Friday, 30 July 2010

Monday, 26 July 2010

Third toy time is yet another charm

And so Pixar strikes again with TOY STORY 3, which against all the odds of sequel making turns out to be just as good as the previous two Toy Story films.

And you can’t get much better praise than that.

To be honest it should have come as no surprise. I mean they do have form, a LOT of form. But creating a third film in such a successful and high quality series is often a difficult task with the final result usually proving to be something quite a bit lesser than what came before. But not here. Why so? Simple really. Three things: story, story and story. Pixar invest so much time and effort in story and character. It is the beginning and end of everything they do. This (amongst other things) is what raises them to a level well beyond their animated competitors with the script for TOY STORY 3 being a perfect example. It is a precision machine of perfect storytelling yet it remains wonderfully warm with genuine emotional depth and layers of subtext. This new adventure for Woody, Buzz and the gang is based around the structure of a prison escape film, though with darker, deeper, more duplicitous undertones than, say, the great CHICKEN RUN from Aardman. Pixar know that we have to genuinely connect with and care about characters in order to fully invest in a story. And, boy, do we ever. Wait until you get to the big scary finale as together, hand in hand, the gang face certain doom. Lump in throat time. The main thrust of TOY STORY 3 is about moving on, learning to let go and finding new purpose in life. It is also about loss and how we deal with loss, a theme that has run through all three films. Pixar aren't afraid to confront these big important themes in their films. And bless them for doing so. For it's that extra emotional oomph that can, when done well and with genuine feeling, reduce a grown man to tears. Remember Jessie telling her heartbreaking tale of abandonment in TOY STORY 2? Remember Anton Ego's flashback to childhood in the glorious RATATOUILLE? Remember the utterly devastating first ten minutes of UP? I rest my case. TOY STORY 3 also contains allusions to faith including imagery of heaven and hell with things getting pretty dark and intense in places. But just as with the previous two, it is the theme of family and friendship and what that really means that underlies everything. However, never fear, for along with all of that serious stuff, TOY STORY 3 is also one heck of a laugh out loud funny film with Buzz Lightyear switched in to Spanish mode a particular highlight. This is pure comedy gold that allows the smitten space ranger to go all romantic Latin hero with Cowgirl Jessie. Brilliant! The film looks utterly gorgeous too, with Pixar going and raising the bar even higher for CG animation. Also, the 3D presentation works beautifully giving so much depth of field and sharpness to the image with no discernable motion blur. It is by far the best use of 3D since AVATAR. And then there is the cast. As always with these films the voice cast are perfection led by the now iconic work of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz. There is also memorable work from new arrivals Michael Keaton as a conflicted Ken doll who finally finds his Barbie, Ned Beatty as the villainous, emotionally scarred bear Lots-o-huggin and Timothy Dalton as the classically trained hedgehog Mr Pricklepants.

I’m pretty confident that this will be the last of the Toy Story movies as it really does feel like an apt and fitting finale to the story of Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Slinky et al. And if it is to be their very last outing then they’ve sure gone out in style leaving the audience with big smiles on their faces and a few tears in their eyes, just as it should be. Simply put TOY STORY 3 is a total and utter joy to watch from its very first frame to its final heartfelt denouement.

So thank you Pixar, you’ve gone and done it again.

Like there was ever any real doubt. (5+/5)

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Inception: is life but a dream?

Ladies and gentlemen, here we have the latest film from that far too smart to be merely human chap called Christopher Nolan. You know the guy, right? He made MEMENTO, INSOMNIA, BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. He is a certified modern filmmaking legend. A man who you know will always give you not just a good movie but a great movie.

And guess what? He’s done it again.

INCEPTION tells the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a guilt ridden man living in enforced exile after being accused of a heinous crime. Cobb is an expert in commercial espionage, but not just any old run of the mill spying. You see Cobb, along with his small team, has the ability to infiltrate other peoples dreams and rebuild those dreams how he wants in order to manipulate the dreamer so as to steal their deepest secrets, their ideas, or in this case to plant an idea, an all but impossible act known as inception. Cobb takes on this seemingly impossible challenge, one that everyone else thinks can’t be done, because if he succeeds, then his new client can pull enough strings with the US authorities to allow him to finally go back home and be with his estranged children.

