Sunday, 16 September 2012

Hope Springs

Some films deal with deep issues in ways that don't help. Humour is often an effective device to deploy when dealing with things that are hard to be open about. This film is a gift. Not only does it treat a very common and serious subject with respect and reality, it delivers its treatment with great and subtle humour - wonderfully aided by top class acting. This film is excellent - go and see it now.

Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) and Kay (Meryl Streep) have been married for 31 years. Their relationship used to be warm and, to a degree, fulfilling. In recent years, the fizz has gone and for the past five years there has been very little physical contact of any sort - and certainly not anything intimate! Kay decides she wants to try to rescue the relationship and recover the fizz. Going to the bookstore she buys a book by a therapist who helps couples restore some of the lost magic. So, inspired by the writings of Dr Feld, she signs herself and Arnold up for a week's intensive therapy.

Dr Feld is played by Steve Carell and I have to say he is brilliant - the first time he has delivered a role that doesn't make me cringe repeatedly. I won't say any more about the 'therapy' sessions or how the story develops or concludes, but it explores the problems of talking about sexual desire, fantasy and physical intimacy in a way that is not only convincing and sensitive, but which also draws you in and encourages you to develop a tangible sympathy for Arnold and Kay. This is helped by very strong performances from the three main characters - particularly Streep. Confusingly for me, having played the 'Iron Lady' she spends a lot of the movie looking just like Margaret Thatcher - which in some scenes is most inappropriate!

The film is split between Omaha Nebraska and a small coastal town in Maine. These two contrasting locations set up a helpful metaphor for the processes that are going on in each place. The folk in Maine are used to having couples visiting Dr Feld's clinic and the local businesses cater for the specific needs of this type of clientele.

This film will not excite younger viewers. However, those of us who inhabit middle-age - particularly those who are also 'empty nesters' - will warm to the themes that can resonate with some couples as they drift towards retirement. Kay refused to let ageing bring the end of intimacy - she took action to try and recover it. The road she set out on was not without its pain and discomfort - are any couples truly that reticent and ignorant when it comes to discussing the sexual side of their relationship? Perhaps so, as Streep and Jones deliver a masterclass in believable angst.

I think that this is a bold and courageous film that tackles a difficult subject with grace and style. It delivers strong acting performances and some laughs along the way. I'm going to stick my neck out here and award it 8.5/10 - almost a 9! Go and see it - or buy some tickets for your 'old folks' as a treat.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Total Recall (2012)

I have not seen the original film, so this was fresh to me. I say fresh, but the central idea of a journey to discover who I really am is not a new one for cinema and certainly not new at all within the annals of science fiction. To me, the film was a cross between V for Vendetta and The Matrix (both Wachowski Brothers films) which borrowed visual elements from Bladerunner, Minority Report, Star Wars and hosts of other near-future dystopian sci-fi films.

The story explores two central questions:
  • How do I know what is real?
  • "Man's [sic] destiny is to discover who he truly is."
These areas are prime territory for metaphysical rumination as they explore key philosophical and epistemological themes. Most people wonder at one time or another 'why am I here?', some even wonder 'how do I know what is real?'. How the questions are explored indulges CGI and action cinema's appetite to wow and make adrenalin course through your veins! This film delivers pretty much non-stop kick-ass action for all of its 2 hours. Lots of fighting, guns, bombs and explosions. Very little injury.

Following a global war with biological weapons the only two areas of the world that are inhabitable are the UK and Australia. Workers live in Australia and commute through a giant tube train through the earth to the antipodes. The work is boring and unfulfilling and population densities are very high. The concept that gives rise to the title comes from an agency who offer to implant your mind with constructed memories that will seem real. These escapist memories of a perfect/alternative life offer people the opportunity to break out from the drudgery of daily life. There's also the threat of clone wars too!

So, a story about the oppressed and the oppressors offers a platform for the exploration of philosophical questions and for Kate Beckinsale (Lori) and Jessica Biel (Melina) to pursue the lead character Douglas Quaid/Hauser played by Colin Farrell. Oh - did I mention the girl with three breasts?

