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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New Release Roundup for Films Released 9 and 16 March 2012

I didn't post a roundup last week because I hadn't yet seen John Carter but, seeing as how I have no plans to check it out until it starts showing in 2D, I'm just going to shelve it for a while and review those films I have seen. 


Project X: I missed the press screening for Project X, but because of all the anti-hype, I had to see what all the fuss was about and paid to see it last week. Would you know it, it was every bit as rotten as the most scathing reviews would have you believe. If not more so. I saw it at Nu Metro on a Wednesday so I saw it for less than half the price but I still feel bad for contributing anything to the profits of so vile an excuse for a film. Not only is it entirely without a single laugh, a problem that is enough to sink any so-called comedy, it's misogynistic, mean spirited, entirely pointless and features some of the most hateful characters to hit our screens since Adam Sandler decided to put on a dress and play his own sister.

 A film about a party that spirals out of control could make for an interesting satire about the emptiness of modern life, but the only subtext on display here is the subtext of a party that these horrible teenage boys - and, lets be honest, the filmmakers - use as a way to get nubile teenage girls to take their clothes off. This would, of course, be somewhat forgivable if the film was either funny or a Girls Gone Wild video, but it fails miserably at the former and isn't upfront enough about it's intentions to be the latter. I say this not out of prudishness because, aside for the whole warm blooded male and yada yada yada thing, sex and nudity have always had a place in cinema (see anything from Swimming Pool to Piranha 3D) but, despite being more tame than most, Project X is so offensive because it fails to grasp the difference between sexiness and sleaze.

 The biggest problem though, are the three awful characters at the centre of the film. The reason why films like Superbad or American Pie work, even though they too are about nothing more than over-sexed teenage boys trying to get laid, is because they feature characters that are too sweet and too naively innocent about sex to ever come close to being the kind of offensive, women-hating douchebags that populate Project X. To add insult to vomitous misogyny, Project X is also shot using the now infuriating "found footage", faux documentary style that is quickly overtaking 3D as the most overused gimmick in cinema today. And, really, the less said about the "feel-good" ending the better. Just awful, awful stuff.


           

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Fortunately, Project X wasn't the only film released last week. Every bit as smart as Project X is stupid, Tinker Tailor is a spy-film that is more interested in portraying the realities of the men and women (though in this case, mostly the men) who sacrifice their lives to one of shadowy non-existence in the name of service to their countries. As such, it is a film that is calmly paced, narratively complex and chillingly shot and has at its centre a "hero" whose steely calm is worlds away from the James Bond archetype. Indeed, even within the realm of "realistic" spy fiction, George Smiley is a particularly still and intentionally uncharismatic presence.

Personally, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has its work cut out for it as this particular genre will forever be defined for me by Greg Rucka's spectacular Queen and Country, a series of comics and novels that may feature a slightly more hyper reality than what is on display here, but whose ability to portray the cold brutality of what was once called "A Gentleman's Game" sets a very high bar within its genre and is one that Tinker Tailor doesn't quite manage to reach.

That said, there is still plenty to love about this award-winning film. For a start, though it's hard to tell whether its sometimes too-hard-to-follow plot is a carry-over from the John Le Carre novel on which it is based or the result of less-than-perfect storytelling, it's a pleasure to come across a film that so resolutely refuses to spoon-feed its audience. It also has, in Tomas Alfredson (of Let The Right One In fame), a director who perfectly captures the captivating chilliness that the material calls for. Most significantly though, it has Gary Oldman. Oldman has always been a great actor but it says a lot when a performance this subdued, this subtle so utterly overshadows a supporting cast that includes the likes of John Hurt, Tobey Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth. Even if this isn't the best performance of his career - he's so brilliant, so often that it's impossible to call - it's certainly one that, above all its other virtues, makes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a must see.



Contraband: Moving onto this week, we have a number of noteworthy films worthy of your attention. Sadly, Contraband isn't one of them. Not that this heist film starring Mark Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale is a bad film - it's demonstrably not - it's just that it is so by-the-numbers, so absolutely unremarkable in every way imaginable, that it's hard to think of a single compelling reason to go see it. Giovanni Ribisi as an intense, off-his-rocker criminal? Seen that before. A con-man who gets pulled into do "one last job"? Well, that's just a trademark of the genre. Kate Beckinsale as the worried wife who can take care of herself? Yup, can't beat the originality there.

The biggest problem though, isn't that it's unoriginal - there are certain staples that are simply part and parcel of so rigid a genre as the heist film - but that it never does anything particularly interesting with its familiar parts. Yes, there are some OK set pieces and, sure enough, Mark Wahlberg is a terrifically likable screen presence, but these alone don't justify a film that is overly familiar, stodgily plotted and shallow both thematically and in how its characters are drawn. It's fine but, unless you're a die hard fan of the genre, there's no reason not to wait to watch it for (relatively) free on TV.



The Big Year: If Contraband loses by being exactly what you expect it to be, The Big Year lands up being a very pleasant surprise by doing more with an unlikely premise than you would ever think possible. The Big Year is a very, very light comedy drama about bird watching - or birding as each of the main characters insist on correcting us non-birders. Admittedly, it's about a birding competition but, seeing as how this competition doesn't have a prize and is done on the "honour system", there's not a whole lot of excitement to be found in this race for the (bragging rights only) prize. It also features three comedy actors, at least two of whom are known for broad, wildly expressive comedy, but this ain't School of Rock and it sure as hell isn't The Jerk.

