Ally Clow’s February 2012 Film Round-up

February 2012 was the final countdown to the Oscars held on the 26th at the Hollywood and Highland centre in Los Angeles. The final few Oscar films for our consideration were released in the UK such as The Descendants and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (no Albert Nobbs yet however) and some interesting non-Oscar fodder too.  As was the case with January, the UK Box Office was down considerably against 2011. No releases have matched joint efforts of The King’s Speech, Black Swan, Disney’s Tangled and Gnomeo and Juliet and even Paul and True Grit did respectably well on their run. Indeed War Horse, Woman In Black and The Muppets were the only three films in the second month of 2012 to have grossed over £10M to date in the charts.

Although I haven’t seen War Horse yet, I’m pleased for the success of the Muppets and Woman In Black.  Both films were connected with some solid brands; The Muppets is a brand in itself although whether it could secure today’s kids market was not guaranteed.  It had also hired Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords to write some of the songs in the movie. McKenzie won an Oscar for ‘Man or Muppet’, one of the films best songs and they constitute the best sections of the film for me. I grew up on the Muppets so was one half of the target audience (Muppet-savvy grown up as opposed to newbie children) and although some sequences dragged on a bit, the set-pieces and songs were great.

Woman In Black had so many networks, it could have been lost in a mire as deep as that outside Eel Marsh House. Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from his final outing as Harry Potter was starring in the second film adaptation of a book (which was made into a very successful stage play), with a script written by Jane Goldman (Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class) and directed by British Horror director James Watkins, all under the banner of the rebooted Hammer studios, phew.  For all this it was a pretty scary 12A film and I think Radcliffe portrayed his young widower with much more success than some critics gave him credit for. I found his acting wholly believable and the supporting cast, especially Ciaran Hinds who plays his skeptical confidante in the village, perfect foils for, what is essentially a vehicle for the post-Potter Radcliffe.

Apart from War Horse, there were only two films released in February that had Oscar connections; The Descendants and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

I haven’t seen the latter although I have not seen a single good review for the film in which Max Von Sydow was nominated as Best Supporting Actor. The Descendants however was a delight. Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) it stars George Clooney as Matt King, a rich lawyer (stay with me) who lives on Hawaii dealing with a tragic situation whereby his wife is in a coma after a speedboat accident. With no wife or mother to his two daughters, King’s parental role changes and he has to become more involved with seventeen-year-old Alex and Scottie who’s ten.  Added to this, Matt is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaii land that has been passed down to his family from many decades ago and is about to decide whether to sell the land and secure his family’s fortunes for life or keep it and allow the land to remain untouched. These plot axes were great because although you may not have had any sympathy for King as a financially secure and somewhat neglectful father and husband, his situation immediately allows the viewer to choose whether we give him sympathy or not.  As the film unfolds, this dichotomy evolves further and the minutiae of the script and the acting left me deeply moved.  The soundtrack is also exceptional, made up of traditional Hawaiian slack-key folk guitar music and the discovery of Gabby Pahinui was a revelation to me. This beguiling soundtrack fitted perfectly as an accompaniment to the King’s journey of dealing with their grief and the film overall is with The Artist as the best film of the year so far.

This month’s DVD and Blu Ray releases were of great quality again, confirming my belief we are seeing a golden period of lovingly produced back catalogue for home viewing.

The Masters of Cinema range released Two-Lane Blacktop on Blu Ray, a 1971 road movie by Monte Hellman starring James Taylor, Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and Warren Oates. I love the New American cinema of the 1970’s which started with the nihilistic Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde in the late 60’s and ended when Star Wars proved you could earn a mammoth Box Office with stunning visual effects and not much in between. Two-Lane Blacktop is a wonderful curio in this period being the only film Taylor and Wilson ever starred in and being one of the first classic road movies of the 70’s.  Taylor is the drag-racing ‘driver’ (one of the first characters to be called that in film before Ryan O’Neal in Walter Hill’s 1978 film of the same name and of course 2011’s Drive with Ryan Gosling) and Wilson as his ‘mechanic’. Taylor has removed himself from life and its pleasures only to completely submerge himself in the act of driving and racing for enough money to get to the next town and repeat the process. Wilson’s character is slightly more engaged in life and when they pick up the equally nihilistic Laurie Bird as ‘the girl’, he enjoys an evening spent in her company while Taylor scopes out his competition. Oates’ character is a lively foil to the younger three, equally lost in the world but a motormouth full of himself only perhaps masking a deep unease with his life and a sense that there’s no turning back on a one-way road. A great film.

