Thursday 31 July 2008

Man On Wire

The great movies keep coming. Man On Wire is an excellent new documentary, getting it's general UK release this month after picking up heaps of praise and awards at festivals around the world. You can read my full review on Future Movies at the link below:

Man On Wire review

Director: James Marsh
Cast: Philippe Petit
Cert: 12A
UK release: 1 August

Monday 28 July 2008

The Dark Knight

Screen Fever Score: 10/10

A genre-busting script, breathtaking visuals and across the board top-drawer performances, composed into a spectacular whole by the best British film director working today.

Full review:
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. So speaks DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham City’s great white hope for change, early on in The Dark Knight. While his statement is proved true for more than one character by the time this brilliant film reaches its gut-wrenching conclusion, it seems that director Christopher Nolan can cheat his own film’s logic; with The Dark Knight he emerges as the moviemaking hero of 2008. As the film smashes box office records worldwide, and industry analysts begin to whisper about it being a possible challenger to Titanic’s unshakeable (until now?) position as the highest-grossing film of all time, Nolan can rest in the knowledge of a greater achievement; he’s brought uncompromisingly intelligent film-making into the realm of the big dumb summer blockbuster, and the crowds love it.

From the moment the film opens it’s clear that Batman Begins was a jumping off point, but with The Dark Knight Nolan is flying. Literally, as breath-taking IMAX-filmed aerial shots of Gotham city roll out an eye-popping canvas, as if he is telling us to prepare for an epic. And with a multi-layered story that creates one tension-point after another, encompassing moral quandaries as removed from simple black and white sermonising as is imaginable, an epic is exactly what he delivers. As has been noted elsewhere, The Dark Knight has more in common with brooding crime sagas like Michael Mann’s Heat than any previous comic-book film, but it’s a mood that fits this scenario perfectly, and allows the film to travel to unprecedented levels of intensity. At the centre of this maelstrom is Christian Bale, the support to Nolan’s arm without whom this whole operation would fail. As the film progresses and the line of separation between brooding Batman and formerly fun-loving Bruce Wayne is all but erased, Bale makes every scene count and proves himself to be the definitive Batman.

But as Batman Begins clearly signposted, this film was always going to centre on one iconic villain. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker has already been heaped with praise, and I can do nothing but add my voice to the throng; he so inhabits this reinvented character that it is often difficult to believe this is the same Ledger we have seen in previous films. What makes the performance so good is that Ledger and Nolan have fearlessly reshaped the Joker character as we know him, coming up with an interpretation that is more purely terrifying than any we have previously seen, but is still unmistakeably The Joker. It absolutely confirms the promise that Ledger had shown in recent roles, that he was becoming one of the most interesting actors of his generation, and only increases the sadness of his passing.

In any other film a performance of such intensity would surely lay waste to the rest of the cast’s chances of recognition, but nothing could be further from the truth in the case of The Dark Knight. There are seven names above the title on this movie’s poster, and each one of them well and truly earns their top billing. This is partly thanks to the brilliantly written and structured script, which balances enough plot-lines to fill three movies but still does justice to each significant character, with even potential ‘filler’ characters Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) given key scenes that are not only integral to the plot but equally serve to flesh out their characters in the brief screen time they occupy.

Working from this great foundation, each cast member lifts their game and brings their best, but while Ledger will take the lion’s share of column-inches, it is actually Aaron Eckhart who gives the best performance in the film. Audiences leaving the cinema will marvel at the screen-burning presence of The Joker, but it’s Dent’s story that will haunt them long after the credits have rolled. Eckhart’s contribution cannot be overstated in this; just as Dent wins Bruce Wayne’s admiration, so Eckhart wins the audience’s, and when his character’s journey turns dark, all we can do is look on in wrapt devastation. Conversely, the handling of Dent’s storyline reveals one of the few flaws in the film, as a key twist is rushed and doesn’t quite convince. The reason why this hiccup doesn’t hurt the film more is because of the quality of Eckhart’s performance; he keeps the audience tied to the story across this slight filmmaking fumble.

Beyond the A-grade acting, the film is a stunning achievement in every aspect of its construction and execution; there is no weak link in this creative team. From the impeccably structured script through the amazing IMAX cinematography to the dark and thunderous score, The Dark Knight is a piece of ensemble (in the furthest-reaching sense of the word) filmmaking on a par with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, in that every department and player has grasped the vision and fully contributed, with exemplary results.

