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.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin [Review]

Lionel Shriver herself has called this adaptation of her 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin ‘terrific’. Fans of the book should need no more justification nor persuasion than that to head out right now and watch the film. Newcomers to the twisted tale of the teenager gone so horribly wrong; to the cereal-and-videogame nuclear family, blasted apart by the devastating effects of the actions of one cynical psychopath, should read on.

The teenager in question? Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller), the fifteen year old so disillusioned with the world that he feels the need to exact a brutal revenge upon it and its inhabitants. But Kevin’s actions are not nearly the primary focus of the film, though still the most deplorable and shocking; instead, they act as simply the backdrop, while the emphasis lies with mother Eva (Tilda Swinton), and her struggle to deal with the consequences of her offspring over an eighteen year period - a period which director Lynne Ramsay showcases through five distinct stages.

Before Kevin is born, we see Eva happier than we ever witness her again; jovial and full of life with husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). During the pregnancy we see Eva’s own psyche deteriorate as she becomes depressed at yoga classes - and Kevin’s infancy only proves testament to his actions in later life. It is the nature, or nurture, by which Kevin brings himself to commit such atrocities that form the principal themes of the next two periods: as a young boy, played by a forever unsettling Jasper Newell, and as a teenager in the form of Miller. The final time period Ramsay focuses on is the primary one; the aftermath of Kevin’s deeds and the consequences of them on Eva’s life. The intricate web that Ramsay weaves around these five stages can be jarring at times, particularly during the opening scenes, but while the narrative may take some initial decoding, the stop-start, reflective nature of it works to great effect.

Much of this is done through the tense construction of suspense, as we are greeted with images of the fateful event just moments into the film - and so the film becomes a question not of what, but of how, and why. It is here that Ramsay excels in her representations of Shriver’s characters, in exemplifying all their flaws and strengths into unravelling the cause-or-effect argument that is Kevin himself. As the film builds slowly to a final climax of the nature of Kevin’s actions, foreshadowed by a darker, downwards spiral of events, we are given some evidence as to the reason for his detrimental view on society. But, much like the film’s scattered structure, this is never clear - but for good reason.

For Ramsay enjoys her craft, and enjoys her control over her audience still more - juxtaposing her arguments for Kevin’s twisted psychosis in striking, nurtured parallels, but also in opaque natures, the film serves little on a plate; this is a meal you have to sink your teeth into to digest fully. The common belief in the townsfolk is that of the nurture argument; Eva finds herself the most despised mother in all of America, attacked in the street and the victim of constant vandalism. This is contrasted through the lifelong feud between mother and son; an embedded, almost natural hatred between the pair that Eva so desperately tries to overcome, but for her son’s bitter, cynical outlook on life. From the off, Kevin cries and cries and cries, and Eva almost punishes him (or else attempts to drown him out) by parking herself next to a pneumatic drill. But Kevin lies silent when dad Franklin carries him - perhaps reflecting a natural instinct to cause his mother hell.

Yet still Eva’s cynical, monstrous offspring is increasingly propagated throughout the film as a product of his mother’s upbringing; the visual parallels they strike - take the extreme close ups on mother and son’s mouth as each pulls either fragmented egg shells or broken fingernails from their lips - seem to reflect the disparaging nature by which Eva fails to correctly raise her disobedient son. Franklin remains oblivious to any of this, as one parent always seems to in such situations, and so Eva is left to psychological ruin at the hands of her own child. It’s a startling treatise for parents, soon-to-be or otherwise, that may just cause its audience to rethink their own stance on the subject.

But not only does Ramsay enjoy tormenting her audience, dangling threads to questions she refuses to answer, she also clearly revels in the opportunity to splatter the silver screen with Shriver’s words. Bloody and stained, the direction is blemished with all manner of reds - paints; lights; even fruit in a blatantly foreshadowing (yet slowly chilling) opening scene which sees Eva before Kevin’s birth. Perhaps the most poignant and striking aspect of Kevin is indeed Ramsay’s exquisite imagery; splattered crimsons douse the melancholy milieus across all five time periods the audience are tasked with piecing together. Such is the emphasis on the colour connoted so frequently with danger that even Kevin’s wardrobe choices are resplendently fitting, in the form of a royal red jacket he sports so convincingly.

Oh yes, the cast are indeed convincing. Ezra Miller ensnares and terrifies; cold, calculating and cynical, he almost manages to make the audience empathise with Kevin’s mindset in some ways - his deconstruction of the smallest of human interactions during dinner with his mother is startlingly awakening, and his belief that his parents want to divorce due to him is instantly relatable to anyone who might have been there at some point in their life. John C. Reilly offers a stark contrast to Eva; the parent whom Kevin seems to bond with effortlessly, but also the parent who is unquestioningly unaware of Kevin’s psychotic degeneration.

