Saturday 31 December 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) Review

Rooney Mara stars as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)...

Warning: this review contains spoilers for the film's third act...

Blaring over Dragon Tattoo's opening credits, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' glitchy re-working of Immigrant Song, vocalized in banshee-like howls by Yeah Yeah Yeah's frontwoman Karen O, acts as bold statement of intent for director David Fincher. Its lyrics (We come from the land of the ice and snow / from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow) may complement the setting of Stieg Larsson's source novel, published in English in 2008, but it also serves another, greater purpose. It announces Fincher, the celebrated US auteur, as a foreigner in the bleak, glacial Sweden of goth hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). We are your overlords, screams another lyric. The director's steady eye establishes an alien perspective, and his displacement in the landscape allows for the best take on Dragon Tattoo yet.

At first glance Fincher appears odd directorial casting, for most of his films - with the exceptions of Panic Room (2003) and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008) - are about men in the company of men. Fight Club (1999) is about unchecked male aggression; libido and machismo swapping spit and fists, exuding from every frame the pungent scent of blood and cologne. Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007) are about the rituals of male obsession, as cop and killer dance around each other in fear and admiration. The Game (1997) is to some degree about male fantasy, and The Social Network (2010) functions as a cinematic essay on man's contagious belligerence - his pride and greed. Alien³ (1992) is an oddity, revolving around a strong-willed heroine trapped in a warped, religious male sect. Larsson's source - junk fiction of the highest order - is essentially a feminist vigilante tale, given greater dramatic focus for being juxtaposed with Mikael Blomkvist's (Daniel Craig) investigation into a four-decade-old missing persons case. The latter story Fincher seems perfectly suited for, but outside of Fight Club's Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) and Panic Room's Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), can anyone remember a single one of his female characters who didn't end up with their head in a box?

For those unaware, this is the second adaptation of Dragon Tattoo in as many years, with Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish language version being released in 2009. Many have criticized Fincher - one of the most original filmmakers of his generation - for essentially remaking a still-warm sacred cow, but his vision of Larsson's world is an entirely different beast to the much overrated original. Ironically, given that Oplev's series starter was the only entry in that trilogy not conceived for television, his style feels incredibly small-screen, with lackluster visuals and blocky staging rendering the film deeply uninteresting on an aesthetic level. Fincher, however, is a master technician, and here he employs lighting, sound design and editing to draw his audience deeper into the mystery of Larsson's world (after watching two adaptations I now realise that a bulk of my problems stem from the story itself, which is contrived and overly complex). From that startling opening credits sequence right down to the low-key ending, Fincher has created a masterpiece of tone and feeling, sustaining my interest in this inherently flawed tale through his refined cinematic senses.

Consider, for example, the scene where Harriet's (Moa Garpendal) killer is finally revealed. Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), after a delectably drawn-out I-know-you-know sequence, traps Mikael in his dungeon, winching him up for a bout of torture (the scene has an oddly homoerotic undertone, as Martin reaches for Mikael's crotch before retreating his hand, commenting "I've never done a man before"; to me insinuating sexual violation of his female victims, which he is also willing to carry out here). Instead - halfway between frustration and tempered desire - he puts a plastic bag over Mikael's head, and Fincher focuses on the victim's heavy, drawn-out breathing. There's something fetishistic about this scene - the struggle of the victim and the pleasure of the aggressor, who seems to get off on inflicting pain. To think that he's not the Nazi in the family. Fincher has already excelled Oplev in this scene through the startling use of close-ups and deep focus photography (Jeff Cronenweth - the genius DP behind Fight Club and The Social Network - lenses the film brilliantly), but then he serves up a distinctly Finchian outré. Martin walks, calmly, over to his pristine reel-to-reel player, flicks a switch, and out gently creep the opening strings of Enya's 'Orinoco Flow'. Suddenly a chill ran down my spine. Not since the use of 'Goodbye Horses' in Demme's Silence Of The Lambs (1991) has a cut of popular music been perverted so beautifully, and the scene becomes an instant classic.

The film's talking point, however, was always destined to be Rooney Mara, taking on the role which Noomi Rapace so confidently made her own in Oplev's original. Mara - an actress I'd previously considered of limited range - excels here, fully submersing herself into the character of Salander, whose myriad complexities run further off the page than on it (Steve Zaillian's screenplay is over-expository, but the source demands such treatment). The actress - mohawked, pierced and donning a pitch-perfect Swedish accent - is entirely convincing in the role, and while she can't muster the same strength as Rapace's heroine (who could confidently kick Tyler Durden's ass) we do buy into her loneliness, which is essential in believing the relationship she forms with Mikael. In all honesty, it's hard to call which performance is the better, as they both find different - and equally important - shades to the character. Craig also puts in a commanding turn as the crusading journo Mikael, finding deeper emotional truth in the character than the still-solid Michael Nyqvist. Elsewhere there are sturdy supporting turns by Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright and Steven Berkoff, all of whom equal or outweigh their Swedish counterparts. Overall Fincher's Dragon Tattoo emerges as bold, adult entertainment of a caliber the cinema has been sorely missing this year - outside of Tomas Alfredson's superior Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - and I eagerly await its sequels...

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is in cinemas now.

The Top 10 Films Of 2011

As Rob Gordon would tell you, "The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem." Add to that list the compiling of 10 great movies from any given year, especially this one, the much bemoaned 2011. Multiplexes have undoubtedly been dominated by remakes, sequels and 3D this year, but films such as The Artist (Hazanavicius), released on December 30th, remind us of cinema's universal power, and how vital a storytelling medium it has become. This masterwork, along with Scorsese's lesser Hugo, have reintroduced audiences to the wonders of early cinema, and pioneers like the great Georges Méliès (1861 - 1938), whose Le voyage dans la lune (1902) has been touring festivals throughout the year. Indeed, picking just ten titles from 2011 has been a difficult task, and I've imposed on myself a new rule: no festival films, except for those without a confirmed release date. Shame (McQueen), for example, is the second best film I've seen this year, but its release on January 13th qualifies it for 2012's list. My No.1 this year might never see the light of day on these shores, and so it will be awarded a place here. After all, what sense does it make to wait uncertainly when I can celebrate its brilliance now? Films from 2010's LFF that I missed during festival time are also present here, as I caught them on theatrical release during the year. Meek's Cutoff (Reichardt, 2010) and Poetry (Changdong, 2010) can be found on last year's list, but both are exceptional films which deserve mention. So, without further ado, in reverse chronological order, here are my Top 10 films of 2011...

