Friday, 27 July 2012

Roman Holiday (1953)

 After coincidentally watching Breakfast at Tiffany's last Thursday night, and Roman Holiday a week later, Thursday is old school night, unless a better offer comes along. I'd have gone with something more alliterative like Old School Sunday, but that would have required some basic level of planning this.

Anyway, Roman Holiday. Another Audrey Hepburn comedy/drama in which she plays a rather timid and slightly quirky character that exudes charm. You get the feeling that she was such a beguiling person that it wasn't feasible for her to play someone as equally smooth and delightful.That's not to say she wasn't a good actress either, she fully deserved the Academy Award she took away from this film, just that she was very, very good at creating a certain image.

Hepburn stars alongside Gregory Peck (of Atticus Finch fame) as the two spend a day out in Rome after a chance meeting brought about by some rather unethical administration of hard drugs. It's a relationship built on two major lies though: Princess Anne does not let on that she's royalty who just wants to experience a normal life, and Joe Bradley tells her he's a salesman when in fact he's a journalist who has twigged who she is and is after a scandalous scoop. My only criticism of the film is really that these two deceptions seem to be treated on the same level, when one's rather innocent and the other pretty underhanded.

Once you get past the things that anchor the film in its time (the lack of colour, the frankly distracting 4:3 ratio and the mono sound) you do get a film that's obviously a labour of love and application of craft. Even without the brilliance that colour can add to a location, Rome leaps off the screen and embodies the magical effect that a simple day trip with the right people can have.

Plus, it's got what has to be one of my favourite 'no context' lines in a while "It's always open season on princesses".

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Prestige (2006)

(Poster by Steve R Hogan)

On a bit of a Chris Nolan Binge in the wake of TDKR. He seems to have thing for main characters that are in the pursuit of an obsession: Inception's Cobb is willing to do the almost impossible to get home, Memento's Shelby battles with his amnesia to hunt down his wife's killer and The Dark Knight Trilogy's Bruce Wayne retreats into and is eventually consumed entirely by his obsession with the Batman. The Prestige, however, focusses on the idea of obsession entirely.

Two late 19th century magicians become rivals and eventually bitter enemies as their shared desire to best each tears their lives, their families and their bodies themselves apart. There exists a subtle to and fro between the two with regards to who seems the most unhinged: Christian Bale's Alfred Borden taking centre staged at first but quickly relinquishing that to Hugh Jackman's Robert Angiers. Both understand what really drives their character, what is really important to them.

Escalation is the game as the fight drags out over the years. These men give everything for their art, taking illusion, deception and secrets to their logical conclusions with predictable results. Michael Caine, as usual in his Nolan roles, provides a window for the audience to view the often cold and extreme main characters in a more human light. Without his role as Cutter, the an illusionist's engineer, it'd be all too easy to write off both Alfred and Angiers as self-destructive narcissists, which they are, but Nolan's script coupled with characters such as Cutter, and to a lesser extent Scarlett Johansson's Olivia and Rebecca Hall's Sarah, you can find yourself identifying a disturbing amount with just how obsessed these two perfectionists can be.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Devil Wears Prada

I was pretty much conned into this after praising Anne Hathaway's performance as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises to someone. "Oh it's not a chick flick like it sounds". Lies. The chickiest flick I've seen in a long time. It's essentially Ugly Betty: The Movie, but without any attempt to make the Betty ugly, because it's god damn Anne Hathaway.

That said, I'm not one to judge a film for something it isn't. I'm not exactly well versed in films like this, but I don't think it's that bad for what it is. Sure the plot points are signposted before they're even in sight, none of what the supporting cast does really makes any sense and the soundtrack's as clich├ęd as not wearing white after Labor Day, but there is some redemption.  Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway work well together. Streep gives a subtle and slick performance as the titular devil: editor-in-chief of the prestigious Runway magazine, Miranda Preistly. Hathaway plays the target of most of the Devil's contempt as Andrea Sachs,an unfashionable aspiring journalist using a job as the editor's assistant as a stepping stone to "legitimate" journalism.

There isn't much below the surface of The Devil Wears Prada, but it doesn't really matter. One remarkable performance and another very admirable one carry the film, but they're held up by some great costuming (as you'd expect from a fashion film) and visual design. Overall, it's clearly not a film targeted at me, but it's pretty enjoyable none-the-less and I'm sure it's a hit with people who can really appreciate it.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (spoiler free!)

