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Round-up

Norwegian Wood is a measured 140-minute adaptation of the Murakami novel about grief and longing that’s as quietly thrilling as it is funereal. Events transpire beyond a bubble of isolation in which our protagonist is trapped and every experience glances tracelessly across him – apart from his tragic relationship with a doomed girl, who is inexorably ruined once their mutual friend suicidally exits the film in the opening minutes. Murakami’s novel, still the best-selling novel inJapan, gets a deserving reimagining in this often visually astonishing paean to love’s hellish, tormenting possibilities. Norwegian Wood is both immensely bleak and euphoric, a blue-tinged spectral examination of the effects of devastating loss on one hand, and a lush, elegant hymn to growing into a new self and leaving a corrosive past where it belongs. Not that everyone here manages that.

The Ides of March does precisely what you imagine it will: offer a breezy soundbite snapshot of a vogueish element of the political process with added A-listers lending the uncomplicated script an esteem it perhaps doesn’t warrant. It wants Alan J Pakula status but settles for popcorn sophistication and is surely the kind of middle ground accessible-but-ambitious multiplex offering we could do with more of to help repel the sequel madness. Director George Clooney takes a backseat as a Democratic senator unwilling to compromise his principles on one level but more than happy to compromise those of others, as Ryan Gosling raises his game as a spin doctor-ish advisor who jumps ship, with cataclysmic consequences. Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman are typically excellent in support and Evan Rachel Wood is again radiantly perturbed in an absorbing enough film that eventually feels like an accomplished if unspectacular sum of parts failing to quite add up.

Midnight In Paris is another (rare) example of Woody Allen confirming he still has worthwhile work in him, and this is about as much fun as cinema in 2011 is going to get. It’s gloriously entertaining, indulgent stuff, with Owen Wilson strolling drunkenly across Paris, away from dull, totally unsuitable fiancée Rachel McAdams and, upon the chimes of midnight, into the 1920s and the serendipitious path of a number of heroes including the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddlestone is exactly how I imagine Fitzgerald was, which means nothing other than that, but provoked enormous personal glee), Hemingway, Stein, and Adrien Brody as a comedy Dali, amongst others. If you don’t enjoy Midnight In Paris, you’re dead.

Cold Weather is an intriguing and worthwhile micro-budget effort which suggests interesting future work from director Aaron Katz. An ex-girlfriend goes missing, and our hero, with sister in tow, does a bit of sleuthing, with some success, but with a bit of a caveat that might’ve been a little more thrillingly unpacked. The film is still admirable, pleasingly languid but too uneventful for such slight protagonists.

We Need To Talk About Kevin, an enjoyable, insubstantial film, is blighted from the off by two things in particular. The first being the overly provocative stance the author took in hypothesising every worst case parental scenario obstacle she could put in the way of a beleaguered protagonist, as some kind of vicarious experiment in tolerance and grief (the gifted director, Lynne Ramsay, is similarly troubled by adhering too stringently to the source material). The second being the fact that the latter incarnation of Kevin, as a late-teen Gucci model prowling the life of his mother for an opportunity to provoke torment, is completely ridiculous, over-stylized and, worse, constantly has you wondering what Placebo are up to nowadays. This is an overt symbolism-happy horror film with only a few chills, some beautiful camerawork, and a magnificent performance from Tilda Swinton, which is rather wasted. It’s enjoyable on a surface level it never strives to go beyond, a kind of infuriatingly provocative trifle.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which contains a level of subterfuge, intrigue, internecine chaos and thrumming disquiet that The Ides of March would kill for, also contains Gary Oldman’s best performance, which is almost distractingly good, and an absurd ensemble of great actors. Oldman is George Smiley, elegantly constricted, an inscrutable yet glaring, mesmerising presence, who is tasked with locating a double-agent in the ranks. This leads him, and his tonsorially top-hole accomplice Benedict Cumberbatch, into a few hornet nests and drably murky environments, straight out of a nightmarishly bereft, dust-swathed version of 80s Britain, as the miscreant is sought. Throughout, Oldman offers little clue as to what makes Smiley tick, but every nuance is so beautifully, tantalisingly eked out (and it helps that he has offered up such extravagantly volcanic performances prior) that you marvel, both at the apposite nature of the choice of characterisation and at the sheer subtle freight that Oldman exudes into every frame in which he’s present, as all those around him reap the rewards of such solid centrifuge, particularly Mark Strong, never better than here.  

