Archive for 2012

The Hunt * * * * 1/2

Posted in Drama, Foreign Language with tags on July 19, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Thomas Vinterberg.
Screenplay: Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm.
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelsteøm, Susse Wold, Alexandra Rapaport, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Sebastian Bull Sarning.

There have been a number of films that have addressed the harrowing nature of child abuse; “The Woodsman” is one where Kevin Bacon’s character – just released from prison – admits his guilt, leaving the audience in an almost impossible position in showing any sympathy, whereby John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” left the audience questioning the guilt of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s afflicted priest throughout it’s entirety. This time, Thomas Vinterberg tackles the issue from the point of view of the innocently accused.

Mild mannered, nursery school teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), lives in a small village where he leads a simple life. However, one of his young pupils accuses him of inappropriate behaviour and his life is thrown into turmoil by all around him as he struggles to prove his innocence.

Vinterberg sets his protagonist’s motivations from the off-set. He’s a humble man who is active in the community and seems to have a solid network of friends and a close relationship with his teenage son. To embody this kindhearted soul, Vinterberg chooses wisely in Mads Mikkelsen – who won best actor for the role at Cannes in 2012. Mikkelsen is the type of actor who, having such a unique physical appearance, can perform many different characters. He made a great Bond villain in “Casino Royale” and now confirms that he can completely win you over in a gentler role. He exudes an appealing demeanour that has you fully affectionate towards him and it’s this very affection that has you infuriated at the witch-hunt and complete injustice and turmoil he has to endure. The problem is, there are no bad people in this film. It’s layered and nuanced so well, that even those that choose to abandon and ostracise him are only doing what they believe to be right. As an insider, the audience are privy to all the information and it makes it easy to not just understand Lucas’ plight but to also identify with the shock and grievances that his friends and family have towards him. Quite simply, it’s a film that tears you in many different directions and refuses to let go.
The nature or subject matter of it, may originally put some people off but I can confirm that nothing here is uncomfortably or exploitatively dealt with. It’s entirely honest and innocent and that’s the very thing that it demands the utmost respect for. Vinterberg doesn’t balk from depicting human nature in a cruel or victimised fashion but he cleverly shows restraint in his approach, allowing the actors to deliver the realism and the dangers involved in condemnation through ambiguous gossip.

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A gripping and emotionally draining, social drama that manages to be both provocative and empathetic. Proof, once again, that the Scandinavian output of cinema is at the top of it’s game right now.

Mark Walker

Detachment * * * 1/2

Posted in Drama with tags on May 29, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Tony Kaye.
Screenplay: Carl Lund.
Starring: Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye, Louis Zorich.

Having been a big fan of “American History X” in 1998, I was eager to see what else director Tony Kaye had in store. Unfortunately, he didn’t make that many films and those that he did – “Lobby Lobster” and “Black Water Transit” – didn’t quite reach a bigger audience. As a result, I was happy to come across “Detachment” which proves that Kaye hasn’t lost any of his style or starkness.

Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher brought into a struggling urban high school to teach English and work with kids who are performing at a very low grade. Being a substitute is exactly the way Henry likes it as he deliberately tries to avoid making genuine connections with people (and that includes his pupils). As time goes on, though, Mr. Barthes realises the pupils’ need for his input and which forces him to confront his own demons and isolation.

And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.

As the film opens, this is the quote from French philosopher Albert Camus that’s scribed onto a blackboard before we are introduced to the protagonist and the personal conflict he finds himself in. On the one hand, he’s a caring individual but on the other, he deliberately keeps a distance from people as he’s consumed by a guilt that doesn’t belong to him. His detachment is also reflected in the frustrated and disillusioned pupils he teaches, making this a melting pot of emotionally dysfunctional people. It’s this very mirroring in the individuals that make this quite a thought provoking character study, as well as a diatribe on the state of the American educational system and the problems therein.
Kaye shoots the film with an edgy, fly on the wall approach, utilising the shaky-cam technique and numerous close-ups that bring you closer to the characters and their inner turmoil. There’s also the assembly of a very impressive cast, all-be-it, a lot of them are wasted in thankless, underwritten roles. The likes of Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner and William Petersen needn’t have turned up at all, but James Caan lightens the mood whenever he’s onscreen and the young unknowns get a chance to shine instead; particularly, (the director’s daughter) Betty Kaye, who develops a crush on her teacher and Sami Gayle as a young prostitute who develops a similar infatuation. The real star, though, is a brooding and commanding Brody. He’s rarely offscreen for the entirety of the film and even though it’s no surprise that he delivers his usual reliability, he’s especially good with a very powerful and charismatic performance. However, the cast and the impressive handling of the material can’t save the film from being overly depressing, or when drawing to it’s conclusion, descending into melodrama from which it never fully recovers.

