Category Archives: Reviews

The Problem with Paranormal Activity

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR PARANORMAL ACTIVITY FOLLOW

Welcomed as a returning hero this year by the horror genre, Paranormal Activity heralded the commercial arrival, or re-arrival, of the ‘found footage’ genre (we’ve already got James Marsh entering the fray). The Blair Witch Project, a film still entirely underrated, popularised the sub-genre in the late-90s, though without it ever fully becoming a horror movement in the way that so-called ‘torture porn’ has managed.

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Producer John: Moon Review

***Spoiler warnings! This review discusses some of the finer points of Moon which do contain a few spoilers, read at your own risk!***

I love science fiction, a fact that has been established on our show a number of times. It’s fair to say that Primer changed the way I look at the genre in regards to films, I now have this ridiculously high standard when it comes to narrative but also low standard when it comes to effects or other aspects of the film. It’s a strange way to watch a film genre being equally hyper-critical and lovingly forgiving. In Primer for example some of the sound mixing is very poor but you can forgive it easily considering the film’s painfully restrictive budget and how well it achieves its main goal of portraying a convincing depiction of time travel and the breakdown of a once close friendship. It’s hard to describe but this is the kind of mentality that I took into the cinema when I saw Moon recently.

Moon has often been compared to such  stalwarts of the sci fi genre such as 2001 and Silent Running, it’s easy to see why. The film wears its influences on its sleeve with a heartfelt sincerity that’s instantly endearing. From the grainy and dirty look of the station exteriors to the pseudo-1970s design of the interiors, this film is already steeped in science fiction history from the very start. Everything in this film is a treat to fans of the genre. The premise, the design, the characters, everything.

The crux of the narrative reads like a thousand early Philip K Dick short stories. A lone worker on a Moon base carrying out the kind of maintenance that robots can’t perform wakes up in the base infirmary after suffering an accident outside on the surface. When he goes back out to investigate the crash he discovers his own body in the wreckage. What a hook! This kind of high concept science fiction is exactly what I look for in a film and Moon delivers on every level.

Considering Sam Rockwell is essentially the only visible cast member bar the ones we see fleetingly on video screens, he does a remarkable job of pulling the audience through the film. You’re with him every step and he carries the right amount of emotional weight during the heavier scenes while expertly judging the shifts in tone to more lighter comedic moments. It’s an incredibly detailed and rich performance, a performance that this film really needs its lead actor to command otherwise it’d be a crushingly dull flick.

Moon is played out with a conviction and reverence to science fiction sensibilities that’s sometimes overwhelming. Just like Primer, I couldn’t quite believe how perfect the film is in its purity as a good slice of sci fi. For all its little faults Moon is a spectacularly entertaining story near-flawlessly told.

5/5

Review: Antichrist

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Perversity amongst filmmakers can often be intensely offputting for audiences, that sense amongst some of the so-called enfant terribles of modern European cinema to poke fun at audiences in increasingly self-reflexive and judgemental ways. Last year’s most visible example of this came in the form of Michael Haneke’s US remake of his own Funny Games, seemingly an attempt to make audiences try to understand the urge to witness violence on screen through presenting a film which revelled in such detail.

Funny Games US didn’t work and Antichrist doesn’t either. I would posit that Lars von Trier is not seeking to punish or berate his audience in the way that Haneke was, but he does have a history of making films which make little, or no, concession to his audience. Dancer in the Dark, for all its moving brilliance, is as emotionally murderous as anything you will ever see.

Antichrist feels like his attempt to make a personal film which challenges its audience to try and understand the deepest, darkest recesses of his memory. Von Trier was reportedly going through a heavy bout of depression during the gestation of this film and that’s written all over the increasingly violent, self-flagellating scenes which he forces upon the viewer. This is a man seeking to exercise demons through the most primal, vicious imagery he can command and by inflicting such intense abuse on the film’s characters.

The film follows a couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, in the aftermath of the death of their young child. The death occurs mid-coitus for the two with the child venturing onto a table in their home and stepping out the window. By this point in the film, for those keeping score, we have already been treated to full penetrative sex and the death of a child within around four to five minutes of screen time, all film in pristine black-and-white and cut slow-motion.

The two, he a therapist and her seeking to finish her thesis on female suffering through the ages, then decide to go to a cabin in a place called Eden and proceed to try and work through the pain and grief of their loss, all the while indulging in increasingly violent sex and witnessing nightmare-like images throughout their travels.

From here on in, the film takes a turn towards Von Trier’s darkest impulses. The escalation of the sexual violence between the two results in her hitting him in the penis, drilling a hole in his leg in which to put a kind of axel attached to a stone wheel, before finally giving him a handjob which results in the ejaculation of blood. The film goes on from this point to have Dafoe attempt the murder of a crow with a stone and culminates eventually in Gainsbourg’s character lying next to him in the cabin and slicing off her clitoris.

There are arguments to be made on all sides for the validity of Von Trier’s vision, but the fact is that none, literally none, of the violence in the film is ever earned. The scenes towards the start with the two characters are so oblique that you fail to become even remotely involved in the world of these two people. When the eventually denouement comes, you are completely removed from the film with every escalating piece of violence or imagery because there is no involvement.

The cinematography is incredible throughout, so kudos to Anthony Dod Mantle for his work on the film. But outside of that, this is a solipsistic slice of self-important nonsense which, for all its supposedly shocking moments, doesn’t involve you, or seek to involve you, and therefore earns absolutely none of the controversy or attention it so desperately seeks.

Review: Bruno

Wazzup!

Wazzup!

Listening to the Slate Culture Gabfest in the past week, a comment was made that seems to epitomise how I feel about the filmic work of Sasha Baron Cohen. To paraphrase horribly, Sasha Baron Cohen is a genius at something, it just might not be movies.

Borat was a cultural and commercial phenomenon, beloved of critics and the public alike. I was never quite so sure. The film has a number of terrific moments, some cutting satire and some balls-out (pun-intended) physical comedy. My estimate was though that it relied a little too heavily on the slight, and I note slight, xenophobic tendencies involved in the accent of the character and never really said much which we didn’t already know.

Bruno is the same story, for all intents and purposes, with its lead character, a flamboyantly gay fashionista and presenter of a fashion show in his native Austria, moving to Hollywood to become a celebrity. When he gets there, he tries a number of different methods to make it, including supporting charities, adopting an African baby, making a TV show for CBS (which includes a dancing penis) and going straight.

Bruno is the step onwards from Borat in terms of the problems which I had with that original film. There is no doubting that the humour involved in the film is very, very funny. There are some moments in this film which you will, absolutely definitely, not have seen and may never see again. It is outrageous in ways so many could never have envisioned and provides belly laughs on a number of occasions.

Unlike Borat’s best moments though, this is very short on moments where the humour is designed to reveal something about its targets. Only two moments manage to restrain themselves in just providing the rope for the subjects rather than scrambling frantically to hang them up. The scene with the two blonde charity consultants may well give a bad name to the most fun of hair colours, but it captures the kind of base-level idiocy which can be possessed while people still run well-heeled, entrepreneurial ventures in Hollywood. The other great moment in this regard is his questioning of pushy parents for a photo shoot involving their children in which he gets them to agree to their children dressing as Nazis and working with bees.

