Monday, 30 January 2012


Academy Award Nominations: 6
  • Best Picture
  • Best Actor (Brad Pitt)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian; Story by Stan Chervin)
  • Best Film Editing (Christopher Tellefsen)
  • Best Sound Mixing (Deb Adair, Ron Bochar, Dave Giammarco and Ed Novick)

The Oakland Athletics baseball team have done well in their 2001 season. However, success next season looks unlikely as budget restrictions means the team is about to lose their three star players to teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, teams with multitudes of wealth. The team’s general manager, Billy Beane, sets about rebuilding his team, not by replacing the players themselves, but by replacing their stats, all on a limited budget. His scouting network comes up with suggestions, none of which Beane is happy with. However, on a recruiting trip to Cleveland, he meets a Yale economics graduate named Peter Brand, whose ‘sabermetrics’ approach to finding players could be just the solution Beane and the A’s need to have a competitive season...

Moneyball is the film of the book which is ‘based on the true story’ of the Oakland A’s 2002 season and how Billy Beane and Peter Brand used statistics to find cheap, misfit players and create a baseball team capable of competing with high budget, all-star teams. The unbelievable nature of the true story makes is perfect Hollywood fodder, but it faced a big problem. It’s a baseball film which isn’t about baseball, and it isn’t Field of Dreams. To put it simply, there’s an awful lot of talking and typing on computers in Moneyball. Luckily, the man tasked to adapting the book of the real life story onto the big screen has experience in writing films and television shows which involve lots of talking and typing on computers. As a matter of fact, he won an Oscar just last year for his last effort: The ‘un-filmable’, ‘un-cinematic’, ‘boring’ story of the creation of Facebook which turned into one of 2010’s best films. Aaron Sorkin, we thank you.

Sorkin has a knack of turning wordy, un-filmable stories into exciting motion pictures which still contain all that long stretches of dialogue and exposition, and Moneyball is no different. Sorkin’s trademark fast paced dialogue is all over this film, and really amps up the story. Sorkin seems to have a real skill in finding the drama and creating the tension in what is otherwise an unlikely scenario. However, saying that, the film also has many other merits which make this ‘business of baseball’ story more immediately watchable. The direction by Bennett Miller is pretty spot-on, the editing switches between fast and snappy and slow and deliberate, creating the right tone and pace for each scene, and the film itself is shot beautifully by Wally Pfister, the man who’s currently making Christopher Nolan’s Batman films look incredible and one of my favourite cinematographers at the moment. All these are pluses for the film, but with such a heavy and intricate script, the performances from the lead actors had to be spot-on, and thankfully, they are.

Brad Pitt is pretty much acting for fun nowadays, any performance he puts in seems to be effortless and the same applies here, acting cool as always and bringing the character to life with real vigour and believability. He captures the anxiety, quiet desperation and contained excitement of Billy Beane and translates it onto the big screen. However, Pitt is somewhat outshone in this by, and I’m even surprised I’m writing this, Jonah Hill. I’m not a big Jonah Hill fan, he’s been in a couple of funny films but he plays the same character every time, which was why I was amaze he got a look in for best supporting actor. Here though, he goes outside his range and it pays off big time. That’s not to say it’s a phenomenal performance, but he certainly puts in a better showing here than he has for his last few big screen outings. Playing the straight guy actually suits him, and when he decides to stop doing comedies, there may be life in his career yet. However, I wasn’t a big fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the team’s manager in this. Whenever he appears on screen, the dialogue seems clunky and the delivery is no better. Also, the players Beane and Brand sign seem like sports movie clichés, with one being the cocky veteran, one being the unorthodox guy with real talent, one being the guy plucked from obscurity to take a leading role. There’s no imagination in the creation of these characters, and whether or not this was a deliberate choice in order to place the emphasis firmly on Beane and Brand I don’t know, but nonetheless I found these characters mildly cringeworthy.

