Thursday, 23 February 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Academy Award Nominations: 2
  • Best Picture
  • Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow)

Oskar Schell is an intelligent but frightened young boy, so his father Thomas regularly sends him on scavenger hunts to try and cure him of his fears of interacting with the outside world. However, Thomas is killed on 9/11, leaving Oskar and his mother Linda devastated, as Oskar retreats into his own world again. As Oskar goes through his father's possessions, trying to keep his memory and connection with him alive, he accidentally shatters a blue vase, which reveals a small brown envelope with 'Black' written on it and containing a key. Oskar determines that this is his father's final scavenger hunt for him, and becomes determined to find out what it unlocks in order to try and keep his father's memory alive...

If there's one film this year that has "Oscar bait" written all over it, it's surely this one. A young boy as the central character. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, two of the biggest actors in the world, playing his parents. A 9/11 tragedy forms the context of the story. No laughs, all tears. It may as well have been called For Your Consideration with the way this seems to be desperately craving Academy attention, and God bless the Academy, they went for it hook, line, and sinker. All the elements are there for a quintessential award winner, it's just a matter of putting them together and creating a likeable story with likeable characters that will appeal to a wide range of voters and audience members alike. Unfortunately, this is where the construct falls down. A better name for this film would have been Extremely Long and Incredibly Crass, because it is just that...

The main problem with this film is the central character. The young boy Oskar who losers his father in the 9/11 attacks and so goes on a quest to see what his father's key will unlock in the hopes it will lead him to something greater and keep his father's memory alive. Nice idea, yes, but the problem with that... Is that the kid is an asshole. I mean, a real little prick. There's no way you can feel any empathy for him when he is so consistently annoying throughout this film. There script makes a very brief mention that he had been tested for Asperger's syndrome but that the tests had been inconclusive. This seems like a very lazy way to explain why Oskar becomes as obsessed and neurotic as he is, as well as an easy way to explain why he's being such a dick to his grieving mother, his doting grandmother and everyone around him. I understand that grief takes many forms, but presenting it in this form makes Oskar thoroughly unlikeable and leaves the audience at a distance from the film, which is a major problem when the film tries to evoke emotion left, right and centre.

The only people who get close to evoking said emotion are the two main supports: Sandra Bullock as Oskar's mother, and Max von Sydow as the man who is renting a room with Oskar's grandmother. Bullock plays a grieving mother ignored and mistreated by her angry (?) son well, but is ultimately reduced to a cameo appearance. Max von Sydow, however, is probably the best, and probably only good, thing about this film. I put this down to one reason: The character is mute, and only speaks through a pad and paper and Yes/No tattoos on the palms of his hands. Why is this so good? Well it means he never has to open his mouth and say any of the terrible dialogue the other characters are given, and it means his brief statements and messages and expressions and acting have more impact than any other. Also, if anyone watched the BAFTAs, you'll know von Sydow is having trouble delivering consistent speech, so a silent role suits him down and he does really well here. Tom Hanks's best part of this film is probably the all-too-realistic voicemails he leaves for his family as he is stuck in the North Tower, otherwise when you do see him on screen with Oskar, he seems to be less getting Oskar over his phobias and more breeding Oskar to be an asshole. Viola Davis also makes a welcome cameo appearance as one of the people Oskar meets on his quest to what his key unlocks.

There's nothing wrong with the way the film has been shot, it looks fine and polished as you'd expect. The problem is with the plot and the dialogue and the characters. This entire film is overly romanticised, overly emotional, and extremely heavy when there's no need for it. Maybe as a light-hearted comedy with a serious core this might have worked, but as a serious drama, it fails. There's just no need for this film to be playing for such a strong emotional reaction all the time, it leaves you feeling underwhelmed with the entire concept when it doesn't hit home, so much so that when the film actually stands a chance of evoking the kind of reaction it's aiming for, you're so bored and dulled by it, that all you can do is sit and let the overly-emotional scenes wash over you. If you're anything like me, you'll sit through this to the end purely to reach the conclusion and answer the questions the film raises, not for any kind of morbid curiosity or because the film's enjoyable. Because to be honest it's really not.

