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Reviews – 50/50 (2011), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), Another Earth (2011)

50/50

A comedy about cancer that cleverly walks the line between humour and drama – 7/10

Dir. Jonathan Levine

A couple of weeks ago I named 50/50 ‘Film of the Week’ and I have finally got round to writing the review. 50/50 has done pretty well at the Box Office, taking $39 million, despite being ‘a comedy about cancer’ – undoubtedly a tough sell.

Nevertheless, in Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt 50/50 has two bankable stars. In addition, both produce excellent performances. Rogen plays his usual loud, stoner type and as always, he does this well. Rogen plays Kyle, Adam’s (Gordon-Levitt) best mate who tries to help him to fight his illness, mainly by encouraging him to dump his girlfriend and then taking him out to pick up women. Unsurprisingly Rogen provides most of the laughs whilst Gordon-Levitt plays the cancer-stricken lead in a relatively low-key fashion. Gordon-Levitt’s uptight and frustrated Adam is convincing, whilst Anna Kendrick and Anjelica Huston put in strong supporting performances as Adam’s love interest and mother, respectively.

50/50 is both funny and moving and despite the subject matter it’s never mawkish. Everyone will find it sad, some will find it inspirational, I find Seth Rogen hilarious, this is a recommended watch.

The Adventures of Tintin

Frenetic and exciting with interesting animation, Tintin is a decent adaptation of  Hergé’s beloved classic comic but is also messy and a little convoluted – 6/10 

Dir. Steven Spielberg

This highly anticipated adaptation brings Tintin and Snowy to the big screen and in 3D to boot. The 3D is peripheral and occasionally annoying; frankly, I’m tired of paying more for something that adds little, if anything, and is entirely unnecessary.

Some people have complained about the animation, suggesting that the film could have been better had it been a live action feature. Personally I didn’t mind the style of animation and feel Spielberg did a decent job on his first animated film. Moreover, I am pleased that they didn’t try to replicate Hergé’s iconic drawings.

The film itself is not just fast paced; it’s a rollercoaster, rattling from one action sequence to another, adding in a sprinkling of storyline almost as an afterthought. The writers have attempted to combine three of the original comics – The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham’s Treasure – with mixed success. Much of the plot (and humour) centres on Captain Haddock’s drunkenness; this becomes repetitive and boring. Add to this Thomson and Thompson’s stupidity and we have more of the same slapstick humour and people accidentally stumbling upon clues. Granted there is a large amount of this in the source material, but the film lacks the attention to detail and the satire of the comics.

The Adventures of Tintin is rip-roaring and generally good fun. Kids will be engrossed but it won’t be one that they watch again and again.

Another Earth

In his first feature length film Mike Cahill offers something unique and thought-provoking – 7/10

Dir. Mike Cahill

As a strange planet hangs in the sky, Rhoda’s (Brit Williams) world comes crashing down when she accidentally kills a mother, son and unborn daughter in a car accident, whilst putting the father (John Burroughs, played by William Mapother) in a coma.

Rhoda had a bright future ahead of her and was set to study at MIT on the astrophysics programme but instead finds herself in prison and her dreams in tatters.

Four years later Rhoda re-enters society and struggles to come to terms with her new life and the pain she has caused. One day, she visits John Burrows at his house with the intention of apologising for killing his wife and kids (he never found out her identity because she was 17 when the crash took place). However, Rhoda cannot bring herself to admit her crime to John’s face and makes an excuse about why she is there. The two strike up an interesting relationship as they implicitly begin to give one another some meaning in their lives.

Another Earth has sci-fi elements – a mysterious celestial body (Earth 2) looms over the earth amid frequent references to parallel and alternate universes – but is very much a human drama. In one sense, Earth 2 is all a side-show; however, the two sides of the story are neatly tied together as the prospect of travelling to Earth 2 offers Rhoda hope of escaping her current life.

The two central performances are impressive whilst the sparse score and direction are well judged. Another Earth is by no means riveting but it has enough to occupy throughout and keep you thinking for a while after.

