Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Trailer Round-Up: Devil's Double, Immortals, What's Your Number

April has been a fairly slow month on the blog, but a handful of trailers caught my eye this week. Here's a few notes on each one.

The Devil's Double
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Release Date: 29/07/2011 (USA)

If you too winced at the thought of clean-cut Dominic Cooper taking on the role of Saddam Hussein's psychotic son, I hope you're backtracking as much as I am. As well as showcasing his performance as a greasier version of Jeremy Irons in "Dead Ringers" it also looks like quite a blast. And the comedy in the trailer doesn't feel so token as to distract from the main identity battle going on inside the mind of Hussein's body double. Perhaps the only drawback is that Tony Scott's "Domino" looked like similar kind of fun.

Directed by Tarsem Singh
Release Date: 11/11/2011 (UK, USA)

Let me firstly breathe a huge sigh of disappointment that the immensely-talented Tarsem Singh has chosen to make a film about Greek Gods, but I will applaude him for the triple-threat casting of dishiness in Henry Cavill, Kellan Lutz, and Stephen Dorff. I'm not quite sure what Mickey Rourke is doing in this trailer (I can't see past that bonkers head-gear), and Freida Pinto piping in with the words: "To whose who much is given, much is oft" hardly amps up the level of intellect. What with "Thor," "Clash of the Titans," and "Centurion" already proving that loin clothes are back in vogue, "Immortals" feels distinctly like flogging a dead horse.

What's Your Number?
Directed by Mark Mylod
Release Date: 30/09/2011 (USA); 04/01/2012 (UK)

"Anna Faris, horrified to learn that 96% of women who have slept with over twenty guys have difficulty finding a husband, sets out to see if any of her exes were actually the right one after all."
When I read this synopsis back in February, I was stoked. Faris has such a way with comedy, and the conceit (while silly) is pretty interesting for a rom-com. A glance at the trailer doesn't disspell hopes entirely, but its forays into stupidity (Borat, Gynaecologists) make me think this isn't going to be this year's smart little gem. I'd also be very surprised if Faris were not to end up with her womanising neighbour (Chris Evans) since a) both of them are smoking hot, and b) no other legitimate suitor was featured in the trailer. Sadly, it looks very standard.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Review of Il Posto, aka 'The Job' (Olmi, 1961)

Il Posto, aka "The Job"
Directed by Ermanno Olmi
Starring: Sandro Panseri, Loredana Detto
Grade: B+

Characterised by grim, authentic locations and a mundane sense of the 'routine', Neo-Realist cinema had had its heyday by the time Ermanno Olmi's "Il Posto" entered the fray. Part of a wave of Post Neo-Realism, his film (the English translation of which is ‘The Job’) stresses the precarious fiscal position that families find themselves in, and the introduction of a culture which promotes economic benefit as a substitute for happiness. While many see 1961 as belonging to Federico Fellini’s lavish La Dolce Vita, “Il Posto” represents a drastically different side of Italian society, devoid of cocktails, buxom blondes, and moonlit terraces.

Part of a post-war generation, graduate Domenico (Panseri) is put under pressure to work by his strict parents, who encourage him to attend a recruitment event for a large, well-known corporation. In doing so, he undergoes an exam, an aptitude test, and meets love interest Antonietta (Detto), whose striking features and comparable family situation attract his attention. Many days pass until Domenico is informed that he has been given a job at the company, and from there the film follows his efforts to fit into his new workplace, as well as his endeavour to secure the affection of his attractive colleague.

Particularly in the first half of the film, Olmi’s style draws us into the tentativeness of his leading man, but is also fiercely satirical towards the subject matter. The recruitment process Domenico takes part in consists of a simple problem-solving task, and an interview comprising of thoroughly absurd questions which probe his level of alcohol dependency and physical fitness. A medical exam consists of candidates taking it in turns to hold out their palms and squat in front of a panel of physicians. Olmi mocks corporate ideals of what makes a perfect ‘candidate’ in a similarly wry way to how Sofia Coppola critiques ‘celebrity’ in her films Lost in Translation and Somewhere, reducing characters to pawns within a commercial network.

Above all, "Il Posto" and Panseri instil awkward tension into their depiction of what is a very daunting ordeal. It details all of the intricacies of the protocol of starting a new job; not knowing where to put yourself, guaging what your superiors want to hear etc. Domenico enters an alien environment with the convincing trepidation of a kid thrust into the world of work, with a healthy degree of interest and promise in tow. The film shows how his inherent expectations become moulded with the realities of working life (especially at such a tender age) and rarely surrounds the boy with overly-uniform representations of restriction. But for some fussy moments with his parents Domenico encounters people who you can believe were once as fresh and hesitantly self-aware as he, and who have been believably indoctrinated into a capitalist way-of-life. These folks aren’t obstacles, but rather signifiers of the bigger picture, and watching this kid try to suss them out and try to adapt somewhat to their way-of-thinking helps to make “Il Posto” a truer story of fledgling professionalism.

