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The Tempest

July 22, 2014

The Tempest (2010)
Director: Julie Taymor
Actors: Helen Mirren, Ben Whishaw, Felicity Jones

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Synopsis: Prospera (Helen Mirren) – wronged and exiled wife to the now deceased Duke of Milan – wreaks a storm on the ship carrying her duplicitous brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) plus the King and Prince of Naples. They wash up on Prospera’s island, and slowly work their way towards a showdown of sorts with her….

Review: ‘The Tempest’ features one of Shakespeare’s most undramatic and allusive of plots, and the play really is far better suited to being read as a piece of verse or having classical actors perform it within the specific confines of an actual theatre.

Director Julie Taymor never really solves this fundamental challenge to realising ‘The Tempest’ as a piece of cinema, although give her her due – the shifting of Prospero to a female character (Prospera) gives a plausible woman-wronged (if not exactly feminist) slant to proceedings. The rest of the treatment is passable – as with a lot of filmed Shakespeare, it’s a bit of a mediocre parlour-game seeing which collection of celebrated Anglo-American actors (not forgetting Djimon Honsou, of course) are going to pitch up this time around. With the exception of Ben Whishaw (who with the help of some imaginative CGI and his own beautiful verse-speaking, gives a creditable turn as Ariel), the rest of the actors mouth the lines and walk through the actions without much élan or conviction. (July 2014)


July 20, 2014

Zodiac (2007)
Director: David Fincher
Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr

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Synopsis: A serial killer emerges in the late 60s/early 70s in the San Francisco Bay area who goes by the moniker of ‘Zodiac’. He makes himself known through a series of cryptic letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle and Police Department. Cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) all become increasingly mired in trying to track down the killer….

Review: David Fincher obviously found in the investigative backstory of the Zodiac killings of the late Sixties and early Seventies a narrative correlative to his own meticulous cinematic predilections. Thus, Zodiac is an admirably ‘academic’ film, a chance for Fincher to really mire himself in a fastidiously designed work, where his own elaborate staging, cinematography, production design and mise en scene mirror the dedication and obsessional zeal of the on-screen police research perfectly. Fincher outs this intent by opening the film on not merely one, but two, bravura extended sequences detailing the ominous workings of the Zodiac killer and his sending of the first cryptic letter to the San Francisco Chronicle respectively.

It’s possible that some viewers may find the work over-stylised, and Fincher has certainly been viewing his cinematic back-catalogue as Zodiac borrows in look and ethos from seminal Seventies thrillers like All the President’s Men and The Conversation. I personally enjoyed Fincher’s vision, and admired his intent to draw the work away from its potential serial-killer genre trappings, to fashion something a little richer – an ironic commentary on the complexity and inherent difficulties of old-fashioned, paper-heavy, analogue detective work, coupled with the slyly interesting character studies of the three main ‘investigators’ all slowly becoming sucked into the web of Zodiac’s tantalising game with the authorities. (July 2014)


July 19, 2014

Boyhood (2014)
Director: Richard Linklater
Actors: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

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Synopsis: The life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the ages of six to eighteen.

Review: What I love most about Richard Linklater films are their relentless curiosity about this thing called ‘life’, and that they’re almost always in some way experimental. And when I say experimental, I don’t mean in some obtuse, artsy-intellectual way (as in work such as Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle), but how Linklater is constantly working through the emotional potential and impact of his medium, and makes films out of the everyday metaphysical musings that any regular person might have. That’s not to underplay how Linklater is frequently seeking to merge form quite radically to the content of his pieces, but the ideas and sentiment are always the most important elements to him – hence why he’s considered one of the most empathetic directors in world cinema.

When you think about the simple genius of Boyhood‘s design, it’s a wonder no one had conceived of it before, as Linklater gets so much mileage out of the workings of the twelve year on-screen progression of his story and its personnel. Of course, there’s the in-built power and poignancy in being privy to the physical ageing of the main characters (especially Mason and his older sister, Samantha, who take that giant leap from childhood to the cusp of adulthood in the course of the film). It’s also a truly great document on Americana, the American landscape, how technology and cultural tastes have evolved dramatically, and most prevalently of all, it’s a marvellous piece on the concept of temporality – a key component in all of Linklater’s more independent-minded cinema.

