen time and time again, but frankly I have zero problem with that. Helen Mirren was surprisingly delightful, adding a layer of elegance to a film littered in big guns and explosions, it also was clear for all to see how much fun she was having with this role - also striking a brilliant on-screen relationship with a former KGB agent played by Brian Cox.

Shamefully, the film fell on the same sword various other action films this year have unfortunately fell upon. If you read my reviews of The Losers, The A-Team, Salt and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Expendables, once again we have another film where the best the writers can muster up is corrupt, evil and ultimately faceless US government agents as the protagonists main threat.

This was made even more irritating because there's always that one agent who 'is only doing their job' - this time being Karl Urban - who inevitably helps the team by the end of the film. I never mean to get ranty, but frankly I've had enough. At least Salt had crazy f*cking Russians as the villains.

All that said, underneath the impressively over the top set pieces and strangely plausible romantic comedy which forced its way into the plot, the message RED was trying to portray was actually quite sweet. A story which attempted to address a person's issues with his own mortality, and that inability to let go of a life which essentially defines who you were.

Final Thoughts
It may have a high calibre cast and feature some extremely enjoyable outings from Willis, Malkovich and Freeman. However, like many to come before it, RED lacks originality, failing to add anything to a genre which has unfortunately regressed on itself in the past year. That said I'd still happily watch this bunch of pensioners over the underwhelming Losers, the tired, steroid-pumping crew of The Expendables and the frankly over-hyped A-Team.


See This If You Liked...
The Expendables, The Losers, The A-Team

RED is in cinemas everywhere now.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

New York, I Love You - Review

The grand city of New York has always had an affinity with the world of cinema. I only need to look at the countless DVDs on my shelf to instantly pick out several features where a story is set to this magnificent urban backdrop. The Godfather, Manhattan, Rear Window, Doubt, Citizen Kane, Miracle on 34th Street, the list could go on and on. It comes to no surprise to find Emmanuel Benbihy, producer of the elegant ensemble feature Paris, Je t'aime, replicating the same formula on New York giving 11 world renowned film-makers free rein to make their own unique contributions to the beautiful city.

I've always enjoyed reading short stories, or watching short films. Arguably through a sense of laziness on my part, but also because it takes a truly talented soul to get across an entire character's life story in under 10 minutes. There is always that introduction, like a stranger on the street. Then there's the middle where this person is no longer a stranger but a character you've felt like you've known for years. Suddenly, once you think you have them figured out, something unexpected and magical happens, resulting in a satisfying conclusion for both the artist and the audience. Regrettably, similar to its Parisian counterpart, New York I Love You doesn't always get it right however in the moments it does, the film makes for a genuinely moving and heartfelt experience.

While all the stories are very loosely tied together by a video artist played by Emille Ohana, all the shorts are essentially stand alone tales, told in different districts of New York. The highlights include those sparse moments of Bradley Cooper sharing a taxi with any unbeknown stranger, arguing the quickest route to the other side of town. Another is the wonderful tale told by, one of the few American directors listed, Brett Ratner, about young Anton Yelchin going to his senior high school prom - set up on a blind date by his pharmacist, James Caan - with the beautiful yet seemingly disabled Olivia Thirlby. There's that initial awkwardness which quickly turns into quite a beautiful moment between the pair, resulting in a comedic twist, frankly, very few would see coming.

One of my personal favourites however was Ethan Hawke's sly talking, struggling writer, trying - rather well it must be noted - to chat up Maggie Q's sultry mysterious woman over a sharply poised cigarette. The witty exchanges, the vivid descriptions all came intricately into place through screenwriter Oliver Lecot's sophisticated writing along with Israeli director, Yvan Yattal's beautiful use of the camera.

Perhaps the most surprising moment however, comes from Indian auteur Shekhar Kapur's story involving Julie Christie, John Hurt and Shia LeBeouf in a eerily elegant hotel. Surprising not only for its wondrously supernatural twist but also because it is, without doubt, Shia LeBeouf's finest performance of his career that I have certainly seen, and clear evidence there might even be a creditable future beneath being Hollywood's current poster-boy.

