Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Way Back: Endless Steps

There is a lot to like about The Way Back: great scenery and photography; some fine acting; a boy's own adventure (well almost if you don't count the girl). But overall this is not one of Peter Weir's best films.

The horrors of Stalinism were laboured without revealing anything new or deepening our understanding of the gulag tragedy. Perhaps it will help to educate a younger audience.

The storyline is predictable and clichéd.

The performance of Colin Farrell, as the criminal Valka, is the most appealing but then he has the most to work with. His dark-Irish charisma suits the part. Ed Harris, as the American Mr. Smith, rarely gets beyond wooden or perhaps it's just the enigmatic character he's playing. Jim Sturgess, as the leader Janusz, is too good to have survived as far as Siberia.

The direction and editing are pedestrian (no pun intended). Cinematic devices such as the dream of coming home to the front door are twee to say the least. Perhaps the walking boots at the end are a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Eisenstein.

The script screams out for some insight into the individuals - what made them unique as well as universal.

Nevertheless, if you're into survival sagas, then this two-hour-plus contribution to the genre should suit.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In A Better World: Beating Bullies

In A Better World (Hævnen) is a morality play where evil and goodness contend. Three archetypal bullies dominate their worlds: a schoolyard thug, a dystopian warlord/godfather and a belligerent sociopath.

They test the principles of liberal adults who abhor violence. The story confronts the ultimate dilemma: how to overcome violence and intimidation without embracing it. How to turn the other cheek without being defeated or giving in. When their children decide on retaliation rather than rationality, the fragile lives of the adults do not seem to offer any answers.

The standout of the highly professional cast is Markus Rygaard who plays Elias, one of the sons.

The plot moves both inevitably and predictably to its dramatic climax and rather trite resolution.

As an allegory, its message is too in-your-face to be the stuff of first class fiction. Nevertheless, In A Better World is a movie with merit that should appeal to all ages. We'll let the ten-year-olds decide for themselves.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Brighton Rock: Trying Too Hard

Brighton Rock has lots going for it: a Graham Greene classic; iconic locations; a social turning point; clashes of generations and sub-cultures; tragic love; and crime. Not to forget that it is also the era of the Second Vatican Council, with its attempt to modernise Catholicism.

Plus a stellar cast.

The original film, based on Greene’s 1938 novel, was made in 1947 the year I was born. This remake is set in 1964, my last year at school, a truly memorable one. At the time the Beatles are kings, angry youth in England side violently with the waning rockers or the trendy mods. At the same time the old local gangs face extinction by sophisticated, national criminal organisations. Both literally and figuratively, guns are replacing flick knives as the weapon of choice.

Young Pinkie (Sam Riley) is an old style psychopath. His idea of romance is to pull the legs off a spider like proverbial daisy petals. The seventeen year-old girl is in fact named Rose (Andrea Riseborough) and her romantic notions are quite the opposite. It’s a case of guile versus guileless. Riley and Riseborough both give excellent performances, though they often seem too controlled with emotions switching on and off.

Both characters have an Old Testament hell-fire view of Catholicism that is not adequately explored. It is just one of the many themes and sub-plots that compete for our attention. This adaptation tries to do too much.

The official website claims that it ‘embraces the classic elements of film noir and the British gangster film’. At times director Rowan Joffe’s style is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930s English crime movies or his 50s crime thrillers. However, he doesn’t quite hit the mark. Despite seductive sets and stunning scenery the look of this film is more 1950 than fifteen years later. Perhaps the changed timeframe was a mistake. This adaptation is trying to do too much.

The supporting cast are faultless: Helen Mirren as the relentless Ida; John Hurt as her admirer Phil Corkery; and Phil Davis as washed-out crim Spicer. Yet somehow most of them just don’t seem comfortable in this environment, not even the very typecast Davis. Godfather Colleoni (Andy Serkis) also seems an anachronism.

Perhaps the changed timeframe was a mistake. Brighton Rock revisited is a quality production but writer/director Joffe just tries too hard for this movie to become a classic.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Flickcrit: How I Ended This Summer

"Against the haunting backdrop of an Arctic outpost, 2 men with fiery tempers ignite in a deadly conflict. A handsome newcomer threatens the hostile veteran amidst thick fog, sharp rocks, and the merciless Arctic Sea."

A film of 124 minutes featuring only two characters needs to have something special going for it. Alexei Popogrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer has both first class performances and stunning photography of its remote location.

It is dominated by its amazing physical environment – a meteorological outpost on the Arctic Sea. He has used the Russian Valkarkai Polar Station as the setting for an intense drama between two men and two generations.

Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) is the middle-aged old-hand, obsessively committed to the routines of reporting daily weather readings. The work also involves monitoring a Soviet era radioactive relic. That task goes to his assistant Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin). He is a twentysomething novice on a summer job who is more interested in video games than keeping meticulous records.

Although Dobrygin is also a novice, his film debut is impressive. He more than matches the intensity of his older colleague.

This movie is classed as a psychological thriller, which suits writer/director Popogrebsky who majored in Psychology at Moscow State University. It is a clash of personalities, values and generations. On top of this, the extreme environment plays a not insignificant part as one of the protagonists.

The slow pace in the first half of the film creates the necessary mood of isolation and establishes the fear that Pavel has for the unbalanced Sergei. When Pavel withholds bad news it is because he dreads that the older man will tip into uncontrolled rage and violence. The decision backfires, of course, and his summer faces a nightmare ending. Pavel starts to join Sergei on the dark side.

Unfortunately, the second half takes too long to build to its climax. The film could have been shortened considerably by tighter direction and editing. It is too mono-paced. Nevertheless, How I Ended This Summer is worth a visit to the cinema.