Thursday, December 31, 2009

31st Dec 09 - Avatar

A few weeks ago I vented my stuffy air about not liking this new 3D technology in the cinema. And then this week there I sat with a pair of 3D specs, like a big hypocrite, waiting to see just what James Cameron has been up to for the last ten years and what all the fuss is about his new film Avatar. He’s trumpeted about the groundbreaking 3D technology so much I assumed it must be worth a go. And so I “oo-ed” and “ah-ed” as the screen leapt into life in front of me, depth added to landscapes and things flying out of the screen into my face. What isn’t advertised is the headaches, blurred vision and general annoyance as your brain attempts to adjust to the specs, my pathetic short-sighted handicap meaning I had the added problem of wearing 3D specs on top of normal specs, which when not properly lined up created a dizzying blurred 3D mess. I’m not making sweeping statements here, but James Cameron is obviously prejudiced against people who wear glasses.

Anyway, as well as 3D technology, Cameron has followed his passion for pushing the boundaries of effects. The Abyss saw the first computer generated silver wormy thing, Terminator 2 unleashed stunning effects on the T1000, subsequently used in Alex Mack (there’s progress for you), and Titanic brought in lots of little CGI people falling to their deaths. In Avatar, 60% of the film is computer generated using motion capture and photo-realistic technology. It does look pretty ace. The aliens – Navi – move and emote so smoothly that you begin to see them as just another set of actors, lead female Neytiri (voiced and motion captured by Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana) being the strongest and most enjoyable to watch. The landscapes are sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, and the critters are odd and deftly constructed. It all looks pretty damn good, really.

But here I am reviewing a film and not yet have I actually mentioned the film itself. For all the fancy visuals and teccy gizmos, a film has to stand on its own merits too. And Avatar… well, Cameron may have spent ten years on the effects, but he appears to have spent about ten minutes on the story. Namely, he watched Disney’s Pocahontas, then watched a BBC Wildlife documentary while inhaling sherbet. Bish bash bosh, there’s your story. The Navi are giant blue creatures with tails and weird tentacles that come out of their hair. But they also talk in African accents, have dreadlocks, a “chief” who wears feathers around his shoulders, a “witch-doctor” type person who has bones and stuff, and are “at one” with the earth and all the forest creatures. Take such blatant clichés, and the laziness increases when you add in more cooker-cutter human characters – the lanky geeky tech guy, the noble scientist, the corrupt company man after money, the insane army man after blood, and Michelle Rodriguez (seriously, does she turn up to all film and TV sets and bring her own costume – “it’s alright guys, I’ll just use the one from last time”.) Here’s an idea - sod the fancy 3D, try getting your characters’ dimensions up to two first.

Despite the transparent plot, Avatar manages to kick into enjoyment mode when the fighting begins. There is definitely excitement to be had by watching dragons attack helicopters in 3D and perfect graphics. Leads Sam Worthington (dim muscle with a cheeky grin) and Zoe Saldana are reasonably charming, and Cameron’s trademark penchant for having strong female leads is still apparent, and most welcome. The 3D works in places, adding depth to cockpits and landscapes, but hinders or distracts in others. The effects are breathtaking. But wrap up a bootleg copy of Pocahontas in pretty paper and it’s still a crappy copy underneath. Avatar is enjoyable, no doubt helping the film universe make further strides into jaw-dropping effects, but failing at the basics like plot and character. It’s fun but nothing more, and so ends the year with a CF0.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

18th Nov 09 - 2012

I wasn’t there, but this is how I imagine the conversation went between Roland Emmerich (“RE”), and Roland Emmerich’s subconscious film-making mind (“SC”), when trying to decide on whether to make 2012:

RE: I quite fancy a period drama next.
SC: I think you should destroy the world again.
RE: Oh… all right then.

