Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Best and Worst of 2010

Best Film

1 – Mother
I can't think of another filmmaker who handles drastic tonal shifts with such adroitness and confidence.
2 – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
I've seen it twice now and on both occasions I have been moved in different ways by the picture
3 – Still Walking
Still Walking is a film filled with a sense of loss, but Kore-Eda finds a pitch-perfect balance between sadness, humour and joy
4 – Dogtooth
A shockingly brilliant and completely original piece of work that confounds every expectation
5 – Toy Story 3
Made with incredible love, care and attention, Toy Story 3 is the climax this series deserves
6 – The Father of My Children
So many scenes here are handled with a delicacy and insight that moved me to tears
7 – The Social Network
The Social Network is one of the most purely entertaining and stimulating movies of the year
8 – Carlos
A ceaselessly invigorating cinematic spectacle
9 – Mary & Max
A beautiful, imaginative and deeply moving achievement
10 – Enter the Void
Enter the Void is the most staggering display of filmmaking technique I have seen for a long time

Honourable Mentions
Another Year
Certified Copy
The Maid
Please Give
Shutter Island
Winter's Bone


1 - Alice in Wonderland
The only curious aspect of this misfire is how the filmmakers have managed to get everything so fundamentally wrong
2 - TRON: Legacy
There's nothing inventive or imaginative under the surface of this unspeakably boring update
3 - The Wolfman
A mongrel of a film
4 - Gulliver's Travels
An all-too-familiar slapdash assemblage of tired gags, haphazard plotting and phoned-in performances
5 - The A-Team
A crushingly boring cinematic experience
6 - Death at a Funeral
A tiresome retread of a movie that wasn't any good in the first place
7 - Dinner for Schmucks
The dinner may be for schmucks, but does the movie have to be made for idiots?
8 - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
I found it impossible to maintain any interest in the film as it crawled towards its meaningless conclusion
9 - The Lovely Bones
The film gets worse with every passing minute
10 - Legion
A baffling action film with biblical pretensions that ultimately works best as an unintentional comedy

Dishonourable Mentions
Cemetery Junction
Despicable Me
Edge of Darkness
Knight and Day
Love and Other Drugs
Whatever Works

Best Director

1 - Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2 - Bong Joon-ho – Mother
3 - Giorgos Lanthimos – Dogtooth
4 - Olivier Assayas – Carlos
5 - Gaspar Noé – Enter the Void

Best Actor

1 - Édgar Ramírez - Carlos
2 - Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
3 - Eric Elmosnino - Gainsbourg
4 - Louis-Do de Lencquesaing - The Father of My Children
5 - Jim Carrey - I Love You Phillip Morris
6 - Philip Seymour Hoffman - Mary & Max
7 - Nicolas Cage - Bad Lieutenant
8 - Tahar Rahim - A Prophet
9 - Casey Affleck - The Killer Inside Me
10 - Colin Farrell - Ondine

Best Actress

1 - Kim Hye-ja - Mother
2 - Sylvie Testud - Lourdes
3 - Juliette Binoche - Certified Copy
4 - Aggeliki Papoulia - Dogtooth
5 - Tilda Swinton - I Am Love
6 - Catalina Saavedra - The Maid
7 - María Onetto - The Headless Woman
8 - Noomi Rapace - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
9 - Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
10 - Lesley Manville - Another Year

Best Supporting Actor

1 - Niels Arestrup - A Prophet
2 - Christos Stergioglou - Dogtooth
3 - John Hawkes - Winter's Bone
4 - Andrew Garfield - The Social Network
5 - Oliver Platt - Please Give
6 - Doug Jones - Gainsbourg
7 - Colin Farrell - The Way Back
8 - Ned Beatty - Toy Story 3
9 - Yoshio Harada - Still Walking
10 - Alexander Scheer - Carlos

Best Supporting Actress

1 - Dale Dickey - Winter's Bone
2 - Tamsin Greig - Tamara Drewe
3 - Alice de Lencquesaing - The Father of My Children
4 - Nora von Waldstätten - Carlos
5 - Marcia Gay Harden - Whip It
6 - Olivia Williams - The Ghost Writer
7 - Delphine Chanéac - Splice
8 - Amanda Peet - Please Give
9 - Laetitia Casta - Gainsbourg
10 - Julia Hummer - Carlos

Best Original Screenplay

1 - Mother
2 - Still Walking
3 - Toy Story 3
4 - Please Give
5 - Mary & Max

Best Adapted Screenplay

1 - The Social Network
2 - Winter's Bone
3 - Shutter Island
4 - The Illusionist
5 - Whip It

