Review: Truth

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DIR/WRI: James Vanderbilt • PRO: Brad Fischer, Brett Ratner, William Sherak, Andrew Spaulding, James Vanderbilt • DOP: Mandy Walker • ED: Richard Francis-Bruce • MUS: Brian Tyler • DES: Fiona Crombie • CAST: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid

 

While Cate Blanchett is currently riding high on the success of her Oscar-nominated performance in Todd Haynes’s female/lesbian-centric film Carol, unfortunate scheduling has pulled focus away from yet another outstandingly rich Blanchett performance in Truth, the directorial debut from screenwriter James Vanderbilt. Released just three weeks in the US before the diversity-friendly, melancholic melodrama Carol and almost simultaneously with Tom McCarthy’s gripping newsroom thriller Spotlight, the onus is on the celebrated screenwriter’s debut to amplify the narrative of investigation into the darker aspects of American culture and its power structure, forcefully probed by such critically acclaimed heavyweights through sobering and absorbing critiques.

 

Based on CBS news producer Mary Mapes’ 2005 memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and the Privilege of Power, Blanchett plays the non-conforming journalist, who produced a report for the 60 Minutes II programme in 2004, which challenged Bush’s service record with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era. Revelling in the glory of exposing the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse story (giving Bush a further axe to grind), Mapes and long-time news anchor, Dan Rather (Robert Redford) attempt to prove the president’s attendance record was more than shaky, owing to his family connections. Basing their investigations on leaked documents by an unreliable source, Mapes, Rather and a mutinous production team find themselves on the receiving end of political and corporate power, compromising their journalistic integrity as the authenticity of the documents comes under scrutiny.

 

While Haynes interrogates sexual diversity and challenges to the stability of the family by emotionally investing in a tangible love story between the two female characters and McCarthy exposes the Catholic Church’s large-scale culture of abuse with ethical humility by giving prominence to the victims rather than the crusading journalists, Vanderbilt’s Truth fails to grill the hegemonic construction of political, corporate and media corruption with any stinging, impactful conviction. Vanderbilt, rather, speeds through the chain of events that almost led to a presidential downfall and changed the face of modern journalism without the emotional or moral punch that reinforces Carol and Spotlight, devaluing the scale the CBS report had on the construction of the media and the manipulation of its integrity and values.

 

While Hayne’s exquisite craftsmanship is stamped all over Carol and his customary ironic overtones intensify his dismantling of 1950s socio-cultural structures, Vanderbilt’s impulsive, disjointed style, not only prevents an identification with characters and connection to events but draws attention to the director’s inexperience, whose failure to tease the hot subject matter into a carefully considered narrative, loses much of the moral and political significance of the story. Unlike Spotlight, the considerable repercussions of the story are sidelined to accentuate the journalists’ campaign without digging into the culture of corruption that led to the crusade and rather than merging both cause and effect into a sophisticated and damning cinematic critique of modern journalism and conservative power, Truth is hesitant and hurried, becoming more akin to a nondescript television movie. Vanderbilt’s style is at such odds with the narrative objective, that his investigations becoming more alienating than immersive and the zipping fashion with which the story unfolds creates an indifference to rather than engagement with events, making the overall story appear less significant than it was in actuality.

 

Supported solidly by Redford, Truth is rescued by another engrossing performance by Blanchett, who plays the lobbying producer with such compelling nuance, it is unfortunate the overall narrative and style cannot equal her efforts. Although the film is based on her book, Vanderbilt appears determined not to exploit Mapes’ position as an identifiable, female protagonist, in favour of a more rounded overview of all players involved. As such, when the crusaders mightily fall and Blanchett is put on the spotlight and breathtakingly shines, it is clear Vanderbilt missed a great opportunity by not intensifying Mapes’ perspective, which would have given the film that much needed subjective, emotional and feminist edge. Although most of the journalists involved ended their CBS careers in the aftermath, it was Mapes who was fired from the corporation, so such feminist overtones could have bolstered identification with Mapes’ position as a woman against unscrupulous corporate hegemony, but Vanderbilt seems at pains to avoid such political engagement.

