Saturday, 18 December 2010

Please Give; Leaving

 Please Give

As a character study of New Yorkers in Brownstone apartment blocks Please Give has the potential to be too clever for its own good and lose much of the audience by indulging in over analysis. Thankfully the film turns out to be a warm and well observed drama with believable roles fleshed out by some decent indie talent.
Catherine Keener plays Kate, a painfully insecure about her well-off status when some fellow New Yorkers are forced to sleep on the streets, but her attempts at help are blinded by her own guilt, so much so that she suffers embarrassment by trying to push handouts on to people who aren’t homeless and her attempt at volunteer work does more harm than good when she breaks down at the sight of disabled people playing sports in a community centre. She works in a retro furniture shop, buying pieces from the relatives of the recently deceased to sell on at inflated prices. The murky morality of this bothers her but not her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) with whom she runs the business, and they have bought the neighbouring apartment from an elderly woman still living there; once she dies they gain ownership. The woman’s granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) visits her daily to do chores, whilst the perma-tanned and narcissistic Mary (Amanda Peet) vocally can’t wait to see her die and Kate and Alex’s teenage daughter Abby is going through the usual teen crises, exacerbated by her mother giving bums more money than her.
All the characters have their flaws but there is a definite feeling that the film is rooting for them; you can’t help but sympathise with these people and hope for things to work out. Seldom do films gain release that simply focus on everyday interactions without some sort of contrivance; Please Give is a genuinely mature film, happy to trust the audience without any spoon feeding and sadly a rarity in the release schedules.

Leaving

If you only want to see one continental European drama in 2010 about a wife and mother played by an English actress having an affair with a man slightly more earthy and rugged than her own well-off husband, risking her place in an expensive household for the more rustic charms of a run down pile in an idyllic mountainous countryside then you should watch I Am Love. If you’ve already seen that then you’re left with Leaving.

Such a comparison is less a reflection on Leaving’s weaknesses than it is of I Am Love’s strengths, but Leaving does tell a more familiar tale. Kristin Scott-Thomas is magnetic as Suzanne, nailing the feel of a woman unexpectedly finding herself falling in love in middle age and left as giddy as a teenager, desperate to spend every moment with her new love despite having a husband and two children. It is hard to sympathise with her however, as her husband seems fine and in no way at fault, though once her infidelity comes to light his actions hint at important differences between the two men in her life - he does his best to make things impossible and block her attempts at building a new life, often in a colder, more matter-of-fact way, whilst her lover seems more impulsive - making the initial pass at her, rushing to stop her car rolling away at one point and getting injured in the attempt, an injury he subsequently ignores so that he can return to Spain for a weekend to see his daughter. We learn that he has recently been released from prison, further revealing a more passionate side, though there are never any explicit comparisons between the two men during the film.
Though far more formulaic and pedestrian than I Am Love, Leaving highlights the fact that while people have a definite choice over the act of infidelity itself, they may have considerably less influence over the love that may fuel it.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

PTU; Garden State

 PTU

Johnny To’s PTU has a man streak.
After a run-in with a street gang at a restaurant, sergeant Lo is left unconscious in a back alley, minus his police issue side-arm. Back at the restaurant, gang head Ponytail is stabbed and dies just before reaching hospital.
After being found by a patrol unit he realises that his gun is missing and calls in a favour from patrolman Mike (To favourite Simon Yam) to give him until dawn to locate the weapon before calling it in. mike heads Police Tactical Unit B2 and agrees to help, leading to a long night of chance encounters and twists of fate that will change things on Hong Kong’s streets.

The set-up could have been any number of Hong Kong crime thrillers but To’s version of police procedure involves a lot of torture, Mike beating people for information as the PTU officers look on, stony faced; the CID, called in to investigate Ponytail’s murder, seem just as bad despite the sharp black suits they wear in contrast to the military uniforms of the PTU. Amidst all this Lo stumbles through his search with a bloody face and bandaged head, accosted by both sides of Hong Kong’s criminal underworld as Ponytail’s murder sends ripples through the city.
The misconduct of Mike’s PTU is clearly meant to be disturbing rather than crims “getting what they deserve” and in this sense PTU is similar in theme to To’s later Election films, highlighting the nastier side of Triad gangs without being overly gratuitous. His art style is similar to later work too, set exclusively at night To gets to explore the palette of neon and shadow in the deserted streets of Tsim Shat Tsui that he favours. The soundtrack, however, doesn’t reach the heights of Exiled’s guitar-based score, instead awash with the whiney guitar solos of some horrific 80s soft rock, consistently working against the muted tones of the film and pulling the audience out of it.
The cast are all good, Lam Suet and Simon Yam now To regulars, as well as Eddy Ko as mob boss Eyeball; Yam in particular is used well as his quiet, measured performance here is somewhat removed from the Category 3 films like Naked Killer (Hong Kong’s extreme certificate) he seemed destined to languish in, and you can see what inspired To to begin using him as a lead from then on.
PTU doesn’t match the brilliance of To’s later works Election, Exiled and Mad Detective, or even the lighter Sparrow, but it alludes to enough of To’s talents to show that this isn’t just your average Hong Kong genre director.

Garden State

Films on the unconventional end of the romcom spectrum tend to have kooky girls and dysfunctional boys as leads, and Garden State is no different. Natalie Portman plays a character more hyperactive and enthusiastic than a dozen toddlers, seemingly without social inhibition, and cute as a button to boot. Zach Braff’s lead Largeman by contrast is numb from a decade and a half of medication and therapy instigated by family tragedy. It’s the death of his mother which lead to his return from LA and his unsuccessful career as an actor/writer, back home to New Jersey where he catches up with old faces, has odd experiences and finds out just who he is.
For a plot this laden with genre conviction and with two leads pushed comically beyond either end of a realistic personality scale it’s hard not to watch without trepidation. I last saw the film on release in 2003, and though I remembered enjoying it I was sure that my memories had a rose tint to them. However, Braff’s directorial debut ends up being charming and infectious, Largeman’s wide-eyed numbness including the right levels of vulnerability and sarcastic commentary on the small-town mentality back home with a number of deadpan scenes (see the funeral song) demonstrating that the comedy isn’t trying to hit you over the head. Portman’s charm manages to overcome any tweeness that her character would suffer in the hands of others, and Peter Sarsgaard as Largeman’s hometown best friend is excellent support, grounding the film as a character believable in his acceptance of his lot as a grave digger who likes to party, his face perfect to convey the sorrow without regret tat seems to define him.
With its cool indie soundtrack Garden State threatens to be a movie packaged to hit a certain slightly off-mainstream teen/twenties demographic, but Braff’s direction and writing injects the movie with personality, along with some able performances resulting in a romcom that’s not hard to stomach.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Predators; Twilight: Eclipse

 
Predators

Right from the off Predators shows promise. Adrian Brody gains consciousness in freefall, his ‘chute automatically ejecting thanks to what looks like, at a glance, a predator tech altometer. Once on the ground in thick jungle, the familiar jungle-drum theme from the original plays softly as the camera pans across the tree canopy from below. For the rest of the film the score evokes orchestral pieces from 80s classics in a way that works, rather than simply a display of nostalgia for the sake of it. The full first half hour of the film doesn’t involve any action, instead concentrating on the disparate warriors, warily uniting and trying to fathom how they all came to be dropped from the sky into unending jungle.
The characters themselves are mainly thinly sketched stereotypes - Danny Trejo as a Mexican gang enforcer, a Chechnyan soldier, a quiet, enigmatic yakuza, a death-squad soldier from Sierra Leone, a mouthy death row con with a shiv, an Israeli Defence Force sniper, an incongruous doctor and indie darling Adrian Brody as the hero.
The premise is contained within the trailer, these people have been pulled together to be hunted and as the movie progresses they are picked off one by one; the group are all hunters of people back on Earth and so make for challenging prey.
A film about a group being hunted inevitably makes Predators a chase movie, but the situations that crop up as the predators wheel out a variety of traps and an encounter with another survivor (a scene stealing cameo by Laurence Fishburne) are more than enough to keep you hooked. Though the stereotypical characters are only one of a number of genre tropes to be found, Predators makes use of them in all the right ways. Any criticisms that can be made at the sophistication may be confusing the franchise with the ‘hard’ sci-fi horror of Alien - Predator, lest we forget, featured a cigar chomping wrestler alongside Arnie in one-man-army mode and use of the word “motherfucker” being a key recurring feature.
Though the characters are on the stock side the personality clashes, double-crosses and betrayals do enough to have you caring about at least some of them, and they are sometimes used well - when the yakuza finds a samurai sword, it’s enough to provoke a roll of the eyes, but a one-on-one blade fight with a predator ends in a scene almost poetic, its wind-blown grass echoing classics samurai movies.
It’s hardly going to win any awards and sci-fi action films have been done better, but Predators is not only a decent genre offering but a glimpse at the possibilities of relaunching fallen franchises, they don’t have to go the way of Aliens vs. Predator.