#10. Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)

Summer 2011 will be remembered for uprising apes, warring wizards and scanty ninja babes, but for me its most exciting prospect was the tale of an old Calabrian shepherd, his herd and a pile of charcoal. Largely silent, Le Quattro Volte's dreamlike beauty made my hairs stand on end, and its questions of life, death and rebirth test me even now. It's a very hard film to describe, and at the very least impossible to sell to an audience without it sounding like a philosophical goat-herding story, but believe me, it's so much more than that. Patiently, it challenges our most deeply rooted beliefs, sensitively evoking emotions which very few films would even dare tap into. Sadly,, where my review was originally published, no longer exists, so there is no link to my extended write-up on this title.

#9. Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has, for as long as I can remember, been the tired horse of so-called 'classic' literature - a schoolbook text over-adapted by screens big and small, it's a story I'd never have imagined wanting to hear again, especially after 1994's awful Fiennes/Binoche effort. Enter British auteur Andrea Arnold, who shoots her rough n' ready adaptation in 1.33 on stock which feels like it was recovered from the Yorkshire moors, and the turbulent relationship of Cathy and Heathcliff feels fresher than ever. Shot by master DP Robbie Ryan, Wuthering Heights 2011 - as loyal as it is modernist - is totally at one with nature, employing the pelting rain and roaring winds to help inform the animalistic rituals of young love. In one scene Cathy licks the blood from Heathcliff's wounds; a moment of sensuality hidden in the stark English abyss. (Original review can be found here)

#8. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick doesn't do anything by half. In The Thin Red Line (1998) he envisioned nature's resilience against man's inherent savagery, looking to the trees, reaching toward God, from the point-of-view of the ravaged earth. With The Tree Of Life this reclusive auteur has framed an intimate family drama against the backdrop of the cosmos, colliding planets before our awe-struck eyes. It's rare that a filmmaker will so unabashedly open himself up to an audience, and Malick's spirituality - while not sitting right with me on an initial viewing - is to be celebrated. The dinosaurs are a little corny, sure, but effects genius Doug Trumbull whipped up one of the most visually memorable sequences in years for this ambitious, uncompromised and towering work of art. Indeed, The Tree Of Life is Malick's finest film to date. (Original review can be found here)

#7. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson)

Mark Kermode claims that Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is a "spy film not about spying", and to some degree he's right. Set in 1970's London, this somber adaptation of John le Carré's Cold War novel is a masterpiece of unsettled intrigue, observing the rituals of male obsession within the labyrinthe world of MI6. The film is about the slowly unraveling thread of secrets and lies, but it involves the viewer on a human level; although these men appear more as clandestine shadows, denying themselves normality for a life spent in damp, greying rooms. DP Hoyte Van Hoytema lenses London beautifully, employing macro photography to absorb every bead of sweat, and capture every rouge glance. It's the best thriller I've seen in years, and should earn Gary Oldman his first Oscar nomination. (Original review can be found here)

#6. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Like the collected 1.33 dreams of film buffs across the world, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist is cinema's love letter to itself - a silent spectacle which references everything from Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915) to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941). Much more than a simple homage to the films of the 'Golden Age', The Artist is a deeply moving portrait of love and stardom in 1927 Hollywoodland, punctuated by breathless imagination and note-perfect sight gags. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are both magnetic in their roles, especially in an all-dancing finale which would make Astaire and Rogers blush (as they tapped along, of course). It's a beautiful, rapturous film which wholly deserves the reputation it has been building since Cannes, and here's hoping that audiences embrace it in 2012. (Original review can be found here)

#5. Love Like Poison (Katell Quillévéré)

There are so many qualities to admire in Katell Quillévéré's coming-of-age debut (inspired by a Serge Gainsbourg song) that writing a 130-word summation may prove an impossible task. Clara Augarde (reminiscent of a young Sandrine Bonnaire in Pialat's À nos amours, 1983) plays Anna, a 14-year-old Catholic girl whose sexual awakening is juxtaposed with the collapse of her parent's marriage, all set over the summer of her confirmation. But the ambitious Quillévéré - perhaps the most promising French filmmaker of her generation - also finds time to focus on the crisis of faith of Father François (Stefano Cassetti), the town's priest. In a Bergman-esque sub-plot we see him fall apart under the pressure of his position, and in the film's best scene he lies on his bed in prayer, bursting into tears. A startling calling card for both director and star, this one just gets better on every viewing. (Original review can be found here)

#4. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)

Featuring the best twist ending of the year, Denis Villeneuve's astonishing drama-cum mystery revolves around the journey undertaken by twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulain) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) after their mother's death reveals long-kept family secrets: they have a brother, and their father is still alive. As the siblings slowly reveal details of their mother's life, Villeneuve flashes back to the 1970's to illustrate their findings, and tell the harrowing story of Nawal (Lubna Azabal). The present-tense mystery shape-shifts before our eyes as the narrative flits back and forth in time, but the effect is seamless. Set in an otherworldly Lebanon (the director smartly keeps his politics neutral), the film is beautifully shot by André Turpin, whose sense of space makes it hard to believe that Incendies originates on the stage. A challenging and emotionally shattering epic, Incendies also ensures that you'll never listen to Radiohead's 'You And Whose Army?' in the same way again. (Original review can be found here)

#3. The Interrupters (Steve James)

