Sunday, April 27, 2008

26th April 08 - Happy-Go-Lucky

Being happy is the single most significant purpose to anyone’s existence. Fact. I mean, you only have one life which is slowly creeping towards the end every single second, and if you’re not spending it being happy then what on earth are you doing? That’s like going to Alton Towers and not going on any of the rides. Pointless.

Granted, it’s not easy to be happy all of the time, seeing as how adult life (and let’s be fair - teenage life too) is generally rubbish. If all you had to do was be happy then everyone would be fine, but the whole “having to survive - ergo having to eat food - ergo having to buy food - ergo having to earn money” thing can get in the way. But if you’ve made choices that mean there is absolutely no happiness in your life what-so-ever, then really. What are you doing? You’re essentially endlessly watching Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and refusing to change the DVD. You’re being stupid. Change the DVD. Simple.

There. After counselling the whole world, I’ll now get back to business. Happy-Go-Lucky is a film from Mike Leigh, a man whose last work was generally unhappy (Vera Drake - described by Cinemafool in the 2005 review as “well acted, but fairly loose on plot and so, so dreary“). It features Poppy (the superb Sally Hawkins), a 30 year-old who sees everything half full. She embraces life, tries to make everyone else happy, and is generally a nice person. In reality, anyone that happy and lively is most likely tucking away all the niggling unhappiness, saving it for massive unrelenting sessions of grief when she’s completely alone. They didn’t show that - it might have gone against the point. But I’m just saying. It’ll be one of the deleted scenes.

Being more of a character study than a plot-filled romp, HGL struggles at first as Poppy’s endlessly cheery nature begins to grate. We watch her be happy at a series of characters, and the point of it all starts to be in question. But then Poppy enrols on driving lessons and we get Scott (Eddie Marsan), and everything becomes supremely better. The driving lesson scenes are pure genius, a pitbull of anger and insanity versus a balloon of happiness and, err, insanity. Half way through and my opinion had completely reversed. But as the film continues, that same sense of “and we’re watching this because…?” looms in, and though some areas - the Flamenco lesson, the trip to the physio (hurray!), the impossibly gorgeous social worker - are pleasant to watch, others - the wedged-in tramp scene - test your patience, and this two hour film does start to test you, even when you’re full of yummy donuts.

What is refreshing to see, however, is a film with predominantly female characters who aren’t prancing about trying to look gorgeous, pining over blokes, “gossiping” and, well, being like in the Sex & the City trailer. As in, supposedly strong female role models but in fact botoxed Hollywood lovelies designed to continue to make normal women feel like shit. The women in Happy-Go-Lucky are normal women. They like to dress up and have a good time. They have jobs. They slob about at home. They talk about feelings. They take the piss out of each other. There is no learning curve, no revelation. No handsome man to make everything better (pretty much, anyway). Such a thing is rare, and for this I raise my hands in applause.

Siphon off the superfluous scenes around the driving lessons and bare bones of this colourful character, and you’d have a powerful film about making the most of life and, well, being happy. But as it stands, Happy-Go-Lucky is a mixed bag of laugh-out-loud hilarity and seat-shuffle tedium. It notches up a CF1, which is something to be happy about. Just not ecstatic.

23rd April 08 - In Bruges

If there’s just one thing I want to talk about in this review, it is Colin Farrell’s eyebrows. Secondary to my fascination with odd mouths (see: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Meredith off Grey’s Anatomy, Alicia Silverstone, Meg Ryan) is my obsession with big eyebrows. Sandy off the OC was in the lead for size, David Tennant for flexibility, but Farrell has stormed in with eyebrows that are not only dominating in terms of size and colour, but they are also incredibly animated. If anything his eyebrows out-act him, which is a mean feat in itself because the little Irish man does manage to act his chops off in this, albeit in a slightly over-the-top way.

In Bruges is the story of two hit-men being sent to, you’ve guessed it, Bruges, after a botched job. Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is thrilled because he gets to look at lots of old buildings, but Ray (Colin Farrell - or Will Ferrell - or Colin Firth, depending on how you look at it) isn’t too pleased with the trip. Of course, the real reason for their destination is later uncovered in what is a hark back to the good old days of the 90s when we made a massive amount of British gangster type films that were both funny, entertaining, but also ultimately a bit stupid.

