Film Review: The Ghost

16/04/2010

Based on the best-selling novel by Robert Harris, The Ghost exhibits why Roman Polanski is widely considered one of the greatest directors. From the very beginning the film is captivating, drawing in the viewer until the end credits roll.

The Ghost tells the story of a ghost writer who is commissioned to help finish the memoirs of the former British prime minister, following his predecessor’s unexpected death. Things take a turn for the worse when ex-prime minister Lang is accused of war crimes, and the unwitting ghost writer in drawn into a web of intrigue…

Part of the interest in the film is the obvious parallels between Lang and Tony Blair. Anyone with even a passing interest in British politics cannot help but notice the similarities between the two, in both career incidences and mannerisms. The film is sure to resonate with British audiences with its very topical and believable narrative.

Pierce Brosnan is perfectly cast as Lang, depicting both the charisma and smarminess associated with the former PM. Olivia Williams excels as wife Ruth, giving an engaging performance as the formidable yet frustrated partner. As the ghost writer, Ewan McGregor is a credible protagonist who viewers will side with; much what is discovered occurs from his viewpoint.

Polanski’s film is part political satire and part thriller. The beauty of The Ghost is that it is entirely conceivable; it is not by stretch of the imagination that everything that takes place could really occur. Conspiracy theorists will have a field day with what is ultimately revealed.

The narrative builds at an appropriate pace, gripping the viewer with every new discovery. Furthermore, the setting – a small island off the east coast of the United States – is perfect in providing a location which is both isolating and claustrophobic. The muted palette of the island cinematography adds to this atmosphere of seclusion.

Although Polanski is currently in the press more for his legal issues rather than his filmmaking, this should not detract from this cinematic showpiece. The Ghost is an enthralling thriller, and a welcome return to form for its director.

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Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon

16/04/2010

How to Train Your Dragon works well on every level, and should be as entertaining for adults as it is children. The film’s box office success is unsurprising, particularly when considering the 3D element it offers.

The film centres on Hiccup, a young Viking who is worlds apart from the rest of his town, particularly his father. Hiccup is immediately identified as an outsider, having neither the strength nor the bravery to fight dragons, despite his desire to please his father. After befriending a dragon, Hiccup realises that slaying dragons may not be the way forward…

Hiccup is a very likable protagonist; most will be able to identify with his position as different to those around him. Furthermore, the film highlights the importance of keeping your own identity, and not following the crowd. Hiccup overcomes the odds in own way, persuading his contemporaries to his way of thinking.

The animation in How to Train Your Dragon is superb. Particularly appealing is Toothless, the dragon that Hiccup befriends. His mannerisms are cute; clearly the figure represents multiple merchandising opportunities. The use of 3D works excellently in the film; taking into account many of the 3D films released in the last year or so, it seems the form works better with animated or heavily CGI-infused productions.

The only real negative element of the film is that the narrative is quite predictable. But given that this is a family-orientated feature, it would be difficult for Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders to push boundaries too much, whilst retaining the film’s mass appeal.


Film Review: Touch of Evil

16/04/2010

Orson Welles’ film noir classic is still affecting over fifty years since its original release. Whilst the themes Touch of Evil focuses on are nothing new, it is the combination of said themes with the direction, cinematography and art design that generates a pervading atmosphere.

Charlton Heston plays Mexican cop Vargas, who along with his new American bride Susan (played by Janet Leigh), witnesses a murder at the American-Mexican border. What follows is a police investigation that proves more complex and iniquitous than the hero could have imagined.

Touch of Evil juxtaposes Vargas with Quinlan, an overweight, former alcoholic, veteran American detective, played by Welles. The film firmly sets up the two as distinct opposites. Vargas is the idealistic, clean officer, well-respected and rising in his career. Quinlan, on the other hand, who is tired, racist and corrupt, is clearly nearing the end of his career.

Through these two characters, themes of corruption, the abuse of power, and prejudice are played out. The lengths that Quinlan goes to protect himself – as far as endangering Susan, and then some, are pivotal in depicting such a malevolent character. The atmosphere is kept tainted and at times claustrophobic by the use of lighting, the stylised cinematography, and the art direction of Robert Clatworthy, who went on to do a magnificent job in Psycho two years later.

It is also the direction by Welles that creates a cantankerous mood. The close-up shots of the sweaty Quinlan, the cat and mouse finale, and the fortune teller’s abode work together to generate a film noir as beguiling as any of the earlier quintessential noir pictures. Furthermore, the opening shot following the car as it weaves throughout the streets is classic Welles – adding a touch of class to Touch of Evil.

Touch of Evil was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Psycho: A Classic in Context season.


Film Review: Clash of the Titans

13/04/2010

Seeing the film a few weeks after its release, Clash of the Titans is actually an enjoyable enough movie. Granted, this may be the case as expectations were significantly lowered by the considerable amount of negative press and reviews the film has received.