Shot between the Summer of 2008 and Spring of 2009, Steve James' The Interrupters chronicles 14 months in the life of three CeaseFire workers; Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, whose job it is to interrupt potentially violent conflicts, before they can claim another life. With unflinching dedication and patience, James immersed himself into the urban community of Chicago, capturing 340-hours of on-the-hoof footage, which was carefully cut down to this 127-minute epic (the expert editing builds narrative threads without ever feeling forced or contrived). Ignoring politics in favor of street-level interaction, it's remarkable how much power the film packs into its condensed running time, but the result is captivating. The Interrupters may hold up a mirror to our times, but the reflected image contains hope. Kids like Lil' Mikey prove that many offenders have a good heart, and were simply set on the wrong path. It is CeaseFire's ambition to correct those paths, and they are to be admired for their courage and motivation. (Original review can be found here)

#2. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

The best theatrical release of 2011, Cold Weather is a low-key mumblecore mystery from writer/director Aaron Katz, but don't let that put you off. Imbued with the spirit of Conan Doyle, this US indie revolves around twentysomething college dropout Doug (Chris Lankenau) and the search for his missing ex, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon). Well, at least that's what it appears to be about, when the film develops a plot at around the 40-minute mark. Really the film's focus is on the relationship between Doug and his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) as they learn how to become comfortable in each other's space, and address each other as adults. Beautifully played by the unknown cast, the sibling bond in Cold Weather is gently etched and affecting, perfectly complemented by the tinkling tones of Keegan DeWitt's score (which employs xylophones and trays of water). Never hitting a false note, Katz's multi-layered masterpiece took me by surprise on my first watch, and four viewings later it remains a complete revelation. (Original review can be found here, and a companion piece here)

#1. Sleeping Sickness (Ulrich Köhler) (Unreleased)

Owing as much to the mythic jungles of J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World (1966) as it does to Joseph Conrad's colonization tale Heart Of Darkness (1903), this medical drama looks to the ravaged African landscape as a dark, dream-like sandpit which swallows its people whole; cinematically the meeting point between Claire Denis and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Writer/director Köhler is, like his protagonist Dr. Velten (Pierre Bokma), of German descent, and so our eyes on this land are decidedly foreign, viewing it as something close to science-fiction. The elliptical narrative is silky rather than distracting, drawing the viewer deeper and deeper into the dual stories of Velten and French doctor Alex (Jean-Christophe Folly), whose descent together into the darkest recesses of the African jungle is breathtakingly original, challenging and exciting. I really pray that it finds a UK distributor: Sleeping Sickness is a genuine modern classic. (Original review can be found here)

Other Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically)...
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf) (Unreleased)
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Romantics Anonymous (Jean-Pierre Améris)
Super (James Gunn)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Way Of The Morris (Rob Curry, Tim Plester)
Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

Friday 23 December 2011

The Devil's Double (Lee Tamahori, 2011) DVD Review

Dominic Cooper chews through the scenery in The Devil's Double...

Uday Hussein (Dominic Cooper) led a life of immoral excesses, gaining notoriety across the world for his savage tantrums and acts of causal barbarity. The eldest son of Saddam, Uday's notion of power was clearly lent to him by an empire he didn't understand, and even a developed intellectual mind couldn't conquer his untamed animal nature. The man bathed in gold, kept a walk-in wardrobe of Rolex's and Armani, and could take his pick of women to bed. Any film which wishes to portray his life honestly - or in Lee Tamahori's case, entertainingly - must indulge Uday to some degree, for these excesses led directly to his downfall. But if The Devil's Double is to be that film, it first has to learn restraint. The introduction of Uday doppelgänger Latif Yahia (also Cooper) is a necessary dramatic device, as he allows the audience a moral compass with which to identify, but he alone is not enough. Yahia's story, published in 1997 under the title I Was Saddam's Son, forms the basis for this wantonly indulgent uprising story which Ain't It Cool News dubbed as "Scarface Of Arabia". And I'll let that speak for itself...

The biggest problem with The Devil's Double - outside of its lurid aesthetic decay and troubling depiction of women - is its complete refusal to engage with politics. Screenwriter Michael Thomas has crafted an economic slice of fact-o-fiction (Yahia's story is unsupported by any other source), hitting genre beats with aplomb, but he never allows for a sense of the bigger picture in Iraq. We rarely wander outside of the four walls of Uday's palace, whose sickly, vomit-yellow art design is often too much for the eyes to take. Instead of politics Thomas attempts to engage in a battle of wits between Latif and his captor, building psychological profiles for the two men. But depth is a challenge he fails to rise to, and without a social backbone to rest on The Devil's Double sags into a repetitive cycle of parties and executions. By the time we get to the third club scene, and 'Relax' is blaring across the dancefloor, I began to wonder what point the film was arriving at, and if it would be arriving soon. Indeed, the length of those 109 minutes is about the only fair comparison to draw with Lawrence Of Arabia...

DP Sam McCurdy is a rising talent, but his compositions here are grotesque, sometimes intentionally but often through sheer clumsiness. In one club scene he frames Ludivine Sagnier halfway between the Virgin Mary and a two-bit hooker, ogling her scantily clad body under a ray of neon blue light; it could be an outtake from a Madonna video, and even then it'd be embarrassing. To his credit, there's very little that can be done with interiors this garish - they're likely true to Uday's tastes and the period setting, but sweetcorn yellow couches certainly don't require this much saturation. Oh, and on the subject of Sagnier... what's she doing here?! A French actress of enviable talent, her most compelling work to date is in François Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003), where her burgeoning sexuality informed much of the tension between her character and Charlotte Rampling's uptight novelist. Here, in wobbly English, she is stripped down and adorned by the camera, but given a one-note character to work with. I struggle to comprehend why an actress of her stature would accept this material. Here her sexuality is thrown away, especially in a gratuitous sex scene which bores rather than titillates.