 

Although the film shares a similar agenda to Carol and Spotlight in attempting to demolish the ideological agendas of conservative, hegemonic institutions, Vanderbilt’s attempts at interrogation simply do not get under the skin and fail to penetrate the cynical cycle of corruption and cover-ups, so palpably executed in Spotlight. While Rathers became the public scapegoat and thus a symbol of modern journalistic rectitude, it was Mapes who felt the full force of the corporate and political axe and Blanchett’s stunning performance was the unexploited golden ticket in Truth. The film has evidently suffered from a tentative, inexperienced director whose cautious probing of the seedier side of a culture of corporate corruption, leaves a feeling of being outside events rather than being complicit in the crusade. Despite some fantastic separate elements, such as performances and production values, when all pulled together, the film fails to add up to a thrilling, critical exposé on the whole and Cate Blanchett will possibly not get the appreciation for her performance that she deserves.

                                                                                                 

 

 Dee  O’Donoghue

15A (See IFCO for details)

125 minutes

Truth is released 4th March 2016

Truth – Official Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cinderella

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DIR: Kenneth Branagh • WRI: Chris Weitz • PRO: David Barron, Simon Kinberg, Allison Shearmur • DOP: Haris Zambarloukos • ED: Martin Walsh • MUS: Patrick Doyle • DES: Dante Ferretti • CAST: Lily James, Hayley Atwell, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett

For viewers who are au fait with recent animation and fairy tale adaptations aimed at young children, Cinderella may come as something of a shock. Here, there are no winking jokes and pop culture references to keep parents entertained while their offspring awe at flashing images and oscillating soundtracks that will improve impossible-to-evade for years to come. No, what writer Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh present us with here is a film that prefers to get by on its charm alone.

Charming it is. From the settings, which owe as much to the Jane Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et La Bete, as they do to the legacy of Marie Antoinette and Belle Epoque-era France, to Cinderella and Prince Charming, this is a film that entertains its audience by being as pleasing and inoffensive as possible.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, but Cinders’ compliancy with the demands of her controlling step-mother – masterfully played here by Cate Blanchett – and idiotic step-sisters does seem questionable to modern audiences raised in the post-feminist, post-Bechdel test era. Why in God’s name does she put up with them without at least resorting to passive aggression? To honour her deceased mother’s advice to always be to kind in this situation is to allow herself to be, at the very, least used.

It is the job of Downton Abbey alumna Lily James, who plays Cinderella, then to convince viewers that her core goodness is such that in spite of such treatment her spirit will never be broken. James is an excellent choice for Cinderella possessed with the kind of pure-skinned beauty and seeming lack of guile that could very much belong to both country girl and princess, and could no doubt charm a Prince into searching a kingdom for her.

Audience members aware of the fairy tale’s original metaphorical use for the glass slipper being the perfect fit for Cinderella’s dainty feet (they have sex) will no doubt be rewarded by the breathy ecstasy exhibited by James when Scots actor Richard Madden as the Prince (or ‘Kit’ as he prefers and if you really must) places the shoe on her foot. Perfectly safe for children to watch, it’s snortingly amusing in context.

Other joys to behold are the costumes worn by Cate Blanchett in a villainous turn as Cinders’ step-mother and the outfits worn by Sophie McShera and Holliday Granger as her step-sisters. Here, Blanchett not so much channels Joan Crawford as Faye Dunaway playing Crawford in Mommy Dearest, while wearing a range of acidically-toned New Look by Dior-style dresses – she really is quite fabulous. Meanwhile, the costumes her daughters wear appear to have been inspired by chi-chi lap dogs and made from discarded Quality Street wrappers. They too are fabulous in wholly horrifying ways.

These outfits though are not the ones audience members will have been waiting for. That privilege, of course, belongs to the sparkling blue ball dress worn by James when her fairy godmother (an oddly toothy Helena Bonham Carter) transforms her for a night at the ball. The blue glittery piece of silk chiffon puff with corset waist is meant to pay beautiful tribute to the gown worn in Walt Disney’s animated version of this story from 1950, and probably does. It also looks like something Sarah Ferguson, the notoriously badly dressed Duchess of York would have worn circa 1987 but, unlike, Cinders and her Prince, we cannot have it all.

