Cinema Lottery #10

cinema 10 gravity

Gravity
Release date: 8 November 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

After a string of films in which a (male) actor carries an entire film (Buried, 127 Hours, Brake, Moon), this time it’s Sandra Bullock’s turn. Gravity, written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is a claustrophobic, disorienting, and dizzying film – a disaster movie in space, with poor Ryan (Bullock) desperately trying to get back to Earth. Its plot is actually rather generic: Ryan is on her first mission, her charismatic associate Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, playing himself) is on his last. Inevitably, things go wrong, and continue to do so for a tense ninety minutes – Ryan’s misfortunes almost push her into Michael Bay territory (just consider the calamities that occur in Armageddon as a result of everyone’s sheer incompetence), but Gravity is executed with such a confidence and professionalism that it pulls it off. So Ryan is bounced off satellites and forced out of supposedly safe refuge, sent spinning wildly out of control into the vast nothingness of space and bombarded with high flying debris, and the audience is dragged along with her.

While Bullock should be commended for her performance, the other elements all work to support her role. The sound design is perfect – the “no sound in space” issue is bypassed by including muffled noises, as though one were hearing from within a spacesuit, and some uncomfortable, increasingly loud tones at moments of particular tension. Visually, Gravity is stunning, and its one of the few non-horror movies that really benefits from 3D, which enhances the feeling of weightlessness while also reinforcing the disorienting situations Ryan gets into. Cuaron captures the vast expanse of space, with the Earth calmly sitting below, and it is both beautiful and isolating – serene, yet terrifying. If ever there was a film made to be watched at an IMAX, by the way, this is it. Unrelenting and uncompromising, Gravity is one hell of a bumpy, breathless, ride. Suddenly, going into space doesn’t seem quite so romantic a notion.

Philomena
Release date: 1 November 2013
Rating: 4/5

In 2009, journalist and former Labour party spin doctor Martin Sixsmith published an article in The Guardian, with the attention-grabbing headline, “The Catholic church sold my child”. It was a story that had originated as a throwaway human interest piece, but as the truth emerged, it became increasingly shocking. Fifty years prior, Philomena Lee had given birth to a son in secrecy in a convent in Tipperary. Like many other young, unmarried women in Ireland at the time, she was forced to hand over control of the child to the nuns, who in turn had them adopted, often to families in America, in exchange for “donations” to the church. Having never forgotten this child, Philomena’s attempts to find him proved futile, so she enlisted the help of Sixsmith, whose investigative journalism background helped her to eventually discover what had happened to her son.

Stephen Frears’ film is an unassuming piece of work – understated and subtle, with a focus on the performances of both Judi Dench (as Philomena) and Steve Coogan (as Sixsmith). Coogan has also written the screenplay, and here he proves not only his capabilities as a serious actor, but a deftness of touch in his writing; there are just enough moments of light-heartedness, predominantly as a result of the relationship between the cynical Sixsmith and Philomena, that stops the film from becoming saturated in melodrama. Dench is, as always, utterly convincing. Despite the actions of the Church, she remains steadfast in her faith, both in God and humanity, yet her naivety is matched with wisdom, good humour, and a quiet determination. In this tale of conspiracy and cover-ups, charting one of the most shameful moments in Irish history, it’s a testament to the actors that they are not overwhelmed by the plot. Yet Philomena remains rooted in truth, and doesn’t need to exaggerate the events it portrays. At its core, this is less a ruthless expose of the Catholic chuch’s sins, than a film about a mother trying to discover what happened to her child – it just happens to have far-reaching implications. It’s a subtle, yet confident, piece of filmmaking, with an excellent screenplay and superb central performances – if this makes it to awards season, surely Dench should be at least considered for another accolade.