There is a hell of a lot going on in INCEPTION. This is one densely plotted, intricately constructed film. The film's plot at its most basic is to plant an idea in the mind of a target individual so deeply that they fully believe it is their own idea, one that over time has grown organically out of their own personal thoughts and feelings. But the actual execution of this plot is hugely complex. It is operating (literally) on several levels at once. Dreams within dreams within dreams with every level having its own set of rules, all of which needing to be perfectly synchronised in order for Cobb and co. to complete their mission and get back to reality without falling in to an eternal limbo of nothingness. And if that weren’t hard enough there is a ‘ghost’ from Cobb’s past, living in his mind, who keeps on turning up and sabotaging his plans.

If none of this makes any sense then I apologise. If I try and explain the film’s plot in any more detail then blood might start leaking from my ears due to my brain beginning to melt.

This is a hard film to describe. It is so multilayered, densely plotted and full of ideas and thematic depth. Mere words can’t do it justice. Like a proper dream, INCEPTION needs to be experienced rather than described. Ideally more than once to be able to take it all in and to process all of its many precision parts. It is a film where you have to watch every single frame and listen to every single word in case you lose track of what is going on as well as to decode its many possible meanings. It demands you think on several different levels at once while it simultaneously asks questions about the nature of reality, human emotion, the effect our choices have on our psyche as well as how far we’d go and what we’d be prepared to do in order to stay close to those we love. Ideas based around spirituality are in there too, albeit in a sci fi context. Heaven and hell are evident but are very much places of our own personal creation - the deep down internal hell of guilt and regret and the aspirational heaven of love and hope. In the film, Cobb could also be seen as God, creating his own world and manipulating the lives of those within it. His ‘ghost’ could also be seen as the Devil, someone once close to him, a part of him, who now lives far below in subconscious hell. Someone who is always looking to create chaos and destruction in order to achieve their own ends. The identity of this ‘ghost’ is fundamental to the story and to what is going on in Cobb’s tortured mind. Within this quasi-spiritual context, faith and belief are also important. One character says to Cobb: “You keep telling yourself what you know, but what do you believe?” Part of the story hinges on what a certain character believes. And their belief – be it right or wrong - is unshakeable. Along with belief is the faith to act on that belief, to literally take a leap of faith, which happens at least twice.

“Do you want to take a leap of faith or become an old man filled with regret?” –Saito

Now, all of this could end up rather tiresome and intellectually dry if it were purely an exercise in psychology and spirituality. But in Nolan’s skilled hands, INCEPTION plays as a thrilling heist movie/high tech action thriller - albeit the most intensely complex and smart heist movie/action thriller you’re ever likely to see. The basic narrative backbone is tried and tested. A man with a troubled past must take on one last job, a job he believes can sort his life out. So he puts a team together and comes up with a plan and then executes that plan. But like all good heist films that plan soon starts to go wrong, badly wrong. Cue fleet of mind and foot adaptation involving thunderous, fast paced car chases, gunfights, huge explosions and some truly mind-bending gravity defying fights. So INCEPTION ends up far from dry and tiresome, it is an incredibly smart thought-provoking treatise on the nature of reality, free will and human emotion all wrapped up in a visually stunning, always thrilling sci fi action thriller. Sound familiar? The last movie to do something like this was THE MATRIX. But INCEPTION works on even more levels than the Wachowski Bros. classic. In fact, the Wachowski’s film comes across as rather simplistic compared to Nolan’s deep, deep mind twister. The Matrix works on two narrative levels – the real world and the Matrix. In the latter stages of INCEPTION, the story is working on five – count ‘em – five levels! And all of those five levels have to work in intricate conjunction to tell the story as well as to map the internal emotional journey that Cobb must complete in order to find his peace. And Christopher Nolan does a stunning job keeping everything moving along at pace in what is one of the most incredibly complex and delicate balancing acts I’ve ever seen in cinema. His script is a piece of art, full of ideas designed to lodge in your brain, take root, grow and make you think and question and wonder. An idea is like a virus, Nolan tells us. It can be transmitted from person to person spreading ever further and ever faster. This is what his film is. It is ideas as art, to be seen and to spread and to take root in your mind, to hopefully give birth to other ideas, other stories from other people. It is its own inception.

