Monday, 21 March 2011

DVD: THE ILLUSIONIST

Elliot Hyams gives a standing ovation to the latest offering from the visionary artist behind Belleville Rendez-vous.

Sylvain Chomet is a filmmaker who can be described in many ways, artist, storyteller, musician, animator, magician; it is hard to put just one label on what it is that this exciting young talent does on screen. Chomet burst onto the international scene in 2003 as the writer/director of the feature length animation Belleville Rendez-vous, in an era seemingly dominated by the C.G.I style of Pixar the film showed that nothing can match up to the beauty of hand drawn animation. But it was more than just the striking visuals of Belleville Rendez-vous that helped to set it apart from other animations of the modern era, it featured a fantastically touching story about a grandmother’s search for her kidnapped champion cyclist grandson, a story that managed to convey depth and emotion without ever using one single line of dialogue. It was Chomet’s inventive use of sound design that needs to be seen to be believed that allowed the film to appeal to such a wide international market.

Tragically despite the wide acclaim of Belleville Rendez-vous Chomet’s second feature length film The Illusionist received only a small cinema release last year, making it almost impossible to find. However this classic has now been released on DVD and for those who missed it on the big screen it has certainly proven to be worth the wait. The film is adapted from an autobiographical screenplay written by French magician Jacques Tati. Tati’s script tells the sad tale of a magician during the dying days of cabaret. Replaced by pop bands and television the magician leaves the theatres of Paris in search of work in Scotland where he befriends a young girl who believes that the aging performer truly is blessed with magical powers. The script sat untouched for decades until it was discovered by Chomet, who saw in it the opportunity to explore his own world of magic, using an art form that like cabaret has seen itself phased out by flashy young upstarts.

Like his previous feature The Illusionist relies more on visuals and sound to tell the story than dialogue, characters speak in garbled Scottish accents or mumbled French that again serves to offer a film that has no real borders. Once again Chomet has created a beautiful world, eschewing the highly stylized look of Belleville Rendez-vous for a more naturalistic approach that still manages to carry the unique style of a Chomet animation. Like its predecessor The Illusionist is a deeply touching film, however this is mostly definitely a story aimed at adults rather than children. It deals with themes that at times are often heartbreaking and complex, and introduces us to a host of characters who are suffering as the magical world in which they exist falls into decline. Some have called the film depressing, but they are missing the point, The Illusionist manages to cover the whole range of emotions within one film. You will laugh, you will cry, and it is a testament to Chomet’s skill as a storyteller that he can make you feel these emotions in such quick succession with hand drawn characters who deliver performances that would put most of today’s actors to shame. For anyone who is lucky enough to see this film there can be no doubt that sometimes, magic truly does exist.

Review by Elliot Hyams

FILM: DRIVE ANGRY

Elliot Hyams buckles up for the latest offering from the man who makes bad acting look easy, Nic Cage.

Last year a viral video named Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit appeared on YouTube highlighting the strange acting style of the Oscar winning actor. Over the years Cage has garnered an almost cult like status for giving terrible performances in a string of increasingly dire films, to the point where one can’t help but wonder if it’s all some sort of genius Andy Kaufman style joke that the rest of the world has yet to cotton onto. From the Wicker Man, to Ghost Rider, to Bangkok Dangerous it often feels as if Cage doesn’t even bother to read the scripts he is sent before signing on the dotted line. Yet despite this there are moments of genius, such as Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart and through it all Cage remains a likable figure who this month returns to our screens in Drive Angry.

Cage plays Milton, a man who has escaped from hell to seek revenge on the leader of the satanic cult that sacrificed his daughter and now intends to do the same with his infant granddaughter. Milton is aided in his mission by the beautiful but tough Piper, played by Amber Heard, and pursued by The Account, a demon posing as an F.B.I agent, played by Prison Break’s William Fichtner. Drive Angry starts as it means to go on with Milton escaping from a vision of Hell as a flaming prison city in a classic car and proceeding to rid several Satanists of their body parts via the means of a large shotgun. This film has it all, car chases, cool one liners, shoot outs, and gratuitous nudity all presented in 3D, it is also one of the most ridiculous films ever made. In fact this film is so bad that one can’t help but wonder if it was an intentional decision on the part of director Patrick Lussier to create such a farce just to see if he could get away with it.