Despite being a bit familiar, In Bruges is a minty fresh blast of film, with a cast hamming it up to the nines (Ralph Fienne’s cockney persona keeping up with Farrell’s energetic brows) and some unexpectedly hilarious moments. Though the subject matter of most of the jokes is the stuff of The Sun, you can’t help but chuckle shamelessly as fatties, midgets and foreigners (including Americans) are poked fun at, taunted and punched in the face. Somehow, despite being twitchy killers, Farrell and Gleeson win you over, so the sudden switch in tone as the inevitable shoot-out begins brings with it a genuine tenseness as you care about what happens.

The script is sparky, if not a little film-school Guy Ritchie, but it makes this 90 minute film fly by with smiley fun. Couple it with a solid cast and a beautiful city and you’re on to a winner. In Bruges is in luck, because it made me enjoy it enough to award it a CF2. One point purely for the eyebrows.

15th April 08 - Son of Rambow

Kids. Don’t you just love ‘em? Well, if you were to read back over last year's Simpsons review you’d discover the answer. There were some kids in this year’s Rambo, but the things that happened to them weren’t very nice. Was Son of Rambow going to follow the same lines, but with uglier detail? Alas no - it is instead a story of kids in 80s England, forging friendships and making their own film. Look, they even spelt his name wrong in the title. Bless.

Son of Rambow combines aspects seen in many other films. There’s the joy and creativity of making your own film (Gondry’s Bekind Rewind), the growing friendship between quiet loner and bad boy (Stand By Me), the pained relationship between big and little brothers (Kes - albeit this is thankfully cheerier) and the pitfalls of having a French exchange student come to visit (Slap her, she’s French). Ok, maybe not the last one.

We have mouse-boy Will (Bill Milner), a softly spoken, kind-hearted loner who loves to draw and whose imagination runs riot. He meets naughty Lee (Will Poulter), a right cock-er-ny straight out of Oliver-cor-blimey, who is good at heart but still a bit of a shit. Will’s family is pretty loaded, however, and he has himself a camcorder and a love of Rambo. The boys start to make their own version, using a myriad of clever devices and an impressive, if not unbelievable knack of being able to edit together a massive amount of footage, add in quality sound without even using proper sound recording equipment, and create a piece of film that looks like a professional has tried to make something that looks like non-professionals have made it. Or something.

With side-stories of mouse-boy’s struggle against his oddly religious family (with mother played superbly by Jessica Stevenson) and the usual jealousies and misunderstandings that can occur with friendships across social boundaries, Son of Rambow is a bog-standard drama, with whimsical humour and some slightly pointless but amusing sub-plots.

It’s sweet and easy to watch (although does drag in places) but its point is unclear and either clichéd or underdeveloped. Heart-warming, yes. But by only dabbling in its numerous themes we only get a dabble of comedy, a dabble of amateur filmmaking, a dabble of meatier social issues, etc etc. As such, though it was enjoyable, it only had a dabble of an impact. I’m well aware you can’t get a dabble of anything, dabble being a verb, but I’ve got the word in my head now and as it’s akin to dribble, I thought I’d try using it. Sorry - a dabble of digression there. Anyway, nice to watch but nothing more, Son of Rambow gets a dabble of a CF0.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

9th April 08 - The Orphanage

If I were to make a list of everything that scares me it’d go along the lines of wasps, fire, zombies, Animal from the muppets, and small creepy dead children. If The Orphanage featured any more than the one item from this list, it’d be probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. And also the most surreal. Thankfully though it keeps with just small creepy dead children, and leaves the flaming zombie wasps and crazy pink puppet drummers out of it.

So rather than nightmarish terror, it’s simply bloody scary. The plot is a pretty basic ghost story, with a big house full of a grisly history, and therefore grisly ghosties knocking about. Said house used to be an orphanage, and its past inhabitant Laura (Belen Rueda) moves back in as an adult with her doctor husband and adopted son Simon. Little Simon already has some imaginary friends but his new abode offers new playmates, only these ones might not be as imaginary as you’d like. What follows is an ever increasing series of poo-your-pants scares and hide-behind-your-coat set-ups.

