Sunday, 31 January 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Broadly speaking, musical biopics these days can go one of two routes. One is the sickeningly reverential approach that clinched Jamie Foxx an Oscar for playing Ray Charles. The other is the equivalent to a bad drugs trip a la Todd Haynes' I'm Not There; this, presumably, is the most appropriate tack.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll aims for the latter and mostly succeeds; after all, Ian Dury was an unpredictable man. We need a sense of danger and chaos. And if Mat Whitecross' portrayal can't quite slip the corny narrative slant from depravation to redemption, some admirably bold sensitivity saves the day, not to mention a typically electric performance from Andy Serkis, one of our finest actors.

The problem is that Dury was such a parody of himself, Serkis' efforts risk coming across as a shrill imitation. Following the vocalist's tribulations from early days being booted out of seedy pubs, through his adulterous homelife to his emergence as Blockheads frontman with excess psychological baggage, there is an attempt to unravel the complex musician.

Of course, such efforts are hamstrung by convention, meaning the Bronson-style theatrical address to Dury's salivating audience and the chripy cartoon intermissions taking him from one year to another feel clunky. Much more effective, in terms of performance and ambition, are the personal scenes, where Serkis, young Bill Milner as his son Baxter, Olivia Williams as estranged wife Betty and Naomie Harris as bed-buddy Denise, create a palpable sense of the emotional turmoil left in Dury's wake.

After all, what is there to explain about imitation and stage presence? For all the poignant flashback sequences, hinting at motivation and pain, it amounts to nothing. The bit where he first hits upon the title phrase, though? That's a tinglingly enjoyable scene, a sense of history-in-the making we can all identify with.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Up in the Air

What happens when the downsizer gets downsized? That's the neat (and particularly apposite) conceit of Jason Reitman's new comedy Up in the Air, clad in the same air of cynical smarts and genuine heart that made his Juno such a huge success.

Having George Clooney in the hot-seat doesn't hurt either; truly, there's no other star better at effortlessly conveying comedy and drama through a debonair, rakish exterior. He's a perfect fit for the character of Ryan Bingham, a man who jets around the USA firing the people the companies don't have the guts to fire themselves. Ryan lives life out of a wheely-case, is most relaxed by the sound of 'turn off your seatbelt' and resists any ties, diverting his philosophy occasionally in smug self-help seminars. His goal in life is to reach 10 million air-miles.

Of course it's Clooney playing himself (that's why he's so enjoyable with it) - but he's also able to dig to the pathos of the material when his company grounds him in favour of computer-based sackings, pioneered by perky newcomer, Natalie (Twilight's Anna Kendrick). Bingham is infuriated when his boss (Jason Bateman) suggests he show Natalie the old ways of face-to-face dismissal, before the digital age takes over.

It's a particularly delicious and ironic set-up, allowing one to mock and yet love these condescending types who exist to ruin the lives of others. The film's release in the current climate couldn't sting harder but Reitman doesn't dictate, instead digging a buddy picture, a romantic tale (between Clooney and Vera Farmiga's sassy frequent flyer) and a moving story of a man who's wasted his life, out of the events taking Bingham from one airport to the next.

Necessitated by the screenplay, there is a mechanical feel and the second half loses the sharp edge in favour of warming the cockles. But it's in Clooney's handsome, yet pained, visage, that seals it as an adult comedy of the first order, a bittersweet reminder that we can always stand to lose too much.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Book of Eli

It's a curious, yet frequent, quirk of Hollywood to release films of the same ilk close to one another. Barely two weeks ago, the gloomy, grimy yet inspiring The Road restored faith in humanity amid the squalor of the apocalypse. Now we have The Book of Eli trudging along in its dust, kind of like a wannabe, chav cousin, all tooled up to the nines with nowhere to go.

Denzel Washington walks the long road to nowhere and apparently has been doing so for 30 years, ever since a sketchily described disaster, in his words, 'tore a hole in the sky'. That's all the backdrop we get - and that line of dialogue comes half-way through. Fair enough, it's an act of faith asking us to invest in a vague scenario, but it drains the film of credibility.

His wandering Eli is trekking west (how has it taken him 30 years?), carrying with him a tome that villainous despot Gary Oldman is very interested in once Washington ambles into town. His Carnegie is a formidably literate adversary, more so than his henchmen and oppressed townsfolk, and sees the book as a powerful propaganda tool.