Cut from the same cloth as the, Oscar nominated, Ryan Gosling movie “Half Nelson“, director Tony Kaye delivers a good insight into the difficulties of teaching and the importance of instilling a good childhood and sense of self in our youth.

Mark Walker

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Sightseers * * * *

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 17, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Ben Wheatley.
Screenplay: Steve Oram, Alice Lowe.
Starring: Steve Oram, Alice Lowe, Eileen Davies, Richard Glover, Monica Dolan, Jonathan Aris, Richard Lumsden, Tony Way, Rachel Austin, Gareth Jones.

After the dark crime thriller “Kill List” in 2011, writer/director Ben Wheatley has decided on a slightly lighter approach for his follow-up. Just ‘slightly’ mind you, as the premise of this tale is equally as dark and deranged. However, it does contain a lot of humour and will most likely remain one of the blackest comedies all year. It’s also confirmation that Wheatley is definitely a talent to watch.

After accidentally killing her mother’s beloved dog with a knitting needle Tina (Alice Lowe), makes a decision to leave her domineering mother and go on a caravan holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram). What Tina doesn’t know is that Chris has a penchant for killing people who upset him. Tina soon becomes influenced by him and as they tour the English countryside, they leaves bodies in their wake at the camp sites, museums and tourist destinations that they visit.

After a brief introduction to our travelling odd-couple, Wheatley gets down to his turgid roadtrip where all manner of darkness ensues. Despite the, blacker-than-black, nature of the story he infuses it with a deadpan humour that counterbalances the events, disturbed behaviour and thought processes of the characters. After casually and callously despatching of unsuspecting, innocent victims our couple share their thoughts and warped sense of justification; at one point over dinner Tina suggests that “by reducing their life span you’re reducing their omissions“, to which Chris responds “so what you mean is… murder is green? I never thought of it like that“. Tina is also a character who likes to have intercourse while sticking her face in a bowl of pot-pourri and wearing hand-knitted, crotchless lingerie. These are just a couple of examples of their deluded outlook and off-the-wall behaviour. Believe me, there are plenty more on their travels. What aids the film immeasurably is the two superb central performances from Steve Oram and Alice Lowe who also happen to have written the screenplay. While playing out their own characters, it shows that they fully understand the material and what’s required to make them three dimensional. Meanwhile, Wheatley handles the extreme shifts in tone with absolute ease. There are some genuinely, hilarious moments that are coupled with a very twisted nature. For a film to have you laughing at it’s darkness, is a testament to all involved here. Black comedies don’t come much darker than this.

Having proved beforehand with “Kill List” that he could craft a sense of realism imbued with absolute horror. This time, Ben Wheatley shows excellent skill in balancing humour with an altogether different kind of horror and lunacy. It has been compared to the likes of “Natural Born Killers” and Mike Leigh’s “Nuts In May” but I’d refer to this thoroughly rewarding little treat, as “Badlands” in the Midlands.

Mark Walker

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The Paperboy * * * 1/2

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on March 27, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Lee Daniels.
Screenplay: Pete Dexter, Lee Daniels.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Macy Gray, David Oyelowo, Scott Glenn, Ned Bellamy, Nealla Gordon, Gary Clarke, Faison Love, Grace Hightower.

After his Oscar winning film “Precious“, which was an adaptation of Sapphire’s novel “Push“, director Lee Daniels decides to follow that up with another adaptation. This time it’s the 1995 novel “The Paperboy” by Pete Dexter and another exploration of highly dysfunctional personalities.