Overall, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is Extremely Long and Incredibly Dull. This film has aspirations of being something so much greater but it fails to live up to its own expectations. Max von Sydow is probably the only good thing about this and makes the second act worth watching, other that that though I struggle to find reasons to recommend it really. It's just overly-hyped, overly-emotional slush which misses its target so often, it's incredible that this has made it onto the shortlist as one of the best films of the year. Every year, the Academy makes at least one big mistake. This might well be the mistake for 2011. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Extremely Loathsome and Incredibly Painful.

Rating: *1/2

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was released on 17th February 2012 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Tree of Life

Academy Award Nominations: 3
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Terrence Malick)
  • Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki)

The universe is born. Earth struggles into existance, dinosaurs roam the land until a meteor wipes them out. In the 21st century, Jack is depressed in his life, and a tree being planted at his office makes him reminisce about his upbringing. In the 1950's/60's, Jack and his two brothers are raised in highly religious Waco, Texas by his two parents: Mrs O'Brien represents the way of grace, teaching her children about the wonders of the world around them whilst being nurturing and supporting, whilst Mr O'Brien represents the way of nature, preparing his children for the harsh realities of the world through a strict and authoritative upbringing. As Jack grows up, he faces the conflict between grace and nature, and must decide which path of his parents' paths to follow, if any...

The Tree of Life is an odd beast, which is an understatement given it's the latest work by Terrence Malick, a filmmaker notorious for his privacy and gaps between work. He took a 20 year break between Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line in 1998, took another 7 years to release The New World in 2005, then took 6 years to release this in 2011. Even then, The Tree of Life is based on a script entitled Q, focusing on the origins of the universe, which Malick had been working on for nearly 30 years since the release of Days of Heaven, so it's little surprise that this is only Malick's fifth release since 1973. What it shows is Malick's insistence on fine-tuning and doing things right, even if it takes him a decade or so. Time doesn't seem to be an issue with Malick though, as he quite successfully covers about 4 and a half billion years of history in The Tree of Life in about 2 and a half hours.

The Tree of Life is a rare thing, in that it's a mainstream arthouse film. The ideas and concepts covered here are far beyond any standard film, and the way in which the film has been shot makes it seem more like a painting than a film; each shot has been carefully crafted and contains very little dialogue to get its ideas across. In fact, there's little to no dialogue throughout the film, the story is told almost entirely through striking visual images and brief lines of voiceover representing internal monologues, all set against a majestic soundtrack. The narrative is entirely non-linear as well, moving the family drama from the 1950's and 1960's into the modern day, before going back to the creation of Earth and somehow relating it to the family in Texas. It shouldn't make sense, but somehow it does. Everything fits together because of how artistically the film's images are created, leaving the film to resemble a poem or a painting, or any other art form other than a motion picture.

Obviously, because of the lack of dialogue, strong performances are required of its leading actors, and they deliver in spades. Brad Pitt is good here as the stern father, struggling to balance his love for his children with his desire to see them grow up and be successful and able to carry themselves in a world which he sees as having gone to hell. Jessica Chastain is also great here, arguably better in this than she was in The Help, and this without the help of words and extended dialogue to portray her character's desire to raise her children more freely whilst placating her depressed and aggressive husband. The kids also do well here, especially Hunter McCracken who plays the young Jack, as the plot essentially revolves around him and the choices he makes during adolescence. He performs well, especially so for a child actor, in a difficult role as a child being raised under contradictory and often clashing ways of thinking. Sean Penn makes a few brief appearances as the adult Jack in the modern day, but all he does is wander about and talk to a couple of people, not enough to warrant any kind of review for his 'performance'.

The Tree of Life deals with a lot of concepts, and even though it has a fairly long run time, it still seems excessively short for the amount of ground it covers. The creation of Earth is told through flickering lights and explosions, really beautiful and inspiring imagery. Then, there's the dinosaur scenes. Oh dear. The dinosaurs look terrible to begin, look totally out of place, and the scenes look out of place in the film in general. It doesn't dwell on that though, as most of the action focuses on Jack's Texas upbringing. Constant whispers of existential questions about life over the top leave its audience thinking about deeper things, which can be good, but not when you're also trying to watch and follow a film which makes its audience work hard enough to find their own meaning and answers. More than anything, The Tree of Life is a brave attempt to create a film with real meaning, and sometimes it nails it, but sometimes it's way off the mark.