Which begs the first of many questions - why doesn't Carnegie simply create his own book to control his people? It serves to remind that Allen and Albert Hughes' first effort since 2001's From Hell works best on a metafictional plane; look closely at the dots and it falls apart. Neither successful as a Christian tract (yawn) or a Mad Max style dystopia (the onslaught of greys and browns rob the film of any vitality), it's in desperate need of some vigour.

Likewise, Washington is charismatic but bleached of character, as drab as the sky above him. Oldman meanwhile is a refreshingly intelligent villain but given little to do. It's a bizarre turn of events when two British thesps, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour, lend the film its sole spark of life and take part in its only noteworthy action scene. When tea drinking old crocks are more enjoyable than your hero, you know you have problems. The apocalypse should be many things...but boring isn't one of them.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Avatar Mach II: The Billion Dollar Barrier

It's astonishing but, let's be honest, hardly unexpected: James Cameron's Avatar has taken over $1 billion worldwide and is now second only to the director's very own Titanic, which has been sitting pretty at the top of the box office for over 12 years. In the very likely event that it will overtake the big boat, I'm going to do something I never normally do: review the film again, or rather aspects of it I overlooked initially, in order to see whether my opinion changes. I would never normally do this but Avatar is a real event movie and warrants the attention - how often do we get a film this successful with global audiences? (As I type, it's been announced that 2 Golden Globes have also been added to the pot). Why has the film proven so successful then? Read on!


So Jim Cameron has hit the jackpot once more and confirmed his status as 'King of the World' (the cinematic one at least). Why does he have the Midas Touch?

In my earlier review of Avatar, I claimed the first half was as good as anything Cameron's ever done, a poppy, yet lucid and hugely ambitious sci-fi in his usual vein. It was the second half I had problems with, coming over all Pocahontas on us and full of 'tree hugger crap' (as Sam Worthington's Jake Sully glibly puts it).

Second time round, yes, the latter half of the film is still earnest to the point of self-parody (in contrast to the more confident set-up)...but, really, what's wrong with that? Am I so jaded that a blockbuster with its heart in the right place needs to be villified or condemned? Here, at last is a major sci-fi with the courage of its thematic convictions, one that doesn't exist to cynically sell Converse trainers or mobile phones (you know who you are).

Consequently, I was far more tuned in to the spiritual aspect of the film this time round, one that is established right from the off with the haunting contrasting images of dreamy deep space and probing eyeballs. From the start, Worthington's Sully is just 'another dumb grunt' (in Cameron's usual parlance)...the avatar programme allows him to recapture something humane he has lost (namely his legs, still one of the greatest expressions of joy seen in a film in recent years). It's his decision to, ultimately, give up his frail human exterior for something better, that puts a rather moving seal on a $300 million film with a clunky ecological message and smurfs for heroes. Reincarnation through's a powerful theme.

There are a myriad of other pleasures as well that slipped through the net first time round from the unheralded supporting performances (Joel Moore as the geeky yet inexperienced Norm; Sigourney Weaver's cynical scientist finding redemption in miracles) to James Horner's rich, complex score. Despite his continued self-plagiarism, the composer brilliantly melds the tribal and the mechanistic in one soaring, melodic whole (there's a great deal of brilliant music missing on the lacklustre soundtrack release).

Then there is the strong narrative backbone running throughout like the naturally occuring carbon fibre inside a Na'vi. From the blink and you'll miss it panic of Avatar-Jake worried that the army will do to Pandora what they have already done to Earth, to his drug-like dependency on the simulation state, this is brainy, thoughtful sci-fi at its best.

It's also genuinely life-affirming, a middle finger up at faceless bureaucrats in favour of a more simple way of life, where spirituality, family and nature count for something much more important. Then of course there is the familiar Cameron theme of the redeeming power of love, undulating to the repeated phrase of 'I see you', crossing impossible boundaries and guaranteeing happiness in the beyond.

But of course the main attraction is Pandora itself, a breathtaking creation. If David Attenborough were around to pioneer a BBC nature documentary in the outskirts of space, it's hard to imagine we'd see anything different. From collapsing toadstools to insects that transform into bioluminescent, airborne wonders, the attention to detail is extraordinary.

It seems all of the above has sealed Avatar as a $1 billion meal-ticket, and a well-deserved one at that, enchanting people of all ages. Time will tell all about its influence on future films (in particular, 3D), but we're unlikely, flaws and all, to see anything of its ilk, for quite some time. Well, until Tintin perhaps...

