The Impossible – Review

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The Impossible (2012) rating 6.0/10

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Starring Naomi WattsEwan McGregorTom Holland.

The Impossible tells the true story of an American family (mother, father and three kids) caught up in the terrible Tsunami that in 2004 claimed the lives of an estimated 250000 people, residents and tourists alike, across 14 countries in South-East Asia: is was one of the largest natural disaster ever witnessed in human memory.

Of course the idea of using (or exploiting ssomebody may say) real-life horrors, natural (and non-natural) disasters and human tragedies to tell a story is at least as old as cinema itself. I could quote hundreds of movies that did it, some more successful than others… And if Titanic and its $1.8 billion at the box office on its release, is to be taken as proof, there is clearly an appetite for this kind of stuff. Whether it’s the holocaust, slavery, wars, shootings in schools, terrorist attacks: nothing seems to be sacred these days in Hollywood. No tragedy is off-limits anymore, not even a recent one like this. “United 93”  did it for the terrorist attack to America only 5 years after the event. Raise your hand if you thought it was a good idea at the time…. And yet, surprisingly, it ended up being a fairly balanced film, incredibly powerful and on the whole quite an accomplished success. I’m not sure whether anyone actually needed it, but hey… that’s the subject for another discussion.

To cut to the chase, I don’t necessarily argue against the actual idea of telling such stories. After all, isn’t that what every single war movie does? Sometimes it can work. It can raise awareness for a certain tragedy or even serve as a tribute or a simple educational tool, it can give us a different prospective to a known event or it can help us to remember such a tragedy, never forget what our ancestors had to go through. Even seemingly simplistic films like Titanic, once again, beyond the silly love story, can be seen as a look into social classes at the beginning of 1900s.

Sadly “The Impossible” not only does none of that, but also has absolutely nothing to say. It exploits the tragedy to tell us an unbalanced and slightly distorted view of what actually happened in Thailand in 2004 following an American family who just happen to survive against all the odds: you may ask yourself “what’s the point?”. Well, there isn’t one… or if there is it’s probably “life is about luck… and whether you have a medical insurance or not”. Never mind the  insane amount of people who died, most of which locals anyway (which in this film are largely ignored), never mind the ecological and economic impact of such tragedy: as long as the loving American family can reunite itself once again we are all happy. An absolute travesty, if you ask me. Simplistic, cheap, superficial, with an underlying uneasy complacency, and some troubling sentimentality throughout(including an over-played soundtrack, with twinkling piano and soaring strings).

And apparently the horrors of the real events were not enough for the film-makers so they even decided to add a series of manipulative clichés to enhance the drama (slow-motion – sound drops, and an incredibly misjudged sequence, which should really belong to a Black Edwards comedy, where father and son keep on missing each other among the multitude of people in a hospital).

It doesn’t matter whether the story is true of not, this is just not the way it should have been told.

It is a great shame because aside from that, the film technically is really impressive: the actual scene where the Tsunami hits the cost is truly terrifying and what I assume must be CGI is seamless (beating the one in Clint Eastwood’s dog of a film Hereafter) If you can somehow switch your brain off (a next-to-impossible task) and take this as just another  silly disaster movie, a sort of Towering Inferno, or Dante’s peak, there is no denying that the film is quite gripping and emotionally draining. I just wish it could have been a lot more than that.

I long for the day Naomi Watts will finally choose a film which will give her a well deserved Oscar… Sadly this is not such film. Ewan McGregor once again confirms himself as a great charismatic leading actor and his absorbing performance is nothing short of perfect. And finally the little Tom Holland, whose name is deservedly bantered about these days within several industry magazines and papers next to those 3 words “For Your Consideration”. He’s really very good, bringing to the role the fragility of a kid of that age, the strength of a teenager but also depth and emotions reminiscent of some of the best child actors in movies. I can’t wait to see him in something not just half decent.

Their impressive performances ultimately lift the film and give it enough depth and gravitas to avoid being a complete failure and just an insult to so many of the real victims.

6.0/10 

Jack Reacher – Review

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Jack Reacher (2012) Rating 5.0

Written & Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Cast: Tom CruiseRosamund PikeRichard JenkinsDavid OyelowoWerner HerzogJai Courtney.