Louis Leterrier’s version makes a number of changes to the plot from the 1981 original. Sam Worthington’s Perseus no longer seeks the hand of Andromeda; instead he seeks revenge for the murder of his adoptive family by Hades. The focus in this 2010 remake is firmly on Perseus and the human characters, a lot less time is given to the gods, some of whom are ousted altogether from the film. The story, then, becomes very human, and similar to many other revenge quest themes in fantasy and other genres. In retrospect, the presence of the gods in the original film separated it from similar fare; something this remake perhaps should have kept intact.

The performances in the film are passable, with Gemma Arterton featuring as the love interest more for her looks than anything else. As villain Hades, Ralph Fiennes comes across as a little hammy, whilst Worthington’s changeable accent is distracting.

One of the main criticisms of the film is the use of 3D, which was tacked on in the post-production. Whilst one may expect it to look shoddy, in actual fact it is not that noticable. The use of 3D doesn’t necessarily detract from the film, but it doesn’t really add anything either.

As an epic fantasy adventure, Clash of the Titans is entertaining fare. Whilst younger audience members will most likely enjoy the picture, especially the action sequences, for older viewers this remake may bring about a nostalgia for the original. For all its blockbuster special effects, this remake can’t quite replicate Ray Harryhausen’s quaint but much-loved creations.


Film Review: Shelter

12/04/2010

Shelter opens with rather an interesting supposition; multiple personality disorder has been revealed to be a fallacy, and can no longer be held up as an excuse for criminal behaviour. Unfortunately, the film goes downhill from here, and what is left is a dull narrative littered with stock horror clichés and not much else.

The film initially sets up a science versus superstition premise, teetering between a logical explanation and a supernatural one. Rather than playing on what Todorov deems ‘the fantastic’, Shelter resolutely plumps for one outcome, making for a less interesting film.

Julianne Moore is engaging as ever; it is just a pity she has such weak material to work with. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, however, is less persuasive in convincingly portraying the multiple personalities that inhabit his form.

In punishing those without faith, directors Mårlind and Stein appear to be reinforcing the importance of religious beliefs. Nonetheless, despite her faith, Moore’s Cara is left with very little to show by the end of proceedings. Thus the message appears to be the faithless die whilst the believers are left with very hollow lives.

The very end of the film is as predictable as they come in the horror genre. But given the quality of the film up until this point, it is hardly surprising. Give it a miss.


Film Review: Repulsion

11/04/2010

Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychological thriller packs a punch in the unnerving atmosphere it creates. Filmed in black and white, this low-budget picture was Polanski’s first English-language feature.

Repulsion‘s narrative centres on Carol, a beautiful but distant French girl living with her sister in London. As the film progresses, her psychosis becomes more and more severe, resulting in cataclysmic effects.

Repulsion exhibits the artistry of Polanski’s direction. The opening shot of a close-up of Carol’s eye immediately grabs the attention. This is followed up by many lingering shots, almost a visual interpretation of the protagonist’s mindset. Sound is also used to great effect in the picture; the ticking clock is particularly disturbing, for both Carol and the viewer.

Catherine Deneuve excels in playing Carol with the understated reticence required. Her disintegration is both disturbing and compelling to watch. Part of the brilliance of Repulsion is that it does not explain the reasons behind Carol’s psychosis. Whilst there are hints, the audience is left to make up their own mind about possible causes.

With the hindsight of what followed in Polanski’s personal life, some of the themes of the film seem unsettling in retrospect. Nonetheless, Repulsion stands as a landmark in the genre, as well as one of the director’s biggest triumphs.

Repulsion was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Psycho: A Classic in Context season.


Film Review: Whip It

10/04/2010

Whip It is a funny and entertaining movie – a promising start to Drew Barrymore’s directing career. “Be Your Own Hero”, the publicity for the picture asserts; a message the director certainly seems to have taken to heart.

Whip It focuses on misfit teen Bliss and her attempt to escape small-town drudgery by joining a roller derby league. In the process, as well as finding something she excels at, Bliss formulates a new life for herself. Her new life, friends and boyfriend, however, come at the expense of some of the more positive elements of her previous conservative upbringing…

In some ways the film is what one would expect from Barrymore; an independently produced picture, with a hip soundtrack and quirky but apt casting. Ellen Page is convincing as young Bliss, perfecting the rebelling teen attitude. Whilst there are great performances from all involved, it is Juliette Lewis who steals the show as ultra-competitive rival Iron Maven.

There is no doubt that Whip It is a female-centric film. Rather than taking a preachy tone pushing a feminist agenda, Barrymore keeps in light, advocating instead the positives of female friendship and having confidence in oneself. It is heartening to see that along with the positive female portrayals, the men are also depicted in optimistic light. Too often strong female characters are balanced with negative male portrayals, but thankfully Barrymore eschews this archetype.

Barrymore’s directorial debut accomplishes the rare feat of being both lighthearted and inspirational. It is an enjoyable film to watch, but there is also a real optimism to the messages it sends. Along with the strong female depictions, Whip It reinforces the importance of finding your own identity and having the confidence to pursue your goals. With this in mind, it is Drew herself who is also rousing, going from child star to wild child, from much-loved actress to producer and now director. Thus, her transcendence is encompassing enough to be inspirational to males as well as females.