Mar 25 2012

Review: 50/50

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 6:31 pm

50/50It seems strange how we have hundreds of horror movies that deal with zombies, serial murderers and sadists but there are no horror films about the most prolific killer of them all: cancer.  Over half a million people die of cancer every year in America alone, whereas Zombies have so far failed to rack up even a single fatality in real life. Our point is this: cancer is something that has affected the majority of people, whether it’s first-hand or through a friend or family member has had to deal with, yet movies too often seem incapable of dealing with the matter. The subject is so grim that to deal with it honestly feels taboo but failing to acknowledge its severity is crass. Even in this age of ironic detachment and non-PC Frankie Boyle routines, movies about The Big C still have to walk one hell of a tightrope.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a young journalist whose life grinds to a halt when he is diagnosed with an exotic form of spinal cancer. We follow him as he breaks the news to his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), his best mate and colleague (Seth Rogen) and his mother (Anjelica Huston) and we get to see those relationships shift and morph as he proceeds with his treatment and considers the possibility he might die. His girlfriend initially promises to stay with him but the way their relationship plays out is understandable but tough to swallow.

The screenplay is written by Will Reiser, who based the story on his own experience with cancer. A television writer whose credits include Ali G’s HBO show, Reiser brings not only a deep personal understanding of the character’s situation, but enough perspective and clarity to realise that humour and terminal illness are not mutually exclusive. The structure of Reiser’s script gives 50/50 the rhythm of a comedy and there are funny scenes where Rogen and Gordon-Levitt try to use his cancer to pick up girls at a bar. The humour feels like it comes from a place of truth, and it stops the movie from becoming unbearably bleak or depressing.

The is acting is strong without being showy; with Bryce Dallas Howard, in particular, delivering on a role that could easily have been played unsympathetically. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove his leading man cred while Rogen demonstrates once more that his stoner persona can be an incredibly versatile tool.

Don’t let the heavy subject matter put you off watching 50/50. It’s an uplifting, well-observed, funny movie. But don’t take our word for it: click here and watch it, already…

Back to blinkbox Movie Mondays


Mar 16 2012

Contraband

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 9:53 pm

There once was a man. He was very good at robbing banks/stealing cars/counterfeiting currency/negotiating for hostages/killing. He was the best in the business but it got to be too much for him and he had to retire. Now, because of some circumstance, he is forced back to do one last job before retiring for good.

This pretty much sums up the plot of a hundred movies from Rambo: First Blood Part 2 to Gone in 60 Seconds. We’re not pointing this out as a criticism: some of the movies that follow this format are absolute stonkin’ classics. It’s always about the execution.

Contraband is one such movie.

Mark Wahlberg is a man. He was very good at smuggling. He was the best in the business but it got to be too much for him and he had to retire. Now, because of a mistake made by his wife’s idiot brother, he is forced back to do one last job before retiring for good. There are, of course, more details. Thrown into the mix is Giovanni Ribisi as the small-time gangster who has Wahlberg’s brother in-law by the short and curlies while Ben Foster and Kate Beckinsale fill out the cast as his best friend and wife, respectively.

As mentioned before, it’s all about the execution, and Contraband is a tightly run ship that wastes little time elevating the stakes as Wahlberg travels to Panama to pull off a big job. Efficiently directed by Baltasar Kormákur (who starred in the Icelandic original on which this was based), the film delivers on its premise: there are car chases, daring heists and gun fights galore. Mark Wahlberg, an actor who has never claimed to possess a wide range, shows that he still has what it takes to be a very effective leading man.

Contraband works like gangbusters precisely because it has no aspirations to be anything more than what it is:  the story of a man. A man who was very good at smuggling and the best in the business, etc…

Contraband is in cinemas now.


Mar 16 2012

blinkbox Reviews – Jane Eyre

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 9:43 pm

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

“What? They made another movie of that book that we had to read for GCSE. Why would they do that?”

This is perhaps the attitude of many movie-goers and TV viewers who are annually subjected to endless remakes of classics by Dickens, Austin and the Brontë gang. Well, of course: these authors are literary titans and national treasures; their works deserve to live on in memory. But seriously, the British film and TV industry has a terminal obsession with horses and corsets that manifests itself in the dozens of period dramas produced every year.

