Thursday, December 14, 2006

13th Dec 06 - Stranger Than Fiction

Remember when Jim Carrey made a host of wacky comedies, carving himself a role as THE comic actor of choice, and then he made a serene, gorgeous film called The Truman Show that threw up interesting ideas about life and showed he had a different kind of acting bone in his body? Remember that? Well guess what Will Ferrell’s done…

Yup, Stranger Than Fiction is, like The Truman Show, an unusual story with a few sparks of humour, but overall a darker tone for what you might consider a ‘mainstream’ film. It features an actor known for loud crazy outbursts acting all quiet and subdued. And has a God-like character overseeing everything. It’s deja-vu, but in a really good way.

Stranger Than Fiction has Ferrell as Harold Crick, a solitary man who leads quite a boring little life, until he suddenly starts to hear a woman’s voice narrating everything he does. Cut to struggling author Kay Eiffel played by Emma Thompson, whose new book is about a solitary man called Harold Crick… The trailer made this look like one of those ‘quirky comedies’ made for Christmas, that try to be clever but end up being shit. But I found myself pleasantly surprised to see a bold idea that unravels into a fascinating study of how you face your life, and your own mortality.

Ferrell is the driving force, and like Carrey, he pulls off the crestfallen look with charm, only occasionally descending into his trademark shouts. It’ll be interesting to see if he pursues this change of acting, or go back to what he does best. He’s supported by the brilliantly dowdy Emma Thompson (come on the Brits) and the likeable, nearly too cute Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the token love interest with a bit of sass.

This film engaged me. The plot engaged me, the characters did, and I actually had those emotion thingys that people talk about. I liked it. But here’s why it’s not getting top marks.

It’s a neat idea that’s nicely done, but it’s a little bit lazy. Characters are mega-clichés. Harold is an accountant who’s boring and is obsessed with numbers (stretch of the imagination, that one. Though seriously, I know many accountants and most are a nice bunch with only a healthy liking for figures). The novelist is a bit weird and a chain-smoker who wears a big cardigan. They drag in Queen Latifah, (who, if she wants to be taken seriously as an actress, should really change her name from ‘Queen’) who plays the most pointless role as an assistant to Kay. A role that should have been described as ‘filler so novelist has someone to explain her feelings to because I can’t be bothered finding a better way to show it.’ Similarly, the use of Kay as narrator to Harold feels ever so slightly like cheating. We get to hear everything he’s thinking and feeling without any effort at all. Magic.

But despite that barrage of pickiness, this is still a solid film, and a refreshing addition to your everyday multiplex. Maybe in more creative hands this could’ve been a masterpiece. As it was, this is an enjoyable, engaging film with a strong cast and a reasonably original idea. It gets a point for creating an absorbing two hours, and I’m giving it an extra point because I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. Clawing its way at my impending ‘Top 10 of 2006' (will it make it? Stay tuned to find out…) Stranger Than Fiction gets CF2.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

6th Dec 06 - Pan's Labyrinth

According to the 80’s classic, Labyrinths are huge mazes full of strange Jim Henson creations, jolly musical interludes and David Bowie’s gigantic crotch. My tip of the day is this: Do not expect the same from Pan’s Labyrinth.

Expect instead a dark, textured, disturbing-as-hell piece that’s most certainly not for kiddies. It’s Spain in 1944, and young Ofelia travels with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a captain dealing with the remnants of the Spanish civil war. Ofelia loves reading elaborate fairy tales, and as her mother battles with a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia stumbles across a strange labyrinth filled with mysterious beasties. So far so blah – it could easily be one of those made-for-Christmas kiddie flicks with words like ‘magical’ and ‘enchanting’ attached to it.

But this is from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who’s responsible for things like Hellboy and Blade II. His new film is enchanting, but enchanting in the same way that a dripping hell-beast slowly dragging itself over the ground towards you might be enchanting. You’re certainly captivated, but you’re definitely freaking out at the same time. Guillermo designed the beasties himself, the most notable being ‘the Pale-Man’, a hairless baby-eater who inserts his eyes into his palms before commencing chase. Bowie’s crotch was disturbing, but christ, the Pale-Man would scar you for life if you encountered that as a child.

But the labyrinth inhabitants aren’t the only nasty things in this film. Ofelia’s new step dad, Capitan Vidal, is what you might call a bit of a twat. A violent fascist with a fondness for torture, who makes the giant toad Ofelia must deal with look like a cuddly rabbit. The action is split evenly between Ofelia’s adventures in her labyrinth and the ongoing battle between the Capitan and the resistance.

The look of Pan’s Labyrinth is darkly fantastic, but the sound of it adds brilliant texture. Slightest sounds – the creak of leather boots, the sharp crack of a bullet, the thwack of a hammer against face – are enhanced, making Ofelia’s world feel very much alive. The violence is brutal and shocking, but expertly cut. Very little gore is seen, but you most certainly feel it.

The parallels between the real world and the mythical are generally obvious (you'd have to be a fool not to notice the link between scary, monsterous daddy and scary, monsterous, err, monster) but cleverly executed, and the two compliment each other to produce an unsettling but compelling experience. It boasts a strong cast, prominent direction and awesome effects (considering the budget was around $13m – compare that to the $200m of Superman and you realise how absurd Hollywood can be).

For having a substantial impact on me, Pan gets an extra point, and I’m giving it another for portraying fantasy without relying on too many clichés or singing dwarves. Therefore, Pan’s Labyrinth stomps in with a chilling CF2. Watch it. Be enthralled. But don’t expect a fun romp in a maze. Or a big British crotch.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

29th Nov 06 - Casino Royale

I don’t like Bond. As a franchise it’s dumb. Dumb action films aimed at blokes. They objectify women, have rubbish puns, laughably silly baddies, an impossibly-good-at-everything lead and there’s always a winter chase on weird jet powered skis. It’s paint-by-numbers entertainment for easily pleased (some might say “simple”) minds. Like I said, it’s aimed at blokes.

Insulting people is fun.

Anyway, the new Bond had words like ‘dark’, ‘violent’ and ‘realistic’ attached to it. They’ve changed the franchise, Batman Begins style, and I was curious to see the results. Spurred on by my MI:3 fun, I pushed past the crowds and faced my Bond hatred head-on. And it wasn’t half bad. By that I mean half of it wasn’t bad. This is a grittier, nastier Bond to the fancy pants smarmy-arse of recent times. The grainy opening battle in the close confines of a toilet cubicle sets the tone. Fights are brutal, angry, bloody. They’re also flamboyant in places, but in less of a silly ‘surfing on a car’ way and more like ‘leaping over cranes’ excitement. There are so many different action pieces I can’t actually remember them all. But I never once rolled my eyes at some unbelievable stunt, so that’s a good sign.

And Daniel Craig. My God. There was this big hoo-har about how you can’t have a blonde Bond, Craig’s not handsome enough, it’ll never work. To that I say ‘Bond is fictional, get over it.’ And I’ll now add ‘have you seen him? I mean, like, actually seen him?’ Because if you have, you’ll know. Craig IS Bond. He has the effortless charm, the sly little smile, the CGI-blue eyes (come on, no one’s eyes can be that blue). And he certainly has the right physique. Bond is a trained killer, after all, and Craig looks like he could very easily kill you. With his big biceps. Lovely big biceps. And he gets stabbed a bit in his smooth, hard stomach. And is naked during a torture scene. Quite frankly, I am now in love with Daniel Craig, and anyone who dares say he isn’t handsome enough will face my wrath.

Crazy fans of Bond might throw their hands up in rage. They can’t change Bond like that! It’s an institution! But despite the darker edges, this is still very much a Bond flick. Women are still around as sexual objects or whimpering idiots. The baddy is the most ludicrously evil-looking baddy ever, sporting a Dr. Evil style eye scar and weeping, yes, actually weeping blood. There are fast cars and nice clothes and glamorous locations. It’s still Bond. Just better. This Bond is human. He’s arrogant, makes mistakes, gets hurt and has lovely thighs.

But as I said before, only half of this film is good. Unfortunately it loses its thrilling impact because it goes on for EVER. At 144 mins (still not the 150 mins of Shit Pirates of the Shit-ibbean) the novelty begins to wear thin, especially as the films ends and then has twenty minutes of naff romance. I know exactly why this was (to show why Bond is like he is, bless him) but there was no need to drag it out for that long and in that way. It’s such a shame, because I was really enjoying this film. But rather than leave the cinema with that excited rush, I instead left a bit annoyed and bored.

Bond gets a point for roughing up the franchise and bringing a better, tougher Bond to the screen. It gets another point because I am in love with Daniel Craig. But it loses a point for getting carried away with itself and going on and on and on. So Bond marches in with CF1.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

15th Nov 06 - The Prestige

There’s been the strangest reaction to this film. Despite a fantastic director (Christopher Nolan - him what darkened Batman and gave Pacino insomnia) and a meaty cast (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Smug Johansson) most critics seem to have taken a dislike to it. Calling it nasty names like ‘boring’ and giving it no stars. But something you must remember is that critics aren’t always right.

Except this one, of course.

Ignore every bad review. They’re idiots. This is a solid, original thriller, handled by a fabulous (British) director and two very strong leads. The story revolves around two rival magicians and their complete and utter obsession with magic. Their obsessions escalate to the point of thieving, sabotage and violence, and through flashback-within-flashback their story is told. There’s magic tricks, romance, thrills, death and a tiny spattering of comedy. What more do you want?

Bale and Jackman are competent front men, Jackman just nudging ahead with a wider variety of emotions, while Bale, though ever brilliant, still has that slightly smarmy mouth that removes empathy a tad. Even Johansson avoids my wrath with an understated performance (well, as understated as you can be dressed in a corset as a magician’s assistant). And Nolan handles the choppy timeframe perfectly. He’s had practice – his first film being the backwards Memento, which was written by his brother Jonathan, who also co-writes the Prestige screenplay. Memento (in my top 5 films) left me reeling with its brilliance, and though The Prestige doesn’t have quite the same impact, it still has a refreshingly original feel to it, especially compared to the current prequel/sequel/franchise movement.

