Thursday, 25 February 2010

Shutter Island - Dir. Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese – the man, the myth, the filmmaking legend – returns to the big screen with ‘Shutter Island’, his fifth feature film in ten years. Reuniting himself with his on-screen son Leonardo DiCaprio for a psychological thriller based upon Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel of the same name which follows US Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) as they are sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient on Shutter Island, home to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Scorsese and Robert Richardson (two-time Academy Award Winning Cinematographer) are, as usual, in fine form building the solemn atmosphere one brick at a time; however it is the story and the acting of the films ensemble which restrict this film from being yet another masterpiece.

The year is 1954. US Marshalls Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule are sent together to the mysterious Shutter Island, home of the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane which houses the most deadly and unstable patients the world has to offer. There to track down the escaped patient Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) who has, somewhat impossibly, vanished without a trace Daniels and Chuck start to become entangled in the web of lies and the mystery surrounding the real nature and purpose of Ashecliffe. With their investigation being constantly blockaded and restricted by the Hospital’s Chief Psychiatrist Dr John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Senior Psychiatrist Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow) and the Deputy Warden (John Carroll Lynch), it seems that the patients aren’t the only dangerous people within the electrified walls of this secretive Institution.

Directing his first psychological thriller in nearly twenty years, Scorsese shows that he still knows how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, while covering their eyes, and cowering slowly. The tense, creepy, bleak visual atmosphere is what keeps ‘Shutter Island’s’ narrative continually ticking over. From the location of the Wards, to the darkness of the hallways, every scene after the early establishing sequences is littered and fraught with deepening suspense and fear, reminiscent of a certain Scorsese film released in 1991. If the characters, criminals and location don’t convince you that Ashecliffe is a place where you would never wish to be, then the dark, menacing and incredibly desolate visual aesthetics should, especially that of Ward C. The housing complex of the most dangerous criminals on the island, which is comparable to that of an Old London dungeon, with no lights, windows or colour of any kind, the criminals are left to rot in their own self-depreciating darkness and despair.

Despite the brilliant atmosphere which Scorsese and his cinematographer Richardson cook-up, the films narrative lacks the essence of a Scorsese film and a Lehane novel. At times the extended sequences seem to be dragging the film out, for the sake of dragging it out rather than extending our knowledge of the on-screen surroundings. While DiCaprio is continually on-screen for almost two hours, and during this time his performance starts to wear thin. Which is a consequence of the fact that despite the subtle and quite well refined performances by Ruffalo, Kingsley, Lynch, Levine and Williams, nobody steps forth and offers DiCaprio a supporting hand and because of this, by the end of the film it seems as if he utilizing every last acting bone in his body to complete the film.

It’s pretty much safe to say that Martin Scorsese has not done a ‘bad film’ – subjective phrase - in decades (even if some will debate that he has not created a ‘bad’ film in his entire career, or others that his whole career has been a proliferation Hollywood and the notion of selling-out), and with this film, this principle again applies to his career. While it has its flaws, and is clearly not up to the cinematic value of ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Raging Bull’, ‘Shutter Island’ has its own visual essence that resonates throughout two hours, providing the audience –who wish to engage – with a thrilling ride down psychological lane.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Solomon Kane - Dir. Michael J. Bassett

Michael Bassett’s film ‘Solomon Kane’ (based on the character of the same name created by Robert E. Howard) is a disappointing Fantasy Action-Adventure film, that despite having a few scenes of genius falls flat with its awkward pacing, poor characterisation and general dullness. Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) is a mercenary of Queen Elizabeth’s army fighting in Africa, where he comes face-to-face with the Devil’s Reaper – a demon who collects the Devil’s debts i.e. souls – refusing to go to hell just yet, he evades the Reaper and starts a new life in an English monastery. With this new life, Solomon has left-behind his culture of violence and bloodshed and instead now embraces the values of peace and non-values. But once he is expelled from the monastery due to the fear of the Devil’s Reaper returning, he must travel back to his home in Devon and along the way he befriends a travelling family of puritans heading to the New World. On their journey through the British counties, the family is attacked, and their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is abducted by the evil sorcerer Malachi’s army, which is lead on the front lines by the mysterious Masked Rider. Now a man of peace, Solomon must go back to his former life as a man of unrepentant violence and destruction to save Meredith.

