Tuesday, May 29, 2007

23rd May 07 - Zodiac

David Fincher has a weird habit of either missing the mark (Panic Room, Alien 3), hitting the mark solidly (The Game, Se7en) or hitting it so spot on it’s enough to make your head spin with the greatness (Fight Club). With his sixth film, Fincher tackles a real life detective story, that of 60s/70s serial killer “The Zodiac”, a creepy dude who liked sending letters to newspapers confessing to various killings and threatening more of the same. A bit scarier than your usual disgruntled Daily Mail reader writing in to complain about that week’s inflamed nonsense. Sorry - that was off topic, but hey.

Anyway, Fincher lines himself up with a cast who are not only fantastic actors but also, much to my joy, lovely to look at: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downy Jr and Mark Ruffalo. It’s winning already. Lovely Jake plays a geeky cartoonist for a newspaper, who also has a knack for solving puzzles and getting a bit obsessed with things. Lovely Bobby-Jr plays a ruthless reporter at the same paper, who writes up the Zodiac stories and is also a raging alcoholic. And Lovely Mark plays the detective assigned to the case, along with his partner Anthony Edwards (ER’s Doctor Greene, though he probably hates that he’s forever linked to that character. He gets to have a full head of hair in this, so that should make up for it.)

The film follows the investigations into the Zodiac killer, both from the detective’s point of view and that of lovely Jake, whose character decides to write a book on the case (said book written in real life, by the real life lovely Jake - Robert Graysmith - on which this film is based. Or something.) It makes up your basic serial killer v detective type of film, except this one doesn’t have a flash resolution (being stuck to real-life, where thrilling stand-offs never happen) and delves into a variety of other genres. There’s definitely a thriller/creep-fest element to it, giving the audience a front-row seat on a few of the Zodiac’s brutal slayings, and there are a few Se7en-style dark basement get-the-hell-out-of-there moments that’ll have you wriggling in your seat. There’s also a nice tale of obsession (Mr Graysmith just not letting go at expense of his family) and some chuckles to add to the flavour.

On top of all of this, Fincher has been sure to make his stylish mark. It’s like he’s peed all over the film - wherever you look you’ll get a whiff of Fincher. His camera goes off on fun journeys, be it peering out a car window, perched atop the Golden Gate bridge, or somehow following a moving vehicle in exactly the same birds-eye-view style as Grand Theft Auto. Thankfully he keeps his fun to the filler scenes, letting his formidable cast carry themselves. It all adds up to be one slick, solid piece of film.

At 158 minutes this is a stocky beast, but the time flies by in a mixture of suspense and intrigue. With a great cast, a fascinating story (all the more because it’s true) and some clever direction, Zodiac makes a killing with a CF3.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

16th May 07 - 28 Weeks Later

At first this looked like another lazy sequel. Keep the same story, change the title a little, swap all the main characters, add some Americans, plonk a random director in and hear the cash registers ching away with money spent by brainless fools who’ll watch any old rubbish if it’s bright and colourful. They even have a floppy haired pair of child siblings as the protagonists. As the well-known saying goes, it sounded like hell in a basket.

But it’s not quite as bad as it seems. For one thing the sequel is leap-frogging off a strong original. 28 Days… was from Danny Boyle/Alex Garland (the duo who brought us April’s CF3 rated Sunshine) and featured a new breed of zombie fun. Instead of shambling slow morons, 28 Days had super-speedy, bloody-faced lunatics. And though Boyle and Garland are absent from this sequel, the new director is Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, the Spanish writer/director of excellent 2001 flick Intacto. Chuck in Robert Carlyle and a bigger budget, and suddenly things start looking up.

Well, things aren’t exactly looking up for the characters, or the world for that matter. The film takes place 28 weeks after the original (hence the name. Clever, innit?) England has been purged of the ‘rage virus’ that caused so much havoc and the American army are supervising the reintegration of a non bloody-faced-lunatic population. But uh-oh – is that a fresh out-break I spy? Before you can say ‘is that blood you’re weeping’, London is back into a state of chaos. And now our new batch of survivors have to battle with both the angry infected, and also the crazy army, whose idea of ‘only trying to help’ is by horribly killing lots of civilians (seems familiar…)

With the luxury of not having to set up the scenario, Fresnadillo can leap straight into lots and lots of frantic running, violence and general horror. It’s great fun, and the director plays around with some neat little set pieces, in particular a pitch-black stumble through a deserted tube station, seen only through the night-vision of a sniper rifle. There’s jumps, thrills and a fantastic use of a helicopter (causing grimaces from one side of me, and giggles from the other). It’s enough to raise your heart rate throughout, and satisfies all basic speedy-zombie necessities. Watching Robert Carlyle pegging down a hillside, closely followed by a flock of rabid, scary people, is definitely my definition of fun.