Of course, the talking point of the film has been Dominic Cooper, and his dual role is handled with admirable conviction. I'd never considered him an actor of great range, but here he injects depth into two completely opposing characters. We loathe Uday and sympathize with Latif, but the screenplay really gives him little to work with beyond the surface of these men. Each have a single note: insanity and vulnerability. Cooper brings different shades to each, but he's working way above the material, and commendably so. The awards season is nearing and it would certainly be nice to see his name on a shortlist somewhere, but the ugliness of the surrounding film will likely harm those chances. Talk about a diamond in the rough...

The Disc/Extras
Probably not worth shelling out for Blu-Ray on this one, as the aesthetic is poor to begin with and the DVD is perfectly serviceable. If you have to buy the film, I doubt you'll be missing much in the jump to HD. Image and sound are fine, considering my comments in the review above. The extras include a director commentary, making of, interviews, premiere highlights... a solid little package actually, but none of it is particularly interesting enough to recommend viewing outside of a rental.

The Devil's Double is released on DVD/Blu-Ray on December 26th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011) Blu-Ray Review

Neil Maskell plays a kitchen-sink killer in Ben Wheatley's genre-flitting Kill List...

Warning: This review contains possible spoilers for the film's third act...

There are very few films, at least to my memory, which wrong-foot its audience with such twisted precision as Kill List. Scenarios are established which keep us on tenterhooks, but without a moments notice the film can switch genres, plunging us into the darkest depths of suburban terror before coming up for air in pockets of oily humor. In its earliest scenes Ben Wheatley's Down Terrace (2009) follow-up feels like Shane Meadows shooting a war doc in the front room of a fracturing couple; Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring). Even an early dinner party feels like it could dissolve into outright horror, as the unsettled drone of Jim Williams' score offsets the naturalistic, semi-improvised dialogue. With every passing minute Kill List grows weirder, unraveling like a coiled python to a moment of carnivalesque barbarity which recalls Robin Hardy's 1973 curio The Wicker Man. Gritty, stylized and often chokingly intense, this is truly one of the defining cinematic experiences of 2011...

Even with that spoiler warning in place I'm reluctant to reveal too much of the film's plot, or how it plays out. For anyone unaware of the third act twist, stop reading now, but even those in the know should tread cautiously through this write-up. Kill List is definitely a dish best served cold, and the less you know the better - in fact, everything past the 30-minute mark could be considered a spoiler. During the dinner Wheatley's camera moves calmly between the characters, observing small facial ticks which hold layers of meaning. The party is hosted by Jay and Shel, and invited are Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer). Both men are ex-soldiers, recovering from a botched job in Kiev which brought them home 8 months ago. The specifics of this job remain undisclosed, although we are aware of its heavy implication. The mysterious Fiona is perhaps the strangest presence of all; a wispy, ghoulish woman who carves a cult insignia onto the back of a bathroom mirror. Who is she? We've little time to contemplate this before the film shifts gears again. It's only minutes after the morning after that Jay and Gal are accepting a three-hit job from a mysterious employer - a white haired gentleman who resides in a hotel with Lynchian properties (you'll know what I mean when you see it).

Forty minutes later and the film is in full hellfire mode, and that's about as much as I'm giving away. I'll leave you with some advice though: see it twice. Not only does the genre-flitting mood of Kill List take time to sink in, its finer details don't become apparent until the second, more relaxed viewing. The finale did work for me the first time around (the tunnel sequence is terrifying, and undoubtedly the film's high point) but on a second viewing it also made greater dramatic sense, as questions of loyalty and sacrifice enter into the mix. As we concentrate harder on the faces of our protagonists, and further follow the decline of their moral compass, we come to place more emphasis on their fate. Credit to the performances by Maskell and Smiley that we empathize with these cruel, tangled men, who in another film we'd be willing the hero to triumph over. Never descending into simplistic shock tactics, Kill List is a sharp, intelligent horror/thriller as naturalistic as it is stylized, and as moving as it is chilling. For once the hype is justified: this is a must-see.

DP Laurie Rose is well served by this clean Blu-Ray transfer, with the darkness of the film's final moments especially heightened in the HD format. The extras are a little on the vanilla side, but they're entertaining tidbits nonetheless. A 7-minute Making Of feature is complemented by three sets of interviews, the most interesting of which is with writer/director Wheatley. Also included is the theatrical trailer, which gives away too much of the film for my liking.

Kill List is released on DVD/Blu-Ray on 26th December...

Monday 12 December 2011

Game On #6. The Italian Job

"C'mon lads, get a bloody move on!"... The Italian Job (1969)

Cor Blimey Guv'nor! Excuse the colloquial's, but we're going a little bit cockney this week as Game On jets off to Turin for one of the great crime capers of all time - The Italian Job (Collinson, 1969)! The film may be an established classic, but can this PS1 tie-in get away with the gold?

I remember the day my Dad first introduced me to The Italian Job. It was a drizzly Sunday afternoon, and the absence of The Great Escape (Sturges, 1963) on TV had led to a forage through the VHS cabinet; that treasure trove of celluloid dreams. 100 minutes later and I'd discovered a firm favorite, and Collinson's film ended up wearing out on tape when I re-watched it over and over again as a 10-year-old. In fact, it was the first film I ever watched on DVD, after receiving it for Christmas aged 11. It's stayed in my heart ever since, frequently perking me up on down days and making the good days even brighter - which reminds me that I now need to upgrade again with the 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray! Looking back on the film to write this piece I find that it's still one of the best heist movies ever made, boasting a suave, sharply suited turn from Michael Caine, a classic theme tune, high-stakes car chases and a cliffhanger ending to die for... oh, and some Benny Hill chubby chasing! When the game was released in 2001 (just two years before The Italian Job's US remake, and its own undervalued PS2/Xbox tie-in) I picked up a rental copy at Rainbow Video, and it provided months of frustrating entertainment. Coming back to the game now I was concerned that it wouldn't quite meet my nostalgic expectations. Was I right? Well, there's only one way to find out...

