Review: Midnight In Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen

***

Owen Wilson sounds like the most unlikely stand-in for Woody Allen that you could imagine, yet that’s essentially what he is in Midnight In Paris, Allen’s latest tale of a strangely wealthy and artistic nerd with a ridiculously gorgeous girlfriend, and whose travails reveal something about said nerd to himself. If this is just too rote, remember that the last time Allen deviated from that formula significantly gave us Cassandra’s Dream, so don’t knock it.

Wilson’s Gil is the nerd, Rachel McAdams’ Inez is the hot fiancée, and they’re on holiday in gaye Paree. Gil is frustrated, both by his unsatisfying career as a screenwriter and his in-the-works novel, plus the fact that Inez runs into an old flame (Michael Sheen’s Paul), a preening intellectual gasbag. This intellectual inadequacy is Allen’s bread and butter, but his efforts to combine it with scatalogical humour and plots have been his undoing in recent years (Match Point, Scoop). However, this is Allen indulging the artist’s fantasy, as Gil contemplates moving to Paris after he and Inez marry. She and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) laugh off the thought, but Gil is encouraged when he meets a 1920s style car on a street at midnight, hops in and is transported back to Paris of that era, l’Age d’Or. Yes, it sounds silly, and it ought to be silly, but it must be remembered that Allen is indulging his dream. Gil is enraptured when he starts meeting his heroes, including Scott and Zelda FitzGerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). The transitions from present to past and back to the present are never explained, but Allen doesn’t feel that’s necessary. This is the Paris of wonders, which inspired great artists such as Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and Dali (Adrien Brody). However, this does lead to a clear distinction between scenes set in the past and the present. The present scenes are not particularly interesting because the characters that populate them aren’t either; the likes of Inez and Paul are just cyphers, excuses for Gil to immerse himself more in the past. Whenever we see friendly flapper Adrianna (Marion Cotillard) smile, the already-bright parlours of 1920s Paris are bathed in her glow. Despite this split, Allen’s gift for sparky dialogue and wit is ever present.

Wilson makes for an affable Allen substitute, but the greatest thrill of Midnight In Paris is seeing artistic and literary figures crop up in Gil’s time trip/fantasy/whatever. The jokes are knowing (Gil giving Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) the idea for Exterminating Angel, for example) but delivered with an artful enthusiasm that’s hard to dispel. It’s uneven, it isn’t particularly deep and it does reduce the likes of Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux to bit parts, but Midnight In Paris is Allen’s most enjoyable film in over a decade. Many would argue that’s not a hard feat, but if you find yourself still yearning for the Woody of old, we’ll always have Manhattan.

Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

****

Love. Lovely loving love. Love is everywhere, apparently. It certainly is in Crazy, Stupid, Love; every character in this film is either falling in love or the object of someone’s affection. Beginning with the dissolving marriage of Cal (Steve Carrell) and Emily (Julianne Moore), Crazy, Stupid, Love grows into a sweet little mélange of stories which, though distinct, never forget that crucial common element of lovely love. And Ryan Gosling’s abs.

Seriously, is there nothing Ryan Gosling can’t do? Handsome, charming and talented to boot, he continues his quest to make the rest of manhood look inadequate in the role of Jacob, a lothario Cal runs into whilst drowning his sorrows. Jacob decides to take Cal under his wing and transform him into a confident ladykiller. As Cal gets a new wardrobe and charm lessons, Jacob steals the film from everyone with a ridiculously confident strut and cheesy chat-up lines. Cal has some success (enter Marisa Tomei’s maneater Kate) but still pines for Emily, whilst Jacob finds himself falling for feisty trainee lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone). As Cal and Jacob find their roles reversing, they come to realize what’s important just in time for the standard grandstanding romantic declaration in the last reel. Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t as original as it might think, as familiarity hovers just outside each frame, but Dan Fogelman’s script squeezes enough wit in to combat the potential cheesiness of the whole situation (A dejected Cal gets caught in a rainstorm and observes, “What a cliché”). It also helps that there is a game cast involved. Carell’s bulbous features are built for comedy, whilst it’s always good to see the likes of Moore, Tomei and Kevin Bacon (as Emily’s lover) have some fun. Even the trope of the wiser-than-everyone kid (Jonah Bobo, playing Cal and Emily’s son) is funnier than usual, as he’s gifted a romantic storyline too! However, this film belongs to Gosling. Jacob proves that he can do both drama and comedy; we gentlemen should hate him, but he’s so damn smooth he effortlessly charms everyone! Drive on, Mr. Gosling, Drive on!