Best Cinematography

1 - Enter the Void
2 - Tetro
3 - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
4 - Dogtooth
5 - Another Year

Best Editing

1 - Mother
2 - The Social Network
3 - Toy Story 3
4 - Enter the Void
5 - Carlos

Best Score

1 - Mother
2 - The Social Network
3 - I Am Love
4 - Mary & Max
5 - Still Walking

Best Costume Design

1 - Carlos
2 - Gainsbourg
3 - Black Dynamite
4 - The Social Network
5 - Agora

Best Production Design

1 - Enter the Void
2 - Shutter Island
3 - Monsters
4 - Inception
5 - Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Cinema Experience of the Year

1 - Peeping Tom at the Curzon Soho
A screening of a beautiful new print followed by an onstage discussion with Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Anna Massey and Columba Powell

2 - The Great White Silence at the Odeon West End
Herbert Ponting's record of Captain Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition, presented at the London Film Festival with a live score

3 - Metropolis at the NFT
The astonishing new reconstruction, finally allowing us to see the film in something like Lang's original vision

4 - The Leopard at the NFT
Luchino Visconti's masterpiece seen on the big screen for the first time

5 - Ugetsu Monogotari at the NFT
My first viewing of Kenji Mizoguchi's ghost story, which instantly became one of my favourite films

2010 In Review

Each December, as we look back at the 12 months that have passed us by, the same question arises: has this been a good or bad year for cinema? Well, that depends entirely on what you consider a 2010 film. After all, when I look at my own top ten list for the year, half of them were films I first saw in 2009, and one first appeared at the London Film Festival in 2008. The complex nature of film distribution means it's often hard to know what festival hits will receive a proper cinema run, and as I wait patiently for two favourites from LFF 2009 (Balibo and About Elly) to get the release they deserve, I have just heard that Lance Hammer's Ballast (for many, one of the films of 2008) will finally reach UK cinemas in February. So when I talk about the year in cinema it seems wise to restrict it to films that have been released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st, and on that basis, this has been a very good year indeed.

Of course, your perspective on the quality of a year's cinema depends entirely on how much you saw of it, and if you restricted your viewing to mainstream fare then you would have every reason to gripe about falling standards. It comes as little surprise that most of the films I hated this year were major studio releases, with so many of the year's biggest films feeling thrown together, with no thought given to plot, coherence or character, and driven by the belief that spectacle (often with shoddy 3D) will compensate for all sins. Alice in Wonderland, TRON: Legacy and Gulliver's Travels were guilty of this approach and all three ended up on my worst of the year list. It's not impossible for a 3D family entertainment to balance visual splendour with great storytelling – Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon and Tangled (a 2011 release in the UK) all managed it this year – but why do animated films so routinely succeed where live-action blockbusters frequently fail?

The only live-action big summer movie worth talking about was Christopher Nolan's Inception, and while I have problems with Nolan as a director, I'm pleased he's out there trying to make serious, ambitious films on a major scale, and that he's resisting 3D and pushing IMAX technology in the process. I enjoyed Inception as I watched it but the film doesn't linger in the memory, unlike the year's other film to feature a traumatised Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. One of the real delights of the year for me was seeing three of the great directors of the 70's – Scorsese, Polanski and Coppola – making films that showed they had lost none of their enthusiasm, skill or perceptiveness. In particular, it was a thrill to see Francis Ford Coppola producing the gorgeous, operatic and idiosyncratic Tetro, which is one of the year's most sadly overlooked pictures.

Aside from those pictures (and a few other gems, like Please Give and Winter's Bone), there's no doubt that the most exciting cinema in the world is being made outside America. My top three films of the year all originated from Asia, with Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Still Walking and Bong Joon-ho's Mother both managing to breathe fresh life into genre conventions, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul continues to ignore genre altogether and forge his own path. His Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives deservedly collected the Palme d'Or at Cannes and offered viewers a truly singular film experience. Such experiences are all too rare these days, but we were fortunate enough to have a few extraordinarily daring filmmakers pushing against the boundaries of convention in 2010. Giorgos Lanthimos presented us with the ultimate dysfunctional family in the dark and surreal fable Dogtooth, while Gaspar Noé gave us a mind-bending vision of life after death in Enter the Void, and Olivier Assayas kept us gripped for five and a half hours with his decades-spanning, multilingual epic Carlos.