And so 2012 was born. Though he was cajoled into it, Emmerich seems to have decided that if he is going to destroy the world again (he really hates the world – see Independence Day and the Day After Tomorrow) he’s going to do it so much that there can no longer be another disaster film. It’s like everyone’s had a go at folding down a cardboard box to shove it in the bin, all with varying degrees of success, but Emmerich has stomped in, doused the box in petrol and set it alight. No one can even attempt to have a go now. The box is gone.

Well it’s sort of like that.

Anyway, the key ingredients to this sort of disaster flick are all there – an everyman trying to save his family (John Cusack), some hot British scientists on hand when explanations are needed, an American president (randomly being Danny Glover), a crazy man (Woody Harrelson), a scattering of token “foreign” people (it is the whole entire world that’s going bust this time after all), and a cute doggy. The action, when it kicks in, is giggle-inducing fun. Cusack driving away from a collapsing planet is probably the best action sequence you’ll see this year, and shot in such a way that it would be a crime not to convert it into some sort of simulator/3-D/coaster experience in Florida. The pure scale of everything is awesome, and you can almost feel Emmerich chuckling behind the camera as he smushes buildings, sticks two fingers to religion, and just generally causes chaos. Great fun.

Great fun for about 40 minutes, that is. Trouble is, 2012 is 158 minutes long. The usual padding – slow build up to mass destruction – is forgivable and necessary for the genre, but post-destruction events take a dull turn as the surviving humans board their getaway ships (and that’s sea-ship, not space-ship) and everything goes a bit Titanic. We’ve just seen the entire earth destroyed – some water in a cabin is suddenly a million times less interesting.

You then add in the typical problems with this sort of thing – our hero always managing to be on the brink of every new moment of chaos and managing to just avoid everything over and over again, the usual American way of saving the American world with occasional glances at how the rest of the planet is doing – oh yes, there goes another country, ah well – before back to who’s really important, and Cusack looks too bored with the role, his trademark sardonic pout clashing with the CGI pandemonium around him. Once you’ve added all that, 2012 starts to look a bit crap, really.

The highlights – uber destruction like you’ve never seen – are thrilling, fun and quite superb. It’s a pity this beast has become a bit too bloated, the airy pockets smothering the juicy good centre into a passable way to spend several hours. Go for DVD, skip to the mid 40 minutes, then discard. For the best scenes, 2012 gets a CF2. But the score is diluted to a disappointing CF-1. I’ll still be making friends with a pilot though, just in case…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

11th Nov 09 - Up

Call me old fashioned, but I just don’t get this new fangled 3-D obsession in cinema nowadays. If I wanted things appearing to poke me in the face then I’d attach a pen to a spinning bicycle wheel and sit a few centimetres away from it with my eyes taped open. And I’m obviously not going to do that.

As a short-sighted glasses wearer I don’t need to wear an extra pair of specs on top, with a fuzzy bit at the top of my vision which neither glasses cover. Therefore in defiance of the future of cinema, I strode into a 2-D version of Up. And it just goes to show that 3-D is unnecessary, because even without the fancy gizmos, Up is simply marvellous.

With a plot obviously written while on magic mushrooms, Up is a joyous blend of childlike silliness and adult heart-wrenching sadness. The opening ten minutes managed to reduce me to tears with a montage, echoing Wall-E’s amazing knack of conveying deep emotion without using any dialogue. It features the crushingly cruel truth of the outcome to any long-term love, and deals with it in such a beautiful, mature manner that you’d be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a child’s film at all. And then the balloons come out.

Anyone miffed by the sudden change in tone from cold hard truth to vibrant sugar-fuelled insanity should be branded an idiot fool – and I mean literally branded. On the forehead. A film about a man who attaches balloons to his house and flies away – an inescapable point given all posters feature a picture of said event – must surely hint that the plot is far removed from the realms of the possible. Just how far it takes you into crazy territory is surprising, but if you’re going along for the ride it becomes not only hugely enjoyable, but also absolutely hilarious and thrilling too.

