Saturday, 29 December 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

This comedy-drama from writer/director David O. Russell (based on a novel by Matthew Quick) is a refreshingly different kind of American romance. It’s the story of a dysfunctional lower-middle class family and two people (Pat and Tiffany) struggling with mental illness who try to help each other overcome their limitations. Pat and Tiffany are unlikely protagonists in a film that avoids cliches and that is high praise indeed.

Pat’s mother has just taken him out of a mental institution after an eight-month stay following his vicious attack against the man he caught with his wife (Nikki). Pat just wants to be reunited with his wife, who has a restraining order against him. Tiffany’s husband died a few months earlier and she blames herself. She’s looking for connection anywhere she can find it. Pat and Tiffany are lonely and afraid, knowing that they suffer from a tendency to behave inappropriately, resulting in alienation. “You have poor social skills,” Pat says to Tiffany shortly after they meet, to which Tiffany responds, “You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.” Great stuff. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play Pat and Tiffany. Lawrence can do no wrong and has yet another exceptional performance. Cooper is outclassed but generally does well.

Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver offer superb support as Pat’s parents. Pat Sr. may not be diagnosed but his own struggle with mental illness is obvious and possibly more debilitating than that of his son. Father and son have much in common and they care for each other but their relationship is one of mutual distrust and frustration. Their relationship is a highlight of the film, though a climactic scene in their living room didn’t really work for me (I was also disappointed with the handling of the major subplot about Pat Sr.’s gambling problems).

Silver Linings Playbook isn’t perfect, but it’s a quirky and honest film that bears little resemblance to what passes for comedy drama in Hollywood these days (yeah, I’m referring to Ted again). A solid ***+ effort. My mug is up.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Having once again had my expectations lowered by critics (not to mention a scathing review from Janelle), I went into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fearing the worst. I thought for sure I would now be writing something like: ‘Sorry, Zack (nephew), but The Hobbit was a disaster.’ Instead, I am forced to apologize to Janelle for liking The Hobbit much more than she did.

It must be said, however, that I saw The Hobbit in 2D and in the normal 24 frames per second. I have no doubt that if I had been forced, as Janelle was, to watch the film in 3D and 48 frames per second, my appreciation for The Hobbit would have suffered a major blow. Why Peter Jackson (director) chose to film it that way at all is a complete mystery to me (even after hearing his excuses). 

I must also say at the outset that I agree with Janelle’s complaints about the film, especially the extent of the fighting and battle footage and the unfortunate mix of humour and violence. However, the amount of violence in The Hobbit, measured in both minutes and intensity, is much less than in any of the three Lord of the Rings films (which I loved), so I am inclined to be lenient. My big fear is that by making three long films out of a short novel, the final film will focus so much on the Battle of Five Armies that I will wish the trilogy had ended after the second film.

But getting back to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I thought it did a commendable job of introducing us to the dwarves and the young Bilbo and taking us on the first stages of Bilbo’s grand epic adventure, a journey to the Lonely Mountain and the dragon sitting on its hoard of gold (stolen from the dwarves). On the whole, I thought The Hobbit was beautifully filmed, well-acted and altogether enjoyable, but only if taken on its own and not compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy or viewed as the first part of a second trilogy or even compared too closely with the novel.

The big problem with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is precisely that it is based on a novel which is, in my opinion, in every way inferior to The Lord of the Rings. So even if the novel was as long as The Lord of the Rings, the film would have to be inferior, for The Hobbit lacks the grand story elements which make The Lord of the Rings one of the greatest works of fiction ever written. Taken on its own, I do think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a great epic tale full of wonder and an impressive ‘fantasy’ feel. But it does not have (and cannot have) the magic which made LOTR the classic it is. When you add in the fact that The Hobbit is no more than a quarter of the length of The Lord of the Rings, the likelihood of disappointment increases exponentially. Even two long films would be a stretch. Three is simply unnecessary.

Weighing all of these factors in order to make a fair judgment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not easy. For my part, I will award it ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Les Miserables - Updated Review

See the last paragraph below for updated comments.

