You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Sunday, 28 April 2013


An experienced cellist’s carefully ordered life disintegrates when he is diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s. A monomaniacal first violinist struggles with suppressed passions when a beautiful young student lays claim to his affections. A husband, an insecure second violinist, and wife, a brittle viola player, flounder when forced to confront the reality of their failing marriage.

These personal dramas form the substance of A Late Quartet, Yaron Zilberman’s meditation on classical music. The four individuals, played by Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Catherine Keener respectively, form The Fugue, a world-famous string quartet entering its twenty-fifth year. When Walken’s cellist, Peter, reveals his condition and announces his decision to leave the group, the quartet’s fragile symbiosis is disrupted, perhaps fatally.

The film gets under the skin of its characters, using the allegory of life-as-music to explore the disharmony the group brings to their separate and collective existence. Hoffman's Robert is fed up on playing second violin and wants the chance to shine in the role currently occupied by Ivanir's disciplined Daniel; Juliette is distraught by the plight of Peter, her surrogate father, and fails to support her husband in his ambitions. Daniel, meanwhile, finds himself embarking on an affair with Robert and Juliette's impetuous daughter, Alexandra, played by Imogen Poots.

It's Walken, however, who, in his stillness and reserve, anchors the film in its central metaphor: "For us, it means playing without pause, no resting, no tuning. Our instruments must in time go out of tune each in its own quite different way... What are we supposed to do, stop, or struggle to continuously adjust to each other up to the end even if we are out of tune? I don't know." The whole cast turns in sensitive performances that elevate the inherent soapiness of Zilberman and Seth Grossman's script.

The film begins and ends, and, indeed, is run through with music, provided by the Brentano String Quartet, and feels in itself like a meticulously crafted emotional movement. I saw A Late Quartet some months ago and it's startling the clarity it retains in my thoughts: it's a minor gem, one that's unlikely to garner much critical or commercial attention but nevertheless demands consideration.

Verdict: Subtle and expressive, the film has Walken's dignity, Hoffman's frankness, Keener's poise, Ivanir's technicality: A Late Quartet is a virtuoso piece of cinema and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013


A crime drama directed by an obscure American arthouse director and starring two hip young Oscar nominated actors? Sounds like my cup of tea.

On one hand, you've got Ryan Gosling, a strange blend of fey and masculine, as carnival motorcyclist Luke Glanton, a bleach-blonde, barely repressed psychopath who develops a penchant for bank robbery in order to provide for his baby mama, an underused Eva Mendes. A fey-voiced man of few words, prone to bursts of sudden and brutal violence, who loves "his" kid, resents "his" woman's partner, and has a natural talent for his chosen vehicle, you'd be forgiven for arguing that Luke sounds like a simple reiteration of the Driver, Gosling's unnamed protagonist from Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive. Luke, however, shows promise of being more than just a copy-and-paste protagonist.

The first act of The Place Beyond the Pines is an impeccably paced thriller that pairs Luke with a seedy garage owner - Ben Mendelsohn in a smarter, less foul-mouthed take on his character from Killing Them Softly - before proceeding to run him off the rails. It's at the exact point that things are beginning to go terribly wrong for Luke that we meet our secondary (or is that second?) protagonist, Bradley Cooper's beat cop Avery Cross. As our view of Schenectady and Luke's crime spree are divided abruptly in two, the film draws down and everything you might have expected to the furst of its run time goes straight out the window.

Sadly, this is the film's best and only trick. I'll refrain from giving spoilers - as Alfred Hitchcock said, "Don't give away the ending..." -, but suffice to say that The Place Beyond the Pines segues abruptly first into Copland territory - one honest cop making a stand against corruption, right down to the involvement of Ray Liotta - then a coming-of-age drama featuring Dane DeHaan of Chronicle fame. In short, the film, presumably conceived as a triptych about damaged father-son relationships, feels like three separate stories only summarily connected. Plot strands fall by the wayside, important characters summarily abandoned: the danger about Hitchcockian tricks is that you can very easy alienate the audience, as I feel is the case with The Place Beyond the Pines.

Though beautifully shot by Cianfrance, with a haunting leitmotif-heavy score by Mike Patton, the film ultimately feels emotionally hollow. These journeys, oft repeated, through the wooded countryside and the shabby urbanity of Springsteen Country, acquire a significance that The Place Beyond the Pines doesn't lend to anything. At a protracted 140 minutes in length, the tension and poetry both leech away till all that's left is intention: before it was over, I was waiting for the film to end, however unsatisfactorily. In its final moments, The Place Beyond the Pines achieves a sort of circularity, neatly dovetailing the story of DeHaan's Jason with that Luke.

