Sunday, 20 November 2011

Film Review | Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan achieves a rare feat in cinema, in that by the film's climax I was genuinely unsure as to how much of what I was watching was real and how much was in the head of a character. By the time the credits rolled director Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman in the lead role had led me so expertly to this point, exactly where they wanted me to be, that I could do nothing but allow the emotional, psychological, beautifully dramatic spectacle I had just witnessed to continue washing over me.

The film tells the story of Nina (Portman), a professional ballerina who lands her first lead role in her company's latest production, Swan Lake. As Nina struggles to meet the demands of her dual character as both the Swan Queen and the Black Swan, her relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey), her director (Vincent Cassel) and fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) all become increasingly complex whilst her mental state becomes less and less stable.

Whilst praise has already been heaped upon Portman and Aronofsky, it's important not to overlook the importance of the supporting cast in making the film the success that it is. Cassel brings both intensity and intrigue to his role; Hershey too is strong as the strict yet devoted mother to Nina, and deserves high praise in particular for her scenes with Portman when Nina falls further into mental instability. The character of Lily is potentially the most demanding after Nina herself, but Kunis handles the role incredibly well, striking a balance between the different elements to her character, at times cerebral, at others much more physical.

The triumph here, however, must be a shared achievement of Portman and Aronofsky. Portman's performance is blissfully enigmatic, allowing the audience to develop an uneasy relationship of sympathy and distance with Nina in a very short space of time which lasts until the very last shot. It's a turn more than worthy of her Best Actress Oscar.

Portman's performance fits seamlessly with Aronofsky's direction, a heady fusion of extreme realism and the disturbingly surreal blurring the lines between the real world and Nina's warped perspective. This intentional ambiguity creates superb psychological melodrama with occasional hints of horror, and makes Black Swan Aronofsky's most finely crafted film to date. In fact, if there is one criticism of the film it's that it is at a few points almost too uncomfortable to watch. Black Swan, fundamentally, is a film I find it very difficult to fault. Whilst it may at times be a difficult viewing experience, this is undoubtedly an incredible piece of cinema.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

TV Review | Life's Too Short (Series 1, Episodes 1 and 2)

Life's Too Short is the latest television comedy offering from contemporary giants of the genre, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Described by Gervais as the third in their TV sitcom trilogy (The Office and Extras being the first and second parts respectively), Life's Too Short shows promise in the first two episodes, but there is also the feeling that maybe we've seen this all before.

The series is a mockumentary following dwarf actor Warwick Davis (probably best known most recently for playing Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter films) as he goes about his "showbiz" life as a dwarf actor as well as running his own dwarf talent agency. Davis plays a twisted version of himself, coming across as arrogant and deluded as to how famous and successful he is. The style of comedy is typical Gervais and Merchant, playing up the uncomfortable scenarios to the point where you can barely continue watching. Davis is clearly up for pretty much anything, with highlights of the first two episodes including an excruciating failed interview with a local news anchor who at one point gets Davis to stand on a chair to emphasise his dwarfism, and Davis donning something truly humiliating (I won't say what to avoid spoilers) as a makeshift Ewok costume when attending a Star Wars themed wedding. Davis' likability and talent as an actor will no doubt be key to the series' inevitable success.

Much like he did in Extras, Gervais also uses his Hollywood connections to bring in some serious star power, which essentially provide the best scenes of each of the first two episodes. Liam Neeson cameos in the first episode to great effect, approaching Gervais and Merchant (playing themselves) about a change of direction in his career; it is Johnny Depp's performance in episode 2 that is currently the one to beat, initially meeting with Davis to gain advice on how to play a leprechaun, which ends up in a confrontation with Gervais over his comments at the Golden Globes.

However, Life's Too Short, whilst undoubtedly funny, is almost unashamedly unoriginal. Davis' lines could often be lifted directly from David Brent ten years ago, and even his delivery sometimes feels as though he's basically doing an impersonation of Gervais. And whilst the celebrity cameos so far have worked, you can't help but feel the idea has been almost directly lifted from Extras. The format is essentially a cross between The Office, Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm (a show of which Gervais is openly a huge fan) and also borrows quite heavily from I'm Alan Partridge. Whilst it's true that Gervais and Merchant obviously know what they're doing with this style, it's also a shame that Life's Too Short doesn't yet feel like its own entity, more the bastard lovechild of several successful previous sitcoms.

