Sunday, 31 January 2010

Edge of Darkness - Dir. Martin Campbell

Twenty five years ago New Zealander Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) directed six episodes of a Television series for the BBC, this series was the highly acclaimed British drama ‘Edge of Darkness’ which followed a father as he unravelled the various conspiracies surrounding the death of his daughter. While this week sees the release of the film adaptation of the British drama, fittingly directed again by Campbell. However, instead of Bob Peck fighting back, we have Mel Gibson in his first leading role since the extraterrestrial film ‘Signs’ was released a mere eight years ago.

Thomas Craven (Gibson) is a Boston homicide detective who is sent to the edge of darkness (so to speak) when his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) is shot and killed in front of him. Refusing to sit back and let his colleagues handle the ‘officer involved’ crime, Craven takes it upon himself to find out if he was the target and if not, who would want to silence his daughter and why. This journey leads Craven into the murky waters of corporate and governmental cover-ups and the lengths some capitalist money-makers will go to, to keep certain infractions out of the public sphere.

Gibson gives a typically solid performance as the grieving, empty father who will stop at nothing to find out why his daughter died and who was the perpetrator(s). He continually overshadows the rest of the supporting cast including Ray Winstone as the mysterious ‘corporate fixer’ Jedburgh. While Martin Campbell’s direction is as competent as usual, continually unafraid to linger over Gibson’s character as he is dragged into the emotional depths of the situation at hand. However despite being capably filmed and well acted, the film suffers from one serious, unequivocal problem that detracts heavily on the overall enjoyment of the film at hand, which is the fact that the narrative structure is poorly constructed during the middle segment of the film.

The original television series was spread among six fifty-minute episodes allowing plenty of time for the various themes, issues and conspiracies to be explored. However this feature adaptation instead is a mere two hours in length and during this time the audience are continually bombarded with new information, characters and events that are not fully identified or explained resulting in both confusion and a strong sense of disappointment. As ‘Edge of Darkness’ reaches the hour mark we are introduced to various characters that are involved in the conspiracy (partially, visibly or simply by connection) that are never explained, nor is there enough exploration of the potentially more important characters who are only involved for their own means, which would have led to a significantly more interesting climax.

Despite this flaw, ‘Edge of Darkness’ does succeed heavily in one aspect, it will inspire you to search for and dig out the old television series starring Bob Peck and view the issues beyond those that were touched upon in this film in further depth. However, aside from another engaging Gibson performance, the lack of explanation is a severely detrimental factor on the overall nature of the film. Instead of leaving the cinema discussing this thought-provoking, dramatic conspiracy thriller, you will most likely leave asking “who was he, and what was his purpose.”

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Road - Dir. John Hillcoat

In the post-apocalyptic wasteland of America, a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel the road hoping to avoid the ‘bad’ people, and ultimately stay alive as along as humanly possible. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s (Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men) 2006 acclaimed novel ‘The Road’, the film is more about how we and our loved ones cope after a devastating event as much as it is about survival in the harshest environments left on Earth. John Hillcoat treats McCarthy’s original novel with the upmost respect and admiration. Almost never deviating from the original story, to create an almost perfect adaptation from page-to-screen, the film itself will certainly leave an impression upon you.

There was a flash, and then civilization collapsed. Whether it was nuclear war, global warming or something entirely different, neither the film nor the novel actually confirms what was happened. Many have speculated that the event in question may have been a global nuclear war; however in the context of the story, what almost destroyed all civilization on Earth, is irrelevant. Instead the story spends its time looking at the aftermath. The Boy is born into a post-apocalyptic life where he may never know the wonders that went before him. The Man’s Wife becomes a painful distant memory of how only those strong in the mind survive such atrocities. And the Man himself takes on the various jobs from being an educator and carer to the most important job of most adults lives: a parent.

This is where ‘The Road’ decides to spend its time, looking, admiring, scrutinizing and acknowledging the relationship between father (Man) and son (Boy). The most important aspect of any parent’s life is the wellbeing of their child. While the Man must strive to keep his son healthy, fed and ultimately alive, he must also induct him into the world of adulthood at the earliest possible time. The Man acknowledges that he won’t be around forever, and that he must provide his Boy with all the help he can offer, to allow him to continue to survive, live and prosper for an the longest period of time after his own inevitably passing. And this father and son relationship is exemplified beautifully by both Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who both give fantastic performances that keep the film ticking over until the heart-wrenching climax.

