Wednesday, 30 January 2013

I recommend... Silver Linings Playbook

The film industry's award season is upon us and there was one name I kept seeing in articles and hearing on news bulletins. That name was Jennifer Lawrence. All I knew about this actress was that she annoyed me in X-Men: First Class (2011), and that she was now world-famous for her role in The Hunger Games (2012); all in all - she was Hollywood's big new star. Given the fact that I disliked her as Mystique in the latest X-Men film, I assumed that her success was based on her stunning face and the fact that she had bagged herself the lead role in a new movie franchise. I could not have been more wrong. A couple of months ago I saw that she was in a new film with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, called Silver Linings Playbook (2012). From what I remember, it had some impressive reviews considering it was a comedy/drama, however it wasn't until this award season that I saw Lawrence was being nominated and winning various awards for Best Actress, that I thought I became curious about her, and of course, the film.

Silver Linings Playbook is the latest picture directed by David O. Russell, whose only other work I have seen is The Fighter (2010). Basic plot synopsis? Pat (Cooper) has just come out from a mental institution after beating his wife's lover half to death. He has bi-polar, and the film follows him on his journey, learning to overcome the incident with his wife, his condition, and through that win her back. During this period he is living with his parents (De Niro and Jacki Weaver) and along his journey, he makes friends with Tiffany (Lawrence) who is also trying to work through personal issues. The two form a friendship and work together to help each other conquer their respective psychoses and recent traumas.

So, what makes this film work and stand out from other films of a similar theme? The simple answer to that question is its solid script and strong performances. It is so rare to see a film today that relies solely on its script and actors. All credit to Russell here, there are some pretty slick camera moves and shots throughout the film that give it an exciting feel, fast pace, and cool look, but what I must really commend him on is that he allows his actors to shine and perform at their best.

Bradley Cooper is best known for The Hangover films, and after seeing him in those and a small role he played in Wedding Crashers (2005) I did wonder whether he would be able to pull-off this role. The character of Pat is a difficult one to like at first; he is stubborn, overpowering, aggressive, but Cooper brilliantly plays the part so that we come to understand this troubled person. Dialogue alone can't convince an audience that this is a good guy and to cut him some slack. You need a good actor to achieve that and Cooper does it magnificently. There is a depth and complexity that Cooper unleashes in this film that we haven't seen him do before, nor did we think him even capable of doing. He is strongly convincing, likeable, loveable in fact, and somebody that the audience wants to cheer for. We see him working along his journey, we see his highs and his lows, and at times he looks completely helpless - his own worst enemy. But at other times we see just how strong a person he is, and we find that we do will him on. It was wonderful to see Cooper playing a different type of character, especially playing it so well.

The person who really stands out in this film though is Jennifer Lawrence. She has so much star quality radiating from her, that I would go so far as to say that she will be one of the great actresses and movie stars of her generation. Watching her in this film, you can see that she has the potential to give us even more great performances. She has presence too - a rare quality today. Not to mention she looks absolutely gorgeous. For this role she has very dark hair which she wears with very dark eye make-up; her look is sultry, moody, and yet vulnerable. Tiffany is an interesting character because of her non-conformist, rebellious, and no-bullshit attitude; Pat can crack as many jokes at her as he wants but she will rip him to shreds with her truthful and hard-hitting words. Behind that facade however we do see a very vulnerable young girl who has been through a tough time, and consequently got a little lost whilst trying to deal with it. She is immensely likeable, and that is all credit to Lawrence. Often when actresses play slightly wild, angry women, they can be off-putting, vulgar, and irritating, because they aren't convincing in that role. But Lawrence is. She has already picked up a Golden Globe for Best Leading Actress in a Comedy or Musical, and I will be very surprised and disappointed if she doesn't pick up the Best Actress Oscar. Her performance has an earthiness and realism to it that makes us really warm to her.  I was thinking recently how there were no actresses in today's film industry that I am a fan of, none who I really love to watch.  Every actress I adore had her hey-day during the 1930s-    40s. But I think Lawrence may just be my new - and only - favourite current actress.

Of course, you can't forget De Niro in this film. He has played so many iconic characters with intricate issues and personalities, not to mention a plethora of gangster roles, that you wouldn't think he would do so well with a simple role like a father trying to help his son. But if anything, De Niro excels in this role beautifully. We see his frustration and anger with his son's behaviour and situation. But we also see the upset, guilt, and hope that he feels for his son to be better. He's perfect in this role.