Another DVD released last month was Project Nim, director James Marsh’s follow-up to his hugely successful 2008 film Man On Wire. Project Nim is the story of a chimpanzee called Nim who is raised in a family surrounding and taught sign language in an attempt to see whether humans and primates could communicate to each other. The project began in the 1970’s and a lot of the scientific rigour seems to suit the free-love sixties in its loose subjectivity. We see home movie footage of the young Nim running around in the open with his human ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, seemingly having fun but intercut with stories of his growing strength and his occasional violent acts.  First hand accounts are given of Nim’s success or failure with signs before his journey becomes darker as we see him put back into the world of science and laboratories after his fifth birthday when his strength becomes too much for his handlers to bear.  It is a gripping story, at times deeply sad but Marsh’s construction of the story and the means he uses to tell that story are remarkable. The film’s use of a myriad of cameras and film give the film a deep texture and regardless of what we think of Nim’s human conspirators, they all appear in the film, one especially Bob Ingersoll, comes out of it with star quality.

Finally in February, I watched a trio of films that I’d heard of in the last few festivals of 2011, Young Adult, Carnage and A Dangerous Method.

A Dangerous Method is David Cronenberg’s attempt at telling the story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud his protégé Carl Jung and Jung’s patient and lover Sabina Spierlein.  Vigo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Kiera Knightley play the three characters respectively and I found the film to be stagey and a bit boring. I was disappointed in Mortensen in particular, not because he gave a bad performance but rather his character only allowed him the merest flexing of his actorly muscles. Knightly’s Sabina on the other hand had been castigated as being showy but I found her to be the most likeable of the three main characters and thought she was the best thing in the movie.  Fassbender’s Jung was little more than two-dimensional, ironic given psych-analysis’s multiple layers of interpretation and was overall disappointed with the film.

Carnage is Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s stage play ‘God of Carnage’, a middle-class chamber piece set in New York revolving around two sets of parents talking about how best to deal with the aftermath of a fight their two sons had gotten into.  A film set in one location has to have a tight script and even tighter acting (think Abigail’s Party or Hitchcock’s Rope) and can hardly avoid a lot of dialogue.  Carnage just about gets away with both of these things and the cast, Kate Winslett, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz interact brilliantly, especially as more alcohol flows and tongues loosen. Waltz in particular is perfect as the acerbic man who doesn’t respect the law of society whereby we must all be polite and repress that which we really want to say. By the end, the other characters unleash their own god of carnage to great comic effect and the film was extremely enjoyable and well worth a watch.

Finally Young Adult teams writer Diablo Cody with director Jason Reitman again after their success with 2007’s Juno. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a prom-queen anti-sweetheart and writer of Young Adult fiction who goes back to her childhood hometown to rekindle an old relationship with her former boyfriend Buddy who has just had his first child with his wife.  Gary is not a nice character yet Cody’s writing and Theron’s portrayal means we pretty much want her to get everything she has coming to her whether that be good or bad.  Usually with Cody’s scripts, she doesn’t allow her characters to conform to easy stereotypes. We might call Gary an alcoholic but she doesn’t have a typical remorse in the aftermath of a binge. She has countless opportunities to redeem or save herself but she chooses to keep going, being true to herself and it’s this truthfulness that allows respect on behalf of the viewer. Theron could easily have been included in an alternative Best Actress group of nominees consisting of Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin), Anna Paquin (Margaret) and Sareh Bayat (A Separation).

On the Oscars, I was very happy The Artist won the main awards at the ceremony and I think people’s slight deflation in the fact there were ‘no surprises’ are not justified. Yes, The Artist was talked up almost as soon as Harvey Weinstein picked the film up at Cannes but a French, near-silent black and white film in 4:3 academy ratio being recognized by the Academy is a fantastic thing for the industry. 3D is ‘simply the best way to watch a film’ according to the increasingly irrelevant George Lucas. After The Artist’s triumph on Sunday evening, a well-made nostalgia piece proves less is more.

Ally Clow