Twilight: Eclipse

I’m certainly not in the target market for the Twilight franchise; despite the promise of a vampire/werewolf tussle (the Underworld films already demonstrate how this isn’t an automatic winning formula) but it was the promise of this clash that almost had me looking forward to this third installment. The trailer mixed up the usual earnest smouldering between the three corners of the supernatural love triangle, Bella, Edward and Jacob with hints of a vampire army on the march to Alaska, facing the wibbly alliance of the Cullen vampire clan and Native American werewolves. What we actually get is mixed.
There’s plenty of rivalry between the boys as they begrudgingly work together to protect Bella, and while the end of New Moon seemed to see her choose Edward pretty resolutely as her love, here it’s as if Jake’s dogged insistence that she feels something for him actually conjures those feelings into existence. This time however the central plot has little to offer those who don’t totally believe in it. New Moon offered plenty of laughs, however unintentional, but Eclipse’s slightly moodier tone somehow dampens any hysterical aspects and deadens the impact of camp.
Unfortunately the sideshow of the big fight fails to deliver. We are told that newly created vampires, newborns, are stronger and faster than normal thanks to their sudden bloodlust, though they can be beaten with skill and strategy. Much was made in New Moon of the difficulty vampires have in dying; as the sun creates glitter rather than flames in its interpretation, it was only the Voltari, the ridiculously camp vampire aristocracy, could bring a vampire’s immortality to an abrupt end. However, it seems that vampires are actually made out of glass or crystals and can be smashed to bits fairly easily, perhaps because they’re ‘new’. Whatever the reason it seems to deflate a key plot point in New Moon. Another moment which hampers immersion is Bryce Dallas Howard in the role of Victoria. There’s nothing wrong with her aside from the fact that the character was previously played by Rachelle Lefevre - it’s not a big issue but still jars.
After being pleasantly surprised by the first installment and having enough to enjoy from the second from the overwrought depictions of Bella’s mopiness, Jake’s shirt-losing abilities and Michael Sheen’s daft costume, I found Eclipse to be a let down with the action too short and infrequent and the main struggle for Bella’s affections stretched a little thin after three movies of it.
Still much better than a tale of obsessed teen romance has any right to be, the third part is nevertheless somewhat of a dip. Hopefully the fourth in the series will see the story branch out somewhat.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

One Missed Call; The Devil's Backbone


One Missed Call

Takashi Miike is arguably best known in the West because of two films, Audition and Ichi the Killer. The first is a sedately paced horror that slowly drops in unnerving scenes until coming out of leftfield with a nasty finale, whilst Ichi is a gonzo gory yakuza picture stuffed to the gills with bizarre characters and more of the fetishistic imagery which Miike usually enjoys throwing at the screen, particularly when source material is on the more pedestrian side.

One Missed Call shares a lot with the run of Japanese horror films that emerged out of the success of the Ring; it shares a chain-letter set up, here using mobile phones to pass on the curse at the centre of the film.
From the start we can tell that Yumi is different from her peers when we meet her at a restaurant, quieter and more distracted than the other uni students. As she and a friend catch up her friend receives a call with a strange ringtone. The missed call results in a voicemail from her own phone, dates two days in the future and from herself ending in a chilling scream. From then on calls from your own phone foretell your death, after which someone from your contact list receives a call from themselves only to die days later and so on.
In many ways One Missed Call is interchangeable with a dozen other Asian horror films from the last decade, but the difference here lies in the execution, Miike managing to twist in elements of dread ever more frequently as the film runs with dozens of scenes ratcheting up the tension and creating genuine fear, scene after scene simply involves skin-crawling moments of the unnatural and unsettling, many with only inferred menace. One scene in a disused hospital sees ghostly hands push heavy jars of foetuses in formaldehyde through doorways into a corridor as Yumi watches - there is no explicit threat here, just the sense that things are very wrong.

One Missed Call succeeds in expanding on the generic plot in ways unexplored in subsequent examples of these types of films - for example whilst most films exist in their own bubble of reality, here news of the curse reaches the ‘outside world’ and a manic TV producer half kidnaps Yumi’s friend in order to broadcast a live show of an exorcist attempting to save her just as her voicemail was made. Much of the imagery has cropped up in other films but none have had such a wealth of oppressing dread permeate throughout, building relentlessly with no real release right up to the ambiguous climax.
One Missed Call is one of Miike’s best films and a must for any fan of Asian horror, a gem not to be overlooked and the scariest film I’ve seen in a long time.





The Devil’s Backbone

Before the notoriety that Hellboy brought, Guillermo Del Toro was critically acclaimed in the horror genre. With his debut Mexican vampire movie Cronos and the Hollywood creature feature Mimic, Del Toro proved as comfortable at the helm of arthouse genre features as he did in lala land.
A number of familiar themes crop up in the Devil’s Backbone that recur throughout Del Toro’s work - he would revisit the Spanish civil war in Pan’s Labyrinth, Spanish horror the Orphanage that he produced echoes the setting of this feature, and the fascination with mechanical devices that began with Cronos and appears here and there in the Hellboy movies, here crops up in the artificial leg on the orphanage matron.
The film is big on atmosphere, the isolation of the orphanage in the middle of sun scorched scrubland, the cavernous, sepulchral emptiness of the gloomy underground pool, the medical specimens on display in the physician’s room and the unexploded bomb in the courtyard all help to build a world where the fantasies of little boys seem closer to reality.
A resistance fighter stuck at the front fighting Franco’s fascists in 1939 sends his son, Carlos, to a remote orphanage as the tide of war turns against him. Soon after arrival the resident bully, Jaime, steals Chis comic prompting Carlos to resist, leading to a series of events ending in him meeting what the boys call “He who sighs”, there is a ghost in the orphanage.
Aside from that there are shady links to the resistance, a stash of gold bars and the angry handyman Jacinto who grew up in the orphanage and may not have returned for the most altruistic reasons. Betrayals and power plays ensue with the elderly matron Carmen and physician Dr. Casares trying to protect the boys with a little help from the other side. As befits the setting, a struggle in the face of hopelessness as the fascists are poised to take power, the film is a dark one though tends to err in favour of unearthly scares rather than gory shocks. In the end the living are more dangerous than the dead, perhaps unsurprisingly.
The film doesn’t offer enough difference to stand up as well as Cronos, and pales in comparison to Del Toro’s powerful Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s still a good film and highlights the talent that he has as a director and will hopefully bring to the forthcoming rumoured Frankenstein and Lovecraft adaptations.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Prince of Persia


Prince Of Persia

Prince of Persia is a Disney film and Bruckheimer production, advertised as coming from the stable of “those who brought you Pirates of the Caribbean”; the film is a 12A certificated fantasy action blockbuster. It is all these things and more; it’s a game adaptation.
Video games are a media notorious for spawning stinking movie adaptations - Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros, Resident Evil, Doom, Silent Hill not to mention the cluster of Uwe Boll creations. Even when commercially successful as with Tomb Raider the films tend to be dogs, with the best to hope for being an interesting failure. The Prince of Persia franchise itself has been rehashed within the gaming universe, originally a side-scrolling platformer with then-cutting edge motion capture animation (rotoscoping) allowing for some fiendish traps, the game was remade in 2003 by Ubisoft, now 3D the Prince retained his platforming abilities, enhanced with wall running and all kinds of architectural navigation now taken for granted in video games, spiced up with a bit of sword play but chiefly famous for the sands of time, a device for pushing back time in order to reverse poorly judged leaps and the like - the game’s equivalent of that generation’s fad, bullet-time (first used well in 2001’s Max Payne but influenced by the Matrix which itself drew heavily on video games).

