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.