Perhaps the main flaw is in the delivery of the film’s “trick”. Rather than it finish with a “my, didn’t see that coming” blast, it was more a gradual reveal, leading to a “I think it must be… oh yes it is.” But at least it was engaging enough to make you tot up all the clues to begin with, and there were moments where my heart was beating that little bit faster as I anticipated something nasty was about to happen…

The Prestige is a dark, intriguing thriller, with a brilliant cast and director. It’s gaining an extra point for engaging me and teaching me a little bit about magic. Poo to all you nasty critics – this gets CF1.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

10th Nov 06 - The Page Turner

A thriller about a girl who turns the pages for a piano player? I can just see it now. Will she not turn a page fast enough so they end up out of time? Will the pianist stumble and miss a note? Edge of your seat stuff.

I’m being foolish, of course. The ‘thrill’ aspect derives from the revenge tactics of the page turner herself, and the dependent relationship she forges with the pianist. Melanie, you see, has a bit of a grudge. During her childhood piano exam she was put off by one of the examiners and subsequently failed. Many years later she just happens to be working for the very same examiner. Uh-oh. Though really, holding that kind of grudge for something so minimal? Crazy-much? Well, actually, yes. Melanie is two forks short of a pretentious cutlery set. She skulks around with a creepy stare, casually hinting that she’s capable of bad things, obviously obsessed with the pianist. But though some characters notice there’s something up with Melanie, the object of her obsession / revenge becomes utterly dependent on her. And so Melanie can exact her revenge. Mwuhaha.

Unfortunately, Melanie’s revenge turns out to be a bit of a let down. Tension was built, Melanie was played perfectly by Deborah Francois with a sinister coolness, and there were dabs of excitement here and there. But it all came crashing down at the end. Actually, ‘crashing’ isn’t the right word. It was more of a muffled ending, like running into a wall of marshmallow. It stops you, but in an unremarkable way. Not that a literal wall of marshmallow would be unremarkable. It would, in fact, be quite exciting to run into an entire wall made of marshmallow. The Page Turner was more like flopping against a hard pillow. Or an airbag. It just was an unremarkable ending, ok?

Perhaps a lot of the film’s impact was lost during translation. This was a film less about action, and much more about words and emotion, which, unfortunately, is often lost when reading the dialogue at the bottom of the screen. There was an interesting relationship developed, but ultimately I found little motivation to keep on turning any pages, and was disappointed by the ending. The Page Turner flicks back to CF-1. And apologies for the lucid nature of today’s review – I seem to have a bit of a temperature, which may have made my mind wander. I now quite fancy some marshmallow…

Friday, November 10, 2006

8th Nov 06 - Borat

This week was the rare chance to see a film that most people have heard of, and have actually been to see. Borat, or if you want to use the full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, stormed into cinemas after making amused waves in the summer festivals. Critics were coming out with melodramatic statements like ‘you’ll laugh so much you’ll puke’ and the hype monster, as mentioned in the Brick review, was threatening to strike.

With all this in mind, it was with some trepidation that I entered the cinema. I was fond of Borat already after watching his appearances on Da Ali G Show, with his awkward interviews and finger-chewingly uncomfortable expositions of the backwards parts of American (people gaily singly along with Borat as he recounts the song “Throw the Jew Down the Well”). And with his foray into film, you won’t be surprised to find a similar format. Not that that’s a bad thing. Watching Borat interview a bunch of feminists (“our scientists proved that women have smaller brains”) or try his hand at driving lessons brings laugh after embarrassed laugh, as his subjects patiently deal with his sexist, anti-Jew views.

But to beef up the film, Borat expands into a full-on story, as the intrepid TV presenter explores America to make a documentary for back home, and falls in love along the way. All right, it’s not much of a story, but it gives excuse for some fabulous set pieces, the most notable being a fight scene that trounces the Jackass boys for sheer gross entertainment. Other highlights include the xenophobic nature of New York inhabitants (I’d probably run away too if a gangly ‘foreign’ type tried to kiss me) and the gun shop owner who’s happy to recommend the best weapon for killing a Jew. Borat has the ability to show the scariest attitudes of the voting US of A public, and manages to make Michael Moore style points in smaller, funnier, bursts. Not bad for a film with a ‘turd in a bag’ joke.

But, amusing as it was, my laughter didn’t turn into vomit as promised. Perhaps it was because the two bumper trailers I’d been exposed to featured a variety of the best punch lines. Perhaps it was the stunted interview segments, that when nestled into the rest of the plot ended up feeling a little awkward and tacked on. Perhaps the scenes featuring obvious actors cast a cloud of doubt over the supposedly ‘real’ encounters. I suspect it’s because the reviewers that went crazy over it had never seen Borat before, and the entire concept was like some shiny new comedy, rather than a TV-to-film creation.

Still, you’ve got to hand it to creator Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s created a lovable character, despite the outlandish views, and his physical comedy is superb. So yes, funny. But no, not the funniest thing ever. Tinged by the hype monster, I came out feeling ever so slightly let down. But for 84 minutes it’s definitely worth a watch, and for the sheer balls of Sacha Baron Cohen (intentional pun, there) I’m giving this an extra point. Borat makes CF1.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

1st Nov 06 - The History Boys

Ok. I haven’t seen the West End version of this. I’m therefore going to be reviewing it based solely on the film’s impact, not the play. So any West End rah-de-rah fans trying to defend the original can put down their duelling gloves. Though they could pick them back up again to defend against the outrageous stereotype I’ve just written.

To get to the bottom of my problem with this film (that’s right. I have a problem with it) I have to quickly point out something. There’s a big difference between a stage play and a film. Granted both are story-telling mediums, and I like both equally. But they are still different. You can show in film, whereas you have to rely more on telling in theatre. Mainly because film gives you control over the audience’s focus. You can edit scenes, use lighting, framing and close-ups. In theatre you can still use clever lighting, but you can’t show the intricate twitches of an actor’s eyes to indicate their feelings. There is no zoom in theatre. Unless the actors pause and suddenly side step up to the audience’s faces. A concept which, though amusing, is implausible, especially when there’s tiered seating. So theatre relies more heavily on dialogue, be it clever (conversations that reveal hidden intentions and emotions) or a bit of a cop-out (bloody monologues). And in film, though dialogue is still very important, there are more elements to play with.

So, to the point of my ramblings. The History Boys is a play, and on screen it is still very much a play. A play without the intimate atmosphere of a theatre. Though the cast are obviously very talented, they are still belting out their lines as if to make sure the people at the back can hear. We can all hear boys – there’s a fricking great microphone above your heads. Every line, though often wittily constructed by accomplished writer Alan Bennett, is punched out, word for word, clear enough so you can hear it but with little or no true emotion. Again, it probably works brilliantly on stage. But on film it left me completely unengaged with the characters, save for a couple who were played, not surprisingly, by more experienced actors on screen. Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and Stephen Campbell Moore were the trio of teachers who managed to deliver their lines in a quieter, mumbled fashion, like what we do in the real world.

And ok, maybe my biggest vice is unrealistic dialogue, a common problem in play-to-screen types (see Closer) so maybe I’m being more pedantic than usual. But I was, how to put it, BORED a lot of the time. It didn’t help that the ‘boys’ (played by actors who seemed to range from 18 to 30 years old) were irritating little pricks. I mean, really. I was sniped at for being a swot at school (unfairly – I wasn’t out to please the teachers, I just had a brain) but at least I didn’t quote poetry and break into song all the time. I know I was supposed to care whether the lads got into Oxbridge or not, but to be honest I just wanted them all to die horribly. Extra irritation ensued because of the token characters. Yey to PC, there’s a black kid and an Asian one, but their characters were so totally underdeveloped that it meant the only thing you could define them by was their race, which surely goes against the PC point. There was also a fat one, a gay one, a religious one, a thick one (why he was in the mix of lads trying for Oxbridge, I don’t know) and a flirty one. It’s characterisation, Spice-Girl style.

Side plots involving a kiddie-fiddling teacher who we were supposed to feel sorry for because he was a ‘nice chap’ were just odd. And it had about three or four endings, all of which made the point of the piece more and more obscure. What was it about? Homosexuality in schools? Differing teaching styles and their effect on pupils? History? Perhaps I completely missed the point, and it’s probably because I stopped listening as the dialogue continued to pour forth like bacterial infected blood from a relentlessly singing, poetry-quoting wound.

I can see that this would be a good piece on stage, and it obviously is since it’s been very successful. But its transfer to film has been, quite frankly, lazy. The dialogue and the delivery need to be smudged and blended so that it flows more smoothly in the film environment. The script should have been altered to account for the new medium. It doesn’t need elaborate explanations of people’s feelings anymore – we can see them, or we should be able to. All in all I seem to be much crosser than I had originally planned, so instead of losing the one point for clunky transition to screen, it’s losing an extra point for making me rant for longer than usual. Fair? By the book of Cinemafool it is, and it’s getting CF-2.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

25th Oct 06 - The Devil Wears Prada

I’m back in sunny old England after my recent trip to a much warmer, albeit irritatingly happy country. With half term causing a spurt of kiddie-friendly films, the choice this week was limited, hence my foray into non-gritty territory.

So, The Devil Wears Prada, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger, is set in the world of high fashion magazines. To be honest my interest in fashion goes as far as… actually, no. It stops right about there. The film isn’t totally fashion obsessed though. It centres on Andy, a journalism graduate who struggles to find work and ends up as a PA for an unreasonable tyrant. God, it’s like someone’s made a film of my life. A big hello to my work colleagues if any of you are reading this – you know I of course don’t think of you as tyrants.

Anyway, Andy ends up working for Miranda Priestly, the viciously blunt editor of ‘Runway’ magazine. Andy must battle through a series of outlandish tasks (like picking up dry cleaning) all the while learning about fashion, and herself. It’s gripping stuff. She, like, totally starts to wear nice coats and boots, and like, totally gains respect from her peers but loses it from her dumpy friends. Yeah, ok, it’s easy to mock. And maybe there are some slightly deeper issues at stake, like how far you can push your own integrity and how successful women are often depicted as bitch-monsters from hell. Plus there’s some neat acting. Anne Hathaway grows up and is a likeable if not a little unremarkable lead, especially compared to Meryl Streep, who nails the icey indifference perfectly, and shines in the one vulnerable scene where she’s sans make up and, er, sans husband. Although it’s a bit crap that a woman as successful as her is a weakling when it comes to losing a relationship. Boo hoo. She could probably buy herself a husband, maybe a whole selection of them. One for every occasion. I seem to be deviating from the review. That’s a bad sign.

