Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2

There have been four Shreks and four Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Six Rockys and six Aliens. 10 Halloweens and 12 Friday the 13th’s, making horror the equivalent of cinematic cocaine, as evidenced by the popularity of the Saw franchise. Daddy of them all is the James Bond series, coming in at a scarcely believable 23 installments. But Harry Potter beats them all, its charms gilded in gold (or galleons in Potter-speak), surely to top, at last, the force of Star Wars in money made.

That the films themselves have not been particularly magical is hardly the point. The power of the books is undeniable. After all, what could be more attractive than making the private cinema of your imagination into reality? Having devoured the books, I wonder what it must be like to not know what happens. I still remember the excitement of the first movie, the brilliance of the signature music with its genetic chime and the whispering dark of the corridors of Hogwarts castle, before plodding pacing leadened the enchantment.

But this era-ending final flourish may be the best of the lot. It’s engaging, tense and tender, and the most visually stunning, capped by the young cast’s finest performances to date. Director David Yates, aware of this epochal moment, has filled the film with panoramas of Scottish landscapes and floating Dementors, swirling slow-mo and arcing cameras gracefully taking in frenzied battles. For this is one big pitched battle.

Still on the trail of the remaining Horcruxes (objects which contain parts of Voldemort’s soul), Harry, Ron and Hermione hatch a plan to break into Gringotts the bank to find one of them. The action then moves to Hogwarts where the evil Death Eaters war with students and staff while Harry scurries and scampers desperately trying to fulfill his plan. We get magic on a massive scale, with giants and fighting statues, duels in every corner of the screen, rubble and fire. Between the explosions we get islands of real emotion.

"Will we be nostalgic about these films as previous generations were about Star Wars?" Above: a scene from the first movie The Philospher's Stone (2001)

Daniel Radcliffe does well not to overact as Harry, his features set in resolution. Rupert Grint’s Ron is happily at his most muted and grim. From their gormless but charmingly innocent debuts we have watched these actors grow into adults. And perhaps aided by this knowledge, Hermione, or rather Emma Watson, convinces the most. Her tears were riverine with genuine sadness. Elsewhere Ciarin Hinds did a lot with a small part as Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth and we got a masterly turn from Warwick Davis as goblin Griphook.

But it’s Snape who steals the show. Although villianous, there are many who are quite taken with Alan Rickman’s portrayal. And he’s on top form here, excelling in a scene of inevitablity as Voldemort and Snape talk wands; Rickman concealing in his face and voice a shadow of pregnant despair. The flashback has been co-opted by Rowling, re-named a pensieve, and there is an efficient reveal of Snape’s past. Some romantic moments feel a little rushed, as Ron and Hermione finally smooch and Ginny and Harry barely share screentime. But the characters are in a rush too and these are moments of stolen tenderness.

The special effects team deserve credit, creating a most impressive dragon for the Gringotts raid, and the 3D has been used to good effect, with details filling the screen and a pleasing use of depth. But there are flaws in the adaptation. The plot exposition can be clunky, and I fear all the talk of Hallows and Elder Wands is all but impenetrable to non-fans. The epilogue is unintentionally comical and the audience actually bristled at the anti-climax of the final battle (a problem not easily fixed when the book felt the same). There are nice touches, like the hands of Lupin and Tonks almost touching, and the obvious affection between Nevillle and Luna is touchingly shown as teenage awkwardness when they sit nervously side-by-side.

Will we be nostalgic about these films as previous generations were about Star Wars? Can we compare nostalgias? In ten years time these films will be a relic of gargantuan commercialism and no more than a vague reminder of one’s youth. For Radcliffe, Watson and Grint they will be long summers of memory. Although this finish reapplies some of the majesty and magic to the saga, the prinicipal flaw is that these films are not acts of creation, but merely curiosities. For the obsessive readers, the films do not hook the imagination because we already knew what was coming, we just wanted to see it for ourselves, and found it didn’t match our ambitious expectations. It is an end of an era. But much of the sadness, I suspect, is for the end of expectation, rather than for Harry and his chums.

