Sunday, 28 February 2010

Ponyo; Sherlock Holmes; Youth in Revolt; Baise Moi; Frostbite


Ponyo is the first Ghibli film directed by Hayao miyazaki since Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), with Tales from Earthsea (2006) being the last Ghibli release, controversially directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro. Most of Hayao Miyazaki’s films involve some sort of wider story playing out around the main characters, but Ponyo is a return to the more simple storytelling of the Ghibli favourite, My Neighbour Totoro.
There is a bit more going on in the case of Ponyo than “girls meet and befriend forest creature; are upset that their mum’s in hospital; she gets better” - Ponyo is a fish, and the magical daughter of a wizard who has shunned the world of man and now works to keep the balance in the oceans; her mother is the Goddess of Mercy. One day Ponyo gets trapped in a glass bottle and is rescued by five year old Sosuke - they become fast friends, and although her father takes her back, she has fallen in love and wants to be human. This upsets the balance and the oceans rise, but if Sosuke truly loves Ponyo all will be well. He does, the end.

The visual setting of Ponyo is very ‘Ghibli’, that special mixture of standard anime style mixed with a rustic charm - Miyazaki favours a setting that throws in English Victorian village alongside modern day small town Japan and lots and lots of open space - the theme of ‘nature’ and man’s interaction with it stretches back to Nausicaa. Aside from the content, the actual style is very warm, everything having a hand-drawn feel that gives it a timeless quality - it could sit alongside the Ghibli movies of the early 80s as well as standing up today. Charming is the word.
The bounteous detail of the sea creatures filling the background of many scenes is a further indication of Miyazaki’s preoccupation with the natural world, but this does spill over into one awkward scene where Ponyo and Sousoke set forth on a magically enlarged toy boat and point out the extinct fish species that have returned to the recently flooded seaside town; it feels very much like thinly veiled educational programming at that point, but thankfully this is the harshest criticism that can be levelled against it. There are lots of lovely touches, such as Ponyo’s glee at the dinner table, her chicken-footed, frog-faced form between fish and human, particularly when using magic, the warm mutterings of the pensioners at the old folk’s home where Sousuke’s mother works next door to his school.

It’s not the kind of film that will gain many new converts to Ghibli studios, at least those over the age of ten, but for people who already have a special place in their hearts for the animation house’s output this is another in a long line of greats.

Sherlock Holmes

After the frenzy surrounding Guy Ritchie’s debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, I found myself distinctly underwhelmed by the film and disappointed in the attention given to the crap mockney gangster pic that spawned dozens of copycats. The resultant loathing for Ritchie and his output has blinded me to the fact that it was the only film I’d actually seen of his; despite the mixed or just plain awful receptions given to Snatched, Swept Away, Revolver and RocknRolla, I hadn’t bolstered my opinion of his work by actually watching any of them. Some would argue that this is perfectly acceptable - you wouldn’t need to have seen Uwe Boll’s work to hold a dismal opinion of them, after all, that’s what critics are for. No one has the time to watch everything, so you want to filter things and be left with the good stuff, or at least bad stuff that you enjoy.

I finally broke my no-Ritchie run with Sherlock Holmes. A new Holmes adaptation for 2010, with fighting and explosions, by Guy Ritchie? Surely not. The advantage here, though, is that Holmes is played by Robert Downy Jr., never less than watchable in anything he does and recently lifting the otherwise average Iron Man up to half decent blockbuster status.
Whilst this adaptation inevitably plays fast and loose with the source material, there is enough charm in Downey’s performance to keep you rooting for him throughout as he revels in the various aspects of his character - retreating into a messy funk due to the lack of challenge without a case to work on, his jealousy at Watson’s looming marriage plans and change of their cosy set-up, his flashes of deductive brilliance. There is a scene toward the end where various pieces of the overall puzzle are slotted together by Holmes all in one go, in what feels clumsy as part of what was up to that point a slick production, but other scenes use his unique skills remarkably well. Although Ritchie has a penchant for a bit of the old ultraviolence and has a particular audience to cater for, the combat scenes with Holmes (including one of bare-knuckle boxing, apparently one of Holmes’ methods of distraction from boredom) are peppered with wonderfully inventive slow-mo sequences where he analyses and plans the best course of action to fell his opponent, before we have a replay in more or less real-time; it’s a good way of getting meaty fight scenes in but incorporating them into the general atmosphere of the Holmes setting.