If I were to go back to the mocking, I’d maybe pick up on her token friends (one from every race plus a gay guy to boot), the in your face this-is-a-sad-moment soundtrack (most of the songs would probably feature on some sort of ‘girl power – the soundtrack to your life’ compilation) or that it deviates from criticising the various aspects of the fashion industry (the ludicrous diets of stick thin fashionites) to seemingly praising it (Andy celebrates because she drops to a size 4).

It’s not like I hated the film. It was gently amusing. But it’s like going to a restaurant and ordering a salad. There are bits of taste amongst the blandness, but overall you’re left dissatisfied and wishing you’d picked something better off the menu. Glancing at the current releases I spy the ludicrously good Children of Men and The Departed still out, and if you’re only going to pick one thing I’d go for something substantial rather than the salad. Though some people do like salad I guess. Weird people. Anyway, I can’t really recommend this film, so it drops a point, making CF-1.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

17th Oct 06 - Little Miss Sunshine

This was watched in a completely empty Floridian cinema, showing the mainstream appeal of this low budget indie flick. It’s a road movie about a dysfunctional family. That very sentence conjures up images of those films that like to be classed as ’kooky’ or ’quirky’. Films that generally make me want to vomit. But joy to the world because this missed the vomit trigger. Just.

Little Miss Sunshine is about one little girl travelling across America to appear in a little girl beauty contest. Her family are a bunch of crazies. A drug addicted Grandpa (the dry Alan Arkin). A failed motivational speaker dad (a delightfully annoying yet desperate Greg Kinnear). A suicidal uncle (Steve Carrel, a refreshing turn in a serious role rather than his usual ’40-year-old Virgin’ style fodder). A miserable teenage brother who’s taken a vow of silence (sullenly good Paul Dano). And a mum who… erm… hang on. A mum who… no. Nothing. No discernable issue with her. Aha. The writer is a guy and we have a bland, general mum role. Good job it’s been handed to the excellent Toni Collette, whose presence beefs up the role and makes her part of the family, rather than a bit of the scenery.

And then there’s the girl herself, played by newcomer Abigail Breslin in the most natural and likeable fashion. It’ll be interesting to see how that one grows up.

Anyway, all the family pile into a bus and make the two day trek to the competition. And here is where the film splits. One half is your stereotypical road movie. Arguments happen, stuff goes wrong, hilarity ensues. Lots of driving montages. The other half is your typical ’competition’ based film. Be it sports, spelling bees, beauty pageants, dog shows, dance competitions… all will end with a build up to the main event and the final performance with guessable results.

So what’s original? Not a huge amount. But with a stellar cast and sharp dialogue, the film does suck you in. You will laugh, you may cry, and you do come to like the majority of the characters in some way. And what’s grand is that no one really overcomes their issues. There’s a ‘family’ message in there, and a stab at mocking the creepiness of beauty pageants for kids, but other than that there’s no huge resolution. Which is realistic. But may also raise the question, “what is the point?”

With this in mind, the film relies on its characters, which works, but also a few set pieces that verge beyond the ridiculous line. I think initially I was going to give this an extra point for the great acting and absorbing characters, but I may have to deduct a point for the silliness in places, the lack of originality and the insistence on giving the mum no real role. So it drops back to the still recommended-but-not-overly-enthusiastic score of CF0.

14th Oct 06 - The Departed

Still in Orlando, and a risky move to try watching a 2 hour, 39 min Scorsese drama. But apart from a couple chatting and a few loud shrieks at violent moments, the audience were fairly well behaved. Probably all tourists.

Anyhoo, this is Scorsese’s third film with Leonardo DiCaprio, after Gangs of New York and The (shamefully-overlooked-by-the-Oscars-in-favour-of-bloody-squinty-Eastwood) Aviator. The pair seem to gel, bringing out the best in Leo, who’s done remarkably well in getting away from his boyish Titanic persona and bringing out a rougher yet vulnerable edge. Along with Leo, The Departed boasts an impressive cast; Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg (with silly hair).

The plot is sly. DiCaprio is an undercover cop, who’s infiltrated Nicholson’s organised crime gang. Damon is part of Nicholson’s crew, but he works as a high ranking police officer. When word gets out on each side that there’s a rat in their midst, the danger to each rat increases, as does their desperation to avoid capture and track each other down. In typical Scorsese style, the characters are gradually etched out, deepened and developed. There’s no hurry, but it never drags. The story sucks you in, envelops you, so that when tension starts to build you really feel it, right in your gut.

The performances were spot on. DiCaprio knitting that brow of his into tortured angst, Damon cold, calculating and refreshingly dangerous, Nicholson craggy, bonkers - as you’d expect, really - but he’s held in control enough to create a menacing mob boss rather than a cartoon one. There’s the theme of identity as the two rats struggle to retain a sense of self throughout their double lives, and some achingly nerve wracking moments as each rat gets closer to the truth.

It’s a shame that the carefully paced story gets a little unravelled towards the end. A lot seems to suddenly happen in quick bursts, and it doesn’t completely satisfy given the brilliant first two hours. But regardless, this is still a great film, with plenty of re-watch potential. It won’t be a big award winner, but what do they know? It’s getting a CF0 with an extra point for well developed characters, and another for being a master-class in acting and directing, bringing it to CF2. Better than any Oscar.

11th Oct 06 - Jackass Number Two

Picture the scene. Wee-Man (that’s a small guy) is on a bridge attached to a bungee rope. The other end of the rope isn’t anchored to the bridge though. It’s attached to a fat man. If the thought of the resulting bungee jump brings a huge smirk to your face then this is certainly the film for you. If you’re tutting and shaking your head at the silly yobs who should get proper jobs, then you should stay well clear. And develop a sense of humour. You miserable sod.

Yep, Jackass 2 is a perfect film for my current location - smack in the middle of Orlando. The louder nature of an American audience (sorry guys, but it’s the truth. You just don’t know how to shut the hell up) is just what you need to give this film the right atmosphere. Because there is no plot to this. No acting, no characterisation, no clever direction. It’s just a bunch of blokes pissing about. And as long as you can laugh with them, then it works perfectly.

Of course, you have to be pretty likeable guys to pull this off. I wouldn’t be too keen on watching some idiot arseholes having fun at the expense of my cinema tickets. But with enough charisma and wit when talking to the camera, and some highly infectious laughter when they’re watching each other, the Jackass lads are a strong team. There’s a good mix of personalities, with the fearless and insane (let’s go fishing for sharks. I’ll be the bait. Just let me get this hook through my cheek…) and the eager but a bit wimpy, which is nice to see. Rather than an unrelenting passion for danger, we get to see some of these boys running, shrieking, panicking and at one point actually crying, and it’s all from fear, not pain. It’s a nice touch of humanity. Poor guys. Though if my mates locked me in a limo and poured a bucket of bees through the sunroof, I would find myself new friends. So they sort of bring it on themselves.

Like the TV series and previous film, Jackass 2 has some utterly hilarious moments (jet-powered bicycle on a pier), some vomit-inducing moments (“milking” a horse, or the “fart-mask”) and some so-so, not hugely funny bits, mostly involving the public. But it’s so fast paced, if you’re not too keen on one segment, you can be assured that something else will come along any second.

I laughed a lot at this film. It’s silly and fun, and leaves no lasting impression. For entertaining me for nearly 2 hours it’s getting a CF0. One to watch with a load of mates. Or noisy Americans.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

27th Sep 06 - Children Of Men

An action movie with brains. It was said about The Island, and what they meant was ‘a billion helicopters and a story that will require the average action pleb to use an ounce more of their concentration span to understand the story’. So when another ‘brainy’ film is released, with a sci-fi edge that could easily be trashed by Hollywood, a main star who I don’t particularly like, and the director of a Harry Potter film in control, my cynical brain thought it could well be total and complete pap.

For once I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Children of Men is so far from pap. It’s dark, bleak, gritty and bloody fantastic. It’s set in England, in the year 2027; a world where the last child was born 18 years ago and everything’s gone to pot. A world that is so easily where we are heading at the moment it’s completely unsettling. Gathering up a handful of relevant topics – terrorism / “freedom fighters”, war, governments going bonkers, illegal immigrants and concentration camps – and slipping in the fictional infertility problem, gives a meaty chunk of issues to consider. They should probably have shown it at this week’s Labour conference. As well as looking at our current culture of crapness, it also prompts thoughts about children and the whole purpose to our existence. As in, without kids the human race will come to an end, so what’s the point? One character collects precious artworks and is asked why, since there will be no one left to appreciate them. A sobering though, especially when you implement it now – what if in 80 years’ time there will be no one left to appreciate the wonder of this blog? Chilling.

Then there’s Clive Owen. As a rule, I don’t like him. He always seems to try just a bit too hard to be cool, and has what I consider to be a silly voice. But in this film he’s actually pretty good. He broods. He cries. He looks angry. He shouts. I sort of liked him a lot. An achievement in itself.

And an achievement that must be credited to the control of Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Who is probably the main reason why this film is so great. The direction is absolutely jaw droppingly fantastically brilliant. Every single scene sticks with Owen. There’s no cut away to the baddies mwuha-ha-ha-ing. You only see what Owen sees. You only know what Owen knows. This is the first bout of realism. The second is the thankful decision of Cuaron to abandon the usual action tactic of employing a huge orchestral soundtrack to help the audience feel what they’re supposed. There’s no “this-is-the-action-scene-you-must-be-excited-right-now” music. Instead he employs natural sound effects, either to invoke terror (buildings exploding is a terrifying enough sound) or build tension (like in a clever farmyard scene, where the build up of animal noises signifies the rising tension).

But it’s the ‘action’ pieces where the direction really pays off. A motorcycle vs car chase happens entirely from inside the car (lord knows where the cameraman’s sitting). And the piece-de-resistance is the seven minute continuous shot as Owen stumbles through a war zone. Takes my breath away when you take into consideration how much planning must’ve gone into that shot. Owen ducks behind one pile of rocks, a bunch of extras in the background fall victim to a volley of shots. Owen dances around the camera and ducks round a corner. More extras dash past. A building suddenly explodes. Blood spatters the camera lens. The camera keeps on rolling. Sure, there must be invisible seams somewhere along the shot, but it’s certainly a stunning piece of work that will have you squirming with tension.

