Saturday, 27 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Reviews: The Crazies + Whip It + [●REC]2




Whip It

For a concept which sounds shaky at best, Whip It garnered good word of mouth when it opened in the US last year, with Kevin Smith even hailing it his favourite film of 2009. The idea of a Drew Barrymore-directed (leftfield) sports movie with elements of coming of age drama isn’t the most inspiring of genre-hybrids. After an inauspicious first five minutes I was unimpressed, failing to see why such praise was being bestowed on it. That was until I realised I was criticising it because it wasn’t Juno, which isn’t really fair.

What it does share with Juno is a lead actress in Ellen Page. Here she plays Bliss Cavendar, an indie-spirited teen adrift in small town Texas, forced to compete in beauty pageants to appease her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden). When she discovers the world of roller derby, filled with riot grrls and camaraderie, she’s instantly hooked - but what will her mother say?

While Whip It isn’t going to win any awards for breaking new ground, what it does have in spades is warmth and heart. The script is funny without being forced. The humour is natural and flows well, only falling flat when it does attempt to paint with broad strokes (particularly in any scene featuring Jimmy Fallon’s derby announcer).

For anyone unfamiliar, roller derby is a full contact, high-speed sport played, unsurprisingly, on roller skates. The punky competitors have their own unique identities and witty nicknames (Bloody Holly, Eva Destruction, Rosa Sparks) and don’t hold back when it comes to laying-out an opponent.

The plight of Page’s Bliss comes across as slightly heavy-handed and I’m not sure the extreme dichotomy of pageants vs punch-ups was entirely necessary. Surely it’s sufficient that her character is railing against the small town mentality without having the character forced into pretty dresses and speechmaking.

If you’re willing to suspend your cynicism and go along with it, it’s wonderfully retro with an almost Karate Kid-like vibe. It rattles through sports movie clichés at a rate of noughts, from the team of underdogs to the mid-section training montage but the focus on characterisation keeps it from floundering. By the point when grievances are being aired by the medium of a food fight, it’s so infectious that I was completely sold.

The roller derby scenes themselves are hugely enjoyable to watch. There’s a visceral energy to them compounded by the fact the sport is relatively unfamiliar. The badinage among team-mates (including director Drew Barrymore, Kristen Wiig and the amazing Zoë Bell) seems genuine and heartfelt, without losing anything in sass. Even the adversity Bliss faces in the derby world (from Juliette Lewis) has a psychological grounding beyond that of most other films of the genre.

It’s aided by a great soundtrack showcasing the best of post-millennial indie and even the scenes that cry out ‘only in movies’ are beautifully shot and innovative, particularly an underwater coupling.

From a simple premise, it’s helped along by a warm script and great cast. The central core of competing with maternal aspirations and finding something in your life has resonance beyond strapping on skates and, as a whole, the film is far more touching and entertaining than it really deserves to be.

Hands-down, the most flat-out enjoyable film I’ve seen in ages. As Devo once sang, “Whip It good”.

5/5

Read my tweaked review of Whip It over at www.reelscotland.com/?p=842

Friday, 26 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: The Bad Lieutenant - Port Of Call: New Orleans




The Bad Lieutenant – Port Of Call: New Orleans

This isn’t a sequel and it isn’t a remake but it’s thematically similar to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 dirty cop drama. Stylistically, it’s completely different. Excess is very much the key to Werner Herzog’s take on it and, as such, what to judge it on becomes murkier than a Louisiana bayou.

Opening immediately post-Katrina, we’re introduced to this film’s Bad Lieutenant, Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), and it’s not immediately clear why he’s earned the eponymous moniker. The worst he seems to do is stealing a few nudie photos of a colleague’s wife. As he begins the investigation of a murdered Senegalese family, he rapidly becomes embroiled in a series of potentially fatal situations of his own causing. It’s only then we’re introduced to his unorthodox methods and catalogue of vices; which range from smoking crack and demanding sex as a bribe to getting impatient at waiting times in a pharmacy.

Werner Herzog has been known to nurture lunacy in his actors and he certainly does nothing to rein-in what has become Nicolas Cage’s trademark manic style of late. If anything, it would appear he’s asked him to amp it up. It’s practically played for comedy with Cage’s performance so ridiculous that it’s strangely watchable. He hunches his shoulders, he pulls faces, he screeches and he delivers the most ludicrous of dialogue (“I snorted what I thought was coke. It turned out to be heroin. I gotta be at work in an hour”) with ill-fitting brio. There’s no restraint in his interpretation. Whereas Harvey Keitel approached his similar role with a level of internalisation, Cage approaches it with all the subtlety of a raving pantomime villain.

It lurches from scene to scene with little in the way of coherence. It has to be assumed that Herzog is doing all this deliberately. The erratic style fits the character and vice versa. When, apropos of nothing, he decides to leave a scene by focusing on an extreme close-up of an alligator and following it at ground level as it scuttles off, you go along with it. The seemingly random is commonplace throughout the film from hallucinatory iguanas to Turner & Hooch-style dogsitting dilemmas.

The film has the appearance of having been shot fast and loose. There’s nothing grand about the cinematography and it suits the frenetic style. If anything, the film could do with a sizeable chunk of it judiciously pruned. There’s often too much going on with characters like the Lieutenant’s prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) getting lost in the confusion. Solid actors like Val Kilmer and Michael Shannon are reduced to cameos and wasted as little more than expository characters for Cage to bounce off.

As a thriller, it’s never gripping and as a character study it’s lacking any depth. Once you’ve been introduced to his ‘badness’, the novelty wears off and you’re left with a character reduced to acting like a petulant child and developing a Jimmy Stewart accent after three-quarters of the film. It’s completely unsure of what it wants to be, but that’s part of its shambling charm.

If entering into the spirit of it and accepting it as deliberately ludicrous, it’s a partial success. As McDonagh unravels and creates a perfect storm, while engaging in patently ridiculous acts like torturing elderly women, it’s hard not to laugh. When it delivers what may be the most wondrously neat conclusion of all time, it’s hard to interpret its intentions any other way.

It may be lacking in focus, but not in vision and it certainly has to be treated as a wholly separate entity to Ferrara’s film. It’s never po-faced and Herzog and Cage have been undoubtedly brave to interpret the material in this way.

It’s so nuts it might just be brilliant.

3/5

Read my extended and reworked review over at www.reelscotland.com/?p=2687

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: A Nightmare On Elm Street



Still trying to find the time to catch up with the reviews. Stick with me.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Life During Wartime



Life During Wartime

I’m not exactly sure what this film is. Director Todd Solondz has adopted a similar approach to his last film, Palindromes (where the central character was played by multiple actors of differing ages, genders, sizes and races), and has made a quasi-sequel to his most successful work, Happiness. I say ‘quasi-sequel’ because although Life During Wartime follows the same characters from his 1998 film (as well as some from 1995’s Welcome To The Dollhouse) they’ve been entirely recast with scant regard paid to a visual continuity. However, the performances veer between near-identical interpretations and radical revisions.

For the sake of clarity the most important recasting is as follows: Bill Maplewood (Ciarán Hinds, previously Dylan Baker), Joy Jordan (Shirley Henderson, previously Jane Adams), Allen (Michael K. Williams, previously Philip Seymour Hoffman), Trish Maplewood (Allison Janney, previously Cynthia Stevenson), Helen Jordan (Ally Sheedy, previously Lara Flynn Boyle) and Andy (Paul Reubens, previously Jon Lovitz). The amount the performances fall in line with what has gone before appears to divide largely down gender lines, with the women and Reubens doing near identical takes.

The reason I labour this point is that on the surface it might not seem like a sequel but whether or not you like it will depend on whether you’ve seen Happiness and are, to some degree, a fan of Solondz’s work. If you’ve not seen Happiness, firstly, why not? Secondly, do so before considering seeing this. Even the seemingly insignificant opening scene in Happiness has a long-lasting effect that echoes into the follow-up. Déjà vu is mentioned early on and it’s apt for much of what follows.

The film picks up around 10 years from the events of Happiness and is largely focused around the release of sex offender Bill Maplewood from prison (although the other characters are unaware of this). Joy is now married to sex pest Allen and is still the perennial wallflower, Trish has embarked upon a new relationship and has hidden her ex-husband’s past from the children and Helen is a successful author living in California (although her reintroduction is a sour note which serves little purpose). Every character is still suffering the repercussions of what has gone before, to some extent.

All of Solondz’s trademark signifiers are here. In among the myriad taboos are the awkward silences and inappropriate conversations but, unlike his previous work, there’s a sense of a filmmaker who has matured. Each of the characters is more fully-realised and given a depth that stretches beyond being defined by their actions. Every single character is damaged in some way and although never condoning or chastising their actions, their motivations and the psychological effects of them are closely scrutinised. The central themes of characters seeking redemption, or at least a sense of normalcy, make them more relatable than perhaps they had previously been.

