Review – In Darkness

Review – In Darkness

2011, 145 mins, 15, Dir. Agnieszka Holland, starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann and Agnieszka Grochowska

In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness was Poland’s candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2012 and although it didn’t win it is pretty good. It tells the true story of Leopold Soha, a public service worker in the Nazi-occupied town of Lvov who manages to hide a small number of Jews in the large underground sewers, of which he has an intricate knowledge. Initially thinking only for his own benefit, Soha began to bond with the Jews and vouch further for their protection. The title is extremely telling; the audience does indeed spend a lot of time in dimly-lit areas of the sewer (perhaps half the film) and at times it can be very difficult to watch, not just because of its subject matter but because of its technique. We constantly jump from above ground, where Soha wards off those who could ruin his secret, to below, where the Jews struggle to keep their humanity in enclosed rooms infested with rats. While this disorientating style is enough to put off some cinemagoers, In Darkness is something that should be seen at least once. It focuses on the actions of one individual in the context of the Holocaust, one man’s personal decision to help those in need, and is astonishingly visceral; the director takes us without hesitation into the grime of the film’s hiding place, the sweat and heavy breath of our protagonists, the pitter-patter of vermin on the sewer floor. In some areas, it is intensely uncomfortable. And yet a necessary watch – an absorbing, psychologically profound piece of work which works remarkably as a smaller-scale production (in comparison to similar films such as Schindler’s List). The amount of fear and uncertainty conjured up by the superb actors and claustrophobic camera angles makes this an experience.  Although you can begin to feel the time towards the end of the 2 1/2 hours, it is very tense, and quite a brilliant portrait of an ‘unsung war hero’, an alternative tale from the horrors of the Holocaust, with a terrific performance from Robert Wieckiewicz.

4 stars out of 5

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Review – The Muppets

Review – The Muppets

2011, 103 mins, U, Dir. James Bobin, starring Amy Adams, Jason Segel, Chris Cooper and The Muppets.

The Muppets

Everyone knows who their favourite Muppet is. In the February edition of Empire, dozens of celebrities gave their verdicts on the character that has most inspired them (mine is the Swedish chef). In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard a single thing about Jim Henson’s puppet creations. After the highly successful Muppet TV show in the 1970s, a number of films were produced, ranging from the surprisingly good (The Muppet Christmas Carol) to disappointing TV specials (The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz). Despite their continued popularity, the iconic creatures haven’t made their way onto the big screen since 1999.

But that’s all about to change. Hitting UK cinemas on Friday is their new film, simply titled “The Muppets“, a film that has received universal critical acclaim. And it’s not hard to see why. Their latest outing is stylistically quite different from all that has come before it. For one thing, it’s incredibly frenetic, almost as frenetic as Animal (although in the film he is living in a celebrity anger-management clinic) and the song and dance numbers have a wonderful feeling of spontaneity. No surprise there, as the film is directed by James Bobin, creator of Flight of the Conchords, who uses his absurd sense of humour to great effect. Bret Mackenzie, one of the conchords, also contributes by writing some songs for the film – “Man or Muppet” has now been nominated for an Oscar. The humour is intelligent and often self-referential, Fozzie Bear at one point exclaiming “Wow, that was such an expensive looking explosion! I can’t believe we had that in the budget.” 

The three (human) leads do a great job and Chris Cooper is hilarious as the (admittedly rather stereotypical) greedy oil magnate, especially when he randomly bursts into song halfway through and frequently demands “maniacal laughter” from his henchmen. The film is especially noteworthy for its vast range of celebrity cameos, harking back to the days of the Muppet Show, which saw the likes of Peter Sellers and Steve Martin as guest hosts. This time round, there are appearances from Jack Black (whom the Muppets kidnap in a kind of spoof Chinese martial-arts scene), Ken Jeong, Kristen Schaal (a lead character in the conchords show), Alan Arkin, Zack Galifianakis, Jim Parsons, Emily Blunt and numerous others. Elmo sadly doesn’t appear for legal reasons (although a documentary on his puppeteer, Being Elmo, was widely acclaimed recently). 