I’m not going to go into details about the plot – it’s best if you avoid all other reviews (idiot reviewers sometimes like to ruin films by writing about all the best plot points - of which there are some mightly good ones that I won't divulge). I just command you to watch this film. It gains a point for being far better than expected. Another point for offering a chilling yet believable view of the future. And another for having some stupendous direction. Therefore, raising the bar for 2006, Children of Men gains CF3. Watch it.

Monday, September 25, 2006

24th Sep 06 - Right At Your Door

It’s not often that a film really rattles me. Sure, I’ve been rattled out of anger (regular readers will know what I’m referencing there) but to legitimately shake me up takes some doing. And this low-budget thriller did the doing. See, I’m so rattled I can’t even write properly.

Right At Your Door centres on married couple Brad and Lexi. Brad lovingly prepares his wife’s morning coffee and watched her go off to work in LA (he’s a musician so stays at home.) Then Brad hears on the radio that a series of explosions have happened in the city. Shit. In a mounting crescendo of panic, Brad tries to get to the city to help her, but is turned back by police. The bombs have released toxic gases into the air. Double shit. Brad seals himself into his home with acres of duct tape and we see the slow realisation that maybe his wife has just been killed. And then looky who shows up, coughing like an old woman and begging to be let inside…

Sparking the “what would I do in that situation” conundrum, Right At Your Door is a tense human drama. Yes, it features a massive attack on Los Angeles, but there are no flashy shots of destruction. We hear the chaos via the ongoing radio broadcasts and that is enough. The film sticks with Brad, with most scenes happening inside his increasingly claustrophobic home as he tries to comfort his wife through the sealed windows and battles with his own fear and confusion.

Such a restrictive premise requires a convincing lead, and Rory Cochrane pulls it off with chokingly realistic ease. The initial scenes, when the sickening realisation that his wife may have been killed grows on his panicked face, must surely strike chords with those whose loved one were in the various affected areas of the world’s recent events. The clawing terror when you can’t get hold of someone, the not knowing, the imagined outcomes. It sends shivers down my spine. Lexi, played by Mary McCormack, also holds her own, especially as she listens to voicemails from her mother, brother and best friend, all essentially saying goodbye. As well as referencing the current ‘arsehole’ culture we’re living in (terrorists, media, government all included) the film also plays perfectly on Joe Public’s mistrust of authority, as soldiers walk about in alien-like suits, giving little information and taking a worryingly firm stance on keeping infection to a minimum.

Perhaps in hindsight the additional characters are a little pointless to the plot, maybe just there to fill in the gaps and bring the running time to a feature film length. But none of that matters when the film builds to its climax. A desperate, rapid bastard of a climax that captures the helpless, frantic panic of the situation in all its unnerving glory. It rattled me. And reminded me of a scene in Watership Down. Which does make sense when you see it. Honest.

A film about dirty bombs in LA may sound like an action packed crap-fest, but Right At Your Door is far from it, and shouldn’t have been advertised that way. It is instead an emotional, unsettling drama worthy of your attention. This film gets an extra point because Rory Cochrane was so believable, and another for shaking me up so much. Therefore it storms in with CF2.

23rd Sep 06 - Crank

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of watching The Transporter 2, one of the most mind blowingly ludicrous films I have ever seen. I don’t think I’ve laughed quite so frequently in a long time, and it wasn’t a mocking laugh. It was a laugh of pure joy at the whole spectacle. So when I see a trailer for a film with the same star, playing a similar character in a similar genre, I was genuinely excited. Well, to protect my credibility as a “film critic”, we’ll say I was excited in an ironic way. Honest.

Crank is the story of LA hitman Chev Chelios. Just his name is brilliant. Who in their right mind calls their cockney son ‘Chev’? Anyway, Chev’s pissed a few folk off and wakes up to find he’s been poisoned with a ‘Chinese cocktail’ that will slowly kill him. The only way to slow it down is to keep his adrenaline levels high . So as Chev searches for revenge on his killers, he also has to take drastic action to bump up the old heart rate. This being a film aimed at teenage boys, said action involves drugs, sex and lots of violence.

Now, on skimming through my past cinema choices, this doesn’t exactly sound like my cup of tea. But as with Snakes on a Plane, if I’m in the right mood then I’m a sucker for silly action films, as long as they’re done well. And this one is genius. Take the premise for a start. When your lead has to keep the energy levels up, then there’s a perfect excuse for lots of insane action scenes, and no chance to slow things down for useless plot enhancement. Then take Jason Statham as Chev. I can’t figure out how this guy has wormed his way into the Hollywood action genre. He’s not brilliant when it comes to dialogue. His gruff, multi-cultural accent in the Transporter was part of the hilarity, but at least in Crank he’s allowed to be his Londoner self. And doesn’t have to say too much. Instead, he’s totally mastered the art of walking with purpose and looking really, really pissed off, and effortlessly carries the film on his bulky shoulders.

And then you have the direction. This film has not one, but two directors – Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor – who cut their teeth in the world of commercials. They’re a tag team of chaos, slogging one technique after another at you, sometimes with reason (slow mo/twisted vision for Chev’s poisoned decline) and sometimes with random absurdity (occasional hallucinations, utterly unexplainable subtitles). If it’s not split screen or freeze frame, then they’re using mock-up security camera footage and even satellite views of LA which are credited to Google Earth on screen (whether this is part of the style, or an actual legal requirement, is uncertain.) It certainly raises your own adrenaline levels, and as barmy scene after barmy scene flashes by, you can only watch in dazed amazement and smile. It certainly is silly, but in a surprisingly enjoyable way, and you can get sucked into the story enough to really care how, or if, Chev escapes his fate.

So hats off to the makers. By keeping it an 18 certificate they’re free to have gratuitous violence, nudity (not just female – there’s a fantastic scene where Chev overdoses on synthetic adrenaline in hospital, then has to sprint around LA in just a hospital robe, flashing bottom cheeks like there’s no tomorrow) and the strangest of soundtrack choices. Loud, brash, to the point. This is fun stuff, and delivers what you’d expect. An enjoyable way to spend 83 minutes, and for making me laugh in disbelief it’s getting CF0.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

20th Sep 06 - Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

The powerhouse team behind the deliciously silly Anchorman dish out their next offering, the unnecessarily wordy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”. While Anchorman centred around the world of 70’s newsreaders, Talladega goes for NASCAR racers, with Will Ferrell playing Ricky Bobby, a man who just wants to go fast.

Plot wise, this is about as new as a very ancient thing. Just say ‘film about racing drivers’ and you immediately know there’ll be a climb to greatness, a fall, and then a climb back up to the winning finale. It’s the same paint-by-numbers tactic employed by most sport-related films, and the main reason why I’m not a big fan of the genre (the other being I find sport as… is this joke getting old? No - I find it as dull as Pirates of the Caribbean 2.)

But this is Ferrell with Adam McKay, whose improv methods (often influenced by McKay from behind the camera) churned out some killer lines in Anchorman. “The human torch was denied a bank loan” or “by the beard of Zeus” being a couple of classics. Couple this with Ferrell’s talent for comic timing and melodrama and you’re surely on to a winner. Aren’t you…?

Well, in a way yes. There’s a strong supporting cast and some fabulously funny scenes. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Ferrell’s nemesis, with the best French accent you’ll ever hear. John C. Reilly (who’s main trick is to appear in supporting roles and nearly steal the show. Examples: Magnolia, or if you haven’t been exposed to films that are good, Chicago) plays the doting yet thick best friend, plus there’s the big dude from The Green Mile. Stand out scenes include Ricky Bobby’s fire fear and his proof of paralysis (what gets one knife out of your leg? How about another…)

But, and you just knew there’d be a but, this isn’t the comedy masterpiece it could have been. For me, Anchorman truly shines when the cast are allowed to play about, throwing out outlandish comments (“I ate a candle”) and bouncing off each other’s ludicrousness. There are flashes of it in Talladega – especially the literal face-to-face confrontations between Ferrell and his French enemy – and there’s evidence of it in the outtakes at the end, which were the funniest moments by far. But the problem with a subject like NASCAR racing is there’s not a whole lot an actor can do when they’re strapped into a car with a big helmet on. Just as things are getting funny, we’re shown a montage of cars racing. Let’s get this straight – cars aren’t funny. Even though McKay does some neat camera work, I have no interest in the cars, or the racing. In fact, don’t show any racing at all. I just want to see the characters interacting and being stupid. But it felt like every time they were just warming up, the scenes got cut. If I could just get hold of the raw material, I’d bet there are some belting jokes and performances. Why aren’t they all in this film? They’ve been sacrificed for bloody racing shots. It’s a travesty. Look, I’m getting hysterical now.

Right. This was an enjoyable film. I did laugh. But at no point did my face hurt, or were there tears in my eyes, and this means it wasn’t the comedy that it should have been. It was OK. From McKay and Ferrell it should have been brilliant. So no extra points, you hear? That’ll teach you for venturing into bloody sport movie territory. CF0.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

30th August 06 - Severance

People getting lost in the middle of nowhere and then hunted down by some creepy dude is almost a genre in itself. It’s an old favourite with horror folk, and can be seen everywhere, like this year’s remake The Hills Have Eyes (creepy dude in desert), last year’s Wolf Creek (creepy dude in outback), the old classic Friday the 13th (creepy dude in summer camp) and the once banned The Burning (creepy dude with a pair of shears.)

What you expect from these films is bland characters, a bit of build up, and then lots of running about and getting killed. They can be done well (Wolf Creek) or badly (the abysmal remake of Texas Chainsaw) but they generally do what they say on the tin. Well, if the tin says “people run about and get killed.” What Severance has done is take the tin and wedge it into a big comedy bottle to form some sort of weird tin/bottle hybrid. And… what on earth am I talking about?

Right, Severance is a British horror. Take one bus load of office workers, send them to a Romanian forest for a team building weekend, and throw in a few crazy guys with a penchant for torture. It’s not rocket science. It’s people running about in a forest getting killed. But it also veers from the usual template of this genre, and adds a decent script, likeable characters and some moments of absurd hilarity. And this is why it shines. One moment you’re tensely waiting for something to jump out at them. The next they’re berating the office nerd for feeding them a pie he ‘found’ (“but it was wrapped in tin foil…”) One minute you’re wincing as a rusty bear trap goes snap. The next you’re laughing out loud as there’s a struggle to fit a severed leg into the fridge.