The other key experiment that developed into a common cinematic theme this year was that of blurring the lines between documentary truth and narrative fiction. There was much debate surrounding the reality of I'm Still Here, the record of Joaquin Phoenix's year of living strangely, before Casey Affleck finally confessed that it was all a performance, but other filmmakers have been less easy to pin down. Is Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop a genuine street art documentary, or another one of the enigmatic artist's pranks? The makers of Catfish still maintain that everything we see in their film is occurring as it happened, but do you believe them? Other filmmakers have been much more open about the artificial techniques they have used, like Pedro González-Rubio, who built a fictional narrative around a real father and son in Alamar, or Clio Barnard, who hired actors to lip sync to real life testimonies in The Arbor.

The slippery nature of truth was also a key theme in one of the year's best pictures, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, which was 2010's most satisfying anomaly: a popular hit that is both entertaining and smart, and a film that deserves all of the prizes it will surely claim. Perhaps in years to come The Social Network will be seen as the film that defines 2010, but when I look back at the year, most of my memorable cinematic visits were to see older films on the big screen. I saw a brand new print of Peeping Tom and the reconstructed Metropolis; I experienced Visconti's The Leopard on the big screen and was thrilled by a nitrate print of Brighton Rock; I saw Mizoguchi's remarkable Ugetsu Monogotari for the first time and enjoyed The Red Shoes for the umpteenth time. When contemporary cinema disappointed me I could always take refuge in the great cinema of the past, often finding those films to be as impressive and relevant as anything being produced today. In the first weeks of 2011 I will be seeing Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century and DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and I'm looking forward to those cinematic visits more than any of January's new releases. So maybe the lesson here is that talk of 'good years' and 'bad years' is ultimately pointless as there are always bold, interesting films being made and there is always a vast wealth of cinema history to become reacquainted with or to experience for the first time. Depending on how adventurous you are in your film viewing, and how determined you are to seek out these special pieces of work, every year can be an exceptional year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review - The Way Back

Peter Weir is a great director, but The Way Back is not quite a great film. In his first film since 2003's magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Weir has taken it upon himself to tell a fantastic story, but while The Way Back has the bearing of an epic adventure, it sometimes struggles to bring its narrative to life. Nevertheless, this is a handsome piece of filmmaking, with Weir once again displaying his consummate craftsmanship, and the story it tells is astonishing, whether it's true or not. The film has been adapted in large part from Sławomir Rawicz's memoir The Long Walk, in which he claimed that he and a group of fellow prisoners escaped a Siberian gulag in 1941 and trekked 4,500 miles to freedom in India, but historical records show that Rawicz wasn't released until 1942. Did he invent the whole story, or did he steal a possibly apocryphal tale and make it his own?

Whatever the facts of the matter, this is an extraordinary yarn and one that merits the big screen treatment. The opening section of the picture skilfully immerses us into life in the gulag and introduces us to the key characters. Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a Pole convicted by spying after his wife, under torture, testified against him. He is sent to Siberia, where the guards warn the inmates that it's not the fences and the dogs keeping them imprisoned, but the unforgiving wilderness that surrounds them. The gulag is captured by Weir with a sharp eye for details, with the prisoners utilising whatever skills they possess to survive; an artist trades pornographic sketches, a storyteller recounts Treasure Island to fellow prisoners, while some – like thief Valka (Colin Farrell) – simply steal and kill to get what they need.

Although Janusz is the film's lead character, Valka is the most compelling protagonist, with Farrell delivering a lively and very engaging performance as the violent and staunchly loyal Stalinist who is allowed to join the escape party by virtue of possessing the only knife. The escape party Janusz eventually puts together is seven-strong, but my eye kept being drawn back to Farrell as he snarled away on the sidelines, and when the actor isn't on screen, the film really suffers for for his absence. Few of the other escapees really come to life as interesting, multi-dimensional characters, and so it's hard to be fully invested in their fates as they eventually succumb to the hardships of their journey. The film also has a real issue with pacing, which is perhaps understandable when you consider the challenge of compressing a year-long, 4,000 mile odyssey into a feature film. Some sections drag while other appear bafflingly curtailed, such as the group's trek across the Himalayas, which some viewers are in danger of missing completely if they pick that point to go to the toilet.

