Thursday, 20 December 2012

REVIEW: Life of Pi

Dir.: Ang Lee
With: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

There was so much potential for this film to be bad. Although the novel was published in 2001 and went on to win the Booker prize in 2002, no-one dared to adapt it back then – filming a teenage boy sharing a small boat with an adult Bengal tiger seemed impossible. Now in 2012 with the use of CGI, motion capture and 3D this movie turns out to be one of the most incredible cinema spectacles of the year.

The story deviates from the novel very little – it is narrated by the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to the writer (Rafe Spall), starting with Pi’s happy and spiritual childhood surrounded by zoo animals in Pondicherry, India, and going on to survive a shipwreck and drifting for 227 days through the Pacific Ocean together with Richard Parker, the tiger. The film rests on three main pillars – Suraj Sharma’s performance as the teenage Pi, Richard Parker’s tactile realism and the stunning views of the ocean. It is incredible to think that this is Suraj’s first acting job – his performance is saturated with so much feeling and spirit that it is impossible not to empathise with him to a great extent throughout all his adventures.

The story itself is no ordinary shipwreck survival like "Castaway" for example. "Life of Pi" is more of an Odyssey (even the French title of the novel is "The Odyssey of Pi"), it is a journey of self-discovery, wicked trials and a constant conversation with god. I am sure that the message of the film, that all religions and convictions have as much validity as the next, will find its critics as it did when the book came out. I, for my part, think that there is something terribly romantic about Pi’s final suggestion to the writer that he is free to choose whatever version of the story to believe in – the cruel and realistic one or the fantastical – as long as he likes it.

Fantastical is one of the key words to describe ‘Life of Pi’ with. The film is interspersed with moments of sereneness when Pi, despite the destitute conditions he finds himself in, is able to take in the power and glory of the nature around him. These scenes are usually slow and self-indulgent, with much of the scenery and marine life created digitally. And even though I knew that none of it was real, the interplay between colour and moving form was mesmerising. I actually felt my jaw drop when a blue whale leapt out of the ocean on a starry night (easily amused I am).

It is very impressive that this sort of divine and hyper-real beauty and spirituality were created by the same person who directed “Taking Woodstock”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Hulk” and “Sense and Sensibility”. The other Ang Lee film that has a similar dream-like feel is of course “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Although both these films take place out in the wild and have many difficult to film elements, there is a strong sense of directorial control over them, especially in terms of their visual richness. And yet, Ang Lee doesn’t leave the kind of stylistic stamp on his works, unlike so many other directors. Instead, I think that he is the kind of director who lets the material speak for itself, and speak for itself it does. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Dir.: Peter Jackson
With: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

‘If Baggins loses, we eats it whole, precious.’

I’d always known that it was going to be pretty hard to be objective about this movie. I am a huge fan of the books and “The Lord of the Rings” movies and, like most of other fans, feel a personal connection to them. In fact “The Hobbit” was one of the first “proper” novels I ever read, aged 8. I remember being totally engrossed in Bilbo’s adventures and finding some of the chapters eye-opening (I think that the Battle of Five Armies was probably my first ever encounter with literary violence and death). Then two years later I got my hands onto “The Fellowship of the Ring” but had to leave it for a few more years because the black riders gave me nightmares! So you see, I’ve loved hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards for over 15 years.

This is also why I found it especially annoying that most journalists have been so negative about “The Hobbit” even before it came out. During the past months it's been impossible to open a newspaper without reading new articles that criticised Warner Brothers, Peter Jackson and the decision to make the film into a trilogy. It really felt like whoever wrote the articles, wanted the films to fail– is it schadenfreude, creative envy or just being spiteful, I don’t know. I also don’t understand what is wrong with having faith in someone who managed to pull off adapting an unadaptable fantasy opus into three successful and artistically meaningful films. Note that it was Peter Jackson who decided to make “The Hobbit” into three films instead of two, even though he was initially opposed by the studio. Naturally, the studio will make more money from this, but if the first film is terrible, chances are that less people would ever want to see the rest. In a way, there is more pressure on Peter Jackson to excel. And just look at the interviews with him, watch the making-of extras – does he really strike you as a devious moneymaker without any artistic integrity? The answer is, quite frankly, no – so let us just watch the movie in our own time, make up our own minds and then discuss it, instead of slagging off “The Hobbit” in blind ignorance.

Now with my rant over – what I thought about the movie.

I think it is a film made primarily for fans of the book. It is very close in spirit to Tolkien’s first novel, much lighter than LOTR and with plenty of comedy moments. Given that “An Unexpected Journey” deals with the first third of the story, Peter Jackson indulges us with some meticulous details of Tolkien’s world. The unexpected dwarf party at Bilbo’s, the encounter with dim-witted trolls and Radagast the Brown are given a surprising amount of screen time. Thus the beginning of the film is quite slow-paced and lacks the drama that maybe some people would expect. However, the novel also starts off slow and gradually grows darker and more sinister. So I would not worry about the second and third films – they have much meatier chunks of the novel to work with.

At the same time, there are clear links with the LOTR films – the prologue that tells us about the King under the Mountain and Smaug’s conquest of Erebor is majestic and harks back to the dwarfish splendour previously seen in Moria. Likewise, Middle-earth is as beautiful as ever and when you see our heroes run through its vistas accompanied by an epic soundtrack, it sends shivers down your spine. And then there is Gandalf the Grey, brilliantly played by Ian McKellen. He is younger, more sly and down-to-earth and does a lot more magic than in LOTR. So far, so good. 