Speaking of atmosphere, the art direction is very impressive, getting the right mix of Victoriana and grime with belching chimneys and dirty brickwork, brass and clockwork devices and overall an impression that it feels films like From Hell came close to but here it succeeds; there’s something palpable about the paraphernalia and specimens in the lair of the ginger midget and the various items strewn about Holmes’ own room when Watson comes to relieve him from a funk as he attempts to invent a pistol silencer. It’s a world that is easy to get lost in and helps to ground the slightly hammier aspects of the performances.

Only the character of Rachel McAdams as the token yank sticks out, apparently an old flame of Holmes and one of the few criminals who he did not catch (there are references to her being something along the lines of a black widow or serial bigamist). She variously fills the role of no-nonsense dame and damsel in distress at numerous points, but is one of the few parts that starts to tug the curtain away from it all. Even Jude Law manages to put in one of his more charming performances as Watson, rather than one of his many slappable ones. The interplay between Downey and himself works well, and despite the allusions some have made to an undercurrent of homosexuality, their chemistry came across more as a version of Victorian repression of a close friendship, highlighted in one scene after Watson survives an explosion: Holmes stumbles out “I’m glad you’re…still with us” to which Watson replies by clearing his throat.

I never thought I’d say I’d enjoy a Guy Ritchie movie but there it is - certainly not the most faithful Holmes adaptation nor the best, but as a knockabout blockbuster which manages to reflect favourably on its source material it’s a lot of fun. Although I obviously went in with low expectations.

Youth in Revolt

Who would win in a fight between Michael Cera and Jessie Eisenberg? In an actual fist-fight terms, I’d go with Jesse, but with output too he seems to just about be in a different class. For two actors sewing up the awkward geek hero character roles, Jesse’s choices seem more measured/planned/calculated? Roger Dodger, the Squid and The Whale and the lands of Adventure and Zombies are his highlights, and whilst Cera has hit high with roles in Juno and Superbad, these were more ensemble or supporting gigs, with the more recent Year Zero pretty much a critical flop.
Still, it’s hard to dislike the guy so it was good to find that Youth in Revolt was a pretty decent stab at the “geek gets girl” movie.

Cera plays Nick Twisp who is your typical 16 year old American geek, although here he is burdened with his trailer trash mum whilst his unemployed dad is Steve Buscemi, who has shacked up with a hot 25 year old. As a typical teen boy he is obsessed with losing his virginity, and the unlikelihood that he will ever even meet a girl as they all go for jerks.
Anyway, his mum’s current loser squeeze (played by the Hangover’s Zach Galifianikis) sells a broken-down car to sailors, who upon discovering its condition threaten a beating, so the family all leave on an impromptu vacation to a shabby trailer in a holiday park. There, a cute, interesting teenage girl shows inexplicable interest in the poor boy and thus begins a mostly comic descent into mishap and adventure as he tries to be with the girl of his dreams. Chief to this is his invention of an alter-ego, the white-trousered, Gauloise-smoking bad boy Francois Dillinger, who sets him on the path of no good.

Buscemi and Galifianikis round out a decent supporting cast including Ray Liotta, Justin Long and Fred Willard, with Portia Doubleday as the object of Nick’s affections, Sheeni. She manages to play it so that it’s hard to tell if Sheeni is taking Nick for a ride and just using him for fun, or whether he actually means something more to her.

Youth in Revolt is certainly in no danger of winning prizes for innovation, but it all hangs together well and a teen romcom based around oddball humour is certainly preferable to the last run of gross-out comedies.

Baise Moi

Baise Moi rode the wave of arthouse films that were released after the change in BBFC guidelines in 1999. Alongside films like the Idiots, Romance and 9 Songs, Baise Moi was controversial for its inclusion of real sex scenes, but also married this up with violence.