Having said all of that, The Way Back still holds the attention impressively well and Weir doesn't stint on showing us the pain and misery that these men endured as they slowly moved towards salvation. From sub-zero temperatures in Siberia to mirages in the desert, the film constantly reminds us of their hunger, their desperation, their swelling feet and blistered skin, as the increasingly ragged characters soldier on. When they find a source of food or water or a moment to rest their weary limbs, the sense of relief is palpable, and the arrival of Saoirse Ronan as a Polish refugee halfway through the picture is crucial, adding a fresh dimension to the group dynamic. This remarkably composed and confident young actress adds a sense of vulnerability to their band, and she shares some good scenes with Ed Harris, who is strong and understated as a grizzled American soldier.

It's the film's grand sweep that you'll remember afterwards, though. Russell Boyd, who won an Oscar for his camerawork on Master and Commander, takes advantage of the continent-traversing story to give us an extraordinarily rich variety of vistas, with the characters often being dwarfed by imposing mountain ranges or an endless desert. It's a feast for the eyes, and the rare contemporary film that recalls the work of David Lean, but I just wish it married the human story with the spectacle as successfully as Weir has done in the past. The Way Back is a striking and impressive tale of the human spirit triumphing over seemingly insurmountable odds, but we've come to expect more than this from Weir, and I certainly expected him to be above the kind of coda that gave us a potted history of communism before closing with such a silly, sappy climax.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Review - Gulliver's Travels

In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels as a fable that used a tale of fantasy and adventure to satirise the society he lived in. In 2010, 20th Century Fox produced Gulliver's Travels as a multi-million dollar 3D family blockbuster in which Jack Black fights a giant robot for no fucking reason whatsoever. How far we have come in almost 300 years, Swift might have mused, and while it may seem unfair to compare a mainstream family movie to a classic literary work, there's still something thoroughly dispiriting about this dreadful offering. There's no reason why a contemporary take on Gulliver's Travels couldn't have been an exciting, imaginative adventure, but that would have required some thought and effort on the part of the filmmakers. Instead we have an all-too-familiar slapdash assemblage of tired gags, haphazard plotting and phoned-in performances, with the film being irretrievably skewed by its need to fit the dubious talents of its leading man.

The biggest problem with Gulliver's Travels is Jack Black and how you respond to the film may depend largely on how you feel about his shtick, because that's all you're going to get from him here. He plays Lemuel Gulliver, another directionless slacker working a dead-end job in the mailroom of newspaper in New York. He has no aspirations beyond his current position, apart from a vague romantic longing for travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet). In a misguided attempt to win her affections, Gulliver applies for a vacancy in her department, and having convinced her of his talents by hastily plagiarising some online articles (Darcy, clearly, is pretty stupid), he is despatched to his first assignment: The Bermuda Triangle.

One splashy CGI storm later, Gulliver awakens on a beach to find himself pinned down my hundreds of tiny people. This is Lilliput, home of the miniature hordes who instantly make Gulliver a prisoner, only to later revere him as a hero when he puts out a fire (by pissing on the flames) and inadvertently defeats an invading army (the cannonballs bounce off his stomach and shatter their ships). Aside from a brief detour in Brobdingnag (where the roles are reversed and Gulliver finds himself trapped by a giant child), Lilliput is where the majority of the story takes place, but the paucity of ideas exhibited by the filmmakers as they try to milk some jokes out of his giant presence is pitiful. The tone is set very early on, when Gulliver falls backwards – arse crack exposed – and lands on an unfortunate Lilliputian. Much of the film's subsequent humour revolves around Gulliver using his real world knowledge to amaze the natives (he gets them to restage scenes from Star Wars and Titanic as scenes from his life), or uses the lyrics from Prince's Kiss to help lowly commoner Jason Segal woo princess Emily Blunt. These are not necessarily bad gags in themselves, but by the time the town of Lilliput is covered by billboards featuring Black recreating well-known posters (imaginatively renamed as Gulliver Chronicles and, er, Gavatar) any comical potential has been bludgeoned into the ground.

The film never displays a spark of life. Every actor (barring Chris O'Dowd, who at least tries to give a real performance) appears bored by the lines they are forced to repeat, with Emily Blunt barely attempting to disguise her disinterest. Above all, the increasingly ineffective Black seems completely bereft of inspiration, with his performance amounting to little more than a tired trawl through the expected motions – a few silly voices and some unnecessary bursts into song. The climax consists of Gulliver leading the Lilliputians in a rendition of War because...well, I suppose it's easier than writing a proper ending, and anyway, after the long fight sequence between Gulliver and Iron Man, Gulliver's Travels has already created the impression of a film that has forgotten what it was supposed to be about in the first place. That is, if anyone involved actually gave a shit about it in the first place.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review - Love and Other Drugs

