Wednesday, October 31, 2007

31st Oct 07 - Rendition

You may remember a few weeks ago I reviewed Clooney vehicle Michael Clayton, which involved a few groans at the preceding trailers that hinted at films full of that deep American guilt about terror wars et al. Well, Rendition was one of those films, the big guilt-factor being that fun new rule where suspected “terror” people can be magically whisked away to an off-shore “interrogation” area without a drop of paper signage or any of that other stuff that brings some semblance of order to the world. We all know Bad Things have been happening, even people like me who try not to read the papers anymore due to the warped nature of all media nowadays (except this, loyal readers. No warping of facts here. Just blunt, ill-educated yet pretentiously-presented opinions.)

Anyhoo, Rendition’s plot spine is the abduction - sorry, “interception” - of Omar Metwally, and the impact of this event on a whole fistful of people, from a rather gaunt looking Reece Witherspoon (the wife who wonders where the hell her hubbie’s gone) to lovely Jake Gyllenhaal experiencing his first time as an American “interrogator”, to interrogator Abasi and his battle to keep his daughter Fatima under control and avoid assassination, to Fatima’s boyfriend and his friends who have an unsettling knack of convincing people to blow themselves up. Peripheral to all this is Reece’s lawyer friend (Peter Sarsgaard) probing where his career suggests he shouldn’t, and head of the interceptors Meryl Streep, whose decision it is to ‘intercept’ Omar in the first place.

A heck of a lot going on, then, and an impressive handling of the multiple plot strands, each major character getting their turn, and each story just as riveting as the next. Will Reece get any answers? Is her husband guilty? Can Jake take the pressure of this kind of interrogation? Will Abasi find his daughter? And will the boyfriend be convinced to do something pretty stupid? You will want to watch to find out, and there are some craftily unexpected direction-changes to spice things up a bit. Couple that with an excellent cast, a good moral-testing concept (the torturers claiming to have saved hundreds by extracting information in such a way - but the success rate suggesting many innocents have also been questioned) and lovely Jake (superb as ever) and you’re on to a winner.

Or are you? For this multi-stranded flick has a bold angle, but a few niggling faults. Meryl Streep’s character is, like Tilda Swinton’s in Michael Clayton, a Token Bad Old Woman in Charge. A role we’ve seen her play many times over. Not a shimmer of humanity flickers behind her icy stare. She represents “the Man” - soulless, uncompromising. Even when she defends her actions she does it with a little pitchfork behind her ear (honest). It’s unashamedly lazy characterisation and is an annoying reminder that this could just be one of those Hollywood films pretending to be big and important when actually they’re bland early Saturday evening fillers.

The multi-plot tactic is also a little unstable. It’s a little like having a tray full of peas and spending an hour and a half carefully balancing all the peas on the tray, making sure each pea is nice and stable. Then in the last half hour suddenly ignoring a few of the peripheral peas and letting them fall off, then eventually just tossing the whole tray in the air and going to make yourself a cup of tea.

But despite the peas and token Evil Head Woman factor, this is still a tight, enjoyable film with some good issues and a great cast. Gripping, but leaving less of an impression than it probably should have, Rendition hops in with a CF1, missing out on higher marks because I can barely remember what happened (never a good sign) except for the bits with lovely Jake in. Oh he’s so lovely. Sorry - I’ll stop.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

24th Oct 07 - The Counterfeiters

This week’s film is a heart-warming family tale about cheeky chappy Salomon, who gets his wrists slapped for counterfeiting documents and money, and because of those pesky Nazis he’s sent to a concentration camp where he’s picked on to do a “special” project - with hilarious results!

Oh ok, maybe not quite the synopsis to match the film, but had I described it straight I would have probably had a negative impact on the emotional state of my ever-growing number of readers (let’s aim for over 5 by 2009). Yet for a German film set during the end of the Second World War and largely featuring life in a concentration camp, which let’s face it is as gloomy as hell on a biscuit, Counterfeiters starts off like a homage to Casino Royale. Stylishly suited and ruggedly handsome, Salomon (Karl Markovics) plays poker while eyeing up high-class totty, who he then ravages in his beautiful hotel suite in Monaco. It’s only when we’re taken back to see Salomon’s past that the gloom starts to threaten.

But even so, Salomon’s time in camp doesn’t look all that bad. He’s set on a special project to counterfeit money for the Nazis, and his little project team are treated pretty well, all things considered. They have nice beds, occasional treats, food and showers – they’re even allowed music. It almost looks like fun if, you know, they weren’t threatened with death if they didn’t do as they were told. And, well, weren’t in a concentration camp.

The film focuses in on the battle of conscience within Salomon’s team – they’re essentially helping the Nazi party and gaining a cushy lifestyle in return, compared to their comrades in neighbouring cells who are unthinkably suffering. But if they don’t do as they’re told, they’ll be killed. Salomon reasons that to survive you “must adapt”, but the price he pays is etched across his face. This is all mirrored nicely with a Nazi guard who doesn’t really share their views, but what else can he do? So there’s lots of weighty moral issues to digest and some powerful scenes, particularly when Salomon faces the less fortunate inmates.

