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American Hustle

September 30, 2014

American Hustle (2013)
Director: David O. Russell
Actors: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper

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Synopsis: Grifters, Irv Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), get apprehended by FBI man Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso offers them immunity from prosecution, if they’ll help him ensnare ‘bigger fish’ i.e. politicians and mobsters, in a large, convoluted scam involving a ‘fake Sheikh’….

Review: American Hustle is an enjoyable, if rather straightforward piece of sub-Scorsese/Seventies-nostalgia fluff. Perhaps in its colourfulness and zaniness (as betrayed by the gorging on all the period regalia – haircuts, costumes, décor, soundtrack), director David O. Russell thought he had an appropriate visual correlative to the themes and machinations of the on-screen caper, though I think Russell might have been better served being more sly and playing against the material somewhat – to draw out its darker, more discursive commentary on the ‘American Dream’ circa-the late Seventies. Still, it’s entertainingly portrayed, and if nothing else is exemplar of a certain type of Hollywood screwball proficiency (something Russell is becoming increasingly adept at mining as per his recent ‘rom-com’ par excellence, Silver Linings Playbook). (September 2014)

Diana

September 30, 2014

Diana (2013)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Actors: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Juliet Stevenson

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Synopsis: The last two years in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales (Naomi Watts), starting with her unlikely on-off romance to Pakistani heart surgeon, Asnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), and then her dalliance with international playboy Dodhi Al-Fayed, culminating in the fateful Paris car crash of August 31st, 1997.

Review: Oliver Hirschbiegel’s fiercely condescended Diana is a work that perhaps deserves a touch more scrutiny and analysis than the wildfire of instantaneous derision it generated on its release. In a sense, the film takes a not entirely unintuitive notion of shading its story of Diana’s late romance to Pakistani heart surgeon, Asnat Khan, as a ‘Mills and Boon’ affair to out the pathos in this woefully cosseted, unconstructed and purely narcissistic woman.

It’s in the execution of its storytelling that the film falls short. First, although one can get slightly bogged down in the parlour game of over-analysing the casting decisions over certain actors playing famous historical figures, it’s unquestionable that Naomi Watts is the wrong choice to play Diana (and this is coming from an avowed Naomi Watts fan – take my review of Mulholland Drive for example). Despite the superficial costume and make-up job, Watts is a good ten years older than Diana was meant to be at the time of the story, and Watts has a more rounded face and open presence than Diana’s familiar angular, awkward and guarded persona. Thus Watts works overtime to inhabit Diana, to ‘impersonate’ her if you like, and it creates a clinical, slightly phoney effect – much like the leaden dialogue given to her and Asnat Khan by the screenwriters. As for Khan, though I’m not privy to all the facts, I find it hard to believe that an eminent Consultant-Surgeon at a top London hospital who was able to attract Diana, was living in pokey digs above a row of shops, and that he’d take Diana on dates to places like the local Chicken Cottage fast food store! Sure, I think Diana may have been attracted to the relative normalness of Khan’s life after being married to the future King of England, but I think this film’s flight in taking Diana to quasi-Sex and the City ‘girl about town’ territory is a touch too far. (September 2014)

20,000 Days on Earth

September 25, 2014

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)
Director: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard

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Synopsis: A portrait of the life and work of Australian musician/writer, Nick Cave, as he approaches his 20,000th day on the planet.

Review: I got to Nick Cave relatively late in my cultural genesis. My first (apt) introduction to Cave was through a flatmate who would play the booming, epic intonations of Cave from the room next to mine, and over a series of weeks I grew progressively more interested in this artist who was providing some of the most striking, powerful, imaginative (and most importantly of all, sincere) songs I’d heard in a long time – from “The Mercy Seat”, “Stagger Lee”, “Into My Arms”, “Green Eyes” and “Love Letter” to name but a few….

The thing I like about Cave compared to some of the other musical greats, is that although he’s got all the ‘rock ‘n roll’ swagger, the obligatory maverick personality and ‘chequered past’ of heavy drinking and drug-taking, he comes across as exceptionally likeable and well-considered – someone indelibly fascinated by the creative process and its relationship with memory (hence why Cave has naturally branched out into screenwriting – The Proposition was a decent Australian film he recently penned, and the conception of his own very idiosyncratic ‘self-portrait’ here).