Despite only being thirteen years of age at the time of filming, Kodi Smit-McPhee at times eclipses Mortensen’s on-screen performance and shows that just like his character, that he is mature beyond his age. When his father offers him a can of Coca-Cola (possibly one of the very few left in existence), the Boy is hesitant to gulp it down quickly and selfishly like most dehydrated children would. Instead he offers the drink to his father, who is clearly ill, and this shows the audience that he has already started on his transition to the responsibilities of adulthood. While this ‘ascension’, also creates a personal crisis within Mortensen’s character. He understands that his Boy must more self-sufficient as he will not be alive forever, however at the same time he wishes, as any parent would, for his son keep some of the childhood innocence and in a sense, the protection of a father.

Aside from the astounding central performances, the direction of Hillcoat, cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe and the editing of Jon Gregory combine together to create the post-apocalyptic wasteland in which the Man and his Boy walk among daily. This bleak landscape is coated in ash, darkness and destruction to draw the audience into an environment where everything is dying. And this is accompanied by the fact we are never shown the world before the ‘apocalyptic event’ or during, we are only ever introduced to the outside world in the aftermath, after all there is no point dwelling on the past. Beautifully shot, carefully adapted and brilliantly acted, ‘The Road’ should certainly be on the edge of the cinematic community’s lips come the awards season.

Friday, 15 January 2010

All About Steve - Dir. Phil Traill

‘All About Steve’ is pretty-much your typical, one dimensional romantic-comedy, except instead of the man chasing the woman (or vice versa), you have Sandra Bullock playing an insane, cameraman-obsessed stalker. Mary Horowitz (Sandra Bullock) is a peculiar and hyperactive woman who spends her days constructing crossword puzzles for the local newspaper, which also serves as her job. But after just one blind-date with Steve (Bradley Cooper), the CCN cameraman who doesn’t have time for dating, Mary accepts that Steve must be her soul-mate and she decides to follow him and his job across the country to be with the man of her dreams.

Despite a cast consisting of Bradley Cooper, Thomas Haden Church and Ken Jeong, ‘All About Steve’ does not contain one funny or humorous moment what-so-ever. If anything, it is quite sad to see such a cast of established and upcoming talent involved in, what can only be described as a, a car-crash film. From the early scene in which a sex-starved Mary struggles to have desperate sex with Steve to the pointless and uncoordinated ending, this film is poorly written, barely competently directed and completely meaningless. How this film can even be placed within the comedy genre is a mystery in itself.

Apparently the director, Phil Traill, originally wanted Julia Roberts to play the role of Mary, but she was unwilling to take a pay cut. Congratulations Julia, you’ve missed a bullet there. If you want to watch a nice romantic-comedy starring Sandra Bullock across from an attractive and significantly younger male lead then rent ‘The Proposal’ instead. Unless you wish to torture your other half, in which case; watch this film.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Youth in Revolt - Dir. Miguel Arteta

Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) is sixteen years old, his parents are separated, his closest friend his having a midlife crisis over thirty years too early and all he can think about is the fact that he hasn’t lost his virginity yet. He is almost the common replica of the stereotypical teenage boy, except for the fact that he enjoys the films of Fellini and Godard. Everything changes however for Nick when a brief, chance move from his lonely hometown of Oakland to a religious mobile trailer park in the small city of Ukiah brings him face to face with Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) – who is unequivocally the love of his life. But when his family moves back to Oakland, Nick must invent a supplementary ‘bad-boy’ persona within himself named Francois (he has a moustache, and enjoys the occasional smoke), who would be willing to cause the mayhem Nick wouldn’t. Francois’s central objective is to get Nick kicked out of his dysfunctional home in Oakland, which he shares with his emotionally fragile mother (Jean Smart), and reunited with Sheeni, with the intention of living happily ever after (while also losing his virginity).

‘Youth in Revolt’, is another hip, quirky comedy in which Michael Cera is given centre-stage in which to showcase abilities, however, he must tread cautiously in the future as he is dangerously close to becoming typecast (Superbad, Juno) as the desolate, yet intellectual teenage boy just looking to release his sexual burden. Cera and Doubleday carry the film along nicely, and provide some very humorous on-screen chemistry, especially during the sequences involving very awkward circumstances – i.e. when Nick is asked to place a small amount of sun cream on Sheeni’s back during a trip to the beach. Portia Doubleday in particular shines as unknown actress thrust into the supporting actress slot alongside Michael Cera. She works with a particular grace, and maturity that makes her performance at times overshadow that of the experience Cera.