This kind of second-to-none teamwork doesn’t just happen; it requires a director of rare ability, and The Dark Knight confirms Christopher Nolan as one of the greatest living directors of spectacular cinema. While it has been clear since he first caught mainstream attention with Memento that his is a singular directorial vision, no-one would have predicted that just eight years on he would not only be confidently spearheading the biggest comic-book movie franchise of the 21st century, but simultaneously reshaping the genre and breaking new ground in just how big, literally, narrative cinema can be. The box office success of The Dark Knight will give him the clout to now do whatever he wants and, judging by his track record, I can think of no other director working today more capable of taking that kind of freedom and using it to produce even better things.

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan and Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Cert: 12A
UK release: 24 July

Sunday 27 July 2008

Baby Mama

My review of Baby Mama, starring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and the back-to-brilliant Steve Martin is featuring on This'll give you an idea of what I thought:

"Fey and Poehler are very funny together, and the scenario gives them plenty of opportunities to show it...but it’s as much the supporting cast that make this such an enjoyable film; Sigourney Weaver has a handful of hilarious scenes as the ridiculously amoral head of Kate’s surrogacy agency, Chaffee Bicknell (note to comedy writers: a really silly name goes a long way), but it’s Steve Martin, back from the brink and funnier than ever as Kate’s New Age guru boss, who steals the show."

Read the full review here

UK release date: 25 July
Cert: 12A

Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging

My review of Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham)'s new teen comedy is featured in the current issue of The List. Here's a snippet:

"Chadha pitches the tone just right for a young female audience, addressing some of the hang-ups and dramas of early womanhood with a surreal and winningly silly tone, but scuppers a lot of this good work by opting for a conventional Hollywood-style story arc and a conclusion that’s positively dripping with cheese."

Read the full review here

UK release date: 25 July
Cert: 12A

Thursday 17 July 2008

Summer Hours, Transsiberian and Encounters at the End of the World

I have a few reviews from the Edinburgh Film Festival published this week on Edinburgh Festivals Magazine's website. Below is some more info and links to the full reviews.

Summer Hours (pictured above) - "Olivier Assayas’ new film could easily be dismissed as “too French” by UK audiences, considering its preoccupation with talking, drinking and generally not doing much. But Summer Hours is a film of considerable depth and maturity, and one that, if anything, actually demands repeat viewings in order to fully appreciate its quality."
Read the full review here
Summer Hours is on selected UK release from 18 July

Transsiberian - "Writer-director Brad Anderson’s last film was the tense and compelling The Machinist (2004), which starred an impossibly gaunt Christian Bale and worked as a nightmarish journey into one man’s troubled mind. For his follow-up he opts for a bigger cast and broader canvas, but the end product is not half as original or effective as could have been expected."
Read the full review here

Encounters at the End of the World - "There is a lot of fun to be had with this film before it reaches its more reflective conclusions, not least when Werner Herzog encounters a lone scientist who spends his life studying Antarctica’s penguin community, and asks him whether he has ever seen evidence of gay relationships amongst the birds. As Herzog is keen to point out, this ain’t March of the Penguins."
Read the full review here

Thursday 10 July 2008

Recent Round-Up: The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock & The Mist

The Edinburgh Festival caused me to be away from updating these reviews for longer than intended, so as a way of getting back up to speed here’s my brief verdicts on the biggest movies of the last few weeks, with two notable exceptions. The first is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which was so bland and boring that it should have been called The Nothing Happening, and the other is Prince Caspian, which I still haven’t found the time or sufficient enthusiasm to go see yet. So with that sorted, here goes…

The Incredible Hulk – Marvel’s so-called ‘reboot’ of the Hulk franchise, after Ang Lee’s largely unloved 2003 effort, has a few good things going for it, but didn’t do much to convince me that its central character deserved another movie attempt. On the plus side, Ed Norton is always watchable, and his Bruce Banner is certainly more compelling than the version played by Eric Bana in Lee’s film. The film also has some exciting action scenes, particularly at the beginning, where director Louis Letterier keeps the Hulk hidden in shadow for his first freak-out, which works well.