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa clearly see the sweet charm in Fogelman’s script, hence they seem to emphasize the comedy, and allow the pathos to fall in place after. Crazy, Stupid, Love is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s genuine warmth here too. Unlike bawdy sex romps like Friends With Benefits, Crazy, Stupid, Love is built on genuine affection. For all the pratfalls and incidents involving nudity, Crazy, Stupid, Love feels relatively mature for a rom-com. Like Ficarra and Requa’s previous effort I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid, Love is flawed and not quite as revelatory in its plotting as it would hope. It may not be that Crazy, but it certainly isn’t Stupid either. It demands your Love.

Review: Soul Surfer (2011)

Director: Sean McNamara

**

Bethany Hamilton was just 13 years old when her arm was bitten off in a shark attack off the coast of her native Hawaii in 2003. An aspiring professional surfer, she learned to overcome this newly-acquired disability to work her way back to the standards of living and surfing she’d achieved pre-shark. Soul Surfer, the film adaptation of Hamilton’s book, appreciates Bethany’s courage but also reduces it to a God-bothering, stomach-turning pile of family-friendly tweeness. Jaws with false teeth, if you will.

Selling it as a shark attack film is something of a misnomer since we only see the shark for all of five seconds onscreen. One second sees a ridiculous CG shark chomp young Bethany’s (AnnaSophia Robb) arm off whilst she paddles on her surfboard. The other four seconds see the shark hanging dead from a winch after being caught. The dead eyes of the shark boast more sincerity than the rest of the film, which is ironic since it’s trying to stick closely to Bethany’s own experience. The opening half-hour sets the none-more-blissful scene. Hawaii: the seas are a crisp blue, the beaches are golden and inviting and everyone is attractive, tanned and frequently sporting swimwear. This idyll is inhabited by Bethany, her brothers (Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu) and her parents. Bethany’s parents are played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, both effectively claiming the market for the kind of maudlin sentimental rubbish they’ve specialized in of late. The Hamilton family are an impossible ideal: always smiling, supporting one another and churchgoing. There’s nothing wrong with a churchgoing family, and the real Bethany said her faith played a big part in her healing process, but that’s no excuse for the preachiness of Soul Surfer. As we watch the now one-armed Bethany (the arm is CG’d out, sometimes rather obviously) struggle with getting back on the board and everyday tasks, the film takes every possible opportunity to paint her as a martyr to her affliction. As soon as we hear of the big surfing competition and are introduced to the boo-hiss rival (Sonya Balmores), you’ll be too patronized and smothered in sentimentality.

Most of the cast are laboured with uninteresting roles (you know your film is in trouble when you waste the mighty Craig T. Nelson!), but Robb delivers a solid performance as Bethany, showing enough moxie to keep her story believeable. Meanwhile, the film could serve as a Hawaii travelogue if you could chop out the story, with beautiful beaches and clear blue ocean everywhere. However, these are the few positives in this over-earnest little tale. When Bethany goes on a missionary trip with her church youth group to Thailand to help with the then-recent tsunami relief effort, stomachs will flip either with the sickly sentimentality of it all or the reduction of this almighty disaster to stock platitudes. Director Sean McNamara also directed 3 Ninjas: High Noon At Mega Mountain; Soul Surfer couldn’t be but an improvement on that, but not by much. If you think you can sail through this overly-eager mess, you’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

*****

The first image in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a door being opened in the dead of night to reveal the wrinkled and worried face of MI6 head Control (John Hurt). He’s invited agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) for a chat and a briefing about a mission in Budapest. This sullen man and his solemn intonations set the pace for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TTSS) right from the off; this is a deadly serious spy game, with great risks, no guarantee of success and a no-nonsense approach to the delicate work of espionage.

The mission that Control instructs Prideaux to undertake goes awry, leading to the ousting of Control and his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) from the agency. We’re a world way from Bond-esque gizmos and guns here; these are secret agents as civil servants. Out with the martinis and in with sly teas with extended little fingers. If Sean Connery’s 007 gave as much thought as these agents did to the pulling of a trigger, he’d have been dead long ago. The thought is justified when it means the agency you work for is on the line. Smiley is brought back from his enforced retirement as his outsider position makes him ideal to complete the original aim of the Budapest mission: rooting out a mole buried in the upper echelons of MI6 by the Soviets. Control narrowed it down to a group of higher-ups, all distinct and yet as slimy and suspicious as each other. Is it buttoned-down Scot Allerline (Toby Jones)? Or chipper Bland (Ciarán Hinds)? Maybe it’s the flamboyant Haydon (Colin Firth)? Or the short-tempered Esterhase (David Dencik)? The ironically-named Smiley, low on emotion but high in intelligence, sets out to get the truth. Screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor (who died last year and to whom the film is dedicated) manage to preserve the wordy characterisations of John Le Carré’s source novel whilst still upping the tension. Upon discovering an attempted report by ground agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) was suppressed, Smiley and his right-hand man Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) must cut through the rubbish being fed via official lines to get to where the truth lies. Both Smiley and the audience are drip-fed information (you MUST pay attention!), as the real nitty-gritty of spy work comes to the fore. The need for patience and detachment is reflected in Oldman. Though well aware of Alec Guinness’ interpretation of Smiley in the BBC adaptation of TTSS, Oldman makes Smiley his own with one of his most understated performances to date. Understated does not mean underplayed, as subtle glances and inflections in his voice communicate a great deal. The rest of the cast, a veritable ‘Best-of-British’ line-up, is uniformly excellent (though the likes of Hinds and Stephen Graham deserve more screentime than they actually get).

