Film reviews: Shut Up and Play the Hits/Shadow Dancer

I saw two really good films in the cinema during the week and I’ve decided to write about them because they are not the type of films that most people wouldn’t necessarily think to watch. The first is the music documentary, Shut Up and Play the Hits and the second is a film about ‘The Troubles’ called Shadow Dancer.

Shut Up and Play the Hits

This film was premiered simultaneously across 40 odd screens in the UK and Ireland on September 4. There was even a live red carpet intro with some cringeworthy interviews beforehand. Shut Up and Play the Hits is a combination of a documentary and a concert film. It features the last show by the American electronic/punk outfit, LCD Soundsystem cut with before and after footage following the band’s frontman, James Murphy.

One of the other elements is Murphy being interviewed by pop culture journalist, Chuck Klosterman, which answers a lot of questions fans might have about a band deciding to break up at the height of their success. It seems that fame is a young man’s game and Murphy wants to just get on with the business of living.

I have to confess that I knew very little about LCD Soundsystem before I saw this. I imagine I would’ve felt differently if I hadn’t liked the actual music but thankfully I did! Aside from that, James Murphy is an interesting guy. He’s musically gifted and has a knack for intelligent lyrics but also eccentric, which made the scenes where he woke up alone in his apartment in a post-gig haze amusing. He did mundane things like shaving, playing with his pet bulldog and making coffee—obviously self-conscious at having nothing specific to do—and the filming made it seem like everything was taking place in a strange vacuum.

The close relationships between the band members and management also got attention, which give an insight into the dynamic. The final concert filmed in Madison Square Garden in New York revealed that they were a pretty spectacular live act. The whole film was beautifully shot but the concert scenes were exceptional. A selection of cameras and angles captured the energy of the crowd and the musicians. It made you want to be there, which I reckon was the aim. The pace swung between frenetic and quiet reflection but it worked well.

Overall, it was good documentary. It’s a must-see for fans of the band and a should-see for music fans in general. Hats off to directors, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace. It is still on limited release in cinemas but a good one to watch on DVD. Here’s a taster…

Shadow Dancer

This film is a tense thriller set in 1993 about Collette McVeigh, a would-be IRA bomber who is caught and then recruited by intelligence agency, MI5, as an informant. She is caught between the desire to protect her young son and loyalty to her family, particularly her IRA leader brothers. The audience also sees the viewpoint of the MI5 agent, Mac, who literally holds Collette’s fate in his hands.

The film is slow moving; everything has a washed-out and dreamlike feel as the plot works itself out. Some of the complexities of the so-called “Northern question” are in full flow. How do ordinary people plant bombs and carry out executions? How are families affected by politics? Do the authorities care about the pawns they use to gather information? There seems to be little room for sentimentality, which might be because of director, James Marsh’s, skill for documentary filmmaking.

Shadow Dancer—written by Tom Bradby, based on his own novel—is a joint Irish/British production so the cast is made up of some of the best and brightest actors from both countries. Andrea Riseborough gives a very composed performance. She gives the impression that emotions are churning below but won’t break the surface. Clive Owen, as Mac, is his convincing in his sincerity in the face of his cold-hearted boss, played by Gillian Anderson.

Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson play Collette’s brothers, Gerry and Connor. Gillen is referred to as the harsher of the two but is rarely seen as such. Given his steely performances in the RTE series, Love/Hate, he could’ve been used to better effect. Gleeson does better as the baby-faced enforcer. He’s in everything at the moment; definitely a star in the making. David Wilmot does well as their devious, looming IRA boss while Bríd Brennan is jaded and understated as the family matriarch.

The best thing about the film is the suspense, enhanced by an evocative music score. You’re always waiting for something bad to happen and the two plot twists near the end are masterful. The subject matter is difficult and the film doesn’t fulfil its potential somehow but it’s worth a watch.

PS: I also saw an utterly sh*te film called The Escapist. If you like prison break movies… still don’t lower yourself to watch it. Ever. That is all.

