Tuesday, 28 August 2012

'Take This Waltz': review

Rarely does a film slip so frequently, or so drastically, between infuriating and sublime as Sarah Polley's 'Take This Waltz'. It's typified as much by tortured metaphors and on-the-nose production design as it is by moments of heartbreaking honesty and dazzling vision. Several isolated scenes are perfectly judged, by the the cast and by Polley behind the camera, though just as many demand derision - notably an early exchange in which Michelle Williams foreshadows her fear of the uncertainty wrought by ending her marriage by describing her unease of being "in between things" during airport connections. The metaphor itself isn't miserable, but no room is left for interpretation or reflection and it gets worse when the same metaphor is picked up - and again discussed in detail - later on.

Though there are just as many great moments, the best involving Seth Rogen, as Williams' husband, and his myriad of emotional responses to the inevitable end of his marriage, including a tear-jerking reveal concerning a "long-term joke". Comic Sarah Silverman also turns in a credible dramatic performance as Rogen's alcoholic sister, though Williams' handsome extra-marital love interest is certainly the film's weak link, as played by Luke Kirby. But this is, for the most part, a showcase for Williams' significant acting talents and it is she who carries the film for the most part, with the other three principal cast members operating in her orbit.

Perhaps best of all is the judgement free way Polley, who also wrote the screenplay, depicts the end of a marriage where neither party has done anything particularly wrong. It's suggested that Rogen's guileless husband has neglected his wife sexually and that there relationship has became comfortable at the expense of excitement, yet overall the end of his marriage is tragic because it comes without much obvious cause. It's also complicated by the idea that, perhaps, Williams will live to regret her decision at some point in the future. Williams wants to be able to feel that early excitement again with somebody and knows she cannot rekindle that with her husband (however much she tries), but that's it: they still basically love each other. Whether she will ever be as comfortable with Kirby, we shall never know, though it's implied that both options may ultimately lead to the same bitter-sweet place.

Whether or not the decision to leave her husband is worth the gamble is the ultimate question posed by 'Take This Waltz', and happily it isn't anywhere near as flippantly 'Dead Poet's Society' as its title may suggest. Whether or not Williams embraces her impulses and takes life's confusing, emotionally turbulent, uncertain invitation to dance, Polley's film is smart enough, and sensitive enough, to make us question that desire and identify with the character's most prosaic, a-romantic concerns.

'Take This Waltz' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

'The Expendables 2', 'The Bourne Legacy', 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' and 'Searching for Sugar Man': review round-up

Now that I'm well and truly equipped with a new PC, I have no good reason to keep my reviews confined to short round-up form. However, I have a few movies still stored up from the past few weeks and that format is the easiest way to clear the deck, so to speak. This time around I present to you quite an (I think) intriguing mix: two little documentaries and two action blockbusters: a "thinking bloke's" thriller and a brainless, but thoroughly (if guiltily) entertaining sequel.

'The Expendables 2' - Dir. Simon West (15)
I hated 'The Expendables' - the 2010 flick designed as a sort of male equivalent of 'Sex & the City 2', built solely to pander to misplaced nostalgia for politically dubious (to be kind) 80s/90s action movies. It had a black heart, horrific politics and - perhaps worst of all - its set pieces were unimaginative and characters instantly forgettable. It was a masterpiece of stunt casting, uniting a group of heroes from yesteryear, but the poster was infinitely more fun than the film itself.

However, director Simon West (of 'Con Air' fame) has delivered a much better sequel after taking the reigns from star (and co-writer) Sylvester Stallone. It's still a little bit racist - "Chinese take out" is the joke as Jet Li jumps out of a plane, whilst every villain is an unassimilated foreigner - and plenty sexist: a shameless sausagefest, every bit as homoerotically suggestive as its predecessor (these dudes talk about each other's "weapons" constantly, whilst the addition of a woman to the group (Yu Nan) gives rise to all sorts of adolescent tittering and performance anxiety). Yet there is something much more fun about it; It feels less po-faced and more willing to have fun with its very silly premise.

