Thursday, January 31, 2013

FLIGHT OF FANCY?
Denzel Washington is a very solid, reliable actor. He hasn't made many great films but he manages to lift what is pedestrian to make it better. Flight is Robert Zemeckis's new film starring Washington as drink and drug addicted airline captain, the wonderfully named Whip Whitaker, who is involved in a serious plane crash and questions begin to be asked about whether he was to blame for the plane's malfunction and crash. It is a fairly simple conceit and it often feels like a made for TV movie, one of those ones on in the afternoon on Channel 5. But Flight is lifted (pardon the pun) by Washington's empathetic performance as Whitaker. He is playing against type a little here, snorting coke and partying with airline stewardesses, but he is credible as the damaged protagonist who just can't help himself. English actress Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes, Above Suspicion) offers decent support as former drug addict Nicole, who falls for him and tries to redeem Whitaker. Flight is a film about redemption and thanks to some sterling work from supporting actors Bruce Greenwood as Whitaker's union rep Charlie Anderson and Don Cheadle as lawyer Hugh Lang, it lends it an extra air of credibility and gravity. But it is Washington's vehicle. Without him, it would have been released without any fanfare and a swift release on Blu-ray would have been its fate. All credit to Zemeckis too: he holds it all together, the crash itself is very well-directed and even though it is all rather telegraphed and obvious, you do enjoy the journey. It isn't a great film but Flight is a decent film with a very impressive central performance. Worth checking out…

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

HAT'S ENTERTAINMENT
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is a film that has been eagerly awaited for years. At one point, it seemed in jeopardy that it would ever get made but it's out at last. This biopic, which focuses on the 16th president's attempt to get the abolition of slavery passed into law while resolving the bitter Civil War, shows off some of the director's most assured and thoughtful work. Rather than take the usual route of cramming in the entire life of President Lincoln into one film, Spielberg decides to focus on this very pivotal part of US history and it pays off well. He handles the various machinations that Lincoln and the rest of his party have to go through to get the bill passed with rare skill and deftness. Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant in the title role, with an unusually measured and human performance and deserves the various gongs he has already received. He inhabits the part in a way that you can't really imagine anyone else doing. If he doesn't win an Oscar, I'll eat my stovepipe hat. But it would be remiss of me to neglect to mention the rest of the cast. Tommy Lee Jones as the wonderfully named Senator Thaddeus Stevens, fellow abolitionist, and Jared Harris as Yankee general and future US President Ulysses Grant, are just two of the standout members of the cast. Lee Jones is suitably irascible and Harris shows why he is becoming one of the most interesting character actors of modern TV and film. Lincoln has a running time of two and a half hours and at no point does it drag or outstay its welcome. It's not perfect by any means: it may have been a more dramatic conclusion if it had ended when the bill becomes law rather than showing us the death of Lincoln and sometimes you wonder if Lincoln really did speak in aphorisms like he chooses to sometimes here. But these are minor quibbles: Spielberg and production designer Rick Carter have created a painterly 1860s America, beautiful on screen. But the beauty is tempered by real human tragedy like the casualties of the Civil War, an event which drove a poisonous spike through the heart of America. It is impressive that, despite the fact that Steven Spielberg has making films for five decades now, he is still able to impress with something as weighty, as light-fingered and as erudite as Lincoln. Lincoln is a bold and well-made look at one of the most important figures and periods in American history…

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

SHACKLED
Quentin Tarantino is a very frustrating director. His twenty year career began with Reservoir Dogs and he followed that up with Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Django Unchained is his latest film and Tarantino is someone who always splits the cinemagoing audience into those people who 'get' him and those who don't. When I saw Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, I truly thought they were great films. But Kill Bill Parts One and Two were indulgent and messy and Inglourious Basterds was incoherent and childish. The director had lost his golden touch for dialogue and intriguing situations. So now we come to Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's 'Southern' about the freed slave of the title, played by Jamie Foxx, and his quest to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of her evil master. Django is assisted by his friend, bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz. The original Django films were spaghetti westerns with the title character a gunslinger played by Franco Nero. So the title and main character of Unchained is merely a nod by Tarantino to Nero's kitsch classics. The film opens very strongly: Django is freed from his yolk by Schultz, who agrees to make him his partner and also help him track down his missing wife. Waltz is very good as Schultz, a character who the audience has some empathy with, and Foxx acquits himself well. The pair discover that Broomhilda is being held by the malevolent master of a plantation, Calvin Candie, played with no little panache by Leonardo DiCaprio. So the pair create a pretext to see Candie in order to bargain with him for Django's wife's liberty. Tarantino's regular collaborator Samuel Jackson plays Candie's slave, Stephen, and his role feels a little light compared with many of his other onscreen personas.
The first half of the film works well structurally: Tarantino builds up a good rapport between Django and Schultz and he manages to keep it all rolling along nicely. It is really once they get to Candieland, the plantation, when the cracks start appearing. Tarantino can't help make his scenes far longer than they should be and we have long, lingering shots where to help its pace, he should cut to the chase. As I said, DiCaprio is very sinister and puts a great deal into his role but the last act of Django Unchained sees a return to the cartoon violence and lack of cohesion that has infected every Tarantino film since Jackie Brown. There is also a pathetic cameo from Tarantino at the end, which shows once again that he can't actually act but through his own ego, he has to shoehorn himself into his films, like a geek Hitchcock.
The problem is that Tarantino is at his heart a film geek and, while there is something to be applauded for his love of film, he still can't create a work which manages to transcend the feeling that he is merely a film fan making onscreen love letters to his favourite films. He also is so obsessed with creating cool-looking set pieces that the script and plot suffer as a result. The tone is very uneven here too and it's hard to empathise with or care about characters when they have as much depth when all is said and done as Tom and Jerry. Critics will continue to fall over themselves to praise his work and to slobber over Django Unchained because they are scared of seeming uncool if they don't and also because he did make some exceptional films early on in his career. But in the final analysis, Django Unchained is puerile, self-indulgent, lacking in coherence and far too long. There are some memorable performances but they can't save this film…