There’s a strange post-9/11 subtext which is a bit jarring and occasionally you long for a few more shards of lightness to appear between the scenes of misery-mongering. In spite of the darkness of the material, when it does lighten, it is undoubtedly very funny. As usual much of the humour derives from material which wouldn’t be considered suitable for comedy elsewhere. Allison Janney in particular gives a scene-stealing performance that puts even her Away We Go turn to shame.

The darkly comedic undercurrent may not be to everyone’s taste but what the film provides is a perverse peer into the lives of people more messed-up than you. There’s a foreboding sense of ‘what can go wrong, will go wrong’ but imbued with a genuine sense of emotional investment in the characters, so you really care if it looks like things are turning sour.

They may not be characters you’ll fall in love with but they certainly have a presence which is hard not to admire.

4/5


Read my tweaked review over at www.reelscotland.com/?p=1571

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Where The Buffalo Roam - A Movie Based On The Twisted Legend Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson




Where The Buffalo Roam: A Movie Based On The Twisted Legend Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Forever destined to be known as the ‘other’ Hunter S. Thompson movie this was released in 1980, with Bill Murray as the gonzo journalist, and is a completely different beast to Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Firstly, this is an episodic piece about Thompson himself, and not an alter-ego. Secondly, it’s not got very much going for it.

Essentially a series of vignettes based on Thompson’s life and work in the 60s and 70s, there’s very little plot to speak of other than the through-line of Thompson and his relationship with his lawyer Carl Lazlo (Peter Boyle). It’s a biopic of sorts which seeks more to give a flavour of Thompson than provide a compelling narrative.

Bill Murray holds the film together with his portrayal of someone so idiosyncratically iconic. He has everything nailed from the speech patterns to the poise and imbues the character with the spirit of the late author. There’s a distinct lack of Murray’s trademark wisecracks and even the laconic charm he usually displays is replaced with a quiet mania.

The era and counterculture it depicts is hugely interesting and rife with material but the film never moves beyond the most cursory glances in that direction. Every time something of interest appears, such as the events of Richard Nixon’s campaign trail, the fractured nature of the film ensures that it has moved on before it’s ever properly explored. Instead it’s fixated on the enigmatic Lazlo who appears throughout the film and, despite a solid performance from Boyle, serves as a diversionary device attempting to link all the different chapters.

Where the film succeeds to an extent is in capturing the essence of the erratic nature of Thompson’s work. It never hangs together as a film but in the midst there are some nice moments. Its biggest failing is that the style never suits the material. Despite the fact that so much of the film is focused on drugs and excess, it’s lacking a hallucinatory element of vice and doesn’t contain a modicum of the visual verve of Fear And Loathing. The intensely static feel just doesn’t befit the drug-addled counterculture it depicts.

It’s certainly sporadically entertaining, helped along in large part by the performances and a stripped down, plaintive Neil Young score but for the most part it’s painfully slow.

The individual elements of plot are definitely in-keeping with the spirit of the texts but they’re occasionally deathly dull. If it made the transition to screen with even an ounce of the energy of the source material, this should never have been the case.

2/5

Monday, 22 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Wall Street




Wall Street

It’s easy to forget that when Wall Street came out it was almost single-handedly responsible for shaping our views on how the high-powered world of finance operated. The financial industry has (deservedly) been under close scrutiny of late and now that we’re all collectively familiar with the likes of Ponzi schemes and bear markets (aren’t we?), does Oliver Stone’s insular peek inside the world of stock trading still hold the fascination it did when it was released in 1987? In a word, no.

Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is our guide through this murky realm; a fresh-faced, blue collar guy who’s striving to make it in the cutthroat world of brokering. He sets his sights on Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the quintessential, all-powerful magnate, as a potential investor and the two strike up a dubious working relationship.

The film’s biggest problem is that it has dated badly – and by that I don’t mean ‘oh, wasn’t it awful’ trite truisms about the fashion or technology of the era. That the film is littered with multiple cliché-ridden scenes of Manhattan at sunset/sunrise, hoary depictions of the hustle and bustle of city life and countless montages of ‘buy low, sell high’-type trading doesn’t help. The entire structure of the film is very much of its era. The notion of the ‘good man’, seduced by power and influence by an evil Pharaoh has been done to death – both subsequently and previously. The film’s raison d’être seems to be little more than offering an insight into what was, at-the-time, a glamourous business.

Even stripping away the layers of supposed glossy analysis and leaving a character piece, it’s left wanting. The problem is that Bud never makes for a sympathetic lead. Quite how quickly he takes to the corrupt life with little prompting shows just how lacking in moral fibre he seemingly always was, despite multiple attempts to try to convince us otherwise. When he utters an existential “who am I?” to a blinking Manhattan skyline, Sheen doesn’t have the talent to convince and we’re left wondering whether we really care.

The older generation fares better with Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen both shining as Gekko and Bud’s father respectively. Gordon Gekko is now a byword for this type of character and he’s slightly more rounded than I had anticipated. There’s an underlying fragility as displayed in his dealings with rival businessman Sir Larry Wildman (Terence Stamp) which gives the character scope beyond ‘slick despot’. For all his front there’s insecurity at the core. The father/son scenes between the Sheens provide many of the film's better moments, their real life connection presumably lending the scenes an authenticity. The exploration of the themes of betraying one’s roots and paternal expectation is satisfyingly well-realised.

The film is positively oozing with machismo from the way it’s shot to the characters it contains. It’s all about male relationships and not even by way of an attempted examination of them. Wives and mothers are sidelined to the point that it’s barely worth mentioning them at all. An attempt to shoehorn in an unnecessary relationship subplot with Daryl Hannah falls flat as it lacks any dramatic weight beyond the most facile arc (and a silhouetted sex scene that only the 80s could deliver).

Despite its faults it maintains a force throughout that keeps you compelled. It’s a classic morality tale and so the way each character is headed is inevitable from the moment they appear on screen. Thankfully, there’s the semblance of an open ending which avoids leaving the film on a disappointing note and I’m certainly interested in revisiting Gekko in the impending sequel. Times have changed and our perception of the industry with it. We’re far less dazzled by the trappings of wealth and hopefully Stone will have updated his vision and put aside bravado to give us something that speaks to our time.

3/5

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Report: The Room – Scottish Premiere

The Cameo, Edinburgh, 20th February 2010



Since seeing The Room for the first time around a year ago during a ‘bad film day’ at a friend’s house, everything I subsequently read on the film made reference to the mythical cinema screenings the film receives. When hearing these appearances were then attracting the likes of Charlie Brooker and Graham Linehan in London, I wondered how long it would be before Caledonia got to experience the supposed thrill of seeing it en masse while following the guidelines on how to ‘interact’ with it.

And so, Tommy Wiseau’s now legendary ‘best worst film’ received its first public showing in Scotland at the Cameo cinema in Edinburgh. Going in, I was worried that the Scottish crowd may display a level of repression not seem in similar screenings in the US. Regardless, fearing being in an over-excited minority, I took along a pocketful of plastic cutlery, more in an attempt to ‘get the ball rolling’ than anything else.




It was a delight to see my fears appeared completely unfounded. In the Cameo’s bar beforehand there was a definite buzz. It’s been some time since I’ve seen a crowd that size at the cinema for a late-night showing. The first glimpses of a Tommy Wiseau t-shirt and mock-tuxedo were enough to inspire confidence in the fact that the screening appeared to be a success – and that more than a few people were already au fait with the film’s multiple failings. In fact, the Cameo was still turning people away from the sold out screening right up to advertised start time.

When screen one itself was opened, within minutes space was getting scarce and people were already beginning to holler some of the film’s insanely quotable catchphrases (crap-phrases?) across the auditorium. Flying spoons began to make their fitful first appearances and with the time approaching a quarter-hour past the 11pm supposed start, the excitement had built to a crescendo. When the lights finally dimmed and the pitiful ‘Wiseau Films’ logo flashed up in front, any preconceptions I may have had about the crowd being less vocal were dissipated as a loud rumpus of whoops and cheers echoed back-and-forth across the Art Deco interior.

Watching the film was definitely less of a film-viewing and more of an experience. As a film-related experience, it’s unrivalled. It’s raucous, riotous and has very little to do with following (what passes for) a plot. It flies in the face of every film-going instinct I possess but you’re swept up by it. It was a truly wonderful moment to see Tommy Wiseau’s first appearance on screen met with the kind of adulation usually reserved for an A-lister sauntering down a red carpet.



As the film progressed, and people got into the swing of it even more, every scene in the film was plastered over with a vociferous chorus of, in turns, appreciation and revulsion. It was clearly too much for one patron who was overheard saying that he “didn’t expect The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as he asked to be refunded his entry fee ten minutes into the film.