The script boasts both great depth and a sly wit, qualities it shares with director Tomas Alfredson. The Let The Right One In man shows a keen eye for specifics, both in juggling the narrative (flashbacks upon flashbacks fill the story gaps) and in the design; the early ‘70s setting is wonderfully realized, from Hoyte Van Hoytema’s grainy cinematography to the inclusion of Dana on the soundtrack. Alfredson is not afraid to let the film move at its glacial pace; he knows the devil is in the detail, and allows the audience to drink it all in. It may not set pulses racing, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will get neurons firing and tongues wagging. It’s a wonderful hearkening back to more old fashioned detective stories, mixing Agatha Christie classiness with a real-world sense of jeopardy, and all infused with Le Carré’s gift for character. Smiley’s people have done him proud.

Review: Lost In Translation (2003)

Director: Sofia Coppola

***

Lost In Translation has an unfortunate love-hate relationship with its setting, Tokyo. It all looks so bright and bustling and technological, yet it causes little else but grief to two strangers who aren’t necessarily there willingly. When the director thinks one thing and the characters think another, there’s gonna be problems.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star going through that apparent right of passage for so many famous actors: advertising for the Japanese market (for examples, see this and this). This is a character Murray fits perfectly; he’s had the highs and lows of a full career, and thus knows the frustrations and angsts of Bob. Bob’s in Tokyo for a photo shoot and promos for Santori whiskey; he appreciates the product but the language barrier, his own messy lot and the overall culture clash leaves him exhausted and bitter. Murray’s lived-in features and droll wit are put to full use here, but Murray also hints at the lonliness birthing the frustration. Indeed, he keeps the rest of Sofia Coppola’s film grounded when it threatens to float away on an air of self-importance. Bob has a kindred spirit in Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), another guest at the same hotel as Bob and the young wife of a professional photographer (Giovanni Ribisi); she finds herself bored in her hotel room whilst he shoots on a job in Tokyo. Maybe it’s the construction of the character (she’s a recent philosophy graduate trying to decide on a career), or maybe it’s Johannson’s obvious beauty clouding whatever acting talent she possesses, but there’s little impetus to empathize with Charlotte. When she and Bob meet, they find a bond in their isolation. Charlotte clearly enjoys the wisdom and humour of the older man, whilst Bob… well, she’s sexy. The lack of empathy for one character impacts on our feelings towards this relationship, and it isn’t helped by the age difference. In writing these characters, Coppola seems obsessed by their lonliness, but not by much else, thus leaving Murray and Johannson to do the rest. After The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s gift for interesting female characters has abandoned her.

Despite this, Lost In Translation does offer up some treats. Murray is the main draw, as he is constantly and consistently perplexed by Japanese living. Whether grappling with an exercise machine or forcing a grin on a camp-as-Christmas talk show, Murray supplies laughs and heart. Tokyo, for all the confusion it causes, is an exciting metropolis and Coppola makes sure to show it off. Garish neon glows brightly as Bob and Charlotte explore and dodge traffic. There’s enough in LIT to keep you interested, but it amuses when it should engage. A fun little Tokyo story, then, but Tokyo Story it ain’t.

Review: United 93 (2006)

Director: Paul Greengrass

*****

United 93 is an expectedly sobering viewing experience. Whilst we all recoiled in horror at the events of September 11th 2001, few could imagine the terror experienced by those on board those ill-fated aeroplanes. Writer-director Paul Greengrass captures the fear in a shockingly accurate way that refuses to pander to the crowd. Then again, it’d be impossible to sugar-coat these events, so he might as well go for the all-out horror of the whole situation. Your seat will be drenched in sweat by the end.

