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.