Moneyball seems to be a film of two halves: The first half of the film is filled with a lot of set-up, explaining the situation of the characters, then the introduction of Brand and his 'sabermetrics' along with an awful lot of explanation as to how his economical approach to baseball players actually works. Then, the second half of the film begins, and things really start going from there. With all the plot devices and characters in place, all that's allowed to happen is for events to unfold and unfold they do, creating a seriously gripping piece of cinema. There's drama from watching how the team fares under this new way of thinking, there's glimpses of action as we see the plan put into action. There's even comedy from Beane and Brand as Brand, an economics graduate from Yale with no prior knowledge of the running of a baseball team, is suddenly promoted to assistant GM under Beane and starts asserting his authority, though mainly through Beane's insistence he does what's "part of his job". It's the great mix of all these genres in one film that make Sorkin films so instantly recognisable and watchable, it's just a shame it takes an hour to really get going.

Aside from this, Moneyball is a highly watchable film, definitely in the same vein as The Social Network, with some good performances on show and some fantastic dialogue to solidify said performances. The story drags somewhat for the first hour, but the second hour is the one that’ll reward you for sticking with it. Personally, given what we’re shown in Moneyball, I’d love to see Wally Pfister creating the images of Aaron Sorkin’s words far more often. This isn’t really an emotive film, it’s by far more clinical and factual, so if you’re looking for something that’s going to grab you by the heart, you’re in the wrong place. However, if you’re looking for something to make you think and deliver a great story for a couple of hours, look no further. Even if you don’t know your short stops from your Red Sox, it’s definitely worth watching.

Rating: ****

Moneyball was released on 25th November 2011 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The Artist

Academy Award Nominations: 10
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius)
  • Best Actor (Jean Dujardin)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Berenice Bejo)
  • Best Original Screenplay (Michel Hazanavicius)
  • Best Art Direction (Production Design: Laurence Bennett, Set Decoration: Robert Gould)
  • Best Cinematography (Guillaume Schiffman)
  • Best Original Score (Ludovic Bource)
  • Best Costume Design (Mark Bridges)
  • Best Film Editing (Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius)

Business is booming in Hollywood in the 1920’s. People are flocking to the cinemas to see the silent pictures, and the man at the forefront of all this is George Valentin, Kinograph Studio’s major star and leading man. But, there’s change coming, as the advent of sound is coming sooner rather than later, and George can’t seem to abide by these major developments. On top of that, his star is beginning to fade in favour of a female star he helped to make famous; a woman by the name of Peppy Miller, who’s fast becoming the face of the ‘talkies’...

The Artist is unique amongst this year’s best picture nominees. Hell, it’s unique amongst all films this year, this decade, this millennium. In case you didn’t already know, The Artist is a black and white silent film, a replica of (or rather an ode to) the black and white silent films of the 1920’s the plot revolves around. I would say it’s refreshing to see something so different, but this was the standard 90 years ago, so technically it’s not new, it’s actually tremendously old school. The problem is black and white silent films were destroyed by the advent of colour and sound. Surely, then, a film like The Artist can only act as an homage to the era, rather than use its tropes and themes to create a 21st century film that can attract and entertain a wide audience. This assumption would be dead wrong. The Artist is an absolute treat.

The Artist is not going to be a film for everyone, obviously. Recent reports of cinema goers in Liverpool demanding refunds because they didn’t realise the film was silent and in black and white exemplify this. However, if people were willing to give this a go, people would see that this isn’t just one of those films exclusively for critics and film buffs. The Artist is compelling viewing throughout its short 90 minute runtime, something that most films with dialogue and action sequences nowadays fail to achieve. It’s romantic and funny and dramatic and tragic and celebratory, all rolled into one. The man behind this? Michel Hazanavicius: Writer, director and editor. Clearly, he knew what he’d have to do to advance the plot without the use of dialogue, and does so brilliantly with sparingly-used intertitles and fast paced editing using 1920’s techniques such as wipes and fades. However, Hazanavicius is not alone in his endeavours.