But it is neither of these faces which so blemish the posters, billboards nor indeed the screens of Kevin - it is Eva herself, stunningly portrayed by an actress full of contradictions, Tilda Swinton. Fragile yet determined; graceful and effortless yet distinct and emotionally powerful; Swinton delivers on all fronts and takes the limelight as the woman whose entire world crumbles at the hands of a brutal, victimising son. And yet the closing scenes of Kevin leave further mystery as to her decisions towards the soul who has unfathomably ruined her existence; Ramsay gives no answers, but shrouds us in an emotional enigma that requires more deciphering than even the convoluted timeframe she flits between with such enjoyment. But then, to fully deconstruct the psyche of a mind such as Kevin’s would ultimately be unworthy in the two lines he is allowed to explain himself, and criticism here may well be undue.

So do we need to talk about Kevin? Lynne Ramsay certainly gives us plenty of conversation. Her thought-provoking, haunting and ultimately shocking horror lies more within the realms of the psychological thriller, but still provides a chilling reprise of a family so torn apart by cynicism and twisted mentality - and only further brings into light the question of nature vs. nurture. Kevin is a worrisome watch for mothers-to-be and a shocking insight for the rest of us, and one that will stay with us long after the credits roll.

✰✰✰✰✰

See also: Beautiful Boy (2011)

Dir: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
BBC Films, 112 mins, 21/10/11

Synopsis: Mother Eva (Swinton) reflects on the breakdown of her relationship with both her son (Miller) and husband (Reilly), and the climactic events that tore apart her life in suburban New York...

Friday, 21 October 2011

Johnny English: Reborn [Review]

The original Rowan Atkinson spoof-spy caper Johnny English (2003) lay under no false pretexts; born simply as slapstick, cringing comedy of the best kind, Atkinson’s bumbling spook was a character I was always particularly fond of. The film was panned by critics, dismissed as ‘cheesy, brainless and puerile’, but I felt it carried a certain charm. In any case, its reception at the box office warranted a sequel, albeit some eight years later, and so we arrive at Johnny English Reborn.

Atkinson's second outing spoofing all things 007 sees the exiled protagonist return from Tibet, where we are told he was sent after a disastrous mission in Mozambique, in order to find a mole within British intelligence service MI7. It's a plot as clich├ęd and generic as they come, but the focus in parodies such as this isn't on the story. The advantage Reborn has over other supposedly satirical or spoof films is that it doesn't take itself too seriously - which, when combined with a fundamentally British cast, helmed by the legendary Atkinson, lays waste to other flicks of the genre (here's looking at you, Meet the Spartans (2008)).

One phrase in particular can be applied to this eventual second instalment: more of the same. If, like the majority of film critics, you were disaffected by or indifferent to the original Johnny English film, it is very unlikely that the series’ rebirth will win you over. The same repertoire of jokes; the same ineptly narcissistic ‘heroics’; the same blend of subtlety and exaggeration - all await you in what is essentially the original Johnny English with new faces and an alternative (but similarly generic) plot.
Take, for instance, the case of mistaken identity; a staple of the first film, Atkinson’s misdeeds often came about as a result of following the wrong suspect (or, as was the case in one of the original film’s highlights, following the wrong hearse). Such is Reborn - one of the recurring jokes revolves around a Chinese assassin, disguised as a maid, whom English mistakes for all manner of innocent characters to amusing effect.

But while the style might not have evolved, there are a few satirical sequences that show the progression of the character and indeed of the franchise. For instance, a hilariously inane scene sees English using lifts, staircases, girders and all manner of normal means of getting about to thwart a free-running assassin, in a subtle parody of Casino Royale’s (2006) opening scenes.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, and you’re unlikely to be swayed if you didn’t enjoy the original’s coarse humour, but for fans of the 2003 caper it’s worth a watch. Its humour is nowhere near as forced as its American spoof siblings, and so Johnny English Reborn ends up a light-hearted and enjoyable comedy. Of course, it's anything but ambitious, instead resting comfortably on the laurels of its predecessor. But it’s still a jolly good show, old boy.

✰✰✰

See also: Johnny English (2003)

Dir: Oliver Parker
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic West
Universal Pictures, 101 mins, 07/10/11

Synopsis: The unlikeliest spy in all of England returns after an eight-year stint off the grid, still knowing no fear, no danger... and indeed, knowing nothing. But when MI7 learns of an attempt on the Chinese premier's life, it's up to Johnny English to save the day...