Picking an old dude for the main character seems a bit of a stuffy move for Pixar – who the hell wants to watch old people in films anyway? All they do is shuffle and pee. But Pixar win again, because not only is it original to feature a geriatric hero, they also accomplish two genius things – one, an OAP fight scene that’s just gold, and two, the idea of small children coming out of this film and never seeing their Granddad in the same light again.

Never one to disappoint, Pixar have done it again with an original gem, scoring points for tackling such deep emotional issues and mixing them with some old fashioned childish nonsense. Funny, exciting, heart-warming – just beautifully enjoyable, Up storms up the CF point scale to reach the dizzying heights of a CF4. Highest scorer of the year? Cor blimey I believe it is. Up yours!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

24th Oct 09 - Zombieland

Zombies are probably the second most popular dead things right now (second to vampires, overly exposed by Twi-shite, which I only hate because I’ve realised I’m now too old to understand the hype, and it’s an emo’s version of the superior Buffy).

After Shaun brought the hee hee to Zombhee, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood decided to step up to the play. And so we have Zombieland, a Zom-com set in a post-apocalypse world, where the zombies are fast and the survivors are few. Our narrator is Jesse Eisenberg, a white-fro nerd whose survival depends on cowardly but smart rules. He teams up with Woody Harrelson, a gun-toting lunatic with a knack for killing zombies. Life gets even more interesting when they stumble upon sisters Emma Stone (sultry, super and one to keep an eye on) and Abigail Breslin (the little one from Little Miss Sunshine).

The opening credits help to set the tone, with slow-mo gore spewed into camera lens set to heavy metal. Awesome stuff. The rest of the film doesn’t disappoint, with a heady mix of zombie chaos (what would happen if you fought zombies with fairground rides?) and American nerd jokes. Granted it lacks the more subtle, shall we say “British” humour of Shaun – this is certainly more wham-bam, in your face silliness. But being less than 90 minutes long means this is a flash of entertainment, fast-paced, thrilling and with the best use of a cameo for years (I won’t spoil it).

The cast are strong, Harrelson having a whale of a time as a redneck hero, while “the kids” hold their own, Eisenberg impossible not to compare to Michael Cera (even though I know he hates it) and the girls not just the token totty, although despite all the end of the world stuff they do manage to apply the makeup and keep the hair smoking hot.

With the strong duo of Z-Land and Shaun, there’s little scope for any more Zom-coms that could be successful, or more accurately, original (for we all know that the unoriginal shit-pile can still become successful due to the inherent stupidity of the majority of the human race). Zombieland proves there was still life in the undead and injects fresh life and fun into the genre, and for that it lopes in with a CF2. Dead funny. Ho ho.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

10th Oct 09 - District 9

As Sting once wisely said: I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien. I’m an Englishman in New York.

What he could have said was: I’m an alien. I’m an illegal alien. I’m an insect-like thing in a shanty town in South Africa. Granted it’s not as catchy, but it does sum up District 9 quite nicely.

Sneaking up on the box office like a little sneaky alien, District 9 somehow blasted its way to the top of the charts, despite coming from a first-time director and featuring an unknown cast. Of course the fact that it’s good should mean it nabs a high place on the box office, but Joe Public aren’t always smart enough to flock to the best film, instead getting confused by bright piles of poo with a picture of the Wayan brothers pinned to it.

Newcomer Neill Blomkamp was down to direct the Halo adaptation, but after it was canned, producer Peter Jackson gave him a wad of money to make something else instead. Blomkamp drew on his childhood in South Africa to cleverly meld the real into the alien, having the outerspace visitors –“Prawns” – treated as lower class folk and relegated to live in shanty towns. By drawing on documentary and CCTV style footage, Blomkamp adds an extra dimension of realism to the familiar alien format. CGI aliens meld perfectly with the real world, with two singled out as our “hero” prawns who team up with a hapless government dude due to circumstances I won’t go into to avoid spoiling the gruesome surprises.