And yet, for all of this, I smiled all the way through The Big Year. It's not exactly a laugh-out-loud comedy and it doesn't have enough depth to be a truly probing drama, nor does it have the kind of zany satirical spin that Christopher Guest would no doubt have given it. What it does have, very simply, is loads of charm,  immensely likable characters and a huge, warm, beating heart at its centre.

It might spend more time on bird watching than should surely be possible, but what we have here is a film that is mostly about the relationship these terrific characters have with one another and the way their obsession affects the rest of their lives. All three leads are in very good, if restrained form and they're supported by a fine supporting cast including Diane Wiest, Anjelica Huston, Rosamund Pike and, best of all, Rashida Jones.

Admittedly, the only real reason to see it on the big screen is for the quite lovely cinematography of some of the more picturesque parts of Northern America but, as long as you ignore the way the film is being promoted as a broad, laugh-out-loud comedy rather than as the gentle indie-spirited dramedy that it is, it's the perfect solution for anyone looking for some good old, unassuming charm in their cinematic diet.

        

Melancholia: On the other hand, if "unassuming" is not what you're looking for then Lars Von Trier's latest should more than satisfy your needs. Essentially, what we have here is a film about a woman who is so depressed, she literally brings about the end of the world.  At least, that's presumably what it's about metaphorically. Or maybe that's the metaphoric interpretation of the literal thing that the metaphor presents. Or maybe it's none of the above. That's right, Melancholia is an Art film with a capital "A". It's also a very, very good one.

Despite my mostly tongue-in-cheek synopsis (or is it?), Melancholia is, when you get right down to it, a film about depression. The basic plot is summed up in the first 10 minutes or so of the film, in which is a series of beautifully shot scenes captured in slow-motion so slow that they're almost entirely still, are used to portray the final moments of the film's main characters before the earth is obliterated by another planet, fittingly called Melancholia. The film then moves on to the actual storytelling as it tells the story of two "mentally disturbed" sisters (played breathtakingly well by Kirsten Dunst and Charloote Gainsbourg - both of whom were criminally overlooked by the Academy in this year's Oscars) and the way their outlook on life affects those around them.

To give away anything else about the story would do the film a disservice but it is, in effect, a mixture of last year's Tree of Life and Another Earth, but is notably better than either. Like Another Earth, Melancholia uses allegorical science fiction as a way of exploring a very real, human condition. In Another Earth, the second planet was used as a metaphor for a story of redemption and penance, while the foreign planet in Melancholia is used as a springboard to examine just how debilitating and destructive a disease depression can be. Like the Tree of Life, Melancholia is an unashamedly artsy exercise in existentialism but, despite its even more oppressive subject matter (depression vs spirituality through grief), Melancholia is far more captivating and much, much less ponderous than Malick's latest epic.

It's not a film for everyone - if you're looking for a couple of hours of light entertainment, feel free to inverse my star-rating - and I certainly wouldn't dare suggest that it's free of flaws (this much ambition does have a habit of getting out of hand at times), but it is as engrossing, exquisitely made and challenging a piece of filmmaking as you are likely to see this year.



The Artist: Honestly, at this point, after all the glowing reviews and award shows, what more is there to be said about The Artist. Do I really need to restate just how well it tells its story without the use of dialogue or that it uses its silent-film gimmick as a brilliant way of exploring the era of the silent film? Do I really need to go on and on about how impressive the direction, the cinematography, the acting and the score are? I guess I can point out that unlike the superior (in my opinion, anyway) Hugo, The Artist lives and dies by its gimmick and that the story it's telling is understandably simplistic, rote even, but even this has been pointed out time and time again. The one thing that is worth concentrating on though, is something that is often overlooked by critics. Yes, us film geeks love The Artist because, in part, it was basically made for us, but what about the proverbial "man on the street"? How much appeal does The Artist really hold for people who aren't at least somewhat obsessed with the art of cinema and who are simply looking for a "fun night out at the movies"?

I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've heard variations of this single response with which "civilian" friends and family greet the very idea of The Artist: "A silent movie? In black and white? Displayed in Academy ratio? Why on earth would I want to sit through that?" Now, admittedly, I may have been imagining that third question, but I have no doubt that millions of cinema-goers have probably had this exact reaction. Well, for the 0.000000000000000001 of you who have had this reaction AND happen to read this blog: it's OK, I get where you're coming from but, ya know what, this movie is as much for you as it is for me.

It's interesting that The Artist was released here on the same week as Melancholia because a quick contrast of the two "art" films should make it abundantly clear just how mainstream The Artist actually is. Melancholia is a film that is clearly designed for us weird, film-obsessed anoraks who spend far too much time in a darkened cinema and not enough time in the sun. The Artist though is, when you get right down to it, as mainstream as it gets. Yes, it uses a style of filmmaking that people of our grandparents' generation would have thought of as outmoded, but a) with its swinging upbeat score, it's not actually silent at all and b) director Michel Hazanavicius does his job so well that you quickly forget that it is a silent film and you start to simply view it as a piece of storytelling. Once you get past its gimmick, what are you left with? Not a "challenging art film" but a sometimes sad yet gleefully boisterous and decidedly funny little film about an average guy dealing with unemployment and a romance that blossoms between him and the woman who has essentially replaced him at the (show)business where he once worked. It even has a cute dog, for crying out loud! What more could you possibly want?

Nothing. That's what.


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