But as said, not all the stories quite hit the mark, lacking a degree of cohesion while fitting into the overall feature such as Natalie Portman's acting and directorial entries while Bradley Cooper's own short alongside the gorgeous Drea de Matteo came off more as a prolonged perfume advert for Coco Chanel. Though all the directors taking part did a tremendous job, it perhaps would've been interesting to get a few directors who actually grew up in the city and giving their own personal touch on the film. I'm not even suggesting someone like Woody Allen as he's kindly given us some of the city's finest moments on the big screen already, but just a director who knows the city, as everything about the film did have something of a tourist's portrait to it at times.

Final Thoughts
New York, I Love You gives the audience a more personal exploration of the world famous city, without the clich├ęs of certain national monuments dominating the background. Unfortunately this comes at a price as the stories, at times, become too generalised and frankly could have been set in London, Paris, Amsterdam or Edinburgh and it would have mattered little. Overall this film won't make me fall in love with New York, but it certainly makes me want to get to know it that tiny bit more.


See This If You Liked...
Manhattan, Paris Je T'aime, Tokyo!

New York, I Love You was part of Belfast's Queen's Film Theatre's BT Surprise Screening and is in selected cinemas across the UK now. American visitors can purchase the film on DVD and Blu-Ray now.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Social Network - Review

The sheer concept of The Social Network pretty much demonstrates why I could never be actively involved in the film industry - outside of a critical capacity of course. If one was to approach me with the idea for an origin story set around the global phenomenon Facebook, I would have laughed them straight out of the office. Which would have been a crying shame, because I would have cheated a lot of people out of an excellent film.

David Fincher, with the help of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin - chief writer of The West Wing - crafts a beautifully told tale based on the real life events, albeit with a few artistic liberties taken here and there, at time mimicking the cinematic classic, Citizen Kane.

The film follows Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) from his - not so -humble beginnings as an overly obsessed computer geek blogging in his Harvard dorm room, all the way to his world famous law suits with his once former partners - which resulted in some of the messier court cases seen this century.

Regardless of how accurate Zuckerberg's portrayal was, Sorkin still managed to construct a truly gripping character study - much to the credit of Eisenberg's brilliantly witty and neurotic performance. Unlike Orson Welles' iconic Charles Foster Kane, Zuckerberg seemed to rarely be interested in money or power (though I bet he's not really complaining about it now), and didn't seem to even invent Facebook for that sole reason.

His true motivations were far more fascinating. Instead of having this young, hotshot, college student trying to make a more "open world", we get a man who is petty, spiteful and ironically one of the most socially inept people you're ever likely to encounter. There is an overwhelming feeling, from the film, he made Facebook just to prove a point that he could, rather than intending to start a revolution - much to MySpace and Bebo's dismay I'm sure.

The supporting performances from the well conceived ensemble were just as vital to this brilliant drama as Eisenberg's. However it was safe to say, mostly, no one came out of The Social Network with their reputations intact. The only real exception was co-founder, Eduardo Saverin, played with a degree of sympathy and honest emotion by the excellent Andrew Garfield. Which is strange because, in a way, he represented the greedy capitalist side of the tale. He joined Zuckerberg in this ambitious venture because he wanted to make money, and often came to blows with his original partner because of their clashing of visions for the company. Despite these conflicts, Saverin was possibly Zuckerberg's only true friend, making their colossal lawsuit all the more tragic in the end.

Justin Timberlake's rise as a creditable actor continued with a solid performance as the bane of the music industry and inventor of the once mighty Napster (remember that?), Sean Parker. He was brash, arrogant and helped Facebook become the global force we've come to know it as today. Parker's character was interesting because he often came across as the evil little voice whispering everything and anything into Zuckerberg's ear. The accuracy of these accounts are definitely open to interpretation, regardless however, it still makes for genuinely gripping cinema.

