Monday, April 19, 2010

Constant Reader... I am in a peculiar position. To the best of my knowledge it has never happened before in all my blogging years. THAT momentous.

Constant Reader... I have to tell you about FOUR recent visits to the cinema.


In the past few years I have sometimes managed that in a year. Ok... better dive in... but don't panic... I won't do the full nine yards about them!

First one off the rank was NANNY McPHEE & THE BIG BANG. I had liked Emma's first incarnation as the magical Nanny who - Poppins stylee - appears seemingly out of nowhere JUST as a mother or father is at the end of their tether.

In the first film it was a widowed 19th Century Colin Firth unable to cope with a fractious brood, here the action moves forward to WWII and Maggie Gyllenhaal is attempting to run her husband's family farm while he is overseas while she also attempts to work in the local shop, hindered more than helped by the addled Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith).

Her three children are horrified when their posh nephews arrive, packed off from London by uncaring parents using air raids as an excuse. All Hell breaks loose as Gyllenhaal dangles from the end of her rope... thunder rolls, lightening flashes... and there's Nanny McPhee at the door.

The film starts a little overly-frantic, with screaming kids and an uneven pace that doesn't bode well for the film but with the arrival of Emma the film calms down as she teaches her five lessons for a happy household.

Director Susannah White then keeps the kid-friendly comedy going but also manages to allow in moments of touching humanity as when a pastoral picnic is interrupted with a dreaded telegram and when the posh boy (Eros Vlahos) confronts his emotionally cold military father (Ralph Fiennes).Emma of course gives an assured and witty performance and her script quietly builds to a moving climax when Maggie Smith's character reveals a charming link to the first film and a figure is seen walking towards the family as Nanny McPhee leaves them.

The film boasts quirky roles for Rhys Ifans, Sinead Matthews and Katy Brand as the agents of mean, charming comic turns by Sam Kelly and Bill Bailey, and White elicits strong performances from her child stars notably Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson and Asa Butterfield (building on his arresting performance in THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS).I have a feeling that one day NANNY McPHEE AND THE BIG BANG will be up there with THE RAILWAY CHILDREN as a classic British family film.

And now for something completely different...

Martin Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND is his fourth film with Leonardo DiCaprio, much to the critics' chagrin. Leo gives a committed - no pun intended - multi-layered performance here and his casting as a Big Film Star is as important in this as to any qualities he has an actor.

Set in the repressive atmosphere of post-war 1950s America, the plot starts off as an intriguing film-noir thriller - Detective Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and a new partner (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at an asylum for the criminally insane on a bleak island off the Boston coast. They have been asked to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates overnight who has literally vanished from her locked cell. The only clue he finds is a hidden scribbled note in her cell wondering who the 67th prisoner on the island is... Danels knows the island only holds 66.

The air of lowering oppression is exacerbated by the freak storm that breaks out that night forcing them to remain on the island and slowly DiCaprio's character begins to suspect that this most secretive of places holds a frightening secret. He views the silky head psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) with suspicion and the psychiatrist's German associate (Max von Sydow) with ill-disguised contempt.Daniels - as with any film-noir hero - is a man with an unquiet soul: he witnessed the horrors of Dachau when his platoon liberated it and the personal horror of his wife being killed in an arson attack on their apartment building by a psychotic janitor.

The Detective confides in his sidekick that he has an ulterior motive for agreeing to take the case as he found out previously that his wife's killer is one of the prisoners held on the island. The film slowly changes into a full-blown horror film as Daniels realises that all the secrets are possibly held in the forbidding Civil War fort in the centre of the prison that holds the most dangerous inmates.Suspecting himself being drugged, he fights off visions of Dachau and of his dead wife alerting him that her killer is there somewhere and determines to get to the heart of this nightmarish situation.

There has been much critical debate as to the manner in which Scorsese has filmed Dennis Lehane's bestseller as he really does throw in everything but the kitchen sink into the nightmare world of SHUTTER ISLAND but I feel as if now that the Best Director Oscar of Damocles that has hung over his head has finally been won Scorsese is just having a ball, using all the tricks in the cinematic cupboard under the stairs to scare the bejeebus out of the audience.I suspect that the big plot twist - that is no real surprise when it comes - is another reason why it has not had the rave reviews one would suspect - people by and large like to believe in narrative in film and once the carpet is pulled out from under them they are largely distrustful of the fact that they were 'conned' by the slight-of-hand. I suspect the film warrants another viewing - just to see it with the knowledge of hindsight.

I enjoyed the sheer Ghost Train thrill of seeing the film on a big screen with sound effects echoing around me - the film also has one of the most genuinely chilling soundtracks, compiled by Robbie Robertson from various recorded works of modern classical and avant-garde composers. It's worth staying for the end credits just to be spooked by the mash-up of Dinah Washington's haunting vocal for "This Bitter Earth" woven into Max Richter's "On The Nature Of Daylight".With excellent performances across the board, DiCaprio holds the audiences attention throughout - the only jarring note being the slight suspicion that he is channeling Jack Nicholson's performance from CHINATOWN.

Next up to the ocky is the curio AGORA from Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar.
I have heard your cry Constant Reader "When oh when is someone going to make a film of Hypatia, the Greek Egyptian teacher and philosopher who caused a schism between the Roman Prefect Orestes and the Christian leader Cyril?"

Well Amenábar heard your cry too. Whether you should have kept your gob shut or he should have had his iPod earphones in I have yet to resolve.

