Cinema, alive and well

Over the last few months, I have managed to squeeze in enough thought-provoking films to think that my favourite medium is still alive and well. We drown daily in a such a stultifying rain of nonsense and noise that it sometimes it seems that any sign of intelligence must be a mistake. Here are some rays of hope.

Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier): ***
We need to talk about Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay) *****
The battle of Warsaw: 1920 (dir. Jerzy Hoffman) ***
Incendies **** (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy **** (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
The Skin I Live In **1/2 (dir. Pedro Almodovar)
The Debt ***1/2 (dir. John Madden).

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Film review – Animal Kingdom ****

This Australian film has much to recommend it. It maintains a dark, slow-burn tension for the duration, a by-product of characters who while being completely believable become less and less predictable as time goes on. In a way the film is a kind of trick: you are initially not sure if you are in for a gangster story (will there be a heist, or a gangland battle?), a psycho-drama, or a character study.

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Thor 3D (*1/2)

I saw a trailer for Thor at a screening of Source Code (a film that although well acted, seemed pointless and not worthy of review). It looked fairly atrocious, something of the Blade or other superhero variety. However, by chance I noticed later that a) it was directed by Kenneth Branagh – which promised good acting not visible in the trailer, b) Thor is played by until now unknown to me Aussie Chris Hemsworth, who reminded me in the trailer of Aussie Heath Ledger in the execrable but nevertheless watchable Knight’s Tale – a performance that made you think he might just be a real actor in the making and c) it had a long list of other notables, including Anthony Hopkins, Stelland Skarsgard, Idris Elba (the great Stringer Bell from The Wire), Ray Stevenson (Rome), Natalie Portman etc, and finally d) I have never seen a 3D movie before.

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The Way Back (***1/2) and The King’s Speech (*****)

Both The Way Back and The King’s Speech seemed to beckon in the last 10 days; one carrying the promise of great things from a great director, the other of great things from great actors.

The Way Back [IMDB]: Weir excels at small human beings struggling in/against huge landscapes (Master and Commander [IMDB] and The Mosquito Coast [IMDB]), and this film didn’t disappoint. From the swirling snowstorms of Siberia to the Mongolian plains to the sweep of the Gobi desert The Way Back looks great on the big screen. The acting is respectable, indeed very credible. Among the escapees, Ed Harris gives a fine performance, Colin Farrell is a surprisingly believable Russian gangster and Saoirse Ronan injects some levity into the long trek.

Two things let the film down in my view. The first is the lack of any obvious human tension. Escaping from a Russian Gulag is ‘drama’ to be sure, and so is survival against all odds,  but somehow we are always searching for more than that, we need to know what people are thinking. One of the best, and surely most tense survival stories has to be Touching the Void [IMDB], about Joe Simpson’s escape from Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, which he climbed with Simon Yates. But if we think about it, the tension is not only about whether Simpson can manage to live, but the whole horror of Yates having to cut the line on him, leading to him being on his own. The Way Back lacks any real hook for getting into the minds of the characters. A few small incidents involving Farrell’s originally menacing, but ultimately, just cheeky, gangster are the closest we get. Continue reading