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.