Wednesday, February 28, 2007

28th Feb 07 - The Science of Sleep

A lovely treat this week. Not only do I get to watch a fabulous film (more on that later) but I get to sit a comfortable distance from the screen. I was beginning to think the cinema was a visual punishment for all the insults I may have doled out in these reviews. It seems that’s not the case, though, so I’ll just carry on mocking people.

Anyway, I’ve been waiting to see The Science of Sleep since last year when it pretended to be released, before cruelly withdrawing itself until now. My excitement came from director Michel Gondry, a man who cut his teeth in music videos. His videos were always the ones that made me go ‘wow’, be they for Bjork, Chemical Brothers, White Stripes or even Kylie, they always displayed Gondry’s bizarre visual style, and let him play around with many different effects. His foray into film began with my favourite screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, starting with the unusual Human Nature before popping out a film that now sits in my top 5 of all time – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Science of Sleep (SoS – because it’s too long a title to keep writing it all the time) is Gondry’s first feature length entirely under his own steam. And boy is it good.

The thing with Gondry is he’s obsessed with dreams, and has a funny knack of transferring that strange muddled dream-world on to film. So SoS is all about Stéphane, a young guy with vivid dreams and difficulty in separating them from the real world – a characteristic that makes things a tad difficult when he starts to fall in love with his neighbour. The film is essentially one of those romantic ones with irritating misunderstandings that have “hilarious” results, but under the whimsical, fantastical brain of Gondry it takes on a whole new tone. I think the best word to describe it is charming. Utterly charming.

Mixing live action with a variety of animation techniques creates a sort of child-like quality to the film (Gondry’s passion for animation is apparent back in his music video days – check out his White Stripes video made almost entirely of lego). Toy horses suddenly scamper across the floor, water becomes animated sweet wrappers, the outside world becomes a pulsating mass of cardboard cut-outs. It could all very easily slip into a mess of ‘huh?’ but Gondry keeps everything in check, with a firm enough grip on reality to make a convincing story.

Gondry penned the script himself and creates flowing, genuinely funny dialogue. It’s helped in its delivery by the lead, Gael Garcia Bernal, who is quite frankly incredibly gorgeous. He’s also a pretty fine actor, making Stéphane sympathetic, endearing, a little bit insane and also quite sexy all at once. He switches from sulking toddler, to loved-up fool, to frightened child, to slightly obsessed crazy, to excitable tot, and not once do you lose belief in his character, even when he comes out with statements like “I like your boobs. They're very friendly and unpretentious.”

I watched this film with a continuous smile broken only by bouts of laughter. At the risk of sounding like one of those pompous critics amused at the slightest thing, it was a joy to watch. My admiration for Gondry’s style probably helps. Though it’s nice to see he’s finally been given a full outlet for his dream fascination, I’d be interested to see where he goes next. I hope he can move his imagination on to other things rather than get stuck doing ‘the dream thing’. But that’s all irrelevant right now. The Science of Sleep told a familiar story in an original way, was visually fascinating and had a big ol’ heart beating behind all of it. It was the most enjoyable film so far this year, I’d say, and for that it storms in with a CF4. Who’s going to step up and try to beat that one? Go on – I dare you.

Cinemafool at the Oscars

The Oscars are a reasonably major event in the world of film, although recently it seems to be more what people wear and how much they cry, than what actually won. I find them quite dubious, mostly due to their insistence on giving Eastwood praise (four nods at directing, two winning) and their sort of naff ‘let’s make up for ignoring’ way of doling out the awards, meaning people like Judi Dench get awarded for a nano-second of time, or Return of the King scores an awards bonanza when the equally good previous two were sort of ignored. It dilutes the impact of the award for me. An ‘Oscar winning’ film is no longer necessarily the best film of the year. Sometimes far from it.

But because Cinemafool likes to have opinions (correct opinions, at that) here is my take on the Oscars 2007:

Best Director: Martin Scorsese
A half-surprise at this one. Marty has been notoriously ignored by Mr Oscar, despite blasting out some of the biggest cult masterpieces (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull) and some meaty offerings (The Aviator, Gangs of New York). Though The Departed fits more into ‘meaty’ than ‘masterpiece’ (reviewed 14th Oct), this award smacks of “here you go, happy now?’ rather than recognising the film on its own merits.

Saying that, if anyone else had won I’d be ranting on here about what a travesty it is that Marty was shunned yet again. Plus at least Eastwood didn’t win.