There are lots of familiar prison-type scenes that dampen The Counterfeiters’ originality, and the use of a flashback structure means you never really worry for Salomon’s safety. But still, this is a fresh angle to approach a well-paved subject area, and the acting matches the fascinating character studies. Not as heavy as the synopsis might suggest, but still weighty enough to leave you a little exhausted by the end, The Counterfeiters gains a CF1.

Monday, October 22, 2007

17th Oct 07 - Ratatouille

When Brad Bird last teamed up with Pixar the result was The Incredibles, a brilliant take on the super-hero genre that made kiddie films more grown-up and, like, “real” entertainment. Bird’s second collaboration with them-what-draw-with-computers is just as good, though the subject couldn’t be more different.

Ratatouille sees Remy, a rat with an impeccable sense of smell and taste, which leads him to pursue culinary greatness via Linguini, a hapless kitchen-hand who’s willing to learn from his whiskered friend. As far as concepts go, it’s pretty much kiddy-friendly. Nonsense, really. So the fact that Brad Bird manages to get us fully grown, uber-educated, very highly mentally developed adults to actually care about Remy succeeding, proves just how great a force the Bird/Pixar combo is.

The winning formula seems to lie in the tone. It’s remarkably grown-up, despite the subject matter. There’s no brash childish tosh, and no wink-wink in-jokes for the disgruntled parents. The story’s delivered straight up, with some fun chase sequences, slap-stick moments and dancing rats to keep the tots (and grown-ups) amused, and some fabulous caricatures (the food critic marvellously vilified) and smart undertones for the adult folk. Remy wants to be himself and aim higher, but his pa informs him that the ‘lower’ rats can never progress, kept in place by fear created by the ‘higher’ humans. My stupid analytical nature could have a field day, but I’ll shut it up for now.

Instead you can sit back and enjoy a solid piece of film-making, where story resides over the need to make stuff look good. Not that it doesn’t look good - great in fact, and at times flabbergasting when you see flawless bustling city streets and swirling sewer tunnels, and remember this is an animated world. They even managed to make street rats look endearing. Especially when they’re whipping up an omelette.

There are a few niggling holes, though. It’s certainly funny, but still not close to the sheer hilarity of the Toy Story duo (yet to be beaten, in my opinion). The running time is a shade over-long for the contents, yet several characters drop off the edge of the plot into nothingness. The very American portrayal of France (a choice of American accents or mega-French) can grate a little. And if I want to be completely pedantic, there is only one female character, portrayed as a bit of an angry cow until she’s softened up by a guy who would never in a million years be able to get her in real life.

But here’s me talking about ‘real life’ when this is a cartoon about rodents that can cook (as my International companion described it). And this brings me back to Bird’s success - I’m treating Ratatouille as a proper film, not just some kid’s film I guiltily saw (like I might with Enchanted…) Thoroughly entertaining, beautifully animated and the closest I’ll be to having interest in watching cookery on screen, Ratatouille easily sinks a CF2, just missing out on a 3 for the reasons outlined above. Watch out for the short animation beforehand too - a nugget of fun before the main event. I’m hungry now - where’s a rat when you need one?

Monday, October 15, 2007

10th Oct 07 - Control

The critics were crawling over themselves to get their labels of “marvellous”, “outstanding”, “the coolest British film of the year” splashed across posters and advertisements of this film. It’s British, it’s set in grim-ish 70s, it’s based on a true and depressing story about an iconic figure, and it’s in black and white. Even if you don’t understand a single second of it, there’s something about Control that made lowly critics think “yes, this is a film I should like, ergo I’ll throw out a one-word appraisal to try and get on posters and be seen to support “cool” British films.” Naturally I don’t group myself in with other critics. I mean, I use the word “ergo” in my opening paragraph. I’m just in a different league.

Anyway, ignoring all the tosh praise, Control is one of those films that will rattle your emotions - and here you thought I was going to disagree with plebby critics. Well, I might shortly, but right now I must sprinkle praise where praise is due. For Control paints a bleak picture of a bright spark, troubled by fame, family and his own brain, and it certainly grasps at the emotion strings, especially since you know what’s coming. Joy Division were before my time (I’m THAT youthful), but after teachings from 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, and an inherit Mancunian pride despite not liking a vast amount of Mancunian product, I knew that the band a) were genre-carving, and b) had a singer who committed suicide. It doesn’t really bode well for a happy ending.

Control is based on the book by Deborah Curtis, Ian’s widow, and follows Ian’s story from his teenage meeting with her, through his rise to fame, and onwards to his unfortunate finish.

Leading the film is relative newcomer Sam Riley, giving a sultry, powerful performance, particularly when mimicking the staggering on-stage presence of Curtis. He’s supported by producer Samantha Morton as Curtis’ devoted wife, turning in a solid performance as expected from the Mighty Morton (that’s what they call her. Honest.) and a gaggle of fellows playing recognisable names from the era, including Tony Wilson. It’s almost a companion piece to Winterbottom’s 24-Hour, picking out one strand of the story and exploring it in detail - albeit leaving most of the comedy out, although a few laughs are to be had with the band’s manager.