Overall, The Tree of Life is not something to be taken lightly. If you're going to watch it, be prepared to pour in a lot of effort, energy and thought into it; this definitely isn't something you can fade in and out of in the background. The only film I can think to compare it to in terms of themes and what it's trying to achieve is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and whilst I think The Tree of Life is far more stylistic, looks far more beautiful on screen and adds more emotion, 2001 is a far, far easier watch and its plot line and structure makes it a more likeable film as well. It's a solid effort, and it definitely won't be for everyone this, but it might be worth giving it a go if you're in the mood for something more than your average Hollywood blockbuster as this is certainly the remedy for that. This may not be my kind of thing, but I can certainly appreciate the effort and artistry put into this. Let me put it like this: The Tree of Life covered 4 and a half billion years in 2 and a half hours. The Hangover Part II did nothing in 90 minutes. You decide which one is more worthwhile.

Rating: ***

The Tree of Life was released on 8th July 2011 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Midnight in Paris

Academy Award Nominations: 4
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Woody Allen)
  • Best Original Screenplay (Woody Allen)
  • Best Art Direction (Production Design: Anne Siebel, Set Decoration: Helene Dubreuil)

Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter, and his fiancée Inez are holidaying in Paris with Inez's parents while Gil is struggling to write his first novel. Whereas Inez finds Paris as an opportunity to see its sights and view its art , guided by her pseudo-intellectual friend Paul, Gil is far more enamoured with the city, setting his sights on moving there. While on a night walk around the city, he gets lost, and at midnight, an antique car pulls up and ushers Gil inside. He discovers a number of people dressed in 1920's garb, ready to take him on an adventure in 1920's Paris, where he meets his literary and artistic heroes, finds inspiration and guidance for his novel, and meets Adriana, Pablo Picasso's mistress, with whom he becomes immediately enamoured...

I'll admit, I haven't actually seen many Woody Allen films, even though the man is legendarily a film-making machine. Of the ones I have seen, there have been a few I've hated (Match Point, Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra's Dream) and there have been a few I've liked, or even loved (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Manhattan, Annie Hall) and I'm not alone in that. Allen's films universally divide opinion, but the overwhelming agreement is that when he's bad, he's terrible, missing the point by a mile, but when he's good, he's fantastic, using a city and characters to tell a story of neuroses and life in general. Although his foray into London didn't pan out (You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger aside), his recent excursion into Barcelona won him plaudits and now he moves onto Paris, home of the great artists, something which inspires Midnight in Paris. So has he got it right, or has he got it wrong? This time, he's got it right. Very right.

Midnight in Paris is beguiling more than anything, romanticising Paris to an extreme, making this almost like a love letter to the city, something in the vein of so many classic romantic comedies where the protagonists meet at the Eiffel Tower. Allen's repeated image of Paris in the rain just sounds beautiful despite the fact you don't actually get that visual until the end of the film. Despite the fact Paris is a dirty, busy, overhyped cesspit, you start to associate with the protagonist Gil's enthusiasm for the city, and when his time-travelling adventures begin, the city and the 1920's period combined create an even more romantic vision of Paris, creating a beautiful vision of divulging artists and fascinating characters. Admittedly, the concept of the film is somewhat surreal (and later becomes meta when the device is repeated within itself) but that's not a bad thing; it serves to make the film more charming and generally more watchable. You feel without it, this would have been just another Manhattan, but thankfully it becomes its own film and excels because of that.

The film is carried squarely on the shoulders of Owen Wilson, who plays screenwriter Gil who goes to Paris looking for inspiration after struggling. You feel the character is heavily based on Allen himself, not just because of his situation and his quest for creativity in a different city, but because the character dresses like Allen and talks like Allen, using Allen's famous extended vocabulary and squeezing in facts and neuroses about life into very short, quickly delivered sentences. Wilson is able to pull off the pacing of the film, and with that, he holds the film together. A lesser performance, and the film would have fallen down, as it relies heavily on its fast-paced dialogue (so fast, in fact, the film only lasts 94 minutes). Rachel McAdams is reduced to somewhat of a cameo role as his wife, which is a shame, but also not, because she's quite wooden when she does appear on screen. Michael Sheen's brief appearances as Paul, as he plays an upper-class know-it-all quite well, surprisingly enough. Even Carla Bruni is alright in her cameo as the tour guide. In the 1920's, Tom Hiddleston (there he is again) is utterly charming in bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald to life, and Corey Stoll is fitfully deep and poignant and drunk as Ernest Hemingway. Kathy Bates doesn't seem to play Gertrude Stein, she seems to play Friendly Mother Movie Role Which Is Usually Filled By Kathy Bates, while Adrian Brody does a great cameo as Salvador Dali.