Despite having great source material to work from, and build upon to create potentially an exciting and enduring medieval action-adventure film, the film fails in three key areas. The pacing of this film is terrible, which may have a lot to do with its incredibly short run time of only one hour and forty minutes (and this is most likely a consequence of the fact that they wish to turn this film into a trilogy). Constantly jumping between of drama and self-characterisation to that of action and muddy bloodshed, somewhat kills the excitement of the action sequences. Instead of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats frothing with the eagle-eyed anticipation, the film instead feels incredibly subdued and, this follows on the next piece of criticism, dull. Despite being touted as an ‘action-adventure’ film or in some circles an ‘action-epic’, ‘Solomon Kane’ is almost most certainly not. The action is mundane and dull, and is generally finished before you have the chance to admire the beauty of a decapitation. Finally, aside from Solomon himself, there is very little characterisation within this film. For example we know little and because of this, care little, about the young woman that Soloman sets out on his journey to save. And I imagine again the filmmaker would refer this criticism to the fact that there is most likely going to be a second film which will hopefully touch upon these aspects that this film surely missed.

It isn’t an entirely terrible film however. James Purefoy is gives a fantastic performance as Solomon, the mercenary who must decide whether or not to fall back on his conscience or his blade, and how his decisions will impact not just upon himself, but those around him as well. While respect, admiration, and acknowledgement must also go to Bassett and his crew as well, for creating vivid locations that beautifully reflects the period in which they are filming. At times, it is hard not to get carried away with admiring the beauty of the locations, shot composition and mise-en-scene at show here. Which certainly shows that a lot of time and effort has been placed into this film, unfortunately however that is not to say the same for the story and characters at hand. ‘Solomon Kane’ certainly had the potential to be something more than simply an ‘action-epic,’ however it seems that once again the lack of any real depth in the story and characters has resulted in Michael Bassett creating nothing more than a one-dimensional look at swordplay during the Medieval period.

A Single Man - Dir. Tom Ford

If you didn’t know that director Tom Ford was a fashion designer, you probably would have guessed his former occupation while watching his feature-film directorial debut in ‘A Single Man’. At times the style and cinematography are oh-so reminiscent of those French perfume television advertisements which make little sense to anybody outside the fashion oeuvre. However Colin Firth isn’t here to push a bottle of Chanel into the audience’s faces, instead he puts forth a magnificent performance as a man trapped in the past who believes that the future holds nothing for him to live for after the death of his lover. While the direction is competent and at times stylistically quite beautiful, it is the performance of Colin Firth which brings alive this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name.

“Just get through the goddamn day.” Situated in Southern California, a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis in November 1962, George (Colin Firth) is a man on the brink of suicide. After the death of his lover Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident eight months ago, George fails to acknowledge that there is any meaning in life. Constantly dwelling on the grief of the past and never wanting to touch upon the uncertain future, ‘A Single Man’ follows George throughout a day in suburban California as he travels from his day job as University Professor to the home of his close-friend Charley (Julianne Moore), before meeting one his students Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) who seems to understand George for who he is.

When you take onboard a project in which the main brunt of the narrative is focused around the inner workings, the inner-psychological nature, of a man battling the issues of grief, repetition, loneliness and nihilism, you need a strong leading actor or actress in which to convey the character at hand, and Colin Firth does this perfectly. Without his beautiful, enigmatic performance as George, the man caught in an unsustainable past, this film wouldn’t necessarily fall flat, but it would require a heavy amount of restoration to its narrative. Firth sustains a quite minimalist story for over one-hour and thirty minutes and never lets up. While Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode and Julianne Moore provide the perfect backing ensemble, however it would have been interesting to have been able to see further character development within Moore’s character Charley and how her and George’s life crossed paths in the past.

With that said, it must also mentioned that despite Firth’s performance, director Tom Ford, cinematographer Eduard Grau and Art Director Ian Phillips provide much of the stylistic visual spectacle by simply choosing to linger on George’s pain. While the contemporary shooting locations and angles can at times become tiresome, the true genius is in Ford, Grau and Phillip’s ability to simply linger on George’s pain. In the scene in which George is deciding how comfortable to he wishes to be while committing suicide, juggling between the idea of merely laying on the bed or becoming engulfed by a sleeping bag, the camera silently loiters catching every uncomfortable moment and emotion drawing the audience further into the life of a man with no nothing to live for. While the sets and locations themselves are impeccable put together and create a brilliant aesthetic backdrop to Firth’s musings as George.

Delicate, stylish, and at times disturbingly funny, ‘A Single Man’ is a stimulating exploration of a character’s psyche and how we can all never let the notion of grief go, no matter how hard we try to leave it behind. Driven by Colin Firth, with an all-star cast behind him, Tom Ford should be incredibly delighted with how his first feature-film has turned out.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Looking For Eric - Dir. Ken Loach

He was a King to millions of Red Army followers, including postman Eric Bishop (Steve Evets). His wife has left him, his step-sons don’t respect him and he’s losing touch with his eldest daughter, desperate and depressed Eric turns to the only person he believes he can trust; French superstar and Manchester legend Eric Cantona (playing himself). Lighting up a spliff in the darkest corner of his bedroom, Eric turns to the footballing-philosopher as he hopes to get his life back on track, just as Cantona did after returning from a four-month ban for kung-fu kicking a hooligan during a match at Selhurst Park.