United 93 opens on clips of the four men who hijacked UA Flight 93 preparing for their final journey, routinely washing and praying. One of the most frightening aspects of United 93 is that sense of routine; Greengrass captures the feeling that this day should have been like any other, making the inevitable outcome all the more devastating. The passengers and crew, though some became well known after the fact, just pass by fleetingly without mention of their names. There are no conversations between passengers to establish character; refreshingly, there is little to no pandering to narrative convention here. Whereas World Trade Center used the events of 9/11 as a springboard into a personal story, United 93 simply presents events in an almost documentary fashion. Greengrass’ penchant for shaky-cam is used to full effect here, as the cast and DP Barry Ackroyd are flung about the airplane as it turns and plummets. The cast don’t do anything flashy; the banality of the everyday informs their performances, and makes their eventual act of bloodshed all the more shocking. They are helped by the depictions of the various agencies struggling to cope with the hijackings on the ground. The then-head of the Federal Aviation Authority, Ben Sliney plays himself in the film, as do several members of the US Air Force stationed at Rome, NY, as they furiously struggle to contact Air Force One for rules of engagement. Greengrass’ script is based on the phone calls of the passengers and the official 9/11 Commission Report. Whatever details are present or excluded, one thing we can be sure of is the passengers, the crew and even the terrorists were full of fear, and all found a motivation within themselves to do what they felt was necessary. One weakling German passenger aside (one of the few sacrifices to convention), the passengers receive a quick but rounded depiction onscreen. The key is remembering that those who were held up as heroes never intended to be heroic; they wanted to survive, and to see those whom they cared about once more. As Greengrass reminds us, sometimes our most basic needs see us at our best.

From the opening shots to the moment the aeroplane is hijacked lies an unbearable wait for the inevitable. Yet, once it arrives, and once the passengers decide to act there is a sense of catharsis, as we yearn for an outcome that we know can’t come and yet seems possible.  Between his script and direction, all kudos must go to Paul Greengrass for creating a depiction of that sunny September day that is cinematically satisfying, yet never cheapens the memory of the passengers and crew of UA 93. Like so many great films, it challenges and even troubles, but also stirs the senses and reaffirms us. It’s about the best of us. Not of the US, but of us.

Review: World Trade Center (2006)

Director: Oliver Stone

***

Five years after the horrors of 9/11, Oliver Stone made a film about it. “How dare he?!”, they said. One of the most provocative of mainstream American directors attempting to make a film about the US’ darkest hour when the effects were still being felt (mostly by Iraqis and Afghans) should have been a powder keg. It was inevitable that films would be made, but by the man who made JFK and Nixon? Hit the dirt!

No, wait! It’s alright. You can come back. Anyone expecting a probing and critical dissection of the events of that September day will be in for quite a shock. World Trade Center is a personal story; Stone retracts his claws in favour of a story of survival and hope. If this sounds a bit sappy to you, you’re mostly right, but it still packs a punch.

World Trade Center focuses on John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), two Port Authority officers on duty when the Twin Towers are struck by two hijacked aeroplanes. A group of officers volunteers to enter the towers on a search and rescue mission, but only get into the lobby when the tower collapses on top of them. The opening half-hour of World Trade Center sees Stone at his most upfront, as we witness the towers burning and people falling to their deaths. The grim realities of that day are captured so effectively that what follows can’t help but pale in comparison. Once the towers fall, McLoughlin and Jimeno are pinned under rubble, and with little else they can do, they talk in order to kill time and take their minds off the pain they are in. Meanwhile, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) are forced to wait to hear about what has become of their men. The four leads are uniformly excellent; Cage and Peña evoke a lot of emotion despite being rendered immobile in the debris. Tales of children’s achievements and life plans are exchanged as they try to maintain consciousness; when they do sleep, they dream of happier times. It’s hard to be cynical about such potentially mawkish material when it is based directly on the men’s experiences in the wreckage (the real McLoughlin, Jimeno and their wives served as consultants on the film).

Stone is committed to retelling the story of these men not as a direct 9/11 story, but a personal journey and a testament to hope. Andrea Berloff’s script may be inspired by McLoughlin and Jimeno’s ordeal, but her reverence leads to some bizarre scenes (at one point, Jimeno hallucinates about Jesus offering him a bottle of water). Some would also argue that a storyline involving a volunteer rescuer, Sergeant Karnes (Michael Shannon), is too gung-ho and oozes bleeding-heart patriotism, which is just not Oliver Stone material.  It flirts with sentimentality, but that was always going to happen. World Trade Center is a finely constructed film, committed to courage over carnage. Anyone expecting a probing dissection of the events of the day in the vein of vintage Oliver Stone, however, will be sorely disappointed.