Wednesday, March 26, 2008

26th March 08 - Lars and the Real Girl

Back in 2006 I reviewed Half Nelson (a CF Top 10) and swooned over its Oscar-nommed star Ryan Gosling who “looks good with a beard”. It seems that even when he’s put on weight, has terrible hair and suffers with monumental social problems, he’s still pretty sweet. I mean, he’s in love with a sex doll. How much sweeter can you get?

Before we sink into smut territory, remember that our Lars is a gentle soul, religious to boot, so there’s no kinky stuff with the doll. He’s just so painfully frightened of forming human relationships that he invents one with an inanimate object. To be fair, he’s seriously mentally handicapped. I did say he was religious, didn’t I… Ho ho.

So Lars and the Real Girl is the story of Lars’ “relationship” and how it is handled by his family and friends. It’s funny - how can it not be, given the subject matter - especially the initial introductions to his new woman and an awkwardly hilarious dinner with his brother and sister-in-law. It’s also sort of sad - how can it not be, given the subject matter… Poor Lars is battling with many demons, and the film deals with themes of loneliness (“sometimes I get so lonely I forget what day it is”) and the importance of human interaction.

Gosling wheels out parts of his Nelson performance with plenty of ticks and twitches added to Lars’ mannerisms, but he also sells the love felt for the doll and makes Lars a sympathetic character, which isn’t an easy task to be fair. Under other hands he could have been a comedic caricature or an unpleasant weirdo, but Gosling makes him fragile, confused and, most importantly, watchable.

Despite the sombre moments, Lars and the Real Girl is predominantly a sweet and, dare I say it, “quirky” indie film, but by keeping it sweet the film loses a bit of oomph and falters under the running time. Yes, it’s gently amusing and moving to see Lars’ relationship with a doll. Yep, it’s still that. Ok, we’re still doing that. Right, we’re losing interest.

In fact, it’s taken me nearly two weeks to write this review, which is never a good sign. I neither disliked it enough to scathe, or loved it enough to swoon. It’s certainly something a bit different, and Gosling is definitely worth watching (although Emily Mortimer as his sister-in-law is also a strong point). But it doesn’t spark any further points above a CF0. Sorry Lars.

Friday, March 21, 2008

19th March 08 - Rambo

Oh dear. What has the world come to? This week I was reduced to a choice between Rambo and The Other Boleyn Girl. Like being stuck between a rock and a smug place. In the end we went for the rock, in the form of Rambo. A big, solid, faceless piece of rock, that could have elements of useful minerals running through it, but could also be one of those things that look like a rock, but is actually a large stale dog turd.

I’ve never seen a Rambo film before, and I’m neither ashamed nor proud to admit that. I just haven’t. So the thought of a new Rambo didn’t particularly excite or offend me, apart from a raised eyebrow at yet another action franchise being reborn (along with Rocky, Die Hard, Indiana et al) with the same haggard star crumbling out of the woodwork to try and relive their glory days, albeit in a slightly slower, more arthritic fashion.

So. Rambo. Here’s the gist: some Christians want to go to Burma to help out a peaceful community caught in a grisly civil war. They enlist Rambo to get them out there (he’s hanging out with snakes and stuff). The Christians get captured by the Evil Foreign soldier types. Rambo goes out to save them with some good guys, and they slaughter all the bad guys. Then they go home.

That’s literally the entire plot. In fact, the plot stops mid-way through and the rest of the film is one long bloody mash of carnage. Initially the violence is shocking and uncomfortable, especially as it’s very likely to be happening out in Burma in real life right now (no one seems to be trying to stop any of it, though. Pity there’s nothing, um, “valuable” in Burma, eh? Otherwise certain folk would be marching in there, ready to “save“ them…)

But once the blood bath begins, reality goes out the window, probably accompanied by a couple of severed limbs. We see legs fly off, blood gush out of massive holes, arrows shoot through faces, heads actually explode. It is reminiscent of certain deaths in Team America: World Police (they were puppets filled with meat splatting on pavements, if you didn’t know). Duh-duh-duh goes Rambo’s magic gun that makes trees implode. Duh-duh-duh goes the naff heavy metal soundtrack. Duh-duh-duh goes, worryingly, the hearts of teenage fools thinking this is great. Ha-ha-ha goes my laugh, genuinely enjoying it but probably not quite as intended.

I think this has been the funniest film of the year so far. Just looking at Stallone is enough to crack me up. It looks like he’s tried to have botox but used porridge by mistake. His heart-warming revelations about himself (he’s not particularly patriotic. He just likes killing people) are mirrored by the beautiful moment when a Christian learns to leave his prejudices against violence aside, and beats someone to death with a rock. Hurray!

Laughter and enjoyment aside, it is slightly disconcerting that your average tabloid reader will watch this and see horrific acts by foreign looking people against whimpering and ultimately faceless foreigners, and then American and Brit soldiers, all with names and vague personalities waltz in, destroy everything, and waltz back out again in an uplifting finale. Way to humanise the plight of the Burmese, Stallone. You’ve just boxed them into the pleb majority’s heads as “those extras that got blitzed by Rambo’s gun.”

Anyway, I can clamber off my soap-box long enough to debate how on earth to rate this film. On the one hand it was a bloody funny way to pass the time and left me with a huge smirk on my face. On the other it was plotless, pointless, horrific and potentially damaging to the apathetic teenage population. On those grounds I can neither award it points, or subtract, and so it sits comfortable at a CF0. And I’ll say this: it’s a million times better than watching Smug Johansson. Ha!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

12th March 08 - Jumper

Disappointment this week. There I was, eagerly anticipating an exciting yarn about a man who knits sweaters with super-speed all over the globe. How misleading can one title be, eh? Instead we get a tale that is, in theory, pretty damn cool. “Jumpers” are teleporters - lucky gits who can transport themselves anywhere they can think of in the blink of a smug special effect. One such “jumper” is David Rice (Hayden Christensen) who lives the life of riley, robbing banks, lounging in Egypt, surfing, visiting a rainy England - and all in one day if he so pleases. The only thorn in his side is the girl next-door he left behind. Oh, and some guys in grey polo-necks who like to track down his kind and obliterate them. Spoil-sports.