Naive reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) heads back to his home town of Lately, where he’s determined to exonerate convict Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who awaits execution on death row for the supposed murder of a local Sheriff. Ward is accompanied by his brother Jack (Zac Efron), ambitious colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) and flashy seductress Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) – who has a fetish for incarcerated men and Van Wetter is her latest obsession. The murky details of the investigation soon uncover truths about everyone involved and truths that were better left alone.

This is a film that’s very much a mixed bag and it’s easy to see why some people just didn’t take to it. First off, the narrative is disjointed. At times, it doesn’t seem know to which direction it’s going in and the tacked-on, voiceover narration, doesn’t really help matters. In the earlier part there’s humour and it gives the impression that it’s got it’s tongue stuck firmly in it’s cheek. As the film and characters grow, though, it becomes progressively darker. So much so, that it will having you wincing in both disgust and horror. These shifts in tone are less than effortless and also threaten to undo the film as a whole. However, even though the tone is uneven it’s throws up many memorable moments; Kidman urinating on Efron’s face, Cusack and Kidman engaging in masturbation while 10 feet apart and other brutal and shocking revelations, which I’ll allow you to find out for yourself. It’s in these memorable moments that you realise where the film’s strengths lie; the characters are all three dimensional and the brave cast are uniformly brilliant. Efron has come a long way since his “High School Musical” days and looks like proper leading actor material; McConaughey continues his recent run of seedy and risqué roles; Cusack captures the intensity of a loutish psychopath and Kidman is a revelation as an oversexed floozie. Fine support is also delivered by a surprisingly talented Macy Gray and the enigmatic David Olywewo. It’s the very commitment from these actors that has you believing in the material even when their characters’ motivations are not always clear or convincing. Another big player in the proceedings is cinematographer Roberto Schaefer. He captures the searing heat and uncomfortableness of backwoods Florida to perfection while balancing the class divide and racial tension that drips from every pore.
Daniels’ direction may be a little hyperstylised at times and his grasp on the film’s structure is less than convincing. Incoherence does creep in and the film sags around the midriff, becoming in danger of losing itself entirely. At one point, when it should be wrapping up, it throws in further complications and character developments but to give the director his due, he knows how to drop subtle hints without revealing too much, leaving the story’s denouement more satisfying than first thought. There’s no doubt that this is a flawed endeavour but the scathing opinions of it are a little unwarranted – all-be-it, understandable. There is much to admire here. Yes, it’s trashy, tawdry and most certainly deranged but it’s also edgy and unpredictable, which is more than you can say for a lot of studio releases these days.

Sexploitation, exploitation and telekinetic masturbation. What more can you can ask from a film that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a deranged venture into the American south with a committed cast that are game for anything?
This might have been booed at the Cannes film festival but for it’s trashy audacity alone, it deserves applause.

Mark Walker

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Frankenweenie * * * *

Posted in Animation, Family, Horror with tags on March 25, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Tim Burton.
Screenplay: John August.
Voices: Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchata Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Dee Bradley Baker, Frank Welker.

Tim Burton has occasionally been involved in animated movies throughout his career, having served as producer on “The Nightmare Before Christmas“, “James & The Giant Peach” and “9“. However, the only time he’s actually been behind the camera on any of them was “Corpse Bride” in 2005 and his animated short in 1984 “Frankenweenie” – of which this is a feature length expansion of. Some may feel that he’s treading old ground here but there’s no doubt that this is still a highly successful endeavour.

Victor Frankenstein is a lonely young boy who’s best friend is his energetic dog, Sparky. When Sparky is run over and killed by a car, Victor is devastated but he refuses to give up hope of spending time with his beloved friend again. Inspired by his science teacher, he decides to rig up a laboratory and harness the lightning to bring Sparky’s corpse back to life. His attempts are successful but it soon causes havoc within his neighbourhood.

Burton has came in for a critical panning from many people of late (myself included). The major issue being his seeming inability to change his idiosyncratic style. With this latest venture into stop-motion animation, he has answered his critics with aplomb and it makes you wonder whether he even should change his approach when the results can be as good as this. Here, his gothic idiosyncrasies are entirely suited to this homage to director James Whale and his classic horror movies “Frankenstein” and it’s follow-up “Bride Of Frankenstein“. He also throws in some references to horror stars Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price and includes a whole host of quirky characters – the one that stood out for me the most was ‘Mr. Whiskers’; a cat who can predict the future of others by the shape of the shit left in his litter tray.
Burton’s decision to film in gorgeous monochrome also adds to the proceedings, meanwhile, giving Mary Shelley’s classic literary tale his own spin and he (and us) has a lot fun in doing so. It also has a similar off-key suburban setting like Burton’s earlier film “Edward Scissorhands” and shares the same balance of that film’s darkness and humour. Younger children may balk at the unravelling of the darker tale but older kids and adults can revel in it’s decent into a reanimated, monster B-Movie which is entirely fitting and in doing so, never loses it’s sense of fun or feeling for the macabre.