Having dug ourselves into a hole, it must be admitted that Cary Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Jane Eyre is actually very good. Starring Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Michael Fassbender (every movie from 2011), the production is a lush affair that simply oozes atmosphere. Wasikowska’s leading performance is subtle, yet clear in demonstrating a woman meek in poise but strong in resolve. Fassbender –continuing his string of fine work—plays the brooding and seemingly cruel Rochester perfectly, creating tension from thin air in his scenes with Jane. On the level of a romance film, it works exquisitely thanks to the palpable tension between them. Fans of modern romances like Twilight will have much to enjoy in Jane Eyre

In fact, on a surface level, Jane Eyre and the vampire saga have much in common: they both tell the story of a young woman displaced into an unfamiliar and slightly menacing environment. Once there, they both encounter a handsome and mysteriously brooding man. Though at first they find him rude and distant, in time they discover that he is indeed infatuated with them and hiding a terrible secret. But whereas Brontë’s heroine is a self-possessed woman who is determined to be subservient to no man, Twilight’s Bella is a girl defined entirely by her obsession with a boy. It’s utterly baffling how a 160 year-old story is more progressively feminist than something concocted five years ago.

And surely, that’s what makes Jane Eyre such a timeless story. Jane is born into a man’s world but she stands by her convictions in the face of adversity, which results in her finding not only love, but the reciprocated love of someone that considers her an equal.

Bolstered by a great supporting cast that includes Jamie Bell and Dame Judi Dench, Jane Eyre is a tight and compelling piece of film making. It’s a movie that’s strangely appropriately for the entire family and, who knows, it could come in useful if you’re revising for your exams.


Mar 02 2012

blinkbox Reviews: Immortals

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 5:48 pm

 

In Ancient Greece, Theseus (Henry Cavill), a man from humble beginnings, must prevent the merciless King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) from finding a mythical bow powerful enough to slay the Gods. With the help of the virgin Oracle (Freida Pinto) and a thief (Stephen Dorff) he faces foes like the Minotaur and the Titans.

Though there are hints of Jason and the Argonauts and the original Clash of the Titans, Immortal’s true providence is revealed by its poster’s tagline: “from the producers of 300”.

Who would’ve guessed that Zak Snyder’s 2007 Spartan romp would become such the influential movie of our time? Since Gerard Butler and his heavily muscled cohorts rippled their way onto the big screen, there has been an enormous slate of sword-and-sandal epics starring actors with their shirts off. From TV’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand to last year’s Conan the Barbarian, there’s been no shortage of muscular men brandishing swords and spilling blood. Our leading men have all become so stacked that if Gladiator was being made today, Russell Crowe would not make it past the first round of auditions.

So can we expect anything new or different from Immortals?

First of all, director Tarsem Singh (a veteran of commercials and music videos) brings an unexpected visual style to the project. While the focus is still firmly placed on action, Singh shoots his slow-motion fight sequences to resemble renaissance artworks: from the compositions to the way the scenes are lit, many shots look uncannily like something Caravaggio might paint. It is an impressive feat, but the style isn’t entirely consistent throughout the entire movie. Strangely, for a film of such epic proportions, there’s something about Immortals that seems decidedly small. It looks as though in an effort to save money, they filmed on the smallest soundstage on the planet and used only a dozen extras, filling in the rest of the space with glossy computer graphics.

One point of interest is that lead actor Henry Cavill has been cast to play the Man of Steel in an upcoming Superman reboot from the makers of 300 (all roads lead to Sparta, after all). He has a great handle on the action sequences but in quieter moments, he’s stoic to the point of being boring. Frieda Pinto is an alluring screen presence as always but she’s criminally underdeveloped as a character. Mickey Rourke, however, just feels out of place like a Brooklyn gangster magically transported back in time. And perhaps that is our main gripe with Immortals: it’s strangely inconsistent. The elements that we see on screen are striking and wonderful don’t seem to build a cohesive world.

It really is a shame as Singh’s previous film, The Fall, had a small budget but enormous visual scope. He travelled all over the world over a period of four years shooting this, piggybacking his production on the back of commercial shoots and encouraging clients to make their ads in locations where he wanted to film his fantasy epic. Sadly, having a bigger budget for the Immortals could not translate to a bigger look. Incidentally, The Fall is also one of the most striking movies ever made and comes highly recommended by us.

Immortals, however, is still more original and esoteric than any other blockbusters you’re likely to see: the action is absolutely fine and as a movie experience, it’s leagues above something like Transformers. It’s mostly well-acted, exciting when it needs to be and visually stunning throughout.

Rating: 4 greased torsos out of 5.

 

 

 


Feb 17 2012

blinkbox Reviews – Johnny English: Reborn

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 1:12 pm

Here’s a question, movie fans: on the international stage, who is Britain’s biggest movie star? We’ll give you a hint: it’s not Hugh Grant or Colin Firth; the name doesn’t rhyme with Meara Mightley; and this actor has not appeared in a Harry Potter movie. If you guessed Rowan Atkinson, then help yourself to a treat!

