IN TIME

Odeon Glasgow Quay, 16.11.11

After a gap of 6 years since he wrote and directed Nicolas Cage in the average Lord Of War (2005), Andrew Niccol is back with In Time, a film in which he returns to the sci-fi world that he mined successfully for Gattaca (1997) and to a lesser extent in S1mone (2001).

Set in the near future, In Time inhabits a world where genetic engineering has allowed humans to live forever, and the ageing process to stop at 25 years old. Once a person reaches 25 however, they must accrue enough time to keep themselves alive. Time has replaced money as the currency of the world, and so while the rich have thousands and millions of years to play with, the poor live day-to-day, scraping together enough minutes and hours to survive. It is here we meet Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a factory worker who has lost his father when his time ran out, and who manages to earn enough time to keep himself and his mother (Olivia Wilde) alive. One night in a bar he saves the life of a rich man who gives Will a century of years as reward and tells him of the conspiracy among the rich which keeps the population under control and lets the poor die. As the taxes go up however, Will’s Mother runs out of time and dies in Will’s arms, just as he was about to give her more time. Enraged, Will takes his new wealth and determines to find the corrupt rich people who control the unfair system. He meets Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), and wins thousands of years gambling. When the police – or Minutemen – led by Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) track him down, he takes Weis’s daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) hostage, and they embark on a criminal spree, robbing time and spreading it among the poor.

You don’t have to look very far to see the parable involved here. This is a Robin Hood tale for the future age, and the replacement of money with time as a currency doesn’t disguise the fact that this is a moral tale directed at the evils of capitalism and the wealth of the world belonging in the hands of the rich few, while the poor of the world starve. While Niccol doesn’t do anything to hide this simple conceit, he also manages to avoid labouring the point too much, instead concentrating on the action, in what is essentially also a chase movie.  As the world’s population hit 7 billion this year, while all around the financial meltdown continues to threaten the established economies, it’s a timely tale to tell. With people living longer in developed countries, how will the Earth sustain the ever rising population? Could the proper sharing of existing wealth around the globe improve the living conditions of the poor, instead of being kept by the lucky few?  All these points are raised, and Niccol seems to put himself firmly on the side of the poor and underclass, suggesting spreading the wealth and letting everyone have a chance at a succesful, long life is only fair.

The main problem with that is, of course, it is massively over-simplified, and in essence, it seems the entire system has to be scrapped and replaced with something better, but as the film points out towards its climax, the system collapsing would result in anarchy. As the Minutemen watch the world change,  they ask what they should do? ‘Go home’ says Minuteman Rado,as he lays down his gun and walks out. But if economic (or time) equality leads to no law and order, is it something that most would genuinely desire?

The other problem exists on the Hollywood, or film in general, level. Churlish it may seem, but, as well as genetic engineering halting the aging process at 25, it has also apparently stopped the appearance of anyone overweight, bald or ugly. There is no information given that this is what has happened, but needless to say, not only is Will’s mother still 25 in appearance, but just so happens to look as glamorous and beautiful as Olivia Wilde too. Amongst the poor and starving, there are those made to look grubby and greasy, but everyone is more or less a perfect 25-year-old. The closest we get to someone looking less than perfect is Johnny Galecki as Will’s friend, Borel, and this is clearly down to alcohol we are told.  Elsewhere, all the women in the poor areas look like glamour models, even the prostitutes, while the men all look like Justin Timberlake.  Incidentally, given the conceit that everyone should look 25 and not a day older, the casting seems somewhat haphazard given that Timberlake is 30, Murphy 34, Galecki 36, and Kartheiser 32 – to be frank, without suspending disbelief, it’s hard to see them as 25 year olds. At least Seyfreid and Wilde are in the right ball park for age.