The problem is that the experience rises or falls on the strength of what’s being shouted out. I can’t blame anybody for their eagerness. It’s understandable. This is a film that demands to have things shouted at it – as witnessed by the fact there are actually guidelines as to exactly what to shout, and when. However, I would offer some advice. Chiefly, people needed to exercise a little restraint. Shouting the same thing all the time ensured it quickly got old and the constant drowning out of the film’s (admittedly low) soundtrack ensured that any new viewers were immediately at a disadvantage. The film needed some room to breathe amongst the jeering and I’d advise that if people want to encourage an atmosphere where everyone can join in (and not a constant exercise in self-congratulation) they need to think more clearly about what they’re shouting out, and when.

I know it’s in the spirit of the film’s ‘rules’ but for every zinger that was delivered (one wag’s description of the film’s anti-heroine Lisa’s face as being akin to “a punched cake”) there were ten bellows of “she has cancer” or “because she’s a woman” – only a handful of which struck the right note with the on-screen happenings.



Pre-empting all the film’s more famous dialogue does nobody any good and drowning out the lines themselves is counterproductive to both first-time and seasoned viewers. Shouting out some of the film’s funnier revelations a good half hour before they occur is inane and presumptive of everyone having seen it before.

Timing is critical. Shouting over dialogue isn’t always a good idea and very rarely funnier than what’s up on screen. The problem is that the film is the real joke and people occasionally seemed to forget that.

I don’t want to sound negative as it was a great, boisterous atmosphere and certainly unlike any viewing experience I’ve ever had. Hopefully people will rein-in their heckles just a bit because, as fun as it is, it’s still a film at the end of the day. If you can’t at least connect with that through the braying, it threatens to tip the whole experience into pointlessness. I think/hope that in future screenings the right balance will be struck between enthusiasm and (possibly undeserved) reverence for the film-watching. Right, end of lecture.

The Cameo’s gamble appears to have paid off with the next screening already planned for 27th March, with the hopeful intention of making these monthly occurrences. It might be nice if the Cameo could make any necessary tweaks to the film’s volume for next time around, as well as maybe providing handouts of ‘what to look out for’ in the film. I don't think they need to worry about supplying spoons as I'd imagine the post-screening clean-up of screen one left them with an abundance. The bar could maybe even serve ‘Scotchkas’? Just an idea.

For good or bad, it would seem The Room is in serious danger of becoming part of an Edinburgh happening.


Film = 1/5
Experience = 4/5

Read my tweaked version of this event review over at www.reelscotland.com/?p=449

All images © TheRoomMovie.com

Friday, 19 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Solomon Kane




Solomon Kane

Kicking off an action franchise these days is difficult. The medium’s in a constant state of flux and what’s ‘in’ one minute is often ‘out’ the next. We’re used to seeing action films which are either contemporary or futuristic and when they are backwards-venturing, they’re usually way further back.

As such, taking (Conan-creator) Robert E. Howard’s pulp Elizabethan anti-hero, and casting an actor who’s never carried a film before, is a risky strategy indeed. Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) is introduced to us as a bloodthirsty naval leader who thinks nothing of massacring entire townships. When he escapes the clutches of a demon sent to claim his soul, he banishes himself to the sanctuary of an abbey and seeks to repent for past sins – until circumstances converge and he may have to go back to kicking ass and taking names…

After an initial five minutes of dark, brooding CGI-enhanced battles and dire scripting (culminating in the appearance of a demon who bellows exposition-heavy clangers like “your soul is damned” with no degree of irony), we’re plunged into where the rest of the film takes place; wintry Devon and Somerset.

It’s a bold move to make a film in this genre which is so out of step with modern expectations. It’s a period in history which is underrepresented in action films and having a Puritan action hero is certainly a first. However, it all works really well. The period iconography looks great. There’s a decent stab at nailing the details, giving everything an earthy feel with hints of the era’s many discoveries creeping in.

As for Solomon himself, he’s like a vitalic, arse-kicking Matthew Hopkins. The Puritan hat, combined with flowing cape, looks instantly iconic – especially during one of the films many low-angle ‘hero shots’. When garnished with muskets, swords, unnaturally clean teeth and a West Country accent, you’ve got an instantly unique central figure. There’s a depth to the character lacking in other similar works and Purefoy does a good job of keeping things emotionally anchored. Occasionally he’s unable to sell the film’s killer lines – made all the more difficult by sounding like Justin Lee Collins with laryngitis.

Ostensibly the plot is about the rescue of a barely-sketched girl but it’s very much Kane’s film and the supporting cast get very little to do - although Mackenzie Crook, Pete Postlethwaite, Max Von Sydow and Jason Flemyng all get their five minutes of scenery-chewing.

Occasionally all the soul-searching does become a bit of a struggle to endure and you yearn for some action. When the alleviating moments of arse-kickery do come along they’re pretty solid, despite occasionally mishandling what should have been the film’s money shots. Again, the (mis)use of CGI in action films rears its head here with the film resorting to cheap computer trickery when some grisly prosthetics would have looked better.

It never quite found its footing enough to call it great but there were enough brave choices and shining moments to recommend it. The highest recommendation is that the look of the film certainly stuck with me long after the vagaries of the plot had gone. I hope this does lead to a franchise as I’d quite like to see what could be done with the character in something better-developed.

3/5

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Micmacs




Micmacs

The last time Jean-Pierre Jeunet made a film borne out the frustrations of developing a big-budget Hollywood production, the result was Amélie. Micmacs is his attempt to positively spin the two wasted years he spent adapting The Life Of Pi into something closer to his previous work and his own sensibilities.

Micmacs is the tale of Bazil (Dany Boon), the survivor of a potentially fatal bullet to his head, who joins forces with a gang of misfits to take revenge on the weapons manufacturers he holds responsible. The problem with that summation is that it sounds like the set-up for a justice-seeking action flick – and not a whimsical slapstick farce that calls to mind Buster Keaton more than it does Mel Gibson.

Jeunet’s usual signifiers are there in force from the gang of outsiders, each with their own unique quirk, to the sickly yellow hue that colours every scene, making it look like it’s being projected through a fug of sulphur. In typical Jeunet fashion, everything in the film has the aged, worn-out look that imbues everything with a lovable, past-its-prime charm. It’s a film about outsiders which doesn’t sneer at them.

It takes the conventions of a heist picture but the ragtag characters and situations always ensure that its played for comedy, rather than ever wringing any tension. There are some scenes of elaborately planned, organised anarchy as the crew attempt to spy, steal and dupe their way towards the big guns (literally). These set-piece scenes are all individually great fun to watch but there’s an ingredient missing.

Dany Boon has great comic timing and an innate ability to master the two great French arts of mime and farce. He’s an amazingly watchable presence with a hangdog expression that fits the film perfectly. Similarly, Jeunet-regular Dominique Pinon’s appearances (among the smattering of other faces from Amélie) as a rage-prone human cannonball are among the film’s many high-points.

Micmacs’ main problem is that it’s a mish-mash. It adopts a middleground between darkness and light which isn’t a problem in itself. However, it appears to be bolted together from elements of Jeunet’s other films; it has the assortment of ‘freaks’ and dystopia-lite elements of Delicatessen and The City Of Lost Children but is aiming for the warmth and feelgood nature of Amélie and A Very Long Engagement. At times it’s overtly political and message-driven but without the weight to carry any of these messages over properly.

The look of the film is always visually interesting. There’s a frenetic pace to proceedings and a kinetic energy to the camerawork. The ramshackle mechanical mice and scrapyard dens which populate the film have lost their lustre a bit as other filmmakers have (over)used the aesthetic since Jeunet first did. The build-up to the ending seems rushed with the grande climactic set-piece never feeling spectacular enough and an element of mean-spiritedness does begin to creep in, which is out of keeping with the rest of films quirkier elements.

I never lost interest in it, but it just doesn’t seem quite so fresh. It’s hard not to be charmed by it, from the 1940s-style opening credits to the out-of-step with reality world it inhabits, but all the disparate elements never quite connect.

It has definitely managed to dodge a bullet, but Jeunet needs to worry about the backward momentum of the recoil for his next project.

(Exactly on-the-line) 4/5

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: The Room



I'm seeing this again on Saturday, so will write up something more fully for that.

In the meantime, you can have a listen to me talk about it on The Movie Café on BBC Radio Scotland or have a read of (some of) my thoughts on it over at Jonathan Melville's wonderful It's On, It's Gone.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Whale Rider




Whale Rider

Going in, I had no idea what this was about other than fact the lead actress was the youngest ever Best Actress nominee at the Oscars and that it was presumably about riding whales. I think I expected an arthouse Free Willy. Instead what I got was the charming, and often heartbreaking, tale of a culture in turmoil and the strains focused on one young girl.

