Argo – Review

Argo (2012) 

Directed by Ben Affleck. Starring Ben AffleckBryan CranstonAlan ArkinJohn GoodmanVictor GarberTate Donovanlea DuVall.

If back in 2001, when the ridiculous Pear Harbor was released, somebody could have told me that in 11 years, one of my favourite film of 2012 would have been one directed by that same Ben Affleck, I think I would have laughed for a good 10 minutes straight. And yet, now despite these preconceptions and against my own pre-judgement I am willing to come out and tell you right now (even spoiling my own review) that I really really really loved Argo!

The film starts off with a mini history lesson: a montage sequence, heavy in exposition, which uses not just archive footage and photographs but also drawings resembling a movie storyboards. At the time, while watching it, I thought it was a weird stylistic choice, but of course, once you’ve seen the film, to have storyboards makes perfect sense, though I still argue whether we actually really needed this sequence all together.

Finally, once the history part is out of the way, the real film can start and audience is catapulted right in the middle of the action as the US Embassy in Tehran is broken into by Iranian revolutionaries and most of the Americans are taken as hostages. Only 6 of them manage to escape and find refuge  with the Canadian Ambassador. Will the US government manage to rescue them and take them out of Iran?

Ben Affleck, the director proves an absolute master at cranking up the tension to unbearable levels: watching Argo is a truly draining experience. In places  the film reminded me of that famous opening sequence in Alan Parker‘s Midnight Express, except that this time, that tension is present throughout the whole film.

The recreation of the 70s setting is impeccable too: I had not seen such a perfect recreation of the 70s  since Spielberg’s Munich. But it’s not just the meticulous art direction, the costumes, perfect make-up and those awful haircuts and hilarious facial hair (seriously, what was wrong with us back then?!) it’s also the way the cinematography works, down to the actual grain of the 35mm film (including some artificially post-produced, and rather effective, film scratches) which what makes this film look like it could have been really made in the 70s. Even the camerawork is reminiscent of those 70s classics (apparently Ben Affleck was quite specific about duplicating camera moves and framing from films like All the President’s Men).

Real archive footage is cleverly woven into the film, either seen through television sets or inter-cut with footage of people filming on portable cameras, as if it was their footage. All this adds an extra layer of reality to the film, making it feel almost like a documentary. The result is timeless film, with the same sensibility and look from those classics from the 70s, and yet at same time, it’s as gripping and fast-paced as a good thriller today so that it can be enjoyed by a more modern audience with their infamously short attention span.

I am sure the film has taken lots of liberties with the  real story itself:  it’s easy to see what scenes must have been beefed-up for dramatic effect and to heighten the tension, but since the final result is so strong and so beautifully done, I’m willing excuse any licence and just go with the film.

It must also be pointed out that among all this perfectly crafted nail-biting tension, the film also manages to be extremely funny in places. Courtesy of Alan Arkin‘s and John Goodman‘s characters and their constant fun-poking at Hollywood segments which serve as a welcome relief from all the anxiety and dread of the rest of the Argo. And even if on paper, the more comical sequences seem to belong to a different film altogether,  amazingly, Ben Affleck manages to balance them perfectly with everything else.

You may argue that the film should probably have ended 5 minutes before it does and that the sequences involving Ben Affleck’s family feel a slightly forced and a bit tagged on and that the in the final resolution, the director gives himself up to the Hollywood way, with sweeping music but to me all this is a small price to pay for an otherwise close-to-perfect film.

Well done Ben, and good luck at the Oscars.

9/10

The Woman In Black – Review

The Woman in Black (2011)

Directed by James Watkins. Starring Daniel RadcliffeJanet McTeer.

I am really sorry to have to reduce most of my review about this film to the fact that it all starts with a bad casting choice, but it’s really quite hard to see past Daniel Radcliffe portraying a father of a four years old boy. I mean, how can I possibly buy into it when the DVD of the latest Harry Potter film is plastering every single window of every store in town right now? It doesn’t matter how much facial hair Daniel is growing to disguise his baby face, or how far away he’s trying to take his new character from the ‘boy who lived’, or even how little dialogue he speaks in this film (because let’s admit it, it usually all falls apart as soon as  he opens his month), I am just NOT buying into it! Daniel Radcliffe has been Harry Potter in 8 films and up until the last one (only a few month ago) we were meant to believe he was just 18 and now all of a sudden, without a single “transition film” in between, I’m expected to believe that he’s a grown man (A lawyer in fact!) who’s been married, widowed and has a child of 4? That is a big leap of faith…

However I was willing to take the leap and I did really try my best, despite the film itself doing virtually nothing to help me and convince me otherwise: there was not a single mention of his young look from any of the characters and we are just supposed to take it all from granted. At some point in the beginning there was even shot of what looked like the Hogward Express, running through the British landscape, with steam and all the rest (I was expecting to hear John Williams’ tune at any point!).