 

Alisande Healy Orme

G (See IFCO for details)
105 minutes

Cinderella is released 27th March 2015

Cinderella – Official Website

 

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How to Train Your Dragon 2

how-to-train-your-dragon-2-trailer1

DIR: Dean DeBlois • WRI: Dean DeBlois, Cressida Cowell • PRO: Bonnie Arnold • ED: John K. Carr  • MUS: John Powell • CAST: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler

2010’s How to Train Your Dragon took me, like it did the majority of the movie-going public, completely by surprise. Dean DeBlois’ fantasy-family romp, from an animation studio who’d long seemed content to mop up the spare change left by the behemoth Pixar, more often than not to the tune of an ever-tiring Scottish ogre and a zebra of African-American descent, and baring a title more marketable to the pop-up book industry,  proved the finest collaboration of human storytelling with other-worldly elements suitable for all ages since Tom Hanks voiced a cowboy doll. Despite  taking a couple of watches for me to admit my love, my adoration for it grew with each viewing until I, like every other red-blooded audience member who chanced upon it, pondered the cruelty of the sort of world where I could not acquire a Toothless to call my own. Though anticipating this sequel eagerly, I found it difficult to believe that lightning could strike twice to the same extent. My cynicism did not linger beyond the five-minute mark. Cynicism has no place in this movie landscape.

Opening with a ten-minute visual bombardment of a reminder as to why we adored the first film so much (featuring a Quidditch-type game simply titled ‘Dragon Racing’) it does not take long for spectacle to blast a smile on one’s face. The rich spectrum of colours from the original remains intact but the attention to detail is heightened in terms of vibrancy, as is the case with animation sequels. Rather than leaps forward in production design, depth is felt more-so in the textures of beards, scales and weather – which is fine… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; polish it.

The story this time around stems from conflicts within the realm of the expanding world of the Vikings (thanks to their winged friends) and the importance of defending one’s actual homestead, with themes of stagnancy and environmental control in the face of expansion and understanding warring for the in-story triumph. Returning at centre-stage is Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup as well as the whole clan with the additions of Cate Blanchett voicing his dragon-hippie mum, and a new adversary in the form of one Drago Bludvist, who’s about as nice as he sounds.

The great strength of this sequel is its achievement in evolving the story from essentially a fantasy-pet yarn to a broadened, emotionally involving mythology that balances hope with despair, love with tyranny and slapstick comedy with gripping action sequences. Every review will claim this is attempting to pull an Empire Strikes Back and, apart from the lack of a dark ending, I can’t render a denial of this as a fact on paper. DeBlois has upped his franchise’s game in every sense, with a very special shout-out to composer John Powell for a score that will accompany as many a morning as it will take for this reviewer to tire of it. DeBlois’ script does not miss a beat, with every plot device introduced serving refreshing functions outside of mere spectacle and with the core thematic concept of communication and understanding here, even riskily suggesting homosexual undertones amongst the patriarchal Vikings, in one of the more progressive moves yet seen in child-fiction. For some reason this understanding does not lend itself to sheep, who fall victim to needless cruelty throughout.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 achieves what all children’s films should strive toward. This is by no means necessarily for children and yet it can be enjoyed with children. For a second time Dreamworks animations have produced a work that respects its adult and infant audiences in equal measure. Your move, Pixar.

Donnchadh Tiernan

 

12A (See IFCO for details)
101 mins

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is released on 27th June 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2– Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Monuments Men

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DIR: George Clooney • WRI: George Clooney, Grant Heslov  • PRO: George Clooney, Grant Heslov  • DOP: Phedon Papamichael •ED: Stephen Mirrione  • MUS: Alexandre Desplat  • DES: James D. Bissell  • CAST: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray

It’s impossible not to view The Monuments Men in advance as some sort of ‘Ocean’s 14’/Dad’s Army comedy caper, and George Clooney’s overwhelming presence certainly cements that.  Thanks to the relentlessly enthusiastic trailer that’s been pumped on every screen, it’s also managed to conjure The Great Escape – if only because of the incessantly jarring jaunty music.  While it does manage some capering, and even surprises with sporadic comedy chuckles, it tends to jump-ship too shrilly into the dramatically saccharine to really feel cohesive overall.

