Thursday, May 25, 2006

24th May 06 - Russian Dolls

If you’re told you’re about to see a film that’s in French, English and Russian, the average fool would think that it would entail pretension, confusion and foreign people. Only one is correct in this case. In fact, after a span of off-the-wall cinema choices, Russian Dolls is probably the most “mainstream” film I’ve seen in weeks. The genre is worryingly close to ‘rom-com’, which was at first alarming to me. Just thinking about rom-com’s usually makes me want to kill someone horribly, just to get rid of the fake, sugar-coated view they have of the world. But Russian Dolls takes a more matter-of-fact view on love, as in; it’s unpleasant, difficult and creates a big mess.

Now before all those luvvie duvvies raise their hands in horror and protest, let me finish the review. Russian Dolls centres on Xavier (a carbon copy of Seth from the OC), a just-turned-thirty French writer who spends his time scrabbling for work and trying to find himself a woman. Xavier’s problem is he wants the perfect woman, so he ends up sabotaging fledgling relationships just in case something better comes along. The big idiot. His story spans several countries, gathers numerous characters (some of which featured in the film’s predecessor Auberge Espagnole, which you don’t need to have seen to appreciate this follow up) and delves into several sub-plots, some probably unnecessary but all oddly intriguing.

As far as ‘com’ goes, this film ticks the box. It’s not wet-your-pants hilarious, but there are some very amusing moments, and some brilliantly playful fantasy sequences. The cast are models straight out of an advert for designer clothes. They are all infuriatingly beautiful, and I’d hate every one of them if they couldn’t act. But subtle glances, blinked back tears and cheeky smiles save the day. There’s also lots of nudity – male and female. Something for everyone.

Ok, so back to the ‘rom’. This isn’t the clich├ęd rubbish that Xavier himself is forced to write for television. Characters are greatly flawed. Audrey Tautou’s Martine is a big cow, flicking through men and using Xavier when she’s lonely. Londoner Wendy keeps going back to her violent loser boyfriend. Xavier screws up a promising relationship by screwing around. Even the one couple who find love of a Russian variety and get married at the end aren’t perfect – their brief looks of uncertainty darkened the mood in places. It’s all quite real, and therefore I liked it. I especially liked Xavier’s final analogy between love and Russian Dolls – that you know the final doll is in there somewhere, but you have to go through all the others to get to it, and you’re never sure if each one will be the last. It’s so very true, and although it casts a small cloud over the potentially happy ending (is she really the last ‘doll’?) it still provides a glimmer of hope for miserable bastards like me - that someday you will stumble across the smallest doll.

Russian Dolls is over two hours long, and perhaps there are scenes and entire sub-plots that can be cut out without affecting the essence of the film. But it’s so jam packed with characters and plot it doesn’t feel like time is being dragged out. Actually, you could probably expand all the subplots and make a decent TV series out of it. But as a stand alone film, it has enough humour, interest and snazzy directing techniques to be successful. It makes CF0, and gains an extra point for having a realist view of romance, and because I fancied the lead actor. Therefore Russian Dolls gets CF1.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

16th May 06 - Brick

Hype is a tricky devil. It can turn a release date into a highly anticipated event, but make a good film a crushing disappointment. Brick received very good reviews from various folk, and as such I went in expecting something amazing. Mr. Hype strikes again.

But let’s hold back on the usual ‘could have been more’ debate, and look at this film through the right lens. Noir is the term, and for a detailed description of what noir entails, visit and note the ‘elements’ section. This will give you a clue as to what this film is about.

So, approach this from a homage to noir (what a fun sentence to say in a posh accent) and things start to look better. You have a murder mystery, an alienated hero, a jet black mood and lots of arty farty shots. And it’s all set in high school, but not in an irritating way. These teens are rarely in school, they’re all intelligent enough to be able to scheme and their dialogue is playfully poetic. You’ve got a character called The Brain, who actually looks like Brains from Thunderbirds, and a 26 year-old drug dealer with a cane. It’s teetering on ridiculous and reminded me slightly of Bugsy Malone (which I never warmed to as a child. I didn’t like the kids being scared of those custard guns – couldn’t figure out why they weren’t firing real bullets. I was a slightly disturbed child.)