It's Gosling's Luke, however, who stays with you, not Cooper's ambitious policeman or DeHaan's tormented high school student. The foundational parallels between the law enforcer and the criminal, both centring around a baby - baptism and theft -, are left unexplored, and all we, the audience, is left with is an unfulfilling rumination on honor and machismo. Even so, I don't feel I can quite do The Place Beyond the Pines justice in this review, with paltry, near indecipherable notes and more than a week after viewing it, but that I've felt compelled to try says something about the fascination Cianfrance's film holds, despite its myriad flaws.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a film I may be tempted to see again sometime in the future. Though a bit of a noble failure, there are few enough of those that it may be worth your time.

Monday, 8 April 2013


Okay, let's get the major issues out of the way: No, ... Parnassus is not former Python Terry Gilliam's best film - that honour is reserved for Brazil, Orwell's 1984 via German Expressionism -, nor is it the late Heath Ledger's defining performance - whether you prefer Brokeback's closeted cowboy or the anarchic philosophising of his Joker in The Dark Knight, both are, in my opinion, far more notable. Nonetheless, if you're not looking for an instant classic, the masterpiece of a fantastical, often controversial director, or the swan song of a brilliant young actor, then there's plenty here to enjoy.

The eponymous Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an immortal mystic turned jaded alcoholic, tours the shadowy backstreets and bleak docksides of modern-day London with his travelling show, the eponymous Imaginarium. His troupe is comprised of the truculent, if diminutive, Percy (Verne Troyer), the puppyish Anton (Andrew Garfield), and Parnassus' daughter, the elfin but passionate Valentina (Lily Cole). However, her sixteenth birthday is rapidly approaching, at which point her soul, unbeknownst to any but her father, is forfeit to the gravel-throated, pencil-mustached Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), in payment for her father's Faustian deal.

While it's the Imaginarium itself that has generated the most hype, the magical world powered by Parnassus, in which your imagination takes corporeal form, is less impressive that the "real world" London setting. A budget of $45 million is simply not enough to bring to life all that Gilliam might have hoped for. You can't, however, fault Gilliam for trying: if the inside of his head looks anything like one of his hallucinogenic dreamscapes, it deserves a starring role in a show such as this. Indeed, the travelling circus is occasionally reminiscent of an earlier flying one, possessing the same brand of madcap wit and knack for abstract symbolism. It's the atmospherically gloomy London to which one feels a connection - here events feel truer, more honest - and it's here that we first meet the enigmatic Tony (Ledger) under circumstances I won't spoil.

Apologies for having taken so long to get around to arguably Parnassus' greatest draw, but it's some half an hour into the film before the de facto lead makes his first appearance. He's charming, if sleazy; a loveable Cockney vagabond hiding a dark secret, albeit one more Tom Wolfe than Dickens. Ledger is charismatic and engaging in the role, but never more than that. His London accent, though at least marginally convincing, may be to close to comfort to Ledger's native Australian, which occasionally threatens to break through. Thankfully, though, despite rumours to the contrary, he's present for almost half the film's in terms of screen time; for those who, like men, want to squeeze out every remaining in-character moment of a man who might well enter into cinematic legend.

On which note, to draw further, if inevitable, comparisons, if Brokeback Mountain was his East of Eden, Dark Knight his Rebel Without A Cause, then Parnassus is Heath Ledger's Giant: a burgeoning epic full of interesting, flawed characters, a deeply thematic piece but one in which the players seem more like ciphers than human beings. As soon as the cast pass literally through the magic mirror, it becomes difficult to focus on the reality of their situation, quite simply because of the lack thereof. Despite this, it's the alternate faces and personas that Tony presents when he passes into the Imaginarium - necessitated by Ledger's death mid filming - that arguably provide the most genuine view of the chameleonic Tony, as well as giving the film some additional subtext weight in terms of discussing, however fitfully, the nature of our private and public selves.

Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, all apparently close friends of Ledgers, bring much of "themselves" to the various incarnations of Tony: it's possible to recognise the wide-eyed otherworldliness of Jack Sparrow, the boyish exuberance of Alfie, the darkly-accented posturing of In Bruges' Ray. Accumulatively, they make up much of the film, but individually their "cameos" rely significantly upon type. There is some irony that, even as Gilliam elegises on the death of imagination through the figure of Parnassus, that he should indulge so much in celebrity and artificiality. 