 

It begins with the premise (based on a true story) that a bunch of older patrons of the arts fly into Europe as the Second World War is drawing to a close in order to save priceless works of art from first German hands, then German flames, then Russian commanders.  This is of course very admirable, and any effort to save symbols of a beautiful humanity at a time when nations appeared devoid of it has huge resonance, but the movie can’t seem to really trust itself in its central idea that art has this much value.  It’s left, then, to the occasional monotonous soliloquy from George Clooney as he details the myriad reasons we should want art preserved, and why this bunch of Americans should be the ones to do it.  Since his band of merry men is made up of Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bob Balaban the rest of the movie is spent making sure each character has had a caper, a comic pratfall, a sentimental moment, and some drama.  Side characters appear to have more interesting storylines, like Cate Blanchett’s French resistance curator, which leaves the movie floundering for where its forward momentum should come from.  Focusing on a single statue as the symbol of redemption does little to appease the gnawing feeling that, apart from hyperbolic German histrionics and sardonic Russian smirks, these men are in a personal conflict without opposition.

 

Clooney has talked about this movie as a labour of love, and it’s clear to see that he has drawn influence from older movies – something he mentions when discussing his reasoning behind bringing this story to life.  It’s very much his version of ‘how it used to be’ – and no better man to attempt it, considering his charisma and screen presence.  But what was once charming is now bordering on smarmy, and Monuments Men suffers as a result.  Throwing in dramatic moments for the sake of it – because remember, we’re at war! – seems tacked-on, and the movie’s insistence on jingoist drama and moments of anti-German and anti-Russian patriotism just don’t quite cut it.  A caper that goes wrong I can handle, a caper that ends in tragedy equally so, but a caper that stops and starts at all the wrong moments with ill-fitting intensity and drama just ends up being no kind of caper at all.

 

While not the worst movie I’ve seen this year, it’s an eminently forgettable one.  What Monuments Men highlights, more than anything, is the Clooney effect: how to attract a stellar cast to mediocre roles in a movie that never reaches the sum of its parts.

 

Sarah Griffin

12A (See IFCO for details)
118  mins

Monuments Men is released on 14th February 2014

Monuments Men– Official Website

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Hanna

hanna

DIR: Joe Wright • WRI: Seth Lochhead, David Farr • PRO: Leslie Holleran,Marty Adelstein, Scott Nemes • DOP: Alwin Kuchler • ED: Paul Tothill • DES: Sarah Greenwood • Cast: Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana

Saoirshe Ronan owns the screen in the new action thriller Hanna. Her mentor and discoverer Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) features her in practically every shot. Reminiscent of La Femme Nikita and Truffaut’s The Wild Child, Hanna tells of a girl raised not by wolves but the next best thing – a wilderness man: the bearded and muscled Eric Bana draped in animal skins.

For reasons not clear initially this mystery man lives in the Finnish tundra with his sixteen-year-old daughter, Hanna. He’s taught her five languages and survival skills. In the opening sequence Hanna, fleet as a wolf, is tracking a deer in deep snow. She runs fast then faster. She brings down the deer with a bow and arrow. ‘I just missed your heart’, she tells the dying deer then produces a pistol from the folds of her furs and put it out of it’s misery.

Hanna’s whole life has been spent in the wilderness. Her father has provided her with an identity. She lives in a small German city, has close school friends and a dog, named Rudi. Her home address celebrates Grimm’s dark fairy tales. Perhaps this is a partial key to Hanna’s true being. Hanna misses the company of other teenagers.

She wants to discover her origins. Her father relents. ‘There ‘s a global positioning monitor in the woods near their home. Hanna , if I push this button, there’s no turning back. Evil people will find us. But if you wish it, I’ll do so.’ Hanna requests that her father do so. Within hours elite force troops storm their enclave. Eric has already left on a hunting trip. Hanna is captured and whisked to an underground cell. There she’s interminably interrogated. She senses that the actual people questioning her are acting for someone higher. She’s right. All questions are directed by CIA regional agent Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchette complete with a southern US accent).