Casting Radliffe was always going to be a dangerous choice. One one hand you get all those devoted Potter fans, on the other you’ve got to be able to shake off his enormous baggage otherwise you’re running straight into the lion’s den, with your public and critics alike.

Radcliffe himself does try his best to restrain his usual trade-mark heavy breathing (even the director James Walkins admitted he’s been trying to force Daniel breathing with his nose instead of his month as he always does, whether he is Harry Potter or even naked on the stage playing in Equus). The film-makers made sure he spoke as little as possible (sadly the worse and most laughable scene, when he has to say goodbye to his son in a train station, comes right at the top of the film, setting a bad start for whatever is left to come). Wisely they managed to  avoid having him standing right next to any other cast members (so that it wouldn’t show how short he is which would have made it even more laughable). But unfortunately all this is just not enough and his presence, instead of making the film better, holds it back. Surely some Potter fans will be drawn to see it, but I doubt anyone could possibly be enraptured by it and in the end bad word of mouth will make this film disappear from the big screens pretty quickly.

It’s probably not very fair to criticise a movie just for his main lead, even less fair to compare it to previous movies in which the same lead starred, I agree. But even when you take Radcliffe out of this film, you’re actually left very little else.

“The woman in Black” wants to be a film about “mood”  and “atmosphere” more than “action” and “twists”. It’s more about the expectations of the ghost in a locked room at the end of the corridor than the actual reveal of the ghost itself. In a way, it’s an old fashion ghost story: it’s all about those creaks in an old house, the thick fog hiding a secret and those eerie shadows that should make your skin cold.

On paper all this sounds great and I am all in favour of an old-style good ghost story… If only it was all building up to something… Alas the pace is even and slow and Daniel is alone for most of the film investigating strange noises around the house for what feels like an eternity; so much so that after a while it all gets incredibly repetitive and rather tedious.

James Watkins, the director, was probably aware of this and in order to “jazz it all up” decided to pepper it all with several fairly predictable loud stabs of cheap scares. I say fairly predictable because as an average horror fan I could see most of those “jumps moment” coming from miles away. Of course some of them are quite effective, but I don’t think that should be a mark of a good horror film. It’s certainly not difficult to scare people with a loud crashes and bangs in the middle of a very quiet scene.

I couldn’t help feeling there was nothing in this film that I had not seen before… A haunted house, rocking chairs moving by themselves, spider webs, locked doors, ghosts appearing in windows, a graveyard at night, thick fog and quicksands, old fading photographs … No cliché was left untouched. Oh look, Daniel is reflected in a window! How long will it take until a ghost appears in the reflection. Not long, believe me.

As for the plot itself, it really feels rather dated, like a story that belongs to a different era, which in theory should be fine, but 10 minutes into the film I really get the feeling that I have already seen it all. There have been way too many horror films following the same sort of set up and this has nothing to add to any of them.

I haven’t read the original story, nor seen the stage play, but by watching this film alone I do get the feeling that this is a short story stretched to its limits. Probably OK for a twilight Zone episode, or maybe even or a theatre stage (apparently this is still a bit hit in the West End in London), but as a film, aside from some interesting visual and a few promising scenes (the very start with the little girls is intriguing for example), there was just not enough to keep me interested for the length of the film and by the time the ending came I just did not really care who lived or died.

I know I am going to be quite unpopular with the many Radcliffe fans out there (and please, don’t take me wrong, I do usually like the guy), but I found this film very very very disappointing. In fact, quite laughable and just boring. Sorry.

5/10

PS: I must probably say, that since I have written this review, I have spoken to a couple of friends of mine (non-horror fans) both of which were absolutely petrified by this film… and bought into Daniel from the start… The beauty of movies: they’re subjective.