Jack Reacher is a strange hybrid of film that tries (key word: tries) to combine comedy, violence, and that slightly cheesy sensibility to action from the 80s. Clearly it’s a film in search of a franchise, but , given the cold reaction from the audience I watched it with, I do wonder whether it’ll actually ever go beyond this rather average and lazy exercise.

The film is written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the same man behind the script of The Usual Suspect: that was enough to set the bar of my expectations pretty high. Also, Tom Cruise‘s name attached to anything of this caliber, may not be a guarantee of a perfect product, but,  whether you like him or not, is usually a mark of at least high standards, and, in worse case scenario, it will at least be good fun and entertaining (see the various Mission Impossible). Unfortunately this time my expectations were about to be crashed.

The film starts off with what was probably the best scene in the whole movie: an incredibly tense and prolonged shot seen though a sniper’s viewfinder. Slowly and mercilessly the unseen killer starts shooting at his victims by picking what looks like  innocent people walking by in park. It’s a brutal, agonising and very effective opening, that had me on the edge of my seat from the word go. Sadly the film never reached those heights and eventually, nor McQuarrie or Cruise could save it from ending up being a rather forgettable affair: an average, pretty generic and ultimately pretty silly experience.

The film struggles to decide what it wants to be and looses its way several times before it reaches the rather predictable and underwhelming finale. Its biggest problem is that it never seems to get the tone right: the violence is sometimes disturbing, other times just feels like a parody of a Schwarzenegger film (which by itself wouldn’t be a bad thing, but here the film actually takes itself quite seriously). The most misjudged moment, in terms of its violence is a scene where a girl is beaten up, which sits very uncomfortably with the rest of the film.

As far as Cruise is concerned (and here I should probably confess, I usually like the guy), he seems to me totally miscast. Never mind the fact in the book the character of Jack Reacher is described as blonde, ugly, 6’5” and 250 lbs), but here in the film, he feels like he’s been written with somebody else in mind, possibly even one of those guys from Stallone’s “Expendables”. It almost feels as if Cruise was called in at the last moment and on the top of that, was even allowed to do what he usually does best. The result is a character that never quite rings true. Reacher is supposed to be this brutal, tough, rough, mysterious, cool, always on the run character… Cruise brings too much with his for this part, he’s too charismatic, if you like, too cocky, and ultimately I was never convinced about his character, I couldn’t really get into him, understand him and by the time the movie ended I was left knowing as little about him as when the film started… and most crucially I didn’t really care.

It wasn’t all Cruise’s fault. The script was pretty weak too. Generally speaking the dialogue was dreadful,  full of clichés and simply idiotic: lines like “You can’t protect me. No one can”, or “I had to eat my own fingers” are just at the extreme of the spectrum

The film also makes a crucial mistake right from the beginning when it shows the audience who the killer is a good hour before Reacher himself finds out. It is a Hitchcockian trick I suppose, the difference between suspense and mystery. It is supposed to be putting the audience ahead of the main character, thus adding an extra edge to the journey, except that in this case, it makes the whole first half of the film rather dull to watch and plays against it and makes it all a lot interesting.

Not even the arguably hilarious appearance of Werner Herzog as the ultimate baddie can save the film, in fact I actually thought it dragged it even further down into total ludicrousness. His character, may be quite enjoyable to watch, but he is so over the top that it undermines all that gritty and violent realism seen in the intro. Once again it’s another example of the film pulling in too many different directions and not being able to decide what it wants to be: a comedy or a hard-hitting violent crime movie? Trying to do both did not work for me at all.

Obviously, somebody may argue that we are not meant to be taking any of that too seriously… Well, if that was the case I’d go along with it, but then you get scenes like a weird melancholic montage sequence showing you the lives of the victims who have been killed in the beginning, and how their next-of-kins are reacting to their death. By itself that is quite a beautiful sequence (if rather manipulative), but again, does it really belong in a movie with so many borderline-absurd one-liners and Herzog playing the ultimate 007-type villain?

This is all just plain stupid, grass and rather ordinary: not even an apparent slick direction and an A-star cast can save it.