Bad Grandpa
Release date: 23 October 2013
Rating: 2/5

If you’re not already a fan of Jackass, I wonder, would you even consider going to see their latest gross-out movie? This is now the fourth cinematic outing for the team, who now appears to consist entirely of Johnny Knoxville – none of the others are present, and Knoxville himself is buried under a mountain of old-man make-up. Replacing his friends is Jackson Nicoll, who plays 8-year-old Billy, the grandson of the titular grandpa and easily the most engaging character – it mustn’t be that easy for a child to keep a straight face in these absurd situations, but Nicoll succeeds, and even manages to invite some degree of pathos while doing so. Yet Bad Grandpa is a flawed and self-indulgent film that makes some serious errors in judgement regarding its style.

There are two major problems at play. One is the decision to combine a fictional narrative with hidden camera scenes capturing the reactions of real people when confronted with this irresponsible, foul-mouthed, disgusting, perverted grandpa and his grandson; not only is the narrative flimsy at best, but it creates some suspicion as to the “realness” of the rest of it. The second big problem is the reactions, which are almost entirely apathetic; perhaps it’s a shocking indictment of American society that people are so accepting of the absurd and ridiculous, but more likely is that many people suspected some kind of foul play – we’ve become so saturated in hidden camera shows that it’s no longer a novelty. These might be the biggest problems, but they’re not the only ones. Knoxville churns out the now expected series of skits, and they’re all as immature as the next, lacking any real subtlety, intelligence, or originality, while, presumably, all those in on the joke pat themselves on the back. Unfortunately, no one else is laughing. There are a few moments, admittedly, when I sniggered a little, but every single one of those moments was in the trailer. My advice? You’ll know yourself whether this movie is for you or not and, if you think it is, my review is irrelevant. If you think it’s not for you, stay well away. You will gain nothing from seeing it.

Closed Circuit
Release date: 25 October 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

I’ve seen a whole bunch of British, gritty, political thrillers over the course of these press days, and each has been as generic and forgettable as the next. So Closed Circuit came as a pleasant surprise – not amazing, but by far the most polished and interesting film of its kind that I’ve seen this year. It’s also, intriguingly, almost entirely a red herring – despite the twists and turns, the actual outcome of the court case becomes irrelevant; instead, the focus remains fixed firmly on the ways in which politics (and politicians) invade and corrupt the supposedly impartial legal system, engineering situations to save face and get the result they desire. In doing so, the film manages to sidestep potential problems in a satisfactory solution, for example, because the solution is unnecessary.

Eric Bana is Martin Rose, the replacement attorney for a suspected terrorist, who supposedly masterminded a horrific attack on Borough Market. Along with another attorney (Rebecca Hall), he is tasked with defending a suspect with a mass of evidence so secret that not even Rose is privy to it; thus begins the conspiracy that the two lawyers must decide to either fight or accept. Bana and Hall are supported by a solid cast, including Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles, the latter of whom features for no reason whatsoever – as an American journalist, she appears in two scenes and is then quickly dispatched (off screen) and forgotten about. Her inclusion is one of the most obvious flaws in the film, which is, despite some weaknesses (Rose’s family life is hinted at but unexpanded and adds little; the title and opening scenes’ emphasis on CCTV footage is also ultimately irrelevant) reasonably engaging and intriguing. It may not be remembered in years to come, but seeing as I can remember it a day later, it has already exceeded my expectations.

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Cinema Lottery #9

cinema 9 only god forgives

Only God Forgives
Release date: 2 August 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s interesting that, since Drive, there have been two Ryan Gosling films that were initially dismissed as Drive Part 2, yet both, despite their marketing, emerged as entirely different films. The Place Beyond the Pines, released earlier this year, was the first and more tenuously connected; Only God Forgives is the second. Of the two, it is the latter that is truly divisive. Audiences walked out en masse in Cannes, its level of violence and lack of characterisation has been met with claims of vapid pretentiousness – a case of style over substance, perhaps. And it’s true that director Nicholas Winding Refn, along with cinematographer Larry Smith, have chosen to concentrate on style but, really, is there anything wrong with that?

