Tag Archives: film review

Foxcatcher: wrestling with doubts

20 Jan

Foxcatcher

It’s rare that I feel totally out of step with the world on a movie, but Foxcatcher is one such. Why all the raves? Steve Carell gives a very good, very understated performance as the socially awkward billionaire who decides to fund America’s 1988 Olympic wrestling team, in which his creepiness, aptly, creeps up on you. But part of the pleasure is the sheer surprise at seeing the comedian take on such a downbeat role. As Samuel Johnson said of female preachers, “It is like a dog’s walking on its hind legs. It is not that it is done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Chuck Tatum is similarly cast against type, suppressing his usual breezy charm as the dour wrestler Mark Schultz. He is aiming for a portrait of brooding physicality, but just comes across as entirely absent. Only Mark Ruffalo as his brother is allowed to play his usual role, as the dishevelled, easygoing nice guy, and does so with effortless rumpled charisma.

As for the direction, by Bennett Miller of Moneyball and Capote fame, it lost me from the off. I often like slow films where nothing much happens. Not this one. As son Sam said afterwards, with his usual perspicacity, “I’ve seen so many indie films recently where slowness is mistaken for depth, and where all the shots are in shallow focus to foreground the actors, to emphasise how good their performances are.”

With no one to root for, and a meandering narrative (it’s based on a true story, which does not always make for satisfying drama), I found the whole thing just alienating. Maybe I’d feel more kindly inclined if expectations hadn’t been raised so high by its five Oscar noms. But if you want to see an Oscar contender this week, I’d sooner recommend Birdman, Whiplash, The Theory Of Everything or (probably – I haven’t yet seen it) American Sniper.

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Why Birdman soars: the art of the 90-minute single take

14 Jan
Michael Keaton, former superhero actor, plays Riggan Thompson, former superhero actor, in Birdman's deft exploration of truth through artifice

Michael Keaton, former superhero actor, plays Riggan Thompson, former superhero actor, in Birdman’s deft exploration of truth through artifice

Saw Birdman with my son Sam last night, and it really is as extraordinary as they say. Every character, however small, is well delineated and has at least one great scene; Emma Stone is particularly brilliant, as so often.

But from a film buff’s point of view, the most exciting and head-scratching element is that it appears to be shot in one continuous 90-minute take, without a single cut. Ever since Orson Welles pulled off a wonderfully complex 3 min 20 sec tracking shot as the opening to Touch of Evil, directors have vied to outdo him. Gravity raised the bar last year, with Cuarón’s 17-minute opening shot made possible by digital technology. His fellow Mexican Iñárritu has now forever smashed that record with an entire film’s length. (Admittedly Russian Ark got there first, in 2002, but Birdman is filmed in a far more fluid and dynamic style.)

Fiendishly complex as it was to pull off, it is of course a digital trick, with the cuts hidden in digitally blended scenes when the camera pans to one side without a person in view. But beyond a “look ma, no hands!” desire to show off what can be done, why did Iñárritu decide to do this?

My son, who is perceptive when it comes to films, pointed out that Iñárritu’s trademark is the interlocking multiple narrative which was first displayed in Amores Perros, was developed in 21 Grams, and reached its apotheosis in Babel, which is set in four different countries in four different languages. Birdman’s single continuous take goes to the opposite extreme. Perhaps Iñárritu just wanted to do something different. He told Variety, ““It was like I was on a ladder, and I was getting a little too comfortable.”

But what is the technique’s impact on the film, its effect on the viewer? I noticed a weird thing. We are so used to the grammar of film, the cuts between characters and the sudden shifts in time and location, that they are no longer intrusive. In fact, to me, the definition of a great film is one where I lose myself within it completely, where I am no longer aware that I am watching a film but inhabit it completely, and 15 minutes or more can pass before I blink and remember that I am in a cinema at all. That’s why I always sit up close, in the third row, so I cannot see the edges of the screen.