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Seminal Scores: The Ghost and the Darkness (Jerry Goldsmith, 1996)

Sadly neglected on release, Stephen Hopkins' The Ghost and the Darkness is a rip-roaring (literally!) old-fashioned actioner. Despite underwhelming lead performances from Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas and a pervasive feeling of familiarity, the fact it is based on a true story is too astonishing to ignore.

Set in 1898, it's the horrific tale of Irish Colonel John Patterson's (Kilmer) attempts at building a railway across Kenya, suddenly thwarted by the presence of two monstrous lions who proceeded to stalk and eat in excess of 30 people over a nine month period (Patterson claimed, in his book 'Man Eaters of Tsavo', the figure reached 135). Dubbed 'the ghost and the darkness' by the locals, who attributed the lions' dogged persistence to evil spirits, Patterson faced not only challenges to his authority but a much more immediate sense of danger.

It's an incredible story and the film, in all fairness, probably doesn't do it justice, adding in Douglas' fictional character presumably to sell the film to American audiences. Where it does succeed however, is in the realm of atmosphere, rendering the Kenyan landscape a mystical and engrossing place of conflicting cultures and unseen dangers lurking in the undergrowth. Adding immeasurably to the drama is the magnificent score from Jerry Goldsmith, one of his finest efforts in the genre and one that confirmed his mastery at fusing authentic ethnic sounds into a sizeable orchestra.

Goldsmith, for his part, paints on a broad canvas, rendering the film musically as a grand colonial adventure. It's the best possible approach: bold in the sense of wonderment at the African landscape, fused with a sense of mystery and also sheer terror as the fearsome lions go on the rampage. His 'Main Theme' is a terrific blend of three disparate cultures, Irish, English and African, with a lively flute melody leading into a powerful horn/Swahili choir combination, saying all that needs to be said about the film in the space of 2 minutes. No-one else would likely have attempted such an ambitious thematic blend. It so perfectly mirrors Kilmer's initial reactions to the lush landscape that you wonder if the film would work at all without it.

But of course, Goldsmith being a professional, he doesn't rest on his laurels. The early parts of the album put the theme through a number of variations, from the celebratory 'The Bridge' to the tender, gorgeous romance of 'Catch a Train', prior to the later, unfortunate turn of events. The malleability of the theme, combined with its complex construction, marks the composer at his absolute best.

'Lions Attack' marks a complete turnaround and explodes in frenzied terror as the film's villains cause havoc in the Tsavo camp, the piercing vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan cutting through the orchestral carnage. This is then undershot by a moment of heartbreaking sadness as the aftermath of the massacre is unveiled, before leading into the lion theme proper, an imposing brass led melody with Ali Khan's vocals and the tribal percussion sounding an ironic triumph for the animals.

'First Time' indicates that things may be on the up again with a glorious rendition of the main theme but it doesn't last. 'Starling's Death' is pure bone-chilling horror, the choir used in a whispering counterpoint to Goldsmith's brassy outburts, percussion and disturbing screeching effects. In combination with the shots of mysterious, swirling grassland as seen in the film, it works absolute wonders. As the score continues, the lions' theme is taken to even greater heights, even, in 'Lions Reign', taking on a definite supernatural sheen through the eerie vocal and wind effects.

'Preparations' leads the charge back, the orchestra and choir used in a more defiant, heroic fashion before 'Remington's Death' reintroduces a note of genuine heartbreak in the face of adversity courtesy of some powerful orchestral work. 'Prepare for Battle' builds the heroic material again through the bolstered brass section and choir. 'Final Attack' is the most abrasive and terrifying of the action material as Kilmer reaches the showdown with the monsters, the snarling orchestra and undulating choir/screeching percussion reaching dissonant proportions. The subsequent noble rendition of the theme at the track's close is like a sunrise on a summer's day, ushering in the magnificent finale 'Welcome to Tsavo' that reinstates the theme in both its colonial romantic variation and celebratory African one. Truly, it's one of the composer's finest pieces.

Jerry Goldsmith was truly one of a kind, on his best days able to transport the listener to whatever milieu or situation he was representing. With The Ghost and the Darkness, he takes us across the plains of Africa, stares terror in the face and celebrates the beauty of a magical country. It's a brilliant, brilliant score, and deserves to rank among his more famous masterpieces. And remember: 'If you dare lock eyes with will be afraid...'

