Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hanna (2011)

Image from IMP Awards

Hanna (2011)

Director Joe Wright, better known for his period dramas like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, decided to direct an action film. The end result is original and unconventional while still adhering to all the trappings and formula that goes with the genre.

The story revolves around a young girl, the eponymous Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), who at the start of the film is being raised in the snowy wilderness of Finland by her father Erik (Eric Bana), who is training her to be an assassin. They are hiding from an agency and an agent, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), who for reasons that are initially unclear wants them captured and possibly killed. Wanting to experience the world for herself, Hanna enters civilization for the first time in her life and must elude both Marissa and her sadistic henchman Isaacs (Tom Hollander).

At face value and in terms of plot it seems uninspired and indeed there are some action movie cliches and coincidences that are eyebrow raising, but there's more to this film than a synopsis can convey. The characters have substance and their own personal stories; in particular, Hanna's getting to grips with society, people, and adolescence is handled entertainingly and intelligently. The characters are organically integrated into the plot, which in turn is propulsive (even when stretching the boundaries of plausibility) and reveals itself in layers, building up to a satisfying if low key conclusion.

The performances are great and deliver on the promise of the cast, especially the much lauded Ronan in the lead role, who is equal parts naively wide eyed girl and lethal killing machine. Bana is reliably badass and I would've loved to watch a whole movie about his character; the always reliable Blanchett is believably ruthless and scheming (and complex), and the less heavily advertised Hollander rounds out the cast with a twisted and darkly comical portrayal.

Wright, outside of his drama safe zone, excels with the dramatic elements of the story but most surprisingly delivers on the action front as well, with several exceptional sequences each of which is stylistically different and satisfying. It's a visually appealing film and the thumping soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers really rounds things off.

Hanna is an excellent action film that doesn't quite attain the level of 'brilliant' due to a few trite genre elements and some ill advised marginal characters Hanna runs in to who are hit and miss. Definitely worth a watch as long as you don't go in expecting an action fest, as the bouts of action aren't exactly abundant (but are worth the wait). It's more a mixture of drama, thriller, and action, and all the better for it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Arcade Fire - Hyde Park 2011

I hardly ever talk about music on this blog, primarily because it's not something I take an active interest in or feel like talking about in any serious way, as I do with films. I know what I like and I know what I don't like, and I guess I could articulate why I do or don't like something. I'd also like to think I know what constitutes crappy music and great music, to some extent, but I certainly lack the knowledge and ability to 'review' music. In short, this isn't a review, but rather a recollection of an experience.

I've been a fan of Arcade Fire since I heard one of their tracks on the trailer for Spike Jonze's 'Where the Wild Things Are' (turns out Jonze is a fan and collaborator as well, having directed some of their recent videos). I've subsequently bought all of their albums and they are among a select few where I actually listen to and like most of the songs as opposed to two or three standouts. This is starting to sound like some kind of promotional post, but fuck it it's my blog and I dig 'em. To my ears they sound distinctive and engaging, with lyrics that are more thoughtful than your average pop/alt-rock band.

I'm not really into going to live musical performances but I was fairly keen on Arcade Fire (and, just FYI I'd also include Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Cranberries, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Pixies on that list; and The Ramones and The White Stripes if they were still around) especially considering they have a reputation for being an exceptional live act. So naturally, when the opportunity arose I snagged a ticket (A brief aside here, apparently it's some kind of social faux pas to attend a live music event on one's own - not only was I repeatedly asked who I was going with, I also noticed very few people who seemed to be there on their own).

In short, it was a blast and I had a great time! Taking place in London's Hyde Park with somewhere around 60,000 in attendance, there was plenty to occupy one's attention before the main event, including a smorgasbord of food and drink stalls, an arcade booth, a mini cinema screening a rather disappointing short film by Arcade Fire and Spike Jonze, and the obligatory merchandising booths. A brief and inoffensive interlude of rain aside it was a bright and sunny day, a relative rarity in the British Isles.

With the exception Beirut the other opening acts who preceded Arcade Fire were ones I was unfamiliar with. Owen Pallett, The Vaccines, and Mumford and Sons (yeah these guys are famous but hey, I don't really keep track of music!) are definitely on my radar now, and discovering new music on the day was a massive plus.

I planted myself relatively close to the stage early on when the crowds were thin and the opening acts were going strong. Mass movements of people between performances caused me to be moved around like a bottle in the ocean and inadvertently got me a bit closer. When Arcade Fire finally showed up the impatient crowd exploded and were extremely vocal throughout. This was actually a bit of a problem at times as the volume levels of the band weren't all that high (due to noise restrictions in the area, apparently!); it wasn't an egregious problem but it was the only noteworthy blemish on the day.

