Reviewed on May 9th, 2013
Universal presents a film directed by J.J. Abrams
Screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch and Simon Pegg
Running Time: 132 minutes
Released: May 9th, 2013
In 1966 Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek as a TV series and coincidentally this was the same year that director J.J. Abrams was born. The show was pitched as a space Western in the vein of Wagon Train, which was a Western mystery show set on the Frontier. Star Trek converged with the start of the Vietnam War. Roddenberry had already seen action as a fighter pilot in World War II. To counter Vietnam, his version of Earth was a society without conflict and in space there were galactic truces, race relations and a sense of unity aboard the ship the Enterprise. As with any good Western, there was moral code of ethics between men, no matter how pointy their ears might have been. Roddenberry believed in a disciplined society that could be unaffected by war or religion. Spock for example was said to be modelled on a police Chief he knew when he was part of the LAPD.
After many years as a TV show and dozens of films, someone decided Star Trek should be reinvented yet again and Abrams was hired to transform it into a glossy action film. As a filmmaker J.J. Abrams is somewhat of an enigma. One of his heroes growing up was Steven Spielberg. When he was a boy he was hired to repair some old film footage for him. Spielberg would later produce Abrams most personal film Super 8, a movie that typifies the director's career. Part of the film is a loving tribute to home movies and geek culture, while the other is a bombastic, overblown blockbuster, short of any personal imprint. He's a slick filmmaker, I enjoyed his TV show Alias until it became ridiculous, but he struggles to find the balance his idol has between action and character. Into Darkness is a better film than the messy 2009 film though. The best scenes overcome the generic, simplification of the action genre by retreating back towards the essence of the original show: a morally ambiguous grey zone, where the values of the characters and their races are tested. However, the characters are still bound by a rigid story structure, where at least ten elaborate set pieces take full precedence over the human and Vulcan drama.
The most interesting aspects of the plot are when Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) butt heads over their different beliefs. Kirk is tasked with tracking down a rogue agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is now essentially a terrorist bomber, causing havoc in London by using desperate people to do his bidding. This leaves a chilling, lasting impression, particularly when the film adds a layer of complexity, with Spock insisting that Harrison should be captured and trialled first. He's at odds with the order of the mission and Kirk, who wants revenge for the death of a colleague. Cumberbatch is frighteningly good in the film, a massive improvement over Eric Bana's villain in the first movie. The tension he brings through his menace, his arrogance but also his ability to cast doubts in the minds of the protagonists about who the baddies really are, is a magnetic quality that is hard to prepare for prior to seeing the film. What a terrific find he's become over the last few years.
However, by ingraining itself in the structure of an action film, a lot of this ambiguity is undone. Whereas action and moral ethics fought and overlapped persistently in The Dark Knight, Into Darkness' rhythm is too discrete and foreseeable. The action is timed acutely to follow a stretch of exposition, dividing itself between moments of ideology and combat, and the emphasis on set pieces means the lines between good and evil become transparent again and remove the crucial shades of grey. Abrams also seems more interested in choreographing lavish action sequences than exploring the personal side of the drama. His imagination in the set pieces is limitless. He employs an array of frenzied techniques, including rapid cutting, tilting cameras, overhead shots and quick pans, to breeze through the action. Yet when the characters stop to face one another and talk his direction has none of the same flair or creativity. The actors sit or stand still, with the camera perched on their shoulders for dull reverse angle shots that don't heighten the tension.
Rarely do we ever see these characters in their downtime either. Without any inner life they become ciphers for voicing conflicting moral ideas, like instinct against logic or law and these conflicts are often resolved within a scene of one another. After watching Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan recently, which Into Darkness borrow from, it's also fascinating that Kirk is viewed as an ageing man who has to start thinking about death and his legacy. In this film he's more on par with Tony Stark, able to bed two alien girls with tails at once. That amplifies where they're aiming this film at, in spite of the occasionally intriguing layering of the story. For a franchise that prides itself on going where no man has gone before, the Enterprise is starting to travel in circles.
Reviewed on May 2nd, 2013
Icon presents a film directed by Harmony Korine
Screenplay by Harmony Korine
Starring: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and James Franco
Running Time: 94 minutes
Released: May 9th, 2013
In 1995 Harmony Korine wrote the screenplay for the Larry Clark film Kids, an unflinching drama about kids engaging in underage sex and drug use. Two years later, Korine made his directional debut with the bleak, apocalyptic Gummo, which charted more absurdist waters in a post-apocalyptic world of boredom and young people running amok. Troubled youths is a reoccurring theme that has stayed with this former skateboarder right up till now.
Spring Breakers is a more accessible and commercial film than Gummo but its short of a narrative and it lacks the matter-of-fact treatment of Kids. There's a memorable visual style and a bizarre, entertaining performance by James Franco, but not enough story or insight to certify its importance. The film is long and flabby, its characters and plot underdeveloped and Korine's direction lacks certainty. Is this a critique of a self-absorbed generation, a comedy, a thriller or just an exercise in perversion?
The film is about four bored college girls named Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), who want to party during spring break. When they can't pool enough money together for the trip, they decide to rob a diner. They reach the spring break destination, only to be arrested by the police and then bailed out by a man calling himself Alien (James Franco). He is a drug dealer that encourages them to join him on a crime spree and wipe out a nearby rival gangster.
In an interview with the Australian movie magazine FilmInk, Korine discussed his intentions for the film: "I make movies because I like the story and the characters. I'm not making a movie that's an indictment on American culture, or a movie that's about boobs or guns - those are parts of that world and that fabric, but it's not about that." As Korine suggests, the film's point becomes extremely elusive, particularly when the filmic style is separated from the theme, and his direction relies on technique to substitute plotting.
The early scenes work to instill feelings of belonging. The long shots of the still, tired, grey and empty college grounds reflects the girls' isolation because they fear they won't experience anything new or meet anyone exciting as everyone has already left for spring break without them. These shots are juxtaposed by the party scenes, which are filmed through the extensive use of montage, with music playing over slow-motion and highly saturated images.
It provides these ugly scenes of drinking, drugs and senseless nudity as a dream-like vision of paradise in the minds of these morally corrupted girls. "Pretend it's a video game...act like you're in a movie," one of the girls says to further highlight their detachment from reality. The night scenes reflect darkness in mood and lighting but also moral decay, with only the fluorescent colours of the girls' costumes brightening the screen to suggest their belief in their own self-importance, while the broader landscape of society fades into the shadows.
However, the film's voyeuristic disposition reveals Korine's apathy towards character development and narrative thrust. Korine's costume choice of leaving the girls in their swimsuits for most of the film, and the way that his camera lingers over those raunchy party scenes, evokes an unintentionally creepy sense of perversion. Apart from the opening scenes, the elaborate neon visuals eclipse the story and characters, with the repetitive vision of raunchy partying making the film seem excruciatingly long and banal.
Selena Gomez is the only standout of the girls, proving that she can act by showing some believable emotion. However, the religious symbolism of her character barely registers as one-dimensional and the other three girls, despite their intimidation factor, are underwritten and lack distinction. James Franco provides the most memorable role of his career as Alien, a cross between a hip-hop rapper and the Devil, who has a cornrows haircut, gold teeth and dresses like a gangster.
He's utterly mesmerising and funny, but what exactly does his character want? He uses the girls for crime jobs but never really needed to as he has his twin henchmen. Sex is an option he fulfils, but not straight away either. A promising seed of conflict is planted when the girls look as though they'll rob or kill Alien, only for the moment to fizzle out. He embodies a bastardised version of the American Dream: to take everything you want, while you can, but not understand what to do with it. In a very funny scene, he showcases all of the useless things he was able to obtain, including several kinds of shorts, a looping copy of Scarface, and nunchucks.
Alien's artlessness is amplified strikingly through the film's best and strangest scene, where he sits at a piano, surrounded by the girls dressed in pink balaclavas, carrying assault weapons, and declares Britney Spears as one of the best singers of all time. He starts singing Britney's song "Everytime" and then a montage opens with the song playing over images of the girls' crime spree. Decadence is visualised magnificently but in the end the film is hypocritical: a hasty attack on a pop generation when the film itself is not art but poorly disciplined and morally questionable.
Reviewed on April 27th, 2013
Hopscotch presents a film directed by Ben Nott and Morgan O'Neill
Screenplay by Morgan O'Neill
Starring: Xavier Samuel, Robyn Malcolm, Myles Pollard, Sam Worthington and Lesley-Ann Brandt
Running Time: 113 minutes
Released: May 2nd, 2013
Drift is a breezy Australian surfing film that doesn't break any new ground or take too many chances but the surfing scenes are spectacularly photographed and the performances are as colourful as the scenery. Like many local films, it is extremely well made and acted with professionalism, even when the story isn't revolutionary. The opening scenes in the Sixties are filmed in black and white. This is a fine visual touch, recalling Oz the Great and Powerful, because when the film forwards past the childhood of its central characters Andy and Jimmy and enters the 1970s, the film explodes with vivid colours being cast over a giant wave.
Riding this enormous wave is Jimmy (Xavier Samuel). Jimmy and his brother Andy (Myles Pollard) moved from Sydney to Margaret River in Western Australia with their mother Kat (Robyn Malcolm) to start a new life together. Andy works long hours in a timber mill, while his brother rides hard in professional surfing competitions. Seeing the lousy treatment of the older folks of the mill, Andy decides to quit his job and help start a surf shop with his brother, selling surfing gear like boards and wetsuits. This is at a time just prior to when surfing competitions started awarding serious prize money.
Andy is angered to discover that Jimmy has done a small time job for some local bikie crims and urges him to return any stolen material. Yet these bikie thugs refuse to leave their friends alone and one of them becomes involved in drugs. Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) plays a hippie surfer named JB, who befriends both the boys. JD's Hawaiian hippie friend Lani (Lesley-Ann Brandt) also takes a romantic shine to Andy. Beneath its sunny exterior, the film is about the relationship of these two brothers and poses the question of whether a hobby makes for a satisfying and financially sustainable living.