Those moments, when Bruno returns to his roots in Da Ali G Show, are insightful and clever. He allows his subjects to hang themselves with their own faults and those comic moments have resonance.

It isn’t that everything else is worthless, but the primary problem is that Bruno doesn’t position himself as the enabler but rather the antagonist. He has to push people and boundaries as far as possible and, unfortunately, fails to make any salient points about homophobia. Spending half a film attempting to explain that homophobia exists in the culture of the deep south in the US? Hardly groundbreaking.

The question over how homosexuality is played in the film seems to be moot. Bruno is not gay. This character is not a gay human being, he’s not really even human. He’s so outrageously ridiculous that I cannot envisage a way in which someone could be offended by the character on that level. The argument being made is that he perpetuates gay stereotypes. I would argue he inverts them somewhat through how far he takes them. He plays on the flouncy character known best for its prominence in sitcoms of days passed, but there is almost no way that those stereotypes, even up to Jack in Will & Grace, would talk about or engage in the kind of physically dynamic sex scenes that Bruno engages in. This is gay beyond filmic gay and is one of the more successful parts of the film.

The basic fact is though, to return to that original paraphrase, Baron Cohen is not great over the course of a film. Da Ali G Show, a work of complete genius at its best, provides all three of his character with great, sparing moments. The film represent the epitome of having too much of a good thing which, when you’ve had too much, becomes bad.

Review: Public Enemies

Public Enemies Poster

There are certain films that you see announced, subsequently chronicled in their making and then given trailers prior to release that, when you actually see them, they are completely and totally what you had expected to see from start to finish. Public Enemies is, and note this is not wholly negative, exactly what you would expect a John Dillinger biopic directed by Michael Mann to be.

The film is extremely well made, professionally told in terms of story and character, contains a host of excellent performances, not least Johnny Depp in the lead role, and entirely hits all the markers you would expect that it would. While that means that any expectations you have had for the movie are likely to be met, it does mean that nothing is exceeded.

The film follows John Dillinger (Depp) from a blistering opening of his breaking cohorts out of prison through to his eventual demise outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. In between we witness his bankrobbing ways, see his Robin Hood qualities played to the extreme and experience him falling in love with Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette and finally seeing his time pass as other forms of criminal begin to usurp his place. This is all juxtaposed with a team of agents from the then-burgeoning FBI, led by Billy Crudup’s J Edgar Hoover at the top and Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis on the ground, who are trying to catch Dillinger and his gang, along with the other loosely associated gangsters around during the era.

No doubt here that the two key players in the film, Depp playing Dillinger and Michael Mann behind the camera, are great at what they are doing. From interviews that Depp has given promoting the film, he seemed to identify with those Robin Hood qualities of Dillinger – robbing banks during a period when foreclosures and collapses were commonplace in the financial world – and the film does not skimp on portraying Dillinger not so much as anti-hero, but as purely a hero. The film does seem to lack a discernable villain, even if Crudup’s slimy take on Hoover comes close and Stephen Graham’s somewhat-garbled rat-a-tat accent as Baby Face Nelson provides the film with at least one unfeeling gangster.

The problem in portraying Dillinger in this way is that you don’t end up grasping the kind of depth that would be needed from a character like that. Depp plays him very much in hero mode, meaning that an uncomfortable feeling seems to dominate the majority of the film in which the audience is being urged to not only try and identify with this bank robber, but to like and support his actions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this irresponsible on the part of the portrayers, but this seems to lose the film some traction in trying to get the audience to work harder to understand why he is so attractive to them. Depp plays him with almost too much charisma, too much likeability that you completely forgive any actions he takes – the most notable scene for this portrayal is during the first bank heist we see in which Dillinger takes captive a young female clerk and a manager from the bank. While they are awaiting their getaway, Dillinger gives the young girl his coat to keep her warm in the finest tradition of the gentleman robber. The problem is that we just don’t get any sense of weight in those bank robbery scenes that what he is doing is wrong and that we should question why we are behind him.

The other fault of the film is that it never strays from the traditional problems which hit biopics. Mann has managed to make a really good biopic in the past with Ali which, although certainly not a revolution in biographical filmmaking, made the wise choice to focus on only a small part of Ali’s life. This film does that to an extent, but it perhaps attempts to provide a little too much of Dillinger’s life and may have been a more focused and probing work had it been broken in two, giving Mann and the writers a chance to explore Dillinger’s character a bit more and give a portrayal of the man which doesn’t stray into cliche or basic biography channel fact-spotting.

None of this though is to suggest that the film is bad. It is expertly made and contains, during a shoot out in the woods towards its conclusion, at least one astounding scene. That scene plays to many of Mann’s action strengths, cutting out all other noise beyond the blast of the guns and, as was the case in Collateral and in Heat, the scene is rendered incredibly compelling. The cinematography style of the film, overseen by long-time Mann collaborator Dante Spinotti, mixes grained and washed colours with digital video. Many have felt it to be too much of a conscious decision, hurting the overall experience by drawing attention to itself. I would probably agree with that on principal, but it never prevented me from being visually drawn in.

There are a host of very good scenes surrounding this and some nicely-judged supporting performances, most notably from Jason Clarke as Red Hamilton and from Crudup’s Hoover in a smaller role. Cotillard doesn’t really get enough to do but she and Depp forge a strong relationship and chemistry on screen which means the relationship doesn’t just feel shoehorned in.

Christian Bale, whose star seemed unassailably on the rise, is pretty meaningless in this, giving perfectly passable turn as Purvis but, in fairness, trying to do quite a lot with very little. Purvis, who leads the Chicago office’s chase of Dillinger, was surely a much more interesting man that is portrayed here but that isn’t just not explored, it’s not really even hinted at. That lack of a tangible conflict between Dillinger and Purvis does mean the film suffers somewhat in its central battle. When the two meet following the first capture of Dillinger, its hardly like watching De Niro and Pacino in Heat.

Public Enemies seems, on paper anyway, to be a great conceit and match for its director. Yet this feels decidely hollow, a well-made but episodic depiction of a man whose life was surely much more interesting, multi-faceted and singular than this film ever indicates.

MOD RATING: Watchable but hollow, big on the basic elements of expert storytelling, lacking anything beyond pure technique.

Review: Observe and Report

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Seth Rogen is fast-becoming a very interesting type of new movie star. Not typically handsome in a matinee idol sense, he does have a loafish aesthetic charm and, when scrubbed up, isn’t too bad to look at. Despite that potential lack of looks, Rogen has formed a position as one of the top names in modern comedy, standing alongside the likes of Will Ferrell and, to an extent, Paul Rudd in having the chops to carry and open a movie while managing often to take over and control scenes and dominate the centre of a film. More than this though is his working ethos. It had seemed his desire had been to make films which entirely explore arrested development of the American male. He’s done this with 40-Year-Old Virgin, with Knocked Up, wrote this with Superbad and Pineapple Express and now, in a movie made entirely around him, has found a darker vein of this subject matter to mine.