Silent but deadly: Film review of The Artist

When I heard the hype about The Artist—a black and whitesilent film about the silent film era—it had ‘gimmick’ written all over it. Butthe reality is a romantic comedy which proves that you don’t need dialogue inthe face of a charming story.
The film starts in 1927, when dashing silent movie actor, GeorgeValentin, is at the pinnacle of his career. Young actress, Peppy Miller, istrying to break into the industry. She idolises George and he gives herinvaluable advice but the age of ‘talkies’ intervenes. George’s popularitywanes because of his reluctance to embrace the change where Peppy’s star isonly ascending. The film then follows their respective fortunes.     
Firstly, it’s bizarre to watch a film with no speech but thescore is fantastic. It conveys the mood perfectly. Following the structure of asilent film, the sporadic dialogue in subtitles appears after the actors speakso that adds an element of suspense along with the plot points. The plot has afew twists to keep things interesting so the novelty of the format never wearsoff and the running time isn’t too long. The film also has a brilliant, self deprecating humour. It reminded me mostof Charlie Chaplin’s work but it has nods to all the genres that excelled in celluloidsilence i.e. romance and adventure. George’s second name is surely a referenceto actor, Rudolph Valentino; one of George’s films has actual footage of aDouglas Fairbanks swashbuckler and Peppy even utters one of Greta Garbo’sfamous lines “I want to be alone”. It struck me as a fond homage to that eraand classic Hollywood glamour.  
French writer and director, MichelHazanavicius, is obviously very clever, and not just for having theballs to make a silent film in the age defined by acronyms like CGI and 3D.Without dialogue, the direction hinges on visual cues. To this end, there areshots of George passing in front of a sign/storefront saying ‘Lonely Star’ orlooking at his reflection ‘dressed’ in a tuxedo in the window display of amenswear shop or the swift cutting together of Peppy rushing to save Georgefrom himself ending in the climactic “BANG!” I don’t want to spoil anything butone of the best scenes is an excellent dream sequence. He does it all with theenviable flair associated with French cinema. The cinematography and productiondesign were exceptional too.
The cast deserves the highestpraise; while they are forced to over-act—exaggerating gestures andexpressions—the performances don’t seem forced. Jean Dujardin, as George, lookslike he could have been a silent film star; it must the moustache and/or the teeth. He’s funny, ‘mugging’ for thecamera, but still brings depth to the role in the moments of despair and rage.Bérénice Bejo is instantly likeable and gives a lively, passionate performance.Jack the dog, mainly played by a talented pooch called Uggie, is an outrageousscene-stealer. No joke; the dog is amazing! He’s cuter than ALL the cat videoson Youtube combined. The strong supporting cast includes John Goodman and JamesCromwell.
The Artist is being touted for abig haul at the Oscars next month after its recent success at the GoldenGlobes. When the nominations are announced later this week, I would besurprised if it doesn’t get nominations for Best Film, Best Director, BestOriginal Screenplay, Best Score and Best Actor at least (along with a few ofthe technical awards). I reckon it’ll do well because it’s different and takes risks.The Academy love those traits in a film. The Artist made me feel like I waswatching something 90 years ago, when pure entertainment ruled and there was agenuine frisson of possibility. It gives an insight into a lost art and asimpler time. It’s not the kind of film that’ll change your life but it’s very enjoyableand the ideal remedy to the January blues.
PS: Aside from the film, thehighlight of the night was the ticket seller in the Omniplex in Limericktelling us that the film is silent. “D’uh, we know!,” we said. Oh, how welaughed BUT apparently people have been coming out complaining that there wassomething wrong with the sound and demanding their money back when told thefilm was all silent. The cinema is planning to put up a sign to avoid futureconfusion. He didn’t see the funny side when my friend approached him after thefilm to ask for a refund…
PPS: Did I mention The Artist is a silent movie? Well, it is.  

PPPS: Seriously, that means no spoken dialogue/sound effects bar music for the vast majority of the film. You have been warned! :)

