Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Crazy Heart

Free of the irritating tabloid brouhaha that screams 'Movie Star', Jeff Bridges simply is one. A member of the old school who infuses the silver screen with understated, graceful, genuine charisma, it wouldn't be remiss to suggest that his (Oscar-winning) role is the engine of Crazy Heart. Yet it's the very selflessness of the performance, the honesty, the ability to share the screen with, and offer it to, his equally talented, if less accomplished, co-stars that makes Crazy Heart such a pleasure to watch.

The proof is in the pudding: character-led intimacy, when done as successfully as it is here, proves just as magical (if not more) as the CGI-inflated majesty of Avatar. The quiet, intimate unveiling not just of Bridges' alcoholic washed up country n' western crooner but of semi-rural American life is seductive. It's a life of dime stores, beer and the Texas/New Mexico open road – all naff clich├ęs as substantial as a corndog and healthy as pancakes with maple syrup, but incredibly addictive nonetheless.

And protagonists don’t come more American than Bridges’ Bad Blake, former hit maker who has been languishing outside the big time for years. First seen pouring his urine on the site of his latest ‘gig’ – a nowhere-ville bowling alley – he still inspires a cult following in those living on society’s fringes. It’s the instant attraction between Blake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s single-parent journalist however that offers the first glimpses at redemption, not to mention another shot at the big time backing up his closest rival Tommy Sweet (uncredited Colin Farrell). If only Blake can keep his demons in check…

Oh yes, there have to be demons in a story such as this, played out against a land of sunsets and cowboy boots. Comparisons with The Wrestler will inevitably draw their head but this is hardly appropriate or fair: Darren Aronofsky’s film was hardly a model of originality in its own right and besides it’s all relative. If Crazy Heart had been released first, The Wrestler would have been accused of plagiarism. But anyway – just don’t expect surprises.

Do expect a typically laconic, casually iconic performance from Bridges, surely channeling The Dude’s alcoholic cousin but doing it with his effortless shambling charm, and yet another piercing, intelligent portrayal from Gyllenhaal. The interactions between the two make familiarity seep into the background (mostly) and offer a palpable sense of two lost souls making a connection, in the process creating some of the most electric chemistry of the year. And even if Bridges eventually tires of this acting malarkey, he has a chance at becoming Bad Blake for real, if his blistering musical numbers are anything to go by.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a film poised to have it both ways: a harrowing psycho-sexual drama and a pulp suspenser, taken from the first in Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy (the author having tragically died before his manuscripts saw publication). In the end, it's impossible to be both at the same time but, like the recent Shutter Island, while it might not be entirely successful, it's a gripping (and often disturbing) ride.

Also like Shutter Island, it moves unpredictably from one mood and vignette to the next, presumably a result of the book having been culled and compressed into a two hour timeframe. What it does have over Scorsese's effort is likely the breakout female performance of 2010: Noomi Rapace as the girl of the title, wounded, witty, sensual, haunted hacker Lisbeth Salander, the film's beating (and often beaten) dark heart. Brilliantly edgy, Rapace is very much a female hero for the digital age, appropriate given her character's profession.

The plot is set in motion in classic detective fashion with clues piling on each other and characters pitted against situations that have much wider implications. Author and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is on the losing end of a court case that saw him make libellous comments in his new book about the head of a powerful corporation; unseen from the sidelines, Lisbeth is observing Mikael's computer activities; and ultimately, Mikael himself is employed by the uncle of a girl who went missing 40 years ago. Suspecting foul play within the decadent and corrupt Vanger family, Mikael and Lisbeth must team up to crack the mystery.

Against this, the seemingly incongruous scenes of horrific sodomy and rape between Lisbeth and her sleazy, newly employed legal guardian may appear entirely gratuituous, belonging to another film entirely. Yet it's the digging beneath the surface towards the finale that unveils a disturbing culture of widespread sexual violence that has been set in motion with these dreadful scenes from the start. Still, their presence alongside the casual genre staples of detective fiction guarantees the film a somewhat uneasy mood, caught between flippant and subtle, horrific and throwaway.