Les Miserables, the stage musical version of Victor Hugo’s magnificent epic novel, written by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil (Herbert Kretzmer did the English lyrics), is, for me, the greatest piece of entertainment ever created. I have seen Les Mis on stage four or five times, watched the concerts on DVD seven or eight times and listened to the various CD recordings over a hundred times. A filmed version of Les Mis was a long-time dream of mine (as it had been for Lord of the Rings). So even with a Christmas Day release of the film, I could not help but be there on opening day, trying hard to keep my expectations in check (and I had seen enough negative reviews to make that fairly easy).

As a result, Les Miserables rather handily exceeded my expectations. A final verdict must await a second viewing of the film, but I will share some initial thoughts. Knowing that the director, Tom Hooper, had chosen to go with big-name actors rather than musical heavyweights (and I cannot really fault him for that), I was expecting to have issues with the singing (and I did). What I was hoping for, by way of compensation, was superior acting. With few exceptions, I got it. I thought Hugh Jackman’s lead performance as Jean Valjean was remarkable, and Oscar-worthy (joining the ranks of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis). Jackman’s singing voice does not have the range or power required for the lead role but his singing was nevertheless entirely acceptable to me given the quality of his acting. 

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine was also outstanding and I have no complaints about her singing, which came as a mild surprise. A much bigger surprise was Eddie Redmayne’s singing (and acting) as Marius. I had heard that he had very little singing experience and had therefore wondered why he had been given the part, but he blew me away in every department. Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Cosette was adequate but her singing voice grated on me (some people like her voice, but Seyfried was my biggest singing disappointment). Samantha Barks as Eponine was magnificent. It was immediately obvious (as it was for a few other roles in the film) that Barks is a musical performer (and I recognized her from the 25th anniversary concert in London), but her acting was as good as her singing. Aaron Tveit was likewise a good Enjolras. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were interesting choices for the Thenardiers. While there were some glitches, I found their performances more than acceptable. Colm Wilkinson (the original London Valjean) as the bishop was a pleasant surprise. 

And then there’s Russell Crowe as Javert. Crowe is a very good singer and a very good actor, but I do not believe he was a very good choice to play Javert. The range and power issue, identified above for Jackman, was a much bigger issue for Crowe. Javert needs to be a daunting presence with a powerful voice to match. Crowe’s acting and singing missed on both counts. Nevertheless, there was just enough of a Javert feel and look about Crowe to keep me from getting too distracted by the inadequacies, so I will not describe this as a disaster. 

Besides the incredible acting display (often in close-ups), which give Les Mis an emotional power the stage cannot reproduce, I was particularly impressed with the scenes which were added to the musical, most notably the scene in which Valjean and the young Cosette try to elude Javert. The additional music was underwhelming but tolerable.

Les Miserables is a very dark film with desaturated colours and a dingy feel. This is well-suited to the story, much of which focuses on the life of the poor in 19th century France, and I generally found the cinematography to be excellent. I haven’t tried to summarize the plot, assuming a general familiarity with the story of Valjean (a former convict who breaks his parole) and Javert (the officer who hunts him).

All in all, in spite of obvious imperfections, Les Miserables the film was a thoroughly satisfying experience. But those are not words I would normally use to describe one of my favourite films of the year. So the question for me is whether, upon at least one repeated viewing, Les Mis can move beyond satisfying to thrilling or mind-blowing. If so, an appearance among my top three films of the year (and even my top thirty films of all-time) is not out of the question. If not, well, it is still a film I will want to watch again and again. I will give it a tentative ****. My mug is most definitely up.

I have now watched Les Miserables for the second time. As I had hoped, I was able to free myself from critical considerations and just enjoy the film for what it was. Again, as I had hoped, the result was that I enjoyed the film more the second time around, forgiving all manner of imperfections. I am now giving Les Miserables a solid **** and stating that it will almost certainly be my second-favourite film of the year.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Life of Pi

With Les Mis coming right up, it's time to squeeze in another short review:

A gorgeously-filmed old-fashioned adventure, Life of Pi is not to be missed on the big screen. It’s directed by Ang Lee and based on the bestselling novel by the French-Canadian writer Yann Martel, which I read a few years ago. I thought the novel would be impossible to film. I was wrong, though I cannot explain the wondrous special effects that must be involved. 

