Thursday, November 28, 2013

Saving Mr Banks

  • Released Internationally on 29/11/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 29/11/13
Review (28/11/13)

3-word review: Unusual Disney Magic.

Most people alive today, or at least those in the western world, have had their childhood years sprinkled with Disney magic in some form or another. The baby boomers were around when Walt Disney himself was transforming the world of animation and family cinema; my generation got to savour the Mermaid-Beauty-Aladdin peak and all the unforgettable music it brought with it; and today’s children are spoilt for choice thanks to the excellent quality of recent offerings, especially the collaborations with Pixar. Mary Poppins has somehow persisted through all of this, with its most recent incarnation being a stage musical. A childhood without ever having heard the word ‘Supercalifragilistic-expialidocious’ is not one I would wish upon anyone.

The making of

Which is a large part of the reason why this very unique film has such a great, nostalgic appeal to it. It is basically an entertaining, moving, film version of what you normally would expect to find amongst the extras on a DVD set. It is essentially a behind-the-scenes look at how 1964’s Mary Poppins was made. The reason it makes for entertaining viewing is that the author of the Mary Poppins children’s books - a very British lady who went by the name of P. L. Travers - was a very hard nut to crack, and it took Walt Disney many years and tonnes of charm to draw her to tinsel town and let him make the musical version of her books that he had promised his daughters.


There are few more enjoyable things to watch than a hard nut being slowly cracked, and acting goddess Emma Thompson is wonderful to watch as she slowly, and only very slightly, warms to the carefree Los Angeles ways and cautiously lets go of her precious literary creation. A large part of the persuasion process comes by way of the sublime music that the famous Sherman Brothers (portrayed here by B. J. Novak from The Office and Jason Schwartzman from The Darjeeling Limited) were composing at the peak of their powers, and which can still gets throats humming and toes tapping fifty years later.


Filling the powerful but warm role of the head of the Disney empire himself is Tom Hanks, who delivers yet another seemingly understated but ultimately excellent performance after his recent Captain Phillips, although if he gets any awards glory this year I imagine it will be for that, not this. His to-and-fro wrangling with Travers whilst never wavering in his determination to make the film he wanted to make is the stuff of warm drama films, not forgotten DVD extras, so I’m glad it has been given this first class treatment. These scenes are carefully woven in between scenes from Travers’ childhood, where her loving but unreliable father (Colin Farrell) was a clear inspiration for the imperfect Mr Banks, and where the events that followed explain her unwavering devotion to the characters in her books.

In the end

Ultimately, the film owes much of its feel-good factor and audience appeal to Mary Poppins itself, and even lifts a couple of songs for key scenes and touching moments. But the two stories are undeniably melded together, so it is a rare and wonderful joy to see this companion piece reach our cinema screens, and remind us of the excitement we felt, back when the winds were in the east, and the mist was coming in.





Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

  • Released Internationally on 20/11/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 21/11/13
Review (20/11/13)

3-word review: Even better sequel.