There’s banter, black humour, pokes at the recent ‘terror’ obsession, extreme violence and sometimes-verging-on-inappropriate belly laughs. What more do you want? How about self awareness? Writer/Director Christopher Smith is a big horror fan, and knows all too well what he’s doing here. Example: he knows that these sorts of film often shamelessly feature women’s boobies. So he shamelessly shows some too – but in such a way that you can almost feel him smirking behind the camera. As such, rather than have the usual “oh for god’s sake” reaction to such female exploitation, I’m just laughing away at the topless bird firing a machine gun in slow motion. But Severance never descends into total parody. Like Snakes on a Plane, though it recognises the various pitfalls of its chosen genre, it still sticks to the rules.

The horror in this film isn’t quite horror enough to be a successful horror film, and the comedy isn’t relentless enough for it to be a full-blown comedy. But with the two parts equally mixed, a new genre is created. Not like Shaun of the Dead (that is pure comedy, with occasional stabs of gore) and not like The Burning (horror, with occasional pangs of amusement), this is half an exciting yet scary run through the woods, and half a clever, hilarious jape. Maybe the best way to sum it up is “knife in the arse”. In reality, it’s pretty damn unpleasant. But it’s also funny as hell.

For a fresh take on a fun genre, this gets CF0, and for making me jump and laugh in equal parts, I’m giving this an extra point. CF1. Come on the British!

Monday, August 28, 2006

27th August 06 - Snakes on a Plane

There’s two types of people when it comes to this film. The ones who know that it’s an internet hyped, Samuel L Jackson fuelled work of ludicrous genius. And the ones who have to ask what it’s about, despite the fact that to have a more self-explanatory title would involve showing someone the script and using a big fat marker to highlight the key plot points. Of which there is one. There are snakes. And they’re on a plane. It really isn’t that difficult to understand.

To pull off a film with this preposterous a concept is not as easy as it sounds. This could’ve been another Anaconda. Beyond ridiculous and into waste of money territory. But with more hype than the Blair Witch Project and support from a loud, bald bloke who swears (that’ll be Jackson) Snakes transcended B-Movie pap into an event picture. People were excited about it. And I was one of them.

What’s not to get excited about? There’s Sammy J, of course, who I could happily listen to while he shouts out the contents of the Daily Mail (and that’s saying something). He’s just ace. True, he may have been typecast now as the shouty cool guy. But he does it so well. The most celebrated line, “I’m tired of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane,” is indeed pure brilliance, but Snakes offers so much more, and not just from Jackson. There’s “get this fucking snake off my ass!” and the most amusing, if not cringe-worthy “get off my dick!” from a man to a snake, after it emerges from the toilet.

Of course, for some people, a film needs more premise than just snakes on a plane. So the film starts with an explanation (happy now?) It’s an outlandish plot to off a key witness, with Sammy J the FBI agent brought in to chaperone said witness back to LA on a plane. Can you guess the bad guy’s idea? Stick a crate load of poisonous snakes in the cargo hold, add pheromones to make them crazy (as Sam explains it: “Snakes on crack”) and release. And it’s the release you’re waiting for. After being introduced to a host of semi-stereotypes, you’re just waiting for those big worms to come creeping out.

It’s here that Snakes really pulls it off. You could’ve had two hours of bad actors wrestling with plastic snakes, which would’ve been hilarious but possibly tiresome. And though Snakes has purposeful comedy moments (aforementioned toilet attack, plus unnecessary sex scene with resulting nipple attack) there’s also actual tension. As the release of oxygen masks drops snakes all over the passengers, there’s something quite disturbing about watching people battling to escape while snakes strike from all sides. It’s chaotic, well directed, and cleverly mixes the fun ‘ooo’ moments, with the wincing ‘urgh’ (some nice impaling added in here and there, including a fantastic stiletto in the ear.)

Snakes on a Plane is pure thriller fun. My main problem with thrillers is their predictable characters and preposterous action scenes (not much left when you take those out, actually…) But because Snakes knows how silly it is, then the preposterous is replaced with enjoyment, with some unexpected jumps in-between. You could probably find a lot to dislike in this film if you’ve had your sense of humour wiped clean and replaced with an old flannel, but for the rest of the human race this is a fun, thrilling summer blockbuster. It’s not going to change your life, make you think, or reveal anything new about the human psyche. But it’s snakes on a plane. And it’s a CF0, with an extra point for pulling it off so well, making a motherfucking CF1.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

23rd August 06 - A Scanner Darkly

As an intellectual (not nerd) I read a lot of science fiction, and have a particular fondness for Philip K. Dick. His work has often been targeted by Hollywood – Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck – mostly for his vivid visions of the future. As a writer, Dick often creates a general tone of morose confusion, and though his ideas are outstanding, it’s always the feeling behind them that gives his work more emotional punch. Unfortunately, Joe Public doesn’t always want something they have to ponder, so Mr Hollywood takes Dick’s work and strips it down to the barest ideas, then adds a beefy actor and makes a fortune. It’s like giving Ben Affleck a crayon and asking him to recreate the Mona Lisa.

So on reading that Richard Linklater has created the most faithful adaptation of a Dick novel yet, I was quite excited about this film. At its simplest level, A Scanner Darkly is about undercover cops investigating users of a highly addictive drug called Substance D. It’s set seven years in the future, so there’s not a huge amount of the ‘sci’ in the ‘fi’. But delving deeper, the story centres on Bob Arctor/Fred (Keanu Reeves, acting quite well), the undercover cop whose brain is slowly being eaten away by the very drug he’s investigating, so much so that he begins to lose sight of who he really is. Delve a bit deeper still, and it’s Dick’s way of exploring the darkest nature of addiction, something he knows only too well (being a user himself, which may have made him a tad mental and cost the lives of many of his friends.)

What immediately makes this film stand out is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping, which is the method of laying animation over film. In layman’s terms, it looks pretty damn cool. And took bloody ages – 500 hours for one minute of animation, to be anally factual. But as well as giving the film a unique look (well, unique alongside Linklater’s previous work Waking Life) the technique finally allows Dick’s lucid writing style to be visualised. Faces flicker, the patterns on t-shirts shift, hallucinations of giant bugs can be brought to screen without looking massively out of place. Where it works best is with the ‘scramble suits’ worn by the cops to keep their identities a secret. The suits flick through hundreds of different images at a time, creating an almost disorientating effect, but realising Dick’s idea perfectly.

But it’s not just a pretty picture. Far from it. The overall tone is dark, and I feel a great sadness when watching Arctor’s decline. There are moments of light with Robert Downy Jr’s energetic and ever so slightly dangerous Barris, and Woody Harrlesson’s idiotic Luckman. Watching their demented conversations about bicycle gears, or Barris’ attempt to make a gun silencer, gives some light relief. But if Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is the brightly coloured, loud-mouthed uncle of the ‘films-about-drugs’ family, then Scanner is the poetic, yet clinically depressed teen.

Having read the book, I suffered from the ‘hang on, I’m sure that bit doesn’t go there’ phenomena. Some details were left out (understandably to keep the 100 minute run-time, though it’s a shame the extent of Arctor’s confusion isn’t fully developed) and other events were in a different order. But overall the essence of the book was captured successfully. For being faithful, I’m awarding Scanner a point, and I’m giving it another point for using an innovative visual technique to good effect. So A Scanner Darkly makes CF2. Not everyone will like it. But I do. And that’s what counts.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

22nd August 06 - Terkel In Trouble

I’ve been concerned about my reputation of late. I’ve been labelled as someone who only watches obscure foreign films. Unfortunately Terkel won’t help my case, and may in fact push me down the path towards ‘pretentious arsehole’, (“towards?” you might ask, insinuating that I am already there. To which I might tell you to bog off.)

But two points to keep in mind here. One, this was a preview of Terkel in Trouble, which means it isn’t on general release yet, and therefore like me, you may not have heard of it. Two, the tickets were free. But, as much as I might defend it, Terkel is a Danish animation. Pretension, pretension, pretension.

But hang on a minute. This isn’t how it sounds. It’s probably closer to South Park than Spirited Away. It’s a sort of computer animated morality tale about young Terkel who’s getting bullied at school. And it’s one of the closest depictions of school-age kids I’ve seen in an animation. Let’s face it – children nowadays are unpleasant little shits who should be drowned in a large bucket of rancid water (of course I’m generalising. A small minority are acceptable.) And in Terkel’s world they smoke, swear and are cruelly unpleasant. This realism might well appeal to ‘the kids’ and may help to pass on the anti-bullying message.

But this isn’t just made-for-schools trite. Terkel is at times laugh-out-loud inappropriate. There’s random acts of extreme violence (falling down stairs, fork in the eye, ear bitten off), unpleasant deaths (birds flying into walls, people splatting after jumping from high places) and lots and lots of swearing. The presence of songs worried me a little. As a rule, I despise musicals (except for ones that use the music in a clever way, or feature Ewan McGregor). I think it’s because they remind me of drama school arses, belting out ‘summer-bloody-loving’ with wide, smug smiles, speaking LOUD-ERLY and pronouncing everything ala Orlando Bloom, thinking they’re acting geniuses when in fact they’re just little arrogant rich kids with more money than talent who flounce around and waste perfectly good oxygen that could be used for the rest of the world.

Sorry – where was I? Oh yes, there are songs in Terkel. And they started off not too long, and with some amusing lyrics, so it was ok. And then an absolute gem popped up. An R&B love song, describing one character’s sudden realisation that he liked a girl, all because of what she said to him, which was (and this formed the basis of the chorus): “Fuck of you twat, you’re ugly and your mum shags horses.” Brilliant stuff, especially with an added key change.

So Terkel isn’t exactly a kid’s film. The plot and messages resonate with kiddie morals, but the adult jokes aren’t carefully folded in ala Pixar. You just can’t hide a gag involving child prostitution to rich white tourists in Thailand. Guilty laughter would be the general consensus, and this film was a guilty pleasure. It’s also dubbed with some ace British talent, including Bill Bailey, Adrian Edmondson, and Johnny Vegas (stretching his acting skills to play a drunken lout).

Perhaps it falters when the adult humour occasionally subsides, and you wonder exactly who this film is for. Teenagers? Kids? Adults? Who knows. If you find South Park a waste of space you’re probably not going to take well to Terkel. But if your sense of humour twists just the right way, there’ll be enough tid bits to keep you amused. I think I’m going to be kind and give this CF0. This is a recommendation for DVD rental only, though. If you’re an adult and go to see this at the cinema, people might think you’re a bit weird.

