Saturday, 22 January 2011

Shutter Island

2010, 15, Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer

Shutter Island is not an easy watch; it’s a compelling one. Reflecting upon the film, adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, it might occur to you that the most deeply disturbing part were 4 little words that hold a stratospheric bearing: said words were placed at the very end; said words were not spoken; said words were ‘Directed by Martin Scorsese’. As far as the plot is concerned, this is a B-Movie fresh from the school of Hollywood noir, which is encouraged by the 1954 setting and the minimalistic stroke orchestral unsettling score. It is difficult to prevent your heart’s beat from racing before you’ve even witnessed the first shot of a boat endlessly sailing out of the mist, taking you to Shutter Island. The boat holds US Marshal Teddy Daniels and partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), who head to the ominous island in order to investigate the confusing disappearance of Rachel Solondo, a patient from a mental asylum (Emily Mortimer). She was said to have disappeared – ‘…as if she evaporated, straight through the walls’. And so what begins as an unassuming mystery soon unveils its ulterior motive with splashes of conspiracy, lunacy and – yes, you are in the right film – horror. Old-school Scorsese layered the element of horror by way of a person’s psyche bubbling away, breaking down; Travis Bickle talking to a mirror; Tommy DeVito maliciously murdering two people for no good reason. Welcome now to the oldest school Scorsese has become educated in, with the horror-helping a lot more blunt. Not to detract from the feature’s actual genre: psychological thriller, but the thrills are less car-chase and cop shoot-outs than paranoid mind-screwery amidst dank asylum cells. Getting the picture? Teddy, the film’s protagonist, as you might have guessed, is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Marty’s Robert De Niro replica, holding his own to an impressive standard despite demands that could have dragged him downward. A blend of the characters he has played opposite the heavyweight’s camera before this, Teddy represents the innocence of a man who is powerlessly plagued by his past. Quite honestly, it is nothing short of a miracle how DiCaprio delivers a three-dimensional performance for a largely one-note creation, yet he manages to do so with flair, forever solidifying his persona - not only as heavyweight himself - but a bloody talented one. Teddy plays the role of the viewer, questioning everything but repeatedly being knocked back as if there is nothing to question. His frustration at the confusing lack of answers is our frustration; his fear for his safety is our fear for his safety. At one particular point of the film, we glimpse the sea lapping up against the rocky terrain of the island, slowly eroding away. This could be likened to Teddy’s psyche. The increased exposure to the indisputable island is a danger. There are a number of inter-cut dream sequences where Scorsese slips into expressionism, at one point to such a huge degree you could wonder whether he had a checklist in his pocket whilst filming the picture. It is only upon second viewing that it becomes clear these are clues; jigsaw puzzle pieces; necessary pointers. It could be argued the film suffers for a second view is mandatory. Only on second view will you come to realise the scope of how intricately structured and cryptically clever Shutter Island actually is. Combined with this, the dialogue is a lot more suggestive than first realised – which accounts for its almost clunky, robotic nature at times. Ben Kinglsey provides the greatest delivery of lines (‘You blew up my car. I loved that car’), and truly affects as the annoyingly creepy Dr Cawley. The remainder of the cast revel in their roles, namely Max Von Sydow as Nazi Dr. Naehring and Mark Ruffalo as Daniels’ partner Chuck, making good on previous promise. Its influence is effervescently extreme; from film noir’s of the 40s and many knowing nods to Hitchcock (the vital lighthouse will make you roll your eyes at the thought of Vertigo). Most obviously is a scene pretty much lifted from Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, which is thankfully more homage than rip-off. Although the average Marty fan may be hoping for quintessential Scorsese shenanigans, there is doubt as to whether disappointment will ensue. In many ways this holds a mirror up to his back catalogue. Boxes are ticked: a descent into psychosis straight from Cape Fear; visions of the deceased fresh from Bringing out the Dead; one man’s struggle to keep on top of matters, รก la LaMotta in Raging Bull. Yes, violence may be a component to the cog that whirs in these films - however make no mistake, there is violence present in Shutter Island. The contrast is in its extremely sparing and suggestive manner which makes more of a shock when you notice that more blood is not spilt. Scorsese has assembled the film so tautly that your mind will play tricks on you. The aesthetic of expressionism is used so powerfully that you will want to wake from Teddy’s dreams as much as DiCaprio leads you to believe Teddy wants to wake from them too. Marty is continually having fun with what he is accomplishing here, dabbling and residing in territory never truly reached before. That isn’t to say there isn’t a fair share of uncomfortable shots. What we are subjected to is subtly, but shockingly evocative (a when-will-it-end tracking shot shows a day’s work for a firing squad). In actuality, a climactic scene is so painfully brutal that if there is any shred of emotion inside of you, you will attempt to squint away the intrinsic image. Key word: intrinsic. The work at display is never gratuitous and wholly necessary, which is to the credit of all talent at the fore, namely Mr. Scorsese. But does he have something to prove? To himself maybe, but certainly not to the movie kingdom. This kingdom should begin to prove itself to the man that it can continue to adapt and branch out to genre’s not grasped for a long while. To prove it can use its influences in a positively influential way - for Art’s sake. To not only prove that the Golden Age of Hollywood is not well and truly gone forever, but that the future of flicks will feature well-assembled, intriguing characterisation and plots, leading to affecting results to restore one’s faith in a good film. Shutter Island is all of the above.