That aside, all those mentioned perform well, and manage to convince as older people trapped in younger bodies, particularly Kartheiser as the tired, corrupt 100-something Weis and Murphy as the 80-something cop.  Timberlake and Seyfreid mostly have to look good and run around and do this to good effect. The only mis-step in the cast and plot is Alex Pettyfer (only 21, but playing older!) as Fortis, a lowdown petty criminal who steals time from the poor for himself. Apart from providing a bit of action, he serves little purpose, and Pettyfer continues to show that he can’t act very well, following on from the disappointing Stormbreaker, I Am Number Four and the awful Beastly (quite a run of drivel for one so young). Fortunately here, he isn’t significant enough to unbalance the otherwise likeable film.

Niccol does a steady job as director, helped by some gorgeous photography by Roger Deakins and a decent score from Craig Armstrong. A good return to familiar territory for Niccol, and a watchable piece of entertainment, even if it over-simplifies the issues to make a neat morality tale.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

Cineworld Glasgow, 13.10.11


Midnight In Paris is Woody Allen’s 44th feature film, and already his most successful at the box office. This says a lot about inflation rates and cinema ticket prices, but also points to the popularity of Owen Wilson, in the lead role as Gil, and of the city of Paris, which must surely hold the record for the city that features in the most film titles.  It also says a lot about Woody Allen, about the sheer volume of his work, his ability to still find new stories to tell and despite the baggage that a Woody Allen film brings with it – both positive and negative – his persistence to continue to make an audience laugh over almost half a century.

Midnight In Paris continues Allen’s European tour of recent years, brought about mainly due to easier financing for his projects in Europe than in the U.S. For a director so intrinsically linked to the New York he grew up in, the break has resulted in a mix bag of films over recent years, from the critically successful like Vicky Christina Barcelona (Barcelona, 2008), to the down right awful Cassandra’s Dream (London, 2009), to the bizarrely unreleased in UK cinemas Scoop (London, 2006 – that a Woody Allen film starring Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman cannot secure film distribution in the UK is surely an astonishing indictment against the UK film distributors). Happily, Midnight In Paris has found both a distributor and an audience, and if not quite a triumphant return to Allen’s career highs of the past, is without a doubt one of his best films.

Sticking to directing duties, Allen gives the lead to Owen Wilson as Gil, a Hollywood script doctor, plagued by the lack of artistic fulfillment in his work. He follows fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) on a trip to Paris, along with Inez’s parents, who have travelled for a business trip. While in Paris, they meet Inez’s friend, Paul (Michael Sheen), a snobbish know-it-all, and his partner, Carol (Nina Arianda). While Inez enjoys her friends and parents company, Gil dreams of the Paris of old, the Roaring Twenties, when the city was at the centre of the artistic world. While out walking on his own one night, Gil suddenly finds himself transported back to that decade and he meets the idols of his life – Hemingway, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Dali – and falls for the young model Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  Finding excuses each night to return to the Paris of the Twenties, Gil rediscovers his artistic inspiration and makes some decisions about his life in the present day.

Midnight In Paris manages to have its cake and eat it, reveling in the glory of this Paris of the past, and marvelling at the collection of literary and artistic giants that gathered together at that time, while at the same time making the point that through nostalgia, the past always seems better and brighter than the present. As the Woody Allen character, Owen Wilson is exceptional, managing to portray Allen’s nervousness, cynicism and whining nature, but also managing to inject warmth and sympathy, something that Allen has sometimes struggled to do as an actor. Having suffered a personal crisis of his own in recent years, Wilson’s return to more adult and intellectual comedy is a pleasant surprise, and the hope is he has left behind the juvenile nonsense of the likes of Drillbit Taylor (2008) and Hall Pass (2011). As he proves here, he is a comedic actor with the deftest of touches. Michael Sheen gets stuck into the part of pompous Paul with gusto, while Rachel McAdams copes well without getting any of the best lines to work with. The stars of the film though, are the impersonators of the historical figures in the Paris of the Twenties. As Ernest Hemingway, Corey Stoll steals every scene in which he appears, presenting the author as an embodiment of his literary style, swaggering around as a real man should, challenging anyone and everyone to a fight, drinking and speaking in short, sharp statements. Equally good are Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston as the Fitzgerald’s – she the emotional, suicidal, erratic party loving woman, he the enduring husband. The most joyous vignette occurs when Gil tries to explain to Dali (Adrien Brody) Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Luis Bunuel (Adrien De Van) about his time travelling predicament, only to be met with incredulity. ‘Of course it makes sense to you’ Gil remonstrates ‘you’re surrealists!’ Amongst all the fun and frivolity, Marion Cotillard shines as Adriana, Picasso’s muse and the ingenue that steals Gil’s heart. Like Gil, she longs for a previous age, and together they end up in her ideal time – Paris in the 1890’s, in the time of the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas.

