Take Shelter

Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” – Joseph Heller 

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols) is a frightening character study of Curtis, a seemingly solidly middle class man, who slowly slides into insanity.

Plagued by disturbing dreams – that are really scary for the viewer – he realises that he is going round the bend. Yet, and this is where the film really shines, that self knowledge cannot stop him from acting ever more irrationally. A chilling example is when Curtis reads a book on mental disease at night, in the storm shelter in his back yard.

The storm shelter in his back yard is the physical symptom of his troubles. He is unable to stop himself from enlarging it, at great cost – financial, moral and emotional.

His wife, played convincingly by Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, The Help), is slow to pick up the signs. Instead she focusses on the well being of their young daughter who is deaf. But when she does twig on, her role goes from strength to strength in all its hopelessness.

Already in danger of moving into spoiler territory, suffice to say that Michael Shannon who plays Curtis, steals the show. At times I wondered whether he was actually that well cast in the role. But overall his slightly “not there” quality added a lot to the part.

My favorite scene involved a visit by Curtis’ older brother, who – when faced by his brother’s troubles is so unable to cope that he instead offers to lend him a hand in the building of the storm shelter.

The film is beautiful, if slightly uneven at times. The imagery reminds us that we are watching an indie and not a slick studio movie – not necessarily a bad thing.

Some negatives then: the movie does take its time, at a full two hours. Trimming about 20 minutes out would have done it no harm. And, at danger of giving something away, the very final finale was something of an anti-climax and to me undermined the whole premise and meaning of the film.

Summing up: Go See – but don’t expect to leave the theatre humming a showtune…..

The Descendants

Does everyone in Hawaii really wear Hawaii shirts?

“The Descendants” has been in cinemas for what seems forever. So I thought I’d catch it on its way out. Because it’s not exactly the freshest pick I’ll restrict myself to the briefest of reviews.

Matt King (George Clooney) is the titular descendant. The film interweaves two stories: Matt’s dealing with the traumatic impending loss of his comatose wife, and the sale of a large chunk of Hawaii property that has been in his family’s hands for centuries.

After a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma, lawyer Matt is forced to take care of his two daughters for the first time. After his troubled eldest daughter reveals the reason behind her warlike relationship with her mother, this storyline really takes off.

It is this narrative, of Matt forming a new and stronger bond with his children and overcoming the double blow of grief and betrayal that really pull us through the film. To say more would be to venture into spoiler territory….

The second storyline, the selling of a huge swathe of (once tribal) land, is a handy plot device and is wrapped up well enough. Still, I never really felt any real sense of urgency. In this aspect the film is flawed.

Some further notes of criticism: the movie starts with a long, rather corny voice-over by Clooney. In it he explains all manner of back story, which as the film proceeds is explained again by more filmic methods. The first 20 minutes of the film are therefore extremely trying.

In fact, for me the movie only really starts the moment the eldest daughter. Alexandra, becomes part of the story. Shailene Woodley plays this troubled teen and for me was the absolute star of the picture. With the other cast members putting in professional but unremarkable performances.

Over all, a fine film for a rainy evening at home. Oh, yes, almost forgot to answer the leading question: in this movie, yes.

(The) Intouchables

I feel like I’m jumping onto the bandwagon here, but Intouchables is easily the pick of the crop so far in 2012.

The story focusses on the relationship between two, seemingly, very different men: Philippe and Driss, played rather brilliantly by Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy respectively. To say there is chemistry between these two actors would be the understatement of the year. Special mention must go out to Cluzet, who only has his face and head to work with, playing a paraplegic.

Philippe is a Parisian millionaire – paralysed from the neck down. He relies on constant care to eek even the slightest bit of pleasure out of life. Before his paralasys he was very much a thrill seeker. This may explain why challenges French African Driss to be his newest care taker/ male nurse. Driss is only interviewing for the position in order to collect a signature for his welfare check.

Driss, very much from the banlieu’s that surround Paris, has learned to live by his wits and says what’s what. His irreverent and humoristic approach appeals to Philippe who – from the off, realises that Driss sees him as a person not just a patient.

The film has a fast pace, and is technically well made. Those who surround Philippe distrust Driss, and he himself has a hard time shaking off the more difficult remnants of his past existance. But Driss manages to instill great pleasure in Philippes life. A subplot involves Philippes love life, and here the tension of being a paraplegic is palpable.

Already in danger of entering spoiler territory I would like to conclude that this is practically as good as film making gets. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this film is that it is never a sickly, treacly or soppy movie. If I could level a slight note of criticism it is that some of the more gruesome aspects of caring for a paraplegic are perhaps glossed over. I felt however that it would have added little to the story and taken us as viewers into a different territory than what the picture is about.

This buddy movie will send you out of the theatre with a heart full of joy.

My recommendation to anyone who loves film: GO SEE!!

 

Hunger Games review

Just last week, every single movie in US box offices was considered rotten by the conclave of aficionados gathered through www.rottentomatoes.com But, as the Brits say: the worm has turned. The Hunger Games has saved the day.