What you get is a sort of buddy-movie, mixed with Tsotsi, the alien-in-bar scenes from Star Wars, some first person shoot-em-up games and transformers. All sort of familiar, but done in such a neat way it’s simply marvellous. With no big-name stars it’s difficult to tell where the story will lead you, and there is a gritty and explosive streak of violence that will have you “ewwing” and “wooing” in equal measures. There’s also a lot of use of the excellent swear word “fook”, which you’ll be saying for days after seeing this film.

Unfortunately the film falters towards the end when it attempts to big-up the action and brings in some unnecessary transformer-eqsue action, diluting the smaller, indie feel to the flick. But still, this is a smart take on the alien genre, the docu-style bringing an element of realism to pixels such that you’ll really care what happens to them. Worthy of its box-office success, District 9 plumps up the points and scores a CF2. Fooking hell.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

26th September 09 - Funny People

It’s called Funny People. It’s written and directed by funny people. It stars actors considered to be funny people. They play characters whose careers revolve around being funny people. Is the fact the film isn’t that funny down to an ironic title, or because they spent so long smugly thinking they were funny, they forgot to add any comedy to the script?

Let’s take the foot off the abuse accelerator for just one second and start with the positives though. Funny People features a solid cast full of likeable folk, and smart piece of casting with Adam Sandler as a well established comedian slightly twisted and delusional from his world, and Seth Rogen as a newcomer to the comedy scene. See what they did there? Yeah, it’s clever isn’t it. Or akin to having Julia Roberts disguise herself as Julia Roberts in suck-fest Ocean’s Twelve. Not sure.

Anyway, when Sandler finds out he has a life-threatening disease everything goes to pot, he questions his own life, tries to win back his lost love and employs young Rogen to be his gopher. That’s pretty much the plot, but sprinkled with snippets of stand-up routines and some smaller sub-plots. Choosing to drag 146 minutes out of the idea is an interesting decision. Or, as we in the film reviewing business call it – a mistake.

The film suffers due to two main problems – structure and character. Structure, because the plot rambles around on a directionless arc, stretched out by improvised scenes that lose the funny half way through. Character, because Sandler paints such a dislikeable figure that your empathy is totally dissolved, you don’t care if he succeeds in his mission of stealing back his love and you find very little to root for. Rogen is the usual – good, but starting to get familiar.

What’s extra strange is the incredibly sombre tone throughout the film. The main comedy comes through the stand-up routines each comedian shows, some of which are very funny, others are lost a little on a non-American audience. The rest of the film is at times actually quite depressing. With the odd structure and unexpected plot corners, this comes out as not just another Judd Apatow solid comedy nugget, but as a weird comedy/drama hybrid. Not a bad thing to mix the genres. Just odd to behold when expecting something else, and when it goes on for a wee bit too long.

The abuse accelerator got pressed again didn’t it? Well there are things to enjoy too. Leslie Mann is very likeable, there’s some fabulous dry humour from Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, and some amusing cameos from a variety of celebrities including a very surreal exchange between Eminem and Ray Romano. Plus it’s refreshing to see some family-based drama erupting from the Apatow cannon instead of porn jokes.

In short: Funny People is a quite funny, but also a quite morose and soul-searching look at the world of comedians, or just basic humans who make certain life choices. It’s too long and needs tighter control of the pace and structure, but a brave move to turn out a dramatic comedy as opposed to another Superbad. Funny People gets a standard CF0, but only if you change your expectations. And make sure you go to the loo beforehand.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

29th August 09 - Mesrine: Public Enemy No1

Taking off from where part one finished, Mesrine Public Enemy No 1 surpasses its recent Hollywood namesake (Mann’s Public Enemies, rated a poor CF-1 back in July). Our Mesrine is now a fully fledged criminal, but media-savvy and image conscious. Still robbing banks and escaping prison in style, this is a fatter, hairier Mesrine. A cheeky chappy, a charmer, wooing woman and the jury, just with a bigger belly.