The new and interesting element is of course, the unlikely band of brothers – veeery different from and much more hairy than The Fellowship of the Ring. We have 13 belching and not-so-graceful dwarves and one adventure-averse hobbit. Whereas the Fellowship consisted of quite deep, fleshed out and  diverse characters, the 13 dwarves move as one and are given very little characterisation, apart from Thorin Oakenshield, Balin and Kili (aka the missing member of the Middle-earth boyband). Thorin (a very smoldering Richard Armitage) is the tallest dwarf and leader of the company, a king in exile with all the bitterness, hurt pride and authority that comes with the status. He is full of vengeance and a great warrior and has very little patience for little Bilbo.

The hobbit is perhaps the ultimate underdog, small, unimpressive and unsure, he ends up surprising everyone and himself most of all. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast – he oscillates between ‘a-fish-out-of-water’ and ‘rise-up-to-the-challenge’ modes with much charm. And unlike his tormented nephew, Frodo, he keeps his wits about him – even in the famous ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene when he meets Gollum for the first time. Apparently, this was the first scene they shot and you can see poor Martin/Bilbo being under constant psychological attack by the unhinged Andy Serkis/Gollum. It is one of the key moments in the book and has the same level of intensity in the film.

As the adventures become more serious, the tone of the movie changes too – suddenly you realise that this is not just a fun quest with some funny dwarves and that much darker forces are at play. Azog, for example, or the Pale Orc is the stuff of nightmares and his encounter with Thorin is terrifying. Once it is over, Bilbo naively suggests that the worst is behind them, but in reality it is still to come. I guess that the next film will have Beorn, Mirkwood and perhaps Smaug (annoyingly, Smaug is never fully revealed in the prologue, so we will have to wait until next year to see and hear the Golden Wyrm) and the third will be primarily about the Town of Dale and the Battle of Five Armies.

I don’t think that “The Hobbit” is better or worse than LOTR, it is just a different story with different characters who inhabit the same world. Obviously, the sense of novelty is worn off by now and the expectations are higher. But the movie delivers in being true to the original material and re-creating the magic and grandeur of Middle-earth. As you remember, in LOTR the journey takes us south, here we travel eastwards. These new parts of Middle-earth are just as enchanting and exciting as Rohan and Fangorn Forest and I for one cannot wait to see more.

Friday, 7 December 2012

So Who Are the Hottest Aliens?

There is nothing that signifies the festive season as much as letting go of your serious face and being just a little shallow. Oh, we most definitely like shallow (just look at the ‘most shared’ links on the BBC News website – do people seem to care about serious current affairs? Nope. All they want to read about are cute-wunderkind-twin-baby swimmers and Kim Jong Un’s new status as the Sexiest Man Alive).

So, in this festive ‘anything goes’ spirit, imagine that the world actually ended this month, just as predicted, and that you were the last human being standing. Luckily, a friendly race of aliens from the Alpha Centauri system arrived on Earth in order to check for survivors. They took you along to their home planet and after a few months you began to get used to local customs and felt pretty much at home. Then you also started to realise that you simply had to procreate and pass on those precious human genes of yours. Now look around carefully – your new home planet is quite the inter-galactic melting pot and there is a wide selection of types to choose from as your potential mate.

Sadly, I cannot offer you any actual pictures of aliens to check out – blame the somewhat decelerated Space Race. Thus cinema has to step in and proffer a selection of hotties from outer space:

10. Neytiri from “Avatar”.

Yeah, yeah. She is blue and has sex via the tip of her braid. Still, she is fierce (just like they like ‘em on ANTM) and has the bone structure of Zoe Saldana. And if one human male fell for her in the movie, I am sure you would too, especially when faced with total extinction.

9. Superman from “Man of Steel”.

I know this film is only coming out next year, but judging by the trailer and Henry Cavill’s work in “The Tudors”, this new Clark Kent will be one hell of procreating material (sorry, Christopher Reeve). Plus I know someone who dated Mr Cavill and the reports are most encouraging.

8. Diva Plavalaguna from “The Fifth Element”.

If you managed to get it on with Neytiri but things did not work out, Diva could be your rebound. She is blue, just like you like it, AND she has cool tentacles that might seem a little phallic at first but also let you be more creative in your long nights of lovemaking with this inter-galactic superstar. She can belt out impossible arias, so your kids will be very talented. Diva literally has blue blood, so she must be royalty as well. Looks like you win on all fronts.

 7. Spencer Armacost from “The Astronaut’s Wife”.

Not exactly Johnny Depp’s finest performance, but we are talking pure aesthetics here. Spencer, as you know, is possessed by a tentacled alien and kills people around him. He isn’t exactly your average bad-boy but also has his charms. For example, if he starts to annoy you – simply electrocute him. If he does end up impregnating you, your children (twins most likely) would look perfectly human but might suffer from sudden glitches. 

6. Mac from “Earth Girls are Easy”.

Quick recap of this little known whacky comedy from 1988 (I watched it on TV one day and really enjoyed it). Three multicoloured furry aliens crash into Geena Davis’ pool. She is a used and abused manicurist with a heart of gold who decides to shelter the extraterrestrials. Her friend from the salon performs a full-body epilation on the trio and they turn out to be Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and, lo and behold, Jeff Goldblum (who plays Mac). The girl takes them on a tour of LA nightlife and in the end falls for Mac, who is just to die for!

5. Mary from “Total Recall” 1990.

You know what was the main reason for the lukewarm reception of this year’s remake of “Total Recall”? Mary was not as good. Shame on you if you don’t know who she is. Mary is the mammarily-gifted prostitute from the original movie with Schwarzenegger. Ok, maybe she is not the safest alien to continue your human lineage with, but you know, she definitely opens up new possibilities.

