Thursday 28 February 2013

Cloud Atlas review

Cloud Atlas (15, 172 mins)
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

by Steven Neish

While reading the diaries of a young American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) busy concluding business during the Californian gold-rush, amanuensis Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) produces “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, a masterpiece in part inspired by the dreams of an aging composer. After a chance meeting with Frobisher’s ex-lover in 1973 puts her up against Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant), journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) pens a crime novel based on her investigations into his oil company, to be published 27 years later by one Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent). In the future, the plight of a small rebellion and their clone saviour (Doona Bae) continues to impact the life of Zachry (Tom Hanks), 106 years after The Fall.

Written, produced and directed by the Wachowski siblings and Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas is one of the most expensive independent movies of all time. The film’s ambitious nature goes far beyond finding financers, however, as it attempts to translate David Mitchell’s labyrinthine, meandering and damn-near impossible novel for the big screen.

While Ang Lee has already filmed the unfilmable with Yann Martel’s Oscar-winning Life Of Pi, that story only dared to tackle such everyday concepts as life, love and faith. Cloud Atlas, on the other hand, does not stop there; split into six separate but intertwining stories, the film uses twelve actors, unprecedented prosthesis and countless characters to ruminate on everything from prejudice, bigotry and subjegation to art, fate and the very fabric of time and space.

Unlike most multi-strand stories of its ilk, there isn’t a single dud note to be found in Cloud Atlas‘ pages, leitmotif or frames. Every thread, though diverse, holds its own as each weaves in and out of the other competing and complementing narratives. Whether it’s the poignancy of one composer’s search for inspiration, the comedy of one old codger’s attempted escape from an old folks’ home, or one saviour’s plight in a dystopian future, the filmmakers build an entire universe, generation by generation, that is forever bold, believable and utterly breathtaking.

That they manage to introduce each of the six strands without immediately losing half of the audience is an incredible achievement; that they continue to develop and explore the individual stories across the remaining running time is something else entirely. Not only do the filmmakers manage to cut from story to story in a way that is fluid and meaningful, but they manage to build to simultaneous moments of overwhelming power and emotion in the process, the structure simulating the cyclical nature of its source material without ever becoming repetitive.

Even more astonishing is the work done in front of the camera. During development the decision was made to recycle the core cast across the various stories to add to the overarching sense of inter-connectivity between past, present and future. It works beautifully, as the likes of Hanks, Berry and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, Grant are able to showcase their talents, and within a single film put paid to their individual pigeonholes and typecasts. The actors, unlimited by age, race or gender, each deliver a plethora of perfectly-judged performances. Even if the make-up occasionally falters, their abilities never do.

That said, it would be easy to laugh at Cloud Atlas, and I’m sure many will. Heck, there are days - years, even - in which I’m certain I would do, too. While some of the storylines are funnier than others (intentionally, that is), there is an unabashed grandiosity and pretense that lingers throughout. When grappling with such enormous themes and while boldly pushing the boundaries of technology and belief, however, you will always run the risk of alienating audiences, and the accomplishments of Cloud Atlas are so vast that it really doesn’t matter how you react to it, just that you do react. And that you keep reacting for many years to come as the film is studied, debated and slowly unravelled.

Having now seen the film twice, I’m more convinced than ever that Cloud Atlas is something truly special. It’s a masterpiece for the ages; a master-work and borderline transcendent experience that leaves everything else released so far this year in its wake, somehow managing to tell just about every story imaginable in the space of three hours. How it wasn’t nominated for Best Film, let alone Best Adapted Screenplay or Best Make-Up is still beyond me, but then even after two viewings so too is much of the film.

Monday 25 February 2013

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters review

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (15/R, 88 mins)
Director: Tommy Wirkola
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

For some reason we’ve had any number of fairytale reimaginings lately, to varying degrees of success. This time around the classic Grimm story of brother and sister Hansel and Gretel gets a demented action twist added, and proves to be reasonable value for the undemanding.

We first meet Hansel and Gretel as children, when they are taken at night by their father deep into the woods, where they discover a house made of candy. Instead of falling prey to the witch inside, they destroy her, setting in motion their careers as witch hunters extraordinaire.

Many years later, as adults played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, they're heroes who travel around the country sorting out witch problems wherever they find them. They arrive at a town where children have been going missing, soon discovering that the local witch (Famke Janssen) has been snatching them, and she’s up to no good with some mumbo-jumbo about becoming all-powerful at the blood moon.

Wisely played tongue in cheek, otherwise it would collapse under its own stupidity, Hansel and Gretel is a cheesy and passably entertaining action fantasy. It’s not really concerned with anything other than witch-fighting action, which the armed-to-the-teeth siblings engage in frequently. These scenes are frantically edited and initially quite samey, but the high level of blood and gore makes for good clean Friday night fun.

Thanks to a $50m budget, production values are high, which can help immensely with this sort of thing - there’s nothing worse than a ridiculous film that looks ugly at the same time. And the special effects are really pretty tidy, particularly a troll who comes to have quite a bearing on the story.

In the leads, Renner and Arterton display little personality, but as the only Americans in the village, their swearing and modern sensibilities in what one supposes is the 19th century offers the chance for a few nice gags.

Events proceed without much care or sense from one barney to the next, but if you’re willing to accept the utter absurdity of the setup, there are a whole lot worse examples of this brand of goofy fantasy action out there.

Safe Haven review

Safe Haven (12A/PG-13, 115 mins)
Director: Lasse Hallström
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
The latest from the Nicholas Sparks production line stars Julianne Hough as a young woman, on the run for reasons unknown, who escapes on a bus and ends up in a small Carolina coastal town. Following the Sparks blueprint to the letter, we get the newcomer with a secret in a picturesque town, a love interest (Josh Duhamel’s hunky widower), golden photography and a late surge into melodrama. It’s a gentle romance populated by solid enough actors that neither raises the pulse nor truly annoys, but there’s only so many times we can swallow the same pudding. But what marks Safe Haven out from the bunch, and what could see it reinvent itself as a cult classic, is a late twist so risible that it leaves simply being bad far behind, and approaches jaw-dropping.

Arbitrage review

Arbitrage (15/R, 107 mins)
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

This riveting drama stars Richard Gere as a super-rich business mogul, married to Susan Sarandon and hitting 60, who wants to sell his company. But his empire is a house of cards which has left him with a $400m hole if a merger doesn’t go through, before a plot development that’s best left unspoiled sends his life in another direction entirely and leaves him trying to juggle financial meltdown and a police investigation. This twisted morality tale is the complete package, working as both a polished thriller and a savage indictment of the abuse of power of the rich and privileged. As the lies spiral and it grips firmly, Arbitrage is topical, multi-layered and hugely entertaining. Tim Roth adds sly support as a dogged cop, but it’s Gere’s show, and in his polished malevolence he has quite simply never been better.

Stoker review

Stoker (18/R, 99 mins)
Director: Chan-wook Park
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Eighteen year old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) can see and hear things others can’t. After her father dies, his brother (Matthew Goode) comes to the house she shares with her mother (Nicole Kidman), one that seems permanently stuck in the 1950s even though the film is set in the present day, bringing all sorts of threat with him. A moody, deliberately paced, over-egged gothic melodrama, Stoker is a sensory overload, all visual insistence and tricksy editing amounting to a lot of self-conscious frippery that becomes very irritating very quickly. A scene can’t go by without an artful shot or unnecessary camera move in a film in which no attempt is made at a grounded narrative, making it suffocatingly weird, yet also rather dull and ultimately absolute hooey.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Beautiful Creatures review

Beautiful Creatures (12A/PG-13, 124 mins)
Director: Richard LaGravenese
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The quest to be the next Twilight continues apace with this surprisingly intelligent but ultimately doomed teen fantasy that uses witches as its supernatural vehicle of choice. It starts like most high school dramas, with clever student Ethan standing out among his class of standard issue clichés, until the arrival of newcomer Lena, a member of the mysterious, much gossiped about Duchannes family, shakes things up and the two start to fall for each other. But the Duchannes are witches, with Lena’s uncle (Jeremy Irons) doing his best to keep Ethan away until she turns into either a good or bad witch on her 16th birthday, part of a mythology that can be rewarding but is often hokey and confused. The Deep South setting is atmospheric, though the special effects aren’t great, as it seesaws between a smart and edgy first half and a badly underwritten second, with a weak finale that comes close to derailing the lot. But what has come before, though there’s far too much of it, is sufficiently romantic and angsty to keep the target audience ticking over.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Warm Bodies review

Warm Bodies (12A/PG-13, 98 mins)
Director: Jonathan Levine
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The apocalypse isn’t all fun and games in this surprisingly mournful comedy horror that’s on the one hand praiseworthy for doing something a bit different within the zombie genre, but on the other generates the lingering whiff of a Twilight cash-in with its romance between the living and the undead. The undead here is R (Nicholas Hoult) who, though a zombie, helps instead of eats the still-alive Julie (Teresa Palmer) and begins to feel himself change, perhaps on the way to becoming human again. With a strong thematic hook, about clinging on to humanity as long as possible, it’s a shame the rest of the plotting is so sloppy and the teen-friendly rating means any zombie-munching action is underfed. Ally that to a much too deliberately paced build-up, and a resolution that’s too easily earned, and Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead can sleep easy. But the romantic element is winning and there’s certainly some fun, if hardly a barrel of laughs, to be had with the premise, usually provided by Hoult’s zombified reactions and the always dependable Rob Corddry.

Sammy’s Great Escape review

Sammy’s Great Escape (U, 92 mins)
Directors: Vincent Kesteloot, Ben Stassen
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The worst crime wrought by this grubby, Belgian-made animated sequel is the constant way it calls to mind that it’s not Finding Nemo, no matter how badly it wants to be. Extremely underpowered underwater adventures ensue as turtle Sammy and his pal, caught by fishermen, find themselves trapped in a Dubai aquarium, while their newly hatched grandchildren face the dangers of the open water. The design is brown and ugly, the voice’s lifeless to match the facial animation, and amid a barrage of misguided messages, the worst seems to be that only evil fish eat other sea creatures, and that there’s something wrong with humans who eat crustaceans. If you have a three year old who needs wrangling for 90 minutes, it will still barely past muster on DVD, and has no business whatsoever on cinema screens.