 Click here to read the review from the last Harry Potter.

Senna – Review

Senna (2010) 

Directed by Asif Kapadia. Starring Ayrton SennaAlain ProstFrank Williams

As a proper moviegeek, my interest in sport in general is very limited and when it comes to Formula 1 my ignorance is even greater. I can’t really tell a Ferrari from a McLaren, nor I would be able to tell you anything about pole positions, paddocks or sidepods (In fact I had to look up these words!). Not only that, but up until the other day I didn’t even know Senna was Brazilian nor I was 100% about his fate… You get the idea…

And yet, none of this mattered while watching this documentary. In fact, the film is a real piece of bravura in story-telling and emotion-stirring and if it managed to grab the attention of somebody like me (ignorant to the bone) it must surely mean something!

One of the reasons why it works so well is because it’s essentially a film about human emotions, real people, politics, corruption, obsessions and goes way beyond the boring technical details of a car race.

Ayrton Senna is depicted as an incredibly determined man. He’s strong, religious, sincere, funny and even cheeky… Well, at least that’s how he is depicted to us by  film-makers who are clearly quite keen in making sure we like him. The use of archive footage, especially during the first half of the film, is always carefully selected and edited to show us a rather sweet, sincere, honest and innocent image of this Brazilian hero.

It is obviously quite a bias version of Senna’s character and his family must have certainly been involved behind the scenes (as it’s clear from the use of private home footage and interviews with close relatives). However none of this really matters and certainly doesn’t take anything away from the fact that these are compelling stories and beautifully told.

On a technical level the film looks really terrible. Of course none of it is not its fault and I’m certainly not blaming it for that, but it’s a reminder of how bad videos from the 80s were. And yet instead of avoiding the problem or trying to hide it, director AsifKapadia, recognizing some of the real gems at his disposal, decides to embrace it and sticks with it all the way through the film. He even avoids cutting away to the so-called “talking heads” of the people who are being interviewed and instead he only uses their voices over the ugly-looking footage. By doing this he forces us to watch the images, focussing our attention and getting us even closer to his hero. In fact about 10 minutes into the documentary you actually forget to even care about how bad it all looks… which is, once again a proof of the strength of this film.

It is a great achievement of editing too as the film manages to tell quite a complicated story or corruption, antagonism, determination, obsessions and human emotions without the use of any external commentary, but just with archive footage and few interviews. And it’s not just all very clear, but it’s also succeeds in being both funny and moving.

I’m not quite sure how it would play to somebody who knows anything about Senna, but I certainly bough it up completely.

If I have one complain it has to be with the ending (which for the people who are as ignorant as me, I won’t give away), as it felt quite heavy-handed (I’m referring to the use of music, the over-stretched final sequences and the slightly gratuitous flash-backs): it obviously works (in fact I was a real wreck by the end of it), but it is one of those occasions where the hand of the film-makers was way too visible.

Other than that, this is clearly a labour of love, made by a very competent film-maker who knows how to tell a story  and grab his audience’s attention, even the ones who are clearly not interested.

8/10

Life in a Day – Review

Life in a Day (2011) 

Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Produced by Tony Scott & Ridley Scott.

Last year (2010) YouTube launched a campaign, supported by executive producers Tony and Ridley Scott, asking everybody with a camcorder to record a day in their lives. Fast forward a year to 2011 and director Kevin Macdonald and editor Joe Walker (never an editor has been more crucial to the making of a film), release their documentary to the world and to the same people who actually filmed it.

Apparently 80000 videos for a total of 4500 hours were submitted from 126 different nations.

The result is a film that tells the story of a day on Earth, and precisely the 24th of July 2010: 24 hours in the life of ordinary people. Their stories, their images, their thoughts, all linked together by an incredible work of editing and a rousing soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams

You can argue that some of it might  be slightly heavy-handed (a shot of a cow being killed on camera is then, non very subtlety, cut together with a man eating from a bowl of spaghetti), but some of the choices are absolutely inspired (montage sequences of people getting up in the morning or having breakfast or simply walking). It’s the amalgamation of all these little snippets of life that makes the film an incredible watch and eventually it ends up actually telling a whole story as the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

The film starts at midnight as people are still asleep in most places: some night shift workers are already at it, some wild party animals are still up from the previous day, but generally speaking it’s a quiet start. Within a few minutes, we are treated by a sunrise montage from all over the world as people are getting up in the most remote corners of the globe. They have breakfast, some of them go to work, others stay at home, somebody shaves for the first time (a very funny scene!), somebody decides to lay in bed for a bit longer, and somebody else begins a new “empty” day: loneliness might be just around the corner…

Despite the sometimes over-indulgent choice of editing and the ever-present soundtrack the film still manages to capture that pulsating realism of modern life through simple gestures, looks, words and silences as the similarities and (many) differences are exposed.

