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.