Tuesday, 2 April 2013
Danny Boyle's latest is a real showstopper. Following the relative conventionality of his recent output (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), Trance is a twisting, mind-bending mystery which unravels into a spectacularly dark and memorable finale. And memorable is an apt word, since the film uses memory (or in this case, its absence) as both a driver for the plot and the conceptual slipperiness of it to delve into the unruly dimensions of human nature in the form of the psychological subconscious. The amnesia belongs to James McAvoy's Simon, the inside man on an art gallery heist who is concussed by Vincent Cassel's gangster, Franck, after he diverts from the plan by stealing and hiding the painting in a place he cannot seem to remember. To shake the memory free, Franck forces Simon to see a hypnotherapist, Rosario Dawson's Elizabeth.
Simon's mind appears to be highly resistant to finding the memory however, and the more he is put under hypnotism by Elizabeth the more other memories shake lose and the intrigues proliferate - in the deep layers of his mind Simon is hiding more than a missing Goya. On top of that, as Simon nears the memories hidden in his brain, the line between reality and hypnotised trance starts to blur and the narrative perception of events fragments. The glossy cinematography contributes to the effect as the trance sequences segue eerily into reality, and retrospective visual markers, signifiers and motifs abound en route to the film's denouement. As a film about the human mind it speaks about the power of the unconscious and hidden psychological drives which take the waking mind hostage, and like Inception it simultaneously manages to make its audience think whilst set to the pace of a tense thriller. Of the three central performances Cassel is strong as lead gangster Franck (although perhaps in a role he can play on autopilot), but McAvoy and Dawson are the stand outs as Simon and Elizabeth, the ostensible protagonists of the film. Simon, a man with a gambling addiction who falls in with the wrong people is a character which McAvoy plays with an understated sense of heavy debt and guilt, which gradually turns to unease as more events transpire in his memory. It's an impressive performance that underlines McAvoy as one of the most talented, versatile current British actors. Rosario Dawson on the other hand arguably gives the performance of her career as Elizabeth, the benevolent hypnotherapist digging into Simon's psyche. At once beautiful, strong willed and benevolent, her ability to manipulate the mind is a foreshadow that there might be more to her than on first impression, and Dawson plays the ambiguity superbly, her demeanour a glassy surface, giving nothing away.
Trance is one of those films that revels in misdirection and is a brilliantly crafted, dark thriller, probably my favourite Danny Boyle film, and I'll be surprised if there's a film that messes with your mind more than this all year.
Monday, 4 March 2013
If you're not familiar with Park Chan Wook's filmography, he has a predilection for all things dark, disturbing and at times, downright messed up. Stoker is no exception to the rule, and for his first English language film Park brings with him his wonderfully expressive directorial style to greater mainstream attention, crafting a masterfully atmospheric horror. The titular Stoker family comprise just India (Mia Wasikowska) and Evie (Nicole Kidman) after the death of Richard Stoker, father and husband respectively, until their discovery of Charlie, Richard's brother, who was unknown to them until his mysterious introduction at his brother's funeral. Charismatic and handsome, it is not long before he charms the widow and takes an interest in the moody and resistant India. The resultant tension between the three is unremittingly taut and marvellously underplayed by Matthew Goode, Kidman and Wasikowska. They each play off the other like dark mirrors, reflecting secrets too disturbing to make out. In particular the creepy relationship between India and Charlie which becomes more and more twisted throughout the film is conveyed with mesmeric control by Goode and Wasikowska, both of them conveyors of an unsettling, unblinking gaze as the one figures out the other.
Park's unique direction perfectly compliments the increasingly perverted series of events which transpire around the Stokers. The transitions between sequences and the inter-conectedness of scenes are masterfully orchestrated, and interwoven with a magnificent use of sound. Out of so many outstanding sequences the scene in which India delves into Charlie's belongings while a metronome ticks on is a masterclass in tension building. Very few directors approach the command or appreciation for each frame that Park seems to have, who infuses the film with a plethora of imagery Freud would have written an essay on. If Park's vampiric Thirst oozed blood, Stoker oozes symbolism and a very sly gamut of sexual suggestibility that remains on the side of disturbing rather than black comedy. It is extremely stylised, but that only works in its favour as the incredible visuals work in tandem with the realisation of how deep the rot in the Stoker family goes.
Stoker is arguably the most impressive of Park's filmography which includes the brilliant Oldboy; it's a mesmerising display of direction, with three superb, haunting performances of a family poisoned at the root.