Best film: The Departed
See previous comments. The Departed was a good film, making it to the CF Top 10 of 2006, but it doesn’t feel like the BEST film. Still, compared to the quaint but slightly too quirky Little Miss Sunshine (reviewed 17th Oct), the pompous overblown Babel (reviewed 7th Feb), and the I-haven’t-seen-them-but-don’t-fancy-them-therefore-they-must-be-a-bit-rubbish-obviously Letters from Iwo Jima (bloody Eastwood again) and The Queen, I’d have to say that The Departed is the best of the bunch. I am pleased it won.

Best Actor: Forest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland)
As I noted in my review (24th Jan), Forest is worthy of this award, and was my preferred winner anyway. His performance is commanding and certainly gives the film a bit of oh-la-la (as only a mass-murdering crazy person can). Well done Forest.

Best Actress: Helen Mirren (The Queen)
I wasn’t particularly fussed by The Queen – I suspect America’s fascination with the Royals was the root cause of this muscling its way into nominations. I can’t really give much comment. I guess she does good Queen.

Best supporting actor: Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Yeah, he was pretty good. Shame Marky Mark didn’t get one for sporting silly hair in the Departed, though.

Best supporting actress: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)
I firmly wanted Rinko Kikuchi to nab this one. Her deaf Japanese girl was the best thing in Babel, and I believed firmly deserved a statue. (An Oscar statue, not a literal one. She wasn’t that great).

Best Foreign Language film: Das Leben der Anderen (aka The Lives of Others)
Never heard of it. How can some random German film win when the infinitely better El Laberinto del Fauno (ie Pan’s Labyrinth) was in the same category? I realise saying it’s better when I haven’t seen the other films is a little silly, but come one – Pan was one of the best films of the year and deserves recognition.

Best animated feature film: Happy Feet
I haven’t seen any of the animated entries (the others being Cars and Monster House). The reaction to Happy Feet was positive from those I spoke to, although I had to question their joy. It is dancing penguins after all. Weirdoes.

Best adapted screenplay: The Departed
Fair enough. Children of Men (reviewed 27th Sep) was in this category, but its script was not what made it great.

Best original screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine
Again, Pan’s Labyrinth (reviewed 6th Dec) was popping up in this category. Sunshine was quaint but a little clichéd, though the characters (aside from the mother, as I griped in my review) were nicely etched out. Ok, I give my blessing to this one.

Best original score: Babel
I can’t really remember the music from Babel, except the one song that’s used in the superbly brilliant show Deadwood. Hmm… original score you say?

Best original song: I Need to Wake Up - An Inconvenient Truth (performed by Melissa Etheridge)
Best song? Come on, it’s not the Brits.

Best documentary feature: An Inconvenient Truth
Didn’t watch this one. I know it’s about important things but I just don’t want to hear about it. It’s inconvenient. Ho ho ho.

Best documentary short subject: The Blood of Yingzhou District
I have no idea what this is. Sorry.

Best visual effects: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Oh God. They gave this an award? Ok, the effects were pretty good (reviewed, sorry, destroyed 13th July). And it was up against Poseidon and Superman Returns. But Christ – awarding it? You’ll just encourage them.

Best cinematography: Pan's Labyrinth
I am pleased, but Children of Men was also in this category and I think both films should be awarded for cinematography. But well done Pan.

Best art direction:Pan's Labyrinth
Hell yeah.

Best animated short film:The Danish Poet

Best action short film: West Bank Story
Mmm hmm…

Best costume design: Marie Antoinette
Yeah it probably had nice clothes.

Best make-up: Pan's Labyrinth
Come on Pan!

Best sound mixing: Dreamgirls
I don’t really know what these awards are for anymore.

Sound editing: Letters from Iwo Jima
Eastwood? Come on, was that just to give him something?

Best film editing: The Departed
Again, Children of Men was in here. Though the beauty of that was the lack of editing in many shots so not sure how the award would win.

In total the Departed and Pan’s Labyrinth came out glowing, scooping four and three awards respectively. Not a bad effort, and not too many gripes for a change. In all an interesting, if not uneventful (and therefore a little boring), Oscars for 2007. And did you see J-Lo’s dress? Christ it was hideous…

Thursday, February 22, 2007

21st Feb 07 - For Your Consideration

Sitting inches from a cinema screen seems to be the thing to do at the moment. Last week it was noses-to-the-screen at Hot Fuzz (review to follow in the next couple of weeks when I can watch it from a less upfront position) and this week we were nestled in the Cornerhouse’s living room to watch For Your Consideration, the new comedy from Christopher Guest and co. “Who?” you might ask – to which I’d cuff you round the ear and say “the guys that brought comedy genius into the world through such mock-docs as ‘This is Spinal Tap’ and ‘Best in Show’ you fool.” Then I might apologise if I cuffed you too hard, but really you’d have deserved it.