4. Spock from “Star Trek” 2009.

Again, sorry to Leonard Nimoy but Zachary Quinto’s version of the half-human, half-Vulcan Commander is just hotter. I think he just carries off the whole pointy-ears, upward-brows look better. I guess his most attractive feature is the fact that his is very reserved due to his Vulcan blood, but still waters run deep, so any adventurous lady would be curious to reveal his more passionate side. Besides, your kids with him would be very intelligent and only a quarter alien. (Remember your objective is to keep the human race going).

3. Klaatu from “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, 2008.

In this rather dull movie Keanu Reeves is a welcome distraction. I can’t even remember what his character does exactly, but the fact that he is an alien and played by Keanu should be enough for any earthling. I would not be totally surprised if it was revealed at some point that Keanu Reeves the actor was an actual alien who learned to mimic human behaviour but never lost his otherworldly quality that some describe as bad acting.

2. Han Solo from “Star Wars”.

If I could wolf-whistle in writing, I would. Han…Han Solo…the most suave space smuggler who moonlights as Indiana Jones in his spare time. Oh Han. Why did you have to go with that cow Princess (or so she calls herself) Leia? I’d be much better suited and I love dogs too, so Chewbacca could always stay with us.

1. Leeloo from “The Fifth Element”.

Leeloo might not be the most eloquent of humanoids, but she is the perfect being and saved the human race many times over. Even the Ancient Egyptians had drawings of her. She has layers upon layers of genetic information stored in her cells, so your human DNA might get a little lost if you do decide to “jump her bones”. Your children though would have the highest chances of getting into good schools because a) they will be very limber and excel in sports b) linguistically gifted and be able to decipher new alphabets even under extreme pressure c) they’ll stand out with their red hair which will be quite the rarity at this time. The only downsides of having a relationship with Leeloo would be her irrational and aggressive reactions and the likelihood of her dumping you for the first taxi driver.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

My Reading List 2012

I noticed the other day that the subheading of this blog said “film, book and arts review”. Strictly speaking, this is not true because, as you all know, I’ve been mainly concentrating on films. So, I thought I’d put things straight and write about some of the books I managed to read this year. Having finished my master’s, I started reading for pleasure again, something that I really missed doing. Instead of having a list of titles to work through, like I normally do with movies, I relied purely on chance and people’s recommendations. And it worked out pretty well. 

The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger.

There is a bit of a story behind this book. I’ve heard about it before, mainly because of the film with Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, which looked so soppy that it completely put me off ever reading the book. Then I myself had a bit of a summer romance going on and the guy’s literary taste was pretty similar to mine. He lent me The Time Traveler’s Wife, insisting that I should read it. Feeling a bit comprehensive at first, I ploughed through the first few chapters without much enthusiasm but gradually as I got more invested in the storyline and its long-suffering protagonist, I began to enjoy it tremendously. At some points I could not put it down. Yes, it is a book about an improbable love and time travel, but the quality of the writing and the well thought-out plot elevate it above the rest.  I liked the book so much that I kept it, even though the guy is no more (let’s call it a souvenir rather than theft hehe).

Memorable quote: ‘It’s hard being the one who stays’.

Read it if you liked Girl with a Pearl Earring, Atonement.

Baudolino” by Umberto Eco.

This novel can be described as an insane acid trip set in the Middle Ages. The story begins in the twelfth century when Baudolino, a peasant’s son with a gift for languages, is adopted by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. It then follows Baudolino’s adventures through wars, his studies in Paris and an improbable journey to the Far East. As it’s Baudolino himself narrating the novel, it is often impossible to tell whether he is pulling your leg or being serious. Some of the events described in the book seem totally outlandish, others are real facts. All this is set against a historical backdrop that is rich in detail, which is normally associated with Eco’s writings due to his vast knowledge in history, linguistics, mythology and religion.

Memorable quote: ‘my father Galiaudo always use to say I must have a gift of Santa maria of Roboreto because since I was a little pup if someboddy say just quinkue five V words I could do their talk right off whether they came from Terdona or from Gavi and even from Mediolanum where they talk stranger than dogs’.

Read it if you liked The Name of the Rose, Wolf Hall.

Ghostwritten” by David Mitchell.

Maybe I do have sticky fingers…I stole a copy of Ghostwritten from my father, but if he ever decided to take this matter to court then he’d have an easy time proving his case because David Mitchell actually signed it for him – look:

Weird handwriting, huh?..Anyways, you can tell that this is someone’s debut novel – although some parts of the book are splendidly written, others feel “undercooked”. Still, it is an entertaining and thought-provoking read that touches on similar themes as his later bestseller Cloud Atlas.

Memorable quote: ‘Right, my phone. When these things first appeared, they were so cool. Only when it was too late did people realise they are as cool as electronic tags on remand prisoners.’

Read if you liked Cloud Atlas, One Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys.

This novel was picked up randomly in a second-hand book sale and it turned out to be a very nice surprise. As I later learned, Jean Rhys was arguably one of the most overlooked 20th century writers. She was a beautiful half-Welsh, half-Creole woman from the Caribbean who lived and worked in France and England and spent most of her literary career in oblivion until the very late years of her life. The themes she dealt with, in particular women’s sensuality, were thought to be too far ahead of their time. Reading Wide Sargasso Sea was like living through someone else’s unpleasant daydream. The novel is set in the West Indies in the 19th century and explores the life and demise of a young woman, haunted by her childhood. It is beautifully written.

Memorable quote: ‘Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew here. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest trees, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched.’

