When it was first announced that diminutive movie star Tom Cruise would be pulling on the mantle of imposing literary anti-hero Jack Reacher, fans of the Lee Child creation were up in arms. Physically, he may not match Child’s prosaic description of the kick-ass action sleuth as a six-foot-something hulk, but the Hollywood giant more than makes up for it in action-movie experience and charm. It’s just a shame that the material he has to work with doesn’t equal his grand (non-physical) stature.
When five seemingly random innocents are gunned down by a super-sharp sniper, the police are convinced it’s an open and shut case when they close in on military-trained marksman James Barr (Joseph Sikora). But when he swears he’s innocent and the mysterious Jack Reacher turns up to investigate, an elaborately-plotted scheme starts to unravel.
Cruise effortlessly transfers elements of his Mission: Impossible character Ethan Hunt to the role of deadly former police officer Reacher, making him a shoo-in for the character despite his lack of height and bulk. And in spite of his controversial casting, he winds up being the best thing about this crime thriller.
Introducing a comedy dimension, Cruise delivers one-liners with a wry smile and a hefty wedge of cheese as he investigates the convoluted case Columbo-style, all instinct and intelligence beneath the brash, brawny veneer. But while this entertains and helps alleviate the more tiresome moments of the plot, so-so action sequences and two-dimensional characters, it gives the film a lightweight feel that is at odds with its pertinent subject matter, with the world’s gaze currently fixed as it is on America and its gun laws.
A surprising cameo from acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog lends a menacing air and tangible sense of unease to the movie, while a very welcome touch of class is brought to the proceedings by the presence of Richard Jenkins and Robert Duvall.
British beauty Rosamund Pike rounds out a cast that’s far better than the screenplay it’s working with.
Thank goodness Ang Lee got his hands on Life of Pi, rather than the once-touted M. Night Shyamalan. The director of cinematic treats Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain is known for creating visually arresting screen gems, while Shyamalan’s track record leaves a lot to be desired.
Turning this much-loved modern literary classic into something that works on the big screen was no mean feat, and Lee has succeeded in combining his superior storytelling capabilities with a dose of magic realism and some genuinely beautiful touches to weave a wonderfully moving – if sentimental at times – film.
The story concerns a man named Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounting the incredible story of his life to writer Rafe Spall. His childhood tale is conveyed in flashback. When his family is forced to move the family business – a zoo – from India to Canada, a shipwreck leaves 17-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a zebra, a hyena, an orang-utan, and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. What develops is the emergence of a remarkable relationship between man and beast, where each must depend upon the other to survive.
With the focus on one character trapped and alone, Life of Pi has echoes of Danny Boyle’s equally captivating 127 Hours, and Lee uses elements of magic realism, just as Boyle did, to convey his main protagonist’s state of mind. The result is a beautifully shot film that relies on the way it looks to communicate the experiences of the marooned teenager as well as the power, monstrosity and splendour of nature, and of humanity.
Shot in 3D, it should be enhanced by a medium that by definition should add another dimension to what we see, but instead it lessens the film’s visual impact, since the format dulls colours on screen and affects the clarity and definition of the action.
This aside, Life of Pi is a stirring story that stays with you; it’s one that depicts the ambivalent brutal yet beautiful characteristics of the natural world, and one which explores the themes of hope, fate and man versus nature.
As Pi embarks on his spiritual and emotional journey, Lee allows us to go through it with him, every step of the way. In short, Life of Pi is a triumph.
So, for a while JRR Tolkien’s children’s fantasy was set to be directed by Guillermo del Toro, the visionary director behind the haunting Pan’s Labyrinth and the extraordinary, outlandishly designed Hellboy films. But at some point, del Toro stepped away from the project while the man who invested so much time, effort and talent into the Lord of the Rings trilogy strode confidently forward. And while fans of del Toro mourned his departure, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is Peter Jackson’s natural environment. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine it without the antipodean director’s signature look.
But wait. What’s this? The Hobbit looks nothing like The Lord of the Rings. Oh. Hang on. Let’s qualify that. There are still orcs and dwarves and wizards and elves. There’s still the Shire, and other familiar parts of Middle Earth. But what Jackson has done is pioneer a ‘high frame rate’ method of 3D filming, called HFR 3D. So instead of running at the standard 24 frames per second (fps), The Hobbit runs at twice that, making the action smoother and bringing a higher definition to the images on screen.
At best, this has the effect of making things look hyper-real and makes the 3D the most astonishing you’ve ever seen: outdoor scenes are a dream. At worst, it looks unsettlingly like television, giving it a documentary realism that simultaneously brings a sense of immediacy and a sense of detachment. Although much of the time, it can feel naturalistic and you feel close to the action, you’re also aware of the artifice at points where you would otherwise be absorbed in the film as a direct result of the suspension of disbelief the familiar fps rate allows. It’s a curious and disconcerting device but one that gives you a cinematic experience of the like you’ve never had before.