I think I’ll stop rushing to read books before they are made into films. It makes the films so much more enjoyable when I have no clue what’s coming next. I hadn’t read the Hunger Games books when the first film was released, and I enjoyed it so much I decided not to read the other two, despite itching to know what comes next. And here I am, hugely satisfied by the second film, and itching to know what happens in the third. But I’ll be patient.
Of course, the eternal debaters between the book and the film choices would point out that reading the books without having seen the films offers the same raw joy, but considering how many books I have lined up waiting to be read, I think I’ll be fine without delving into these particular  three.
So where were we?
But I digress. This second film definitely assumes you have watched the first, and picks up soon after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, now an Oscar winner) and Peeta (subtle but effective Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th edition of the infamous Hunger Games, in a dystopian world somewhere in the future. Their stirring victory and apparent love story has sent ripples of admiration and defiance through the twelve districts of Panem, and President Snow (a wonderfully malicious Donald Sutherland) rightly fears a revolution. He schemes with his new Head Gamesmaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to get them eliminated or at least have their image deflated, by hosting a 75th Hunger Games that involves participants selected from amongst past winners. So sort of like the Champions League, but instead of getting knocked out, you’re killed.
Deeply disturbing stuff
Much like the first film, the strength of this sequel is the worrying concept at its core, and the unsettling similarities to the world we live in, where TV and reality work together to manipulate audiences, and too much is done purely for show. The capital city’s thriving population feeds off the work and misery of the backward districts, and their celebrity TV presenter (a finely-tuned manic performance by Stanley Tucci) turns shocking and morbid news into sound bites for the cheering crowds. Death is reduced to a mere TV event, and lives are judged by their impact on TV audiences. It’s a far exaggerated version of the reality TV scenarios we have today, but so much of it rings eerily true. The helpless people on TV are instructed to merely be a distraction, so that the unwashed masses in the audience don’t have time to think about the real problems in their lives.
Making us accomplices
One of the impressive feats of the film, although I’m not sure whether intentionally or not, is that during the extensive build-up to the games, as we meet the eventual participants and see what is really at stake, the revulsion at the concept of the murderous games is mixed with a palpable anticipation for the games to start. I for one felt a rush when the countdown finally began and all hell broke loose. It’s hugely entertaining of course, and just like the manipulated workers of Panem I was eager to see the contest unfold. But of course, these are not straightforward games like we saw in the first film.
Cast and crew
The star-studded cast makes for quite an impressive list. Complementing Tucci as another well-executed fake is Elizabeth Banks (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) as the District 12 escort, and trying to keep calm and grounded amidst all the craziness is celebrated designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Woody Harrelson also returns as the previous District 12 victor who mentors the new stars, and Liam Hemsworth (younger brother to Thor star Chris) resumes duties as Katniss’ close friend and hopefully more. The new participants in the games include a few familiar faces too - Jeffrey Wright (Syriana, Casino Royale), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction), Lynn Cohen (Munich) and Jena Malone (Donnie Darko). This sequel has a new director (Francis Lawrence, I Am Legend) and writers (Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire; Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine) but they do a remarkable job of continuing seamlessly where the first film left off, also thanks to the recurring musical themes of James Newton Howard (Batman Begins, The Sixth Sense).
In the end
This is extremely entertaining cinema, and it touches on a host of themes, from unrequited love to the power of the media, and all showcased in a post-apocalyptic world where excess and poverty feed off each other. The plot is taken up a notch in this second instalment, after the seeds of revolution were sown in the first, and I eagerly anticipate the next part of the story. The film also has that rare luxury only offered to second films in trilogies, which The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers made such excellent use of - the downer, cliff-hanger, ending.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Counsellor


  • Released Internationally on 25/10/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 15/11/13
Review (14/11/13)

3-word review: What a waste.

It is unfortunate when the collaboration between numerous talented people turns out to be quite a mess. This is one of those instances. Ridley Scott isn’t very consistent, but for over three decades now he has been directing films from a wide range of genres, many of which turn out to be hugely successful and established as classics. Cormac McCarthy, an American novelist, has a very particular style which makes it hard to put his books down. His fame soared recently thanks to the excellent adaptations of two of his best novels - No Country For Old Men and The Road. This is his first attempt at writing a screenplay. Cast-wise, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem hardly need any introduction. Yet, despite all these big names drawing you in and raising your expectations, there is a distinct feeling of ‘so what?’ by the time the credits roll.

No ordinary world

The technical aspects are fine, as expected. Everything looks great, from the tantalisingly sexy intro to the bleached look of the scenes in the Mexican desert. The film is set in a world of sharp contrasts - where the filthy-rich owners of pet cheetahs share business dealings with the filthy and crazy world of drug cartels. Michael Fassbender’s clean cut lawyer is new to this underworld, and he hopes to make just a quick visit, for one big-paying job. His crazy client (Javier Bardem) sets it up, but he warns him that it’s hard to not get sucked in. Brad Pitt is the wise, mysterious advisor who has seen it all and is trying to get out while he can. Cameron Diaz is the client’s sexy but dangerous girlfriend. The only seemingly normal person, and presumably the one the audience should try to relate to, is the lawyer’s girlfriend, played with wide-eyed innocence by Penélope Cruz.