While aside from these two characters, Arteta’s film also has an extensive A-list cast on show who take a backseat to the main story and occasionally chime in during the various convoluted sub-plots on show. Steve Buscemi is Nick’s jobless father George Twisp, Zack Galifianakis is Nick’s mothers first boyfriend Jerry who should never be let out around the Navy, and Ray Liotta plays Officer Wescott, a fascist policeman who also starts dating Nick’s mother and becomes somewhat responsible for Nick’s downfall. Fred Willard (Mr Ferguson), Justin Long (Paul Saunders) and M. Emmet Walsh (Mr Saunders) also make an appearance in the extensive cast. Despite this list containing the ‘whose who’ of Hollywood Boulevard, I was surprised to see that certain narrative arcs were ignored. For instance, if the relationship between Nick and his father was expanded upon, it would have provided further substance to the film and the characters themselves. Though, unfortunately we are left filling in the majority of the gaps ourselves.

Miguel Arteta has created a very funny and witty film in ‘Youth in Revolt,’ that despite having its flaws and areas in which it could have improved upon, ultimately prevails as another competent coming-of-age teen-flick that is centred around the holiest of teenage sanctities: sexual intercourse. The amusing remarks, awkward sexual situations, and hardcore French supplementary personas are all there creating another comfortable vehicle for Cera, to drive to a French Boarding School.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Antichrist - Dir. Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier’s most recent release ‘Antichrist’ was collared with notoriety before it was even released theatrically, during its premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival it was reported that allegedly three or four film critics fainted at the graphic scenes of sex and mutilation. So was it worth it? Has the Danish Dogme King made another ‘anti-masterpiece’? Well, the answer isn’t quite as simple as saying that ‘Antichrist’ was a good film or a bad film; it’s an incredibly complex creation that will certainly divide viewers of cinema alike.

Willem Dafoe is He and Charlotte Gainsbourg is She. During the opening prologue we are shown the sequence which sends both characters in differentiating spirals of grief, the sequence in question is the accidental death of their young child. The scene is spectacularly shot in black and white and slow-motion, with a haunting classical score accompanying the scene. As He and She make passionate love in bathroom, there child climbs out of his crib and accidentally falls to his death out of the buildings top floor window. He then decides to take She to a cabin in the woods, after the funeral, which He believes is her greatest fear, and the central aspect that is fuelling her catatonic state of grief and her inability to put the sadness of the death of their child behind them.

From here on in we are taken on a cinematic journey through four different chapters in the films structure. Staring with ‘Grief’, we then go follow through to ‘Pain’ and ‘Despair’, before culminating with the final chapter of the ‘Three Beggars’ and the inevitable and beautifully shot Epilogue. The basic themes encountered within these are gynocide, sadness, guilt and the provocation of the audience through extreme graphic sequences of on-screen mutilation and violence (Including the now notorious female genital maiming sequence and the act of bloody and violent masturbation of an incapacitated male).

While completely losing himself at times in a sea of arrogance and self-consciousness, Von Trier’s ‘Anti-Christ’ does have its moments of beautiful, yet bleak tranquilly. After all, if you take away the controversial sequences of violence and talking animals, the central theme of the film is simply the sadness, grief and inability to cope with the loss of a loved one and how male and female counterparts may handle the situation differently in their own ways.

Coupled with some striking cinematography, this film is more of an experience than anything else. I don’t actually fully understand everything that Von Trier is trying to explore within this world, but I can certainly admire it.

Law Abiding Citizen - Dir. Felix Gary Gray

‘Law Abiding Citizen’ is your typical and quite lacklustre American vigilante thriller. Clyde (Gerard Butler) avenges the death of his wife and daughter ten years after they were killed by home invaders. By using every little technological gizmo available in the twenty-first century to exact his retribution among those he believes have wronged him and his family in the most brutal and satisfying fashion. While Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is the hot-shot lawyer who first tried Clyde’s family’s killers and is now paying the price for making a deal with one of the men to turn on his partner and send him to death row.

Despite plenty of inventive mind-numbing violence on show, this film suffers from two major drawbacks in my opinion which restrict ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ from simply being an enjoyable action-thriller and instead turns F. Gary Gray’s latest film into nothing more than just another throwaway film. The first is the repetitive nature of the film’s structure which eventually follows the increasingly boring narrative route of a dubious moral confrontation between Clyde (Butler) and Nick (Jamie Foxx), followed by an elaborate death sequence. Before the two men meet again and have another moral and ethical tussle and start the cycle over, and over, and over, and over again with nothing in-between. Instead of enjoying the film for what it is, a popcorn-flick, you are instead constantly questioning the motives of the characters and what the central point/theme of the film is trying to communicate to the audience.