The film’s best sequence happens when our hero, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) – and, although it occurs a fair old way into the film’s 170-minute running time, it’s worth the wait. Up until then, it’s a deliberately-paced plod peppered with padded-out action set pieces that set up the story, add colour and introduce characters.
It starts with a voiceover telling us how the fearsome dragon, Smaug, took the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor and all its treasures for his own. We come to realise that the voice we hear is the elderly Bilbo we know from The Lord of the Rings (played by Ian Holm) writing about his adventures as a young man. Rewind 60 years, and young Bilbo (Freeman) is a simple, settled soul living a Hobbit life in the Shire, when Gandalf (Ian McKellan, reprising his role) approaches and asks him to help with a quest. When a dozen dwarves turn up on the doorstep led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) – a dwarf with an axe to grind – they all set off on an epic adventure into dangers unknown.
Part one of a trilogy, there isn’t enough material in Tolkien’s one book to fill three films as there was with The Lord of the Rings, and Jackson has his work cut out to sustain interest across the follow-up movies. But it’s such a delight to re-immerse yourself in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, it hardly matters.
When London-born playwright Martin McDonagh made violent comedy crime drama In Bruges, he made an instant impact on the big screen. Four years later, his second feature, Seven Psychopaths, proves it was no fluke.
In Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh assembles the right mix of ingredients to create another perfectly baked, darkly comic crime thriller.
Collaborating again with Colin Farrell, the Irish actor is the constant that allows McDonagh to be a little looser with his direction this time around, letting his actors have fun with their roles to give the film a greater sense of playfulness than his first feature. With a cast that includes acting giants Christopher Walken, Harry Dean Stanton and lunatic-for-hire Sam Rockwell, he’d have been stupid not to let these guys off the leash. And they repay him by cooking up a fabulously entertaining Hollywood satire.
Farrell’s chemistry with Rockwell ensures the early parts of the film tick along nicely, as Farrell’s Marty Faranan struggles to pen a screenplay and his best friend, Rockwell’s dognapper Billy Bickle, attempts to help him find the inspiration to get things moving. In the process, the two become drawn into LA’s criminal underworld, bringing them into contact with some colourful – and dangerous – characters who provide plenty of material for Marty‘s script.
McDonagh’s film is a tantalising blend of affection and distaste for the industry he’s working for. Though he condemns in particular contemporary gangster flicks and the Hollywood machine, he also celebrates the things he denigrates, through a simultaneous revelry in the elements that go into a generic crime drama.
McDonagh’s success with Seven Psychopaths is in the carefully-measured balance of humour, violence and drama. It’s sometimes quite menacing, in the tradition of gangster films, but never so much that the overriding light-hearted tone is extinguished, or altered beyond redemption. There are moments of seriousness amid the ridiculousness and dark humour – notably the scene in the hospital with Christopher Walken’s wife and Woody Harrelson’s character, where we get a lump in our throats. It’s scenes like this that secure the audience’s emotional investment in the film, meaning we walk out feeling exhilarated, moved and entertained. McDonagh gives us the whole package for a better viewing experience.
McDonagh’s bold politically incorrect humour peppers the script, adding shock value to the laughs. Of course, everyone’s a target so there’s no singling out, and no offence meant, and with the fantastic cast that boasts Walken as the standout and also includes Tom Waits and Abbie Cornish, there’s a richly layered concoction here to delight the unshockable.
For cinema, Christmas is all about family movies. After all, films are intrinsically linked with the festive season. So many of us at this time of year replay sweet memories in our heads of gathering around the TV to watch the Christmas blockbuster – and it‘s often something we want to recapture.
Rise of the Guardians is a festive-themed animation that deserves to become a seasonal favourite. That’s particularly impressive when you consider the fact it’s director Peter Ramsey’s first full-length feature.
The former illustrator and storyboard artist brings his visual flair to the sumptuous design, which is also unmistakeably influenced by the inimitable Guillermo del Toro on executive producer duties, and crafts a charming animation that blends a timeless fairytale feel with a splash of contemporary humour and a dash of modern design.
Based on William Joyce’s popular series of books, the story brings together the fantasy characters of childhood – the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, Jack Frost and Father Christmas (or North as he’s called here) – and challenges them to keep children believing in order to protect the values they stand for. But as Pitch, the Boogeyman, vows to spread fear, threatening to destroy the hope represented by the Easter Bunny, the dreams protected by the Sandman, the memories guarded by the Tooth Fairy and the wonder preserved by Santa, it falls to Jack Frost to keep the children believing. But will the sidelined figure of lore be lured to the dark side by the nefarious Pitch?