A lot of animated films these days have an appeal for children and adults alike and the balance that Burton achieves here is proof that that’s not about to change anytime soon. One of 2012′s very best animated films and one of Burton’s best for quite a while.

Mark Walker

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey * * * *

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy with tags on March 15, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Peter Jackson.
Screenplay: Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens.
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Lee Pace, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Benedict Cumberbatch, Elijah Wood.

When news of an adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit arrived, I have to admit that I was very eager to see it move along briskly. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Production was so slow that original director Guillermo del Toro had to leave due to other commitments. Although this was disappointing news, all was not lost as “The Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson returned to the helm to assume control of this prequel. Expectations were high and it left the overhanging question as to whether he could emulate his past successes. Well, it’s certainly not without it’s flaws but again Jackson has delivered another indulgent cinematic experience from the treasured quill of Tolkien’s world.

The Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor has been taken over by the fearsome dragon, Smaug and a plan is set to reclaim it and the treasures lost. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a Hobbit who finds himself thrust into this quest on the recommendation of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Smaug is not the only thing that stands in their way, though; a malevolent presence is at work in middle-earth which could affect all of them.

After a brief introduction to the plight of the dwarves and a devastating introduction to the dragon Smaug, we are taken straight back to the Shire where the whole story of the Hobbit adventures originated. It’s here that we’re reminded of the twee environment in which these little halfling’s reside and with Jackson calling the shots, you know straight away that you are in comfortable hands. Gandalf and Bilbo’s first meeting is addressed and the rest of the main characters are rounded up before the film begins it’s “unexpected journey”. When I say this, though, it sounds like the film gets straight down to business and gets the formalities out the way. It doesn’t. Jackson takes his time in establishing the set-up and he chooses to flesh out every detail. As a result, it becomes apparent that the film isn’t flowing as easily as it could do. Things do pick up, though, and it’s very difficult not to get swept up in the sheer visual masterclass that’s delivered before your eyes. It’s absolutely breathtaking to observe and none more so, than when Jackson begins to deliver his highly impressive, action set-pieces. From a confrontation with campfire Trolls to battling Rock monsters and giant sweeping eagles, they’re all absolutely astounding and thrillingly executed. However, despite the excitement, what these moments lack is the ability to feel like the characters are in any real danger. Maybe this is because I had read the book beforehand or maybe it’s because the set-pieces only served to instil some excitement before taking a break and doing it all over again. There is a feeling of repetition to the film and, dare I say it, a feeling of tediousness. Jackson’s decision to flesh out this short children’s novel into a trilogy of films – that will no doubt run between two and three hours each – seems wholly unnecessary but I suppose time will tell on that. As it is, though, this film is certainly overlong and it, simply, didn’t need to be. Some scenes are laborious and you can’t help but get the feeling that Jackson should just move it along. On the other hand, I found it hard to deny how much fun I was having. Much like “The Lord of the Rings“, it’s aided by very strong performances; McKellen is his usual reliable self as Gandalf and although I wasn’t convinced with the choice of Martin Freeman as Bilbo, I have to admit that he slotted in very well indeed. As for the dwarves, well, out of the whole thirteen of them, only a handful actually stand out. The one that really rises to the surface is that of Thorin Oakenshield and Richard Armitage plays him to perfection – channeling an Aragorn/Viggo Mortensen charismatic presence. He’s so commanding that it’s hard to accept that he’s only a dwarf. Another highlight from the performances is seeing Andy Serkis reprise his role of Gollum. Once again, the go-to guy for motion capture brings this complex little character to life.
The ingredients are all here and it certainly looks like there’s more mileage in these characters yet. I just hope that Jackson knows when to trim the edges next time round.