The likes of Spinal Tap were such winners because the hugely talented ensemble cast threw themselves into the world they were reflecting and created hilarious moments with natural, free-flowing dialogue. The same technique is employed in this new offering, although it mustn’t have taken much preparation to immerse themselves into these roles. The gang play a bunch of actors, film producers and writers.

The story centres on a handful of actors who discover, via internet hype, that their current film may result in an Oscar nomination for their performances. How this potential award changes their attitudes (and in some cases, their actual faces) is the main comic thrust, though there are plenty of opportunities for giggles, be it through Eugene Levy’s useless agent, Jennifer Coolidge’s thicko producer or Guest himself, as the slightly crap director.

The trouble is that despite causing me to chortle, the film also created a frown on completion. The team are experts at this kind of format, but it felt like they were very much aware of this, which perhaps caused them to go on cruise control. Fred Willard turns in a hilarious performance as a dumb and slightly offensive TV presenter. Just looking at some of his outfits, or the trendy ‘ducks arse’ hair style he sports (the guy’s 68) is enough to bring a smile. Trouble is, in Best in Show he plays a dumb and slightly offensive TV commentator. Still just as funny. But watching Consideration you can’t help but feel that they could’ve tried something a little different. Jennifer Coolidge almost always plays a dumb blonde. True, she does it fabulously, but again maybe it’s time she stretched herself. And our very own Ricky Gervais pops up and plays… oh yeah, it’s his ‘Gervais/Brent’ act. Again.

So though Consideration is no doubt funny, with clever little digs at celebrity culture and the problems with hype, it doesn’t boast enough set pieces to match those of the Tap or Best in Show, or even a story as engaging as A Mighty Wind. Instead it’s similar jokes in a different, but not different enough, environment. A great shame, and a conundrum for my ratings. On its own merits this is a funny, clever little film with a brilliant cast, pooing all over the other “comedies” out now (Epic Movie? Come on – stop ripping off everyone else’s jokes just to make the plebs laugh. They’ll laugh at their own reflection, you don’t need to spoil our cinemas on their behalf). But put it in terms of what it could have accomplished and you can’t help but be a little disappointed. I think this deserves more than just a CF0, but I can’t make it any higher than CF1 I’m afraid. If you’re new to Guest then this is worth a gander, but the rest you may find things a little too familiar.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

7th Feb 07 - Babel

Here’s a quick insight into how my mind now works while watching a new film (a scary prospect, but bear with me). My opinion starts off at CF0 and then wavers up and down the scale as the film progresses. Imagine a little CF measuring device with a red arm flittering back and forth. That’s my brain. Sometimes it’ll slowly make its way up the scale as the film increases in goodness (see Bobby). Othertimes an event will make it drop to the very bottom (see soppy soppy bits in Casino Royale). At the end of the film I then try to summarise the average reading on my internal CF scale. That’s how it works.

Anyway, the reason I’ve gone into this is because my internal CF measuring device had a long time to waver back and forth with this week’s film. Mainly because this week’s film is about eight days long.

Ok, slight exaggeration. But you certainly get your money’s worth with Babel. It’s 142 minutes and features four different stories, each interlinked in the physical world (the characters having some connection or other) and the arty metaphorical world (they all have, like, communication issues, which is why the film’s called Babel and it’s, like, deep and stuff). To us narrow-minded westerners it was advertised as a Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett vehicle with token foreign co-stars, but in reality the four stories get equal time and attention, located in Morocco, Mexico and Japan.

The high points on my CF scale were rooted to the Japan story of a deaf-mute teenage girl, played by the captivating Rinko Kikuchi (rightly oscar-nominated for best supporting actress). Her character was fascinating, the direction in her segments was superb (especially a blistering club seen through her altered senses) and with a little more to it this could have been a film all on its lonesome. The CF scale was reaching 3.

Then we have Brad and Cate, a married couple taking vacation in Morocco to try and reconcile a few issues (they don’t talk any more – they don’t communicate – see it’s dead clever. Sort of. Well, not that clever.) As disaster strikes their story fades into a mangle of desperation, which is played well by both but seems to just tail off a little at the end. The CF scale wavered down between 1 and 2, dipping when the token British couple appeared who acted like token British twats. Us British, eh? Always such bastards.

The Mexico segment had some of the liveliest scenes (Mexican weddings look fantastic. What a jolly bunch of people) and though it picked up pace towards the end, and I’d enough emotional investment to care what happened to the characters, its finish was also curtailed into a ‘oh’ rather than a ‘wow’. A sort of CF0 to 2 mix on that one.

