Review: The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Director: Rian Johnson

***

Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play The Brothers Bloom, a successful set of swindler siblings who had parted ways, but now the elder Stephen (Ruffalo) tries to convince the younger Bloom (Brody) to help him in one last con. Before the estate of George Roy Hill can call their lawyers, Bloom is conning his way into the life of wealthy eccentric (are their any other kinds of eccentric?) Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). Through a complicated series of journeys by sea and rail, the boys and their munitions expert Bang-Bang (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi) set up an elaborate plan to con Penelope out of her cash However, there’s one problem: Bloom thinks he’s falling for her…

Writer/director Rian Johnson established himself with the intriguing-if-aloof teen noir homage Brick. Here, he lets the grittiness go and swaps it for a Sting-lite tale of cons and double-crossing. It’s far more fantastical than The Sting but, like every heist movie since 1973, The Brothers Bloom owes Hill’s caper a huge debt. The same feeling of fun is present throughout large parts of the movie. Ruffalo and Brody bounce off each other nicely, and Kikuchi has fun with a demented little role that requires only three words of English (One is Campari. Guess what the other two are). Weisz, meanwhile, is simply adorable, her kooky heiress seducing Bloom and viewer alike simply through her naiveté and childish enthusiasm. It’s an enthusiasm that infects the rest of the film, as this disparate crew zip all over the world. It’s full of energy, and a quick, clean wit that produces many a Cheshire grin.

If The Brothers Bloom is indebted to The Sting, it also owes a great deal to ‘Ulysses’, James Joyce’s sprawling Dublin epic. The leads are named after the main characters (Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom), and Penelope is the informal name for the final chapter of the book. More than names, however, the film also shares ‘Ulysses’’ episodic structure in which recurring elements and characters come and go between chapters that have little otherwise to do with each other. However, that structure is not altogether a good thing; each cut to a different location feels abrupt and jumpy. Furthermore, as the film goes on, and the Russian mob comes after our heroes, the tone shifts noticeably from light and frothy to uncertain and tense. As the first sign of gunfire become apparent, the mélange of tones threatens to derail the film on the home stretch. However, Johnson’s confident direction sees the film through potentially choppy seas to bring it home in one piece.

The Brothers Bloom is a lot of fun, energetic and intelligent, though it threatens to flit from the consciousness not long after seeing it. It’s no Sting, but it is still an enjoyable romp. George Roy Hill can sleep on: his tomb has been pillaged, but they didn’t quite get the treasure…

Advertisements

Review: The King Of Kong – A Fistful Of Quarters (2008)

Director: Seth Gordon

*****

Steve Wiebe is a fairly unremarkable guy; he’s a middle school Science teacher and is married with two children. What sets him apart from others is that he’s one of the world’s best players at the classic arcade game ‘Donkey Kong’. This man may not sound like the subject of one of 2008’s most gripping films, but The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is exactly that, a brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking that begins as a gentle portrait of a simple quest and ends up as a riveting fight between two forces, the all-empowered villain and our everyman hero.

The villain of the piece is Billy Mitchell, the high score holder on ‘Donkey Kong’, and one of the world’s greatest arcade game players. Wiebe opts to beat Mitchell’s high score on the most open platform he can. Thus, he enters himself into Funspot, the world’s largest arcade game tournament. Director Seth Gordon makes sure we know the challenge from the start; Donkey Kong is the most difficult game one can play, and to beat the high score would take someone special. On this basis, we are rooting for Wiebe all the way through. Just when success seems near, however, Mitchell throws a suspect spanner in the works. From this point, The King of Kong goes from a tale of ambition to a meditation on the nature of competition and status. It ends up going far deeper than any viewer would have thought possible, thus making it accessible to even the most video-game-averse.