Read if you liked Jane Eyre, 100 Years of Solitude.

The Russia House” by John le Carré

Another find from the second-hand pile. I was only introduced to John le Carré properly last year when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the film came out and because I liked it so much I read the book too. The Russia House is another brilliant example of le Carré’s only-too-plausible take on the British intelligence, this time set right on the cusp of USSR’s collapse. At the heart of the story is a love affair that’s doomed from the start, between a beautiful Soviet woman and an eccentric British publisher. They both have their own fixed lives in Moscow and London until, unexpectedly, they are pushed into a dangerous operation. The author captures the atmosphere of irreversible demise in the Soviet Union and the accompanying paranoia of the British secret services with astonishing realism, which makes the emotional component of the book even more heart-rending. Apparently there is a good film adaptation, with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Memorable quote: ‘Glasnost gives everyone the right to complain and accuse, but it doesn’t make shoes.’

Read if you liked From Russia with Love, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak.

Inspired by the allure of the ill-fated romance in The Russia House, I decided to tackle another epitome of tragedy à la russe, Doctor Zhivago. And here comes the embarrassing truth – I could not finish the book! I did not even want to mention this here but eventually decided to be honest about it. I earnestly got to the middle of the novel, when Zhivago and his family are on the train to Siberia. I just could not get into it. I can’t even think of an excuse. I was just bored. And I feel terrible writing this – it’s supposed to be one of the greatest literary masterpieces – and yet I was bored…maybe I’m just thick and cannot truly appreciate greatness. Or maybe the fact that I took it with me to the beach and could not connect to the snowed-in characters as much had something to do with it. I love the movie with Omar Sharif though. Sigh.

Read it anyway. I am sure you’ll do better than me :-) 

Jerusalem The Biography” by Simon Sebag-Montefiore.

Now, if all the previous titles listed here made you go ‘meh’, I beg, implore and demand that you either leave your house and run to the nearest bookstore or open a new tab and type in ‘amazon’ and buy this book. It was revelatory. I’ve always liked history but I have never read anything like Jerusalem. It is essentially a very comprehensive overview of the city itself and its surrounding areas focusing on the movers and shakers who shaped the history of the city and the world from King David’s times up until 1967. It took me two months to finish reading this and I can’t even imagine how long it took SSM to research and write it, but it was worth every minute. Written in an engaging, at times emotional prose, the book unveils a timeline of war, rape, massacre, orgies, grandness, madness, fanaticism, megalomania and obsession. SSM connects the dots between King Solomon, Julius Caesar, King Herod, Cyrus the Great, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia and Rasputin, turning this into an insanely entertaining history lesson complete with descriptions of what Jerusalemite life was like during each period. It is in no way a theological exercise or religious history but rather a kaleidoscope of human nature in all its shades. Of course, it also provides a deeper understanding of the politics of the area, which is especially important in light of the latest headlines.

I am also absolutely certain that someone has to make a film about King Herod. What a fascinating creature.

Read it if you like historical story-telling and are at least a little bit curious about the world, also if you are already a fan of SSM (Young Stalin – woooo!). If you have no idea who he is, read it anyway, you’ll love him afterwards. I just ordered Catherine the Great’s biography by him as well – should sustain me until 2013 :-)

Sunday, 11 November 2012


Dir.: Ben Affleck
With: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston

Reinvention and self-fashioning are the two things that Hollywood absolutely loves. Old tales are constantly renewed and public figures often turn a new leaf, having lead scandalous lives, gleefully dissected by the media. Yet there aren’t many Hollywood inhabitants whose life experiences turn into a series of re-characterisations like in Ben Affleck’s case. He famously came to our attention as the dark-haired component of the successful writing/acting duo with Matt Damon after “Good Will Hunting”. His collaboration with Kevin Smith gave as “Dogma” and “Chasing Amy” and cemented his reputation as the bright young thing from the East Side. Fast-forward a few years and his career veered off in the more commercial and highly embarrassing direction of “Daredevil”, “Gigli” and “Armageddon”. And then the whole Bennifer thing happened. And that awful video with J-Lo. It is so weird to think now that the young man who co-wrote “Good Will Hunting”, the ultimate underdog story, would be filmed slapping J-Lo’s bottom, fine though it may be, to a song that went ‘Make the money, get the mansion, bring the homies with us’. Again, fast-forward four more years and he is married to the demure Jennifer Garner and directs his first film “Gone Baby Gone” that has 94% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes. His second feature, the highly acclaimed “The Town” (it made onto my '10 Films of 2010' list here), stars Affleck in the main role (although it was Jeremy Renner who received an Oscar nomination for his performance) and also has 94% on RT.

His third creation “Argo” can be seen as a natural progression from “The Town”. Again, it boasts a wonderful ensemble cast, lead by Affleck, and combines humour with tension. However, it tackles a more serious topic. According to the source of all my knowledge, Wikipedia, Affleck majored in Middle Eastern studies, so the focus of his interest is, clearly, no accident (how I hope that he came across this particular bit of international politics in a classroom). In short, this is a real life story of how a CIA exfiltration expert pretends to be a film producer scouting for locations and facilitates the escape of six US Embassy staff, who spent over 2 months in hiding in Tehran as a direct result of the Revolution of 1979.

It is clear that the story is painstakingly researched (but obviously, with some dramatic licence) and, as it is shown after the credits roll, some of the scenes were re-created directly from contemporary photographs. The grainy quality of the film adds to the period look. The overall impression is one of utmost realism, which I think is the main reason for the success of this film. Because it is simply amazing. Affleck skillfully oscillates between comedy and thriller as a director and gives a mature and muted performance as an actor. His greatest characteristic is that he possesses the gravitas to be the quiet centre of the storm, allowing other actors to shine next to him with more flamboyant performances.