Paikea ‘Pai’ Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a Māori girl whose mother and twin brother die in childbirth. With her father also out of the picture, this throws up a problem as her brother was destined to carry on the tribe’s male lineage and eventually lead the fractured community; a fact which can’t be forgotten by Pai’s grandfather, Koro, the community chief.

We are lead into Pai’s detached world where her entire life is predetermined by the fact that, as a female, she will always be resented by her grandfather and never be treated as an equal in her tribe. Masculinity is at the heart of her community, which follows the ‘old ways’. The film works better as a wider examination of the tribulations facing Māori culture than it does as a small-scale family drama.

While it could be cut-and-dry with definitive lines drawn for our affection, both Pai and Koro are well-nuanced and sensitively crafted enough that we feel for both characters, despite any deficiencies. While not immediately sympathetic, there is a quiet dignity to Koro and, at heart, he only wants what is best for his people. Rawiri Paratene brings an air of nobility to the role and never fails to convince as he grieves for a culture slowly being lost to progression.

It’s rare to see a child actor able to carry such emotional weight without ever seeming precocious. Almost the entire film is focused on Pai and she never begins to grate, always convincing whether quietly sulking, fighting back or breaking down in tears.

There’s the occasional injection of levity into the film and the flat New Zealand accent gives the humblest of comedic lines a deadpan brilliance. There are a few moments in the film where I had to stifle a tear but it always felt genuine and never emotionally manipulative. While whales do eventually make an appearance they only serve to add depth to the narrative and never once look even remotely spectacular on screen.

The film does feel well-worn and never leads you anywhere have haven’t already seen coming a mile off. I suppose it’s not really trying to break boundaries but there’s something verging on the unsatisfying about it. The occasional voice-over which creeps in is unnecessary and seems included only as a shortcut for saying what could otherwise have been portrayed through the acting.

It never feels completely glib and when it deals with the bigger picture, it’s a real success. While the family drama is several notches above most others, it’s these elements of the film which seem to offer the neater conclusions.

3/5

Monday, 15 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Tesis




Tesis

Angela (Ana Torrent) is a film student in Madrid working on a thesis (the English translation of the title) about violence in cinema. When she hooks up with Chema (Fele Martinez), a horror geek, their enquiries lead them towards mysterious student Bosco (Eduardo Noriega) and into the sinister underworld of snuff movies.

In 1995 when this was made, film violence was very much a hot topic – and still is to some extent. By turning Angela's investigation into a thriller, where she comes up against the very issues she is researching, director Alejandro Amenábar has turned the film itself into a Meta comment on the subject. However, the academic subtext never takes away from the fact this is a well-crafted, suspenseful piece of work.

There is no protracted set-up and within ten minutes the thrust of the plot has begun and the mismatched investigative duo are established. As a ‘whodunnit’ thriller the film has more than enough chilling moments to keep you entertained. Never has the blinking light of a video camera been used to such creepy effect and the bland, amorphous locations of the college make for an unusual but effective setting, especially when plunged into darkness.

As a treatise on violent films, it’s less successful. It’s a bit too neat casting the ‘horror freak’ as anti-social and perverted. It does err towards the simplistic approach that violent films are giving the viewers “what they want”, but it ultimately leaves the viewer to make up their own mind. It goes to great lengths and employs various devices to ensure that despite the brutal horrors the characters are witnessing, the viewer never does.

The film could do with some judicious cutting to get it down to a punchier running time. It lags in the middle-section and by the time it reaches a crescendo of red herrings and bluffs/double bluffs, it has outstayed its welcome. The technology present throughout the film may have the net result of making it look dated, and the snuff idea has been readily used in Hollywood subsequently, but the ideas and execution are still mostly on the mark. That it occasionally calls to mind the likes of Hidden, Funny Games and Mute Witness is testament to this - especially when considering those films are either contemporaries or later works.

Tesis stands out as a good of example of an ideas-driven thriller. There’s some substance to the scares and it’s admirably handled on such a low budget. It adds further weight to the credo that it’s outside of the US and UK where the real innovative work is getting done in this genre – before it’s pilfered for mass market.

4/5

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Reviews: Ponyo + A Single Man + Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief + The French Connection




Ponyo

I’ll start with the shocking revelation that I’ve never been blown away by the much-fêted Studio Ghibli. Okay, that’s largely due to the fact I haven’t seen very many. I enjoyed Spirited Away but, still, their appeal always largely mystified me. You’ll note the use of ‘mystified’, past tense.

It’s worth pointing out that I saw the English-dubbed version, which seems heavy-handed in its voice-casting, but Ponyo was everything I’d been lead to believe Ghibli’s (and more specifically Hayao Miyazaki’s) films were. Once I was able to absorb the cutesified anime rendering, which makes Disney princesses look world-weary, the cherubic world the film inhabits is a wonder to behold.

To sell it in story terms doesn’t do it justice as it works far better on a credulous emotional level. Ponyo is the name given to an odd fish-like creature (referred to as a ‘goldfish’ in the film) discovered and taken-in by Sosuke, a sweet-natured young boy. When Ponyo’s father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) takes her back undersea, she decides to become human. That’s really all you need. If it hasn’t sold it to you by then, chances are it’s not going to.

The nautical air of the film is awe-inspiring from the stylised, Hokusai-like rolling ocean to the detailed craft and graceful aquatic creatures. When there’s a storm, it feels like a storm, despite the rolling waves largely being comprised of gigantic fish. The Ghibli world is not anchored in reality. The human characters lead ordinary lives but defy a real grounding in logic while the magical realms follow no formula and throw in a bit of everything.

The thing is, none of that matters. It’s all about how it makes you react. Sure magic spells and whatnot are a convenient get-out clause for any situation and, despite living undersea, Fujimoto is not only human but a New Romantic androgyne. None of it makes any sense.

There’s never an implicit bad guy. Nobody comes out of it badly and there’s never a real sense of any danger. In other such simplistic fables that might be a problem but here it’s not. The whole thing is so beautiful it barely crosses your mind.

It’s a joyous, marvellous, childlike adventure, told from a child’s perspective and its complete lack of cynicism is what makes it so blissful to behold.

5/5


A Single Man

Much attention has been focused on the fact that A Single Man is fashion designer Tom Ford’s first foray into film-making. To focus on his previous career seems almost unfair but then so much of the film is about style and fashion is fetishised from beginning to end. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily a bad thing and it’s by no means all that’s going on. There’s certainly a lot else to love in this debut feature.

George (Colin Firth) is a sartorial English professor who we follow for a day in his life, eight months after the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident. It just so happens that the day we follow him appears to have been planned as his last day.

It has been meticulously photographed and the washed-out aesthetic and veneer of grain in every frame suits the 1962 setting. It also gives a considered artfulness to every scene. Colin Firth puts in an amazing performance, the kind you had long forgotten he was capable of. George is a fully-rounded character whose grief is believable and tangible without ever breaking down into the unsubtle displays of anguish we’re used to seeing on film. His relationship with both Jim (told in flashback) and Charley (Julianne Moore) have the trappings of genuine emotion, with Moore again proving why she’s possibly the most fearless actress out there.

It’s a shame that it’s the film’s occasional lack of subtlety that’s its undoing. Whenever an ounce of joy is introduced to George’s life (whether it be as minute as a smile or a conversation), Ford ramps up the colour and the screen radiates, lifting the greys. It’s a cheap shortcut and stands out every time it occurs. As well as the exaggerated colour grading, the film is also thwarted by an ending (which I won’t delve into) which is so neat and perfect it’s almost unbearable.

It is hard to look beyond the stylistic trappings at times but there is a powerful, beautifully told story in there which really does convince on a number of levels.

4/5


Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief

As lazy a comparison as it is, there’s not much more to this than a Potter pretender. Harry Potter may not have been terribly original (or good) but Percy Jackson & The Lighting Thief is very much following in its shadows, crying out for a franchise to rival its inspiration.

Here’s the thing though, I enjoyed it more than any of the Harry Potter films. I think if I were to pinpoint a reason it would be due to the fact that it wears its inspiration on its sleeve. If you’re going to pinch mythology from other sources to weave together into something ‘new’, at least choose from the best. Swiping characters and villains from Greek mythology does precisely that.

Percy Jackson is living a cinematically ordinary life but discovers he is the son of Poseidon, and therefore a demigod. As concepts go, it’s pretty slick and it opens up a world of established, iconic figures (Centaurs, Satyrs, Medusa, Hydra and Minotaur among them). The quest itself is largely inconsequential seeking, as the film does, to merely introduce characters and concepts in the hope of building upon them in later films.

The central tenet of a youngster finding his place is weak but it’s pretty gutsy for a kid’s film. Characters are beheaded, blood is drawn in (practice) ancient war games and to an extent viewers are credited with at least a basic knowledge of Greek mythology without having it entirely rammed down their throats. It moves along at pretty decent pace, never really leaving adequate time for you to get bored by it, despite an obvious obstacle methodically appearing at every turn.