It’s testament to his ethos of picking projects that Observe and Report is such a flagrantly provocative and difficult film. I’ll talk a little more about how far it goes later, because really it’s not quite as relentlessly dark as some would have you believe, but this is a film in which the lead character, Rogen’s bi-polar, semi-sociopathic mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt, is the most difficult depiction of arrested development you could imagine Rogen taking on. You could possibly argue that Barnhardt is a working pastiche of those aforementioned characters, someone who doesn’t have the kind of gen-X lacksadaisical attitude to life which, for example, Rogen’s Ben in Knocked Up has. Rather, Barnhardt is desperately seeking a purpose to his life rather than being pushed into it by a relationship or any kind of societal responsibility he may feel.

It’s that search for responsibility and a place in the grand scheme which forms the core of the narrative. Barnhardt essentially sees his opportunity for notoriety and purpose presented by the emergence of a flasher in the parking lot of the mall in which he works. The flasher exposes himself to a number of women, including Anna Faris’ make-up counter girl Brandi, the object of affection for Barnhardt. In a joint effort of his desire to protect her and his want to prove his worth as a security official at the mall, he embarks on a mission to find the pervert, thwarted by the efforts of actual detective Harrison, played in a creepily accurate portrayal of his own persona by Ray Liotta.

From there on in, the film is a series of events in Ronnie’s life which will eventually lead to his acceptance of his place, culminating in an ending to the meat of the plot which is both very funny and quite unexpected. That ending plays well with the rest of the violence seen in the film as director Jody Hill juxtaposes scenes of brutal fighting, primarily involving Barnhardt and often against a number of different opponents, with moments of comedy you would expect to find in Apatow-set films. This tonal shifting doesn’t always work and one scene, in which Rogen squares off with Human Giant’s Aziz Ansari in a lengthy exchange of ‘fuck you’s is funny but out of keeping with the rest of the humour used.

In fact, the humour portion of the film suffers a great deal from a desire by Hill to have characters and situations which associate more closely with high concept than finding humour in the actions, however brutal and difficult to take they may be, of the characters. In example, the entire performance of Michael Pena as Barnhardt’s sidekick is too broad to be in this film, coming across like a grown-up version of Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. Take that against a scene when, after being told about the verbal abuse being suffered by Colette Wolfe’s sweet coffee girl from her boss (an all-too-brief turn from Patton Oswalt), Rogen’s character does precisely what we’re led to believe he would do and marches into the back of the restaurant to violently attack and threaten both Oswalt’s character and his female cohort. Uncomfortable as it may be, that scene is funny because it rings true to the character Rogen and Hill have drawn. The laughter may be Freudian but it’s not manipulative in the way that Pena’s lisping fool often is.

Though that juxtaposition often suffers, the lengths to which Hill goes on the violence and more difficult parts of the movie are admirable. Not only that, but the actual fight scenes are extremely well-filmed and utterly heinous in execution. The scene in which Barnhardt takes on a group of crack dealers on the street is exhilarating and provides a neat turning point in adding a sense of actual danger to our protagonist. After this, his temper becomes a genuine threat to other characters in the film.

The most infamous sequence since its release however has been the sex scene between Barnhardt and Brandi, described by some as a date rape given the wild intoxication of the female character and the relative straightness of Barnhardt in the lead-up to their coupling. It’s a valid criticism to make but this is one of the points where, in all honestly, Hill shifts back from taking it too far and, as the close of the scene, has Brandi urge her paramour to keep going after he double-takes on her near comatose state. No doubt the scene is not pleasant but I can’t see the argument that it is date rape. I would argue that the scene is another in keeping with the character Hill has built. Barnhardt is bi-polar and misconstrues certain social situations throughout the entire film. While this is a very difficult misconstrument to justify for the character, that is what it is and to argue that is possibly missing the point.

I think however that a more prescient point about the scene is that it’s not very funny. Hill has said about the scene that he thought showing Ronnie having sex with her passed out “would be funnier”. That’s the point at which his decision to include the scene in the movie becomes more difficult to take. The scene itself pulls back from being a true date rape by having her urge his continuance but, while this could give Hill an out, that statement indicates something slightly disturbing about the kind of deliberate provocation he may have been seeking to tap into in the film and, rather than simply criminalise the scene, just provides a further indication that he was never quite sure what kind of film he was making here.

Black comedies, especially the most pitch black, must commit fully to that vein or risk blunting their teeth at the key moments. The date rape scene, as it’s likely to become known for eternity, is in keeping with a truly dark comedy about a serious anti-hero, but this is undermined nearly entirely during the closing scenes of the movie as Barnhardt is granted some sort of redemption and hero status. If Hill had stuck to the half of this film where he truly mined a really dark, difficult vein of humour, he would have created something really interesting. As it is, this is a bit of a hollow sell that has some outstanding moments but bottles it at key moments when it should be at its strongest. The people can complain about the date rape scene all they want but, really, this is just a decent black comedy attempt which defangs itself too easily to truly inspire cult devotion.

Review: Bronson

Bronson
Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Juliet Oldfield
Writer: Brock Norman Brock and Nicholas Winding Refn
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Controversial subjects tend to provide controversial movies and Bronson on face-value provides a number of probing questions as to appropriate film subjects and whether making a biopic of a man whose life has been less than upstanding will glorify his life choices. The question is fair but the argument would seem to fall if you can watch Nicholas Winding Refn’s film from an open-minded perspective for, while the film is heavily stylised and works hard to provide bone-crunching fight scenes, this is no glorification of a character. Rather, Winding Refn is concerned with creating an interpretation of the persona peddled by the erstwhile Charles Bronson, originally named Michael Peterson, rather than being concerned in any way in understanding his personal psyche. This is more of a work to try and gain an understanding of his personality type, someone who is craving fame to such a degree that he resorts to finding it through both ill-gotten means and onwards to making himself the top whatever prisoner Britain has ever known.

The film itself follows the story of Peterson across childhood and into his spells in prison when not in solitary confinement, plus his 69 days on the outside before he once more fell afoul of the law. The style employed smacks of the Clockwork Oranges in its juxtaposition of uncomfortable, clean colours and booming music which jars you into action, particularly notable is the use of the Pet Shop Boy’s ‘It’s a Sin’ during a tiny disco being held in the asylum he is sent to for a short time. Refn uses a lot of the similar camera movements you would see from music video directors from the past few years, reminding in places of some of Fincher’s earlier work or the less-successful but equally edit-conscious Jonas Akerlund. Refn though understands how to use the imagery and camera movements for a wider purpose which, incidentally, does not cohere to glorification of the lead character. He shoots Bronson, played by the astonishing Tom Hardy, as a bull of a man, but always finds ways to break down his triumphs, showing constantly how this man is failing to real even the despicable goals he aims for.

Most of this only works however because of the amazing performance from Hardy. He is phenomenally good in the lead role, eliciting uncomfortable sympathy at certain times but managing to provide such an intimidating, creepy figure at all times that any time you start to feel any empathy with his cause, its broken and busted down as he bursts into further fits of terrifying rage. It’s the kind of starmaking performance you tend to see once a year where an actor so much inhabits a character with gusto and intelligence, creating an indelible creation in a way I would argue could be compared to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, for a recent role.