Sunday, 3 February 2013
To portray an historical figure as hallowed and significant as the 16th President of America, Abraham Lincoln, would seem to be the most monumental of all Presidential biopics. To bring to life the greatest symbol of American democracy is a daunting feat, even for a director as accomplished in historical film-making as Steven Spielberg. But when Daniel Day Lewis is your President Lincoln, you can be assured that the President will be monumental even if the film is not. Lincoln is masterful on both counts - a magnificent performance and painstaking, sensitive film-making in perfect compliment to each other.
Lincoln takes as its crux in Lincoln's life and Presidency the pivotal crisis over the drive to pass the 13th amendment at a critical juncture in the American Civil War. Persevering with the 13th Amendment was seen as both a suicidal political gamble and dangerous to the war effort among Lincoln's fellow Republicans, but through a combination of indefatigable political will and cunning machinations in Congress, Lincoln remarkably secured the votes from the opposing Democrat party to pass the Amendment and demonstrate political bipartisanship - a glaring phenomenon in today's American Congress. The film follows the various stresses on Lincoln's life and the extreme measures necessary to secure one of the most groundbreaking democratic principles in the US Constitution, brilliantly conveying the level of sacrifice Lincoln endured for the future of a nation. Spielberg captures the magnitude of the man magnificently, filming Day Lewis' Lincoln from angles accentuating the symbolic stature of a man who was also physically statuesque, at times observing him in unmoving silhouette, at other times close up on his face to recreate the intimacy of persuasion Lincoln encouraged in his listeners. Scenes are pervaded with an air of history about them through wonderful lighting and shot composition and although not as visually striking as Spielberg's other works it matches perfectly to both the grandeur of Congress and the couched politicking going on behind the scenes.
There is dryness at times and the film moves at a deliberate, ponderous pace, but whenever Daniel Day Lewis is on screen it's impossible to take your eyes off his absolutely marvelous imagination of the silver tongued, powerfully willed Lincoln. Every word counts when it falls from his mouth, whether he is casually sharing an anecdote with the soldiers fighting for him or thunderously commanding his congressmen to secure the necessary democratic votes, he is at once the father of American politics, the avuncular storyteller and brother to the common man - simply put Day Lewis is indescribably brilliant in the role. He's also backed by an outstanding cast. Tommy Lee Jones is fantastically entertaining as the sparring anti-slavery politician Thaddeus Stevens, his blustery, vehement eloquence an antithesis to the softer but no less inspiring gravitas of Lincoln's rhetoric, and whose reaction to the passing of the 13th amendment is a wonderfully nuanced moment in the film. Forced to restrain his fiery attacks on slavery, Stevens' political compromise was an example of the sacrifice men endured to eradicate the great evil of human subjugation. Sally Fields and Joseph Gordon Levitt are strong respectively as Lincoln's wife and son, and despite carrying the burden of playing the more melodramatic side of the film, act to convey the stress and strain on Lincoln's domestic life as he struggles with his wife's mental struggles and his son's headstrong determination to enlist in the war effort.
Lincoln is an important film, in addition to being another landmark in Spielberg's considerable oeuvre of cinema. It is a memorial to the will of men who saw injustice and were willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure that all men are born equal, and should inspire people to do the same in the present day. Atop it all is a towering performance by Daniel Day Lewis as both man and symbol, the embodiment of American history. Sure, the success of Lincoln at Oscar will be drawn up to national pride, but when the performance is that good, who is to argue with the man who has played a President?
Saturday, 1 December 2012
William Friedkin heaped praise on this film calling it 'maybe the best cop movie ever made', and I can understand why. As far as cop movies go, End of Watch is a fantastically entertaining 2 hours with a sharp script, extremely visceral action and two outstanding performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two patrol cops who get embroiled in the violent struggle with a Mexican drug cartel in L.A. It's filmed to give the maximum impression of realism, using POV and documentary style camera angles which double up as a narrative device as Gyllenhaal's Brian Taylor records their daily watch, and also works to show the cockiness and bravado of two cops who initially don't treat their work that seriously. But as the film progresses they both realise the danger of their profession and the possibility of either man dying in the field as they uncover the increasingly disturbing and macabre activities the Mexican gangs are into - after saving three children in a house fire neither man feels a hero, just more mortal than before. What elevates End of Watch above other cop movies is the excellent character development of Taylor and Zavala and an incredibly naturalistic partnership between Gyllenhaal and Pena. Whether they're bantering about Mexican versus White culture (some of the funniest exchanges I've heard at the cinema all year), discussing Taylor's love life, or covering each other in a gunfight, their rapport is engaging and instantly believable. Even if the film appears to wander at points, Gyllenhaal and Pena both turn out powerful performances which would be Oscar worthy in the right kind of film. It does appear to run out of steam towards the end, where I thought it would be slightly less predictable - I thought they would expand on the subplot where Taylor and Zavala are warned by shady government ops not to interfere with the cartel investigations - but nevertheless the film works on the strength of the dynamic between the two men.
