Monday, 9 April 2012

#6 - The Hunger Games

Working in a school I couldn't help but get caught up in the unfolding craziness that has surrounded 'The Hunger Games'. Teachers and students alike have come up to me in the corridors asking 'Have you read it yet?' and as a late-convert to Harry Potter, I have once again been jumping on other people's bandwagons. So I read the first book in a matter of three days before I went to see the film.

A Big Brother fan from the off and a lover of movies that have a very similar premise to this ('Battle Royale' and 'Series 7: The Contenders' both spring to mind), Suzanne Collins had a bit of a head-start with me when I read the book, but the sci-fi element gave it a unique selling point that definitely added something new to the party. For those even later on the bandwagon than I was, the story is set in a futuristic United States of America, where the country had been divided into 13 'Districts' all presided over by the 'Capitol'. Many years before, the Districts had attempted to revolt against the Capitol and as punishment, the Capitol destroyed District 13 and every citizen within. To remind the people of the 12 Districts of the power the Capitol has over them, every year one boy and one girl, between the age of 12 and 18, from each district is forced to compete in 'The Hunger Games' - a battle to the death in a televised arena. 24 contestants enter the arena - only one can survive.

Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) rocks the pink look
while Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) pales in comparison.

The film starts pretty swiftly, as we are introduced to Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) as they go to attend the 'Reaping' where the random boy and girl are chosen. And whatdyaknow one of them is selected to take part. Didn't see that one coming. Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) go forward and take part in the games.

What really worked in this film was the contrast between the Districts and the Capitol: the oppression, hunger, poverty and sheer depression of District 11 and 12 in particular, compared to the glimmering radiance and overwhelming optimism of the Capitol. The people of the Capitol see no harm in the Hunger Games: only the entertainment value. The make up and costumes are superb and very well realised from the descriptions in the novel.

The performances from Lawrence and Hutcherson in the lead roles are excellent. They carry the movie in a way that Daniel Radcliffe and his cohort, only really managed to achieve in the last two movies of their franchise. Having not really been a big fan of Lawrence in her Oscar-nominated performance in 'Winter's Bone' she carried this movie with so much more empathy and character. They are supported ably by a generally excellent adult cast including a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz and Woody Harrelson. Only Elizabeth Banks fails to convince in what could have been a wonderfully sinister role, that seems to have been dumbed down from the book.

But when it comes to the younger cast members there is a real feeling of one-dimensionality to the performances. Young Amandla Stenberg as Rue, should be an emotional centre to the middle section of the film, but plays her part like a stage-school reject; Liam Hemsworth might be pretty to look at but he really shows the limitations of his range, with an inability to even look sad properly; and the majority of the tributes in the Games are given so little to work with that their is no chance of them putting in decent performances.

Having said all that, this movie isn't about looking for Oscar-worthy performances. It's about being a good thriller, with a great story to tell - and it certainly manages that. It rips along at a great pace; the killings are varied and at times quite nasty (sorry but the censors giving this a 12A is completely beyond me - maybe I'm just getting old); and there are moments that draw genuine compassion from the audience. The scene in which District 11 mourn the loss of one of their tributes stuck right in my throat.

The movie could have benefitted with a bit more clarity in terms of which characters were alive, and which were dead, as well as some additional background on some of the other tributes, but as the story was almost entirely told from the perspective of Katniss it would have been difficult to give these elements any more depth. The pacing was one of the biggest strengths and could have been jeopardised by adding in more back story.

One of the hardest things to do when directing a popular novel is striking that balance between making the movie you want to make and keeping the fans of the original book happy. Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins have done a wonderful job of keeping that balance pretty much perfect. Newcomers to the story will understand, relate to the characters and be intrigued to see what happens next - the fans will find pretty much every event from the book resurrected in the film, with very little creative licence taken.

The only thing to do now is to move on to start reading the 2nd book in the trilogy... The rest of the world prepare to be ignored for a couple of days!