Arcade Fire were great, energetic and enthusiastic throughout and clearly keen on putting on a good show. I had forgotten how many of them there were and the variety of instruments they had at their disposal; they would often swap instruments in between and sometimes during performances with manic intensity. Their setlist covered songs from all three albums and there was one unreleased song that was apparently a live debut. There was some interesting and sometimes surreal imagery on the screens behind them, and an exuberant use of stage lighting that may have caused seizures in any epileptics unfortunate enough to be in the audience!

It was a tiring experience that involved over seven hours of standing beginning to end, but my conclusion several weeks on is the same as it was several minutes after it ended. Totally worth it!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character

Richard Feynman was one of the most famous physicists of the twentieth century - a bona fide genius and, if this book is anything to go by, a fun guy!

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is in essence a transcript of taped anecdotal conversations he had with his friend Ralph Leighton. It covers Feynman's life from childhood and college through the Manhattan Project, his winning of the Nobel Prize in the mid sixties, and beyond.

Given the nature of the source material for the book, it should come as no surprise that it has a very laid back and talky style. Feynman vividly recollects and recounts various incidents, people, and ideas from his life. This covers a broad spectrum that includes his time at various universities and a lengthy section on Palo Alto. He describes his work in biology and passion for languages and music, for tinkering (he became something of a safecracker at one point!), and his late success as a painter.

Despite his obvious brilliance he never comes across as condescending or arrogant. He makes frank (often blunt) and insightful comments about people, institutions, society, and ideologies, all in a very accessible and engaging manner, and often punctuated with humour. He was also a bit of a ladies' man and he speaks with the same enthusiasm about his encounters with the opposite sex as he does when talking about physics. Speaking of physics, there are bits in here that may be too esoteric and inaccessible for the average reader, but these are few and far between and certainly don't derail the book.

The disjointed nature of the book makes it more a collection of short stories than a continuous progression, but they are all bound together by Feynman's unmistakable voice. While few people can possibly hope to achieve even a small fraction of what he did, they surely can't fail to be inspired by his unbridled curiosity and love of life, and by how his intellect was checked by modesty and humility. It's a fascinating look into the mind of a genius!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand

I didn't actually finish reading The Fountainhead. After enduring one third of this appalling book I simply gave up. This is not because of my thoughts on Rand's self centred philosophy (I wouldn't have bothered starting it if that were the case, plus there are aspects of this philosophy that I subscribe to), but rather to do with the fact that it is poorly written, overlong to the point that calling it bloated would be an understatement, repetitive, one note both tonally and in a narrative sense, and features bland, self important, one dimensional characters.

There are many things in the world that I don't like that other people do. In most of these cases, however, I can understand the appeal - at least to some extent. This leaves me with one question about this novel (and presumably Atlas Shrugged) - what on earth do its fans see in it? What is there in this novel that is of value, that makes it worth reading, apart from the fact that it is famous (not a good reason at all).  Perhaps reading it to its conclusion would enlighten me, but a quick read of the synopsis on Wikipedia suggests that the final two-thirds are as much an exercise in endurance as the first.

I can only imagine that the theme of unappreciated genius that perseveres in the face of an apathetic and sometimes downright hostile society holds some appeal to people, but in the case of this book that theme is presented with such precious little subtlety and with such an excess of childish simplicity that this theory seems unlikely; still, it's all I've got!

This marks my first and last foray into the writings of Ayn Rand.

Splice (2009)

Image from Imp Awards

Splice (2009)

Looks like the IMDB collective isn't overly fond of this one!

Splice is a sci-fi horror film about a couple of genetic engineers (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polly) who, as they tend to do in movies, take things a bit too far and secretly create a creature (played by Delphine Chanéac) that's part human and part... other things. It starts growing up rapidly and the two are forced to take care of it, adopting the role of surrogate parents. As with most infants, the creature - named Dren (nerd backwards) - yearns to escape its confinement and experience the world, which leads to some undesirable consequences.

It's a far more cerebral film than it initially appears to be, and despite the cliched 'scientists making creature in lab' premise writer/director Vincenzo Natali seems to have something more to say. Although the ubiquitous meddling with nature theme is initially front and centre the parenting, childhood, and sexuality metaphors become more dominant as the film goes on, making it more than just a creature feature. Having said that it is still a dark and moody film with very well done designs and effects that help create some icky/freaky/gory scenes. Brody and Polly are decent in this but the standout by far is Delphine Chanéac as Dren who with the aid of great makeup and CGI really does come across as an advanced but mentally immature life form.

The film is not without flaws. Many of the 'twists' in the story are telegraphed in advance and don't have nearly as much shock value as they could. Genre cliches are embraced and well executed but some of the more shocking scenes seem arbitrary. It's not overly long at 100 or so minutes but drags a bit and felt longer. Also - and I may just be really jaded - none of the scare scenes come close to being scary.