Hugo (2011) – Review

Master film-maker Martin Scorsese offers a family film of impressive scope with spectacular results – 8/10

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and is the veteran director’s first family film; it is also his first in 3D. Scorsese has been outspoken about his belief that 3D can be more than a money-making gimmick, claiming that it could be a historical development in film comparable to the introduction of colour. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen (although I feel one is on dangerous ground when disagreeing with Scorsese about film) what can be said, however, is that the use of 3D in Hugo is brilliant. I have been rather sceptical about the latest round of 3D, seeing it as an excuse to charge more money for tickets – retrofitting is evidence of the lazy way in which it has been used and a clear sign that many in the movie industry care little about whether it enhances the viewing experience. Moreover, the application of 3D has been at best patchy and at worst inept. In certain films the 3D has been used to relatively good effect; Up (2009) and Avatar (2009) are examples which spring to mind. Nevertheless, even in these films I have felt that the 3D was, at times, distracting and of course the brightness is reduced by 30%. However, the 3D in Hugo is far more integrated than in previous movies. Whereas in other films an object will occasionally appear to fly towards the audience, in Hugo, the 3D is used wherever possible and in fact, the sets themselves have been designed to benefit from 3D. For example, the train station is littered with speakers and clocks which protrude out of the screen, giving the audience an impressive visual spectacle. That being said, the 3D in Hugo isn’t without its faults and of particular annoyance is the persistence of ghosting or crosstalk (where you see a shadow-like doubling of the images).

The film itself is an interesting one which caught me by surprise. In short, it tells the story of an orphan boy, named Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who lives between the walls of a Paris railway station. His “job” is to maintain the clocks in the station and he survives by stealing food. In his spare time Hugo attempts to fix the mechanical man (automaton) which his father (Jude Law) left him. But disaster strikes as he is caught stealing by the toy-shop owner (Ben Kingsley) who then takes Hugo’s notebook which contains the automaton’s blueprints. With the belief that the automaton contains one final message from his father, Hugo desperately attempts to retrieve the notebook, befriending the toy-shop owner’s Goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), along the way. From here the mystery unfolds cautiously with the creaking station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) in hot pursuit of the two children.

As Roger Ebert states in his review, Hugo is very much a movie about movies. The mystery centres on a “long-forgotten” movie-maker named Georges Melies and the second half of the film plays like a documentary on the early history of cinema. Some may criticise this drift towards didacticism and certainly Hugo did, in sections, remind me of Mark Cousins’ excellent documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey. I for one enjoyed the little lesson in film history, although I fear some may become bored by this aspect of Hugo. In addition, the unraveling of the film’s mystery feels somewhat contrived and the adventure itself is rather static and unspectacular. Nevertheless, the excellent acting and beautiful sets charm throughout and it is difficult not to appreciate the heart and passion that has gone into this film. Not all children will enjoy Hugo, but many will be captivated by the magic at its heart. In incorporating famous extracts from the early days of cinema into an entertaining and masterfully constructed family film, Scorsese has achieved what few other film-makers would dare to try. As always, I look forward to his next effort.

Tyrannosaur (2011) – Review

An impressive debut from director Paddy Considine, who proves he is just as good behind the camera as he is in front of it. Tyrannosaur is a film that will leave you devastated and heartbroken – 8/10

Dir. Paddy Considine

Based on a the award-winning short, Dog Altogether, actor turned director Paddy Considine teams up with Olivia Coleman and Peter Mullen to give us Tyrannosaur. It’s a film that will rip your heart out and throw it back at you without hesitation. The subject matter of violence and rage has been well documented in film before but Paddy Considine delivers it here with so much emotional weight, highlighting the decay it can cause in people’s lives, leading to self-destruction.

No one exemplifies this more than Joseph (Peter Mullan) – a middle-aged man, living in Leeds, who is addicted to rage. He seems incapable of controlling his anger and this inevitably results in nasty situations and takes him to some dark places. Most of the time he wastes the days away in the pub, drinking and occasionally visiting what remains of his friends: a man dying of cancer, an Irish drunk and his neighbor, and a young boy named Sam (Samuel Bottomley) who frequently talks to him as he passes by. In truth, however, Joseph is alone and his life is slipping through his fingers. Plagued by this unhealthy addiction to violence, Joseph has nowhere to go and nobody to turn to.

His chance of redemption comes when he storms into a charity shop to hide (behind a clothing rail of all places!) and fate deals him a hand as he meets a devout Christian charity worker called Hannah (Olivia Coleman). Despite Joseph’s clear contempt for Hannah’s middle-class lifestyle, he finds himself returning to her shop on a daily basis. A bond forms between the two but their relationship is not a result of Hannah’s charity. Tyrannosaur, thankfully, is not about the middle class’ fixation on the misery of the poor. Neither is it a film that wishes to be uplifting, not so crudely at least. Instead, the bond between Joseph and Hannah comes from a shared loneliness, for Hannah also has a dark secret which she is battling. Her husband, James (Eddie Marsan), is a violent man who is also plagued with rage, but unlike Joseph he has a single victim he releases this upon, Hannah.