The film takes the opportunity to use a fair amount of the Prince’s acrobatic (and now decidedly more parkour-esque) skills. The Sands of Time are also central to the plot, used in a few scenes to show a swirly, shadowy reversal of time, and also serving as the central armageddon-enabling macguffin.
We are told at the opening of the movie that the Persian Empire managed to stretch from China to the Mediterranean. What it doesn’t explain is how it came to be populated in the main by English actors slapped in fake tan. As is the tradition you cannot have an American blockbuster stuffed with British talent without an American lead, so here Jake Gylenhall bulks up as the Prince Dastan, but wait! Jake also happens to be a competent actor.
First of all he effortlessly holds a praiseworthy English accent to fit in with the other Persians, and then he proceeds to somehow inject some warmth and emotion into his character despite the film’s origins, despite predictable plotting, despite some clunky exposition and despite many corny scenes (being introduced to the shirtless adult prince in a bare knuckle brawl, to show both his brawn and that he hasn’t lost his artful dodger roots being one example).
Prince Dastan holds his title by adoption rather than birth after the king saw him commit a virtuous act (punctuated by a spot of rooftop free-running) as an orphan boy and promptly took him in. As an adult he head a rag tag but formidable group in the army, and end sup capturing a city for his brother by cunning rather than bloodshed. It’s here that he comes into possession of the sands of time and meets Gemma Arterton’s Princess Mina, leading to the central relationship in the film -  predictably the two fight like cats and dogs and then fall for each other, but rather than just echo a couple of cliches the relationship here flows more naturally. The two start off callously antagonistic with each other only for mutual respect to grow due to their actions as events unfold.
Outside of these two we have able support from Alfred Molina as the Persian Delboy and Ben Kingsley as the main baddie, at one point his insistent delivery calling into mind Logan from Sexy Beast, though the menace from the character here is kept mainly beneath the surface.
I even warmed to Richard Coyle in the role of first born Prince Tus after my initial reservations seeing as he’s best known for his role as the dizzy Welshman in the UK’s Poundstretcher answer to Friends, Coupling.
All told Prince of Persia is as fun and engaging as you could hope for from a mainstream fantasy epic, and while it doesn’t have the Captain Jack Sparrow hook it is well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Franklyn; Four Lions


Franklyn

Franklyn is an oddly constructed film. Firstly you have a strange faux gothic world of imposing architecture and shadows (a la Dark City) where religion has become mandatory by the state. The faith you have is less important than having one, and atheists are hunted down as terrorists by the state police/priests. Ryan Phillipe plays one such non-believing outlaw in a long coat and full mask get up with echoes of Watchmen’s Rorschach, though one with a capacity for violence that helps him stay one step ahead of the authorities. Aside from this you have a number of narratives taking place in present-day London; Bernard Hill is searching for his missing son, a soldier returned from war with whom he may have some past animosity; Eva Green is an art student whose art project involves filming suicide attempts and calling for an ambulance, which also may be a way of getting at her mother;  Sam Riley is a drippy pretty boy who has just split up with his long-term girlfriend and proceeds to start hallucinating the existence of a childhood love.
As the film progresses these disparate strands intertwine until they all come together at the conclusion. The film retains the air of an independent production particularly in the London scenes which have a shooting style reminiscent of high-grade TV drama, though the religious dystopia sequences do have a genuine cinematic quality to them in both scale and cohesion of a well-crafted world. However this stylistic difference fragments the film a little and results in the melding of the different threads feel a little forced. The ‘real’ London scenes inevitably take place in back roads and sparsely populated buildings off the beaten track due to budget constraints, but a half-empty city lends these scenes a dreamlike quality at odds with the densely packed streets of the stylised faith nightmare.
The ‘twists’ in the story as the parts come together are more humdrum than they hint at individually and the film ultimately doesn’t convince, but the journey does at least try out more ideas than most films and is a fair distraction from mainstream by-the-numbers genre pieces.



Four Lions

To make a film about suicide bombers seems daring enough (although the Sri Lankan Terrorist was made in 1998 and released in the UK in May 2001) when most films about terrorism in this millennium take the pint of view of the West or a general overview of all involved, so to make a comedy about bumbling bombers seems insane, until you discover that the film is British, spiritual home of bumbling, and that it’s the debut feature from Chris Morris.
Anyone familiar with The Day Today and Brass Eye, not to mention the wealth of radio programmes, will know that taking on this subject is far from surprising (search for ‘Bomb Dogs’). That much of the comedy centres around the idiocy of the bombers themselves is perhaps most surprising. Though Morris has never shied away humour based on absurd dimness it contributes to a much higher proportion of laughs than any political/satirical digs or even the twisted wordplay he often favours (here mainly coming through via Riz Ahmed’s frustrated cursing in Urdu).
It is funny, provoking belly laughs throughout as the ridiculous nature of a horrible situation is highlighted, peppered with uneasy scenes of Riz Ahmed’s Omar at home with his wife and child, both of whom are loving and supportive of his dream of explosively martyring himself and others.
The cinematography shares more with TV than it does with cinema with the recurring establishing shots of the bomber’s hideout reminiscent of sitcom styling (perhaps intentional?) and Morris seems to be more comfortable experimenting when using different techniques, mixing CCTV and night vision footage in an echo of The Day Today. Unlike a TV show the film hangs together as one piece and earns a place as on of the better comedies of recent years, British or otherwise.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Kidulthood; The Losers

  Kidulthood

Noel Clarke, previously best known for playing Billie Piper’s boyfriend in the updated Doctor Who, here writes and co-stars in a film for the hoody generation.
I get the impression that the UK urban yout drama has been done to death but arguably there was little out beforehand, save for a handful of examples such as Bullet Boy. It’s not that original, after all the wasted youth films have been around since teenagers as a term in itself came about, and the more modern brand of inner city disaffection has featured in dozens of films, albeit the majority based in America.

We follow a group of boys getting up to mischief, involved in petty crime and looking to graduate up to the next level. The escalation in violence and commitment this involves puts some off, though it might already be too late. There is teen pregnancy, drugs drinks, fights and muggings, there are points made about black and Asian kids being followed by shop security and getting ignored by black cabs, but somehow these depictions of institutionalised racism don’t do enough to explain the boys’ anger. The film’s depiction of violence and bullying at school, leading in one case to suicide, is brutal and one example of the film moving away from genre conviction to frame a British experience; aside from a section of the teen audience many won’t be aware of the reality affecting children like those in the film, halfway between kids and grown ups.
Clarke takes a central if supporting role as the school boogey-man Sam, all Ice Cube scowl and permanently be-hooded. After a less than wise opportunity for the main trio of boys to ambush him he hunts them for the rest of the film until the inevitably tragic conclusion. It’s good that Clarke was able to continue the story past this point in his written-and-directed sequel, Adulthood, as it’s a further chance to carry on the film’s standpoint of not judging the characters for their choices, instead showing that leading such lives isn’t without consequences. Still, however many films attempt to get the message across that life for a bottom-rung teen crim is far from rosy they usually fail to burst the “that won’t happy to me” attitude.



The Losers

A good natured action romp, initially the 12A certificate is alarming for a film about an A-Team alike bunch of mercenaries, but The Losers successfully exchanges any more brutal violence for some pretty decent comedy. The overall feel is light hearted, with off-screen shooting of minions in the head and throwing people off buildings played for laughs.
Jason Patric as the arch-nemesis CIA man Max is wonderful, freed from a leading role and good-guy template he attacks his handful of scenes with glee, dripping with irony and pithy put-downs. The main team of The Losers work well together with all of the actors creating likeable characters. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is good as the head of the team Clay, exuding a ‘man’s man’ air and a sense of reluctant authority; Idris Elba is good as the menacing Roque, using his imposing presence to convincingly backup his character’s anger and frustration; Columbus Short is good as Pooch, tying the team together, Oscar Jaenada draws the short straw as the strong and silent sniper Cougar; Chris Evans is great as the comic relief Jensen, stealing the scene time and again with his skewed outlook.
The plot centers on how this special ops team are sent after a drug baron only to find a bus load of children at the compound to ward off air strikes. Their bosses press ahead regardless so they storm the compound, rescue the kids and escape to the evac point in time to avoid the bombs. Once at the chopper they load on the kids to send them to safety, only to be betrayed and the chopper destroyed, leaving them stranded in South America, officially dead back in the US. The mysterious Zoe Saldana as Aisha approaches Clay in a decent fight scene standing in for a passionate sex scene, crashing around a hotel room and leaving the building in flames after they finally come to an understanding. She is a source of friction for the team as her motives for helping them get revenge against Patric’s G-man are unknown, with Roque particularly averse to her presence.
The action scenes are fine but it’s the interactions between the cast that shine, Jensen provoking reactions and Max’s exchanges with his right-hand man Wade are juicy.
The Losers is not the best example of a tent-pole blockbuster but it’s a fun ride and a good example of a film going for a lower certificate not feeling like a dilution of the original idea.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Brothers Bloom; The Killer Inside Me


The Brothers Bloom

From the opening scenes the Brothers Bloom cultivates an air of the quirky American indie, shades of Wes Anderson et al in the voice overs and present day characters often wearing period suits.
The film is good though, breezily enjoyable rather than slavishly trying to fit within a particular sub-classification of American cinema. Mark Ruffalo is excellent as always, here as a slightly shadier character than usual but reveling as the brash showman Stephen to Adrian Brody’s more introspective, melancholic and rumpled Bloom. The prologue sees the brothers in and out of foster homes until Stephen finds a talent in constructing elaborate long cons, complete with character development and narrative arcs. Jumping to the present day we find Bloom miserable at having to live out his life as his brother’s characters. He runs away only to be tracked down by their mysterious Japanese pyrotechnic expert Bang Bang, when Stephen persuades him into one last con with the added advantage of Rachel Weisz as bait. She has inherited vast sums and spends her days shut up in a mansion learning various random skills. Weisz plays the archetypal quirky girl, but although her circumstances are less than credible she manages to create a believable character from it. Stephen embroils her in a convoluted, international quest involving cat burglary, train journeys, explosives and Robbie Coltrane. Bloom is ethically confused as they deceive the girl, although she simultaneously seems to know that it’s all staged and decides to get caught up in the adventure regardless.
As a movie openly about cons, stories and twists you find yourself constantly second-guessing the reality of any scenes, the depths of Stephen’s set-up and everyone’s motivations, but this guessing removes the audience a step back from the fiction and pulls you away from the characters.
Despite this the whole production is likeable, with Bloom’s melancholy an enriching counterpoint to the jovial, quirky tone that the film mostly holds, closely resembling an Anderson feature with the location trotting and that general feel that isn’t exactly timeless but that could take place in a number of periods whilst set firmly in none. It may not be entirely successful but it’s certainly good enough.