The film has more than sand between its ears, realising that a compromise has to be made when it comes to approaching sport as an occupation. This is reflected by JB, who has the film's funniest and smartest line: "Its Darwinian man. We adapt, we survive." It would be impolite to say that the story by Morgan O'Neill exists merely to showcase the surfing because there is more narrative than just sun. It's more of a question of the familiarity of many individual story elements.
This is very much a rerun of the underdog story: the little business that could, faced against impossible odds like evil bikies and a stuffy bank manager. The bikies are a blessing and a curse for the film. They're total caricatures but also helpful in providing some danger to the script through some flat spots, where it feels as though there could be more risk involved. The bikies handout a few thuggish beatings and there is a drug subplot, which gives the film a grittier shade in contrast to lightweight, jovial tone and relaxed, pleasant performances.
The film even retreats to that plotline where a contest is handily giving out a large monetary prize so that the little people can save the farm. Are these contests deliberately organised around places of low socioeconomics and general lucklessness? The organisers must have prior knowledge of people's banking woes, such is their convenience. I also couldn't see the necessity of the romance between the Lani and Andy. Lani serves to ties the global relations between Australian and the US neatly (in a perfectly square ending) but any potential conflict between the brothers never eventuates over her.
What many people will see the film for are the stunning, exciting and beautiful surfing sequences, which are filmed by Ruck Rifici and Rick Jakovich: two highly experienced and talented water cinematographers. Filmed with great width, there are some gorgeous and hair-raising waves showcased here. The actors in the film performed some of the surfing, while real surfers were employed as stunt doubles too. An interesting fact is that despite how vivid and colourful the film is, it was actually filmed in winter so that the waves would be bigger and therefore more dramatic. They're a huge part of a great looking movie so that even when the pacing slumps or the story seems corny, it's never been so easy to dive into the surf.
Modern cinema revels so frequently in destruction and chaos that it is extraordinary that a film as unambitious and appalling as Olympus Has Fallen can surprise you in the way that it fetishises big guns, explosions, high body counts and the demolition of various American monuments. Mindless blockbusters like this sell to teenage boys on the promise of more explosions and less brains. This is more disturbing considering how long the film lingers over people blown to bits and buildings destroyed. Derivative and poorly scripted, Olympus Has Fallen will put you to sleep with its sluggish pacing and relentlessly dull action scenes, or make your skin crawl with its chest-beating and laughable celebration of all things born in good old USA.
The director was Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter), who has a long history as a music video artist. He directed the music video for the song Gangsta's Paradise by rapper Coolio and worked with Prince and Stevie Wonder too. Here he has paired with novice screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikit to make a rip-off of the popular Clint Eastwood vehicle In the Line of Fire. Eastwood played an ageing secret service agent, whose inner demon was that he failed to save John F. Kennedy, and a lunatic stalking him was going to murder the new President. The film excelled because of the limited physicality of its central character and the suggestion of murder instead of outright gunfire. Where's the tension in Olympus when the main character is bulletproof, fall proof and endlessly resourceful, able to pummel goons with a statue of Honest Abe?
Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a Secret Service guard of the American President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), who is devastated when he fails to save the President's wife in a car accident. Eighteen months later, Mike is now working in the Treasury Department near the White House. Asher is holding a meeting with the President of South Korea, but they are ambushed by Korean soldiers and a traitorous secret service officer and taken hostage in the underground bunker of the White House. North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) demands that the President's staff (including Melissa Leo) handover the three codes to the USA's nuclear weapons and withdraw their soldiers from the DMZ area. Mike tries to infiltrate the building, rescue Asher's son Connor (Finley Jacobsen) and then the President. He conferences with acting President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), and assures his partner Leah (Radha Mitchell) of his wellbeing.
A potentially chilling and timely premise of the threat of North Korea is handled amateurishly by Fuqua. The opening scenes between Asher and his son in Camp David substitute characterisation for cheery mawkishness, and the bombastic, over the top attack on the White House lacks important narrative details. Who knew that it was so comfortable to enter US airspace with fighter-bombers? I found the fear mongering and jingoism in this overlong sequence as repelling as the body count. Asian terrorists pop out of nowhere, either wearing suicide bombs or firing rocket launchers. Few films in recent memory have been as profoundly racist and geocentric as this.
The action sequences that follow hinge on cheap patriotic sentiment, including an unintentionally comical image of an American flag falling in slow motion, but without any deeper themes or meaning, they become boring and repetitive. The violence is incredibly sadistic, including one unwatchable beating, or blurred because of the incoherence of Fuqua's overwrought handheld cameras and dim lighting. One interesting technical feat was that the film was shot in Louisiana not Washington and 1300 special effects shots, along with sets, were used to recreate the White House and other stunts.
However, it is still disturbing that the people involved with this dreck view it seriously and as ideologically significant. In an interview Gerard Butler, who also produced the film, endorsed its overt patriotism: "You come out of there with so much patriotism and you feel inspired because really at the end of the day the essence of the story, it's a hero's journey." Patriotism is not an appropriate excuse for demonising other cultures and working as hard as possible to inflate people's fears through post-9/11 jingoism. Films are often divorced from responsibility because they are fictional but where do we draw the line? You can only hope that the people watching this mindless bloodbath will see it for how ridiculous and infantile it is.
French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) counters a disjointed script with fascinating conceptual details, beautiful images and intense moments of raw acting. Rust and Bone is equally mesmerising as it is clumsy, but that it is ever touching is a result of some skillful albeit undisciplined filmmaking.
The film's story belongs to Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a hardened man looking for a place to stay with his young son Sam (Armand Verdure). With little money, they house together in the home of Ali's sister Anna (Corinne Masiero). Finding work as a bouncer at a nightclub, Ali breaks up a fight and escorts Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) home.
Stephanie is an orca whale trainer at Marineworld but after a freak accident at a show she is hospitalised and wakes up to find that both her legs have been amputated. Depressed and broken, she calls Ali for assistance and comes to realise that with the rest of her body intact she is still capable of living. Meanwhile, to make money Ali participates in sweaty, unofficial kickboxing matches.
As with Audiard's previous film A Prophet, a gritty prison crime drama, the director contrasts agonising moments of pain and violence with images that are brimming with meaning and beauty. The tone is consistent but there are bumps in the script, written by the director and Thomas Bidegain. The book they've adapted, "Rust and Bone", is by Canadian author Craig Davidson, and is comprised of a number of short stories.
The idea from these stories have been borrowed and developed for a whole new story and the two central characters were also written anew for the screen. Some of the theories of physicality are smart, but the pastiche format of the book is too evident at times. The story structure feels episodic, which leaves powerful images, like Stephanie's reunion with the whale, as singular, isolated moments.
The trajectory of the narrative is often stifled as we wait for new plot points to gain punctuality. An underdeveloped subplot surrounding Ali's security employment for example hinges on a sizeable coincidence to drive the story into its final act.
The film is better as a critique of the way people fail to appreciate their own bodies, until they reach catastrophic event that makes them rethink their physicality.
The tight framing of the characters from the waist up removes any consciousness of the rest of their bodies. This reflects the lack of self-worth in their lives as they are only concerned by primal instincts of survival, like relying on other people to mentally or physically carry them (a pertinent image), or scavenging for food in this downtrodden economic period.
The disunity between belief and the primal thought is shown in two juxtaposing moments. Stephanie is filmed through a long lens, standing alone as the mould for her prosthetic limbs sets. The shot seems isolating but the visibility of her own being reminds her that is she still alive and capable.
The film then cuts to shot Ali sitting down at a computer, with only half his body visible, watching brawls on the internet. It shows the immaturity of his self-preservation in using his body for money and what he calls "fun". In this instance, the combination of theme and content is startlingly articulate.
Audiard is less confident with romantic sentimentalism. Both characters begin to inspire each other's belief in their own physical capabilities but it's an uneven theme. Ali convinces Stephanie to sleep with him to see if her body is still functional. We know that he is promiscuous so is he just using her? The question lingers.
Less convincing is when Ali claws back into the match when he sees Stephanie walking towards the fighting pitch or when she is hired to become a money handler for the fights, despite seeing the brutality and juvenility. It softens the opportunity for more explosive conflict between the leads.
The actors, as naturalistic as they are, are a little reminiscent of the film. There are flashes of brilliance, including scenes of unprecedented emotional strain. But then there are stretches where Cotillard's reserved performance makes you long for more perpetuated tension and drama. It's an affecting and sometimes beautiful film but you will have to wait for its best moments.
There is a creative strain in both films and gaming where old franchises are being resuscitated and updated to appeal to the modern senses. Arguably, the most successful film reboot of recent years was Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. Rather than merely redressing what we already knew about Batman, the film gave new insight into why Bruce Wayne transformed himself into a crime fighter and where his moral values stemmed from.
Although working in a separate medium, Crystal Dynamics' cinematic reboot of Tomb Raider is a missed opportunity to offer similar insights into the beginnings of their popular heroine Lara Croft. Rather than critiquing the game's mechanics, I will provide a discourse as to why I believe the story fails to establish Lara's background and personal values and why her psychological transformation is undermined by the conventions of the action genre.
One of the major reasons why Tomb Raider fails as a reboot is because its narrative never justifies itself as one. Consider the opening sequence on the ship the Endurance. The developers rest on the assumption that gamers already know who Lara is, opting to breeze through the introduction without dedicating any time to establishing her history, personality and inner life.
What sort of person was Lara as a student? What was her relationship to her parents? How did they feel about her going on this expedition? The game is high impatient, skimming past these details so that it never earns the moments to make us care about Lara before putting her in danger.