Allen tries nothing fancy with his camerawork, framing and staging shots as he has always done, particularly in the modern setting. The Paris of the 1920s is lovingly recreated, and Allen does allow his camera some freedom here, giving longer takes and a flowing movement to intricate dialogue driven scenes.  Giving his common themes about life, love and angst a Parisian twist and a time travelling plot device, means Allen has created his most endearing film in years. Whether it’s the setting in the past, the European romantic sensibility or the playing of his accomplished cast, Midnight In Paris loses the acerbic, caustic tone that can hinder an Allen film, and gains an effusive, glowing atmosphere that means it is impossible not to warm to the characters. The ending in modern-day Paris may wrap things up a touch to neatly, but there is no doubt that you are on the side of Gil when he starts to make some choices about his own future in Paris.

A definite crowd pleaser, a sophisticated comedy with a warm heart and unequivocally a film to be seen.

Film Rating: 4 out of 5

TYRANNOSAUR

Cineworld Glasgow, 11.10.11

Debut feature director Paddy Considine and star Peter Mullen have both been at pains in press interviews for their new film Tyrannosaur to emphasise that it is not another British film of social realism, in the line of Ken Loach or Tony Richardson. One obvious reason for this is that such a label can easily prove to be box office poison, and by trying to assure the audience that, despite looking like a film with all the troupes of a social realist film, Tyrannosaur is something more, they could cynically be trying to protect the film from potential financial disaster. There is, however, a more valid reason for their insistence, which can be boiled down to simply this – although the story includes working class people, council estates, suburbia, Middle England, alcoholism, Peter Mullen, and domestic abuse – it rises above all these elements to be something other than social realism, which is simply a touching, powerful drama, acted and directed exceptionally well.

Mullen plays Joseph, a tough, weathered, beaten, unemployed working class man with a violent temper that he can barely control. Despite his wife’s death (the Tyrannosaur of the film’s title) two years ago, Joseph is still struggling to come to terms with the mistakes he has made and the life he has lived. We first meet him as he kicks his dog to death after being thrown out of a bookmakers. Having confronted a gang of youths in his local boozer, he stumbles into a charity shop to hide, and meets Hannah, played by British comedy actress Olivia Coleman. Despite Joseph’s temper and meanness, Hannah shows him compassion and a bond is made. We then follow Hannah home and find her living with abusive husband, James (Eddie Marsan). Meanwhile, Joseph’s friend dies and he returns to Hannah’s shop to get a suit. James catches Hannah helping Joseph try his suit on and that night is abused and raped by James. Fleeing, she searches out Joseph and moves in with him, looking to him for help.  As they become close, Joseph eventually accepting Hannah’s presence in his house, he makes a discovery that changes both his and our view of Hannah.

Initially the presence of Mullen fools the audience into thinking this film is about his character, and a journey of redemption for Joseph, in a similar vein to Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe (1998), in which Mullen also plays a character called Joe, with a troubled past. Gradually though, Tyrannosaur reveals itself as a true two-hander, giving equal weight to the story of Hannah, and indeed, by the end of the film it is her story that is the more powerful and her character that has been on the most transformative journey.  It is by meeting Hannah that Joseph is changed, not by any ambition on his part to change.

Although it sounds like the plot of a social realist film – and in different hands it would have worked perfectly well as such – Considine and cinematographer Erik Wilson have crafted something much more cinematic than the traditional ‘kitchen sink’ drama. There are some beautiful shots and compositions used by Considine, like the shot of Joseph stumbling home from the pub on his own, silhouetted against the night sky, a shot that is later repeated with Joseph now accompanied by Hannah, cementing the bond that has formed between the two.  Editing and music also work to give a broad, expansive feel, to what is essentially a low-budget domestic drama.