So the long take in Birdman, which you would expect to feel more naturalistic than constant cuts, to me has the opposite effect. It is stylised, it reminds you continually of the artifice of film. The performances, as befits a comedy that is not quite a comedy, are somewhat stylised, too.

And this perfectly suits the theme of the film. On one level it is the story of a mid-life crisis, of a man who is famous for doing something he does not value (grossing billions of dollars 20 years previously in a superhero franchise) trying to achieve self-worth through putting on a “serious” play based on a story by Raymond Carver.

But it is also about the power of dreams, and the nature of truth, and the thin line between reality and fantasy, and how each can inform the other. That the superhero its protagonist used to play is Birdman, whose superpower is flight, is no accident. Nor is it that Iñárritu has cast in this role an actor, Michael Keaton, who himself is burdened with the fame of playing a superhero – Batman – in a blockbuster franchise. That Keaton is putting on a play within the film allows Iñárritu to explore notions of truth and artifice: Edward Norton’s character is a charming and manipulative bastard who can only “be real” when he is acting, on stage. He even tries to have sex with his girlfriend for real in the play’s bed scene, because it is only on stage, in character, that he has managed to get it up in the last six months.

When Keaton stands on a roof ledge, increasingly drawn into his schizophrenic fantasy that he really is Birdman, a woman shouts out: “Is this for real, or are you shooting a film?” “A film!” he says. “You people are full of shit,” she shouts back. His Birdman alter-ego, who whispers in his ear, tells him to make another blockbuster: “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Which, of course, is the kind of film Iñárritu has just made, though smuggled into the multiplexes under the guise of a film about a superannuated superhero, including a gigantic fantasy scene three quarters of the way through of SWAT teams and exploding helicopters and a giant robot bird-villain so it can have its cake and eat it: criticising blockbusters while at the same time benefiting from the action scene’s trailer value.

The result is an intensively artificial film which, through artifice, gets closer to exploring truth and the nature of reality than perhaps any this year. Birdman is also funny, and touching, and something of a masterpiece. Go see.

Friday films: karma karma karma karma chameleons

22 Feb
Cloud Atlas

Hanks a lot: why Cloud Atlas is Berry peculiar

 

What a day for new film releases! There’s To The Wonder, the latest from Terrence Malick, who could film paint drying for all I care and I’d go watch it. Mama, a taut horror film with Guillermo del Toro as Exec Producer. And Cloud Atlas, which is…

Actually, just what the hell is Cloud Atlas?

It’s safe to say no other film this year will screw quite as much with your brain. It’s an art movie that cost $100 million to make; a costume drama that starts in the 19th century and ends 500 years later as a dystopian sci-fi epic; a blockbuster informed by Derrida and deconstruction. It ambitiously interweaves six narratives across six time periods, linked by the notion that reincarnation dooms people to repeat the actions and relationships of their past.

And it’s by the makers of The Matrix.

Most attention-grabbing of all is the cast, which includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon. It’s not so much their combined star wattage that makes you sit up, as the fact that each takes several roles within the film, swapping ages, genders and even race along with the time zone. Without wanting to spoil all the surprises, yes that is Halle Berry gob-smackingly unrecognisable as an elderly Asian doctor, and Hugh Grant as a war-painted cannibal chief (check out the very funny gallery from UltraCulture, http://bit.ly/UKRGnE).

Sometimes this degenerates into a game of ‘spot the actor’: on set, the stars sometimes didn’t even recognise each other. But it’s mostly a thrill to see a terrific cast get stuck into one of the greatest challenges of their careers. All were committed: the film is one of the biggest-budgeted independent movie ever, and a sizeable chunk of the funding fell out at the very last minute. The stars’ agents advised them to walk. Led by Tom Hanks, they stood by the project. In the end, the film-makers put up their own houses and other assets to secure the missing millions.

It was a characteristically bold move from the Wachowski siblings. In 1999, The Matrix changed the face of action movies overnight. V for Vendetta, which they scripted, became the emblem of the Occupy movement. And if Speed Racer in 2008 was pure bubble-gum, they were making up for it off-screen with their complex private lives, as Larry Wachowski changed sex to become Lana Wachowski. That’s why this tale of gender-bending reincarnation was personal enough to grip them throughout the many years since Natalie Portman first gave them the book.