The game attempts to characterise Lara as a survivor with her voice-over suggesting she looks inside herself for inspiration and drive: "When life flashes before us, we find something. Something that keeps us going." This is true to Bruce Wayne's character whose guilt over his parents' death forwarded his sense for justice. Yet what is the inner motive in Tomb Raider? The game briefly suggests its Lara's guilt for deciding to sail into the storm and being shipwrecked.
However, when the game attempts to draw power from Lara's heritage, lines such as "You're a Croft" are weightless and hollow because in the vacuum of this story we don't know the value of her legacy. Listen to another self-reflection at the end of the game: "I resented my father," Lara says. This revelation rings false because a thread of conflict between Lara and her father is never established consistently throughout the narrative.
Further, what new characteristics do we learn about Lara from this reboot? She's tenacious and brave in saving her friends but aren't those qualities already typical of the character? The thudding moroseness of the games grizzled tone also denies Lara any self-awareness or wit, meaning her personality lacks the charisma and spark of her archrival Nathan Drake, whose comedic energy perfectly matches Uncharted's unique comic book aesthetic.
Beyond her grit and toughness, Lara feels interchangeable, lacking idiosyncrasies to distinguish her from other gaming characters. The simplicity of her personality results from the game's dependency on action, rather than a willingness to explore a psychological transformation. While being strangled, Lara wrestles a pistol free and through a series of button prompts she shoots her attacker dead. This was deemed a significant turning point by the developers, as it's the first person Lara has ever killed.
Yet kills in the game don't form psychological barriers - they're treated as bonuses. Once the player regains control they guide Lara to the next room and shoot another two men dead. "XP" points are earned and can be used to upgrade weapons to find more elaborate ways of killing henchmen, including setting them on fire.
Players who earn enough kills are rewarded in the game's achievement sections with badges titled: "Widowmaker", "Gunslinger", and "Opportunist". Whenever Lara's dialogue grows angrier in tone, the effect is cosmetic. There are no psychological repercussions to her kills, or any insight into how murder affects the person she used to be because her character doesn't exist prior to the Endurance.
Tomb Raider shouldn't be exclusively criticised for failing as a reboot but it amplifies the disharmony between games and storytelling. Do gamers care about being emotionally attached to who they are controlling? If so, how much playing time are they willing to sacrifice if developers are to dedicate longer stretches to characters and exposition?
Great storytelling is a result of time management, particularly how much information can be conveyed about a character in only a few scenes. Recently, I've seen an increasing number of Hollywood films sacrificing the opening thirty minutes to dive into the action sooner, rather than developing their characters and their motives.
This leaves a separate, irresolvable question about which medium is imitating who first. Tomb Raider rests in both camps. It wants to be a highly cinematic reboot, ala Batman Begins, but like most games, it doesn't dedicate the time to understand its central character. It leaves Lara functioning more like an avatar than a compelling figure, whose origin roots we can fully invest into.
Reviewed on March 15th, 2013
Roadshow presents a film directed by Don Scardino
Screenplay by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley
Story by Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Tyler Mitchell and Chad Kultgen
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde
Running Time: 100 minutes
Released: March 14th, 2013
What attracted experienced actors Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Alan Arkin to such a miserable screenplay? Barely raising a laugh, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is frightfully dull and predictable, the work of four screenwriters and Don Scardino, an experienced TV director. The best they've been able to provide a richly talented cast is a script that has no urgency, no surprises or any memorable jokes.
Do you remember this story? There are two strands: a shallow, self-absorbed man, who treats people poorly, loses his privileges in life. He comes to realise that he needs to rejuvenate himself, understand how much friendship means to him, and that he can share talent X again.
If you know this story and have already started reaching for the bucket then you don't need to see Burt Wonderstone. It's as though the filmmakers are sharing a private joke in the cynical and contemptuous way the movie purports to being about celebrities reinventing themselves. "New equals value," we're told. This is from a film that gleefully wastes its stars on a story so tired its growing mould.
Carell is Wonderstone, a magician who has been with his stage partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) since they were children. Wonderstone is rude, arrogant and a womaniser. He doesn't respect his staff, including Anton and the stage assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde). He also doesn't want to change the same routine he's been performing for years. But the show's numbers are down and the owner of the Vegas casino (James Gandolfini) isn't happy and wants new material. After trying a new stunt, Anton is injured and leaves the partnership.
Meanwhile, radical new magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who specialises in tricks involving mutilation, begins to steal Burt's spotlight. Having blown all his money, Burt is left to fend on his own. After trying to gather help from Jane, he resorts to performing magic tricks in a retirement home, where he meets his childhood idol, former magician Rance Holloway (Arkin). He urges Burt to regain some of his passion.
Steve Carell is an often brilliant comedian when he strikes the right notes between an Ordinary Joe, deadpan and just plain daft. With his hangdog expressions, he's akin to playing middle-aged men in crisis. He does this very well. But "pompous" and "womaniser" are not words that I would ever associate with him. He's completely miscast, and overplays his hand at making Burt mean-spirited and arrogant. There's no consistency in his acting style either. The forced snootiness disappears once we reach the second of three long acts.
There's really only a skeleton of an old, worn-out story for everyone else to work through here. Characterisation remains achingly thin, with the supporting roles never developed beyond their familiar archetypes: remember the friend, the romance interest, the boss and the rival? Each of these elements feels like it's been punched out by a production line or a marketing committee, especially the romance, where Carell is courting Jane, played by an actress twenty years younger than him.
Director Scardino has worked on television shows like The West Wing, Ed and 30 Rock but his contribution here is lazy. There are poorly written and directed scenes, where characters literally sit down to explain the trajectory of each new act. It's been crafted without a feeling for tension, pacing and most importantly, big laughs. The slapstick gags are dumb and obvious, consisting of people falling over, being shot with a nail gun and various other forms of self-harm. If the movie does have anything to say it is about how long people can survive off the same old shtick. But it's a question of self-interest, tested to embarrassing and unfunny new lows.
To be clear, Oz the Great and Powerful is not a prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. It is a precursor to the book by L. Frank Baum, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". As a children's author Baum wrote 14 books about Oz but he never explored the backstory of the faux-wizard.
It is a relief to say that director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider-Man) has made an origins film about the wizard, where the world of Oz is not only realised in stunning detail but plays host to a richly characterised anti-hero, who like the audience, comes to realise the power of illusion.
The film is a technical marvel in 3D and overcomes many of the format's shortcomings. Filmmaker and author Lenny Lipton states that stereoscopic cinema (3D imaging), films with the added illusion of depth, is mostly projected using digital projectors and is what he calls 'field-sequential'. He argues that illumination is decreased by fifty percent because the light is divided between both of our eyes.
Further, the polarizer filters in the 3D glasses block the light from the screen so that each eye sees a different image but the lighting is dimmed. A footlambert (fl) is the unit of measurement for illumination and film critic Roger Ebert believes regular film projection offers 15fLs, whereas 3D films only display between three and six foot-lamberts.
The art design Oz has been meticulously planned to address these issues by brightening the screen and reducing the gloom. Primary colours are well-chosen and employed spectacularly, showcasing plants and vegetation by using red, yellow and green palettes that saturate the frames with colour and light. The widescreen ratio also combines effortlessly with Raimi's formal control to showcase these sumptuous features.
Watch as the camera crabs sideways while Oz walks with his friends down the yellow brick road. The fluidity of the camera as it drifts across the frame accentuates the spatial width and depth of the world and provides us with enough time to absorb many of these visual treats. Together, the high contrast lighting effects and 3D depths make this an incredibly beautiful film.
Not all the scenes are shot in colour though. The opening scenes in Kansas, 1905, are photographed in black and white and use a 4:39 box ratio, like the 39 film. These scenes are valuable, establishing Oz's personality as a magician who treats the people around him like they are props in a trick. He lies to women, giving several of them the same music box, and he sees no reason to befriend his assistant Frank (Zac Braff). He doesn't even deem himself as worthy enough to be with Annie (Michelle Williams) either.
Chased by an unhappy strongman, he jumps into a hot air balloon, unaware of the tornado that will whisk him away to Oz. One of the first people that Oz meets is Theodora (Mila Kunis), a timid and brittle witch, who falls in love with him, telling him that he is a great wizard. As she leads him to Emerald City, they meet a talking monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), who accompanies them.
Arriving at the city, Oz is introduced to Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who stresses he'll have all the riches he wants once he defeats the white witch Glinda (Michelle Williams again). Oz travels with Finley to find her and they discover a pintsized China Girl (voiced by Joey King), who needs repairing and insists on joining them.
The film balances precariously on James Franco's performance and his expressive face punctuates every lie and self-serving opportunity of the wizard. Enlivened by Franco's infectious and cheeky comic energy, Oz becomes an unlikely and funny anti-hero, weaseling his way through situations but learning to utilise his powers of deception in clever ways, without drastically changing his personality.
Baum always believed in empowered women and the three witches each feel distinctive in their presence on screen. They're great examples of how efficiently women can be used in modern blockbusters. Michelle Williams, with her face never short of emotion, brings gentleness and sincerity to Glinda, even when she becomes aware of the deception around her.
Many scenes in the film are accompanied by the power of deception, lies and illumination. Since Baum was against violent resolutions, the battles in this film are unique in their tactics of trickery. The people of Quadling Country can't kill so there's a clever visual scene where scarecrows are dollied across an open field to draw out an army of winged monkeys into a bloodless trap.
Additionally, a projector Oz uses late in the film echoes the very formal features of cinema used to create this extraordinary and beautiful world. Though the film concludes without a bookend to determine whether the Land of Oz is real or a dream, the magic has you believing for this long that it's best not to question the sleight of hand.