‘Looking For Eric’ sees Ken Loach go back to doing what he does best creating charming, heart-warming and at times, incredibly funny, film-making. Eric is a man on the brink, he can’t control his children nor does he have the confidence to approach his ex-wife Lily (Stephanie Bishop). His closest friends aren’t much help either. Despite working with him in the post-room for years, they all mean well, but there attempts at cheering up Eric generally lead to hilarious situations rather than uplifting sentiment. However this film is not a comedy, it is a socio-drama that concentrates upon one character, Eric, as he reaches the brink of self-destruction, but through those around him (despite how unhelpful they are at times) he manages to build himself back up into the man he always wanted to be. While the real genius of this film is in the beautifully shot sequences involving Eric and Eric (Cantona) as they try to find solutions to his problems. Eric Cantona is not simply an idol or a footballer to Eric the Postman in this film he is a lot more than that, Cantona is his saviour in the form of an understanding intelligent human being, and this relationship drives the film delightfully until the final scene and its inspirational climax.

If you’re put off by notion of a footballer being in relatively large role in a feature film, reserve your judgement for after you have seen this film. Ken Loach hits a hat-trick of successes with ‘Looking For Eric’ as the story, acting and direction all combine to create one of the best dramas of 2009. In the immortal words of Mr Cantona himself; "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." And no, I still don’t know what (or who) Eric Cantona was referring to when he made that statement...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The House of the Devil - Dir. Ti West

Ti West, the 29 year old filmmaker from Delaware, might not be a name you are familiar with -with regards to the horror genre of filmmaking - but if his future projects are anywhere near as good as his third directorial feature film ‘The House of the Devil’, then you will no doubt be hearing his name mentioned heavily in the next couple of years. West has so-far spent his time primarily creating cheap, B-Movie-esque horror films, however with ‘House of the Devil’ he changed his tactic and decided rather than ridiculing or satirizing the genre, to instead pay homage to it; in particular the haunted house/slasher subgenre. And the result is an eerie, well-shot, competently edited, suspense-fuelled ride back into the horror films of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

College student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) is the archetypal female lead at the centre of the ritualistic story. Trying to gather enough money together so she may move out of her dorm, which she occupies with her room-mate Megan (Greta Gerwig), she reluctantly applies for a local babysitter gig. The prospect of watching television all night, while occasionally checking on a child and ultimately getting paid cash-in-hand appeals to her financial stricken nature straight away, however she has no idea what the mysterious Mr (Tom Noonan) and Mrs (Mary Woronov) Ulman have in store for the naive young student.

Filmed on 16mm stock to give the film that washed retro stylistic feel, ‘Devil’ is a technical back-into-the-past cinematic winner. Once the Hammer-esque titles follow the opening scene-setting sequence, you are instantly aware of the timeframe in which the film takes place. The mise-en scene, music and location provide the blank canvas, while West’s filmic strokes bring the piece to life. Professionally edited by the director himself with cinematography by the Eliot Rockett, both combine to create seamlessly evolving scenes and heavy suspense from the mildest situations.

Before we are even introduced to Mr Ulman, the sequence involving Samantha phoning the Ulman residence and applying for the job of babysitter on campus is so perfectly shot that the hairs stand up on the back of your neck simply from the sound of a phone ringing and a mysterious male voice on the other end. While the transition during the climax of the film challenges everything that has gone before, by hitting the audience continually with flashing, vibrant images of horrific situations that we try find to focus upon and understand initially, but then regret that decision once we know what is being shown.

To be entirely critical, the climax of the film also supplies the films largest failure in respect to the use of on-screen violence, blood and gore. In context of the whole film, the various uses of aesthetics (light, space) and technical know-how create the films intense atmosphere and terrifying nature. However with the excessive violence in the films concluding scenes, it goes past simply being shockingly terrifying, instead into the realm of shockingly violent. Not the effect I imagine Ti West was aiming for. The violent scenes themselves should not have been removed, but simply toned down.

Ti West’s ‘The House of the Devil’ is a refreshing addition to what has become a stale genre of film in recent years. The brilliant homage, respecting those that went before during horror’s contemporary hay-day, shows that not all film-makers are simply looking to copy, repeat and exploit, but admire, showcase and support the genre they have grown up with. If you want a meticulously, frightening trip down memory lane, rent or buy this film and you will not be disappointed.