Secondly, despite having both Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler in prominent roles and a backroom cast containing the likes of Gregory Itzin, Bruce McGill and Sarah Lowell there isn’t one dominant character in the film. Both Butler and Foxx put forward barely adequate performances which allow the audience just a brief insight into the minds of the morally ambiguous Clyde and the strict judicial employee Nick. This insufficient characterisation also detracts heavily on the already ridiculous ending, not because we don’t expect it, but that we don’t understand it. When the lights go up in the cinema, you will be left questioning the whole moral dilemma the film has placed forth and in essence, what was the ACTUAL message of the film itself. Believe me it isn’t as clear cut as it seems considering the scenes that have gone before. It must also be noted however that Kurt Wimmer’s script does not act favourably toward the actors or actresses either. Most of the scenes which contain potential between Butler and Foxx simply end on a profanity and a simple yes or no answer. Not exactly Oscar winning material.

With a gleaming Hollywood cast of Jamie Foxx, Bruce McGill and the safe-grossing Gerard Butler, ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ certainly had potential to be something more than just another ‘revenge/retribution picture’, but unfortunately a poor script, a terrible plot and awkward pacing make this film one to miss this year.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Big Fan - Dir. Robert Siegel

Simplicity is a rare commodity in today’s fast moving, conglomerate world, but for Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) there’s only one thing that matters in his life. Everything else is irrelevant in comparison and it isn’t his wife, or his child, or his family in general; it is the American Football team the New York Giants. As the self-proclaimed ‘biggest Giants fan ever’ Paul lives, breathes, shouts, screams, and sleeps everything about the team. He even situates a poster featuring his favourite player Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), the Giants quarterback, above his single-bed. But when an opportunity arises to meet Quantrell, the player mistakes Paul for a stalker and violently strikes out causing his instant hospitalisation. Once released he has to come to terms with the fact that his simple, linear life is now starting to crash around him, like a fumble in the final moments of the Super Bowl, as his family, the media and the team all want a piece of the Giants ‘Big Fan’.

Written and directed by Robert Siegel on a minimal budget, ‘Big Fan’ is a surprising independent gem that attains the majority of its prowess from an outstanding offensive performance by Patton Oswalt as the man who lives for the Giants. His support is monumental as he travels week in and week out to merely sit in the car-park outside Meadowlands Stadium and watch the game on a portable TV with his right-hand fan Sal (Kevin Corrigan). While he spends his job as a parking attendant writing up witty remarks to use on the Sports Dogs nightly call-in Sports show – of which one participant called Philadelphia Phil becomes Paul’s nemesis over-time. There banter over the airwaves becomes one of the biggest driving forces of Paul’s life while he isn’t thinking about the next game. But after the assault takes place, his loyalty, and in turn his life starts to become torn apart. His family want him to turn the event in an opportunity to sue the player; the local authorities want him to press charges against quarterback, while the team are on a losing streak as Quantrell has been suspended while the investigation is on-going. All the while, all Paul wants is to support the team and nothing more. He doesn’t have the greed and the ambition that others do. To him the Giants are his life-support machine, and if you take those away he would flat-line in an instant.

While Oswalt’s performance is mesmerising, Robert Siegel’s writing and direction must also be commended. His script is honest and straight-to-the-point, he captures it captures all the awkward events of Paul’s life perfectly, including the argument between the brothers on the toilet. While he uses the space of the world around him perfectly to capture Paul’s subtle isolated life brilliantly and at the same time Siegel also uses the, sometimes overtly exaggerated, close-up shot to portray the characters emotions within this one man’s own perfect universe. ‘Big Fan’ is low budget, high impact film that thrives off a gleaming central performance by Patton Oswalt, and is definitely one of the best independent films of the last couple of years

Dogging: A Love Story - Dir. Simon Ellis

Dogging is as British as Earl Grey tea and frozen football pitches on windy January afternoon, and it is definitely an interesting subject in which to base a film upon. In case you are wondering, Wikipedia defines the sexual act of ‘dogging’ as;”engaging in sexual act/s in a semi-public place (typically a secluded car park in a car) and then watching others doing so.” This sexual act (or acts) is the pretext for the loose romantic plot behind Simon Ellis’s first feature-film in which four people’s lives and relationships revolve around the act of dogging.

Dan (Luke Treadaway) is an aspiring, unemployed journalist who is hoping to set the media world alight by writing an article on the act of dogging and what people attain from the activity. Being unemployed, he sleeps on his best friend’s Rob’s (Richard Riddell) couch. Rob is a man’s man, his job as an estate agent is only worthwhile to him as it allows him to meet and exploit plenty of mature, divorced women looking for a new abode. The film’s core storyline revolves around Dan’s deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend of four years Tanya (Sammy Dobson) and the unlikely relationship he strikes up with Laura (Kate Heppell), a young, curious and naive new member of the local dogging community. Continually the characters motives change within the film and we are given no indication or explanation why this happens, constantly keeping the audience at arm’s-length rather than drawing them further into the characters lives.