Cave has clearly thought through the pitfalls of the music documentary genre, and has almost anticipated them by twisting the work into a slippery, discursive, ironic look at the life of an artist. It begins with Cave musing on his Bukowski-esque life in Brighton (minus the drinking, of course), there are reasonably familiar scenes of the artist in the studio and performing at concerts, but it also branches out in more interesting ways – a witty ‘psychologist’ session that hints at, but ultimately frustrates, the desire to ‘Freudianise’ everything, a visit to an emotive archive facility, and Cave offering rides to various personalities he’s had association with over the years like Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue.

The film ultimately uncannily honours the ethos of Cave the musician, as it in a sense (like him) enjoys mythologising storytelling and the creative process. This all achieves a moving climax when the old rocker seems to have reached a peaceful stage in his middle-aged years with a shot closing on him in domestic happiness, watching TV and munching on pizza with his two young sons – before a gallows suffix to that comes when Cave turns the volume up and we hear the apocalyptic tones of Al Pacino chewing up the scenery in the ultra-violent Scarface. There’s some macabre wit in the old dog yet….(September 2014)

Face/Off

September 25, 2014

Face/Off (1997)
Director: John Woo
Actors: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen

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Synopsis: FBI Agent, Sean Archer (John Travolta), finally detains his arch-nemesis Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) – the man who killed his son some years before. Castor’s brother, Pollux (Alessandro Nivola), holds the key to a terrorist plot the Troys were planning together, so Archer undergoes a radical surgical procedure whereby he takes on the face of the comatose Castor, so he can earn Pollux’s confidence to foil the plot. Everything works as planned, until Castor wakes up and steals the face of Archer….

Review: This baroque, lurid and thoroughly enjoyable action romp almost seems quaint and a touch dated now as it came at the back-end of the golden period of 80s/90s action pictures, and looks well out of place compared to today’s more sober, realist-inflected action landscape (nostalgia exercise The Expendables excepted of course!)

That said, Face/Off is certainly a classic of its type, and its sheer extravagance found an apt director in Hong Kong veteran, John Woo, giving the film’s delirious drama a visual poetry to match (epic slo-mo, choice use of soundtrack, explosions galore, flying doves and visual motifs that play on the central ‘face/off’ dialectic of the narrative).

The face-swapping ‘hook’ is actually a genius high-concept – not only for the dramaturgical excitement as we watch as Troy and Archer switch personas and have to deal with the opportunities/repercussions of such a scenario, but it’s fascinating to watch both actors interpret the demonstration of the respective transferences of character. I can see the sense in giving Nicolas Cage the role of Castor Troy, because he’s arguably the ‘deeper’ actor of the two leads – able to quickly establish the maverick malevolence of Troy in the first few minutes, before settling into the tricky part of playing the conflicted Archer trapped behind Troy’s face, while John Travolta’s more surface charisma works well for playing Troy when he’s revelling in the opportunity of exploiting the trappings of Sean Archer’s upstanding life. (September 2014)

Wallace and Gromit: The Case of the Were-Rabbit

September 21, 2014

Wallace and Gromit: The Case of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Director: Nick Park, Steve Box
Actors: Peter Sallis, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes

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Synopsis: Tottington is gearing up for its Annual Vegetable Competition, and to that end Wallace and Gromit are busy in their sideline as ‘pest controllers’ – stopping groups of bunnies from munching residents’ prized vegetables. A dotty experiment by Wallace to implant anti-vegetable urges in a collection of captured rabbits backfires as his cheese-loving tendencies are swapped with those of a rabbit, thus placing the community in peril from an even greater pest….

Review: This fun, rich and exquisite British animated comedy from the celebrated Aardman studio is an absolute pleasure to watch – a sure-fire 85 minute smile-generator, and featuring storytelling craft and wit at the highest pitch of ingenuity.

Where perhaps I’d place The Case of the Were-Rabbit just marginally ahead the spate of stellar work coming from Pixar and other animated studios ‘across the pond’ is in its gentle pang of something unmistakably eccentric, irreverent and ‘British’ in sensibility. That’s not to say that Aardman have neglected the necessary mainstream (and dare I say, sometime cutesy) imperatives to the genre, but there really are some cracking gags, references and one-liners that will please not just kids and adults alike, but proper comedy connoisseurs too. There’s something almost Blackadderian in The Case of the Were-Rabbit‘s innate comic understanding of its British milieu – basking in the smut and word-play potential of its arena of vicars, class-ridden toffs, giant vegetables and mutant bunnies.

The richness of The Case of the Were-Rabbit‘s cine-heritage is a joy to behold too (or at least to this cinephile it is!) There are probably multiple references I’ve either missed or forgotten, but I detected playful Hammer Horror touches to the film’s scenario and design, a humorous echoing of King Kong when Wallace’s huge rabbit takes Lady Tottington to the rooftop of Tottington Hall, and of course – as in all good animated movies – there’s the ‘chase’ lineage to Buster Keaton and silent cinema in general.