It is a real joy to see the Muppets back on top form. They are still as funny as ever, spurred on by Kermit’s neverending optimism (and Miss Piggy’s neverending vanity). The story isn’t quite as dazzling as its numbers but it’s conceptually very impressive. The freshness of this new offering is something to behold, and it certainly proves Bobin as one of the most creative directors around. It’s good to have you back, Kermit.

4 stars out of 5

Review – Carnage

A short review of the upcoming Carnage. I need some sleep. I also need to finish A Clash of Kings.

Review – Carnage

2011, 80 mins, 15, Dir. Roman Polanski, starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly

Carnage

Based on the Tony award-winning play, Roman Polanski’s Carnage is one of the few films released recently that is actually funny. That’s right, consistently laugh-out-loud, gut-burstingly funny. What’s especially impressive about it is that it takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single room. There’s nothing special cinematically about it, unlike some of Polanski’s previous works, but there’s no denying the acerbic wit of the script. It revolves around two sets of parents (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly; Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) who meet in the former’s New York apartment to discuss an act of violence between their respective 11-year old sons. What begins as a slightly gawkish but respectable meeting between these adults soon descends into an afternoon of madness, the two couples beginning a verbal slugfest in which no one is safe. What I liked about the film was the way in which each character was initially so wildly different – Foster interested in art and a campaigner for equal rights; Waltz a restless and apathetic businessman – thoughts and opinions soon don’t matter when, following Reilly’s distribution of Scotch, each becomes as childish as the other. The irony of the characters’ behaviour and the impeccable timing of the film in itself is astonishing. It doesn’t overstay its welcome at a ripe 80 minutes long, and when I say it is frequently hilarious… it is. Go and see Carnage. You’ll laugh, and perhaps grimace at the spectacular projectile vomit scene, but above all you will appreciate its sheer brilliance as a comedy. It’s ridiculous but very well-performed.

5 stars out of 5

Review – War Horse

Review – War Horse

2011, 146 mins, 12A, Dir. Steven Spielberg, starring Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston

Warning! This review may contain minor spoilers (only of set-pieces, not of the plot/ending).

War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of War Horse is one of two films released in the past year that have thrown you back to his career in the 1980s, the other being The Adventures of Tintin. After a flurry of more serious and dark-hearted films (which nonetheless retained at least a few tendons of Spielberg’s more playful senses) alongside the crushingly disappointing fourth Indiana Jones installment, 2011 has been a great return for the director. War Horse retains the sense of adventure and emotional drama that is characteristic of the early works of Spielberg, not coming out with many surprises, but certainly an enjoyable experience for most.

Based principally on the 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and gaining inspiration from the far more successful 2007 stage play, War Horse is an intriguing story of a farmboy in the early 20th century who, after training a horse that comes into his possession, is shocked to find that it has been registered to help with the war effort. The young boy, named Albert, is conscripted into the army and tries to find his beloved friend in the midst of the devasting First World War. The story of the injustices of war and the undying hope of one young lad is Spielbergian in itself and it’s quite obvious that he is the man for the job.

Despite this, a sizeable amount of Albert’s journey (especially to the war front) is left out of the final film, which still stands at nearly two and a half hours. For an extended period midway we see and hear nothing from the boy and thus a certain portion of the emotional effect (considering his young age in the story) is lost. It is worth noting, however, that the film is not necessarily Albert’s; it is Joey the horse’s. We follow his journey through the hellish battlegrounds of war, from a fatal cavalry charge to his painful entanglement in between the British and German trenches. He is our main protagonist, our main lead, and we vouch for him, although Albert’s role overall is somehow lost in translation.

Never mind. The acting is superb. Young newcomer Jeremy Irvine gives a confident and gripping performance while Peter Mullan and Emily Watson provide great support as his mother and father. Worth mentioning are Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston who, while only appearing in a few scenes, are utterly convincing as the young, idealistic British army officers. But Spielberg is the real star here. After forty years in the business he is certainly an expert in mise-en-scène; every shot is immaculately framed alongside some beautiful transitioning with the help of regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski.

