Tuesday, 31 December 2013

All is Lost Review

As a result of the critical success of The Artist, we have seen some daring and spectacular projects of scripts with limited dialogue. Ang Lee's Life of Pi was basically a boy on a boat talking to a tiger with little verbal sparring after their ship capsizes. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity has two characters drifting alone in space with limited conversational communication. Both films proved to be both a critical and commercial success and The Artist Effect may have paved their way to box office glory.

So, All is Lost. One man in a boat - no back story, no people, (virtually) no dialogue and no unnecessary exposition - just one man against the elements and what a gripping story it is. 

Robert Redford plays an unnamed yachtsman deep in a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean when he is hit by catastrophe. Why he is there is not explained but that is not important. What follows is an epic struggle for survival between man and the elements. Fans of Robert Redford will be shocked by his aging good looks and this is accentuated by the sheer physicality of the role, which makes you wonder whether he is too old for the part, but Redford carries it off with aplomb. You'll be blowing hard with him as he lifts, climbs, carries, pushes and pulls his way around the boat. For a man three years shy of his 80th birthday, Redford shows that he is still supremely fit. 

This film is 106 minutes long with no dialogue, no backstory and one person. How did it hold the attention of me and the entire cinema? The real answer is Robert Redford. At age 77, his screen presence is remarkable. Having never been a "showy" actor, his performance and this movie depend on facial expressions, his body language, and mostly his ability to connect with an audience immediately. Technically, the movie is exceptional, especially in sound design and in creating a terrifying and believable situation. If the academy doesn't come knocking with a nomination I will be very surprised. 

The director, J.C. Chandor, is fast developing a reputation for lean, mean electrifying storytelling and like his first film, Margin Call, another fat free but thrilling examination of the demise of Wall St, All is Lost wastes no time in telling a simple story with skill, verve and edge-of-your-seat tension. What Jaws did for sharks this film will do for sailing. The underwater shots reminds you of the best cinematography of the BBC's finest wildlife documentaries and the camera work of the boat beset by storms are nothing short of miraculous and astonishingly, seemingly free from CGI effects. It really is a phenomenal piece of work. JC Chandor isn't just a director, he's an artist - and an artist of the top level.

The script, also penned by Chandor, stays away from many of the usual clich├ęs and easy jump scares or moments of awe that would be easily picked from the Stereotype Tree by a less confident director. The story is not fed to its audience with narration or a man talking to himself to education the audience on his thought process. Instead, All is Lost trusts that the audience will be able to understand the decisions and actions of the protagonist and in this venture the film succeeds admirably.

With both Gravity and Life of Pi both garnering critical acclaim and money at the box-office, the fact that All is Lost not only deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as them - but also betters them - is astounding considering the budget for this is $9,000,000 compared to Gravity's $100,000,000 and Life of Pi's $120,000,000 respectively. 

This is an instance of successful storytelling in its most stripped down form; put the protagonist up a tree (or in an ocean) and throw things at him. And the fact that Chandor strips away every unnecessary detail about this man (we don't even get his name) All Is Lost becomes a story about pure survival for survivals sake. And isn't that the ultimate form of raising the stakes?


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

Sometimes the lines between reality and fantasy is blurred. In the moment, daydreams can feel like real life. Such is the existence of Walter Mitty, the milquetoast main character of James Thurber's 1939 "New Yorker" short story. 

Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, the fat dude from Two and a Half Men (when it got shit) and Adam Scott. On the surface, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looks like a comedy. However, if you go deeper in, it's far from it. It's a drama with some funny moments. Sometimes it's funny, most of the time it's not. However, most of the time it nails the drama. It's poignant, sincere and sentimental. 

The film is about a day-dreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. This is where the first problem arises. Firstly, it fills like filler. It's actually getting in the way of the story. I was desperate to get along with the story and by the first couple of 'fantasies' it just gets boring. One, for example, goes on for about five minutes and it's almost exactly the same as Peter Griffin fighting the chicken in Family Guy. It was dull. Also, the film is just too ambiguous. I didn't have a clue if what I was seeing on screen was a Walter fantasy or not. 