Peter Mullen is excellent in the sort of role that has become his bread and butter. There is no one better at portraying the pent-up anger and frustration of a working class man in Britain. Despite being set in Leeds, Mullen’s character is recognisably a product of Glasgow, a violent man, never permitted to show emotion or fear, but at the same time willing to fight for what he loves or cares about. The remorse for his dead dog after he has killed it is touching. A man who has made many mistakes and has many regrets, yet has no idea how to change. Marsden as James is quite terrifying, one minute loving and the next abusive, and gives a brief but terrifying insight into what goes on behind the closed doors of suburbia. The real revelation however is Colman, breaking free from supporting roles in British television comedy, her portrayal of Hannah is both touching, infuriating and powerful. Like Kathy Burke before her, Colman’s career, successful though it has been, may well have been a waste of talent, and one can only hope more demanding film roles follow on from Tyrannosaur, although, like Burke, it would not be a surprise if cinema struggles to find roles that fully exploit her potential.

Paddy Considine, who has revealed his preference to continue directing alongside acting, if not instead of acting, in the future, will not have a similar problem with finding material and opportunity in the future, and on the basis of his debut feature, there is much to look forward from him.

Film Rating: 4 out of 5.

 

CONTAGION

Cineworld Glasgow, 09.11.11

Steven Soderbergh has gathered another all-star cast for his latest multi dimensional drama, this time tracing the stories of several people all affected by the outbreak of a new virus that threatens to wipe out mankind.  Where Traffic (2000) was about drugs and the effect on people’s lives in the real world, this is a more fanciful, fictional account, based on a worse case scenario.

The cast of big names – Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishbourne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard – all get moments to shine, but as with any ensemble piece, often have limited screen time in which to make any impact. Cotillard, as a World Health Organisation investigator sent to track down the origin of the outbreak suffers the most, her storyline is the weakest and most unbelievable and means she disappears from the film just as the tension is mounting.  Winslet and Fishbourne both get better roles and make the most of them as scientists trying to discover a vaccine and limit the spread of the virus. Damon gets to play the stoic father, who loses a wife and child but battle son to protect his remaining daughter – the sort of role that Damon can play in his sleep these days.  Jude Law, as a medical blogger who takes advantage of the panic to make a few million pounds, is so odious a character, from his smarmy manner, his weasly moniker (Alan Crumweide) and his dodgy teeth, that he’s stept right out of a Dickensian drama, a Fagan for the modern age.  Every film needs a villain, but there’s no shade to Law’s character, as he leaves friends and colleagues without hope while handing out homemade leaflets advertising his conspiracy theories. The film is firmly on the side of the pharmaceutical companies, and the heroic medical and scientific doctors tasked with discovering a vaccine. 

A palette of grey, green and blue is given a faded out colour by Soderbergh emphasising the wintry chills of America and the stark medical surroundings of overwhelmed hospitals and sanitised medical labs.  Soderbergh makes great use of a still, reflective camera that lingers on shots every time someone sneezes, touches a door handle, picks up a mobile phone, emphasising the relentless spread of the virus, meaning any human contact becomes a threat. This is the Soderbergh of low-key but wide scope drama, such as Traffic or Erin Brockovitch (2000), rather than the breezy fun of Ocean’s (2001-) or The Informant! (2009), with an emphasis on real human emotion and actors, not fancy camera work or editing.

The scale of the film is also its enemy though.  As we are given population stats for every city that the characters visit, and the news footage and audio totes up the number of infected and diseased, panic spreads to the streets and we catch glimpses of rioting, looting, quarantine areas and so on. It feels like there should be more of this almost sci-fi action, but Soderbergh is determinedly keeping things low-key.  This works for the individuals stories in the most part, Damon’s particularly, but on the larger scale it feels somehow underwhelming. The eureka moment when the vaccine is discovered doesn’t feel like the rewarding moment it should do, and perhaps this is Soderbergh’s warning that there is no stopping the mutating viruses that will occur.  At the film’s end, a sample of the deadly virus is placed in a lab next to samples of smallpox, bird flu and so on. It’s inevitable that it will happen again. If anything, Contagion acts as a government information advert – make sure you wash your hands properly, cover your face when you sneeze, cook your food properly.