But the film suffers from some long dull stretches, where it retreads the old Jekyll/Hyde split personality trauma that the first film already well and truly covered. Okay, it’s the defining aspect of this character, but couldn’t they have come up with a more interesting plot in which to explore it? Towards the end of the film there is a noticeable development in the Hulk’s character, suggesting that he can become more of a harnessed, morally-driven being in further adventures. This seemed to me a good direction in which to take the character, but why take 90 plodding minutes to get there?
Screen Fever Score – 5/10

Wanted – The trailer promised jaw-dropping action, but while Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch) delivers some undeniably exhilarating scenes – particularly an initial car-chase sequence that threatens to explode right out of the screen – Wanted is empty-headed and instantly forgettable. The story has James McAvoy’s office drone Wesley recruited by the smokin’ hot Fox (Angelina Jolie) to fulfil his destiny and join a team of assassins led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). It’s Matrix rip-off territory, but where The Wachowski Brothers brought a sense of philosophical depth and internal logic to their far-fetched action adventure, Bekmambetov doesn’t even pay a passing nod to the notion of coherence. The result is completely unbelievable, even on its own terms, and by the time the stupid plot twists kick in Wanted starts to really test the patience; you’ll find it hard to care who lives and dies by the end. As it piles on the excessive profanity and countless bullet-in-the-head shots, Wanted becomes less and less fun.
Screen Fever Score – 4/10

Kung Fu Panda – Now this is more like it. With a central character you can root for, some great laughs and some butt-kicking action scenes, Dreamworks’ latest animation hits all the right buttons. Jack Black is perfectly cast as the voice of Po the Panda, the kung fu geek who ends up training alongside his martial arts heroes under the tutelage of the Dustin Hoffman-voiced Master Shifu. Black’s unique bombastic delivery suits the hyper-enthusiastic Po to a tee, although his funniest dialogue is right at the beginning of the film in a dream sequence filled with “awesomeness!” The script raises consistent chuckles rather than big belly laughs, and the animation is simply amazing, making the fantastic fight scenes really feel alive. Fun for all the family.
Screen Fever Score – 7/10

Hancock – I also enjoyed this a lot, so don’t listen to all the harsh reviews it’s been getting. Will Smith and Jason Bateman are both great as the titular alcoholic superhero (Smith) and the PR guy who tries to reform him (Bateman), and the film is a much more interesting take on the superhero genre than most of the recent comic-book adaptations we’ve seen. It’s refreshing to see a superhero film that acknowledges the audiences familiarity with the conventions of the genre; we are introduced to Hancock fully-formed, there’s no time wasted on ‘how he got his powers’ nonsense – it just throws the character at us and expects us to keep up as the story unfolds.

Most of the criticism the film has received is to do with a major twist two-thirds of the way through the film, but I don’t think this is as much of a problem as many critics would have us believe. The seeds for the twist are laid very early in the film, and it isn’t as much of a tonal shift as has been made out; the film has a dark streak running through it from the start. There are some big laughs to be had early on, but the film never pretends to aim for straightforward comedy. It’s more complicated than that, and the twist is a natural progression along these lines. Hancock tries to be a bit original, and in the realm of summer movies that deserves praise.
Screen Fever Score – 7/10

The Mist – This latest film from Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile director Frank Darabont is another Stephen King adaptation, but it’s much more representative of the ├╝ber horror-writer’s signature style than the aforementioned epics. The Mist is a no-nonsense, old-fashioned B-movie scare-fest, complete with giant bugs and splattery gore. But this is no slapdash, thrown together affair; it’s tightly constructed, creepily atmospheric and has a terrifically shocking ending. It seems clear that, having taken the critical and commercial failure of his Jim Carrey starrer The Majestic on the chin, Darabont has gone back to stripped-down basics and rediscovered his raw passion for movie-making.

Unfolding almost in real time as the population of a small community hole up in the local supermarket, surrounded by an inexplicable mist containing all manner of horrific beasties, the film is gripping and very scary, and even has an effective underlying social commentary. It won’t be in cinemas for half as long as any of the aforementioned blockbusters, but it’s superior to all of them, and represents a very welcome comeback from Darabont.
Screen Fever Score – 8/10

The Incredible Hulk (12A), Wanted (18), Kung Fu Panda (PG) and Hancock (12A) are on general release now.
The Mist (15) is in selected cinemas now. Don’t miss it!