Film review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Remaking a film in English when a perfectly good foreignlanguage version already exists is a gamble but like all bets, sometimes itpays off. This is the case with David Fincher’s adaptation of the Stieg Larssonnovel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The books are superb crime fiction (Dragon Tattoo is onlythe first of the ‘Millenium Trilogy’) and I would highly recommend them. I thought the three Swedish films didtheir native Larsson proud. I was sceptical when the remake wasannounced—thinking it was surely an indulgence for dimwits who complain aboutsubtitles. Annywayyyyy, what a difference a director makes. Not to take awayfrom Niels Arden Oplev’sskills but the man behind Seven, Fight Club and The Social Network takes DragonTattoo to another level. The Bond film-esque opening title sequence with apounding cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song by Karen O (singer with theYeah, Yeah, Yeahs) was a sign of good things to come.
The story is the same. A disgraced journalist, MikaelBlomkvist is hired by a wealthy industrialist to investigate a 40 year oldfamily mystery. The case of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance has Blomkvisttearing skeletons out of closets so he has to enlist the help of LisbethSalander. Salander is a unique investigator—an anti-social computer hacker—butcan she and Blomkvist catch the killer?
The book’s plot is convoluted because of its multiplecharacter arcs but the film has two and a half hours to tie it all together,which it does well. The script makes minor adjustments i.e. the location of onemajor plot point at the end is adjusted drastically BUT it simplifies oneaspect of a complicated ending. Steve Zaillian, whose previous writing creditsinclude Schindler’s List, adds some punchy and shocking dialogue as well as welcome lighter moments to break the tension. Healso glosses over anything too Swedish i.e. cultural references, which mightalienate the (American?) viewer. The Swedish films are more loyal to the detailin the books but I’m not sure that’s the most important thing. Novel and film are asdifferent as languages as English and Swedish. 
Fincher thinks outside the box in terms of perspective. Iremember watching Panic Room and thinking that the shots of the inner workingsof locks/walls etc were clever. He has touches like this again i.e. whenBlomkvist has his head in a plastic bag and he shows his laboured breathingfrom inside the bag. The whole film just screams ‘Cool!’ It’s a long film butnicely paced with a few adrenaline pumping scenes at all the right moments. Thereare graphic sexual and violent scenes, which tells us Fincher isn’t one to shyaway from reality. The chilling revenge scenes illustrate the book’s originaltitle: Men Who Hate Women.
The acting was good all round but Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander is a revelation. As a relative unknown, she was a bold choice. She looks more like Lisbeth as described in the books and underwent an extreme physical transformation to do so. In the Swedish films, Noomi Rapace is amazing but Mara is more convincing. She has to endure horrible things, which is probably why she’s cold, distrustful and hostile when provoked. She’s also highly intelligent, moralistic and loyal. Salander is an unlikely heroine but you can’t help admiring her spikiness. I suppose you’d call her feisty…at the risk of her kicking the living sh*t out of you.

Daniel Craig is easy on the eye as noble hack Blomkvist. Iimagine Craig enjoyed playing the anti-James Bond because in comparison to Salander,he’s a wimp. The chemistry between him and Mara is slow-burning but they seem to complement each other very well. Stellan Skarsgård plays the secretiveMartin Vanger subtly; Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright and JoelyRichardson are adequate in their supporting roles. The rest of the cast areonly bit players in the Salander/Blomkvist show. Mara recently got a GoldenGlobe nomination and I’d say she’ll get an Oscar nod too. 
Two more noteworthy aspects of Dragon Tattoo are: overallproduction design and soundtrack. It was shot in Swedenand is a tourism advert for the beauty of the country. The sets arestraight out of an Ikea catalogue and the costumes look great (not a surpriseH&M have launched a Lisbeth-inspired fashion line). My one argument wouldbe that journalists rarely have such opulent houses and lead such interestinglives *lol* so they slipped up on the facts there! Trent Reznor (of band, Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross have provided a perfect score—industrial and spartan for the most part. 
The director said he wantedto make a mature, ‘grown-up’ film and he has achieved that, in content as wellas complexity. It’s not one for the faint-hearted but it was in my top threefilms of 2011. Not that the Swedish ones weren’t good but I can’t wait for theremakes of books two and three of the trilogy. To paraphrase Casablanca, I think Fincher and Larsson have begun a beautifulfriendship, not to mind Salander and Blomkvist… 

Film review: The Help

Martin Luther King once said: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That just about sums up the spirit of the film, The Help—which is a behemoth of a movie.

The Help is set in the early 60s in Jackson, Mississippi where Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan has returned home after graduating from college with ambitions to be a serious writer…and ends up writing for the local rag. Now, there’s a story I could’ve written from personal experience, boom boom, but I digress… Skeeter doesn’t have to look far for a story. Seeing how her mother and her society friends mistreat their black maids, she tries to write an account from the point of view of ‘the help’.

The main issue is racism but it isn’t in your face like murders and burning crosses; it’s a permeating, sneaking kind. That’s obvious when Hilly, chair of the women’s bridge club, wants to have separate toilets for black domestics written into law. The black maids are ‘inherited’ like chattels, treated like dirt and yet they do all the housework as well as care for the children of whites (who sometimes turn out just like their bigoted parents). Friendship, family, social change and gender politics are also strong themes.