It feels like the movie adaptation of a line of 90s children's action figures, complete with collectable vehicles and changeable weapons, and with that the film's regressive, pre-teen version of masculinity becomes more palatable. It knows what it is and is comfortable being the sort of camp curiosity the first one should have been. 'The Expendables 2' doesn't so much verge on self-parody as willingly run into it, and in doing so it becomes much harder to outright hate even if it remains hard to like. In fact, I watched most of the film with a broad smile on my face, laughing loudly at the unrelenting tour de force of escalating bombastic sillyness in front of me. I don't know if it's objectively "good" (whatever that even means) - and that's not a sly way of admitting it isn't: I genuinely couldn't say given that I don't know whether I was laughing at it or with it - but it was funnier than the majority of comedies, I'll give it that.

For instance, Let Li beats up a room of guys with a saucepan; Jason Statham decks a room of dudes dressed as an Orthodox priest; Dolph Lundgren reveals his advanced understanding of chemistry. Chuck Norris turns up and it's hilarious, complete with a riff on his modern status as a meme (Stallone: "I heard you had a run in with a king cobra" Norris: "yeah. And, after five days in agony, the cobra died"). Arnie and Bruce Willis show up (a couple of times) and it's brilliantly self-aware and funny, even if (or perhaps because) it's never subtle as they quote 'Die Hard' and 'The Terminator' at each other. It's oddly pretty good natured fun, given that the head's of "bad guys" are exploding in OTT red streaks in almost every single frame. Humanistic or sensitive the film is not, and it lags whenever we're truly asked to care about these horrible human beings: who torture their prisoners and murder thousands with smiles on their faces. But when it isn't doing that it kind of works.

It's a who's who of Hollywood Republicans getting together to celebrate guns, American might and patriarchy, yet it somehow does this in a way that had even this lilly-livered Guardian reader - one, I remind you, predisposed to hate it, hanging on its every explosion.

'The Bourne Legacy' - Dir. Tony Gilroy (12A)
The obvious question facing this latest instalment of the highly-rated spy-thriller series is "can it survive the loss of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass", as Jeremy "so hot right now" Renner and screenwriter Tony Gilroy take the reigns? The answer is a broad "yes", in that 'Legacy' has not killed the franchise. It's solid, moves along at a fair clip and does the usual job of providing slick action sequences amid an otherwise fairly dense, talky thriller. But it isn't quite as good as the original trilogy, getting a little unnecessarily bogged down in its internal mythology, with far too many scenes involving people in government offices talking about secret projects and the like.

In fact it often feels as though the fairly entertaining scenes between Renner's rogue operative Aaron Cross and his reluctant ally, a scientist who 'knows too much' played by Rachel Weisz, are outnumbered by bits of Ed Norton shouting about "the big screen", "Treadstone", "senate hearings" and "the crisis suite". It tries too hard to associate itself with the previous films too, in a way that prevents it from having much of its own personality. But unfortunately, instead of enhancing its street cred in the intended way, this only adds to the feeling that this is the Bourne B-team: an in-depth look at a previously un-glimpsed background character that plays like a two-hour deleted scene.

There is one brilliant - and I mean absolutely amazing - bit, in which Renner gets one up on a persistently annoying wolf in the most spectacularly overzealous way possible ("you should have left me alone" being his totally unnecessary putdown for the ill-fated woodland quarry). If nothing else it should provide closure to those dissatisfied by the resolution of 'The Grey'. Yet aside from this (admittedly very silly) sequence, it's hard to remember much from a film which is far more efficient and capable than it is particularly outstanding. In that way it serves as an apt metaphor for its dependable, if over-exposed lead.

'Searching for Sugar Man' - Dir. Malik Bendjelloul (12A)
Undoubtedly one of the film's that's effected and fascinated me the most this year, 'Searching for Sugar Man' is a great and stylishly put together documentary about a mysterious 1970s singer-songwriter whose unjust obscurity in the US is made all the more strange by his rock god status in apartheid South Africa. The bizarre and moving story of Rodriquez is probably best left for the film to tell in detail, but rest assured it's a compelling tale about a humble man of immense charisma. It's a less comic yet far classier version of 'Anvil', to sell it in crass marketing terms.

As well as being a great story, irrespective of musical taste, it also serves as an effective showcase for a previously unsung musician, whose music and poetic lyrics are given a long-deserved airing. Tracks from the artist's two early 70s records, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality (his only two albums to date), are allowed to play at length, alongside illuminating visuals that highlight some of the wry social commentary (such as the urban decay of Detroit) without ever being too on the nose. It made an instant Rodriquez fan out of me and I'd say it's a must-see for anyone with an interest in the likes of Bob Dylan, The Byrds or 70s rock in general. I don't usually like to boil down reviews to straightforward recommendations, but I feel the need to in this instance: go see it.

