Sunday, 25 September 2011

Drive Review

After reading various reviews, many have been quick to praise Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, especially professional ‘film critics’. However among the bloggers and part-timer writers, many have been less awestruck. But after following the project for a while and watching the trailers, Drive had gained my attention. Based on James Sallis’ 2005 novel, Nicolas Winding Refn takes the relatively simple premise and injects it with adrenaline and style. My personal experience with Refn’s career stems from Bronson and the Pusher Trilogy. His stylist approach to film is reminiscent of work by Stanley Kubrick, and there’s a focus on the primal nature of man; aggression and violence. However, how would this transcend in, arguably, his most mainstream work?
The plot follows a Hollywood stunt performer who is simply known as ‘Driver’ (Ryan Gosling). He starts to form a relationship with his female neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio. However, after meeting Irene’s newly paroled husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), he soon becomes entangled in dangerous territory. He takes a job as the getaway driver for a simple ‘Pawn Shop’ robbery job. But when everything goes wrong, a brutal thrill-ride begins as he tries to protect Irene and tie up loose ends. Drive’s story is relatively straightforward with no plot twists and nothing really ground-breaking or unique. What’s surprising about Drive is its dramatic change from a dragging ‘romantic’ endeavour into a barrage of violence and brutality. Its 18 rating becomes justified through the course of the film as bones break and heads get caved-in, whilst the development of tension really adds a refreshing note to the ‘tired’ narrative. However Drive’s story suffers from slightly flawed pacing and character development. After a dramatic heist scene that masterfully opens the film, its first act turns into a sluggish exchange of smiles and small talk between Gosling and Carey’s characters. Drawn-out shots of staring and ‘silence’ become a tedious and awkward affair. Alongside the first act’s slow speed, is a somewhat instantaneous relationship between Gosling and Carey that never is explained or fully developed. The abruptness of the ‘romantic’ plot element means that we don’t build any attachment to the characters, and it feels rather empty and shallow. These problems weaken the first act but are cancelled out by pulsating, and thrilling second and third acts. 
In terms of the acting, Drive is good but far from perfect. Ryan Gosling has to be the most busiest actor this year with the likes of The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid Love. Here his performance is somewhat disjointed. While his character’s persona is split between calm and quiet, and then intense and sinister, Gosling fails to pull off both.  When he’s interacting with Mulligan, it’s too lifeless and uninspired. In contrast he plays his latter personality perfectly, managing to be genuinely threatening and savage. He’s good but lacks balance and refinement. Bryan Cranston puts in a great performance as Shannon, whilst Albert Brooks is perfect as crime boss Bernie Rose. However, the female side of the cast is underwhelming. Carey Mulligan is average at best, but she doesn’t really have enough dialogue to display her acting skills. Meanwhile, Christina Hendricks is listed as a main character but never really fulfils her ‘title’. 
The cinematography is where Nicolas Winding Refn really nails it. The ‘cockpit’ camera angles are evocative of those in 1968’s Bullitt, and really immerse the audience in the action. The simple camera framing of Gosling’s reflection in the rear-view mirror, his leather-clad hands clutching the wheel and the oscillating speed-o-meter really add a dynamic and depth to the simple act of driving. Outside the car, low and tilted angles, as well as changes in camera focus, make characters seem more imposing and menacing. Lighting is also used smartly. From the neon-lit landscapes of Los Angeles, to the revolving beams from a lighthouse, there’s a illustrative richness and added ambience to the blank interiors and exteriors. 
The sound design is also brilliant, especially during the driving sequence. Engines rev, exhausts pop, its a very loud and exhilarating experience. In contrast, the visual brutality is assisted through uncomfortable snaps and splats. However what’s more interesting is Refn’s use of silence. Silence becomes an indicator when Gosling goes into overdrive, but adds a sense of unpredictability, tension and allows the film’s visual character to fully convey. On the other hand, the soundtrack is a mixed affair. Cliff Martinez’s score is fabulously atmospheric, with a strong mix of electronic pulses and eloquent, panoramic tones. Reminiscent of work by Brian Eno, it certainly integrates well with Refn’s use of silence and slow-motion sequences. In terms of the other contributors, its a little varied. College’s ‘A Real Hero’ lyrics is foreshadowing at its most obvious, whilst the annoying electronic voice of ‘Nightcall’ by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx fails to match the song’s soothing, synthesised notes. The real stand out is The Chromatics‘ ‘Tick of the Clock‘ (in the trailers) which, though repetitive and minimal, manages to merge well with the visual styling and creates added tension to the opening heist scene. 
Overall, Drive is a ‘bloody’ good watch but is spoilt by a slow first act and a lack of character development. While the story is relatively simple and the performances aren’t award-winning, Refn focuses his attention on the film’s cinematography and audio construction, resulting in a very stylish, thrilling and intense film that leaves a lasting impression. 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Review

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  

Strangely for a British-based, potentially award-winning film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had a rather lack-lustre build up. While it picked up near its release, few trailers and little media attention had resulted in the film slipping under the ‘radar’. However when reviews began to emerge, ‘amazing’ ‘brilliant’ and ‘spectacular’ were terms plastered onto every poster, TV spot and film article. The ‘prediction’ of a BAFTA winner became apparent, thus an intrigue was inevitable. Originally a novel by John le Carré, it was adapted into a BBC television series in 1979 starring Alec Guinness. Having not read the book or watched the series, it was interesting to see Tomas Alfredson condense a seven-part show into 2 hours. Known for his direction of 2008’s Let the Right One In, Alfredson has had a relatively sparse filmography and has tended to stick to Swedish film-making. Therefore with a star-studded British cast, and a very British story, how would he manage?

