I thought Zodiac was not only a terrific film by David Fincher but a very smart choice. Previously known as a Director who produces twisty Mysteries, Zodiac did not have a particularly grand reveal or twist: it was just a well-produced view of what we know about the case. Make your own conclusions. For that reason, Gone Girl feels like something of an odd choice, Fincher returning to both popular literary adaptation (after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and more obvious Mystery (after the same). I don't know what the reveal is yet - I'm a third of the way through the book - but author Gillian Flynn is hinting at it like hell (and by 'hinting', I really mean: 'HINTING!!!!!!'). Flynn also produced the script for Fincher (her first), which just adds to the alarm bells currently ringing around this for me. The trailer does nothing to silence them.
|'clearly a story of religion, but of no particular faith... Noah’s story in the hands of Aronofsky is a fascinating tale, but never a sermon.'|
In tackling the Genesis flood narrative - the story most are likely to know as Noah’s Ark - director Darren Aronofsky has some complex and potentially tricky choices to navigate. The last major release Biblical Epic, Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, adapted arguably the most famous story from the New Testament and undoubtedly a defining moment in the Christian faith. As Aronofsky’s tale comes from the Old Testament, a solely Christian telling would be both inaccurate and insensitive.
It’s a factor the director tackles superbly throughout Noah. This is clearly a story of religion, but of no particular faith. Noah (Russell Crowe) and others throughout refer to “The Creator”, but the word “God” is not uttered once. References to the history of man from an Old Testament perspective are made all the way back to Adam and Eve, but again Aronofsky is careful in his choices, using just what he needs to bring us up to speed with the lineage of Noah and other key players but never preaching any discrete faith. Noah’s story in the hands of Aronofsky is a fascinating tale, but never a sermon.
The fact that Aronofsky then goes one further and manages to make his film simultaneously support and question the power and influence of religion is testament to his skill as a filmmaker. Noah is a character of inherent good but also of staunch faith to his Creator. The decisions he feels forced to make in following what he believes he has been chosen to do present a clear criticism of those who defend hurtful actions by doing them in the name of a higher power. It’s testament to Crowe’s strong performance that Noah, whilst transforming from the good and kind man of the film’s opening to a questionable, almost antagonistic presence during the third act, continues to come across as a sympathetic and believable character. It also makes his further development during the film’s epilogic final segment all the more powerful.
Putting religion to one side, Noah is an epic experience in the truest sense of the word. Scenes of the great flood commencing are breathtakingly powerful. Another sequence chronicling life since the beginning of time, expertly toeing the line between creationism and evolution, is spectacular and lends the film a sense of magnificence. Aronofsky shows his mettle in presenting the harshness and brutalilty of the film’s world when necessary, but never gratuitously. His willingness to include somewhat fantastical elements, such as the Watchers - fallen angels depicted as Harryhausen-esque golems - are likely to divide opinion but ultimately work in the director’s favour. The fact that Aronofsky adopts a solemn tone throughout (the fact that Anthony Hopkins’ Methuselah provides the closest thing to comic relief here speaks volumes) adds authenticity and helps you invest in just how seriously Noah takes all he is tasked to do.
The missteps in Noah are minor but conspicuous, and are largely highlighted by the many successes throughout the rest of the film. Aronofsky’s choice at several points throughout the first half of his film to shoot using a shaky handheld camera method feels at odds with the grandeur of his film; whilst the director is clearly hoping to bring you as close to the action as possible at these points, it only ever serves as a distraction. The focus of the third act more on issues within Noah’s family, particularly between Noah and his son Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ila (Emma Watson), Shem’s wife, whilst handled well can’t help but feel somewhat domestic, even trivial at points, when following the watery apocalypse presented during the second act. The decision to include a subplot involving Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) and ruthless king Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) feels like the biggest mistake Aronofsky makes, coming across as overly manufactured and adding little to the film’s overall narrative.
The errors here however are minor in comparison to the epically cinematic experience Aronofsky creates. This is a captivating film whether viewed as a religious narrative or just a really good story, told through the skill of a director confident in his own vision and ability. Noah is exactly what a 21st Century Biblical Epic should be; here’s hoping Aronofsky returns to the Old Testament for further source material to adapt in the future.
|'The main crux of True Detective isn't whodunit, it's whether the fallible Rust and Marty can survive.'|
Great TV series leave a gap when they finish. Despite its excellent production values, I was ready for the last, meandering season of Game Of Thrones to go, and I haven't missed it during its absence. True Detective will leave a gap. A big gap. And I'm not sure the recently returned, much vaunted Game Of Thrones has the chops to fill it.
Where Thrones is oft-hailed as one of the sign-bearers for Nu TV, the kind that crosses film values and production to the small screen, it isn't really. Yes, it looks great and yes, there are recognisable names and yes, it has had a hell of a lot of money spent on it. It is still, however, dreadfully episodic and prone to huge dips as writers search for the necessary peaks of suspense, violence or joy to keep audiences watching.