The second part takes a different tone to the first, ditching the Goodfellas life story/relationship plod and going straight for the heist jugular, with some frantic shoot-outs. Seriously, autoglass would make a killing with the number of back windows shot out. Mesrine himself is like the French John Dillinger, or Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read (last week’s Eric Bana in a performance to be savoured). A criminal whose delusions of grandeur begin to make him more than just a robber. Mesrine, so annoying with lack of publicity during one prison stint, wrote his own autobiography, which then became the basis for the first of these two films.

Cassell is once again awesome. He piled on the pounds to shoot this part first, before downsizing to play the younger Mesrine in part one (they filmed events in reverse chronological order – clever, see) so this is essentially the first time he’s tackled this character. Only prejudice against subtitles will stop you from enjoying this performance. A childish, overblown, naïve and sly concoction, making a dangerous but almost lovable villain. Violence is sparingly shown, but when it hits it packs a wincing punch, particularly during Mesrine’s attack on a silly journalist.

The ending is built with skilful tension by Director Jean-Francois Richet. Though you know precisely what’s to come from watching part one, there is still an unnerving build up to Mesrine’s eventual bow-out, with a particular sadness about the doggy…

As a duo, Mesrine is a lengthy study of a fascinating character, who could easily have popped up in any Scorsese epic. His life is certainly diverse enough to warrant two films, although maybe could have summarised various heists into a handy montage. Part one felt more of a coming of age story, compared to part two as a straight up heist/downfall pic, the two cramming in every major French actor known to all us non-French folk. Though some scenes may feel familiar to anyone who’s seen an organised crime/criminal based film, Mesrine is still an absorbing, thrilling piece, made brilliant by Cassell’s performance. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 scores a CF1, a point lower than the former film probably due to increased expectations. Still, a worthy duo well worth a watch.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

26th August 09 - The Time Traveler's Wife

You won’t catch me willingly watching a “romance” film very often. Particularly one whose trailer featured soft lighting and a seemingly pobby plot. But Time Traveler’s Wife (TTW) happens to be a fabulous book. A traditional romance with a sci-fi twist, shades of darkness bold enough to provoke tears even when reading, and characters who are fully developed. It is a genius concept – a man who involuntarily time travels throughout his life, with resulting interactions with his wife throughout hers. An idea too genius to miss in film world. But can Mr film world match the book?

Well, it’s the age old problem – how do you match all the intricacies of a full blown novel with a 120 minute piece of film? The answer is mostly: you can’t. Very few films come close to accomplishing such feats, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create a great film in the process. The film has solid foundations on which to settle, tackling a tricky criss-cross time structure with a smart, simplified, streamlined approach. Anything else would have confused the average cinema pleb.

Eric Bana takes the lead as the time traveller, dashing but quiet, somewhat understated but encapsulating my idea of Henry from the book. Rachel McAdams is “the wife” Claire, suitably sassy and doe-eyed but a tad skeletal for my liking. The crux of the story is there, certainly with enough oomph to build emotions that instil weird leaking eye effects. Not sure what that’s all about. And the pitfalls and complexities of Henry’s time travel add a meaty layer to an otherwise basic love story.

But – and of course there’s a but – the film only served as a reminder of how good the book is. Fleeting scenes spark memories of whole chapters, incidents lightly touched upon remind you of much grander events. The leaky eye effect only triggers with the knowledge of what’s to come. Without such a solid book behind it, is this film really worth much?

The major trouble is, though this is a good adaptation, the book is so deep and complex, anything but feels somewhat lacking. In particular the choice to avoid certain areas – Claire’s entire family backstory, making her another atypical Hollywood woman whose only function is to see how many vertebrae she can show in the obligatory post-sex shot (go on – count them!), and a rather major medical consequence is missed out, which sparked the start of the general feeling of doom that clouds the last part of the book. Without these, the film begins to feel like a diluted version of the book. A diet novel. A novel-zero. Tastes like the real thing, but ultimately is a shitter version.