Aside from Cooper, Lawrence, and De Niro, the entire cast of this picture all contribute to the overall good-feel of the film. Each one executes their lines and part with flawless precision and effect. One other thing that I really liked about this picture was its score. Danny Elfman has composed quite an unusual score from his other work. It has a modern sound that meanders from up-tempo to melancholy and ambient, wonderfully mirroring the rises and falls of its protagonist. Like the film it has a relaxing feel that is motivational and yet calming at the same time.

This film boasts an unbounded array of talent in acting, writing, and directing. As soon as it's released on DVD I am purchasing it because I've wanted to re-watch it since it ended. It has a calming, relaxing feel because of its comedic elements, which softens the serious tone (which at times can be quite uncomfortable to watch) of its moving story. There are some hilarious scenes that you will laugh out loud at; that's one thing that this film does brilliantly - it treads the line between comedy and drama delicately. It's finale is pretty easy to see coming as the film progresses, but that doesn't make the ending any less enjoyable. Memorable, true-to-life performances give it gravitas and realism. And best of all - every actor seems to bounce off each other - particularly Lawrence and Cooper, they work wonderfully together in this picture, and have fantastic chemistry. It wouldn't surprise me if a director pairs these two together again in future. You can't judge a film until you've seen all of it, but the moment it started I felt that I was going to love it - and I was right. It is a heartwarming story with slick directing and characters bursting with energy and intensity. A refreshing watch that cannot be faulted.

My rating: 8/10 - a very good film.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Enjoyment


Even though I doubt that anybody will read this post amongst the masses of reviews and blogs that talk about this film, I wanted to share my thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey anyway...

I don't think that any film director has had more pressure on them, nor higher expectations to meet, than Peter Jackson did with his latest film. I have long understood that to expect the same excellence and success of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was beyond optimistic; there is no way that he nor anyone else would be able to create the same magic. Although some do have qualms with those films, every time I watch them, I see them as flawless pieces of masterful movie-making, and I can't imagine any other film, nor series of films, that can match it's sheer brilliance in storytelling. Jackson in that sense, is his own worst enemy, because he has set a benchmark that he will never again live up to, but in return for that he has the legacy of LOTR. So yes, there was a lot of expectation, and even though I knew it could never be met, I still had this speck of hope that somehow Jackson would conjure something equally mesmerising. 

After reading the book The Hobbit last week, it became obvious that in order to make the story into three, epic films, Jackson and his crew would have to make up their own narrative from events only assumed, mentioned, or hinted at in the book itself, whilst patching that with details from Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Having said that, I can't imagine how he will be able to make the next two films as long, nor as action packed. The second film of the saga I expect will be mostly concerning the journey through Mirkwood forest which does have a lot of action in it but will mostly be set in the forest itself... this may cause problems.  As for the final film, it it likely to primarily concern The Lonely Mountain. It will be very interesting to see how Jackson makes these next two films as full as the first. Anyway, enough of that and now onto the film itself. The first instalment of The Hobbit Trilogy. 

I was seriously concerned in the first 45minutes that I had made a huge mistake in paying to see this film. The beginning sequence telling of the dwarves and their plight with the dragon was really good - not quite as perfect as Galadriel's narration of events in The Fellowship of the Ring - but still it held my interest and looked glorious. Unfortunately, a good 45minutes of the film is taken up with the dwarves visiting Bilbo's home. Not only did I find the dwarves unfunny, as well as the dishes song irritating, but the whole scene just felt awkward and not very well thought out. This scene may have worked in the book, but for cinema it needed a lot more cut from it, and an entirely new structure. I was sat in the cinema thinking there may as well be a million dwarves, because I'm getting confused with their names and the whole scene is such a mess, I don't really understand what's going on. Their piggish eating habits and table manners were grotesque - I know we are supposed to get a real feeling of the dwarves but I don't need to watch dwarves throwing food around a room and stuffing their faces for nearly an hour. Yes The Fellowship of the Ring took 45 minutes for Frodo to leave the Shire, but time passed within those first minutes: Bilbo's birthday, Bilbo gives up the Ring, Gandalf researches in Minas Tirith, the Nine leave Mina Morgul, Gandalf explains to Frodo that he must leave... it is broken up instead of being set in one room and about one meeting like in The Hobbit. All in all, I didn't like the dwarves at all to begin with, and I was genuinely starting to worry about the rest of the film. 