It would be a bit disrespectful not to acknowledge the events of last night in Denver, but that's all I'll do: acknowledge it. My best wishes and condolences of course go out to all those effected, but to draw too much attention to the tragedy only gives the scum that perpetrated the act the attention he so obviously wanted. Anyway...

The Dark Knight Rises brings an end to Christopher Nolan's take on Gotham's caped crusader, and it most certainly doesn't end with a whimper. Batman (Christian Bale), Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and, a new villian to the big screen, Bane come together to produce a swan song epic in scale and powerful in message but still comic book-y in nature.

TDKR builds on the foundations laid down by the first two films in the series (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) both in narrative and over arching themes. The final moments of TDK play a heavy role in Bane's plans to bring chaos to Gotham and an end to the Bat, and the motivations of Begins' most senior villain once again. Thematically, things that have been explored or alluded to in the previous two are either resolved or at least given a little more flesh in the final instalment. Nolan is known for his penchant for making films that deal with an obsession of the main character, and whether Bruce Wayne's obsession with his mask is beaten or resolved or not is pretty much a matter of opinion, but it's definitely addressed.The whole "1%" or "elite vs the masses" ideas that are pretty blatant in all the trailers (Trailer 3 - "There's a storm coming Mr Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you'll wonder how you thought you could live so large and leave nothing for the rest of us") are well and truly a founding issue for pretty much the entire film. Does his money really give Batman/Wayne the power to become the secret police of Gotham? Did it give him the right to cover up Harvey Dent's crimes? Answers come in the form of Bane, the masked mercenary, and Selina Kyle, a skilled and elegant cat burglar looking for a way out of the life she's trapped in.

Bale, Hardy and Hathaway are the big players here, and all three provide great performances. Christian Bale continues his role as Batman/Bruce Wayne with such command that it really drives home the idea that it might be the tailed suit that's the mask rather than the body armour and hood. Hardy is, in some senses, very reminiscent of his role as the well mannered, violent psychopath titular role in Bronson. Hardy has the physical presence and charisma that inspires fear into those around him at every turn; as is true in the characters appearance in the comic books, you can really believe that he is a match physically for the hero. To watch him is to believe that this is the one who's capable of "breaking the Bat". There were a number of doubters on Hathaway's casting as Selina Kyle (Catwoman essentially, despite never actually being called that in the film): "She's too nice", "She doesn't look like a fighter" and the ever-misogynistic and just plain wrong "She's not sexy enough". Well, pretty much wrong on all counts there. Hathaway's Kyle is an ambiguous and entertaining thrill ride who provides the most realistic world-view of the three main characters. Not to mention the arse she kicks and how she looks doing it.

Of course, you can't go far wrong with the supporting cast either, especially considering half of them were in Nolan's Inception as well. Marion Cotillard as love interest and business associate Miranda Tate, Gary Oldman returning as Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and Jospeh Gordon-Levitt as idealistic police detective John Blake; they all flesh out the cast and take it from "pretty damn good" to "woah" on the scale.

Nolan's last entry in the Dark Knight Trilogy ramps up the scale of everything: the political messages that may or may not be intentionally hidden in the subtext, the level of danger posed to the citizens that Batman has sworn to protect, the lengths the villains will go to to pose said danger, the action-packed setpieces and the power behind the relationships between the characters. In the past films the only real emotional attachment was between Bruce and his childhood infatuation Rachel, and with her out of the picture screen time opens up for a more intricate web to take its place. And if all those things were ramping up, atop that ramp sits an amazing final 10-20 minutes. Nolan gives us closure where it matters, and leaves just enough things hanging to let your imagination run wild with how his vision of Gotham would continue after the end of this trilogy. Thankfully, I think Christopher Nolan and his talented cast can be trusted not to revisit this universe with any more, unnecessary, sequels. It ends well, and it ends here.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

(Credit for the poster goes to David O'Daniel)

Obviously I am one hard ass gangsta and only watch the manliest of films, as you can see from my choice here.

In truth, I've actually been thinking lately that I haven't really seen any of the earlier films that always make the list of "classics". It was either this or Citizen Kane, and Kane seemed a bit heavy to start watching at midnight. Audrey Hepburn as  quirky socialite Holly Golightly on the search for money (and secondarily, love) in 60s New York is a lot easier to follow.

Despite being 51 years old this year, Breakfast at Tiffany's still holds up strong. There are a few stylistic touches in the shooting that feel quite dated, especially the cuts in conversations, but they're just relics of the time and not too intrusive. Some things are a little more difficult to forgive: Mickey Rooney (a white man) is made up to look like the Japanese owner of Holly's building. Not only is the character essentially in  the "blackface" equivalent for Asians, but even if he were played by an ethnically correct actor, the character is such a blanket stereotype that the only thing that eclipses the laziness of the writing is its offensiveness.