Tuesday, 6 November 2012
As both character and franchise, James Bond's cinematic legacy is one of the most famous and quite potentially infinite, at this point in time. The problem with the series before Casino Royale and Daniel Craig's gritty interpretation of Bond, was the non-sequitur approach to the character, as multiple actors took on the role but with little reference to the films that preceded. In other words, there was a lack of character development from film to film. But with Skyfall, importantly the character, as much as the franchise, is as strong and assured as Bond's first iteration onscreen - it began with the vital reboot of Casino Royale, breathing life into an exhausted icon, and now over the latest three films it's been a demonstration to future Bond directors on how to (re)build a character, and make him compelling again. By really persevering with a strong narrative arc through the current chapter of the series, it ensures the core of what makes the character great will be preserved for a long time yet.
What Skyfall does so well is to combine the new, more reflective direction the series has taken with the sense of fantastical adventure which mainly characterised the Roger Moore years of Bond. Former Bonds and tropes are riffed on with Bond referencing Moore's famous crocodile stunt in Live and Let Die, and Ben Whishaw's Q douses Bond's mock enthusiasm for exploding pens by offering him a radio instead. There's a great sense of abandon that was lacking in the somber Quantum of Solace, and of the three films Craig clearly seems to be at ease with the more mischievous side of the character.
Simultaneously, the film shows an intelligent self-reflexivenesss about the existence of Bond in an era of techno-terrorism, delving into the politics and relevance of the secret service when the terrorists are constantly one step ahead - a post modern approach to Bond, if you will. Where the Bond of old would take his mission briefing, share a witty exchange with Moneypenny and fly off to kill Dr Evil, Craig's Bond is a barely stable, ageing rogue, resentful of the executives above and aware of his role as a government trigger. It's in the questioning of the Bond formula that distinguishes Craig's Bond films from previous ones, as Judi Dench's M makes a decision that almost kills Bond and is forced to retire, replaced by Ralph Fiennes' Mallory. For the first time I can remember in any Bond film, M faces a tribunal to explain the loss of government records of secret agents around the world, based familiarly on the mishaps of current goverments losing precious national records. Whereas this might have been a little dry and time consuming, the machinations behind the scenes at MI6 are genuinely compelling, mirroring the sense of archaism in MI6 with Bond, which the film knowingly acknowledges as a character with the sensibilities of times past.
Producing his finest performance as Bond, Craig gives 007 an unfamiliar dimension of melancholia. For the first time in the series James Bond visits the place of his birth in Scotland, adding a shift of tone to the film which distinguishes Skyfall from its predecessors. Craig plays it with brilliant control, conveying the look of a man who is emotionally exhausted, but with an edge of resentment towards M, and the organisation who took an orphan and created a government agent. As a two hander between Craig and Dench, the final act is highly moving, their reluctant mother-son relationship paid off with a peaceful farewell.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Javier Bardem's Silva is a marvellously conceived, darkly funny antagonist, and easily enters the pantheon of great Bond villains. Extremely self-assured, and a sideways, leering smile constantly animating his face, Bardem is a scene stealing presence, his character nonetheless motivated by a seething desire for revenge against M. As it transpires, Silva was a former agent for MI6 abandoned by M in a pragmatic trade off which spared others' lives in sacrifice of his - which in a genial stroke of writing is the exact decision M makes at the start of the film, resulting in the near death of Bond. It's a brilliant idea to make Silva the flip-side of Bond, who is every bit the equal of 007 but oppositely working to subvert the organisation that betrayed him. His entrance is fantastic, as he slowly approaches Bond center screen in a wide long shot into a close up, and gets uncomfortably intimate in a scene of homo-eroticism you would never imagine in a Bond film 30 years ago, toying with the hyper-masculine Bond. It's a tense, but deeply humorous scene and from then on Bardem is superb to watch.