The Killer Inside Me

It would seem willfully contrary to talk about Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me without touching on the controversy surrounding the violence found in the movie.
Men have killed women on film for decades, but the visceral impact of Casey Affleck’s Sheriff Lou Ford punching Jessica Alba’s prostitute Joyce into a pulp is heightened by her “I love you”, delivered before losing consciousness. This unpalatable reaction is a repeat of an earlier scene; after attacking him for threatening to run her out of town, Ford’s retaliation is over the top, taking his belt to her backside. When he catches himself and apologises she asks him not to be sorry, they then embrace and thus begins a torrid affair.
The violence itself, whilst undeniably shocking and horrible, to me doesn’t seem worse than examples elsewhere. Fight Club may seem a farcical comparison as the violence is between males and in a context where it is consensual, but when Jared Leto’s Angel Face is overpowered by Edward Norton’s narrator, only to have his face caved in as Tyler Durden’s voiceover explains that he wanted to ‘destroy something beautiful’ to the shocked faces of other club members, it seems just as visceral. The difference with The Killer Inside Me is down to the context, the idea that Ford’s violence could inspire love, or that he could genuinely love someone who he then proceeds to physically destroy.
Aside from the controversy over two specific scenes there is something ultimately unsatisfactory with the film although it’s hard to put a finger on. The calm manner in which Ford deals with every situation (his killings, while brutal, seem to be a necessary chore) lends the film a dream like quality in keeping with the almost mythical 50s small town Americana setting, but this extends to the plot in terms of a loose structure which isn’t concerned with motivation.
The flashback snippets picking out details from Ford’s childhood are obviously intended to explain how he has turned out but they only hazily sketch out some beginnings of a pathology, most of his murderous inclinations seem to spring from nowhere. In American Psycho Patrick Bateman has no remorse for his victims but he is anxious about his self-preservation and social standing; here Ford barely expresses any interest in his own life, due to his actions it’s hard to believe in his love and there seems to be little motivation in anything else - he’s not driven to kill outside his intricate planning, he doesn’t seem genuinely interested in either the revenge or money gained from his initial plan and he doesn’t seem particularly dedicated to either saving his own skin or destroying himself (in the end he is more resigned to fate).
The controversy over the film’s violence has created a lot of interest in a film which perhaps couldn’t sustain it otherwise.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Solomon Kane; Alice in Wonderland


Solomon Kane

From the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane seems a surprisingly interesting character compared to the black-souled Hercules. A captain in the English army who have pushed on to North Africa after battle in Spain at the dawn of the 17th century, we see Solomon adept at slaying all before him whether with a pair of swords or flintlock pistols. After storming a castle and butchering the wounded survivors  Solomon’s men are picked off by Djinn living in ominous mirrors. He is trapped in the throne room with spirits who manifest as a demon replete with a sword encrusted with glowing runes; it seems he has been sent by the devil to claim Kane’s soul, but Solomon manages to defeat the creature and returns home to England, exiling himself to a monastery while he renounces violence and earnestly attempts to live at peace.

However, one day the monks send him forth as God has other plans for him and he sets out to travel 17th century England, a land of mud and plague with puritans fleeing to the new world, but it is also a land of witches, sorcery and a disease which turns strong mens eyes black as it does with their souls, they in turn killing or enslaving the weak at the bidding of the sorcerer Malachai. Thus it’s Solomon’s destiny to defeat the evil blighting England, spurned on by an innocent girl and her kindly family; his ability to defeat said evil is directly related to him re-embracing his violent side and tolchocking anything vaguely sinister.
Max Von Sydow reprises his English noble with strangely Scandinavian accent from Robin Hood, James Purefoy does a good job of convincingly marrying up a bit of inner turmoil and a bit of joy at hitting many people with intent, all the while carrying off a passable West country twang. Pete Postelthwaite turns up in a reliable, solid manner, and Mackenzie Crook’s appearance is as mercifully brief as Jason Flemying’s.

As fantasy films go Solomon Kane has a nice grounding in some semblance of reality, or gritty medieval action adventure it has a nice line in the supernatural. Not a masterpiece by any means but for a sword and sorcery gorefest it has more than enough to keep you with it.



 

Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton’s name as some sort of stamp of authority has long been tarnished, ever since the awkward remake of Planet of the Apes. I’m mildly pleased to say then, that whilst Alice isn’t a return to form - it’s not as good as the Burton-lite of Sleepy Hollow, for example - it’s a step back in the right direction.

The idea of picking up the Alice story years down the road (like Hook) is a good way of avoiding criticism for choices made in an adaptation while still being able to use the characters and settings that have become so recognisable. The storyline itself melds Carroll’s Jabberwocky to the world of Alice, the Red Queen having used the eponymous beast and the Bandersnatch to oppress all and sundry. The basic plot of a bad nasty oppressing a world of fantastical characters who are joined and championed by an outsider is a childrens fantasy staple, and the recycling of age old material isn’t confined to the storyline.
Numerous scenes bring to mind snippets of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with both a hilltop ruin and a crumbling stone staircase used in the same scene, Alice clad in armour reminiscent of Prince Caspian. Casting choices also cause some problems, the distinctive tones of Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman divorcing them somewhat from the characters they play (though admittedly this will only affect those in the audience who know them as household names) and the inevitable Johnny Depp no entirely convincing as the Mad Hatter, his get-up of contacts, make up and mess of hair and eyebrows a little too overwhelming, whilst his delivery feels more like a patchwork of voices and ticks that he enjoys using rather than an actual character (though his moody recitals of snippets of the Jabberwocky in a Scottish accent are more satisfying). Anne Hathaway is stuck in Burton limbo as the White Queen in goth make up and squeamish tics similar to Ichabod Crane, but Matt Lucas as Tweedles Dum and Dee is okay, whilst Bonhams-Carter’s Red Queen, though channeling Liz from Blackadder, is an enjoyable performance.
Despite a number of little niggles Alice in Wonderland is pretty good and a definite improvement on Burton’s more recent productions. It’s probably too much too hope for a return to the likes of Ed Wood, but perhaps he hasn’t yet completely lost the magic.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Robin Hood


Robin Hood

Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott again. A thousand years later the same stocky everyman is fighting in mud rather than sand, and has swapped being father to a murdered son and husband to a murdered wife to become Robin Longstride, archer in Richard the Lionheart’s crusading army. The army is poor and sacking its way back home to England one castle at a time, but a set of coincidences leave the king dead and Robin and some mates disguising themselves as knights to secure passage home with the king’s crown. Robin pretends to be Sir Loxley of Nottingham whose blind dad takes him in, and he swiftly turns that tax-starved village around with a mixture of hard graft and banditry. Meanwhile, Mark Strong is Godfrey and plots to oust the new king, brother of the late Richard, and have King Philip of France take England. Robin unites the northern barons who have been attacked by Godfrey’s French forces posing as the king’s men, and averts civil war, heading off with a newly united force to fight the French on the beaches. It’s at this point that Cate Blanchett’s Maid Marian (widow of the late Sir Loxley and newly sharing her home and bed with Robin) arrives, leading the wild boys of Nottingham forest in a charge on ponies and you go “Durrrr…”.
Anyway, there’s action, jokes, tomfoolery and evil sneers. One dimensional French baddies feature alongside a great cast with Max Von Sydow, William Hurt, Danny Huston and particularly Blanchett as stand outs, with Blanchett in a decent female role absent from Gladiator, brave and resourceful but not too modern to be totally out of step with 11th Century England. If only Russell’s accent were as reliable, but to be fair it does keep to the North of England even if it does sometimes wander coast to coast.
Robin Hood is unlikely to end up in many top ten lists but it’s a reliably entertaining offering nevertheless.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