A little less plodding and bit more urgency will be required for the second instalment if this trilogy is to truly find it’s feet. That being said, it finishes strongly and if Jackson can keep that momentum going then this could yet turn out to be a very successful return to middle-earth.

Mark Walker

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Amour * * * * *

Posted in Drama, Foreign Language with tags on February 28, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Michael Haneke.
Screenplay: Michael Haneke.
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, Ramón Agirre, Rita Blanco.

Danish director Bille August was the only director to win back-to-back Palme d’Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival (in 1988 & 1992) with his film’s “Pelle The Conqueror” and “The Best Intentions“. That was, until Austrian director Michael Haneke recently equalled that achievement. His first came in 2009 with “The White Ribbon” and he done it again in 2012 with this deeply emotional and profound film that’s been heralded by many as a masterpiece.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are couple of retired music teachers who have been married a long time and are now enjoying life in their eighties. One morning at breakfast, Anne displays some unusual behaviour and becomes momentarily distant without any memory of doing so. It’s transpires that she has suffered a stroke which leads to symptoms of dementia. Georges takes on her care but the very close relationship this couple once shared, is put to it’s greatest test.

I’m not one for giving away spoilers but that decision is taken out of my hands straight away by Michael Haneke. He gives us an opening scene of firemen breaking down an apartment door to find the deceased body of an elderly woman lying on her bed with flower arrangements around her. Following this – in bold letters – the seemingly contradictory title of the film is displayed; “Amour” – or the English translation; “Love“. It’s a powerful opening and from the off-set Haneke shows his confidence by delivering the ending at the very beginning. However, it’s the journey up to this point that’s the real story behind this film.
When we are introduced to our protagonists, Georges and Anne, we are given a glimpse into their daily lives and how familiar and comfortable they are in each others company. It’s obvious that they’ve shared a lot of time together but it’s also this sense of realism that packs the real punch, when the health of Anne rapidly deteriorates.
Set, almost entirely, within the couples’ household, Haneke uses the space and setting masterfully. It’s subtly done but on slightly closer inspection you can see that the house is in slight disrepair much like the failing health of this elderly couple. Despite time being against these people in their twilight years, time also seems to slow right down in their home. Haneke builds slowly and refuses to be rushed. He lingers long on shots and reactions and refuses to use any form of a music score to manipulate or force you to feel. What you witness is raw and uncompromising and rarely is such reality and authenticity captured on screen.
This a profound and honest exploration of mortality and the nature of ageing; the loneliness involved and the humiliation and inability to maintain dignity. It’s heartbreaking to witness the deterioration of an individual and the performance of the Oscar nominated, veteran French actress, Emmanuelle Riva is an astounding piece of acting. Trintignant also puts in some very fine work as the loving husband who finds himself out of his depth and his frustration begins to show in his level of care and compassion.
As is normally the case in Haneke’s film’s, all is not plain sailing. There’s a depth and ambiguity involved. The couples’ relationship with their daughter seems distant and strained and there’s a recurring, symbolic, appearance of a pigeon that keeps entering the household. On the surface, it would seem that this film is simply an honest commentary of flailing health and fading memories but it also operates at a depth beyond this.

A deserved Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. This is sensitive, emotional and deeply involving filmmaking which tackles a part of life that’s rarely touched upon. It’s a beautiful piece of work but also the most devastating love story you’re likely to see.

Mark Walker

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Argo * * * *

Posted in Drama, History, thriller with tags on February 24, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Ben Affleck.
Screenplay: Chris Terrio.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Kerry Bishé, Chris Messina Michael Parks, Taylor Schilling, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Keith Szarabajka, Philip Baker Hall.

After a great directorial debut with “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007 and a brilliant sophomore effort with “The Town” in 2010, all eyes were on Ben Affleck in his third outing as director. Questions were asked as to whether he could do it again. And the answer? The answer is a resounding, ‘Yes’. Argo completes Affleck’s hat-trick behind the camera and confirms that he’s definitely a director that has an abundance of talent and awareness.

Based on true events in a post-revolution Iran in 1979. A mob of Ayatollah supporters storm the US Embassy and take 56 American hostages. 6 officers managed to escape, however, and take refuge in the home of a Canadian Ambassador. After two months in hiding and their sanctuary becoming increasingly risky, the CIA hatch a plan to get them home and extraction officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is given that responsibility. His plan is to create a fake movie called “Argo” and pretend that the six officers in hiding are his crew, scouting for shooting locations within the country.