Adding a bit of light hearted comedy to the darkly proceedings was Armie Hammer's dual roles as both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. They were typically like every other preppy American university jock we've seen time and time again from countless John Hughes movies to the likes of Animal House. The hilarity being the conflict between the pair on whether to take action or not - with one brother desperately wanting to take Zuckerberg down, while the other shows his reluctance based on the simple reason it's ungentlemanly for a man of Harvard to go down such a petty route.

The other most notable contribution to the film was the surprisingly minor role of Rooney Mara as Zuckerberg's disenchanted girlfriend at the very beginning of the film. Her, quite reasonable, rejection of Mark's horrid spite kick starts the whole Facebook phenomenon into action. And once all is said and done, and Zuckerberg has been revealed to be nothing but a lonely abominable billionaire who has subsequently screwed over everyone who has ever tried to help him, the film's closing moments hint at slight redemption for the character. Something Charles F. Kane never really had the pleasure of experiencing until his final dying moments.

I've spent much of this review praising the strong, well developed characters created. However, much praise should also go to Fincher's ability to tell a brilliant story oozing with atmosphere and even a degree of intensity. He even covers his own artist licence on the story-telling with this quite touching scene involving Zuckerberg and one of his own council when he admits, "I'm not a bad person" and the female lawyer admitting that a lot of these depictions in lawsuits that often completely exaggerated to benefit of the plaintiff. Strangely adding some sympathy for an otherwise deeply troubled individual.

The film's rich and darkly elegant atmosphere is also heavily attributed to the truly fantastic electronic/ambient score composed by Nine Inch Nails' frontman Trent Reznor and famed musician Atticus Ross, which results in one of the most distinctive film soundtracks seen in a film all year. Actually listening to it while I type...

Final Thoughts
Given the absurdity of the film's basic premise, would it be fair to say David Fincher is something of a film-making genius for actually making this work? A truly fascinating drama about the conception of a website which has defined the past decade. Facebook isn't just a social networking site, it's an addictive way of life for a lot of people (something this critic is even guilty of). Will The Social Network's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg be one of cinema's great villains for the ages, or equally one of its most tragic? Either way I'm clicking the "like" button on this movie...*


See This If You Liked...
Citizen Kane, 21, Wall Street, Hackers.

The Social Network is in cinemas everywhere now.

*Can't believe I just said that

Monday, 11 October 2010

Fifteen Directors That Have Shaped The Way I Look at Cinema.

In the time I've maintained this site, I often forget that I am not alone in the wider film blogger community. Through no fault but my own, I've neglected writing many articles about film which say much about me as a person. Never been sure why to be honest, just always been so consumed with the reviewing aspect.

However, in the pursuit of writing about everything and anything to do with film, I thought it was time (and only polite) to follow the lead of my dear colleague, Ruth, over at FlixChatter and explain why the 15 directors below changed my perception of cinema and the films attributed to their untouchable status.

Most of the directors and films listed you will probably expect, though others might surprise, and perhaps the odd entry you have yet to experience. If the latter is the case then I urge you to see the films listed as soon as possible, as I can only hope they will carry the same emotional impact as they did, the first time, I caught them on the big screen or at home.

In no particular order...

1. Steven Spielberg - If there's one cinema trip I remember more than any other, it's surely the first time I saw Jurassic Park on the big screen. I often look back on the scene where Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neil) catches his first glimpse of that Brontosaurus herd as the moment where I truly believed anything was possible in cinema.

2. Francis Ford Coppola - Predictable? Yes. But those first two Godfather films are really quite brilliant. I also still believe the third is a good film, by definition, also. Just when placed next to its predecessors it just falls short in comparison.

3. Christopher Nolan - Nevermind the fact he made Batman cool on the big screen again. With an unrivalled ability to tell engaging and complex stories for mainstream audiences - and currently developing a Midas Touch - with such films as Memento, The Prestige and Inception, Nolan is perhaps this era's answer to Stanley Kubrick. Though he's bound to make one bad film eventually...right?