Ultimately, it is a mixture of intrigue, expressionistic editing and evocative imagery that make Shutter Island a truly shudder-filled experience. Experience it twice for maximum potential



Friday, 21 January 2011

The Town

2010, 15, Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm

It’s fairly unimaginable that the bloke from Gigli who used to be destined for big things has now quite possibly achieved said destiny. The Town, Ben Affleck’s second directorial effort (his first being the acclaimed Gone Baby Gone), is a glorious hark back to the cat-and-mouse and bank heist thrills of the 70s. The plot is admittedly thin, yet enticing: bank robber MacRay falls for the manager of the bank his crew just hit. Taking centre stage also, Affleck proves that he has overcome any blips in his career and should now be seriously considered amongst the Pitt's and Damon's of this world. The rest of the cast fulfil their roles with relative ease, most notable being a volatile Jeremy Renner. The remainder of the support include an extremely likable Rebecca Hall, Mad Men's Jon Hamm proving the small screen isn't big enough for him - and the last screen role of the legendary late Pete Postlethwaite (for which he has been Bafta-nominated). Serious drama merged with some real tense action sequences promote this to ‘check it out’ status



Wednesday, 19 January 2011

His Mind Is the Scene of His Genius: Christopher Nolan

Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Tarantino: these are all filmmakers of the ages; filmmakers whose features are defined by who made them, as opposed to being billed as the latest in the long line of sequels or a fresh Johnny Depp cash-in. Some might say this is becoming more and more of a rarity as the film industry continually progresses – or plummets, if you will - into the age of ‘celebrity’. Half an hour into The Dark Knight, the stratospheric successful sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, and it shines through that this is the work of a true craftsman, converting a landscape straight from Michael Mann’s Heat to a modern day Gotham City. Only, this craftsman does not go by the name of Scorsese, Spielberg or even Tarantino… but Nolan. Christopher Nolan, to be precise.

Scouring your eyes over the highest selling films of 2010, something might occur to you. Of course, you would be forgiven if you noticed that nine features out of the top ten were either: A – an animation, B – a sequel, or C – a remake. You would also be forgiven for thinking that the fourth highest selling film slotted into one of these categories, or was at least ‘adapted from the novel of the same name’. Well, do not make the same mistake again: Inception – which has just hit shelves on DVD and Blu-ray - was all Christopher Nolan. It is for this very reason why it is becoming increasingly more probable that Nolan has become the filmmaker of a generation. Namely, our generation. First hitting the big-time with the mind-boggling, genre-shifting – and arguably greatest film of the noughties - Memento in 2000, he has managed to convince that boggling minds and shifting conventions is merely a hobby. Of course, a natural move from an independent thriller that shreds the film rule book into a million pieces and a remake of a Norwegian film that stars Robin Williams as a serial killer is a reinvention of the hugely popular Batman franchise, which single-handedly butchered Joel Schumacher’s career back in the nineties. A brave step forward? A stupid step backwards? Batman Begins solidified the proof that Christopher’s abilities as filmmaker were second to none. Gone were the darkly comic days of Burton’s Gotham – here, just psychological darkness prevailed. In a summer dominated by The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s and Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s of the film world, Begins planted a seed that everybody yearned for. By the time The Dark Knight flew onto screens, the seed blossomed into the seventh highest grossing film of all time.

“Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the colour of a car. They’re just an interpretation…"

Citing Kubrick as a major influence, if Chris Nolan ever took the time to sit and reflect upon his career thus far, it would be fairly easy to draw comparisons to the renowned director’s filmography; Stanley’s first features were all about establishing himself, before hitting the film universe with a true classic. Followed by another. Then another. Notice a sequence here? One could claim that The Dark Knight is Nolan’s Spartacus. Okay, it is not set around the time of the Roman Empire, but said Empire could represent the force that The Joker effuses, with Bruce Wayne depicting a modern day Kirk Douglas in leading a revolt that often results in violence. If that was a shaky analogy, I am sure it could be agreed that Inception is most certainly Chris’ 2001; pushing boundaries, genuine originality – as Ellen Page’s Ariadne puts it in Chris’ latest, ‘pure creation’.