Hardy is so good, he probably pulls the actual film up a notch or two, particularly in the patchy second half. The first half is punctuated with amazing visual flourishes and visceral scenes, including an amazing fight in a holding cage right at the outset. This drives the film onwards superbly as it switches pace within differing scenes based on where Bronson is. The moment its starts to lose its way somewhat comes after he goes back inside, plus certain scenes during his time outside the prison. The personal scenes between Bronson and a young paramour on the outside, where he falls head over heels while she wants to stay with her boyfriend, give Hardy yet more great moments of acting, this time doing so only with his eyes and face rather than having to levy is beefed-up frame. The final act, as he goes back inside and the story follows a tangent of his relationship with supportive art teacher, doesn’t quite work in the writing as Bronson is provided with figures giving him acceptance and encouragement, which leads then to disappointment and, again, violence. These sequences were again visually and aurally interesting and Hardy is excellent, but those character moves to too succinct and neat to work.

None of this stops this from being a worthwhile piece of work. The controversy of its glorifying violence or Bronson himself is entirely unwarranted and reeks of the kind of reactionary, Points of View-style protestation against a movie that I would guarantee was led primarily by the Daily Mail and exacerbated by a group of people who have not, and will never, see the film. It’s a provocative piece of work and filled with ideas and intuition, not to mention the amazing performance it draws from Hardy which should be central to any award campaigns in the coming year.

MOD Rating: ♦♦♦♦

Review: Watchmen

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Anticipation for comic book adaptations come in very different forms. The Batman movies all suffer from a similar fate in that fans want darker every time, hence the widespread spurning given to Joel Schumacher’s Cyberpunk nightmares during the 1990s. Daredevil suffered a similar fate, although in both cases, little argument can be made for the actual quality of the adaptations, let alone their inability to tap into the desires that fans have of what they envisage for beloved characters. Sometimes, the criticism becomes slightly unfair. Witness the recent news that Fantastic Four is to be rebooted by Fox with a view to providing a darker vision of their super-family strife. The Fantastic Four movies are not great but, admit it, they capture the spirit of the comics very well indeed.

Watchmen is an entirely different beast. You could compare them to other Alan Moore adaptations and the treatment they had, but that doesn’t quite grasp the kind of no-win situation into which Zack Snyder plunged himself by taking on, and subsequently talking up, a film version of Moore’s most revered work. V for Vendetta inspires great love amongst Moore fans but that adaptation seemed doomed from the beginning given the presence in the directorial chair of James McTeigue, the perfect example of what Kevin Smith described as ‘failing upwards’ in Hollywood. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn’t Moore’s most revered but it is a brilliant, rollicking set of tales. It should have been easy to adapt but, beset by problems across the board, you can understand why that one fell to pieces. None though carry with them the stigma of adaptation that Watchmen has. It is an distinctly mixed desire amongst fans to see the film adapted anyway. It has often been described as unfilmable, not least by Moore himself, while the likes of Terry Gilliam (who was advised not to embark on the venture by Moore himself) and Paul Greengrass walked on past without managing to bring it to life. So, as this beast arrives, the question is raised as to whether Snyder managed to pull it off, and whether he should have tried at all.

The answer to both is a very tentative yes. Watchmen is some achievement, a linear and entertaining action movie gleaned from source material which never gives any concession to such narrative convention. You could never deny that Snyder has pulled off the adaptation, and for that he should be applauded. But he should not be lauded because, while this is undoubtedly something to see, nearly every problem that this film has offsets the positives and, on both sides of that coin, Snyder takes responsibility.

Snyder is undoubtedly a visual stylist, maybe even auteur, and his fingerprints are smeared on every scene. There are a great number of moments from the graphic novel which get lifted into the film wholesale, itself a visceral thrill for any fan watching. In doing so, he manages to include a number of the bigger themes that the book explores, not to mention the moments of humour that Moore often slips in, a welcome addition to what is a big, serious movie. The title sequence deserves a significant amount of praise, given that it manages to provide the alternative history of Moore’s United States with panache and skill without every feeling like important information is being shoehorned in; it’s a lesson for anyone taking on big, difficult adaptations and how to deal with the fact that five-hour movies don’t tend to sell. The other huge positive the movie has is Dr Manhattan, a brilliant CG/human creation which outstanding work from Billy Crudup, joining Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian in bringing the characters to life with verve and skill. Manhattan’s screen-incarnation is so well-judged and intelligently used, he is easily the most fully-realised and well understood adapted creation in Snyder’s universe.

But, for all the good, the bad and mistepping comes streaming through to match. The minor gripes first. The sex scene, itself used in a semi-comic context in the movie, is incredibly poorly filmed and badly judged by Snyder, coming across like the worst form of late-night, Channel 5 nonsense. Akerman is weak as Silk Spectre 2, an undemanding character which she manages to make completely unbelievable, especially in the S&M variation on the original costume which reaks of at-least partial sexism. Matthew Goode too, whilst relatively good in terms of look and attitude as Ozymandias, is slightly out of place and, although reportedly this was an acting choice, his accent is all over the shop.

The real problems though fall to Snyder himself. He is a director with great visual flair and an understanding of action quotients and slickness. However, his addiction to slo-mo fight scenes and, in this case, astonishing violence in given parts (the alley way and Rorschach’s turning point with a cleaver). Snyder seems far too interested in the slo-motion sequences, themselves extremely annoying and lacking in the kind of pace needed, and ends up fetishising the violence in truly disturbing fashion. It seems as though his history on 300, a far less illustrious project but equally strewn with heavy, slo-mo battles, was more indicative of his overall style rather than his adherence to Frank Miller’s work. Any concentration on the violence in Watchmen is to miss the point of the story, especially when he’s putting in the action sequences in slo-mo and taking up time which should be used to bring in other story parts (most notably the magazine vendor and kid reading comic which frame the story in the comic so brilliantly). It seems to me that Snyder was much more interested in amping up the violence and action scenes and producing a linear movie, rather than managing to balance the more difficult moments in Watchmen with those base elements.

As a director, he can undoubtedly make a film in which you are dazzled by the visuals and the gung-ho entertainment value. But it seems he does not have the ability to grasp wider emotional issues. For that reason, Watchmen doesn’t quite manage to ascend to greatness. But, for all the faults that strew the movie, I would argue that this is the absolute best that Snyder could ever have done and, therefore, he can be rewarded on a personal level. But I cannot help but wonder what a more versatile directorial talent would have made of it. Given all the history though, I think I can just be pleased that Snyder managed to adequately sidestep fucking up the greatest work of graphic fiction of all time.

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tajari P Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemying, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Julia Ormond, Elias Koteas
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Eric Roth

Much talk amongst movie reviewers from the blogosphere in the run up to the 2009 Oscars has centred on the praise and focus being given to Slumdog Millionaire. So little has questioned the startling thirteen nominations given to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film which has managed to plough through the past few months without ever worrying over getting itself into the key categories in all ceremonies. That’s not to suggest this isn’t a good film, but there seems to be little in the way of questions being asked as to how a film almost universally considered something of a disappointment has managed to so sturdily entrench itself among the best films of the year.

