Monday, April 30, 2007

25th April 07 - Blades of Glory

Few people know that I could have been an Olympic figure skater. If I’d just been ice skating more than once, learnt how to let go of the side without falling over, and practised for many hours a day over a period of years. It’s amazing how a few little details can completely alter your life.

I mention my brush with ice-based stardom because this season the comedy folk have decided to plonk their buddy-movie sports comedy into the world of champion figure skating. The set-up is simple. Two rivals - the angelic Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) and sex-addict wild man Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) are banned from their beloved sport, but discover a loophole that will allow them to compete again. The catch? It has to be as a pair. It’s paint-by-numbers comedy. Even your general idiotic member of the public would be able to map out the plot. But rather than fall into bland comedy hell, Blades of Glory has a few aces up its sleeve.

Ace one: the cast. Will Ferrell may be starting to be a bit overkill on films at the moment (I wish he’d slow it down and concentrate on picking the best films to work on, rather than a slap-dash stew of semi-amusing to so-so clones), but he brings a cocky edge of absurdity to Chazz. Jon Heder proves he’s not just Napoleon Dynamite (as fabulous as he was). His amazing teeth and golden locks are enough to drawn smiles alone, but coupled with a laid-back naivety and a penchant for wearing ridiculous costumes and he’s a worthy contender to Ferrell for taking the comedy crown of the film.

Sweeping in to take the glory, however, is Will Arnett (probably the best character in the brilliant Arrested Development) as the lads’ main rival. His physical comedy is genius - just the way he holds himself, or lies on a sofa, is enough to make you grin. It’s a great shame he isn’t in this film as much as he should have been.

Ace two: the premise. Because despite the obvious sports-comedy formula, this is still two men ice skating together. There’s plenty of opportunity to create comic scenarios that are unique to this sport. Macho posturing resulting in a bare-chested slide across grazing ice. Dubious new lifts involving hands on parts. Ridiculous routines. It’s all there, plus some great surreal moments too.

Combine these two aces and you get a comedy that produces constant smiles, occasional chuckles and one or two guffaws. It was surprisingly good, but this is coming from the perspective that on first glance I was expecting it to be complete shit. Though it’s amusing with some great lines and performances, there’s still the genre element that it can’t quite break out of. This is no Zoolander or Anchorman. Plus there are some really disturbing CGI shots, where the actors’ faces are superimposed on to a leaping skater. I’m being picky here, but they freaked me out.

A welcome bout of fun after all the seriousness of the last few weeks, and impending heaviness of next week (stay tuned to see why) but as this film never really went the extra comedy mile, I’m just going to award it the base-recommended CF0.

Monday, April 23, 2007

21st April 07 - Half Nelson

At first glance you could write this film off as yet another teacher v pupils “drama”, usually involving a clash of class or race (or both, as Hollywood tends to make links there). The teacher struggles to gain the trust of the pupils, they get frustrated, then break some barriers, a learning montage ensues before another challenge is thrown in their path which will inevitably be solved for an uplifting finale (see current release Freedom Writers. White female teaches black class. Not at all like Michelle Pfieffer did back in ‘95 with Dangerous Minds - and she had Coolio on the soundtrack. Beat that Hilary Swank).

What you don’t want to do is stash Half Nelson into the same category. Initially you might want to. There is a skinny white teacher, Dan (Ryan Gosling) sitting in front of a racially-opposite classroom. Skinny white teacher wants to change people. Skinny white teacher struggles. But the struggle has nothing to do with the kids, or the other teachers. It’s because skinny white teacher happens to be addicted to crack.

So begins a low key drama following Dan’s attempts to change and his unlikely friendship with a thirteen year-old pupil, Drey (Shareeka Epps). The pace is undeniably sluggish - this is no ‘here’s your plot, this is an event, isn’t it all tied up and easy to follow’ film. But at some point in the first thirty minutes I suddenly found myself completely and utterly absorbed with the characters. And I totally blame the actors.

Ryan Gosling’s best actor Oscar nomination is entirely justified. The lovely 25 year-old fills his performance with little ticks, cracking his knuckles, wiping his lips on his shirt collar, wiping the sweat from his druggy brow. He kicks ass as a teacher, his rapport with the children full of charm and wit - believably so. And under everything you can sense his bubbling frustration. The guy talks constantly to his students about the importance of change, yet is painfully aware of the crappy world he lives in, and miserably unable to shake his own addiction.

His unexpected friend is played by the frighteningly brilliant teenager Shareeka Epps (unfortunately it looks like she’s about to be shamefully wasted in Alien Vs Predator 2.) She plays Drey as a confident, streetwise teen with a gentle streak of vulnerability as she’s pulled between a friendship with the flawed but caring Dan, and a drug-dealing, yet potentially more stable, friend of her family.