For the most part, Linklater eschews the temptation to over-schematise with his ‘conceit’, hence why the narrative seems to float through time, not necessarily explaining the literal causes for every change in circumstance or behaviour. Perhaps the only occasion where Linklater falls from his lofty pedestal as dramatist is in the character of Mason’s mother’s second husband, Bill, who appears too obviously a mechanical plot device. We meet him first as a reasonably capable university lecturer, but then fast-forward in time, he’s reduced to a stereotype of an angry, dissatisfied drunkard. I appreciate any person can drift suddenly into dissolute alcoholism, but it feels like Linklater is setting Bill up too cleanly and one-dimensionally as a foul man, solely to propel Mason’s family onto their next improvised living situation and to imprint a later theme that Mason’s mother has a habit of attracting unstable, ‘loose cannon’ partners. That aside, Linklater handles the other dramatic nuances superbly, and in the quietly clever ending, where Mason in his youthful dreaminess opines about the magic of life as an ‘accrual of moments’ to a potential new flame on the first day of college, it feels as close to a manifesto on Linklater’s beautiful ode to growing up as we’re going to get. (July 2014)


July 17, 2014

Babel (2006)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Actors: Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barraza, Boubker Ait El Caid

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Synopsis: Four stories interlink from different corners of the world. Young Moroccan boys, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani), practice with their father’s newly acquired rifle in the wilds of the Atlas Mountains. Incredulously, Yussef hits a tourist bus seemingly miles away, and they flee from the scene of the crime. The bullet hits Susan (Cate Blanchett), holidaying in Morocco with her husband in the forlorn attempt to save their marriage. The bus pulls into the nearest provincial village as locals battle to save Susan’s life, while her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) tries to gain assistance from the US Embassy. Richard calls home in San Diego and orders Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), to continue looking after his kids despite Amelia’s son’s wedding in Mexico. Amelia foolhardily takes the two young children to the wedding in Mexico, but problems are encountered when Amelia’s hot-headed nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) is questioned by immigration officials on re-entering the US. In Japan, deaf teenager Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles to connect with the world around her – especially her father, who was the man to give the hunting rifle to the Moroccan farmers in the first place.

Review: I’ve been one of the biggest advocates of the Alejandro González Iñárritu/Guillermo Arriaga cinematic ‘signature’, and genuinely reckon 21 Grams to be one of American cinema’s finest films of the last decade. With Babel, González Iñárritu and Arriaga crank their cocktail of portentous, multi-stranded narratives to its logical conclusion – a worldwide chain of catastrophe wrought by one poor Moroccan boy’s idle, feckless toying with a rifle. Sadly, with Babel, González Iñárritu and Arriaga’s aim far exceeds their reach, and we’re left with an irredeemably overdetermined, far-fetched, and transparently ‘written’ piece, that will no doubt add coals to the fire for those who have accused González Iñárritu and Arriaga of being little more than pretentious soap opera merchants.

While I’m perfectly comfortable with the concept of dramatic license (I think 21 Grams ‘3 person chain’ of a man having caused an accident that left a woman bereaved, and a separate man now recipient of the heart of her dead husband, is an entirely legitimate and comprehensible conceit), Babel’s links are so tenuous, and you become so aware of the presence of lazy writing knitting the plot threads together, that it can’t help but interfere with one’s suspension of disbelief. There are so many plot holes that are impossible to ignore: would a Mexican maid (even under duress from a strong master) really drag the two white kids she’s caring for all the way across the border into Mexico, and then, how convenient that the border police only question this set-up on the return journey (after the filmmakers have been allowed to rhetorically portray authentic Mexican culture in such a favourable light)?

And what about the Japanese section? In plot terms, it’s the most ridiculous and laughable link to the central ‘conspiracy’, although ironically, as a stand-alone section it’s probably González Iñárritu’s best piece of direction. It’s almost as if, away from political tub-thumping and trying to hammer home the morals and ironies of his story, González Iñárritu can at least start to relax into an interesting sonic and cultural mood piece about the mysterious personal pathology of a young Japanese woman (but even then she’s overloaded with too much unnecessary backstory –  not only is she mute and dumb, but she’s saddled with nymphomaniac tendencies and a late tagged-on bereavement subplot!) (July 2014)

Captain Phillips

July 16, 2014

Captain Phillips (2013)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Actors: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed

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Synopsis: Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is in charge of a large freighter taking cargo around the horn of Africa to Mombasa. While in the Somali Basin part of the Arabian Sea, Phillips’ ship comes under sustained threat from Somali pirates, and eventually one group of pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) succeed in boarding the ship. In a tactical game of power-broking between the four armed pirates and the dozens of crewmates (most of whom are hidden), the pirates eventually escape the ship in a lifeboat with a small amount of money but more importantly, Captain Phillips himself held as ransom….