The best bit about this scene was Thorin (Richard Armitage). He is very convincing as a dwarf king who has lost what is rightfully his, and Armitage plays him with a fantastically regal, moody manner. However, even I felt that Armitage held back or was limited by the material he was given. Don't get me wrong I found him really cool and he is instantly likeable, but I didn't find myself rooting for him like I did with Aragorn in the LOTR.  The Misty Mountains song that the dwarves sang added great atmosphere to this dull meeting - it was darker, gloomier, moodier, and did more for the woe of the dwarves and their plight than any of them had in the last 45minutes. 

Martin Freeman as Bilbo is perfect from the word go. I warmed to him straight away and really felt like this was Bilbo when he was young. For one he is adorable, and his naivety makes us feel similar to him because we don't really like the dwarves or know what is going on ourselves. What I really thought was done well was the showing of Bilbo's personal journey and experiences as he transforms from someone who doesn't like surprises and who doesn't leave the Shire, to a brave and adventurous person. When the dwarves descend on him and make a mess of his house, Freeman really looked irritated but also a little hurt at the rudeness of the people who have ruined his home. I'd say that Freeman is the best thing about The Hobbit; without him I don't think the film would have been as effective. He gives a flawless, well-thought out performance that is bound to improve with every film. Thankfully, you can breathe an enormous sigh of relief once the dwarves have left Bilbo's home, because the film picks up from that point onwards, and it gets better and better with each scene. 

The journey takes Bilbo, Gandalf (reprised brilliantly again by Sir Ian McKellen), and the dwarves over the edge of the wild, and Jackson and his team definitely create the feeling that these lands are untamed and mysterious. Even though the Middle Earth in LOTR was always scary and dangerous, it still had a feeling of order. Gondor, Rohan, Lorien, Fangorn, Mordor... it all felt like there was civilisation there, and people had good knowledge about each place, even if it was an evil one. With The Hobbit, however, there is a feeling of the unknown. There is an evil in the forest of Mirkwood that has poisoned all that lives there, a Necromancer (we know who that is) dwells in Dol Guldur, a ferocious dragon still lives in The Lonely Mountain and terrifies all who live near him... yes the lands travelled in The Hobbit give a sense of the wilderness and immense danger. All credit to Jackson, I was consistently nervous and scared of the surroundings and landscape which we'd encounter in The Hobbit.

That saying, I did feel like each new location was not introduced well. In the LOTR I felt that the camera always set-up to us that we were in a new place or new realm, e.g. now we're in Rivendell, this is Moria, or here is Lorien. In The Hobbit the locations weren't properly introduced, leaving me slightly confused and guessing where they were - but then maybe that was purposefully done to mirror the wildness of the locations. 

I thought it was brilliant how they made the three trolls on the mountain side cockney. I don't know why but somehow it worked, they all sounded like East-End thugs and even though most of the orcs in LOTR had a cockney twang of some sort, these trolls would have looked right at home in the soap opera EastEnders. Although they were stupid they were also frightening; I felt a little sick at the thought they were ready to eat the horses, the dwarves, and Bilbo.

One character I did not like was the Goblin King. To me he seemed like a complete imbecile that just waved his arms around all the time and cracked really bad jokes. He didn't scare me at all, when in reality he should have been terrifying. Why make a villain an idiot? It ruins the atmosphere completely, especially if you want us to feel that everyone is in danger. The goblin caves were impressive though, and the final chase of Gandalf and the dwarves out of the caves was spectacular. Quick and fast, I felt as if I were being chased by goblins too, and the immense speed of it all, as well as the camerawork, are something to behold. 

Of course, one cannot talk about this film without mentioning the scene between Bilbo and Gollum. If you don't know what cinema magic is then this was it. Looking around the cinema as Gollum appeared in The Hobbit, you could clearly see the smiles on peoples faces. He's back! Andy Serkis returning to a role that he has so completely made his own was wondrous to watch and what I hate is that he really doesn't get enough credit for his talents in this role. Sure Gollum is a computer image, but they model his facial expressions on Serkis' own, and the voice and mannerisms are all acted by Serkis. It is all Serkis, and without him Gollum would never have been effective. I liked how they had made Gollum appear younger; we forget that this story happens nearly 100 years (I think?) before Frodo and the Ring, so Gollum is a good deal younger. They show this via making his eyes brighter and skin less wrinkled. 