And The Ward has John Carpenter still at it, despite a sequence of late disasters, and he does enough here to wrest back a little of his reputation for hefty cheap thrills. Amber Heard, who is basically an angrier, more interesting version of Elizabeth Banks and always puts you in mind of a disappointed cheerleader, is pulled away from a burning house by the cops and thrown into an ITV lunatic asylum, featuring the Bella Emberg version of Nurse Ratched and a handful of other disparate ciphers that beg you to guess the backstory and the ‘twist’ that’s far too easily apparent. It’s overcooked to charred illegibility at times but it’s largely fun, as Carpenter still, despite all the obstacles he puts in his own way, makes the loosest, least substantial premise work by hitting the inarguable dramatic spot often enough to elude your cynicism.

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  1. November 28, 2011 at 2:07 am

    Ah, clearly I’m alive, cos I too loved Midnight in Paris. Most of the other films are on my to see list but with this time of year it can get tricky. Maybe Tinker, tailor is the priority one to go for? Norwegian Wood too would be a must for me … haven’t seen trailers for it here yet though whereas I think the Le Carre is imminent.

    • November 28, 2011 at 8:52 am

      If I could only blank Midnight in Paris from the memory and go and watch it again…sigh. Pure joy. I tried to post the Norwegian Wood trailer on here: I will have another go! It’s one of the better trailers I’ve seen and is a fair representation. I would definitely go and see Tinker, Tailor before anything else on this list (apart from the Woody, which you’ve seen)…I feel bad that I haven’t had time to do it fuller justice. Superb.

  2. Mary Gilbert
    November 29, 2011 at 9:19 am

    There was a good review of We Need to Talk About Kevin on an Irish newspaper site which said it was ` an unimportant film trying to appear important’. This was the opinion I was looking for as all the major reviews were wildly enthusiastic and I felt very underwhelmed. I’m very much in agreement with your review particularly your points about the camerawork – excellent – and the curious casting of the sloe eyed model whom we were being asked to believe was the offspring of a man who looks like a King Edward and ginger Tilda Swinton. I always have some issues with Tilda Swinton because I think she has a very narrow range. It’s always agonised looks and melancholy moues and this she does like no other. But can she laugh? Could she ever be envisaged playing any role other than one of quivering intensity and suffering? She does take herslf so very seriously.
    Did you notice that the child who played the seven year old Kevin seemed to be Asian – possibly Phillipino which got me pondering about possible adoption. My husband wanted to know how Kevin managed to bolt the outside of the gym? These little distracting details are indications that we weren’t very engaged with the film overall and it was a relief when Kevin shot his family and we could go home.

