Thursday 24 February 2011

Animal Kingdom review (The List, Issue 677)

This dark Australian crime thriller has had critics lining up to heap praises upon it since its prize-winning debut at Sundance last January, and it arrives on these shores fresh from a deserved Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category for Jacki Weaver. These endorsements should hopefully provoke discerning cinemagoers to look past the film’s lack of big-name actors and its rather misleading title (it’s not a nature documentary) and give it a shot. Those who do are in for a treat – if a rather grim one – because the film is a riveting drama that announces the arrival of a distinct filmmaking talent in debut writer-director David Michôd.

In the film’s opening moments teenager J (James Frecheville) discovers his mother dead from a drug overdose, then gets in touch with his estranged grandmother (Weaver) who insists that J comes to live with her. Michôd’s brutally unsentimental presentation of these events sets the film’s tone very effectively; clearly indicating that the world we are entering is one where self-preservation is everything. J initially falls in with his three uncles, all of whom are involved to varying degrees in lives of violent crime, but a local police officer (Guy Pearce) becomes aware of J’s situation, and urges him to escape his family’s criminal ways.

Michôd takes his time setting up the story’s various characters, elaborately laying the foundations in the earlier stages for some powerfully effective pay-offs once the plot’s momentum kicks in. He refuses to handhold the audience at any point, building up characters then killing them off without warning, creating an ever-present sense of danger. His casting is also spot-on; as well as featuring two knock-out performances from Frecheville and Weaver – his subtly shifting, hers fearlessly cold – the cast is a virtual who’s who of Australian character actors (Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Dan Wyllie), all on top form. It adds up to a potent Shakespearean brew that dramatises humanity’s kill-or-be-killed instinct with chilling conviction.

Animal Kingdom is released on 25 February. This review first published in The List magazine.

West is West review (The List, Issue 677)

East is East was one of the British box office successes of the late 90s, and found an even bigger audience on video and DVD, but it’s hard to believe that there is much, if any, anticipation for this belated sequel. That is probably for the best, as this plodding, bland drama has little in common with its predecessor, featuring none of the anarchically inventive comedy or keen social observation that caused that film to strike a chord with so many.

In 1976, five years after the events of the first film, Salford chip-shop owner George Khan (Om Puri) decides that he should take his unruly 15-year-old son Sajid on a character-building trip to Pakistan to discover their heritage. As played by newcomer Aqib Khan, Sajid is an irritating central character, charmless and constantly whining, and director Andy DeEmmony offers precious little else – save a blink and you’ll miss it Jimi Mistry cameo – to elicit audience sympathies.

Writer Ayub Khan-Din’s secondary focus is to have George face up to what has become of the family he left in Pakistan 30 years earlier. This theoretically fertile dramatic ground yields nothing fresh though, simply forcing the character to retread his emotional journey from the first film, as he once again confronts his shortcomings as a husband and his unreasonable attitude towards women. There are a few nice moments – a visually delightful wedding sequence stands out – but for the most part this is an uninspired and unrewarding sequel.

West is West is released on 25 February. This review first published in The List magazine.

Friday 18 February 2011

Paul review (The List, Issue 676)

The Shaun of the Dead boys have come a long way. Having followed up Shaun’s critical success with UK box office smash Hot Fuzz, stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and director/co-writer Edgar Wright were firmly established as major British talent. Last summer Wright took his first shot at a big American movie with comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, a disappointment at the box office but an impressive demonstration of his developing creative muscle. Now, after a few high-profile solo acting gigs (most notably Pegg’s turn as Scotty in 2009’s Star Trek), Pegg and Frost re-team as writers and co-stars in Paul, a tale of two English sci-fi nerds who encounter a real-life alien called Paul while on a road-trip through America’s UFO hotspots. But while the film certainly won’t disappoint fans of the duo’s brand of comedy, Pegg and Frost could have done with following Wright’s more adventurous lead; as it is they stick too closely to their comfort zones both as writers and actors, and despite its theme, the film is more run-of-the-mill than out of this world.

In fact, to begin with, Paul could almost be a Transatlantic episode of Spaced, with the geek-pal relationship between Pegg and Frost’s Graeme and Clive riffing on exactly the same notes that made Tim and Mike so endearing in that television show. It’s still a routine that works though, and there are plenty of laughs to be had in the script’s many recurring jokes – one involving characters reeling off the increasingly ridiculous titles of a cult sci-fi author’s books is particularly funny. Director Greg Superbad Mottola develops a suitably atmospheric tone, which entireley fits the script’s spirit of both revering and mocking sci-fi conventions (in both senses), while Jason Bateman provides strong support as a menacing FBI agent on the hunt for Paul.

And what of the title character? Happily, Paul is the film’s greatest asset. A fantastically realised CG creation who gets all the funniest lines and is brilliantly voiced by Seth Rogen, he’s the spark of originality that makes this film worthwhile.

Paul is out now on general release. This review first published in The List magazine.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Never Let Me Go review (The List, Issue 676)

The students of Hailsham boarding school are special: set apart from normal society, they are being prepared for an unspecified purpose. No further details are apparent, to them or us, as this story begins, and to divulge more would take away the unique surprise of this ambitious and often beautiful film from Mark One Hour Photo Romanek. Never Let Me Go is an interesting collision of genres. Looking to all intents and purposes like a traditional period drama, it is actually closer to science fiction in its bleak tone and existential theme.

Divided into three sections, each marked by understated title cards displaying the years 1978, 1985 and 1994, the film follows the ill-fated love-triangle that develops between three Hailsham students, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield), from their uniquely sheltered childhood through to their integration into the world as young adults.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s oblique source novel was concerned more with examining his characters’ interior lives than explaining the alternate reality his story takes place in, and Romanek and his able team of collaborators wisely resist trying to fill in the blanks. Writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later…, Sunshine) does an excellent job of translating the limited perspective of Kathy’s narration in the novel into something that works on film; the three main characters, and their different ways of understanding the life carved out for them, are brought more sharply into focus with each jump forward in time, so that when the emotional punch finally comes, it hits hard.

Romanek’s film is draped in sadness, from the aching tones of Rachel Portman’s piano score to cinematographer Adam Kimmel’s muted visual palette. But it’s a sadness that will be familiar, and in some way edifying to an audience, due to the deeply felt performances of Mulligan and Garfield. These two young actors have deservedly risen to the top of the pile in the last 18 months, and as Kathy and Tommy, two doomed souls finding each other in the little time they have, they are inspiring; a call to catch love while you can.

Never Let Me Go is on general release from Fri 11 Feb. This review first published in The List magazine.