As is usually the case with social commentary, the film is by no means a celebration of this lifestyle choice (neither is “La Dolce Vita, really) and Olmi is carefully selective not to make the tender moments of relativity between Domenico and Antonietta too open or electric. They aren’t sure of how they feel about each other, and it shows. Their time together feels precious, but not so distracting as to take away from the central conceit of tackling the pressures of instantly getting on the career ladder, and “Il Posto” doesn’t get too romantic or sentimental until much nearer the close. Instead, Olmi (not even thirty when this movie was filmed) uses Panseri’s raw and beautifully adept performance to chronicle the difficulties of having no bridge between education and employment. The final scene, in which Domenico comes across his first spar with workplace politics, perhaps most demonstrates the unforeseen implications of being a young professional, and the film’s bleak ending and grinding final credits only serve to reinforce the sense that this young man has been sold out.

The patience of “Il Posto” is one of its strongest features, and it succeeds through not being too overtly opposed to the attitude its character is pushed into. We aren’t made to rally valiantly behind him in the moments where he does face resistance, and for large periods Olmi’s well-observed style proves an effective way of studying this pocket of social transition in Italy. Some may find the sparse narrative and anti-climactic ending a tad slight, but as a cultural examination, the pickings are so rich that it’s difficult to complain. As mundane as the workplace is, “Il Posto” uses that to its advantage, summarising a commonplace arc in the new age of social mobility and reworking it as a personal portrait of the solitude of youth.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Alfredson, 2009)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2009)
Directed by Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Annika Hallin, Anders Ahlbom

The politically-outspoken Stieg Larsson left this world in a blaze of controversy, but his legacy remains a lasting one. His Millennium Trilogy has gained a massive fanbase, some awards attention, and has even been successful enough to get David Fincher on board for an American remake of the franchise, as Hollywood inevitably cashes in on the popularity of the books themselves. Many have been captivated by the exploits of his heroine Lisbeth Salander; her troubled past and volatile present, and it looks as if we’ll have to endure more of the girl for a few years yet. If rumours are to be believed, there’ll also be a fourth book (there were originally intended to be ten), penned by Larsson’s long-term partner, Eva Gabrielsson, and directly following on from the relatively open-ended “The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” For now, however, this film represents the culmination of Salander’s tumultuous relationship with men.

Even those who are indifferent towards the first two installments will find Hornet’s Nest required viewing – given that it sews up a lot of the girl’s incurred wounds. “The Girl who Played with Fire” left Lisbeth bloodied and bruised after being shot in the head by her father, who she then attempted to kill with an axe. While both lie in hospital, a Soviet spy ring worry that the secrets of Lisbeth’s past will be revealed to the world by Mikael Blomkvist’s magazine “Millennium,” and endeavour to put a stop to the people that stand in their way. Lisbeth herself must cope with an impending ‘attempted murder’ trial, and the emergence of Dr. Peter Teleborian, the murky figure who oversaw her stay at a mental institution at the age of twelve.

Divulging all of the key plot details would probably need a handbook in itself, but many of the events in the narrative all serve a similar purpose. It’s well documented that this series of books was intended to be titled “For Women who Hate Men,” and that would certainly have been apt. You can count on one hand the number of positive male characters in all three films combined. Not content with having plagued Lisbeth with an abusive father, a sadistic serial killer, and a rapist for a Legal Guardian, “Hornet’s Nest” dredges up the paedophile doctor who kept her strapped to a hospital bed for over a year. The film demonises the doctor as a sinister, evil liar, and does so to once again extricate sympathy for its weary heroine, who you feel has had to put up with far too much by the time the courtroom scenes roll around. From the aged villains involved in the conspiracy during her childhood, to the stilted lawyers who oppose her, the film acts as a final, determined effort to make the white male seem as thoroughly corrupt and sub-human a species as is fully possible. This might be a film intent on flaunting the abilities of its principal female character, but it victimises her through sexuality rather than empowers her through it, and shies away from considering the ambiguities within her thought process. In making her a statement of subculture “Hornet’s Nest” strips her of identity, and has more in common with fascism than feminism.

While finely-paced and staunchly faithful to its literary roots, it’s difficult to accept much of what happens in “Hornet’s Nest” as credible crime writing. None of the issues involving Blomkvist and his magazine are particularly insightful or interesting, and the creative decisions often lean towards cartoonish depictions of villainy. Lisbeth’s brother, for instance, has a disorder which means he cannot feel pain, and proceeds to roam the wilderness Michael Myers-style, killing everyone and everything in sight before returning to enact some form of family vengeance in the film’s clumsy final act. In many ways, “Hornet’s Nest” is a subdued epilogue to the events that have gone on before it, devoid of real intensity beyond the trial scenes, and overwhelmed by the sprawling impression that the characters are picking up the pieces. If all ten books were to be completed and adapted, this would more likely serve as one of the fillers of the series, tying up exposition and achieving relative equilibrium, before it’s ready to introduce another callous male antagonist.