How To Train Your Dragon



How To Train Your Dragon

Lilo and Stitch is my second favourite non-Pixar Disney film, behind Emperor’s New Groove. The creators of Stitch are behind How To Train Your Dragon (HTTYD), evident in the design of the main dragon Toothless, with its flat, cuddly shark ’s head and bestial traits variously showing behaviour associated with cats, dogs and bats. Whilst it’s heartening that despite the often told coming of age story, the film avoids the usual anthropomorphic tendencies with Toothless being a definite animal.
The first thing that you notice in HTTYD is the accents, and while Gerard Butler fits his role as our hero’s father, village chief, with “SPARTA” sized gusto, it seemed a weird choice to make the Scandinavian vikings Scottish. This will likely go over the heads of most of the intended audience who are just as likely not to notice this as the lack of raping and pillaging, but there are bound to be a few nerdy boys and girls telling mum and dad that vikings weren’t from Scotland. The nerdy boy lead, of course, is American, and curiously sounds quite old and neurotic for a ten year old Scottish viking boy (the character Hiccup is played by teen comedy regular Jay Baruchel who looks younger than his 28 years).
Laughs are there but not plentiful, the fellow dragon slayers in training are broad stereotypes including competitive twins, a knuckle-headed braggart and a tomboy love interest, thrills and spills are relatively low-key (flight feels more threatening than the dragons themselves) an the creature design for the various types of dragon smacks a little of Pokemon and above all, the story of a misunderstood outsider discovering their true worth is age-old in children’s movies (in this case the warrior chief’s son Hiccup is embarrassingly poor as a trainee dragon slayer, but finds another way to deal with the swarms of dragons that plague their village).
Despite all these little bugbears HTTYD is an enjoyable film with enough going on to keep the older children’s film fan interested.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Twilight: New Moon



Twilight: New Moon

What Harry Potter did for children’s fantasy Twilight has done for teen gothic romance, bringing the undying love and heaving bosoms to a new generation of young women.
Second in the franchise, New Moon starts with characters and relationships established and so quickly sets about getting teen ladies swooning. Edward has decided that he has to go; he barely trusts himself with his love, Bella, and her insistence that he turn her into a vampire like himself doesn’t sit well with his idea of the immortal soul, so he denies his feelings and to save his love, he skips town and leaves Bella to a bit of despair. Cue some ridiculous scenes of teen moodiness, firstly of Bella having the most monumental sulk, camera panning 360 degrees around her as she sits motionless whilst the seasons come and go outside her bedroom window. Then comes childhood friend Jacob who Bella decides would be a good way to pass the time and ease some of the Edward pain, regardless of Jacob’s obvious crush on her. She starts to thrill seek like riding too fast on dirt bikes as the danger instigates visions of Edward telling her to stop, only encouraging her as she tries to bring on the visions again and again and satiate her Edward craving. Wispy hallucinations aren’t the peak of the hysteria, though. Jacob’s reaction to Bella playing his heart is to join up with his dodgy mates which entails cropping his hair, suddenly bulking up and developing the habit of running about in the Alaskan forest in just his shorts. Oh, that and becoming a werewolf. It seems that some of his Native American tribe were not just enemies of vampires, but actively fought them as werewolves. It begs the question of how the Native Americans lost North America to the Europeans, but hey.
As with vampire mythology Twilight picks and chooses from the ‘rules’ associated with werewolves, as the boys retain control over their wolf forms (albeit quick to anger) and are not bound to the moon. Even the frequent, gratuitous scenes of Jacob and his beefcake torso (Twilight’s take on the gothic heaving, corseted bosom, and the source of a messy drinking game) aren’t the peak of New moon’s strangeness - this is reserved for the Voltari, something like the high council of vampires and preening, camp hams to a man, decked out in centuries old regalia as if the shiny-skinned updating of the vampire myth never happened. Michael Sheen is particularly guilty here as head vamp, all bug eyes and wry smiles and no doubt relishing the prospect of outdoing Bill Nighy from their Underworld days.
New Moon certainly isn’t only for ladies prone to corny romance, but everyone else may end up enjoying it for reasons no necessarily intended. Though with the sheer quantities of camp sloshing around it would be hard to believe that the producers don’t recognise some of its more ridiculous appeal.

Friday, 15 October 2010

An American Werewolf In London



An American Werewolf In London

29 years on and American Werewolf In London (AWIL) is justifiably recognised as a horror classic. One of its most memorable features were the gruesome transformation sequences created by special effects whizz Rick Baker, but it has a lot more going for it.
The horror/comedy movie was hardly unknown in 1981 what with a couple of decades of camp Hammer features preceding it, not to mention the Abbot and Costello films, but AWIL was one of the first to try and do both sides justice. The comedy was covered in everything from the OTT “You ain’t from round ‘ere” stereotypes in the Slaughtered Lamb to David running through London Zoo with only balloons for modesty, the kvetching between David and Jack and an actual incarnation of director John Landis’ recurring in-joke See You Next Wednesday, here in the form of a dodgy softcore porn film. Alongside this is genuine horror in the tension-wracked scenes of the boys stalked on the moor, in the suit hunted down in an empty tube station and in the sheer violence of David’s nazi-werewolf dreams.
The film succeeds admirably in creating sympathy for David, a nice guy caught up in an unbelievable situation, without skimping on the gruesome reality of what he has become as his victims confront him later in the film.
Speaking of showing the horror, the aforementioned transformation sequences once again highlight the benefit of ‘live’ camera effects over CGI. Whilst you know that what’s happening is a trick, your mind knows tat the effects at least are as real as the actors in the scene and this helps give the sequences real weight, along with David Naughton’s performance as he screams in absolute agony while his body stretches and contorts in unnatural ways.
In the wide canon of werewolf films throughout the decades AWIL still manages to outshine newer entries such as wolf, Dog Soldiers, The Wolf Man and its own dire sequel, An American Werewolf In Paris, with only the Ginger Snap films worthy rivals.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Kick Ass



Kick Ass

Superhero parody has been around as long as the current run of comic-book movies have, with 1999’s Mystery Men’s focus on the slightly less super variety of hero pre-dating both X-Men and Spiderman. Since then he genre has been subverted further by the like of Hancock and My Super Ex-Girlfriend.
While Kick Ass isn’t strictly a parody, it offers a skewed view on the genre - what if costumed crime-fighters were real? The titular Kick Ass’s first encounter with criminals provides a pretty definitive answer.
Despite the heaped critical acclaim, the film is not without its problems. Lead character Dave Lizewski is presented as just another teen schlub, but despite his glasses and mop of curls he is obviously tall, muscular and handsome. In his opening scene as he walks the corridors of high school his smiles are too open and charismatic to convince as an everygeek, Aaron Johnson doesn’t seem able to pull off the dorky wimp that Toby Maguire could. Kick Ass firmly sets itself in the modern age with camera phones and social websites key to the movie, leaving it in danger of dating quickly despite a number of the underlying themes being fairly universal. The film is certainly more bloodthirsty than the average caped crusader adaptation, death and dismemberment ramping up considerably when Big Daddy and Hit Girl arrive on the scene.
As Big Daddy, Nicolas Cage finds himself in a film that isn’t a disaster, though this may be to do with him taking a supporting role rather than opening the film, but could be a possible new direction to reverse a career nose dive?
Kick Ass is filled with numerous neat touches: The ‘origin’ story of Big Daddy and Hit Girl, tying them into the plot, Big Daddy’s prowess as a comic book artist, strange sequences relayed by fractured digital video footage, CCTV surveillance and a first-person night goggle scene.
Most of the supporting cast work well whether it be Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz, various UK odd-bods standing in for Italian American gangsters (think Dexter Fletcher and Jason Flemyng), Christopher Mintz-Plasse once again trading off his awkward nerd persona but particularly Mark Strong, renewing the tradition of the Englishman playing the bad guy.
Kick Ass works well, by turns funny and exciting, but for some reason it just didn’t gel as a whole for me.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

GI Samurai



GI Samurai

The premise at first seems to be straight from the pages of a sci-fi manga story, or possibly an idea thrown about during Twilight Zone scripting meets before being thrown out when budget considerations came into play.
The idea of a modern day battalion transported centuries back in time to come up against the swords and bows of the samurai era could easily be played for laughs, but instead GI Samurai follows a more realist tack looking at how the soldiers learn to accept what’s happened and work out what to do next. Soon after a group of Japanese self defence force soldiers experience a mysterious incidence of time travel, a samurai approaches them and persuades Sonny Chiba’s Lieutenant Yoshiaki Iba to side with him against a local rival army. After making short work of their newfound enemy using a tank and jeep-mounted machine gun, the lord hatches a plan to overthrow the emperor himself and march on Edo.
For an actor famous for playing ass-kicking yakuza and street fighters, Sonny Chiba is refreshingly three dimensional as a man first cautious of making too big an impact in the past, before seeing his chance to wage actual warfare and win, embracing the challenge with gusto. As the film progresses we see just how adaptable the seemingly backward forces were, formulating strategies to defeat the technically superior modern firepower with liberal use of ninjas (though not the stereotypical black pyjamas and balaclavas kind).
Beyond the battles themselves we have other elements among the troops, one man ‘going native’ and dropping out of the fight to stay with a peasant surrogate family, one man supposed to be married shortly ends up attracting a lady who then obsessively follows the troops, whilst we see flash-forwards of his fiancee waiting for him in the present, and one soldier who is openly hostile to Iba’s authority goes rogue with a few men, stealing a boat and raping and pillaging terrified villagers along the coast.
Best of all is samurai Kagetora who enlists Iba’s help. Played by Isao Natsuyagi, he has a childlike glee when the new, powerful weapons suddenly become available to him, but his cunning is more than a match for any of the present-day warriors.
GI Samurai is a superior sci-fi “What if?” feature and is well worth checking out.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010); Cemetery Junction



Clash of the Titans

It’s long been accepted that many blockbusters are just fodder, success coming from an inflated marketing budget and a cast of household names rather from any inherent quality. Sometimes they are fun with a knowing wink at their disposable status. Sometimes, like with Clash of the Titans, they’re just shit.