“My brother this week had the sweetest line ever,” Lana Wachowski told the A.V Club website before the US release: “[He said] ‘Of course I believe in reincarnation—look at my sister.’ We, in our own lives, reincarnate as well. We have new lives. I’m sure there are people in your life who would see this version of you, as opposed to 20 years ago, and would say, ‘Wow, you’ve changed.’”

If the half-baked mysticism behind Cloud Atlas leaves me cold, that at least I can relate to. It was the genesis of my own sci-fi script, Time Squared, in which an assassin travels back in time to face his most dangerous enemy yet – himself as a young man. It’s just a pity Looper got there first, as I detailed here: http://bit.ly/XPxSel.

NB: Portions of this post first appeared in The Book magazine, http://bit.ly/XATWcb 

New films: Sly, Denzel, Bill, and l’il Lynch & Cronenberg

3 Feb
Image

Denzel Washington in Flight: the thinking man’s drinker

Note: this is the first in a weekly fix of new-release round-ups, saving you time and money. In future, I will post it on Fridays (as well as other blogs here and there).

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. When people used to smile wistfully and say, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore”, they meant screwball comedies, or heart-warming romances for the whole family. But now, fortysomething film fans might be thinking that about Bullet to the Head.

Stallone is on a mission to bring back the ‘80s, thankfully minus the haircuts. After two Execrables (sorry, Expendables), this is another testosterone-fuelled, muscle-packed, tattoo-laden fightfest, with a Ronseal slogan for a title.

The good news is that Bullet to the Head is directed by Walter Hill. He has always taken violence to mythic extremes: The Warriors (1979) was stuffed with classical allusions from Xenophon. If action’s what you want, Hill delivers it a little more satisfyingly than most.

With Arnie back in The Last Stand, and Terminator 5, Triplets and The Legend of Conan in the pipeline, it’s as though the last quarter-century never happened.

Another week, another Oscar contender. Flight features a subtle, career-best performance from Denzel Washington as a brilliant pilot who rescues his plane from a fireball, but is subsequently found to be alcoholic. Is he a national hero, or a menace?

There’s a classic piece of acting advice, which most ignore. It’s not to play drunk. Drunk people pretend to be sober – most actors are sober people pretending to be drunk, and it shows. [Actresses also take note: people given terrible news usually try to contain their grief, not let it out.] Anyway, Denzel nails his character. The opening flight scenes are as thrilling as you would expect from director Robert Zemeckis, too.

It’s always a pleasure to watch Bill Murray, in those rare moments he isn’t turning up unannounced at student parties or rescuing random people in unexpected ways (see the cult of www.billmurraystory.com). But his charming performance as President ‘FDR’ Roosevelt, being courted for the war effort by King George VI, isn’t enough to lift Hyde Park on Hudson. Plus… no werewolves! What’s that all about? FDR: American Badass gave us Nazi werewolves, so we’re definitely short-changed here.

Finally, welcome please the Next Generation in cult film-making:

Chained is directed by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David. Astonishing they let her near a movie camera again after Boxing Helena (1993), the heart-warming story of a man who loves a woman too much – so much he cuts off her arms and legs and keeps her in a box. Chained is about a serial-killing New York cabbie called, yes Twin Peaks fans, Bob. Ah well. What kind of films do you expect from someone who grew up knowing Eraserhead was inspired by her birth?

Antiviral is the low-budget but beautifully shot debut of 32-year-old Brandon Cronenberg, son of David. The premise is intriguing: a clinic harvests viruses from sick celebrities to sell to rabid fans, so they can catch the same illness. Far-fetched? Maybe not. Is it really that far from the Britney Spears fans who were encouraged by internet pranksters to Go Bald for Britney after spreading rumours that she had cancer, or the Beliebers who were made to Cut4Bieber when he was pictured smoking a joint?

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