But just when you are about to think “is this film going to be just a long montage sequence?”, then the film suddenly slows down and you are actually treated to real moments into people’s life (well, I say “real”, obviously there’s a camera filming so I suppose it’s “a version of reality”, but that doesn’t diminish its value nor its emotional impact on the audience).

For example, quite early on a little boy of probably 4 is woken up by his dad who’s filming the whole thing (I seem to remember they were in Japan or thereabout): we stay with them for a while as they talk about seemingly mundane things: the boy is incredibly sweet,  the house is strangely messy. Then dad says “let’s go and say ‘hi’ to mom”. They move to a corner of a room where we see for the first time a little shrine with a picture of a woman. Together they light an incense and pay their little morning tribute to the mom.

It’a quiet moment that tell a thousand words: no need for commentary or any explanation. It’s clear these two have been doing this for a while. It’s clear they are incredibly close to each other. Mom is gone. They are both alone, but they have each other… We fill the gaps in an instant. It’s an incredibly poignant moment. This time there is no music playing underneath. The director knows when to manipulate its audience and when he should take a step back and let us make our own mind and feel what we want to feel.

Life in a day is full of simple moments like this one. So simple and yet so powerful.

Don’t worry, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments too.

Generally speaking the film is edited in such a way that shows a certain optimism that comes with the beginning of a new day and yet is some cases, this fades away for some as we approach sunset and go through the night by which time loneliness takes over the weakest ones. It’s a beautifully constructed device, which might be a bit contrived but it works perfectly.

In the end, this is a film about everything: rich countries and poor countries, smiles and tears (quite a lot in my case, I must confess), day and night, life and death, animals and humans, man and women, whites, blacks, gays, straights, children and very old people, happiness and desperation.  We are all there, with our fears, our idiosyncrasies, our routines, our doubts, our weaknesses…

Everybody will come out of it and will probably remember something different. Each of us might identify with a different moment in the film. One thing is certain: you will never forget it.

It might not be a complete masterpiece, but there is so much good stuff in it that makes you forget the slightly sugary moments and the most heavy handed ones.

This was my favorite film of the year so far and definitely the most intense emotional experience I’ve had in a long time.

YOU CAN NOW WATCH IT ONLINE:  http://www.youtube.com/lifeinaday

9.5/10

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Inside Job – Review

INSIDE JOB (2010) 

Directed by Charles Ferguson. Narrated by Matt Damon.

When reviewing a documentary like this I think it’s fair to make a distinction between the subject matter of the documentary and the actual merits of the film-making itself.

On the subject matter front, “Inside Job” surely deserves all the awards it is receiving (it recently won the Oscar for best documentary too). The film sets to explain the reasons (or arguably, some of the reasons) behind the financial crisis that’s hit the whole world. How did we end up where we are and whose to blame?

It could be a fairly dry and dull subject , and a rather complicated one too, but Inside Job, for most of it, manages to keep it simple and gripping at the same time without dumbing it down too much. Inevitably it ends up focusing more one one side of the argument (the  bankers) as opposed to following the more controversial route (going against the politicians. Though they do get mentioned, the film prefers not to be so hard on them as it is on those corporate people, obviously a much easier target).

And since we are all on the same boat in this never-ending financial crisis and we are, forgive me the term, rather pissed off at the way the whole thing has been carried out and handled, we are perfectly happy to see it all laid out the way it is and eventually everyone will come out it feeling even more angry and frustrated than they were before.

On that respect the film obviously really works.

As a piece of film, “Inside Job” is less interesting.