The star names never amount to anything more than cameos. Pierce Brosnan is wise mentor, Uma Thurman is Medusa (played as Cruella De Vil), Rosario Dawson appears as a sultry Persephone, Sean Bean is a stern Zeus and Kevin McKidd is a fatherly, noble Poseidon. Catherine Keener makes an appearance having apparently given up on taking any interesting roles, now consigned to playing harangued mothers in every film requiring one. The biggest waste is Steve Coogan as Hades. Allegedly the film’s main villain, he appears late-on apparently still in character as Tommy Saxondale and promptly does very little.

Despite being Hellenic Gods (played by British actors) they apparently only seem interested in banging Americans, if their progeny is anything to go by. The entire film posits America as central to this new generation of deities; they’re born there and the Olympians have decreed they be trained there. Even the entrances to the Underworld and Mount Olympus are dutifully hidden in iconic American landmarks. It gets pretty wearisome.

The Potter-aping ‘chosen one’ core is pretty brazen but it’s entertaining enough with a decent central premise, nice special effects and a smarter-than-your-average folklore to keep it ticking along.

3/5


The French Connection

This is another of these films which are generally regarded as a classic, with the Oscars to back it up. It’s also one which I had never seen.

Based on true events, detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) are hard-bitten New York cops who stumble across a plan to import large amounts of heroin from France. What follows is their bullish, headstrong charge into building a case and sorting out formalities later.

It’s the prototype for gritty cop thrillers and completely deserving of its iconic (although, at the time, iconoclastic) status. William Friedkin was a master at his craft and able to create a gripping narrative from what is (by today’s standards) bordering on slight. It’s not overwrought and just gets on with the business of progressing things at a steady pace, with a driving force.

You’ve got everything you need and it never feels dumbed-down. In much the same way as The Wire 30-years-later, it doesn’t simplify. If you don’t catch something, tough. In contrast to the scenes of bravado shown on the street, Hackman and Scheider have a nice chemistry together and the partners have a sense of fun with each other which never seems forced.

The iconic elevated train car chase stands up well, as do the film’s foot chases and scenes of surveillance. They’re all handled with efficiency by Friedkin and keep the momentum going for the relatively short running time. They’re helped in part by that most important, but often forgotten, element; the authentic location. New York is as much a part of the film as any of the characters and the sense of legitimacy rings out from every frame. Accompanied by Don Ellis’ sparse jazz score, the visuals have a verve rarely scene in other works of the genre.

Marginal slenderness aside, this is absolutely solid with an ambiguous ending which manages the rare feat of tying up a film satisfactorily without overtly neat packaging. Its influence is instantly recognisable in much that has followed.

4/5

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Toda'y Viewing & Review: Thirst




Thirst

Over the last few years two clear sub-strains of boundary-pushing vampire films have taken hold, breaking from traditional depictions of blood-hungry ghouls. On one hand you have the sensitive, gore-free portrayals witnessed in Twilight and its youngster-friendly clones. On the other you have innovative (largely non-English speaking) approaches, like Let The Right One In, which attempt to break from all but the essential iconic features of the genre. This latter sub-type has its roots in films like George A. Romero’s Martin and Thirst very much fits into this category.

Coming from director Park Chan-Wook, this South Korean take makes vampirism a disease-combatant which ‘cures’ Sang-Hyeon, a priest struck down by infection while undertaking missionary work. Vampirism blights him with the obvious side-effect of bloodlust, which he satiates by sneaking the odd sip from comatose patients at the hospital where he does his rounds. It also offers him new found abilities and awakens a dormant sexuality that clearly doesn’t fit with his chosen profession.

It’s an innovative spin on the genre. For the most part, this doesn’t play like a vampire film at all. Sure, the scenes of blood letting are present but they’re not foregrounded as much as the relationship elements. When they are there’s no translucent, sparkly skin here – this is viscera in all its glory. Vampirism and eroticism have always been historically closely linked and this remedies that ethos, which has disappeared of late. At times this approximates something like Lust, Caution more than it does toothless (and sexless) teen-vamp fare.

The cinematography is glacially conducted and often inventive. The occasional high-angle shot manages the distinct feat of making the vampire seem unnaturally powerful but also down-to-Earth and ‘real’. An early scene displaying vampire hyper-sensitivity stands out as one of the best depictions of a fledgling sense of ability I’ve seen. Similarly, the display of power as courtship technique (seen in loads from the aforementioned Twilight to Superman) is stylishly done with a minimum of over-sensitivity.

Where the film falters is when it takes a comedic turn in the latter half. The scenes of vampire near-domesticity don’t quite fit in with the cold stylistics of the earlier parts. The ghostly reappearance of a victim stands out as lazy, even more so when played for laughs. It isn’t too much of a distraction and the film does recover for a wondrous final act.

This is everything a vampire film should be; dark, sensual, original, bloody and, above all, entertaining. The shiftless moping about being undead is mainly kept under wraps. It’s gruesome at times but also strangely romantic.

5/5

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: I Confess




I Confess

This is very much one of the ‘lesser’ Hitchcocks. It doesn’t feature an awful lot in discussions of his canon and, ashamedly, is one of his that’s completely passed me by.

Montgomery Clift cuts an unnaturally dashing priestly figure as Father Michael Logan who, during the course of a confession, hears an admission of murder committed by the church’s caretaker. The problem is Logan becomes the chief suspect and, by nature of his holy vows, is unable to turn-in the true perpetrator. Even if he were to break his vows, his alibi risks revealing a forbidden desire that still lingers.

It’s very much a low-key ethics story dealing in the dual themes of duty and desire. Does obligation take precedence over justice, and does (repressed) passion take precedence over obligation? The film takes some cues from film noir and German Expressionism with long shadows cast as crimes are committed and highly dramatised lighting throwing stark relief upon this notion of duality. The architecture of the Québécois location is utilised to great effect, particularly in the way religious buildings and artifacts are shot from low angles in high contrast.

Father Logan’s emotionally torn priest should be an interesting character. His previous relationship with Ruth (Anne Baxter) and the simmering, unrequited tension it creates should be able to hold the attention. The problem may be in either performance or concept but the fact that Logan is duty-bound to keep schtum makes for an infuriatingly sombre lead, always being dominated by events and never taking control of them.

In saying that, after a slow start, the film picks up when the back story begins to emerge. It never truly becomes successful until the flashback scenes which give some much-needed motivation to the characters. The interaction between Clift and Baxter is well played, never quite breaking out into full melodrama.

It’s never intended to be a murder mystery in much the same way as Rear Window, Strangers On A Train and Rope from the same period. You know ‘who did it’ from-the-off and all the tension stems from how events surrounding the murder will play out in relation to central character. In fact, it’s probably most impressive, if slightly obvious, when it reaches the inevitable courtroom drama stages.

While never reaching the dizzying brilliance of some of Hitch’s comparable work of the same era, even a lower-strata Hitchcock is still a cut above many other thrillers, modern or contemporary.

3/5

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: The Wolfman




The Wolfman

There’s a maxim in Hollywood that adverse pre-publicity and reports of on-set trouble usually equals a poor end-product. It’s probably fitting to mention now that The Wolfman went through two directors, countless reshoots and had its release date pushed back over a year. It would be fair to say pre-release hype wasn’t boding well. So now that the oft-delayed remake of the classic Universal horror has finally reared its lupine chops the pre-release anti-hype has been proved, for the most part, right.

In a pretty dead-on piece of casting Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot and his lunar counterpart. Returning to his ancestral home and father (Sir Anthony Hopkins) after his brother is slain by a beast of unknown origin, it’s not long before Benicio has been bitten by the same beast and begins to develop a penchant for moonlit saunters and the tang of blood. His brother’s grieving fiancée (Emily Blunt) is there solely to provide the film with a female face, and nothing else. The whole thing is suitably gothic and, to its credit, evokes the staginess of the 1941 original. Retaining the Victorian period setting is an admirable choice. It would have been easy to contemporise it because, unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman itself is lacking the same iconic status - it’s the concept of lycanthropy which has endured, rather than a particular character.

First, the good: the film looks pretty great. It seems legitimately location-based, rather than on a soundstage and the every set is swathed in atmospheric fog. The opening act is particularly impressive. The set-up isn’t drawn out and it moves along at pretty breakneck speed. An attack on a Gypsy encampment is extremely well-handled; it’s fast, frenzied and brutal. The creature is seen in glimpses and every shock jolt is powerfully thudding, leaving your teeth rattling and your eyes gaping. There’s a real sense of weight and pure brute force to the attacks which leaps off the screen. Similarly the decision to (mainly) use Rick Baker’s practical make-up effects for the monster pays dividends in giving the creature substance. Some of the transformation scenes are almost, but not quite, up there with those in An American Werewolf In London. There’s the same popping, crunching, buckling impact and real sense that there’s a physiological change going on, not just excessive sprouting of hair. As a creature, the Wolfman is defiantly old-school.