The covert art for PixelLogic's PS1 tie-in, The Italian Job...

Would it surprise you to learn that this one was something of a letdown? Generously adapted from the 1969 film, The Italian Job is basically a succession of increasingly difficult races and chases, finding the player picking up contacts, escaping the police and invading enemy headquarters from the comfort of a dozen cars - including those iconic Minis. What's most disappointing about the game is its linear and claustrophobic level design - 2000's classic Driver 2 allowed for players to control Tanner both in and outside of his car, with a free roam option offering you the chance of exploration and hijacking passing vehicles. What The Italian Job may have benefitted from is some variation in the missions, and giving us the ability to control Croker and co. as they plan and execute the heist. What we're left with is a straightforward driving game, although outside of the campaign there are solid Checkpoint, Challenge and Party Play modes, the latter of which supports up to 7 players (pretty good for such a retro title)!

Visually the game is no great shakes, and the cities - while distinguishable from one another - lack any real identity. Each fuzzy lane bears the same repetitive front, and there's sometimes noticeable glitching as the game struggles to load the environment ahead. Mounting corners at a breathless clip can be an exciting experience, as the cars handle pretty well, but too often I was left catching onto flat objects which didn't respond appropriately to my movement; those who suffer from seizures might want to look away in some of the faster paced missions. This also results in missions becoming needlessly complicated, as the ticking clock (each level is restricted to 2-minute time zones, which gives some indication of the game's length) can lose vital seconds while you're glitching underneath a cumbersome lamppost. This is never better exemplified than in the opening mission (The Ambassador's Car), which finds you controlling Croker as he drives to the safehouse, before being rudely interrupted by a patrolling police car. Despite a fluid control system (finally, a PS1 game with analogue movement!) the cars ultimately feel very sluggish, meaning that you'll misjudge corners, crash, allow the cops to catch up and run out of time.

The extra game types are a breath of fresh air, at least allowing for some variety, but they're ultimately throwaway events and don't add much to the overall play time. If you can manipulate the environment well enough (my tip: stay in the middle and speed) you should clock this one in 60 - 70 minutes, but it's certainly an enjoyable enough ride. Not quite the bullion many were hoping for, but I doubt you'll feel robbed by its conclusion...

Next week Game On is moving back to the small screen for The Simpsons: Hit & Run, a forgotten classic of the PS2/Xbox.

Sunday 11 December 2011

The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011) DVD Review

Ameena Matthews (centre) is one of three CeaseFire workers in The Interrupters...

Inspired by Alex Kotlowitz's ("There Are No Children Here") article "Blocking The Transmission Of Violence", published in the New York Times in May 2008, Steve James' The Interrupters is a bold, present-tense documentary which chronicles 14 months in the life of three CeaseFire workers; Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, whose own troubled histories afford them a unique position in the urban community. Founded in 2000 by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who after returning from Somalia established his theory on violence as a social disease, CeaseFire was built as the cure to an epidemic which had spread from block to block throughout Chicago. In 2004 Slutkin hired a group of "violence interrupters", whose job it is to step into and diffuse conflicts before blood can be split (the YouTubed murder of 16-year-old Derrion Albert provides one of the film's most disturbing moments). What's evident from The Interrupters, which has been edited down from 340 hours of on-the-hoof footage, is that the disease mostly affects those under the age of 25, who will have served their first jail sentence before graduating from high school.

Lil' Mikey, a 17-year-old recently out of prison for armed robbery, is just one of those under 25's. Articulate, sensitive and family-oriented, Lil' Mikey raided a hairdressers when he was 14, receiving a three year sentence when he was caught for the crime. Who we observe through James' camera is not a criminal, but a misguided boy who wasn't able to correct the path he was set on. Bravely, he goes back to the hairdressers to apologize for his actions, moved to tears by the woman whose children he threatened during the robbery - an act she ultimately forgives him for. The scene of Lil' Mikey coming home to his younger siblings is also deeply touching; he holds them close to his heart, clearly thankful for being allowed another chance. The key to the success of James' film is that it does not judge its subjects, understanding that lectures and finger pointing won't change their mindset. Instead it supports CeaseFire, which works is because its employees have all been those kids; stood in those shoes and made the wrong decisions. Bocanegra served 14 years for murder, whereas Matthews is the daughter of Jeff "Angel" Fort, a Chicago gang leader who at one point controlled over 5,000 members.

Another focus of The Interrupters is "Flamo", whose short fuse has contributed to a number of local conflicts. His remedy to any situation is violence, and in one oddly humorous scene we see him unable to bend down and pick up his phone, through fear of the pistol wedged in his belt accidentally misfiring. Flamo calms down when he attends a CeaseFire meeting, and it's remarkable to observe how this hot-headed guy is also a keen listener, empathetic and intelligent. Eventually he fixes his ways, finding a job on tollbooth security. James does hit a false note with this conclusion, however, framing it as a definite reevaluation of self, whereas the lure of Flamo's old lifestyle still presents itself as an option. I admire the filmmaker for his dedication to finding the truth and his complete lack of vanity (not once are we made aware of a crew, and the film has no presenter), but in the end he slips a little too neatly into narrative conventions, finding simple answers to complex questions. Caprysha Anderson, another teenage offender, ends up back in a correctional institution, but James still frames her outcome optimistically, seemingly forgetting for a split-second the months of gang warfare he has so masterfully recorded, unflinchingly and without manipulation. This DVD release has been reduced in length from the 164-minute cinema cut; it now appears at 127. I fear that this problem may exist in both versions, but ultimately it matters little. What comes before it is brave, vital filmmaking, and the best documentary of the year.

The Disc/Extras
Fantastic presentation by Dogwoof, whose DVD packaging is not only made from 100% sustainable materials, but is also space efficient and folds out to reveal information on the film/filmmakers. The disc boasts crisp, clear image and sound, and 70 minutes worth of extras - comprising the theatrical trailer and masses of (quality) deleted scenes. An essential release, especially for documentary fans.