'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' - Dir. Alison Klayman (15)
Inspiring even if it's not typically "feelgood", this intimate look at the activism and art of the outspoken Ai Weiwei, a prominent critic of the Chinese government, is deeply affecting - both as a critique of modern China and as a portrait of Weiwei the man. Director Alison Klayman has near total access to her subject, as he fights various vain legal battles against brutal policeman, censors and those who would cover up the deaths of children for the sake of international propaganda. It's a high-stakes battle that Weiwei is waging and he comes scarily close to a bad end at several points, yet his determination and resolve surely should reinvigorate even the most politically jaded and nihilistic of souls. He's never hopeless even when things seem at their most bleak.

Visually it's quite limited, by necessity as much as anything as mobile cameras follow the artist day to day, yet this is still one of the year's best docs. It's also an interesting and rare glimpse at social media as a force for good. People are increasingly cynical about sites like Twitter, but here Weiwei enthusiastically showcases how such tools can be used to mount a sustained campaign for social justice and reform. His love of such sites, and the potential he sees in them to energise the young and democratise society, is refreshing and provides an intelligent voice in favour of progress in an age where such technological advancements are routinely dismissed as cold and alienating.

Monday, 20 August 2012

RIP Tony Scott and a blog status update...

I have a new computer after over a month without, so - finally - BeamesOnFilm is back in action! This means a return to in-depth reviews, more regular content and should also see me complete my FilmQuest doo-dah (I haven't forgotten about it).

Turning briefly to a more sober topic, I wanted to register my condolences for the late Tony Scott. As I understand it, the 'Top Gun' director committed suicide last night and, speaking as someone with a long history of depression, it's a terrible shame that he felt driven to that point - for whatever reason (we may never know).

As a small form of tribute, here's a trailer for one of his most stylish and enjoyable thrillers - 'Enemy of the State':

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

'Nostalgia for the Light' review:

Veteran Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán pushes a lot of the right buttons with 'Nostalgia for the Light': a elegiac film which investigates our relationship with the past. This includes the distant, galactic past as gleaned by astronomers, using the light of long-dead stars to uncover the secrets behind existence, as well as archaeologists who scratch through the earth looking for evidence of our more recent, immediate past - sifting through the soil for human remains whose calcium was formed in the Big Bang so long ago. Yet the film also looks at smaller, more intimate forms of remembering, as Chile comes to terms with the horrors of the Pinochet-era 1970s.

There is an architect and former political prisoner, who reconstructs images of concentration camps from memory. Meanwhile, there are dozens of bereaved women who comb through the Atacama Desert in a possibly vain search for the bones of murdered loved ones - unable to let go of the past and forsaking the present. One woman dedicates her life to taking care of victims of torture - something Guzmán's narration describes as working in the past. It is even suggested, by one scientist, that the present itself is an illusion: that everything we see and hear is from the past, even if only by millionths of a second. Light is itself nostalgic is the point, yet it is also erasing the past - as a gallery of photos of the "disappeared" subtly conveys, with many of the portraits long-since faded by the sun.

It is fascinating to ponder the relationship between the history of existence and our own, smaller scale trauma as insignificant creatures wondering about on a doomed space-rock - and I admire Guzmán for making an attempt at joining these dots and asking a lot of the right questions. However, the film itself often strains to make its point and sometimes it even feels exploitative of its subjects - most notably as an elderly woman's Alzheimer's is casually used as the basis for a tortured metaphor. The subject matter here - both life, the universe and everything and the story of Chile under Pinochet - is spellbinding, but the execution is sadly lacking. It's inherently profound stuff and I have a feeling various images and soundbites will stay with me, yet 'Nostalgia for the Light' is, to me, a conceptual triumph as opposed to an actual one.

'Nostalgia for the Light' is on limited release in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Monday, 6 August 2012

'The Dark Knight Rises' and 'Ted': review round-up

Still waiting on buying a new computer so I never got around to posting that in-depth 'The Dark Knight Rises' critique I wanted to. And seeing as that film has now been out for a few weeks it feels like old news, so I may as well just write a little something about it ahead of an (even more brief) appraisal of Seth MacFarlane's comedy 'Ted'. Be warned, this is a sour grapes, spoilsport edition blog post, in which I actively dislike two films most people have at least enjoyed, if not broadly praised. I wanted to enjoy both of these, for what it's worth.

