The Deep (2012)
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Actors: Olafur Darri Olafsson, Jóhan G. Johansson, Stefán Hallur Stefánsson
Synopsis: A group of hardy Icelandic fishermen are left to fend for themselves when their boat sinks miles off the coast of the Westman Islands. Gulli (Olafur Darri Olafsson) is the only survivor, and begins the arduous task of attempting to swim back to land in the freezing waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Review: The laconic, otherworldly ambience of Iceland (and, in particular, the Westman Islands) imprints itself so successfully in this gripping dramatisation by Balthasar Kormákur, of a fisherman who in 1984, was able to swim for six hours all the way back to shore after his boat capsized. There’s such a broody, melancholic feel to proceedings – I wouldn’t call it realism as such, because there’s impressionistic, mournful sequences where the drowned fishermen disappear into the ether of the Atlantic Ocean, and scenes that show how Gulli’s mind functions during his ordeal (memories of his friends and family back on land, and recollections of the seminal volcanic eruption on the island some thirty years before). Kormákur is discreet enough not to be too exclamatory about his story’s subtext. While all the scientists obsess about Gulli’s unusual amount of body fat that offers him a seal-like insulation against the colds of the Atlantic Ocean, they fail to see that on its own it was not enough to save him – it gave him a better chance than his co-workers, for sure – but Gulli’s sustenance was more symbolic of the in-built doughtiness of the people of his land. (March 2014)
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Director: David O. Russell
Actors: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro
Synopsis: Bipolar thirty-something, Patrick (Bradley Cooper), is released from a Baltimore mental institute, and stays with his parents while gradually beginning his return into society. An unusual friendship with a recent widow, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), helps Patrick focus his attentions on winning his estranged wife back….
Review: Films are inherently subjective experiences. As critics we often function like kangaroo courts, spinning analysis to fit the whims of our instinctive likes and dislikes, and for me - Silver Linings Playbook is a classic case in point. I can understand some commentators who claim it exploits (then jettisons) its mental-illness subplot far too conveniently, and that its clear three-act, ‘by the book’ storytelling construct betrays David O. Russell’s pretensions to something more eccentric and ‘real’ to life. All those criticisms stand up to some extent, especially the accusation that central character Pat’s bipolar condition – such a feature of the first two-thirds of the film – goes suspiciously missing once Russell rushes his story through for the conventional, set-piece denouement. Character development becomes obsolete, and Pat has miraculously got his act together – not only in the competency of his dance routine, but in the mature way he handles conflicting feelings for his wife and Jennifer Lawrence’s alluring Tiffany in a pressure-cooker atmosphere.
Thankfully, not all films are academic treatises – and the success of populist, Hollywood fare has always been down to its more magical, ephemeral qualities. Did it move you? Was it romantic? Was it funny? Was it in some way thought-provoking? In that regard, I found Silver Linings Playbook to be one of the most charming Hollywood screwball comedies of recent years. I hate to use the word ‘chemistry’, but there really is a spark between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence that makes the underlying romantic sentiment of the story more endearing than nauseating. Jennifer Lawrence is a natural performer, to the manor born either as comedian, romantic lead or dramatic actor – and I’ve yet to see anything less than exceptional performances from her in the likes of Winter’s Bone, Like Crazy and here. As for Bradley Cooper, he has that classic Hollywood leading man quality of innate presence (think Brad Pitt or George Clooney). He doesn’t actually need to do all that much, nor affect a persona that is other than himself, he simply comes across as a naturally interesting and watchable performer. Summating all that is likeable about Silver Linings Playbook is how most of its sub-details come off – it features my favourite Robert De Niro performance of the last dozen or so years, playing the OCD father with more than a little imprint in the neuroses of his son, and the blue-collar depiction of a Philadelphia suburb feels authentic enough. (March 2014)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Director: Howard Hawks
Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely
Synopsis: Private Detective, Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), gets embroiled in a case regarding the blackmail of General Sternwood’s youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). What starts out as a simple assignment escalates into a much murkier conspiracy, and Marlowe himself starts to fall for Sternwood’s other daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall).
Review: Could an actress be more gracious, alluring and elegant than Lauren Bacall in her prime? It’s funny, but Bacall is always the first image I conjure in my mind when I think of The Big Sleep - even though this is one of the greatest American films ever made, featuring so many other immemorial characters and facets.