However, Marion Cotillard does fantastically well as Adriana, Picasso's mistress and muse who falls in love with Gil and vice versa. Her character seems to be a 1920's equivalent of Gil, with aspirations of something greater whilst reminiscing of an earlier period as a great time than the present. The characters fit together well and Wilson and Cotillard have a lot of chemistry, which is surprising given the short amount of time they're given to develop it in. Although their romance doesn't explore any new territory plot-wise, the fact that their relationship IS full of clichés about romance and Paris is never going to be more fitting than it is here. I will say, Cotillard's character seems far less complex than Wilson's character; Gil seems to be more a man of contemplation and reminiscence and vocabulary and neuroses, it seems as if more thought was given to creating this one character over any other, and as such, Gil dominates the proceedings throughout, becoming the tour de force in any given situation, for which most of the fellow leading characters suffer for, let alone the secondary characters and cameos. Their impact is lessened, but not unnoticed by any means.

Overall, it's a really interesting story Allen has devised here and he pulls it off well, hardly surprising given the years of experience he's had in delivering such films. The wide range of characters and the vast amount of fast-spoken dialogue mean you have to keep up with it; it is blink and you'll miss it at some points. Although some characters seem staged rather than natural, others are allowed to develop and flourish on screen and they do so greatly. The film looks beautifully shot, is directed well, and clearly written well as the dialogue is snappy and the story ticks along at a steady rate, reaching a firm conclusion. It may be full of clichés, but it's set in Paris, what did you expect? At least no-one gets engaged on top of the Eiffel Tower.

Rating: ****

Midnight in Paris was released on 7th October 2011 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Help

Academy Award Nominations: 4
  • Best Picture
  • Best Actress (Viola Davis)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer)

In 1960's Mississippi, middle class white families hire black maids to clean their houses, cook their food, and raise their young children for them. 'The Help', as they are referred to, are a struggling underclass, and look to be degraded even more soon if a new bill passes and forces them to use separate outside toilets. Meanwhile, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan has just graduated from the University of Mississippi and aspires to be a journalist or a novelist. Upon returning home, she witnesses outright racism from her old friends who are all married with kids and hiring help. Coupled with the fact her own maid Constantine has mysteriously quit, Skeeter decides to write a book about the maids and tell their stories. At first they're hesitant, but eventually two maids step up: Aibileen, the maid to Hilly Holbrook, the 'leader' of the middle class wives in Jackson, and Minny, a maid with a reputation of being difficult...

The Help is one of those films that has 'For Your Consideration' stamped all over it on the surface: Famous faces telling the story of race relations in the south of America in the 1960's. It's award season fodder. However, to pull this off, the film can't be too schmultzy and nostalgic; it needs to be hard hitting and accurate with great performances throughout to live out the characters and give the film a sense of reality and believability. So what does The Help offer with its big screen adaptation? Emma Stone (one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood), Jessica Chastain (one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood), Viola Davis (former Academy award nominee), Octavia Spencer (famous character actor) and Bryce Dallas Howard (former Gwen Stacy in Spiderman and diaghter of Ron Howard). So some stellar and non-stellar names leading the way. Pleasingly, they all deliver stellar performances. The story though...

The story of The Help is touching and emotional and funny and realistic, and as a film, it works well. However, you can't help but feel walking away from this that the message of the film was "Black maids oppressed by middle class white families finally gained courage and found freedom with the help of a middle class white girl." The Help seems to suggest that the black maids needed help from white people to gain freedom from... oppressive white people, and that just seems wrong to me, to have that as the moral of the story if we're meant to be focusing on the strong-willed but oppressed black women at the centre of the film. Something seems drastically wrong with that. Don't get me wrong, Aibileen and Minny are the dramatic centre of the film, directing the plot and having the story narrated by Aibileen, showing how they fight against Hilly and her dominant racist views and how Skeeter helps them to gain a mall measure of revenge and equality. My problem is the entire film places Emma Stone's Skeeter as the protagonist, showing her entire life story and following her all the way through, and Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly as the antagonist, reducing Aibileen and Minny to supporting players, and in a film that's meant to be focusing on the stories and lives of these two women as they try to gain some respect against an oppressive white majority, I find that shocking and downright appalling.