As a non-stop action film this delivers a lot. Not a lot of variety but a lot of ass-kicking. As a vehicle for philosophical exploration it falls short of what it might have been - disappointing. Not as good as it should have been - I'll give it 6.5/10.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Vertigo (re 2012)

On the back of being voted the greatest film of all time in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Vertigo has been doing the rounds again and I saw it today at Harbour Lights. I'm not sure it's the greatest film of all time. You can only make that call on objective data that can be quantified and measured to allow a comparison. Whilst technical stuff is vital and appreciated, it must surely be our affective response that might cause us to designate a film as being the greatest. I don't know about you, but my mood and my experiences mean that the way I respond to a film can be quite different on different viewings making it impossible to be definitive. All of that aside, I did enjoy the film and found it to be compelling viewing.

Hitchcock is an acknowledged master of suspense and the film noir genre. This is an excellent film that makes full use of the wonderful city of San Francisco as an expansive backdrop and it also delivers fine acting performances. James Stewart is captivating in the lead roll and Barbara Bel Geddes is simply wonderful.

The plot, to begin with, is straightforward but at the midway point it is almost as though the film experiences a second beginning where the hallmark Hitchcockian twist begins to unfold. Hitchcock's portrayal of someone descending into psychosis is masterful given what the 1950's technology made possible.

I can't say anything about the plot as any hint may blow it for those who haven't seen it. I imagine a couple of generations may not have experienced this film - go get it on disc or check out your local cinema - it's doing the rounds.

This is most certainly first class cinema. Whether or not it's the best film ever - I'll leave you to decide on that. I'm giving it 9/10.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Anna Karenina

Tolstoy's Anna Karenina gets a fresh twist in this new release starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law. Tolstoy found theatre loathsome so it is a brave act by Director Joe Wright to use Tom Stoppard's screenplay to set the story in a disused theatre! I think you either have to treat an epic costume drama in the conventional way, or do something new. I think the new in this case works. But be warned: a novel that runs to nearly 900 pages is never going to produce a short movie!

The story follows the book quite closely but Joe Wright employs plenty of theatre-style scene changes to move the story on whilst it remains on the stage and within the disused theatre. Flats drop and ascend, lighting brings characters into view and then hides them, perspectives change to add to the drama and the full-on lighting delivers eye-popping colour. This is then seamlessly edited together with footage shot outdoors - always on an epic scale with distant horizons to emphasise the vastness of both Russia and this story. The constant use of trains and carriages underlines and emphasises the journeys the characters were on. At times I found the music so intrusive it constantly felt like they were going to break into song!

The story is about relationships, love, fidelity, guilt and the pressure of social expectation. It also highlights very clearly that men can get away things that women in the world of Tolstoy cannot get away with. The story sets Anna at the centre but as well as her own marriage to Alexei, the relationships within the Oblonsky family are also put under scrutiny. The tales of the Karenin's is a mirror opposite of the Oblonsky's. The way in which the two primary suitors go about their tasks - Count Vronsky and Levin are also mirror opposites. It is within the intriguing web of these tangled relationships that the tragedy of Anna Karenina is played out.

The performances are all strong. I particularly liked the restrained and controlled Jude Law as Alexei Karenin and the warm and authentic Kelly MacDonald as Dolly Oblonsky. I found Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Count Vronsky to be immensely annoying - must have been good acting - and the painfully honest and painfully honourable Levin played by Domhnall Gleeson to be frustrating in the extreme - again, good acting. I'm sorry to report that I found Keira Knightly's performance less convincing. Both in terms of time and in terms of character development, her Anna Karenina became more like the character Sabina Spielrein that she played in A Dangerous Method (reviewed here) - hysteria and all! Come on Keira - you need to find some different roles to exercise your undoubted talent!

At 2 hours 10 minutes long, I found this to be just a little too long for comfort. However, the story is on such an epic scale that to make it any shorter might have rendered it meaningless. I appreciate the boldness of the conceptualisation and much of the acting. Whilst worthy, I shall not be rushing to add it to my collection of discs. There are many compelling films on release at the moment - see them before you see this. I'll give it 6.5/10.