Sunday, January 20, 2008

17th Jan 08 - 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Crikey. What a cinema experience. Traumatic isn’t the word. Ok, so what do you expect when you decide to watch a Romanian film about abortion? Certainly not a laugh-a-minute rom-com, with hilarious misunderstandings and a slap-stick interlude where people slip up on some mess and everyone has a good giggle. No, we knew this was going to be a tough-one, but with critics praising (although as the shitey Dylon biog proved, that isn’t always a good sign) and awards folk prowling (Golden Globe nominated, and potentially Oscar, although we’ll find out more this week) this was a film that had to be checked out. Plus, how smart do I look watching a Romanian film eh? Go on, say it. I’m well clever me. I can read words on the screen and everything.

4-3-2 (as all the cool kids dub it) is justly praised in most respects, tackling an uncomfortable subject and setting it in 80’s Romania where such things are illegal and could land you a jail sentence. But meek student Gabriela is desperate, and enlists best friend Otilia to help her in her plight. The film is set over just one day, and follows the girls from their initial preparations, through to the event itself and subsequent aftermath. But just when you thought things couldn’t be bleak enough, their enlisted medical “helper” Bebe, a quiet middle-aged bloke in a nice jumper, throws a few extra unpleasant conditions their way. Vera Drake he ain’t, let’s just put it that way.

Using an unusual method of mostly static shots and lengthy scenes makes it feel in parts like you’re watching a play, and adds to the uncomfortable realism of it all. It works perfectly in places, especially during the price negotiation scene between Bebe and the girls, as the slow realisation of the real cost dawns on both girls. As each scene advances towards the inevitable, your growing tension matches that of Gabriela and it all makes for a very powerful experience. As I sat there watching Bebe unpack a variety of implements, I knew very much what was to come, and was pretty certain that actually I didn’t want to see it. But I was trapped, powerless to stop watching. It reminded me of a time I went on the Viper rollercoaster - the tallest looping coaster in the world - and suddenly realised as the train began to advance up the hill that actually I didn’t really want to go on it, and that getting into that seat was a really bad idea. But the restraints meant I couldn’t get off, and so I miserably watched as the train got higher and higher towards the unavoidable conclusion. I nearly blacked out on that first drop, but the rest was quite fun.

Speaking of blacking out, the main component of my traumatic cinema experience wasn’t the aborted foetus staring at me from the screen, but the petrifying antics of one of my companions, who is under strict instructions never to do that ever again. Ever. Thankfully all became well, but such activities meant I missed a small chunk of the middle of this film, and means that I’m not completely able to assess the film in full. Frankly, though, I don’t think I missed too much, and the general gist of the film - that of friendship, hardship and unrelenting awful occurrences - still came across strong. Amazing performances, bold direction and an undeniably powerful effect, 4-3-2 is certainly a remarkable piece of film. But not one that left me with any new thoughts, that I’d clamour to watch again, or that I’d particularly recommend to anyone else, unless I wanted them to think I was dead clever. Or a bit sick. So, bit of a struggle this one. I’ll settle for a CF0 rating, I think. Go on the Viper rollercoaster instead, though. It’s a lot quicker.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

12th Jan 08 - Lust, Caution

I couldn’t help but notice the audience for this film was made up of an interesting number of boys in their late teens / early twenties. They could have been there because of Ang Lee, fascinated to see what the director has in store for us next since his career has veered from period drama (Sense & Sensibility) to pretentious martial arts (Crouching Tiger) to men in love (Brokeback Mountain) to a big green bloke who you should keep away from when he’s a bit miffed (Hulk). They could have been there because they were absolutely fascinated with Chinese history during the end of the second world war, and were keen on watching a 157 minute film, largely in Mandarin, to find out more. Or, and forgive me for being a little bit cynical, they could well have picked this film because it features several scenes that are so graphic they have been dubbed by some as verging on porn.