Yup, Jumper has the makings of an uber-cool blockbuster with brains. Smashing effects, new super-powers giving rise to original set-pieces and a bit of fun underlying subtext (stuffy old folks don’t like the fact that these young-guns can do whatever the hell they like, and the effect of living life while ignoring consequence). Plus director Doug Liman brought us the overly popular Bourne Identity and eye-candy nonsense of Mr & Mrs Smith. What can go wrong?

Well. Unfortunately the pacing and script tried to match the jumping abilities of the film’s hero, leaving a trail of open-ended, under-developed tosh while skipping on to the Next Fight Scene. Some scenes go as follows:

Good Guy: Hey, who are you?
Bad Guy: I’m the bad guy. I want to kill you because I do.
Good Guy: Really? Damn.

That’s about as deep as they get. Which is a shame, because everywhere you look there are “nearly” moments, when the film comes close to being really good. David’s deepening loneliness, from a broken home and - nearly. A sweet love story with a sparky girl who - nearly. Tragic events that cause a change of - nearly. A twist in the tale that could provide some brilliant tension and - oh, it’s finished.

It’s all quite frustrating. Not least because Jamie Bell, who storms in to take the glory with his twitchy, scruffy version of a jumper turning the tables on his hunters, is paraded in front of us, then miserably ditched in favour of Hayden’s more bland “hero”. Not that Hayden doesn’t do too bad a job. He emotes with his big eyes, and I was reasonably attracted to him, which is always a good starting point. Then there’s Samuel L Jackson as the big bad, who would be scary if it wasn’t for the fact that he has laughably white hair and is named Roland.

It’s all the more frustrating because there are some great moments, be it the teleport fights (teleport a bus at them - that’ll do it) or the fact that our goodie isn’t really that great (blithely ignoring a natural disaster in favour of getting some totty in London). But what could have been a zesty sci-fi tart is in fact a haphazard and deflated flan. Jumper slumps to a CF-1. Stick it on for Saturday night-in entertainment. But don’t jump to see it at the cinema.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

5th March 08 - Be Kind Rewind

Like a Mr Levitt, or any actor whose name can be preceded with “lovely”, you could say I am a might biased towards the work of Michel Gondry. Well, biased isn’t the right term - I just adore his work. Last year’s Science of Sleep easily claimed a spot on the top ten, and his teaming with the genius of Kaufman on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind earned a place on my top ten of all time (a secret, ever changing list that may occasionally include The Transporter Two if I happen to be in a silly mood and recall the “it’s a potato” line).

So here comes Gondry with his second solo director/writer project, and where Science focussed on his dream obsession, Be Kind Rewind picks out his love for all things homemade. As anyone who has ever attempted it will know, home filmmaking is a monstrously fun mission. My own forays include “Dagger Woman”, an ambitious piece attempted during childhood, set at sea, and filmed in my living room (with a tub of water next to the camera for sound effects) and more recently the formation of DogEgg Productions, which has already spawned two classics with some up and coming stars.

Gondry knows the creativity that flows in even the simplest of pieces, and the joy it can bring to its makers. It’s this simple concept, and that of community, that binds Be Kind, but its premise is slightly more obscure. Mike (Mos Def) runs a video store whose tapes are wiped in a freak accident by his freak friend Jerry (Jack Black). To save the store they’ve got to remake the videos, fast. Cue superb re-hashes of the likes of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour Two, Robocop and Driving Miss Daisy. The film is peppered with Gondryisms, in the ingenious use of household items for props, to the mind boggling effects created from the simplest of ideas, to the rolling shot with switching perspectives, seen in some of his earlier adverts and music videos.

But tramping over Gondry’s charm is a Jack Black shaped nuisance. Stamping his name over every piece of promo for this film clouded many people’s minds into believing this was a “Jack Black comedy”. God forbid. It’s actually almost entirely under Gondry’s control, meaning it’s subtle, gentle, obscure, charming, bizarre. French. But with Jack Black attempting every now and then to do a funny crazy guy rant, the tone is skewed into an unfunny Jack Black moment. It’s almost like they have to stop the film for a minute, let Jack pretend to do his funny bit, then carry on, wincing slightly but knowing that if you didn’t let him do it then he’d never shut up. Example: Black’s endless “I’m wacky” routine pauses and a flash of Gondry appears - an inspired idea for camouflage. Film improves by a million percent. Jack strains to have his moment back again. Film dips.

It’s not that I despise Jack Black. He’s reasonably funny for an unfunny person. I just didn’t think he fit the rest of the film. Mos Def quietly gets on with a cracking yet understated performance. The rest of the neighbourhood are a cornucopia of loveable (if not partially clich├ęd) misfits. The film doesn’t need a lead comedian because it’s lead isn’t comedy. It’s heart-warming odd-ball type stuff. And though my heart was warmed every time I spotted some Gondry (Christ I don’t half sound obsessed, do I) it was chilled when the tone tried to be something different.

A simple, creative and original piece of film, with discreet comedy and an unfortunate clash in leading styles, Be Kind Rewind didn’t delight as much as I’d hoped, but is still a minty blast of refreshing air, especially after having to sit through a “Meet the Spartans” trailer. It rewinds to a CF2.