Amid the storm of bad publicity that Roman Polanski has experienced in the last years, his latest offering The Ghost is, despite his difficulties in making the film (editing the film under house arrest in Switzerland), an exceptionally well-crafted political thriller.
Ewan McGregor stars as a two-bit commercial writer, more accustomed to writing the memoirs of so-called showbiz celebrities than ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and it is precisely his lack of political knowledge and his belief that it is ‘heart’ that truly makes a biography sell that leads to his appointment, taking on the job in the wake of the previously appointed writer’s suspicious death. Soon after his appointment, Lang is back in the news, accused of war crimes; suddenly McGregor’s unnamed writer is in far deeper than he could have anticipated.
Lang’s media savvy Prime Minister, in his politics, unavoidably echoes the Blair years; especially in his close relationship with America. This very deliberate decision, to reflect recent politics in turn aids the film’s narrative, making the events of the film seem almost unnervingly close to reality. The tension of the film is constant throughout, from the cold-opening showing the body of the deceased ghost writer, to the film’s ending; with the final act taking place off camera, there’s almost a sense of relief when the film ends.
McGregor, Danny Boyle work aside, is not a great actor, but under the direction of Polanski manages to serve as a fairly credible and engaging protagonist, whilst the rest of the cast are pitch-perfect; Brosnan’s Lang is especially memorable, almost larger than life in his characteristics, as is Olivia Williams as the ever incisive and intelligent Ruth Lang.
The Ghost in Polanski’s hands is wonderfully shot, the grim atmosphere and continual rain serves to add to the increasing isolation of McGregor’s writer as he feels more and more overwhelmed by his appointment. Yet The Ghost will not be remembered as a classic Polanski film: Polanski has done far better (Chinatown especially), yet the film’s on edge and claustrophobic atmosphere does hark back to Polanski’s glory days. Public scandal aside, there is little doubt that Polanski is a masterful director, capable of creating tension-filled, narrative driven films.
Romantic comedies are surely becoming the laziest film genre for Hollywood to churn out; cheaply made and usually guaranteed financial successes. They can be, and have been, entirely enjoyable; the excellent When Harry Met Sally, or the more recent (500) Days of Summer prove this. Leap Year unfortunately is not one of the better rom-coms, but instead is one of the most poorly and unimaginatively executed films of a fast-tiring, increasingly formulaic genre.
Anna (Amy Adams), disappointed in her boyfriend’s failure to propose after four years together, decides to capitalise on his trip to Dublin by proposing to him on Leap Day: the day when, according to the Irish tradition, a woman can propose to her partner. Why Anna doesn’t just propose on any day is a question that apparently doesn’t need to be asked or even considered, but this isn’t the kind of film where logic plays a part, but rather an entire suspension of disbelief and denial of plot holes. This being a Hollywood film, Ireland is of course represented as a superstitious, poorly developed country, with little to no transport links, brawls in bars and plenty of Guinness.
On the flight over, Anna, through a series of events which make the British Transport system seem positively medieval, arrives in Dingle. Requiring a ride to Dublin to ensure she arrives in time for Leap Day, she enlists the help of Declan (Matthew Goode), paying him to drive her. Declan is of course in desperate need of money as the pub he owns is being threatened with foreclosure, and therefore has no choice but to aid Anna in her endeavour. Thus follows an hour of supposed hilarious comical situations as Anna manages to have her suitcase stolen, miss her train, and wreck her only ride; so far, so cliché.
Leap Year, despite its supposed rom-com roots lacks any genuine comedic moments, whilst the romance fails to ever engage. Amy Adams and Matthew Goode do their best with a paltry script, but the film is bizarrely paced with very little narrative drive, leaving the film poorly developed, and often simply dull. Leap Year fails to even succeed in its low genre expectations; in a genre and formula so predictable, the characters need to engage to ensure the audience’s interest is maintained, especially as its clear how the film will end, but Leap Year fails to create even remotely likeable characters (Anna especially is thoroughly neurotic).