The maids’ stories are the epitome of light and dark—amusing incidents are as likely as those that are viciously unfair. It’s a film that inspires plenty of tears, of laughter and sadness. Skeeter is different because she acknowledges that her family’s maid raised her and so treats all people with respect. But she also feels like an outcast because she’s single and career oriented. Hilly also ostracises the new wife of her ex boyfriend as ‘trash’. The era and place are as segregated as can be but the unpleasant truth is that discrimination isn’t always based on colour. Hypocrisy is as bad, if not worse, than ignorance.

The screenplay is adapted by the director, Tate Taylor, from a novel by Kathryn Stockett. The complex plot and sub-plots are interwoven very well and it moves along at a steady pace. It is lengthy at two and a half hours but it’s the kind of film you don’t want to end either. The Help looks fantastic—all warmth and punchy colours. For a relatively novice director, Taylor seems like an old pro. The ensemble cast, though, is the best thing about the film.

Emma Stone is brilliant as the feisty Skeeter; she has an easy, natural way about her that wins you over. Viola Davis as Abeline and Octavia Spencer as Minnie often steal the show. They are very different characters—one often silent and the other seldom so—but each projects an unbreakable spirit. Bryce Dallas Howard is very convincing as the small-minded, perpetually enraged Hilly. Jessica Chastain, who plays the ditzy Celia Foote, delivers a funny but genuine performance. Sissy Spacek and Alison Janney, as Hilly and Skeeter’s mothers respectively add experience to the mix. Cicely Tyson as Skeeter’s maid, Constantine, brings a quiet dignity to a few key scenes too.

The Help is very moving. I wasn’t expecting the emotional impact; sometimes I had to look away the scenarios in it were so desperately sad and unjust. That period in history is shameful and people who spoke out were often punished rather than rewarded. What shone through was the light of human kindness and bravery. That’s what The Help helps to drive home.

PS: If it doesn’t win a rake of Oscars, I’ll be as shocked and outraged as ‘Two slice Hilly’…watch it and you’ll know what I mean!

Film review: Midnight in Paris

In recent years, Woody Allen tends to swing between the sublime and the ridiculous with his filmmaking (and…insert own dig about his personal life >here<). He is quite prolific, making a film every year. But how the same person could have made the gorgeous Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and the craptastic Cassandra’s Dream just a year apart beats me! I’m still a fan because when he’s on form, he’s a genius. Annie Hall and Mighty Aphrodite are two of my favourite films. Midnight in Paris, thankfully, was surprising in a good way.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, an American screenwriter holidaying in Paris with his awful fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her family. Gil yearns to live in Europe and is working on a novel. While Inez fawns over a pedantic college friend (Michael Sheen), he takes long walks through the boulevards and backstreets. Every night, when the clock strikes midnight, he is transported back to Paris in the roaring twenties when it was an artistic haven. He meets his heroes as contemporaries including F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, TS Eliot, Salvador Dali… the whole gang is here, and partying hard by the look of it!

Gil falls for Adriana—Pablo Picasso’s mistress and muse. But he returns each morning to reality. The irony is: While Gil has always longed to live in 1920s Paris, Adriana longs to live during La Belle Époque—the late 19th century. Will he eventually choose to stay in one past, or another? The whole premise of the film is bizarre and it shouldn’t work BUT it just does. It’s actually very charming.

The opening of the film is like a tourism promo for Paris, showing all the famous landmarks. A lot more well-known sights are threaded throughout—wandering through/by the Museé D’Orsay, the palace/gardens of Versailles, the book stands around Pont Neuf and the flea markets. The city has never looked better than through Allen’s lens and when it descends into the past, it’s even more alluring. Gil is swept away by the romance of everything, but soon realises that life’s dilemmas don’t just evaporate no matter what era you’re in.

Wilson is a bit of an unlikely protagonist but he’s great as Gil, who is good humoured, neurotic and has an endearing childlike enthusiasm. Inez and her family are stereotypical American tourists, in the worst way. McAdams hasn’t been so bitchy in a film since Mean Girls. Michael Sheen is brilliant as the pretentious Paul. Hemingway (Corey Stoll) is the most entertaining of the figures of the past. The novelist (in the film anyway) speaks exactly how he writes-in a frank and spartan manner. The seriousness in his tone is inadvertently hilarious i.e. “Yes. It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that’s what war does to men. And there’s nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it’s not only noble but brave…” It goes on and on like this. Marion Cotillard is good as Adriana as are her fellow French compatriots in the cast—Carla Bruni and Léa Seydoux.

The script is Allen at his best—witty, quirky, playful and full of intelligent observations about people. Midnight in Paris is pure escapism and I would highly recommend it.