Saturday, 9 April 2011

That's a Wrap Folks!

As those who follow this blog may have gleaned, I've not been consistent with the updates of late. This is because I have moved onto other writing projects, so as a result, I'm no longer updating this site. I want to say thanks to my loyal band of 10 followers, and thanks to everyone who's read my blog! Those who want to keep up with my work are advised to visit, and As they say in the business: 'Thats a Wrap!'

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

BAFTA Reaction

So the BAFTA's have been awarded, the slushy speeches have been forgotten and the hangover of the after party has faded into a distant memory. In short, now the rubble's settled, let's look back on the winners.

Truthfully, the nominations were more exciting than the ceremony itself, an eclectic spread from Exit Through the Gift Shop for Best British Debut to a posthumous nod for Pete Postlethwaite for The Town. Well neither the late great actor nor Exit Through the Gift Shop won, and several other exciting nominees also lost out.

Was there ever any doubt though? This was the night The King's Speech reigned supreme. And yet, Tom Hooper's magnificent film is no mere awards-baiting showcase, but rather deserves all the success it's getting. It's a triumph of real acting, real story and real characters, and, judging by its UK box office receipts, has clearly struck a chord with the mainstream audience as well as the awards panel. It's a multifaceted success on every level, and Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter deserve kudos for their sincere acceptance speeches. The same kind of sincerity underlined all aspects of the production, and it's no surprise the film's hitting such lofty heights both financially and artistically.

Four Lions meanwhile was a smaller-scale but no less impressive triumph and it was thrilling to see it pick up Best British Debut. Elsewhere, there was a degree of balance by awarding Best Director (David Fincher) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin) to The Social Network. The riveting tragio-comic undercurrents to the story of the founding of Facebook really do derive from the combination of incisive, pacy direction and snappy, witty screenplay. On a technical level, Roger Deakins (who, I'm proud to announce, is from my hometown of Torquay) romped home with the Best Cinematography award for his tremendous work on True Grit, indicating with every passing year that he's likely the best DOP in the business today.

Christopher Lee's moving appearance when collecting the BAFTA Fellowship meanwhile is guaranteed to go down as one of the most memorable moments in its history, adding real poignancy to a sycophantic evening. Toy Story 3 for Best Animated Film and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for Foreign Language Film were pretty much shoo-ins from the off (it would have been nice to see Noomi Rapace get Best Actress, though). Truth be told, Natalie Portman deserved no less for her extraordinary performance in Black Swan.

Niggles? A couple. Inception, predictably, was relegated to the technical categories (not even Original Screenplay?), and John Powell lost out on Best Original Score to Alexandre Desplat for The King's Speech. The latter's a fantastic score and crucial to the film it accompanies but Powell's effort is one of the greatest adventure scores to emerge in recent years.

Still - can't have everything. Roll on the Oscars!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Sanctum 3D

As an underwater caving movie, Sanctum opens itself up to the most sneering phrases. 'Achieves no more than the slow drip of suspense'; 'Flows along with minor eddies of tension' and so on and so forth. Unfortunately such descriptions hold - yes - water. It's the very definition of average pedestrian cinema, drifting along at a deathly pace that draws attention to some stonking great cliches.

By no means is it terrible. It's just not especially good either. If anyone deserves mud slung at them it's the marketing team for plastering James Cameron's name all over the posters. Aside from his much touted role as executive producer, Cameron had no involvement in the film's creative process. If he had, it no doubt would have proven to be a more claustrophobic, gritty experience, if only because Cameron would likely have made more physical demands on his actors (a la The Abyss).

But instead we get the equivalent of Neighbours Goes Underwater. A group of Aussie actors headed by Van Helsing's Richard Roxburgh end up trapped in a vast underground caving system after a nasty tropical storm arrives early. Of course the only way out is down and before someone can scream The Descent, there's squabbling, bickering and failing oxygen masks aplenty. The only thing was The Descent sustained tension to an exhausting degree, on a fraction of Sanctum's budget. If that isn't proof that money doesn't buy you everything, nothing is.

While the boxes are being checked - father son reconciliation; slimy American entrepreneur emerging as a baddie (played by Ioan Gruffudd in a textbook definition of miscasting) - there's undeniably some beautiful underwater photography. Yes, DOP Jules O'Loughlin knows how to light a cave magnificently and, when accompanied by David Hirschfelder's ethereally textural score, it does often take the breath away.