4/5

 

X-Men: First Class

Directed by Matthew Vaughan

If only Hollywood had a mutant whose special power was the ability to think up original movie ideas, brilliantly executed and guaranteed to rake in the cash, they’d keep him locked up. But wait, they do. His name is James Cameron. Only that X-Man keeps himself captive in projects that take years and country-sized budgets to produce. In lieu of these Midas directors, we have franchises, and X-Men: First Class is a zippy prequel to the entire X-Men oeuvre, which now number five.

Before Magneto donned his camp cape and Valkyrie helmet, he was Erik Lensherr (Bill Milner), a German Jew who bends metal gates when his mother is torn away by Nazis. He’s brought before Dr. Schmidt who shoots his mother to unleash his power. Years later he’s grown up to resemble actor Michael Fassbender, whose seething menace is perfect for his role as an inglorious Nazi-hunter. He teams up with telepath Charles Xavier, a genetics professor, smoothly played by James McAvoy, as they and the CIA attempt to stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant and Erik’s evil doctor from all those years ago.

Cleverly situating the battle between good mutants and bad mutants in the larger arena of the Cold War, Shaw’s crew try to start WW3 using the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62 as the catalyst. The cast includes Mad Men star January Jones as Emma Frost (who can turn her body into diamonds) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) as the blue-skinned shapeshifter Mystique.

The plot speeds along straight as an arrow, leaving ‘on-screen people’, otherwise known as characters, barely time to register. The clique of young mutants, hired by the CIA, could especially have done with developing. Darwin, whose power is ‘reactive evolution’ (gills in water; turning to stone in fire) was a wasted opportunity. The action set-pieces are noisy and epic, but the audience were curiously muted. The whole thing suffers from ‘prequel-itis’, that burden of having to build the blocks of series consistency; the same numbing effect which befell the Star Wars saga.

This film doesn’t disappoint expectations. It’s an enjoyable action-romp with pretty ladies and men doing cool, superhero things. The problem is it’s too clean and economical, with its sense of narrative arc so efficiently fulfilled. There was no real danger, no moments of genuine tenderness where everything pulls back and you’re reminded that yes, mutants, and the gorgeous Jennifer Lawrence, have human emotions too.

The explosions were catastrophic but not cathartic, and tears and screams were shorn of their meaning as we moved from A to B. This is not a bad movie. It does what it sets out to do. I guess I’m bored. After all, there’s nothing more joyless and banal than being endlessly entertained and always having your expectations so readily met.

2.5/5

Thor (3D)

Crazy graphics, a beautiful male lead and gloriously naff humour are the attractions in this amusement park of a movie. If you’re a certain shade of pale or partial to popcorn, then this should be a Thor thing. The oak-carved body of Chris Hemsworth plays the titular hero, complete with Gucci stubble and Aryan eyes. He doesn’t really have to do much apart from stand around looking “pretty cut”, as one character admiring his torso has it.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor: "pretty cut"

This is another entry in the Marvel universe, based on comics themselves based on Scandinavian mythology. I’m sure that as the franchises weave their Marvel web, we’ll soon be seeing the likes of ‘When Hulk met Spidey’, ‘Sleepless in Krypton’, ‘Batman & Superman Escape from Guantanamo Bay’ and ‘There’s Something About Magneto’ in our cinemas.

The plot revolves around a power struggle between two brothers: Thor and the wily Loki (Hiddleston). They are immortals inhabiting the celestial kingdom of Asgard, ruled by their wise father Odin (the masterly Hopkins doing his Shakespearean thang). The only person trying to inject any depth to this formula, Hiddleston does well to project a character having difficulty reconciling insane ambition and tender longing for his father’s recognition.

The Asgardians’ sworn enemies are the Frost Giants, 12-footers capable of not going to the fridge for their ice cubes. When they intrude on Thor’s crowning ceremony, the headstrong God heads to Jotunheim, their icy realm, to demand answers for breaking their truce. Wielding the mighty Mjolnir – a superpowered hammer – Thor and his friends do well but are quickly outnumbered. Odin comes to bring them back but decides his arrogant son is not yet fit for kingship and casts his son to exile on Earth where he bumps into scientist Jane Foster (Portman).