Parnassus is evidently a labor of love, a testament to artistic integrity, but is ultimately too loose in its affections. The story is convoluted and obtuse, the characters flighty and unpredictable, and there is an over-reliance on set pieces, which serve too often as plot devices. Plummer plays his familiar plummy rascal to great aplomb (not a world away from his award winning performance in Beginners) and Waits is incandescent as the chain-smoking, bowler-hatted, adjective-rich Devil. Both, however, are all-too evidently allegoric of Gilliam's battle against the studio system. Cole is fey and lovely as Valentina and Garfield awkwardly heroic as her would-be love interest (with Spiderman still three years off); Troyer, meanwhile, is an acidulous Sancho Panza to Parnassus' Don Quixote. 

Ironically, the problem at hand is an overabundance of imagination, an expression of all the director's thwarted desires - failed projects or unrealised dreams in general -; it's a big, crass, polished mess of a movie. Even so, I left the cinema with a sense of wonderment at its sheer ambition and days (indeed years later) I'm still thinking about it, which suggests a certain power in the film's audacity. Though rambling and indulgent, Parnassus is nevertheless a memorable piece of cinema and never less than watchable for all its many foibles.

Rating: Three and three quarter stars.

A Retrospective

(Written Two Weeks Later)

Okay, this has got a little weird. I've just seen Parnassus again, and I think, in the intervening time, it might have improved. In fact, my earlier opinion, that it was entertainment masquerading as art, has done a one-eighty. Or possibly a five-forty. In any case, there was spinning involved and now I don't know which way is up.

Taking a seat without my customary snacks, I wasn't particularly sure I wanted to spend another two plus hours in the company of Parnassus and his troupe quite so soon. However, as the film progressed, I found that, in my detached state of mind, I enjoyed it - at least appreciated it - a lot more than the first time through. For one thing, when viewed entirely as allegory, the film functions a whole lot better.

It is the story of the struggle between good and evil, but also artistic integrity and commercial necessity. Everything has subtextual meaning. Parnassus is God and yet still Gilliam, who is himself Don Quixote. Mr. Nick is The Devil, who represents the studio system as well as the forces of reality. The whole cast are less characters than pieces being moved around a huge transdimensional chess board.

The trick is, I think, to accept this fact from the offset. Gilliam is nothing if not a storyteller and, as with most classic tales, the narrative is meaningless without the underlying metaphor: Parnassus is, simply put, a parable. Admittedly, the film is complex enough without this in mind, but it's fascinating to try and keep track of the thematic developments.

Anyway, this leaves me with pretty much no criteria by which to determine how "good" Gilliam's latest effort is as a work of cinema. It is, like Tony, a blend of poet and charlatan, denying any attempt to label it. Whether that's laudable or deplorable, I cannot tell; it's neither here nor there. As such, I hope you will take my revised rating as intended and consider maybe hiring Brazil as well/instead.

Rating: Three and three quarter stars and a pineapple.


Christmas, as the saying goes, seems to come earlier every year.

As of my writing this, it is not yet mid November and already, en route to the cinema, the Staines council is decorating for the festive season. Also, for reasons unbeknownst to me, now is the time at which the powers that be have chosen to release the newest version of Charles Dickens' beloved yuletide classic.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, best known for the likes of Back to the Future and Best Picture winner Forrest Gump (and who has since made a return to live action with Flight), and starring Jim Carrey, who needs no introduction, as definitive miser Ebeneezer Scrooge. As with the last few of Zemeckis' films, A Christmas Carol is CGI animated, using performance capture technology to transfer the actor's likeness, with every tic and mannerism, onto their digital counterpart.

Now, to be entirely honest, I was more than prepared to truly dislike this film. I've seen innumerous adaptations of the book - which my Dad and I read every year - and it's a difficult task at the best of times balancing fidelity to the text with cinematic innovation, regardless of all this digital chicanery (harumph!).

The story itself might be the best known in all of fiction. Who among us cannot say that Marley was dead to begin with, or, indeed, how exactly how dead? Is there anyone who does not the withering dismissal for which Scrooge was notorious? Indeed, it's difficult enough to convey his transformation from that "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner" of lore to the benevolent figure who saves the life of only even with a flesh-and-blood actor the caliber of Patrick Stewart or George C. Scott.

However, Jim Carrey, while not an obvious pick for a more conventional retelling, is an inspired choice for Zemeckis' animated protagonist. With the rubber-faced versatility of the man behind Ace Ventura and The Mask mapped onto the pinched and wizened mug of Mr. Scrooge, Carrey gives a strong and often surprisingly nuanced performance. The same, unfortunately, cannot always be said for the rest of the cast.