While the stage play is more stripped-down and raw, the film is on a much greater scale with its epic battle scenes and rich score by John Williams, his best work in a while. The director is no stranger to war violence as we all know and War Horse does not shy away from it. In fact, it’s remarkably gritty for its rating, not very gory, but certainly a tough watch in parts. The camera doesn’t flinch during the punishment of two German deserters; this style is very much reminiscent of Spielberg’s uncompromisingly brutal Schindler’s List. War Horse, then, is lighter Spielberg with darker elements, as oppose to the films in the mid to late nineties that proved him to be more than just a popcorn director.

War Horse is an excellent film. Its virtuoso directing, marvellous acting and set-pieces form a film that harks back to the restless adventure of E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has a strong emotional core and is bound to be loved by audiences, although its story somewhat lacks in consistency; the stage play is superior on that front.

4 stars out of 5.

Review – The Artist

Yesterday I went to see The Artist, a film that has won critical acclaim across the globe. I was so excited after seeing it that I found it very difficult to condense my ideas  into a review – thus the structure is a big chaotic. My only hope is that my opinion is conveyed with clarity. Enjoy, if you can.

Review – The Artist

2011, 100 mins, PG – Dir. Michael Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

The Artist

When sound burst onto cinema screens in the late 20s (most famously in 1927’s The Jazz Singer) it was a relief, a sign of innovation and forward movement in the film industry after many years of silent pictures. Prominent actors lost their jobs during this period and were replaced by fresh, new, younger faces, who inhabited the new “talking pictures”. This transition, a landmark of movie history, has been seen in such classics as Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain. But The Artist is incredibly special as the subject matter is explored with the utmost authenticity; the film is black-and-white. And silent.

No doubt it would have been tricky to sell. Releasing a silent picture nearly nine decades after the heyday of such films seems implausible. Audiences have moved on – indeed, the thought of seeing something even in black-and-white is a bit of a stretch for a lot of people. If that’s the way you think about films, then shame on you. Because Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a beautiful piece of work, a beguiling film about fame, success and loss that’s one of the greatest motion pictures of the year.

It begins in 1927, when the dashing matinee idol George Valentin is at his height in Hollywood. He’s got a great picture deal with a major film company, a large house and hundreds of adoring fans. It’s not long before he brushes with Peppy Miller, an aspiring dancer. As “talkies” are introduced, Peppy becomes an incredible star while Valentin is eclipsed by the new format, losing all his money and descending into depression. 

The decision to make the film was certainly a bold (but ultimately rewarding) move. It can be a shock to the system when, at the beginning of the film, the audience of a cinema erupts into applause – and we can’t hear anything. Yes, it really is silent. Technically the film is very impressive with its excellent cinematography and lighting, but the storytelling is the best part. Hazanavicius gives us joy, jealousy, depression, anxiety and anger in a plot that is conveyed mostly through visual action. Not a word is spoken – the actual dialogue shows up on title cards. Does it lose any power with this reduction of voices? Certainly not. Who knew that the sight of a sparsely populated cinema screen could be so heart-wrenchingly affecting?

The choice of casting is impeccable. Jean Dujardin is the Frenchman that plays George Valentin and he does so with authority, emotion and visual brilliance. He gets the makings of a silent film actor down to a tee – his facial expressions, energetic movements and humour are characteristic of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and other greats. It’s as if it runs in his blood. Bérénice Bejo, who happens to be the wife of Hazanavicius, is equally spellbinding as Peppy, beautiful yet profoundly subtle as the girl who fulfils her dream, but not in its purest form. John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell make appearances but perhaps the best supporting role is that of Jack the dog. Accompanying Valentin throughout the film, the plucky young animal is a pure joy to watch. He deserves his own career.

The score, which covers the vast majority of the film, is rich, the playful piano tunes transitioning to a crescendo of stringed instruments in some of the more heightened scenes. Although most of the music is composed by Ludovic Bource (a frequent collaborator with the director) it is very interesting to hear some of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting Vertigo score during the film’s climax. Some have complained of the use of this music, but it is so perfect for the scene that it is more than forgivable. 