True Detective has many more similarities with the movies. Like a true transposition of film into a longer medium, it stretches its story out by showing you more meaningful events, rather than building in superfluous detail. It rarely has recognisable dips that focus on backstory rather than plot (the second episode is something of an exception) and everything pivots around leads Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, as Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Did I mention it had bona fide film stars? It has them too. The decision to make this an anthology series (Season Two will not feature Rust and Marty, and will potentially be set in a different time and place) guarantees it a favourable side on the argument that, really, this is an eight-hour epic.
It's success, though heavily influenced by the terrific McConaughey and Harrelson (I take the latter in the 'best' stakes, though it is close) also benefits from a superbly chosen behind-the-scenes creative team, led by showrunner/writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga. Occasionally Pizzolatto dips into Cohle's galactic philosophising too much, giving the character a pretentious air he isn't designed to have, but most of the time the writing is outstanding, neatly towing the line between the cop show clichés that are clichés for good reason and more experimental stuff which feels here for a reason, rather than here for the sake of it. Fukunaga, for his part, brings his washed out look and patient framing, benefiting hugely from Adam Arkapaw's cinematography. The slow zooms and still shots in this are magnificent.
All that would matter not a jot if this wasn't a story worth caring about. Rarely do Pizzolatto and Fukunaga step into territory that doesn't matter to you and the true arc of True Detective is where its true genius lies.
The main crux of True Detective isn't whodunit, it's whether the fallible Rust and Marty can survive. Whilst the killer or killers may ultimately be the people or person who may end their existence, he or she is not the thing that will kill them. Neither are really battling demons - Pizzolatto is too smart for that - but they are battling very human failings. Rust, detached and occasionally soporific, hides a brilliant mind to avoid attention and connection, things that have failed him in the past. Marty struggles with loyalty, family and his put-upon attachment to Rust. You care about True Detective because you care whether Rust and Marty overcome their battles. By the final scenes it's not exactly clear whether either has, though you want to hope it is possible. In a way it doesn't matter. Seeing them try has been enough.
|'Stiller crafts in Walter Mitty an endearing yet unremarkable presence who you can’t help but warm to'|
Ben Stiller’s latest, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, has more than a little in common with Marc Forster’s oft-overlooked 2006 delight Stranger Than Fiction. Both feature comic performers playing against type in the lead (Stiller here, Will Ferrell in Forster’s film); both focus upon initially mundane characters who experience some sort of disruption which alters their life; and both adopt a similar tone through blending the real with the fantastical.
As both director and star, Stiller could do a lot worse than to emulate Forster’s prior success, and pleasingly manages to do so in several ways. In the eponymous role, Stiller is satisfyingly understated for much of the film. The actor crafts in Walter Mitty an endearing yet unremarkable presence who you can’t help but warm to and feel sympathy for, especially during the film’s opening act. Kristen Wiig as Cheryl, Walter’s co-worker and secret object of his affections, also does well to keep things subtle with a performance a world away from her other 2013 office romance with Steve Carell’s Brick Tamland in Anchorman 2.
When it comes to Walter’s daydreaming, Stiller as director doesn’t do quite as well in reigning things in. The blending of Walter’s two worlds is presented skilfully, with the fantasy element of Walter’s life presented in a style similar to TV series Scrubs and working best when Stiller keeps things simple and downplayed. An early imagined quip to Walter’s new boss Ted (Adam Scott) works much better than a full-blown action sequence involving Walter, Ted and a particular retro action figure seen soon after. Another daydream sequence riffing on The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button feels entirely misjudged and should be in a different film altogether.
The narrative allows Walter to develop a great deal from start to finish, and Stiller’s performance means you’ll be continually invested in what’s happening and rooting for the character in whatever he’s doing. That doesn’t stop matters from feeling distinctly episodic, however, with Walter essentially jumping from one scenario to the next - quite literally at one or two points. It also doesn’t make up for several of the characters surrounding Walter from feeling decidedly lacking in depth. Adventurous photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn, a welcome presence in a cameo role) feels so whimsical in his presentation I was prepared at several points for him to be revealed as nothing more than a product of Walter’s wild imagination. Perhaps the character might have worked somewhat better if he actually had been.
Whilst Stiller’s message of living life rather than experiencing it through the adventures of others is no doubt a positive one - one that Stiller the actor puts across pleasingly through Walter - as a director he too often lacks the subtlety of touch to avoid making his moral too on-the-nose in its execution. It’s this overstated feel that means The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty never manages to achieve the highs of Stranger Than Fiction. This is undoubtedly Stiller’s most impressive directorial effort to date, but on the evidence here he still has some way to go in honing his craftsmanship behind the camera.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 21st April 2014.
|'executed well in Greengrass' trademark style; kineticism meeting breathlessness, but as the film moves towards its conclusion, something goes wrong'|
Though Captain Phillips has a tense and somewhat claustrophobic first half or so, the second does leave you wondering quite whether this story was a perfect match for the talents of Paul Greengrass. The close confines of the mental combat between Phillips himself (Tom Hanks) and pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) are executed well in Greengrass' trademark style; kineticism meeting breathlessness, but as the film moves towards its conclusion, something goes wrong.