It is certainly ambitious, basing its near-three hour narrative on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald concerning a gentleman who is aging backwards, and visually stunning. That much seemed true before its release given the trailers and the presence of David Fincher, maybe the most visually proficient auteur working in Hollywood. His presence here both reassures and causes anxiety given the subject matter, something tailor-made for grand American filmmaking in a tradition stretching well into old-Hollywood. He is a brilliant director, capable of understanding the need to project bigger ideas whilst also maintaining a perfect attention to detail, reaching his synergetic apex with Zodiac two years ago. This film seems half perfect for him. The visual aspects and the attention to both period detail and the need for the actors to dive into their portrayals work well for him, but he never seemed right for capturing the deep emotional bonds between the two lead characters and, indeed, this is where the film fails.

This can’t all be laid at the door of Fincher. He does create a spell-binding world for the film to exist in and carries forward the narrative at a reasonable pace, managing to avoid you feeling the length too much. The problem primarily comes from Brad Pitt. He is fine as usual but he works better in films where he has to have a short-attention span and puppy-dog demeanour, even if it’s a particularly deviant puppy dog. Here, he has to carry emotional weight which he is unable to do. It seems somewhat as through he has failed to heed the advice exhibited by George Clooney who understands both his limitations and strengths. Pitt seems to think he has the ability to pull of a role like this when in fact he occupies a similar space to Clooney, only eternally younger. It makes him a very difficult and awkward forty-year-old. Cate Blanchett is better, managing to be quite elegant and strong in her scenes but never exhibits what the charm is that Button so falls for. Easily the best member of the cast is Taraji P Henson as Button’s surrogate/adopted mother figure. She exudes love and motherly compassion for her children, lending her scenes a weight which the writing doesn’t really deserve.

The script from Roth is so close to Forrest Gump – even included a line about his mother, Henson, saying to him that ‘you never know what you’re gonna get’ – that you feel certain sense of déjà vu in places but, in fairness to Gump, that film is visually less exciting but far more emotionally impactful. The big beats in Roth’s script just don’t earn the kind of emotion they seek from the audience and therefore there is little to take from this outside of admiring the brilliance of the technical filmmaking.

That’s not to say this isn’t worthwhile. Fincher’s direction is confident throughout, even if he failed to understand the strengths of his regular collaborator Pitt. A more powerful actor in the lead role would likely have pulled Blanchett’s performance up to scruff too and made a truly emotional, very-near masterpiece. Unfortunately, Roth’s screenplay and Pitt’s performance just don’t have what’s needed to prevent the moments of schmaltz from ruining what should have been something special.

MOD Rating: ♦♦♦1/2

Review: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road
Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Dylan Baker, Richard Easton, David Harbour
Writer: Justin Haythe
Director: Sam Mendes

Adapting truly great novels onto film has always been, will always be, a near impossible task. The best novels, no matter their genre, tend to use the form in a way which proves beyond translation into another medium. Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is one of the finest novels ever written, a breathtakingly sad viewpoint on the modern world which resonates as clearly today as it did when first published in 1961. It captured the hollowness of the American suburban dream, the arrogance of its people and the country at large. More than that, it rendered a neo-realist story of marital strife as a parable for middle class existence and page-turning, compelling read. Adapting his work into cinema would always prove difficult given that he so beautifully uses the space allowed in books for character development to create interesting and at-least partly-relatable people, something which is so rarely allowed in the shorter-form world of movie-making, especially within a Hollywood system.

That’s not to suggest that Mendes’ film coheres to any sort of Tinseltown stereotypes in watering down its subject matter. This is a very depressing, very claustrophobic and quite hopeless thematic piece. Where American Beauty at least ended on a note which, while depressing, indicated a certain fulfilment in its lead character than transcended his existence, this has nothing of the sort. Where Lester in American Beauty exhibited a hopefulness as to what life can offer, Frank and April seems only ever to toy with the idea of actual hope, rather managing to just play along with a delusion they both understand but cannot help to be seduced by. At the film’s close, any sense that the Wheelers, or any other young family in their situation, could manage to escape the suffocating march to death that the lifeless conformity of suburbia offers seems slim.

The film, and Yates to a lesser degree, certainly manages to find no sympathy for American suburbia. The only character able to truly see through the sheen is John, played brilliantly by Michael Shannon, whose insanity seems to have allowed him to escape its confines and therefore gives him an outsider’s perspective on the dreams of the Wheelers and the lives of those living around them. April and Frank never quite manage to see through their own pretension and illusions. They believe themselves to be better than those around them when in fact they are simply unable to accept the basic human rites of passage of understanding that you are not destined for great things and at some point, you have to accept that the flighty ambitions of youth need to be placed on the wayside. The entire premise of the film is the hopelessness of life which transforms it into a slow march towards death’s door. The concept is carried over from the novel but there is seems to have so much more emotional resonance. In the film, it’s just depressing.

Part of the problem is the script by Justin Haythe which manages to take all the key events that occur in the book but doesn’t manage to either bring across the cutting dialogue or the resonance of what happens. The dialogue throughout is stagey and uninspiring. It’s delivered with gusto but even with the actors working hard, it can’t shift outside of being stilted.

The issue then is that Mendes is unable to bring anything to the film to try and express the resonance that should be there. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is uniformly brilliant, managing to enhance the entire film without every bring attention to itself, as is the lighting which could be given in credit to the DP but, given the brilliant of the lighting in all of Mendes’ work, I would suggest he deserves some credit there. But outside of that, there isn’t much he can do to get the film to rise above its script. He can rely on Winslet, yet again proving herself probably the finest actress of her generation, but DiCaprio seems a little lost. He has proven himself a sterling performer in the past few years but he still hasn’t managed to be able to work within roles which require an older, more beaten performance. He is fine in the film but he can’t keep up with Winslet who constantly manages to disappear into her roles and convinces the audience of any actions or emotions she runs to during the film. Her final moments in the movie are desperately sad, easily the best synergy achieved between the acting and filmmaking in the whole picture. Michael Shannon too is outstanding, taking a role which could so easily have been overplayed and keeping it contained and impactful through refusing to let himself of the leash.

The film just can’t ever rise to meet the source material. Where it should be resonant and maybe a little scathing in its critique, it ends up a depressing and somewhat hollow experience. Breaking down the American dream is being done better in Mad Men and was done better by Mendes himself in American Beauty. Winslet and Shannon deserve the plaudits, but otherwise this is a curious and lifeless portrait of something which should have had such meaning.

MOD Rating: ♦♦♦

Review: Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon
Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Matthew Macfadyen, Toby Jones
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan

Ron Howard has an ability to make engaging and entertaining films about fascinating subjects which end up being hollow, forgettable and ultimately short of the mark of being great. Howard is a technically skilled but unimaginative, workman-like filmmaker, although that perhaps does sell short his ability to entertain an audience. He is no fool and certainly no philistine when in the chair, but for me represents a second-rate Spielberg, constantly able to make films wider audiences will enjoy but without that indefinable final part of the puzzle within his personal grasp to create anything truly unforgettable.