Life of Pi tells the story of a teenager stranded on the ocean in a small boat for 227 days. If that isn’t hard enough to imagine, he has a tiger for company. The teenager is played by Suraj Sharma and he does an incredible, if not perfect, job.

We watched the film in 2D, though I understand the 3D is amazing (I’ve heard that story before and it has never yet been true for me). The 2D was sufficiently amazing for us. I’ll just add one complaint - the film is quite slow-moving and does drag at times. But Life of Pi is a wonderful wise spiritual uplifting film that gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Anna Karenina

I watched three films in two days and have lots of projects on the go, so I’m going to have to keep these reviews brief.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina deserves a contemporary filming, so I had looked forward to seeing Anna Karenina. With Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) at the helm and Tom Stoppard (Brazil, Shakespeare in Love) doing the screenplay, I didn’t see how the film could go too far wrong, but it did.

Anna Karenina is filmed in a very unique style, with much of it shown on a stage. This unique stylistic decision, which includes short scenes and constant movement, is no doubt supposed to make the film feel more like an innovative art house film than a typical period drama. Well, it certainly does that, but not in a successful way. The style and the story are an awkward fit at best.

Production values are very good and the acting (Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald) is generally adequate, but there’s no real chemistry between Anna (Knightley) and Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson) and the result is a film that completely failed to engage me on an emotional level.

I found Anna Karenina interesting rather than entertaining and can’t imagine being willing to see it again, so it gets a dismal **+. My mug is down.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths is a dark and very violent comedy in the Tarantino mould. What sets it apart is the way it satirizes not only film violence but redemptive violence in general. Add in the central story about a screenwriter’s need to write something new and meaningful, the intelligent dialogue and the excellent acting, and surely greatness awaits. Unfortunately, the violence-for-laughs thing doesn’t work for me (as you know) and the plot is just too silly for greatness.

Seven Psychopaths is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who made In Bruges, a brilliant and twisted dark and violent comedy (obviously McDonagh likes that genre). Once again McDonagh brings Colin Farrell in for the lead role and Farrell is perfectly cast as the screenwriter trying to write a different kind of thriller, one about seven psychopaths that doesn’t end with a showdown where the bad guys all get killed. But he has a serious case of writers’ block. Given that the writer’s name is Marty, it is not a stretch to view this film as McDonagh’s own struggle to write a thriller that doesn’t succumb to the cliches of redemptive violence. For a pacifist, this struggle is hugely entertaining to watch. But the payoff just isn’t there as the film’s silliness continues through to the bitter end. 

Joining Farrell are Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits. These men are also perfectly cast, in this case as psychopaths (make of that what you will, but the acting in Seven Psychopaths is a real joy to watch). 

Seven Psychopaths has many brilliant scenes and a thought-provoking story. If only McDonagh had found a way to tell his story without the silliness and the ultra-violence. It gets ***+ anyway. My mug is up.

The Woman in Black

As you know, I am not a fan of horror films. So even when a gothic horror film comes along that is the kind of film I might find truly frightening, I am not likely to catch it at the cinema. Of, course, being frightened is not my idea of a good time, so that is not going to encourage me. But I knew I had to watch this film, so I finally caught it on Blu-ray.

The Woman in Black is a ghost story about a man spending far too much time alone in a dark haunted house. The Blu-ray cover says: “Don’t watch it alone.” So I watched it alone in an empty house at night with all the lights off. ‘Lights off’ is the way I watch all my films. Since the film is trying to scare viewers, I find the advice confusing. Surely, for maximum effect, you should actually encourage people to watch the film alone in the dark. It certainly worked for me.