The first fifteen minutes of the film give a sort of Iranian-revolution-for-dummies introduction into the background story and the film dives right into the heart of riots in Tehran. My mouth was dry from watching the angry mob attack the US Embassy because it felt too much like a documentary. Then the action goes to the US and the film takes on a much lighter approach, poking fun at the CIA stooges and the Hollywood crazies. John Goodman and Alan Arkin, playing a make-up artist and big time producer respectively, deliver the most comedy moments, as does Ben Affleck’s groovy wardrobe.

The second half of the film changes pace considerably, for operation “Argo” is now under full swing. I was sweating, exhaling loudly, fidgeting, biting my nails and literally praying for the characters. The feeling of paranoia introduced right at the start of the film, saturates its second half. You sense that any minute something can go wrong, someone is watching and the covers will be blown. Although “Argo” is only a thriller, it is both an intense and rewarding experience with an informative historical insight, for I do not believe that many young Western audiences would be familiar with the particulars of Iranian history and the West’s relationship to it. I take my imaginary hat off to Ben Affleck for having achieved this. If you watch any of the promotional interviews for the film, he comes across as knowledgeable, secure and self-deprecating (he can also work a granny’s cardigan with great style). A man of many talents, no doubt. I predict an Oscar nomination for Best Director.    

Ironically, but not surprisingly, none of the scenes were actually filmed in Iran. 

Monday, 29 October 2012

REVIEW: Frankenweenie

Dir.: Tim Burton
Voiced by Charlie Tahan, Martin Short, Winona Ryder

In 1984 a young Disney employee, a certain Tim Burton, created a short animated film called “Frankenweenie” but before it could be turned into something more substantial, the project was rejected  for being ‘too scary for young children’. The short original can still be watched on Youtube. After a couple of decades and with more credibility to his name, Tim Burton returns to one of his first inventions in this full-length feature.

As you can probably tell from the title, this is an homage to Mary Shelly’s classic horror story. Here, a young Victor Frankenstein from the American suburbs in the 50s is a science wunderkind and a rather unusual little boy. He generally splits his time between school, making movies on an 8mm camera and playing with his only friend, his dog Sparky. Early on in the film, Sparky meets a tragic end in a car accident and inconsolable Victor decides to bring his pet back to life. At first it all goes according to plan but, as it usually happens with such crazy/genius ideas, Victor and the resurrected Sparky land into a whole load of trouble. 

For those film buffs who love the early Burton creations like “Edward Scissorhands”, “Ed Wood” and “Nightmare before Christmas”, this feature will prove to be a riot – it has all the elements from the Burton universe – a pale and misunderstood protagonist, good story telling, an unforgiving view at the ignorant and stupid masses and a general sense of delicious grimness. There are some absolutely brilliant moments like the dog’s death, Victor’s macabre experiments and the science teacher’s painfully honest speech. Yet, the film appears a bit dated – not at all because of its deliberate vintage, black and white feel and use of stop animation  – it is just a few years too late. If it did see the light of day back in the 1980s it would have been groundbreaking and, probably, much celebrated. However, now in the age of fashionable “darker” re-tellings of every single comic book and fairy tale, “Frankenweenie” just seems to lack that extra something to become a real hit.   

Thursday, 25 October 2012

REVIEW: Skyfall

Dir.: Sam Mendes
With: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem

                                                               “Orphans always make the best recruits” – M.

It’s taken me almost an hour to settle down and actually write this because I am both slightly hungover and very very excited about how good this film is. “Skyfall” is, I think, the best Bond film since the Connery era. It is also a departure from the canon and, simultaneously, a harking back to the golden days of James Bond. The film constantly addresses the themes of continuity and legacy, as well as asks the question whether Bond is still relevant in the modern day. M and 007 are the old guard, worn-out and jaded, whereas the new Chairman of the Security and Intelligence committee (Ralph Fiennes) and the young and spotty Q (Ben Whishaw) are the more up-to-date examples of modern espionage. As the two sides clash and loyalties are tested, we learn more and more about Bond and M’s back-stories.

“Skyfall” starts in a classical Bond manner, with an astonishing chase scene through historical Istanbul. Then things begin to go horribly wrong and the film diverts from the usual Bond template where 007 gets a new assignment, does some investigating, sleeps with a couple of ladies, meets the villain, action pieces here and there, a big climax at the villain’s lair, Bond and the lady get it on, the end. Here though, everything is much less predictable – the plot twists are genuinely surprising and you are never quite sure who is really playing the game. Is M really that good? What the hell is Skyfall? Why is everyone dying? Is Bond completely losing it?

The film is a bit too long but it gathers momentum with the glorious introduction of the main baddie, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). And my oh my, he definitely makes the best Bond villain ever (although Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga may just take the top spot for me). Totally deranged, rotten to the core (literally!), a man with nothing to lose, he actually flirts with Bond. Flirts! And the wonderful thing is that Bond flirts back. Bardem also brings the much needed humour to this rather dark story. His mannerisms and awful hair are disturbing and funny and his onscreen presence is nothing short of hypnotic. In fact, his performances in “Skyfall” and “No Country for Old Men” make him the best villainous type around these days (sorry, Ralph, I know you try).

Javier could have stolen the show but Daniel Craig flaunts his acting skills in this depressed and confused version of Bond. To be fair, everyone’s performances were top notch: Judy Dench’s M, the secretive iron lady, Ben Whishaw’s Q, the Quarter Master of the Twitter generation and Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, a bureaucrat with a few tricks up his sleeve. The Bond girls, Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe, are like two sides of a coin. The former – a straight-laced MI6 operative, the latter – an absolutely gorgeous ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.