The King of Kong works so well because it takes a simple idea and a very niche concept (arcade game competitions) and treats them with the utmost of respect. There are all kinds of obsessives and fanboys on display here, but the film never mocks them or assumes that it’s better than they are. Gordon makes sure never to make judgements about any of the people involved, and the good-bad dichotomy between Wiebe and Mitchell emerges naturally. Mitchell is a conceited asshole obsessed with winning, while Wiebe just wants to catch a break. It’s hard to remember that these are not stock characters; these are real people! The King of Kong works both as an tight thriller (it delves into the politics and organisation of the contests and record-keeping) and as an examination of themes of obsession, status and the compulsion to win. After watching this astounding film, no-one will be dismissive of the simple video game again.

Review: Cloverfield (2008)

Director: Matt Reeves

****

Roland Emmerich’s 1999 disaster movie (oh, the irony) Godzilla gave us a monster movie in which the monster failed to be either a threat or interesting. Instead, we got Matthew Broderick being annoying and Jean Reno regretting not doing The Matrix. It would be nine years before director Matt Reeves (under the watchful eye of producer J.J. Abrams) erased the memory of that horror with Cloverfield, a monster movie that’s both monstrously enjoyable and monstrously relevant.

An opening title card reveals the footage we’re about to see was found in the area “formerly known as Central Park”. Not a good omen for what’s about to follow. The camcorder footage reveals a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) in a plush Manhattan apartment. He’s about to move to Japan (a sly nod to the original Gojira), and all his friends are wishing him well and singing his praises. Frankly, these rich morons are annoying, and you wish something would crush them. Wait, what’s that noise?!

Just as character development reaches its apex, skyscrapers explode and we glimpse the most daring piece of American blockbuster film since the afore-mentioned Emmerich destroyed the White House in Independence Day. The head of the Statue of Liberty is flung onto the streets of Manhattan whilst ‘some thing’ lets out a deafening roar. Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre, New York has been left mostly unscathed by the film world. The Day After Tomorrow may have got the ball rolling, but Cloverfield taps a nerve hitherto left to fester. Watching the panicked masses running through the streets is all too reminiscent of the handheld camera shots of civilians running from the all-engulfing plume of the former Twin Towers. Meanwhile, soldiers are running and firing at the ‘thing’, whilst temporary hospital tents are manned by doctors in biohazard suits, and all this is happening as the thing tears down buildings and landmarks. The monster’s origins remain unknown and is only glimpsed in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them fragments, deepening the mystery. Being an animal, motives are presumably null. As so many people asked on 9/11, “why are they attacking us”? It’s scarier when we genuinely don’t know.

For all the familiar references to events past, Cloverfield is still a very effective piece of blockbuster cinema, with explosions and threat everywhere (like Emmerich’s monster, this one’s pregnant too. Wait till you meet the kids!). Like many other disaster films, the characters just serve as monster food/cannon fodder, and romantic and friendly subplots are so-so attempts to add emotion, but the events surrounding them are infused with such pathos and knowing that you it’s hard not to be impressed. Cloverfield is an intelligent and frightening film that effectively taps into the fear of our time.

Review: Iron Man (2008)

Director: Jon Favreau

***

imageRecall, if you will, summer of 2008. The excitement was building up for the most anticipated film of the year, a superhero film which played with the conventions of the genre whilst redefining it as accessible to all film fans, not just comic book nerds. Yes, it was The Dark Knight. The momentum was with Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, so how does that summer’s other big superhero movie match up? It doesn’t, but it doesn’t really attempt to. Jon Favreau’s popcorn flick is a different beast to Nolan’s dark vision, a light, bright ying to Knight’s sobering yang.