    • December 5, 2011 at 9:28 am

      Ha! Beautifully put as ever, Mary. King Edward – yes indeed! Spot on! I will never look at John C Reilly the same again. On the wider point about the film’s insane reception, I can only put it down to two things: It’s a well-made ‘issue’ film and is therefore irresistible to journos wanting the double-whammy of ‘Great new hard-hitting (which it is anything but) Britflick!’ and ‘Provocative conversation piece – controversial, brave, it must be good!’ And the Swinton factor: I know exactly what you mean about her range, and no argument here, but, if you’re, as Lynne Ramsay or Lionel Shriver, hypothesising as to the impact of such wrong ‘un spiralling malcontent on a woman that didn’t really want a child, and her failure to bond as the root and so on, Swinton is perfect for this. She’s a self-consciously glum arthouse figure, far too vehemently serious and severe, and she exhudes not a trace of warmth. So, to cast her in this, to have her jousting with this pesky and troublesome child, seems exactly right to me: the dichotomies, the setup, the clash, the pain of compromise, the sheer unlikeliness of it all plays to the concepts strengths. Alas, the concept is a very limited and limiting proposition. But I’m guessing that most cinemagoers that are familiar with Swinton perhaps share an waful lot with her, and find what I find severe to be elements of admirable strength: in a nutshell I feel that her fine performance has not been isolated as just that, in a weak film, but as the very essence of it. I feel a lot of people watching it will be entirely sympathetic, rather than sympathetic but also curious and querying the whole framing device. To me it’s a mediocre (with luxury production values) horror flick. To many I think it’s misread as some kind of wonderfully dark odyssey. It will not live long in the memory, I don’t think. Those five-star reviews will prompt many a wince very soon, surely…

  3. December 2, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I want to read the book of Norwegian Wood first, but it’s definitely on my to watch list. The Ides of March sounds a bit dull. Competent, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it if I see it, but I doubt it will be a film I love.

    Midnight in Paris sounds a bit of a must really. How refreshing to say that of a new Allen.

    I’ve not read We Want to Talk About Kevin, mostly as it sounded overblown and too self-consciously serious. The film sounds much the same. Love the Placebo reference.

    Gary Oldman is a great actor who has chosen some surprisingly poor vehicles. Mark Strong is I think hugely underrated. I loved him in Low Winter Son and I’ve seen him breathe new life into Shakespeare at the Donmar. I’d watch him read a pet food catalogue aloud.

    Actually, I wouldn’t. But I’d watch an otherwise uninteresting sounding drama because he was in it.

    • December 5, 2011 at 9:44 am

      You will, I’m sure, enjoy Norwegian Wood. Ditto Ides of March but yes, your reservations are entirely justified. There is no way you will love it: although one chap sat near me at Didsbury Cineworld was in absolute raptures at it: it’s one of those Robert Redford/Tim Robbins-type films that is perfectly enjoyable but tends to congratulate certain members of its audience as to their liberal moderation and ability to second-guess incredibly obvious plot twists. He would interject quietly but emphatically at certain points, laughing self-indulgently and slapping his knee (seriously). At one point he exclaimed, in one of those moments where the enthused is rather caught short by their own level of animation and volume, and quickly subdues their glee, ‘Yeeeeeeeeeees, aha ha ha!’ as some tepid revelation thrilled his timid soul.

      Don’t waste your time on either Kevin: Lionel Shriver is a fine writer but is much better elsewhere, and Lynne Ramsay has made her ‘Calling card’ film and will hopefully steer clear of such slim provocations in future.

      Oldman had been in some real dreck but is watchable in even the worst of it. Here he’s given material that both forces him to do something interesting in every scene and is worthy of his talent. He’ll probably be in some hideous action film next, hamming it up. Mark Strong: quite agree. Tremendous actor, so under-rated. Brilliant in Syriana and many other things, superb here. I’d perhaps not watch that pet food catalogue rendition but I would listen to it: wonderful voice. He deserves better than some of the rotten rubbish he’s slummed it in.

    • December 5, 2011 at 9:50 am

      Forgot to mention: Woody. It’s the most fun of his since…Whatever Works. No, it’s more fun than that. You know that scene in Hannah and her Sisters (is it in Hannah and her Sisters?! Sure it is…) where Woody goes to the cinema to watch a Marx Brothers film to remind him that life isn’t so bad? That’s how I felt watching Midnight in Paris. Grateful yet again that the great man is still having a go.

  4. December 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Forgot to say, I loved Mary Gilbert’s comment. It “it was a relief when Kevin shot his family and we could go home.” Marvellous.

    • December 5, 2011 at 9:30 am

      Me too! And a sentiment I certainly shared!

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