Story

In Hunger Games, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, we follow the fortunes of 16 year old Katniss, living in a distopian future USA: Panem. Every year the ruling class, that live in the Capitol, demand a girl and boy tribute form each of 12 outlying districts. These tributes are selected by lot, and must then fight to the death in an arena: the Hunger Games. There can by only one victor.

The aim of the Hunger Games is twofold: to amuse the inhabitants of Capitol and to remind the populace of the districts who’s in charge.

Katniss volunteers to go to the Hunger Games when her little sister is picked, and she is joined by baker’s son Peeta Mellark, who it turns out, has a crush on her. In an interesting twist, Katniss is in no way a weakling or underdog to win the Games, from the outset we know she is a skilled hunter.

The movie is split evenly into two parts, the lead up to the actual games and then the battle royale in the arena itself. All this is brought to us in a haze of media frenzy as Hunger Games is also very much a commentary on our very own media addictions.

To say more would inevitably lead to spoilers so I’ll leave it here.

Cast

Jennifer Lawrence is excellently cast as Katniss Everdeen. A spot-on combination of believable toughness and an understated beauty. The rest of the cast is also well balanced and the filmmakers have resisted the urge to have solely beautiful people in the movie, which is a breath of fresh air. Special mention goes out to Stanley Tucci for his over the top yet believable portrayal of Ceasar Flickerman – the TV host of the Hunger Games.

Style

In the districts it would seem that the world has stopped for ever circa 1934, whereas Capitol is a kind of aquatic Albert Speer fascist dream. The inhabitants of the Capitol all have outrageous looks, a kind of mirror to the current Hollywood jetset with their botox addiction, anorexia and other esthetic obsessions. Costumes in the film are done well, with none of the gary looks of many a superhero movie in sight.

Top marks for the bang on lighting, which added to the constant sense of impending doom. The camera movement was a mix of classic and ultra modern mobility. As I watched the movie a host of well executed details just kept on adding to the sense that this film was made with great care and love, withough going all “fan boy” about it.

Round Up

All in all, Hunger Games seemed to me to be a movie that was put together by a group of people determined to get it right, do justice to the original novels and at the same time provide great entertainment. For me, the movie worked on all levels and I highly recommend it to any and all. The swooning teens that surrounded me in the cinema seemed to get a kick out of it as well, so I predict it will do very well.

One slight note of criticism has to do with the actual subject matter: it did make me slightly uneasy that I was watching a movie of which the main plot consists of teens killing each other. But hey, it’s just a movie right?

May the reviews be ever in your favour, Hunger Games!

Update: march 26th, Hunger Games has biggest opening weekend on record for non sequel with $ 155 million:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-17507922

 

Hugo – a lecture on cinematic history

Martin Scorcese’s first foray into the world of 3D is a visual feast. It was clearly conceived to be the most modern ode to early cinema imaginable. As such it succeeds. As an involving, even exciting movie experience however, it falls flat.

3D has yet to win me over. But when it is done well, as in Avatar and again in this film, it does have its attractions. The depth of vision, and finely tweaked scenes, sets and action really pull you into the movie, more’s the pity that the lackluster telling of the central tale pushes you right back out again. That’s a shame because I really felt myself wanting to love this film. But like one of the central elements, a wind up automaton, it felt mechanical and cold.

The story of titular character Hugo, a young orphan living in the catacombs and attics of 19th century Parisian Grand Central station is one of discovery: a great adventure. A first point of criticism: if you like your protagonists to be whiny, sniveling and perpetually morose, you’ll get along with Hugo just fine. If you enjoy a bit of rapscallion thrown into the mix, look elswhere.

But this is a minor failing in comparison with the fact that the central adventure, the will and needs of the main characters take a back seat to the actual heart of the movie, which is summed up by a scene in which the viewer is literally lectured on the history of film and its great forgotten pioneer. Heavy handed indeed.

The philosophical tenet, which is also thrown at us like a sack of broken toys, seems to be that the world is a machine with no spare parts. Everyone has a role and if that is taken away, the machine is broken. Luckily, in this cinematic world, all can be fixed! Thank the lucky stars.

One could say that I am being unduly harsh as the film was made with two audiences in mind, kids and adults, and can therefore never fully satisfy either. But I wasn’t sure whilst watching it all play out whether younger viewers would actually comprehend much of the movie. After all, usually there is a quite tangible mission that needs to be fulfilled for the adventure to come full circle. In this case, the mission is quite abstract and metaforical and doesn’t even involve any real loot! Where is the pot of gold?!

All in all, an easy A for visual splendor, but a plodding C+ for story execution.

A Dangerous Method – indeed….

I’m not sure what Keira Knightley thought she was doing in this pic, but if that’s method acting, that’s where the danger lies.
This period piece, written by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, The Quiet American), directed by David Cronenberg is about psychologist Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) affair with his patient Sabina Spielrein – a Russian hysteric portrayed rather manically by miss Knightley. Or is it actually about the relationship between Jung and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)? Or is it really a historic account of the early days of clinical psychology?
The story centers on Jung’s treatment of Spielrein through “talk therapy” the titular “Dangerous Method”. This leads him to a closer relationship with Freud. But it all goes sour as Jung oversteps his professional boundaries at great cost to himself, Freud and Spielrein. Or at least, we are told that it is at great cost.