The sense of fear that envelops the film world gradually works its way into the audience and every cough and sniffle by those sitting next to you makes you start to wonder, if not quite bringing about all out panic.  This is not a horror film in the traditional sense, and some will be put off with the slow burning emphasis on drama, instead of gore.  One autopsy scene is particularly wince inducing but Soderbergh isn’t interested in blood and guts, but human drama.

Worth seeing if you value human drama over gore, which won’t be for everyone, but an extremely well made and effective film.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN

Odeon East Kilbride, 08.11.11

One of the nicest touches about Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s big screen adaptation of the boy reporter Tintin occurs just after the opening credit sequence – itself a charming animation in its own right as it follows the distinctive silhouette of Tintin on a foot chase through Hergé’s memorable world. We are then situated in a cobbled town square, Belgian in atmosphere and feel, though never pinpointed as such. There we find an animated version of Hergé himself, the original artist and author of the Tintin adventures. He is shown drawing a street portrait of his most famous creation, given away by the presence at Tintin’s feet of his loyal companion, the dog, Snowy. When the animated Hergé completes his portrait he reveals it to the audience as a Tintin portrait in the style of the original comic book creation, while Hergé simultaneously states ‘I think I caught something of your likeness’. At the same moment, the Tintin in his present creation is revealed, as Jamie Bell turns to camera, covered in his mo-cap (motion capture) facelift. It’s a bold introduction by Spielberg, at once paying homage to the much-loved Tintin and his creator, Hergé’s distinctive comic style and the books that still entertain worldwide. It also starkly calls attention to the method Spielberg and Jackson have chosen to use to bring Tintin to life in their big screen version – the still contentious use of motion capture.

What motion capture successfully brings to The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and which is fully utilised by Spielberg, is an animated recreation of the Tintin world. From the European town and city, to the open seas and the desert to Morocco and back, the detailed recreation of scenery, landscapes, sea battles and aeroplane thrills and spills, it’s all excitingly shot and beautifully detailed.  It is an immersive world that has been created, and done handsomely without the need for gimmicky 3D.  As always with mo-cap though, problems still exist in the representation of human characters.  Lying somewhere between human and cartoon, the ongoing issues of mo-cap are all present – the dead eyes of the characters, the oddly expressionless faces and disconcerting lip movements, the awkward body movement, a stiffness that means Tintin can’t seem to relax his arms or walk across a room without looking uneasy. During the fast paced action sequences of course, all this can be forgotten, which perhaps explains why Spielberg hardly pauses for breath once the adventure begins. In some places this onrushing of action works remarkably well, like the extended sequence of Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) recalling the sea battle between his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock and pirates that leads to the sinking of the Unicorn ship, all of which is shown in vivid flashback. The constant mixing between present and past is seamless and the imaginative animated edits across time frames are invigorating. In other places it distorts the film into a frantic mess, like an escape from villains in a Moroccan coastal village, which is such a mass of colliding elements that any sense of tension, drama or danger is dissipated.

Unfortunately the characters who suffer the most from the bedevilment of mo-cap are the films central hero and villain – Tintin and Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Tintin, always intended as a blank face by Hergé, on which the reader can project their own image, suffers from the mistaken belief of the films creators to try the same trick. In film it just leaves us with a bland, humourless hero, lacking personality or any sense of peril or danger – feelings only enhanced by the personality-sapping effect of mo-cap.  Sakharine, meanwhile, suffers from having too little screen time and not much to do when he is on screen, apart from barking orders at his hapless crew. In all the rush to keep the action going and the younger children interested, his plot and motivation get lost and jumbled.

