Tuesday, 11 February 2014

MOVIES: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - What the hell is a 'Shadow Recruit'?

Christopher Nolan may well be the best filmmaker working in the mainstream today but he has a lot to answer for. Nolan’s Batman Begins, reinforced by the success of Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale legitimised the reboot as a viable concept and ever since you can’t walk down the street without tripping over a franchise which has been unnecessarily rebooted by an unimaginative studio to be ‘darker and more gritty’ than before, no matter how suitable it is to do so. 

Anyway, Hollywood is full of filmmakers/producers who are happy to tiresomely reference Batman’s renaissance in conjunction with their own tired re-tread of the same material (cough Robocop…) without being aware of the shortcomings. 

Firstly not all films need to be updated, take Spiderman, they could have continued the series with a fourth film and with a new actor but instead he was reimagined in a well-cast but lacklustre rehash of the origin story. As mediocre as Spiderman 3 was it wasn’t the franchise embarrassment that Batman & Robin was, so a clean slate wasn’t really necessary. 

Secondly, as The Amazing Spiderman also perhaps proves, the creative team behind the reboot need to get their ducks in a row and get a decent story and suitably visionary director on board before they proceed. Mark Webb is a decent director as 500 (Days of Summer) proves, but Nolan he is not (sorry Mark) and TAS indicates that the movie perhaps lacks the strengths of Martin Campbell as an action director or Nolan as a world builder/storyteller. 

I should point out The Amazing Spiderman isn’t a bad film, just a wholly unremarkable one, and as such a great parallel as to why Batman Begins works so well. We shall see if all the above is true when Webb has his second shot at Spidey arrives this summer. I am quite happy to be wrong and would love to see a great Spidey sequel. 

Anyway, this time it’s Jack Ryan who falls under the gaze of the reboot doctors, even though he was only rebooted in 2002 with the decent but still worst in series thriller, The Sum of All Fears. This time he’s younger, rougher round the edges and his film is named like a bad mid-90s videogame. 

This time Jack Ryan is played by Chris Pine, so effective as the young Kirk in the similarly retconned Star Trek movies. Jack is fresh from injuries sustained in the line of duty as a marine (mentioned but never seen on film before) and with a burgeoning romance with young doctor Cathy (Kiera Knightly). As he is a sharp fellow, Jack is recruited by CIA mentor figure and one man expositionary weapon Harper (Kevin Costner) to help with a desk job identifying bank fraud (in a plot so topical it probably has last week’s guardian stamped on its forehead) and into this circle comes tight lipped Russian Viktor Cherevin (Sir Kenneth Brannah, who also directs) with inevitable fireworks occuring. 

Firstly, how does Pine measure up as the fourth incarnation Ryan? Decent enough, like Affleck he does a good job of getting across the cerebral nature of the character, but its slightly undone by the script which like most Hollywood output these days assume you are thicker than pond sludge and so pads out so-called intelligent thrillers with gunfights and exposition. The definitive Ryan is still Alec Baldwin from Hunt For Red October; wily, sharp and a bit of a smart-ass, he beats out the good but slightly more flat-footed work from Harrison Ford. That’s said though, he doesn’t let the side down and his interplay with Cathy is believable. 

Which segue-ways us into Miss Knightley, an actress who gets a lot of stick (unfairly so) in a role which could quiet easily have become token female love interest territory. Fortunately although Germaine Greer isn’t likely to be writing a book about her any time soon, Knightley’s Cathy is actually a fairly well written and performed character and her relationship with Pine is fleshed out in a way that feels fairly natural. It’s certainly a step up from Brigitte Moynahan’s Cathy in SoAF where she had very little to do aside from nag her husband and look clever in a doctors jacket. 

Kevin Costner ably supports the cast in the hoary cliché of the grizzled mentor role. Harper is a good character solidly performed by a star who should really be on screen more often, as very few actors do convincing, all American salt of the earth types like Costner. 

Brannah is also solid enough as the bad guy and he manages to give at least a glimpse of something beneath the surface, although the character is a little shallow in wider Jack Ryan terms. 