There’s nothing here for you; the plot is rubbish (the opening narrated exposition uses pretty CGI constellations to tell the story of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades defeating the titans, so there are no titans in the film itself), the acting is mainly poor with even Mads Mikkelsen struggling to make much of his role, the action scenes are pedestrian with sword and sandal clashes less exciting than the Lord of the Ring trailers and the Kraken seemingly lifted from the Gears of War videogame, the use of 3D is laughable with only a handful of scenes making anything more than a cursory use of the extra dimension, and even these examples are thoroughly underwhelming.

A remake of the 1981 original, famous for its use of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion beasties, the CGI effects fail to convey any sense of weight to its few action scenes - for an action/spectacle blockbuster these are surprisingly few, two scenes fighting Jason Flemyng as a corrupted Calibos, one giant scorpion fight, an encounter with Medusa and the Kraken finale contribute to the film somehow feeling half finished, despite it feeling a lot longer than its 106 minute running time.
The two largest stars are Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes as Zeus and Hades, and whilst you’d hardly expect career-best performances from what is obviously an easy payday, you’d be grateful for at least a little hamming in comparison to the phoned-in throwaways included. The trailer is not just a ‘best of’ compilation of moments, but somehow seems to display more drama and excitement than exists in the entire film itself - as a music video it would probably work fine. Where did Sam Worthington spring from? Co-star in the risible Terminator:Salvation and inexplicably chosen for James Cameron’s 3D baby, it’s probably unfair to judge the man by roles that give him little to do but glower, run and jump. Should you have the opportunity to see this, I’d advise fleeing instead.




Cemetery Junction

What, the 70s? Again?
There is a tired cliché that says you should write what you know, but in the case of this feature from The Office team, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, it’s maybe not so advisable when everyone else already knows.
Freddie has just got a new job as insurance salesman to one day get out of the titular small town, the embodiment of sleepy, suburban 70s England. His friend Bruce is stuck in the dead end factory that Freddie left behind and where his dad still works, and the pair hang around with their friend Snork, the fat comedy relief in a pork pie hat. We see them boozing and brawling, but as Freddie tries to extricate himself from this adolescence in a desire to “be someone”, he realises that the people in the offices with their suits and ties are just as stuck as the factory workers he left behind. Just to reinforce things he meets a girl from his childhood who turns out to be the daughter of his ruthless boss (Ralph Fiennes) and engaged to the reptilian Mike (Matthew Goode in top form), next in line for the boss’s job. She dreams of traveling the world as a photographer, he falls in love, stop me if you’ve heard it all before.
The themes of following your dreams, escaping small town banality and growing up are occasionally enlivened by flashes of Gervais/Merchant style humour, but while some seem out of place for the time period, many others jar as they sound as if they have just dropped out of the mouth of Ricky himself.
As well as the humdrum subject matter of the film itself, it’s hard to identify with the leads Christian Cooke and Tom Hughes as Freddie and Bruce due to their top-model looks which begs the question how they’ve found themselves stagnating in the home counties and bursts the bubble of their everyman situation.
There’s nothing wrong with covering old ground, but you need to bring something new to the situation be it perspective, technique or a new twist, but in the case of Cemetery Junction there is little new here, just like in the town itself. The best thing about the film is a small turn by Steve Spiers as the town’s sergeant who gives Bruce a wake up call towards the end of the film, and the way Bruce’s character relates to his own father after this.
It’s hard to recommend the film to anyone besides the die hard Gervais fans desperate to see him in the role of Freddie’s father, who’s a bit racist but it’s okay because they didn’t know better in the 70s, did they?

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Mic Macs



Mic Macs

Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet’s Mic Macs has a similar feel to his other work - whether the fantasy dystopia of City of Lost Children, aborted Hollywood experiment/franchise entry Alien: Resurrection or the acclaimed twee romance Amelie, there is a palpable visual style that links them all - sickly greens and warm coppers with steam driven and clockwork machinery being a big feature (witness the mess of parts that make up Alien: Resurrection’s wheelchair). Mic Macs manages to combine the artistic direction along with Jeunet’s preoccupation for the more eccentric of characters, tying it all together in a tale that protests against the arms industry without being too self-righteous.
It centers around our misfit hero Bazil and in a fast paced montage sequence we see his father die during mine clearance in Africa, his mother bereaved and then taken off to a mental hospital, Bazil enduring a care home until he escapes and ends up working in a video shop aged 38. It’s here that we see him take a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting outside the shop; he survives with a bullet lodged in his brain, and on leaving hospital he finds his things thrown out of his flat and his job taken by someone else, leaving him to resort to busking until he is taken in by a group of outcasts living in a scrapyard. They work at re-purposing and recycling the things Parisians have thrown away and eventually come to help Bazil as he plots revenge on the arms companies that manufactured the mine and bullet that had such a huge impact on his life - one day during a routine junk run he discovers the two arms companies’ HQs opposite each other on the same road.
Lots of gags and slapstick ensue as each of the friends uses his or her unique abilities to help the plan come together.
Mic Macs succeeds as a warm comedy that manages to work despite some of the overly wacky characters and situations.

Monday, 27 September 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris



I Love You Phillip Morris

With a career built on gross-out comedies and rubber-faced mugging, Jim Carrey has often attempted to branch out as a serious actor, most famously in The Truman Show but also in less successful ventures like Number 23 and The Majestic (more?)
On the one hand I Love You Phillip Morris (ILYPM) appears firmly in bad taste territory with OTT spells of stereotypical gay flamboyance and Carrey vigorously pounding a man from behind designed to elicit shocked laughter. Yet simultaneously the film attempts to eat the cake it has because ILYPM is supposedly based on a true story, meaning con artist Steven Russell is a real character that you are able/expected to invest emotion in. In amongst the ridiculous situations that Russell gets into, conning his way into maintaining an extravagant lifestyle, we get dropped into occasional scenes of emotion, particularly one fleetingly moving scene which throws the whole movie in a different direction until a sucker punch. Unfortunately central to this film is the support of Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris who I think has yet to convince with an American accent. Here he is saddled with being the love interest and having little to do besides inspiring Carrey’s madcap scenes.
Is it a move forward when a vaguely screwball comedy can now center on a gay relationship in a mainstream film, or do the instances of jokes poking fun at gay stereotypes and the basis on a true story make it more of a meek shuffle?
In any case, while I did enjoy the film while I sat in the cinema there’s little I remember about a couple of months later.
Carrey still seems to be in two minds about what to do with his career, but at least on ILYPM it looks like he’s having fun deciding.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo



The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The critically acclaimed Swedish thriller contains a number of well-worn cliches, an unlikely pairing (in this case the investigative journalist and the hacker), a conspiracy involving a large, rich family, a mystery to piece together.
Based on the hit series of books by the late Stieg Larsson with a trilogy of film adaptions already released in Sweden it seems odd that these have been picked up for American audiences - if there ever was a hit ‘foreign film’ that could survive the transition, it would be this one. The final reveal might seem even more generic set in the United States, but there is little here that wouldn’t work transplanted into Hollywood. The disturbing scenes involving the hacker, Lisbeth and her new probation officer might be toned down but even this wouldn’t lessen the impact.

