Monday, 30 January 2012

The Artist

The conceptualisation of this film is first class - as is the acting, lighting and the film's ability to transport the viewer back to the heyday of Hollywood when stars were stars and paparazzi hadn't been invented. The story is a simple one played out in dozens of other films: star has chance encounter with aspiring dancer and as the star's fortunes decline, the dancer enjoys a meteoric rise to become Hollywood's leading lady.

The film begins in the mid 1920's and the star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the king of Silent Movies. A chance encounter with an aspiring dancer, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) leads to them performing together and the chemistry between them sparks into something magical. The story follows their respective decline and rise and delivers a predictable outcome.

As I said, if you want a black and white silent film made with the latest digital production techniques with a good cast and some excellent dancing - then this is the film you. To be honest - I didn't enjoy it. For me the only things of note were:

  • The concept of the film itself
  • The acting/dancing performances of the two leads
  • The performance of Uggie as 'The Dog'
I have never been a fan of black and white silent films. As a child I used to dread the endless Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy et al films that showed on TV. The Artist excels in its genre - but as the story itself depicts, silent films died a death with the advent of the talkies in the 1930's. It is a film that is as self-indulgent as it is melodramatic. The fact that it garners such acclaim is, I feel, only attributable to a collective longing for nostalgia at a time when the world mood is gloomy and Hollywood is struggling to keep up with changes in technology and production.

Don't hurry to see it - if it appeals, wait until Christmas when the disc will discounted to 2.99! I'll give it 5/10.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Top 10 films I saw in 2011

It's nice to receive a request from a follower for my top 10 of 2011 - so here goes:
  1. Another Year
  2. Sarah's Key
  3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  4. We Need to Talk About Kevin
  5. The Help
  6. Tree of Life
  7. Midnight in Paris
  8. The King's Speech
  9. The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo (2011)
Disagreeing is fine! These are my top 10 best watches of the year.

Sunday, 22 January 2012


Saw this today at a members' free preview at Harbour Lights in Southampton - thanks guys. It was a real treat. As the opening credits role a group of boys are hanging out in a park. Two of the boys fall out and one of them, who happens to be holding a stick, uses it to swing out at the other boy knocking out two of his teeth and bruising his lip.

The parent's of the 'victim' invite the parents of the perpetrator to their apartment to discuss the incident and plan a way of dealing with it. The entire film takes place within the apartment with the two couples locked in a series of debates. It could have been claustrophobic but Roman Polanski's Direction and the ensemble casts' acting mean it is tight, lively and so believable, that this is not an issue.

Initially both sets of parents are civil and acting as you'd expect them to. As the story unfolds, the guards come down and, aided by some single malt, one by one the individuals reveal their true feelings about their boys fracas and one another. This is done with immense passion and an equal amount of humour. As the arguments are made, the film holds up a mirror to the viewer which invites you to reflect on your own presuppositions, prejudices and views. Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C Reilly give tremendous performances.

The genius of this film is the way in which allies and enemies keep rotating amongst and between the couples. This is done with tremendous deftness and the exchanges are choreographed with great precision and timing. Kate Winslet's character delivers a spectacular bout of projectile vomiting, whilst  Christoph Waltz's character's attachment to his cell phone engenders nothing but frustration in the rest of the cast and the audience!

This is an excellent film. At 75 minutes it's just about right. Do go and see it when it arrives - well worth the effort. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Source Code

Science-Fiction has always had a steady stream of stories that explore time lines and parallel dimensions - it's one of the genre's staples. Every now and again there is crossover into mainstream and films such as this emerge - Duncan Jones' (Moon)  second feature film. I'm looking forward to his third!

I wonder if the fact that stories like this being so successful in mainstream cinema (other recent titles include  Inception, In Time, Adjustment Bureau) reveals that many people are dissatisfied with their own time line or dimension and so indulge in a little fantasising about possibly alternatives? Does it tap into the 'pie in the sky when you die' vibe?