4. David Fincher - Though Fight Club contains better lines, the film which caught my attention was Seven. Very few films of that dark and at times unbearably gritty style I could watch again and again as I have with Fincher's second feature film. It turned Brad Pitt into a creditable leading man, reminded us all once again how f**king cool Morgan Freeman is and lastly how sinister Kevin Spacey can be as a villain.

5. Mel Brooks - If Seven is the thriller I could watch again and again with zero effort, then the same applies Mel Brooks' best films - The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. It should be noted that all three of the aforementioned films contained the comedic legend (I don't use that term lightly) Gene Wilder in one of the leading roles. Heart-warming cinema which was able to make you laugh because it was genuinely funny.

6. Guillermo del Toro - Mr del Toro never had the best luck with Hollywood features, but one of the reasons why I've admired his work above most is because of his, undeniably, personal touch he brings to his more domestic Spanish language films. Though visually exquisite and beautifully told, Pan's Labyrinth, at times, felt like del Toro was right there in the cinema with you telling the story over a soft burning fire on a cold winter's night. His more folky and earthly blend of fantasy, in my opinion, often surpassed Peter Jackson's mammoth efforts on his Lord of the Ring's trilogy and now makes you think, with a touch of regret, how wonderful del Toro's Hobbit films might have been, had he stuck with the production a little bit longer.

7. Alfred Hitchcock - As good as the other 14 directors on this list are, how many of them would even be making films if it weren't for this visionary? He always got the best out of his actors (Dial M For Murder/Strangers on a Train). Was able to tell interesting stories within constrained environments (Rear Window), and needless to say, kept the cinematic world on the edge of their seats at all times (The Birds, Psycho, North By Northwest).

8. Jean Pierre Jeunet - I once said in a previous post that Jeunet's finest achievement, Amelie, was a celebration of a life worth living. How the most insignificant of acts can enrich someone's life. And I still believe that. Very few films worldwide have matched Amelie for its sincerely gorgeous portrayal of Parisian life and I defy anyone out there who feels subtitled world cinema is beneath them to watch this just once and still feel that way upon the film's end. And once you have, go watch his equally celebrated collaborations with Marc Caro - the Terry Gilliam inspired City of Lost Children and the darkly comedic Delicatessen.

9. Wolfgang Reitherman - I, like many others between the ages of zero to ten, probably believed that Walt Disney created every single one of his films before his death in some magical Roger Rabbit-esque environment surrounded by all his beloved characters. Disappointingly, he didn't. He did however place his trust in a few men to direct his timeless classics, one of which I am singling out solely for his directorial efforts on some of my favourite Disney films growing up, most notably, Sleeping Beauty (co-credit), 101 Dalmatians, Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book and Robin Hood. There is perhaps better Disney films out there but as a child I probably rented these few from my local video shop more than any other. And yes I now own all of them on DVD...

10. Ridley Scott - Like Spielberg, everyone has their favourites. With Mr Scott, two instantly spring to mind. The first obviously being Blade Runner. Though Alien had more atmosphere and a much more memorable tagline on the poster, Blade Runner went a long way to influencing a lot of Sci-Fi films we all see today. The other notable entry for me on a personal level was his epic Oscar-winning cheesefest, Gladiator. Yes it is a little bit over the top at times, but it's littered with countless scenes of iconic imagery and quotations which is bound to stay in the mind for years to come.

11. Hayao Miyazaki - Often labelled as "Japan's answer to Walt Disney", Miyazaki has created a prestige unrivalled to most in the world of animation over the past 25 years. Though trying not to draw comparisons to Disney's work, as they're frankly two completely different propositions, Miyazaki's work with Studio Ghibli offered audiences more mature story-telling with absolutely breathtaking hand-crafted 2D animation, in a period where most Western studios were starting to crossover into the computer-generated era. Films such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke aren't only the benchmark for quality Asian animation, it's recognised world-wide by fellow peers as examples that mere "cartoons" aren't just for children, they're cinematic experiences for all audiences.