Lowdown: A faithful but imaginative adaptation of the popular novel, this is a great introduction to The Hunger Games story, with an original take on a well-worn premise. Lawrence carries the movie well and begins to show why she is becoming such a star.

Score: 9/10

Sunday, 12 February 2012

#5 - The Muppets

As a youngster, 'The Muppet Show' often graced the Edwards family screen, almost by accident when there was nothing else on; 'The Muppet Babies' were a Saturday morning staple, and 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' came out at least once a year, normally, coincidentally, in December. It's been 12 years since the Muppets last graced the big screen, in the moderately well-received 'Muppets in Space', so understandably, it was with some trepidation that I attended the new movie, wondering whether or not this was going to destroy those memories.

The trailer that leaked a good few months ago was pure genius and gave a strong indication of what was to come. Everything has been thought out and planned meticulously for this comeback and it is clear that the cast and crew really cared about making this movie something worth doing.

The story centres around Walter, his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary's girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams) who go to Hollywood, primarily for Gary and Mary's anniversary. Walter is a huge fan of the Muppets and is distraught to discover their old studios are now long forgotten by the public. He also discovers in a knowingly contrived twist, with one wink to the audience, that oil tycoon Tex Richman (played by a gloriously evil Chris Cooper) is going to destroy the Muppet theatre to drill for oil. Walter, along with Gary and Mary, need to get the Muppets back together to raise the money to prevent Richman from carrying out his evil plan.

NOT an advert for safe driving.
Wonderfully ridiculous as it sounds, it is a movie full of heart, humour and most of all, nostalgia. It has to be said, the parents will probably enjoy this more than their kids. Each character is reintroduced well, to help the new audiences, but keeping all the quirks and personalities built up over the last 35 years to keep the oldies happy. We see Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Animal, Fozzie Bear - and learn all about what has happened to them in the interim.

The cast attack the movie with aplomb and right from the start, Segel and Adams win us over, with fun songs and dance routines. Adams is never better than when she's playing the naive and innocent leading lady (see 'Enchanted') and Segel, who co-wrote the movie, is endearing and loveable. But from the start, it is Walter that we warm to, in all his Muppet wonder. As he realises throughout the movie that he has more in common with the Muppets than he does with his brother, and starts to understand why he didn't ever feel he fit in before, the story is tinged with an element of sadness, but ultimately hope and happiness.

Everything is quite predictable once the set up has begun but this doesn't take away from the fun and by the end a grin should by finding its way onto your face. From Chris Cooper's ridiculous rap to a couple of cute cameos, including Whoopi Goldberg and Selena Gomez, the film continues to throw up some nice little surprises. When the Muppets play out their exit song, and the whole cast get involved with the 'Me na me nas', you surely cannot help but feel overwhelmed with how wonderful a world that contains Muppets is.

Lowdown: By no means perfect, but a fun, entertaining and joyful ride, and a lovely way to reintroduce some old friends to a 21st century world.

Score: 8/10

Sunday, 15 January 2012

#4 - Shame

There are two main things that spring to mind in the first few minutes of Steve McQueen's 2nd feature film, 'Shame': 1. 'What a lovely apartment but the sheets need a wash' and 2. 'Isn't Michael Fassbender well-endowed?' The movie starts as it means to go on, so anyone who has any kind of issue with on-screen nudity need look no further: this movie is not for you. Otherwise, this is a powerful, engrossing depiction of how someone's facade can be a mask for who they are behind closed doors.

Following Brandon (Fassbender) in his journey through an ever-increasing sex addiction, and his relationship with his self-destructive sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), McQueen doesn't pull any punches in his depiction of these two siblings. Brandon is selfish, arrogant and at times extremely aggressive; Sissy needy, manic and irritating. Neither of them seem to think about how their actions affect the other characters around them, as long as they get what they need or desire at any point in the script. They are different, yet the same and they are written in such a way that the audience can really believe in them as brother and sister.