The problem with the film is that it seems to be heaped with praise solely for being a Swedish film that takes on English language productions. Were a similar story with similar characters to come out of North America, few would bat an eyelid depending on who starred and directed as this type of thriller is churned off the Hollywood production line on a regular basis. The film is well acted and crafted, but then not all of the English language releases are pap - England itself is hardly short on conspiracy thrillers or murder mysteries centered around well-off extended families.
Every year a couple of world cinema titles get lauded and fawned over incessantly in the West, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and City of God being prime examples, but whilst they may become over hyped by the end of the circus they are still good films. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is one of the first times I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about - a solid thriller but nothing you haven’t seen before.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The A Team



The A-Team

The long marketing campaign for 2010’s summer blockbuster The A-Team is impossible for most cinema-goers to ignore, as it marks the first example of mobile phone company Orange using an actual film for trailer-length product placement rather than it’s previous campaign of the Orange spoof film board. The ad itself supposedly features the main players being filmed using orange product placements in stilted, awkward scenes, attempting to poke fun at product placement despite that being what the entire segment is about. The appearance before every single film in the main cinema chains wears on the patience (even appearing before the A-Team feature itself), and serves as a second line of trailers for the film, albeit one that portrays it as unfunny and painful.
In a way this may actually have been to the film’s benefit as going in with low expectations I found it surprisingly funny, the cast working well both as characters and with each other, and at its best it has some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen this year, many moments seeming like filmed ad-libs or improv and stuck in the film in the manner of reinstated deleted scenes or outtakes, these moments giving both the film and characters a vitality and emphasis on the team that is behind the whole concept of the movie and franchise.

Initially I was skeptical about the project as a whole; not only is Hollywood currently churning out an unprecedented run of remakes and franchise re-boots but the A-Team TV show is one without a narrative arc, instead given the clearly defined characters and a brief intro at the start of every episode, apart from any two episode stories the A-Team can be dipped in and out of at will, played out of order and is therefore great for newcomers and for potential repeats. In the manner of He-Man and Thundercats, there is no beginning or end, just a timeless middle as our heroes tirelessly and bloodlessly battle their enemies with good humour, only for everything to start over again the next week.
How would the franchise be moulded into a film? It seems that there is a magical template out there as the A-Team and this year’s other military team-based action comedy the Losers shares a lot plot wise, with an initial mission in South America (before the team become a team and Iraq war vets, starting off the plot proper), a shady CIA man bad guy and a finale down the docks all feature prominently.
Impressively the A-Team comes out as the better film, the jokes funnier, the characters more likeable due to the cartoonishly delineated personality types, and the action scenes just as good - for every CGI heavy disappointment comes a moment like the stripped-down city centre gun battle with the A-Team’s impressive goon, Pike (Brian Bloom), shooting up the scenery with a calculating savagery resulting in a piece that at least nods towards Michael Mann, or the hilarious tank scene.

Of the main four Sharlto Copley shines as Murdoch, his manic antics kooky enough to be funny but never really edging into self-conscious territory; Bradley Cooper often plays charming arrogant types and is perfectly suited to Face, almost the extreme of suave bastards; Quinton Jackson’s BA is a big difference from Mr.T’s permanently angry TV version, here is menace diluted by a warm smile and laughter, but this more jovial BA sits better with the knowing parody that the film is, the dangerous, scowling BA of the TV show wouldn’t fit well with the tone here; lastly Liam Neeson is fairly bland as Hannibal, his physical presence not as necessary to the role as his part in Taken, it seems he doesn’t know what to do with the character and so resorts to the speechifying leader of men he has almost become typecast for. Patrick Wilson is great as agent Lynch, a subtle version of Jason Isaac’s agent in the Losers, he manages to be both weaselly and suave simultaneously, at times acting the man in charge and others a hint of a sliver of a little boy out of his depth.

The A-Team is closer to director Joe Carnahan’s last film Smokin’ Aces than debut Narc, the ensemble cast and knockabout tone in keeping with his previous feature but a little tighter and more focused, no doubt helped by the franchise origins. The A-Team is a pleasant surprise, not a great movie but a good one, and one that at least doesn’t feel like a pointless exercise in regurgitating old ideas.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Shutter Island



Shutter Island

It’s hard not to go into Shutter Island without trepidation. This may be Scorsese, but this is Dicaprio-era Scorsese; again we see Leo’s constipated baby face, here in a period setting not far removed from the bloated The Aviator. The set itself is arguably a character, a brooding, menacing chunk of rock, the island mental institution is evocative of that certain period of American history, which in broad genre terms runs western-gangster-suburban. Shutter Island works in the post-war tension evident in the heavily-armed guards patrolling in army jeeps (we’re told that the island houses only the most dangerous patients) along with the fascination with psychoanalysis and the rise in power of the federal government leading to paranoia and conspiracy theories.
As with most Scorsese pictures the film features top notch support in the form of Ben Kingsley as the chief psychiatrist, Mark Ruffalo playing Leo’s partner and Max Von Sydow as a red herring.
The problem with films about mental institutions is that a realist view is banal, whilst the more juicy, comic visions become cartoonish and therefore are no longer about real people. As Shutter Island descends into the usual dank cell/horror mask cliches you would expect from Victorian mad houses the film loses its way. The twist (which will occur to the viewer within minutes if they’ve seen anything else about mental illness and identity), when it comes, is at odds with this. Trying to present the grotesque as realistic when relying on the skewed perception of the ill can paper a lot of cracks, the film’s twist is hardly less obvious for not choosing this route.
Leo is fine in the role of US Marshal Teddy Daniels investigating the disappearance of one of the patients, once again taking some flack for being Marty’s new muse but hardly responsible for the flaws in the film. In the hands of a journeyman director Shutter Island would be a solid, well-crafted if unremarkable thriller, but for Scorsese this simply isn’t enough. A study in the difficulty of overcoming grief and loss, the films ends up using this as an excuse for a gothic horror romp, a standard chiller with ‘ideas’ tacked on to it every now and then.
Not a return to form but a better offering than many of Scorsese’s recent pictures.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Father of the Bride; Nacho Libre



Father of the Bride

Father of the Bride is a pleasant enough family comedy featuring Steve Martin as a father anxious about his daughter’s imminent marriage. A remake of the 1950 Spencer Tracy original, the comedy comes mainly from slapstick, Martin’s shock at the expense of having a wedding and the wealth of his new in-laws to be, and Martin Short in a scene-stealing role as the wedding planner with a faux European accent that’s so garbled it makes John Cleese’s version of French in the Holy Grail seem like an exercise in restraint.
The film pootles along pleasantly enough, although suffering from the same curse of American films and TV of the time (1991) in that it still seems stuck in the previous decade. Martin is fine but limited in his role meaning that his wry reactions are less acidic than LA Story, he’s cruising when compare to his best work but it’s not as bad as the rut he’s found himself confined to more recently as family comedies somehow dumb down and rely on OTT gags and mugging with less of the warmth and half-decent characterisation on display here.
Still, the film is all safe pastel-shades and upper middle-class wealth that is missing the kind of anarchic spark that fuelled the previous year’s Home Alone (itself a kind of counterpoint to Martin’s earlier Parenthood). Macauley Culkin’s brother Kieran, more recently shining as Scott Pilgrim’s gay roommate, plays a supporting role here as Martin’s young son and turns in a similar cutesy, knowing performance as that of his brother.




Nacho Libre

I found Nacho Libre so desperately unfunny that I had to stop watching. I don’t know if it would have been the first film I’d walked out on had a seen it in the cinema but I was quite happy to switch off during a mid-afternoon weekend TV screening. The joke is that Jack Black is a priest in training at an orphanage in Mexico who is slightly less than serious, he is treated badly by the other priests and so decides to go undercover as a luchador (masked wrestler) - Nacho Libre. He’s also inspired by the introduction of a young, pretty nun to the orphanage, so he sets out to impress her by secretly earning money wrestling to buy better food for the orphans.
Director Jared Hess achieved fame with geek-tastic Napoleon Dynamite, but while the skewed slacker humour still just about clung to a realistic setting, his next feature is larger than life with Black in his more common Tenacious D ego-mode than the comparatively measured performances of the likes of Margot at the Wedding. The problem is, Black only shines in films that are half-decent in the first place, but aside from the setting most of the ideas in Nacho Libre are tired. Maybe it picked up for a giddy climax in the last twenty minutes but I very much doubt it.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Assault on Precinct 13



Assault on Precinct 13

A remake of John  Carpenter’s 1976 original, itself inspired by Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, Jean-François Richet’s 2005 version retains the bare bones but it a different kettle of fish.
Ethan Hawke plays Sergeant Jake Roenick, an undercover cop for three years who is move to desk duty after a bust gone bad results in his two partners being killed and he himself injured, he runs an isolated station in Detroit which is in the process of being closed down. A notorious gangster, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne) is caught by the police after killing an undercover officer in a church, and a sequence of events sees his prison transport taking a detour to Roenick’s station in Precinct 13 during a heavy snowstorm. Bishop is put in the cells along with three other crims (including John Leguizamo’s annoying junkie Beck), and Roenick, Brian Dennehy’s old school cop, Maria Bello’s stranded police psychologist, Drea de Matteo’s admin clerk,  and the prison bus officers commence a bit of New Year’s celebrations. The party is cut short after the station is invaded and shots are fired, and thus begins a night under siege as heavily armed assailants try and kill everyone in the building.