Other characters, thankfully, are less of an assault on the morals. Holly's love interest is played largely as a subdued and laid back guy by George Peppard, who only drops the casual act when Hepburn's character seems to be displaying too much independence for the time period. Hepburn herself is charming and somewhat ethereal as Holly Golightly. The extent of her charm and eccentricities are pretty unbelievable, but Hepburn has the elegance and general delightfulness to really sell it.

The film feels startlingly contemporary visually. It may be from how far removed from the early sixties we are now, but it doesn't feel so much dated as it does stylised. The colour palette and pace capture the feel of the early morning haze that hangs over the iconic opening credits sequence, and never really let go until the final, rainy scenes where it's as appropriate as the u-turn both the protagonists take in said scenes.

It's sad that such a charming film with a performance as enthralling as Audrey Hepburn's  is marred by the laziness and insensitivity of one caricature. But that aside Breakfast at Tiffany's is certainly deserving of its spot in many of the "Top [x]" lists.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Lost in Translation (2003)

We need to start cloning the Coppolas or something. I don't want to live in a world where nobody in that family is making films.  Sophia Coppola's acting career wasn't exactly anything to write home about, but she's inherited at least a little of her father's touch as director.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson take the leads in a film about loneliness, ennui and feeling lost. The whole thing is done with a very soft touch; everything is deliberate  but never feels forced.  Coppola delivers a masterclass in how to develop a complex relationship between two characters with subtlety and gentleness. Bob, an over-the-hill actor, and Charlotte, an aimless college graduate, meet in a Tokyo hotel bar and hit it off almost immediately. Both are isolated from their partner, one by five thousand miles and the other by his distraction with work, and fill the void with their new friend. It's unclear throughout the whole film how either of them feel about the relationship, and among the audience of how they should feel. They aren't cheating on their partners, at least not in the traditional sense. Bob and Charlotte aren't simply looking for something like sex that they don't get from their partner, but something more personal: Bob's wife and kids don't need him around and Charlotte's husband seems to forget she exists. They're both desperately in need of a purpose and just someone to be a proper friend.

It's through an understated and intimately crafted script that all these themes comes through, as well as the trademark humour of Bill Murray. He brings a sardonic and weary sense of comedy to the film that reigns it back in from the brink of being a bit depressing and brings it back into "bittersweet" territory. This sort of "treading the line" between two states blends well into the ambiguity of Bob and Charlotte's connection. Is it an affair? Are they just friends or something more? It all culminates in an act that's left slightly hidden. We never find out what happens. Apparently some people on the internet, through some digital voodoo have figured out what transpires, but frankly I don't want to know.

If you haven't seen it drop whatever you're doing (if you're reading this, whatever you're doing can't be too thrilling anyway) and watch it now. It's amazing.

Or to bring the tone down a bit: Even if you aren't interested in a cleverly written, beautifully and subtly performed, amazingly scored (apart from one weird bit with a jarringly heavy guitar riff) and emotionally touching film, it's worth watching just for Scarlett Johansson being ridiculously fit for 90 minutes. 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

I just watched a Tim Burton film full of people with extravagant makeup and very pale faces. The art style was very gothic and slightly other-worldy, and it had Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in it, both playing ridiculously eccentric and definitely mad people. If that (or, y'know, the title of this entry) doesn't narrow it down for you...

Only really distinctive from the rest of Burton's work in the range of it's colour palette, Alice in Wonderland is pretty much Burton painting by numbers. The dark undertones that Burton is fantastic at weaving into his superficially whimsical films are only skimmed into with Alice. It's not so much a thin crust of quirk atop a deep chasm of darkness, but a layer of quirk atop a crust of darkness crowning an abyss of, well, nothing really. That is, apart from one character, but more on that later.

The film doesn't necessarily follow Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, or its sequel Through the Looking Glass (both written by Lewis Carroll in the 1800s). It's "inspired" by both, and we get a 19 year old Alice who returns to the magical kingdom, only to find it transformed from Wonderland to a less cheerful and more depressing "Underland" suffering through the reign of the Queen of Hearts with her fearsome Jabberwocky scaring all the inhabitants into submission. Alice is tasked with helping the White Queen reclaim her throne by slaying the Red Queen's beastly champion (in what, in light of the rest of the films wackiness, turns out to be a rather mundane battle scene). With all the stock character's from the actors' back catalogues and Burton's it's the White Queen that stands out. She doesn't feature on screen as much as her scarlet sister, but for me was a lot more interesting. In the world of insanity, Anne Hathaway manages to tread the highwire of unrivalled kindness and purity that the Queen is supposed to be with such carefulness that it's obvious she's only so kind because she fears what she is capable of. She needs a champion because if she were to kill anything she'd be started on a slippery slope to becoming her sister. By far my favourite character in the sea of of eccentricity.