In this film we have someone in Colter Stephens (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is willing to relive the same 8 minute segment of time in order to 'save the world'. The film is evenly paced and not repetitive in an annoying way. It also has some twists and turns along the way and delivers an ending that is hard to predict - even if you understand the premise behind 'source code' first time around! The science behind the story is hard to believe but this film is science-fiction and not trying to communicate historical fact.

The story raises questions about the rights of governments to 'use' incapacitated battlefield casualties for clandestine and subversive projects - even if a greater good comes from them. How alive was Stephens? He was clearly participating against his will - the appeal to nationalism and duty made me feel extremely uncomfortable. How many similar 'projects' are being researched in government and military labs for our security and well-being?

The film also shows something of the power of love. Stephens is clearly attracted to his commuting companion Christina (Michelle Monaghan) - and who wouldn't be - and as the story unfolds, the way in which he is better able to express his feelings emerge in a kind of apocalyptic Groundhog Day scenario. Then there is the character of Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who is clearly torn between a sense of duty and the desire to respect what is left of Colter Stephens. What would you have done at the end of the film if you'd been in her situation?

Is this simply a film about a burnt-out combat helicopter pilot who gets one last chance at redemption or does it offer more? Does it offer us an opportunity to reflect on the trajectory our life is on and evaluate it in some way? Does it show us what love and self-sacrifice can achieve? Does it show us the depths of depravity to which a 'fallen' creation is capable of sinking? Or does the film simply hold out the hope of salvation in a different reality? It all sounds a bit gospel-like to me?

I'm going to give it 7.5/10 - a good film. Enjoy and reflect!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Colour of Pomegranates

If you thought I'd been watching a bit too much main-stream lately, here's something to redress the balance!

For a few years I once had the privilege of working with some Azeri folk whose people group inhabit North-West Iran and Azerbaijan. One thing that constantly struck me was the importance they placed on and the cultural identity they derived from their national poets such as Nizami, Imadeddin Nassimi and Mohammed Suleymanoglu Fizuli. The Colour of Pomegranates is imbued with similar sentiment but is a film about the life and writings of the Eighteenth-centuryArmenian poet Aruthin Sayadian who was known as Sayat-Nova. The film was made in 1968 by the celebrated Soviet Director Sergei Parajanov and has only recently come to DVD.

I'm not sure how to proceed from here! On the surface, this film is simply a collection of abstract images and tableaux, narrated by rudimentary sub-titles that seek to tell Sayat-Nova's life story and encapsulate the essence of his poetry. Perhaps the film is visual poetry and as such it makes unusual viewing. It's not easy to follow, interpret or understand as so much of the visual imagery and clues the film delivers are lost on non-Armenians. This film is almost universally lauded by the critics - indeed the IMDb 'storyline' description begins "One of the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century"! I watched it because I felt I should watch a film given such accolades. It took two bites to get through the 70 minutes, but I'm glad I did - if only to be reminded that in other parts of the world there are things that are more important than the stuff that fills our headlines.

I don't pretend to understand much of the film - or invest the energy in trying to do so. If you want to read a helpful unpicking of the visual keys and plot have a look at Senses of Cinema an Australian website that has a useful article.

Every now and again it is good to watch something that takes us to unfamiliar places and see what questions it provokes. This film has a strong Armenian-Orthodox strand running through it and it is interesting to see how the Church and a Monastery are linked in to the unfolding story.

This is definitely Art-House rather than multiplex - perhaps a good single malt would help?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

If you've lived with and liked the franchise since the 1970's TV offering then this will push your buttons big-time! It's very much more of the same - with extra bells and whistles. Cruise is at last beginning to look his age but that doesn't stop him from winning every fight, running for miles at top speed, getting blown up, scaling the world's tallest building and driving several BMW's to destruction. This fourth in the film series is by far the best MI to date. Set in Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai it breathlessly jerks around the globe as too many naughty people slip over international frontiers without triggering any alarm. The technology and the CGI are great - except perhaps for the exploding Kremlin which looks a little too unreal.