Lussier tries to compensate for the clich├ęd riddled script by piling on countless overblown set pieces, including a mid-sex shoot out stolen directly from the far superior Shoot ‘Em Up. Nic Cage is actually fairly underplayed in this film, mostly grunting and shooting people, which is a shame as it is actually a lot more fun to watch him ‘lose his shit’ and he is at his most boring when in ‘bad ass action star’ mode. The true star of the film is Fichtner, he seems to be having a lot of fun in his role, accepting the film for the nonsense it is and delivering ridiculous lines like “Jesus? A carpenter, who actually preferred short hair.” with the campy glee that they deserve. Drive Angry is a terrible film that should be avoided at all costs. Whilst there is a certain amount of silly fun to be had, the viewer soon becomes exhausted by the sheer stupidity of it all, and all the car chases and shoot outs in the world can’t suppress the feeling that Milton should leave the poor Satanists alone and start hunting down the makers of this film before the inevitable sequel happens.

Review by Elliot Hyams

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

FILM: THE GREEN HORNET

Elliot Hyams goes green for the latest super hero to make the transition from the page to the big screen. But is it more Dark lite than Dark Knight?

The superhero genre has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in recent years. Films like The Dark Knight and The Watchmen have helped to restore an air of credibility to the genre that was destroyed by campy fare like Batman and Robin. This combined with the self knowing, tongue in cheek cool of Kick-Ass and Iron Man has helped to bring superheroes back into the mainstream. Of course, for every success there are as many failures, as those who’ve seen X Men origins: Wolverine can attest to. But it seems spandex is still in vogue for Hollywood, and producers are clamouring through the back catalogue for new heroes to adapt. The Green Hornet may not be a name familiar to most people. Indeed many may only recognise it due to the fact that Bruce Lee played his assistant Kato in the sixties TV series that has long since been forgotten, but regardless of this the character makes his big screen debut this month in a film by Michel Gondry.

Comedian Seth Rogan plays Britt Reid, the spoilt millionaire son of a Los Angeles newspaper mogul. Brett lives in a world of girls, booze, and parties, but this all ends when his father dies and he is left questioning his existence. Enter Kato, played by Jay Chou, as well as being the deceased Mr Reid’s mechanic Kato is a martial arts expert, F1 style driver, and a genius inventor, how convenient? Together they decide to make a difference and rid the city of crime, which doesn’t sit well with the plans of evil mastermind Chudnofsky, played by Inglorious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz. Armed with enough cool gadgetry to put Bond to shame the duo become The Green Hornet and, er, Kato. Aided unwittingly by Reid’s beautiful secretary Cameron Diaz our heroes wage bloody war on the underworld, finding themselves at odds with both sides of the law.

The Green Hornet is billed as an action/comedy, and whilst it may deliver on the action with car chases, kung fu fighting, and shoot outs, this is about the only thing it manages to get right. It is aimed at the same audience as Kick Ass, but is nowhere near as good. Nothing in this film really works, the characters are completely unlikable, particularly Brett himself. Rogan co-wrote the script but it feels as if the whole thing was improvised, scenes are overlong and poorly delivered, if this is meant to be a comedy then why isn’t it actually funny? Other characters are hollow and underdeveloped, particularly Diaz who redefines the phrase “pointless eye candy” with her performance. Visually the film is as disappointing as it is in every other aspect, which is shame as fans of Gondry have come to expect so much more of the visionary director. Only one scene set inside of Brett’s subconscious serves to demonstrate what Gondry is capable of, and it is perhaps the only memorable scene of the film. It is easy to see what the minds behind the Green Hornet where trying to achieve, they wanted it to be cool, funny, iconic, and exciting. Sadly, it is none of these things.

Review by Elliot Hyams.

Monday, 24 January 2011

FILM: 127 HOURS

Elliot Hyams takes the time to experience the true story of a climber caught between a rock and a hard place in the new film from the Slumdog director.

In the summer of 2003 rock climber Aron Ralston was working his way through a canyon in Utah when a boulder dislodged, forcing him down into the canyon and pinning his arm against the rock face. Alone and with limited food and water Aron was forced to endure a gruelling test of both his physical and mental will. Finally after five days and confronted with the cold reality of his own death, Aron was forced to do the unthinkable in order to survive. This shocking true story forms the basis of the latest offering from Oscar winning filmmaker Danny Boyle, 127 Hours. Spiderman’s James Franco takes the lead in what is essentially a one man show, placing us alongside and within the mind of Aron during his ordeal, and mapping the path that lead towards that infamous scene involving a pen knife that we all know is coming.