That’s not to say however that I haven’t enjoyed the vast majority of his films. Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man are both examples of his working at the top of his game, but also, alongside A Beautiful Mind, are indicative of this way about his work that rips the truly interesting parts of a story away for the sake of wide-appeal entertainment and manipulative emotion. Frost/Nixon falls squarely into the category of his better works, a film which is wildly entertaining and superbly acted which suffers as Howard struggles to engage on any level beyond what is literally on the screen. There is no deeper resonance to Frost/Nixon which there really should be, even if he comes close on occasion.

The film follows the quest by David Frost in the mid-1970s to get an interview with Richard Nixon, the former US president who a couple of years prior resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal. Frost, at the time, was a politically unengaged celebrity talk show host who was highly popular in the UK but struggling to break into the fame game in the US. He saw this interview opportunity as a chance to alter his image and break his celebrity in the US while Nixon, according to what we see in the film, saw the interview as both a chance to present a real image of himself to the American people and the espouse his own views on his actions when in office. Frost has to bring together a team of researchers to form a cutting interview with the president and finds himself out of his depth for the majority of the interviews conducted, finally breaking through in the latter stages when he finds some greater motivation to win the battle, along they way conducting a sort of psychological battle which Nixon wins easily through his years of political training.

What should occur then in the film is a battle between these two contrasting egos, and Howard does manage to play this story quite well. In one of the marquee scenes, Nixon telephones Frost late at night prior to the final interview, screaming at him about his coming from humble beginnings and that the two together are working to prove their worthiness to the elite, and will eventually destroy them. It’s a terrific dramatic scene which builds towards the final portion of the movie which also is high tension and high entertainment. Indeed, if for nothing else, this film should be credited with breaking the curse of the collapsing second half of a film as it gets stronger as it goes with a first half which struggles to engage outside of simply watching real life characters be played with skill.

The acting is relatively strong although Sheen, so good when playing Tony Blair, seems to be playing Tony Blair doing a David Frost impression in this film. Langella gives a titanic performance as Nixon, capturing mannerisms and personality traits without ever falling close to impression, rather inhabiting a complex and difficult character with the same level of aplomb seen from Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s Secret Honor. The rest of the supporting cast is given short-shrift. Sam Rockwell, always excellent, is good as obsessive journalist James Reston Jr while Oliver Platt provides strong support alongside Rockwell as Bob Zelnick. Kevin Bacon though, one of the finest and still underrated actors of his generation, is awful as Jack Brennan, playing him as through he has a quasi-homosexual attraction to Nixon which makes their scenes seem somewhat strange and jilting.

The problem, I’m sorry, is Howard’s direction. He does deliver a very entertaining semi-thriller but the film never reflects the obsessive nature of those hunting the public conviction of Nixon. The political discussion scenes, in which they wisely choose to exclude Frost, reflecting his real life lack of political conviction of knowledge, are never in depth enough to work beyond being basic network television-style discourse, therefore failing to add any intelligence or historical depth where there should be so much. That’s probably more Morgan’s fault, however. Adapting his own script, he doesn’t seem to understand where the drama will be until much later in the film, although this is much better than was seen in the unbelievably-overrated The Queen, a TV-movie at best.

Howard’s problem here is his own ambition. He wants to make this a kind of 1970s-style political thriller, primarily in the mould of something like All the President’s Men. The problem is, All the President’s Men is a masterpiece which can never be imitated with any success, and Frost/Nixon proves the theory. Where that film revelled in the research and understanding of the actions of the man, this revels in the drama of leading up to climactic interview scenes, an amateurish-tactic which Howard falls towards because he is unable to achieve the kind of grace of complex storytelling that Alan Pakula did thirty years ago. You can’t blame Howard for attempting it, but his failure to manage it brings the rest of the film into a harsher light. The verité style he employs at certain points, using handheld cameras and terrible talking head scenes with the characters involved, doesn’t work and you end up wishing he would just stick to what he does best and just make an entertaining if entirely non-challenging film.

I won’t fault the ambition of the move, and this is a worthwhile and fun film to watch, but you can’t help but imagine how this could have turned out in the hands of Spielberg or perhaps, given the verité attempts, Paul Greengrass. Unfortunately, it becomes another film from Ron Howard which strives for greatness, but never manages to achieve it.

MOD Rating: ♦♦♦

Review: Milk

Milk
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Lucas Grabeel
Director: Gus van Sant
Writer: Dustin Lance Black

While likely never by design, Milk comes to the wider filmmaking market at a startling prescient point in history which adds further weight to its message and attaches a sense of pessimism for modern life with yet further hindsight allowed. A film which focuses on likely the most famous political figures in the gay rights movement, a centrepiece of which was his defeat of Proposition 4 in California which would have allowed gay teachers to be fired over their homosexuality, comes to us amid the recent failure of modern California to beat Proposition 8 which took away the right for homosexuals in the state to be married. Whether Gus van Sant and Dustin Lance Black meant for this to occur is highly questionable but you cannot watch Milk with that knowledge in mind and not feel anger and disappointment, maybe even falling far enough into philosophical cliché to consider how far we have not come.

Although that’s the thought that comes through, and certainly provides much of the power to the film on any external level, it doesn’t feel like the purpose. Van Sant seems mostly to be looking to explore the life not only of Harvey Milk himself in California in the 1970s, but also the environment experience as a homosexual in that period of time. It’s structured in three primary acts, defined by the single relationships he harbours during those times.

The first, and most effective of them all, is the earlier, formative part of his political and activist career and relationship with Scott Smith (James Franco) where the drive to become the figure he would later be comes through everyday experience, fighting for little but important issues for homosexuals in and around his life and aiming to build bridges with the wider community. The relationship between the two seems one of equals, two intelligent and passionate people who worked to find time for each other while also trying to support the movement. Those cracks begin to show as the first act closes and Scott’s departure is key in Milk’s life. Never however does it lose the atmosphere of their time together, all quiet and respectful of each other, the kind of relationship that the majority of people want to experience, while their intimate moments and sensual and sexy, van Sant filming with his usual dream-like quality but entirely unafraid to place us right inside those most intimate times. The performances by both Penn and Franco during those scenes warrant Oscars on their own, subtle and loving and entirely convincing as a secure pair.

The second act then follows the beginning of difficulties in his life as Milk succumbs to the less challenging company of Diego Luna, his other key relationship. Luna’s Jack Lira represents an entirely different side of relationships to Franco’s Smith. He’s unstable and politically inactive but doesn’t provide any threat or difficulty to Milk during his off-hours from his increasingly fraught and stressful political career. As this relationship grows, so too does Milk’s success as a political figure, maybe because he is able to focus on it without having to bring it into his home. Yet his spirit seems to be sapping during these portion of the film. Again, the sex scenes between Penn and Luna work well in grasping the different type of relationship he has, far less intimate and much more lustful and concerned with minimal-strings fucking. Luna though derails certain points of the film with his performance. He never manages to access anything beneath the surface of his troubled character and eventually paints a two-dimensional sketch of an important piece of the puzzle in understanding Milk and the progression of his life.