His direction is also workmanlike but efficient and despite the debatably unnecessary but ubiquitous use of shaky cam to make it feel more Bourne-like, its romps along fast enough. The real problem with Jack Ryan is an underlying one, i.e.  that the film doesn’t believe enough in its central concept. In a rough tough espionage world where Bourne and Bond characters are the norm, Jack Ryan could in the wrong hands come across as a little dull, he is after all, a number cruncher and brain, not a fighter. 

Although it’s now a little more popular to be portrayed as clever in media, with the likes of Tony Stark and Sherlock, there is still perhaps a little reluctance in modern times to make a big-budget cerebral spy film, which means efforts like Jack Ryan with tacked on car chases feel a little disingenuous. 

The first three Ryan movies from Hunt For Red October, finished with the most wilfully brainy and complex, Harrison Ford’s Clear and Present Danger, which is all the better for running with its concept but sliding in a little action organically. Although its not completely brainless, compared to Clear’s mental arithmetic, Shadow Recruit feels like colouring in. 

VERDICT: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a decent enough way to spend two hours. It’s a fast moving spy thriller with decent performances and a nice central relationship between the male and female leads. It only disappoints where it compromises its brains for tacked on brawn. Worth a watch but joint worst in the series next to Affleck’s 2002 effort. 

Thanks for reading, Marb.

Monday, 10 February 2014

MOVIES: The Way Way Back - Summer breeze, makes me feel fine

‘Heart-warming’ is a term that often comes with many negative sentiments, more analogous with a Channel 5 TV movie of the week about a housewife who bravely battles elephantiasis, all the while working dutifully on the PTA of the local school in an effort to defeat a developer who wants to build an biomass facility on the local nature reserve. 

But ‘heart-warming’ needn’t necessarily mean maudlin sentiment and unbridled cheesiness, sometimes movies come along that are genuinely lovely to watch. One such recent effort of The Way Way Back, a pretty standard coming of age tale set in the mid-west of America but shot through with such a warmth and sense of humour, it’s impossible to not feel affected by it. 

The Way Way Back Is about Duncan (Liam James), a fairly middle of the road, teenager with self-esteem issues and few friends who is forced on a summer trip with his mother Pam (Toni Colette) and boorish partner Trent (Steve Carrell). Things aren’t looking good for our hero until he meets charmingly eccentric waterpark manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) and a burgeoning friendship starts with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

It would be completely in accurate to call The Way Way Back original, as it’s so full of tropes it probably has a special space saving cupboard built in to keep them in, however as I described above it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. 

Much like the brilliant Kings Of Summer, this film lives in a hazy nostalgia bubble with a heady atmosphere of teenage emotions and heartbreak. Though it’s less lumbered with the whip-smart impossibly snarky dialogue which troubles Summer and Juno, it is perhaps more formulaic. 

The cast are terrific, starting with Liam James who is lovable and believably hopeless as the main character. Realistic movie teenagers are pretty rare, they tend to be stretched into caricatures, to serves plot purposes, from the needy nebbish loser, moody waifs who call their parents by their real names to look grown up, to the improbably hunky and savvy jocks or cheerleaders. Basically very few movie teenagers ever feel like the ones you know or indeed were, as these tend to be a mix of all of the above archetypes and a million more besides. Suffice to say Liam James pulls it off and he feels like one of the slightly awkward but good-egg which you might meet at a family BBQ. 

Collette and Carrell are good as the adult couple around which much of the action centres. Collette once again proving that few actresses do brittle, troubled matriarch better than her and Carrell not being afraid to play a planet sized douchebag. As with Liam James, both of them feel real enough and no archetypal so that when their relationship affects Duncan, you can still see both sides of the story. 

The real winner is Sam Rockwell, playing well…Sam Rockwell. His Owen is possibly 2013’s most lovable supporting role. Rockwell has been playing a number of variations on this character for a while now but is also routinely the best thing about the movie he is in. Owen is a giant man-child but so full of loyalty, humour and affection that it’s impossible to not fall in love with him. In fact I spent the entire film just wanting to be his friend and hug him. I defy anyone to watch the film and not want to spend the summer working at his park in his company. 

