REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Nolan's back to finish off his Bat trilogy, but does the threequel live up to its predecessors?

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Spidey's back, with Marc Webb's controversial reboot finally swinging into cinemas. Can he justify it?

REVIEW: Rock of Ages (2012)

So, as it turns out, yes, Tom Cruise *can* sing. What more do you want?

REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott marks his return to sci-fi with this sort-of-an-Alien-prequel. But does it live up to the hype?

REVIEW: Casa de mi Padre (2012)

Yep. It's all in Spanish. And it's all batshit crazy.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Black Swan [Review]

To me, Natalie Portman is Padmé Amidala. The whiny Queen-before-her-time wife of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, she always represented that which I hated about the resurgence of the saga: the demystification of one of the greatest villains of all time, Darth Vader. No more was he the symbolism of pure evil who found redemption for his sins (by throwing his master down a two hundred and fifty thousand feet shaft directly into the core of the second Death Star).
No, now he was the whiny child, the hopelessly emotional teenager and the arrogant pilot with powers that certainly wouldn’t cause any suspension of disbelief. All this circled around Portman’s character - yes, Star Wars had become a love story. Admittedly the original trilogy had the Han/Leia thing going on, but it wasn’t central to the ongoing fight between good and evil. For me, Portman’s character epitomised all that was wrong with the Star Wars prequels. She was, and always would be, Amidala, that which tore apart a classic saga bit by bit at the hands of George Lucas. Until Black Swan.

To say she’s come a long way in the past six or so years since the last Star Wars film would be a bit of an understatement. Slide The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones into your DVD player (sadly the saga hasn’t yet been released on Blu-ray, though come October this will change) and remind yourself why: Padmé Amidala, effectively a plank of wood with different faces scrawled on. Of course, the writers must take some of the blame; she was never the most well-written character and her role was translucent at best, never quite fully fleshed out as a trigger for Anakin’s turn to the dark side. But Portman was fairly fresh on the acting scene, and wasn’t about to start picking up Oscars any time soon. Come 2011, and she’s back in full form, starting with Black Swan; a tale of a ballerina, but one that you won’t need any liking of dance to enjoy.

The dance, of course, is Swan Lake; Portman’s character, Nina Sayers, the Swan Queen - or so she wishes. Her problem comes in the form of the dual role; the split personality - perfection lies in the White Swan, but Nina struggles to lose herself in the other half of the role, the voluptuous, darkly sensual twin, in the form of the Black Swan. Over the course of the one hundred and eight minutes screen time, Nina’s paranoia of usurpation by her understudy ultimately takes its toll, with hallucinations (both drug-induced or otherwise) and the struggle of attempting to lose herself in the Black Swan leading to an ever-darker psychological spiral, that only falls further down.

Her character is an intriguing one; overshadowed by a controlling mother who attempts to live out her failed dreams through her daughter, Nina’s involuntary self-harming - fuelled by hallucinations, but also whilst unconscious, be it asleep or otherwise - highlights a deep psychological torment; one that only grows with the pressure of the role. Mila Kunis’ character, a cocky, confident Lily, spends the duration of the runtime subtly undermining Nina, for better or worse, as her motives become less and less clear - is she really out to usurp Nina, or is it just Nina’s paranoid frenzy of suspicion that causes us to accuse Lily of such mutiny?

The narrative is no less complex than the characters. Nina’s many hallucinations are infused almost seamlessly with her real-life actions and the events that run through the course of the film, to the extent that the two become blurred over time - and it is no longer clear what is real and what is not. Thus the point of the film: the devolution of Nina’s psyche, and her struggle to comprehend reality against the extent to which the testing role of the Black Swan consumes her whole. And this narrative is supported fantastically by the depth of the characters, and the cast that portrays them with beautiful vigour: Portman takes all that director Darren Aronofsky throws at her, clearly in her stride, while Kunis’ devil-on-the-shoulder is acutely sinister.

The supporting cast are no less seized in the moment; Vincent Cassel as instructor Thomas Leroy is formidable in his role - a man who knows what he wants, and has no hesitancy in seizing it with both hands. So yes, the acting quality, production values and script are all top-notch. But it doesn’t end there. Black Swan’s choreography is matched perfectly with the cinematography of each scene, while the film’s soundtrack is predictably astounding.