Reviewed on March 1st, 2013
Roadshow presents a film directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum
Running Time: 106 minutes
Released: February 28th, 2013
Some of his films have been far more successful than others, but regardless I admire that he is a director who refuses to conform and is willing to take risks. Isn't it concerning then that a filmmaker who can make their own artistic choices in the face of a dominant studio system is now considering retirement or an extensive break? Side Effects wouldn't be a disastrous project to end his career on, but rather a minor footnote that shows glimpses of the director's best qualities. As a director Steven Soderbergh has enjoyed surprising us. He is one of the most diverse filmmakers working today, having made small independent and highly experimental films, stylish and intelligent thrillers, but also less ambitious production line blockbusters. He understands the technical components of cinema as knowledgably as any filmmaker, opting to trial unique stylistic and formal techniques.
One of these assets retained here is Soderbergh's ability to direct actors. He draws out two strong lead performances, which both thrive from some gasping moments of tension and drama. But Scott Z. Burns' script has convoluted plot twists and deep strains of credibility that soften the film's impact.
Emily (Rooney Mara) is a young woman welcoming the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after a four year stint in prison. He is set free after his involvement with a crime related to insider trading. Emily seems unhappy that Martin is already talking about a new investment deal. Slipping into a depressive state, Emily enters her car and then drives it straight into a brick wall.
Despite only minor injuries, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) insists on keeping Emily in hospital so that he can treat her depression. When she fails to respond to antidepressants Banks seeks help from Emily's former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggests using an experimental drug named Ablixa. The drug causes Emily to start sleep walking and she enters into some disturbing behavior that has her in trouble with the law.
Soderbergh has a stylistic repertoire that allows him to construct visual representations of mental illness but also actions devoid of personal intention. "Depression is the inability to construct a future," we're told. Soderbergh's directional choices are highly persuasive of this nihilistic idea, manipulating us through the tight framing the faces of his actors, while simultaneously blurring the backdrops around them.
These close-up shots successfully provide Rooney Mara with the time to express the physicality and twitchy mindset within her character with great conviction. By focusing on the faces on the actors, the thematic implication is that there is nothing but the conflicted emotional headspace of the characters, with Emily withdrawing her personal responsibility by not having control over her emotions, and supposedly any deliberateness in her actions.
As the film's cinematographer, using his alias name Peter Andrews, Soderbergh has also been particular with colour schemes and filters, using them to deconstruct consciousness and intent. Filming within constricted offices spaces and apartments, he relies on white and grey tones and colour desaturation to harnesses the seemingly emotionless state of Emily's mind. She describes herself as having as having a "poisonous fog bank rolling into my mind", and the highly sterilized, bleak look of this film creates a visual artifice, reflecting how removed she appears to be of feelings and consciousness.
The influence of consciousness is imperative to the narrative's ideology as much as the visual design. It is described as being able to provide context for meaning and actions. Before and after the film's twist, this raises some genuinely interesting questions: without consciousness how can one prove intent? Would Banks for example have treated Emily differently if she wasn't a woman? Is Emily's crime free from conviction because she was sleep walking and therefore unaware of her actions?
The repercussion of these questions is found in the collapse of Jude Law's character and his personal life. The tension is raised as he becomes emotionally fragile, with his marriage collapsing, but also suspicions about his past with another patient. The obsessive characteristics that Jude Law provides show that he is capable of being a believably affected and tormented character actor. Watching him eventually claw back his life and unravel the mystery using his resources and intelligence becomes thrilling in parts.
However, late in the film the plotting becomes needlessly heavy and the twist which directs the back-end of the film is explained so neatly that I wanted to resist its convenience. Knowing the film's revelation also dilutes the moral complexity of those questions about consciousness and intent in more conventional methods of the thriller genre. But when the performances and the visuals are this rich and brimming with meaning it reminds you of Soderbergh's best qualities as a director. He's capable of better films but he would still be a great loss to this industry.
Reviewed on February 18th, 2013
Roadshow presents a film directed by Jee-woon Kim
Screenplay by Andrew Knauer and Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Eduardo Noriega, Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, Zach Gilford, Johnny Knoxville and Rodrigo Santoro
Running Time: 107 minutes
Released: February 21st, 2013
If this is Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback then his best days are behind him. After ending his political career as Governor of California, this is the Austrian's first solo vehicle in ten years: a colossal fizzer that would leave his most adamant fans impatient by the halfway mark. On its first weekend in the US, the film opened at a miserable ninth place, collecting just six million dollars and never looked like improving. How did this happen to one of the most recognised action heroes in movie history?
Age isn't a factor to me. Schwarzenegger is now sixty-five, which might seem like zimmer frame territory for his work, but there are older stars like Clint Eastwood who are still raking in the dollars. Bluntly, Schwarzenegger hasn't made a great film since the Nineties. The Terminator films still rate as the apex of the modern action genre, but the series faded after the second movie. His best films were always boosted by a mixture of humour and technology, and the ability to soften the malice of the violence through one-liners and clever self-parody. However, these are no longer his own idiosyncratic qualities to make him seem unique again.
The high level of gory violence that marked his early films is now frowned upon by studios because it weakens the bankability and the likelihood of roping in younger demographics. Ideologically, Arnold also belongs in a bygone era too. He is a renowned Republican, who once admired Richard Nixon. His films are similarly ingrained in archaic, conservative values of one man, separate from government, who can save the world. But this culture of Reaganism is dead now and action films, like The Dark Knight, have becomes infinitely more sophisticated in blurring the lines between good and evil.
Nonetheless, The Last Stand is as conservative a film as Schwarzenegger has ever made. He plays Sheriff Ray Owens, who guards the dusty town of Sommerton in Arizona. He's surrounded by a small ground of deputies, which include: Mike (Luis Guzmán), Sarah (Jaimie Alexander) and Jerry (Zach Gilford). They deal with the town's small problems and eccentrics, including Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville), who is a weapons collector and local inmate Frank (Rodrigo Santoro). Ray is also suspicious of a pair of seedy goons that are making their way through the town, one of whom is named Burrell (Peter Stormare).
Meanwhile in L.A., Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is a dangerous criminal who has escaped custody. Pursued by Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker), Cortez uses a high powered sports car to elude capture and takes a female agent hostage. He plans on crossing the Mexican border via a bridge through Sommerton. Ray and his team have to prepare for a surge by Cortez and his mini army of highly powered thugs, who are looking for a clear exit route.
There are vague strands of a Western here, with Schwarzenegger playing the role of an honest lawman, who wants to protect his town against the more contemporary city folk. But for a long period the film is terribly lethargic, devoid of energy, and its narrative contains no surprises, lacking a unique story hook or concept. Korean director Jee-woon Kim's also makes the fatal flaw of relegating the film's megastar to the backseat. Too much time is spent with Cortez's sports car, a painfully indiscreet vehicle for someone evading the law, and having the side characters dominate the action scenes.
Arnold only becomes involved in the second half but few of the stunts seem to test his ageing joints. His first big action scenes, firing a shotgun from a truck and unloading a Gatling gun from the back of a school bus, both have him sitting stationary. His character is also caught between two conflicting tones. In the first half there are close-ups of Arnold's weathered, stony face, examining his wrinkles and fake tan, as he fires off lines like: "I've seen enough blood and death. I know what's coming."
But late in the film, Kim also tests his hand with slapstick comedy and then fetishising those high powered weapons. It doesn't gel and Kim's choppy visual style leaves the action cold too. The only distinct set pieces are the two climaxes: one in a cornfield with hidden cars and then a clumsily staged and embarrassing showdown on a bridge. This over-edited fistfight combines the worst of Lethal Weapon and World Wrestling, on top of a cringing, conservative message about keeping illegal immigrants at bay.
Perhaps with all that gunfire though, Arnold's film didn't fail because it was dated. Instead, maybe his most lead-heavy films, especially this one, are a sad reminder of those real would-be cowboys today, who'd like to look down the scope of their guns and say: "I'm the sheriff."
West of Memphis is a documentary of such clarity and precision that its findings will leave you rattled by a heinous crime but also convinced by how methodically researched and argued it is. This is a powerful example of how cinema can be used as an expression of fact and director Amy Berg utilises this strength to persuade and then allow you to draw your own conclusions about the tragic case.
With a story that reads like a Hollywood thriller, and one that has been embraced by celebrities in several different ways, there are numerous facets to the tragedy that are examined in great detail. Although the case has been covered between three HBO films called Paradise Lost, this is one single film that reflects on the police corruption, sensationalism and the way that minorities and people of low economic status are discriminated against.
The film documents a terrible crime in the city of Memphis in 1993, where three boys were found dead. Their bodies were also mutilated and this was said to be part of a satanic ritual. The satanic element of the crime led the police to arrest three teenagers who became known as the West Memphis Three.
Damien Echols' interest in dark magic made him an easy target for the police and was sentenced to death. The other two boys were Jessie Misskelley, Jr., who people said was mentally handicapped, and Jason Baldwin, whose brave decision would affect the lives of the other as much as his own. These two were both given life sentences. The boys would spend eighteen years in prison, but due to the efforts of people fighting for their innocence they were able to enter a complicated plea asserting their innocence but acknowledging the states guilty ruling too. They were released from prison the very same day.
The documentary is insightful towards the inconsistencies of policing methods and the evidence used to convict the teens. Police interview recordings show how they interrogated rather than interviewed the boys and then coached the confessions from them, drawing the answers they wanted to hear. Years later, witnesses also admitted to lying and changing their stories too. Another important lapse is the discovery of the murder weapon, the knife. Its location was predetermined so early that the media was alerted before it was found. The markings on the bodies are also said to be from an animal like a turtle, not the knife.
A crucial turning point in the documentary is when the film argues persistently about the suspicion of Terry Hobbs. He was the stepfather of one of the victims, Stevie Edward Branch. Venturing onto Hobbs' own personal blog, he is still adamant that there is only speculation about the murders, citing an article from the father of one of the boys, who revokes the claims made against Hobbs. I wonder what the father will make of this film. It covers Hobbs' own violent history, including domestic assault, as well as his constant passivity towards questions over his flawed alibi. By the end of the film I was certain he was guilty.