The Interrupters is out on DVD now.

The Picture Show: Episode 2

Smile for the camera! Yes, it's that time of the week again, and in The Picture Show's second episode Sam and I review We Have A Pope, Margaret, Romantics Anonymous and Hugo, as well as listing some of our favorite movies about movies (highbrow and lowbrow)! So, what are you waiting for? Get listening!

Busy schedule? Fear not. The episode can be downloaded here in MP3 format!

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) Review

Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield discover the magic of movies in Scorsese's Hugo...

A small Parisian café, 1895. The Lumière brothers are holding the first ever public screening of L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat. The audience takes their seats, patiently waiting for what has been advertised to them as a "moving picture show." The curtain opens, and projected onto the flat screen is one of the great miracles of the modern world - cinema. Dust dances in that beam of light which provides for them a window into dreams, or in this case, a nightmare. Indeed, legend has it that the audience was so scared of the advancing train that they ducked for cover, and some ran from the café screaming for their lives. 116 years later and we have Scorsese's Hugo, a 3D family adventure which not only exhibits the Lumière's classic (this time at a carnival) but also recreates the scene (nodding toward the Gare Montparnasse tragedy) with modern technology - launching the train into the audience's laps as they chew on their popcorn. Ironically, the Lumière's re-imagined L'arrivée in 3D themselves, at a 1935 exhibition for the French Academy Of Science. Unsurprisingly, it didn't work, and for the most part neither does Scorsese's effort - it has the best 3D of any film to date, and yet the technology remains entirely superfluous.

The Lumière's were important pioneers of early cinema, but perhaps more important was Georges Méliès, director of Le voyage dans la lune (1902), and one of the main characters of Hugo. Based on Brian Selznick's 2007 novel, Scorsese's latest tells the story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a doe-eyed orphan obsessed with mechanisms and contraptions, who seeks the heart shaped key to his deceased father's automaton. He lives in the walls of a Parisian train station, running back and forth in its labyrinthe networks to keep the clocks well oiled and ticking. He steals ratchets and sprockets from the station's toymaker, who turns out to be none other than an aging, embittered Méliès (Ben Kingsley). His goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), equally doe-eyed, is in desperate need for an adventure when she befriends Hugo, and one day they visit the cinema together, for a screening of Harold Lloyd's hilarious Safety Last! (Newmeyer, Taylor, 1923). Eventually it is uncovered that Isabelle holds the heart shaped key on a chain around her neck, and the truth of Méliès life begins to unfold. But make no mistake - despite the soft, dreamy colour palette and Jeunet-like tableaus of incomplete romance (Amélie is a notable reference point), this isn't exactly a kid's film. Indeed, the plodding adventure which makes up the bulk of the running time is its least interesting element. What really shines through is the biopic of a genius which lies at its centre...

It's not that the Hugo/Isabelle story is bad, but rather that it's completely unremarkable. Is it refreshing to find a Christmas blockbuster with two smart, appealing kids who care about other people and don't fall into a clichéd romance? Yes. Is it refreshing to find them so in love with cinema - especially such early cinema, which many audience members won't have seen? Of course. But their story is such a convoluted confection that I found it hard to care, and was always eager for Méliès to reappear. Maybe this is just because I'm a 20-year-old cinephile, but I'm curious about how the experience will translate the other way, and how much kids are going to care about the life story of cinema's greatest magician. The film certainly plays to all audiences - a buffoonish Sacha Baron Cohen and his comical dog see to that - but I wonder how many kids will be left wanting more of Hugo, and how many adults will be left wishing Scorsese had just made a Méliès biopic. Certainly I fall into the latter camp, and the director's affections seem to lie in the same place. For example, the emerging romance between Cohen's Station Inspector and florist Lisette, played by Emily Mortimer. Their relationship could have been an interesting one, but instead Cohen is relegated to bumbling slapstick and Mortimer barely registers as a screen presence with five barely audible lines, each as incidental as the last. When they finally do get together it's through a series of unutterable contrivances, and nothing in their poorly judged previous encounter had hinted toward such an ending. Also consider the silent romance between Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths - what purpose does it serve other than plain-faced whimsy and a few cute dog shots for the kids?

But almost every pitfall of the Hugo/Isabelle story is forgotten about when Scorsese shifts the focus to Méliès', whose tale ends, regrettably, on his film stock being melted down to make shoe heels. The meticulous reconstruction of his sets are genuinely jaw-dropping, and even in 3D their palette (Méliès hand painted his films, which were always intended to be shown in colour) is incredibly striking. Kingsley perfectly embodies the spirit of a man whose obsession was the cinema; to him an artform of dreams. His awe, upon a first screening of L'arrivée, clearly displays the beginnings of a life in movies, and watching his passion dissolve in the wake of WWI is a truly heart-wrenching experience. I'm not embarrassed to admit that I shed a tear when learning of the night that he burned all the old sets and costumes of his films. The flickering bonfire of memories holds a poignancy which Scorsese hasn't tapped into for well over a decade. The spectacle and heart of this sequence ensures that the film is worth recommending, but the fact that it directly precedes a series of dull third-act clichés (a chase through the train station that ends on a weak homage to Safety Last!) is disappointing. Cohen's mugging finally reaches the apex of its annoyance, and film's charm runs dry. An element I've forgotten to mention though is the film enthusiast Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), who reignites Méliès zeal; in many ways he represents audience members like myself, who live in wonder of cinema's power. Stuhlbarg excels in the part, and is an undoubtable highlight.