5/10

Life of Pi – Review

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Life of Pi (2012) 8.5stars

Director: Ang Lee. Cast: Suraj SharmaIrrfan KhanAyush TandonGautam BelurRafe SpallGérard Depardieu 

Having read the original book several years ago (in fact, to be precise, I remember listening to its unabridged audiobook version) when I learnt that a movie adaptation was going to be made, my instant (and rather predictable) reaction was “How on earth are they going to pull that off?”.  If you, like me, have read the Pulitzer Prize winning story, you’ll understanding my doubts and share my initial skepticism: it wasn’t just the way it was written, through a continuous series of sketchy flashbacks and very internal (and sometimes rather abstract) dialogues, but mainly because, for the greater part, it featured a boy and a tiger stuck on a raft in the middle of the sea.

But as you can tell from my 8 and 1/2 star rating at the top of this review, the answer is right there on the screen: they did pull it off! In fact I liked the film so much that it’s become one of my favourite of the year and possibly my best bet for the forthcoming Oscars.

Yes, of course there were a few annoying little things here and there which prevented it from being a true masterpiece, but whist these things in any other film would have caused me to hate it, in Life of Pi the good stuff is actually SO GOOD that I am willing to forgive any other possible weakness.

Let’s start from the beginning, in fact from the very-long-beginning: yes, the film does take its time to get started and even though the first 30/40 minutes are still perfectly watchable, entertaining, charming and beautifully shot, I couldn’t help feeling that it was all a bit too loose in. The film heavily relies on voice over joining a series of slightly patchy sequences, alternating each other as the several subplots unravel (including a rather redundant – at least in the movie – love story). Interestingly the character of the cook played by Gerard Depardieu, who should have been more developed, is reduced a nothing more than a little 2-dimentional caricature…

Let’s face it, Life of Pi really starts with the sinking of the ship, which happens about 40 minutes into the film. I wonder how many people in telling their friends what the film is about, will actually mention anything that happens before this sequence.

Now I must confess, after James Cameron‘s Titanic I never thought I would ever be amazed at the sight of any ship sinking in any movie. Well, I was obviously wrong!

This scene is absolutely gripping, beautifully executed and visually stunning: in fact generally speaking the film is a constant feast for the eye throughout, but it’s from the moment Pi Patel finds himself shipwrecked that the real magic begins! Yes, Magical is the only word that comes to mind in describing the film. A succession of one amazing sequence after another showcasing some of the most advanced special effect ever seen. The cinematography is a true work of wonder with its striking palette of colours, its magical painterly feel and of course the most astonishing CGI work seen since Avatar, which makes the crouching tiger in the film (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) not just a real visual wonder but a totally convincing character. So much so that I wasn’t even sure it was actually computer-generated until I saw a documentary afterwards.

The use of the 3D technology is also some of the best I’ve ever seen, in fact possibly THE best 3D of any movie I’ve seen. It’s clear that director Ang Lee and his cinematographer Claudio Miranda really understand how to use this new technology and have great fun not just at playing with it (changing the aspect ratio of the screen and throwing things at the audience), but also using that extra 3rd dimension to add something to the story: the sequence taking the audience into Pi’s diary is just one of the many beautiful examples of how 3D is used to add a feel that normal 2D wouldn’t be able to convey.

As you’re watching Pi’s adventures, his struggle to survive and his relationship with the tiger, you know you are watching an instant classic. This is one of those films which will work on different people in many different ways: kids will get something out of it, adults something different, religious people will find enlightenment, non-believers will still find quite a lot to enjoy (However be prepared if you’re taking your kid along for some fairly strong scenes involving animals eating each others). I’m sure in years to come people will still watch this movie.

The core of the film is framed by a “let-me-tell-you-a-story” type of device, in which an older Pi recounts his memories to a writer. This is probably the clunkiest part of the film and ultimately it’s what lets it down. For a start knowing that Pi has survived his odyssey works slightly against the tension the film is trying to build throughout the perilous journey: it’s  as if Cast Away had started from the end. It also spells out aloud the message of the film killing all those subtleties from the book (the worst offender is a scene towards the end where the true nature of the journey is revealed through some nasty explanatory dialogue). It’s really nothing to do with the actors playing older Pi and the writerIrrfan Khan is as always impeccable and brings a gravitas and sweetness to the part (reminiscent of his wonderful character in the stellar third season of “In Treatment”). The writer himself is a bit of a bland character, a proof of the fact that he’s a functional character and nothing more than that: he’s supposed to bring nothing to the table aside from asking the right questions, tell us the meaning of what we’ve just heard  and give a reason to older Pi to tell his story. It’s interesting to know that Toby Maguire had been cast for this part and was later replaced because he was allegedly stealing the scene.