Numerous famous people also believed in the innocence of these teens too, the most prominent of which is filmmaker Peter Jackson. He helped arrange for sophisticated legal aids to be brought in and to reassess the case. Other celebrities like Johnny Depp and various singers addressed the issue. It is also interesting to note how this story is being addressed by Hollywood too in a feature film.
It's not hard to see why. The crux of this story could be read as a feel good story about bravery and the determination for the truth. But it is also a sad story about damaged relationships, including Hobbs' own daughter Amanda, who had a fractured life. While in gaol, Damien started a relationship with Lorri Davis from the outside. She supplied him with books and they decided to wed before he was free.
Furthermore, the film is also an examination of the impulsiveness of small, insulated communities to demand answers, whether they are accurate or not. One man interviewed states: "The community was relieved to have someone behind bars. They didn't have to be scared anymore". I hope these layers, along with the fear of the unknown and religious fanaticism, aren't lost in the fictional adaptation.
It is difficult to state what makes the documentary so compelling. The true story speaks for itself: it's embedded in many complex twists and examples corruption and the failure of the justice system. But it is the coherency of the material, the clarity of the filmmaker's arguments, including how this content is presented through techniques like juxtaposition, which casts this as a thoroughly researched piece. It supplies two of the most important staples of any documentary: it informs and convinces.
Reviewed on February 4th, 2013
Fox presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the book 'Team of Rivals' by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader and John Hawkes
Running Time: 150 minutes
Released: February 7th, 2013
Are films too conveniently timed to coincide with contemporary moments or do they force us to address the unwanted memories and atrocities of the past? To this day, America struggles to address its racial history, determined to shield itself from its ugly and divided past, particularly in pop culture. Only two years ago an edition of Mark Twain's novel "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884) was published replacing the word n**ger with "slave".
The same attitude applies in Hollywood. Director Spike Lee declared he wouldn't view Quentin Tarantino's slave-Western Django Unchained, as it would be insulting to his ancestors. The film has also been criticised for the frequency of the word n**ger too. However, this year Steve McQueen (Shame) will also be releasing a film called Twelve Years a Slave and the frequency of slavery as a film topic could infer that there is genuine interest in exploring the subject as a result of recent America history.
Yet despite documenting Abraham Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln isn't concerned with foreshadowing modern history, like Obama's 2008 inauguration. Spielberg bought the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals" before it was written in the early part of the last decade. The film began development under the Bush administration and Spielberg stated in an interview with the ABC: "It's not about America today, but it has tremendous repercussions looking back about what America could be today under the right leadership".
Spielberg is deemed one of the most iconic Hollywood filmmakers since Frank Capra. Through cinema he has recreated some of the most important historical events of the last century, including the Holocaust (Schindler's List) and the Invasion of Normandy (Saving Private Ryan). He is a great fit for this material but like Capra, he is susceptible to over sentimentalising his most work, as was the case recently with War Horse (2011).
Through their films both directors have shared a vision of America becoming an idealised land of equality. For Spielberg, this stemmed from childhood as he was tormented for being Jewish and admitted to being embarrassed by his heritage. After 9/11, the way that the Bush administration shattered relations with the Middle East stung Spielberg's American Dream.
Hence, Lincoln is a film concerned by the need for great leadership and social equality, though at the expense of bending the political and legal rules. The haunting image of a pile of amputated limbs, thrown into a ditch, visualises the film's moral dilemma and poses a question to the War on Terror itself: in times of conflict, how long can a political party withhold change before engaging with social reform?
Following his re-election, President Lincoln (a magnificent, chameleon performance by Daniel Day-Lewis) faces pressure to end the Civil War and abolish slavery. Yet he is reminded by his staff, including William Seward (David Strathairn), that ending the war before the vote will mean there is no reason to emancipate slavery: "It's either the amendment or this confederate peace, you cannot have both." Lincoln is also urged by wife Mary-Todd (Sally Field) to end the war because their eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to enlist in the army. Lincoln requires twenty votes to pass the motion, including votes from the Democratic Party, and enlists some men (John Hawkes, James Spader) to offer jobs as bribes to those who will support the vote.
What's surprising about the film is that despite encompassing many of Spielberg's staples, the lost child, an anti-war message and social and racial equality, it is without the director's usual preachiness and cinematic gaudiness. The narrative is conventionally structured but resembles a play rather than an epic. The screenplay by playwright Tony Kusher (Angels in America) gives the film and its backroom drama well researched and highly colourful conversations to work through. I did find some of the political terminology, combined with Early Modern English ("buzzard's guts!" "water closet"), to be intimidating at times though.
Buoying the film past these challenging moments is the amount of humour and wit. There are hilarious conversations and anecdotes in the film, which are respected by Spielberg's restrained direction. The colours are gloomy and drab and the camerawork is sparse. The film is mostly compromised of men talking in rooms and the containment of these scenes is a reminder of, for better or worse, where leadership begins and ends. Relying heavily on the charisma of the cast is an intelligent move by Spielberg as no one here is anything less than convincing. Tommy Lee Jones is hugely enjoyable in a highly theatrical turn as Thaddeus Stevens, whose public image and values are tested as he momentarily suppresses his passion and fierceness to help his party secure the vote.
One of the few cinematic moments is an opening scene where we see the abstract images from Lincoln's dream about a ship. He later says in the film: "We're whalers!" This reflects the same themes equal to Herman Melville's novel "Moby-Dick" (1851): a Manifest Destiny and the impossible search for equality. Spielberg and Lincoln therefore share a collective and optimistic dream for America, but the director resists lingering over the film's contemporary relevance. His film and its necessity for leadership achieves an applicability that extends far beyond what has happened in the last four years of American history and surges deep into an uncertain future.
Reviewed on January 28th, 2013
Icon presents a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Mark Strong
Running Time: 157 minutes
Released: January 31st, 2013
In his book "What is Cinema?" film theorist André Bazin stated: "But realism in art can only be achieved in one way - through artifice. Every form of aesthetic must necessarily choose between what is worth preserving and what should be discarded, and what should not even be considered." Realism in cinema is therefore determined by an audio-visual language that differs from real life. Any compression or fragmentations of events are a result of the limitations of the time, space and technique of the screen. A filmmaker is responsible for selecting these techniques within the frame of the narrative.
Looking to cinematise the lead up and execution of Operation Neptune Spear, the hunt and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow and journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal compress facts and timelines and omit significant figures from this decade-long search. However, the film moves through a decade long period with such ease that the realism is never compromised. It sidesteps Hollywood clichés and sentimentality as comfortably as few others have done before it. Boal's script is clear of tragic back stories, its character development is quietly stated and its moral compass, if there is one, lingers under the film's surface.
The film has been described as being in the tradition of "New Journalism": a method of journalism that adds subjectivity rather than an objective perspective to the facts. It is an appropriate means of describing the film because even as it condenses multiple real world terrorist attacks over the years, from 9/11 to a bombing in London, the impact is still extremely shattering to the audience and its characters. The attacks grow increasingly personal to the film's lead subject Maya (Jessica Chastain at her most intense and emotive), a CIA operative who spends over a decade looking for clues on the whereabouts of Bin Laden.
Contributing to the film's authenticity, Zero Dark Thirty makes fewer concessions than Bigelow's previous film The Hurt Locker (2009), which to avoid any political waves, was purposely coy on its subject of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This uncompromising nature is immediate from early scenes where torture is used to extract information from a prisoner. Both Democrats and Republicans alike have been publicly critical of the film, deeming the use of enhanced torture techniques to track Bin Laden is inaccurate and that the film praises torture an effective means of investigation.
This is a misjudgement and hypocritical given the extensive amount of research assistance by the CIA, the Department of Defense and the White House, who provided extensive interviews and documents about the operation. The interrogation scenes are, as they should be, ugly and difficult to watch. A man is strung up by his wrists, punched, stripped down and shoved into a box. His answers are varied, unclear and unhelpful. We see the stress that these moments place on the interrogator (played by Jason Clarke). It is difficult work and impractical compared to other advanced techniques, like aerial surveillance. An important subtextual development is how these techniques are gradually being phased out, which is true given the closure of the black list sites and the outlaw of enhanced torture techniques.
If the film does have a message my interpretation is that it is, in many ways, a film about how vacant revenge and obsession can be. Maya's entrance to the film is through one of these horrific interrogations, which she is not mentally prepared to engage. A deep focus shot of the room frames Maya in the background. The shot shows her isolated from the action, true to her inexperience, and her face conveys great discomfort in watching the interrogation unfold. She arrives in a dark suit, unideal for waterboarding prisoners, and when asked to participate she is clumsy in handling the situation.
Yet her inexperience also provides compelling movement in Boal's screenplay. As the terrorist attacks mount over the years and the deaths become more personal, Maya's viridity is dissolved and replaced with increasingly determined anger. This change is also complimented by through the costumes, as Maya's clothes become more combat-like, and her dialogue which grows more sadistic: "I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill Bin Laden". These fascist undertones, also echoed by Mark Strong as the head of Counter Terrorism at the CIA, are dispelled by how tactful much of the film is, particularly the meticulous and intense raid on the compound.
Like The Hurt Locker, the film isn't politically right or left. Once the breathless mission is over and the objective is 'won' the film obtains a brief but powerful feeling of melancholy. There are no 'hooahs' or flag waving. Maya's tears are not ones of joy or relief but unfulfillment. In a single close-up shot, her face reflects the hollow aftermath of conquering our enemies, and I think, the ambiguity around the next chapter of global terrorism. 'Zero Dark Thirty' itself is a military phrase, referring to the early dawn, once darkness has passed. What follows from this moment? It is an unexpected and brave question to end this long but supremely crafted docudrama.