Unfortunately, it is what it is, nothing can be done about that, but Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer deliver two performances in this that blow almost everyone else out of the water, placing them centre stage and keeping them as the focus of attention, despite the narrative attempting to do otherwise. Viola Davis delivers an emotional, heartbreaking performance throughout and is rightly the narrator, setting the tone and becoming the example of the blatant racism and the fight against it. However, it's Octavia Spencer who steals the show, grabbing the focus and attention in every single scene she's in, playing her role as a feisty and strong maid with a heart and plenty of determination perfectly. It's Spencer and Spencer's character which make this film so immediately watchable and direct your focus throughout it's two hour run time, so she deserves a lot of credit for that. Emma Stone plays the cute, spunky, naive girl with a lot of heart here, much as she seems to do in a lot of her films, so her performance is good and solid enough, albeit unspectacular and unoriginal. Bryce Dallas Howard is also great in this, playing a character who is ostensibly 'a bitch' and making her truly unlikeable, using the character traits to portray the character's inherent racism and self-made authority amongst her friend group.

The mystery, or at least for me, is Jessica Chastain and her Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role here. I'd argue Howard portrays the better character and delivers a more striking and powerful performance. That's not to say Chastain isn't good in here role as the working class girl elevated to middle class housewife who needs Minny to teach her to cook and take care of her house, all the while trying to reinitiate herself into Howard's social circle. It's a semi-complicated role which Chastain plays well, but I'm not seeing this as a particularly special performance. She may be a great actress, but this wasn't anything special. Speaking of nothing special, the film has two endings, and though each ending does tie up one or multiple threads from the film, the way the final 15 minutes is structured seems to me to only ruin the impact of the endings. The actual end of the film is fantastic and moving and appropriate, but the film also ends about 10 minutes before that when it didn't need as that plot line could easily have remained open, and it distracts from the proper ending with Aibileen. Another shame, but after the way the film plays out, it's unsurprising, something I put down to the poor adaptation and poor direction of Tate Taylor.

Overall, it's a nice enough film to watch and tells it story solidly, it just seems to do it from the wrong perspective. The film confuses itself as to which side of the story its meant to be showing, and the entire concept of The Help suffers because of it. Saying that, if you're going to watch this film, you should do so for the performances, because there are some really great ones on offer here. The film looks good, but I put that down to the cinematographer rather than the writer/director, who doesn't seem to know what he's doing and only got this job as he knows the author (sad but true story). The Help could certainly use some help to tell its story, but its actresses need no help at all..

Rating: ***

The Help was released on 26th October 2011 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Descendants

Academy Award Nominations: 5 
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Alexander Payne)
  • Best Actor (George Clooney)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash)
  • Best Film Editing (Kevin Tent)

Matt King is a lawyer based in Hawaii and the sole trustee of a family trust that controls thousands of acres of untouched land, which they are about to sell to a local businessman for redevelopment. However, after an unfortunate boating accident, Matt's wife Elizabeth is left in a coma, forcing him to stop everything and re-assess his life. First priority is looking after his 10 year old daughter Scottie, as well as bringing back his 17 year old wild child daughter Alex from boarding school. When Matt finds out his wife won't recover, he begins the awful task of informing his close family and children. However, Alex has a more surprising revelation: Elizabeth was having an affair, and was on the verge of leaving Matt before the accident. Can Matt and his family cope with everything at once?

Alexander Payne movies are very quickly becoming highly distinctive and templates for fellow American directors: American social critiques with troubled main characters and a provocative supporting cast, where nothing much happens other than the everyday complexity of life itself, told with plenty of dark humour and satire. Before this, Payne wrote and directed Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, three really excellent films that established Payne as a 'force majeure' before he disappeared for 7 years, merely producing a handful of efforts rather than writing and directing. Finally, he's back with The Descendants, starring one of the biggest names in the world. So has he gone Hollywood or was he merely biding his time? Thankfully, it's safe to say he was biding his time, and biding it well.