Now that his name has become synonymous with explosive, message-driven action movies like Blood Diamond and Defiance, perhaps we can understand Edward Zwick's desire to try his hand at a few new genres, but did he really need to try them all in one movie? Love and Other Drugs never decides what kind of film it wants to be, and its indecision is crippling. The film wants to be a romantic comedy, as it charts the romance between arrogant Pfizer salesman Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and free-spirited artist Maggie (Anne Hathaway), but it also wants to be a raunchy farce in which Jamie's obnoxious brother (Josh Gad, an insufferable vortex of anti-comedy) is caught masturbating to his sibling's sex tape. There's no reason why such disparate elements shouldn't mesh, of course, but here they blend like oil and water, and matters are further complicated by the film's attempt to capture the essence of America's mid-90's economic boom, or the dark cloud of Maggie's worsening Parkinson's disease. Love and Other Drugs will do anything to get a laugh or jerk a tear, and its desperation is embarrassing.

The strain also shows in Gyllenhaal's performance, as he attempts to bring a laid-back charm and charisma to his cocksure character that seems to be beyond his abilities. Jamie is going nowhere until he finds his calling as a pharmaceutical salesman working for Pfizer, with his smooth talk allowing him to seduce his way past receptionists and into doctor's surgeries, where he sneakily deposits his own drug while swiping the opposition's. Such unscrupulous behaviour makes Jamie a perfect match for Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), who even allows him to be in the room while he examines Maggie's breast. Maggie, instead of complaining to the authorities and getting the doctor struck off for his behaviour, also eventually proves immune to Jamie's charms, and the pair are quickly enjoying a no-strings-attached relationship.

Inevitably, that 'just sex' affair starts to develop into something more, even as Maggie attempts to resist any deeper connection. She knows her condition is only going to worsen over time, and this knowledge has led to her cutting emotional ties, fearing a future in which she will be a liability for her partner or will inspire only his sympathy ("You are not a good person because you pity-fuck the sick girl" she shouts in one of the film's few effectively acerbic moments). This is interesting territory for a mainstream Hollywood romance to explore – how do you overcome such obstacles to forge a successful relationship? – and Hathaway strikes the right note in her portrayal of Maggie, refusing to overdo the tics associated with her illness or play the victim. Love and Other Drugs only explores these issues in the most superficial way, though, and while we might applaud the film for giving screen time to real Parkinson's sufferers and allowing them to tell their story, the effect of such moments is undermined by the countless misjudged sequences, some of which seem to exist in a different film altogether. In one such scene, Viagra salesman Jamie is forced to run from a party holding a pillow over his uncontrollable erection. It's an utterly juvenile sequence in a film that seems desperate to be viewed as adult and sophisticated, and indicative of the picture's identity crisis.

Perhaps we should end with a word on the nudity in Love and Other Drugs. Yes, Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are naked for many of their scenes together, and Zwick clearly wants to present this as a casual, relaxed approach to nudity and sexuality, but it doesn't seem so casual when the film's stars are drawing attention to it by appearing nude on magazine covers, or discussing it at length in the press. Once again, we sense a tension between the film Love and Other Drugs wants to be – daring, ribald and sexy – and the immature, timid attitude that sees it failing to loosen up, failing to commit to a particular style and tone, and furiously hedging its bets. There's probably material for three or four decent movies in here, each of which would appeal to a very different audience, but the one we've got is a sorry old mess.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review - Catfish

With The Social Network now having firmly established itself as one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and a prime contender for the end-of-year awards, there's a danger that Catfish will forever be known as 2010's 'other' Facebook movie. This would be an unfair designation, because while The Social Network is about many things, it's not really about Facebook, and certainly not in the way Catfish is. While Fincher and Sorkin used that site's origin story to spin a compelling narrative of greed, friendship and betrayal, Catfish actually engages with some of the complexities of social networking, and explores the way interacting through the internet has altered our notions of truth and relationships.

The film itself seems to blur the lines of truth in its storytelling, although those behind Catfish maintain that everything happened exactly as we are witnessing it. I have my doubts and suspicions, but this is a fascinating and brilliantly told story whatever way you look at it. It begins as the story of Nev Schulman, a photographer living in New York with his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost, the film's credited co-directors, whose cameras follow Nev as he strikes up a friendship with 8 year-old Abby Pierce. A remarkably gifted young artist from Michigan, Abby has produced paintings based on Nev's photography, which she saw online. Nev maintains a regular correspondence with Abby's mother Angela, who sends him prints of every work Abby produces, and soon a romance begins to develop between him and Abby's older sister Megan, even though they have never met. "She seems pretty awesome" Nev states, "at least, from Facebook."