Too much of the film’s genuine drama either stems from relaying events in its heroine’s past, or creating overtly-shocking displays of sexuality and violence. “The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” has a propensity towards displaying violence as both a poison and an antidote, dangerously promoting vengeance as a quenching cure for bitterness. The previously-interesting Blomkvist becomes a fairly moot figure, and the dynamic between he and Lisbeth is more frayed and uncertain here than in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl who Played with Fire”. Regardless of its hard-hitting techniques, this latest addition to Scandinavian crime-drama falls on the wrong side of ugly, and more unforgivably is the dullest part of what, for now, remains a trilogy.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Review of The Lincoln Lawyer (Furman, 2011)

The Lincoln Lawyer
Directed by Brad Furman
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Philippe, Marisa Tomei, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, Frances Fisher
Grade: C+

Adapted from American crime writer Michael Connolly’s popular novel of the same name, “The Lincoln Lawyer” defies expectations as much as it affirms them, swinging pendulously between mediocrity and cheeky appeal. The moment Matthew McConaughey – not the most modest-looking of men, given his hulky physique and fashion-conscious frame – is seen lounging in the back of a five-door saloon, accompanied by a soundtrack of hip-hop tunes recalling the Glory Days of status and power, “The Lincoln Lawyer” feels like it’s going to be the smug, schmoozing low-rent affair hinted at in its trailer. Brad Furman’s film however – much like its principal star – works on challenging our initial perspective of lawyer Mick Haller, whose less-than-dignified esteem and tendency to gain acquittal for notorious criminals has earned him quite a grubby reputation.

In truth, McConaughey looks as if he’s screen-testing for a Gucci commercial in the opening first few scenes, tilting his shades at a variety of angles and doling out his trademark Texan drawl. As the confident Lincoln lawyer he manages to navigate through cases involving a jailed biker and a troubled hooker, before hitting a relative brick wall with case number three: millionaire businessman Louis Roulet (Philippe), who is charged with brutally assaulting an escort girl. Coming up against his District Attorney ex-wife Maggie (Tomei) and shrewd prosecution lawyer Ted Minton (Lucas), Mick learns more information about the night in question, which leads him to re-investigate an old murder case and question the validity of his client’s innocent plea.

What’s tackier? Hiring two actors more accustomed to gossip columns than awards luncheons; or giving your man on trial a moniker that sounds like something only Jackie Collins could have devised? Either way, given the seedy kind of dealings going on in “The Lincoln Lawyer” it actually finds a pretty happy-medium with these seemingly shallow creative decisions, knocking the idea of the law profession as coasting and lavish on the head fairly quickly. The narrative takes on the shape of an admittedly not-very-complex parable, but does so effectively, and without foreshadowing key events too painstakingly in advance, or making its plot twists too abruptly pivotal. One might even call it disarming and thoughtful when dealing with the more ambiguous legal elements – if surely no wiser than a television drama like “The Good Wife.” Even when afforded with three times as much time to flesh out its story, “The Lincoln Lawyer” still feels like it’s breezing by with episodic, plotted execution.

While it reads as trite to tell this particular tale through the eyes of a familiarly troubled male protagonist (both romantically and morally), it works fairly well. We’re used to seeing this kind of flawed ‘hero’ eventually emerge on the cleaner side of ethical dilemma, and McConaughey charts Mick’s journey with more mannered physical drama than say, Cloooney’s corporate turncoat Michael Clayton, but nevertheless punctuates the character’s deep-rooted flaws as much – if not more. While it feels as if “The Lincoln Lawyer” is keen to flaunt Mick’s lack of moralistic fibre too heartily, it’s probably more down to McConaughey finding his feet with the character, as the hang-ups of this TV-pilot framework somewhat fade with the actor’s canny interpretation of the escalation in the film’s second half, where Mick’s control-freak characteristics come back to bite him. It’s also impressive how film and actor alike manage to sustain a limber energy throughout.

Despite its surprising heft as a literary drama, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is still lax and by-the-numbers when addressing Mick’s relationship with Maggie (which, as a plot aside, goes completely nowhere) and doesn’t make enough of John Leguizamo’s role as Mick’s colleague. It’s a bit of a struggle to care much about the outcome of the case, and you sense that the film, whether led by the novel or not, is trying far too hard to push the story into an unnecessary final twist. Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia had a similar (albeit far more lastingly dangerous) revelation to elevate it into guilty-pleasure territory, but “Lincoln” leaves us with an abrupt, anti-climactic stab at a ‘surprise’, and a limper, befuddled mystery to exit with.

By no means gritty or even enlightening on a social level, “The Lincoln Lawyer” represents an easy way to stage an age-old fable, and can’t really hide its paperback roots. Whether or not a film should be celebrated for barely avoiding mediocrity is questionable, but McConaughey and Furman manage to fashion success out of selling a relatively unambitious premise well. It genuinely works by overachieving as a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser, with enough allure as a twisty drama, and a degree of candour at knowing that it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of courtroom thrillers. As ego-centric as its protagonist is, “Lawyer” finds ways to temper its own self-expectation, and for that is commendable – even if it’s inherently indebted to the Nineties and unlikely to be canonised by many.