The Carpenter original wore its influence on its sleeve, the criminal gang assaulting the station made otherworldly in their portrayal as relentlessly fixated on destroying those in the station, their lack of dialogue dehumanising them and making them an unstoppable force more akin to zombies than people. The remake gives everything a context with police corruption and betrayal at the heart of the plot, the attackers (headed by Gabriel Byrne) given a voice and motivation, along with military tactics and therefore placing this version on a level with any number of action B pictures rather than the ethereal menace cultivated in the 1976 version.
The soundtrack is another area lacking, Carpenter’s sparse synths creating  brooding menace in the original, here an orchestral score by numbers which no doubts adds to the tension but not in a way better than most other higher-budget action thrillers.
The action scenes themselves are good though, despite mainly limited to people shooting at/out of a building, and there are a number of bloodthirsty in-camera effect shots which are pretty brutal if not quite at the child-killing level of the first.

There is an attempt to give the characters a little more depth, Roenick is now resorting to drink and drugs and his psychologist accuses him of avoiding responsibility since his old team were shot, meaning events force him into a situation where he has to take charge. Muddying this is the presence of Fishburne, his character Bishop coming with a fearsome gangland reputation as an unhesitant murderer and possessed of a unique poise; Fishburne manages to inject a wealth of menace into Bishop with very little violence in terms of action or delivery, his quiet smiles are warm rather than leering but point to an utter confidence that he is in control, unnerving any fixed with his gaze. Having lost so much of the original’s atmosphere it is mainly Hawke and Fishburne’s performances that help prevent this becoming just another men with guns flick, and their character development in context of what is a fairly standard action setting shows some of the origins of how Richet would later go about bringing the Jacques Mesrine two-parter to the screen.
In its own right the Assault on Precinct 13 remake is half decent, but not a patch on the original.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Heartbreaker



Heartbreaker

Romantic comedy hardly wants for tales of men and boys wooing a lady for money or a dare or similar, only to find that they like the lady in question, only for her to find that he’s a lying cheat and be upset and or/angry, only for them to find that their love is true .
The main quirk about Heartbreaker is that this type of tale is usually found in US teen films rather than French cinema, though this is a lot closer in tone to those films than the standard French tales of mature, bourgeois longing. A knockabout comedy, the story is just as lame as any of those found in the likes of She’s All That, but as with Ten Things I Hate About You some winning performances can really beef up the movie into something worth watching. In this case Romain Duris plays Alex Lippi who, along with his sister and her husband, breaks up unhappy couples, specialising in women “unknowingly unhappy” and through elaborate set-ups becoming their dream man before dashing off into the sunset before anything more than a kiss is exchanged, leaving the women to re-evaluate their lives which usually involves ditching their man.
This time around he is asked to split up Vanessa Paradis (Juliette) and Andrew Lincoln (Jonathan) before they wed, although after a bit of research it seems that they are the perfect couple. Usually the team would walk at this point, but after menaces from a debt collector to whom Alex owes rather too many Euros he has to accept the job.
From there on it’s predictable business as usual with only the quirks in the journey to the inevitable happy ending acting as points of difference. The comedy is pretty broad, with Alex’s sister taken on a number roles in the hotel where Juliette is staying, Alex singing along to Wham and learning Dirty Dancing moves in an effort to conicidentally have things in common with his mark, Juliette’s druggy nympho ex-best friend arriving on the scene and any number of skewed pratfalls, but importantly it’s mostly funny.

Tellingly, director Pascal Chaumeil worked as second unit director on Leon, Fifth Element and Joan of Arc, and there is a shared sensibility with Besson here of convincingly taking on the Americans at their own game.
Heartbreaker has nothing more to offer than the better of the American teen rom-coms and arguably the world is hardly crying out for another entry in the genre, but thankfully it’s fun.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

I Am Love



I Am Love

A fair portion of Western European cinema fits the stereotype of focusing on the interplay within middle class nuclear or moneyed extended families. Whilst the argument could be made that cinema of this type is an exercise in escapism, as with the mainly well-to-do leads in the majority or Hollywood studio pictures of the 30s and 40s that didn’t form part of the war or western genres, on the other hand it can be seen as a leveling device, a setting free of instigatory happenstance. The characters do not need to struggle to survive, so with more time to reflect we are able to bear witness to the relationships which occur within families and with those people that family members introduce from without.
I Am Love follows Emma, a Russian woman now married to the son of a wealthy businessman in Italy. Whilst hardly the staunch matriarch underpinning the whole family, the film doesn’t tread familiar territory by setting Emma apart from her family, using her birthplace to make her an outsider, though there are many hints of her being “other” throughout.
Much of the film busies itself with incidental detail with the world around the characters taking center stage, most affecting being a love scene outdoors where a tumult of insects and plants enjoys more screen time than the lovers’ bodies. A number of occasions feature exceptional use of sound, one scene with Emma caught in rapture when tasting her lover’s meal where all noise is drowned out bar the sound of her eating, allowing us to drink in the pleasure she experiences, whilst many other scenes opt to follow two characters as they meet and begin a conversation only for the camera to hold back and observe in silence, encouraging the audience to study body language and attitude rather than any content.
At the start of the film I thought that director Luca Guadagnino might be using some of the Dogme rules of natural lighting, sets and sound, but later on there are certain uses of artificial light and non-present music with the climactic scene in particular benefiting from the score, the music injecting much of the drama into a situation that could easily result in the audience turning against our heroine, Tilda Swinton on excellent form as Emma discovering love for perhaps the first time.
Many films that deal with infidelity, whether for love or lust, understandably draw much of their drama from confrontation, but here the affair is barely spoken of with everything instead played out before our eyes, one standout being when son Eduardo drops the penny.

I Am Love manages to be fresh and vital within a genre that so often rests on its laurels, allowing strong performances to make up for lacklustre plotting or direction, but here everything comes together in a sublime example of cinema. It will be interesting to see what Guadagnino does with a possible remake of giallo legend Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Centurion



Centurion

Neil Marshall‘s Dog Soldiers was a decent debut, a werewolf movie that focused on the prey rather than the monsters and the tale of squaddies up against spindly-legged lycanthropes shares a lot with Marshall’s latest film, though not the humour.
Both films pit a group of soldiers against a feral enemy in the Scottish wilderness, but in the case of Centurion it’s Roman soldiers trying to escape the ruthless Picts that hunt them. There is an attempt to inject a familiar brand of ‘laddish’ humour between the soldiers, echoing the camaraderie found in Dog Soldiers, but it works less well here as the situation facing them is more realistic and somehow the move from supernatural horror to action/thriller also dampens the impact of comic relief. The main problem with the film is the lack of spark that would set it apart from a myriad group of similar action films and prevent it from feeling like an accomplished straight-to-DVD B picture, with echoes of everything from Ravenous to the 13th Warrior and Pathfinder to Gladiator.

The cast is fine with Michael Fassbender yet to tarnish a great run of performances and Dominic West particularly enjoyable in what would be an easily fudged role of the meathead captain down with the grunts, repairing a lot of damage done by his odd turn in 300. Liam Cunningham, David Morrisey and Riz Ahmed also shine, though Olga Kurylenko is presumably there as a pretty face and bankable name as a Bond Girl and I wonder whether the character’s muteness featured in the script before she came on board. Imogen Poots (the daughter in 28 Weeks Later) as Arian, the suspected witch outcast, feels a little out of step with the movie, both a refuge from the otherwise relentless pace of the hunt and also out of time, perhaps a bit too modern for the setting. As an action feature I would expect the female roles to be more one-dimensional or not to ring true, but with the Descent as a writing as well as directing credit it’s surprising that Marshall has not made more of his female leads here.

The location work deserves some mention as countless scenes of Scotland millennia past are framed in their stark beauty as the dwindling squad battle the elements as well as their pursuers, with the cinematography washed of colour in order to highlight the cold and unforgiving clime. Action scenes are relatively few as the film concentrates on the run, with one large-scale battle a victim of quick cuts in editing, but outside these the film struggles to shape the largely stock characters, Fassbender’s hero remarkable chiefly for his endurance and ability to speak the native tongue, whilst Cunningham is cursed with the genre trope of being speared only to pull his attacker in for a bit of macho brutality.

I can’t decide whether Centurion is disappointing or just underwhelming, either way it’s sad that the film doesn’t seem to equal the sum of it’s parts. it’s by no means a bad film but it just doesn’t elevate itself up above other genre entries enough to be more than a solid entry, rather than a benchmark. Fairly decent in isolation but lacking the freshness Marshall brought to his first two features.