We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

This is basically a horror film, trading in psychological terror with a distinctly European sensibility of long takes, artfully composed alienation, and a mounting sense of dread, as via flashbacks we learn about the murderous crimes Kevin has committed. Kevin is Eva’s son, and Eva is really the linchpin of the film, so it’s just as well Tilda Swinton is such a good actress. There are hints that she’s failed as a parent — too committed to working, living in a large unpleasantly empty and sterile home with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and not good at empathising with her children — but those are just suggestions, perhaps more easily attributed to the film’s horror themes, in which failing as a parent is a more terrifying prospect than being the victim of a mass murderer. The problem I have with the film is that the ‘evil’ of Kevin seems rather one-note, with Ezra Miller (and his counterparts playing Kevin as a child) called on to perform a very limited range of glaring nastiness towards his family and those around him. At a certain level, it seems like an easy way to keep the film at a distance, thought that’s of a piece with its filmmaking style I suppose. In any case, for all its stylishness, I certainly wouldn’t want to watch this film if I were a parent.

We Need to Talk about Kevin film posterCREDITS
Director Lynne Ramsay; Writers Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 26 October 2015.

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Atonement (2007)

Director Joe Wright is pretty decent at literary adaptations, which is a way of saying I liked his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina more than Hanna. In between all those films was Atonement, which I think was a pretty big deal at the time; I remember reading the novel and really liking it, but it’s been too long for me to make any kinds of meaningful comparison between the two. That said, on its own merits this is a fine film and showcases that both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are excellent actors with quite a bit of emotional depth (though we already knew that about the young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character seeking the atonement of the title). It’s all very doomy, set against a backdrop of the build-up to and aftermath of World War II, but it’s a handsome and diverting production all the same. Also, Knightley wears a particularly excellent green dress for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

Atonement film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writers Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

A Fuller Life (2013)

There’s no doubt that director Samuel Fuller had quite a life, and it’s his autobiography that forms the basis for this documentary by his daughter. The form is simple: a collection of actors and directors — both those who worked with him and admirers of his work — sit in his study and read from his memoirs. So we get the likes of actors James Franco and Constance Towers (whose towering peformance so enlivened his The Naked Kiss), and directors Wim Wenders and Monte Hellman, amongst many others. The first half of the film covers Fuller’s start as a newsboy and copy editor in New York, before moving on to his formative experiences in World War II, while the second half rattles through his film work over the following 30 years. The armchair-readings format is broken up with archival clips, many of them filmed by Fuller himself and taken from his own archives. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the formal methods, though his daughter provides a memorable introduction as the camera roves across his study and all the artefacts within it, but this is a solid and fascinating film portrait of one of the great American directors of the 20th century.

A Fuller Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Samantha Fuller (based on the memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller); Cinematographers Hilton Goring, Seamus McGarvey, Tyler Purcell and Rachel Wyn Dunn; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Having created a straitjacket for myself with my New Year’s resolution, there was no other option but to go see this adaptation of a well-known (if not necessarily well-regarded) novel/extended fanfic by English writer E.L. James — which, I’ll say right now, I haven’t read, though that surely shouldn’t get in the way of appreciating the film/s (it didn’t for Harry Potter, after all). There’s certainly no shortage of women in control behind the scenes of the film, but the question was always going to be how much would be onscreen. As it happens, Dakota Johnson does really very well in the lead role of Anastasia Steele, intrepid college reporter interviewing youthful tycoon Christian Grey (a comparatively bland Jamie Dornan). I think most people know the set-up so I shan’t go any further here with a plot rehash here, because to do so at this point would frankly be boring, but it’s safe to say the film is shot with the kind of steely professionalism that could suggest any major world city as the setting (technically it’s Seattle, in a nod to its Twilight-fanfic origins perhaps, but seems to be shot in Vancouver, yet either way there’s very little sense of place). It fixates on the shiny, modern, expensively-clad business world of its male hero, the trappings of which are supposed to sway Ana towards love, but for which she generally shows very little enthusiasm. In some way, it’s a masterclass of minimalist acting by Johnson: one can never quite tell how much she really lusts for Christian, and how much is a sort of naive complacency or a lack of anything better to do with her time. It sets up her submissive role in the ensuing relationship, but the film makes efforts to suggest that through it all she knows what she’s doing and subtly exerts control, and there’s some really well-judged humour in possibly the film’s best scene — the boardroom contract-signing where she sets her limits within the relationship (how many onscreen relationships have clearly defined and agreed boundaries, after all?). That said, the ensuing erotic scenes are all rather restrained (I’m surprised at the 18 classification, frankly), and hark back to some hoary cinematic clichés (there’s an icecube scene that I think dates back to 9½ Weeks, and that’s not the only 80s retro throwback). In short, it’s a more successful film than I had feared, and Johnson will (I hope!) have a long career. Perhaps it may even be due a critical reassessment when we’ve passed this first phase of its infamy, but for now, let’s just say it’s as inoffensive as it has any right to be, given its romantic lead is a man who enjoys hurting women.