The acting is one of the key elements here, as more has to be said through expression and attitude, which leaves a lot resting on leading stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. They carry it superbly well though, managing to create associable characters through nothing more than over-exaggerated facial expressions and actions. Dujardin in particular is fantastic, because he seems to not just play the part of George Valentin, rather he becomes the role. I realise this is a terrible acting cliché, but I’ve honestly never seen a truer example of it. Dujardin lives out Valentin’s downfall on screen and does so in a heartbreaking way. Considering the man is an alcoholic failure, the attachment and sympathy you hold for him is entirely down to Dujardin’s performance. Bejo also deserves credit as her performance as the rising starlet makes her the antithesis of Valentin, and yet her performance makes her and Dujardin a brilliant pairing. The expressiveness in her face and her actions, no matter how slight they are, portrays her emotions on screen without the need for dialogue and accentuate her character. Even the dog, Uggie, is great in this! He acts as well as the human actors and, due to the lack of sound, becomes an equal performer, adding comedy elements and creating tension and drama. For a dog, that is incredibly impressive. There is also a great supporting cast here, including John Goodman perfectly playing a fat cat, cigar chomping studio head. It’s good to see a film where there are many recognisable faces, but the most recognisable name is Goodman, and the lead actors are total unknowns before now. There is, however, a key character in the film that is more important than any other: The soundtrack.

I call the soundtrack a character, because Hazanavicius makes the soundtrack become integral to the film’s plot and pacing, not only with his use of music (which is pretty spot-on throughout), but through his clever use of sound effects in certain scenes to add emphasis or create tension. The score is perfect throughout, a mix of period and contemporary compositions played with an orchestra in the style befitting the film’s medium. He doesn’t use sound much, but when he does, it’s great. Moments when the music stops, and the emphasis is placed squarely on the action on screen become tense, and when you add sound effects, breaking the silence, it’s a mix of delight and bewilderment how something so simple can have such an effect both on the characters on screen and to the viewing audience.

Overall, The Artist is undeniably fantastic, one of those films I can’t wait to watch again even though I’ve literally just seen it. If people are willing to give it a go, they’ll find it has something for everyone, as appealing to a teenage market as it will be to an elderly market. The performances are first class, as well they should be, or else it would fall on its own sword. The use of music and sound are measured and pretty much spot-on, and the visual style and editing are a fitting tribute to the silent pictures of the era it attempts to replicate. Michel Hazanavicius has great reason to be proud of this film, and The Artist is most certainly worthy of all the plaudits it’s currently receiving. The Artist hasn’t left me speechless, but my god it’s breathtaking.

Rating: *****

The Artist was released on 30th December 2011 and is still currently in cinemas.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


Academy Award Nominations: 11
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Martin Scorsese)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (John Logan)
  • Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson)
  • Best Original Score (Howard Shore)
  • Best Art Direction (Production Design: Dante Ferretti, Set Decoration: Francseca Lo Schiavo)
  • Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell)
  • Best Visual Effects (Robert Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman and Alex Henning)
  • Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker)
  • Best Sound Editing (Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty)
  • Best Sound Mixing (Tom Fleischman and John Midgley)

Hugo Cabret is an young boy who lives inside the walls of a busy Parisian train station, maintaining the station's many clocks in the absence of his alcoholic uncle, the man who took him in after his father dies in an accident. Hanging on to the last remnant of his father's memory, he becomes obsessed with fixing an automaton clockwork robot in the hopes it may contain a message from his father. However, to fix it, he needs gears and springs, things which can be found at only one of the train station's many shops; A small, unassuming shop selling toys, run by an unassuming old man. There's also the matter of the lock with the heart-shaped key...

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or 'Hugo' (in 3D!), is a whimsical tale about a young boy's extraordinary adventures in a romanticised 1930's Paris, with homelessness, thievery and the history of cinema all running themes in the background. You see, if you look at this story through certain aspects of its plot, you can see why the director of films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas chose to bring this to the big screen himself. However, to be blunt, it seems an extraordinary adventure of Scorsese's own making to create his first ever family-friendly film at this point in his career, especially given his recent tremendous successes with The Departed and Shutter Island, two films with dark themes more suited to his earlier work. But then maybe such a shift in tactics from such a legendary director can surely only mean that he's confident he can do it justice, no? Well, as strange as it is, he does. Kind of.