The film would have been much better if they toned it down a little OR ramped it up and made them interesting. After all, it's a good trick and could have worked really well. It just didn't do enough to make them interesting and halfway through they dropped them like a bad habit. Unfortunately, it wedged itself between the two and didn't really work. 

Steve Conrad's script is a jumbled farce, misfiring on comedic executions and inserting beats that have no real relevance to the story. A "Benjamin Button" joke, though funny to watch, provides no purpose to our tale. I'm also tired of watching the "nerdy office guy" transform himself into the cool and collected man by film's end. Note to filmmakers, just because your main character is in a shirt and tie at the beginning of the movie, you can't just let them grow a beard, put on a sweater and jeans, and suddenly the audience is supposed to believe he's this "new person."

Despite this, I actually vaguely enjoyed it. Sure it had flaws, but to the right person, this movie is life-changing, life-affirming, and truly beautiful. No, the narrative isn't perfect. The script isn't perfect. There are narrative flaws and stretches of the imagination, but this movie is about stretching the imagination. 

Ben Stiller is perfect as Walter Mitty. His performance was exactly what I wanted. His performance was so engaging, a nice break from his usual slapstick roles (which I also love). If you are hoping to see him doing one of his usual humorous roles, you will be disappointed. If you want to see him capturing the emotions of a man that has a hard time expressing himself, you will love this movie.

The entire camera work by Stuart Dryburgh, most notable for his work on Jane Campion's The Piano twenty years ago, is smoothly appealing with stunning shots for the audience to sink their teeth into. As the film travels throughout different parts of the world including Iceland and Greenland, two places that haven't been explored that much in film are stunning. We have to give credit to director Stiller who knows how to frame his films exceedingly well. There are elements where he takes his cues from films like Stranger than Fiction and Garden State. At the press conference he mentioned watching The Apartment with the cast in order to get a feel for what he wanted this sprawling epic to feel like.

I can appreciate the respect and passion that Stiller has for the source material and more times than not, the film is entertaining. Mass audiences will probably fall for it in a big way especially around the holidays. One does wonder whether the audience will be impressed, however. I don't think this is the film mass audiences will be expected. 

From the looks of it, the film is going to be incredibly divisive. Some will love it, others will be disappointed. I unfortunately fall right down the middle. I can both agree with both sides of table.

Enjoyable enough.  


Sunday, 8 December 2013

Nebraska Review

Time is a peculiar yet universally felt concept whose effects can be seen in its numerous consequences either through the obvious traits of aging or the far more subtle and subjectively felt intangibles such as regret. In the heart of the Midwest there are depressingly poetic examples of this thoroughly felt concept of time how the vast stretches of what appears to be infinite plains of nothing are filled with monuments of ruin either in the ghost town cities or the deserted farmland all of which are consequences of economic hardship and familial anchors.

Nebraska clearly resembles previous films that have captured the distinct American spirit and eccentric characters of the parched Midwest, including Peter Bogdonovich's The Last Picture Show and David Lynch's oddly accessible The Straight Story, but remains uniquely an Alexander Payne film containing his penchant for mixing whimsically dry humor with poignant humanity. To me, however, this film heavily reminded me of the work of the Coen Brothers, particularly Fargo - no bad thing at all.

That precise quality of Nebraska is why I was so drawn in (along with the excellent black and white photography); its lack of milking its story for emotions. It has the very ingredients to make a person cry from the senile father who never really was one to his children, the broken family, and the unremarkable rural life that seemingly offers no hope outside of a desolate landscape. However, just like Woody, the film looks on the brighter side of life, optimistic about the peculiar instances and finding solace in a practical adventure. It doesn't have time to waste on sappy musical cues and actors phoning in emotion; it's much too concerned for articulating the characters and the adventure at hand.  

This is a very funny movie with some poignant statements to make about aging, familial relationships, and the past's influence on the present. In that way, Nebraska is just like director Payne's other road-trip movies. But Nebraska is its own story with an entirely different take on these topics.