The screenplay, a collabaration between McQueen and Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), is bare and brutal. Minutes pass without words, but the performances are so outstanding that everything is said on screen without a need for dialogue. When words are used, there is no redundancy - everything that is said is vital.  This device intrigues the audience, making them want to know more, but ultimately leaving them to put together some of the jigsaw themselves. What was the start in life that led to Brandon and Sissy both ending up the way they are? We don't know, but there are enough clues to help us decide for ourselves.
Brandon (Fassbender) and Marianne (Deharie) enjoy a candlelit dinner.

Fassbender's performance is an absolute tour-de-force, earning him a well deserved Golden Globe nomination already, and with any luck an Oscar nomination should follow. The journey his character follows is distressing and every nuance feels so real. The pain he conveys gets more and more noticeable as the final act plays out. One scene that sticks in the mind is his date with his work collague, Marianne (in a small, but outstandingly naturalistic supporting performance from Nicole Deharie). Brandon desperately wants to be 'normal' and the audience feels moments of hope throughout this single-shot dinner scene but his actions in the ensuing scenes bring home the reality of his addiction.

Mulligan provides another superb supporting turn as Sissy. She continues to prove her diversity as an actress, and her scenes with Fassbender are always unnerving, because she plays the role with such unpredictability.

Sex addiction has long been a taboo subject, but McQueen has attacked it head-on, exposing it for what it can do to a seemingly 'normal' person. He has shot the film in drab colours and with no holds barred. As the film progresses, the pace accelerates, similar to how an addiction happens: slow at first, but spiralling out of control. In this respect, it is an extremely clever work of art. Each scene gets progressively more 'shameful' and to that effect the title is very apt. Suffice to say, there are no happy endings here for anyone.

Having said all of this, it's probably important to remember that this is not a movie for everybody. A first date movie, it is not! But if you want to watch extraordinary actors in a film that really gives a great understanding to everyone about addiction and its effects on a person, and those around him, then see this movie. Just don't expect to want to have sex that evening.

Lowdown: A dark, depressing journey into the psyche of a sex addict, directed to perfection by McQueen. Fassbender proves why he is the biggest breakout actor of 2011.

Score: 10/10

Sunday, 8 January 2012

#3 - The Iron Lady

Is Meryl Streep the most talented actress of all-time? The debate goes on, but with her performance as Margaret Thatcher in 'The Iron Lady' almost certain to garner her a record 17th Oscar nomination, the Academy continue to think she's a cut above the rest. 

The role is as baity as they come: biopic of high profile historical and political leader? Check. A make-up and hair job that makes the actress unrecognisable? Check. Dramatic life spiralling downwards from articulate, powerful leader of people to senile old woman with dementia. Check.

And Streep delivers. Not since her astounding performance in The Devil Wears Prada has she embodied a role quite so completely - she just is Thatcher. From the intonation, to the facial expressions, and even down to the walk. She has done her research and made the most perfect impersonation. Comparing Streep's performance to Michelle Yeoh's somewhat less 3-dimensional portrayal of a political figure last week as Aung San Suu Kyi in 'The Lady', poor Yeoh comes in a distant second place.

However, one performance is not enough to make a movie, and 'The Iron Lady' is dissatisfying in every other department. Screenwriter Abi Morgan has done away with a typical chronological biopic, replacing it with the musings of an old lady dealing with dementia. This provides a huge contrast between the articulate and powerful Margaret of the Downing Street years with the confused and senile Margaret of the present day. It allows Streep to show us what she can do as an actress, but it provides us with a lot of screentime in which she just sits in a darkened flat, spouting nonsense to no-one in particular, or to an imaginary friend in the form of her dead husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent). This time could surely have been put to better use by going into more depth as to why Thatcher made the decisions she did, and the cause and consequence of her actions. The key events are in the film: the Falklands, the miners' strikes, the riots, IRA bombings including the party conference in Brighton and Thatcher's eventual resignation from office - but because so much time is spent in the present day, none of them are given depth and are skimmed over. Further to that, they stand alone and aren't put into any kind of context against each other, meaning the film ends up being a series of disjointed scenes that don't seem to correlate or tell any kind of story arc at all.