Likewise when the culprit behind it all is ultimately unveiled, it feels like it has crashed into us before we've had a chance to drink in the seductively dour Swedish atmosphere. The somewhat lopsided sexual politics are also, outside Rapace's performance, as incisive as a smack in the face, but it's certain to keep one guessing, is far more intelligent than standard and thank heavens the gender-centered thriller has finally made a comeback. Make no mistake: Noomi Rapace's terrific performance is the reason why we stay for the duration, the knockout final image of whom redefines the word sexy for a whole new generation.

I Love You Phillip Morris

Jim Carrey has had a curious, dual-stranded career. On the one hand, a rubber-faced clown who brings in hefty returns on fluff like Ace Ventura and Liar, Liar, when he puts his mind to it, his low key passivity in flicks like Eternal Sunshine is often far more engaging than his financially successful prat-falling. Perhaps it's the pleasure in seeing his overbearing, comic side being repressed and moulded into a proper performance.

Either way, I Love You Phillip Morris is an oddity in that it straddles both aspects of the actor's filmmaking, alternately dark and light yet never confident enough to reconcile the two. And it's not the only one doing some straddling: Carrey is admirably brave to take on the part of closet homosexual Steven Russell who, post-car crash, reassesses his cosy family life married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), decides to give it all up, and becomes a con-man.

Seeing as that little salvo takes up most of the film’s trailer, it’s clearly a more chaotic work than it may appear. On the inside, Russell comes across timid Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) with whom he instantly falls in love, forcing Russell to ever more extreme ends to secure both his freedom and everlasting happiness.

There’s certainly brio and verve, in a bright Little Miss Sunshine-type fashion, with Carrey jumping from one set-piece to the next in the nature of our very favourite pet detective. The sight of a hair-slicked, perma-tanned Carrey and refreshingly likeable McGregor (his best work for a while) serenading in a prison cell is symptomatic of the film’s vaguely edgy yet sweet nature – a film that struggles to find it’s feet tonally.

In the end, it’s a movie as muddled as its anti-hero: a guy who flits from misdemeanour to man at will finds a film that is little more than a series of set-pieces reminding us, disappointingly, of Carrey’s broad comic mugging. It also tells us next to nothing about the nature of sexuality beyond a few effete hand movements and accents.

There are, though, briefest flashes of Truman Burbank-style desperation lurking behind the eyes of Carrey’s fickle conman that keeps a viewer engaged, even if the climactic bait and switch seems to say we should never have bothered to entertain the thought. It’s a shame as the premise indicated something darker, more career-defying; in the end, it’s best described as Catch Me If You Camp.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Anyone For a Film Composer Showcase: Jerry Goldsmith

The first of what will hopefully be a series of several themed podcasts exploring my love of orchestral film music from the magic-making composers behind the scenes. This week - Jerry Goldsmith

Friday, 19 March 2010

Green Zone

John Powell's score thrums, the camera shakes and the frame positively fizzles with a nervy energy....Yes, we're back in Paul Greengrass territory of buttock clenching, politically charged action, where Matt Damon finds himself on the run from his former employers...

Hang on, isn't that the plot of the Bourne movies? Indeed it is, and it's an immediate problem for Green Zone. In spite of Greengrass' bracingly intelligent filmmaking and another commendably understated, compassionate portrayal from Damon, it feels like we've hurtled down these avenues before.

It opens with a blast of blitzkreig action as Damon's warrant officer Miller is yet again let down by suspect intelligence that has led him to another empty WMD site. Suspicious of the source 'Magellan', not only does he find an unlikely ally in Iraqi native 'Freddy' (Khalid Abdalla) but comes to suspect the intel itself is fabricated, threatening to blow apart the whole pretext for war. Only his superior Marty (Brendan Gleeson) is a source of support, and when Miller decides to go Bourne (sorry, rogue) in search of the source itself, slippery Pentagon man Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and military toughnut Briggs (Jason Isaacs) do all they can to tie up loose ends first. Glib titles like 'The Iraq Ultimatum' aren't entirely unfounded.

Still, we can't help but be carried along by virtue of its sheer energy and the astonishing logistics of the production. Props also go to Greengrass and scriber Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential) for exposing a degree of recent history that, on reflection, western civilization is still shamefully ignorant of. Yet it doesn't rub our faces in the dust; Green Zone never preaches but blends a highly potent mix where the message is channelled through the action (most notably in an astonishing climactic 20 minute chase where several different axis of action crash in on each other in dizzying fashion).