This episode provides much of the laughs as the mortal Thor struts around still believing he’s a Norse superbeing. Portman’s role as love interest barely registers as a character and the Earth-bound scenes sometimes plods along prosaically compared to the rainbow-coloured trip that is Asgard. Searching for his hammer, Thor battles a range of goons from S.H.I.E.L.D, the extra-governmental agency present in the Marvel comics, who are investigating it – but cannot pull it from the ground Excalibur-style as

he first needs a lesson in humility. This comes when an iron machine sent by Loki arrives to tear things up a bit.

The golden city of Asgard. Earth is 'Midgard' in the film's galaxy of nine realms.

Shot in above-average 3D, it’s an enjoyable romp, straightforward and a touch by-the-numbers. Stellan Skarsgard is barely awake as Portman’s professorial mentor. Kat Dennings as her assistant adds some much-needed wisecrack, while Idris Elba as gatekeeper God Heimdall delighted with his deeply sonorous voice. It’s hard to imagine this being anything other than a Star Wars-influenced, FX-laden epic but perhaps director Kenneth Branagh, famed for his Shakespeare films, could have brought intimacy and intrigue to the relationships rather than the simple signage of cheesy love and obvious transformation. Even Spiderman had more ambivalence.

This review is in vain; my friend with whom I watched Thor had it perfectly: “one quarter comic book adaptation blockbuster, one quarter 70s inspired, psychedelic discotheque light show, one quarter Kenneth Branagh-helmed Norse myth re-work, one quarter CHRIS HEMSWORTH’S BUNS”.

3/5


  1. Thor 3D
  2. Production year: 2011
  3. Country: USA
  4. Cert (UK): 12A
  5. Runtime: 114 mins
  6. Directors: Kenneth Branagh
  7. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Natalie Portman, Ray Stevenson, Rene Russo, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston


Norwegian Wood

The problem with all the Harry Potter movies, apart from maybe the third in the series, is that they all feel hollow and inconsequential. Instead of being fully-fleshed characters, their names are mere vassals, hollow husks in the service of plot development. Without the little moments: Harrison Ford stopping to make a sandwich in The Fugitive; that lovely sequence in Half-Blood Prince where Harry and Hermione dance, the cameras slow and swooping, revealing for the first time genuine platonic love. Without them, it just becomes a series of ‘Harry did this, Harry did that, Hermione screamed…’

How to film a novel then that is all about characters and their discordantly textured personalities and quirks. Haruki Murakami’s book is full of quirks and details that leaven its morbid fascination with sex and themes of isolation. What I remember from the book, was that despite the morose motif of suicide, it was a page-turner, its narrator flawed but engaging, and its characters richly painted. Apart from the sexual set-pieces, incidentals such as Midori’s hilarious proficiency in an irrelevant cooking style, Naoko’s ethereal beauty, Nagasawa’s acutely arrogant handsomeness, and Watanabe’s appreciation of Scotch, all obviously made deep impressions.

Naoko and Watanbe (foreground), and Reiko playing Norwegian Wood

We don’t get this in French-Vietnamese director Tran Ahn Hung’s film version. Set in 1960s Tokyo, we follow student Watanabe, a quiet and considerate soul who is torn between two women: Naoko and Midori. The first was the girlfriend of Watanabe’s best friend Kidzuki, before he unexpectedly committed suicide. She is fragile and lives in a woodland retreat for her depression. Midori meanwhile is sparky and vivacious, introducing herself in the college cafeteria.

Some of the book’s candour – masturbation, pornography, vaginal lubrication – make their way into the film, while other characters get short shrift. Musician Reiko, Naoko’s retreat friend, is an earthy, playful character in the book who has an engrossing back story, but who here is stone-faced and contributes very little to proceedings. Midori’s eccentricities are not used to their full comic effect, and Nagasawa, Watanabe’s playboy friend, isn’t the shallow lens through which the audience can see the depth of Watanabe’s love, loneliness and longing, as he should be.