The plot is simple enough but what makes the difference this time is that through a set-up the whole organisation is dis-avowed and disbanded. Their only hope is this one last off-the-record mission which must succeed - even if it isn't resourced in the usual way. Time after time series of coincidences happen with split second precision which enable the story to move forward. Simon Pegg has a much larger role this time and I occasionally felt his jocular and very British way of delivering humour clashed stridently with the all-American cast. Come on, Simon Pegg co-starring with Tom Cruise in an action movie! I was initially encouraged to see Michael Nyqvist (Millennium Trilogy - Swedish edition) in the cast but his character is disappointingly very two-dimensional.

There are three action sequences that are up there with the best of them:

  • The escape from the Russian gaol;
  • The scaling of the Burj Khalifa;
  • The final sequence in the automated car park in Mumbai.
If for nothing else the film will be enjoyed for these - but the story does keep moving along at an even pace - how ever far fetched the story is! There isn't a lot to engage with here - this is a sit back and enjoy film - particularly if you enjoy Tom Cruise or allow Paula Patton to grow on you as the film moves towards its climax! The morality and ethical dimensions find one spot of light relief when a Russian arms dealer puts saving the world from nuclear annihilation above profit and gives the plot its one and only twist - except perhaps for the very ending which I won't spoil.

As I said, if you like action movies, you'll love this one. It is destined to be the most profitable I'm sure - so far. I'll give it 8/10.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Iron Lady

I wasn't sure what to expect with this film. I found it to be utterly compelling - the acting from Meryl Streep and the rest of the cast is of the highest order. Clearly there has been great attention to detail and a desire to be sympathetic to central character. It is not easy to deliver a biographical film so soon after the events it depicts and when the character is still living. David Cameron announced that the release of this film was too soon - I sense that his comment seeks more to placate the old guard within his party rather than offer any objective analysis of this piece of performative art.

The film flits seamlessly between three major passages in Margaret Thatcher's life:
  • War time school girl working in the family shop through to securing her first election victory in 1959;
  • Her challenge for the leadership of the party and her years in office as Prime Minister;
  • Her be-muddled state in the here and now as she wrestles with dementia.
The story dwells a lot in the third context where Margaret Thatcher passes much of her time in conversation with her dear but dead husband Dennis who is brilliantly played by Jim Broadbent. Those who are charged with Margaret's daily care ably demonstrate the challenges of living with someone afflicted in this way - particularly someone who is so strong-minded! Olivia Colman turns in a sensitive and empathetic performance as her daughter Carol.

The story clearly depicts the battles that Thatcher had to engage in simply to be heard in the male dominated world of Conservative politics. It also makes it clear that she carried this battling mentality with her throughout her lifetime. This produced the strong leadership it delivered and plenty of scope for those who so chose to dissent. The characterisations of the politicians in her successive Cabinets are more like an impressionists show that 'mere' acting. Heath, Howe and Hesseltine are all portrayed unsympathetically whilst Michael Pennington's portrayal of Michael Foot perfectly captures the malaise that afflicted the opposition during this period of British politics.

The film goes out of the way to demonstrate a Thatcher with compassion and one who felt that being in touch with the common person meant knowing the price of a pint of milk and a pack of butter. This is set over and against her resolute decision to re-take the Falkland Islands and her decision to sink the General Belgrano both of which depict a woman driven by principles and seemingly unable to respond in any other way.

This film has 'Oscar' stamped all over it - and I must say deservedly so. You cannot watch this film and remain unaffected. Which ever way you view Maggie this film will either reinforce her legendary status or confirm and condemn her as not only the 'milk-snatcher' and closer of coal mines but also the one who ordered the meaningless sinking of the Belgrano. The film nuances her eventual fall from grace as John Major's stock begins to rise, but the squabbling and in-fighting over divisions about Europe are beginning to have a very familiar ring to them as they re-emerge in today's Conservative Party.

History is always written by the victors and tells the story the way they want it to be told. As I said this film cannot fail to provoke you into some level of reaction - you must go and see it for yourself and be prepared to be challenged - you never know, you may even feel a little sympathy for the Baroness. I'll give it 8.5/10.