Iraq as action film? It's a tricky concept but Greengrass has the cojones to pull it off. Throughout there is a commendable decision to shoot from the ground up, the Moroccan sets astonishingly convincing standing in as a country torn apart on a possibly fabricated pretense. The problem is that being based on 'factual' events (surely more plausible than realistic) leaves room for less of the ambiguity of the Bourne films. The narrative arc is shaped from the start, inevitably rendering the film too simplistic in face of the difficult events it's representing, and the easy coda subsequently reflects more wish-fulfilment than dramatic risk-taking. If only the news unfolding on Sky and CNN could be tied up with such an easy bow.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Anyone For a Film - Podcast 4

The Anyone for a Film podcast marks its fourth appearance with a special extended show looking at Shutter Island

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton and Lewis Caroll is surely a match made in heaven - akin to bread and butter or bacon and eggs. Burton's whimsically malevolent streak and Caroll's idiosyncratic, vaguely Freudian notion of rabbit holes, dream worlds, smoking caterpillars and the like, in theory, promises great things...

Which is why the plasticised, mechanical underland of Wonderland is such a crushing disappointment, completely lacking the organic Burton spirit of Edward Scissorhands and Batman. There the contrast of darkness and light, operatic and sinister, unleashed an audacious directorial style on the world. Here, it's Burton by way of George Lucas: a green-screened, CGI monstrosity, emotionally flat and conspicuously lacking in magic.

The problem stems from the overladen approach to Carrol's featherlight imaginings. Not content with merely retelling the original tale from a new standpoint (dismissing the 1951 Disney cartoon that's exerted a powerful influence on how we view the tale), here it's an overcooked stew of the first story, Through the Looking Glass and a modern take on young woman returning to face her destiny.

It's a heavy-handed update that puts too much focus on setting wheels in motion at the expense of sending a viewer's imagination soaring. It begins competently enough with Mia Wasikowska's fatherless Alice faced with an unpleasant proposal of marriage, distracted at the prime moment by the familiar figure of a white rabbit (Michael Sheen) tapping a pocket watch. Following him down the familiar yet understandably spruced up void into the unknown, she is confronted by a world at once familiar and strangely alien, even if Alan Rickman's dry Caterpillar and an ancient prophecy would indicate she has been drawn back to the land of her dreams to confront the monstrous Jabberwocky and end the Red Queen's (Helena Bonham Carter) reign of terror.

However, no sooner has the noisy overbearing Bandersnatch thundered across our screens and scattered all forms of magical mushroom to the wind that an uneasy feel starts to take hold, not helped by the relentless gloss of green screen in every shot, used as a substitute for real sets, real effects and real emotions. Burton may have wanted to make a more direct adaptation of the story but curiously he has forgone the charm. What happened to the director of old who fashioned the entire Western Woods of Sleepy Hollow by hand on a soundstage?

Likewise, it's hard to tell what frequent collaborator Johnny Depp was trying to achieve in his dual-accented Mad Hatter, an amalgamation of Alec Guiness and Trainspotting's Begbie. All of the live-action characters, from Bonham Carters mildly amusing Red Queen to Wasikowska's subdued Alice are subservient to the onslaught of effects, although Stephen Fry's enticingly creepy Chesire Cat is perhaps the one element that skews closest to Carroll's vision. Yet, in the end, when it all marches to a depressingly derivative final battle, the heroine clad head to foot in armour, one clamours for the time when it will outgrow its chrysalis and really take flight.

Monday, 8 March 2010

And the Academy Award Goes To...

It wasn't a night of surprises but a satisfying one nonetheless. The Hurt Locker romped home with 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and the first for best female director (Kathryn Bigelow). Despite my reservations about the movie's less than risky narrative and some prize Hollywood corn (roll out the bumbling SAS represented by Ralph Fiennes), it's still a deserved success, bringing Iraq into the movie mainstream by, sensibly, ignoring stuffy politics and focusing on the real men on the ground.

Of course, this meant Avatar was neglected to three technical wins (Art Direction; Cinematography; Effects) but James Cameron won't be complaining with $2 billion in the bank. More troublesome was the perhaps inevitable neglect of brilliant efforts like District 9 - but hey, you can't win 'em all. Likewise, the heavily touted UK representatives, who did so well at the BAFTAs, were of course ignored in Hollywoodland.

Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock were always the sentimental odds-on-favourites to win Best Actor and Actress (for Crazy Heart and The Blind Side, respectively), and in Bridges' case, it's about bloody time, considering he's been knocking out quality work for over 30 years. Christoph Waltz' gong for Supporting Actor as Inglourious Basterds' delightfully devilish Hans Landa was also immensely satisfying.

However, perhaps my personal favourite was Michael Giacchino triumphing for his incisive, witty and heartfelt score for Up (the film also scooping the Best Animated feature, obviously!) Not only is this a triumph for craftmanship, integrity and faith in the film score, his measured speech was quietly inspiring - and that's what we want out of people who make movies, right?

The full list is below.

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

James Cameron, Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo’Nique, Precious

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
A Serious Man

District 9
An Education
In the Loop
Up in the Air

Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells

El Secreto de Sus Ojos
The Milk of Sorrow
Un Prophete
The White Ribbon

Burma VJ
The Cove
Food, Inc.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Which Way Home

China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Music by Prudence
Rabbit a la Berlin

The Door
Instead of Abracadabra
Miracle Fish
The New Tenants

French Roast
Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty
The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)
A Matter of Loaf and Death

Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Sherlock Holmes

“Almost There” from The Princess and the Frog
“Down in New Orleand” from The Princess and the Frog
“Loin de Paname” from Paris 36
“Take It All” from Nine
“The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” from Crazy Heart

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Sherlock Holmes
The Young Victoria

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon

Il Divo
Star Trek
The Young Victoria

Bright Star
Coco before Chanel
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria

District 9
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

District 9
Star Trek

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Crazies

Breck Eisner's remake of The Crazies goes for the gut just as the original goes for the brain. The director of the original, George A. Romero, is of course famous for highlighting, even favouring, a socio-political agenda above mere blood and guts and The Crazies is no exception. However, his effort does leave a lot to be desired in both script and acting departments, even if its low budget quality does somehow secure it as a work of creaky 70s significance (and is the clear influence on Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, among others).

Eisner's take sensibly clears up the plotting, sharpens the scares and puts more emphasis on performance, even if the actors are ultimately playing second-fiddle to some expert screw-turning. The basic concept is the same: an ill-defined contagion (more explicitly hinted at here) infects the water supply of a small American town, causing the locals to first act oddly then turn on each other violently. It of course then falls to the Army to cover up the crisis, and this is where the newer version takes its sharpest u-turn.

In the original, the military were positioned centrally as vulnerable authority figures (naive?) However, in our more cynical times, they are now part and parcel of the core threat, ramping up the tension from the off with a birds-eye camera POV of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, designated as a containment zone, all while Johnny Cash sombrely croons 'We'll meet again'. Make no mistake: from both the pessimistic anti-miltary standpoint and the in-vogue use of country music to imply building dread, Eisner's film is a modern one in every sense of the word, starting with the shooting of the town drunk who has invaded a ball game wielding a shotgun.

With this of course comes the inevitable reliance on cat-in-a-cupboard jumps and an overwhelming feel of familiarity. Romero's original, for all its (considerable) flaws, felt as if it were about something: here, Timothy Olyphant's sheriff, Radha Mitchell as his wife and Joe Anderson as his deputy follow a predictable avenue through mechanical set-pieces, although many are brilliantly done. One in particular, involving both a twist on the 'he's behind you' gag and some ensuing carnage with a medical saw, is gloriously staged.

Yet none of it feels new. This is in spite of the best efforts of genre stalwarts Olyphant and Mitchell who effectively delve behind the bland exteriors of their characters, just as Eisner takes relish in doing with the rural settings of Iowa, obliterating the cornfields and dimestores with efficient abandon. For a nerve-jangling time, it serves, although don't expect the grey cells to take part in said jangling.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Seminal Scores: Edward Scissorhands (Danny Elfman, 1990)

To celebrate the imminent release of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman's 13th outing as a duo, Alice in Wonderland, here's a look back at their finest collaboration, a masterpiece of fairy-tale scoring. Are you sitting comfortably? Once, a long time ago, there was a man with scissors for hands...