It’s strange to think of Iron Man as a light film considering how it starts. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), weapons builder extraordinaire, is in a military convoy in Afghanistan and is being something of a conceited little prick when the convoy is ambushed, and Stark is injured and captured by Afghan rebels. Given an ultimatum to build a missile, and an assistant (Shaun Toub), Stark builds a super suit to escape. Throughout this part of the film, issues surrounding the war and those whom it affects are touched upon. Then the suit starts firing missiles and blowing shit up, Stark returns to the States, and those issues are largely forgotten about. The rebels are the same old Muslim bad guys so beloved of 90s action flicks (think True Lies), but placed in a specific location and called Afghans. Meanwhile, Stark attempts to redesign the suit to help those poor folks he left behind. Good for you, rich man! Stark is written as supremely arrogant and is often borderline unlikeable. The only reason that we remain interested in him is that he’s played by Robert Downey Jr. Any other actor would have been a boorish bore, but this is the kind of role Downey Jr.could play in his sleep; he’s so devilishly charming that we’re seduced by his quick wit almost instantly.

When he returns home, Stark has to contend with his disgruntled mentor Obadiah Staine (Jeff Bridges), whilst his military general buddy Rhodes (Terrence Howard) attempts to convince Stark to sell the suit to the military. The heck with that, it’s too much fun to give to soldiers! Howard is forgettable, though I think that’s due more to the writing of his character than Howard himself. Jeff Bridges is never forgettable, but he’s saddled with a stock villain role that underutilizes his considerable talent. Gwyneth Paltrow has some fun with the role of Pepper Potts, Stark’s assistant/love interest, and she and Downey Jr. share some sweet scenes. Jon Favreau enjoys himself with a cameo as Stark’s chauffeur, but he brings little of interest to the film as a director, meaning that there is little in Iron Man to keep it from flitting from your mind once it’s over. The action scenes are slickly rendered and deliver plenty of bang for your buck, but the CG effects are too polished and not particularly gritty or interesting. It all builds to an inevitable mano-a-mano between hero and villain, with little in the way of menace or threat.

Downey Jr. is worth the price of your ticket and, much like its star, Iron Man refuses to take itself too seriously. However, in the summer when the key question was “Why so serious?”, Iron Man may have shot itself in the foot. As it is, it’s decidedly entertaining, but disappointingly forgettable.

Review: Bronson (2008)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

***

So much of men’s greatness is inflated by myth. In the case of Charles Bronson (no, not that one), the most violent prisoner to be detained at her Majesty’s pleasure, the size of the myth was due in no small part to self-perpetuation. A charismatic presence, Bronson could apparently switch his temper on and off like a switch. Smile one moment, a bloodied frown the next. Such a terrifying character requires a nimble and able talent to portray him effectively onscreen. Welcome to the making of Tom Hardy.

Like its protagonist, Bronson refuses to stick to the rules. Since Charles Bronson invented his own persona (his real name is Michael Peterson), Nicolas Winding Refn’s film invents its own narrative parameters; Refn and Brock Norman Brock’s script leaps from straight biopic to theatrical farce (giving us the striking image of Bronson appearing on a stage with white-face paint) to black comedy to drama to biopic again as quickly as Bronson’s temper fluctuates. This approach is certainly dynamic, but also rather distancing. Whether throttling prison guards or choking fellow inmates in a Cuckoo’s Nest-alike mental hospital, Bronson is energetic but lacking in pathos. Refn has no compunction in showing ‘Charlie’ as the brute he is, but it’s hard to empathise with a character whose modus operandi is lashing out for no apparent reason other than for attention. As Bronson states early on, he always wanted to be famous. Well, he’s delivered enough concussions and broken noses to have a movie made about him. The lesson is: crack enough skulls and fame shall be yours, brightly lit and brashly directed.

However, from this OTT maelstrom emerges a clear talent. Tom Hardy invests himself completely in the role of Bronson, and not just in beefing himself up for the part. The charisma, anger and borderline psychosis that drive Bronson are brought to the fore in a star turn, the dream of any young actor. Hardy bares all (literally and metaphorically) without compunction or fear. Whether extorting a prison governor (Jonny Phillips), torturing his art teacher (James Lance) with his painting skills or basically kicking the crap out of the prison guards, Hardy gives his all. It’s the kind of performance that makes stars and elevates potentially throwaway films to some form of cult status. Bronson is mad, bad and loving every moment of it!