The various Ghosts, from the sickly green phantasm of Jacob Marley to the sinisterly cowled shadow of Christmas Yet to Come, also voiced by Carrey, are phantasmagorical delights, bringing Dickens' macabre creations both vividly and loyally - if you'll excuse the pun - to life. The rest of the supporting cast, notably populated by Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, and Robin Wright Penn, do their best, but their character models, be it Scrooge's eternally cheerful nephew Fred or his downtrodden but amiable employee Bob Cratchit, simply lack the same refinement.

While they may not suffer from that cardinal failure of performance capture, the phenomenon known as Uncanny Valley, they are simply not on screen long enough to form an attachment to them, as one might do if the living person behind the mask of animation was perhaps more in evidence. Tiny Tim, on the other hand, may be considered a success merely in that he does not come across as the creepily saccharine little gremlin I had feared (as in the George C. Scott production).

The film's animation is simultaneously it's greatest strength, allowing for the true wonder of Scrooge's journey to seem truly magical: whether you're flying through the night skies above Victorian London in a transparently-bottomed room or fleeing across cobbled streets from a demonic horse and carriage, it's at these points that A Christmas Carol soars.

Having previously dismissed it as a gimmick worthy only of decade-old monstrosities, such as Jaws 3-D or House of Wax (and at the time of writing still being a month away from the release of Avatar), recent releases have done much to renew my confidence in the anaglyphic image. Just as in Coraline before it, here the novelty is actually, well, refreshingly novel, doing much to immerse you in a world that could have proven intrusively artificial. Even so, these are but set pieces that should have provided a garnish to the full meal of the story's emotional banquet.

The film inexplicably rushes through Scrooge's history - his lonely childhood at boarding school, his merry apprenticeship with Hoskin's bucolic Fezziwig, and his heart-breaking descent into penny-pinching parsimony - which diminishes the joy of his eventual salvation. Carrey alone sells Scrooge's giddy exuberance, a stark contrast to his earlier meanness of spirit.

Despite its essential shallowness, Zemeckis' adaptation of the classic story is as visually opulent A Christmas Carol as any committed to celluloid and possesses another earnest glee to remove any cynicism that may surround it. After all, now (I should say, then) is the time for charity and goodwill towards all men, even if the day itself is still a while off. In retrospect, I'd wait a little closer to December 25nd to pay a visit to your local metroplex, but - though if you're not a fan of the book this version will do little to rectify that - if the spirit seizes you, my recommendation is to go with it.

At the very least, it'll be one heck of a ride.

Verdict: Three and a quarter stars.


Meet the Jedi Knights.

They can become invisible to the human eye, phase through solid objects, even kill you with a single touch (though it may take several decades to come into effect). And they work for the U.S. Army. This was the remit of the First Earth Battalion and they were real.

Exactly how real The Men Who Stare At Goats never goes into, but, even in its absurdity, the film retains a worrying sense of realism: as the saying goes, "stranger than fiction". Based on a book by Jon Ronson, the events contained within may not really have taken place, but the framework in which they occur is worryingly believable. In the film's pre-title sequence, the claim is made, "Mostly based on true events, believe it or not." Even with a healthy dose of skepticism, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the purely fictional and the merely fictionalised.

The film's title refers to the laboratory testing of these so-called "psychic spies" in trying to telekinetically stop the heart of a goat (de-bleated, of course). One such would-be goat killer is Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney and closer to the charismatic idiot Ulysses McGill of O Brother, Where Are Thou? than anything Hollywood's most charming leading man has done since. However, it's one of The Men Who Stare At Goats' greatest strengths that you never feel particularly inclined to laugh at Cassady - despite his espousal of field techniques such as "sparkly eyes" and the combat application of a hug - more so at the culture that created him.

It helps, then, that the film takes place from the perspective of Ewan McGregor's Bob Wilton, a small-town reporter who stumbles upon the story and who accompanies Cassady on his journey across war-torn Iraq. Cassady is apparently there as an employee of a contractor hoping to rebuild the blighted nation but whose only selling point is that they're cheap, "very cheap". This somewhat unconventional road trip is intercut with flashbacks to Cassady's time with the F.E.B. (First Earth Battalion), laying out the history of the American military's investigations into weaponising the paranormal, as well as providing much-needed context for the events unfolding around them.