But of course amazing caves do not a caving thriller make; unfortunately we are constantly distracted by the plastic human figures at the centre of the drama. A few sequences late on threaten to grapple with more tension but the film is undercut by its own cynical constructs, including a desperate last ditch attempt to draw more audiences with the lure of 3D. Sorry, that's no substitute for the inherent lack of good drama.

And as for the equally desperate 'based on true story' epigraph - when a key character seems to die and come back to life twice, that's no representation of reality. It's pure cinematic hokum.

Monday, 7 February 2011


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu exploded onto the art house scene with Amores Perros. A vital, thrilling series of interlocking, harsh, nasty stories, it lit the proverbial fire beneath Mexican cinema, leading the charge for the renaissance it enjoys today. Unfortunately, his latest, Biutiful, doesn't so much burst into life as seep slowly down the screen like treacle. It's less schematic than his previous effort, Babel, but is so intent on rubbing our faces in spiritual and physical miserablism that it is by turns numbing, irritating and farcical.

Someone should tell Inarritu that many of the best dramas are flecked with just as much compassionate humour as despair. Well, humour's definitely what's missing from Biutiful, although trying to elicit laughs from the ludicrous number of torments piled on Javier Bardem would certainly be difficult. It attempts to make the audience suffer vicariously as its protagonist does - but unlike Amores Perros, or indeed 21 Grams, the sheer magnitude of the suffering means the film feels oddly artificial.

Bardem's Uxbal is dying. Not just physically (from cancer, he is informed at the outset), but spiritually, too. By turns a devoted father to his two children and a lowly, underworld figure in a strikingly seedy, grubby Barcelona (one of the film's successes is how it subverts the popular image of the city), he is also experiencing a crisis of faith. Involved in local drug dealing, he also has connections to a Chinese immigrant sweatshop. His bipolar ex-wife, Marambra (an excellent Maricel Alvarez) is also an unpredictable factor in his life. Can he juggle all his responsibilities as he prepares to meet his maker?

Well, it's a lot of emotional baggage. So much so that even one of Thomas Hardy's classic tragic heroes may have asked someone else to help shoulder the burden. But Inarritu's biggest failing is that none of the misery amounts to anything on an emotional level. Instead, he makes the fatal mistake of assuming that overloading the screen with tragedy will make his film inherently tragic. Sorry, Alejandro, it doesn't work, and attempts at faux spiritualism (Uxbal's ill-defined abilities as a medium; birds flying across a vast expanse of blue sky) only serve to make it more trite.

Any and all of the film's limited success can be attributed directly to Bardem. It's to Inarritu's and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's credit that they choose to make the most of this commanding actor's craggy features in extreme close-up throughout, allowing Bardem to deploy his thousand yard stare to more thoughtful and distressing effect. But despite his best efforts, the performance is quashed by Inarritu's overbearing, over-achieving direction, which, in its attempt at profundity, instead has the opposite effect of dumbing everything down.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Seminal Scores: Out of Africa (John Barry, 1985)

The start of 2011 has already proven especially tragic with the loss of actors Pete Postlethwaite and Susannah York. But the death of veteran film composer John Barry hits closer to home for me. Truly one of the titans of film music has passed on; I'm a firm advocate of orchestral film scores - but rarely were they composed with the finesse and grace that Barry brought to the table. Unfairly pigeonholed in later years as a composer of weepy epics, he was in fact one of the most astute and dynamic musicians in Hollywood, one who spread himself across a variety of genres. He was both a tremendous melodist and a pioneer of 60s musical sounds; a man frequently dismissed as repetitious and samey but who possessed the most vital of gifts: an understanding of the orchestra. While probably best known for his eleven Bond scores, I'm here to cherish his memory through his Oscar-winning 1985 masterpiece, Out of Africa.
Rest in peace John. Your passing marks the end of an era.

Sydney Pollack's 1985 weepie swooped low over the Kenyan grasslands to eventually scoop seven Oscars, including one for the director himself, one for Best Picture and one for lead Meryl Streep. Taking on yet another intimidating accent (Danish in this case), Streep stars as Karen Blixen, on whose memoirs the film is based. Blixen, a baroness, entered into a passionless marriage of convenience in 20th century Africa but found her soul kindled by a big-game hunter (English in real life; all-American Robert Redford in the film). Klaus Maria Brandauer (as Blixen's legal husband, Bror), Michael Kitchen and others round out the support cast but truly it's a bit of a stodgy affair, crippled by over length and overuse of Streep's voice over.