It is no overstatement to assert that the acts of violence and violation that Hannah is forced to endure are among the most harrowing you will ever see on-screen. It left me wincing and dismayed; but it is Olivia Coleman’s performance that takes the emotions of anger, disgust and horror and transcends them to heartbreak. To say her performance was a treat would feel inappropriate in the context of the film but who could have foreseen that an actor mostly known for her roles in comedy (Peep Show) would be the standout performer in a serious and gritty kitchen sink drama.

Tyrannosaur, however, isn’t merely a relentless barrage of misery as some would have you believe. There are moments in the film, like flickers of sunlight, that offer respite from the gloominess. The odd bit of humour can be found in the dialogue and the central romance epitomises the idea of finding hope in the darkest of places. If there is an aspect of the film that sparks inspiration for people, then it is this.

Ultimately however, Tyrannosaur is a piece of social realism. Paddy Considine has regularly argued against this, preferring people to just see it as a piece of cinema, but it is not dissimilar from the works of other British directors like Ken Loach and Shane Medows who specialise in social realism. In one sense and despite the quality of the film, this disappoints me. I would love to start seeing some variety in British Cinema because British films have been championing this style for decades.

Nevertheless, whilst Tyrannosaur may be yet another edition to the bleak, miserablist dramas of British cinema, Considine has managed to produce one of the better films of the year thanks to some strong performances from Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan and above all, Olivia Coleman.

Drive (2011) – Review

Thanks to some brilliant acting and directing Drive may just become a modern cult classic – 9/10

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

A lot has been said about Drive, some claim it is one of the movie highlights of the year, whilst others suggest it is more a case of style over substance. Despite split opinion, Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival and Drive was nominated for the Palme d’or, highlighting his competence as a director. Refn provides us with beautiful shots of Los Angeles alongside some brilliant artistic tricks that fit perfectly with the hyper-stylized approach. Some may have mistakenly pinned Drive down as a big budget picture but thankfully it avoids the usual lazy habits of mega budget films and is more akin to Art House and Noir films, as well as displaying traits of the B-Movie tradition. The result is that Drive is an absolute treat on the eyes and ears. It is entertaining, engaging and on a technical level Refn’s direction is superb.

The story orbits around one man known only as the Driver (Ryan Gosling). During the day he is a stunt man for movies, at night he lends his impressive talents to crooks as a getaway driver. As said in the film, Driver is a ‘hard man to work with’ – he lives by a rule to which he strictly adheres whereby the robbery needs to be completed in 5 minutes or he will leave his colleagues to find their own way out. Oh, and he never carries a gun. This methodical way of getaway driving makes Driver the best you can get, as the opening scene demonstrates he calculates every police move and counters them.

Not much back story is provided for Driver and he rarely speaks but Gosling puts in a convincing, nuanced performance as the enigmatic, lightly spoken anti-hero. His relationship with the other characters helps flesh out, in our minds, what this Driver is like. It is not what is said that matters, but the physical responses that count. In this way, Driver’s relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan) works excellently. The chemistry between them is believable, if at times a little too delicate; the long stares and little smiles produce an understated romance which is only achievable because of the performances of both actors – so credit to Mulligan’s gentle performance. Similar interactions are seen between Driver and Irene’s ex-convict husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), their hatred for one another is conveyed by contemptuous glances and the two share a silence that says it all. Nevertheless, they agree to accept each other, in the interests of Irene, and true to the film’s laconic nature it provides no dialogue to tell us this.

What Drive may surprise viewers with is the sudden shift between sentimentality and violence. At the start, Drive is concerned with the delicate moments of the characters’ lives, but images of happiness and romance are quite suddenly juxtaposed as the film veers in an entirely different direction. From this key moment things get ugly, as Driver demonstrates his capacity for extreme violence. This may be confusing for some but I found this to be enjoyable and it raised questions of the Driver’s psychology. The film convinces us at first that Driver is a good man, as evident from his kindness to Irene and his relationship with her son Benicio. However, this impression is quickly altered by his willingness to resort to extreme violence; at one stage he caves a man’s head in. It is important to reiterate that Drive is a very stylized film, at times it is almost surreal. The iconography of Driver in particular, his scorpion jacket, the tooth pick, the gloves, his refusal to compromise and the effortless cool of his character exemplifies this approach. This isn’t a film that embraces realism as the world in which it is set forces us to suspend disbelief.