This film has lots of components that usually irritate me. The over-done teacher/pupil genre, the ‘adult/child’ buddy movie (children aren’t that great to be friends with, you know. They’re stupid) and a drug addicted ‘hero’ (there’s such an over-reliance on using drugs to make your characters all like edgy and cool and stuff. It’s not edgy or cool - it’s boring. Who cares if they’re addicted to anything? I had a phase where I really was unable to eat just a single Mingle, but did I make myself the central character of a film and brood around with my affliction? No.) But via stupendous acting, a temperate touch from writer/director Ryan Fleck that creates a mellow mood to match that of the characters, and some flickers of comedy and watery-eye woe, Half Nelson pushes through all of my usual grievances and emerges as an original, engaging piece of work.

Not your multiplex-filler, but stick with this film and you will be highly rewarded. Half Nelson clocks up a worthy CF3. Plus I’ve now found a new young actor to “admire”. Gosling looks good with a beard.

18th April 07 - The Lives of Others

I invite you to cast your minds back a couple of months to Cinemafool’s thoughts about the Oscars, in particular the “Best Foreign Language Film” section. The winner was Das Leben der Anderen, aka “The Lives of Others”, and my initial response was “Never heard of it. How can some random German film win when the infinitely better El Laberinto del Fauno was in the same category?” Well, now I can change my statement. Let’s see what it’ll change to…

The Lives of Others plonks itself into early 80’s East Germany and focuses on their ‘Stasi’ - the Secret Police. What a fun bunch they are. Rigorously spying on people, monitoring politically rebellious behaviour and delivering punishing interrogations. But when one of their best, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is assigned to watch over acclaimed writer Georg (Sebastian Koch), the training goes out the window.

Gerd settles himself into monitoring Georg’s every move and soon becomes fascinated with his life. And why not - Georg is a fabulous writer, in love with a beautiful actress and boasting an impressive head of hair. Compare that to Gerd (and there are some great comparisons in this film) with his grey apartment, empty life and skeletal dome, and it’s no wonder he starts to act a little strange. But when Georg’s actions start to veer away from acceptable, Gerd’s integrity is tested.

Though quite understated in places, there are some lovely little moments in this film as you watch Gerd tracking his targets every motion throughout the house, occasionally having an impact. It’s easy to see how involved Gerd can become. It must be like a real life game of The Sims. At one point he listens in to a tender moment between Georg and his lady, trying to mimic their embrace. We then see his later attempt to recreate such closeness (a prostitute with quite frankly dangerous breasts - sorry to fly off the subject and tone, but seriously they could very easily smother a man.) Such sad yet amusing moments are brought to life by Ulrich Muhe, his mostly silent performance summing up every emotion with a crestfallen grace.

At a chunky 137 minutes, there’s huge potential for this film to become an arduous monster. It’s German, it’s ugly 80s politics. It’s a recipe for woe. Long, important woe. But thankfully the film flies by, with touches of humour, intrigue and gentle tragedy. However, I did feel that Gerd’s change of heart was brought on a little too easily, and that perhaps the obsession side of things could have been explored even more. Though I enjoyed the film, it didn’t leave an enormous impression on me. It didn’t shake up my emotions too much, or make me think too deeply (apart from “crikey I’m glad it’s not the 80s and I don’t live in East Germany”.) It didn’t grab me by the head and shake me around. Like Pan did.

Not that I want all films to shake my brain about - if that was the case I’d not likely survive weekly cinema trips. But for an Oscar winning, Pan-beating film I expected a little bit more. So to rewrite my initial Oscar reaction: “The Lives of Others. I have heard of it. Good film, well crafted. But shouldn’t have won when the more striking Pan’s Labyrinth was in the same category.”

For using a fascinating subject and setting but still retaining a sense of pace and plot, I’m awarding one point. And for making 137 minutes float by with strong performances, I’m giving it another. Thus, The Lives of Others makes a CF2. But this proves that the Oscars are wrong, and I am, as ever, utterly and completely correct.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

11th April 07 - Sunshine

September 2005. Tenerife. Temperatures were way over 40c, and after falling asleep in the afternoon I woke to find I had a bright-red chest. My first proper sunburn. It really hurt.

I’m sharing this story to show that I’ve had direct experience with the power of the sun, so I could really relate to the characters in this film as they risked immediate and complete combustion. No, really.