Curiously, despite the apparent superficiality, other reviews have adopted an entirely different approach to Only God Forgives’ simple plot (so simple and sparse, in fact, that to go into any more detail than to say it’s a classic revenge story would be to spoil it). Empire claims the entire narrative is like a fevered dream, with Vithaya Pansringarm as an Angel of Vengeance, a supernatural being “summoned from Julian’s subconscious.” Perhaps he is; passages of the film are undeniably dreamlike – even hallucinatory. Julian (Gosling) emerges as a passive observer, only capable of action in his imagination, whether it’s finally touching his prostitute girlfriend or committing acts of violence. He’s barely a person at all, and Gosling barely acts, although there remains something captivating about his blank visage. He is tortured, tormented, and plenty could be (and no doubt will be) written about his Oedipus complex; he’s also a less-than-subtle, though undoubtedly effective, example of a man desperately trying to prove (validate?) his masculinity – just consider that awkward lunch date with his girlfriend and his icy, profane bitch of a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Yet how much of it is a dream remains up for debate: Pansringarm’s Chang is, for me, less a supernatural being than a man with strict beliefs about revenge, retaliation, and retribution – he’s the embodiment of the concept of an eye for an eye (and, in one particularly harrowing scene, that eye is literal).

As is to be expected, visually Only God Forgives is a thing of morbid beauty. Bangkok is displayed like a neo-noir, the seediness and sleaziness of the city reflected in neon lighting, sumptuously ornate patterns, and deep reds contrasting with the blackest of shadows. It’s haunting and mesmerising – every scene, and every moment within every scene feels deliberate and controlled. The imagery works perfectly with Cliff Martinez’ pulsating score, which often dominates the soundtrack, adding to the dreaminess of scenes by silencing the film’s limited dialogue. It is alternately eerie, soothing, exciting, or unpleasantly loud; in an entirely stylised world, the relationship between the visuals and the score is more important than words uttered by the characters.

No doubt there will be some that hate Only God Forgives, that wanted (and simultaneously didn’t want) Drive Part 2. This is not that film. Winding Refn has created a piece of abstract art; uncompromising, brutal, limited in characterisation and lush in visual style. It’s slow – so slow, in fact, that scenes look more like tableaux than moving images – and narratively sparse, but for those willing to give it a chance, it’s a rare spectacle, both beautiful and horrific in equal measures.

Red 2
Release date: 2 August 2013
Rating: 2.5/5

Much like its predecessor, Red 2 is entertaining but strangely forgettable; with the exception of Helen Mirren’s ex-MI6 agent Victoria, there is almost nothing memorable about it. Following directly from Red, this film sees Bruce Willis’ now-retired CIA agent embracing domesticity, much to the disappointment of his younger girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) but, inevitably, he’s forced to resume his former life in an attempt to clear his name and stop a deadly bomb. Brian Cox (in a small cameo), Catherine Zeta Jones, and Anthony Hopkins join the core cast and they, along with John Malkovich and Mirren (who even lampoons herself, infiltrating a mental institute by claiming she’s the queen), do appear to be having lots of fun, but it’s all rather messy and convoluted. Most problematically, Willis and Parker are the least interesting or engaging characters – Willis appears to barely even be trying any more, relying instead on his now trademark wry smile and deadpan expressions to carry his performance.

Filled with bloodless action and fairly standard intrigue, Red 2 acknowledges its graphic novel origins – there are car chases, daft set pieces, the occasional comic book insert and, despite the potential genocide, a constant lack of real tension or danger. As the action flits from Paris, to London, to Moscow, its quick pace and sometimes frantic editing are a distraction from the cluttered narrative, but it never becomes anything more than mediocre.

