Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Book Thief Review

There's a mainstream middle-brow type of film which was what the Nouvelle Vague in the 50's called the 'Cinema de Papa', that is to say, it is thoroughly conventional. It tends to platitudes, to echo the views and moral perspectives of the very average. Tradition is not a bad thing, not on its own, yet with a film like The Book Thief, it goes over much repeated material in a form which is so well known as to induce narcolepsy.

The Book Thief is thoroughly conventional. At times it is cliché and cringey, but other times it's a wonderful and emotional journey through the eyes of a little girl during the worst period of humanity. It's conventional, but it's also worth your time. 

The Book Thief is about a young girl whose brother dies and her mother abandons her - all at the age of 11. She's adopted by an older couple in Nazi Germany. Her foster father teaches her how to read which lights a fire inside of her to read and read and read. Since this is Nazi Germany, books are very hard to find. The only way she can get more books is to "borrow" them. All the while, her family agrees to hide a young Jewish man in their basement which puts the young girl's family at great risk. But, the young girl and the young man become very good friends, helping each other through hard times.

WW2 films viewed from a young perspective are always interesting because of the innocence and humanity shown by the infants. Much like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Liesel and her friend, Rudy, just can't fathom why all of this pain and suffering is going on in the world. Rudy dresses up like Jesse Owens and pretends to be him and ultimately, is punished for it. Of course, he can't see what he's doing wrong. I think this aspect of the film was handled really well.

To be honest, the entirety was handled well, which is a problem for me. World War 2 was the worst period of time throughout all of humanity and this film doesn't give that impression. I never felt like the children were in that much trouble or that there was much threat. It's understandble why they have gone down this route. After all, this film is aimed at a younger audience. I do accept that it's a good way for children to engage with World War 2, I just wish it was grittier and darker because that's what the subject matter deserves. It's just a bit too glossy for my liking.

An aspect that is it very strong in though is it's performances. Geoffrey Rush in particular is fantastic. He is so loveable. Every little nuance is done to perfection and his chemistry with Sophie Nélisse's Liesel, who also puts in a great performance, is wonderful. It gives the film heart. Everything goes through Liesel and she keeps up her performance throughout the entire film. Something has to be said of Emily Watson's role too. Every time I see Watson on screen she continues to amaze me. She brings so much to the screen and it's a joy to watch. 

Also, it wouldn't be a war film without a John Williams score. I don't know how he continues to do it. He is into his eighties now and he provides the brightest spark to the film. Orchestrations are once again superb, the music finely crafted with that Williams-esque brand of class we have come to expect from his work. For the most part this score is quite small in scope and the chamber sized orchestra consists mainly of the strings, woodwinds and a small brass section. His score pulls at the heartstrings and it certainly packs a punch.

This is an odd film. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I came out a tad unsatisfied - yet I cried and I laughed in all of the right places. It's a good story heightened by its excellent performances and score. For what it was going for, I think it was good. It was child friendly and a good way of introducing children into a horrific period of time. I was just left thinking, what if Spielberg directed it? What if Polanski directed it? And what if del Toro directed it rather than a guy who has made his name on Downton Abbey? It could have been regarded a lot higher.  

A conventional film, but it's heart is in the right place. 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Nymphomaniac Volumes 1&2 Review

To be honest, I had my doubts when I went to see this film. After all the buzz, I more or less expected a provocative, pretentious, incomprehensible porno film. I thought Nymphomaniac would be a shallow artistic excuse to show lots of explicit sex in an attempt to shock the audience and create controversy.

Well, I was wrong.

Is it provocative? In some ways, yes. I think choosing nymphomania as a subject for a film is already some sort of provocation. And there are some scenes that might be considered tasteless or mildly shocking. But if I would have to describe the film in one word, I wouldn't use 'provocative'. Instead, I would use 'imaginative'.

Because that is what this film is: imaginative. It's so full of ideas, full of creativity and full of cinematographic exuberance that it's hard not be impressed. The nice thing is that Lars Von Trier never takes himself too seriously. In a way, it's a pity that the film is about sex. So much attention is being given to the number of penises shown and the number of vagina close-ups that it overshadows everything else, including the creative way the film is made.

Lars Von Trier has crafted an absolutely epic story filled with beauty, humour and heartbreak – but it's his writing that is most impressive. Von Trier's dialogue is so simple, yet so beautiful. The dialogue between Joe and Seligman is remarkable. The words are literally coming off the page. As good as the acting is, it's hard not to be impressive when you're given this material. His script is dense. He's created this world that is unlike no other. It doesn't have an actual set city – everyone speaks with a different accent (whether that is intentional or not I don't know) - but it definitely has a universe. You're immersed in this universe for four hours and you never want to leave.

The story is told very cleverly. It's told in chapters and it really has this 'epic' feel about it. Like we're being told a fairy tale, albeit an X-rated fairy tale. It's a nice juxtaposition that gives the film depth. Von Trier visualises this to aplomb. One wonderful example of this creative approach is the final chapter, where Joe sees a similarity between her complicated love life and Seligman's favourite piece of polyphonic organ music. She compares her lovers to the three different melodic tunes in the music. The way Von Triers visualizes this, with the screen split in three to show cross cuttings of the organ and the lovers, is original and funny at the same time. Throughout the film we get ugly, pointless inserts (nature shots, animals, choir boys etc.) that are derived from low-quality, low-resolution video material. This is a fantastic technique used by Von Trier because it gives us a break from the bleak drama. They're funny, refreshing and well used.