All they know about this family is what they have been told over the phone or presented with online, so you won't be surprised to hear that nothing is exactly as it seems. The exact nature of those revelations should be kept under wraps, however, as one of the chief weapons in Catfish's arsenal is its element of surprise. Just when you think the film is veering into My Kid Could Paint That territory, it slips out of reach and develops into something much more complicated, and more troubling. The filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for the way they reveal their secrets at the right time and the manner in which they sustain the tension and intrigue as Nev slowly begins to have doubts about his new friends. The filmmakers may insist that we are watching the story unfold as it occurred in reality, but the manipulation involved, and the sense of clever filmmakers guiding the narrative, is evident. How much does this matter? Catfish is not the first film to blend the techniques of documentary and narrative storytelling, or to make claims for a story's veracity while knowing otherwise, but it is the nature of Catfish's truth that makes its final reveal such uncomfortable viewing, and leaves the filmmakers open to accusations of exploitation.

Personally, I found it incredibly riveting and ultimately quite moving, and perhaps the best film yet made about social connections in the internet age. The internet forms Catfish's whole aesthetic, with Google Maps charting the protagonists' progress (like the red lines across maps that indicated plane journeys in the Indiana Jones movies) and when they introduce a character, they do so by showing their Facebook profile picture, and hovering a cursor over it until their name appears. Nev begins to piece the mystery together using YouTube and Google Street View – it's like a very 21st century detective story, complete with its own mysterious femme fatale. Catfish is a film that needs to be watched with as little knowledge of its climax as possible – and I fear I've said too much already – so I'll close by simply stating that this film deserves to be seen and it deserves to be discussed. It is a one-of-a-kind picture that finds the perfect style to tell its story, and it leaves its audience with both nagging unanswered questions and a complex set of emotions to sift through. When a film is capable of making such an impact, does it matter whether it's truth or fiction?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review - TRON: Legacy

The original TRON was released in the same year I was born, and I hope I've aged a little better than the film has in the intervening 28 years. When I watched Steven Lisberger's sci-fi adventure recently in preparation for the release of its belated sequel, it appeared hopelessly dated, with the visual effects now looking very creaky, and the lack of a strong storyline or characters making for an empty and dull viewing experience. However, the film still possesses one memorable sequence, the light-cycle race, and at the very least, its then-groundbreaking attempt to engage with the newfangled world of computers has the feel of filmmakers trying to give their audience something new. TRON is not a good film, but it was a bold one with fresh ideas and a unique style, and that alone is enough to set the bar at a level that TRON: Legacy doesn't come close to reaching.

TRON: Legacy has no such ambitions. While no expense has been spared in ensuring the film looks as slick and polished as can be, there's nothing inventive or imaginative under the surface of this unspeakably boring update. An early scene proves to be disappointingly self-prophetic, as software giant Encom announces its plan to release an upgrade package that has no significant improvements on previous versions, but will be presented in such a way that the masses will still buy it. Has a similar philosophy been at work behind the scenes of this movie? Almost everything that exists in TRON: Legacy has been lifted from another film, and the filmmakers appear to be gambling everything on their shiny presentation being enough to paper over the cracks.

It isn't enough, although director Joseph Kosinski does have one fairly smart idea up his sleeve, with the opening "real world" sequences of TRON: Legacy being shot in 2D before 3D is introduced as we move into the computer world. I guess this is the 21st century update on the way colour was used in films like The Wizard of Oz or A Matter of Life and Death to differentiate between realities, but this approach can't add any depth to Garrett Hedlund's strictly one-dimensional performance. The stiff and sullen Hedlund plays Sam Flynn, the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who was the chief protagonist in the first film. Some twenty years ago, Kevin disappeared and his son inherited Encom, although he doesn't show much interest in the business side of things, preferring instead to sabotage their plans, live in a shed, ride a motorbike and parachute off the top of skyscrapers.