All in all, it feels like all the character’s relationships are skimmed through, without each of them leaving a lasting impression. Compare this with the masterful City of God, where the vivid direction gave life to each of the many character’s vignettes. But there are things to admire. Cinematographer Ping Bin Lee has given the film a warm and refreshing palette and filled it with elegantly unlovely compositions.  Rinko Kikuchi plays Naoko with plucky sweetness, a perfect foil for glassy fragility.

2/5

Cert: 15

Runtime: 133 mins

Director: Tran Ahn Hung

Cast: Ken’ichi Matsuyama (Watanabe) Rinko Kikuchi (Naoko), Kiko Mizuhara (Midori), Tetsuji Tamayama (Nagasawa)


Battle: Los Angeles

Details: 2011, USA, Cert 12A, 116 mins, Dir: Jonathan Liebesman

With: Aaron Eckhart, Bridget Moynahan, Cory Hardrict, Gino Anthony Pesi, Michael Pena, Michelle Rodriguez, Ne-Yo, Ramon Rodriguez

Welcome to Battle: Los Angeles, the biggest TV movie of the year. It succeeds in brief excitement, the warfare feels authentic, but it fails to leave a mark. The success of action movies often reside in their flashes of abiding imagery. Those moments which leave an indelible memory. One tends to think of Superman Returns, where our hero floats to Earth like a fallen angel, or the water ominously trembling in Jurassic Park, and the 30s King Kong, his stop-motion stutter aping the arms of a baby playing with wooden blocks.

Aaron Eckhart as Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz in Battle: Los Angeles

The best of them thrill to taut direction and play with cliché, such as the lean punch of Speed, or the ascending stages of ship-bound Under Siege, in which Steven Segal’s eyes held you like a bird in his palm, even when faced with a knife-wielding Tommy Lee Jones.

That they often have popcorn thin plots is irrelevant and this time the excuse for explosive revelry is aliens. We follow veteran US marine Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) joining a team of younger marines. They get choppered in to downtown LA to fend off those pesky invaders while evacuating civilians in preparation for a city-wide bombing.

South African Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness falls, The Ring) directs and the influence of countryman Niell Blomkamp’s District 9 is not lost on him. The camera has that jittery documentary feel, while the numerous captions introducing characters and counting down times gives it the feel of one of those misguided TV mini-series about some imminent catastrophe.

Liebesman freely steals from all sources, a newscaster announces “The world is at war”, a nod to the novel from which this genre sprang, the close cameras and first-person viewpoints gives the action videogame drama; the Call of Duty street battles were certainly the most stimulating. He even remembers the nice moment from Saving Private Ryan, when Tom Hanks uses some bubblegum to attach a mirror to a bayonet, only this time he has our hero tying shoelaces.

"The success of action movies often reside in their flashes of abiding imagery". A scene from Superman Returns (2006)

The aliens as ever are merely puppets, even shallower than the Independence Day marauders, of which this film is most reminiscent. Aaron Eckhart’s lined face makes the battle fatigue more wearisome. Viewers can only take so much bang and crash. Michelle Rodriguez again plays a tough-girl part while Ne-Yo surprises as a questioning marine.

The speeches are terrible, the big one, in which Eckhart rouses his troops seems to have been inspired by an accountant in its repetition of serial numbers, while the climax is basically about destroying a giant air traffic control office. In its non-stop combat, its brief sketches of character – the bantering black and white brothers, the pale rookie – Battle: Los Angeles is pretty much Black Hawk Down but with aliens.

Battle: Los Angele - 2.5/5

Howl

Details: 2010, USA, Cert 15, 84 mins, Drama/Period, Dir: Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein

Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels

That the Beats saw poetry as ejaculatory male self-expression is a not at all unsubtle idea. Sex runs through every vein of their literature, with all corresponding imagery. This film pulls off the connotations with animated sequences of trains running up mountain legs, in phallic landscapes and shooting fireworks. That the imagery is so obvious may be due to the backgrounds of the directors.