The plot follows a number of officials from the British Intelligence Service as rumour spreads of a ‘mole’ leaking information to the Soviets. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is taken out of ‘retirement’ and is tasked with finding the double agent among four primary candidates; Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). On first glance, the film’s plot seems simple, however after witnessing a botched operation in Budapest and a ‘setup’ in Turkey, its an engrossing and quite complex narrative. Many will find the story a bit hard to follow as it skips back and forth between time slots, but nothing that really impedes the film. However the film’s pacing is a bit all over the place. A long-winded intro sequence/ montage of Gary Oldman being silent in different locations gets tiresome. And when he finally speaks, it fails to match the build up. The overuse of long, drawn out shots of people sitting and ‘first-person’ perspectives from files, slow the film’s pace and become tedious. Thankfully by the end of the film Alfredson nails everything, creating tense and dramatic sequences and a very fine and satisfying last note.
Acting-wise, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has a fantastic cast that definitely showcases British performances from established actors and up-and-coming ones. Benedict Cumberbatch puts in a superb performance as Peter Guillam. His amazing voice and energetic screen presence create a sophisticated and memorable character. Tom Hardy also puts in a stellar performance as Ricky Tarr, whilst Mark Strong is brilliant as usual. However Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that has grabbed the media’s attention. His portrayal of Mr Smiley’s lonely, muted personality is nothing special. But during the course of the film, through dramatic and fierce dialogue confrontations, his character comes into his own. However with such a big cast, the likes of Stephen Graham and Ciarán Hinds seem underplayed. While I recognise that condensing a seven-part series inevitably results in the omission of scenes and a immediacy to events and characters, why cast lead actors? Hinds doesn’t say anything in the entire film, while Graham has a few scenes but little dialogue, neither really showing their talents. It’s disappointing but understandable. 
The film’s look and feel is fantastic in its recreation of the 1970s. From the cars, fashion and general aesthetic, its an immersive experience that feels very stylish and slick. On the other hand, the soundtrack is somewhat confusing from Alberto Iglesias. Jazzy and classical notes scream the era and match the somber yet chilling visuals. However Mediterranean guitars don’t correspond to the rainy, grey vistas of London. The choice of Julio Inglesias’s cover of Charles Trénet's “La Mer” is a bizarre one that doesn’t suit the film’s captivating ending. 
Overall Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is very good film, however is slightly disappointing when compared to the critical ‘hype’ the film has gained. Great performances, stunning production values, and a gripping story result in an enjoyable experience. While it isn’t the “powerhouse“ or “masterpiece” that many have stated, it’s a fine effort by Tomas Alfredson and is one that’s up there as one of 2011’s best. Definitely Recommended after a “Summer of Blockbuster Shlock”.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し) Review

The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し) 2002 
Directed by animator Hiroyuki Morita, The Cat Returns was released back in 2002 and remains one of my personal favourite ‘non-Miyazaki’ productions. Originally planned as a 20-minute short back in 1999, it was then turned into a manga by Aoi Hiiragi. After deliberations between Hayao Miyazaki and various other staff members, Morita became responsible for translating Hiiragi’s work into a film. Not only recognised at Studio Ghibli, he has worked on projects such as Akira and Afro Samurai showing an abundance of experience in Japanese animated cinema. However The Cat Returns is Morita’s first genuine debut as a director, and its a great one from another future prospect. 
The story follows Haru, a shy and modest high school student who has the ability to talk to cats. After saving a well-spoken feline from a road accident, who turns out to be Luna ‘Prince of Cat Kingdom’, she is showered in gifts (catnip and mice) by the King and is offered the Prince’s hand in marriage. Troubled by her unwanted glorification, she finds help from ‘The Baron’ (character from Whisper of the Heart), Muta, a pot-bellied white cat and Toto, a living crow statue. However when she is forcefully taken to the ‘Cat Kingdom’, the Baron launches a rescue mission to save Haru from being trapped and transforming into a cat. 
The story is simple yet engrossing. While it may not hold the usual messages of environmentalism or militarism, or the concealed complexities of Studio Ghibli’s usual creations, its a well-told and well-constructed affair. This isn’t to suggest that The Cat Returns is a perfect story. There are problems but none that cripple the film. A slightly drawn-out second act is a bit feeble when compared to the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the portrayal of ‘The Cat Kingdom’ is disappointingly tame. After Studio Ghibli’s vivid and imaginative fantasy scenes in Whisper of the Heart, which prompted The Cat Returns creation, the depiction of the kingdom is underwhelming and slightly mundane. Apart from these niggles, the film runs smoothly and remains engaging.
In terms of the characters, The Cat Return’s ‘roster’ is small but appropriately developed. Primarily focusing on our three main protagonists and a main antagonist, the film duly constructs unique and compelling personalities. Haru comes across as a typical high school girl. Her constant clumsiness and simplemindedness does get tiresome, however there’s a charm to her character, an affection that continues throughout the film. The Baron remains an interesting character after his ‘debut’ in Whisper of the Heart. An intellectual, ‘Sherlock Holmesy’, well-groomed and dressed cat offers something different and imaginative to the usual young boy protagonist. However Muta steals the shows as the comedic relief. His tendency to lead with his stomach, a disregard for Haru and a somewhat obscure background, create a character that’s obnoxious but funny. This is all helped by superb Japanese voicework that does justice to the animation and truly represents the characters, rather than the English dub. 
Animation-wise, The Cat Returns keeps the detailed and colourful backgrounds of Ghibli ,but changes the character design. It’s not a dramatic change, but one that is visible to regular Ghibli watchers. A good use of colours create a clear distinction between the ‘fantasy‘ elements and the ‘realistic‘ setting. And the sight of a cat standing on two legs remains playfully weird, even slightly unnerving. The soundtrack is great from Yuuji Nomi and Ayano Tsuji’s theme song is probably one of the best in Ghibli’s backlog.