The Woman in Black features solid acting by Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer, as well as magnificent cinematography (I actually regretted not seeing this on the big screen). It takes place almost a century ago and, while it doesn’t try to be a pure period film (the speech is contemporary), it does create a strong sense of place (i.e. somewhere in the UK a century ago). 

Two other things make The Woman in Black work: a truly frightening haunted house (director James Watkins and crew do a great job creating the perfect haunted house, inside and out) and an ending that does not disappoint. 

The Woman in Black is a bleak, serious and scary film. For me, it is much more enjoyable than horror films which feature blood and gore (and zombies - I hate zombies), so I am giving it a solid ***. My mug is up.

Coming up next: Seven Psychopaths, which I watched a month ago (it has been one of those insanely busy months, what with vacationing in Europe…).

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A Long Flight: Ted, Premium Rush, We Bought a Zoo, Lawless, Frankenweenie, Your Sister's Sister, Liverpool, Blood From a Stone, Lost in Siberia

I caught nine films while flying to Germany and back. Such trips provide a chance to watch films I intentionally missed on the big screen. While I’m always hoping for a surprise, I expect little and I wasn’t disappointed (i.e. I got little). As an alternative to catching up on Hollywood, three of the nine films were foreign language films I had never heard of. It was certainly no surprise that all three of these films were better than any of the English language films (if you want to call me a film snob, so be it), though none of the nine films was really outstanding. 
Anyway, here are my brief reviews of the nine films, in order of how much I enjoyed them (beginning with the worst):
The premise about a teddy bear which comes to life and grows up to be a sex-obsessed trash-talking friend to John (Mark Wahlberg) is about as ridiculous as they come. I am not a Wahlberg fan and he certainly did not impress me here. Mila Kunis is wasted as his love interest. Ted is a pathetic excuse for a film which I can only suppose is aimed at those who liked The Hangover. The crude sex and toilet humour did not work for me at all. Seth MacFarlane should stick to making TV shows (American Dad, Family Guy). I can’t believe Roger gave this three and a half stars. *+ My mug is down.
Premium Rush
An utterly pointless action film about bicycle delivery folks in New York City. A waste of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s talents, Premium Rush makes no sense and has no story worth watching. ** My mug is down.
We Bought a Zoo
You all know how much I like Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, but they could not save this predictable and forgettable by-the-numbers family comedy-drama about a man who buys a struggling zoo. Yawn. **+ My mug is down.
Another film which wastes some good actors (and decent acting), Lawless is a violent true story about three brothers in Virginia who led the way in bootlegging during the prohibition. Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf are good as two of the brothers, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska are the love interests, and Guy Pearce is the cold deputy who’s hunting them down. Lawless could have been good film but doesn’t achieve the epic feel it’s trying for. **+ My mug is down.
A black-and-white, animated Tim Burton film, Frankenweenie is a very watchable tale about a boy who uses lightning to bring his dog back to life. I loved the science teacher. A number of precious scenes puts this into *** country. My mug is up.
Your Sister’s Sister
Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt are outstanding in this independent comedy drama about a man who sleeps with the sister of the woman he is in love with (who is his best friend). Lots of obvious improv keep this from being even more predictable than it is. Still, a very entertaining film. *** My mug is up.
A lightweight but thoroughly enjoyable French-Canadian adventure film set in Montreal, what sets Liverpool apart are the likeable leads (Stephanie Lapointe and Charles-Alexandre Dube)and the excellent underlying social satire about our age of disposable electronics, computers and iphones (showing both the good and the bad). *** My mug is up. 
Blood From a Stone
Daniel Auteuil is magnificent in this dark French film about a man who owns a yacht-making company which falls on hard times. The workers protest and things get out of hand. This could have been a great film but the ending is terrible. ***+ My mug is up.
Lost in Siberia 
A German comedy drama wins the day with another tale about a man struggling to find his way in a world that feels like a prison. In this case, the man (played very well by Joachim Krol) finds his way out of prison by finding love in Siberia. A delightful if predictable film. ***+ My mug is up.