From a technical standpoint INCEPTION is top notch. Once again, regular Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister’s lensing is gorgeous. It is crisp and moody with a widescreen elegance that utilises Nolan’s usual colour palette of deep blacks, cold blues and warm yellow/browns. Pfister proves yet again that he is one of the very best in the business. The editing is precise and perfect and the music by Hans Zimmer is some of his best in recent memory, a powerful, pulsing score full of blasting siren-like horns yet also being soft and intimate where needed. The cast is uniformly excellent with DiCaprio easily giving the best performance I’ve ever seen from him. Single minded yet conflicted, DiCaprio’s Cobb is also emotionally damaged and quite literally haunted. He is driven by one single goal but is more often than not held back by the deepest part of his own mind. The rest of Cobb’s team is made up of some of the best of modern film actors. The cute as can be Ellen Page is Ariadne, the emotionally insightful architect who designs the dream structure. Joseph Gordon Levitt is Arthur, Cobb’s cool and efficient right hand man. Tom Hardy is Eames, the smooth, wise cracking forger who can forge new identities in dreams. Ken Watanabe is Saito, the rich and powerful businessman who hired Cobb and who comes along on the mission. Meanwhile Cillian Murphy plays the mark, the target in whose mind the team needs to implant the idea. And then there is the legend who is Michael Caine in a small but classy role as Cobb’s father-in-law.

Some have accused INCEPTION of being cold and calculating and lacking in emotional depth, of not forging an emotional connection with its audience. They are wrong. The whole point of the film is an emotional journey by Cobb in order to resolve his deep seated issues and to get him to where he needs to be both emotionally, physically and psychologically. Mind you, where he actually does end up is totally up for debate. You’ll see what I mean when you see the film’s final shot. Also, the only way the mission of inception can be truly successful is by creating a genuine emotional response in the mark, a basis for belief in the implanted idea, a basis that lies in emotion rather than in intellect or reason. Okay, so it may be manipulative emotion, but it is emotion none the less. And who are we to question what’s real if someone genuinely feels something. It is real to them and that, in the end, is what is important.

INCEPTION is a work of utter genius that delves deep in to the workings of the human mind and looks at how it relates to perceived reality, how it copes with great emotional and psychological trauma. The film explores the architecture of the subconscious and asks questions about what makes us who we are and what makes things real, what makes thoughts and feelings and memories real. And it does this in a totally engrosing, always thrilling and often eye-popping way. Not since The Matrix has my brain and my testosterone and my emotions been equally engaged at such a high level. An instant classic. Christopher Nolan, you are a genius, sir.

So go see INCEPTION. And then go see it again. And after you have, don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger. (5+/5)

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Don't runaway from Dakota and Kristen

runaways,dakota fanning,kristen stewart

The Runaways tells the story of the formation and fairly quick self-destruction of the mid-70’s all girl rock band of the same name.

Until recently I’d never even heard of them. But quite by coincidence a book I was reading last year featured The Runaways as the favourite band of the female protagonist. Through that book I learned that The Runaways was the band that gave the world Joan Jett along with fellow lady rocker Lita Ford. However I knew nothing of the bands then fifteen-year-old lead singer Cherie Currie. Which is not too surprising seeing as how after being led down the rock and roll highway of drink, drugs and self-destruction, Currie was mostly lost to rehab and low budget movie acting. Eventually she went on to become a drug counsellor for addicted teens and a personal fitness trainer amongst other things. Apparently she still makes music on occasion but is mostly now a ‘chainsaw artist’ whatever that is.

Anyway, I've since discovered that The Runaways were important for three main reasons:

1) They were the first all-girl rock band to be signed and who mixed it up just as well as any guys at the time and as such were highly influential in helping other women get in to the world of rock music.

2) They were a huge success for a fairly short time, making quite an impact - especially overseas and specifically in Japan, where they were truly massive.

3) Their songs and their performances are mostly great with a real snarling, gritty ‘fuck you’ rock and roll attitude, something Jett would carry in to her highly successful post-Runaways career. Perhaps the bands best-known track “Cherry Bomb” is a prime example – a simple, grungy, punky, pulsing anthem for bad girls everywhere.

And now, more than thirty years after they split, we finally get their movie biopic. So is it any good?

Yep, it’s pretty good.

As with most movie adaptations, The Runaways, based loosely on Cherie Currie’s own book Neon Angel, plays rather fast and loose with the truth - condensing time, amalgamating characters, creating scenes for dramatic effect. But from what I hear, the essentials of the tale are pretty much there with the film wisely focusing on the relationship between Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Currie (Dakota Fanning).

It is 1975 and Joan Larkin (soon to be renamed Joan Jett) is a tough, passionate, leather wearing, guitar playing seventeen-year-old rocker who idolises Suzi Quatro. Joan is all about the music. She is dedicated and works hard to be successful though still finds time to party. In contrast, fifteen-year-old Cherie Currie starts the film as a cute blond haired girl who loves David Bowie and hangs out in clubs trying to look stylish, glamorous and all sultry sex kittenish. Later, after having joined the band through what seems like pure chance, she becomes a scantily clad teenage temptress consuming drugs and booze by the bucket load while being continually torn between her family life (a caring sister and alcoholic father) and the life of a hedonistic rock star. In this telling of the story the rest of the band doesn’t get much of a look in. Even Lita Ford (Scout Taylor Compton) is reduced to being bitchy from the sidelines. But that’s okay. For this is all about that central dynamic of Jett and Currie with most of the focus being on Currie. Though Jett is well served, we don’t get to know much about her past, just that she is a badass and a dedicated tomboy rocker who loves leather and making out with both guys and girls. It is Currie who is the film’s primary focus. This is really her story focussing on her family life, her background and her choices.