Overall The Cat Returns is short at 75 minutes, but is sweet. Colourful characters, simple story and well-constructed animation, ensure an easy to watch and engrossing experience. It may not be crammed full of symbolism or philosophy, but that’s simply because it’s not intended to spur great intellectual thought. Its a great debut from Hiroyuki Morita, and another fine addition to Studio Ghibli’s filmography. Recommended. 

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ) Review

Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ) (1994)
Pom Poko, released in 1994, is Isao Takahata’s 8th animated project which he has written and directed with Studio Ghibli. Taking a different approach to his usual ‘human’ and realistic style, Pom Poko became a success in the Japanese box office, and was eventually submitted as Japan’s selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Stepping back from ‘human subjects’, Takahata focuses on the traditional Japanese folklore of tanuki (Japanese Raccoon Dogs). Essentially, our main characters are a group of mischievous, gluttonous and cheerful raccoons that have the ability to shape-shift in order to trick humans.............and have shapeshifting testicles.  
The story follows a band of racoons who are under attack by MAN!!!! Initially set in the 1960s, a gigantic suburban development is beginning to be constructed on their land. Trees, grassland and forests are being cut down, causing a dramatic effect on the tanuki population. A resistance forms including Gonta, an aggressive chief, Tsurugame, an old guru, and Oroku, the wise-woman, in order to battle the human efforts to build houses, offices and roads on their habitat. Told in a ‘diary log’ style of narrative Pom Poko’s story structure is pretty simple to understand, but does dawdle during the second act. 
Firstly, this is a very ‘Japanese’ film, but one that remains relatively accessible to a wider audience. The focus on Japanese folklore and mythology is quite daunting but is very interesting. Many viewers unfamiliar with the likes of yokai (a class of Japanese supernatural creatures) or oni (demons, devils....), will enjoy a ‘child friendly’ visual introduction to Japan’s unique and strange supernatural identity. The ‘ghost parade’ scene in particular, barrages the audience with Japanese myths and legends, with some cameos from other Ghibli films. Demons, giant babies, three headed females all appear in an effort to scare the locals. It definitely is a hilarious and surreal WTF moment. 
Inevitably, environmentalism and the general impact of humans is prominent in Pom Poko, more so than in any other work by Studio Ghibli. And to some extent this hinders the film’s general impression. This being a major plotline for the film, the message is somewhat preached continuously rather than allowed to be expressed naturally. What the slightly over-rated Princess Mononoke did to successfully convey its message of ‘environmentalism’, was to employ it though a smartly told narrative and well-developed selection of characters, which are lacking in Pom Poko. 

Studio Ghibli, and especially Isao Takahata, have a very creative and masterful understanding of the concept of characters. From the likes of Calcifer from Howls Moving Castle to Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s a special connection that viewers build with them. Their unique, or relatable features/ traits help, or even solely create the film. However Pom Poko falls short even with top notch Japanese voice acting. This isn’t due to the dialogue, but lies with the story and the sheer scale with which we are introduced to all these characters. All too often, characters “disappear” then reappear causing confusion and a disregard for them. 
In terms of the animation, Pom Poko is great with its vivid colour palette and energetic flow and spirit. There is also a good blend of animation styles to depict the characters. The contrast of the ‘red-eyed’, typical looking raccoons from the humans’ perspective, to the ‘humanized versions of the tanuki, and to the cartoony figures of Shigeru Sugiura’s manga, is an enjoyable and interesting arrangement of various visual styles. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is a mix of traditional Japanese folk, kabuki and children’s music that’s matches the playful and joyful nature of the film and its characters. 
Overall Pom Poko is a great film, yet dawdles too much on its message rather than crafting a flowing narrative and memorable, individual characters. The script is great, the story is simple, and its a very funny film.