An achievement by all involved, Black Swan is no less than a modern masterpiece, and by far the best film of 2011 yet seen by this reviewer - but one that also acts as a fine showcase for the timely blossoming of Natalie Portman into the Oscar-winning actress she has become. It’s a long way from The Phantom Menace.


See also: Shutter Island (2010), Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 108 mins, 21/01/11

Synopsis: Dancer Nina Sayers wins the lead role in Swan Lake, perfect for the delicate White Swan role. However, she slowly succumbs to the demanding role of the Black Swan, almost losing her mind along the way… 

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Sucker Punch [Review]

I’m not usually one to allow preconceptions of a film to twist my viewing of it. But, in the case of Sucker Punch, I admit I was worried this might be inevitable. Having had high hopes from Empire previews, I was looking forward to the initial viewing. Then, upon release date, I found myself straying towards Rotten Tomatoes. Oh. 19%. Not to mention an average three star review by the very magazine which had so built my expectations not a month earlier. But I was sure it wouldn’t be all that bad… right?

Well, no. But it’s not all that amazing either. It’s… strange. I don’t want to call it average, because it’s certainly undeserving of such a bland tag; its psychological elements are worthy perhaps of calls of ingenuity in director and writer Zack Snyder’s scripts. The film follows the fantasies of a young woman, nicknamed Babydoll, who is committed to a mental institution after being wrongfully blamed for the death of her younger sister by her stepfather. From thereon she attempts to escape her imprisonment through the realm of imagination, dreaming up ways to escape with the help of the other inmates.

The film’s style is gloriously over the top, but it suits. Hazy, colourless fantasies, filled with fire and murky browns, settle lovingly into a sea of distress that captures Babydoll’s situation perfectly. As the plot hurtles further forward, exploring different aspects of the lead character’s imagination (and how in many ways this curiously mirrors real-life events), we are taken on a whirlwind ride through various settings - raiding a castle, battling steampunk Nazi-zombie-cyborgs, etc. - all set against the backdrop of Babydoll’s invented world.

In this way the film almost feels as if it was adapted from a comic book; certainly, the visual style suggests such. One may even go so far as to say it has a videogame feel, pertaining to each ‘stage’ or scenario Babydoll takes us through. But, surprisingly, this is no bad thing. Where criticisms might come for films with similar tendencies - think the General Grievous showdown in Revenge of the Sith - Sucker Punch uses them entirely to its own advantages, formulating a beautiful stylistic mise-en-scene that appears coherent with the plot.

On that note, Snyder’s soundtrack most certainly deserves a mention. In effect, the music becomes the backbone for the film; in Babydoll’s fantasies, she must dance to stay alive (she imagines she has come to a brothel, not a mental institute) and, while we never see her actually dance, each time a song begins and the wonderfully charismatic Emily Browning begins swaying her hips to trigger another dream-within-a-dream (the aforementioned castles/WW1 trenches etc.) the audience can’t help but feel a rush of adrenaline - while any sense of danger appears muted for the first few sequences, unlike Inception’s similar themes that also carry the possibility of being indefinitely trapped in ‘limbo’, this soon takes a fatal twist and completely throws the viewer’s perceptions.

The underlying themes are not forgotten, though - and the film’s finale remains unpredictable right till the very last camera angle. Such mature themes as forced prostitution and insanity might make some question its 12A rating, but Sucker Punch handles them well. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster ride of a film, furthered by the highs and lows of the soundtrack to a remarkable extent, and one of Snyder’s finer works after the disappointment of Watchmen. A highly underrated piece with a deep psychological twist, Sucker Punch delivers just that.

See also: Heavy Metal (1981), Sin City (2005)

Dir: Zack Snyder
Cast: Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish
Warner Bros Pictures, 110 mins, 01/04/11

Synopsis: After a young woman, Babydoll (Browning), is institutionalised by her father, she finds her own way to cope with her ordeal - by retreating into a fantastical alternate reality, to plan her escape...

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Social Network [Review]

I’m going to assume, for the purposes of this review, that you, like most of society, have a Facebook account. It is a curious coincidence that The Social Network, a film based on the prototypical example of precisely that - and its troublesome inception - suits its subject as a metaphor so well.