It possesses easily one of the greatest opening scenes in movie history. Much like in that other Humphrey Bogart classic, The Maltese Falcon, the picture opens on Bogart’s private detective (in this case Philip Marlowe) coming straight in on a case. There’s no establishing shot, no pre-amble, just simply the arrival of Marlowe at the residence of Colonel Sternwood, and the strange, surreal atmosphere of this sequence (the Colonel will only see Marlowe in his fetid, humid conservatory, and the Colonel’s two alluring, but strikingly different, daughters attempt to ingratiate themselves with Marlowe) has a malingering legacy that never leaves the remainder of the film.
Of course, The Big Sleep is (in)famous for featuring one of the densest, most confusing plots in Hollywood history – but even that adds to the film’s mystique. The plot’s complexity and slow unravelling of its insidious subject matter of sexual exploitation, corruption, blackmail and murder, make it the obvious precursor to some of the great, modern noir dramas - Chinatown, LA Confidential and Mulholland Drive. (March 2014)
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Actors: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson
Synopsis: The story of the development, production and reception of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho…
Review: It’s a shame because the story of the conception and evolution of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho could have proved cinematic gold-dust in the right hands, but Sacha Gervasi is saddled with such desperately poor raw materials that any of that inherent potential is completely obscured by the lamest of lame scenarios.
What’s ironic is that Psycho was such a radical, cinematographically novel film, but Gervasi is completely unable to find a meta-referential way of honouring that – instead wrapping his own work up in some of the dullest storytelling tropes imaginable. The sum total of the film’s dramatic ‘conceits’ are Hitchcock receiving ghostly visitations from Ed Gein (the ‘inspiration’ behind the story of Psycho) and Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, developing a platonic friendship with an aspiring screenwriter. Both of these are so half-hearted and apologetic ‘conflicts’ that they’re almost laughable, and one is left with the distinct impression that the producers assumed that simply basing a film around the pop-culturally rich subject matter of Psycho and populating it with a bevy of star names, would be enough….(March 2014)
The Monuments Men (2014)
Director: George Clooney
Actors: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman
Synopsis: Lt Frank Stokes (George Clooney) leads a crack international team of art historians to protect and recover important works of art during the dying embers of WW2.
Review: George Clooney is clearly a cultured, intelligent and liberal-leaning man, so he naturally deserves credit for using his directorial clout not on a vapid star-vehicle but in giving this noble and well-intentioned little sub-story from the Second World War some publicity. That he struggles to really justify its dramatisation is less his fault, but more to do with an irreconcilable clash between the density (and indeed cerebral nature) of the story and the demands of two-hour feature film Hollywood storytelling – a TV serial or factual documentary would have been more suitable matches.
Part of the problem Clooney comes up against is the portentous baggage of The Monuments Men‘s Second World War subject matter. The conflict has been so exhaustively documented by the cinema over the years that it’s become a genre in itself, and perhaps unavoidably, Clooney finds himself compelled to have his story touch base with all those elements through the two hour running time (a Normandy beach landing, snipers firing at the soldiers in destroyed French towns, resistance fighters with berets riding bicycles in the French countryside, a heroic death, troops sentimentally opening up packages from home). The problem is that Clooney has had so little time to flesh out his characters (and when he has done it’s usually been to light, comic effect) that when less than halfway through the film Bill Murray’s character hears his suspiciously polished daughter’s voice singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” over a gramophone or when two of the crew actually die, these feel unearned and clichéd developments, rather than genuinely moving ones. Also, standing as proof that Clooney is probably trying to push the merit of the material a touch too much, I lost count of the times that his character ventriloquises the film’s two main morals (1 – if a society loses its art, it loses its history and sense of identity, and 2 – is a piece of art worth more than a man’s life?) Still, a George Clooney film always has the hallmark of good, old-fashioned Hollywood class – an excellent cast, a sense of fun and purpose, and I at least appreciate his attempts to sneak this story into the multiplexes in commercial cinema’s own language. (March 2014)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Director: John Huston
Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre
Synopsis: Private detective, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), is ensnared in an increasingly convoluted, murky plot over a priceless antique, when a femme fatale (Mary Astor) enters his office and sets in-chain a sequence of events that sees his partner brutally killed…
Review: More through pure chance than anything more determinate, my first encounter with the Humphrey Bogart ‘brand’ was when one of my university flatmates randomly brought home a video from the local Blockbusters store - The Maltese Falcon. Of course I fell in love with the Bogart persona right away, but everything about the film – from its bluesy mood, its highly cerebral plot that assumes a high level of intelligence in its viewer, to the genius support performances from the great Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet – made it highly memorable. Since then, I’ve gorged on much of Bogart’s back-catalogue, and encountered the wonderful The Big Sleep, Key Largo, To Have and Have Not (to name but a few), but somehow The Maltese Falcon still endures in my affections as the best of the lot….