However, almost every positive aspect is cancelled-out by one of the film’s many problems. Primarily, it’s hugely underdeveloped. It feels like a patch-up job. The characters are lacking in real motivation and suitable pathos. Despite Lawrence being a good man with a horrific curse, it all seems so matter-of-fact and lacking in patience. Passé time-lapse interstitials seek to rob the film of any real emotional weight or character development by skipping over an entire lunar cycle to get to the next metamorphosis as quickly as possible with monotonous efficiency. Any supposed twist is signposted well in advance and as clear to see as a full moon on a cloudless night. Hugo Weaving, as Inspector Abberline (a pitiful attempt to tie the film in with Jack the Ripper lore), never quite masters the accent and appears sporadically to flesh out a thin script. Anthony Hopkins appears to be going ‘method’ if the mumbling performance he puts in is anything to go by – it seems at times as if he’s plain forgotten his lines (which were presumably subject to change at pretty short notice on this set). Most criminally, the previously mentioned practical effects are undone at every opportunity by bad CGI. You can always see the join between what’s ‘real’ and what’s not and it’s jarring.

There are definitely a few positives to be taken from it. It’s not a terrible film but, with any knowledge of the project’s history, it’s easy to spot where the film has been as savagely mauled as one of the victims of the eponymous beast. It’s as disjointed as a severed arm and ultimately never engages, captures the imagination or carries you along on the visceral wave of adrenaline it should.

2/5

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Manon Des Sources



Manon Des Sources

Picking up around a decade after the events of Jean De Florette, ‘Le Papet’ (Yves Montand) and Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) have prospered as a result of their misdeeds in the first instalment. Their flower-growing business is successful and they still hold power and sway in the community. However, with no heir and Ugolin without a wife, Papet’s concern has turned to the protection of their noble lineage. An ethically problematic solution presents itself with the return of Jean’s daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), now a comely young woman, with whom Ugolin has become infatuated.

It’s always a danger when the second instalment in a series adopts a darker atmosphere (particularly when the first part was amply murky) but, bearing in mind the turn of events, there really was no other direction for it to go in. The repercussions are still strongly felt by all parties. There is distinctly less attention paid to the same beautiful scenery and more on characters and their motivations. The driving narrative is missing from this chapter but it’s thematically moved up a gear, making the previous grand themes seem positively lightweight. The myriad motifs covered here include; love, lust, obsession, guilt, madness, jealousy, revenge, redemption and regret. A heady mix indeed, although this comes with a not-always-unwelcome nudge towards melodrama and a loss of certain subtleties (particularly in the case of Ugolin).

While it doesn’t quite scale the heights of the première partie and the brutal simplicity contained there, it does move the chronicle into previously unseen territory. There’s a genuine investment in all the characters, which the film satiates. Both this and Jean De Florette were filmed together and based on a two-part novel by Marcel Pagnol, so this never has the feeling of an unnecessary sequel. The two parts complement each other and carry some elements through while developing others in a different direction. Even the famous central music has been tweaked slightly, to give it an even more melancholic edge. There’s a nice irony in the reversal of the previous film’s central clandestine action which brings the two together in a satisfyingly circular fashion.

For everything that’s astounding about it, it’s not without its minor faults. The suspension of disbelief needed to fathom the characters’ preternaturally innate ability to hide or move unnoticed at close quarters verges on the absurd. More significantly, Manon doesn’t come across as feisty or driven as you would expect and the film has the tendency to show its hand unexpectedly early, when prolonging the drama would have proved more affecting. The anticipated confrontation at the heart of the film doesn’t quite sing as it should and it’s hard to recover after that, despite the film’s most resonant moment coming later. Where possibly Manon herself is a dramatic disappointment, Papet is imbued with a far more rounded whole than could have been expected. In later scenes, as his house of cards begins to tumble around him, there’s a haunting sense of inevitability and sadness to his ignoble self-pitying.

This is every bit as gripping as the first, with overtones of Greek tragedy. Papet is the architect of his own downfall and the development of his character throughout the two films is one of the best arcs committed to film that I’ve seen in some time.

(As continuation of Part 1) 5/5

Monday, 8 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Roger & Me




Roger & Me

There’s not really a lot to add to the debate surrounding the films of Michael Moore. To criticise them as being one-sided, agenda-driven and left-leaning is missing their raison d’être – they’re fully intended to shape opinion and highlight Moore’s own political bugbears. I don’t have a problem with this as long as the audience is savvy enough not to blithely accept everything they’re told without question. I don’t mind the fact that Michael Moore chooses to give a face (his own) to his documentaries and use himself as a prism.

Unlike his more recent general attacks on obvious targets like Republican America, the gun lobby and US healthcare system, what sets this apart is the personal slant it’s given. This is an issue which is clearly very close to Moore. The fate of his hometown Flint, Michigan is directly linked with that of its primary employer, General Motors. When the decision is made to close the GM factory there, no-one is left unaffected. Moore himself is only one generation, or alternative life-choice, away from the effects of this closure being life-changing. Noting the negative effects on his place of birth, he seeks an audience with the vilified Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors, to highlight the troubles faced in Flint when the town effectively shuts down.

It’s easy now that we’re jaded by the prevalence of this type of documentary (not least Moore’s own diminishing returns) to forget that this was the first of its breed. Unlike the works of Nick Broomfield, who also appeared on-camera, this was coloured by an injection of humour and irreverence which flew in the face of its sober subject. Stock footage and 1950s promotional films are used to highlight the engulfing chasm between the prosperous town of yesteryear and the impoverished reality of 1989. It’s these inclusions which help make the rapid-fire delivery of facts and figures more digestible.

As with all Moore’s films it trips itself up with diversionary strolls down dead-ends and a reliance upon stunt confrontations. Stopping ‘Miss Michigan’ mid-parade for a sneering vox pop serves no purpose other than to highlight her vapidity for a cheap laugh. Similarly, the attempts to access GM headquarters, or Smith’s other haunts, which pepper the film are fruitless and seek merely to highlight Moore as a dauntless rebel figure. Despite the title, it’s as much about Moore’s actual interaction with Roger as Waiting For Godot is about what happens when Godot shows up.

The film’s not without powerful scenes, such as the intercutting of GM’s buoyant Christmas speech with scenes of a family being turfed from their home. Where it highlights the absurdities caused by the poverty (especially proposed new means of employment or locals’ makeshift sources of income) it’s more powerful than many of the more sincere scenes – and I would certainly be prepared to look away if you’re a rabbit lover.

The biggest problem is that despite the obvious parallels with the current financial situation it has dated badly. It’s hard to relate it to the world we currently reside in, even although it should resonate loudly. The cultural references are US-centric and liable to pass-by most other viewers. The film’s fractured nature and that it keeps returning to Moore’s empty CEO-seeking quest is alienating and takes away from what could be an illuminating cultural, and personal, case-study.

2/5

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Reviews: The Princess And The Frog + Invictus



The Princess And The Frog

Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. This is the much-vaunted return, after six years, to hand-drawn animation from Walt Disney - and return it does. Gone is the era of trying to compete with hyperactive TV animation with the likes of Home On The Range and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, this rests comfortably in the hands of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid directors; Ron Clements and John Musker. It harks back to classic-era Disney and it is authentically, and pleasingly, old-fashioned.

Tiana is a downtrodden, but lively-of-spirit, waitress in 1920s New Orleans who, through a series of convoluted circumstances, ends up as a frog alongside a handsome prince with a similar plight. They set out to be restored to human form and along the way encounter all manner of stock Disney archetypes from buffoonish, jazz-obsessed alligator Louis (a reptilian Baloo) to bumbling poachers, Cajun fireflies and vulgar (by House of Mouse standards) Southern belles. Doctor Facilier makes a charismatic, lithe villain. His angular, skull-infused design is the film’s best and the innovative voodoo-inspired scenes he features in are the real highpoints. He hits the right balance between comical and wicked and his shadow mercenaries are novel and well-realised.

The voice cast (including John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey and Keith David) is Creoled to the hilt and über-Southern. It occasionally verges on a slightly troubling stereotype (especially in the earlier scenes) but it’s soon forgotten when the film makes the switch to anthropomorphic mode.

To call it a complete return to hand-drawn animation is slightly bending the truth. There’s still an annoying reliance on the short-cut CGI enhancements which blighted Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast. It’s particularly noticeable in the opening shot and any scene involving water, fire or light and it never quite seamlessly blends. I can’t help but think if they managed without it in the golden era (for me) of the 50s and 60s, why can’t they show the nerve to do so here? Other modern concessions are more successful such as the simplified, graphically stark dream sequence in Tiana’s restaurant.