Regardless of how happy I was to see Gollum, or how riveting the riddles were, even this scene dragged with one or two riddles too many. I kept expecting them to end, but there were more. I have a feeling that Jackson included every single riddle from the book that is exchanged between the pair, but again - don't think that that worked cinematically. I suppose by using all of the riddles revealed to us how clever and resourceful Bilbo is, as well as how angry, murderous, and devastated Gollum becomes when he loses the ring. What it does do brilliantly, is reveal how deep in the Misty Mountains Gollum lived for so long - alone with the ring. Nor wonder he became so consumed and corrupted by it. 

One thing which I detested was the character of Azog. He looked super computerised, and so did many of the other characters in the film. I was really amazed at how horrific and scary the make-up department made characters in the LOTR, like the deformed orc Gothmog in The Return of the King. So much effort was made so that he looked like a real monster, and yet with Azog here, he just looked like an uglier version of Voldermort. I know that prosthetics and make-up cost time, money, and are uncomfortably as hell to wear but the effect is so much stronger. It is because of that that they fell short here... Azog was not scary, primarily because he looked fake. It didn't help that he just seemed to grunt and had boring lines to say. Even the moment where Azog and his gang of orcs surround Bilbo and the gang on trees that are on fire and falling off of a cliff, he just seemed really dull and hardly the huge force to reckon with that he is made out to be. 

Leading on from that, there was one major problem with this film. There are endless near death misses and traps, but Jackson and his crew failed to show them as seamlessly in a flowing narrative like they did with LOTR. Let's compare, in The Fellowship of the Ring we have so many close shaves: the hobbits with the Ringwraiths in the woods, Arwen and the wraiths, the Crebain on the mountain side, Saruman making the mountains avalanche and force the fellowship into the mines, the giant squid, the goblins in the mines and the troll, the Balrog, and finally the Uruk-hai. Not once in that film did I feel like the narrative was disjointed and wobbly, and like 'here we go again, another near death experience.' However in The Hobbit it did. It felt so stop and start-y, that I found myself thinking 'oh no, not another near death experience'. This is nothing wrong with the story itself, but it does show that something wasn't quite right in the script, or the way that Jackson planned the film. 

That saying, all in all, I actually really enjoyed the film - much more than I expected. Yes it started awkwardly, the narrative did not flow flawlessly,  the Goblin King and Azog were disappointing, CGI seemed to almost completely replace prosthetics... indeed there is no doubting that a lot is wrong with this film. I have heard Jackson in an interview say that they made this film in a year due to changes etc, and I think that's what caused the problems. There is a sense that the film was rushed and not as thoroughly thought through as LOTR. It's just a bit of a mess. It is far from perfect, and I hope that Jackson and co. improve for the next two instalments, because regardless of its flaws, I really enjoyed it. I was so sad when it ended. From the moment Bilbo and his gang set off on their adventure the film improves exceedingly with every minute. I was scared, on the edge of my seat, curious as to where we were going to end up. I left the cinema happy, and wanting to talk about it. I wanted to see it again straight away. I started reading the book almost immediately. I found myself being annoyed that I had to wait for the second and third films. I even believe that I would enjoy it even more on the second watch, and other watches after it. 

I am so curious to see how they show the dragon Smaug (although we do get a glimpse of his eye at the end of this film) and am very interested to see how they develop the story with the Necromancer. I am dreading the scene with the great spiders in Mirkwood though - beware all fellow arachnophobes, this will probably be our worst nightmare if the book is anything to go by. Give me Shelob anyday! 

I asked a friend what he thought of The Hobbit before I went to see it, and he said The Hobbit is a child's book. Don't expect seeing something as serious as The Lord of the Rings. And he was completely right. It is a children's tale. 