12. Woody Allen - Though undeniably on the decline over the past 10 years, it can be easy to forget Allen created some of the best films ever made. Again like other directors, everyone has their favourites. Mine unsurprisingly is the smartly written and wonderfully shot Manhattan, which contains one of my favourite opening scenes to any film ever, set to the backdrop of that grand Gershwin score.

13. Robert Altman - Probably the best director ever at creating interesting, interweaving stories for such a carefully constructed ensemble cast. You only need to look at the chemistry between the polarising casts of his most famous work, MASH and one of his last ever films, Gosford Park to affirm these beliefs. And hey, anyone who has the balls to do a live-action adaptation of Popeye always deserves some praise right?

14. Tim Burton - Though Chris Nolan made Batman films cool again, it's definitely worth mentioning the director who made Batman films cool in the first place. Comic book geeks aside, the general preconception of Batman in the realms of pop culture was the half hearted campy 60s version portrayed by Adam West. Cue Burton and his distinctly Gothic quirks who transforms Batman into the real Dark Knight we have all come to love and expect. Burton isn't perfect however, and often has a habit of letting his visual style dominate his productions, which is why the likes of Batman Returns, Alice in Wonderland, The Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fell slightly flat for me. As mentioned countless times I feel, Burton is at his best when giving some artistic constraints, like his first Batman movie and one of his most under rated, and frankly my favourite film by him, the beautifully made, Big Fish.

15. Darren Aronofsky - Last but certainly not least, Darren Aronofsky for a long time belonged mainly to the arthouse realms of cinema, with such cult hits as Pi and the bleak and unsettling drug exploration, Requiem for a Dream. Watching his evolution into the film-maker about to release the hotly anticipated thriller, Black Swan perhaps wouldn't of came to be without the tear-jerking performance of Mickey Rourke in his 2009 drama, The Wrestler or the multi-layered, effects laden spectacle The Fountain. It's a shame Aronofsky never got the Superman role as I sense we have missed on something potentially quite special in that department.

So there you have it. I could probably list another 15 directors on this list, but the men listed have probably done the more for moulding my own tastes in film more than anyone else. Cheers to Ruth over at FlixChatter for asking me to do this. Had a lot of fun reminiscing.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Review

Though I'm personally quite pleased to see Michael Douglas reprise one of his most iconic roles as the Wall Street tyrant, Gordon Gekko, one suspects if it hadn't of been for the economic meltdown of 2008, 20th Century Fox probably would've resigned the initial drafts of this sequel to the bin upon first glance.

The opening scene of Money Never Sleeps - set in 2001 - gives us faint insight into what happened to Gekko following the events of the first movie, as he is finally released from prison after an eight year sentence for insider trading and securities fraud. Seven years later, the market is in meltdown as a slightly wiser and battle worn Gekko revels in foretelling all the events which were to transpire from a book he had wrote in prison.

The story unfortunately loses itself when the focus shifts from Michael Douglas' eccentric nature to young professional couple, Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan. LeBeouf's character roughly mimics Charlie Sheen's from the original film, a young and cocky hotshot trying to make his name on Wall Street. Unfortunately, unlike Sheen, LeBeouf comes across slightly confused in his intentions. He tries to gain some kind of sympathy for investing all his time and effort into this admirable fusion energy research but ultimately he's like every other blood sucking Wall Street schmuck out there just trying to make a couple of quid.

Carey Mulligan's character was a much more interesting proposition - and not surprisingly the stronger of the two younger leads. Playing the estranged daughter of Gekko, she gave us insight into the man off Wall Street and how his criminal dealings affected his own family. But once again some of her actions came off slightly cumbersome, as even Gekko himself poised the question of why his own daughter, who hated him so much, would date a guy who wanted to be exactly like him. However in the short-lived moments where Gekko and Mulligan actually share some screen-time, we get some genuinely heart-felt moments in a film more or less bereft of it.