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Drive [Review]

If you’ve ever played the PlayStation classic Driver, then the opening sequence of Drive should look inherently familiar. It’s a car chase the way car chases should be done; it’s not over the top, it’s exquisitely directed, and carries the cool, collected ambience of John Tanner’s effortless vigilantism. It’s an exceptional introduction to an exceptional film; one that oozes style and charm whilst blending an amalgam of genre conventions into what can only be termed an ‘arthouse blockbuster’.

Following the story of a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway vehicle for local crooks, Drive immediately introduces its protagonist’s proficiency behind the wheel through a precise and skilful chase sequence - one that sees the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) help a pair of burglars escape a helicopter pursuit. It’s an effective introduction, and immediately sets the tone of the film through the distinguished camerawork - Gosling enjoys plenty of low angles to establish his control of the situation - and beautifully executed lighting, in the neon nightscapes of Los Angeles.

Such landscapes, emphasised through the scenic panning shots of the opening titles, indicate a neo-noir vibe to Drive that’s mixed to great effect with an ensemble of other genre conventions. At times it drifts towards something of a 70s slant, reminiscent of the Scorsese great Taxi Driver (1976), whilst the hot pink, cursive titles and lavish use of gore suggest something of a Tarantino-esque grindhouse format. Whilst these features are not so unique when each is presented alone, the mesh of all leads to something quite untypical - so it’s with great credit to director Nicolas Refn that it’s executed so beautifully.

Bursting with symbolic flair, Refn’s vision is unique; it’s a slower-paced effort, but one that manages to capture its audience with gracious ease. Unlike recent crime thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the slow, methodical storyboarding here works to great effect, absorbing the audience into the melancholy mind of The Driver, as his true persona is laid bare.

In many ways, however, Drive is deceptive; not least in its titular form - at just four points in the film does Gosling sit behind the wheel for any extended period of time. Indeed, following the opening sequence, Drive takes rather more of a romantic turn, through the introduction of neighbour Irene and her son Benicio in our protagonist’s life. Thus follows a sepia-doused montage of Gosling seemingly playing the natural doting father to Benicio, whose own paternal influence lies incarcerated for an unknown crime. While seemingly out of place in terms of what we’re shown beforehand, these nostalgic and uplifting moments give Drive a well-placed injection of heart and soul.

But of course, as must inevitably happen, Benicio’s father, Standard (even Irene asks at one point, “where’s the deluxe version?”), shows up again - released from prison, and carrying baggage, in the form of a hefty debt of protection money. It’s not long before Irene and Benicio are threatened, and so in steps The Driver to help. Matters become awry after a fatal pawn shop robbery, and soon we’re knee deep in a web of treachery, lies and deceit. It’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s often enough unpredictable that it’s suitable for purpose. Sadly, the finale bows to storytelling convention maybe a little too heavily, but such a slight flaw can easily be overlooked for all that’s come before it.

Gosling himself is superb; forever emblazoned with that unique vacant determinism, his character is just as absorbing as the film. He’s a modern day Travis Bickle in many ways, if slightly more ambitious behind the wheel. Just like Travis, the unnamed Driver’s character has flaws; he is effortlessly awkward, and yet carries a certain charm and nervous smile that so brilliantly mask his psychopathic tendencies that the Driver’s acts of violence feel as though they are a twist in and as of themselves. The character’s wild extremes suggest something of a hyper reality about him; the representation of each of us, of our highs and our lows, drawn out and plastered onto a screen, in the form of this beautifully menacing, reserved and yet likeable Driver.

It’s a stunning but shattering lecture in storytelling from Refn; his characters all with an impetus to an end that so define their status. Carey Mulligan delights as the soft-spoken, kind-hearted and motherly Irene; again, a character with flaws - just look at her choice of husband - but one who you can’t help but sympathise for. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman lie opposite our convoluted heroes, both excelling in their twisted nature; Perlman the self-serving, belligerent mobster, and Brooks the coldly apologetic investor. At times one might even sympathise for Brooks’ actions, though as the film progresses and his true character is revealed, it is not sympathy Refn draws on; merely a sheer contempt for his deeds. The role reversal is implemented perfectly, in stellar efforts from both screenwriter Hossein Amini and Brooks himself.

A unique, beautiful vision, executed with a suitably twisted grace, Drive is methodical, yet for the most part unpredictable - a stirring achievement from director Refn. Definitely one of the greats of the 21st Century - improbable sequel pending, you won’t see another film like it.

✰✰✰✰✰

See also: Taxi Driver (1976)

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac
Bold Films, 100 mins, 23/09/11

Synopsis: Los Angeles, Hollywood - a stuntman-cum-getaway driver becomes embroiled in the sleazy world of debt, embezzlement, theft and mafia wars, as a heist gone wrong results in a contract on his own head.