What can't be disputed though are the film's awesome technical credits. If nothing else, the film is a paean to the majesty of Africa in a way few others are, David Watkin's cinematography capturing every facet of waving grassland and hazy plain beneath the scorching Kenyan sun. But while the cinematography alone guarantees the film's status as a breathtaking travelogue, there's a far more fundamental reason why it has stuck in the hearts of viewers since release. And no, it's nothing to do with Streep's warbling, overly researched accent. There's something else in the film that really makes us care about what's going on. And that is John Barry's score.

Famously, when first faced with the print of the film, Barry rejected director Pollack's notion that it be scored with indigenous melodies. Instead, he hit on the far more elemental (and far more powerful) notion that the music should score the emotion of the characters at the centre of the film. The landscape meanwhile could always speak for itself. A skeptical Pollack hesitantly agreed but the gamble paid off: Barry's approach to Out of Africa proved to be one of the most astute dramatic decisions of his career, resulting in a score that punctuated the turgid, navel-gazing gloom of the film to evoke real compassion and emotion for the characters.

The composer, ever self-deprecating, expressed surprise when he won the Oscar for Best Original Score, citing there was no more than 35 minutes of it in the two and a half hour film. But it's the sparing use of the music itself that guarantees it such heart-wrenching success. It's a brilliantly spotted film, and Barry's capacity for sheer, old-fashioned beauty cuts right to the centre of Blixen's heartbreak. Much of the score's success can be credited to its magnificent central theme, I Had a Farm in Africa, one that's clad in Barry's familiar style (high strings, low horns) but which takes on a spectacularly rich vein of melancholy when placed in the context of the film. Barry's understanding that human emotion in and of itself can be represented in an expansive, melodramatic fashion was a massively insightful notion, one that guaranteed the theme's status as one of the most glorious ever to grace the silver screen.

Positioned alongside the main theme is the lesser known but breathlessly intimate one for Karen herself. Split into three movements across the album (I'm Better at Hello/I Had a Compass from Denys/If I Know a Song of Africa), it's truly lovely, with particular emphasis going on woodwind and piano. Barry effectively pits the quiet intimacy of Karen's theme against the broader expanse of the Farm theme to create a dramatic contrast in scale. By choosing to score the emotional landscape as opposed to the physical one, Barry underpins both album and film with a genuine aura of sincerity.

There is one brief concession to local sounds at the end of the moodier Karen's Journey/Siyawe, which deploys ethnic voices to authentic effect. By contrast, Safari plays up the expansive joy of Karen's venture into the landscape, another example of the multitude of nuances enriching an admittedly brief score. The most memorable moments however are those that put the main theme at the forefront, chiefly the astonishing Flying Over Africa which builds from a low choral/orchestral combination to a majestic, thrilling variation on I Had a Farm. It's one of the most heavenly moments in Barry's lengthy career, and in the film, when combined with David Watkin's jaw-dropping aerial photography, it's simply remarkable.

It's also incredibly moving. By the time one reaches the heartbreaking End Title movement (You Are Karen), Barry's sense of musical compassion is overwhelming, the full orchestra performing the difficult trick of seeming uplifting and deeply melancholy at the same time. This is Barry's greatest achievement with the score, painting human heartbreak as a symphony and with that graceful, deft touch that only the very best film composers attain. In a career packed with highlights, Out of Africa stakes a claim as one of John Barry's most resonant and successful works, achieving a level of heart and soul that all scores aim for but which few achieve.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Morning Glory

Midway through Morning Glory, perky, ambitious producer Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) confronts grouchy veteran anchor Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) about the true value of television broadcasting. Do you feed people bran, she asks, something that's healthy but ultimately tedious, or a sweet, fluffy doughnut, which offers immediate, if short-lived, gratification?

Such a comparison could be levelled at Roger Michell's new film in its entirety. If Morning Glory ultimately veers more towards sugary, forgettable confection as opposed to substantial, intelligent nourishment, it's no less enjoyable for it, benefiting from solid casting in the central quarters and a vein of nicely caustic humour that prevents it from drowning in too much syrup.

Much of the latter in fact stems from Ford himself. On his finest form in years, the actor appears to be doing little more than channeling his real personality, face hewn like Mount Rushmore's more rugged cousin and voice set to a perpetual growl. If this is what it takes for Ford to fully engage an audience however, he should consider doing it for the rest of his career; somehow he makes this ageing, miserable chauvinist lothario both hilariously funny and immensely likeable.