When the twist finally comes at the end, it is delivered by an astonishing Suraj Sharma (a kid with no acting experience who would truly deserve an Oscar): it is spectacularly moving monologue that leaves the audience slightly bewildered, possibly disappointed at first but with hindsight, looking back at it, there is no denying, it is a powerful story, beautifully gratifying, meaningful and profound… and of course an incredible technical achievement.

I can’t wait for my kid to grow up a bit so that one day I could show it to him.

8.5/10

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Review

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rating 6.5/10

Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Martin FreemanIan McKellenRichard ArmitageKen StottGraham McTavish.

It’s been a long time coming. Eagerly awaited by the fans… First officially announced…  Then put on hold…  Then the director Del Toro had to leave… and finally Jackson came to the rescue. And now, clocking at 169 minutes, it’s finally here… and deserves a review that’s at least as long as the film itself… So, let’s try to start from the beginning.

THE 48 FPS STUFF

It’s almost impossible to review The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey without mentioning that little famous (or infamous, depending on how you stand on this) technical issue everybody in Hollywood and in the industry has been talking about: the 48 frames-per-second look. For those who have been living in a cave for the last couple of years, let me quickly explain to you what I am talking about. Peter Jackson has filmed this new trilogy (yes, it is now a trilogy… but more about that later) with special 48 frames-per-second (fps) cameras, instead of the usual common 24fps. The result, once the film gets projected at 48fps speed, is a more detailed, sharper and crisper image with a much higher definition on movement that you’ve ever seen before: a more “immersive experience” (in Jacks0n’s own words) and also a much brighter picture  (Usually light loss in 3D movies can be as high as 30%). Obviously most people will see this film projected with standard 24fps machines , so what I am about to say, will probably make very little sense, but since this is heralded as not just the way the director intended it, but also as the future of cinema, I feel it’s worth taking a moment to tell you my gut reactions to it.

48fpsYes, of course, the image definition is impeccable, the light loss is almost unnoticeable and the 3D effect itself is very very very good (one ‘very’ for each ‘D’, though I have to say I still think the 3D in Avatar was better… or maybe just because it was the first), but aside from all that, I couldn’t get out of me a weird feeling of TV movie: it almost looked like high-def video, and not film. Ironically, the higher definition somehow made it look cheaper (which obviously it wasn’t!): for a start it enhanced every single make-up imperfection on the actors and made some of the sets even look a bit fake (especially the ones in Hobbiton). I also noticed a certain discrepancy between the way the actors appeared on screen (i.e. incredibly realistic, vivid and sharp) and the CGI-enhanced sets extensions in the background (which still had a slightly filmic look): the most obvious examples were those scenes Rivendell, where the waterfalls and the city in the background had a slightly opaque look, while the characters and the various real elements around the screen were crisps as if they’d just been filmed with your latest camcorder. There were some other scenes involving giant wolves running about and a dwarf on a sling which looked very strange too (In fact those were the only special effects I had problems with, in among otherwise perfect CGI): I’m sure you’ll agree when you see it too.

And finally, this new 48fps technology, seems to have given the director the chance to move his camera more than it is really needed: just because you can (with 48fps you don’t get as much motion blur as you would on normal 24fps), doesn’t mean that you have to: the result was overblown camera swoops, tilts and pans galore and an overall slightly unrestrained camerawork which sometimes felt rather random, showy and a bit out of place.

Having spoken to some other friends afterwards, I am very aware that a lot of people quite liked this new look, but on me it had the opposite effect as the one intended and instead of making the experience more immersive, it constantly pulled me out.

There you go, I’ve said it. Now that this is out of the way, let’s talk about the film itself.