However, the striking similarity between the two runs far deeper than what is on the surface; they primarily lend focus to a protagonist’s state of mind. In Nolan’s case, this is what he hinges his films upon. Leonard Shelby has memory loss; Will Dormer has insomnia; The Joker lacks empathy. He moulds his features based on whichever dysfunction a protagonist suffers from. This could just well be the secret of his success. Without this emphasis placed on the human mind, where would the justification of extreme use of non-linear narrative be? There is a reason for the technique to be used, and used perfectly. The man himself once commented that the reason he directs is due to narrative freedom. ‘Authors had enjoyed (narrative freedoms) for centuries and it seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy those freedoms as well’. Thanks to Nolan’s efforts, flocking sheep can enjoy these freedoms too.

Batman Begins:
 “You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent”

Alas, whereas Stanley’s trademark aspect ratio, recognisable tracking shots and colourful credit sequences are contemporarily deemed Kubrickian, Nolan’s trademarks are more… well, original to him. To begin in an apt place, almost all of his films begin with a close-up of a character’s hands performing an action; whether this is Guy Pearce’s troubled Leonard Shelby holding a photograph of the man he just killed (in reverse, obviously), or the legendary Michael Caine performing an astonishing magic trick. Most noticeably, said scene is a vital moment that, due to the tweaked narrative, takes place later on in the film – and offers a revelation, slotting a giant chunk of the jigsaw into place. Ultimately, this causes Nolan’s back catalogue to require repeat viewings (I dare anybody to say they got everything they needed from Inception after their initial viewing), and ensure you are empowered to watch over a third time when you unveil yet another shrouded mystery. It’s official: Chris Nolan films are the LOST of the movie universe.

You might wonder how a film that starts with the final scene manages to clutch your attention in its fist, build momentum and cause tension; but due to Chris’ skilled honing in on the human elements of these characters, the intricate nature of the structure and regular Director of Photography Wally Pfister’s blindingly beautiful cinematography, Memento is arguably one of the most original offerings of the past 15 years; and Nolan somehow threw a gasp-inducing twist into the fore. That’s talent. The Prestige is the filmic equivalent of a magic trick, the rug pulled from your feet in the third act, forcing you to marvel and to wonder how he did it. Like all talented directors, Chris could have snatched at the commercial carrot and ensured his fresh take on the Batman franchise was a family-friendly, safe success-guaranteed throwaway. In staying loyal to his fanatical flair and talent, he not only sustained his passengers, he picked up an inane amount of hitchhikers to join him on his journey (If the quality of next instalment The Dark Knight Rises is anywhere as high as Begins or its sequel, there’ll be deafening shouts of ‘Greatest Trilogy’). Arguably, the only recent film that matches the immersive, awe-inspiring visual of Inception is James Cameron’s Avatar – in which he was aided by 3D and a budget to create new technology. Reconstructing landscapes; zero-gravity fight scenes; crumbling structures: Inception is the ultimate lucid dream and one in which you don’t have to put glasses on to obtain what you require.

The Prestige:
“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled”

Then there’s the performance he draws from his actors: whether it’s regulars (Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Cillian Murphy) or one-timers (Guy Pearce, Heath Ledger, Leo DiCaprio), you can simply sense the performer’s innate trust in their director. He steers his cast to the top of their game, straight into career-best territory and, in the late Heath Ledger’s case, award glory. If there were a tree planted for every time a performer tells an interviewer that they would love to work with their director again without meaning it, the world would be a crowded place. However, it shines through clearly that when Nolan is on the lips, they mean every word; not only has he become a desirable object for the head honchos, he’s a must for the Hollywood heavyweights. Gary Oldman, who stars in the Batman films as fan-favourite ‘Commissionerrrrrr’ Jim Gordon, shared his thoughts on working with the man himself: ‘He doesn’t feel he has to justify he’s the Director of this big movie. And a great Director knows when not to say something. He’s just a wonderful filmmaker – he gets the job done.’ Chris likes to keep it in the family (his main producer is wife Emma Thomas and fellow screenwriter Jonathan Nolan is his brother), but the cast he uses seem to become his family also, as evidenced by the praise he could drown in. Additionally, and somewhat crucially, it is of utmost important to note that out of every Chris Nolan film so far, he has screen-written all but one. In an age that places emphasis on the work of the director, the screenwriter will remain the unsung hero of a film. Granted, 2010’s The Social Network was not only billed as ‘the film about Facebook as seen by Fincher’, but also ‘written by Aaron Sorkin’, famed for TV powerhouse The West Wing. But for a summer blockbuster to be written by their director – that is anything but typical. But ever the boundary-pusher, Chris puts pen to paper as well as print to screen; he’s just that dedicated (the daddy of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, has only taken the sole writing credit on 3 of his 26 films). For somebody who created the ingenious idea, wrote all by himself and directed Inception surely makes you wonder whether the plot is actually fact, and inception had been used successfully on Nolan himself.