The hardest part to swallow so far, however, is Gervais and Merchant's portrayal of themselves. Whilst we've seen both play warped versions of themselves previously, here it almost feels like they're no longer acting. The duo sit in a large and finely decorated office adorned with memorabilia from both their successes together and Gervais' solo efforts. I genuinely found some of the scenes involving Gervais and Merchant quite cringeworthy in an unpleasant way - it feels as though the two of them (Gervais in particular) have gone too far up one particular part of their anatomy. Five years ago it was amusing; now it just feels genuinely narcissistic.

I'll continue to watch Life's Too Short, as despite its shortcomings (no pun intended) it undoubtedly has promise as the first two episodes had several genuinely funny moments. At the moment I can't see it being as revered as Gervais and Merchant's first two comedy series, but that's not to say it isn't a worthwhile watch. In fact, creating a series that is merely very good rather than universally acclaimed might just be what's needed to knock the writers back down to earth, or at least a little closer to it.

Film Review | Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates is clearly influenced in its style by a great many other sci-fi films, from big names such as The Matrix and the Terminator franchise to cult titles such as Gattaca. The problem is, it's never quite as good as any of the films it has been inspired by.

Set in a near future where the world's population lives through hi-tech robotic counterparts - the 'surrogates' of the title, and as they are referred to throughout the film - we follow the story of FBI Agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) who, with his partner Agent Peters (Radha Mitchell), investigates a series of unprecedented murders committed through destroying a person's surrogate. Willis is reliably watchable, but never feels as though he is stretching himself too far from either his troubled loner or irrational action-man archetypal fallback roles. Other than Ving Rhames as The Prophet, the shadowy leader of a resistance movement against the surrogates, and James Cromwell as the inventor of 'surrogacy' (both of whom receive far too little screen time), the cast is largely pedestrian and forgettable.

The story is entertaining enough, providing enough satisfying sci-fi quirks and action sequences to keep things interesting. Things get a little muddled towards the end, and the final act doesn't provide the satisfying payoff that you would hope for. A subplot involving the death of Greer's son and the effect of this on his relationship with his wife (Rosamund Pike) never really manages to go anywhere meaningful. However, the film's swift running time of under ninety minutes does mean it never has the chance to become tedious.

Ultimately, Surrogates feels like a wasted opportunity. There's a huge amount that could have been explored in terms of human morality (there doesn't seem to be any repercussions for destroying a surrogate, despite more than one indication that they aren't exactly cheap pieces of kit), and the current popularity of online chat and smartphones could have been very easily commented upon, but instead is only slightly hinted at. Like I said before, Surrogates draws on a great many entries into the sci-fi canon but unfortunately this usually only serves to remind you of how many better films there are of a similar style that you could be watching. It is enjoyable and worth a look, but in many ways had the potential to be so much more than it is.


Monday, 14 November 2011

A Statement Of Intent

So, as you may have picked up on, activity here over the past couple of months has been somewhat scarce (let's face it, there's been more activity in a nun's knickers) and for this I apologise. To be honest, I'm not even sure who visits this blog any more in terms of reading what's written here, so I might be apologising to myself and nobody else, but hopefully there's a few more people than that.

I'm not going to start reeling off reasons why things have become quieter - I know what they are, and they aren't really anything special, other than having a couple of busy months where all the little jobs and bigger jobs and everything in between has had to come first to the point where writing here just hasn't happened.

My main intention is to try (again) to get into a more regular posting pattern here, potentially going for more succinct entries to try and increase the amount that are written. That's not to say there won't be longer entries here still, but as time to write entries is one of the contributing factors to this blog becoming somewhat neglected, shorter entries seems a logical step forward.

My secondary intention is to attempt to broaden the focus of this blog once again so that it doesn't concentrate solely on films and film reviews. Whilst film is an important interest, hobby and passion of mine, concentrating almost entirely on films has revealed itself as a double edged sword: it has allowed me to focus both the blog and my own writing on something I truly care about rather, but it has also meant that when I don't have as much time as I'd like to sit down and watch a film properly the blog suffers the consequences - not watching films regularly means writing entries even less regularly.

My aim for the blog over the next few weeks and months is therefore to increase activity by writing snappy entries on a range of subjects - "like the good old days", to use a clichéd but apt phrase. I can't speak for the other contributors to this blog, but I will also say that I hope my renewed intention here might help to inspire them into a similar blogging renaissance.

My intention is genuine, and I will do all that I can to make it into a reality. And if nothing else, this entry has broken my two month silence here, which is a simple but significant step towards reinvigorating this blog.