Jan 20 2012

Review: J. Edgar

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 9:02 am

Okay — before we start, let’s address the elephant in the room: the make-up used to age Leonardo DiCaprio into a 70 year-old J Edgar Hoover is completely atrocious. DiCaprio and co-star Armie Hammer are obviously wearing rubber masks with visible seams and expressions of consternation sculpted into their foreheads. The standard of the make-up is so bad that it makes old Biff from Back to the Future II look like a plausible granddad. The obvious artifice threatens to destroy some of the more poignant scenes in the film and it seems ridiculous that ANYONE involved with the movie that saw the early footage would have approved it at all!

Okay. Now that we don’t need to mention the make-up again, it has to be said that Clint Eastwood’s latest film is actually very good. As mentioned, DiCaprio plays the J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous founder of the FBI and in his day, one of the most powerful men in America. The action takes place in the sixties, through the Kennedy/Nixon era, with Hoover dictating his memoirs to a revolving cast of young bureau agents. He recounts his experiences including the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping, (dubbed The Crime of the Century by the press) and the rise of the G-Men in their war against organised crime.

However, 50 years on, the enduring part of Hoover’s legacy may be the rumour that he wore women’s clothing in private. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black explicitly supposes Hoover as a closeted homosexual. With Black having won the Oscar for penning Gus Van Sant’s Milk, one would expect J. Edgar to be an examination of a powerful man’s repressed sexuality but it turns out to be much more than that. Hoover is played as a man obsessed with his public image: desperate to be feared, respected and adored in equal measure.  He raises his office chair with hardback books so that interviewees would literally have to look up to him and he commissions a series of comic books featuring himself as the hero. His vanity takes over as he insists on publicly taking credit for bureau successes and high profile criminal arrests. He is staunchly anti-gay within his own department but relies heavily on his deputy and confidante Clyde Tolson, (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer) whom the film has also clearly defined as gay. A fascinating bag of contradictions, Hoover is played sharply and persuasively by DiCaprio, whose eternally boyish features still remain his worst enemy as he continues to develop as an actor.

Eastwood directs as he always does – with purpose and strength. The elegant design seamlessly moves from the 20s through to the 60s without drawing attention away from the performances – the sort of restraint that that has defined Eastwood’s latter-day career. As a portrait of a historically enigmatic character, J. Edgar digs beneath the surface of the legend – dramatising details that almost certainly can not be proven as fact. Eastwood and Black may not reveal the absolute truth of the man, but they certainly make a compelling argument.

It’s a shame about the make-up, though.

Jan 12 2012

Review: War Horse

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 3:30 pm

“Hey, you know that play at the West End? The one with all the horse puppets…?”

“I haven’t seen it, but I hear the puppets are great.”

“They sure are.”

 - A semi-fictional encounter, circa 2007


Although it is credited as being based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, the true inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is most likely the award-winning, record-breaking stage play of the same name. Taking its cues from Morpurgo’s story of a thoroughbred from Devon separated from his young owner and taken to fight in Europe, the production (originally staged at the National Theatre) pulled off a tremendous feat of telling an enormous story on stage using full-size horse puppets to truly remarkable effect. Arguably, with the lead character of the story being Joey the horse, the ability of the puppeteers to instil him with personality and an inner-life play a crucial role in bringing the story to life. So, naturally, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation would live or die on the strength of the horses.

Screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Notting Hill, Love Actually) have chosen to focus on the humans that Joey encounters on his odyssey through war-torn Europe. From British Officers to German soldiers and French peasants, we are shown the effects of war through different eyes. No particular side are cast as villains – although the mistreatment of horses forced to pull the Kaiser’s artillery is truly monstrous. Instead, we see their common humanity expressed through their connection with one special horse. Is there perhaps something primal in that bond between man and steed? Since time immemorial, people have lived, worked and died alongside their equine friends. After the dog, is there any other animals that we feel greater love toward?

Filling the roles of the human characters is perhaps the finest British cast ever assembled for a picture that doesn’t involve wizards: Peter Mullan and Emily Watson play the parents the young hero while David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tony Kebbell, Eddie Marsan and Liam Cunningham all drop in to play supporting roles. A number of European character actors (including A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup) also make appearances, though one can’t help but be reminded of ‘Allo ‘Allo when French characters start speaking to each other in heavily-accented English.