Poorly shot on what I assume is digital video, it looks like out-takes from one of those stilted programmes used to teach French in schools. The performances are pretty poor and the score jars against the film, intrusive and spreading across scenes without helping connect them. The plot itself feels like nothing more than sensationalism, the idea that the women’s backgrounds in drugs, violence and prostitution drove them to their killing spree is hardly social commentary, rather an excuse for a bunch of low-budget gore and explicit sex. It’s just a bit empty when all’s said and done.


Swedish vampire movie set in the polar region where a night lasts a month. Yes you’ve heard the premise before in 30 Days of Night, but Frostbite was released in 2006, one year prior. It starts promisingly with a Scandanavian unit working with the German army gets stranded at an isolated cabin in the Ukraine in 1944. There are vampires in the cabin. But when we skip to the present day, and teen girl Saga is moving with her mother to a remote part of Sweden we drop into cliché – the vampires have monstro-vision meaning you see in first person and all monsters are mouth-breathers. These particular vampires see in wibbly red hues as they stalk lonely humans in the snowy dark.
Professor Beckert, a big name in Genetics, is the reason that Saga’s mother has dragged them to the far-flung town. But Beckert has secrets, including a comatose patient and dubious red pills, and before long people are turning up dead with holes in their necks.
Thankfully the wibbly effect isn’t overused, and the creature make-up is decent enough, nothing wildly inventive but better than the standard Buffy extra style do. The performances are strong throughout, though Beckert is perhaps a little overly sinister to not have attracted any attention so far. The conceit of the polar night isn’t really used, besides allowing for the story to play out over more than half a day without people having to hide indoors, making 30 Days of Night for once seem a far superior Hollywood offering, both in terms of the plot and the creature design.
Frostbite doesn’t rival its more recent cousin Let the Right One In either, not staying with any character long enough to give them a good chance to breathe, instead falling back on the set-pieces and effects work, and the few comedic moments aren’t quite enough (although good-hello talking dogs) to give it a point of difference.
Frostbite isn’t a bad horror movie and is well worth checking out as a B movie genre piece, but the stable of vampire movies is so swollen these days it isn’t hard to find something more satisfying. It is essentially director Anders Banke’s feature film debut, however, so it will be interesting to see if he gets the chance to build on this good start.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Book of Eli; The Road

The Book of Eli

What can be said about Denzel Washington? If you want an actor to have an air of gravitas, a certain dignity and authority, yet still have a threatening presence, he’s your man. Liam Neeson is another actor with the bearing and worldly-wise sense of statesmanship to fit similar roles, but when called on to perform more violent scenes his sneer and snarl can possibly be read as that of the bad guy, whereas Denzel comes across a man who would kill with regret, attacking as a last resort.

And so to the Book of Eli. It’s hard to work out whether it’s a film about the redemptive power of Christian faith masquerading as a film about the post-apocalyptic American wasteland, or a kick-ass dystopian action movie masquerading as a film about faith?
The final twist - that Eli is blind - is a little hard to stomach. It’s not hard to recall scenes where other heightened senses don’t serve as sufficient explanation for his actions. Any amount of accurate violence can be attributed to finely trained senses of smell and hearing, but general orientation is a little harder to bear. In one scene there is a shoot out in the main street of a ramshackle town in the Western tradition. Eli takes out each henchman with a pistol, a mere one or two shots for each, but how does he navigate the street itself and know where to find cover?
For the majority of the film it doesn’t seem to be an issue - you’ll look back on scenes of feeling the sunlight on skin rather than needing to see it; knowing a woman’s hands were shaking not by sight, but because of the teacup and saucer she held.

For the most part the main impact comes from the blasted landscape of dust and saturated colour that Eli makes his way through, on an incongruously pristine highway headed west.
Such emphasis on the visual aspects come through in the first scene of the film, reminiscent of recent Wushu/Wuxia features, a twilight forest with ash lightly raining down. Panning across the body of a man, pistol dropped from his hand, we see a hairless cat approach the corpse, sniff and start to feed. Further off we see an imposing figure in the gloom and ash, hooded and gas-masked, his legs strain at a bow held level with the ground and aimed at the bait - his trap that the cat has sprung.
On the road we see Eli’s encounters with cannibal bandits, dispatching his enemies with lethal efficiency. The Wushu influences come forward again as Eli slices through his enemies with swift, fluid movements.
His journey takes him to a small town led by Gary Oldman in the style of another Western tradition - from the upstairs of a saloon bar. He sends teams of bandits into the wastes to search for books, after one in particular - the bible, a weapon to rule men’s hearts and minds.