Unlike many recent animations there’s little concession made to adults here. This is almost resolutely a children’s’ film. There is the odd knowing nod, such as an A Streetcar Named Desire reference, but it’s never smug. It’s lively, it’s bouncy and it moves along at a cracking pace. Of course it’s got the usual Disney message (in this case, ‘it’s not how you look and what you are but how you are and who you are’) but that’s part of the deal, right? The Randy Newman music is jaunty and jazzy and the musical numbers are tunefully penetrating while being scarce enough to avoid undermining the narrative.

It may not be ground-breaking but that’s exactly the point. I enjoyed it immensely and it proves, if nothing else, that there’s still a place for this kind of thing if it’s done well.

4/5

Invictus

If ever a movie had ‘Oscar-bait’ imprinted through it, it’s this. Just the very idea of a unifying, message-driven sports movie is enough but with the added elements of Nelson Mandela and post-apartheid South Africa, it tips it over into the category of supreme worthiness. The concept of a nation united through sport is hoary to say the least but in this case it’s also a proven falsehood. Were I viewing this from a here-and-now standpoint of a racially integrated, problem-free South Africa it might have rung true. As it stands, it doesn’t, and it leaves the film with an offensive aftertaste. To mask it in the realms of ‘real life’ is bordering on fabulist. If the legacies of the film’s events could be proved true, then many of them were clearly short-lived and so still serve to rob the film of its significance.

It begins with a précis of Mandela’s release and election but cleverly avoids giving a ‘for beginners’ summation of apartheid. Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is facing the turmoil of being unable to unite his rainbow nation. The white South Africans are shown as mistrusting, while the black South Africans are portrayed as revelling in their new-found democratic abilities to wipe-out any indicators of their country’s recent past. This struggle is paralleled in the failing fortunes of the Springboks rugby team under the captaincy of François Pienaar (Matt Damon). They’ve been written-off by the media and their countrymen but the impending Rugby World Cup is seized upon by the President as a cause the entire nation can get behind.

Its over-simplification is its downfall. That’s not to say I didn’t perversely enjoy it for the well made, but inherently flawed, grandstanding hokum it was. The last thing I could do was take it seriously. It’s a blunt tool used to hammer a message home when surely something smaller-scale would have delivered the point more subtly. It’s best in the quieter, head-to-head, dialogue-driven scenes which intermittently appear among the plot-furthering and scene-setting grandeur.

Where it fails most frequently, as in most ‘real-life’ flicks, are the tortuous dramatically-weighted ‘magnificent’ scenes which litter the trailers. Pienaar’s post-meeting exclamation of “I think he wants us to win the World Cup” even comes with a punctuated pause for the resonance to sink in before cutting to a new scene. It’s these earnest beats throughout the film which do it the most harm, especially when coupled with an over-literal, almost parodical, schmaltzy ballad. In some of the films most awkward scenes, Mandela’s multi-ethnic team of bodyguards serve as a supposed microcosm of the country as a whole; initially apprehensive of each other but bonding through respect for their inspirational charge and new-found regard for rugby. A similarly cloying visit to the site of Mandela’s incarceration at Robben Island is both unnecessary and disruptive.

The lead performances are generally fine, if unspectacular. More attention appears to have been paid to mastering the notoriously difficult clipped South African accent and English-speaking Xhosa than giving any real spark to the performances. The main problem with Freeman’s Mandela is that it’s almost a role he’s too right for. As a result of previous contemplative mentor roles, Freeman has almost been ascribed the same gravitas and dignity as an actor as to Mandela himself. This status given to the actor allows the film to paper over many of the cracks in both the performance and occasionally-wavering accent. Subtle prosthetics are employed to lend more credence to the look of the actors but do nothing to make up for any discrepancy in Damon’s physical stature (highlighted in a cheeky “he looks taller on television” dig). Freeman has Mandela’s shambling, aged gait down-pat and the film goes to great lengths to point out his human frailty. It makes a piecemeal attempt to point out that he’s a man, not the saint he’s often perceived as, but never has the courage to delve into this any deeper.

The rugby scenes are surprisingly unspectacular, only once resorting to the slow-mo excess you would normally expect. Although the final act introduction of Jonah Lomu as a villainous figure attempts to give the sport an unneeded glamourous sheen. Scant regard is given to shoehorning in an explanation of the rules for a generally rugby-unfamiliar US audience, which is a pleasant surprise. The odd exception does creep though. Witness a ‘teach the basics’ coaching session for underprivileged children and a stark piece of exposition in its description of the All Blacks’ haka.

The central message of the film is that greatness is achieved by taking into account the “human calculation”, as opposed to political ones. It’s a nice message, but a simplistic one – much like the film itself. However, I can’t fault the fact it is at least (dishonestly) rousing. It musters a bare pass-mark largely due to Clint Eastwood’s solid direction but there are better, and less Oscar-begging, awards contenders out there.

(Barely scraped) 3/5

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Reviews: Youth In Revolt + The September Issue




Youth In Revolt

I’m not against a good wank gag per se but when the first sound you hear in a film, over the production credits, is the sound of the lead ‘achieving completion’ it would seem the cards have been very squarely laid on the table and preconceptions are formed. I’m a big fan of Michael Cera and could happily watch him wheel out his shtick time after time. He’s got deft comic timing and there’s something in his delivery which makes even the most thoroughly average joke raise a smile. That said he’s already developed a reputation for being the go-to guy for indie-skewed teen romcoms. In what seems like a deliberate attempt to both acknowledge and subvert the introverted geeky persona he’s cultivated, the entire thrust of this film is having him change to bad boy in order to woo a girl.

Its entire dialogue and motivations are hyper-stylised in the same way that Juno was. Michael Cera’s Nick Twisp is an effete intellectual type, like a less pretentious (and prodigious) Max Fischer. What little you see of the interchanges between him and his peers is predicated on the awkwardness that derives from his more cerebral nature, such as renting “so random” fare like Fellini’s La Strada. When he meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) he’s in similar company and it’s nice to see such a cineliterate teen film where an exchange can be centred around Mizoguchi vs Ozu. Any film where one of the protagonists is a Serge Gainsbourg fan has me sold.

The film’s central device, which sets it apart, is the fracturing of Twisp’s persona to create a rebellious schism based on Sheeni’s predilection for an enfant terrible. It may be gimmicky but it’s undoubtedly very funny. It eschews typical depictions of unruly youngsters, instead creating the nouvelle vague-inspired François Dillinger alter-ego who sports white loafers and is rarely seen without a Gauloise hanging from his pencil-moustached lip. It could easily fall-flat but having Michael Cera acting against himself provides the film with some of its most entertaining moments.

There’s so much about this that shouldn’t work. It chucks everything it has at the screen in the hope that at least some will stick. I’d say the ‘stick’ ratio was pretty high. Chiefly, the characters’ actions never seem genuinely motivated by anything other than supplying the film with its next obstacle. At times this proves cumbersome but this slightness is something I can overlook to an extent because of the general air of artifice the film relies upon. Short animated sections are incongruous but fun. An impressive supporting cast (Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Long, M. Emmett Walsh and the fantastic Fred Willard) are largely underused but their short comic turns are welcome distractions, particularly when under the influence of psychotropic substances. The whip-smart script raises the occasional licentious moment but is generally more sweet natured than it likes to think it is.

It’s verging on insubstantial but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I laughed throughout and was hooked by its charm. I felt the same way about this as many others did (500) Days Of Summer. It relies heavily on a central convoluted conceit and it is achingly arch, but knowingly so. It plays upon this archness pushing the film to the point where it’s no longer an issue.

It may not quite be the ‘revolution’ it’s billed as but it’s inventive and droll with enough bite to overlook some of the more glaring flaws.

4/5


The September Issue

As anyone who’s met me will attest, I’m not the target audience for fashion-related media but I’d heard this was a fascinating and myth-busting peer into that world. This is a documentary focusing on Anna Wintour (elsewhere given the moniker ‘Nuclear Wintour’), editor-in-chief of American Vogue, as the magazine prepares for the publication of its prestigious September issue.

Despite trying to assuage the widely-held prejudices about the fashion industry, all this film serves to do is confirm that it seems exactly as vacuous and ridiculous as you would expect, inhabited largely by outlandish, attention-seeking figures. Sure it gives an insight into the inner-workings of a magazine and the pressures brought about by an impending deadline but it’s nothing that anyone with any nouse wouldn’t realise anyway.

Anna Wintour comes across as rude, disinterested and vile to all around her, but then I suppose that’s exactly the film’s selling point. If I didn’t know better I would think she, and others around her, were playing up to stereotypes for the film. The men are mainly preening, foppish and affected while the women are very much the dominant figures.