The film does suffer a little from the removed original British roots. The slow set-up and story of the first film is abandoned in favour of a basic “we have to get from here to there” mentality, which seems to perfectly mirror your traditional horror computer game. “I’ll meet you over there, once you’ve performed a series of tasks” says their potential saviour. No, bloody-well meet me right here, please. You can almost count the levels as they work their way through.

The characters are also fairly generic, and almost all action pieces take place in front of some sort of London landmark. But hell, it’s a fast, fun and exhilarating ride, and it’s done pretty damn well. And so, just as the imaginative direction lifts this out of easy-sequel naffness, the rating is lifted to a commendable CF1. If only for the helicopter scene. Now that’s effective crowd control, if ever I saw it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

9th May 07 - Fast Food Nation

Yeah yeah yeah. We all know that fast food is bad for us. It’s already been covered in books, films, television - in fact, even if you haven’t seen or heard anything, it’s blindingly obvious that a big greasy burger is not going to produce healthy results. You’d have to be a total moron not to know this - in fact, you’d deserve to get flabby arteries if you thought any different. So why do we need another film about it all? What is there left to say?

Well, it seems Richard Linklater (who brought us last year’s A Scanner Darkly - a CF top 10) foresaw the above paragraph when he teamed up with Eric Schlosser, the writer of factual novel ‘Fast Food Nation’. Using Eric’s book as a starting point, the guys created a fictional fast food chain (Mickey’s Burgers) and a ensemble of fictional characters. And they used them all to say a heck of a lot more than ‘burgers are bad’.

Not that they come down on the side of burgers. One third of the film follows Don (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine), a marketing exec at Mickey’s sent to investigate why traces of cow shit have been found in their burgers. Yummy. This is the point where a non beef-eater such as myself would stick their thumbs to the sides of their heads and waggle their fingers at everyone else, tongue protruding in a ‘ner ner ner-ner ner’ gesture, while secretly thanking the film-makers for a) not focussing on chicken-based products, and b) not showing all the genetically produced fungus that goes into meat substitutes. But at least I haven’t been eating cow shit. Ner ner.

The film’s other narrative strands follow a group of illegal Mexican immigrants sent to work in a meat-packing factory (from which the shit cometh), and a bunch of teenagers who work in one of the chains. The plot strands offer neat little ethical thoughts - the meatpackers are illegal, but they’ve come from poverty and this is a better choice, and Mr Marketing man knows he’s allowing shit and chemicals into the burgers, but they’re not killing anyone, he doesn’t have the power to stop it, and his family have to eat too. So who’s in the wrong, precisely?

But the big mamma of points is summed up in one scene, when a group of activists break down a fence up at the burgers-to-be cattle ranch in order to save the animals. The fence is down, but the cows just don’t want to move - they’re either too dumb to realise, or too afraid to escape their surroundings. Linklater’s basically saying everyone is a big dumb cow, putting up with everything that’s crap in the world because they’re too lazy, or afraid, or stupid to really do anything about it, even when there’s sometimes a solution staring them in the face. Now, I don’t think there’s any issue in particular that he’s aiming at here - just general apathy. Lots of characters harp on about taking action, making a stand, making a difference etc etc. It’s all very inspiring, and I came out of the cinema both completely ready to make a stand against the first atrocity I saw, and also feeling slightly nauseous from the graphic slaughter house scenes at the end.

At times the tone tips a little too far into preachy, with some scenes a bit too blatant (characters occasionally chatter away, then appear to throw in “yes, here comes this opinion which is very poignant” [looks at audience to check they’re paying attention]) and the split narrative creates a strange, disjointed feel to the piece. But with a great cast, some great messages and a clever way of transferring the text to screen, Fast Food Nation scrapes in with a CF2. It’s a shame that the people who could really benefit from its message will be more likely staring blankly at the wall in their nearest shit-burger outlet, than paying attention to the cinema.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

5th May 07 - Spider-Man 3

As they said in the previous two films, with great power comes great responsibility, and that is the cross that Sam Raimi must bear in his third offering of your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man (must get the hyphen in there or I’ll get in trouble…) His first film was met with ‘I didn’t think you could do it’ amazement. His second a jaw-dropping step up (come on, how can you not admire the Doc-Ock awakens scene?). I’m aware I may be spiralling into a pit of nerd-dom here, but who cares. Spider-Man rules, and if you don’t think so then I raise my palm to you in defiance. And written on my palm is “you are a fool”.

Anyway, it was with half excitement, half trepidation that I approached Spidey 3. Excitement because the first two were solid, exciting, funny and dark, and were one of the best comic book adaptations out there. Trepidation because it’s always been difficult to trump it three times in a row (save for Lord of the Rings, but face it - that’s just one big film split into three). Could Raimi pull another great film out of the bag? Well?