'The Dark Knight Rises'
Part of the problem facing this one is that I loved 'The Dark Knight' all out of proportion and, in enjoying it as much as I did four summers ago, I also became a fairly big supporter of director Christopher Nolan. However, since then two things have happened: firstly, 'Inception' came along and wore out any goodwill I had accumulated towards the filmmaker - being bloated, pompous, cold and extremely reliant on exposition (all flaws 'TDKR' shares to greater and lesser extents). Secondly, and more recently, 'The Avengers' came out and showed us all that big superhero movies could be unabashed fun - true to their source material without overly pandering to hardcore fans, yet broadly celebratory of their pulpy source material all the same. By contrast Nolan's films still feel embarrassed to have Batman in them.

Now, before people shout "bias", I didn't go in resolved to dislike 'TDKR' because of these factors, but I probably wasn't as pumped for it as I would have been a couple of short years ago. But what really stopped me from getting on with 'TDKR' was the film itself: overlong, self-important, and even sloppily made - with Hans Zimmer's score overpowering much of the dialogue and with a basic lack of storytelling coherency throughout. There are too many new characters. The film chops between too many disparate plot threads and far too frequently. There is zero sense of either time (months pass and we know this only because of dialogue) or space (people go from desserts to cities without the sense of physical distance).

The film is full of strange "joke" moments and throwaway lines that feel like they come from a different movie and are presented in such a cold and robotic way that they feel forced. And though Anne Hathaway nails it as Catwoman, and Michael Caine does some wonderful stuff with some otherwise over-written and melodramatic dialogue, it's a mystery how such a poor performance was drawn from the usually excellent Marion Cotillard. Don't even get me started on Tom Hardy, over-acting with his eyes and delivering his lines in a variable and barely understandable accent. I've been told he's easier to understand if you see the film in IMAX, with 7.1 surround sound - but that's not how most people will see it and, to me, that sounds like a poor excuse for bad mixing/sound design/acting.

The action scenes are technically impressive but lack any feeling of awe. The fistfights lack anything like imaginative choreography, tending to resemble to big men exchanging punches. Joseph Gordon Levitt is really compelling as a rookie detective, but gets relatively little to do (you could say the same for Catwoman, forgotten for most of the film's second half). Batman himself spends far too much time walking in daylight and his secret identity is shared far too liberally. Add to all this the fact that the film's politics are dispiritingly conservative, broadly supportive of the super-rich and cynical about those who would seek to redress the balance (the occupy movement is the obvious target, but not the only one in a film that's broadly suspicious of any and all grass roots social change). There are two tacked on, completely false feeling, romantic sub-plots - one of which is (arguably) relevant to the story but the other one is completely superfluous.

It's just no fun at all. In fact it's incredibly boring and goes on forever. I have to admit, I enjoyed it slightly more on a second viewing, with radically reduced expectations, getting swept up in the internal mythology of a trilogy that contains the ultimate re-boot ('Batman Begins') and one of the best (if not THE BEST) superhero movies ever made ('The Dark Knight'). But it still isn't a good movie. I feel like such a grouchy old man right now, but there it is.

If you thought I sounded like a fun-spoiling misanthrope above, then you're not going to enjoy this. Kicking a comedy - a film which only intends to spread laughter - often feels like a thankless task. And if 'Ted' has given audiences some laughs and distracted them from the outside world for an hour and a half, then all power to it. But for me - not a fan of 'Family Guy' by any yardstick - it was just a one-joke crass-fest and an extremely pointless one at that. That one joke being: "it's funny because a children's toy is swearing and fucking hookers!" A child gets punched in the face. People poo on stuff. Every race, creed and mental illness is casually mined for shock humour - with zero satirical intent or apparent meaning. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, and if I sound like a massive snob by saying this, then clearly you'll have more fun with it than I did.

I laughed twice - though I can't remember at what - and, for what it's worth, I like the initial premise: a classic 80s kids movie wish fulfilment fantasy taken to its horrendous conclusion. Yet otherwise it left me cold. The cast is solid, MacFarlane's direction is assured and the CGI bear works well with his surroundings - but that's about the best I can say for it.