The cause of the apocalypse is never spelled out but talk of a war, and of the sky ripped apart to see the sun fall to the earth and set it on fire accompany the blinding of most of the survivors of that time.
Few of the new Americans (all white, incidentally, and in the classic post-apocalypse ‘scrappy punk’ style) are able to read, but they serve as evidence that despite the harsh conditions people still went on having kids.
One such new citizen is Solara (Mila Kunis), the impossibly beautiful mini-clone of Angelina Jolie, all big eyes, full lips and dark, smouldering looks. How she has kept this alluring visage in the face of such devastation is a mystery; Gary Oldman’s Carnegie basically owns her and her blind mother, keeping both safe from harm (from others, at least), but there’s only so much soap, shampoo and moisturiser left in this ravaged world.
Still, she does a good job of standing in for innocent youth and the possibilities of the future.

Cannibals can apparently be detected as their hands get the shakes - presumably no-one suffers from any traumatic stress in this nightmare.
There is a slightly comedic moment when Eli & Solara come across the booby-trapped farmhouse of an old couple of cannibals, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour as George and Martha, who swing from threat to allies when Oldman and goons arrive, somehow tracking them on a straight road even though we see Eli and Solara look down on the house from a cliff top.
In the West is Alcatraz, repurposed as the museum of culture, a sanctuary where none other than Malcolm MacDowell in mad professor guise compiles examples of art and literature and other pre-war cultural treasures. Most copies of the bible were burned shortly after the war as apparently it was seen as the cause, so Eli’s book is a very rare specimen. The end of the film sees him cleaned and shaved and dressed in a white robe, laid in repose and reciting the entirety of the bible before passing away, presumably not from the gutshot wound he sustained before starting to recite aloud the entire King James bible.
Apparently it is 31 years since he has been travelling. It’s never explicitly stated when in this time he had a voice tell him to take the bible and head West, but it’s safe to presume it doesn’t take that many years to walk across a mostly deserted United States. And how can he calculate that it has been 31 years since the war, but not remember his age?
The Book of Eli is very silly but Denzel’s very watchable and it’s always nice to see Gary Oldman getting his ham on.

*the Book of Eli gets two pictures due to the lovely artwork of Chris Weston: 

The Road

Literary adaptations are a hard one. Quite often what makes for a good book doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen, especially if it’s the quality of prose and character development that shines rather than the snappiness of the “Snakes. On a PLANE!” plot.

The Road is quite a faithful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, but even it falls foul of the traps that often plague such translations between media. No matter how talented the actor, there is only so much you can convey without words in the limited time available during a standard feature length, and The Road makes use of a voice over which slightly detracts from the story, giving you a third perspective of the father looking upon himself and his son, removing you a step from the business of their struggle for survival. Likewise, the flashback/dream sequences of Charlize Theron as the mother seem more numerous than in the source material, and again serve to pull you back a little from your identification with the pair.
Conversely, we are so used to representations of post-apocalyptic life involving extras from Duran Duran’s Wild Boys video (see everything from Mad Max and Escape from New York to Doomsday and Book of Eli) that the wandering survivors of the Road seems less threatening in comparison, more desperate tramps than fearsome cannibals, with the key confrontation having more of a Deliverance feel than anything.

Aside from this the film is wonderfully made, a cold and dirty wasteland of dead, creaking trees with a haggard looking Viggo Mortensen as the father, struggling along in rags in an attempt to get his son South. In a couple of scenes we see him strip and are witness to the Machinist-style methods to which Viggo went to in order to bring the character to life, starving himself down to ribs and knobbled spine, but these glimpses are only fleeting and I did wonder whether it was necessary to the film in order to convince us of his dedication. His starvation may indeed be a plot point, but you’d hardly expect the rest of the actors to follow suit; it’s something that can be alluded to rather than shown.
And this is the general feeling I get from the film - yes, it’s impressive and care and attention have been expended on the production, but at the end of the day what is the point - what has it added? As a straight adaptation of the book there does seem to be something lost in translation.