The final portion of the film then focuses on the combative relationship between Milk and rival councilman Josh Brolin’s Dan White, the man who would eventually become Milk’s killer. White himself could have been played as such a monstrous creation, a rampant homophobe and ignoramus who wanted only to prevent the rise of homosexuality in his city. Instead, Brolin plays him with a degree of empathy, trying to portray an essentially good man who could not understand the evolution of the world around him and struck out to try and stop such change. He is a family man and seems almost a reluctant hater of Milk’s cause, unable also to play the political game with the same sense of ruthlessness that Milk himself can access. White couldn’t quite access that kind of skill in getting what he wanted and making deals, finally succumbing to the pressures he felt to try and ‘protect’ his family and community from the rising power of homosexuals in the city.

Milk doesn’t quite manage to sidestep all the problems that normally come with biopics, primarily the issue that the audience, if it has any knowledge of the man, knows precisely where the film is going. How they get there is mixed. Van Sant does imprint some personality on the storytelling style, meaning that his avoid being a basis A-B story of a life. But the scenes with Luna do derail portions of the film and the probing of Milk’s psyche is not done as well as Van Sant attempted in Last Days, a flawed but more meditative and ultimately investigative attempt to understand the motivations of its lead character. The performances are, excepting Luna and in certain parts Emile Hirsch, uniformly great. Penn is astonishing, inhabiting the character and pulling off both the intimate moments and the rallying speeches with aplomb. His Milk is a gentle man but a ruthless politician, a perfect combination for any cause, and Penn’s creates a character that would be welcomed with open arms into the gay rights movement of modern times. Franco is brilliant and calm as Smith, playing his role with restrained emotion and intelligence while Brolin gives extra dimensions to a character which could have been an uninteresting monster. Also worth mentioning is Alison Pill as Milk’s latter campaign manager who bring a youthful knowingness and realism to her role beyond her years. Van Sant’s direction is beautiful, a more successful combination of the ethereal qualities of his indie pictures (Elephant, Paranoid Park) with a mainstream style than Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester in the past, while the cinematography by Harris Savides (a regular Van Sant collaborator and shooter of Zodiac) is stately yet character-filled, adding to the picture while only occasionally drawing attention.

A worthy film and certainly one with modern relevance, Milk may well shine an unfavourable light on the modern gay rights movement, but it also serves its audience on a wider political level, concerning itself with another charismatic and optimistic politician looking to unite the American people in a style not far removed from the rhetoric espoused by Barack Obama. It’s a brilliant film on many levels and, if it never really gives a full understanding of the personal motivations of Milk, it doesn’t really need to and therefore becomes essential viewing for anyone interested seeking a biopic which doesn’t fall headlong into cliché and presents a character worth mourning.

MOD Rating: ♦♦♦♦1/2

Review: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger,Mather Zickel, Tunde Adebimpe, Anna Deavere Smith
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Jenny Lumet

Anne Hathaway has long seemed like she was seeking a breakout role to burst out of matinee status and into the accepted upper echelons of the film world. Her role here as Kim is absolutely the one to take her there and shares much in common with Mickey Rourke’s turn in The Wrestler. Hathway’s desire to move into the elite early in her relatively storied career indicates a desire for acceptance and love, a perfect fit with the recovering drug-addict and self-destructively needy Kim.

The film follows the wedding of Rachel, played beautifully by Rosemarie DeWitt and sister of Kim, who finally seeks to have her day in the limelight of the family after a life lived in the shadow of the higher maintenance Kim. But Kim is coming home for the days around and on the wedding, attending meetings and screwing the best man while commanding all the attention of her broken but resilient father, again played with a sense of kindness that endears throughout by Bill Irwin.

Demme employs a handheld camera to place us within the fighting and barbed comments of the family and the tactic proves highly effective. The film has a great deal of momentum as it builds thematically, increasing the tension and uncomfortable nature of scenes constantly until a heart-stopping emotional release. Lumet’s script also reveals information cleverly, not holding back any grand reveals or any other forms of convolution, rather just allowing the basic drama of the events she had created to burn through.

Up until the actual wedding, this is very close to a perfect distillation of the discomfort felt by most when forced to spend time with family with all of the difficult history and unspoken annoyance and anger that goes along with that. But the wedding scene beats the momentum out of the film before a key scene between the daughters and the damaged mother, a welcome return for Debra Winger. The montage of band after band goes on for far too long and you end up being taken out of the film by the constant barrage of music. It’s understandable that Demme wanted to provide us with a real feeling of the wedding and maybe it was all a comment about the Connecticut attitude of the family, attempting to exhibit a love of alternative and world culture whilst residing in the hedge fund capital of the world. Maybe that’s the aim, but it just kills the excellent structure up to that point.

The acting is uniformly strong with both Hathaway and DeWitt moving more towards being exceptional. DeWitt’s role is the more difficult, having to play second fiddle to Hathaway’s Kim and constantly provide the teetering emotional foil, the family rock who continues to love her sister despite her actions in the past. Hathaway though is absolutely outstanding. Demme uses her features with great skill, her big eyes and big mouth both are used as signifiers of her desire for understanding and love. He uses Hathaway’s obvious beauty cleverly by juxtaposing this with both the ignorant and difficult language she uses, mostly for effect rather than any malice. It’s a perfect synergy of directorial and writing vision with breakthrough acting which will deservedly take Hathaway into the annuls of the best in her generation.

Without that annoying moment towards the end when the structure falls in on itself, this is a very good if emotionally jarring film and Demme’s best since Silence of the Lambs.

MOD Rating: ♦♦♦♦

Review: The Wrestler

The Wrestler
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Barry, Mark Margolis, Judah Friedlander
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Robert Siegel

Two great thrills for the movie buff are herein. 1) Witnessing the perfect synergy between actor and character, when the real blends with the reel and the voyeuristic pleasure of witnessing a real person accessing darker parts of their soul for our entertainment. 2) Watching a visionary, visually intense director switch into making a near-genre piece on which they are able to impose their own style and filmmaking values, e.g. David Lynch with The Straight Story.

The Wrestler provides this through both an astounding, physical and committed performance by Mickey Rourke, allowing his audience to understand the parallels between himself and his character and to look clean into his soul and empathise/sympathise with his pain. Then we have Aronofsky, coming off the challenging, often beautiful The Fountain, who employs Cassavetes-esque neo-realist filmmaking techniques in telling a relatively straightforward story. It should be a sports movie, but it falls more into becoming a theatre film, an exploration of art and performance and the overwhelming need to achieve. In that sense, it falls more in line with Pi and oddly The Fountain, the latter in our watching of Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson fighting to remain a star, obsessively seeking acceptance and love in comparison to the obsession of Hugh Jackman’s character in the real-world portions of the film when he is fighting obsessively for something he loves.

The film ostensibly follows the life of pro-wrestler Randy, spending his time wrestling in town halls and strip clubs and unable to pay the rent on his trailer home. Randy then suffers a heart-attack after a particularly fierce hardcore bout, medically ending his career as a wrestler. After this life-altering experience, Randy switches his focus to try and pursue a romantic relationship with aging stripper Cassidy, played with grace and complexity by Marisa Tomei, and his estranged daughter Stephanie, played by Evan Rachel Wood with a great line in teenage anger and tears but little behind the façade.