The rest of the supporting cast are also great, Allison Janney as the drunk neighbour, AnnaSophia Robb adorable as the valley girl in artifice only and Maya Rudolf as the world weary collage to Owen. 

Directors and writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were responsible for Little Miss Sunshine, a similarly misty-eyed drama and it’s easy to draw a line between the movies, however whilst LMS was perhaps a little over-rated, TWWB is almost certainly under-rated. It’s great work from them, well-paced, beautifully shot, and with a quality soundtrack. 

VERDICT: The Way Way Back is not a perfect movie to be sure; it is often riddled with cliché and its writing sometime a little knowing, but it’s a film that demands to be seen for the way it makes you feel. The warmth of the script, the performances and the setting is so beguiling it can’t help but dress you in a honey glazed smile wider than the Humber Bridge. In a world where freezing jet-stream temperatures are blowing the nailed timbers off your windows whilst you sit burning old manuscripts for heat, a metaphorical hug from Sam Rockwell is exactly what you need, trust me. The feel good film of 2013. 


Thanks for reading, Marb

Saturday, 8 February 2014

MOVIES: American Hustle - The con goes on...and on

American Hustle is the latest from former enfant terrible turned Hollywood golden boy David O’Russell. If you had mentioned a few years ago that he would be Oscar nominated for three movies in a row, you would likely have been greeted with a snort of derision usually reserved for the latest X-factor Christmas single

O’Russell was always considered to be a promising talent with the likes of Three Kings but after on-set meltdown on I Heart Huckabees was made public, some were beginning to wonder if he was disappearing up his own rear end.

Turned out he wasn’t and in 2010 after a hiatus of sorts he reappeared on the movie scene with a triumvirate of acclaimed dramas in only three years, starting with The Fighter, Silver Lining Playbook and now American Hustle.

American Hustle is the tale of con artists in late 70’s New York, and is loosely based on the Ab-scam case of the time. Charismatic con-man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian bale) and his seductive partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are recruited by slimy FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to scam influential politicians and businessmen. Mixed up in all of it are Irving’s unhinged wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and likeable broke Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

American Hustles main strength is its almost faultless performances, from a cast that is an embarrassment of riches, all playing characters linked by their moral decrepitude.

Bale once again proves why he is one of the most talented and excited actors working today. It seems trite and desperately unoriginal to assert that Bale yet again chameleonically blends into the role but it’s also 100% accurate. Rosenfeld is not a good person but he is someone the audience can get behind; smart and funny yet vain and prissy, Bale fully deserves his Oscar nomination for the role.

Amy Adams is also superb as Sydney, her conflicted partner always keep you guessing about what side she is on and even after the penny drops, you still aren’t sure, even if she clearly hasn’t found out where they sell bras in the local BHS. Adams like Bale is proving that she is one of the most versatile and capable actors working today.

Cooper has the most difficult and potentially unlikable role but even he manages to draw out flattering and interesting aspects from character blinded by his own ambition.

Lawrence excels yet again as the vengeful, passive aggressive spouse, akin to a young Sharon Stone in Casino and Renner does a great job as Carmine, making him the most lovable corrupt pollution in recent movie history. Throw in a great turn from Lois Ck as Coopers hapless boss and another acting legend in a small but key role and it is certainly the best cast of the year. 

The film is also very adept at comedy, with more laughs than many straight Hollywood gag-fests manage to muster, with Bale in particular proving his doubters wrong regarding his lack of funny bone.

Despite all of this fantastic work, the films real fault is it lack of discipline. Though it takes it cues from similarly structured biopics such as Goodellas and Boogie Nights, it lacks the zip and energy of those efforts and has a middle section as saggy as Bales protagonist. Individual scenes rumble on past their sell by date and it drains the movie of its propulsiveness. Plainly put the film needs 20 minutes removing or a shot of adrenaline in the arm to get it moving.

The production design, period detail, soundtrack, costumes and wonderful cornucopia of hairstyles are all spot on, all keying into the sleazy 70’s style of the movie.

VERDICT: American Hustle is one of the best acted movies of the year, with the multiple nominations for performances all well deserved. It’s a drama with plenty of laughs and some great tense scenes unfortunately it lacks the leering energy of the crime dramas it apes and its pacing slightly lets it down. Worth seeing for the acting on display but its best film nominations feel a little undeserved.