Phillida Lloyd's direction is even more messy than in her similarly unfocused 'Mamma Mia'. She doesn't seem to know if she is making 'JFK', 'The Notebook' or an episode of 'Spitting Image'. The film works as none of the above.

Broadbent and Olivia Colman, playing Margaret's daughter, Carol, seem to play the whole thing as if they are in one giant comedy sketch and as a result any emotional impact of Thatcher's failing memory and mind are completely nullified, and any real drama is lost.

Neither does it work as a political document. Historical inaccuracies are abundant. In particular, Lloyd's decision to show Thatcher as the only woman in the entirety of the House of Commons, against a backdrop of only white men is just incorrect and frankly quite patronising to the audience. If it's intended to make Thatcher's story more impressive, maybe Lloyd should have focused more on her battle to get into office in the first place, rather than wandering around newsagents and buying a pint of milk.

What makes this the biggest shame is that so many big male political figures have had great movies made about them: JFK, Nixon, Guevara, to name but a few. Lloyd wanted to demonstrate that a woman can do the same, but has given us a wishy-washy story that doesn't demonstrate anything of the sort. In the movie, Thatcher mentions that what she feels is wrong with the world today is that people don't think any more, they only feel. Lloyd should have used this line to her own advantage and created a film that made people think. But as it stands I think the only thing that this film is good for is seeing the majestic performance of an exquisite actress in full flow.

Lowdown: A movie that neither makes us think, nor feel, actingly solely as a showcase for the talents of Meryl Streep.

Score: 4/10

Monday, 2 January 2012

#2 - The Lady

In the 1980s one woman stole the global political headlines from any other woman: Margaret Thatcher. Despite being a British resident and hugely influential political leader herself, Aung San Suu Kyi has never been able to compete with the might of Thatcher in prominence. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that a biopic of Suu Kyi should be released just weeks before a higher profile one of Thatcher.

Suu Kyi's story has been documented in the press, but as is made clear in this film, probably not as much as it should have been. Born in Burma, the daughter of Aung San, the man who negotiated Burma's independence but was assassinated by rivals in 1947. Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) went to Oxford as a student where she met her husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis), and became a working mother to two sons, Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse) and Kim (Jonathan Raggett). In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma to look after her ailing mother where followers of her father asked her to lead them in their fight for democracy. The film documents her decision to lead this group, and the response of the authorities in Burma - imprisoning her in her own house to prevent her speaking out.

It's a stunning story and Luc Besson does well in making us realise the enormity of the upheaval in Suu Kyi's life when she travels to Burma, by showing us her life as a 'normal' wife in England first. The filming is visually striking with shots used to good effect to highlight the difference in the world of England and Burma. But something is missing.

For a story packed with drama, passion and frightening politics, it only feels dramatic, passionate and frightening at a couple of moments in its 132 minute running time. When people are taken away silently from the back of Suu Kyi's peace protests; when the heroine of the piece squares up to face her armed rivals at close range; when the house arrest first takes place: these moments all deliver with some poignancy and horror at the realisation in our Western minds that things aren't all as rosy as we'd like to believe. While Besson has obviously gone for low-key as a theme throughout, this doesn't make for a good drama.

Aris (David Thewlis) and Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) 
contemplate. A lot.
Low-key can work with performances that move the audience. But Yeoh and Thewlis in the central roles are disappointing. Thewlis seems to treat the role as an exercise in caricature of English professor: the bumbling, old buffoon. Not cool. Yeoh on the other hand delivers her lines with understatement and quiet sincerity, but never quite convinces. The transformation from English wife and mother to national figurehead smells as baity for awards attention as Meryl Streep's Thatcher or Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II previously, and she must have been thrilled to get the role of a lifetime like this. But Yeoh fails to give the part the emotional punch that it could and should have delivered. Something in her eyes says she never quite believes in herself and it radiates throughout the whole film. Perhaps she wasn't given the time to get it right, as this picture seems to have been released in something of a rush, at the end of Suu Kyi's house arrest, but frankly it's not enough of an excuse.