My non-novel reader informants tell me the film is still enjoyable without the novel background, but my novel-reader comrade concurs that though the film is reasonable, there is still a feeling of disappointment, particularly considering the film avoids the cinematic and beautiful ending.

So, a difficult one to grade. On the one hand, a unique take on the romance genre, dragging it into complex time travel paradoxes and no doubt boggling the minds of the usual audience for romance trite. On the other this is a cop-out adaptation of a dark book, side-stepping any unpleasantries for a smooth-ish ride. Was the enjoyment and emotion purely an echo of memories from reading the novel, rather than the film itself? Not sure. But despite the disappointment, it was already obvious that a film couldn’t match the book and needed to stand on its own. As such, TTW gets a recommendation for being something different for non-readers, and an extra point for grasping some aspect of what made the book so good. But it can’t climb any higher. The novel itself? CF4. The film: CF1

22nd August 09 - Inglorious Basterds

Let’s face it. After Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s work has slowly declined in popularity and quality. It was only natural, given the extent of Reservoir’s impact and Pulp’s cult status. Hit a career high first and you’ve only got a downwards slump ever after (unless you have time out and do a come-back). But despite this, his name is still big enough that most people - even the dim-witted general public - refer to Inglorious Basterds as “the new Tarantino one”, a feat that is rarely accomplished by directors, no matter how great they may be.

Inglorious has been floating round the Tarantino ideas pile for a while, even before he started Kill Bill, though it was weird to think of him producing a typical WW2 flick. Good job he hasn’t then. Inglorious is simply Tarantino does the 1940s, with some pre-drawn Hilter-shaped characters thrown in. The setting may be different, but we still have multiple plots, a chapter structure, smooth talking cool dudes, graphic violence and coincidences bringing everything together.

The multiple plots cover a girl with a grudge (a pretty deserved grudge really), a team of American Jews on a mission to kill Nazis (the Inglorious Basterds), and a handful of players from all sides. Brad Pitt’s lead Basterd is a drawling eccentric, a walk-in-the-park for Pitt whose presence doesn’t add the same as, say, Willis, Travlota and Sammy L did in the past. But it’s the non-Americans who steal the show. French actress Melanie Laurent plays grudge girl with finesse and is immediately likeable. And the prize for smooth talking cool dude goes to Austrian born Christoph Waltz, who plays the chief Jew-hunter (to put it bluntly) and emits such smooth intelligence and icy danger it’s both captivating and terrifying to watch.

Tarantino certainly knows how to create tension, each chapter building finger twisting apprehension before exploding into another bout of ultra-violent chaos. You will care how things turn out, and as it’s Tarantino there are of course some surprises on the way.

But the film isn’t quite as clever as it tries to appear, the plots not smartly intertwined, more occasionally crossing. The Basterds themselves feel somewhat superfluous and at times a little bit silly (the introduction of Eli Roth – director of Hostel – is a build up to an “errr..?” moment). There are probably hundreds of clever references to films that only Tarantino has seen, and of course references to his own films, reinforcing my belief that sooner or later he will remake one of his own, sparking an endless circle of remakes of the same film, by the same person, with increasing numbers of in-jokes, until a reality vortex is created that will destroy the world. That’s just my theory, anyway.

Basterds isn’t the huge career come-back that will put Tarantino back on his once held cult-King podium, but it is a well crafted, well acted thriller with some savage black comedy thrown in. A point just for Christoph Waltz’s performance, Inglorious Basterds gets a CF1.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

12th August 09 - Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Dubbed “the French Scarface”, Mesrine is the true story of a notorious French chappy, famed for bank robbing, kidnapping, prison breaks and being public enemy number one. Split across two films, the first, “Killer Instinct”, features life before the esteemed title of Public Enemy, and focuses on Mesrine’s back story. He’s a right charmer, following a stint in the army to woo ladies, make money on the side, and slowly seep into a life of organised crime with a few forays into the straight life inbetween.