Well. Let’s get this out there: it was good. It was absolutely brimming with plot. First off there’s baddy one, the Sandman, a surprisingly subdued Thomas Haden Church whose molecular structure gets sort of, er, well he’s made out of sand basically. And you can’t really kill sand. Then there’s baddy two, the new Goblin who emerged at the end of the last film. James Franco’s brow furrows away as he harbours a mega grudge against his best mate, who he knows is a) Spider-Man, and b) responsible for his father’s death. Not a healthy grudge that one. And then there’s baddy three, a black alien parasite thingy that makes Spidey a little bit naughty and later spawns Venom (fan-boys/girls excited about that character coming into celluloid light.)

So three baddies, plus Spidey’s battle with his own ego, plus difficulties with girlfriend MJ, and it all could equal busy mess. We saw it with X-Men 3, when the deluge of new characters meant nobody had time to really develop. So here’s where it’s hats off to Raimi, because not only does he give all baddies chance to hog the limelight and have their own background, and fit in various relationship woes, AND fit in Peter Parker’s decline to meanness, he also manages to find the time for a dance number (more on that later…) At 140 minutes (ten less than Pirates) it’s certainly impressive that there’s never a sense of urgency. Aunt May can still deliver nice little speeches, Peter can get teary over his Uncle again, and Bruce Campbell can have an even longer cameo, which was brill.

The action sequences are once again astounding. Spidey falls in slow-mo, dodging round falling rubble. He gets thrown through buildings, punched out of moving vehicles, and does lots of other dead cool stuff. The effects on Sandman are flabbergasting, Spidey literally kicking his legs from under him at times. There are definitely wow-moments, but there’re genuinely funny moments too. And then there are some that teeter on the brink of silly (see afore-mentioned dance number). It’s brave of Raimi to try something so obscure, and amusing to watch Peter Parker’s bad side, complete with evil hair-do etcetera. But the silliness stretched a little too long at times, making my enjoyment turn into a bit of bafflement. There’s also a healthy spread of fight scenes, but not one that really shines out as the new, never-been-done one. The effects are outstanding, but we’ve seen many building-fights before. There’s no equivalent Spidey 2 train chase here.

Spider-Man 3 is a solid, exciting and smart start to the summer blockbuster season. During the middle of the film I was fully engaged, fully on the edge of my seat, and my internal CF scale reached a 5 in places. But with a little too much of the silly, and a lacking of real wow-factor for the finale, the scale slipped down to the still-impressive CF3. Good film - but leave it at a trilogy, please. There isn’t much more you can do with this franchise, save ruin it.

Friday, May 04, 2007

2nd May 07 - This Is England

The critics were clambering over themselves to praise this one, and though I was eager to see what all the fuss was about, there was also a sense of trepidation. British films seem to fall into two categories. Either painting England as a bright, cosmopolitan London street filled with quirky people who say ‘bugger’ and fall in love within twenty seconds. Or they’re grimmer than the Grimm Brothers. A story about skinheads in the 80s made me suspect this would be grim-central. I was preparing myself for a rough (shaven-headed) ride. This is England, after all.

The film centres on twelve year-old Shaun, who’s lost his daddy in the Falklands War and finds unlikely camaraderie with a bunch of brace-wearing, doc-martin laden skin heads. But it’s not as nasty as it seems. Far from it, in fact. This bunch, lead by the charismatic Woody, are nice, energetic guys who like to hang out. That’s all. They take Shaun under their wing, go to a few house parties, chill out in the local cafĂ©. It looks like great fun. But then big skinhead Combo comes home from prison with some interesting ideas about sending the non-British “back home”. He likes angry, threatening fun. Oh dear…

Yet despite the grotty 80s setting and questionable nature of many of the characters, This is England is at times warm, funny and engrossing. Dialogue flows naturally from an utterly likeable cast, drawing humour from the slightest inflection or gesture. Thomas Turgoose, who was thirteen at the time of filming, is a cracking little actor, and he carries the weight of the film with ease. For much of the first half I watched with a smile on my face at the good, honest entertainment beaming back at me.

But don’t get me wrong. This is England definitely packs a punch - actually, more like a head-butt to the face. There’s a distinct lack of violence throughout the majority of the film, but under all the fun and laughs of Woody and co is the underlying fear. As Combo makes his way on to screen, that fear becomes threatening. And rather than rely only on the nasty side of things, director and writer Shane Meadows goes for the heart strings too. Watching young Shaun whimper about his father yanks at the heart strings - like The Lion King, but with skinheads.

Wrap up the fun, fear and emotion of the basic plot and characters and you’ve got a strong film. Add in the blindingly obvious issues that resonate with every single thing happening today, and you‘ve got a film with mega weight. People dying in unnecessary war, unrest in the populace, enigmatic leaders bringing about extremist groups. It’s a tad depressing that we’ve changed the branding but haven’t actually moved very far in the last twenty years. Meadows uses a tight film to show us This is indeed England. Buggering hell.

A powerful film that’ll leave you shaken, but with laughter to at least soften the blow, This is England clocks up a mighty CF4. Watch it.