My biggest problem with the film is that I'm clearly not the target audience. I'm sure people who are into Burton's shtick will enjoy it a lot more than I did. I feel like I missed out on a visual treat as well, I imagine the well executed use of extensive CGI would really make the world of Wonder/Underland pop when you were watching it in full HD and 3D in a cinema at the release.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Carnage (2011)

Carnage is a pretty simple film. Set entirely in a New York apartment, it follows two couples who've met up to discuss a falling out between their children. As you might guess from the title, it's not exactly a productive affair. The film was adapted from the stage-play Le Dieu du carnage (The God of Carnage). To say "adapted" is a bit of a stretch though; obviously I haven't seen the play because I'm an uncultured philistine, but watching Carnage feels very much like you're moving around a stage as the production rolls on around you. The angles are very clearly chosen to display as much of the apartment, and consequently as much of the cast, as possible at once and the dialogue feels very theatrical in both the terms of what's actually said and how it's delivered.

There isn't much in terms of an actual plot, the whole film is pretty much one continuous scene from beginning to end. The real quality shines through in the subtly shifting dynamic between the four characters and the constant to-and-fro in the balance of power. Pretty much every possible alliance between characters comes up and each gives an insight into how each couple operates. John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster are entertaining to watch as everything falls apart, but Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz are enthralling as the detached, financially successful couple who are less than perfect together. Waltz follows his performance in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and proves that his talent for playing smug, self-satisfied egomaniacs wasn't a one-off. Both give great performances, especially Winslet once the scotch is flowing, but are fantastic when bouncing off each other.

It's not exactly a traditional film, in truth it feels a lot more like a really long short film (if that makes any sense), but if you enjoy character driven dramas, snide comments and unbridled contempt, Carnage might be a pretty good fit.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) (Again!)

Being the narcissist that I am, I was reading over some of the stuff I've put on here and realised I didn't actually write that much about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Seeing as it's literally the best film I've seen, I figured it might deserve a bit more.

Most shops, websites or whatever list Eternal Sunshine as sci-fi romance film, but the sic-fi tag doesn't really fit too well. Yes, there is some not quite real technology used to make the plot actually go places but that's not what the film's about. We're talking much, much closer to The Notebook than something like Star Trek. So don't worry if lightsabers and shit are a bit of a turn off, there's none of that here.

What is here is a touching story about two completely incompatible people coming together for the first time because of how they broke up earlier. It sounds confusing, and for the first fifteen minutes it is, but once you get to grips with how the story's being told and what's real and what's a memory it's pretty straightforward. If you want a tip for it: keep track of Clementine's hair colour.

Clementine is one half of the the beautiful equation that makes up Eternal Sunshine, and she's easily one of my favourite character's in film. Kate Winslet manages to fuse her fantastic talent with the grounded, realistic writing of Charlie Kaufman and create a masterpiece. For once, you get a quirky, exciting and impulsive girl who wears her heart on her sleeve who also feels like an actual human being. Usually, these women are carefree all the time and ridiculously fragile flower children who are completely unbelievable (e.g. Natalie Portman's character in Garden State, Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown, and literally every role Zooey Deschanel has played ever). But Clementine is different, and is volatile and in her own words "a vindictive little bitch". It's a credit to Winslet that she can play such character with such range from the crazy highs to the pitiful lows while remaining mesmerising the whole time.

Jim Carrey, as the reserved Joel Barish, also deserves a lot of credit. Growing up on films like The Mask and Ace Ventura kind of poisons you against him as an actor. But seeing him in this, I think it's a shame that he'll most likely be remembered for pulling contorted faces with all the depth of a puddle because he's capable of so much more. It's like walking into the clown's dressing room to find him playing Tchaikovsky.

It's on the back of these two performances and the fantasy writing that plants its feet firmly on the ground that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind makes such a statement. There are some truly great scenes in this film; some I'm sure will stay with me even if I never see it again. I don't think I'll ever be able to think of the scenes at the beach party and not feel at least a little bit sad.