Almost needless to say, this is another distinctive Alexander Payne film, where there are no major action points, and both plot and story are driven by character and dialogue. It's more a series of mini dramas held together by one leading plot thread, much in the same way his earlier works worked, and the formula hasn't gotten old yet. The Descendants can switch from laugh out loud funny to quietly tense to completely heartbreaking in the blink of an eye, hardly surprising given the subject matter and the range of characters that inhabit this world. It's a really well worked drama with elements of all manner of other genres thrown in for good measure. Payne has most certainly established himself as a great modern day American director, becoming the voice of the disaffected youth who grew up to nothing but disappointment. He lived out the disappointing future of Ferris Bueller in Election with Matthew Broderick, and now he's enlisted George Clooney to deliver a similar performance.

And what a performance it is. George Clooney seems to have only gotten better with age, and in The Descendants he delivers a similar performance to the one he delivered two years ago in Up in the Air, one which was also a perfect portrayal of a highly troubled character struggling to keep everything organised and in order on the surface. He was great in that, and he's great again in this, playing an absentee father, near oblivious to his family until he's forced to confront and control it. In my opinion though, his performance is enhanced by the chemistry he creates with his on-screen daughter Alex, played by Shailene Woodley. Woodley is only 20 years old, playing a 17 year old with a drinking problem and strained relations with both her parents after they ship her off to boarding school, and does so fantastically well. When Alex returns home, she becomes a confidante for Matt and becomes Scottie's surrogate mother in the absence of her real mother. Not only that, but she's the catalyst for the leading plot thread of the wife's affair, she's intrgral to the film's success and Woodley carries it off like a pro. It's a brave and striking performance, one that has gone somewhat unappreciated in the light of Clooney's, but I firmly believe the two of them have made each other better in this by creating a great on-screen relationship with a genuine connection and real chemistry.

Despite how good I've said this film is, I do have a few problems with some of the characters in here. I did say Shailene Woodley played Alex King well, but her character seems fundamentally flawed in that she's supposed to be a wild child, and yet all of that's forgotten by the beginning of the second act, becoming the stand-in adult female lead. It's a shame, because it's seem as if there could have plenty of things to go with down that road, but they drop her defining characteristics and give her new ones so quickly, it seems like a waste. Also, I don't understand the inclusion of the character of Sid at all. Sid is a friend of Alex who tags along with the family as Alex claims he'll "help to keep her calm", but he's completely unnecessary after the first half of the film, as Alex appears to calm herself down and Sid becomes no more than the comic shill, adding laughs which is just far too obvious and unnecessary given the gentle and dark humour already within the script. The supporting cast has problems as well in my opinion. The supporting cast is full of famous faces and names, but their roles are reduced to little more than cameos, which also seems wasteful, especially given the importance of some of these characters. Payne seem so fixated on keeping the focus squarely on Clooney and Woodley, he forgets to give almost anyone else a chance.

All in all though, The Descendants is a great watch, it really is. If you're already a fan of Payne's work, then you'll know what you're getting with this. If you've never seen any of Payne's work, then by all means give this a go, then go and watch Sideways. And Election. And About Schmidt. In that order. It's got some great performances in here, some really sharp and well-written, naturalistic dialogue with plenty of self-depreciating dark humour and genuine emotion coming through. It's funny, it's dark, it's engaging, it's emotional, it's everything you could possibly want in two hours, all with likeable characters and a well-constructed story to boot. The Descendants is so similar to all of Payne's earlier works, and yet different at the same time, and that surely is the mark of a great director: To make something instantly recognisable and yet entirely different, all in one film.

Rating: ****1/2

The Descendants was released on 27th January 2012 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

War Horse

Academy Award Nominations: 6
  • Best Picture
  • Best Art Direction (Production Design: Rick Carter, Set Decoration: Lee Sandales)
  • Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski)
  • Best Original Score (John Williams)
  • Best Sound Editing (Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom)
  • Best Sound Mixing (Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson)

In the early 1910’s, a farmer needing a plough horse instead buys a young colt his son Albert has followed since birth, and is soon named Joey. Albert soon trains the young horse to plough the field against all the odds. However, after the crops fail, Albert’s father has no choice but to sell Joey to a young Captain heading out to war in order to lead cavalry charges. Joey is trained by the army to be a war horse, and after the British cavalry charge is proven futile against modern machine guns, Joey is captured by the Germans and used to haul heavy artillery. However, his adventures don’t end, as one way or another, this horse is determined to return home...