The amount of product placement is unsurprisingly high. However, it seems that Sam Mendes had a lot of control over these matters – very few of the brands are displayed in a completely obvious manner and generally everything is kept classy. Mendes’ directorial presence is felt throughout the film – he mastered both the vertigo-inducing action sequences and the emotional revelations. The current economic situation is reflected in the movie – I believe this is the first time a villain uses the London tube to get to the crime scene. Even then, it is done with panache.

Despite the film’s unorthodox ways, “Skyfall” retains that inexplicable magic of a Bond film, more so than “Casino Royale”. From the first shot inside a badly lit corridor with Daniel Craig’s recognisable silhouette creeping through (not his bulk, it’s the ears!) and the first accords of the beloved theme song playing, you are ready to lose yourself. This being the franchise’s 50th anniversary, it is also quite natural for the film to refer to Bond’s beginnings. During the wonderful moment when 007 sits inside Aston Martin DB5 from “Goldfinger” (the one with the ejector seat, remember?) and the music from the film plays, you feel like you are being transported back into the good old days, with the classier and feline Bond beating everyone around without breaking a sweat.

And as the final scene underlines – times change, fashion is mercurial but the tradition lives on. And this is rather wonderful. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

REVIEW: Ruby Sparks

Dir.: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
With: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening

In the steps of Galatea and Eliza Doolittle comes “Ruby Sparks”, a film about one man’s rather animated creation.  Paul Dano, as you will no doubt remember from “There Will Be Blood” and “Little Miss Sunshine”, has the singular ability to be both likeable and repellent in his roles. Here he plays Calvin Weir-Harris, an LA-based novelist whose first publication at the age of 19 has brought him numerous accolades, high riches and universal acclaim. Fast forward 10 years and he is still struggling to produce a follow-up to his debut. Writer’s block, inability to maintain relations and many other hang-ups send him into the arms of a bearded therapist who gives him a homework assignment – to write a page of very bad prose. At first hesitant, but free from any pressure to produce the next “Ulysses”, Calvin starts typing away. His imagination gives birth to a lovely young woman, Ruby, who one day comes to life.

The directors’ previous film “Little Miss Sunshine” was the kind of word-of-mouth success that normally happens to the lucky few indie productions. They bring the same quirkiness and values to their second film. However, “Ruby Sparks” is only really funny during its first half, when Calvin comes to grips with his girl’s realness and then tries to experiment with her character, crazy scientist style. Towards the end, the film loses its point a little bit and ends up being slightly disappointing. There are a number of scenes that were perhaps over-extended, which is a shame because this dissolves the structure of an otherwise natural development of the storyline.

The real joy here is Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script and is Paul Dano’s real life girlfriend. Her comedy talents reminded me of the classic screw-ball antics of Lucille Ball and even Katharine Hepburn. Her portrayal of Ruby as the big-eyed painter who goes from one extreme to another in her behaviour was truly hilarious. She also gives the whole film the much needed warmth that its neurotic protagonist lacks. The chemistry between the two is pitch-perfect and they seem to be a well-matched couple in life as in art. Both are offbeat, unusual looking and very talented.

I kind of miss the days when you had real couples play against one another in films – Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey (this makes me sound about a hundred years old). Even “Mr and Mrs Smith” had its good moments that mainly revolved around the sparks between Angelina and Brad. So, in a way, “Ruby Sparks” is a return to the nice old territory of the onscreen rendering of domestic dramatics. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

Dir.: Christopher Nolan
With: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine

Where do I even begin…?

The hotly anticipated final chapter to Nolan’s trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a monumental, 160-minute-long opus full of resonant themes, poignant performances and violence. The film takes place 8 years after the events told in “The Dark Knight”, now Gotham is relatively at peace, relishing in the legacy of the Dent Pact, however, it is now a more cynical place where corruption is still aplenty but at such high levels that it is not immediately obvious. The rich are still getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It also seems that there is no longer a need for a masked crusader and Bruce Wayne lives a hermit's life, creeping around the East Wing of the Wayne mansion with a walking stick.

Danger comes both from within and without. Bane, a terrifying mountain of a man, Wayne’s fellow graduate of the League of Shadows, comes to Gotham to bring it down to its knees and stir a revolution against the city’s “oppressors”. Bruce faces a choice between continuing his half-life or slipping into his hermetic costume and cape once again. The brilliant thing about these films is that they do not paint the world and their protagonist as black and white. Just as Wayne is deeply flawed, Gothamites are not exactly the kind of people you want to save at the cost of your life. The order that Batman decides to maintain is imperfect, unjust and skewed in favour of big corporations. However, the alternative to this is utter chaos – Bane’s military law disguised as true freedom is nothing but an excuse for the city’s marauders to loot and intimidate the weak. And in the end, Bane’s actions only lead to the ulterior motives of a few egomaniacs. Bruce Wayne/Batman acknowledges that, however limited, a single system is better than the terror of the mob.

The argument against blind violence has been made more profound by the tragic event in Denver, which will most probably be associated with the film for years to come. No doubt many would agree that the themes raised in this film echo current events, threats of terrorism, the Occupy movement and the financial crisis. Yet, when Batman’s character was first invented in 1939, these themes seemed just as relevant with the Western civilisation facing uncertainty on the brink of another world war. As history comes a full circle, this cultural icon of the past is as germane as ever and Christopher Nolan directs him with a grandiose solemnity that is normally reserved for real-life icons.