Like 2010’s Buried, 127 Hours is a film where the viewers world exists almost entirely within the physical realm of its protagonist, Franco spends ninety minutes trapped in a canyon so we spend ninety minutes alongside him. But unlike Buried, which consisted solely of the one physical location, Boyle is telling a much more philosophical story. He successfully uses cutaways, flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations to take us deeper into Aron’s mind, making the film far more accessible to the viewer than Buried was. The film has a deeply poetic look to it as well, where as another director may have gone for a naturalistic approach to the story Boyle’s camera is in constant motion, pushing past rocks into imaginary living rooms and house parties. However this was a film that was going to be made or broken on the strength of the performance of its lead and James Franco deserves credit for the sterling job he has done. He is in every frame of the film, and shooting the more physical scenes must have surely been a challenge but he brings a depth to Aron that makes the trial he suffers all the more harrowing to watch.

Aron’s story received worldwide coverage, and even those who had never heard of him, have been made aware of just what he was forced to do by the hype surrounding the film. If you haven’t I won’t ruin it for you now, suffice to say that it is a realistic and powerful scene that may prove a bit much for the more squeamish viewer. Boyle is aware that his audience knows it is coming and plays upon their expectation to add to the tension of the piece. But it is important to not dwell on this one scene too much as it is a part of a much greater story, a story that is well constructed in narrative, and inspirational in its depiction of the human will to survive. 127 Hours is an enjoyable film to watch, it is well written, brilliantly performed, and has alarmingly good cinematography for a film about a man trapped in a canyon. It may not go down as a classic, but it is unique and interesting enough to keep you captivated from beginning to end.

Review by Elliot Hyams

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

FILM: THE KING’S SPEECH

Elliot Hyams gets ready to hear what the new biopic of George VI has to say for itself.

Sadly, 2010 turned out to be the year of the 3D no brainer with films like Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Saw 3D, and Tron Legacy side stepping things like narrative, logic, and a well written script in favour of giant smurfs flying out of the screen. It didn’t matter if it was any good as long as it was in 3D leading self proclaimed king of the world James Cameron to declare “whether you like it or not, 3D is the future of film.” Well unfortunately for Mr Cameron 2011 is shaping to be the year that intelligent films fought back. So far we have had Black Swan, True Grit, Somewhere, and The Fighter. All well made, well written, thought provoking films that prove that gimmicks are no substitute for quality, and the resistance seems set to continue with the release of the fantastic new biopic of King George VI’s ascent to the throne, The King’s Speech.

Colin Firth stars as Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, and father of our current Queen. With his father showing the signs of age and his elder brother David engaged in a scandalous affair with an American divorcee, it becomes apparent to the prince that he may have to one day take the throne. However, he suffers from a crippling stammer that makes any form of public speaking impossible and has destroyed any confidence he may have ever had. As a last resort his wife Elizabeth, played by Helena Bonham Carter, takes him to see Geoffrey Rush’s quirky Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. As Prince Albert becomes King George and the threat of war grows closer, the country’s need to hear their King speak grows ever more present. Against this backdrop a unique and wonderful friendship begins to grow between Lionel and Bertie as the King tries to find his voice.

The Kings Speech is more than just another royal biopic, it is a drama about a man’s struggle with the pressure of the great responsibility put upon him, but more than anything else it is a story of friendship. The construction of the relationship between Bertie and Lionel is fantastically written and realised, littered with moments of genuinely charming comedy. The narrative never drags due to the snappy dialogue, and director Tom Hooper uses his camera subtly and inventively, often utilising tight shots to create a sense of tension when Bertie is forced to speak. Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush excel in their roles, Rush in particular seems to be having a great time playing Lionel, but it is Firth who deserves the most credit for his performance as the self doubting monarch. He does more than simply stutter on demand he gives Bertie an air of vulnerability and frustration that adds depth and a sense of history to the character. The Kings Speech won’t be for everyone, but those willing to give it a chance will discover an engrossing and thoughtful piece of cinema. This is a film with heart and soul and shouts loud and clear to Mr Cameron that the war isn’t over yet.

Review by Elliot Hyams