This is their first feature film, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, documentary-makers who collaborated on the Academy award-winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. It centres on Howl, the infamous poem penned by Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), who was a senior member of the jazz and words-obsessed Beat Generation. The poem sparked controversy for its drugs and sexual references and was brought to an obscenity trial.

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg

The film flits between three parts: from an interview in New York, to the court-room drama of the trial in 1957 San Francisco, to Ginsberg typing the poem with hallucinatory animation. It all changes from B&W to colour for each segment – it’s not as confusing as it sounds, and the whole thing continually returns to the opening scene, the poem’s debut Six Gallery reading, and as it progresses we get to hear Howl in its entirety.

The film’s tone is hushed and reverent, the camera sitting still to absorb all the wisdom dispensed in the poet’s interview. The script takes us through Ginsberg’s ideas and philosophies, all delivered with arrow-straight emotion by Franco. His depiction is considered, thoughtful, soft and earnest, which has truth, but the restraint can be too much. Franco doesn’t have the necessary weight, both literal and figurative, for a character so mired in intensity.

Elsewhere Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is oddly stiff as defense attorney Jake Erlich, while it was great to see Jeff Daniels as a clueless English professor. We don’t see much of Jack Keroauc (Todd Rotondi) or Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), the former the biggest inspiration to Ginsberg. It helps to keep focus on the studious beardyman but it left a void of wild adventure and craziness, characteristics central to the Beats.

It’s a nice film to look at, the cinematographer Edward Lachman has given the movie a modern mid-tone B&W, which thankfully doesn’t add any nostalgia, and the colours of the courtroom are green and warm like a gust of summer. But it all feels a little lightweight, even the animated sequences, which I thought were going to be a blast, stay faithful to its era. We get images of wombs, ghosts, skeletons and angels, all rendered in an art deco style. They’re flat and unimaginative.

Some simple sentences do resonate. The prosecuting attorney (a suitably strung-out David Straitharn) asks:

“What are angel-headed hipsters?”

“You can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry”, comes the reply from the literary critic.

And Franco wrings great depth from the line, “Promised I was heterosexual and that’s how I got out”, when he talks about his time spent at the mental hospital with the writer Carl Solomon, to whom Howl is dedicated.

With the cross-examination of various English professors and ‘experts’ in court, we get differing views on what defines literature. It offers a handy breakdown on technical and thematic aspects of Howl, which may delight or bore you. My feeling is the poem gave voice to a massive generation change, turning into epic the feelings of a repressed clique, and ultimately of a gay man.

Allen Ginsberg (right) with (from left) fellow Beat luminaries Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso (back to camera) and David Amram, New York, late 1950s

Jack Keroac’s On the Road, with its dizzying sentences and breaths of untrammelled optimism, and Ginsberg’s free verse allowed the Beats to express their joy at all the opportunity and ecstatic freedom that jazz, drugs and uninhibited sex gave them, in an un-liberated time. But this structure of fixated desire, so attuned to the flow of words, left them indeed devoid of any “moral greatness”.

But the film does hint that sex is much art’s undercurrent, with a lovely shot of Cezanne’s La Montagne Saint in colour, while surrounded by B&W. And Howl itself of course, partly helped by the obscenity trial (alluded to in court), like all obscenity trials, helped to draw attention to social norms of frankness and honesty.

Perhaps the poem’s need to provoke and its outpouring of emotion and gushing rhythm could have come from no other man as Ginsberg. He was repressed after all and an obviously sensitive soul. We see this at the film’s end, with a clamorous, though rather reverent scene of the poem’s footnote. Franco reads with fervour and ends with tones of compassion on the final line:

“Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent
kindness of the soul!”

I only saw glimpses of this in the film, and people who knew him testified to his gleeful generosity. But the film is a monument to Howl, not its author. And I got a clear handle of the poem’s power as spoken word but all the realities of life, social upheaval, Ginsberg’s relationships and clouds of darkness were missing or only there in stolen snatches.

