Albatros – Nial MacCormick – DVD - A frustrated writer (Sebastian Koch, from The Lives of Others) cheats on his wife with his daughter’s friend-while his own daughter discovers her independence and a more daring attitude to life through said new friend...while simultaneously trying to get into Oxford. A light and entertaining film that, while occasionally heavy handed with hammy sentimentalism (in scenes dealing with Alzheimer’s), surprisingly evades over neat resolution or generic trappings. As a result, it provides an easy watching and gently characterful comic drama with some strong performances. 5.8/10
An Education – Lone Scherfig – DVD – Carey Mulligan (in the role that deservedly got her much notice and paved the way for later successes) plays a schoolgirl (Jenny) studying to get into Oxford who becomes seduced by an older man. The film brilliantly evokes the period, is shot with style and well supported by a brilliant cast. Beyond Mulligan’s appropriately mature beyond her years performance, Peter Sarsgaard (as the older man) delivers an unnerving and memorable performance as the, occasionally creepy, older man. It is an ambivalent role that manages to effectively persuade us of his suave allure, while still suggesting a complex and tragic dimension to the character. Meanwhile Alfred Molina is excellent as Jenny’s father, making his hapless attempts at paternal authority, bumbling ‘product of his generation’ misogyny, awkward 'biscuits and tea bonding' and endearingly clumsy naivety-consistently entertaining. However, the film manages to undo the well-acted and engaging style of its entirety in the rushed, discordant and badly misjudged ending. Unfortunately through an incongruous tone, simplicity and irritating final montage techniques [SPOILERS], a painfully smug voice over from Jenny divulges her success at Oxford and the maturity she has attained. The ending seems a sad blunder, which ultimately overshadows the preceding achievements of the film. It condescends and equally short changes the audience, in a way so far removed from the rest of the film’s class, that one is left feeling the conclusion was badly grafted from an inferior source, one exiled in bland quarantine from any perceptive or emotional depth. 6/10
Prometheus – Ridley Scott – Cinema - A film that clearly suffered from fever pitch anticipation and a warped sense of critical pressure, Prometheus is an easy target for disappointing expectations. However, arguably it was the way in which promotion and critical reception wrongly and prematurely characterized the film as a metaphysical odyssey of big questions and pondering that warped its, far more simple, value. Granted, the script and premise is packed with questions of origin, clumsy ‘meeting the maker’ meditation and even A Blade Runner esque vein in Fassbender’s android character. It is in spite of these delusions of philosophical grandeur, and not because of them, that Prometheus should be viewed.
Due to the ‘legacy’ of Alien, Prometheus has been consequently approached by critics and fans alike as excavating near sacred territory. What it has been easy to forget, amidst the soundbite declarations of ‘metaphysical’, ‘philosophical’and ‘why we are here’ descriptions is what made Alien a great film in the first place. It was the claustrophobic tension of sci-fi horror, not character development, subtlety or intellectual rigor that characterised Ridley Scott's Alien. Although ‘high-brow’ aspirations have been retrospectively drawn out by hardcore fans and academic analysis, Alien’s enduring success and impact relies primarily on a visceral palette of horror, suspense and shock. Therefore, perhaps to criticize Prometheus in regards to its cardboard cut out characters, plot holes and blundering metaphysical enquiry, is missing the point. The point being, on the simple level of providing moments of entertaining alien horror (a particular take on the ‘chest bursting sequence’ transposed into surgical removal…is a dam fun set piece of body-horror), action and spectacle the film is well worth the cinema visit.
That said, to fall in line with popular opinion, I feel rather than pursuing the notes of ‘why we are here’ contemplation’ the film would have benefited from a more consistent focus on the horror of Alien (as opposed to the awe of cosmic connotations, that are perhaps better left implied); it is in the encounters with various alien manifestations that the film excels and gains an exciting momentum. It leaves the viewer craving more scenes of parasitic galactic splurge, and otherwise relatively unmoved by the film’s more conceptual dimensions. The stand out achievements seem most obviously embodied in Michael Fassbender’s terrifically eerie android performance, the un-C.G.I approach to set design and the equally plastic/fleshy imagining of alien mutation. As an afterthought: 3-D predictably adds nothing to this film, if anything the film is worsened through loosing its colour saturation-which makes the opening shots of vivid and impressive landscapes more muted. 7/10
Cosmopolis – David Cronenberg – Cinema – A limousine ride across the streets of New York, enduring anarchists, danger and the monotony of traffic, in order to get a haircut because, well, because Mr. whizz kid unrelenting billionaire R.Patz of the jawline and cadaverous model pallor can. A film almost entirely devoted to dialogue: long scenes in the limo talking in a manner (faithfully transcribed from the Don Delillo novel) that is beyond ‘stagey’. This is a realm of of obtuse, unnatural wit and cold, detached robotic smarm. All of the actors throughout the film, drop in on Eric’s (R.Patz) journey like various prophets in his spiraling odyssey, all coping tremendously well with a very difficult script.