In Texas, 1858, a dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is seeking the whereabouts of a gang known as the Brittle Brothers. To find them he frees Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who knows who the men are. Travelling across the South together, the two men form a partnership, with Schultz teaching the former slave the skills of a bounty hunter. In exchange for hunting the Brittle Brothers, Schultz agrees to help locate and free Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is still in captivity. She is a servant to a powerful slave trader, the courteous but untrustworthy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). He runs a plantation called Candie Land, where slaves are encouraged to fight each other. Django and Schultz must pretend to be interested in buying a slave-fighter so that they can also bargain for Broomhilda's freedom. One of Candie's loyal slaves Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) remains suspicious of their new guests.
Django Unchained is the film where Quentin Tarantino finally grew up. The former video store clerk turned director, fifty next year, is showing signs he's ready to put his film geek senses aside and start substantiating his work. Django surprises because Tarantino has pared back the pop references, the verboseness and the juvenility that marks much of his work. The man who once said "violence is one of the most fun things to watch" now has something important to say about the way that killers and violence are manufactured. If this isn't shocking enough, the film is also his most compassionate and romantic work since Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), with characters who finally have something internal resembling genuine feelings.
Having imitated a number of popular film genres, Tarantino has longed to make a proper Western, a tribute to his hero Sergio Leone. He once named The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966) as his favourite film and like that movie, or any great Western, there is a wealth of commentary on justified violence here. However, the strength of Django is that it doesn't merely mimic Leone's work but provides new insights into the way that murder was deemed a necessity in the American West and the price of human life. Tarantino uses comedy to address this troubling subject matter, transcending its absurdity and brutality in unique ways we have not seen before.
Schultz's introduction is fantastic. He is richly characterised, not as a cold blooded psychopath, but as a businessman. After shooting a slave owner off his horse, Schultz puts down his rifle and then asks if he can have a bill of sale for Django. Later he explains: "I kill people and sell corpses for cash". Every kill to him is a business deal. He only kills people if he has the right paperwork for the bounty and believes he is acting within the confines of the law. Christoph Waltz is perfect in this role. He strips away any hint of malice and replaces it with a hilarious amount of gentility that makes him seem almost naive to the seriousness of his actions.
Interestingly, this character also shows changes that make him seem like a rounded human being; something unique to any Tarantino film. Schultz's friendship with Django makes him feel more responsible for other people, not just for freeing this one slave, but seeing how other people kill for entertainment, including a vicious dog attack on a slave. Django, quietly expressive by a great Jamie Foxx performance, also faces powerful moral questions about the value of life and race. Brief intercuts to memories of his wife increase the film's romantic temperament but later test his moral grounds. To fool Candie, Django must act like a slave trader and be neglectful of slaves himself. Both protagonists are therefore asked how much they're willing to sell themselves morally for flesh - a complex allegory for slavery itself.
The Candie Land scenes reach tension levels on par with Inglourious Basterds (2009). Infrequent close-up shots on Django's face and on his revolver are hugely suspenseful touches. Both DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson also form a pair of scene stealing baddies of frightening unpredictability, and build a chilling mirror to Schultz and Django's own friendship. There is an artifice to their civility, reflected through the art direction and mise en scène. The rooms of the main house are handsomely lit by candlelight and furnished with leather fittings. A woman plays Beethoven on a harp and we watch the slaves set out placements on the main dining table. But the unspoken psychological dilemma remains: do all of these luxuries come at the expense of a pound of flesh? This question is visualised with perhaps the most dramatic Faustian-like handshake in the history of movies.
For all the depth of the screenplay and the amazing performances, there are niggling shortcomings. Some technical issues include Tarantino's overly playful editing cuts and an anachronistic soundtrack, using songs from the likes of Tupac. The last fifteen minutes are also disastrous. The old Tarantino emerges with silly shootouts and an extremely stupid, unfunny cameo, a supposed gift to Australia. God help us. These are distractions from a very mature theme: no matter what their skin colour, all killers become indistinguishable from one another. Nonetheless, discussing an imperfect Tarantino film is still better than saying nothing at all.
In 1949 Los Angeles is a city ruled by the mob. At the top of the crime syndicates is Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a ruthless mobster involved with murder, women and drugs. To combat Cohen, the police department look to construct a special squad of cops who will shut down his operations. Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) pitches the idea to honest cop John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), who is also a happily married war veteran. His wife gives him the idea of picking men that have little ambition and therefore less likely to be corrupted. One of the main men to join his squad is Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has eyes for Cohen's etiquette teacher Grace (Emma Stone). The other members of the squad include Coleman (Anthony Mackie), Max (Robert Patrick), Conway (Giovanni Ribisi) and Navidad (Michael Pena), each of whom has their own specialties.
The most depressing realisation about Gangster Squad is not simply that it is the lowest form of pulp trash, but that it leaves in its wake the question of "what if?" Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) has assembled a cast that the most seasoned director would salivate over, only to show complete ineptitude towards authenticity and controlled performance registers. The only positive to be drawn from the film is that it contains some momentarily appealing photography. The rest of the film is a shambles. It's badly directed, allowing for poor performances, glossy over-stylisation, and serves no purpose other than showcasing a series of tiresome gunfights.
How did Warners Bros, who produced some of the most important gangster films ever made, let this happen? It's through no fault of the source material. The film is based on a seven day L.A. Times series by journalist Paul Lieberman, who in 2008 chronicled the real life formation of the Gangster Squad. Historical facts notwithstanding, the film is as it claims "inspired by a true story". It's the treatment of the material that fails. Discussing the film's cop-turned-writer Will Beall, Lieberman stated in an article for the Nieman Reports: "With 'The Gangster Squad,' he understood that the studio wanted to go big, with flying bullets and fists." Evidentially, someone at Warner Bros. felt this subgenre had to be modernised by removing the substance and racking up the violence.
The classic gangster films of the past were more psychological than ostentatious. Filmmakers like Howard Hawks used them as public warnings against the real life threat of gangsters and to pressure governments to take stronger action against them. The films provided cautionary tales about the way that ordinary people could be seduced the allure of power and money, raising their social status but dispersing their friends, family and moral values. Actors like James Cagney transformed the gangster figure into tragic Shakespearean characters that were physically and mentally corroded by the failure of the American Dream.
The heavy emphasis on the violence and the action in Gangster Squad lessens the opportunity for complex moral ambiguity. A character asks John late if there is a difference between the criminals and the gangster squad. It's hard to believe given the film's insistence of what a monster Cohen is, along with Penn's disappointingly monotone performance, which substitutes nuances for snarls and angry grimaces. After an opening scene where he orders someone to be drawn and quartered between two cars, there's little by way of sympathy or psychology.
Similarly, if Fleischer is interested in blurring the lines between the criminals and the police, why does he frequently romanticise their battles with adolescent techniques like slow-motion, freeze framing and careless juxtaposition? In one sequence he contrasts a raid with the Carmen Miranda song 'Chica Chica Boom Chic', as the camera crabs sideways, scanning the crew as they beat up crims. Is there any reason besides including a superficial pop reference? This is true of Fleischer's overwrought visual style, one which desperately claws for your attention, only to remain vacuous. There are pretty moments in the film, like a sumptuous wide shot of L.A.'s neon glowing nightlife and Emma Stone's first appearance in a red dress, but they're designed solely to distract you from the film's emptiness and artificiality, as these colour techniques are divorced from a theme.
The performances in this mess range between embarrassing and vapid, and in some cases, both. Brolin's character is a dull lead, the can-do officer with the beautiful home and concerned wife. I found her surprisingly more interesting but the exchanges between the pair gnaw at terrible clichés: "The war is over. Stop fighting," she tells him. When the rest of the cast is allowed to speak, and some of them aren't, they're embarrassed by laughably ornate dialogue, such as: "This is a war for the soul of Los Angeles!" and "The whole town is under water and you're using a bucket when you should be grabbing a bathing suit".
Gosling is the only actor who seems aware of how silly the project is. But his performance is compromised of poses and jokey lines, so chilled that he could play Jerry his sleep. Likewise, Emma Stone's reunion with her Zombieland director leaves her with only two things to do: smoke and look po-faced. The gangster squad itself is little more than a collection of action figurines, defined by quirks than personality, like the knife thrower, the fast shooter and the Hispanic guy.
I liked this movie more when it was called The Untouchables (1987). A tremendous cast and glamorous production design is wasted hosting loosely connected action scenes, with little substance to support them. Warner Bros. decided to delay the film six months following the Aurora shooting. Or was it because they already knew how poor the film was? Now after the events in Connecticut, how will they sell a film that's only interested in gunfire?
This is the first of three films Peter Jackson has made to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel to Lord of the Rings. An elderly Bilbo Baggins writes to Frodo about the land of Erebor, where the Dwarf King Thror lost his land and prosperity to the dragon Smaug. Bilbo then recalls the earlier years of his life (played by Martin Freeman), where he's timid and lost his sense of adventure. Bilbo's complacency is questioned by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who secretly arranges for a meeting to be held in the hobbit's house. One evening Bilbo is interrupted by thirteen dwarves who invite themselves inside. He's told these dwarves are in search of a home but need a burglar who can accompany them to the mountain where Smaug is and take back their land and treasure. Initially reluctant, Bilbo trails after the unit but this does little to impress Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarf leader and grandson of Thror, who doubts the hobbit's commitment.
Even without reading the novel The Hobbit, nothing erases the feeling while watching An Unexpected Journey that this is a deliberately inflated work of fanfare, with eyes drawn acutely towards the box office. Good cinema is defined by economics and how efficiently a story can be told with images. Peter Jackson demonstrated this skill with his Rings trilogy, gracefully balancing multiple narrative threads and characters, and ensuring each one possessed an appropriate amount of emotional weight.
Why then has he chosen to make a soulless, linear action movie, extravagantly scaled, but so insubstantial that it never justifies itself as the start of a trilogy? Penned by no less than four writers, including Jackson, this would have been more satisfying as one film with richer themes and selective action. Instead, a novel of barely 300 pages long is extended to nearly three hours, if only to showcase boring battle scenes and superfluous new technology, falsely touted as innovative.