But hey - even if the lads were after cheap thrills, they ended up subjecting themselves to a piece of richly satisfying and absorbing film. Perhaps the only chance they’ll get for such enrichment before stumbling back home to play on Champ Manager for seven hours. Anyhoo, back to Lust, Caution; two words explored in depth by Lee in this tale of a young girl enlisted to bring down a powerful but corrupt man by becoming his mistress. There’s a lot more going on in terms of plot, but rather than waste time explaining details, why don’t I just say it’s good, so go and see it.

Granted, the chunky running time and subtitles might put some off, and this isn’t the enjoyable time-waster that I Am Legend was. Lust, Caution will intrigue and repulse, lift and depress. For every lust portion, there’s certainly a caution. Long, sizzling stares between yearning characters; violent sexual assault. A softening heart and crumbling emotional barriers in the hardest of men; a distressing, drawn-out murder scene that had even the likes of me wincing. It sounds like hard work but surprisingly isn’t, with moments of comedy and a solid undercover plot behind it all that’s comfortingly familiar but adds extra elements of tension.

As for those scenes. Well, they certainly leave nothing to the imagination, acting in parts as a practical guide to the karma sutra. They are, however, used for a purpose, charting the relationship progression in ways no amount of frolicking in a field of flowers could manage. Plus you can play the “are they / aren’t they?” game - quite frankly some shots make it very difficult to tell what’s real. And if it’s not real, then you certainly have to marvel at the precise, err, I suppose you could use the term “tucking” that must have been involved.

Tucking aside, the film’s key players, Wei Tang and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, are superb, the look and feel is remarkably fresh considering it’s set in the stuffy past, and on a girly note there are some really pretty dresses. Brokeback was a powerful film, but too close to tragic love-story for me to fully enjoy (I’m not a fan of those). Lust, Caution has similar elements, but with a gripping plot, scintillating character interaction and an unusual blend of, well, lust and caution. It even stood up to the sleepy/slightly hung-over test, and therefore soars in with a CF3. Well done Ang!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

9th Jan 08 - I Am Legend

Scientists. Without them the world would be a much safer place. Granted, we wouldn’t have life saving advancements and all that. But do you know what else we wouldn’t have? Zombies. That’s right. Scientists causes zombies. It’s a well known fact, one that people seem to forget when a scientist starts talking about “mutating” things. What you should do is stop the scientist in their tracks. “Mutate?” you should interject, “Say, doesn’t that tend to produce hoards of zombies?” “Oh yeah,” the scientist will say. “I forgot.”

Just think of the millions of lives you’d save if you listened to me.

But alas, the folk in I Am Legend world didn’t pay any attention to me and now they’ve all buggered off, leaving a lone Will Smith with an empty New York and some scary mutated folk, who aren’t partial to sunlight but are pretty nippy and have sore tempers. Cue a tight zombie-esque film with spatterings of vampire inspired stay-in-the-sun-fun, sprinkled with your basic apocalypse survivor bleakness. And you don’t even need to know the back catalogue and full life history of the Fresh Prince in order to understand what’s going on. This is easily beating last week’s film already.

This isn’t a new concept, but its ace is the premise that Will Smith’s Robert Neville is the last man standing, left to face - and attempt to resolve - terrifying science mistakes. A tip of the hat to Big Willie, then, for managing to carry the film almost entirely on his own. When considering that his only real interaction is with an Alsatian or scary things that roar, it’s impressive that Will is entirely watchable throughout, never losing the audience’s attention or his own credibility, even when singing Bob Marley to a dog.

Legend also wins when it side-steps the clichés, shoving in some dark plot points and tackling our hero’s crumbling sanity (he likes mannequins… and Shrek). But in avoiding some clichés, it manages to blunder straight into others, and if you’ve seen one or more of the recent zombie efforts from the 28 Days/Weeks and Resident Evil franchise, to the likes of Romero and Shaun, then you’ll be able to guess many of the film’s next steps. Not all of them, mind. But most.