Behind Skyfall's excellence is Sam Mendes; the difference when the series employs a brilliant director - not to mention the masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins - is strongly apparent. The film is superbly shot, the action crisply and excitingly edited, and as ever with Mendes he knows exactly how to string together and balance action with subtle drama. For the majority of Bond films I cannot honestly name each individual director, but Mendes style is unmistakeable and seems to work perfectly for Skyfall's story - the shot composition in the final showdown at Bond's farmhouse in Scotland is breathtaking. As with American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Road to Perdition, the subtlety in Mendes' direction is perfect for the emotional conclusion of the film.
Skyfall is the high point of the Craig years, and continues the revivification of Bond which began with Casino Royale. Exhilarating action with compelling human drama and a sly referencing of the Bond canon, along with superb central performances and a brilliant Bond villain ensure it shoots right up there as one of 007's finest mission outings.
Saturday, 27 October 2012
With each rewatch the weak special effects are not any less jarring, but this is still a bold, relentlessly bleak horror where the real terrors are located more with the nature of humanity than the creatures brought by the mist enveloping the town. Early on the film's B-movie feel - a blood covered survivor runs in proclaiming 'something out there, in the mist!' like an RKO movie tagline - gives the impression of a monster movie with a siege setting like Hitchcock's The Birds, but this is belied by its pessimistic view of society, as the survivors gradually split into two groups, one of them led by Thomas Jane's David, the other by the frighteningly zealous, Christian doomsayer Mrs Carmody, played by a brilliant Marcia Gay Haden. I don't think a character has ever made me say 'fuck yeah' for someone's death with more conviction than when Toby Jones shoots her in the head, but the really disturbing thing is I can imagine there are some people in this world like her. It's a film which really doesn't pull its punches, not just in regard to its much discussed, depressing ending, but in its depiction of religious mob justice, as one of the soldiers is murdered by Carmody's crowd of converts. Thomas Jane is strong in the lead as the father-with-son who leads the band of sane survivors, and Tony Jones is his ever reliable self as the store clerk who knows how to handle a gun, although the boy who plays the son is a fucking whiny sissy boy who seems to be crying every other scene. Although the effects do let it down at times and the creatures are for the most part forgettable, Darabont nonetheless builds tension expertly at the right moments and keeps the atmosphere of human paranoia strong.
Sunday, 21 October 2012
Its predecessor 28 Days Later reinvigorated the zombie horror subgenre, re-animating (give me one pun) the deceased as rabid, frenzied creatures instead of the lumbering incarnations of George Romero's zombie series. Other films such as REC latched on to this re-imagining of the zombie in modern horror to great effect, with Danny Boyle's 2002 original used as the blueprint for the walking dead. 28 Weeks Later picks up where the infected zone, Great Britain, has finally isolated and contained the contagion and begun to reconstruct after the nationwide mayhem brought on by the virus. London is now a militarised zone, governed by American forces. However, the events of the prologue, in which Robert Carlysle's character leaves his wife for the infected in the farmhouse they were hiding in, come back to haunt him as his wife reappears, found by her children in an abandoned house. She hasn't transformed, but is a carrier, valuable to Rose Bryne's army doctor for potentially developing a vaccine. Don visits her in quarantine but is infected by her, rapidly turning into an infected and killing her brutally. Moments later quarantine is broken and the infection spreads once again, and the military mobilises, implementing code red - killing without discrimination, infected or human.
As with 28 Days Later the direction and editing is frantic, ably continued by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and there are some impressive uses of sweeping long shots, for example in the prologue as Carlysle's Don escapes from the horde of infected, and a fantastically gory set piece in which masses of infected are wiped out by a helicopter blade. The London setting lends a greater sense of scale to the expansion of the contamination and when Code Red is invoked an extra dimension is added for the band of survivors as they have to avoid both the infected and the military. The survivors this time comprise the ever reliable Jeremy Renner (adding to his roster of military tough guys) as a deserting sniper, Rose Bryne's army medic, and Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton as the brother and sister who have had both parents taken by the Rage virus. So the plot focuses on the survival of the two siblings and Byrne's Scarlet as their protector, but compared to the previous film it is much more straightforward as a result, with character development secondary to the tension of the escape. The subplot of the infected Don chasing his children through London is also an overstretched plot point - does it suggest that he retained some memory of his family despite the transformation? It doesn't make complete sense. Overall however, 28 Weeks Later is an effective thriller and a worthy sequel which leaves its conclusion suitably open for another instalment, with the possibility that the children carry the key to a vaccine; but also an even more apocalyptic - global - contagion to destroy.