But what of the 3D? The argument of depth is one I've had out on this blog before, and I don't wish to sound like a broken record, so I'll simply provide a reason why Hugo not only doesn't need its 3D, but also why it works against the film. This is Scorsese's celebration of early cinema, and it's true that filmmakers were experimenting with 3D as early as 1915. But every important innovation was made in 2D - filmmakers created the illusion of depth through the tools of their artform; photography, music and performance. The only 2D segments of Hugo are the exhibitions of old films - Safety Last!, L'arrivée and Le voyage - and viewing these sequences through 3D glasses we realise how superfluous the technology is, as it does not directly impact our reaction toward the film. Take the glasses off and Hugo will be the same, it'll still have the same problems, but it will not have the superficiality of 3D, which for me draws attention to the film's artifice. We are still seeing images projected onto a flat screen, head-on. We are not enveloped by the image, as it still has a cut-off point; the horizon has a dip, but 3D does not enhance our view of it. The 2D films screened in Hugo are exciting and funny because they are moving photographs of reality. Hugo, save for the sequences where it celebrates 2D film, is not exciting or funny, because it is an illusion aware of itself. It didn't allow me to get lost in the fantasy. But it did give me a headache.

Monday 5 December 2011

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011) Review

DP Robbie Ryan imbues the Yorkshire moors with a foreboding mist...

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is perhaps the most over-adapted novel of all time, to the point of wondering, upon entering the cinema today, if this film even had a cause to exist. Recent attempts have been timid and stuffy, but Andrea Arnold's stab at the tale (and boy, do I mean stab) is perhaps the best yet, imagining the Yorkshire moors as bleak, uninhabitable expanses encircled by a choking mist, and Wuthering Heights the location for desolation and turmoil. Rather than Brontë's "dark-skinned gypsy in aspect", Heathcliff is here a black ex-slave, brandished as such by the whip which has left heavy, leech-like scars on his back. Arnold's probing camera looks upon each ingrained gash with an animalistic fascination, finding something sensual in their shape, illuminated by rogue flecks of flame. Later, deep in the isolated moors, Cathy lifts Heathcliff's shirt and licks the blood from his wounds like a cat lapping milk. Wuthering Heights 2011 is a raw and primal beast, deeply felt and in-tune with the Earth. DP Robbie Ryan's macro photography ensures that every blade of grass and flapping wing has significance, and the damp soil exudes a tangible scent. In short: it's a masterpiece.

Re-establishing the plot would only waste space, so I'll redirect the five people who haven't read Brontë's source to their nearest library - and yes, I'll accept your thanks in advance. Arnold's imagining, shot in 1.33 and closing on a new track from Mumford & Sons, does have its share of modernist touches (the swearing is lifted straight from Fish Tank's council estate), but it's also loyal to the characters, whose previous incarnations (Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche) have been far removed - both in age and image - from the descriptions of the text. The actors here suit the material perfectly, and have an uncanny continuity in their image. James Howson, who plays the older Heathcliff, looks every bit the elder of Solomon Glave, whose distinctive eyes lend the film's first half such profound sadness. It really feels like Arnold has allowed ten years for the boy to grow up and then resumed shooting, a theory made all the more believable by the way she frames his aging; Heathcliff disappears into the dead of night as a boy, and reappears from the mist a man. Kaya Scodelario is also believable as the elder of Shannon Beer, although Howson (whose performance has been much criticized) delivers the stronger turn. As in her previous film, Arnold has opted for largely non-professional actors here, and their awkward naturalism adds to the complexity of Brontë's world.

It's impossible to recall numerically the amount of times Wuthering Heights took my breath away, not only in its moments of savagery (several scenes of animal cruelty made my stomach churn), but also in the daring of its camerawork. One particularly impressive moment focuses on a shot of a tumbling trunk and then match cuts to a similarly designed coffin being lowered into the earth. Only after recovering from the disorientation of this move did I recognize its genius, a word which suitably describes DP Robbie Ryan. He's undoubtedly Britain's best working cinematographer (Eduard Grau, can we still be friends?), but even for him this is a revelatory work. The browns, blues and greys of this world are impeccably measured, and each tone informs a different feeling. The fevered beat of a moth's wings exists almost in slow motion; the yellow of his figure completely hypnotic. I can't think of a single film which better expresses the feeling of being amongst nature - the rolling hills, the bitter chill of the southern wind, the sludge of wet soil, the rime which stretches over the formidable landscape. Ryan employs natural sound and light to further envelope us in this astonishing vision of England, and Arnold's economic storytelling (each plot point is expanded by gesture rather than dialogue) ought to earn her an Oscar nomination. We all know the film is too bold for Academy recognition, but the truth remains evident. There is no Wuthering Heights after Andrea Arnold.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Game On #5. The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn

Rockets Ahoy! Andy Serkis stars as Captain Haddock in The Adventures Of Tintin...

Blistering barnacles! This week's Game On dives headfirst into the world of treasure hunting and amateur sleuthing, focusing on the PS3 tie-in to Spielberg's fantastic The Adventures Of Tintin (2011), a world-traversing blockbuster which finds Hollywood's premier popcorn pusher back on top form...

If it weren't famous for being a nation of romantic chocolatiers, Belgium would be best known for Tintin, Hergé's iconic junior journo. Along with his loyal dog Snowy, Tintin has embarked upon perilous quests across the world - Egypt, Tibet, Soviet Russia - to find lost treasures and solve ancient mysteries. The fresh-faced adventurer has been beloved for over thirty years now, and 2011 finally saw Steven Spielberg realize his dream of putting the quiff on the big screen. Secret Of The Unicorn finds The Bearded One back on form, seemingly revitalized by the freedoms of motion-capture technology, which still hasn't caught up with the director's considerable vision. The Morocco chase is undoubtedly the finest action sequence I've seen this year, and the film moves at a breathless clip through vibrant landscapes and daffy plot convolutions, each as nonsensical as the last. I've got high hopes for Peter Jackson's upcoming sequel (he should sort out what remains of the dead-eye problem) but for now Tintin fans will have to tide themselves over with this PS3 tie-in, developed by the brilliant French company Ubisoft, who in the past have brought us classics such as XIII and Assassin's Creed...

The cover art for Ubisoft's The Adventures Of Tintin (2011)...