The scenes that take place in the Battle of the Somme, though quite brief, are shot with the tremendous clarity that made the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan such an unforgettable sequence. In a time when violently shaky and handheld shots have become de rigueur for all war movies, Spielberg has retained his genius for filming compelling and cohesive action scenes.

There is a lot of beauty and accomplishment to be found in the film of War Horse: Janusz Kaminski’s beautiful cinematography, the lush (though over-used) Vaughn Williams-referencing score from movie maestro John Williams and, of course, the excellent casting. The only downside is -however strange it may sound- that the horse characters weren’t as fleshed out as they needed to be. As the story of a remarkable horse who defies all odds to return home, it felt like we really needed more emphasis on the animal in order for us to connect with the story. The stage show got this just right with immaculately judged performances by the puppeteers. But on screen, this thoroughbred just under performs ever-so-slightly.

Jan 09 2012

Review: The Artist

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 4:54 pm

As Hollywood ramps up its hype-machine in preparation for February’s Academy Awards, the frontrunner at the moment (in terms of buzz) is a French-produced silent film homage to 1920s cinema. If anyone was told that two years ago, they’d no doubt respond with looks of confusion but lo: with the wide release of The Artist, we may be seeing the first non-talkie to win Best Picture since 1929. But does it deserve all this attention and praise, or is it simply the latest award-contender to be fitted with producer Harvey Weinstein’s patented Oscar-magnet?

As with OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, an earlier film of director Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is a tribute to films of a bygone era, recreating the look and style of old films with painstaking detail. There are references to classics of the period, not limited to visual riffs on Citizen Kane and a plotline re-worked from A Star is Born. OSS 117’s Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a star of the silent screen in 1929 Hollywood. Though currently famous in his native France, Dujardin’s preposterous, handsome features could easily have made him a matinee idol back in the day. We see Valentin enjoy tremendous success at the opening of the film, though the advent of the talking picture looms just around the corner, threatening to make silent stars (with their very arch acting styles) utterly irrelevant. Enter the plucky ingénue: Peppy Miller, a young wannabe played by Bérénice Bejo, they meet by accident outside the premiere of Valentin’s latest movie and the press become enthralled by this moment caught on camera – Who’s that girl? asks the headline of Variety. Peppy’s career is immediately ignited, setting it on an upward trajectory that will only be matched by Valentin’s fall from fashion and fortune.

Hazanavicius’ film has received such a immense critical reception that its inevitable backlash has already started. Detractors have suggested that while an enormous amount of attention has been paid in recreating the style of the period, The Artist could never exceed the films it pays homage to: that while it successfully produces a faithful-looking companion to movies of the 20s, the project is ultimately an empty bag of tricks – a soufflé, if you will. However, the extraordinary charm of the two leads alongside a genuinely earnestness expressed amongst the nods and references provides a beating heart to the movie. With a minimal amount of dialogue told through inter-title cards, it is a remarkable reminder of how superfluous words can often be in telling a compelling story.

It seems increasingly rare to be able to recommend a film that’s both experimental yet completely accessible to a broad audience but perhaps that is the most remarkable part of The Artist: whilst being a nostalgic look back at how far cinema has come in the last hundred years, we’re also reminded of what movies can be, even after you’ve stripped away all the explosions and CG robots.

See it with a date. Watch it your mother. Go by yourself and catch it in a packed cinema if you can. You probably won’t regret it.

Jan 06 2012

Review: The Iron Lady

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 12:26 pm

Has there ever been a more divisive lead character for a film than Margaret Thatcher?

If you’re making a film about Hitler, you’re probably going to portray him as some kind of monster. If there’s a biopic about Mother Theresa, it’s hardly going to depict her as some harpy with a mercenary streak. But in a country where so many people still believe that Thatcher destroyed Britain’s industries and communities, how would a movie chronicling the rise of the UK’s first female Prime Minister be received?

First of all, The Iron Lady is not quite the Thatcher biography one would expect. The plot is essentially split into two concurrent strands: one thread follows the rise of a young grocer’s daughter to the highest government position in the land while the other story is that of an elderly woman suffering from dementia who experiences hallucinations of her late husband.