As Cherie Currie, Dakota Fanning is excellent, just as you’d expect her to be. She captures spot on Currie’s troubling jailbait sex appeal (played up by the band’s manager and the media of the time.) But just as importantly she captures Currie’s little girl lost persona, her conflicted nature and her deep vulnerability. It has to be said that watching Fanning wearing next to nothing, strutting and writing around on stage, making out with boys and girls while swigging booze and popping pills by the dozen is a rather disturbing sight. To me, she will always be that freakishly talented and sweet little girl who captured the screen and acted many of her co-stars off of it in films like Man on Fire, War of the Worlds and Hide and Seek. Still, all little girls have to grow up I guess. Just hopefully not how Cherie Currie did. With all the stuff that is going on in The Runaways you have to remember that Cherie Currie was only a kid, a fifteen-year-old kid.

As Joan Jett, Kristen Stewart is also excellent. She looks the dead spit of the real rocker and carries off Jett’s confident, swaggering, angry, tough girl persona pretty much perfectly. You really wouldn’t wanna piss her off. She has a strange relationship with Fanning’s Currie, one of quasi-big sister/ mentor/lover. Despite being almost polar opposites, they form a pretty close and strong bond with Jett always sticking up for Currie even when the latter is behaving less than well. As Jett, Stewart shows that she really is a good actress and is worth much more than just being known as the rather pathetic, whiny and thoroughly unlikable Bella Swan. She has range and presence and will hopefully get to show more of it in years to come once a certain franchise is dead and buried.

The films other notable performance comes from Michael Shannon as The Runaways sleazy manager/producer Kim Fowley. The film does a good job in showing the relationship between Fowley and the band that he helped put together. As Fowley, Shannon is most entertaining playing such a colourful character. His angry, filthy rants at the band while they practice are both funny and horrible. But, to be fair, the guy knew what he was talking about. It might not have been nice advice, but in order to succeed the girls had to toughen up. They had to learn to give not only as good as they got but more than they got. And that’s exactly what they did.

The Runaways was written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, an Italian photographer and music video director best known for directing Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People". Sigismondi’s script is a fairly typical bare bones rise and fall of a rock band story, one that we’ve all seen and heard many times before. Like most of these tales, the truth is massaged in places to make it more workable as a film, to better fit the narrative of cinema. The script, though fine, brings nothing new or special to the genre. But what Sigismondi does bring to The Runaways are two excellent lead actresses and a strong visual style filled with dirty colours and jittery camerawork. She also captures the period feel and puts across the energy of rock and roll with all its vibrant passion and grim excess.

Despite the fairly run-of-the-mill, self-destructive nature of the story, there is a lot of fun to be had watching The Runaways. The girls are all cool with two excellent leads in Fanning and Stewart. The music is fun, energetic and in your face. And the spirit of true rebellious attitude and hard living rock and roll does indeed shine through. Though not a great movie by any means, The Runaways is certainly a good movie. It is never dull and it is always fun to watch… even if the sight of once sweet little Dakota in full-on drug addled, scantily clad, sexy temptress mode is decidedly creepy and off putting. (3.5/5)


Friday, 2 July 2010

"Come Along, Pond."

Doctor Who Pictures, Images and Photos

Doctor Who series five ended last Saturday and I’ve been rewatching some key episodes of the season including opener The Eleventh Hour and the final two parter The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. So I thought I’d give a summary of my thoughts on this brand new regeneration of the classic and much loved series.

As Doctor nine would say: ”Fantastic!”

I get Steven Moffat's approach to Who. Because it's the same one I have. It hits all the right buttons for me.

This season was a twisty crazy fairytale all about little Amelia Pond and her imaginary friend, a madman with a box who fell out of the sky.

"When I was seven I had an imaginary friend. Last night was the night before my wedding, and my imaginary friend came back."