Before going into Argo, I admittedly expected a heavy-handed political thriller but that’s not exactly what it delivers. Apart from the first five minutes of a brief overview of the, questionable, political relations between the U.S. and Iran, it sidesteps any political agenda and gets down to capturing the thrilling, human drama at it’s core. I’m not adverse to political film’s at all. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy them but Affleck is wise not to get too bogged down in boardroom banter and bureaucracy when there’s an brilliantly exciting story to tell. It does share similarities with the great political tinged thrillers of the 1970′s like Alan J. Pakula’s “All The Presidents Men” or “The Parallax View“. The late 70′s and early 80′s style is captured to perfection by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and Affleck’s orchestration can sit comfortably beside any from that great decade of cinema.
Chris Terrio’s solid screenplay delivers many dialogue driven scenes but Affleck keeps things moving at a frantic pace and not for a second, does the film ever get dull or drawn out. The tension is almost unbearable at times. Why Affleck didn’t, at the very least, nab an Oscar nomination for his substantial and well-constructed direction here is beyond me. There’s no doubt that he’s in complete command of his material as he leaps from Tehran to Washington to Tinseltown and delivers completely satisfying environments and effortless shifts in tone for the whole film to gel and come to life. He has the ability to capture a politically ravaged country; the backroom jargon of the CIA and the dark humour of Hollywood (that shares more than a passing resemblance to Barry Levinson’s “Wag The Dog“). In order to capture this ludicrous, stranger-than-fiction story in it’s entirety, it demands a maestro at work and Affleck can certainly consider himself one.

This is the edge-of-your-seat tension that “Zero Dark Thirty” wishes it had. With only three film’s under his hat, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Affleck has been at this directing malarky for a very long time. The comparisons with actor, turned quality director, Clint Eastwood will rage on and if anyone thinks otherwise, then Affleck can tell them to “Argo fuck yourself“.

Mark Walker

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The Impossible * * * *

Posted in Drama with tags on February 8, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Juan Antonio Bayona.
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sanchez.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura, Sönke Möhring, Johan Sundberg, Jan Roland Sundberg, Geraldine Chaplin.

One of the very best of recent horror movies was “The Orphanage“, released in 2007. As part of it’s marketing campaign it was executive produced by the familiar name of Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth“). Of course, del Toro wasn’t the creative mind behind the film – little known, Spanish director, Juan Antonio Bayona was. With this follow-up Bayona tackles an altogether different horror in the shape of one the world’s worst natural disasters: that of the Pacific Basin Tsunami of 2004.

Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are a British couple who takes their three sons on a Christmas family holiday to Thailand. Their idyllic setting is soon torn apart when a powerful and deadly tsunami rips through the beach resort. Maria and the eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) manage to struggle to safety but Henry and the younger boys are separated, leaving them fighting for survival and unaware of each others’ fate.

Bayona starts his film off gently, as he introduces the quaint British family going about their holiday with love and enthusiasm. He takes little time in establishing his characters but takes enough to convey them as a strong unit. When they are separated by the sheer destructive force of the Tsunami, Bayona establishes his skill and deft handling of the disaster in all it’s devastating force. It’s entirely believable and absolutely awe-inspiring as man made structures and natural habitats are swept aside like playthings. On top of this, he gives us a turbulent, first-person point of view of the confusion whilst being churned around in this tidal wave. It’s a cinematic achievement that’s nothing less than impressive. From here, it progresses into a survival story as the separated family strive to find one another and it’s at this point that the film slows down and gets in touch with it’s emotional core. I was actually surprised by it’s level of emotion but that’s not to say that I didn’t like it. It worked primarily because we can identify with these suffering individuals. This is a natural disaster that affected many throughout the world and the loss was practically incalculable. As a result, the film becomes a bit of a tearjerker and some may even claim manipulatively so. I was so unprepared that at several points, I was wondering why I had a lump in my throat and why it didn’t seem to be going away either. Quite simply, the film’s emotional power captured me and refused to let go. Of course, to make this believable, you have to look at the cast members. Each and every one of them were superb; Naomi Watts has been Oscar nominated for her turn but Ewan McGregor can count himself very unlucky not to receive similar recognition. They both deliver outstandingly strong work. Special mention must also go to Tom Holland as the eldest son, who actually carries a large amount of the film of his young shoulders. We could be witnessing the arrival of a very fine actor here. Ultimately, it’s through these performers that we invest ourselves into this tragedy. Surprisingly, the only film that I’m aware of that has touched upon this disaster is Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” but it didn’t deal with it to the extent and technical ability that this does.