A BAD START

One thing is certain, hard-core fans of the previous LOTR trilogy will probably love this chapter too. It was clearly made for them, and since there are a lot of those fans around the globe, I can safely bet this film will make millions of gazillions of dollars, but I get the feeling that it might not be such an Oscar favourite as the previous trilogy was.

Peter Jackson is undeniably a talented man, but we must be honest with ourselves, though he’s certainly one of the most revered and successful film-makers in Hollywood today, I’m not sure even his hard-core fans will be able to deny that when it comes to be harsh on his own material, or getting to the point of a scene and cutting things down, he is definitely not one of the best. He would be the first one to admit it. We all remember the multiple endings of “The Return of the King“, or the long hour-plus before we actually even heard about the fact that there was a giant gorilla in a movie entitled King Kong…  and don’t get me started on the Lovely Bones, possibly the most misjudged film of 2009…  As far as The Hobbit part 1 is concerned, well, I can safely report that that same trend continues here: this time in the form of multiple beginnings!!

In fact the first hour of the film has so many false starts, back stories, flashback, and introductions, that at some point I actually started to wonder whether  that “unexpected” thing  from the title was going to be the fact that the joueny might never actually happen!!

It is of course, once again, a beginning that wants to please everyone: the fans from the book and the ones from the previous trilogy alike (there is no other explanation to a very slow and quite indulgent preamble featuring Eliaja Wood and Ian Holm  reprising their roles from the previous series: I had an hard-core fan sitting in front of me commenting how he loved the fact that Frodo was there… Enough said. It will make the whole saga feel very uniform, but in this film it just had no place!!). Sadly the slow start (and by start I mean at least the first third of the Hobbit pt.1 prevents it from being completely successful.. But there are other faults aside from pace.

THE-HOBBIT-DWARVESIt’s in that first hour that we’re also introduced to Richard Armitage‘s Thorin, King of the Dwarves, in a scene that aside from giving a back story to the character, fails to give us anything interesting about this character and ultimately to make us care about him. As the film goes on, Thorin continues to be a two-dimentional and rather predictable character. And it’s a shame because Thorin should really be one of the main focus of the film.

It’s obvious that the casting of Armitage is trying to replicate the success of the casting of Vigo Mortensen, but sadly the admittedly un-carismatic dwarf make-up (hiding any good feature that Armitage might have) and the fact that Thorin as a character seems to have pretty much the same expression throughout the whole film (or at least that’s how it’s coming through), prevent us from truly engaging with him… Hopefully he’ll be more developed in the sequels, but so far he certainly seems to lack that aura of gravitas, mystery and charisma that Vigo Mortensen‘s Aragorn used to have. Not sure whether to blame, the actor, the character, the director or the original story itself… or maybe even all of them.

But Armitage is only one of 13 dwarves in the film: in fact the Hobbit Pt.1 spends a considerable amount of time in one of the weakest scenes of the film, introducing us to all of them. This was a completely out-of-place sequence that seemed to belong to a different  film or series all together:  one for very young children! It was some sort of bad comedic/slapstick sequence, which was so long and unfunny that actually left most of my audience silent throughout. To add to the confusion was the fact that between the heavy make-up, identical costumes and lack of any interesting characterisation, most of the dwarves look like each other and it was pretty hard to tell most of them apart even by the end of the film.

Martin Freeman was to me the only saving grace of the first third. I must confess that I would probably watch Freeman reading a phone directory anyway, but in the Hobbit Part 1, he was certainly the most approachable and sympathetic character of them all, bringing tenderness, irony, bemusement and something to actually grab our attention, because for all the spectacle and CG-wizzardry at display here, there is an ice-cold detachment that permeates most of the characters. It’s as if all of a sudden JAckson was only interested in showing off his techniques and stopped caring about his characters a little bit.

Incindentally, talking about FX, even the now famous “shrinking people” special effects we’ve become so used to from the earlier series, don’t seem to have the same bite in this film, as Gandalf for example seems to grow or shrink from scene to scene according to (In some sequences Bilbo reaches Gandalf’s shoulder,  in others, he can just about reach his belly button). And let’s not even mention the fact that every time they use a stunt-giant double it shows from miles away (ops.. I have now mentioned it!).