The central relationship between Dern's stubbornly gullible dad and Forte's passively irritated son gradually deepens as the movie makes its way through middle America. What makes the film such a delight to watch are the individuality of its characters. Each one is fun to watch in their own right; the father's relentless determination, the mother's humorous outbursts, and the son's sympathy and desire to bond with his father. Nebraska reaches an emotional conclusion that echoes of About Schmidt and The Descendants with an underlying sense of lives largely squandered, but handled with grace and finesse that feels innately genuine.

Bruce Dern gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a lifelong alcoholic who has escaped inside himself, a man out of touch and seemingly untouched by any events around him. As the outspoken Kate, June Squibb is absolutely hilarious - always yelling at Woody, threatening to put him in a home, complaining about him, but just don't let anybody take advantage of him, or you'll have to deal with her.

Nebraska is an engaging, humorous, and sweet amalgamation of Payne's previous works where the road trip element of Sideways meets the intimate family dynamic of The Descendants it's definitely a transition film for the quirky storyteller as it embraces a far more poetic and humanist side to the director's incredibly heartfelt style of filmmaking. It's difficult to say where exactly Nebraska will fall in Payne's established film canon but as it stands on its own it's a deeply lyrical reflection on the loss of time and a credible affirmation on the long enduring existence of hope.


Saturday, 7 December 2013

Saving Mr Banks Review

Nostalgia. It's the reason I loved Super 8 despite many flaws, and the reason I HATED Spiderman 3 (for good reason). 

Beautifully ambitious and eagerly constructed, the success of Walt Disney Studios' homage to its heritage is anchored magnificently by the crowning work of Emma Thompson's career. John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks is a tenderly affectionate tale featuring one of the year's finest ensembles. Following a classic three act structure, when the film begins, it undoubtedly lifts off and hooks you almost immediately. There's no denying the glamour, chemistry, and witchery that the film sets on you. Saving Mr. Banks is feverishly delightful.

In 1961, Walt Disney invited P.L Travers, the author of "Mary Poppins", to his California studios to discuss the possibility of acquiring the rights to her book - a discussion that Mr. Disney had initially sparked twenty years prior. For those two decades, the proud author refused to depart with her precious work in fear of Hollywood's mutilation of it and repeatedly told Mr. Persistent to go 'fly a kite… up to the highest heights'. However, when sales of her book begin to dwindle and with a rough economic climate ahead, Travers reluctantly agreed to travel across the Atlantic to hear what the impresario had to say. This untold backstory of how Travers' classic work of literature made it to the big screen provides the substance for John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks

Here, we have an American icon that plays an American icon. Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks delivers extraordinary sense of character as he renders Mr. Walt Disney with expert attention to detail. "There's a lot of voice work, the way he walks, the body positions, the way he holds his hands, the way he touches his moustache. How he phrases things and lets sentences roll off the end", Hancock remarks - and so Tom Hanks becomes the public face for Walt Disney and we learn of the man behind the mask (with two fluffy ears).

As good as Hanks is, however, he's just a bit too nice. Come on, we all know that Walt Disney was an arsehole, but here he's portrayed as a loveable sap who's just doing this for his children. I wanted just a bit more manipulation and, most importantly, I wanted him to chain smoke and drink every scene he's in. That pretty much is what makes Disney, Disney. It's very cynical from Disney and very conglomerate to hide the facts about their man. I felt a bit cheated. 

As an unbridled, even at times downright vicious P.L. Travers, Thompson hasn't pursued and thrived in a character of such complexities since James Ivory directed her to an Oscar in Howard's End over twenty years ago. Travers' mannerisms and moral guidelines are captured charmingly by the creative team. Thompson and director Hancock clearly worked closely together to nail the nuance of the central character's focus. She buries herself in the time, and that of designer Daniel Orlandi's stunning costume work, to be the perfect entity of a fruitful tale. Playing the young Travers, Annie Rose Buckley is cute as a button and has some real juicy moments to sink her teeth into.

Marcel and Smith's script is pure gold. There is such a dynamic and balance of charming and witty comedy tied in with heart wrenching and polarizing drama. Their assembling of the movie era, capturing subtle inequities of the business, and painting a magical story, will likely stand as one of the screenplays of the year. There is a heavy yet almost invisible component of layered despondency that the two writers choose to include that make the film truly sing.