Friday, August 18, 2006

16th August 06 - My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Some light relief for this week’s cinema outing, as we’ve hit a bit of a cinema drought (soon to be replenished no doubt). My views on the genre of romantic comedies have already been set out in my review of Russian Dolls (something along the lines of their sugary view of the world making me want to hurt someone with hammers) so I was slightly dubious about My Super Ex-Girlfriend, although the presence of Ivan Reitman (Ghostbuster’s director) and the fact it’s a superhero based yarn gave me some hope.

Super-Ex plays on your ‘scary psycho ex’ fears, and asks that well known question: what if your ex was also a super-hero with phenomenal super powers who could whip your arse all the way into space without breaking sweat? It’s an intriguing idea, nicely slotted in after X-Men and Superman to play on our current superhero fetish.

And there are some brilliant twists on the old superhero theme. Uma Thurman’s G-Girl may be great at saving the world, but she’s also jealous and a little bit insane. A missile’s heading for New York, but she’s not so keen to go and help because she’d be leaving her boyfriend with the blonde ‘slut’ from work. Uma doesn’t ham it up, playing her flawed character with little ticks and nicely timed bursts of rage. Meanwhile Luke Wilson coasts as the likeable, but slightly bland male lead, and a plump Eddie Izzard is the baddie with a really weird accent.

What’s quite disappointing about Super-Ex is all the missed chances. There’s little sparks of genius here and there (the literal mile high club, her super quick sabotage of a presentation, a shark thrown through a window) but it’s just not enough to make the grade. There’s so much potential for this to be a genuinely funny film, but it ends up an amusing way to pass the time. Raise the certificate to a 15, up the ludicrous revenge tactics, have more screen time with Luke’s sex-obsessed loser best friend, and I’d be a happy cinema bunny. As it was, I’m struggling to give it a proper rating. It wasn’t like I hated it, but it didn’t have much of an impact. So I’ll give it a CF “good film for Saturday evening DVD when you’re tired and not really up for anything challenging or too engaging”. Or, if I had to be harsh, a CF -1.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

9th August 06 - Angel-A

Imagine, if you will, that I am Karen the Producer, sitting in my plush office and receiving a visit from Luc Besson.

“Luc,” I say, in Godfather-esque tones, “Luc, you gave us Leon, which explored a fascinating relationship between a little girl and a hitman, that became a cult classic. You gave us the Fifth Element, which was slightly weird but almost charming. And there was that Joan of Arc one, but we’ll forget that. But you’ve been away for six years, Luc. Six long years. What have you brought me after all this time?”

Luc slams a script down on my desk in triumph. “I bring you this, Karen the Producer,” he says. “My new film. Angel-A. Imagine this: a man is so down on his luck and life that he’s about to kill himself, when,” he holds up a finger, “wait for it… an angel appears to show him life’s not all that bad.”

“Luc,” I say. “That’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”

“No,” he says. “It’s different. The angel is a bit edgy, not at all how you’d picture an angel.”

“Been done in Dogma,” I say.

“No, but she teaches him to love.”

“A Life Less Ordinary.”

“No, no, get this,” Luc says. “They fall in love!”

“City of Angels,” I say, getting a bit weary. “Luc, is there anything that makes this film original?”

“Well, the angel is a six-foot blonde in a black mini-dress.”

“Interesting,” I say. “What else?”

“The man is quite small. So when she stands next to him, she dwarfs him.”

“Ok,” I say. “What else?”

“Um…” Luc’s face falls. “It’s in French?”

“Luc,” I say, getting impatient now. “Let me get this straight. You’ve made a film with very little originality, and,” I say, reading through the script with super speed, “from the looks of it, the only interesting bit, where the angel questions her own existence, isn’t explored fully and is a bit out of the blue.”

“Well,” Luc says, whimpering slightly. “I’m making it in black and white.”

“It might look very pretty, Luc, but that doesn’t make it a good film,” I say, throwing his script back at him. A tear runs down Luc’s cheek.

“Oh,” he says, crestfallen.

“It’s not like it’s an unbearable film,” I say, with some sympathy. “It’s not like Pirates of the Caribbean. But I expected something more substantial. Your plot is as skeletal as your angel.”

Luc just stands there, bottom lip trembling.

“I’m deducting one point because your film lacks any sort of weight. You’re getting CF-1, Luc. Do you understand?”

Luc nods silently.

“Now go away and do something better. I know you’re capable. You just have to prove it.”

I point to the door, and Luc shuffles out of my office clutching his script.

God I’d be a great producer.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

8th August 06 - Tideland

Because I’m an ultra hip dude, I saw, in a room full of nerds, a preview of Tideland, complete with intro and post-film Q&A with the man himself Terry Gilliam (the director, if this means nothing to you.) It was a good film to have a Q&A with.

From the poor reception with critics, I was expecting Tideland to be trademark Gilliam madness, but amplified. It’s difficult to forget the relentless bizarreness of Brazil and the insanity-inducing score and spiralling plot of Twelve Monkeys. Though fascinating to watch, when first viewing Gilliam’s work it can often be a tough ride. Like a feverish dream that you can’t quite escape from. Or, the technical term; a ‘mind-fuck’. I was quite concerned I would emerge from Tideland a broken nerd. But huzzah! This wasn’t the case.

Granted, Tideland isn’t a breezy summer blockbuster of fun. It follows little Jeliza-Rose as she moves out to the middle of nowhere. Her parents are useless junkies and her only friends are the heads of her dolls. Starving and alone, Jeliza forges friendships with a half-blind taxidermy-loving loon and a brain damaged bloke called Dickens. So far, so huh?

But this is where Gilliam’s introduction to the film helped (unfortunately I don’t think he’s available to sit in every screening of Tideland around the country.) Before the film he said he was fed up of the media’s current portrayal of children as innocents and weaklings, and he wanted to remind us that they were very resilient creatures. He also said to approach the film from a child’s viewpoint. And this approach is the only way to watch the film. Yes, sneak sly glances from your adult perspective just to understand the true meaning of what’s going on, but in order to process this film without being enraged you have to become a child. That way you can find someone teasing peanut butter past the bloated tongue of their father’s corpse amusing, rather than just plain disturbing.

It’s this child-like viewpoint of the world that made this film so captivating. Jeliza’s imagination is the driving force. Her flights of fancy, touching interpretations of the world and conversations with her ‘friends’ the dolls are all intriguing and competently handled by Gilliam. Jodelle Ferland, at just nine and a half, takes the lead and blows Dakota out of the water in terms of ‘oh-Christ-she’s-a-child-and-she’s-a-professional-actor’ and she’s solidly supported by Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer and Brendan Fletcher. The film dabbles in humour, horror, fantasy and skims the border of inappropriateness in places. You’re never sure where you stand with it, or where it’s going to take you. Though this means you can never truly settle into the film first-time, it makes a refreshing change from the predictability of standard Hollywood cack.

For some reason Tideland has sparked out-rage in some parts of the world. I wasn’t offended by any of it, and can’t see how people could be upset at a religious fanatic who likes to embalm dead relatives to keep them ‘alive’. What may put some people off is how this film doesn’t conform to a typical plot structure. I’m not saying that all films that are ‘different’ are works of pretentious genius. Some are tosh (see Lost In Translation – or ‘over-long self indulgent mass of nothing’.) But if you accept its differences and are willing to open your mind, you may well enjoy Tideland, or at least find something to think about. It’s taken me a while to figure out how much I liked it, and I’ve boiled it down to this: it makes CF0, and I think I’ll give it an extra point because it dared to be a bit different, the performances were impressive, and the talking dolls heads were very amusing. Therefore Tideland gets CF1. Well done Terry.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

26th July 06 - Little Fish

I was too hot during this week’s film, so this may have had an impact on my mood. It seems the price you pay for trying to be pretentious and going to art house cinemas is a lack of air conditioning. So maybe it’s best to bear this in mind when you’re reading the rest of my review.

Little Fish is an Aussie film about a recovering heroin addict. It’s my second Australian film of the week, having watched the excellent Chopper (found at a bargain £2.98 in a DVD sale) at the weekend.

But back to Little Fish. You can’t fault the acting. Cate Blanchett breezes through as Tracy, her angst sketched out on her skeletal face, proving her rank as a top actress. A heavily bearded Hugo Weaving breaks free of Agent Smith and portrays a retired footie star, utterly dependant on drugs and slowly wasting away. And Noni Hazelhurst captures the mother figure perfectly; her worry, frustration and love etched on to her face as she is unable to protect her children from the big wide world. And heroin.

The ties between the characters and various events in their past are all slowly realised over the course of the film, building up solid characters with plenty of background. But here’s where the main problem lies. Imagine, if you will, that someone starts leading you somewhere, handing you various bits of cutlery along the way. There are all different types of cutlery, so you make sure you keep them all separate and remember which one’s which. Then, at the end, you are presented with a cup of tepid water and a straw. “What exactly was the need for all this cutlery,” you might ask. “After all that effort it wasn’t used at all. There was no point to the cutlery.” And the other person would just shrug.

Replace the cutlery with the character detail, and the water with the ending, and you get why I was a bit annoyed with this film. Lots of slow build-up, then just a big fizzle at the end. As an example of its impact on me, I’d actually much rather review Chopper instead. In fact, sod it. I will.

Chopper was made in 2000 and is about real life criminal/writer Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read. It mixes shockingly brutal moments of violence with some belting humour (on being stabbed by his best mate, Chopper’s loyal defence is; ‘It’s no big deal. It’s like… if your mum stabbed you.’) Eric Bana plays the fascinating character of Chopper to perfection, highlighted especially once you’ve watched the DVD extras including interviews with the real-life man. A terrifying temper mixed with narcissistic tendencies and a cracking sense of humour makes a perfect front-man. Throw in some innovative directing techniques and you’ve got a smashing piece of film, as long as you’re ok with watching a man willingly have his ears cut off.