His sparring with McAdams lies at the heart of the film, although it takes a while to reach the juicy, jam-laden centre. At the start, McAdams' Becky is fired from her job; having sent her resume around to all the television stations in the New Jersey and New York area, she is finally picked up for an executive producer spot on struggling breakfast show Daybreak (British viewers will see an irony there) by an uncharacteristically slimy Jeff Goldblum. He has no faith in Becky's assertion that she will boost the ratings by essentially blackmailing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ford to appear as anchor on the show alongside Diane Keaton.

But then, daft pipe dreams are what Hollywood's made of, and make no mistake, Morning Glory has little interest in exposing the bleary-eyed, backbreaking world of morning television. McAdams for one never looks like she's more than a step away from the make-up tent but when she demonstrates this much pluck and pizazz, we can overlook that. And once she starts sparring with Ford, she's cooking with gas.

There are problems. The higher profile support cast (including Keaton and Patrick Wilson as McAdams' bit of stuff) are given little to do aside from the odd amusing set-piece (the frog-kissing scene generates a priceless reaction from Ford) and it's a shame that cynicism is replaced by a predictable cooking against the clock climax. It's less station satire than smart sitcom but it's infinitely more enjoyable and easier to digest than yet another crude, so-called bromance comedy.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet is a strange film in that it owes its enjoyment to those others it steals from. Add to that problems in tone (swearing is surprisingly aggressive for a 12A, indicating a level of immaturity from co-writer/exec producer/star Seth Rogen), and a distinct lack of director Michel Gondry's authorial stamp, and what you get is a bunch of ill-fitting bits.

What can't be argued is its almighty debt to Kick Ass in particular (plus Batman and others), which covered similar ground with much more edginess, controversy and self-awareness. Ironically, that film had the capacity to sting, and did so without mercy; The Green Hornet is more blunted and dulled. It's got the full force of the Hollywood marketing machine behind it but, bizarrely, the film is somewhat regressive. Being the latest incarnation of a superhero whose inception dates back to the 1940s, and who has already enjoyed a rich history (including Bruce Lee's short-lived TV series), there seems to be little sense of modern sophistication or wit.

It would be interesting to know what creators George W. Trendle and Fran Striker would have made of their hero being reduced to the level of Seth Rogen slobbery, because that's exactly what happens. Rogen stars as Britt Reid, playboy son to a newspaper magnate (Tom Wilkinson) who dies from a bee sting. Realising his father's coffee maker, Kato (Jay Chou) is a whizz with gadgets, Reid hits on the notion that they team up and become superheroes, in his case The Green Hornet. The plan is to pose as baddies in other to divert attention from themselves when in fact they'll be fighting the villains on their own turf for the greater good.

It all sounds promising but the whole ethos of the piece can be summed up by an undercooked, though enjoyably smarmy, Christoph Waltz. As antagonist Chudnofsky, Waltz carries an air of someone happy to be simply invited onto a Hollywood set. Such coasting pervades the whole film, adrenaline levels rarely exceeding a moderate hum throughout, while all of the best gags carry an uncomfortable air of familiarity. The 'ordinary schmo becomes a superhero' overlap with Kick Ass would perhaps be considered unfortunate until one considers the former began filming long before Hornet, leaving plenty of time for liberal 'riffing'. How else to explain the presence of an identikit gag whereby both heroes dance in their car The Black Beauty prior to going out and kicking butt?

But it's not just Kick Ass. There's the playboy/superhero duality that Rogen simply can't convey in the manner of a Keaton or Bale; the house fight that was diluted in Iron Man II because of the metal suits but which carries an air of childish nastiness here; and many more lifts that act as entertaining reminders of other, better films. Rogen's overbearing persona almost completely stomps out the Gondry spark which made Eternal Sunshine and Be Kind Rewind such a joy; his screenplay, co-authored with Superbad cohort Evan Goldberg, revels in the boorishness of the Reid character but fails to make us feel anything sincere.

There are glimmers of the self-referential film Gondry wants to make; at one stage, the screen splits into multiple frames conveying a series of criss-crossing conversations. Later on, a key revelatory moment is also conveyed in brilliantly inventive fashion, staving off the need for tired exposition. These are the moments that should dominate throughout but in the end it's more a Seth Rogen film than a Michel Gondry film. There's nothing strictly wrong with that but it's a bit of a cheat to fly under the radar of a superhero film, only to come over all Funny People. The utterly superfluous presence of Cameron Diaz however is just Superbad.