Its pace is very uneven: sometimes a bit too fast when it should be slow and a bit slow when you just want it to get on with it, for example there are way too many beginnings (one of them is probably there just because it plants the seeds for one of the best jokes  of film later on about the instability of Iceland). Not everything hits home as it probably should and not everything is as clear as it should be. After a while one million begins to sound a lot like 10 millions or 100 millions or even a billion… it’s just a whole lot of money which we’ll never see anyway… It gets slightly repetitive.

In most sequences the documentary unravels like a series lectures of economy: it is mainly voice over driven (read by Matt Damon who seems to be everywhere these days), visualized by unimaginative graphics and straight forward unremarkable archive footage. The real skill here seems to be more in the writing than the actual film-making. That’s by no means a criticism. This isn’t a film by Micheal Moore and, for most of its length, it doesn’t even try to be one: there are no stunts, and, on the surface, no tricks either.

And yet, everyone who has seen this film will most likely remember the last third, which is probably the closest thing to something that Michael Moore would do, and to me, the most interesting part. It is the moment the film-makers turn against their contributors: economists, journalists and professors, who are just as guilty as everyone else.

Watching them squirm in their seats having to defend  themselves when they thought they were just there to give us a history lesson is the most pleasurable part of the film.

And because we all want to point fingers and blame everyone for their greedy needs, we probably fail to notice the slightly biased use of the editing: I’m thinking of all those moments when questions are asked off-camera just so that we can catch the surprised faces of the people who are being interviews, and then the films cuts away to the next sequence, without giving them really the chance to answer.

We really don’t mind though: we hate those people anyway and as long as they look stupid and guilty we are happy with it.

In the end, it’s great to see a documentary like this, on a subject like the big economic crisis, getting all the awards it’s getting and though that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a masterpiece, I hope it does mean we are ready to chance the way people regulate our economy…

7/10

Catfish – Review

Catfish

Directed by Henry JoostAriel Schulman. Starring Yaniv SchulmanMelody C. RoscherAriel Schulman

It’s virtually impossible to talk about Catfish without spoiling it for all those people who haven’t seen it. As the poster itself says “don’t let anyone tell you what it is”, so I’ll try to be extremely careful, just  in case, because I do think people should see this film!

Catfish will suffer from the expectations that moviegoers might have been given by the advertising campaign, which once again is very misleading.

The trailer sells is as something that it is not: A thriller or some sort of dark twisty tale. And it’s certainly dark but not in the way you’re expecting it to be: it’s actually so much more than that. It’s a window into today’s world. A touching modern tale of online dating and chatting. A look at today’s society and the ability anyone can have of living a “second life”.

If you go into it thinking that it is a horror, you will leave very disappointed. However if you go in with no expectation or an open mind, you will find yourself moved by this touching documentary.

The authenticity of the documentary itself has been called into question (though the film-makers swear it’s all true). Personally I don’t think the documentary is a fake, or at least the main story isn’t, mainly because it all seems way too plausible.

Yes, of course, some of the sequences might have been re-staged afterwards and some of the realism looks a little too real: for example, all the stuff around the setting up of the microphones, or the shots were the camera has been left on in the car just long enough for us to get the idea that our characters are getting ready.Or the shots of our main guy, with his hand in his pants, as if he didn’t even realized that the camera was on him… Or the final few scenes around the last package that arrives. Even the main’s character’s haircut conveniently changes when we need to know that time has passed .

However whether it’s all true or not is irrelevant to me.

It’s interesting to compare it with fake-documentary (released only few months ago) “I am here” by Casey Affleck. In that case, the fact that the documentary had been faked it, made the whole thing seem pretty redundant and in the end, you’re just just left with a scam which is hard to take seriously.

Here the message of the film is clear and yet at the same time it manages to be quite subtle.

It works either way, whether the whole thing has been set-up or not… Oh I wish I could say more!

I should probably watch this film again to be able to tell you whether the film is a one time trick or if it might even work on repeated viewings, however I was hooked and on the edge of my seat all the way through.

On the visual side of things, Catfish has the usual “handheld/shaky-cam” style we are so used to seeing these days, but it’s also full of little touches that fit the story so well. For example the Google-Maps and Street View style to show characters’ locations both in New York and Michigan and the houses of people miles away and yet so clear and so real…

This is what good storytelling is. It’s a clever, thought-provoking and intelligent documentary that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled on.
I saw this a week ago and I am still thinking about it.

8.5/10

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