Matthew Goode has effectively disowned the film, explaining he only took the job to remain close to home, further demonstrating just how much of a sub-standard effort this film truly is. Suffice to say, the best thing about this film is the scenery.
With an impressive number of accolades awarded for his directing abilities, Clint Eastwood should have been the ideal choice to direct the true story of Nelson Mandela’s attempts to reunite a still-fractured South Africa in the wake of the apartheid, through a South Africa Rugby World Cup victory. Eastwood has shown he is more than adept at directing large action set-pieces, and yet despite a truly inspiring story, the film fails to really engage its audience, on anything other than a relatively superficial level.
The film’s narrative opens with Mandela’s release on the 11th February 1990, and quickly skips forward to his election as President of South Africa in 1994. In the early days of his presidency, recognising the need to create cohesion, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) turns to the South African Rugby Team, ‘The Springboks’: previously a symbol of the apartheid. Mandela seeks to turn The Springboks, captained by Francois Pienaar (played by a well-cast Matt Damon) into a symbol of national pride in the ‘new’ South Africa.
This should make for an entirely-award worthy film, and it is notable that it is the the performances that have garnered Oscar recognition (Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon specifically), rather than the film itself. The film lacks pace, and at over two hours long feels far too long to sustain interest; Eastwood takes almost an hour to set up the events of the film spending far too long filming exposition. This exposition is used to demonstrate to the audience Mandela’s character, which is surely entirely unnecessary considering the recent nature of the events, as well as the reputation of Mandela himself. Thus the audience is shown endless scenes in which Mandela personally greets and recognises each individual, which, whilst appealing at the films inception, in turn allows Eastwood to quickly fall into lazily using this as a device to convey to the audience Mandela’s personality.
The film and the rugby scenes in particular are undoubtedly shot well, but Eastwood fails to create any sense of narrative tension: perhaps due to the recent nature of the events, meaning that its ending is already known to much of its audience. And yet there is still something distinctly lacking in Eastwood’s film. Despite pitch-perfect performances from both Freeman and Damon, along with the supporting cast, Invictus is ultimately a far too saccharine approach to such an important event.
The latest offering from the Coen Brothers could not be more different to their prior effort Burn After Reading. Feeling far more personal than their previous works, A Serious Man doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers film; but that is by no means to its detriment. Instead, A Serious Man feels like an altogether more mature work, with the Coens moving away from the often over stylised and far too self-aware films that have made them so popular with cult viewers.
Larry Gopnick, in a modern day allegory of the Biblical Job, is going through a lot. His wife is leaving him, whilst using his money for her divorce lawyer; he has now been forced to live in a motel (dispiritingly named ‘The Jolly Roger’), and one of his physics students is threatening to sue him unless he is given a passing grade, coupled with his detached and often selfish children and an ailing brother, Larry is understandably feeling despondent.
A Serious Man essentially explores mans relationship with God, as Larry questions why he is going through such tribulations, and how he should act in response. We see Larry visit Rabbi’s in the hope of finding an answer which seems impossible to provide, yet it is important to note A Serious Man never judges the religion Larry is seeking an answer from, instead presenting such problems as part of the human condition; merely something that is experienced by all at some point.
Despite being steeped in Judaism, and thus often using terms secular audiences may be unfamilar with, the film remains accessible throughout, largely due to the entirely empathetic performance from Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry. In lesser hands, Larry’s ineptitude and acceptance of his wife’s treatment could have been grating, but Stuhlbarg ensures that Larry is likeable throughout, evoking a real feeling of affinity from its audience.
A Serious Man is a film that requires little from its audience, almost creating a passivity in the viewer, as Larry’s life unravels, yet this should not be read as a criticism; here the audience is merely the observer, invited to watch as Larry is forced to undergo ever emotionally taxing predicaments. Ultimately, A Serious Man, far from being the depressive viewing its subject matter suggests, is a film that invites its audience to reflect upon the ineffectuality of man.