Things plod along fairly slowly, but at least it is to McCarthy’s credit that the dialogue is lyrical and attention-grabbing. But the rather thin plot takes much too long to develop, and things rarely get exciting or moving in any way. A few key sequences stand out as vivid ideas that the author might have dreamt up, but they serve little purpose except to allow some character to describe them in disgusting detail. It’s as if he thought of a couple of ways to kill a person, and a couple of fascinating anecdotes, and built a film around them. They make for a few memorable scenes, but not for a good film. Some of the resulting episodes are not for the squeamish, although the most disturbing stuff happens off screen, which makes it all the more effective.

In the end

The word ‘cautionary’ comes up as the counsellor is warned about the dangers of what he is getting himself into, and ultimately that is what The Counsellor is - a cautionary tale. I imagine it would have made for an interesting book, but in heading straight for the screen is has ended up as rather dry and uneventful. There are many slow-paced, deliberate and observational films that I have loved over the years, but this is definitely not one of them. I predict that a couple of sequences will stick around in my memory, but the rest is a forgettable missed opportunity.





Thursday, November 07, 2013



  • Released Internationally on 03/10/13
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 08/11/13
Review (07/11/13)

3-word review: Go watch it.

Some films are beautiful, whilst others sacrifice the sweeping vistas and slow shots to deliver a fast-paced thriller instead. Gravity manages to do both, resulting in a film that manages to be gripping from start to finish, whilst still finding time to be a gorgeous feast for the senses.  

Simple, always simple

The first beautiful thing about this film is its simplicity. Two astronauts - one a seasoned veteran (George Clooney) and one a first-timer (Sandra Bullock), are on a space walk when their mission goes very wrong. Cut off from their usual lines of communication and well-rehearsed procedures, they need to struggle to survive. That’s more or less it. No cliché pre-take off introductions on earth, no flashbacks, no deus ex machina. Just a simple, immersive story that leaves you stunned for an hour and a half.

Great performances

As ground-breaking as the technical wizardry on display is, the film succeeds largely thanks to the wonderful presence of both Clooney and Bullock. Clooney is in familiar territory here, character-wise, as the wise veteran who knows all the tricks, offers a voice of reassurance, and never takes things too seriously. His calming presence is vital to his partner in space, whom Bullock instils with equal doses of insecurity and deep-seated determination.

A visual feast

Nowadays, it’s rare that I catch myself wondering ‘How did they do that?!’ when watching a film. I thought it a handful of times during this one. The sheer logistics of creating these completely convincing spacewalks and zero gravity accidents must have caused many a headache, but the end result makes you glad you have your 3D glasses on and a huge screen in front of your face. One scene in particular, as Bullock’s character enjoys a much-earned moment of freedom in zero gravity, is one of those priceless scenes where everything gels perfectly and makes you catch your breath.

Don’t let go

The film somehow manages to keep the tension and action going for most of its running length without ever getting tedious or tiring. Things keep going wrong, but not once does it feel far-fetched. The audience is toyed with continuously, given fleeting moments of security before they are pulled out from under us. This makes for a powerful human drama, the rise and fall of which is played out on the rate of Bullock’s breathing.

Technical masterpiece

This is an astounding achievement in every regard. The eerie, pulsating music; the visual effects; the spectacular shots of earth; the great use of sound - it all comes with a sheen of excellence and feels so much better and cleaner than anything I can recall in many months. Easily the best film of the year so far, and one of the most accomplished pieces of cinema I can remember experiencing.





Teaser Trailer