Fresh off his 1989 megahit Batman, one which singlehandedly revived not only superhero cinema but the image of the Caped Crusader himself, Tim Burton then looked to a more personal project. It's not hard to see the director was speaking about himself in Edward Scissorhands, about an artificial man cursed with scissors in place of hands. At first welcomed by the local community living below his castle, eventually hatred and mistrust grows to such an extent that he is outcast, forced to abandon the local girl he has fallen in love with.

Burton's obvious compassion for the outsider lends Edward Scissorhands a heart-rending edge in spite of the many comic moments, complemented by his first outing with Johnny Depp in the title role. While that was the beginning of a wonderfully fruitful and eccentric partnership, encompassing roles from Ed Wood up to this week's Mad Hatter, it was the fourth between Burton and composer Danny Elfman, whose wonderfully madcap sense of the macabre is absolutely crucial in establishing Burton's sense of fantasy.

It was Scissorhands though that saw the two oddballs working at the absolute height of their creative partnership. Forgoing the terrific bombast of Batman (with Elfman similarly redefining the superhero sound as Burton had done with the visuals), here the composer looked inward and wrote one of the masterpiece scores of the decade, one that changed how audiences looked at fairy tales (and snow!) for years to come. For proof, just look at the pervasive presence of Ice Dance in this years Dancing on Ice series; film music has to strike a very special chord to penetrate that sort of collective consciousness.

Elfman's use of the dreamy, feather-light choir has never been more breathtaking than in Scissorhands (or indeed, in works by any other composer). It, combined with the gentle strings and tinkling music box, brilliantly personifies the delicate yet melancholy story-book world of the film. Also notable is the obvious care taken in constructing the soundtrack, which moves in two acts ('Edward Meets the World'/'Poor Edward') clearly approximating that of a children's tale, and ensuring real flow and clarity.

The score is overflowing with a tear-jerking sense of glacial beauty. The famous waltz-like 'Introduction' is in fact used more as a bookend, an identifier of the score's unique sound and the first stage in the story of Edward's life. It in turn also acts an intro to key components: choir, orchestra, music box and chimes. The spine-tingling 'Storytime' brings in the principal theme, again carried mainly on choir, for Edward, a truly moving piece that brims with sadness and anguish.

'Castle on the Hill' is marked by a tongue-in-cheek, quasi-Gothic sense of menace as Dianne Weist's kindly Peg discovers Edward at the start of the film. Moments of latent darkness subside as Edward's fragile, sensitive nature is uncovered, both in his topiary collection and his unveiling in the attic. 'Beautiful New World' is a more typical type of delightful Elfman scherzo, brimming with quirky optimism at Edward's exposure to suburbia before a haunting rendition of Edward's theme sees the track out. That is in fact symptomatic of much of the score's first half: upbeat moments contrasting with soaring beauty, as his love for Winona Ryder's Kim starts to unfold. The classic 'Ice Dance', for example, as beautiful a piece of film music as ever was written, contrasts with the witty, fiendishly intricate fiddle solo in 'Edwardo the Barber'.

The second half is where the sense of tragedy begins to take over, beginning with the heart-breaking 'Death!' as Edward and Kim's unconsummated love is carried on strings and choir. Its more eerie counterpoint, heard in the flashback to the death of Edward's inventor (Vincent Price in his final screen role), and also when vying with the more violent orchestra in 'The Tide Turns', emphasises the fragility of Elfman's musical tapestry, that prejudice and bigotry can shatter any notion of decency. The ferocious nature of the latter and 'Final Confrontation', bringing in strident brass, bells and rumbling piano, stuns the listener, having become accustomed to the ethereal beauty of earlier.

It's the climactic 'The Grand Finale' though that marks the score's most astonishing moment and possibly the pinnacle of Elfman's career to date, a heaven-sent, magnificent choral rendition of the main theme, indicating love will never die and Edward will live on forever in Kim's memory. We then return to the introductory theme, closing the book on 'The End' of Edward's story, the beautiful choir still lingering though in our memory.

Although Elfman has in recent years been understandably bracketed as a 'super-hero guy' (by virtue of his having scored everything from Darkman to Spiderman), in truth, he was never more intimate, careful or appealing than in Edward Scissorhands. The ability to, back then, take what we now see as cliches and spin them into moments of stunning power is likely his legacy to the film music world (despite the many fine scores he has composed since). Its neglect at any major award ceremony was shameful but then it reverberates in the listener's memory for a lifetime. Years later, we can still be seen dancing in it...