Hanna again demonstrating survival skills fights her way out of this prison, breaks into the computer centre and retrieves a vital print out on her parentage and DNA. She surfaces in Morocco without money, passport, or any understanding of how modern civilization works. For Hanna, her search for her real identity is just beginning.

A wonderful change of pace for the talented Ms. Ronan.

Anthony Kirby

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Hanna is released on 6th May 2011

Hanna – Official Website

Hanna Trailer


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Robin Hood

Robin Hood

DIR: Ridley Scott • WRI: Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris • PRO: Russell Crowe, Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott • DOP: John Mathieson • ED: Pietro Scalia • DES: Arthur Max • CAST: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt

They say every nation gets the government it deserves, and if that adage is true, no one told the plebs of middle England, ca. sometime ages ago. In Robin Hood, we are thrust into a turbulent world of medieval political upheaval – was there any other kind of medieval politicking? – in a dark and gritty adventure that would make Errol Flynn blush. Men in Tights it ain’t. And if every generation gets its own twist on the famous yarn, then director Ridley Scott has served this one well.

Robin Hood sees the copper fastening of the myth into historical and political context in a daring interpretation from Scott. Sandwiched between the murky and bloodthirsty reigns of Plantagenet kings Richard The Lionheart and John of England, what we have here could be dubbed ‘Robin Hood: The Backstory’. And it works.

Opening with warmongering Richard’s demise on a French battlefield, we are given a flavour of the man that would be Robin Hood. Russell Crowe plays archer Robin Longstride, replete with fortitude, loyalty and moderate charisma. When he stumbles on the vanquished king’s aides ferrying the crown back to England, he and his merry men’s fortunes take a turn for the better.

Entrusted with returning a family heirloom to its owner by a dying aide, the gang sets off on its merry way – with the king’s crown in a satchel for good measure – to relay the news of the monarch’s demise and to make good on Longstride’s promise. Events soon lead them to Nottinghamshire, where Robin goes on a journey of self discovery, not to mention an unscrupulous turn of identity theft. It is here that we begin to see the myth in its embryonic form. There are shades of the man that would be credited for all eternity as ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’, but here we see a Robin preoccupied with the politics of the day.

The usual suspects are all present and correct, with a curious sense of anticipation as to how events will lead to the hijinks in the forest with which we are all so familiar. A few battles, and some serious rewriting of history, later – Robin Hood writes the Magna Carta anyone? – and things come into focus nicely.

Russell Crowe turns in a competent display as Robin of the hood, although his accent darts back and forth across the Irish Sea quicker than a harlot’s drawers down the local alehouse – just ask Little John and the boys about that one. Suffice to say they were all a good deal merrier for their trip to Nottinghamshire. Cate Blanchett is excellent as the haughty Maid Marion, an iron maiden in more ways than one, while Oscar Isaac’s portrayal as the petulant and absurd King John is also enjoyable.

Increasing taxes to fund wars on foreign soil that the populace has no interest in is an age old tale, and it is fitting that such a scenario sets the backdrop for a story as enduring as this one. Some things never change, and it seems our obsession with the story of the do-gooding archer from Sherwood Forest is one of them. Well worth the admission fee this one.

Shane Kennedy

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Robin Hood
is released on 14th May 2010

Robin Hood – Official Website

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

DIR: David Fincher • WRI: Eric Roth • PRO: Ceán Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall • DOP: Claudio Miranda • ED: Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall • DES: Donald Graham Burt • CAST: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is equal parts extraordinary and so very ordinary. It encompasses the first and last breaths of a man and much of what passes in between, where, aside from his condition, he lives a life of struggle and joy that could characterise any life, fictional or otherwise. The grounds for presenting this tale to a medical journal are that our protagonist is born, with the dimensions of a baby but all the symptoms of an aged octogenarian. With each day, his body grows younger, at one point resembling the Brad Pitt we all know and for the remainder groundbreaking effects and make-up show Pitt’s Benjamin at various stages of enhanced youth while all those around him age.