Fifty Shades of Grey film posterCREDITS
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson; Writer Kelly Marcel (based on the novel by E.L. James); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Saturday 28 February 2015.

Godzilla (2014)

Remaking and reimagining the Japanese creature feature Gojira (1954) seems to be a periodic interest of filmmakers, especially those in massively capitalised industries like Hollywood. Therefore, it’s a bold choice to choose as director Gareth Edwards, whose previous credit was a low-budget feature, Monsters (2010), renowned for its relative paucity of monsters and featuring his own self-made special effects. If this, then, is a big step up for him in terms of budget and impact, Edwards and his writer have also been quite canny in the way the film introduces its titular monster, whose existence is only hinted at for the first half of the running time.

The story retains its allegorical thrust about the hubris of humanity — reawakening this primaeval creature through the proliferation of nuclear power — though here the dinosaur is joined by a pair of huge mantis-like insect creatures called “MUTOs” (for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism — except that, as pointed out right after this term is explained in the movie, “they’re not terrestrial, they’re airborne!”). These latter are the film’s real threat, their eggs gestating for decades in massive underground lairs that resemble nothing so much as the Giger-designed pods of Alien, and which come over like steroidal versions of Starship Troopers‘ insectoid menace. The MUTOs’ first appearance in the film results in personal tragedy for scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), and fifteen years later it’s his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who muscles in on the effort to deal with the now-fully-grown threat, although Ken Watanabe’s Dr Serizawa is the one who’s really in charge.

While the primary interest for this type of film remains the punishingly monstrous creature effects (the CGI for which has a weighty feel to match those in Pacific Rim, which remains my high-water point for this kind of thing), there’s still a nice human interest drama that plays out between Ford and his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and between them and Ford’s now-paranoid dad. That said, even Cranston and Olsen’s fine acting is quickly overshadowed once the monsters are all in full flow, and it’s to the film’s credit that it all feels satisfying in the end despite the fact that nothing any of the human characters do in any way affects the drama being played out amongst the warring creatures.

Of course, it’s yet another film that takes an urban setting and delights in crushing it to bits, which seems like something that’s been a bit overdone in recent years, given it’s been the basic formula of all the recent Marvel and DC films. This time the city is San Francisco, chosen presumably for its Pacific rim proximity to Japan, and truly there’s a lot of collateral damage as the MUTOs and Godzilla square off under the impotent gaze of the American military. It’s this utter ineffectiveness of humanity in the face of Godzilla that’s the point, though, I suppose, and the film succeeds well in conveying this.

Godzilla film posterCREDITS
Director Gareth Edwards; Writer Max Borenstein; Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 17 May 2014 [2D].

Anna Karenina (2012)

I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.

The opening 15 minutes or so is probably where Wright’s technical virtuosity is most in evidence, as we see a succession of scenes introducing the central characters for the ensuing drama. These are chiefly Anna (Keira Knightley), her ministerial husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), her dandy aristocratic brother Prince Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a shabbily-dressed lank-haired friend of Stiva’s who is in love with Kitty. These opening scenes are framed — as are several throughout the film — by the front of a stage with its footlights, as seen in many of the posters. It’s a cute way of presenting the story as a self-consciously staged one, only heightened by the colour and detail of the costumes and the elaborate intricacy of the set design.