The Smurfs 2
Release date: 31 July 2013
Rating: 1/5

There’s little to enjoy or appreciate about The Smurfs 2, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone older than five even wanting to see this dire, juvenile piece of tripe. Its generic narrative, in which evil wizard Gargamel (buck-toothed, hunchbacked, big-nosed Hank Azaria) is still trying to destroy the peaceful Smurfs, is terrible and, despite its simplicity, is given a whopping 105 minutes to reach its inevitable conclusion; after twenty minutes I remembered this is supposed to be a comedy (albeit on the level of bad spoofs and fart jokes); after an hour I started to nod off out of sheer boredom.

The Smurfs themselves are a limited selection of stereotypes – Grumpy, Clumsy, Vanity, Brainy, Passive Aggressive (!), etc – who are all infatuated with equally stereotypical Smurfette (Katy Perry). After a surprise birthday goes awry, the only female in Smurfsville (or whatever it’s called) ends up in the clutches of Gargamel, who has become a world famous magician due to his wondrous talents and slapstick inteptitude. Enter Neil Patrick Harris and his cutsie wife Grace who, along with step-dad Brendan Gleeson (who at least has the wherewithal to be transformed into a duck for some of the running time, thus limiting his screen-time and, by default, the indignity of appearing in the film), must save the day for all Smurfkind, and learn a valuable lesson in the process. There are some bizarre interludes that, presumably, are intended to entertain the parents dragged to this dreck, but they are so desperately jammed in that they just irritate. It’s also just plain weird when, for example, the Smurfs accidentally interrupt a photoshoot involving, inexplicably, pregnant brides. Meanwhile, the CGI is frequently ropey – Gargamel’s cat, possibly the most annoying character, switches constantly, and obviously, between actual cat and computerised cat. Rendered in entirely pointless 3D (of course), the filmmakers haven’t even bothered to exploit this as a gimmick; I can’t think of a single scene in which I even noticed it.

While this is obviously specifically aimed at children, and therefore does not necessarily need to appeal to adults in a similar fashion, The Smurfs 2 is an insult to all audiences; generic, stupid, hammy, boring, and stereotyped. Quite frankly, it’s a smurfing great example of a big, steaming pile of smurf.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Release date: 7 August 2013
Rating: 3/5

Squarely aimed at fans of I’m Alan Partridge, this long-awaited big screen outing sees the action somewhat ramped up, but retains the series’ small-scale atmosphere – it feels small-budget and familiar, with some nice nods to its origins. It also, in part due to the involvement of Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It) and Steve Coogan (who takes on both writing and acting roles as before), matches ludicrous slapstick (Alan’s attempts to climb in through a window, for example) with deadpan humour; there are plenty of opportunities to snicker, smile, and cringe at Alan’s ineptitude and awkwardness, but not as many chances to really laugh out loud. Yet I was only ever a casual viewer, who watched the show on repeat due to a friend’s obsession more than my own, so perhaps I am not really the right person to judge the effectiveness of its comedy.

Those uninitiated in the world of Alan Partridge will, however, still gain some pleasure from Alpha Papa if they actually bother going. The narrative follows a standard hostage scenario formula, but remains pleasantly low-key; Colm Meaney’s aggrieved ex-employee at the newly rebranded Shape radio station in Norwich is less a criminal mastermind than a slightly unhinged, fairly normal guy and, instead of succumbing to an unrealistic world of explosions and Hollywoodised action, the situation escalates because of Alan’s sheer obliviousness and socially inappropriate behaviour. He remains dogmatic and utterly deluded in his self-belief, and events unfold in a suitably ridiculous manner.

Despite the small scale, Alpha Papa is well executed. It moves briskly through its relatively short running time (90 minutes) and this economy and lack of ego works well – more often than not, attempts to bring a much-loved sitcom character from the constraints of a twenty-five minute show to feature length simply reveal that characters limitations, but this is not the case here. Yet, at the same time, the big screen really adds little to this intimate little film; indeed, it may benefit from repeat viewings at home, where lines can be repeated and paused over. It may not necessarily open Alan Partridge up to a new audience, but the fans will be delighted.