Randy is an eternal entertainer, consistently looking for love and acceptance from those around him. In the film’s most joyous moments, we watch him perform for customers behind a deli counter, dishing out one-liner alongside egg salads and side of ham. The scene is indicative of so many sequences in the film when Randy is outside of the wrestling arena. During a recent interview with Aronofsky, Elvis Mitchell pointed out the ceilings and lighting often being low and encroaching, giving the sense that Randy is too big for many of the rooms in which he stands. When he is backstage before a bout, those around him ingratiate not only with their admiration for Randy as a competitor, but also with their physical size. He no longer looks hulking or out of place, which can also be attributed to his hair and general features.

Much of the brilliance of the film needs to be attributed to Rourke and Aronofsky. The script, by Robert Siegel, employs a number of basic sports movie traits and clichés, even through the driving portion of the narrative by which Randy has a major medical scare and then must re-evaluate his life, only to once more come back to the fray for one last fight. Some of the dialogue too seems straight out of the handbook but, together with Tomei, the conviction of the actors and nuance of the director mean this never gets in the way.

Marisa Tomei’s transformation of the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold character into a complex portrait of a woman who, like Rourke, cannot give up the performing and adoration of the crowd is particularly impressive. A key difference in their thematic relationship comes during a scene in which she spends a day with him, coming to meet with in broad daylight with very little make up on yet he remain primped and proper and not too far removed from his persona. It’s a key issue for him that he is unable to separate his two lives. When at home, he plays a wrestling computer game against some kids, playing as himself. In scenes at a bar later on, he is happy to play up the wrestling persona in order to have sex with one of a number of groupies who arise. He is unable to separate his real life from his wrestling persona in the way that Tomei’s character manages to separate Cassidy, the stripper, from Pam, the mother. It’s an outstanding performance from Tomei which, along with her great turn a few years back in In the Bedroom, should put any perceptions relating to My Cousin Vinny behind her.

Rourke is though, worthy of all the plaudits. He is accessing parts of his soul that few actors can. The volatility and self-destructive nature exhibiting constantly by Randy throughout must have chimed with Rourke himself. As much as anything, it proves him amongst the finest actors America has ever produced. He was always great during his hey day in works like Diner and Angel Heart, but this is quite different. He captures heart and soul both during his time as the entertainer and wrestler, and during the quiet moments with Wood and Tomei. He is gentle and sweet but destructive and hurtful. The exchange between he and Tomei when the two argue fiercely over what kind of connection they have is painful to witness but not once does it fall beyond the realm of being believable. It’s a performance which, through capturing those quiet intimacies and the grandstanding emotional weight, could and should win him an Oscar.

Aronofsky probably won’t win anything but he really should. This is toned down ten-fold from the hyper-frenetic editing of Requiem for a Dream or from the quasi-biblical imagery of The Fountain. He is pulls back his camera, allowing the audience to just witness the character rather than be placed within the protagonist’s mind. He allows the performance from Rourke to impress from the third person, never allowing it all to become too wrapped up in providing answers as to who is right or wrong in any of the situation, or enough information to prevent the ending’s enigmatic probing. The final shot of the film is indeed his finest achievement thus far. Building to it beautifully, the final ten minutes or so become completely transcendent, moving beyond basic filmmaking to find humanity beyond the tears you will almost certainly shed. Much also must go in praise to Maryse Alberti, well-known as a documentary cinematographer who here not only shows the wrestling bouts with visceral detail, but knows and understands how to present a character and place rather than create one. It’s cinematography that, like Aronofsky’s direction, is not showy enough to win Oscars but its just the kind of subtle understanding that they should concentrate on.

While the script may not live up to the whole piece, the film remains borderline perfect for me. I would suggest that while the dialogue is somewhat corny and the narrative itself clichéd, the beats of the story work very well in creating a nice structure to the film. Nothing happens which seems out of place or overly-convoluted. Add to this the best performance from a leading actor this side of the millennium, a sterling supporting turn from Tomei, gorgeous and brutal photography from Maryse Alberti and understated direction from Aronofsky, I think you have one of the year’s most satisfying movie experiences.

MOD Rating: ♦♦♦♦♦

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal
Director: Danny Boyle (Loveleen Tandan, co-director)
Writer: Simon Beaufoy, from the novel by Vikas Swarup

Lauded prior to release on our side of the pond, Slumdog Millionaire is a pretty outstanding piece of British filmmaking, one of the fine times when Danny Boyle’s stylistic ability converges with a sense of powerful emotion. Not only that, it’s one of the first mainstream attempts by a movie in the UK to engage with the cultural melting pot which exists, primarily made from Asian and English personage.

We follow Jamal, a young kid from the slums of Mumbai, then Bombay, as he stands on the verge of winning the top prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. As he gets to the last question, Jamal is carted off by authorities who accuse him of cheating. The film then structures out to explore a series of events in Jamal’s life which have given provided him with all the answers to be able to win the quiz.

Promoted as a feel-good movie, it’s one of the strangest forms of such a sub-genre. The vast majority of Slumdog Millionaire sees the horrific life of a slum child in India across the poverty of his early life and his witnessing of the building up of the new India. Some scenes of the film are truly horrific and the tenor of that part of his life seems hopeless, only pulled back from the edge of depressing by Danny Boyle’s kinetic direction and a sense of hope that the movie plumbs constantly to remind us of the adage that true love will eventually prevail. If this subtracts from the film’s ability to surprise, making it relatively predictable in terms of getting from A to C, the B section is where we, and Jamal, earn the happy ending.

The events that occur in Jamal’s life are horrendous, frightening and deeply troubling; from his life working in a harem of beggars for a master willing to do anything to make them more likely to solicit sympathetic donations to his constant battles and ventures into the darkest parts of town to continually find his love, Latika. But they begin by the close for form a semi-biblical trial that Jamal must go through, reconciling his relationship with his brother and, with the gameshow, giving himself a sense of closure on that part of his life and a new beginning to look forward to. The relationship with his brother, the wayward Salim, is maybe the strongest part of the film. The two are not diametrically opposed and manage to capture the anger and forgiveness balance that is necessary within a brotherly relationship.

Boyle’s direction is constantly outstanding, visually superlative and infusing what could be a slog of a film with a vitality and energy that drags it through any of the more disturbing elements of the story. The performance match this well with both Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, as Jamal and Latika respectively, are wide-eyed and naïve filled with the possibilities of love and drawing the audience into their relationship enough to mean that few will begrudge Boyle his climactic moments. Also outstanding are Anil Kapoor as the host of Millionaire, just smarmy enough to be entertaining during the show, and the always-excellent Irrfan Khan as the police inspector questioning Jamal.

I would struggle to entirely characterise this as feel-good given the journey needed prior to any real feeling good. But this is a superb film, hugely enjoyable and brilliantly made and will surely be making year-end lists across the UK.

MOD Rating: ♦♦♦♦