Most people approaching Secret Of The Unicorn will be doing so expecting a few hours of clean, accessible platforming fun, and that's exactly what they'll be getting - the game's linear, retro levels can be sped through in under three hours, and a lack of multiplayer options means that you'll soon be heading back into the world of Skyrim. But while those hours last it's actually a surprisingly engaging little title, boasting a refreshingly stripped-down narrative in the age of Modern Warfare, whose epic production values seem (worryingly) to be dictating the direction of the gaming industry...

Anyhow, let's get to business! The plot of Secret Of The Unicorn is almost identical to that of the film, save for the odd exclusion of that dastardly bastard Sakharine as the main villain. The game's visual design is perfect, and I'd definitely recommend playing it on the highest definition possible; Ubisoft have replicated the aesthetic of Spielberg's blockbuster with a loving attention to detail, and its bright palette definitely adds to the charm of each environment. Indeed, every surface - water looks especially good - has a sheen which'll charm the socks off of most Tintin fans. The character design is less consistent, with some jerky movement and off-kilter dubbing frequently providing an awkward distraction from the action. Tintin controls well enough in-game, but the cutscenes can look too much like an upgraded PS2 title, and the stilted voicework makes the animation appear all the more unpolished.

But, what of the gameplay? Secret Of The Unicorn adopts an old fashioned side-scrolling style of platforming (imagine the 1989 Apple incarnation of Prince Of Persia) where we view each environment flat and head-on, and Tintin has to work his way across, up and down it. Simplistic puzzles and buffoonish enemies will block your way, but these are easily defeated and ensure a fluid playing experience. The goal of each mission is clearly defined, and working your way to its end is refreshingly free of quick-time gimmicks and flashy distractions; it's retro in the best possible way. Yes, it's too easy, but it's also addictive and fun, and those three hours are a guaranteed good time for even the most experienced of gamers, who'll whisk through its story on a weekend rental. The driving/dogfighting mini games are less successful, with the latter feeling particularly stiff and tired, but the game survives them. If you can pick it up cheap, it'll certainly entertain, and most importantly Ubisoft have crafted a platformer which remains faithful to Hergé's beloved source...

Next week's Game On finds us back on the PS1 for The Italian Job...

Saturday 3 December 2011

Romantics Anonymous (Jean-Pierre Améris, 2010) Review

Benoît Poelvoorde and Isabelle Carré are emotionally challenged... Romantics Anonymous

Romantics Anonymous is a film about good, kind-hearted people who deserve to find love. They are timid and sweet, and share a passion for chocolate; its smooth, silky embrace comforting them from the lurking dangers of the outside world - a conversation, for example. See, Jean-René (Benoît Poelvoorde) and Angélique (Isabelle Carré) are emotionally challenged, which means that they fear everything the world has to offer. The Capra-esque universe of Améris' film (which could easily be re-titled as The Chocolate Shop Around The Corner) means that these people are destined for love, and the director employs just about every clichéd scenario in the rom-com handbook to bring them together. There's a dinner date, for example, and a montage where their shared passions allow for a moment of bonding. Heck, the film even ends with a public declaration of love, preceded by a frantic dash across town. But the film's idiosyncratic leads ensure that every familiar scenario is imbued with an appealing freshness. The dinner date, which in Howard Hawks' screwballs would be the backdrop to rapid-fire one-upmanship, is here a catalogue of escalating embarrassments, ending on Jean-René's flustered escape from a bathroom window. The cause of his panic? A frilled shirt.

In my haste to praise Romantics Anonymous I've forgotten to mention its plot. Jean-René is the boss of a small chocolate factory which is nearing bankruptcy. Angélique is the new girl hired as a sales rep, but who believed she was applying for the position of chocolate maker (some years earlier she wooed the town as an anonymous chocolatier, now believed to be Salinger-like hermit). Her pathological shyness prevents Angélique from selling any chocolates, but on the day she decides to quit Jean-René asks her to dinner (upon the advice of his deadpan therapist). You can map out just about every genre beat from this point on, but the fun of Améris' film lies in the joyousness with which it hits them. I know I'll be about the 743rd critic to do so, but I'd like to draw a comparison between Romantics Anonymous and a Mercier caramel. Both are finely crafted, sweet and easily digestible, if a little lightweight. Some people have employed this as a criticism, but sometimes the sweetness of a Mercier carmel is more than enough for a film to aspire to. So many rom-coms today (particularly those from the US, it must be said) are crass and broadly etched, preferring knockabout sexes warfare to something gentle and honest; a film like When Harry Met Sally (Reiner, 1989), for example, which is one of the great American love stories. Romantics Anonymous embraces its genre - even its saccharine excesses - with open arms, and with it creates an endearing portrait of two lovable souls who so desperately want and need each other. We pray for them to get together. We laugh at their blundering and are moved by their sincerity. This is a film which exudes warmth from every frame, and therefore should be celebrated.

Poelvoorde and Carré are magnificent as the central couple, who are each unaware that the other shares their own affliction. Jean-René stumbles his way through life, in the dinner date scene displaying the heart of a James Stewart beneath the panicked exterior of a Jacques Tati, as he constantly seems to be teetering on the edge of a full-blown nervous breakdown. In the press notes Améris confesses that his model for Carré was Ginger Rodgers, but there's also a delightful scene where Angélique skips down the Parisian streets like Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music (Wise, 1965), singing "I Have Confidence". The actors have perfect chemistry (they previously worked together on Anne Fontaine's Entre ses mains, 2005), allowing room for moments of spontaneity and naturalism to shine through the scripted dialogue. The scene after Angélique has wowed the factory by whipping up a new line of chocolates is adorably awkward, with the characters lingering beside each other in the hope of intimacy, but neither bold enough to make the first move. You should be able to predict the final shot within ten minutes of the film beginning, but it won't matter one iota that you're right. By the time it arrives you'll have been completely swept up by its limitless charms. Warm, funny and moving, Romantics Anonymous may be slight, but it's one of the most purely enjoyable movies I've seen this year. Seek it out.