Although Nolan’s directorship is sure-handed and the entire film is a display of his confident manner, the end result is a little underwhelming. I found the last hour of the film to be truly entertaining and engulfing, however, its beginning and middle part were far too long and could have done with some more editing. It is a rather grueling task to be sat in the cinema for almost 3 hours and only a few films deserve that kind of endurance. Having said this, the multiple characters and the complex storyline in TDKR are well-explored and explained, all things considered. Clearly, Nolan’s experience with “Inception” only honed these skills.

Christian Bale gives his best in this film, mainly because we saw more of Bruce Wayne than Batman, whom I still cannot take too seriously with his smoker’s voice and all. Bale is an intelligent actor, whose dexterity allows him to express emotions with the minimum amount of visible effort. He brought maturity and disillusionment to this role and made Bruce Wayne a vivid and pitiful being. Tom Hardy’s Bane was indeed a transformation for the pretty-faced actor and I shudder to think of the amount of steroids he had taken for this part. He upstages Batman in the grumbling department though – I could not really make out what he was saying half the time. As far as villains go, Bane is probably the most physical one, his body is really something to be reckoned with. And yet he looks pale on comparison to Heath Ledger’s unhinged Joker, who had charm as well as unpredictability on his side. A battle of two wits is more interesting to watch than a wrestling match between two dudes in masks I think.

Michael Caine’s Alfred and Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon were simply wonderful, as always. It is actors of their calibre in supporting roles that make Nolan’s Gotham a real, breathing thing. Marion Cotillard, however, was miscast in my opinion. She is not a natural action actress and I think she’s been playing pretty much the same character here and in “Inception” and “Midnight in Paris”. I find her, dare I say it, boring. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, is someone whom I never took seriously and she completely surprised me. Her Catwoman was great – both edgy and playful. Thankfully, she played her like a real human being too. I also liked the fact that she was not overtly sexualised – her costume did not sport a massive décolletage like in Halle Berry’s case, and looked more like an aerodynamic burglar’s outfit (the girl can’t help having a nice figure). Even the knife-like heels were more like a pair of extra weapons than fetish objects. I just wish her and Bruce Wayne had more onscreen time together to let us sense their chemistry more. The crowd in the cinema actually whooped and clapped when the two kissed (this is not exactly a spoiler so I feel ok writing it). But you know who was super-duper cool? Joseph Gordon Levitt’s John Blake, an idealistic young cop who becomes entangled in the whole story. I’d love to see what happens to him next. Joseph (who also happens to be mighty fine, in my humble opinion) is also a surprising hit in action films – just remember his fight scene in the rotating hotel corridor in “Inception”? His new film “Looper” looks pretty good too.

I am happy that the trilogy ended on this note, even with all its shortcomings, this is by far the best superhero rendering and I am so pleased that the cast and crew managed to keep the bar so high throughout all these years. As for the ending of the film itself, I think it could have been a little more ambivalent and just one shot of Alfred’s face would have been a more subtle and elegant solution. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

REVIEW: To Rome With Love

Dir.: Woody Allen
With: Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg

I read an interview with Woody Allen the other day, in which he describes his creative approach to story-writing. He says that he collects random ideas that come to him out of the blue, writes them down on napkins and such and puts them in a drawer in his study. A few more months of these napkins and matchboxes and he constructs a script using most of the ideas. ‘How curious!’ one might exclaim. And yes, I think this is an unusual method but it also has one big flaw – sometimes these ideas just don’t work together very well, as is the case with “To Rome with Love”, unfortunately. Essentially, the film is made up of four separate plotlines, completely independent of each other. They are shown interchangeably, moving through time with no particular logical system.

My favourite storyline was the one concerning an average Roman employee, played by the clownish Roberto Benigni, who one day wakes up extremely famous, for reasons unbeknownst to him. The others deal with a young provincial couple, who upon their arrival to Rome have to face absurd temptations of the baser kind; a young American architect (Jesse Eisenberg) with an animated consciousness (Alec Baldwin), lusting after his girlfriend’s best friend (Ellen Page); and finally, American parents (Judy Davis and Woody Allen) who come to Rome to meet the family of their daughter’s fiancée. Their Italian counterparts, of course, end up being totally bonkers and the father somewhat unusually gifted. “To Rome with Love” is filled with the classic characters from Woody Allen's earlier works; there is Allen himself, a neurotic egoist who is no stranger to greed, Jesse Eisenberg – a boring do-gooder, dying to feel a little more alive and wild, Ellen Page as the dangerous yet enticing Woman, and Penelope Cruz as the eye-candy. The film is meant to be a light-hearted comedy with the classic Allenian dollop of dark humour and illicit hook-ups.

However, I found that it lacked charm and the characters, as well as the plotlines, were all too clichéd and just not spunky enough to be able to compare to some of the director’s earlier works, many of which deal with similar themes. Although there were a few laughs, the whole film was just a bit empty and disjointed for me to enjoy it properly. Given that its original title was ‘Bop Decameron’, it seems that it was first conceived as a collection of stories that deal with love, lust and temptation to a very comic effect, like in Boccaccio’s famous work. Yet, somehow, adventures of the medieval lovers seem much more entertaining and scandalous now than those of their modern descendents.

Having a brief look at Woody Allen’s filmography, I noticed that since 2007 he wrote and directed six films: “Cassandra’s Dream” from 2007, set in London and not terribly successful, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” from 2008, which as you know was great, “Whatever Works” in 2009 – an ok movie, set on his home turf in New York, then back in London for the poorly received “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” the following year, “Midnight in Paris” in 2011 – his most successful film financially, and finally “To Rome with Love” in 2012. From what I can see, it’s better to stick to quality than quantity in Woody Allen’s case, leaving a gap of two-three years between his films and allowing those napkins and matchboxes gestate a little for better results, rather than whip them out every twelve months.