It’s a gloriously subtle moment that clarifies what that this movie is about. ‘High concept’ aside, the movie simply tells the story of a life. On leaving the movie, it’s clear its description cannot be solely the story of a man ageing in reverse. Having worked through old age, Button, with the mindset of an adventure-seeking teenager and the body of a middle-aged man flies the coop. While the audience may wait for unorthodox developments, or for Button to have essentially different life experiences to any other, there comes a moment of clarity, through only a line of dialogue, when you are reminded of the most important detail of the movie; that he began life as naïve and unwary as anyone, whatever his medical ability might profess. None of the clichéd turns of phrase thrown about when prophesising about life are actually relevant. Benjamin points out simply that he has no greater perspective that anyone else. However unique his situation, he still lives life through only one set of eyes, his own.

The story is admittedly that of a unique man, not a unique rite of passage. He must learn as we do to not let differences define us and live our lives. The movie maps his travels and experiences for a time, but for all the wisdom he may have imparted to him and volume of life he experiences, there is a melancholic air to how he perceives his fate and its inevitability. The film finally turns so his fate consumes him – Benjamin and his true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) stand looking into a mirror, capturing that they have finally found each other at the right time. Then, in an instant, events begin to unfurl. Movies and novels are built around great moments like this and it is in imparting a message that the film succeeds most. As a solid piece of entertainment, however, it falls short.

The film is marketed to us as a love story. And indeed the film is littered with romantic cinematic moments, and there is an ease to the couple’s relationship during a beautifully shot ‘honeymoon’ sequence. Nevertheless, the romance, the conduit for much of the film’s message, is never wholly convincing. While events attempt to realistically portray a relationship that evolves, with Daisy and Benjamin ‘meeting in the middle’ to finally make things work, the events of their lives beforehand offer no convincing reason as to why they keep coming back to each other. Had they met for the first time when both of age, rather than at a time when their attraction comes across as unnerving – she a pre-teen, he looking like a 70-year-old man, their pairing might have been easier to empathise with. A symmetry does emerge at the end of the film so that their lives are fully entwined, but it is only for one segment of the film can we comfortably watch them as a couple.

The film is one of subtle movements. Some of these are to be praised; there are no over wrought breakdowns to assure Pitt of his Oscar®-nomination and neither do the aesthetics of the film, beautiful and all as they are, overwhelm the screen. Even the remarkable achievements with effects and make-up are not laboured. At one point Brad Pitt does almost literally walk off the set of his debut role in the TV series Dallas. This younger face though bears the sadness of a plight, not the opportunity of youth – the effect is to drive events. However, while this almost milquetoast attitude means the screen comes to light occasionally, lightning never actually strikes. Pitt’s performance is very restrained while Blanchett, though playing a much less passive character than Pitt, comes across as quite aloof. While the idea is expertly suggested, the alchemy of the film never works; its pace and consequence of events is never assured enough to grip you to the film. There is too little attention given to structuring a story or creating a sense of real drama that can engage. It seems as though David Fincher wants the film to be judged purely upon the delivery of its concept, to the detriment of other aspects.

The movie couldn’t but end as it does, but the route there is episodic and the story has a predictable air to it. The talent, quality and scale of this movie will give it resonance, its idea will give a topic for conversation, however, the conclusion of this conversation may well be an underwhelming verdict.

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones

DIR: Steven Spielberg • WRI: David Koepp • PRO: Frank Marshall, Denis L. Stewart • DOP: Janusz Kaminski • ED: Michael Kahn• DES: Guy Dyasa • CAST: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt

In 1981, within 18 months of receiving a critical mauling for 1941, Steven Spielberg presented Raiders of the Lost Ark for the viewing world’s consideration. In paying ode to the 1940s serials so beloved by him and co-creator George Lucas, he unearthed for a new audience a world of tongue-in-cheek adventure and established an icon of cinema. The making of the movie as much as what was finally delivered to the screen has entered the Hollywood mythos. All the necessary elements fell into place; the casting, the improvised set pieces and Spielberg’s fastidious and efficient shooting style gelled seamlessly. Sequels followed, and as much might be gained by a franchise this successful being relaunched, surely there could be little served by continuing the story after the pitch-perfect sunset ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Nevertheless, over nineteen years trade papers and websites were filled with news of discussions, pre-production, and an endless treadmill of scriptwriters committing stories for Lucasfilm to consider. Finally, 2007 saw confirmation of a shooting date, with Lucas, Spielberg and Ford returning to the fold. Little detail of the film’s plot was revealed, though it was confirmed the events of the film would take place in the 1950s, with Communists playing the villain of the piece. The primary question of concern for legions of fans was ‘what else would change?’