It’s not often we get such an impressive piece of work that, so easily, tugs on the heartstrings. In fact, the last time I felt this was with Juan Antonio Bayona’s aforementioned “The Orphanage” but to capture such a disaster in all it’s ferocity, reaffirms that the impossible is not so hard to believe in contemporary cinema any more.

Mark Walker

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Silver Linings Playbook * * * * 1/2

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 6, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: David O. Russell.
Screenplay: David O. Russell.
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Shia Whigham, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles, Dash Mihok, Paul Herman, Matthew Russell, Brea Bee, Cheryl Williams, Patrick McDade.

As a personal rule, I normally avoid comedies or dramas that involve romance. I find the formula tedious and repetitive, not to mention, dull. However, director David O. Russell’s material is often interesting and off-beat so I decided that I wouldn’t overlook this one (especially when it features my favourite actor in Robert DeNiro). I have to say, I have renewed faith in the genre when there are talented people involved and it’s futile to resist one with such depth and unpredictability as this has.

Pat Solotano Jr., (Bradley Cooper) is discharged from a state metal health institution after an eight month spell for bi-polar disorder that has led to him violently beating his wife’s lover. When released, he lives with his parents Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat, Sr. (Robert DeNiro) and decides to get himself fit and healthy again to gain back his estranged spouse. While out jogging, he crosses paths with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recovering sex addict with mental health issues of her own but as their friendship grows, they realise that they can both help each other to achieve to their goals.

David O. Russell has tackled dysfunctional families before in “Flirting with Disaster” and “The Fighter” and mental health in “I Heart Huckabees” so in many ways, he’s on comfortable ground here and thankfully for us, it shows. He has a complete command over his material and even though you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is just your average, boy-meets-girl, romantic comedy, it isn’t. It teeters on the edge of formula but it also knows how to play with it and never becomes predictable. The ace in Russell’s pack, though, is the immeasurable help by a talented and commited cast. All the performances are absolutely excellent; Bradley Cooper is an actor that was always just been passable for me but here he shows a very impressive side to his acting talents; Jennifer Lawrence has impressed before in “Winter’s Bone” and “The Hunger Games” but this may well be her finest performance to date as she balances vulnerability and strength with ease. My favourite of the bunch, though, was seeing DeNiro finally get a role where he’s able deliver a whole range of emotions. One moment he’s breaking your heart, the next he’s in a fit of rage and also adds a lovely comic touch to things. Although, I was surprised at his Oscar nomination, I also wouldn’t argue with it. It’s great to have him back doing what he does best and hopefully this is the catalyst for bigger and better roles for him. I think we can all admit that he’s deserving of better material than he’s been getting of late. Added to which, apparently, it was DeNiro’s absolute commitment to the film that encouraged the rest of the cast to raise their game. While we’re on the subject of awards, all the leading performers have been Oscar nominated for their turns here (and that includes the great Jacki Weaver) – This is the first time this has been achieved by a cast since Warren Beatty’s political drama “Reds” in 1981. It’s also doesn’t hinder things when the talented likes of Chris Tucker and Shea Whigham are pitching in from the sidelines either. Ultimately, the plaudits must go to Russell for the deft handling of the material, though. Yes, it has generic elements of the genre but by the end, it can’t be pigeonholed and the characters aren’t your average troubled souls that are played for laughs or zaniness. There is a depth and pathos to their struggle and the intermingling of their fractured, dysfunctional obsessions is a hard balance to achieve. Russell manages it with aplomb and every one of his cast do too.

I’ve always been a fan of the off-beat nature of David O. Russell’s work but he has surpassed himself here and delivers an astute, not to mention, very refreshing commentary on mental illness.

Mark Walker

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