The Dark Knight:
“Madness, as you know, is like gravity; all it takes is a little… push”

Seven features down, another in the pipeline and producing and ‘overseeing’ rights on Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot (after Bryan Singer’s underwhelming attempt tanked at the box office). It is clear studios and fellow peers have a lot of faith in Mr. Nolan, and as I’m sure you will surmise, the faith is whole-heartedly warranted (5 out of 7 films all feature in IMDB's Top 100). Whispers of ridiculously overdue Oscar recognition have gradually snowballed into shouts. It is famously rumoured that he has already made his mark on the Academy’s history for the recently extended list of Best Picture nominees was done so due to The Dark Knight not being on the shortlist. Chris Nolan may be making films for a wider-spread audience than ever before, but not once has fear of commercial cash in presented itself. Writer, producer, director – and an honest-to-goodness nice guy; Nolan’s name can easily slip next to the legendary likes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino and now be instantly recognisable.

“Dreams feel real while we’re in them; it’s only when we wake up that we realise something was actually strange”

Christopher Nolan, it seems, isn’t just the go-to man; he’s the man.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The King's Speech

2010, 12A, Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce

Colin Firth in 'The King's Speech'
On the surface, one may suspect Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech to be another in a long line of royal dramas, in which we learn about yet another slice of history we maybe did not need to know. I urge you, however to look deep beneath the surface, for although our characters here are royalty, I doubt they have ever been so hugely humanised before. This is largely in part due to the plot, in which Bertie– the Duke of York and son of King George V - struggles with the pressure of being next in line after his anarchic brother Edward (a sneering Guy Pearce) due to a hindering stammer that prevents him from even being able to read his daughters a bedtime story. A nation wracked with fear of an oncoming war need a King to look to, and one with a voice. The eventual King George VI is played to utter perfection by Colin Firth who really has never been better and is residing at the top of his game. We feel every stutter, every hesitance and every frustration Bertie emanates that by the film’s climactic Speech of the title, we are invested. It is to as much credit that that can be thrown Firth’s way that the lines – when agonisingly delivered – perfectly pinpoint the targeted emotion; you will frown, bawl and howl. The support is just as magnificent: ever-reliable Helena Bonham Carter as Bertie’s reassuring wife (and future Queen Mother) provides a comforting presence, but it is Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue that will become the film’s unsung hero. From the moment we first see him emerge from the loo to meet an unlikely customer, to the closing shot, we have no reason to ever doubt him. Logue is a good man, an honest man – a bloody hilarious man(he wants his shilling!). Then there’s the direction; you will be shocked how cinematic Hooper has managed to make this. Inspired shots fill the screen (a montage sequence of Logue’s workshop with Bertie, in which he uses a wall cleverly to replace cuts), and the King’s actual Speech is about as tense as Rocky’s final boxing match - if not, more. It is these real characters brought to life by glowing performances that will evolve The King’s Speech into a film for the ages.

As for Firth, he is most certainly next in line for the Academy Awards acting throne.



The White Ribbon

2009, 15 Directed by Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi 

A German-speaking black and white film two and a half hours in length is not everybody’s cup of tea… unless Michael Haneke is at the helm. Shocking, boring and baffling audiences alike for some time now, the Austrian filmmaker is no stranger to crafting challenging features. The White Ribbon, his overdue Palme d’Or winner, is a dark depiction of a rural town in Northern Germany where disturbing incidents are occurring. We are led through the landscape of Haneke’s lens by a narrator who creates anticipation, but also helps identify the many characters. Although the pace slows, this can be overlooked for what Haneke offers is a ridiculously intriguing insight into a rural town that are being plagued by the unknown. Much like his previous films, most notably Hidden, the route to answers is not as clear-cut as some would prefer – but this is now to be expected. This cup of tea comes with no sugar, but biscuits.