Full of valuable messages for children and grown ups alike, this animation from Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks studio features the perfectly-cast voice talents of Alec Baldwin, Isla Fisher, Jude Law, Chris Pine and Hugh Jackman, who ensure their delivery matches the quality inherent in the rest of the film. Take the kids during the holidays: you’ll love it just as much as they will.
It’s been five years since Paul Thomas Anderson’s last feature, the brilliant, Academy Award-winning There Will Be Blood, and despite an astonishing reputation, he doesn’t have a vast back catalogue. Perhaps for some of us, then, he’s yet to prove himself. The novel and provocative Boogie Nights, the excellent Magnolia and the divisive Punch-Drunk Love are the three films that pre-date his latest and the Oscar-grabbing Daniel Day-Lewis gem.
The Master is another like Punch-Drunk Love, in that it looks set to divide opinion. On the face of it, it’s a valid and interesting meditation on post-war America with an exploration of themes such as control and the nature and values of society but for most of us watching, there’s no getting away from the fact it’s a real trudge. It’s boring, showy and pretentious, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the two central performances. Anderson indulges two admittedly brilliant actors to the point where it seems almost as if there had been no director present to tether and temper their creative input. Pandering to their theatrical tendencies, he lets them loose and the films suffers.
While it’s a brave performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who totally transforms himself to become a grotesque, repugnant character whose personality manifests itself in his physicality, it’s a self-aware one, and one which alienates the audience. His turn as war veteran Freddie Quell nods towards the concealed horrors of war and his inability to integrate back into society, but if it’s the case that we are asked to sympathise with him at any point, Anderson and Phoenix conspire to make this impossible.
Jobless, rudderless and addicted to home-made hooch, Quell finds himself involved with a cult that promises to help him when he meets its charming leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Ah, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Another acting great. And yet here, he’s all look-at-me self-consciousness. Sure, he pulls off charismatic, but really? That painfully lengthy scene where he sings Slow Boat to China is so indulgent, it’s excruciating.
Both Dodd and Quell are entirely unappealing and unsympathetic. This could be fine, but here it makes the film a difficult watch, limiting the emotions we can and should feel. We’re detached and ultimately left to feel the film’s events are inconsequential.
There is some great material here for these two awesome actors, it just constantly feels like they’re trying too hard, and it really impacts on the viewing experience. Throw in a music score that is intrusive and off-putting, what you’ve got is a film that makes for uncomfortable viewing: you’ll literally be shifting in your seat, but also you’re always kept at arm’s length, meaning its points about living outside society, war and the cult phenomenon are all suffocated.
Since spending some time in the career doldrums, Ben Affleck has emerged from the post-Jennifer Lopez wilderness years (the two had a highly-publicised relationship) a reinvented man. Building a reputation for himself as a serious filmmaker, with directorial triumphs including The Town and Gone Baby Gone, he’s now gone and taken a leaf out of George Clooney’s considerably-sized tome and gone all political on us, with Argo. And interestingly, the self-styled political activist who turned himself from heartthrob into personality-with-a-voice is co-producer along with Affleck and Grant Heslov on this movie about US politics.
A hush-hush operation to rescue six American diplomatic personnel from Iran after the November 1979 storming of the US embassy involved a risky and convoluted plot, cooked up by the CIA with the assistance of Canada. Details of the mission were finally made public in 1997, when President Clinton declassified the incident. Argo pieces together these incredible events.
Inexplicably, the film is gaining unfettered praise from many quarters, but while it admirably recounts the details of this fascinating operation to a public that may not be aware of what happened, it perhaps doesn’t do so in the most effective way. Because of the choices Affleck has made in bringing this to the big screen, the film comes across as a breezy, typically-paced American thriller, rather than the heavyweight political piece it aspires to be (Affleck incorporates newsreel footage into the opening segments of the film).
It’s certainly not without tension – a key component of an entertaining thriller – but Affleck’s use of parallel editing towards the end in his construction of edge-of-the-seat moments as the film reaches its finale gives it the glossy veneer of standard Hollywood output and diminishes the subject matter.
Borrowing Clint Eastwood-style melodrama and audience manipulation techniques that are designed to rouse, Affleck even includes over-the-top whooping, hollering and good old-fashioned high-fiving at the end in an unabashed attempt to stir his audience’s passions and make them proud to be American.
Argo feels jingoistic, evidenced also in the two-dimensional portrayal of the Iranians, who live up to stereotypes and reinforce a widely-held Western view. In short, it feels like a piece of propaganda.
The film’s best moments occur whenever Alan Arkin and John Goodman are on screen. As Hollywood movers and shakers they’re a hoot, yet at the same time they feel an odd fit with the rest of the film. The screen comes alive when they’re present, and they draw out the ridiculousness of the story with their wry humour. Bringing a diametrically opposing tone to the film that’s sharp and funny, one wonders if Affleck wouldn’t have been better off crafting more of a satire out of this compelling material.