The excess of Jackson's passion stems from his fascination with geek culture. Since the inception of his career in the 1980s, making low budget horror films, he has been concerned with subjects like the undead and the uncanny. His recent films have been criticised for being overly dependent on special effects. The trajectory of his career, from horror to global blockbusters, is not unlike James Cameron, who is coincidentally using Jackson's special effects studio Weta Digital to work on Avatar 2.
Both men have become transfixed by spectacle, with each of their films more elaborate and technically sophisticated than the last. They seem intent on blurring the lines between video games and cinema, which means more investment into technology and effects, rather than the scripts. Someone distanced from the source material and video game culture might have made The Hobbit less self-indulgent and plodding. A legal battle between Jackson and New Line Cinema meant Guillermo Del Toro was originally meant to direct the film but was eventually replaced.
As it stands, Jackson's love for video games is all too visible here. The script is short on themes, characterisation and subplots. It's overly rigid structure means the film becomes too absorbed in its sets and its environments, instead of the story. Each scene is like a level from a game, designed to showcase a gallery of monsters, which are cogs in the film's tired formula for suspense. Exposition is followed by danger and then an escape route. Press start to begin.
If the desire for a home offers some resemblance of a motive, it's regularly lost in the flurry of the action, most of which is extremely unengaging and lacking in tension. The film's one good scene admittedly adds some suspense and intrigue. It involves the reappearance of the monster Gollum and begins tying threads back to the Rings trilogy. The detail in Gollum's expressions, beautifully captured again by Andy Serkis, is even more incredible than before.
How do scenes like this, as overlong as they are, fare through the introduction of 48 frames per second? The standard frame rate for films has been to use 24 frames per second. The additional number of frames on the screen adds more detail and colour to the images. The trade-off is that it gives the illusion the images are moving much faster, which is very distracting. It's an unnecessary addition so if you must see the film, watch it in 2D.
Will fans enjoy the movie? Undoubtedly, but for most hardcore fans, more is always more. Consider the families who will now be paying for three movies instead of one, as well as the 3D surcharge, and must then wait another two years to finish the story. They're shown a footnote of a narrative here and that's not right.
Based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi is the metaphysical and spiritual journey of a character who must question their physical endurance and willingness to sustain their faith in God. This character is named Pi Patel and we first see him in present day Canada as a man (played by Irrfan Khan) who is preparing to tell an amazing story to a writer (Rafe Spall). Pi's story begins at a young age when he is a schoolboy in India. His parents are strict but intelligent and run a zoo with a huge array of animals. The film traces Pi's life to when he is a young man (Suraj Sharma), who is reluctant to join his parents once they sell the zoo and move overseas. Once onboard a Japanese ship transporting the zoo animals to be sold, a huge storm floods the vessel and Pi is separated from his family. He finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra and somehow survives the storm. A fantasy adventure of imagination begins, where several other animals emerge from under the covers of the lifeboat, including a tiger. Fearful of the tiger, Pi resorts to building himself a mini raft attached to the boat. He must use a survival guide and other skills to control the tiger and retake the lifeboat.
Director Ang Lee has never made the same film twice. His constant versatility and creative mind for unique visual spaces defines his work. His films including Hulk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain each adopted a unique filmic style appropriate to the material. Only someone with such diverse and sophisticated formal knowledge like Lee could have made Life of Pi work as well as it does. Once deemed unfilmable, the film's visual sophistication bridges the gap between an art house project and mainstream blockbuster. Its stunning visual qualities do not stand isolated but provide cinematic representations of complex philosophical questions surrounding myths, religion and faith.
In lesser hands this might have been a more bloated, less intelligent film. Before Lee, the project was passed between several directors including Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Alfonso Cuaron and M. Night Shyamalan, all of whom are considered visual stylists. Lee's personal strength as a filmmaker is that he rarely allows images to be devoid of meaning. His approach to this complex material is wholly cinematic: he challenges the audience to draw meaning from the properties of the screen and the images, realising a film that is in equal parts dazzling, thoughtful and ambiguous.
The only stumbling points are the early scenes where Lee deters from his cinematic approach. The jumble of anecdotes, including Pi being named after a swimming pool, are confused and estranged from the rest of the film. But the screenplay by David Magee finds its footing once it adopts a linear structure to tell Pi's life story. Expositional dialogue is skilfully masked as provocative philosophical statements, which are then attached to the film's Biblical imagery. The film's midsection, spent almost exclusively on the raft with the animals, visualises Pi's desolated world and draws parallels to stories like Noah's Ark.
The animals in these scenes are a powerful example of Lee's emphasis on combing theme and image. Early in the film Pi shows great interest in the tiger. But his father says to him: "When you look into its eyes,you see only your own emotions reflected back at you". This statement is problematised by the displacement of the animals on the raft. Are the animals real or part of Pi's imagination? The animals, I think, reflect Pi's shifting emotional states. When Pi is afraid, the tiger shows more aggression. When he learns to tame the animal, it shows more control. These images are also allegories for God's own existence. If one fears God, like Pi fears the dominance of the tiger, doesn't that project our own vision of God in our minds?The basis of the film is therefore how much faith we are willing to place into something that might only be a state of mind.
Using a number of aesthetic devices, the film makes a dazzling case for the power of imagination and visual stylisation over conventional naturalism. Colour desaturation is used purposely, with the white tones of Pi's clothes stressing his desire for a cleansing experience on the boat but perhaps also to show impending death given the unlikelihood of his survival. The tiger's half of the boat is coloured red. It matches the colour of tiger to instigate a place of fear that Pi must overcome. Lee also allows his camera to be unconstricted by reality. The fluidity and tilting movements of the camera are used to stunning effect in a storm sequence that takes on Biblical and apocalyptic proportions. There are gentler moments of great power too, where Lee opts to take us deep under the ocean, delivering some of the most striking images in cinema. Abstract and impressionistic images, like a sea of blue neon lights under the ocean, are enhanced spectacularly by bursts of colour and unintrusive 3D effects.
To define precisely what these scenes mean, and many others including a bizarre episode involve thousands of fish and an island of meerkats, would be futile. The film isn't concerned with facts, logic or realism. It stresses how stories and myths inspire our survival as a species. Posing a belated question about what type of stories we would rather hear, inspiring fantasy or scientific rationale like the survival of the fittest, is clever because the answer is predetermined by the amazing things we've already seen. There's a small end moment where the film undermines its sophisticated ambiguity by explaining a twist too neatly but minor quibbles never deter from the power of Lee's craftsmanship. Life of Pi has the spectacle of a blockbuster but compliments its flair with heart and intelligence - compelling reasons see this astonishing film on the big screen.
Stephen Chbosky has chosen to adapt and direct his own epistolary novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's the story of fresher student Charlie (Logan Lerman), a lonely kid starting high school who is in need of some company. His sister Candace is busy with her abusive boyfriend and his brother is rarely seen. Charlie admires his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who supplies him with extra work, but he still needs a real friend. He finds company in two older students: Sam (Emma Watson) and the flamboyant Patrick (Ezra Miller), who are step brother and sister. They invite Charlie into their circle of friends where they party and involve themselves in stage performances. Charlie is also introduced to Buddhist-Punk Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), who develops feelings for him. However, the group becomes aware of Charlie's insecurities, including traumatic memories of his aunt and a friend who killed himself. Sam and Patrick's own demons come to the fore, including his secretive relationship with a footballer named Brad (Johnny Simmons).
It's hard growing up. It's even more problematic writing about those experiences with candour. Stephen Chbosky says that his novel, published in 1999, isn't autobiographical but he relates to the experiences. Many others would also testify to that because according to the New York Times, over 700,000 copies of the novel were sold by 2007. Why then has it taken so long for a film adaptation? Until now the political climate has been unsettled. After its popular release, the novel was banned in places like Massachusetts and Long Island because of its frank depiction of sexuality and drug use. This censorship movement coincided with a bill in 2004 that was proposed by Alabama legislator Gerald Allen, who argued that all public libraries should be banned from purchasing books that "promote homosexuality", by containing gay characters or written by gay authors. As to how close the bill came to passing, Allen met with George W. Bush five times.
Since then, Hollywood has been increasingly liberal about sex so it's easier for films to explore the subject. However, studios still demand mainstream appeal, which means that compromises are made in exchange for financial support. Perks was developed by John Malkovich's Mr. Mudd studio but distributed by Summit Entertainment, who produced the Twilight films. This accounts for the timid approach to the subject matter. The film settles for being relatable and nostalgic, rather than insightful or upfront. It's a missed opportunity. I haven't read the novel, but I am told it cuts even deeper, dealing with issues like date rape, pregnancy and abortion. Those threads have been omitted from the film, which means there are still social barriers that aren't being crossed. Simultaneously, Chbosky's film seems bloated and distant. It has a checklist of confronting teenage issues, which could sadly be referred to as clichés. Suicide, hallucinations, gay bashings, drug use and child abuse, are some of the major concerns here. Why include these though if you're only going to address them at arm's length?
At least tonally the depiction of high school is handled with more maturity than many similar films. The sense of isolation and the desire for friendship are Chboksy's most resonant and successful themes. A long shot of Charlie sitting by himself reflects his dislocation from the rest of the school. Quiet moments like this have a reality to them, as does the bonding between misfits, which the film depends on. High school clichés about jocks and outcasts are subverted with a refreshing dose of optimism and humour. Charlie and his friends are not typical high school losers seen in other films. They happily live in their own private circle. "Welcome to the island of misfit toys", Sam announces. They go to parties and social gatherings together and even participate in performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on stage. This in turn helps Charlie become a less introverted student in class too, which shines a more positive light on high school itself.