Drive entertains from start to finish – the opening scene was stunning and had me immediately captivated. Kudos to Ryan Gosling who has proven he is a likable screen presence who has the caliber to enthrall with the subtlest of performances. Let’s hope that there are more lead parts to come for him. Whilst I haven’t mentioned them yet, Ron Pearlman’s and Albert Brook’s performances cannot be overlooked as the villains of the piece – superb work from them. Also, Refn’s clear love for the ’80s can be felt across the whole film, especially in its excellent soundtrack and the retro iconography – an artistic choice that the film certainly benefits from. Refn is in a promising position now and given his technical ability it is worth keeping an eye on his future projects. The retro, uber-cool aesthetic, the sublime soundtrack and the sheer entertainment it provides make Drive undoubtedly the coolest film you will see all year and it has easily nestled itself at the top of my best films of 2011.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) – Review

“You have to assume they’re watching you…” A safe assumption for the deceitful men who inhabit smoke-filled rooms in this brilliant adaptation – 9/10

Dir. Tomas Alfredson

The 1970s TV series was wonderfully received by critics and Alec Guinness is considered to have made George Smiley his own; consequently, Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman had a lot to live up to. Alfredson will be known to readers for his 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In and is leading the charge of Scandinavian directors who are making waves in the English-speaking movie world. Oldman heads a stellar cast (see poster above) in something of a who’s who of British acting talent that have been perfectly selected by casting director Jina Jay.

Without giving too much away I will reveal something of the plot. Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is a top agent for MI6 (referred to as “The Circus”) who is sent to Budapest on a mission. Something goes wrong, however, and he gets shot. Questions are asked and people scapegoated for the calamitous affair. Those at the top of MI6 – Control (John Hurt) and George Smiley (Oldman) – are forced into retirement. But when Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) calls in some information about a potential mole in the upper echelons of The Circus, Smiley is secretly called back to uncover the truth.

Intrigue abounds and as Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) says “things aren’t always what they seem.” It plays out as a beautifully constructed and thrillingly clever Cold War spy film. Having said this, the central theme is not espionage or the Cold War – Tinker Tailor is worlds apart from James Bond. Ultimately, this is a film about deceit. It’s about a group of colleagues – clever and talented men – who are so blinded by their ambition and disconnected with reality that they can no longer operate effectively. It’s about men trying to get ahead; playing empires, playing spies. As one character puts it, all trying to make “his mark.”

Tinker Tailor is grey and grainy as Alfredson expertly reconstructs Cold War Britain. Nostalgia for WWII and British imperialism is central to the psyche and paranoia of this film as the central characters strive to make Britain – and themselves – relevant once more. The action of the usual espionage thriller is replaced by hidden agendas and sideways glances; every look has a double meaning. The use of shallow focus catches us off guard at times as Alfredson strives to make us unsure of our suspicions and alert for clues. Alberto Iglesias chimes in with a suitably melancholy soundtrack which crescendos in all the right places and adds to the tension.

Some criticism has been levelled against this version of Tinker Tailor because it strays from both the source material and the TV series. My response to this is A) If it didn’t move away from the TV series then there wouldn’t be much point and B) This film works as a piece of cinema on its own terms and it therefore doesn’t matter if it differs from the book. What does matter in adaptations is that the central themes of the book and messages of the story are transferred effectively from page to screen; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy achieves this splendidly.

Jane Eyre (2011) – Review

Wasikowsa perfectly embodies Jane in an excellent retelling of a classic tale – 8/10

Dir. Cary Fukunaga

Fukunaga, who directed 2009’s Sin Nombre, displays in Jane Eyre an assured and confident work in cinematography. We are treated to hauntingly beautiful landscape shots and an elegant art direction that captivates from start to finish. It is impressive to see a director understand so well the Gothic nature of Jane Eyre and to nail the visuals accordingly; Fukunaga creates a 19th century the viewer can believe in. It is not just the visuals that leave you transfixed however, as the lead performance by Mia Wasikowska is outstanding. Mia pulls off the nuances and details of such a complex character as Jane so well – I can’t imagine a better Jane on-screen. Mia is supported well by the always excellent Michael Fassbender, who plays her lover Rochester. Rochester comes across as imposing and dominant, as well as enigmatic enough to raise suspicions of a dark, unnerving secret in his past. Whilst Fassbender is good, the performance that comes second only to Mia’s is that of Judi Dench; playing the nattering, loyal housekeeper of the Rochester estate, Dench is exemplary.