All of this is very tedious to watch because it simply feels like we're marking time as we wait for Sam to enter "the grid". Eventually he does, receiving a mysterious message from the disused arcade his father owned and being blasted by a laser into the universe his father created. This is where dad has been trapped for the past two decades, after his own avatar Clu (also played by Bridges, albeit digitally enhanced to look 30 years younger) decided to elbow aside his maker and take over the running of the place himself. So, Sam's quest is to liberate his father and stop Clu from making his way into the real world, although this simple plotl leaves myriad unanswered questions and loose ends hanging. How exactly does a human exist in the digital world, and vice versa? More to the point, where does Kevin get the food that he is seen enjoying? Why are we told that Clu's faceless goons can't leave the grid, only to see them searching Flynn's off-grid base moments later? What exactly is Tron's motive? Is that really Cillian Murphy sitting there, looking bored? And what will the excruciating Michael Sheen's next biopic performance be: David Bowie, Jimmy Saville or Peter Stringfellow?

Plot threads and ideas are picked up and discarded at random. We are told that Quorra (Olivia Wilde, this film's Trinity) is the last of some kind of master race that was wiped out by Clu, although we never get a sense of what the significance or purpose of this is; the notion seems to exist solely to give the narrative a gravity that it hasn't earned. TRON: Legacy's writing is lazy, lazy, lazy. Every line of dialogue feels hackneyed and trite – including the tiresome Dude-isms Bridges is lumbered with – and the rules of this world seem to arbitrarily change according to the whims of the screenwriting team as if none of it matters. The thing is, for some viewers who will be happy to just enjoy the light show, it really won't matter.

A lot of effort has obviously been expended on TRON: Legacy's visuals, the film's chief selling point, but they seem very unimpressive to my jaded eyes. Compared to the lush, inviting world of last year's Avatar, the world of TRON – all glass, chrome and neon – seems sterile and uninspired. The novelty of the film's setting rapidly wears off, and while Kosinski ups the ante on the discus-throwing and light-cycle sequences, there's no charge of excitement because they feel so inconsequential. The whole of TRON: Legacy feels like that: empty, flat and meaningless. After years of development, backed by a near $200 million budget, and driven by the most cutting-edge technology available, we've somehow ended up with a film that feels less ambitious and more regressive than its 28 year-old predecessor. Is this progress?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Review - For Colored Girls

Who is Tyler Perry? On this side of the Atlantic, the auteur is an unfamiliar name, but in the United States, he has quickly become one of the most consistently successful filmmakers around. His rapid rise to the top has been marked by critical derision, but the black audiences his films are made for continue to turn out in force every time he releases a new picture, which is often more than once a year. Clearly, a specific section of the moviegoing public has a taste for whatever it is that Perry has, but that attraction has remained a mystery to UK viewers, as despite the diverse population in this country, Perry's films have consistently failed to find distribution. That changed earlier this year when Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? became the first of his films to hit British cinemas, although it barely made a dent at the box office and its arrival certainly went unnoticed by me.

All of which means For Colored Girls is my first taste of the Tyler Perry experience, and what a taste it is. Intense, melodramatic, shocking and powerfully acted the film may be, but it's also laughably unsubtle, clumsily directed and horribly written. Perry has assembled a formidable team of actresses to portray the women suffering at the hands of various men, but even these fine performers can't do much to elevate the stodgy material they have been asked to digest. The film is an adaptation of Ntozake Shange's 1975 stage play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (yes, Enuf), and while Perry has thankfully cut that unwieldy title, his inability to edit judiciously severely hampers his misguided film.

Shange's play consisted of actresses delivering 20 poems that reflected the ongoing struggle of black women, and while it's easy to imagine such an approach being powerful in the theatre, monologues are a serious obstacle in cinema. During For Colored Girls, whenever a character reaches her lowest ebb, she begins reciting one of Shange's poems, which necessitates a drastic shift from the straightforward approach and banal dialogue Perry utilises elsewhere in the picture. When we see a soliloquy unfold on stage, we can appreciate it in its theatrical context, but here, in a more realistic setting, it feels hopelessly artificial. As we watch a 16 year-old recovering from a backstreet abortion (Tessa Thompson) or a battered rape victim (Anika Noni Rose) suddenly resort to unedited lumps of Shange's poetic text in a hospital or police station, all I could think was, nobody talks like that.

So the scenes that should be the most powerful in the film end up feeling false and overly stylised, which is a shame, because if Perry has one gift as a director, it lies in his ability to get everything his female cast has got to give. For Colored Girls takes place in New York, with most of the characters either living in the same walk-up or crossing the paths of those who do. There's battered wife Crystal (Kimberley Elise), promiscuous Tangie (Thandie Newton), barren social worker Kelly (Kerry Washington) and religious zealot Alice (Whoopi Goldberg) among others. These parts offer plenty of tragedy for such strong actresses to get their teeth into, and they all respond with passion and emotion, fleshing out roles that, as written, occasionally seem little more than stoically suffering martyrs. Perry clearly loves these women, and he shoots them in long takes and tight close-ups, all the better to see the bruises and the tears streaming down their cheeks, but his constant chasing of big moments eventually takes its toll.