Little Fish was well acted, but long and, quite frankly, boring. It loses one CF point for failing to engage me, thus making CF -1. Chopper, on the other hand, gains an extra point for thoroughly engaging me, and another point purely for Eric Bana (my already high opinion of him has increased significantly since seeing this performance.) It therefore makes CF2. The fact that this review has been hi-jacked by a £2.98 DVD I saw four days ago only serves to highlight how insignificant I found this week’s film. Little Fish? More like one of those single cell organisms at the very depths of the sea.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

19th July 06 - Superman Returns

In the super-hero family, Spider-man would be the quiet, intellectual one. Batman, the moody teenager. The X-Men would be an assortment of weird cousins. And Superman would be the loud, slightly irritating older sibling, who probably goes to drama school. Personally I prefer the humanity in Spider-Man and the dark streak in Batman. Superman is a bit too super for my liking. The only streak of humanity in him is through his love of Lois Lane, but even when this isn’t reciprocated he doesn’t get mad. He just goes off and saves a few folk. He’s a bit of a goody-two shoes really. But hey, that’s the character, and that’s what Bryan Singer’s had to play with. And he’s done a bloody good job.

Superman Returns is a loud, brash, fun summer film. As with MI3, don’t expect any more and you’ll have a great time. It makes 154 minutes feel like a joyous stroll through the park, especially compared to the 3 day trawl through the depths of hell that was Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s been a week and I still haven’t got over it. Anyway, different film, different experience. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the original two (this is set after Superman II, ignoring the dire third and fourth efforts) or are new to the franchise. Through a couple of flashbacks and snippets of dialogue you get the general idea about who Superman is and what he can do (though you’d have to have had no exposure to popular culture in your entire life not to know anything about him. You weirdo.)

There’s some great nostalgia with the original theme tune (that’s been in my head all day and therefore made everything I’ve done somehow heroic) and crappy 70s effects on the credits. Singer handles the pace very carefully, slowly building up the story and characters, holding back instead of just rushing in and doing ‘super’ things. But when he does let go the fun really begins. The plane sequence is fantastic, and there’re some way cool ‘Superman impervious to harm’ moments. There’s also a welcome slice of humour throughout, especially some tongue-in-cheek winks at the franchise’s gaping flaws (really, how stupid do you have to be not to know that Superman and Clark are the same person?)

Newby Brandon Routh steps up to the super mantel, and does a damn good job. He definitely looks the part, and easily plays the bumbling goofball mixed with the quiet alien who’s so in lurve. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to shrug off his Superman cape to delve into different roles, but I hear he’s signed up for the next two so at least he’ll have some income for the next few years. Kate Bosworth plays Lois reasonably well, but it’s a case of ‘she’s an intelligent woman… and now she’s sprawled on the floor in a dress split to her thighs.’ Maybe I should wait for a new Supergirl to get a film that doesn’t portray women as sexual objects. Oh wait…

As for Kevin Spacey. Lordy, he puts the ‘ham’ in ‘hamming’, clearly enjoying his role as Lex Luthor. He’s great fun to watch, and his melodramatic campness makes his utterly ludicrous evil plot (creating a new continent out of magic crystals…) easy to take onboard. Now, ludicrous is a word you can apply to this film. It is ridiculous. But that’s why it’s so much fun. And it’s been setup for sequels that could take the plot in a very interesting direction. My main criticism would be that it dragged a little at the end – Superman saves the day but then there’s another twenty minutes of film.

Superman makes CF0, and I’m giving it an extra point for being an enjoyable blockbuster that made me smile. Therefore it makes CF1. Super!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

13th July 06 - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

The first outing of Pirates was surprisingly enjoyable. Amusing, cool immortal pirates that go all skeleton in the moonlight, Johnny Depp stealing the show with his fantastically bizarre Captain Sparrow. For a summer blockbuster it wasn’t that bad. My only gripes were with some of the ‘acting’ and that it was a bit too long. This second edition isn’t as amusing, lacks the cool immortal pirates that go all skeleton in the moonlight, and Depp’s screen time is reduced. The acting is worse. And it’s 150 minutes long. One hundred and fifty minutes. Let me try and explain what those 150 minutes are like.

First off, the plot. This is the sort of thing that young children come up with when their imaginations go into hyper-drive and they start to make little sense and get a bit annoying. I can just imagine a small boy dictating the plot to Gore Verbinski: “and then the big squid monster crushes up the boat and everyone runs around and it gets crushed up, and then, and then the big squid monster crushes up another boat but they blast it away and it goes ‘eeeeerrrrr’ but then it comes back and crushes it up again, but they blowed it all up and it’s going ‘eeerrrrr’ and then, and then it comes back again and…” At this point you’d pat the boy on the head, softly enough to say that you appreciate his thoughts, but firmly enough to make him stop. What seems to have happened is they gave Gore $200million to make two of the bloody films. Two! There’s another one to come! What more could they possibly have to say with this, except have more scenes with no reason? Take the 20 minute segment on the cannibal island. What was the purpose of it? There was literally no purpose. None.

And then there’s the cast. I usually feel quite sorry for Orlando Bloom. He’s like the simpleton you can’t shout at. But really, come on. This guy’s getting paid to do this? In the first film he was wooden, but battled through. In this film it’s like he’s doing an impression of himself. It’s so bad it made me wonder if this was tongue-in-cheek acting. WHEN THE OWN-ER-LEY THING YOU CAN DO IS SAY EV-ER-REE-THING VE-REY CL-EER-LEY AND IN A VE-REY LOUD VOICE you have to wonder how much longer you can get away with it before someone twigs that you’re a bit crap. Keira Knightly… well, she’s on the same list that Scarlett Johansson’s on (see Hard Candy review). With her orange face, square jaw and smugness that just oozes from every pore. All you saw of her was her constant straining. Must…be…sexy… Must…squint…more…

And good old Depp, who should have saved us from this. He did it in the first one. But this one is so long, so arduous to watch, that he just can’t do it. He brings a few smiles, but they mean nothing through all the tears of pain. It looks like he’s having fun with the role. At least someone was.

Of course, there were a few breaks in the cloud. Some bits were quite funny, the designs of Davey Jones and his water-themed crew were pretty cool and well CGI-ed, and a couple of the action pieces (mostly involving things rolling with people in them) were quite interesting, though that interest wore off after the first ten minutes of the same action. It’s like Michael Bay had a hand in it. Michael: look it’s really cool. Audience: yes, we suppose. Michael: yeah, look, it’s still really cool. Audience: yes, it was pretty cool, but we’re a bit bored now. Michael: yeah! Audience: For the love of God stop!

The icing on the cake was, after 150 long, long minutes, there was no resolution. The film just stopped. That sort of trickery worked for Lord of the Rings, because those films had a weighty plot and were, you know, good. To have a crap film take up 150 minutes of my life with crap, and then end in a crap way without resolving anything. It’s just taking the piss. Don’t get me wrong – I was glad it finished. It was so sudden, though, I was left a little shell-shocked. It was like having some work-men use a pneumatic drill outside your bedroom window for 150 minutes, and then suddenly stop. With a start you realise what blissful silence sounds like, and then remember how torturous the last 150 minutes had been, and then hate those work-men with every fibre of your being.

Pirates doesn’t make CF0, surprisingly. It loses one point for having shit acting and a shit plot. It loses another for featuring Keira Knightly. And it loses another for having the cheek to ruin 150 minutes of my precious life. A Cinemafool first: Pirates makes CF-3. Bastards.

Monday, July 03, 2006

28th June 06 - Hard Candy

Paedophiles are a risky subject. There’s an obvious sentence if ever I wrote one. The Woodsman (see my top 10 films of 2005) proved you could handle the subject and produce an uncomfortable, but captivating piece of film, with Kevin Bacon turning in an outstanding performance as a man whose internal struggle is enough to trigger sympathy, despite his actions. Hard Candy manages to trigger sympathy too, only the struggle isn’t so much internal, more ‘oh Christ why is there an ice pack on my balls?!??!’

To be honest, I went in expecting a so-so film, with the only interest coming from just how far they can push the torture levels. Before you brand me a scary freak, my interest in torture is a) limited only to the make-believe land of film, and b) out of amusement at the thought of slightly geeky filmmakers giggling in a little room and trying to come up with the most extreme scenes they can imagine. Having read hints at what Hard Candy had to offer, I was quite intrigued. But not expecting lots.

So hurray to low expectations, because what I got was a film that, yes, had some good ol’ torture, but also had fleshed out characters and issues you could really sink your teeth into. Jeff (Patrick Wilson) is a creepy bastard, with very little going for him. Hayley (Ellen Page) is a feisty fourteen-year-old with witty banter and a hardened moral streak. So how, at some parts, can you find yourself rooting for Jeff? Who is the hero in this piece? The terrified paedophile or the psychotic girl with a scalpel? Of course Jeff is a bad man. You know that. He deserves what’s coming to him. But then you suddenly realise you’re willing him to grab that phone and make an escape. What’s going on?!

Probably the film’s strength comes with its leads. Patrick Wilson’s sheer terror, alarm, frustration, pain – it’s all etched out on his face so vividly you wonder if it’s really just props they’re using down there. And Ellen Page (Kitty from X3) is definitely one to watch. She’s younger than me (19), very very good and so far hasn’t joined the likes of Scarlett Johansson on my ‘girls who are younger than me and more successful who I hate with a passion’ list. She has just the right levels of confidence without the smug arrogance of Scarlett. Sorry – shouldn’t start down that road or this review will take a very different turn.

Anyway, as to the torture, this is what should be shown to all film school students as a guide of how to elicit moans from audience members without showing anything being done to, erm, ‘members’ on screen. There is very little in the way of gore. It’s all suggestion, and it’s plainly enough. Jeff’s face, her gentle assurances (“this might pull a bit”) and an occasional noise. It’s uncomfortable viewing, but fantastically well done.

Of course there’re some flaws. A few plot holes, maybe the ending was a bit flat, maybe some of it was a little bit silly. But this is a bold effort from relative new-comers to film (David Slade as director, and Brian Nelson as writer). Though it didn’t overwhelm me, it still offered more to chew over than I was expecting. Hard Candy – less boiled sweet, more Chewitt. It gains CF0, and has an extra point for being more than just a torture film. CF1.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

21st June 06 - Thank You For Smoking

Utter the phrase ‘a film about a pro-tobacco lobbyist’ and feel the hands reaching for the phones by people who like to complain about things that if they disapprove of so much they should use their tiny brains and not watch instead of whining about them and spoiling it for the rest of us free-thinking intelligent beings who understand the concept of satire and don’t always take things at face value. Sorry – pet hate.