His visualisation is helped by some superb performances. Obviously, Charlotte Gainsborough, newcomer Stacy Martin and Stellan Skarsgård will receive most of the plaudits – but there are some fantastic performances hidden beneath. Uma Thurman, who is in the film for one scene, brings the film it's funniest moments. She is absolutely brilliant. I haven't seen her this good for a long, long time. Also, Jamie Bell plays a fantastic sadist. (Who would have thought?! Billy bloody Elliot!)

The film is split into two parts in Kill Bill style. Although this was not Von Trier's choice, it's handled very well. The two parts are distinct and the both carry a different style and tone. The first part has a lighter tone and plays out as a tongue-in-cheek caper while the second is darker and grittier. Both work very well and oddly, despite the change in tones, they lead into each other very well. However, the transformation from 'young Joe' to 'older Joe' feels very weird. It felt rigid and hampered the flow of the film. The same can be said of other characters that were recast, it feels very odd. It was an odd decision considering the age difference isn't particularly that big. Despite this, the film never feels too long, which, considering its length, is very impressive.

It's funny and brilliant, its dark and thrilling and its poetic at the same time. If you're a fan of Von Trier you won't be disappointed and equally, if you're not I think it's an accessible film. This film is not about sex. Its about loneliness between sensations, about being alone among people who suffer from lack of attachment. Its about life that struggles with death by facing death, to the ultimate boundary of pleasure.

It's a superb film and I would liken it more to a film of intertwining plots and characters such as Pulp Fiction and last years The Place Beyond the Pines. It's a clever that just happens to be about sex. Take a chance. Go and see it. 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Harry Potter: Alfonso Cuaron, Chris Columbus and the Change in Tone

Many regard Alfonso Cuaron as one of the brightest sparks in film making today and it's no surprise why. Cuaron is off the back of the incredible Gravity, which has done amazingly with both critics and the box-office and it's deserving of all it's praise. It's a marvel in technical achievement. I wouldn't' be surprised if he picked up the Best Director Oscar (although he has healthy competition up against Steve McQueen). Before that, he made Children of Men - arguably one of the best films ever made. He also made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is regarded as the best Potter film and is easily my favourite. I would argue that Cuaron changed the way people looked at the series AND changed the tone and direction of the series.

Cuaron took the reigns from Chris Columbus, who has a very reputable track record, I mean seriously, he pretty much made my childhood with Home Alone 1&2 and Mrs Doubtfire. But that's what he made, children's films. I don't think he was right for the chair of Harry Potter. Maybe that's a bit harsh, he did well with the opening two - but Cuaron saved the day by taking over. The previous films were cheesy and charming, but they didn't have any bite. Imagine Columbus dealing with Werewolves, Dementors and death scenes. It would have been horrible. However, he has to be credited with his incredible casting. Without him, we wouldn't have Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, John Cleese, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs (hello by the way), Toby Jones, Kenneth Branagh and Robbie Coltrane. For an American, he certainly knew his British cinema.

On the topic of casting,  I think Cuaron's casting was ingenious. Not only did he cast the greatest living British actor in Gary Oldman as Sirius Black (who actually took the role because he needed the money, who would have thought?), but he also replaced the deceased Richard Harris with the fantastic Michael Gambon. Now, I don't want to disrespect the late Richard Harris (he truly is a remarkable actor), but I don't think he would've fit with the Dumbledore of the later books, who, lets face it, is a massive dick - but a loveable dick nonetheless. Who better to play that than the loveable dick that is Michael Gambon? It was a casting masterstroke from Cuaron. Also, Timothy Spall is outstanding as Wormtail. He is literally who I was picturing when I was reading the books. David Thewlis is incredible as my favourite character, Remus Lupin and Emma Thompson as Trelawney was fantastic. I think all the c
hildren inside us enjoyed seeing Pam Ferris aka Ms Trunchbull getting blown up as well! It was a masterstroke in casting.

It's also well known that Cuaron pushed Radcliffe, Watson and Grint to perform better as actors and it shows. If you go back and watch The Philosophers Stone and The Chamber of Secrets and then watch The Prisoner of Azkaban the acting is completely different. They're like different actors, the performances he gets out of these children is impressive, with Emma Watson as the shining star.

Azkaban's cinematography is beautiful too. You just have to watch the Buckbeak flying scene to realise the true beauty of Michael Seresin's work. It's everything you'd expect from a Cuaron film. Truly stunning film making.

It has to be said that Azkaban is easily the best book. There's a lot to get your teeth into - the time-travel, the mythical creatures, the marauders map and lots of new characters - but boy does Cuaron take a big bite. He was fully invested. He added his touch to the world of Harry Potter. He designed the tattoos on Sirius, he created the Hogwarts Bridge and he brought a brand new style and tone that just worked for Harry Potter. With that, he created one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. And without him, I don't think we'd see Voldemort looking the way he did, I don't think the final films would have been so dramatic and I don't think it would go down as one of the most consistent franchises in history.

He may have seen widespread acclaim with Children of Men and Gravity, but as a Potterhead, I thank Alfonso Cuaron for his work on The Prisoner of Azkaban.