Review: Captain Phillips works as a reasonably effective thriller, although in retrospect, those thrills seem more down to the inherent strengths of the scenario than through any brio in the storytelling itself. Probably my biggest criticism of Captain Phillips is that it doesn’t quite know what story it’s trying to tell. On the one hand it’s trying to sell itself as a conventional story of ‘little man’ heroism and how Captain Phillips shows outstanding wit and bravery to go toe-to-toe (mainly in the psychological sense) with the four armed Somali pirates who take over his ship. When Phillips is blubbering and stunned by the trauma of it all at the climax, it’s almost as if director Paul Greengrass has felt compelled to give the film a comprehensible end point for where our sympathies should lie – but then for much of the previous two hours, Greengrass has tried (almost too clunkily) to present the background and motivations of the Somali pirates as in some way morally equivalent to that of Phillips.

Also, Captain Phillips confirms my impression that Greengrass is an excellent action director, but no more than that. Someone like Michael Mann is a far superior purveyor of what I would tag ‘cerebral tension’, and Kathryn Bigelow essayed far more convincingly in a subtler way the sheer awe at modern US military might in Zero Dark Thirty. (July 2014)


July 16, 2014

Celebrity (1998)
Director: Woody Allen
Actors: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna

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Synopsis: New York couple, Lee (Kenneth Branagh) and Robin (Judy Davis), divorce after sixteen years of marriage. Thereafter, their lives go in different directions. Lee becomes seduced by the celebrity lifestyle he writes about, and Robin’s insecurities threaten the seemingly happy developments of finding success (and indeed a degree of fame) in her private and professional lives.

Review: Although there’s no doubt that Celebrity is a Woody Allen work in minor key, and his supposedly sharp and prescient riffings on the nature of celebrity are really quite bleedin’ obvious, it’s still indicative of a time when Allen had a degree of vivacity and ingenuity in his work (à la similar wittily neurotic works of the time, Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry) before that work went down the turgid, tourist-porn route in Europe.

The rough edges of Celebrity are what really keep it bubbling along. I like the black and white photography, and there are some very funny gags and skits (the sequence where Branagh’s fame hungry journalist gets dragged around by an imperious supermodel played excellently by Charlize Theron is hilarious). I just think Allen fails to paint a deeper hue to his celebrity/fame thesis, and the central narrative cog around the irony that Branagh’s journalist – though seduced by the flame of celebrity – ends up unhappy and unsuccessful, while his anxious wife who shuns fame still gets a rich personal and professional life by the story’s end, is a touch pat and unconvincing. (July 2014)

The Consequences of Love

July 9, 2014

The Consequences of Love (2004)
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Actors: Toni Servillo, Olivia Magnani, Adriano Giannini

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Synopsis: Mysterious middle-aged Italian businessman, Titta (Toni Servillo), is holed up in a Swiss hotel over a number of years. He keeps a low profile, interacts very infrequently with the staff and his fellow guests, and his only outward activity is to deliver a suitcase of cash to a bank once a week….

Review: The rich and sophisticated cinematic palette of Paolo Sorrentino first came to global acclaim with this, a gorgeously bittersweet fable about a man seemingly undergoing some form of slowburn spiritual crisis in an blandly unassuming Swiss lakeside location.

All the Sorrentino hallmarks are on show here – his extrovert, roving use of cinematography to tell the story, his proclivity to baroque characterisations, the mesmeric presence of Toni Servillo, and all scored by a gentle undertow of melancholy. I was particularly reminded of just how great a storyteller Sorrentino is – he’s happy to let the narrative backstory trickle out organically and only emerge to full effect in the final act, and he tells that story as much through mood, sentiment and image than through a narrator’s more conventional tool of dramaturgy. I’d argue that the ending to The Consequences of Love is a touch too clever and sentimentally calculating as Titta’s seeming demise is accorded a moral tinge, but Sorrentino was able to work these kinks out in his increasingly richer and more far-reaching works: Il DivoThis Must Be the Place, and most memorably, The Great Beauty. (July 2014)


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