The classy supporting turns from a devious Josh Brolin and the melancholic Frank Langella added as degree of substance to yet another of Oliver Stone's contrived narratives - which isn't quite Alexander or World Trade Centre 'bad' but fails to hit the glorious heights of his career from the late 80s through to the mid 90s. It's also a shame that one of the very few moments which made me genuinely smile was the cameo of Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox, who also gives an insight into what happened to him following the events of the first film.

Despite the absolutely glorious panoramic shots of the New York skyline, the film became bogged down by these utterly needless and simply quite shoddy CG graphics explaining the science of LeBeouf's fusion investment as well as those number crunching interludes you would expect to find on the Bloomberg financial channel.

As soon as we still start to believe Gekko is a reformed man, becoming something of an anti-hero, the film's slightly prolonged closing moments reveal him to still be the same man who believes 'Greed is Good'. Summed up by the simple line "Gordon Gekko is back". Just a shame it took almost two hours for him to come back...

Final Thoughts
It was admirable for Oliver Stone to produce this socially relevant sequel - the first sequel ever in his career. However, the cynic in me believes Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was ill-conceived, simply cashing in on the current crisis as oppose to Stone's willingness to tell a brilliant story of the times. All we learn from the film is that greed is still good. Greed is back. However, has greed ever really been away? And did we really need to be reminded?


See This If You Liked...
Wall Street

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is in cinemas nationwide now.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Winter's Bone - Review

First and foremost, apologies for the late review on this one. Seemingly I was the last film critic on this side of the Atlantic to see this film. Having won top prizes across the major festival circuits this year, it was finally time to see if Debra Granik's latest film measured up to all the post Sundance hype.

Based on the novel of the same name, by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone tells the tale of 17 year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), struggling in the back-end of Americana nothingness - enough to make even Cormac McCarthy weep in despair - to raise her little brother and sister while her own mother is grievously ill through a mixture of catatonic depression and severe drug addiction. The sting in this story begins as young Ree sets off by herself to find their estranged father, on the run from the police and has ultimately disturbed the family's more 'colourful' neighbours.

I'm always adamant that cinema is at it's best when the film strips down the superficial visuals to their primal core and simply tells an interesting and provocative story. We had this last year with Let The Right One In and The White Ribbon. The same certainly applies for Winter's Bone, as the audience endures Ree's futile and desperate journey through the dregs of her community, which is certainly not for the faint hearted.

The breakout performance of Jennifer Lawrence is the most phenomenal revelation of the whole feature. If she fails to land an Oscar nomination off the back of this courageous and heartfelt demonstration of maturity then it is the Academy's problem and certainly nothing to do with this brilliant portrayal.

Lawrence's Ree captivated me greatly. Not just because she showed the audience her unrivalled strength on screen countless times. It was in those brief moments where she reminds us of her actual age and the genuinely horrifying scenarios she puts herself through for clear absolution, into the mystery surrounding her father's disappearance, is where the good performance becomes a great performance.

Equally the supporting turn from the ever-changing John Hawkes was a particularly intriguing one. Portrayed as a thoughtless drug addicted lay-about, his journey towards some kind of bittersweet redemption is one of the more touching aspects in an otherwise bleak feature.

Really I could sit here and praise everyone involved in this film, as the utterly horrifying and distinctive performances,from the neighbours this family unfortunately has the pleasure of sharing a road with deserve just as much accolades as the leads.

The beautifully eerie score from Dickon Hinchliffe added a glorious atmosphere to the film, in similar ways to last year's grossly under-rated - and similarly situated - Frozen River. Where it came into it's own however was with the more chilling folk tunes played throughout the film, be it in a bar, or in a character's home, or the tune which plays softly over the film's opening scene.

Final Thoughts
From this film alone, one suspects the film world will be seeing more of Ms Lawrence in the years to come. Winter's Bone is a dark and chilling human tale not for the faint hearted, with a closing scene which is bound to resonate with its audience for a long time after. An emotionally numbing, yet complete essential piece of American film-making. Don't be surprised to find it on my top 10 of the year come December...


See This If You Liked...
The Road & Frozen River

Winter's Bone is in selected cinemas across the UK now.