These tangential scenes introduce us to disgraced F.E.B. founder Bill Django, played by consecutive Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges, whose New Age philosophy is, needless to say, somewhat at odds with standard military procedure. It's he who leads the Jed Knights' first incarnation in community spirit, interpretative dance, and recreational drug use. It's not long, however, before the group's perversely peacenik routine is perverted by Kevin Spacey's ambitious Larry Hooper, who sees the opportunity for an altogether darker agenda. Sadly, character development takes a backseat, giving the film's participants little chance to evolve beyond their strangely alluring archetypes.

Though a political satire, both of namby-pamby liberalism and heartless conservatism, The Men Who Stare At Goats is too whimsical to be truly biting. Despite a few nice set pieces, such as two gung-ho two private security firms opening fire on each other on the streets of Baghdad, the tone is also wildly uneven. Even as military contractor Todd Nixon, a sleazy Robert Patrick, fails to identify Iraqi civilian Mahmud as anything other than "Mohammad" so the film itself seems unable to figure out exactly what's going on. As such, the eventual freeing of the goats works only on a symbolic level - that of the freeing of the Iraqi people from American oversight - as opposed to dramatically.

Though hardly Doctor Strangelove, The Men Who Stare At Ghosts is nevertheless profoundly endearing, with a handful of decent jokes, a self-effacing performance from Clooney and a cute (albeit muddled) political statement. Zany and ultimately harmless, the issues the film raises are tackled shallowly, but if you can glean from it at least a newfound distaste for the musical stylings of a particular purple dinosaur, Ronson, director Grant Heslov & Co. have done their jobs.

Rating: Two and three quarter stars

Sunday, 7 April 2013



Cinematic adaptations of beloved 1980s toy lines are not generally renowned for their artistic qualities: Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise may have grossed more money than the GDP of most South American nations, but it’s eye-popping action was more migraine-inducing than Avatar-immersive while last year’s Battleship, directed by Das Boot’s Peter Berg, sunk without a trace. Then there’s the issue of 3D, too often a gimmick intended to compensate for a lack of plot/character development/any originality whatsoever.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation takes most of the same recognizable figures that appear in 2009’s installment, as well as a few new ones, and throws them into a series of hyperkinetic action sequences. Channing Tatum returns as Duke, the scar-faced, surprisingly amiable protagonist of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; this time around, he’s joined by Dwayne Johnson’s formidable Roadblock. Without delving into spoiler territory, the Joes are ambushed, things blow up, people die, setting Roadblock et al on the path to revenge.

D.J. Cotrona and Adrianne Palicki pull support as two new Joes, neither given much by the way of backstory. If Palicki only appears to be there to provide the requisite eye candy then Cotrona is even worse served in terms of individual motivation. Bruce Willis appears as the eponymous Joe, retired General Joseph Colton, in which amounts to little more than an extended cameo. Ray Parks returns as mute, perpetually masked Snake Eyes with Lee Byung-hun appearing as his more-sinned-against-than-sinning nemesis Storm Shadow.

The action sequences, however, more than compensates for the by-the-numbers formulaic nature of the beast. Snake Eyes and his apprentice, Elodie Yung’s Jinx, swing from snowy mountaintops and battle against enemy ninjas with an unconscious prisoner in tow while Roadblock goes mano-e-mano between concrete pillars in a truncated smack-down against Ray Stevenson’s sadistic Firefly – his accent in the role is reminiscent of T-Bag’s (Robert Knepper’s) in Prison Break. Oh yeah, and, in a move completely given away by the marketing campaign, the bad guys almost completely superlatively blow up central London.

Jonathan Pryce pulls primary villain duties as the President who isn’t, though his plan to blackmail an assembly of world leaders is bog-standard Bond villain fare (not to mention not making a world of sense once you think it through: wouldn’t detonating the planet’s arsenal of nuclear missiles in mid-flight cause colossal fallout?) Cobra Commander, with Luke Brady and Robert Baker subbing in body and voice for the previous film’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has the thankless task of, well, leading Cobra, but his break-out, at least, showcases another great supporting performance from Walton Goggins.

Verdict: With its hoary, by-the-book macho banter and its cardboard cut out character motivation, G.I. Joe: Retaliation isn’t seeking to reinvent the wheel, and, without Jon M. Chu’s taut yet graceful direction, it could easily have been an utterly forgettable. If Zombieland writers’ Rhett Ree and Paul Wernick’s script is never more than competent and exists mostly as an excuse to provide an excuse for/tie together these sequence, then G.I. Joe: Retaliation is at least slick, if mostly vapid, fun.