Still, considering this is from Francis Lawrence, the director of Constantine (the equivalent of excitable chatter from an imaginative but slightly stupid teenage boy) I Am Legend is a pretty good effort. Nicely paced, action gently handled instead of shaky quick-edit “excitement”, and some scenes that were scary enough to make the guy behind us actually shout out in fear. The enormous wimp. It’s also nice to see a film that can create tension, fear and shock without relying on buckets of gore, although it perhaps relied a little too heavily on average CGI (someone spent all their budget clearing New York, me thinks…)

A good solid Saturday night thriller, I am Legend racks up the recommended CF0, but to a zombie expert like myself it lacked enough originality to score any higher. Just watch out for those scientists, though. That’s all I can say.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

2nd Jan 08 - I'm Not There

Walk the Line, Ray, Control, The Robbie Williams Story (it will come out in our life-time, trust me). We’ve been up to our ear-holes with film biogs of music folk, all following the similar pattern of rise to success – get woman – have success – turn into dickhead – lose woman – die. Maybe with extra bits in-between, but to be honest I’m bored of them. Utterly bored. So up pops another one, this time about Bob Dylan, but this time with a whole new way of doing it. Scrap a linear story and have six different actors play the same guy at different stages in his life. Genius! Even feature a woman and a little boy. More genius!

Yes, director Todd Haynes struck pretentious gold with this one. It has all the makings of a fantastic film. An original format, a central character with oodles of life material to play on, and a handful of striking performances, with a stunning Cate Blanchett winning the acting race by a mile, followed by a surly Heath Ledger and a brooding Christian Bale. The critics were mewing over this film like kittens at the teat of the culture cat.

But here’s my take on it. This film is the equivalent of someone taking all the ingredients necessary to make the best cake in the world, putting them in a big bowl, mixing them all together, but then by-passing the oven that will unite them into a cohesive sponge and instead using the mixture to write a big, obscure Bob Dylan quote all over the wall. Artists and critics will gather and coo at the nonsensical creation, pleased they have something new and Turner-prize-like to try and give their vapid, talentless lives some semblance of meaning and provide a way to continue to unjustly separate themselves from uncultured proles. Meanwhile, I stand at the back of the room, frowning, not really understanding the quote because I don’t know about Bob Dylan. “Hey!” I say, suddenly. “What’s this supposed to be? Why did you do all that? You’ve used all those lovely ingredients and you’ve come up with this? I can’t eat that! Where’s my cake?” at which point the smug critics stop and stare at me, but I’m now too outraged at being deprived a good cake and I say again, but louder, “WHERE’S MY CAKE?”

I don’t get an answer.

So, as I sat in the cinema surrounded by noble Bob Dylan fans nodding sagely at the alienating references, I pondered several things. Why did Dylan name his female dog “Henry”? On the subtitles (we were at a slightly off-putting audio-described screening) why did they need to write “clamouring” to describe a crowd scene? Why could I smell burning toast? Where’s my cake? And was this film ever going to end?

My abstract cake rantings sum up my feelings towards this film, as does the fact that after finally staggering out of the cinema, my friends and I had more discussion over a tabasco sauce advert than the film itself. Though in parts the performances were superb, the film was still at times frustrating, incomprehensible and actually a bit boring. The critics can’t all be wrong, can they? When their opinions differ from Cinemafool, then yes. They can.

I’m Not There saves points in principle, but loses them in practice. So 2008 starts with a downer of CF-1. Things can only get better, though. Right?

And who names a girl dog Henry? Really.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Cinemafool review of 2007

That’s right! It’s that time of year again! More eagerly anticipated than the Oscars, more interesting and entertaining than any other half-wit’s top 10 list, and much shorter than the gajillion talking-heads top-100 shows that are now the only thing on telly. It’s the Cinemafool review of the year, where we look back over the last twelve months and point out films everyone should really have watched if they wanted to be considered “dead clever”, “cinema-savvy” and “fantastic” like what I am.