I gained knowledge such as that an English Lit seminar could have given me, but the acting, the very textural quality of the film gave me little clue as to the context in which Howl was created. It was more strait-laced then I imagined it would be, a route that can reveal better insight, but overall the film does not engage emotionally, its analysis is too dry and cumbersome.

Some greater narrative must match Howl’s riveting, bopping, long lines of thrill and change.

3/5

True Grit

Amid bare-backed trees and a blanket of snow, a one-eyed man and his horse hears something approaching. A bear draws near, sitting on his own horse. It is not a bear; it is a man wearing the head and fur of a bear. The two men eye each other for a long second, while a dark-haired girl with steely eyes and an astute face watches.

Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges as, respectively, Mattie Jones and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

This is one of the memorable images of True Grit, an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel by the Coen brothers. It is a more faithful rendering of the book and the Coens have professed not to have seen the first True Grit, a 1969 film starring John Wayne.

Both films centre on 14-year-old Mattie Ross (an equally-aged Hailee Steinfeld) in her quest to exact revenge on her father’s killer, one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She enlists the help of Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cockburn (Jeff Bridges), a rogue US Marshal fond of drink and grey of hair. Tagging along is Texas Ranger LeBeouf (Matt Damon) who has been tracking Chaney for months.

I watched the earlier film recently and I was struck by its simplicity and its performances. Although the theme of revenge might be dark, there was an air of almost light-hearted adventure in the original where Wayne carried the film with his swagger and old-school stardom. Most outstanding was the young-looking Kim Darby, 22 at the time, whose rhythmic delivery of dialogue sounds like a succession of bullets ringing out in the near-distance. There, the strength of her character was evident in the force of her patter. But in Hailee Steinfeld, it’s less obvious.

In a list of determined movie characters, Mattie would be at the top, making Scarface and Erin Brockovich blush at their ineptitude. Steinfeld has perhaps more nuance and tenderness which makes her more likable and her duelling with the Texas ranger is enjoyable for the aplomb of her put-downs, but I remained unconvinced by her tenacity, her sentences sounded chewy when they should have been clear as a cut diamond. However, those dark features and detached eyes suggest a cold vulnerability men may mistake for

wilfulness.

The Coens’ choice of closely sticking to the book, as did they did for No Country For Old Men, is both a strength and a flaw. Opening with narration by an older Mattie, with homely piano and an image of the death of her father, lit beautifully in golden light, works much better than the ‘Look there he is! Oh, now he’s dead’ view of her father in the original. The Texas Ranger we see less of, which means the foster father relationship between Cogburn and Mattie is more evident, but I longed for the Coens to create, to insert more scenes of their own devising – say a chance encounter with another strong female character, or a greater conflict between the two leading men.

John Wayne and Kim Darby in True Grit (1969)

Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn, with his gruff whisper of a voice and expressions of continual befuddlement, is much less alpha male than John Wayne’s Rooster. Bridges has imbued the aging Cogburn with a melancholia, or perhaps just greater alcoholism, but it does have a payoff in the tender image of Cogburn seeping into his elderly frailty after having wearily carried a snake-bitten Mattie. It reminded me of Kevin Kline carrying Christina Ricci back home through the wood, ‘with its shivering saplings and soft gray sleet’ in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm.

Matt Damon’s playing of the self-regarding Ranger is enjoyable for its almost camp quality, an ironic smirk always lurking behind that moustache and earnest delivery of lines. The grit that he possesses is in his skills and independence in his occupation, whilst Cogburn’s grit is deteriorating after having reigned as a lone wolf for so long.

‘True grit’ of course belongs to Mattie, whose precocious bravery outshines all. But, as told in the early narration and later seen in the epilogue, she grows up to be a spinster, a fact I find quite saddening. Could no man learn to love such a lady, or could she simply not find anyone of equal measure?

This is a crafted film, shot with spare beauty by Roger Deakins, but the ambition and creativity shown here is lacking. The performances are not greater, just different, to the first movie. It is a deeper narrative and the Coen eccentricities are present, although in lesser quanitity. But for a second remake I was dissatisfied at the absence of greater interaction.

Here, the Coens lacked grit.

3/5


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