Flaws notwithstanding, it's a pretty good film that should appeal to genre fans, but not so much to the casual viewer expecting a typical horror film. It's more ambitious than that but doesn't do quite enough for me to call it a great film, just a very good one.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Source Code (2011)

(Image from Imp Awards)

Source Code

Continuing the sci-fi theme, Source Code is another film that managed to surprisingly exceed expectations. The trailer did little to inspire confidence despite the film being from Duncan Jones, the director of the superb 'Moon'; and, despite what it's title appears to promise, it has nothing to do with computer programming.

The plot reads like something from a Twilight Zone episode. Soldier Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself in a bit of a predicament - thanks to a rather implausible combination of quantum mechanics and the last memories of a dead man, he is repeatedly sent back in time (in a sense) to inhabit the body of said dead man in the last eight minutes of his life. Said life ended when the train the man was on exploded in a terrorist attack, and the unwitting Stevens' mission is to try and determine the identity of the bomber from among the passengers in the carriage, including his fellow passenger Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Each time through Stevens gets to relive the same eight minutes to try and gather info before the train explodes and he's returned to his own body in the present, where he is grilled by members of the 'Source Code' project (played by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright) before being sent back again.

This sounds like a very grim version of Groundhog Day sans Bill Murray, but fortunately the film wastes little time trying to surprise its jaded 21st century audience with the mechanics of its concept as if it were a novel one. On the contrary it jumps right in with an initially incredulous Stevens trying to work out the identity of the bomber, sometimes in surprisingly humourous ways. Gyllenhaal plays earnest and desperate very effectively, with a little tortured soul vibe thrown in for good measure, and he and the reliably vivacious Monaghan play off each other nicely. The train is populated by a varied group of characters who are - fortunately - interesting without reaching Hollywood levels of quirkiness.

Another compelling aspect of the film is the downtime between iterations when Stevens deals with the Source Code team and his own personal baggage. It's made apparent from the outset that they are hiding something while putting pressure on him to determine who the bomber is before he gets a chance to strike again. This aspect of the story also works surprisingly well despite seeming trite at first glance, and it's helped along by Farmiga's performance as the stern yet compassionate liaison and Wright's borderline comical Dr Rutledge, the project's founder.

There may be some weak elements, including a villain who achieves snicker inducing levels of cliched and an ending that may disappoint some (I found it satisfactory and earned), but despite that and the seemingly shaky premise Jones and his cast and crew have crafted an entertaining and intriguing sci-fi mystery thriller that doesn't shy away from toying with grand themes like free will vs destiny (though, unlike with Adjustment Bureau, in a more pseudo-scientific way) and individual liberty. The characters are also more than just mere hackneyed plot devices, which adds considerable depth to the film.

While it is ultimately a padded out short story that still only barely crosses the 90 minute mark, what it does it does very well. Smarter and better made than most mainstream sci-fi efforts and still accessible to the average (non-retarded) film fan, it's worth your while and would make a great double bill with the Adjustment Bureau (I didn't watch them as a double bill but did see them consecutively).

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Adjustment Bureau
Romance and sci-fi are not genres that sit well together very often, so chalk this one up as one of those rare exceptions. Based on a Phillip K Dick short story, it tells the story of a an impulsive politician, David Norris (Matt Damon), who on the eve of losing a Senatorial election meets a woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), in the men's (!) while rehearsing his concession speech. The two hit it off immediately and the inspired Norris subsequently knocks his speech out of the park.

Turns out this wasn't all random chance. A secret organisation of what appear to be angels are actually pulling the strings and directing the fate of mankind, including Norris's. His meeting with Elise was orchestrated. Unfortunately this 'Adjutsment Bureau' aren't perfect and a second unplanned encounter between the two puts their grand plans for Norris in jeopardy as the pair threaten to fall in love and alter their destinies.

The film is part romance and part sci-fi thriller, and while it never gets your pulse pounding it does tell its story very well. Much has been said by critics about how well Damon and Blunt play off each other, and it's true, they do - this seems to be half the battle in any kind of on screen love story, and in this the two make a believable pairing - helped along by some decent writing - which makes their dilemmas and choices feel earned instead of contrived. Damon's the star and his affable demeanor helps sell the premise together with the very capable supporting cast of agents/angels played by Anthony Mackie, the ever icy Terence Stamp and scene stealer John Slattery.

In an era of bigger is better blockbusters, Adjustment Bureau is defiantly low key. It never gets bogged down in its grand themes of fate vs free will (though it does raise the issues) and instead focuses on the characters. Nor does it try to be large scale in terms of action or effects, though there are very effective action sequences and some wonderfully understated effects. The mechanics of the Bureau are only explained as far as is necessary for the plot, and to be honest I never felt the need for any further explanation.

This isn't going to go down as a classic, but it achieves what it sets out to do very well. It's entertaining and charming and funny, and despite there never being a genuine sense of danger in the story it manages to remain consistently engaging and even somewhat thought provoking at times. I enjoyed it and it's definitely worth a watch, even for those without an inclination towards science fiction.