Saturday, January 28, 2012

Better Than Bourne

Haywire is the latest effort from cinematic chameleon Steven Soderberg. Having previously dabbled in everything from glamourous Hollywood crime capers (Ocean's Eleven) to gritty Oscar-winning drug dramas (Traffic) and even a four and a half hour biopic about the world's most famous Equadorian revolutionary (Che), his latest transformation is one that few people would have anticipated. America's answer to Michael Winterbottom, Soderberg is known just as much for his prolificness as he is for the style of his output. But with Haywire he demonstrates a sure hand and is completely convincing as a competent action director.

This is in no small part due to the ferocious physicality and fluent grace of his female lead. Unlike so many of the leading ladies cast as action heroines, who look as if a stiff breeze might blow them over, Gina Carano looks like she could do some real damage. This is probably in no small part due to her training and previous career in mixed martial arts - apparently Soderberg designed the film around what Carano could actually do and, like Tom Cruise, she did all of her own stunts... The only difference being, in the case of Carano, I actually believe the line.

The plot is basic B-movie fare: bad men - a private security contractor played by Ewan McGregor, having a pretty good crack at an American accent for once, and a CIA chief played by Michael Douglas, back to his slimy best - want a political prisoner retrieved and Mallory Kane, played by the aforementioned Gina Carano, is just the woman to do it. Of course, things are not that simple, allegiances are betrayed, doubles are crossed and Malerie finds herself on the run, hunting and being hunted by the bad men who betrayed her.

The heart of the film, however, are its action sequences. When she finds herself in confrontations with regular hoods and mobsters, Navy Seal-trained Mallory is fast and lethal. But it is when she comes up against a combatant of equal capability that things get really fun. When she hits Michael Fassbender in the face, he knows about it. Likewise, when he throws her into a plasma television screen. This is a fight between equals with a delicious subtext, taking place as it does in a Parisian hotel bedroom. Not that this is cartoonish fare - in one sequence Mallory misses the jump between one roof and enough and winds herself in the process. This is the sort of detail that lends what could easily be risible and air of credibility that encourages one to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

Crucially, Soderberg also knows where to find his tripod. For the most part, the fights, along with most of the rest of the action - the running, the jumping, the driving - are shot in wide masters, with only occasional cuts for emphasis. Unlike the Paul Greengrass directed Bourne films, which are edited so frenetically it is often hard to figure out who is where and what they are doing, Soderberg has the confidence to let his stars show us what they can do.

Soderberg also surrounds Carano with a review of recognisable thesps - Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton - handling acting duties. Although, Carano herself is no slouch - an engaging screen presence who looks just as good in high-heels as she does kicking a man in the face - what is not to like?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Silent Movie

The Artist is already being tipped to win the Oscar for Best Picture and it is easy to see why. First of all, it is a movie about Hollywoodland, the academy always loves that. Secondly it tells the story of the joys and sorrows of a life spent making movies inside the Dream Factory. And lastly, it is a silent film.

One of the things that is most interesting about The Artist is the fact that it is a proper silent film. It is not a 21st century parody or pastiche with tongue in cheek, it is an affectionate recreation of a 1920s era melodrama of the sort that used to be made by Max Ophuls, replete with old fashioned acting and authentic film grammar from the silent era.

Lead actor, Jean Dujardin, is cheesily great as a Hollywood matinee idol, mimicking the movements of silent era icons, who were often far more adapt at using their bodies to express emotion. Equally, Berenice Bejo is cute as a button, playing rising star to Dujardin's fallen idol - she moves like a dancer and her large, expressive eyes convey wells of emotion.

The silent era grammar was interesting in itself because it really made one think about what one was watching. The filmmakers could not rely on any of the usual array of narrative crutches that can normally rescue a mediocre film and instead had to rely on old-fashioned performances, music and cinematic storytelling.

Had The Artist been made 80 years ago, it might have paled in comparison to the cinematic greats of the silent era - Chaplin, Keaton, Lang - but in 2012, a black and white silent film presented in 4:3 aspect ratio is a welcome breath of fresh air and a reminder that there is more than one way to make a movie that works for audiences and critics alike.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lost in the Woods

I struggled to decide what I thought about the American re-make of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have not seen the Swedish language version, nor have I read the best selling Steig Larsson novel on which the film is based and, quite frankly, I am bored by the politics of Hollywood re-making foreign language films in order to a wider American audience. Best selling books and business decisions aside, is David Fincher's US$100 million follow up to what, for my money, was the best film of 2010 - The Social Network - actually any good?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very handsomely made film. The photography by Jeff Cronenweth (son of legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, himself responsible for no small part of the iconic look of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner) creates interiors bathed in a sickly green hue of phosphorescent lamps to contrast with the whites and blues of the Swedish countryside. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose is discordant in much the same pop-synth way as their work on The Social Network. And David Fincher, as ever, directs with laser targeted precision - all of the shots are framed according to strict rules of Euclidean geometry