Anyway, you could take badly to this film and see it as an up itself blah-de-blah type of affair. But keep ‘noir’ in your mind and it hits the spot, mostly because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He stomps around, hands stuffed into pockets, curly fringe covering moody stare. And when he breaks down in one scene, the raw emotion still trying to be checked by his tough exterior, there’s a strong hint that this guy’s going to be a big contender in the future. And extra points for having a glasses-wearing hero who isn’t a dweeb.

Other high points include some effective use of lighting with a spinning mirror, jarringly cut fights and a chase scene where the only sound is the echo of desperate footsteps. There was some good stuff in this film. But I didn’t come away completely wowed. Why? First off, there’s Mr. Hype. Secondly, I spent a lot of it struggling to hear muttered clues and remembering which one was Tug and which one was Dode. And thirdly the mystery wasn’t that big a mystery. There was a round-up of the plot at the end, which was necessary, but the whole ‘who dunnit’ angle wasn’t mind blowing. The plot wasn’t really clever, just had a lot of names.

So, on a general out of ten rating, Brick makes 8. On the CF rating, it automatically makes 0. There’s an extra point for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and another for creating noir and bringing it into the modern day high school. In total it makes CF2.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

10th May 06 - The Magician

I could’ve made this film. If I had access to a bald ozzie bloke. And my own video camera. But that’s about all you’d need to recreate it. In an age of $200m budgets, The Magician is a breath of fresh air. Shot on a shoddy camera, with bad sound, no lighting and shaky footage when on foot, this film is the essence of cheapness. And it shows you don’t need mega bucks to make a good piece of film.

The Magician is a ‘documentary’ by a ‘film student’ about Ray the hitman. It centres on one client in particular, and flitters around interviews with Ray about his job and circumstances. To take this view on an already milked concept (see Leon, Assassin, Gross Point Blank, etc etc) is a smart move. Hitmen are generally portrayed as cool dudes, silent hunters, sporting black jackets and slow-mo super kick ass moves. In The Magician you get to see one eating a McDonalds with a glob of mayo on his face.

Ray (Scott Ryan - also the writer and director, the greedy munchkin) is the star of the show. His weird rectangular teeth hide a violent streak that’s often blackly amusing. Though his occupation is a tad morally wrong, we get to see a softer side to him. Well, occasionally soft. The banter between Ray and Max, the documentary maker, is fantastic. Acted so naturally, it’s difficult to tell whether their conversations are scripted or ad-libbed, but the great moral debates they hold (how much money would it take to eat your own shit?) are probably the highlight of this film.

With an original take on the hitman genre and likeable characters, it’s all the more disappointing that The Magician flops at the finale. Themes and ideas that are touched on should have been bulked up so much more. I wanted to know more about Ray, I wanted to see his friendship increase with Max, and I wanted to see that relationship tested by Ray’s occupation. All of this was there, very fleetingly, but it never really took off. If it had, then the emotional impact would have been substantial. As it was, I was left feeling a little flat and mostly disappointed – there was a lot of promise here, and it’s a great shame that it lost the ‘wow’ factor.

The Magician gets 7/10. On the new CF scale (see post ‘The New CF Scale’) it starts at ‘0’, and is awarded one CF point for having such a small budget, and for featuring believable, funny dialogue. It therefore makes CF 1.

The New CF Scale

After recent conversations with my friends at kinoland and emosciencemusings, I have decided to alter the ratings system used on this site. Current ratings are out of 10, with ‘5’ being average, ‘10’ being absolutely impossibly brilliant, and ‘1’ utter and complete shite. But because I choose my cinema trips carefully, I avoid all films that would usually get a below 5 rating, so most of my reviews fall into the ‘7’ category. Hence the repeated use of decimal places to try and distinguish one ‘7’ film from another.