Although The Artist isn’t entirely silent – a nightmarish dream sequence mid-way sees Valentin plagued by sound effects of things hitting his desk – the fact that it has become so popular (and is tipped for Oscars) is immensely encouraging to those who really care about movies. It isn’t on a scale as grand as silent films like Metropolis and Cecil B. Demille’s first version of The Ten Commandments. In fact, there’s nothing lavish or ambitious about the story or production design. What Michel Hazanavicius has done has taken a simple script and shot it without audio; he’s taken us to a different world altogether, where expression wins over dialogue and camerawork is one of the most important elements. The acting is magnificent, the music complex, and the film overall is quite stunning. Will it win Best Picture at the Oscars? Perhaps. But in the 21st century, where the state of the film industry is doubtful, we can rest well in the knowledge that audiences have – for once – been introduced to something very unique.

5 stars out of 5

Review – Immortals

I saw this at a preview the other day. I’ve made an effort to get a brief review out as soon as possible. Here we go:

“Immortals” is kind of like “300”, Zack Snyder’s violent, epic geekfest of Greek mythology, except a lot less camp. The visionary Tarsem Singh calls the shots for the film which chronicles the life of Theseus, a burly Greek hero who has to prevent the evil King Hyperion from obtaining a weapon that can destroy humanity. From the first few scenes, it appears to work. Theseus (played by the upcoming Superman Henry Cavill) is introduced in a scene with John Hurt and one begins to anticipate his journey against evil. From there, however, the plot proceeds to go down in a never-ending spiral that not even Zeus can correct. Mickey Rourke is unimpressive as Hyperion; it’s easy to think that the casting director chose him solely on the grounds of his growly voice. Aside from the casting, the rest of the film is filled with copious amounts of violence and rather silly dialogue. A motivational speech to Theseus’ small army at the start of the final battle is weakly delivered while an unnecessary act of torture in the opening few minutes had every single male member of the audience squealing in discomfort. 

Despite its muddled plot, some of the fight sequences are very impressive and well-choreographed, especially towards the final few frames. Yet one has the feeling that it’s just already been done. It’s exhilarating to watch in the cinema but it’s impossible to praise the film for originality. You see elements of “300” throughout the film, such as frequent slow-motion and extended, gory battle scenes. Both films are overdone in terms of gore and style, “300” having some

Theseus aims the Epirus Bow…

kind of silly charm, “Immortals” being the more serious beast. Despite this, it’s better than some of the more recent big-budget fantasy films, even though its claims of “Epic 3D” on the advertising posters are deliriously misleading; not a single shot in the film had any indication of more than two dimensions.

Nevertheless, I was happy enough when I left the cinema. “Immortals” is nothing special and it won’t go down as the director’s best film but it’s entertaining enough for the average cinemagoer. I just wish they added a little more to that minotaur scene.

3 stars out of 5

Past reviews

Before I started this wordpress business, I used to write a lot of reviews of films both recent and old. I’ve carefully trawled through a great load of them (a lot of them aren’t very good) and selected what I feel most represents my stunning body of work as a professional writer. Enjoy, therefore, a presentation of my unparalleled reviewing skills.

I know, I’m not really a professional writer. It’s just a joke.

Review – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The first major screen appearance of the sensationally jingoistic Marvel superhero Captain America is an enthralling mix of villainy, patriotism and gunfire. Set in World War Two, it tells the story of the scrawny Steve Rogers who, after being deemed unfit for regular military service, volunteers for a secret experimental project which transforms him into a muscle man with superheroic abilities. Though Chris Evans’ performance lacks emotion, the film benefits from its supporting cast which includes a spectacularly creepy Hugo Weaving as arch-villain Red Skull and a dazzling (and English) Hayley Atwell as SSR Agent Peggy Carter. The set-pieces are better than ever, each explosive scene transitioning to the next with almost no break, and there are some excellent fight scenes between the American soldiers and the disintegration-gun-equipped followers of Nazi cult HYDRA.

It’s undoubtedly cheesy, but in a more comfortable, familiar way, a way that is often associated with Marvel, so it’s forgiveable. The 3D, however, is not. The whole film appears flat in its entirety, even when our nationalistic protagonist tosses his painted shield at the camera with considerable force. Never mind. “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a good bit of old-fashioned, very American fun, which succeeds in whetting our appetites even further for the forthcoming “Avengers” film. Just make sure you stay until after the end credits.