I, as viewer never felt that very much in particular was at stake. And that is a grave accusation to make against any story.
As I left the cinema I felt quite perplexed about what I had just seen. Yes, the sets were well lit, costumes up to scratch and the camera work was professionally done. But never at any time throughout the picture did I feel involved or more than slightly interested in what I was watching. The intellectual discourses felt staged and off kilter, the acting was – the god awful Knightley aside – okay, but what the film sorely lacked was a central drive or direction. It was more or less a series of events and people talking. There were some laughs, but I was never sure whether they were meant to be.

One pet peeve, for mr. Cronenberg: when doing the accent thing, either have all the actors stick to their respective dialects or none. Who can explain why miss Knightley does her utmost to cling onto an unconvincing Russian accent, Mortensen to a more appealing German lilt, yet Fassbender – portraying a early 20th century Swiss gentleman- gets away with BBC standard English? Perplexing.
All in all, I would advise any and all to skip this one, unless that is you have a particular fetish for watching anorexic women being spanked and pulling monkey faces. I’ll leave it at that.

A Dangerous Method, indeed.

I’m not sure what Keira Knightly thought she was doing in this pic, but if it’s method acting, that’s where the danger lies.

This period piece, written by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, The Quiet American) is about psychologist Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) affair with Sabrina Spielrein – a Russion hysteric portrayed rather manically by miss Knightly. Or is it actually about the relationship between Jung and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson). Or is it really about the early days of clinical psychology? Or is it about repressed sexuality?

The story centers on Jung’s treatment of his patient Spielrein, through talk therapy (the titular ‘Dangerous Method”). His succes leads him into a closer relationship with Freud. But it all goes sour as Jung oversteps his professional boundaries at great cost to himself and

I have no idea. As I left the cinema I felt quite perplexed about what I had just seen. Yes, the sets were all well lit, costumes up to scratch and the camera work was professionally done. But never at any time throughout the picture did I feel involved or even slightly interested in what I was watching. The intellectual discourses felt staged and off kilter, the acting was – the god awful Knightly aside – okay, but what the film sorely lacked was any kind of soul, heart and gusto. It did attract some laughs, but I was never sure whether they were meant to be.

One pet peeve: when doing the accent thing, either have all the actors talking in their respective dialects or none. Who can explain why miss Knightly does her utmost to cling onto an unconvincing Russian accent, Mortenson to a more convincing German lilt, yet Fassbender portraying a Swiss gent, gets away with BBC standard English? Perplexing.

All in all, I would advise any and all to skip this one, unless that is, you have a particular fetish for watching anorexic women being spanked and pulling monkey faces. I’ll leave it at that.

King’s Speech – a buddy movie

Without question The King’s Speech is an excellent film. Great performances in a fast paced story with high stakes makes for compelling viewing. But it all starts, of course, with the writing. Someone said to me: “I heard the script was pretty good too.” In the following I hope to briefly examine particular strong points of the screenplay of The King’s Speech, starting with the structure.

The script is unremarkable in it’s classicism. It adheres strictly to the basic 3 act structure rules. What is surprising is that it also adheres to the “rules” of the buddy movie. The uneasy first meeting, the unequal social stature of the buddy’s, the initial rejection of the friendship by the top dog, grudging acceptance, growing friendship, the break up, the period apart – pining for reunion (first by the one – without success, then the other), the reconciliation, a threatening blindside (the outside world threatens to break up the repaired friendship) and finally the true and equal friendship that is the climax of the film.

This choice of form allowed David Seidler to turn an interesting side note in history into an enthralling personal tale. He keeps the story we are watching small, whilst letting the larger historical stakes (kingship, the looming war) shine through enough to lend our two heroes quest urgency. Yet it is always the success or failure of the friendship that is the central stake for the main characters. For me at least, King George’s failure to do the radio speech would have had as gravest consequence (in the context of the film) the final destruction of his friendship with Lionel Logue. Instead, his success leads to the final bonding of their friendship – which was then to last a lifetime.

The screenplay has further strengths. The passage of time is dealt with very efficiently. The story spans a vast number of years, from 1925 – 1939. We are taken from one era to the next by important dramatic occurrences, which makes for smooth transitions and keeps the tempo high. Which is important in a film essentially about talking.

Also, the writing is on many occasions very funny – although it never descends into slapstick. This makes the growing friendship believable and both main characters likeable.
On a critical note: some of the dialogue is very on the nose. The scene where the king ridicules his son springs to mind. At least it serves the purpose of explaining the rules of the world we inhabit in the film but a bit more subtlety would have been welcome.

Finally, David Seidler is said to have invented much of what happened in the therapeutic sessions. Only during filming did the grandson of Lionel Logue hand over a vast horde of treatment notes made by the therapist. The grandson later remarked that the script already matched the notes very accurately. A good imagination and sound understanding of human psychology can recreate historical fact.

All in all, the screenplay is indeed well constructed and written and thankfully was well filmed. Making “The King’s Speech” a buddy movie to be remembered!