Cronenberg reduces background ambience and sound to emphasize the armoured vacuum Eric has created for himself, in the cork-lined sound proofing of his limo, and, more pervasively, in the financially driven quarantine of his calculated existence. Once you manage to acclimatize to the torrential and subhuman verbal dexterity that constitutes interaction, the film gains an increasingly compelling and hypnotic momentum. Robert Pattinson portrays the crumbling capitalist ego with a magnetic central performance that supports the film and, oh so importantly, goes someway to balance the sulking atrocity of Twighlight. The astute and relevant subject matter (a sterile world where money breathes, ‘computer’ sounds antiquated, rapid growth and consumerism invite ghostly suggestions of immortality, data and information are prioritized and encoded virtues, and consequently interaction – as we know it – no longer prevails) is also brilliantly punctured throughout with unexpected wit and moments of real comic delivery (‘my prostate is asymmetrical’ making several inspired appearances).
It feels as if Cronenberg found, in Delillo’s novel, the perfect fusion of Sci-Fi leanings and un-emotional dialogue that in his hands, and with his experience, is mastered with pitch perfect focus. The final sequence, featuring a tremendous performance by Paul Giamatti (tragic, comic and convincingly unhinged), is a stunning example of drama perfectly and precisely orchestrated; through both Pattinson and Giamatti, the film’s climax has two memorable and brilliantly acted characters, both caught in colliding and irrevocable realization. The superb crafting of tension, combined with great acting, makes for a climactic and memorable moment of distilled cinematic power. 8.5/10
Days of Heaven – Terrence Malick – DVD – A love triangle that transcends to implicitly meditate upon more spiritual dimensions, exploring the vast American landscape with an eye for natural beauty. At times the sporadic childish voiceover feels unnecessary or occasionally misjudged. However, (without succumbing to knee-jerk Malick worship…as he does seem to be, arguably rightly, immensely and enduringly revered…see my excitable The Tree of Life review for an unmistakable rendition of Malick praise) the film creates an overarching wealth of imagery strong enough to forgive any petty criticism. The attention, care and genuine warmth towards the wildlife and landscape that surround the human tale illustrates Malick’s constant ability to harness chance. Capturing minor moments in visual asides, the film elaborates upon its narrative through unlikely manifestations: scampering birds, the chewing mandibles of a locust, stoic bison/buffalo…generically American bovine beasts etc. The billowing flames, as a field of crops is set alight amidst clouds of locusts is a particularly impressive visual sequence.
I feel that my enjoyment of this film would probably benefit from more viewings-to appreciate so many of the shots of a wild and pastoral American (somewhat idealized) landscape. Due to a potentially cynical mood, the continual plaintive glow of a stretching, deeply American wilderness got on my nerves…it seemed at times like the landscape was lent a wise nobility perhaps too earnestly simplified in humble appreciation…Basically I’m getting irritated at a director who seems to have a genuine compassion for earthly beauty and its transcendental qualities…Making me, by all accounts, a flawed and bitter being…. alas…. Maybe it’s landscape envy… if Malick had shot Days of Heaven in England (something no one is possession of any scrap of sanity would advise), the ‘magic hour’ serenity of flowing cornfields and iridescent skies would be replaced by drizzle, dogshit and a couple of hedgehogs (the voiceover now being supplied by Bill Oddie). As an afterthought - comparing Malick’s landscape in Days of Heaven to Andrea Arnolds’ landscape in Wuthering Heights would be a fun exercise…one imbued with a near nostalgic twilight of wisdom, honesty and beauty…the other dripping and scratching with visceral handfuls of mud and rain. 7.5/10
Along Came Polly – John Hamburg – Watched to accompany a brainless, sleep deprived, takeaway pizza-fuelled, bed bound evening…after a casual 11-hour train journey. Due to Newcastle being the centre of flash flooding and storms ( the drizzle turned biblical and the heavens did belch forth an aberration of the elements: lightning and hail, apparently…), public transport was reduced to an unsurprising stack of delays and confusion. So, after a day of yawn inducing train travel Along Came Polly seemed a fitting and mindless exercise in low-key entertainment. However, even in this unpressured category, it was still able to competently enrage, disappoint and splutter on the stale joke heap of clichés that recycled unfunny sketches with embarrassingly unfunny consequences.