Jane Eyre purists may have a hard time swallowing such a condensed telling of the story.The film moves through the events of the book at a rapid pace, leap-frogging from scene to scene, never really willing to dwell on powerful moments of the story. Maybe it is this then that leaves the central romance, whilst heartfelt, a little lacking in comparison with the aching, smouldering passion found in the book. However, due to the limitations of time in a feature-length movie, this in my opinion is understandable and doesn’t diminish a solid adaptation. If anything this film just proves that Charlotte Bronte’s classic is the romantic novel that most modern literature can only look up to.

DVD Reviews: Farewell (2009) and Of Gods and Men (2010)

2 French language films, 2 English language reviews:

Farewell is an entertaining but unremarkable French spy thriller based on extraordinary real events – 7/10 

Dir. Christian Carion

It’s the early 1980s and the struggle for No.1 Superpower status between the USA and the USSR is still very much alive. In the heart of the KGB, however, Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) (loosely based on Vladimir Vetrov) has decided that enough is enough; the communist experiment was admirable but ultimately a failure and the Cold War has to end. Moreover, given that he is a high-ranking KGB agent he is perfectly placed to engineer that change – even if he risks everything doing it. In order to achieve his goal, the enigmatic and reckless Russian decides to hand over secrets to the French and the unwitting engineer, Pierre Froment (Guilleme Canet), becomes his accomplice and sole confident.

The plot is intriguing and the historical backdrop acts as the perfect setting for an espionage thriller. This backdrop is fully capitalised upon by director Christian Carion, who presents a coherent piece which captures the period well. Canet and Kusturica play the unlikely lead pairing brilliantly, particularly Kusturica who portrays the idealistic, Francophile Russian with some verve. The final half-hour pulls this slow burner tight, providing a suspenseful and emotionally engaging finale. This emotional engagement is, however, both the film’s downfall and achievement. Prior to this finale, Farewell spends a lot of time on Froment and Grigoriev’s character development and relationship. This allows us to sympathise with them on a personal level, but it also means the film plods along in parts. In addition, the scenes involving US President Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) and French President Francois Mitterand (Philippe Magnan) feel out-of-place and awkward.

There are many nice directorial touches in this film and the contrast between East and West is subtly but effectively shown. Farewell makes a point of being underplayed and is relatively low on thrills. Some might say it requires a little patience, but there’s much to admire and it’s well worth the watch. Also, lovely soundtrack by Clint Mansell.

Of Gods and Men

Sad, profound and beautiful in equal measure, this is not a film that you will easily forget – 8/10

Dir. Xavier Beauvois

Of Gods and Men portrays the true story of 9 Trappists monks living in the monastery of Tibhirine, Algeria, before 7 of them are taken and killed by terrorists during the Algerian Civil War in 1996. Prior to being held hostage, the monks lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbours and much of the film shows their metronomic routine of life and worship. The monks make a considerable contribution to the community, particularly in their provision of medicine. They therefore struggle to comprehend the idea of leaving Tibhirine, despite the obvious danger, and the film predominantly focuses on the monks’ decision to stay and risk their lives.

Of Gods and Men was highly acclaimed and won several awards including the 2010 Cannes ‘Grand Prix,’ and for the most part these accolades are deserved. It is – in line with the subject matter – sombre without being mawkish and considers the issue of martyrdom without having delusions of grandeur. Clearly religion is central to the narrative but the film does not try to convert the viewer. Of Gods and Men is beautifully shot; it is contemplative and restrained throughout and this tone can be sharply contrasted with the way in which the monks were treated by their captors. Christian (Lambert Wilson) and Luc (Michael Lonsdale) lead their fellow monks in discussing what is the right thing to do. However, we learn most by studying their wonderfully expressive faces and it is clear that the monks never intend to leave their post. Although it is hard not to feel that the monks’ courage, loyalty or piety lead to a tremendous waste of life, Of Gods and Men is a brilliant study of their motivations and psyche.