It’s a fantastic noir plot – the opening sequence where Mary Astor’s unreliable ‘Miss Wonderly’ presents herself to Bogart’s Private Detective Sam Spade, throws us right into not only the minutae of this convoluted narrative, but its sentiment as well – it’s murkily photographed, an air of double-cross hangs in the air like sulphur, and Astor’s intentional over-emoting combined with Bogart’s amused cynicism makes for an ice-cool tenor that never leaves the remainder of the film. Of course, The Maltese Falcon is famous for being the ultimate ‘macguffin’ film (huge spoiler alert: the real ‘falcon’ itself never turns up), and in many ways, this is one of the most intellectual, postmodern Hollywood movies I’ve ever seen. It’s almost like there’s two frames of reference – the narrative itself, then a meta-narrative with the characters continually voicing the protocol and etiquette of their genre scenario.
Humphrey Bogart’s ‘hardboiled’, oft-quoted persona can often make watching a film like Casablanca slightly diluted, but his performance and dialogue in The Maltese Falcon has a much stronger edge to it. There’s a wonderful gallows humour to it all, and I just love his sentiment when he gets news that his partner has been brutally murdered – he doesn’t bat an eyelid, and his first thought is to make sure his secretary bars his partner’s hysterical wife from bothering him!
The Maltese Falcon is also a beautiful film, with director John Huston conjuring scenes that Orson Welles and Gregg Toland (making Citizen Kane at the same time) would have been proud of. It’s a cliché but it’s true – film was so much more of an artform in this era, and the chiaroscuro cinematography, the gorgeous use of dissolves, the clever framing, and the excellent use of interiors (especially in Kasper Gutman’s palatial hotel suite) makes for an evocative backdrop for The Maltese Falcon‘s gripping story to play out on. (February 2014)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Actors: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle
Synopsis: Maya Lambert (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA operative embroiled in a decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. This takes her from interrogating suspects in Saudi Arabia, and ground-level operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to top-level meetings in Langley. Ultimately, a lead on a courier seems to suggest a potential location for bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan….
Review: Zero Dark Thirty employs a curious, but in retrospect, rather admirable angle into its potentially combustible ‘hunt for bin Laden’ subject matter. Though some kneejerk, leftist critics have sought to tar the film as one that unquestioningly valorises the technological and militaristic might of the US operation, I actually think Kathryn Bigelow has crafted a much more restrained, neutral, world-weary impression of the various American attempts (from torture, interrogation, surveillance, and the final hi-tech marine raid) to track down bin Laden.
Bigelow revels in the forensic, unrhetorical minutae of each of her segments. And, in many ways, this mirrors her similarly chaste, reasonably depoliticised view of ground-level ops during the Iraq conflict, The Hurt Locker. The torture is much less sensationalist than say in Steve McQueen’s slavery polemic, 12 Years a Slave. It’s shown very three-dimensionally – the methods are undoubtedly harsh, but are utilised just the right side of irredeemable sadism, and the various players involved in the torture have inherently complex thought-processes – the American CIA operatives are jaded and somewhat humane, but desperate to get an intelligence breakthrough, and the captives are still cognisant enough to know the politics of when to cede information to the CIA (assuming they have it, of course).
The raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout is thrilling conveyed without resorting to a stereotypical ‘shock and awe’ depiction, and the lure comes as much from knowing that this was a daring, chancy act that could easily have gone wrong politically (in terms of not throwing up bin Laden at all), and militarily (the marines were very much entering a potential ‘lion’s den’). Bigelow’s only marginal concession to narrative conventionality is in creating a heroic main figure, Jessica Chastain’s doughty CIA operative Maya Lambert, who embodies the integrity and determination of this search for bin Laden. Bigelow also mythologises the figure of bin Laden himself, acknowledging him as the US’ ultimate bogeyman, right from the opening image-free audio capturing of the events of 9/11, to when Maya solemnly opens up his body-bag to confirm his death. (February 2014)