Additionally, for people who complain about changes made from the original story, I read a fascinating article where the writer explained how Jackson's alterations and amendments to the story were to help merge and connect the story of The Hobbit more fully with LOTR. We have to remember that The Hobbit was written first, and it was only when his publisher's asked him to write more that Tolkien wrote LOTR. If he had LOTR in mind before he wrote The Hobbit then it would have fitted together more perfectly, but Jackson has done that for us here. This is the article for anyone who is interested in a comparison between the film and the book:

This is not a flawless masterpiece like the LOTR trilogy. I honestly don't think anything will ever match the grandeur, magnificence, and wonder that was those films - and I definitely can't see Jackson matching his work. That said, this film, with all of its faults, was exciting, thrilling, and I can't wait for the next two. The fact that it got better and better with each scene makes me hope that the same goes for the next two films - that The Hobbit Trilogy will go from strength to strength. As per, Jackson showed some breathtaking scenes and gave us a real adventure, and the chance to visit Middle Earth again. And Freeman as Baggins is undoubtedly the star of the picture. I really need to see this film a second time, without the expectations of its predecessor, nor the doubts of the poor reviews I had heard from others. I enjoyed it immensely, and cannot wait for the release of the next two.

Overall, I happily give this film a rating  of 7-7.5/10. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Vertigo vs. Basic Instinct


Before anybody starts thinking that I'm going to compare Basic Instinct (1992) to Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo (1958) - don't panic. I found Basic Instinct a very average film that started well but unfortunately dragged out 45minutes too long, for which the plot and characters became boring, unrealistic - and the ending I no longer cared for. This was a shame, as I found Stone's character really cool and interesting at the beginning, and the pace of the film was fast in the first hour.

However, I was struck by how similar Sharon Stone's character, Catherine Tramell, was similar in appearance to Kim Novak's character in Vertigo, Madeleine. It turns out that I wasn't alone in this, and when I looked it up on Google, many others had noticed this similarity too. I don't know if the intention of the make-up artist or costume designer was to base Stone's appearance on Novak's, but it sure is similar, and one cannot deny that Novak's look in Vertigo is striking and unforgettable.

Here are just a few images to show the comparison. I'm sorry that this isn't a very long or interesting article, but I am always fascinated when films take inspiration from the classics - especially when it comes to characters and appearance.

The scene I will be referring to where Stone is most like Novak is in the infamous interrogation scene from Basic Instinct.

Firstly, the costume. Although the colours of the dresses are different, both are turtle neck, and are worn with a stylish, white coat. Stone wears a white dress - I'm supposing this is to symbolise that she is "innocent" of the crime that she is being investigated over - whilst Novak's was black - possibly to contrast her coat and show that there are two sides to her character. The outfit is striking, glamorous, yet very simple, and makes our leading ladies look memorable.

Secondly, is the hairstyle. In Vertigo, Novak's hairstyle is of particular importance, and although Stone's differs ever so slightly, it is still in the same French-style bun - tightly pulled back, revealing her fantastic face. I am not talking about the 'Carlotta' hairstyle that Novak sports in some scenes, rather the style she wears it in when she's not "in a trance."Another point - they both have very light blonde hair.

Finally, the make-up. Novak's eyebrows in Vertigo differ greatly from how she normally wore them. For this role, her eyebrows are much darker than her hair colour, thicker, and denser. Stone's are the same, but instead of being heavily drawn on, hers have not been plucked. The make-up is considerably light. Their eyes are framed and their flawless skin enhanced, but no heavy make-up is used - it appears that both make-up artists wanted to show their naturally beautiful features. Another similarity is they both wear a very pale lip - almost as pale as their skin. Their make-up is simple, low-key, but striking too, in that it shows off their incredible bone structure, mesmerising eyes, and natural attributes.

Anyone who has seen Vertigo will have noticed this when watching Basic Instinct. I tried to think of other similarities between the films but there were few notable ones. Both are set in San Francisco, and both feature a detective who follows and then becomes obsessed with a woman. But both women are very different - Novak is innocent and unaware of how Stewart will become attracted to her (although she is aware that she is being used in a murder plot), whilst Stone starts reeling Douglas in from the moment she meets him, and she is a murderer. Basically, there are connections but none can really be elaborated on. However, it is interesting that Novak's character be the basis for the look of Stone's in her most famous scene, especially when they are so different and the film involves a detective following and becoming obsessed with a woman in San Francisco. If anyone has any thoughts on this, please share in the comment section.