And finally the fourth segment, focusing on some Moroccan goat farmers, had some moments of well played drama, but again petered out. And that highlights my problem with this film. After such a long investment of my time I wanted a big pay-off at the end. Something to tie everything up, or at least go out with some impact. But no – nothing. My CF scale had gone up and down throughout, rising when characters became well-developed or emotions ran high, then starting to drop as I became aware of the slow passage of time. But with so much potential and an interesting topic to the linguist in me, it was a shame that it wasn’t all put to good use. There was no real lasting impression or ‘message’. I didn’t want a Crash-type film ramming something down my throat, but a small point would’ve been nice.

I mentioned my inner scale at the start to highlight that there were moments in this film that I was putting it at a CF3. But ultimately you have to take films as a whole, and for letting things unravel a bit too much at the end Babel drops down to CF1. Give an Oscar to Rinko. But perhaps just settle for a small applause to Babel.

Friday, February 02, 2007

1st Feb 07 - Bobby

Emilio Estevez has come a long way from his ‘butt in the moonlight walk’ in National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (which if you’ve a) not seen, or b) seen and hated, then you should a) watch it – it’s on Channel 5 about five times a day, or b) leave this web site immediately as it is clear you have no soul and I do not wish to write for you anymore).

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes – Emilio has come a long way. He’s not only written and directed Bobby, he’s also roped in a drillion stars to be in it. We’ve got, among others, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Laurence Fishburne, Heather Graham, Joshua Jackson, Lindsey Lohan, William H. Macy, Demi Moore, (deep breath), Martin Sheen, Christian Slater, Sharon Stone, Elijah Wood. Basically I could write an entire review just listing the cast, but that isn’t overly interesting so I’ll stop.

With such an ensemble you run the risk of a “Me! Me! No, me!” effect, with a dozen egos battling for attention. And though everyone gets a turn to do a spot of acting, Emilio keeps them all in check so we get good performances rather than “anything you can act, I can act better” stand-offs. The first few minutes of the film are taken up with thoughts along the lines of ‘there’s whats-his-face, is that one Stone? There’s the hobbit, it’s Pacey from Dawson’s Creek!’ But after the novelty factor of star spotting subsides, what are you left with?

Well, the film focuses in on the inhabitants of the Ambassador Hotel on June 6th, 1968 – the day that Robert F. Kennedy was killed. We get to dip in and out of various lives, be they kitchen staff, switchboard girls, managers, hotel guests or people working on Kennedy’s election team. With so many characters it’s impossible to get an in-depth view into their lives, but ultimately they serve only to bring up some whoppingly relevant issues.

I know, I know. I always go on about issues and themes. But when it’s the point of a film you have to note them. Otherwise you’d look at this as a simple story about Bobby’s assassination and you’d say ‘it’s crap – you barely see him and what’s the point of everyone else?’ But let’s taking a running stab at what’s going on here. First off there’s the big one: this is 60’s America suffering from violence, racism, poverty, environmental issues and a war with obscure reasons causing the deaths of thousands. Um, familiar-much? Kennedy was cited as the solution to many of these problems, and his death packs an unpleasant punch when you look at the state of the world today.

But float away from the political and there are some other neat little ideas going on. Our celebrity-obsessed nation is mirrored perfectly. We’ve got a drunkard famous singer talking to her dowdy hairdresser about the short shelf-life of women. Who’s playing them? Demi Moore and Sharon Stone, who are both superb, and both in their forties. They could’ve written that piece themselves no doubt. There’s also Helen Hunt obsessing over her appearance, stressing that her shoes aren’t right and people are going to notice. I couldn’t help but think of the “circle of shame” in crappy celebrity magazines. By using such a well-known cast, these thoughts are given more resonance. Clever Emilio.

There are a few moments where Bobby wavers dangerously into Crash “oh look at me pointing out things really obvious I’m so clever and brilliant and lazy” territory, and perhaps there are one too many monologues or touching moments involving bloody sports (hurray my team’s winning, my entire life troubles are now solved as I smile gleefully like the simple sports-fan that I am). There’s also an unnecessary acid-trip with Ashton Kutcher that is almost embarrassingly trite.

But Bobby washes over all the flaws with its final act, building into an emotional and affecting finish, and a clever mix of footage from past and present. The risk with multiple-character plots is the loss of real empathy with the characters because there’re too many, but Bobby pulls it off by combining everything into a thought-provoking issue-riddled collage. I’m giving it one point for the nicely handled pace and clever use of stars, and another for matching past situations with present to create an affecting piece of film. So Bobby leaps in with CF2.