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

A WORTHWHILE PROJECT
I promised I would help to give comic creator and animal rights advocate Matt Miner and his artist Joel Gomez, a boost for their Kickstarter project, so here goes (and I thought I'd run their own wording about the project)
Do you love gritty anti-heroes like Dexter or Batman? Check out Liberator, featuring a new type of superhero who avenges the torture of animals. For anybody who ever thought comics could be punk and subversive and maybe even glorify some good old-fashioned direct action, this is something unique and worth supporting. The idea for the book formed with the realization that the same people who might support and enjoy stories about an underground animal liberation activist, who puts on a mask in the night and helps animals.
Liberator


Thursday, January 10, 2013

IT'S A (MOSTLY) FAIR COP
My first cinema film review of the year is Gangster Squad, a bit of a throwback directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland). The film deals with the Los Angeles Police Department's decision to set up a secret group of police, led by Sgt John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), to bring down gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Gangster Squad is an old-fashioned film, feeling like an extended episode of Dragnet with violence but sometimes it's quite refreshing to see a film that's so out of kilter with contemporary mores. Brolin acquits himself well here as does Ryan Gosling, who plays fellow police officer Jerry Wooters, who becomes involved with Cohen's squeeze Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). The rest of the supporting cast include Robert Patrick (grizzled cop Max Kennard) and Giovanni Ribisi as boffin Officer Conway Keeler. Penn as Cohen is ridiculously over the top, complete with nose prosthetic, chewing the scenery and sometimes seems as if he's trying to take a bite out of the cast. Gangster Squad is no LA Confidential and if you're after subtlety, then you need to seek out something else. However it doesn't outstay its welcome, there are some enjoyable scenes, some decent performances and director Fleischer does a decent job with the pace. If you're after a cheesy slice of old-fashioned gangster fun, then you could do worse than check Gangster Squad out…

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

BRITISH INSTITUTION
Ealing Studios was a British institution and it's easy to forget that they didn't just make comedies. This month, Studio Canal have three of their films released (Nowhere to Go, The Titfield Thunderbolt and Dance Hall). Nowhere to Go and Dance Hall have been issued on DVD whereas The Titfield Thunderbolt, tying in with its 60th anniversary, is getting a Blu-ray and a DVD release.
Nowhere To Go is a great British noir film, based on the novel by Donald McKenzie and scripted by Kenneth Tynan, made in 1958. This is an uncut version of the film which has never been released before. Canadian conman Paul Gregory (played by George Nader), has come to London to steal the rare old coin collection of old woman Harriet Jefferson (Bessie Love). He does this successfully but ends up going to prison, sentenced to ten years. The spivvy Victor Sloane (Bernard Lee, playing against type here) helps to break Gregory out of prison but despite the fact he does escape prison, his journey to flee the country is hindered by a number of double crosses and accidents and so he finds himself on the lam with young socialite Bridget Howard (a very young Maggie Smith). Director Seth Holt, who also went on to make Blood From The Mummy's Tomb and The Nanny, moves the action on with panache and Nader is very good as its protagonist and it's refreshing to see Lee in a role that's quite different. Nowhere To Go is an exciting slice of fifties noir with a very British feel and it's certainly worthy of a new home cinema release…
The Titfield Thunderbolt, which was made in 1953, deals with a classic Ealing preoccupation: small town vs big business. A group of railway enthusiasts decide to run their own train when British Rail decides to cancel their service. The restored cut does look lovely on screen but The Titfield Thunderbolt does feel rather lightweight these days. Director Charles Crichton (Lavender Hill Mob) does manage to make the journey entertaining though, with his lightness of touch and bringing the bucolic Titfield to life, and the cast, which includes Stanley Holloway, John Gregson and even a cameo from Sid James, do bring an infectious liveability to what is a very slight film. It's not up there with Ealing's classic output but it is definitely worth a watch…
Finally, Dance Hall, which predates The Titfield Thunderbolt by three years but was also directed by Charles Crichton. This is an odd film: a drama about four factory girls and their romances at the local dance hall. Alexander Mackendrick, who went on to direct The Ladykillers, is one of the screenwriters here and Dance Hall does have its own naive charm. We get to see a young Petula Clark and a youngish Diana Dors as two of the girls, although Dors was never much of an actress. It is interesting to see London in 1950 but much of it feels very artificial. There are some nice moments though: the fight between the two men caught in a love triangle, Alec (Bonar Colleano) and Phil (Donald Houston), is surprisingly well orchestrated and there are some well-delineated relationships between the characters. Natasha Parry as Eve is also stunning and magnetic on screen. It doesn't compare to Ealing's classic films either but it is worth watching if you're an aficionado of British cinema. Dance Hall is a curio but still worth checking out.



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