Friday 28 January 2011

Tangled review (The List, Issue 675)

Disney’s animation wing has undergone a rebirth since Pixar head John Lasseter took the reins, and this is the third film to benefit from his direct input, following Bolt and The Princess and the Frog. Like those two, Tangled is high-quality family entertainment, jaw-droppingly well animated and very funny, but it similarly lacks the easy charm and singular ingenuity that has guaranteed longevity for the studio’s best films.
Tangled is a retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel, and despite its funky title it is a relatively traditional Disney take on the story, right down to the inclusion of some show-stopping musical numbers. Rather than embellishing the narrative with self-referential commentary (a blessed relief in this post-Shrek era), directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard find new approaches to familiar characters. They introduce Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) in a brilliant song that explains how over the years, thanks to her tower imprisonment, she has become an expert in every imaginable artform, from watercolours to charting the stars. This Rapunzel is a winning mix of independence and hopeless naivety, so when bandit Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) crashes through her window, it’s as much her gung-ho attitude as his self-seeking determinism that gets them on the road to adventure.
The directors lose points for their lack of originality, though: every big scene is directly pulled from Disney’s back catalogue. There’s a chase sequence from Aladdin, a romantic boat scene straight out of The Little Mermaid and a finale that’s pure Beauty and the Beast. Tangled is a crowd-pleaser for sure, but not one for posterity.

Tangled is in cinemas now. This review first published in The List magazine.

Barney's Version review (The List, Issue 675)

Memory is a tricky thing, and that appears to be the main point of this rambling, unfocused but still enjoyable comedy-drama. Paul Giamatti plays Barney Panofsky, a slightly nastier version of the cynical schlub that’s become his stock-in-trade. He’s an ageing TV producer who is prompted to look back over his life, three failed marriages and all, when a book is published revisiting an unsolved 30-year old murder case involving Barney.
Adapted from Mordecai Richler’s novel and directed by Richard J Lewis, the film is essentially Barney’s case for the defence, with television director Lewis attempting to gradually shift the film’s tone from broad comedy to serious drama. Unfortunately, he lacks the grace to pull it off effectively. The film begins as a comic murder-mystery, but that aspect of the story fizzles as it shifts into Woody Allen-esque relationship drama. This central section is where Lewis is most successful, achieving an effective balance of observational character comedy and poignant drama, and getting brilliant performances from Giamatti and Rosamund Pike. But in its final third the director suddenly steers the film into tearjerker territory, undoing much of the actors’ good work by drawing more overtly heartstring-tugging performances from them.
The film is very well cast though, and Dustin Hoffman is particularly entertaining as Barney’s mischievous father, but the story’s central theme – memory and perspective – has been much more insightfully investigated by Charlie Kaufman in both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.
Barney's Version is in cinemas now. This review first published in The List magazine.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Morning Glory review (The List, Issue 675)

A few years ago it looked like Harrison Ford had resigned from movie stardom, but putting Indiana Jones’s fedora back on in 2008 seems to have refocused the old curmudgeon. This summer he’s headlining insane sci-fi western Cowboys and Aliens, but first we have Morning Glory, in which, as TV news reporter and reputed ‘third worst person in the world’ Mike Pomeroy, Ford has more fun onscreen than we’ve seen from him in decades.

Roger 'Notting Hill' Michell’s lightweight comedy centres on a determined young TV producer (Rachel McAdams) tasked with salvaging the ratings of moribund breakfast news programme Daybreak. She recruits investigative reporter Pomeroy, despite his disdain for the show, after discovering he is contractually bound to the station. Co-host Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) is unimpressed, and it doesn’t take long for their mutual hatred to spill over onto live TV.

The script from The Devil Wears Prada screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna is as formulaic as they come, and a subplot featuring Patrick Wilson as McAdams’ love interest is completely dispensable, but Morning Glory is still fun. Ford and Keaton deliver their spiteful barbs with relish, but it’s the fiery chemistry between Ford and McAdams that is most effective, as these two talented comic performers get a rare opportunity to cut loose.

Morning Glory is on general release from Friday 21 Jan. This review first published in The List magazine.

Saturday 8 January 2011

127 Hours review (The List, Issue 674)

Is there a more versatile or interesting British filmmaker than Danny Boyle working today? Few of his contemporaries have as varied a filmography, and there is no denying the consistency in quality of his cinematic narratives. Slumdog Millionaire earned him well-deserved Oscar recognition, but any fears that success would go to this most down-to-earth director’s head can be comfortably – or perhaps not so comfortably – put aside after watching 127 Hours. An intense hour and a half of exemplary filmmaking, it is a concise distillation of everything that is essential about Boyle’s cinema, and is arguably his most accomplished work to date.

A reconstruction of a real event, the film covers the five days that mountaineer Aron Ralston (James Franco) spent trapped in Blue John Canyon in the Utah desert, after a fall left him pinned at the right arm under an unmoveable boulder. With limited supplies, a portable video camera and, most significantly, a small travel knife, Ralston kept himself alive, and ultimately undertook an unthinkable act of self-amputation to escape this early grave.

Boyle has reunited his Slumdog dream team of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, composer AR Rahman and writer Simon Beaufoy and he orchestrates their contributions with absolute confidence and control. The film’s opening 20 minutes are a joyful storm of visual activity before the enforced calm of Ralston’s ordeal, but it’s when the story reaches this underground standstill that Boyle’s invention really starts moving. His camera is alive to every visual possibility of the cramped location, even at one point switching to an inside-the-injured-arm perspective. However, this is no technical showcase; Boyle’s film is a question, a search to discover what drives a man to survive. Franco is completely convincing as he enacts a mental journey from self-sufficiency to realisation of his desperate need for human connection, to a moment of decisive action. The intense and graphic depiction of that moment may prove too much for some viewers (this writer came very close to fainting), but it’s completely justified. Boyle drags the audience into hell and out the other side, and everyone who makes it will feel Ralston’s triumph as their own.

127 Hours is on general release now. This review first published in The List magazine.

The Next Three Days review (The List, Issue 674)

This unremarkable thriller represents a low for writer/director Paul Haggis, who not so long ago was being showered with Oscars for his work (Million Dollar Baby, Crash). It’s a remake of Fred CavayĆ©’s Anything For Her from 2008, and while it’s easy to understand Haggis’s desire to delve into the story’s moral grey areas for himself, he so completely smoothes over any rough edges in this retelling that he blunts every potentially interesting aspect of the film.

Russell Crowe gives a bland performance as John Brennan, an ordinary schoolteacher and family man who takes the law into his own hands when his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is found guilty of murder and sentenced to long-term imprisonment. Convinced of Lara’s innocence, but lacking evidence, Brennan concocts an elaborate break-in scheme that leads him into increasingly desperate and potentially criminal actions of his own.

Despite working from his own script, Haggis seems unsure whether he’s directing a fun action romp or a serious moral drama; this ends up being neither. The highlight is an unintentionally hilarious cameo from Liam Neeson as a grizzled veteran prison-breaker.

The Next Three Days is on general release now. This review first published in The List magazine.