Edinburgh International Film Festival –
Top 5

It’s almost two weeks now since Edinburgh’s Film Festival wound up its first year as a June event. By all accounts it was a success, although I must admit that it didn’t feel quite as busy as the organisers are claiming it was, despite what I thought was a really good selection of movies. Yes, there were some disappointments – The Wackness, Stone of Destiny and much-hyped British debut Better Things were the biggest let-downs – but overall I got to see a lot of very good films; in fact, compiling a top 5 has been a little harder than I initially anticipated.

After much internal debate, here’s my pick of the five best films of the Festival, and more importantly, why they make the grade:

1. WALL-E – It may have been the most mainstream movie of the Festival but Pixar’s new film was also the best, representing another step forward for the already impossibly high-standard-setting animation studio. Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton takes the story of a cute little robot, left on earth for 700 years to clean up after humans have pretty much destroyed the planet and done a runner, and crafts a tale of loneliness, friendship and adventure that is both profoundly moving and bursting with stunning visual creativity. Added to this, WALL-E is a movie in love with the movies, packed with references to classics of the silver screen, with each homage incorporated as a relevant storytelling element, never feeling self-indulgent or unnecessary. It’s a true masterpiece, and my favourite film of the year so far.

2. The Visitor – Much smaller in scale than Pixar’s animation behemoth, this character-focused comedy-drama is equally accomplished in its writing, confirming Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) as a writer-director of considerable human insight and compassion. Eternal support actor Richard Jenkins is perfect in the lead as Walter Vale, a bored Connecticut University academic whose life takes a turn for the interesting when he discovers a refugee couple living in his New York apartment. After initially throwing them out, Walter has a change of heart and begins an unexpected friendship with the djembe-playing Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). Things are complicated when Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation, but while the film does tackle political issues, it is primarily about people, and McCarthy handles the balance of personal and political masterfully. Also featuring a brilliant performance from Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother, The Visitor is a true gem, and I would highly recommend seeking it out, as it’s in UK cinemas right now!

3. Man On Wire – The best of an excellent selection of documentaries at the Festival, James Marsh’s film presents a man and a feat that both have to be seen to be believed. The man is Philipe Petit, a French tightrope-walker of singular vision and enthusiasm, and the feat is an almost unbelievable wire-walk that he accomplished in 1974 between the newly-constructed World Trade Center towers. The fact that Petit and a handful of friends managed to break into the towers and successfully set up and carry out the illegal act is jaw-dropping enough, but the way it is retold here clearly conveys the profound emotional impact it had on everyone involved, and the film itself becomes more than just a historical document; it’s a powerfully inspiring piece of cinema.

4. Let The Right One In – This is a low-key Swedish character drama with a difference; it’s also a vampire movie. Almost sluggishly paced in its first hour, director Tomas Alfredson takes his sweet time in building the atmosphere in this story of a bullied 12-year-old who befriends the slightly odd girl next-door, but patience pays off as he uses the very low budget to stunning effect. It’s a film of creeping unease rather than high pitch scares, and concludes with a final set-piece that made me want to stand up and applaud. Apparently that’s exactly what happened at the critics’ screening, which is an event largely unheard of at film festivals. The film doesn’t seem to have UK distribution at the moment, and appears to have already been snapped-up for an English-language remake, but hopefully this original version will find its way to cinemas soon, as it’s really quite special.

5. Summer – Robert Carlyle is an actor that I’ve always found likeable but never amazing, but in Summer he gives, for my money, the best performance of his career. He picked up the Festival’s Best Actor award for his heart-breaking portrayal of Shaun, a man who we meet in a beaten-down state, brought low by the hand life has dealt him. Kenny Glenaan’s film flits back and forward in time to build up a picture of Shaun’s life, and occasionally the story is almost too sad to bear, but Carlyle brings such a recognisable warmth and longing to the character that we can’t help but stay with him. A much-needed note of hope at the conclusion slightly softens the film’s emotional wallop, but overall this is a deeply moving tale of loss and frustration, and Carlyle deserves heaps of praise for his amazing work in it.

So that’s my verdict. Just missing out on inclusion were Shane Meadows’ new one Somers Town, the lovely Amy Adams comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and an excellent British debut called Dummy, all of which are well worth investigation too. For now though, that’s my Festival experience wrapped up. Roll on London…

WALL-E (U) is released nationwide on 18 July.
The Visitor (15) is out now in selected cinemas.
Man On Wire (12A) is released nationwide on 1 August.
Let The Right One In and Summer have no scheduled UK release date.