Oh ok, let’s be serious. Sunshine is set sixty years in the future, and the sun is on its way out. In a last ditch effort, mankind have sent off a team of astronauts strapped to a bomb the size of Manhattan, with the aim to ‘restart the sun’. It sounds like the plot from another ridiculous Hollywood disaster turd. But this isn’t Hollywood. It’s Danny Boyle (director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) and Alex Garland (author of The Beach), whose last collaboration brought us 28 Days Later, a grotty horror that made zombies sprint and showed London as a deserted mess. With Sunshine they’ve been handed a bigger budget, but it’s the same talent in the driving seat. Hurrah.

So we still have an abundance of effects, but stuff like a decent story, believable characters and well crafted tension haven’t been forgotten. There’s no inappropriate romance (we’re about to die but let’s pause to talk about our feelings), no paint-by-numbers characters (hello, I will be your token minority for today’s film. I shall also be the first to die), and nobody has a quirky dog. Instead it’s intimate, disturbing and claustrophobic as hell. Proper old-school sci-fi in space. Things get broken so people have to go out and fix them. People go a bit crazy. Situations become utterly hopeless. It’s all good fun.

Boyle’s direction adds a definite edge, and the cast are varied enough without going into stereotype mode. Cillian Murphy, who also ran lots in 28 Days Later, is quietly excellent, making you route for him by emoting through weirdly large blue eyes. Rose Byrne (Troy) is a bit moody, Chris Evans (not the ginger one – it’s the one from Fantastic Four) is surprisingly angry as the sort of jock, and Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger) is a passionate plant, er, woman. Throw in a psycho psychiatrist, a couple of wimp types and a strong but silent captain, then add danger situations. What you end up with is finger-wringing tension as you suspect something bad’s about to happen, and then oh no it is happening. Cue freezing to death, burning to death. Like I said – it’s all good fun.

Amongst all the scary space-horror is also the chance to consider how utterly helpless humans are, more environmental woe and a bit of religious stuff to boot. All in all, a smart thriller. It does get a little garbled towards the end, and at times sticks so close to the rules of a space-sci-fi thriller (ala Alien, Event Horizon etc) that it becomes slightly predictable. But it laughs in the face of Hollywood (it’s British, if you haven’t guessed) and stirs up enough ‘urgh’ to leave a lasting impression in your gut that does take a while to subside.

For having great ideas, intelligent characters and fear-inducing direction, Sunshine brightens up the week with a CF3. Just remember your sunscreen.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

4th April 07 - The Good German

In a stark contrast to last week’s film, this week we step back in time. From 300’s slick cutting-edge effects we bump decades backwards to the technology of 1945. It’s like listening to an old record – there’s a crackle in the background but something comforting and rich about the experience. Plus it’s George Clooney, and he’s great to look at whatever the picture quality.

Anyway, before I get distracted by George too soon I’d better talk about the film. The Good German comes from Steven Soderbergh, him what directed Ocean’s Eleven (and its (yawn) two follow-ups), Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the excellent Out of Sight, plus others I can’t be bothered to list. With The Good German he films everything on 1945 equipment, which basically means it looks like one of those old films that appear on Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons. You know, the ones you usually turn off because they’re black and white, and old, and we all know that no one had anything useful to say in them days. Not like what we produce now-a-days. Such cultural masterpieces like Norbit.

Sorry, I’m getting distracted again. The Good German is set in post-war Berlin, and follows Georgie as a military journalist who gets dragged into a murder investigation. It’s film noir to the tee, with Cate Blanchett doing her very best pout as the girl George just has to help, and Tobey Maguire as a wormy little American enjoying the spoils of war. There’s some uncomfortable Nazi history thrown in, but the main focus is George and his journey. A journey that involves getting hit over the head all the time. Seriously, he’s rubbish – every time he walks through a door something will come crashing down on his head. You’d think he’d learn. Open a door, then duck George! Duck!

Anyway, it’s all very serious, and everyone seems quite pleased with themselves for filming something old-style. Aren’t they clever! The trouble is, after the novelty you’re left with a standard piece of noir, a genre which has been done to death, and more recently done in more interesting ways (last year’s Brick, in CF’S Top 10 of 2006, brought the genre to technicolour high school with pleasing results). The characters are a little stilted, with the most interesting (Tobey Maguire) barely used, and even George’s usual charisma is buried under a protagonist with few reasons to route for. It’s not done badly, but there’s no sparkle. Soderbergh may have pushed aside today’s supermarket loaf and brought home-made bread to the table, but at the end of the day it’s still bread. He could’ve put some currants in it or something.

I’m not really sure what I’m talking about now, but I’m positive it’s quite insightful. I would say that The Good German is an interesting film with good performances and a vaguely intriguing plot. I wouldn’t say it managed to get above anything more than interesting, so it’s getting a CF0. I’m recommending it, but only if you go out of your way to ask me if it’s any good. And then I’ll just shrug and say ‘sure’. But there’s a rhino in 300, and you don’t get those in 1940’s Berlin.