In its defence, there are moments of mildly successful humour: Hank Azaria playing a French scuba-diver instructor (with a, bordering on offensive, pantomime French accent) had an endearing simplicity in his goofy enthusiasm; Phillip Seymour Hoffman is always fun to watch (although his character often falls into a ‘Jack Black’ esque routine of loud and loveable ridicule)…that about covers the film’s merits. Ben stiller is Ben Stiller, with the usual simmering neurosis paired with his struggling ‘everyman’ façade. Jennifer Anniston is the expected (and perfectly efficient-for romcom territory) resurrection of Rachel (from Friends) familiarity, but this time matched with a shallow stab at ‘free spirited -non committal – kooky –travelling - eternally disorganized – effortlessly beautiful, but not in an intimidating way’ list of characteristics, arranged in a tired avatar of lazy signifiers (how she loves ‘ethnic food’, loves to loose herself in salsa dancing, has a quirky pet ferret, can never find her keys, how she adopts the grunge chic of a beanie and leaves unorthodox phone messages! Gasp! Such fun!) All this might be excusable if she didn’t look so transparently bored and strangely empty throughout, which, when combined with Ben Stiller’s uninspired ‘Ben Stillerism’ does little to distract from the painfully formulaic structure of the film (complete with a last minute dash to the airport). They even overdub the pet ferret with cute sound bites of cartoon squeaking…Ferrets do not make that noise. They smell overwhelmingly of ammonia and are largely silent. I can endure many crimes, but an infidelity to rodent realism is a step too far. The squeaky ferret dishonesty of this film is a lumbering zombie of uninspired and over familiar comedy by numbers that, even for a reanimated corpse, seems lifelessly committed to ‘going through the motions’. But then, this was a pretty predictable outcome…which to be fair, I didn’t need to see the film to appreciate. Sometimes, just sometimes, after a long day of heaving luggage on late trains judgment becomes warped and a film like Along Came Polly seems like a good idea. 1.5/10
Howl – Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – The film uses Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem ‘Howl’ as the backbone to this ambitious, interesting and often flawed project. The film moves between the trial for obscenity (that brought so much notoriety and subsequent publicity to the poem), an interview with a young Ginsberg ruminating on his poetry and life, a black and white poetry reading in which ‘Howl’ is read and sequences of animation illustrating the nightmarish dreamscape of the poem. On the very basis of such an undertaking, the film should receive certain praise for the courage required to place a poem at the centre of a film essentially devoid of narrative.
James Franco’s performance as a young Ginsberg is a sharply observed and confident portrayal. However, the film’s multi-faceted nature becomes an unsatisfactory compensation for the more thoroughly committed attention and structure such a subject deserves. Although the animation uses Eric Drooker’s style (he was onboard as the main animation designer and storyboard artist), thus bringing to life his and Allen’s published collaboration in the Illuminated Poems, it somehow dates the poem with a clumsy visual vocabulary. ‘Howl’ is by no means a poem of subtlety or delicate suggestion, it is an apocalyptic incantation of disillusionment, fear, madness and the search for spiritual liberation…that, and ‘endless balls’. To read ‘Howl’ now still offers the reader a visceral journey of rhythmic and raw exploration-the animation feels surplus to requirements. While they are intriguing works of art, and there is no doubt regarding Eric Drooker’s faithful and talented imagining of Ginsberg’s words, in this film they become a labored tautology. The power of the poem to speak for itself is fatally overlooked, leaving the film crammed with needless sentimental prompts to assure us of the poem’s strength. For instance, do we really need so many close up shots of the crowd reacting to Ginsberg’s reading? An embarrassing array of over earnest nods, and knowing smiles greets the reading like a crowd of bohemian disciples- which, in the film, has the patronizing effect of over insisting the poem’s authentic and emotive force. The interview format, through which we learn about Ginsberg’s methods and general life views, also substitutes what could have been made implicit and perhaps more compelling in drama for explicit conversational directness. Having said that, Franco manages to salvage moments of believable intimacy, in what is otherwise an occasionally cringe worthy couch confessional.
One of the film’s genuinely brilliant decisions arrives at the very end, in which a montage of photos and historical facts is overlaid with a mournful recording of Ginsberg’s ‘Father Death Blues’. The film then ends with the actual footage of Ginsberg’s performance: bristling grey beard and transfixed brown eyes, staring from under heavy glasses. In this shot, taken from footage available on YouTube, the unadulterated power of poetry and Ginsberg is felt. Its emotional force resides not in cinematic elaboration, inspired editing, or the drama of public reception, but in the simplicity of the voice and the poet: unafraid to speak with honesty about the personal, be it painful or joyful. 6/10
An extract from ‘Howl’…Had to be done:
‘who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open full of steam-heat and opium,
who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion,
who ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of the Bowery,
who wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music,
who sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge, and rose up to build harpsichords in their lofts, who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology,
who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish,
who cooked rotten animals lung heart feet tail borsht & tortillas dreaming of the pure vegetable kingdom,
who plunged themselves under meat trucks looking for an egg,
who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for an Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade,
who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried,
who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,
who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer,
who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles,
who barreled down the highways of the past journeying to each other's hotrod-Golgotha jail-solitude watch Birmingham jazz incarnation,
who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity’