Monday, 20 September 2010

Salt review

SALT (Philip Noyce, US, 2010)

This espionge, new cold war thriller written by Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen) has had a long gestation period originally intended as a vehicle for Tom Cruise as Ethan Salt; but following his long attachment to the Mission: Impossible and the similarities this film shares with that franchise, coupled with his falling star status meant that the tagline, 'Who is Salt?' carried not a query of her enigmatic being, but more in asking who will play it.  Angelina Jolie, the most physical of Hollywood actresses in that she does her own stunts following on from 'Tomb Raider' and 'Wanted', is the most bankable of Hollywood female stars and like most stars is in need of a franchise to call her own.

Evelyn Salt, is introduced to us in a pre-credit sequence as a hostage in North Korea, eventually freed in a bargain for a Korean spy is met by her superior Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) who tells her to not say anything. This positions her as sometimes subservient to her male superiors, the fact that she is tortured in her bra and panties is something not to go into but is open to arguments.  Cut to modern day, two years later and she is married to a German specialist in arachnids (August Diehl), near the end of a working day a Russian spy seeks asylum in Washington, during the interrogation it transpires that a Russian spy will kill the Russian President on his visit to New York the next day. He informs them that the spy's name is Evelyn Salt. Salt says that is her name. So she is a Russian spy says he. This leads to the extended game of cat and mouse, where the CIA seek to keep her locked up and away from the Russian head of state, whilst she seeks to escape and get there herself.

The film could so easily have regressed and fallen into the traps of sub-par Hollywood action films but it refuses to do this in part due to the efforts of Jolie in the role of never to be outdone spy, who is a match for any male the invention of a grenade launcher using a fire extinguisher shows her inventiveness and calmness under pressure.  In this instance, the film was reminiscent most of 'The Fugitive' - the pantheon of action films of a person done wrong and on the run to clear their name.

It is because of this  that the person who should gain the most credit (but will remain unsung) will be the director Noyce, who helps elevate the set pieces to important moments that lend the film credence and credibility.  Noyce has previous experience in 'Patriot Games' and 'Clear and Present Danger', action in thrillers but it is the thriller element he raises to higher levels, face offs become moments of brewing intensities such as when Salt tries to shoot an enemy through a bulletproof window, the enemy does not blink.  It reminded me of his work on 'The Quiet American' where the underlying psychological effect on the character tried to weed itself out against an atypical political story.  The use of reigniting the Cold War plotline is not unheralded as the real reason is to ignite the war of religion through proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

The ending leads to the inevitability of a sequel but unlike most franchises there is enough of a character and action to maintain your interest - and is now up to speed with the Bourne franchise. Whereas Bourne started his trilogy not knowing who he was in a world that he very much knew; Salt is a person who knows who she is in a very uncertain world with an unknown direction.

Sons of Cuba review

SONS OF CUBA (Andrew Lang, US, 2009)

Andrew Lang's award winning and festival favourite documentary gains a DVD release from Mr.Bongo films this September. Renowned by critics it provides a stunning insight into Castro's Cuba following young boys who are amateur boxers training to become champions and idols of a nation. 

A bit of background here, Cuba is the hot bed of world amateur boxing - in the past 40 years of Olympic games, it has won a remarkable 63 Olympic medals, 32 of them gold (Amir Khan lost out to Mario Kindelan, a legend in amateur boxing).  Lang and his production crew were given access to the Havana Boxing School; where a handful of 10 year old boys wake up at 4am (six days a week), to begin the routine of boxing training.

The film is dealt a powerful emotional blow by the falling ill of Fidel Castro causing many boys to flee for politcial asylum in America, like so many Cuban nationals attempt to do every year in boats heading for Miami.  The emotional context coupled with the physical toil leads to young boys having to make big decisions at such a young age.

Like all good documentaries - mixing both personal and political, but also having that unifying entity known as sport into the fold you have a great recipe for a good documentary - previous films that did this were 'When We Were Kings' and 'Hoop Dreams', but the film is reminiscent of 'Spellbound' where children are attempting to over-achieve at such an early age, with strong individual desire and not parental influence as you mightg anticipate in such situations.  In one instance, a young boxer is asked by his mother what does he want to do. 'I want to win a gold medal'. 'Don't you think that is a bit over ambitious,' she asks. 'That is my goal', he retorts matter of factly in a way that leaves no doubt about his intentions for the future.

This coupled with the evidence that boxing remains the most cinematic of sports because of the allure of fame and glamour combined with the ability to manipulate fights into something of a spectacle (you need only look at 'Raging Bull', 'Rocky' and 'Champion' for evidence) - it maintains its position as a noble sport where victory is as close as defeat.  And these young men are learning these life rules in this very powerful and emotive document.


DOGTOOTH (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2009)

Directed and co-written by Lanthimos with his colleague Efthimis Filippou, the winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009 tells the story of a family cut off from the outside world behind a high wall in a home with a swimming pool, a television that plays only family home movies where the wife is a prisoner much like the three children (one boy, two girls) who are home schooled and refused interaction with the outside world - father (who only leaves for the factory he owns) is a taskmaster who has told the children that the planet is roaming with 'man-eating cats'.  (The things you believe your parents to say.)

This is not home schooling, more like home torturing.  Father brings home a security guard to have intercourse with the son who can fulfil his sexual needs; and the sisters who have already set in sibling rivalry and competitiveness (they race to see who can fall asleep first using chloroform - not realising that neither will know the result)

But whilst it can be declared as 'car-crash' cinema -in the fact that you cannot take your eyes off of the screen - due in part to the short scenes that are more like vignettes of intent by the director, who is substituted by the father as a figure in the film.  The lack of name for the family make you less sympathetic to them - you have no attachment to their wants and needs, your desire of watching a family self-implode by their own hand is fitting for this reality TV society.

In spite of the questionable material and content,  Lanthimos has an unusual confidence in his mise-en-scene construction and cinematograpy - sometimes cutting people off at their heads so we are not privy to absolutely everything.  Natural lighting combined with naturalistic performances by the excellent cast make the film beguiling, shocking and all in all memorable, albeit for reasons you may not consider entertainment, lets just call it cinema - and it is rare to see a brave piece of film-making get the acclaim it deserves

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Avatar at the IMAX

AVATAR 3D (James Cameron, US, 2009)

I go through phases of movie-going, I try to see as much as possible, I try to see a variety of films running the gamut of emotions from laughing to crying, black and white to technicolour, silent to subtitled.
But I always have this ability to miss the boat on must-see movies, I think it started with Titanic. I didnt want to waste 3 1/2 hours of my life waiting to see a boat sink, even though that was the best bit.  The same with the Dark Knight, I refused to be cowed into seeing a film that everyone wanted to see - this might be me maintaining my individual streak, or maybe I really liked Batman Begins (which is increasingly underrated) and did not want my expectations ruined. With all due respect, I felt the untimely death of Heath Ledger led to the film being raised onto a platform ages before the correct justification, especially his performance as the Joker, which yes is mind blowing and unbelievable. When i eventually watched Dark Knight, it was on my own in a dark bedroom on a small screen (I think if i had seen it on a huge screen my reaction would have been different), and i was drawn more to Aaron Eckhart's portryal as Harvey Dent, if Ledger had lived it would have been interesting if they would have had a two horse race, because naturally Warner Bros. threw their weight behind a campaign for Ledger to be awarded posthumously for only the 2nd time at the Oscars in terms of acting awards.

And so we come to Avatar, watching the many trailers and tidbits and behind the scenes footage before the film was finally released, I felt like I had watched the film so many times.  My first reaction to the trailer was Ferngully meets Dances with Wolves - not an original film but the idea of a cod Disney film mixed with a half decent Western just did not seem to appeal to me.

But after all the adulation, the billions of dollars have gone into it, and after missing out on the Oscars (correctly), James Cameron has returned with a re-release of Avatar with 9 minutes of additional footage making it just that little bit longer.

The film is an amazing spectacle to look at, it paints Pandora as something to yearn for. The forest you will never play in, a wonderment of nature.  Whilst the film does smack of parables of imperialism, colonialism, anti-Americanism, pro-Native American/Amazon; once you get past the oblique political subtext the film is a joyride of action adventure. It works as a film to admire, as you can sympathise with the hero immediately, he has lost a loved one (who involved in war has not), he is disabled though no-one uses that word as they are more likely to use paralysed, though i think paralysed means unable to do anything. The hero goes into the Avatar, a construction of the Pandorian race and in a covert op aims to infiltrate the tribe and get them to move on, so the American industry can obtain the rich resource in their forest - replace the coal slash diamond matter for oil and you get the anti-Bush administration feeling here.

Whilst the film is a great action adventure it is the special effects that is the star of the show - why do you think he picked Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana as his leads, do you think established stars would want to play second fiddle to the FX.  There are moments of great beauty, and choosing to watch it on the biggest screen in the UK, the South Bank IMAX does the film the justice it deserves.

So maybe you should sometimes be patient, and if you do not have time to see the film on the big screen initially seek it out on one. Much like I did when I saw 'The Magnificent Seven' on the bfi screen in June. A sight and wonder to behold for certain.