Rebecca Frayn's script and Besson's storytelling as director are possibly more at fault than the performances though. Episodic and, dare I say it, bland, no character is given emotional depth or much in the way of motivation. The 'bad guys' (and that's exactly how they're presented, with no attempt to understand the reasoning behind their behaviour) are close to being pantomime villains and the 'good guys' are shown as completely faultless in every way.

The film is saved from being a complete flop by the fact that the story is so incredible. Momentous, powerful and extraordinary, even a filmmaker's ineptitude can't take away from the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is an exceptional person, with an exceptional story. The biggest shame is that if this film had been better, it could have resolved the very problem that it is trying to highlight - the ignorance of the Western world to the plight of the people in some 'forgotten' countries. As it stands, I imagine more people will be asking if 'The Lady' is that film with Meryl being Maggie in.

Lowdown: A less than incredible biopic telling an incredible story about an incredible woman. Disappointingly flat, but worth a watch for the history lesson alone.

Score: 5/10

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

#1 - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Remakes always place a filmmaker in a precarious position from the get-go. But when a movie is a remake of a well-received, recent classic, based on one of the most popular novels of modern times, you know you're on dodgy ground. It takes a very special talent to defy the odds and salvage something outstanding from this, but David Fincher is nothing short of a special talent.

The story is sprawling and in the wrong hands can be confusing. Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a magazine editor who loses his job after being sued for libel. He is sought out by the patriarch of the Wanger family in the Northern reaches of Sweden (Christopher Plummer) to solve the mystery of his granddaughter's murder more than 30 years previous. Into the mix is thrown the character of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who did the original research into Blomkvist for Wanger. She's an angry, young and unconventional girl but an expert investigator - by the time she and Blomkvist finally meet, we know she is a tough nut who you wouldn't want to cross for fear of serious repercussions. Men might want to look away at a couple of moments early on in the film!

Fincher has assembled an impressive cast to help him along, comprising of some big Hollywood names in Craig, Robin Wright and Stellan Skarsgaard; some much-loved British talent in the way of Geraldine James and Joely Richardson; and an up-and-coming star in Mara, who delivers an outstanding breakout performance in the title role.

Comparisons are always going to be drawn and Noomi Rapace's BAFTA nominated performance as Lisbeth Salander was going to be a tough act to follow. After an underwhelming performance in 'A Nightmare On Elm Street', expectations were low for Mara. But somehow she's pulled it out of the bag in an inspirational performance with depth and intelligence. The character of Salander is a dream role for a young woman, in this day and age of bit-part pretty girls to support the strong male lead, and Mara has used it to full effect. The rest of the cast are good, though the different accents being used were slightly irritating throughout - someone should have made a decision. Either we're doing the Swedish accents or we're not (or in the case of Geraldine James a rich Russian accent will do).

Though Mara's performance is outstanding, it is Fincher's deft direction that carries the film to the heights that it reaches: from the dark opening titles, to the inspired choice of locations and landscapes; to the intelligent introduction of the large cast of supporting character; to the development of the intimate relationship that ensues between the lead characters of Blomkvist and Salander.

Overall the movie is more faithful to the book than its Swedish counterpart, which is both its strength and its weakness. The only way it manages to get so much of the book in is by being extremely fast-paced and head-reeling - there will be times where you need to take a deep intake of breath when you realise you haven't inhaled for minutes at a time. But the book has a slow and unfocused start and this movie feels similar with the opening storyline for Salander taking her away from the main storyline for a touch too long. Similarly, the ending is long and sprawling and could have done with cutting down - the big 'climax' happens a good 30 minutes before the end of the film.

But as the first in a trilogy, this bodes well for there to be two more excellent films coming out in the next few years. With Fincher, Craig and Mara in talks to direct and star in the other movies too, the dream team could stay mercifully in place.

Lowdown: A thrilling ride, with a breakout performance from Mara and dark direction from Fincher - but not for the faint-hearted.

Score: 9/10