What differentiates this film from many other paint-by-numbers fright-fests is the emotional ties you develop with the characters and the more measured approach to the tone. Many horrors feature failed models running around with few clothes on, making stupid decisions (to quote the great Eddie Izzard: “I heard a noise in the woods. I’ll go and investigate - and I’ll take a thimble with me for protection.”) You generally don’t care about the characters and are more interested in watching them get picked off one by one than actually wanting them to survive. But Laura is introduced carefully, letting us see her caring and fun side, the great mother-figure, so that when she starts doing dumb things like checking out the strange noise or heading into the darkened corridor, you know that she’s doing it for a reason. She’s scared but determined, and though you’re scared too, you also want her to succeed.

It’s a good sign when the producer is Guillermo del Toro, the director of CF top 10 Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, which The Orphanage has been compared to. But The Orphanage lacks the depth and odd-beauty of the superior Backbone, being tied down to ghost horror clichés and occasional cheap scares. I throw this criticism in the works to explain why it doesn’t gain a higher CF rating. The Orphanage is still a powerful, cleverly crafted piece of film, with some extraordinary directing from Juan Antonio Bayona that makes some scenes like the 1-2-3 game just insanely tense.

It didn’t give me nightmares, but was scary enough to make me turn on every light in my house that evening just to eradicate the chances of a hidden ghostie, and to whimper in misery the following day when my friend appeared with a pillow-case over her head, growling softly. The meanie. So for chills with an emotional core, The Orphanage brightens up spring with a CF2. Don your best pair of brown trousers and go watch.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

2nd April 08 - 27 Dresses

Before talking about 27 Dresses, can I just point out that we saw three trailers for rom-coms before this film, and all three were set in New York (we’ll let the Sex & the City one off since that’s its angle anyway, although I now know EVERYTHING that happens. Seriously, it’s supposed to make us want to watch it, not condense the plot into five minutes.) I’m probably heading to that city later in the year, so therefore look forward to some sort of romantic but hilarious misunderstanding. It seems to be the city to have them.

Anyway, back to the film. 27 Dresses takes place in New York (I’m saying nothing…) and follows Jane (Katherine Heigl), a girl who’s ever the bridesmaid, never the bride. It is a by-the-book rom-com, which means Jane’s in love with her dashing boss, who doesn’t really reciprocate, meanwhile annoying but quietly sexy reporter Kevin (James Marsden) is on the side line, who Jane hates but ends up spending lots of time with and, oh - here’s a surprise - they fall in love. Aw.

What did I expect, though? And, to be fair, when done well a rom-com does have a certain charm, like a big pink marshmallow. On the surface substantial, inside a bit airy, quite sweet and satisfying to consume, but too many will make you eject pretty-coloured vomit. My main gripe, which I’ve mentioned many times before, is the unrealistic picture they paint, and the ensuing bitterness they create. Let’s face it, never ever do you get a sexy charmer constantly pester you in a series of extravagant gestures, who you bicker with and despise but eventually love their pants off. Never. You either get a sexy charmer who you hate because he’s an arse hole - and he forever remains an arse hole. Or you get the mentally-skewed obsessive, who carves “I love you” into his forearm, but has enough brains to do it in a mirror-image so he can create a printed Valentines card, which at first looks like its been created with a reddy-brown paint until you realise the horrific truth, and slap a restraining order on him while quivering at home, wondering why it’s only the crazy ones and never the arse holes, who may be arse holes but are at least a lot easier to shout at.

And if you’re a woman reading this and thinking “well, I always get sexy charmers pestering me with gifts” then, well, you’re quite obviously a cow. So there.

27 Dresses is saved from pink-sick zone by its star, the ever likeable Katherine Hiegl who manages to be funny, pretty and yet ordinary enough to be believable. There’s a lot more drama in it than comedy, and it suffers for it under the weight of a hefty running time considering the subject matter. But with enough zest between the leads, some amusing moments and characters you can care about, it just about lifts itself to the recommended CF0. But possibly because it gave me the chance to vent about matters completely unrelated to the film. And anything that gives me the excuse to rant scores points in my book.