Tyler Perry is not a subtle director, and throughout For Colored Girls he is always striving for impact. He is willing to play any card in the hope of jerking some tears, with his film covering domestic abuse, alcoholism, rape, HIV (apparently indicated by a tickly cough), secret homosexuality and – in a jaw-dropping scene that the film never recovers from – even a spectacular death for two young children. I'm struggling to think of a director who could frame that particular scene in a way that doesn't feel like a cheap and nasty stunt, but Perry, with his blunt and artless style, is certainly not the man for the job.

In the end, Perry's manipulative efforts are counterproductive. The film's desperate desire to move us feels just that – desperate – and with the repetitive poetic monologues constantly pulling us out of the drama, we never feel settled enough to involve ourselves in these women's stories. It's a disappointment, because some of the actresses among this ensemble are great talents who are too often saddled with token parts that fail to display their gifts, and while For Colored Girls is massively flawed, I guess I can understand why black women, starved of representation onscreen, take Perry's films to their hearts. However, I'm not sure what this picture has to offer for the rest of us. It's a lumpy, histrionic and overextended affair, and one that misses so many of the targets it aims for. I haven't seen the rest of Perry's oeuvre, but it feels like For Colored Girls is a self-conscious stab at a great work, a film that attempts to encapsulate everything about the black female experience in America. Sadly, long before the schmaltzy, tacky final sequence, the truth is exposed – for all of his lofty ambitions, Tyler Perry simply isn't good enuf.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Review - Easier with Practice

The most intimate relationship in Easier with Practice exists between two people who don't meet for the majority of the picture. Davy (Brian Geraghty) is a young writer who is touring America with his brother Sean (Kel O'Neill) to promote his self-published collection of short stories. He is a nervous, introverted young man, uncomfortable in his own skin, so there's a certain logic to the way he attaches himself to a woman who only exists as a voice at the other end of a phone. When Davy is alone is his motel room one night, the phone rings and the mystery caller introduces herself as Nicole. The scene that follows is shot in a single take, the camera remaining discreetly above waist-height as the bewildered Davy sits on his bed and slowly warms to the idea of engaging in phone sex with Nicole. After that, Davy is smitten with a woman he has never met.

It sounds implausible, but Easier with Practice is apparently based on the real experience of Davy Rothbart, who wrote about his unusual encounter in GQ. Kyle Patrick Alvarez's directorial debut is a portrait of loneliness and it is given a vital sense of weight by Geraghty's sensitive performance in the lead role. His Davy recoils at any sense of real, physical intimacy – a fact that seems to have damaged one relationship, with old friend Samantha (Marguerite Moreau) – but with Nicole he starts to relax, and to open up. Although her first few calls result in Davy having to find private spots in which to masturbate, their post-coital conversations eventually begin to become more important. Nicole remains in control of the relationship, though, refusing to give Davy her number and leaving him in an anxious state as the hours and days pass without his phone ringing.

Easier With Practice is often insightful and touching in its view of people unwilling or incapable of engaging with the real world who take solace in fantasy relationships, but the film often feels frustratingly underdeveloped. This is a slight narrative on which to hang a feature and Alvarez often lets his film drift when Davy and Nicole aren't in conversation. There are a couple of sharp individual scenes here, with Alvarez drawing some tension from an awkward game of Truth or Dare, but a number of scenes seem to lack a sense of purpose or definition. The director does show glimpses of an interesting visual sense, though, and his compositions are consistently well thought-out, but his efforts are not complemented by David Rush Morrison's rather drab cinematography.

Fortunately, the whole picture gets a much-needed lift in its final quarter with a clever climax. The scene in which Davy finally gets to meet Nicole gives the narrative a sly twist and reaffirms Alvarez's skill at handling moments of uncomfortable intimacy, with both performers giving affectingly nervous turns. Easier with Practice ends as a smart and surprisingly absorbing study of lonely souls and of the way people afraid of being hurt create and reinforce barriers with those around them. The film has its misjudgements and its longueurs, but there is conviction and talent on display here, and a real attempt to engage with some intriguing notions of what a relationship should be. Such qualities are too rare to be easily dismissed.