The Road

There's no pressure on the long awaited (not to mention delayed) adaptation of The Road. Taken from the masterful Pulitzer Prize winner by Cormac McCarthy and generating impossible hype due to its long suspension in release limbo, it's finally been unleashed on the British public during our grottiest January in years.

That it makes a brilliant transition should be no surprise. McCarthy's terse, tense prose cuts closer to the poetic in relying on a reader's imagination to fill the gaps. John Hillcoat's cinematic take duly obliges in foregrounding the Terence Malick-style austere beauty to be found in a dead world drained of colour. Earthquakes rumble underfoot; trees collapse like matchsticks; and the highways are patrolled by savage cannibals.

However, far from being just a pretty face, it's the essential humanity Hillcoat draws out of McCarthy's text that makes it such a riveting, moving experience. Viggo Mortensen's unnamed Man, along with his (also unnamed) Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), are on a quest to nowhere. Furtively murmuring that they must reach 'the coast' in search of 'the good guys', the future is as bleak and imposing as the sky above them. The needs of the world have been boiled down to the most elemental father-son relationship.

Constantly engaged in a life-or-death struggle, Hillcoat isn't afraid to paint their plight in a broader Biblical vein than the novel did. What it loses in subtlety it makes up for in emotional directness: a neat expansion of the ambiguous backstory reveals the brittle Charlize Theron Mother figure who, in a flipside to the central narrative, loses all semblance of hope and crumbles.

Elsewhere, the power resides entirely in the little details: a first, thirst-quenching drink of Coke, the joy at discovering an underground bunker full of food or a tear spilling down the face of elderly traveller Robert Duvall as he mistakes Mortensen's son for an angel. It's as delicate and poignant a portrayal of decency in the face of oppression as has been seen in ages. The way has been paved, and the bar raised, for the future cinematic apocalypse.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Best of Goldsmith

What composer Jerry Goldsmith did with the language of film music was truly extraordinary. Showing an uncanny ability to fuse ethnic instruments or electronics with an orchestra, and with an unfailingly dramatic touch, it's unlikely we'll ever see another of his kind. But don't take my word for it: here are some of his finest achievements in film scoring.

Innerspace - Gut Reaction

Total Recall - Clever Girl

Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Main Title/Klingon Battle

First Blood - The Razor

Thursday, 7 January 2010


It's official: vampires are chic again. And bloodsucking flicks are unlikely to come more stylish than Daybreakers, from Aussie duo Michael and Peter Spierig.

It's a neat package of Blade Runner-esque dystopia, Richard Matheson-esque sci-fi horror and, well, all sorts of other esque-type cliches. Neatly casting the pointy-toothed types as both villains and victims, it's set in an unnamed vampire dominated metropolis understandably busier at night than it is during the day. Humans are enslaved for their blood but there's a problem: the purest form of O Negative is running out, leading to a desperate struggle to find a cure, while underground, a culture of 'subsider' inbred bat things are mutating due to the lack of supplies.

Enter guilt-ridden corporate scientist Ethan Hawke (suitably ethereal and moody) who, having been taken in by a rebel band of humans (led by Claudia Carvan and Willem Dafoe) pioneers the charge for a cure, in direct opposition to the needs of his boss Charles Bromley (a sinister Sam Neill). Will he succeed and save the human race? Keeping the balls juggling admirably, the directors also pack in a multitude of other conflicts ranging from brother-brother to father-daughter and even vampie-vampire.

Cleverly upturning the most bloodless of cliches, everything from the sun as an enemy (here it has other properties too) to the appearances of the vamps themselves (Neill's suited and booted villain could be a poster child), it's a zingy mix of contemporary smarts and archetypal myth. There's also the cleverest twist on a car chase in recent memory.

The Spierigs' confidence in their storytelling is enough to make one overlook the occasional ropey acting and underdeveloped themes (how, for example, did the world come to be run by vampires?) Witty in design (vampire housing leads directly to subways underground) and refreshingly gothic in outlook (Christopher Gordon's moody score), there's also some terrific splatter to keep audiences hooked. It's also never willing to take itself too seriously when a sharp one-liner from Dafoe's deep fried hunter can break the tension. It also, in the end, provides a pleasure of a more incidental kind: casting Ethan Hawke as a badass? We never thought we'd see the day(light).