The shining glory of this is lead Vincent Cassel (who’s popped up in good films like Eastern Promises, and shite films like Ocean’s Twelve). Remarkably gorgeous despite odd features, Cassel oozes cheeky charm and spikes it with flashes of insane violence to create a character who is likeable and frightening at the same time. My knowledge of French criminals is sparse, and to avoid spoiling the second instalment I have restrained my research into Jacques Mesrine, although note with curiosity that the film is based on a book that he himself wrote. Whether he twisted true events to be more exciting, or to portray him as a sexy devil, is unknown at present, and I’m certainly looking forward to finding out more once I’ve completed the film duo.

The film is in Goodfellas territory, with linear story telling, elongated running time and the highs and lows of the life of crime, but melds in some brutal prison time (they don’t make prisons like they used to) and some rather exciting if not a little silly gun battles. But with the excellence of Cassel in front of the camera, and the sparky direction of Jean-Francois Richet steering the show, Mesrine erupts as a fresh, thrilling piece.

The decision to split the film into two is one I can only judge after catching the second part (released in a couple of weeks), as is the extent to which we explore Mesrine’s psyche, which was covered in some depths in this instalment but has definite room for further exposition. But as a standalone piece, Mesrine: Killer Instinct is engaging, exciting and well-paced enough to climb to a CF2. Bring on the second part, is all I can say.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

5th August 09 - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

After my lacklustre response to the previous Potter (what number are we on now anyway? Six? Five? Two hundred?) I approached this new instalment with a “meh” attitude. I am a rare non-reader of the Potster, but I knew this was the one where “someone” dies (sorry to spoil it for non-readers of the book… but “someone” dies. There. And no, sadly it’s not Potter) so was mildly curious as to how.

As a non-reader, wading through these films is like walking into the sea with an inflatable around your waist. It gets harder the further you go and you never get to appreciate the depths of the story because you only ever see the surface. The longer the book, the less sense the films make. From what I can make of it, The Half Blood Prince is when everyone’s trying to bone everyone else, then Potter and Dumbledore go on a random quest to fight a group of gollums, before a wet flannel finale and an open ended finish.

As such, there are some amusing teenage romance moments, some slightly creepy bits, and a slight advancement on the plot. At least something actually happens in this one, compared to the previous film (Potter: the moody years) but it very much feels like a run up to the final flick, which has been split into two in order to make more money - sorry – I mean because the book is too long.

Acting-wise this is still painfully patchy, Radcliffe’s face sometimes so blank it looks CGI’d. And because of the gaps in the plot most events seem disjointed or unremarkable, or often just plain stupid (“hey Harry, let’s go to this random place for no reason and put you in peril. Again.”) But it pulls together just enough to hold your attention (saggy middle aside) and the likeable Grint and Watson are at least fun to watch, even if their characters don’t do anything at all.

If you haven’t read the books then I would rate this at CF-1. As a stand alone film it is disjointed and unclear. My book-reading companion appeared to enjoy it more, however, so I suspect a more enthusiastic recommendation would go out to those immersed in the Potter world already. But then, if you’ve read the books you’ll probably see it regardless of what I say, like a lamb going to cinema slaughter. So I’m sticking with CF-1. Up yours people who read Potter! Up yours!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

29th July 09 - Bruno

Back in 2006 Borat stormed cinemas with balls-in-face humour and cringe-inducing set ups. Now Baron Cohen pulls out his final character from the original trio, Austrian TV presenter Bruno, for another foray into the world of duping Americans for laughs. Bruno hungers for fame, loves fashion and, it’s fair to say, is reasonably homosexual. The film sees him head to LA with the dream of becoming famous, trying anything and everything to realise his dream.

At an anorexic 1 hour 20 mins, Bruno ploughs through scenarios and jokes like they’re going out of fashion. Shining moments include interviewing shameful parents for their babies to be included in a photo shoot (“are they comfortable with wasps, bees and hornets?”), baffling tough guys in an army camp and appearing on a talk show with his adoptive child. The best gags have mostly been splashed on the trailers, but will still elicit laughs.