The film is already out in the States and most of mainland Europe. The UK release date is 14th September.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

REVIEW: Magic Mike

Dir.: Steven Soderbergh
With: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer

I am not going to lie – I’ve spent the entire film with a stupid grin stuck on my face. I just could not help it, the sight of those ridiculous male bodies with such defined pecs that you could probably grate some Parmesan for your pasta on them, was madly captivating.

I’ve been looking forward to this film for a while because when I heard that Soderbergh was directing a movie about male striptease, I naturally assumed that it will be quite a serious insight into the life of someone who does not have the easiest of ways of making a living. Besides, it is based on Channing Tatum’s own experiences as a stripper in his early youth. Then the trailer came out and it became obvious that the film will be more fun than a barrel of monkeys (that’s a new saying I’ve picked up in the States ^-^). And yes, the dance performances were great and I take my hat off to the male artistes for their acrobatics but I can’t help the feeling that the film was, essentially, about nothing. The protagonist, Magic Mike played by Channing Tatum is a 30-year-old stripper who juggles a couple of day jobs with his onstage persona at the Xquisite club. He finds himself a 19-year-old protégé in the shape of The Kid, aka Alex Pettyfer (a very dull performance from him). Mike develops a soft spot for The Kid’s no-nonsense sister, which results in him finally trying to take hold of his life’s course.

The dialogues that take place outside of Magic Mike’s night shifts are very boring indeed, which in a way highlights the dreariness of Mike’s life. There are some allusions to the real-life problems associated with this sort of occupation – short shelf life, no career prospects and a general atmosphere of decay and exploitation. Yet, these are not thoroughly explored and the film ends up being a series of dance numbers interchanged with a few poorly written angsty conversations. The portrayal of the other guys in the “troupe” is remarkably innocent. Their personal troubles are never uncovered, much like their genitalia, which remain chastely covered up by various sassy underwear pieces.

However, as I said, the dances are very entertaining and if you are female, a gay man or a super-comfortable-with-his-sexuality heterosexual male, I am sure you would appreciate them. As a final note I’d like to mention Matthew McConaughey who was the best thing about the movie and has recently been making very interesting career choices. Jeered at as he is for the string of topless and toothy roles in a number of romcoms in which he starred, this year alone he has been in two films that competed at Cannes (‘Mud’ and ‘Paperboy’) and his work in ‘Killer Joe’ has been praised by many film critics. In ‘Magic Mike’ he plays Dallas – the madame of the club, a sleazy, manipulative, yet terribly charming host. I think it is just so cool of him to go out there and poke fun at his own reputation. Look, this is him poking fun at his reputation:

And may I just say, the vision of him performing one final dance, by the end of which he was left in a g-string full of dollar bills and cowboy boots (see above image) was worth the price of my ticket. He deserves an Oscar for Best Supporting Role. Hehe. What can I do, it’s impossible not to feel pervy after this amount of gyrating pelvises literally thrust into one’s face. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man

Dir.: Marc Webb
With: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans

Despite the fact that the decision to re-start a franchise only 5 years after its last instalment puzzled many,  ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is, indeed, amazing. The main reason for that is Andrew Garfield (I've liked him since 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' he he he), who simply happens to have a little more presence and is more likeable than Toby Maguire. When you compare the two actors, Andrew Garfield possesses more warmth and his puppy eyes have a glimmer of wit in them; Toby’s Peter Parker was colder, less sensitive to the emotions of others and I for one could never really sympathise with him much.

Likewise, the decision to cast someone younger and focus on Peter Parker’s high school days was a good one – on top of the standard Spidey troubles, this adolescent Peter has his raging hormones to deal with. Andrew Garfield, albeit being almost 10 years older than his character, portrays the lanky, moody youth brilliantly. Although he undoubtedly had to bulk up for the role, he remained lanky and wiry, and has the air of a 16-year-old who had an unexpected growth spurt and is still unsure how to move about in this new body. This makes the scenes with him testing out his new powers, often to hilarious ends, particularly enjoyable.

The film boasts an intelligent and coherent script and is truly entertaining, especially during its first two-thirds, before it culminates in a standard super-hero hullabaloo. The director, Marc Webb (his previous film was ‘500 Days of Summer’), borrows heavily from other genres: there is an interesting and convincing love story between Peter and Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), and here the girl is not just a damsel in distress, but a sharp and active participant, then there is an element of horror – in particular in Peter’s transformation scene that reminded me of Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’, comedy, drama (mostly delivered by Martin Sheen who makes a great Uncle Ben) and, of course, good, old 3-D action and  the streets of New York from birdview.

The Spider-Man epos has not lost its attraction. I think the reason for that is the character’s humanity and humility; he is a normal, brainy kid with enormous powers and responsibilities thrust upon him. In contrast to Batman, Superman and the rest, Peter Parker is simply a nice boy, imperfect and sometimes too emotional, yet he is the most understandable and sympathetic of all the super-heroes.

Also, let me tell you a secret how to enjoy a film like this to the max – take a child with you to the cinema (borrow one if you have to). They’ll be eternally grateful and you’ll be able to see the story through their eyes. My brother, who went with me, watched the film so hungrily and in such a state of awe, it was absolutely infectious. In the end he clapped with so much enthusiasm, and when I teased him about it, he said ‘you’re supposed to do that when you’ve really liked something, don’t you know?!’