Hugo is troubling me even as I write this, because although it is a great film, and there are some really great moments of dialogue or cinematography or a combination of the two, that's just it. There are some great MOMENTS. Though there are flashes of brilliance, it is overall a rather generic children's adventure film with no real artistic flourishes other than those enforced by the 3D medium in which it was shot, and that's a real crime. Over the years, Scorsese has established his own visual style with certain shots and themes becoming his trademarks, and they just aren't on display here. That's not to say he's not completely absent from proceedings, there is one moment which is Scorsese through and through: In the pre-title scene, the action follows the young Hugo as he weaves his way through the narrow walls of the train station, and we as the audience follow him all the way through in a single, smooth tracking shot which is reminiscent of the 'Copacabana Shot' from Goodfellas. Other than that, the film is generic, it could have been done by anyone. Not to naysay a directing legend, and a personal hero of mine, but the film left me feeling pretty gutted and somewhat disappointed that there wasn't more Scorsese on display.

That's not to say that is not entertaining because it certainly is. It's two hours of good, clean, family fun with enough adventure and drama running through it to keep an audience entertained, which is down to the performances of the two young actors. Asa Butterfield is great as Hugo, playing his role of the young boy forced to grown up too soon well, bringing a maturity and sadness to his performance. Also, Chloe Moretz is good as Isabelle, Hugo's young companion, believably another young girl with adult sensibilities. You may not that both kids play the roles with maturity, another sign that Scorsese is going outside his comfort zone in this film and is directing a cast of children for the first time, treating them like adults and producing a performance akin to this. Other than that, it's great to see Sir Ben Kingsley in a non-comical, leading role and performing well in it as the master Georges Melies. Note to Hollywood: Sir Ben Kingsley can still act, don't merely reduce him to a cameo where he does nothing but mugs and speaks in an accent. Sacha Baron Cohen, also, does well as the bumbling train station inspector, delivering a near-Clouseau like performance which entertains and delivers heart and warmth to his cold character.

Looking at the film by itself, it's really well done. The Paris train station set was a grand construction demanded by Scorsese, and looking at it on screen, you can see why. Had this film been shot in a standard studio with different sets on a smaller scale, the grandiose feeling of the set would not have been translated to screen. Thankfully, the scale of the train station comes across, and it's actually enhanced by the inclusion of the 3D technology, creating a depth and scale that only 3D could possibly create. The attention to detail in the props and sets is well worth noting as well, as nothing seems out of place or seems to have been an after thought, it seems clear that everything on screen has been carefully selected and placed to add to the on-screen illusion. The plot never drags its feet either, another case of each line being carefully selected and placed into the script to further the story, and thus the story continues at a steady pace throughout, never feeling like the two hours you'll spend watching it. In truth, the film feels as if it could twice the length and you still wouldn't notice, and you probably wouldn't care, given how beautifully the film's been shot, it's a real treat to watch, especially on a big screen.

Overall, there are good and bad things about this film, and by no means is this a bad film, but it just feels so disappointingly generic. It's good that Scorsese has explored other territory at this point in his film making career after achieving so much greatness previously, but the genre, plot and themes are so distinctly unsuited to the director that it neutralises any flourishes he might have been able to add. You can certainly see why he took on this film though; in amongst the story of the lost child finding answers, the film is the story of a long held love affair with cinema, an ode to the magic and legacy of Georges Melies, it's an ode to the birth and artform of cinema, and this at least is done wonderfully. The story is told well, the film doesn't drag, and surprisingly makes good use of the 3D technology, but then, if a master like Martin is using 3D cameras, he's not going to let anything slide. He does get some great performances out of his cast, and the cinematography is fantastic, as are the sets and details amongst the mise-en-scene. I really don't have a problem with Hugo as a film. I just have a problem with it being a Scorsese film.

Rating: ***1/2

Hugo was released on the 2nd December 2011 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.