While left all alone one night, a brave little girl called Amelia prays to Santa for someone to come and save her from the scary crack in her bedroom wall. And come to her someone does, falling right out of the sky and in to her garden. The Raggedy Doctor. A brilliant yet strangely childlike madman with a box who eats fish custard and loves bowties and thinks fezzes are cool. But after fixing the crack in the wall, The Doctor disappears leaving poor little Amelia all alone once more. But she refuses to give up on him and settles down to wait for his return. And she waits and waits and waits. Little Amelia eventually grows up to believe that she imagined it all, that nothing that happened that night was real, that the Raggedy Doctor never existed. The wonder, the magic, the imagination of childhood has finally been driven out of her. She loses herself, her innocence, even losing her name, now being called Amy. As an adult she becomes cynical, rather bitter and hard nosed - albeit charmingly so.

And then one day, many years later, right out of the blue (box), her imaginary friend returns.

The story of Doctor Who season five is not so much about hanging on to the wonder and the imagination of childhood as it is about regaining it once lost. It’s about losing our cynicism and finding the simple joy in everything that is out there beyond the narrow, repetitive often soul-destroying confines of adult life. Now, most of us (I certainly do) remember how when we were kids we could happily play for hours, imagining all sorts of weird and wonderful adventures to lose ourselves in. We didn’t need much, just our imagination and the freedom to disappear within it. But there comes a point – maybe around age eleven or twelve – when that ability starts to fade. It gets harder and harder to have imaginary fun in our own little worlds, fun that once felt so easy, so real. The magic of childhood starts to leave us as we begin the difficult journey in to adulthood, having to spend more time thinking about real life because real life has suddenly become far more complicated and far more necessary as more demands are put on us along with more responsibility.

But the good news is that just because we become adults with all the baggage that brings, we can rediscover our imaginations. We can learn to see with more innocent, wondrous eyes again. We can rediscover our inner child so to speak. That is exactly what happens to Amy. By seasons end she has found little Amelia. Literally. The Doctor was the key to her re-discovering her inner child, her sense of adventure, discovering the weird, crazy, silly, scary fun that life can be.

The Doctor: “Fourteen years since fish custard. Amy Pond. The girl who waited, you've waited long enough.”

Amy: “When I was a kid, you said there was a swimming pool. And a library, and the swimming pool was in the library.”

The Doctor: “Yeah. Not sure where it's got to now, it'll turn up! So! Coming?”

Amy: (shaking her head) “No.”

The Doctor: “You wanted to come fourteen years ago.”

Amy: “I grew up.”

The Doctor: “Don't worry. I'll soon fix that.”

This season has been my favourite of new Who so far. And that’s due primarily to its thematic undercurrent, one which chimes perfectly with what I love most in storytelling - the fairytale vibe, the innocence and wonder and scariness of childhood and of life in general. It’s what Spielberg has been doing for years. And it works for a reason. The same reason it has worked down through the centuries. It imparts important stories and lessons to children while also reminding adults what it is like to be a child, reminding us not to lose that special gift that lets us make up crazy adventures and weird and wacky stories in order to pass on down to our own children the same important messages and themes.

I love this season for its range of stories too, and that while shifting from the more overblown, camp, panto feel of Russell T Davies’ tenure to Steven Moffat’s more odd, sinister, eccentric fairytale feel, Doctor Who hasn’t lost its sense of fun nor its crazy, silly, very British whimsy. The stories this year have ranged from the downright nightmarish (The Time of Angels) to the very silly (Victory of the Daleks) to the emotionally sublime (Vincent and the Doctor). And throughout it all, Matt Smith has been a total legend and has made The Doctor his own. I liked Tennant, though I much preferred Eccleston, but Matt Smith has trumped them both. His energetic, clumsy, rather mad little old man in a young man’s body has been a joy to watch. And I love Amy too. Like many men I am in lust with Karen Gillan. She is great and has such a wicked chemistry with Matt that just crackles both onscreen and off. And she had to be great because this season was Amy’s story. It was the story of little seven-year-old Amelia Pond, the girl who waited. The girl who grew up, but who then became a child once more. Brilliant!

Any negatives? Well, my only real problem has been with some of the FX. There’s been some pretty shoddy CGI in places. So, please, someone give the guys at The Mill a kick. They do some great stuff (the two-part finale FX are all pretty darn excellent) but then they seem to counter it with some truly ropy stuff. A bit more quality assurance needed me thinks.

Anyway, this has been a wonderful new start for The Doctor with Steven Moffat proving yet again why he is such a genius of a writer and one of the very best working in the industry today. Everything in this season was thought out and planned in detail. Things are set up and pay off throughout – both plotwise and thematically. It’s an intricate machine of storytelling, which ends with the sublime two-parter of The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. And, of course, with season five a star has been born in the form of Matt Smith. So roll on the Christmas special.