Thanks for reading, Marb

Monday, 3 February 2014

MOVIES: Inside Llewyn Davis - Folktastic

The Coen Brothers latest effort arrives on our screens with a level of subdued hype and without any of the overblown pomp that the likes of other prestigious character releases like American Hustle come saddled with. 

Why the Coen’s films aren’t more hyped is of course welcome but a bit of a mystery, whilst David O’Russell has only just hit his stride in his last couple of pictures The Coen’s have been quietly excellent for almost their entire 20 year plus filmography. 

So when the recent Oscar nominations neglected to include ILD within any of the ‘major’ categories such as best film, best director or actor there was a little surprise, as by all accounts it’s one of the year’s best movies. 

It could be commented that the Coens have been almost intentionally obtuse in their choice of subject matter. After all, a film revolving around a failing folk musician in New York isn’t the sort of narrative which usually attract academy voters or mass audiences, and certainly won’t be for everyone however if you are willing to look past the subject matter , you be rewarded greatly. 

ILD follows the titular deadbeat protagonist (Oscar Isaac), a talented folk singer with woeful social skills with a propensity for rubbing people up the wrong way. The film details his unsuccessful attempts at musical recognition which run in tandem with a clutch of deteriorating relationships and curious personal encounters.

Isaac has scored big with his first major starring role, after a string of impressive performances in the likes of The Bourne Legacy and Robin Hood. Isaac is in almost every scene and convinces in both the the folk performer and acting stakes, an impressive achievement. Most importantly, despite Llewyn’s often questionable decision making and inter-personal skills , he still imbues the character with a deep likeability. Simply put, it looks like he has found his defining role already in his so far short career. 

The supporting cast are also superb, Carey Mulligans somewhat uptight love interest with occasional cracks showing a tender core beneath the brittle surface and John Goodman as a thoroughly unpleasant yet amusing blues singer. Even the smaller roles regardless of screen time are filled out with the memorable turns we have come to expect from a Coen Brothers film; Adam Drivers equally down on his luck jobbing singer, Stark Sands serene soldier turned performer who offers a counterpoint to Llewyn haplessness, Garret Hedlund’s beat poet with a soulful backstory, and Justin Timberlake’s cheery success story who serves to remind Llewyn just how far he has fallen. 

Aside from the universally excellent performances, another major triumph is the fantastic music on show. Even those not all that enamoured with folk will find plenty to love in the beautiful soundtrack, from the tenderness of ‘The Shoals of Herring’ and ‘Five hundred Miles ‘to the peculiar deliberately shoddy majesty of ‘Please Mr Kennedy’.  
'The film manages to treat a careful line between unbridled love of and slightly goofy ribbing towards the folk scene which anchors the 60’s set movie in a contemporary manner.'

The absorbing, quasi- magical tone of the film is another one of its charms, and whilst there are no real grand character arcs on display, Isaac and Mulligan mine believable, character journeys throughout the course of the running time, ending up slightly better people but in a way which is completely buyable to the audience. For once the words 'slight' and 'whimsical' can be used in a positive sense rather than with negative continuations.

This tone is reinforced by the muted almost soft focus cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel, replacing regular DP Roger Deakins. The shooting style pulling you right into the hazy cigarette smoke atmosphere the film successfully creates. 

There’s also the usual Coen’s efficient running time, showing that they are one of the few big name directors not to be pulled into ever lengthening magnum opus territory.  

VERDICT: Inside Llewyn Davies is another cracking film from the Coens. Its slow burn pace means it may not have the immediate cult status of a Big Lebowski or a Fargo but  in the nicest possible way it’s their most muted and small scale film for a good while, swapping the epic vistas of True Grit for the dank atmosphere of gloomy New York coffee shops and cramped bed-sits. A swathe of great performances abound, with Oscar Isaac particularly impressing as the lead character.  Chuck in a winning soundtrack and you have one of the best films of the last year. Worth checking out even if you have an aversion to the finger in ears foldy-roll folk scene. 

Thanks for reading, Marb