Mostly, though, this is a film matching Curtis’ downcast gaze. He’s unhappy, his wife’s unhappy, we’re all unhappy, and no one gets any happier when Curtis confuses his life and mind even further by embarking on an affair. It seems the more successful his band becomes, the more unhappy he is, and the more tangled his romantic life becomes. Generally I can cope with unhappy, and have practically wished for it in the last few films, but when unhappy begins to drag, alarm-bells start to ring. At 123 minutes, Control isn’t the longest film in the world, but it’s certainly not the shortest, and after the 90 minute mark you start to become conscious of the time. Everyone’s pretty miserable by this point, and for the last half hour it’s just one long tudge towards the inevitable.

It’s a shame, because such an electrifying performance from Riley is thinned out by the running-time. The direction of the plot also seems to lack ‘control’, flittering between a tale of the band, exploring Curtis’ personal battle, and the frustration from his women. A little more focus, preferably on Curtis himself, would have gone a long way. But still, this is a strong film, with a belting sound-track and performances, and a fascinating character study. You will come out with a distinct melancholic after-taste and a sore behind (from sitting for so long of course) but it is worth a gander. Not so much “marvellous” as “pretty good”, Control just slides in with a CF2.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

3rd October 07 - Michael Clayton

Little Georgie Peorgie (I bet he loves being called that) seems to have a passion for staring in lots of films with Very Important Messages about the world we live in today. Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, The Good German, Ocean’s Twelve (message: some films suck big-time). It’s a growing trend in Hollywood, this politically aware guilt, one exemplified by the trailers preceding this week’s film - all set in Washington, with talk of ‘war’ and ‘terror’ and ‘prisoners’ and blah-de-blah-blah-blah. Yes, these things are all very important, and yes, films should be made about them. But couple this American political guilt with the disaster flicks intent on blowing up New York (oh the poignancy, but give it a rest - I am Legend, Project Cloverfield etc) and sometimes I just want to write them all a letter to explain that there are other cities, and other governments, with just as many crappy things happening to them, and within them, so for Christ’s sake move on to the Next Big Thing or at least shove some kick-ass robot toys in there so we’re not all bashing our brains out in guilty despair.

That was an unexpected tangent. What I started off trying to say was that Georgie Peorgie has done lots of serious-type films, which means he’s no longer seen as “the handsome one off ER”. Now his name can make pretentious types like me see a film without even bothering to check what it’s about. Because Georgie makes serious films about “issues”, and right now “issues” are so god-damn fashionable.

Sorry - that tangent coming back. Anyway, George plays Michael Clayton, a sort of lawyer type (in bloody New York…) who stumbles across a potentially deadly truth, unearthed by his un-hinged lawyer friend (an excellent Tom Wilkinson). Generally, films about lawyers ‘trial’ my patience because they always end up in a court room, with lots of SHOUTING and pointing, and noble jurors nodding as the hero saves the day, after spending three quarters of the film looking in files and SHOUTING at witnesses and stuff. Yawn. Thankfully, Michael Clayton keeps everything out of the court room and into semi-reality, with an icy look at the corporate world, and the relationship between law firm and client (ie; money).

What Michael Clayton does is dodge and weave around the usual law-based clich├ęs, and instead delivers a remarkably fresh take on the genre. It’s almost a mystery / thriller, with some modern guilt and musings on life’s purpose thrown in. Georgie heads up the fresh feel by playing Clayton with a huge dollop of hood-eyed woe and misery. The trade-mark smile and twinkly eyes hardly make an appearance. He is instead angry, brow-beaten, and mad keen on horses (you’ll get it). He acts his little chops off at times, mostly through the eyes, and is as ever a strong, watchable lead. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, though, with Tom Wilkinson, as mentioned, a vivid spark in the corporate gloom, Tilda Swinton, whose nervous cracks glimmer beautifully through her icy exterior, and a host of rent-a-law-firm-business-types to fill in the scenery.

For all its freshness, however, it’s a great shame that the film falls back on old favourites towards the end, with the hero making a stand, George cracking into his very familiar way of speaking. Where he pauses. Just to make his sentences feel. Important. All the while tipping his head to one side with that sly twinkle in his eyes. It doesn’t happen much, but it falls just as the film falls - lazily at the climax. It’s also a shame that Tilda Swinton’s character is bumped from being an interesting human (sweat patches of fear, practiced speeches) to token Evil Corporation Head. There’s also the questionable solutions her company finds to certain “problems” that tars over the otherwise realistic tones.

However, this doesn’t mean Michael Clayton wasn’t engaging, exciting, and thought-provoking without shoving “issues” in your face every five seconds. Georgie plays it well, and though it’s not as clever and important as its pretentious “look at me acting” end credit sequence, Clayton still racks up a CF2 for entertaining me in a different way. And all that without any robots too. Impressive.