I hadn't the slightest clue of the story of how the Greek atheists, Jewish believers and Roman powers were swept away by the onslaught of Christian fundamentalism in the 4th Century AD. For some reason we weren't taught that in school. But luckily Amenábar picked up on it somewhere along the line and obviously thought "Aha... religious fundamentalism, middle east, women being banned from study, statues being toppled to overthrow regimes... this is all so topical!"Well bigotry is always au currant somewhere but the obvious parallels with today are - well a bit obvious.

It's an ambitious film and it's to be applauded for trying to make the sort of 'intimate epic' that David Lean and Anthony Mann would have attempted. But by Isis, it's so leaden. We get revolt after revolt, stonings, burnings, blood, fire, corpses by the binload... but i was aware from quite soon after it started that I was staring at it, not watching it.

Rachel Weisz certainly gives a thoughtful and nuanced performance - I had never noticed her odd resemblance to Charlotte Rampling before - and she has a rare intelligence on screen but Hypatia sadly remains a pillar of virtue and intellect all the way through - she seems so unconcerned by her obvious fate that it is hard to feel anything for her character. Some sign of doubt or even a sense of humour might have made her more human.

The supporting actors are given more running around and shouting to do but to little obvious effect of making one even remotely concerned in their character's destiny.

Max Minghella - son of the late director Anthony - has a dog of a role as Davus, Hypatia's servant who loves her but who defects to the Christian cause thereby endangering her life. He glowers at anything and everything but his character's sudden defection back to helping her seems forced and the ending flies in the face of what is known of her demise, contrived to give her a dignity that was ill-afforded her.Oscar Isaac is able to bring more subtlety to his role of Hypatia's former student - and ardent admirer - Orestes, who after the upheaval becomes the Roman Prefect and finds himself caught between the hardline Christians and the atheist Hypatia. He gives an interesting performance but again, with no attempt by Amenábar to humanise the character his character is oddly becalmed.The nasty Cyril - dear Horus that name! - is played with an unrelenting mad-eyed stariness by Sami Samir that certainly makes him a hissable villain but again, I found myself aching for some varying of the one-note characterisation.The film certainly looks impressive - it won 7 production Goya Awards in Spain this year - with it's evocative sets suggesting the city of Alexandria (the film was shot in Malta) and Amenábar certainly pulls off some stylish touches such as when the Christian mob ransacks the library they are shot from above as the film speeds up faster and faster, the pillagers resembling a ravaging hoard of insects.

But also he has hit on the notion that to suggest chapters in the story he will zoom out of the city and contemplate the world in the cosmos before zeroing back into the city again like some ancient world DHL advert. Once or twice ok - it fits in with Hypatia's quest for the facts of astronomy - but after a while it is just another distancing effect in a film that really doesn't need any more barriers to engaging with it, a pity as Weisz certainly shines amid the film's torpid atmosphere.So finally to the last film of the bunch and to a director who rather than inducing disinterest by too little connection with the characters, manages it by overuse of his style.

I speak of......although Alice In Burtonland would be more appropriate.

We saw this at the iMax in Waterloo which is a very odd experience... all screen, no atmosphere.

So here we surely have the last shake out of Burton's over-used visual tricks. One would have thought that Alice and Burton would go together perfectly but I felt there to be little connection between him and the material - it all looked exactly as I expected it to.

Only once was I genuinely intrigued by the imagery which was when Alice used the severed heads of the Red Queen's victims as stepping stones as they floated in the castle moat.

The visualisation of the characters was certainly interesting, just this side of disturbing but again I felt like Burton was soft-pedalling - I don't know whether this was due to the length of the artistic spoon he used to sup with the Disney organisation or whether it was down to the bog-standard storyline he had to work with.
The intriguing jump-off of an older Alice returning to Wonderland - or Underland as the natives call it - is soon dissipated as the whole premise turns out to be one long meander to a climactic duel between her and the Jabberwocky. It didn't help that we had previously seen a trailer for the new CGI-fest CLASH OF THE TITANS which ends with a duel with a big feck-off monster so rather than a thrilling climax we are given a by-the-numbers Big Battle that seems de-rigour for these sort of films. Sadly by this time I had kinda switched off having been dulled into submission by the torturous route that had led us to this. it seemed to involve a lot of traipsing around for no discernible purpose than to drag out the film's running time.

I also think the idea of presenting the film in 3-D led to the film to look even more tired - it wasn't even filmed using the process but was added on afterwards and it shows. Occasionally something would grab my attention - the Cheshire cat was always looked forward to - but it all just seemed to dress up the fact that Burton seems to have run out of ideas.Much has been made of Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen and she certainly perked the film up but I was alarmed how much of the character seems ripped off from Miranda Richardson's Queenie from BLACKADDER 2. The success of her performance though robbed the film of any other strong female presence - Alice was cookie-cutter Burton heroine: pale-faced and with hardly any life in her, and I found Anne Hathaway's White Queen character forgettable as I watched her.And then there's Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. Of course the plot had to find much for him to do but as soon as he would appear on screen I was praying for him to get off again. He brought nothing to the film but the worst excesses of his previous Burton characters - excluding SWEENEY TODD - and as usual, this awful passivity.I think it's about time they took a break from each other - they seem to bring out the worst in each other when they are let loose in Fantasyland. I think SWEENEY TODD is an interesting exception as the form dictated that they couldn't play it cute.

I also think it's odd that critics are happier to find fault with DiCaprio and Scorsese than with Depp and Burton. Give me SHUTTER ISLAND over this misfire anyday.

My advice to Burton? Start making films with a genuinely anarchic performer from ALICE...

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