Despite having headlined only 4 movies (2 Mr Beans and 2 Johnny English entries), Atkinson has pulled in close to a billion dollars at the box office. Mr Bean videos and television re-runs are so enormously popular in South America, Africa and Asia that Atkinson is perhaps the most recognisable Brit in the world next to the Queen. To get an idea of how famous he is world-wide, all you have to do is recall a news story from 2007 where an English sailor held by Iranian forces was reduced to tears by captors who insisted on calling him ‘Mr Bean’.

Our point is this: while Johnny English Reborn is a film about a bumbling English spy that spoofs the British spy genre, it’s a movie made very much with the international audience in mind. To that end, the humour is more Mr Bean than Blackadder. At the age of 56, Atkinson’s ability to play slapstick is still intact. In a scene where Johnny messes about with a hydraulic chair during a meeting with the PM, the bits of physical shtick he pulls off are as good as anything he’s done before. However good, his strength in physical comedy cannot disguise the lack of a story here. The main plot involving a mind control conspiracy is a complete shambles, designed to move Atkinson between situations and locations where he can mistakenly beat up on old women or accidentally destroy government property.

Fans of high quality television dramas will also have good reason to tune in: filling out the cast are The Hour’s Dominic West and Gillian Anderson from The X-Files (who seems to have reinvented herself as a British actress). They both give good performance and accomplish what is asked of them. Rosamund Pike, sadly, is given a real dog of a role: she plays a beautiful civil servant who is inexplicably attracted to Johnny English despite the fact he is a world-class buffoon. If you watch closely in one scene, you can see her moment of realisation that she was once a real Bond girl and not just a broken parody of one.

It would be easy to be snobby about the lowbrow humour in Johnny English Reborn but it cannot be denied that there is a tremendous demand for this sort of comedy. The direction is weak but the force of nature that is Rowan Atkinson more than makes up for that.  It’s something that the entire family can watch without fear of offense or being bored. The kids will love it, your Nan will like it and you’re more than likely going to find it entertaining.


Feb 03 2012

Review: Carnage

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 12:21 pm

Carnage
Two young boys have a small fight in a park –as all kids do. The child who is being ganged up on picks up a fallen tree branch and uses it to hit the other one in the face. The parents of both kids meet up to hash out the details of what happened.

These two sentences pretty much sum up both the plot and set-up of Carnage, Roman Polanski’s new film adapted from Yazmina Reza’s stage play God of Carnage. The remainder of the movie looks to be quite a faithful recreation of the play. All four characters are played by acclaimed actors: Christophe Waltz and Kate Winslet are a wealthy uptown lawyer and his snobby wife while Jodie Foster and John C Reilly play an aspiring genocide historian and her blue-collar salesman husband.

Between the prisms of their differing politics, the four of them thoroughly dissect their sons’ actions: in turns placating, apologising and accusing each other. At its core, Carnage wants to be a treatise on the inherently violent nature of humans, with Foster’s character demanding justice for her son’s treatment while Waltz’s corporate lawyer counters that boys will be boys and that violence is an aspect of human nature that can never be eradicated. However, this is all merely subtext for a living-room comedy that sees every character’s civility break down over an afternoon of cobbler, coffee and distracting phone calls.

It’s a very funny and erudite movie, something that a domesticated Woody Allen might have written in the 80s. It gleefully mixes up scenes of passive aggressive snarkery with one of the more unexpected liquid expulsion scenes ever seen on film. The cast are all very funny and have a great chemistry together. It may seem like a back-handed compliment (and it is intended as one) to be but we can’t help but feel that Carnage is a bit too well cast on the whole. While Jodie Foster is an absolute stand-out playing a neurotic, mollycoddling mother (completely unlike all the characters she has played before), her co-stars Reilly, Waltz and Winslet are playing very close to type. They are all very good, but Foster is the only one that seems to be having real fun with the part.

Polanski’s camera is not particularly showy, allowing the stars to really make the most of Reza’s dialogue. While the visual style is not distracting and the script is very funny, Carnage is also inescapably theatrical. Did it need to become a film? Probably not. But it’s tough to not like a film this thoughtful, funny and solidly performed.


Jan 20 2012

Review: J. Edgar

Tag: Uncategorizedblinkbox @ 9:02 am

J-Edgar
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

War-Horse
“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

The-Artist
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

Iron-Lady
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.