Anyway, Thank You For Smoking (TYFS) centres on Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart - in his first lead role as far as I can tell) who’s a hated man because he spends his days promoting cancer on a stick. He’s a smarmy sweet talker, twisting ideas and propelling them right back at you. And he’s really good at it. But as the lead, we of course can’t have Nick as a total arse, otherwise the audience will never root for him. So bring in small alien-faced son, who looks up to his dad as a role model. There – now he’s more human. And Eckhart manages it – you’re convinced this guy can twist his morals enough to continue with his career, but through the loving glances at his son and very occasional facial twitch as his morals are stretched to the limit, he’s also a likeable guy.

TYFS takes a no frills approach to the Tobacco vs Health Authority battle of morals. There is no black and white. The Tobacco companies are constantly trying to find ‘no evidence’ of health risks to soil their name, and the health guys are trying to find ‘cancer kids with no hope’, to further increase their point. And maybe the tobacco guys are shown as sleazy but successful, while the health guys are weedy and a bit pathetic. Biased? Is the satire really satire, or is this film actually funded by the tobacco companies in a huge conspiracy to make smoking cool? The noticeable absence of any kind of smoking in this film dispels any such thoughts, which are pretty stupid thoughts anyway.

So, was it good? Yes. (If only reviews could be this simple. It would certainly save me, and you, lots of time.) TYFS was easy to watch, amusing, some great one liners, some great performances, some food for thought. It certainly was good, and as such it makes CF0 (which, as a reminder, means I liked it and would recommend it). But it doesn’t gain any extra points. And here’s why. First off, there were too many characters. Some, like Katie Holmes’ reporter, are vacuous and one dimensional (also, as an ex-trainee journo, I am always angered by the portrayal of reporters as evil creatures whoring themselves out for the story) and others, like Rob Lowe’s loopy Hollywood casting agent (his reply to ‘when do you sleep’ was “Sunday”) should’ve been used in more than one scene. The wry tone was sweetened a little too much for my liking by the father/son aspect, especially towards the end, and though it was pretty amusing, there were stretches where my mind wandered away from the screen and on into pretty places inside my brain. For just a 93 minute jaunt, it felt a lot longer.

But hey, that’s just me being picky. Still enjoyed it. Wasn’t blown away, but it’s good enough to get CF0 and that, surely, is something to celebrate. Perhaps with a cigarette...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

14th June 06 - Mission: Impossible III

There was a bit of a film drought this week (I just cannot bring myself to watch the Da Vinci Code. It goes against every fibre of my brain) so I found myself opting for Mission: Impossible III. The first one was pretty enjoyable, the second had a lot of slow mo and doves (cheers Mr. Woo) so I was expecting a fairly entertaining, but definitely silly affair. My expectations were pleasingly met.

MI3 has everything you could possibly want. Car chases, helicopter chases, chases on foot, shoot-outs, fist fights, gadgets, parachutes, clever plans to foil the baddies. Bombs implanted in brains. Brilliant stuff. There’s a team of hot young spies, Ving Rhames doing one-liners, Laurence Fishburne’s huge mottled head, hell even Simon Pegg as an Oxford-trained IT type guy. Something for everyone. Director J.J.Abrams (of Lost and Alias) delivers a slick, stylish approach, with well handled action scenes, bits of slow-mo (but not over-blown aka Woo) and an absolutely belting start. All films should start like that (beaten up Tom, gun to girlfriend’s head, countdown from 10…) Brilliant stuff.

The presence of the Cruise may put some people off. His celebrity persona has certainly rubbed quite a few people up the wrong way. Constantly happy, a bit of a creepy relationship, and beliefs that I won’t comment on, just in case I’m sued for using words like ‘manipulative’ and ‘bizarre’. But like him or not, the guy can do good films. True, he may play a similar character in everything I’ve seen (apart from in the excellent Magnolia) but you can’t help but admire his on-screen status. Action-wise, he delivers the goods – sprinting about, leaping on to cars, hanging out of helicopters. For a 44 year old, he ain’t half bad. And, bless him, he works his socks off to really get those emotions out there, with those big, blurred wounded eyes. I suspect he’s had some sort of surgical procedure that allows him to press a button and create a tear from his left eye on cue. There’s always a left eye tear – you watch.

Of course this film is flawed, as are most ‘action’ flicks. Characters are impervious to enemy fire but can take out others with single shots, locks are picked with the slightest of ease, latex masks are stupidly realistic and there are some areas of the plot that they don’t even bother explaining. But that’s what you expect from Mission Impossible. If you don’t, then you’re an idiot and you deserve to be disappointed. Accept the silliness and just sit back and enjoy. I did, and because it delivered what I wanted it gains a CF0 rating.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

7th June 06 - Down in the Valley

Cowboys are so hot right now. Everyone wants to be one. Harlan (Edward Norton) is no exception. He has the clothes, he knows the moves. He’s in modern day L.A. It’s a mismatch that could spark a comic masterpiece, where the crazy cowboy doesn’t understand modern life and everyone has a good laugh, a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies. And by comic masterpiece, I mean crushing torment.

But I’m totally digressing, because Down in the Valley isn’t a crushing comedy at all. It starts off as a gentle summer romance and slowly twists into a skewed western/thriller combo type thing. Harlan meets Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood, played by a bleached skeleton) and despite the age difference (Tobe’s a rebellious teen) they fall in love. Aw. It’s all summer fields and swaying grasses and swings on trees. It’s like summer on screen. And yes, maybe not a whole lot happens. But there’re hints that maybe Harlan’s a tad insane. And each hint adds to the general sense of foreboding that casts a cloud over all the summer fun and makes it just that little bit more interesting.

You know the manure’s going to hit the fan sooner or later, but when and how turns out to be a well played shock. And then things start to get a bit strange. There’s a fugitive situation, chases, shoot outs. What starts out as a meandering stroll turns into a bit of a scrabble, and perhaps writer/director David Jacobson gets a little bit carried away with it all. Unfortunately this is at the cost of the tone, which was slowly developed over the first half, and is then peed on from a great height by all the guns.

But, flawed though it may be, I still liked this film. The cast are indestructibly good. To be honest I could watch Ed Norton read out the Yellowpages and still be enthralled. He’s fast becoming one of my favourite actors, and adds great depth to mixed up Harlan, who’s just tying to find an identity. And likes guns. Evan Rachel Wood, annoyingly just nineteen years old, is solidly sultry, and little Rory Culkin, who’s surprisingly seventeen, plays a convincing thirteen year old. Top all that with David Morse (he’s in everything you’ve ever seen) as the sometimes violent but slightly sympathetic father figure, and you’ve got a pretty damn good cast.

Despite the muddled finale, there are also some great little touches. The slow sink into Western territory, matching our gradual understanding of Harlan’s dodgy sanity, offers up some striking contrasts. A car vs. horse chase through a posh housing development. A splendid shoot out on the set of a Western film set. It’s just a shame that the film started to feel just as confused as Harlan towards the end.

I’ve been struggling to rate this film. It makes CF0, gains a point for the acting, but loses one for getting all weird at the end. So CF0 it is.

Friday, June 02, 2006

1st June 06 - X-Men: The Last Stand

Ah comics. The source of a cornucopia of characters from which Mr. Movieland can pick and choose, sometimes creating genius (Spider-Man, Batman Begins) and sometimes creating a frightening mess (Daredevil, Catwoman). X-Men has already spouted two films, both of which didn’t do too bad a job. And now we get this third and supposedly final offering (I'll believe it when I see it) which starts off this summer’s blockbuster run.

As a partial nerd (I watched the cartoons, but didn’t read the comics) I was looking forward to X3, but went in expecting a mediocre effort based on reviews and instincts. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself, well, pleasantly surprised. Being the final film gets rid of the sequel pressure, giving a free-for-all on plot turns. And some plot turns genuinely shocked me. I kept expecting there to be a ‘surprise! We didn’t really just do that!’ But there never was. This slight feeling of doom helped to darken X3’s mood, and give it more of an edge. My main problem with the previous films was they felt too much of a 12-rated affair. It was violence and chaos but in a 12-rated way. A bit too safe for my liking. But despite X3’s 12A stamp, there are some pretty horrific moments, which if watched through an 8 year old’s eyes might make a psychological stamp similar to the one imprinted on my brain from the T-1000.

Anyway, there’re some neat moments in this film (especially the transformation from Jean into the Phoenix, despite being inaccurate) and some great action set pieces. There’re also a trillion new characters, which highlights the fundamental flaw with trying to film X-Men. Through an endless stream of comics you can set up characters and give them all the depth and back-story you want. In a couple of hours, you’re going to struggle. Not only do you need to introduce the newbies, you’ve got all the old favourites to include, plus a couple of lines of plot, plus fight scenes and action pieces. It doesn’t leave much room for dialogue, or much time for any depth to the characters, and the film suffers for it. The new faces include Vinnie Jones (playing himself) as the unstoppable Juggernaut, who is fairly unstoppable for about three seconds. There’s a few S&M style baddie mutants who share five minutes of screen time (they get a turn each to do their powers), and the brilliant Angel, whose character showed so much promise after being introduced as a child trying desperately to file down his wings, and who is completely and shamefully wasted.

The familiar faces also suffer with the jam-packed nature of the film. Even wonderful Wolverine feels deflated, with less time to be angry and wise-cracking, instead just going through the motions and whipping out his claws on cue. But for some reason Storm is given more screen time. Who made that stupid decision? Storm’s rubbish. They may have given her a new hair do and let her fly around a bit, but my interest in her character is about as small as Halle Berry’s waist. The main ‘players’ over on the baddies side, Magneto and the Phoenix, spend most of their time standing with their legs slightly apart and watching stuff, waiting for something to do.

It’s a case of too much crammed in to too little. But what else could they have done? If they were to go into full detail the film would be about 6 hours long. And if they didn’t bother bringing in anyone new then what’s the point in another sequel? It’s a tough job, and overall it wasn’t done half bad. There’s thrills, there’s a few ideas thrown up to ponder and there’s a darkness in it that I admired. If you stay till after the credits then you get a scene that is quite frankly creepy, creepy, creepy. Plus you get to see a blue Frasier Crane kick ass. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still enjoyable. It makes CF0, and I’m awarding an extra point because it had the balls to avoid the safe route, and instead do some nasty things to our beloved X-Men. Therefore it’s a CF1.