The weak hero and villain leave a gaping hole at the centre of the film. This gives the other players room to make an impact.  Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as detectives Thompson and Thomson raise a few laughs with limited slapstick opportunities, although one senses that if they had been featured more it would have quickly become tiresome. That leaves Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock and Snowy the stage to steal the film. Snowy, (one assumes) as a fully animated characters, doesn’t suffer the limitations of mo-cap, and therefore seems a lighter, freer spirit amongst the cast, bounding, running, jumping around with abandon. There is something slightly askew in his deep black eyes that doesn’t ring true, but not being human, it’s easier to overlook.  Serkis, regarded as the king of mo-cap ‘acting’ (see Gollum, King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, et al.). seems to get the best out of the movements required to make mo-cap convincing – perhaps purely by coming from a place of more experience. There is something odd in his choice of a thick (and wandering) Scottish brogue for the voice of Haddock, quite at odds with the neutral English adopted by the rest of the cast. Nothing in Hergé’s original stories suggests Haddock is Scottish, or of Scottish ancestry (Serkis voice for  Sir Francis Haddock seems middle-English in flashback). Perhaps more disconcertingly is the lack of proportion in the mo-cap Haddock’s head, which for some reason is clearly sized to big for his body. Incidently, in the same vein, why Tintin’s trademark quiff has become ginger as opposed to fair-haired blonde originally drawn is a mystery.

The exaggeration of features seems to have been a choice by Spielberg, giving much of the supporting cast a rather freak show look – all big jaws, bulbous noses and over-sized heads. In a cameo role, Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel), the opera singer, has the look of someone dressed in a rubber fat suit. All of which begs the question as to why this film was not either fully animated or live action, instead of stuck in the weird half world of mo-cap. The strength of mo-cap lies  in its use to create non-human characters in a realistic way, within the real (live action film) world (see Andy Serkis’s list of previous mo-cap incarnations). When it is applied to a film as a whole, its limitations, particularly in representing humans become all too clear. After the likes of Beowulf  (Robert Zemeckis, 2007), A Christmas Carol (Zemeckis, 2009) and the major flop of Moms Need Mars (Simon Wells 2011), it seems the studios and film-makers still are unwilling to harness mo-cap  as a tool within a film rather than as an overall style of itself.  How many more critical and public pannings will it require before the Studios understand that the audience simply do not want to look at ‘reanimated corpses’, as mo-cap’s humans are referred to? One suspects that, like the gimmick of 3D, Hollywood will continue to plough ahead regardless so long as they can make their money.

What the mo-cap medium and the emphasis on action does confer on this Tintin is a lack of overall charm that is lost from the original stories, and from previous live action Tintin films – Tintin and the Blue Oranges (Philip Condroyer, 1964) and Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece (Jean-Jacques Vierne, 1961). While these obscure, low-budget European films lack the action and scale of the Hollywood backed blockbuster that Spielberg can afford, they compensate in charm and a sense of fun, loving characterisation (benefiting from being human), and a laid back energy that Spielberg has jettisoned in favour of all out action.  John Williams tries his best to encapsulate some of that charm and feel in his European tinged score, but ultimately this feels like an American adventure film rather than a European one, and it, and Tintin himself, suffer for this.

Hergé famously said before his death that Steven Spielberg was the only director who could bring Tintin to the big screen.  Of course, he said this in the early 1980’s after the likes of E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Jaws (1976). If Hergé had lived long enough to see Spielberg move to more serious adult fare like Schindler’s List (1993), The Color Purple (1985) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), or to simply make some of his weaker films – Hook (1991), The Terminal (2004) or A.I. (2001)- he may have revised his statement on reflection. He certainly hadn’t seen motion capture coming, and one wonders if he would have regretted that medium’s interference.

A climactic battle between Sakharine and Haddock involving giant cranes at a shipyard dock is spectacularly clumsy and the necessary but leaden set up for the Peter Jackson helmed sequel leave a dissatisfied ending to an average adventure, and a mishandled opportunity. Decent, but for fans of the original stories, not good enough.

Film Rating: 3 out of 5.