A more complex notion is that Charlie's circle of friends is bound by a lack of self-worth. In each other's company Chbosky's characters are not unhappy but each possesses some internal damage from either a past or perpetually flawed relationship: "We accept the love that we think we deserve", Charlie notes. Some of this material is very involving and powerful. A subplot involving Charlie's forced relationship with Mary-Elizabeth is one of the film's best threads. It shows deep flaws in Charlie's character but also provides the film with a dramatic motor and explosive conflict within the group. Mae Whitman's work here, the impulsiveness to jump into a relationship and the inevitable hurt, is impacting and believable. Ezra Miller (We Need To Talk about Kevin, 2011) shows a different side to himself with great energy and a surprisingly acute feel for comic timing. But limiting the film to Charlie's perspective, like the novel, means that Patrick's gay relationship with Brad is kept at bay, until a melodramatic climax. Emma Watson also isn't quite gritty enough to play a girl who is meant to have slept around, though her bond with Charlie is still fun to watch unfold.
As for Charlie, there's uncertainty about how to translate the darker psychological material surrounding his character. His relationship with his aunt for example is presented through poorly realised flashbacks that obscure the issue instead of providing true insight. This is included in a deficient final quarter, which falters under cliché coming of age ramblings like: "We can't choose where we come from, but where we go from there". Overall, the film is relatable, funny and true, but it would have benefited from a defter touch. There are too many slow-motion scenes and montages that detract from the important issues that this sometimes palpable drama tries to face. What will it take for a mainstream film to pull no punches when it comes to adolescents and how much they carry on their shoulders?
When a list of MI6's agents falls into the wrong hands James Bond (Daniel Craig) pursues the man who stole it. But during a tense standoff on a train, M (Judi Dench) makes the call for a shot to be taken. Bond is accidentally wounded by fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and the list vanishes with the man. With Bond presumed dead, M takes the fall and is set to be replaced, with the relevancy of the 00 agents questioned by the Intelligence Chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). Bond briefly takes to drinking until there is a terrorist bombing against MI6. Returning to Britain, Bond remerges, bitter at M, but determined to serve his country. Although weakened, Bond vows to get the list by travelling globally to places like Shanghai and is given some help by a younger agent codenamed 'Q' (Ben Whishaw) and the mysterious Severine (Berenice Marlohe). He eventually discovers that his nemesis is Silva (Javier Bardem), a criminal mind of the computer age, who has a personal vendetta against M herself.
Some will argue that in the 50th year of the James Bond franchise Skyfall is the spy's pinnacle adventure, taking us into a new age of invisible terrorism, far beyond Ian Fleming's post-war espionage novels, while also reintroducing staple characters from the series and finally teasing at Bond's past. The film's craft alone, at the hands of British director Sam Mendes, rates as a series highpoint. However, true greatness still remains another entry away. This is the most overtly political and conservative Bond film to date, which is jarring for a franchise that defined the term "reboot" in mainstream cinema not long ago. This conservatism harps back to the Bond novels and their fear of the declining British Empire. Fleming was a journalist and a naval intelligence officer. He prepared intelligence units and modelled Bond on various agents and commandos he met. Fleming wrote at least a dozen Bond novels, some of which were criticised for a lack of ethics, being "sado-masochistic" or adolescent. The film series rarely grew up either. It's been spoofed, imitated and even toyed with self-parody too. The stunts and gadgets grew silly and the puns were increasingly lame. What separated this once colourful franchise from production line blockbusters anymore? The Daniel Craig era looked to rectify this: a darker tone, less CGI and Bond projected as a human being. Skyfall shares this attitude, along with the same visceral nature and physicality as Casino Royale (2006). It's an exciting, often funny adventure, but even as it postures towards a changing era, it's still Bond. In this half-century of vodka martinis, little has changed, and here Skyfall doesn't follow-up on some enticing threads and possibilities, signposted in the first half.
What can't be faulted however is the photography by Roger Deakins. He frames this movie beautifully, with more width than we've ever seen in a Bond film. It makes Bond resemble a smaller piece of a much greater spectrum of world terror. There are some gorgeous sequences in this film, my favourite being a martial arts battle fought in a glass building. The blows are photographed with dark shadows, like a silhouette, and the screen is shrouded by a blue filter lens. Action sequences like this, selective in a strong, leisurely first half, have more weight to them, fused with questions over Bonds fitness and the relevancy of M and the 00 agents - clever metaphors for the franchises own relevancy. Though the first half is witty and promising, with Dench and Craig's sparring sessions a delight, the second portion is bombastic, tense but unsatisfying. The cracks in the screenplay coincide with the introduction of Bardem's Silva, whom the film gambles heavily on. French actress Berenice Marlohe is thrown by the wayside; her character is a mere waypoint leading to Silva. As for Bardem, his villain in No Country for Old Men (2007) was a case of less is more. He's been cast to do the same, to be scary, but the character is underwritten. His acting style is broader and over the top to compensate and it's an unusual concoction of humour and weirdness. At most, his character provides an interesting suggestion about M's poor treatment of her agents.
A great seed of conflict between Bond and M is planted by this, only to be diluted by a number of action set pieces, several of which owe too much to The Dark Knight (2008). Huge plot holes become startlingly visible too: If Silva is a wizard in electronic sabotage and can place bombs on MI6's doorstep, why does he personally go to such extraordinary lengths to attack M himself? If he specialises in cyberterrorism, and has a sophisticated background, why are his tactics in the final climax so lead-heavy? Bond wants to be a serious franchise, it wants to be Nolan's Batman, but we're expected to ignore the plot inconsistencies. Bond still dazzles, but there's disunity around the direction and future of the series too. It's repackaged beautifully, but inside is a political tool, with references to the London bombing, shots of the British flag and a main character that is decidedly immobile, though not through circumstance. In Casino Royale, Bond returned to the circus out of personal tragedy and revenge. Now he's back only because Britain needs him. He's not ready yet to be called the spy who came in from the cold.
The Sessions is based on the life of journalist Mark O'Brien, adapting his article 'On Seeing a Sex Surrogate' (1990). Mark (played by John Hawkes) suffered from polio as a child. He is not so much paralysed but has a muscle disorder from the neck down, which makes his body immobile. At thirty-eight, he has spent his life either on a gurney board, with a portable respirator, or inside an iron lung, a large machine that provides him with oxygen. Simply, Mark is a virgin and due to the immovability of his neck, he hasn't been able to see his genitalia in thirty years. Embarrassed by his inexperience and his slender body, Mark seeks help from one of his carers Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and also a new priest in Father Brendan (William H. Macy) in confronting the issue. He asks Father Brendan for a blessing to explore his own sexuality, while Vera wheels him to meetings with a sex surrogate. The surrogate is there to provide sexual activity with a patient for therapeutic purposes. Mark's sex surrogate is Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who is extremely dogmatic, telling him that they can only have up to six sessions, and being extremely closed about her own personal life. She's aware that Mark's anxiety stems from his personal demons, including the death of his sister Karen at age seven. Cheryl's own life is plagued by indecision: she is caught in a loveless marriage because her husband is a disinterested layabout, sparking her admiration for someone as intelligent as Mark.
This deceptively small film remains entirely selfless about its own significance, but subtly envisions the great socio-political change within Hollywood and America cinema itself. Under more a liberal administration, Hollywood's attitude to sex, the most dangerous word in the American vocabulary, has become increasingly flexible and open-minded. The films being produced are now more frank and less conservative about sex and sexuality. The significance of this cultural change is that it evokes an equally changing national identity. Americans are often caricatured as God-fearing conservatives, when more accurately America was a nation built on strict Christian values. Some parts of America have retained this conservative outlook, while others are pushing towards liberalism and broader cultural understanding of other races and religions. Films that speak more openly about sex and gender will help shape American values and identities. Recent films, like Easy A (2010) and Friends With Benefits (2011), have approached the subject of sex through comedy, which makes it more disarming and accessible for a broader audience. Earlier this year Shame turned the physicality of sex into a dramatic examination of psychological behaviour. The Sessions does the same, but it is not as intimidating or bleak a film. The sex is upfront, both physical and in verbal descriptions, and the actors aren't concealed. But the film is surprisingly funny and hopeful, not dour, bravely suggesting that physical connections are a means of liberating the soul. Much of the film's sincerity and honesty is drawn from real life sources, which enhances its authenticity. The film's director, Polish-Australian Ben Lewin, was affected by polio too, which makes him understandably sympathetic to the story. But wisely, the film closely traces O'Brien's article so that it's never overinflated with implausible melodrama.
There's a level of gentility to the film, expressed most earnestly through the performances. They're wonderful. John Hawkes, an underappreciated character actor, is the film's centrepiece and unfazed by the unconventional physicality of the part. He effortless draws O'Brien with a sense of humour and dry wit, but also projects a great amount of fear within this man as well. If you find yourself awkwardly tilting your head during any close up shots, listen to the pitch of his voice and the way that he expresses his hesitation and his sense of dread in confronting his body and his own self-worth. For O'Brien, sex must become more than a compulsive life event. It is a means of understanding that he is an ordinary human being. Mark reflected on this in his article: "Another lesson learned:Sex is a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses, and rock stars." But this is also a man who must also be at peace with himself, replacing his emotions and guilt over his sister Karen with a new form of intimacy. The complexity of this role is further echoed in its relationship to Hunt's work too. Her dialogue has a different set of rhythms. Whereas Mark is nervous and unassured, Cheryl is direct and rigid in her actions and procedures. She is also very delicate and poised around her patients, which is a means of hiding her personal life. A once maligned actress, Helen Hunt eases into this role with such confidence and unflinching maturity, allowing the subtleties and minute features of her character to seem like the most naturalistic features of a real person. Her increasing attachment to Mark, contrasted by her unsatisfying home life and relationships, is convincing. Macy's role is fascinating too. Though he is very funny, he is not just for comic relief. He compliments the notion that people must break out of their generic roles if they are to find self-satisfaction. He describes Mark at the end of the film as "a dynamic voice in a paralysed body", but each of the three characters could initially be described like that. They help each other realise that people can be as complete and as mentally powerful as they are in any physical action. It's a lesson for Hollywood itself too.