THINGS FINALLY GET GOING:

As you’re reading this, you might be wondering why on earth did I give it a 7/10 rating if all I’ve been doing so far was slashing the film to pieces?!

Well, let’s just say that once the so-called unexpected journey finally starts and gets passed Rivendell (where another incredibly dull talky, indulgent sequence takes place; a sequence which seems to be there just to please those LOTR fans, once again, and create a link with the previous series), the film finally gets into the right gear, the action begins and the spectacle really takes over!

The first sign of things improving comes in the form of Mountain Trolls and a splendidly choreographed fight sequence, rendered so vividly by the CG animation that it’s hard to fault. Andy Serkis makes his appearance too (other than the fact that he is the second unit director on the film) as Gollum. gollumNow finally the film seemed to get a slightly darker tone, leaving behind the memory of the frankly quite idiotic and childish first sequences with the dwarves singing and getting drunk around a table. It’s interesting to notice this was also the moment that caused the first most spontaneous laugh from the audience, as if everybody felt it was OK to finally relax and enjoy the film because things were moving to the right direction.

From there onwards the film is essentially one incredible set-piece after another, all of which of truly amazing standards. It’s not just the seamless special effects, or the immersive 3D, but the actual design and choreography of them and of course the relentless and yet clear pace to which they’ve all been edited together. A living proof that action scenes don’t need to be chaotic and unnecessarily shaky to work. The sequences up in the mountain with massive giants fighting each others makes the everything we’ve seen in any of those dreadful Transformers movies look tiny and puerile (well… actually pretty much anything makes those films puerile). And of course that chase at the end, which despite an over-swoopy camera work, is one of the most accomplished work of action featuring hundreds of CG characters ever portrayed  on screen. I guess the 48fps tool here really pays off!

So after that interminable first hour, all of a sudden time really starts flying by and the next 2 hours (or if you want, the next 2/3 of the film) are really worth the whole price of the ticket and they raise the bar to levels which only some of the best sequences of the previous 3 films managed to get to.

In fact the rest of the Hobbit pt.1, beyond that terrible beginning, is just so good and exciting that for me is enough to give it a 6.5/10 and recommend the film to anyone.

Aside from all the visual I guess the score should also get reviewed, especially because, as Peter Jackson likes to do, the music here seems to plasters the entire film and rarely shuts up, so it’s impossible not to notice it.

Composer Howard Shore plays it pretty very safe, by giving us a score which has essentially very little new, but re-hashes bits and pieces from the previous instalments, a little bit like what John Williams did for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull.To be honest with you, I was absolutely fine with that, mainly because I love those first soundtracks so much, but aside from over-playing it really felt a bit lazy in places: here’s the ring, let’s play the ring theme, from the Fellowship of the Ring. Here’s Gollum, let’s play Gollum theme from the two towers! Uh… a gig bird is flying, get the bird cue going! And so on, and so on… The cue from the admittedly quite embarrassing dwarf song is one of the few new ones, which works pretty well, but gets used over and over again as a main theme.

LOOKING FORWARD TO THE NEXT ONE!

… And then something quite extraordinary happened, which when I started I never thought it would be possible… The film ended and left me wanting more!

Yes, the cliffhanger might be a bit cheap, might feel like an end of an episode from any TV series, but hey, it works wonderfully! (A little funny trivia here: Jackson claims that final shot was actually finished just a few days before the actual premiere in New Zealand).

I guess this is really the most unexpected thing about this journey: the film turns from something quite dull, slow, detached, puerile and without a real drive, into an incredible action romp which surpasses any expectation: it’s exciting, it’s fresh, it’s gripping, it’s amazing to look at: a real spectacle!! If only Peter Jackson had been less indulgent and a bit more ruthless with his own material and had really decided to stick with 2 movies instead the promised 3 we are going to get, and left all those long redundant sequences for the extended editions on the DVD (which I would have bought anyway!), this film would have certainly been a lot tighter, more focussed, sharper and less boring: basically a much better film, that would have left another indelible mark in cinema history as another game-changer.

As it is, it’s another chapter in the Tolkien saga which feels perfectly in tune with what we’ve seen before, but it’s just too baggy to surpass the experience of any of the previous instalments.

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