Last, but certainly not least, as in other Wallace and Gromit tales and previous Aardman features, there’s a lovely correlative between the evident care and imagination that have gone into the conception and crafting of the film, and the charming, hair-brained skits enacted by Wallace and Gromit in the story itself. (September 2014)

Antz

September 19, 2014

Antz (1998)
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson
Actors: Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman

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Synopsis: Z (Woody Allen) is a neurotic worker ant who resents the grafting and communal ethos of his species. He is the only survivor in a foolhardy assault on a rival termite colony, and though he returns as a hero, he gets outed as a worker ant, and unintentionally takes the princess ant, Bala (Sharon Stone) captive. They explore the world outside their colony, although General Mandible (Gene Hackman) leads a taskforce to track them down…

Review: Antz is an unqualified animated achievement – an impressive, rigorously realised work that has gone into great technical and forensic detail in drawing out its richly-imagined world of a huge colony of ants living under a dusty corner of Central Park, New York.

Alas, amid all the ingenuity and ‘cleverness’ – the work fails to move and contains little wonderment (ironically appropriating the zealous industry of its on-screen ants). In fact, it’s a salutary lesson for all these animated studios and talented digital technicians that they mustn’t forget the ‘ethics’ amid their obsession with ‘aesthetics’. For the work is undeniably clever – an evidently thoroughly researched piece that has painstakingly transposed the actual workings of ant colonies into its narrative landscape, and probably the best moments of the film are the huge track-backs that reveal the irony about the scale of the ants’ universe – their whole, seemingly epic, domain consists of little more than a small patch of earth and a disused litter bin a few metres away. I also detected a sly, meta-referential nod to Metropolis in Antz‘s story of an underground pit of workers/slaves beneath a more utopian outdoors.

Ultimately, Antz falls between two camps. In its casting of Woody Allen to voice the hero with his familiar neurotic persona, in its fairly adult subplots, and in the aforementioned ant behavioural transpositions, the work is a little ‘dry’ for younger viewers, yet ultimately, the courted adult viewers might find the mitigations of trapping all this wit and detail in a conventionally heroic animated narrative formula negates their interest – after all, if you want to watch a Woody Allen film set in New York – there are plenty of far better, live action versions! (September 2014)

Toy Story

September 17, 2014

Toy Story (1995)
Director: John Lasseter
Actors: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles

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Synopsis: Woody (Tom Hanks) is a toy cowboy belonging to a young child, Andy. Woody is the nominal leader of the boy’s other toys when ever Andy is out of the room. For Andy’s birthday, he gets given a toy astronaut, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) – who refuses to believe he’s merely a toy, and soon Woody and Buzz are forced to team up to return themselves to Andy’s toy collection when they get lost out on a trip to a pizza restaurant.

Review: OK, so I may be almost twenty years late to the party, but what the heck – here’s my two pennies’ worth on Toy Story – “the film that launched a thousand animated pictures” and turned Pixar into a household name.

Obviously being the world’s first feature-length digital animation film, its historical and technological significance have become the prime auspices through which to view the film – and in that sense, I’m marginally agnostic. Adding extra-dimensionality and sensory layers to the film’s surface obviously creates something spectacular and visceral (particularly relevant to its largely young, tactile target audience), although I lament that its huge financial and critical success led to a near-systematic jettisoning of classical hand-drawn animation from the Hollywood slate from this point on.

Where I will side with the good press on the film is in its inventive commentary on its own fantasy/artifice subject matter. Some of the most important films and filmmakers concern themselves with the thematisation of their own ‘apparatus’ (take the great Michael Haneke for example whose serious arthouse works always in some way deconstruct spectator theory). Having Woody and Buzz as polar opposites of the whole reality/fantasy spectrum really works (Woody is toy who subscribes totally to the hegemony of humans, where as Buzz believes that his superstar get-up is reality in its own right, not just a vehicle for a boy’s own fancy – until the illusion is heartbreakingly ended in a startlingly intelligent Lacanian moment where Buzz catches the TV screen advertising his own figure). All great animated films (certainly those aimed at youngsters) seem to subtly lament the transience of the magic of childhood, and Toy Story certainly fits in that lineage – although its ultra-polished sheen, and its neat, three-act ‘chase’ structure is a tad too industrial for my liking. (September 2014)

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