Ellis’s film, to be fair, does have its fair few moments of cheap humour, which almost entirely occur while the characters are involved on an excursion to a local car-park. Dan’s first adventure out within the world of the ‘doggers’ will certainly bring forth a few chuckles. But its main setback is that the central theme of relationships is incredibly shallow and only barely scraps the surface of what would have made for an interesting story. The combination of using both first (Dan) and third person perspectives (unknown owner of a night-vision camera who’s identity is later revealed) in the film also seems to be somewhat redundant and adds nothing but a few extra minutes to the running-time of the film.

‘Dogging: A Love Story’ had an interesting, and experimental premise that potentially could have made for very fun and engaging film, however it falls flat with a thin story and one-dimensional characters.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Up In The Air - Dir. Jason Reitman

In a world where everybody is looking to hook up and ‘not die alone’, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and his flyaway fling Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) are the exception to this life-long rule. However when Bingham must show the young and naive Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) how his no-strings philosophy on life has improved his relationship with his job at CTC – we hire, you fire – he begins a journey which takes him - the man who has flown endlessly almost everywhere - into unknown airspace. Oh and then there’s the business of reaching a select number of air-miles... Jason Reitman’s (Thank You For Not Smoking, Juno) ‘Up In The Air’ takes a long-hard look at a life which thrives on loneliness and how this affects the relationships around him. It’s mildly amusing, touching at times, and a definite Awards contender thanks to the fantastic performances from the three main lead characters.

Ryan Bingham has worked for years at CTC, a company which makes its money straight from the mouth of corporate greed. When a company management official hasn’t got the spine to release an employee, they draft in CTC who send over somebody that can. But they do simply more than tell the employee that they have ten minutes to vacate the property, they attempt to ferry them across to a new avenue in the most fragile moment of their lives. (Beautifully appropriate, considering the recent devastating economic recession throughout the world and the rise in unemployment). Bingham lives for, and in, the air. He travels city-to-city firing employees while also hoping to give them a nudge down the right path. The only human connection he develops is with Alex, a fellow flight-hopper, who is the female equivalent of Bingham. She’s strong, sexual woman who has plenty of air-miles. Yet, his idyllic life is put under the microscope when he must show the young, vivacious and ruthless CTC member Natalie Keener how to live your life constantly on the move. Curiously, and with a hint of pity Natalie asks Bingham as they walk through to the airport security station; “Don’t you ever get lonely?” To which he replies, “Lonely? I’m surrounded by people everywhere I go.”

George Clooney’s central performance as Ryan Bingham, the man who lives his life avoiding commitment as a philosophy, is simply sublime. He lives his life on a schedule, just like the airlines he flies with, and this schedule leaves no time for others. Bingham is a man who is afraid of commitment and by flying for almost three-hundred and twenty days every year this allows himself to leave as little time as possible for social interaction. Social interaction, friendships, mortgages and even marriage are just another pointless blockade for this man who believes that the best way to live the ride of life itself is by carrying around an empty backpack – as this cannot weigh you down. Following Clooney, both Anna Kendrick (Natalie) and Vera Farmiga (Alex) both give equally engrossing performances as the two strongest female influences in this lonely high flyer’s life. Alex is Ryan’s match and the closest thing he has to a potential ‘love-interest’ – not that he believes in the notion of love. While Natalie becomes Bingham’s closest connection to humanity, despite putting up a strong front, she is built like the majority of other human beings; with a soft, sticky, fragile centre.

Coupled with the great on-screen performances, Reitman also hits the right note with both his direction and his adapted screenplay (which he began writing in 2002) of Walter Kirn’s original novel. Reitman employs the combination quick cuts and close-up shots of the menial aspects of Bingham’s life, such as the movement from his apartment to the check-in desk at the airport. These activities may be appreciated by those that have never flown before, or have only done so a few times before, but for a man that has clocked up 350,000 air-miles in the previous year; they are nothing but a minor inconvenience to a man who loathes an establishment without a queue for priority members. While the adapted screenplay script provides a concentrated balance of amusing comedic moments, and clever, entertaining drama which in turn creates a very enjoyable film. Quirky, funny, emotional, and thought-provoking dramas certainly seem to be Jason Reitman’s forte at this moment in time.