In the same way Hitler’s seeming interest in relics and iconoclasm provided the springboard for the stories of Raiders… and The Last Crusade, the pioneering of physic manipulation by Communist Russia provides a loose frame for our story. This story, and its explanation, introduces a first in an Indiana Jones movie – an unwelcome and extended break in the action. The events following the opening sequence and Jones’ first encounter with sidekick Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is overburdened with exposition, as Jones deciphers the myth and fact behind an ancient artefact and its origins, which prove both muddled and bizarre.

When the action does kick in, it is largely uninspiring. There are flashes of humour and ingenuity, such as an exchange of a smile and grimace borrowed from The Last Crusade, and little can match the excitement of the Indy theme kicking in to embolden you for an upcoming thrill. The thrills, though, become repetitive, amounting to little more than multiple car chases. Only an extended chase through Amazonian rain forest goes someway towards matching the standard set by the rollercoaster rides of the previous movies. Yet the rhythm of even this sequence is misjudged, using a mix of ants and monkeys for comedic and gore effect, none succeeding to any great effect.

Spielberg spoke recently of preserving the shooting style of the original movies, allowing the kinetic energy of each set-piece speak for itself, with no need for quick-cut editing more akin to the Bourne movies. More crucial a priority should have been preserving the technicolour, pulp fiction novel look of the movies. The rich colours and aesthetics created a world comfortably inhabited by glaring-eyed villains more akin to the silent movie era and fantastical paranormal plots where you accepted the pitiful aim of a squadron of soldiers. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is white-washed by a computer-generated haze, making the settings and set-pieces seem staged and artificial. This is the antithesis of what we expect from the combination of slap-dash escapes and entombed relics so integral to the series. It’s almost saddening to say that the exaggerated CGI, particularly during the finale, deny the movie of any iconic images to nestle amongst those from the original trilogy.

Cate Blanchett, as one of the collection of acting talent on screen, is one of the movie’s too few high points. Suitably austere, she is a one-woman adversary, her henchmen serving only to fill out the background and fall from moving vehicles. Shia LaBeouf interacts well with Ford and, coming from a production house not noted for creating well-loved sidekicks, plays his role well. Ray Winstone and John Hurt are always welcome on any cinema screen, even though their minor roles are lost to the mindless plot. Character arcs and relationship development were never the aims of these movies, and duly Karen Allen’s return as Marion Ravenwood is a tacked-on plot point.

Without doubt, Harrison Ford is the movie’s salvation. Ford represents (or at least represented) the pinnacle of what a movie star is, his name opening movies with audiences comfortably accepting him as the everyman in extraordinary circumstances. His role as Indiana Jones is the perfect embodiment of this, the character a teacher and a globe-trotting archaeologist. While on screen, Ford still ably serves as the movie’s hook. Just as Indy would improvise and respond as best as possible to a situation, Ford can’t but be good in the role he has defined, moulding the often mistimed and clunky dialogue apparent from the opening scene. The greatest flaw of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is cheating us of his wry smile and scowl and the moments used to catch his breath. The opening sequence sees a shadowed face bound across rafters, the fedora used to shelter a stunt man’s face, instead of us seeing our hero wince at a misstep or growl in pain at falling through a glass ceiling. This betrays the film’s roots, denying it authenticity. When Lucas and Spielberg released the original trilogy of movies they gave up ownership, handing them over to a movie-loving public. In this respect we are entitled to demand more. The justification for returning to the character should be there. The film should be brave enough to have the character struggle. We should be able to expect a smarter film, one that finds humour and new ways of telling the story. Instead we are left with a failed rehash of a trusted formula and the mistreatment of a great character.

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