Take, for instance, the characters. At some point in your Facebook history, you’ll undoubtedly have gone through your ‘friends’ list on a mass genocide of contacts, effortlessly removing people from your virtual life with the click of a cross in an all too easy process. Now imagine, at the start of the day, your friends list compiles solely of the cast of The Social Network. One hundred and twenty minutes later, and you’ll soon be known as the loveable loser with just one friend. That friend is Andrew Garfield; here playing Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, he’s David Fincher’s only character you won’t grow to detest in some form or another by the closing credits.

Of course, it must be conceded that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin had very little room to manoeuvre. Based on a true story, The Social Network is replete with the limitations you might expect of any such film; while some creative license is obligatory, Sorkin could have put it to far better use than simply to draw apathy or even contempt for the majority of the cast. You’ll leave the cinema (lounge?) not knowing what to feel; even Garfield’s character only manages to draw feelings of pity and the less sympathetic viewer might discard his role much in the way his colleagues manage to throughout the course of the film. While an interesting concept, this leaves the audience unsure of their position, and while normally this might result in cries of intellect and ingenuity deep in the script, here it belies such presumptions to the end that it might not warrant another view to understand, but will certainly leave you confused and disoriented.

If you’ve ever sat and stared at your Facebook profile, longingly hoping you could inspire some ounce of colour in its bland features, you might feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu in the visuals of The Social Network. Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography hastens to reflect the apparently melancholy milieu of Harvard University; browns and greys spatter across the lens in a sea of haze and despair. Perhaps an act of pathetic fallacy, but one that complements a bitter mise-en-scene that furthers the audience’s bewilderment to the approach and resulting tone of the film.

It would not be unwise to assume that there also exists a point in your life where you might have read through your news feed only to ponder why your virtual acquaintances feel the need to inform you of every minute detail of their lives, no matter how mundane it might be. When watching The Social Network, similar feelings of apathy are apparent not only in the characters and cinematography, but equally so in the story. To explain: Todorov’s theory of equilibrium appears not applicable here. There is no clear resolution; instead, a film rife with bland and aggravating characters - who spend most of their time enjoying extravagant lifestyles at the cost of one another in an equally bland and uninspired story - ultimately fizzles out into an abrupt and nonsensical ending. A few facts are levelled at the reader through the use of titles with the outcome of the concurrent court cases that run alongside the main plot, telling the story. It’s almost as if Fincher ran out of time or money and simply decided to resort to a literal storybook (or news feed?) ending - reading words off a page (or in this case, screen).

Allow us to leave the Facebook metaphors aside for a moment, however, to consider the acting standard of The Social Network. Far and away outside the entirety of the crew’s efforts, the majority of the cast put in performances that alone might make The Social Network almost worthy of its hefty pile of awards - but almost is the key term here. Jesse Eisenberg is suitably socially awkward; the film opens with a lengthy conversation between Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, played by Eisenberg, and his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend, who proceeds to dump him for his apparent superiority complex. In this first scene alone Eisenberg displays what I assume are all the qualities of Zuckerberg himself - though I wouldn’t expect to see Mark in a film anytime soon, judging by the staleness of his character. Eisenberg makes the most of what he is given, but it’s Garfield as Saverin and Justin Timberlake’s surprising turn as Napster founder Sean Parker that steal the limelight in the acting field, as the pitiful pushover and crafty consultant, respectively. Combined with a stellar supporting cast, The Social Network’s actors and actresses make for a formidable force in a somewhat under-par film.

Because while the acting quality might be up to scratch, much less can be said of the production itself - and this is inexcusable in a plot that’s already so marred with difficulty. Fincher’s choice to adapt such a tale of animosity and acrimony was the first mistake; Sorkin and Cronenweth’s representations of the personas and locales merely the icing on the cake. Whilst you might argue - and I am sure to find arguments in The Social Network’s legions of fans falling over each other to heap Oscars and BAFTAs on its already laden plate - that labelling a true story as ‘uninspired’ is in itself nonsensical, it is simply in reference to its suitability for the cinematic world (insofar as its complete lack of). Intending to impact, enlighten and stimulate a response from its audience, but succeeding merely in showcasing a fine set of acting talents, The Social Network is an exercise in storytelling that ultimately fails to deliver.


See also: Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999), (2001)

Dir: David Fincher
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake
Columbia Pictures, 120 mins, 15/10/10

Synopsis: The birth of Facebook, now on film. The Social Network is the story of how Mark Zuckerberg founded the most famous social networking site in history, and the ensuing lawsuits...