In the title role, Meryl Streep plays a very effective Thatcher, capturing her mannerisms and voice in a way that only occasionally borders on caricature. We see her attend Oxford University and rise up through the ranks of the Conservative Party, encountering 60s-style misogyny from old-guard Etonians. Key moments in her political career -from the Falklands conflict and her demolition of trade unions to her attempts to implement the poll tax- are used as milestones in her personal journey without much being said about how those policies and decisions affected the country at large.  However, with the director of Mamma Mia at the helm, one cannot truly expect a nuanced examination of socio-political change. Indeed, it seems that Phyllida Lloyd and her screenwriter Abi Morgan have chosen to sidestep this minefield in order to focus on the love story of-sorts between Streep’s Thatcher and her husband Denis (played, of course, by the reliably wonderful Jim Broadbent).

With the scenes of her earlier life played in flashback, the remainder of the movie takes place in modern day, where the long-retired PM is portrayed as a lonely widow haunted by the ghost of her beloved husband. Although she speaks to him at length (hen-pecking Denis much in the way we suspect she did throughout his life), Thatcher remains aware that he is a symptom of her mental decline. While very affecting, these scenes seem more like riffs on Pixar’s Up than an appropriate counterpoint to the rest of the story.

Key figures in government have already criticized the film, suggesting it may be inappropriate to tell this particular story during Baroness Thatcher’s lifetime. While this may be true, the movie’s real flaw is its lightweight take on such a crucial period in the country’s history. The fact that is uses the disenfranchisement of the British public as mere background colouring for Thatcher’s personal story only adds to this insensitivity.

Of course, The Iron Lady is a handsomely made picture with great performances and much to recommend: the reviewer for The Telegraph absolutely loves it, American audiences will probably watch it and Streep will no doubt find herself covered in glory come Oscar season.

Just don’t expect it to perform well in Scotland.

Jan 05 2012

Review: Final Destination 5

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 2:27 pm

After the fourth entry to this horror franchise “The Final Destination”, it didn’t seem like there would be any more sequels to this highly successful horror-juggernaut. However, with Final Destination 5, we see that the fickle finger of death isn’t quite done with dispatching attractive young urbanites. Shot for 3D, FD5 makes the most of this, featuring more scenes of things flying towards the camera than anything previous seen in the series.

Once again the story involves a young man who experiences a premonition of him and his colleagues being killed in a freak accident. Acting on this vision, he narrowly saves a handful of people from plunging to their deaths. But as we know from the previous films as well as the ominous intonations of the county coroner (played by former Candyman and series regular Tony Todd) death doesn’t like being cheated. In order to restore survivors of the accident are in due course subjected to horrific demises, each more elaborate than the last.

The cast of characters seem almost intentionally shallow, complete with horror movie standards like the ambitious young buck, the nerdy creep, the officious boss and the vapid babe. Established as employees of a paper company, (who later seen working incongruously as chefs and gymnasts) they are largely tasked with staring at appalling accidents and uttering classic lines like “how did this happen?” and “this can’t be an accident!” However, the real stars of the movie are the gory set pieces.

Director Steven Quale -whose previous credits include second unit on a few of James Cameron’s films- shoots the death scenes with an acute awareness that the audience has seen this happen in the four earlier Final Destination movies. The set-ups involving a deadly gymnastic routine, a Lasik operation gone wrong and a particularly uncomfortable acupuncture session, are peppered with enough misdirection to keep punters on their toes. My only complaint would perhaps be that there are too many bits where characters are in danger of slipping on things left on the floor: perhaps the script was developed by a team of mothers tired of their kids leaving stuff lying around. Regardless, there is a strong vein of very black humour running throughout that distinguishes FD5 from recent torture-porn flicks like Hostel 2, whose only purpose appears to be grossing out teenagers.

This review is based on the 2D version, so no real comment can be made on the effectiveness of the 3D. However, schlocky horror movies seem to be the spiritual home of the third dimension, providing the eye-poking visuals that will both delight fans and provide some small distraction from the constant sound of snapping spines.

Final Destination 5 is pretty much a remake of its predecessors, but there’s something about the premise and the endless possibilities for killing people in implausible ways that has allowed the series to thrive. It’s not particularly original, but it’s still a lot of fun.


Rating: 3 1/2 impaled skulls out of 5