Where the film slightly missteps is in the way that John Lee Hancock chooses to execute throughout. "Banks" essentially tells two stories. One of the present time during the production of "Mary Poppins" and the other of P.L. Travers' childhood. Hancock chooses to tell these two stories simultaneously, awkwardly transitioning from one time period to the other, and ripping us away from the story we're desperately invested in. In many ways, his direction will be seen in the same reactionary split of Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. There will be some, likely many, that will have no problem with his bumbling alterations in certain scenes and there will be some, like myself, that sees that he's still has a long way to go. Not gunning him down as a complete disaster, he has about three instances where the potential and vision are clearly realized. Hancock knows how to tug at the heartstrings. 

When a scene works, it really, really works. Pretty much perfectly. He accomplishes it with the utmost confidence and brilliant demeanor. A tightly paced and pivotal scene involving the song "A British Bank" showcases Hancock's best varieties, and also that of co-star Colin Farrell, although his Australian accent was non-existent and he didn't seem to want to act until the middle of the film.  

For my money, everything connects and rises during the creation of "Let's Go and Fly a Kite." The cast comes together and unifies in such a harmonious fashion and Hancock chooses to utilize all the supporting players including that of the wonderful Bradley Whitford, the witty BJ Novak, and in his best turn yet, Jason Schwartzman. Hancock operates these three men in an ingenious method. Paul Giamatti is a compassionate force, especially in his exchanges with Thompson while Ruth Wilson makes me absolutely adore the ground in which she walks.

It made me laugh, it made me cry and it certainly brought back memories. I enjoyed it very much. It's a wonderfully charming film and, for me, it shows the pure brilliance of Mary Poppins. The cast is wonderful, the music is obviously incredible and the script is near perfect, but it's the themes that are nailed on tightly and breathtakingly.


Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Trailer: My Thoughts

Despite many thinking it was pointless, I genuinely liked The Amazing Spider-Man. I thought it did great things that the original trilogy did badly and it was a faithful interpretation of Spider-Man. The only thing that was holding it back was the fact it retold the origin story that EVERYONE already knows. Now that that's over with, I'm pretty excited for the sequel.

After the trailer, I'm still excited - if a bit skeptical.

The sequel introduces Dane DeHaan in the role of Harry Osborne, of course made famous by James Franco. No pressure, Dane. By the look of this trailer, he looks absolutely fantastic. We know he can do crazy and sadistic from his turn in Chronicle and that's exactly what it looks like we're getting. It's very, very welcome. AND THAT HAIR IS OUTSTANDINGLY BAD/GOOD. 

On the note of casting, I have to say I've been very impressed with the casting for both of these films. Chris Cooper looks like a welcome addition to play deathbed Norman Osborne. We know he can do evil and from that trailer he looks the part. Jamie Foxx also looks like he'll make a good Electro. As an admirer of Foxx's work for many years, I'm exciting that he's ventured into comic-book baddie.

I'm also quite excited that the film seems to be delving deeper into Peter's parents back story. It has so much potential. It's a clever way of linking Peter with Oscorp, but there's also a lot of different ways they could go with it. I'd love it if they went do the route of Peter's parents being accused of being Russian spy's. That'd be a really nice route.

However, it could easily be bad. It looks like it's trying to pack too much into it, once again. In this trailer alone we've seen Rhino, Green Goblin, Electro, Doc Ock's arms and Vulture's wings. Remember the last time you had so much going on Sony? That's right, Spiderman 3. Please don't do that again. PLEASE.

On that note, though, The Sinister Six would be amazing if done right, and it certainly looks like we're getting it. The little hint at Doc Ock and Vulture was nice, I just hope they're not in this film and it's just a hint for the sequels. The Sinister Six is an exciting arc to explore, does this mean we'll also see The Kingpin? I certainly hope so.

ELECTRO, RHINO, DOC OCK, VULTURE, GREEN GOBLIN: It had everything, but maybe a little too much? We'll have to wait and see... I, frankly, can't wait.