Last year’s tally was trumped by the skin of our teeth with a total of 44 new films. Alas, re-releases seen at the cinema (Blade Runner) or 2007 films watched later on DVD (the excellent Them, and nonsensical Inland Empire) are not included, simply because that’s the law we all must abide by. Hey, I don’t make the rules. Oh wait, I might…

The Top 10 of 2007

Anyway, first up is the hotly contended for “Top 10”. Are you ready? In chronological order:

The Science of Sleep
Seen: 28th February
Rating: CF4
What: Michel Gondry’s vast creative talents are applied to a tale of a chappy who just can’t separate dreams from reality - not a good place to be when trying to impress the new girlie neighbour.
I said then: I think the best word to describe it is charming. Utterly charming.
I say now: I basically have a soft spot for Gondry’s imagination, and this film was fun, sweet and brimming with Gondry-esque brilliance.
I also said: A lovely treat this week. Not only do I get to watch a fabulous film; I get to sit a comfortable distance from the screen.

Hot Fuzz
7th March 07
Rating: CF3
What: The Shaun boys are back, swapping zombies for a love of action films with a tale of a super city bobby tackling life in a sleepy English village.
I said then: Big, bold and British, Hot Fuzz climbs the CF scale with its humour, but falters when the action become a little too ‘actiony’.
I say now: Watched twice at the cinema (reason below), this is a belter of a flick, marred only because I love Shaun of the Dead so much, and it isn’t quite as good.
I also said: post-wine, post-opening ten minutes, and post-any seats being available more than ten centimetres away from the screen.

Seen: 11th April 07
Rating: CF3
What: The 28 Days… team of Garland (pen) and Boyle (directing) return with a bit more money, a ridiculous sounding plot and a massive burning ball of gas.
I said then: Intimate, disturbing and claustrophobic as hell. Proper old-school sci-fi in space.
I say now: Despite going a little silly towards the end, Sunshine was a great romp. One of those romps that involve unbearable tension and horrific death. You know the kind.
I also said: 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.

Half Nelson
Seen: 21st April 07
Rating: CF3
What: Ryan Gosling’s Oscar nominated performance as a skinny white teacher trying to help his class of racially opposite children and… oh boring. Seen it before. But this time, skinny white teacher happens to be addicted to crack. Oh dear…
I said then: 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.
I say now: A small film with a big heart, driven by excellent performances and a mellow tone. Plus Ryan Gosling’s pretty hot.
I also said: 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.

This is England
Seen: 2nd May
Rating: CF4
What: Shane Meadow’s foray into 80s skinhead culture via a little boy called Shaun, and a big man called Combo with unfortunate ideals.
I said then: This is England definitely packs a punch - actually, more like a head-butt to the face…
I say now: A good year for the Brits, This is England is powerful without being overly grim, relevant without shoving issues in your face, and funny without having characters say “bugger” all the time.
I also said: Like The Lion King, but with skinheads.

23rd May 07
Rating: CF3
What: David Fincher’s crime thriller based on the real-life Zodiac killer, with lovely Jake, lovely Robert and lovely Mark.
I said then: 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
I say now: Fincher manages to make the right balance between his fancy directing and letting the formidable (and lovely) cast do their thing. Zodiac was one piece of absorbing film.
I also said: It’s like he’s peed all over the film - wherever you look you’ll get a whiff of Fincher.