Scenes, too, blend into one another, as characters seamlessly move from one geographical and spatial setting to another without any ostensible cuts, another distancing technique which recalls similar sequences in classic post-war new wave filmmaking, but which most brings to my mind the playful experimentation of Raúl Ruiz, especially his adaptation of Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999). Yet where Ruiz’s touch was light and perfectly integrated into the sense of nostalgia and memory that Proust’s work dealt with, here the technique seems far more self-aggrandising, and serves to distance us further as viewers from the grand, melodramatic story being shown.

And it is melodramatic, with all kinds of ridiculous touches, showing excess in the costumes and in the sets (trains entirely encrusted with snow, as just one example). Where the film palpably scores is in some of the supporting acting. While I remain unconvinced by the lovers at the film’s centre, Jude Law imparts real pathos to the upright, slightly dull politician, while Alicia Vikander is charming as Kitty — even if the scene between her and Kostya where they reveal their feelings via coloured alphabet bricks is too cute by half.

Still, it hits all the rights kinds of notes for the sumptuously-staged period drama it is, so those who are partial to this sort of thing will find it passably enjoyable, no doubt.

Anna Karenina film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy Лев Толстой); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014.

Marvel’s The Avengers (aka Marvel Avengers Assemble, 2012)

There have in recent years been a lot of comic book-based superhero action films, most of them ‘reboots’ of older film series, but with a few new characters brought into the filmic fold. With this film, called Marvel Avengers Assemble in the UK, four of the Marvel superhero film series were brought together, along with a few extra characters who hadn’t had their own films, in a blockbuster which was much trailered and anticipated (indeed, many of the most recent individual films had included a post-credits teaser for just this collaboration) and surely all-but-guaranteed to do well at the box office. The surprise, then, is that it’s quite a jolly enterprise, even if, as expected, it’s far too long.

All these superhero films run a range of styles from the dour (take a bow, Man of Steel) to the, well, comic book, but it’s fair to say that Joss Whedon has done what he knows best from his previous TV work, which is to say self-knowing media-literate jokiness. It’s an angle that probably works best for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man character, who has now had three of his own films, and who stands out in this ensemble piece too, if only by virtue of being most in tune with Whedon’s script.

That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t honoured, with Captain America (Chris Evans) retaining his mien of humourless patriotism and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) his petulant anger, though Hulk impresses in his dual persona thanks to new recruit Mark Ruffalo as harassed scientist Bruce Banner (the Hulk films never did well at the box office, which may account for Edward Norton’s absence). Added to the mix is a rather superfluous Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson returning from Iron Man 2 (2010) as the persuasive Black Widow, neither of them superheroes exactly (at least, not ones with superpowers).

Perhaps I’m not the best person to review superhero movies, which in the past decade or so have taken on a lot of the characteristics of the action movie. I do like a good action film, but the bigger and louder and more pummelling the action setpieces — and there are plenty of these in Marvel’s The Avengers — the more the film needs to be grounded in real human characters you can care about and identify with, and that’s always been a problem for me with superhero movies. Whedon does his best to humanise these characters, and there are lots of nice quiet scenes — by far the best in the film — when they are around each other, sharing jokes, and making fun of some of the absurdities of the genre. And yet, it’s never quite enough to make me care for those long stretches when yet another major American city is being destroyed by monsters sent from an alternate plane of existence by a shadowy evil overlord.

It’s a good film, though, and for those who count themselves fans of the superhero genre, there’s a lot to enjoy in it, not least just the simple fact of having all these disparate characters interacting with one another. This, after all, is at the heart of the movie (as the British title recognises) and Whedon’s script shows great affection for all of them. But at times, as the film ticks on into its third hour, I do find myself getting a bit misty-eyed for the olden days of the superhero film, when villainous plans could be foiled with rather less sound and fury.


© Walt Disney Studios

FILM REVIEW
Director Joss Whedon | Writers Zak Penn and Joss Whedon | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Robert Downey Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 29 April 2012 (and at home on Blu-ray, London, Thursday 27 June 2013)

My Rating 3 stars good