As an entry into the increasingly crowded dystopia genre, however, The Road fares well, leaning much more toward a realistic take as in Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, rather than the more fantastical readings of the aforementioned punk-haircut fests. Severed from the source material The Road stands a chance of competing well and will no doubt showered with award nominations, if not awards themselves, which isn’t bad for such a bleak view on the fall of man, where the thought of suicide is constantly on the mind as a viable option.
Not as good as the book, no, but a decent attempt at a realist survival tale.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Up in the Air

Up in the Air

The trailer for this one elicited mixed feelings when I first saw it. Yes, Clooney works well in those matinee idol roles, and a play on the be-suited, suave sophisticates he often inhabits by twisting him into a solitary corporate monster, flying the friendly skies and administering firings to all and sundry, seems like a neat-but-safe take on a Clooney vehicle. 

Indeed, a wry and witty glimpse of the life of a corporate hitman, all painfully neat luggage and executive lounges, could easily backfire by absorbing the subconscious banal hysteria of these places and situations, these people.
A fair way into the film it plays more or less as you would expect, some nice touches, Clooney as Ryan is as charming as ever, slick looks at the way he operates in his lone wolf world (the actions of packing and negotiating airport terminals a finely choreographed dance) and the nice little twist of Ryan being metaphorically on the receiving end of his hired-help firing when hot shot graduate Natalie (Anna Kendrick) waltzes into the business with plans of cutting all the expense of air miles with the great idea of sacking people via webcam.
Thus begins a voyage of discovery as Ryan takes Natalie across America, relieving people of their jobs and learning something about themselves along the way.

A short while into this air-based road trip come the features that help set Up in the Air aside. Ryan has periodic hook-ups with businesswoman Alex (Vera Farmiga) when their schedules happen to coincide; they snatch nights of passion in hotel rooms with expense accounts. As Ryan comes to learn the benefits of human relationships, both through Natalie and Alex, he finds himself inviting Alex along to his sister’s wedding. Not having had much contact in years, things are strained and awkward, but things pretty much stay that way. Aside from a scene where he talks round the groom-with-cold-feet, we’re not positive that he has learned much from the event. Once Ryan admits to himself that it can be better to share and lays himself open to Alex, the inevitable disappointment on discovery that she has a ‘real’ life back home whilst his is all of a piece is not that devastating and more of just a shock - “you don’t know what you want” being such a movie cliché but also totally relevant here, with Clooney’s features trouncing the salt and pepper hair with the look of a lost, hurt boy. By the end of the film Ryan is alone, back up in the air after finally achieving his goal of 10 million miles of air travel, now meaningless to him. The fact that the film does not attempt a happy ending, or even any hope, makes this one of the darker movies to come out of Hollywood recently without the slightest whiff of violence.

Right here I’ll just say I really like it, maybe my opinion will change over time, maybe it just speaks to me right now, but it definitely strikes a chord.
The use of what seem to be 'normal' Americans reacting to getting fired at a number of points, along with a short montage at the end of how family, friends and partners helped them through it, not only highlights the almost sidelined issues of recession and redundancy that take a back seat to Ryan trying to work out if he’s lonely, but also thrusts that hopelessness further in at the end – sure there’s hope for some people, but for Ryan there is nothing.
A number of comedy character actors are used to great effect in essentially straight roles, including Zach Galifianakis, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman and J.K. Simmons. In fact the nearest thing the film comes to comedy relief is having Ryan sit numb as air stewards celebrate his 10 million milestone, only the 7th in American Airlines history, before bringing out a be-tached Sam Elliot as Super Pilot.

Essentially Up in the Air is about isolation and the virtually insurmountable task of making a meaningful connection with somebody. It’s the type of film that throws ”everyone dies alone” at you with no attempt to butter it up or make the character delivering it out to be wrong, or even lessen the blow by trying to come across as a film with ‘edgy’ ideas which are meant to provoke.

And Vera Farmiga is smoking hot in it.