I should start by saying this: I have not read the famous children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo written in 1982, nor have I seen the award-winning stage adaptation which has been running since 2007. I’ve heard many things about both of these versions of War Horse, and now there’s a third version: The big budget Hollywood film version directed by everyone’s favourite family film maker Steven Spielberg. Therefore, I will not be using this review to compare and contrast versions and adaptations; I will be using this review to review the film as a standalone text. Therefore, having watched War Horse with no prior knowledge of the plot and only general word-of-mouth surrounding the book and play, I can safely say this: Either War Horse is incredibly overhyped, or the film just isn’t that good.

Here’s the thing: I was told by various people that this film, although in particular the play, was highly emotional in certain parts. I was preparing to be an emotional wreck given the sources of said information. Yet watching it, I didn’t quite get those moments, they didn’t connect for me. Now this isn’t me being macho and pretending I didn’t cry when I actually did, I honestly didn’t. I felt the appropriate emotions in the emotional places of the film, but there was no blubbering or bawling. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big crier. Maybe it’s because I’m not a big fan of horses (I hate them after one of those traumatic childhood experiences). Maybe though, and here’s the big’un, the way the scenes and plot points were played out in this film had less emotional effect than they perhaps might have done in the stage adaptation. In my opinion, the points that are played out for major audience reactions are just so blatent and obvious in this, you can see them coming a mile off and they didn’t live up to expectations at all. I really expected more from the man who gave the world E.T.

That’s right, Steven Spielberg was directing here, and it’s no surprise either; the material seem ripe fodder for one of his family-orientated films with high emotions and a winning main character relationship running through the core. Don’t get me wrong, it’s shot beautifully, and the plot rattles along at a steady pace, especially in the second two acts. It just seems as if he wasn’t able to capture the same kind of emotion he was able to get in E.T. or Schindler’s List, which is a shame, Other than that, War Horse has the feeling of a proper family grandiose epic from the 80’s, something along the lines of E.T. or The Goonies, or even Super 8, which was in itself an homage to the Spielberg-ian family films of the 80’s. There’s plenty of interesting characters to drive the plot forward, and plenty of good performances to match.

From the off, the entire Narracott family are great on screen. Young Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine, is solid as the boy quickly becoming a man due to family life and war, and the relationship with his horse feels real. Parents Ted and Rose, played by Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, are also convincing as the struggling farmers, dealing with their own personal problems as well as trying to pay rent and keep their livelihoods. As the film progresses, Tom Hiddleston puts in another good performance as Captain Nicholls to match his recent good performances in Thor and Midnight in Paris (more on that soon). A pair of stand outs though, however brief their role may be, are Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens as the French grandfather and granddaughter living on a farm, trying to avoid the war and happen to chance upon Joey after a series of events. Their relationship is genuine and probably one of the brighter spots in the film. The best actor though is the horse, or rather the various horses who played Joey. They’ve clearly all been well trained, and use head and eye movements to express emotion in place of dialogue. That’s all fine and well, but when everybody on screen is out-acted by a horse, even if the film is focused on the horse, there’s a problem.

Overall, War Horse is an odd film. It looks good, the premise is nicely played out and the acting is OK. It just seems to miss its marks in the major emotional moments, which is exactly where it needs to pick up and hit home. Obviously, this is just my opinion, other people I’m sure will connect with this film more deeply and will leave the cinema blubbing uncontrollably, but it just didn’t do it for me. It’s also the sheer amount of emotional moments in this film which has annoyed me, the film is full of them and eventually I found it tiresome, so when the big finale came around, not only did I know what was coming, but I didn’t care as much as I might have done.  Maybe I should watch the stage show, maybe I made a mistake in watching this first. But then, if the stage version is as good as people say it is, would I not be even more disappointed with this? I guess War Horse just isn’t for me, I’m afraid.

Rating: ***

War Horse was released on 13th January 2012 and is still being shown in cinemas.