4 stars out of 5

Review – Batman (1989)

Tim Burton’s “Batman” ultimately reincarnated the renowned comic-book character with great style; from the campy, tongue-in-cheek days of the 60s to the brooding, dark shadow we know today. With elements of Frank Miller, Burton brought into existence a Gotham city overrun with dangerous criminals and menacing streets. It is into this unholy world which Batman grapples his way in, ridding it of thieves and murderers. Yet a far more intimidating, lethal villain is rising and could soon rule over the city. As Batman begins to uncover more secrets about himself, photographer Vicki Vale becomes more and more susceptible to this great enemy’s lure.

The art direction in this is simply astonishing. Burton chose not to shoot on location, but instead to craft his Gotham out of extensively complicated sets which would be erected at the time of filming. And the film itself looks stunning. Although “Batman” is dark, it’s full of colour too. The character bringing that colour is unquestionably Jack Nicholson’s Joker – making snappy one-liners, he kills people with crude ‘toys’, such as a lethally electric hand buzzer, whilst laughing manically. Although there are funny parts, this is in comparison to earlier efforts a very serious comic book movie, full of stark imagery and thoroughly explosive action sequences. Although there’s not a huge amount of character development, especially in Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, Danny Elfman’s score is terrific and this will always be remembered as the first truly exciting, tense and sinister Batman movie.

4 stars out of 5

Review – Moon (2009)

Duncan Jones’ thought-provoking directorial debut, Moon, is one of the greatest science fiction films of the 21st century. Sam Bell is an American astronaut who, in the last few weeks of his 3-year contract on Moon, has a very personal encounter that makes him question reality. In a Hollywood smorgasbord of sci-fi rip-offs, remakes and sequels, it’s gratifying to find something utterly fresh, stimulating and original as this, even if Kevin Spacey’s robotic assistant GERTY is somewhat reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sam Rockwell carries the entire film on his shoulders – a hefty job, but he adapts perfectly and gives a thoroughly powerful, emotional performance. It’s a wonderfully entertaining film with some great set-pieces, but it’s also a poignant tale of growing industrialisation and human greed.

4 stars out of 5

Review – Hard Boiled (1992)

John Woo’s last Hong Kong film before his unfortunate shift to Hollywood delivers much more than any American filmmaker can with about a tenth of the budget. Hard Boiled is action cinema at its very, very best with its intense shootouts, deafening explosions and, in general, its colourful flamboyance. It’s one of the most elaborate and awe-inducing films you will ever experience.

Chow Yun Fat stars as “Tequila”, a tenacious, agile cop who is determined to track down and annihilate a malevolent mob boss (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and his associates. Also in the picture is Tony (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) – another gangster… or is he?

Despite the trouble of culture clash, one can distinguish how good the two main leads are. Even through the most extravagant gun battles they convey the deepest emotions – the undercover man, yearning to break free from his vice, and the loyal, aging cop who believes he’s misunderstood. It seems, when directing his own countrymen, Woo can achieve much better performances.

Although the film in its entirety is pulse-pounding, the real sensations come at the end in the climatic hospital scene. Thousands of bullets are sprayed around as cops go up against terrorists and flames are everywhere in a sequence that only further shows Woo’s utter pyrotechnical genius. In one instance, the camera follows Tequila and Tony around as they shoot people in an impressive long take lasting almost three minutes. It’s a unique and fantastic addition that you never really see in an action film, making it all the more flabbergasting. Woo’s extensive use of slow-motion shots and quick, brutal dispatching of characters has become something of a genre in itself as it truly does stand unparalleled.

It’s often been ranked in the same vicinity as his other masterpiece, The Killer (1989). While Hard Boiled doesn’t have as much of a story, the action is certainly on a much higher level. It’s really up to the viewer to decide which they prefer, but one thing is for sure on both sides; that Hard Boiled, the last film John Woo made in Hong Kong, is not to be missed under any circumstances.

5 stars out of 5

And there you have it. I hope you enjoyed reading these as much as I enjoyed writing them (which for one of them wasn’t very much. See if you can guess which one). I’ll be trying to write more review on here especially of more recent films, such as the upcoming Tintin film (which I just happen to be seeing early). Stick with it, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.