The odd personality does emerge from the film seeming well-rounded but I fear that’s only because the film-makers have set it up in such a way (although I was surprised at how many of the staff look anachronistic with regards to their chosen industry). Fashion editor (and former model) Grace Coddington does challenge the preconception that everyone in the industry is shallow and contemptible but the film posits her as such an obvious antithesis to Wintour that any impact is lost. It’s engineered to highlight a Grace vs Anna conflict at every available opportunity in order to give the film a lazy, but pleasing, narrative arc. This focus on their constant butting of heads seems heavy-handed and is, inevitably, neatly tied-up by the end with a handy conflict resolution piece delivered straight-to-camera.

The film as a whole is not particularly insightful and is about as inane as the industry it purports to represent. It’s entirely without a message but there’s something quite noble about that ethos. It has nothing to say and it’s not ashamed of it. Despite my instincts, I was intrigued for the most part and it did hold my attention which, for a film about something so alien and disinteresting to me, is an achievement of sorts.

2/5

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Jean De Florette




Jean De Florette

I’m a sucker for Le Cinéma Français and this really is one of the generally regarded national classics – an all-conquering powerhouse of French film. I can only assume the reason it has taken me so long to get around to it is precisely because of this status and that I didn’t want to be let down by it. I’m inordinately pleased to report that I wasn’t.

Despite being a deceptively simple tale, this deals with some of the greater human themes; envy, greed, tragedy and loss. Gathering a cast of contemporary French cinema’s biggest hitters (Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil, and Gérard Depardieu) and set against a backdrop of stunning Provençale vistas it couldn’t be more epic, yet it’s contained within a small-scale character drama. ‘Le Papet’ (Montand) and his simple-minded nephew Ugolin (Auteuil) hatch a scheme to purposefully block access to an essential natural spring in an effort to hide it from its rightful owner, Jean 'De Florette' (Depardieu) – or drive him away.

Behind the façade of rustic, Gallic charm is a tale of deceit at its basest level. Depardieu is the incomer, riling the locals chiefly for that reason – he doesn’t belong. He’s from the city, he’s deformed and his agricultural knowledge comes from books and not years tending the soil. The subtle, deliberately naïve performance from Depardieu makes his betrayal seem all the more harrowing. While ‘Le Papet’ is the puppet master pulling the strings from a safe distance, Ugolin is right there with Jean, the eternal optimist, exploiting his greenness and hiding behind supreme benevolence. The whole set-up is geared towards stirring emotions within the viewer – the beauteous, verdant scenery contrasting sharply with the rotten core of the arch-manipulator and his equally-culpable sidekick. Montand’s conniving Papet is played against expectations as a matter-of-fact, cheery uncle figure. Never getting his hands dirty he plays with Jean’s life, a smile tripping across his lips as he does.

This certainly isn’t a direct comparison but occasionally there’s something (maybe the key importance of the underground source of riches combined with an amoral protagonist) which lends the film echoes of There Will Be Blood, but the quintessentially French equivalent, replacing oil with spring water; There Will Be Evian(?)

There’s so much to enjoy in this from the cinematography to the fine performances and, not least of all, the score. Composer Jean-Claude Petit’s stirring main theme (with cues from Verdi) is a work of great beauty and fragility but is, sadly, destined to be remembered as the oh-so-French soundtrack for a series of increasingly tacky oh-so-French beer ads.

It wouldn't be full disclosure if I didn’t mention that it moved me to tears on more than one occasion. When Jean’s grand designs lie in tatters and his life is unravelling his cri du coeur, rallying at the Heavens, is a truly heart-wrenching moment.

It’s affecting, beautifully played and perfectly paced but it’s very much ‘part one’ of a duo and, while I absolutely loved this, I’m reserving full judgement until I’ve completed the saga.

(As standalone) 5/5

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: The Quick And The Dead




The Quick And The Dead

1995 seems like a lifetime ago. Leonardo DiCaprio was embryonic and even more boyish, Russell Crowe was svelte and Sharon Stone could still get the lead role in a movie. There was a Western revival of sorts off the back of Unforgiven and Tombstone but this attempts to subvert most all that came before, not least by having its central lone rider a female. It’s entirely without any of the deeper themes prevalent in revisionist Westerns and is far more concerned with foregrounding comic elements missing from its wider genre stablemates.

To describe this in terms of a plot almost seems to be missing the point entirely. This is so lightweight as to be gossamer. The premise is so stripped-down that it contains no discernable set-up or convoluted set of circumstances to draw you in. Within mere minutes the film has established all it needs to establish and has removed all extraneous elements, leaving just barely-sketched characters and a raw scenario in the form of that most Western of staples; the shootout (in this case, a tournament). Disparate gunslingers (Crowe, DiCaprio and Stone among others) are assembled in a lawless town to compete for a prize offered by the crooked landowner (Gene Hackman), but some have come with another agenda. Nothing else is required, or offered - it’s a Western reduced to its barest essentials.

This is a cartoon in all but the fact it’s not animated. It’s like Wacky Races if cars were substituted for Smith & Wessons. It’s big and it’s dumb, gunshot wounds leave perfectly symmetrical holes right through their victims and characters are metaphorically (if not literally) 2-dimensional. Gene Hackman in particular snarls with relish and generally lords it over everyone else. Only Sharon Stone doesn’t fare so well, comparatively speaking, seeming generally ill at ease with her surroundings.

Despite an atypical genre, this is instantly recognisable as having Sam Raimi’s DNA running through it. It looks incredible and there’s a visceral energy and flow to proceedings. The constantly-roving camera tilts and swings in locked unison with objects on screen and gives them an anthropomorphic POV. It’s all very frantic but in the most controlled of manners. Flashy and lacking in maturity they may be, but the visual flourishes are countless and vastly inventive from the crash zooms to the askew angles and dolly zooms (‘Jaws shots’) stacked one on top of another. There’s a distinctive, almost metronomic, rhythm to the action scenes and the film is tight and punchy, never outstaying its welcome or outliving its slight premise.

It might make Back To The Future Part III look like The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford in terms of a realist depiction of the Old West but when it’s this much fun to watch that never matters. Perhaps ‘riveted’ is too strong but I was certainly fixed to the screen for the duration with a colossal grin plastered across my phizog.

4/5

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Lady In White




Lady In White

Let’s cut to the quick, this is almost certainly guaranteed a place in my top ten worst films of all-time. It’s that objectionable. Ostensibly it’s a star vehicle for ‘The Kid From Witness’. Locked overnight in school as a prank, Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is visited by two entities; the ghost of a dead girl and her still-alive killer.

From an exposition-heavy opening, which sets up the lead character in as awkward a way as possible, it almost-immediately forgets about him and ‘fades’ back to 1962 when our narrator was but a lad. We’re plunged back into small town Americana - all cheery waitresses in Formica diners, cornfields, clean streets, chirpy paperboys and wholesome idealism. It’s also Halloween. Sigh. From there on in, the film never once settles on a tone. It hyperactively flits from genre to genre, ultimately (I presume) aiming for a nostalgic Stephen King-alike, coming-of-age ghost story.

It begins as all-out madcap with kids running around being all wacky and indulging in tomfoolery, exemplified and heightened by the synthy plink-plonk music. Elsewhere, when the supernatural elements surface, it’s straight-faced and earnest. When the mood strikes it also takes in child abuse and racial injustice, with none of the depth and gravitas you would expect.

The acting is uniformly awful, from the adults to the children. It’s the least nuanced ensemble cast I’ve ever seen. It’s as if the children are autonomously directing themselves, and the rest of the hammy cast, in a 3rd rate school play. Lukas Haas has that creepy kid quality last seen in Haley Joel Osment and his chief talent seems to be the ability to sit completely still with eyes wide-open and mouth agog. His Italian family are the kind of racial stereotypes that make the Dolmio family look like the paragon of political correctness. The entire town seems to have been cast entirely of the most excruciatingly abysmal actors reading from the clunkiest script I’ve ever seen.

Foremost, I can’t even work out if this is a kids’ film, or not. It certainly plays like (a bad) one. It’s like The Lovely Bones filmed as a particularly weak episode of Goosebumps before staggering on to shades of To Kill A Mockingbird by way of a poor facsimile of Stand By Me’s authorly narration. One minute it’s screwball hi-jinks like chasing a baby alligator round the derelict house of a woman who committed suicide after her daughter was molested and killed(!), then it’s on to a Jack Ruby style courthouse assassination. It’s borderline schizophrenic – and it doesn’t even seem to realise. The final act revelation is not only predictable but inappropriately campy and mishandled beyond belief.

The over-used special effects are dreadful although, to its credit, the appearances of the Lady in White herself are the film’s zenith. Sure, they might be entirely riffing on other, better stuff, like Salem’s Lot, but at least the film can say it got one thing right.

There really is nothing to recommend this. A borderline rant, this may be, but it’s rare that you see a film so woeful that it can’t even nail down a genre, let alone begin to master any of them.

1/5