Greengrass has never felt like a film-maker suited to depicting the big military machine and, in fact, his films focusing on outsiders or small groups (his two Bourne films, United 93) are in stark contrast to times when he is meant to be at least partially on the side of the state (this, Green Zone). The conclusion to Captain Phillips, which inevitably sees the involvement of the US Navy, means that the director is almost obligated to champion the US military mantra. When it arrives, it almost feels like he doesn't want to, leading to a subdued finale which feels less triumphal than you suspect it read on paper. At times, this feels like a Tom Clancy adaptation, something you would previously have felt Greengrass was a world away from.
Greengrass also doesn't feel comfortable with the quiet Drama moments here, as if some of his discomfort with the whole thing seeps into other areas. Captain Phillips opens on a conversation between the Cap and his wife (Catherine Keener), which must be amongst one of the most artificial and poorly written scenes of last year. 'I worry about our kids', Phillips tells his wife, despite us never seeing them, nor they having any import on the plot, 'I hear what you're saying', she replies, robotically. It's a minor, minor part of the film but it typifies the discomfort, which creeps through occasionally, even when we make it to the ship.
Where Captain Phillips succeeds is in the moments where it can boil the film down to small conflicts, or quieter struggles. The first half, comprising mainly of the pirates arrival and Hanks leading Abdi around the ship on a want-to-be wild goose chase, is exactly where the director excels. There's little physical conflict here, certainly not of the Bourne kind, but there's plenty of psychological battle, as Phillips tries to maintain an advantage.
Greengrass has talked about this being a film about globalisation: world's colliding. If it is I'm not sure these sections show the director in the best light: Muse is, frankly, not very bright and Phillips control of the situation is actually rarely challenged or questioned. White superiority, as we expand into foreign waters and meet different cultures?
The base thrills then are here, and enjoyable for a time, but the politics are confused at best, fluffed at worst. There's nothing here in Captain Phillips' mantra which makes it feel like a good fit for Greengrass, and little evidence of his ability to put his own print on things. Not terrible, by any means, but certainly not the director's best work.
|'Arnie feels as though he may just be entering something of a renaissance (“Arnaissance”?)'|
When the total age of your two big names comes to a whopping 133 years, and yet your movie creaks with decrepitude far more than either Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, you know that you’ve got problems. In fact, Sly and Arnie (as they will henceforth be referred to in this review, in keeping with Escape Plan’s nineties throwback flavour) are by far the most impressive thing here. Sure, they both look like they’ve been patched up using bits of a worn out leather sofa, and you occasionally worry that they could do with a sit down between fight scenes, but this is the best either of the aging action heroes has appeared for some time.
Sly holds his own throughout, showing about as much acting ability as he has since the 1970s but still throwing a punch and pumping bullets from a range of firearms pleasingly well. It’s Arnie, however, who feels as though he may just be entering something of a renaissance (“Arnaissance”?) in only his second starring role since returning to filmmaking. Whilst this isn’t a reinvention likely to lead Arnie down the same critically acclaimed paths as recent second-chancers Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck, it’s worth noting that the actor not only embraces his age rather than attempting to convince you he’s still thirty-something, but also attempts adding a few new tricks to his repertoire. A scene involving Arnie speaking in his native Austrian, for example, is one of the film’s most memorable and successful moments.
Elsewhere, Escape Plan rarely gets beyond the forgettably hackneyed. The concept is suitably ludicrous and never as clever as it thinks it is: the opening sequence setting up Ray Breslin (Sly) as a professional prison-breaker attempts an Ocean’s Eleven style explanation that only makes its fundamental flaws all the more glaring. Once Ray meets up with Emil Rottmayer (Arnie) on the inside of unbreakable prison “The Tomb”, things pick up somewhat thanks to the pair being able to play off each other relatively enjoyably.
What little improvement is managed however is quickly squandered as director Mikael Håfström opts for a final act which could have been plucked from any middle-of-the-road cliché-ridden actioner of the early nineties, whilst also disregarding much of what has been set up in the first two acts. Ultimately, there’s very little reason to recommend Escape Plan other than the two leads, and you’d be better served picking up something either of them actually did make two decades ago rather than this weak and weary imitation of it.
It might take some hard searching to find Mother, I Love You, Latvia's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar this year. If you can dig it out from somewhere though then Janis Nords' Drama is absolutely worth more of your time than the slightly twee trailer might suggest. One of the best films I saw at this year's BIFF, even the dodgy trailer can't hide the stonkingly good lead performance by Kristofers Konovalovs, one of the best by a young actor I can remember in recent times. Get hunting.