The actors are also excellent. Roony Mara is totally committed to what could easily have been a laughable superwoman character - violent, bisexual, capable of doing anything with a computer, but also beautiful and eager to jump into bed with the journalist played by Daniel Craig (more than a whiff of wish fulfillment on Steig Larsson's part there). But thanks to be energy and brio that she brings to the part, Lisbeth Salender is more than just a cardboard cut out; she is a living, breathing cartoon monster/avenging angel. Daniel Craig, who has to play Batman to her Joker, Hislop to her Merton, Watson to her Sherlock is also very good - although, the more he tries to act schlubby (he wears glasses and occasionally gets out of breath), the more one is reminded that he is James Bond.

The actors, however, are faced with a thankless task. The primary problem with the film is its plot, its characters and its uneven tone. The narrative is pretty standard fare. But worse than that, the film readily resorts to the most cliched of conventions without even the good grace to let the audience in on the joke so that they can laugh at it. Struggling to make a character sufficiently sinister? Invoke the Nazis! Can't figure out how to resolve the film's central mystery? Have the killer needlessly reveal himself! Yet the tone is sombre and portentous throughout. (As side note, why is it when Hollywood directors decide to go 'dark', they equate the same with humorlessness? Stanley Kubrick, for one, Alfred Hitchcock, for another, understood that this is not the case, and to sometimes chilling effect).

The film ultimately drowns it in a sea of its own self-importance and, although some moments are more engaging than others, without a gripping story - solving a murder case that happened 20 years prior is not engaging, it's the plot for Old Tricks on the BBC for goodness sake - one's mind starts to wander. Great acting, great camera work, great sets and a director who knows exactly what he wants, cannot save a lumpen story and, unfortunately, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a case in - Lost in the Woods - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher, Daniel Craig, Roony Mara, Steig Larsson, Swedish, American, remake, film, review

Monday, January 09, 2012

Mission Accomplished

Tom Cruise might not be the box office phenomenon he once was, but with US$450 million in the bank and still climbing, he owns the winter. The question that remains to be answered is: does Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol justify these gargantuan earnings?

Cruise certainly has his Movie Star turned up to eleven, much of the credit for which must go to Brad Bird, who brings energy and wit to the film's all important action sequences. (Having made his name directing much-loved animated films - The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, not to mention working on The Simpsons years before - Brad Bird's is one of the most assured live-action directing debuts in recent memory). Regardless of what you think about his private life, Cruise is surely among the most committed actors working in Hollywood, embodying an intensity and a physicality that is all his own - he is undoubtedly one of the best runners on film. Moreover, by the time he turns to camera at the end of this film's pre-credit sequence with the words, "light the fuse", triggering Michael Giacchino's rendition of Lalo Shifrin's iconic Mission Impossible theme, you know you are in safe hands.

This is Ethan Hunt as a man wronged. Imprisoned in a Moscow jail - the film begins with a high-octane escape masterminded by Simon Pegg, who returns as computer whizz and all round good egg Benji Dunn - during which Cruise speaks Russian and scowls with aplomb. Not that the film is all about Cruise. This is a Mission Impossible film and in common with the best episodes in the series (the first and the third, since you ask, this is a team effort. For the time being at least, Simon Pegg is the best person you could cast to play Simon Pegg (and I mean that as a complement), Jeremy Renner seems to be being groomed for stardom and barely puts a foor wrong as William Bradt, the intelligence analyst with a secret, and Paula Patton is alluring and able as Jane Carter, the third and final member of the team, more than matching the boys in the physicality stakes. Michael Nyqvist is not given much to do as the film's baddie but it is nice to see him show up in a big budget actioner.

Above all else, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, lives or dies by the quality of its action sequences, and I am pleased to say that it does not disappoint, with plenty of gadget, fast cars and exotic locations to boot. Tom Cruise hanging off the side of the tallest building in the world - the Burj Khalifa in Dubai - is beautifully photographed and likely to induce dizziness in any who suffers from acrophobia (I looked it up); the car chase through an Arabian sandstorm is equally as spectacular; although the conclusion in a Mumbai car park did remind me of Chicken Run (remember the pie-making machine?).

The story has no depth, but what do expect from a Mission Impossible film. Ving Rhames shows up for old times sake but should have been given a proper part. Aside from that, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol ticks all the Hollywood boxes -  precision engineered set pieces, a star with his eye on the prize and, crucially, it is doing the numbers. Welcome back Tom. Nice to meet you Brad. I hope we can do this again some time.