Following on from the huge box office success of Twilight, New Moon is the next instalment in author Stephanie Meyer’s thinly veiled metaphor for sexual abstinence.
Here, perpetually angst fillled Bella and Edward are forced to part ways, realising the danger his ‘kind’ present to her, he fears for her safety. Thus begins Bella’s downward spiral of depression-lasting several months, but only several seconds of exposition. With Edward out of the picture, it’s the turn of Jacob, Bella’s childhood friend who spends most of the film inexplicably shirtless, to take on the role of Bella’s protector.
Bella, in the wake of so many strong female characters in recent years, is irratatingly pallid, helpless and far too dependable on the men in her life, falling into despair at the loss of Edward. Obvious sexism aside,New Moon is dull and overlong with very little plot to sustain its running time. Whilst Catherine Hardwicke’s direction of Twilight succeeded in creating a fairly atmospheric and well shot rendition of the source novel, Chris Weitz’s direction of New Moon relies far too heavily on slow motion, making what should be the most entertaining moments of the films tedious and monotonous. Weitz struggles to find the balance between creating a teen drama and a fantasy film, with the film ultimately tipping towards the former, and as a result the fantasy elements seem superfluous at times.
The constant lingering looks between Bella and her love interests do little to develop any convincing feelings for the audience to engage with, the characters are so one-dimensional it’s almost impossible to understand what any of them see in each other.
In addition the acting hasn’t improved from the first film, with Robert Pattinson struggling to emote anything, whilst Kirsten Stewart brings very little range of depth to a character that is supposed to be the emotional focus of the film. Whilst fans of the franchise will no doubt be pleased with this latest instalment, with its record breaking box office success as testament to its popularity, New Moon is poorly edited, causing it to become needlessly confusing at times. It’s also gulity of taking itself far too seriously, treating the source material too reverentially, and lacks any narrative drive or tension.
Nativity! is such a nice, inoffensive and charming film that it’s impossible not to succumb to its seasonal charms. Martin Freeman plays Paul Maddens, a primary school teacher entrusted with the school’s annual nativity play; after a previous disastrous attempt and his girlfriend’s departure to Hollywood at Christmas five years before, Mr Maddens is far from being filled with yuletide cheer. Yet after an altercation with his previous friend, who as a teacher at the neighbouring rival private school produces the local critic’s (Alan Carr) choice nativity each year, Maddens is forced to come up with the best his hitherto ‘useless’, but soon to be endearing, pupils have to offer.
Maddens is unable to appreciate the subtleties of each individual pupil and the genuine affection they hold for him without the aid of Marc Wootton’s childlike ‘village idiot’ classroom assistant Mr Poppy. In a real classroom situation, Mr Poppy’s derision for taking on adult responsibilties would surely secure an immediate end to his career, yet in the environment of the film his character becomes increasingly comedic and appealing, often providing the most visual laughs.
Whilst the film doesn’t offer anything particulary new to the festive film catalogue and nor does it try to, it is certainly refreshing to see such normal children on screen, a world away from the highly polished and contrived performances of High School Musical and Camp Rock.
Freeman essentially plays the same character he’s been playing since The Office, but in a film in which the children take centre stage: all of whom act and improvise extremely well, Freeman’s difficulty in displaying any real acting capability doesn’t hinder the film in the slightest, and he is admittedly more than adept at dealing with the more emotional scenes of the film.
At any other times of year films like Nativity! simply wouldn’t work, it’s undeniably schmaltzy, and fairly emotionally manipulative, choosing some of the most adorable children on film. And whilst the flashback scenes of Madden’s happier times with his girlfriend have the potential to becomes cloying, they manage to steer clear of contriteness, It’s certainly not going to win any accolades any time soon, yet despite this, perhaps due to its simplicity, Nativity! is thoroughly enjoyable, and perfect Christmas time fare.