Thus the new Cinemafool (CF) rating is born. It is based on the preconception that every film I go to see is a 7 rated film. On the new scale, 7 = 0. Extra marks can then be scored, up to a maximum of 5, for any aspects of the film that I deem greater than 7. Or for the occasional slip-up, marks can be lost, down to negative 5, depending on the crapness.

For example:

Tsotsi was given 8.5/10 on the old scale.

  • It automatically makes ‘0’ because it’s more than 7.
  • I’ve decided to add 2 extra marks for the emotional thrust of the film.
  • So Tsotsi makes a CF score of 2.
  • (Some might think it’d be 1.5, if you take it from 8.5 minus 7. But the scales don’t transfer that neatly. This gives me more scope for films better than a 7.)

Another example:

Closer was awarded 5.5/10.

  • It therefore does not even reach CF 0 – instead I put it at CF-2. It loses 2 CF points for having crap dialogue and featuring Clive Owen.

In short, if a film makes CF 0, then it’s worth seeing. The more CF points it gains, the more I’d recommend it. It’s that simple.

From now on all films will be rated on the CF scale, but with an additional rating out of ten for those who are a bit silly and don’t understand what I’ve just plainly written.

Friday, May 05, 2006

4th May 06 - C.R.A.Z.Y

Being gay and having your father hate you for it is not a new concept. Hell, they even covered it in Dawson’s Creek. So I was a bit dubious about watching C.R.A.Z.Y, simply because I’ve seen it all before. But CRAZY (I’m omitting the full stops because it’s just plain annoying to type) has an ace up its sleeve. As well as the ‘I’m gay and my father can’t handle it’ story, there’s an extra ‘religious faith healer’ angle. Interesting…

So we have little Zach, growing up with four brothers and struggling to deal with the very ‘trait’ his father constantly puts down. Zach was born on Christmas day, making him a) grumpy that his birthday has to be shared with Jesus, and b) ‘special’ in his mother’s eyes, supposedly blessed with the ability to heal. As Zach gets older, he finds it more difficult to hide his true feelings and keep his dad happy at the same time. Oh, and he doesn't believe in healing anymore. But sometimes he does.

So what’s good about it? Well, Marc-Andre Grondin, who plays teenage to twenty-something Zach. I found him to be an engaging and likeable lead, not just because I may have fancied the pants off him. He managed to portray the rebellious teen who just wants to be loved without coming across like a brat, and handled his growing fondness for men with confidence, especially when considering the lucky bastard is a year younger than me in real life. The direction (by Jean-Marc Vallee) is punchy and playful, incorporating fantasy scenes without resembling Ally McBeal, and there are some great moments of humour mixed with real poignancy.

Unfortunately, CRAZY struggles with themes and, well, the point. There are lots of neat ideas and characters that are never really played out to their fullest. Apart from his druggy loser older brother, Zach’s other siblings are just background (and why does the clever one have to be wearing glasses? And the exact same pair of glasses ten years later – what, does the director think we’re so stupid that we need such an obvious visual clue to pinpoint which grown-up character is which. Why not add name tags just to be sure.) The whole ‘is Zach a healer’ thing is an interesting side-line, but it’s never really concluded, which makes it feel a bit, well, pointless. It’s like they started out with all these ideas and then didn’t know what to do with them. So instead they send Zach to the desert and have him rescued by some passing travellers. Eh?

The film is a hefty 127 minutes long. You can get a lot into two hours, but CRAZY just doesn’t. Sure, there are some really effective scenes in there, but it’s like having a neat stack of cards and dropping them on the floor. You start off with some structure, but end up with a sprawling mess. I did like most of this film, (the soundtrack was especially good) but it needs tightening up, stripping down, and a clearer idea of what it’s trying to say. However, the acting and bouncy direction manage to bring it up to 7.