Knocked Up
15th August 07
Rating: CF2
What: The start of Rogen and Apatow’s climb to the top of the comedy pile, Knocked Up tackles that gut-wrenching terror of getting up the duff by a total loser.
I said then: Definitely has elements to satisfy many different levels of audience, even those as high and mighty as me. Clever, cynical… refreshing to see a comedy emerge without a completely rose-tinted view of the romantic world.
I say now: I have to stick a few films in this top ten that aren’t overly pretentious (just a couple, anyway) and Knocked Up was a comedy that really impressed, not least because I got to see it for free. Way hey!
I also said: You don’t get the impression the writers have struggled for a punch-line and thought ‘sod it, make one of them fart instead’

The Lookout
7th Nov 07
Rating: CF2
What: Joseph Gordon Levitt propels himself back on to the top 10 list second year running in a head-trauma/bank robbery indie film.
I said then: It’s Fargo style, with slightly eccentric villains, a dysfunctional collection of heroes and lots of cold settings… Good, solid first for the director and another cracking performance from Levitt.
I say now: What can I say? I just can’t resist the Levitt’s performances. This also sparks an amazing run of films in November (you’ll see…)
I also said: a barefaced lie created to appease unhappy single women

Eastern Promises
14th November 07
Rating: CF3
What: David Cronenburg does it again (A History of Violence making the 2005 CF Top-10) with Viggo back in tow, this time as part of a Russian gang in London, clashing paths with an ickle baby and an “English” nurse. Oh, and he likes saunas. Well, probably not anymore.
I said then: This is a powerful film, with ace performances, a memory-stamping fight scene, some unexpected twirls in the plot and, did I mention, a naked, sweaty Viggo?
I say now: Naked, sweaty Viggo.
I also said: The guy’s got a cleft in his chin - a proven sign of genius

The Darjeeling Limited
28th Nov 07
Rating: CF3
What: Wes Anderon’s tale of three brothers on a train. They walk in slow motion to cool tunes and there’s lots of close ups of their weirdly shaped noses. That’s about it.
I said then: Oddball, quirky, and any other clichéd adjective you want to throw in there to describe a film that’s different to the norm.
I say now: Let down by the last twenty minutes, this film still barges its way on to the top 10 because of its central performances and how much they made me smile. Simple as that.
I also said: My natural facial expression is that of contempt.

2007: The Losers

Last year there was a crop of stinkers that angered and befuddled. Due to the avoidance of a particular pirate crew, this year there haven’t been quite so many upsets. But a few films didn’t half disappoint.

Shrek the Third
4th July 07
Rating: CF0 (scraped)
“The whole film feels a bit like my attitude when trying to park in a small space at Tesco. It’s all pretty much in there, so sod it - that’ll do.”

19th Sep 07
Rating: CF-1
“I wouldn’t really recommend it to many people, unless I happen on a group of ‘youths’.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Seen: 24th July 07
Rating: CF-1
“Most of the time I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a school production.”

Wedding Daze
Seen: 27th June 07
Rating: CF-2
“Crikey I have been seeing a lot of shite recently, haven’t I?”

The Turkey of the year

Nothing quite so offensive as Pirates this year, so the Turkey mantle has to fall on a bunch of thirteen smug celebrities instead.

Ocean’s Thirteen
21st June 07
Rating: CF-3
“It’s not as bad as Twelve.”
“The equivalent of an episode of popular BBC show The Hustle.”
“Um… Rohypnol isn’t funny…”
“Frustrating, pointless, and, like the Bavarian mountain I recently visited, Wank.”

End on a High

As I don’t want to enter 2008 with the bad taste of 2007 Turkey in my mouth, let’s quickly reflect on something better. The year did offer up some belters, especially in the form of big, silly fun with lots of SHOUTING and thighs (300), robots and cheese (Transformers) and lorries beating jets (Die Hard 4.0).

It was also a year of surprises, where sequels with lazy names actually turned out to be great (28 Weeks Later) and Mel Gibson made a film that was a bloody good romp and only insulted a small group of people who looked too deeply (Apocalypto).

Top that off with some lengthy dramas that floated my boat (Assassination of Jesse James, Bobby) and a sweet little rom-com that didn’t piss me off (Two Days in Paris) and you’ve got a selection of films that aren’t half bad. There was a noticeable absence of any CF5 rated films, however, and this is a great shame. Can 2008 offer up something better? Let’s go and see…