But you’re more likely to do those gasping laughs, the ones you do when you’ve just seen something shocking but you can’t help laughing anyway. You know, like when children fall over. Take the man wrestling scene from Borat and amplify it tenfold, and you’re still not close to some of the chaos that Bruno spurts on screen. He certainly goes for the shock factor, but in my book “funny” outweighs “shock” for entertainment value, and unfortunately Bruno gets it the wrong way round.

Bruno also loses the original gist of the character – a device to expose the vacuous nature of the fashion world – and goes for the homophobic instead. Trouble is, there’s using a gay character to highlight the still apparent homophobia of certain areas of America, and then there’s taking your pants off and attempting to kiss a man in order to make him get up and run off, angrily complaining about the gay guy who just tried to kiss you. That’s not exposing homophobia, that’s exposing people who object to being sexually assaulted. Hilarious!

It’s a shame, as Baron Cohen has created a sympathetic chap, flawed but still likeable, and he yet again demonstrates his spectacular ability for character acting. Faced with a crowd of Americans baying for his blood on more than one occasion, Cohen never breaks face. You’d have to have some mega balls to do that. And Cohen’s not afraid to show them…

If the funnier scenes were beefed up and there was less reliance on staged moments aimed purely to shock, Bruno would have matched Borat for a comedy treat. As it is, Bruno feels too quick with not enough material or a clear focus to warrant a film. Although it gains point for having Paula Abdul sit on a Mexican. One to wait for DVD, Bruno slides to a CF-1. Nicht so gut.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

22 July 09 - Moon

Moon feels like a distilled version of a Philip K Dick story. I compare to Dick as it uses science fiction concepts to explore the very nature of humanity. I say distilled, as you can actually follow the plot the whole way through without losing your sanity. Hurray!

Newcomer Duncan Jones (son of some guy called David Bowie) brings a high concept pitch – moon setting, futuristic mining machines, split screen mayhem – and somehow manages to create a cinemaworthy piece on a miniscule budget. As such, there are no “look what we can do with all our money” shots, and instead just a tight, focused piece that puts plot and character before visual effects, but managing to avoid that “BBC budget” feel.

Without spoiling the plot too much, as part of the joy is in letting realities unravel before your eyes, Moon orbits around Sam Bell, a man coming to the end of his three year stint supervising giant mining machines on the moon (humans have found a new source of energy up there, thus saving our energy crisis back home). His only company is a slightly creepy robot computer type thing, and with live communications blocked by a downed satellite his only real link to the earth is through pre-recorded messages from his wife back home. It’s when Sam’s replacement arrives that things start to get interesting. Read other reviews and the whole concept of interesting is blown out the water via the medium of spoilers, but compared to the others Cinemafool reviews are more considerate and, let’s face it, better.

Anyway, Sam Rockwell takes on the lead role, pretty much carrying the whole film himself and doing a damn fine job of it, building a character who is believable and sympathetic. The creepy but amusing robot companion is perfectly voiced by Kevin Spacey and neatly echoes 2001’s HAL. Jones’ direction is intimate and creative, particularly when tackling various splitscreen type shots (it’s like he thought “hey, we’re on a tiny budget. What’ll make this even more difficult…?)

Moon’s plot would perhaps need some more meat on its bones to bring it out of short story territory and into novel glory, but it’s a charming little film, beautifully handled by Jones and superbly acted by Rockwell. Certainly standing out from the current crowd, Moon delighted enough to raise a CF3. Marvellous.

18th July 09 - The Hangover

At first glance this looked like just another film for idiot men. You know the sort of film – gratuitous boob shots, jokes involving fat people and bodily fluids, a plot that revolves around someone wanting to bone someone and a reliance on stereotypes or casual racism to elicit laughs. Between fart gags. The type of men these films are aimed at are thick faced, gel-haired morons who seriously read the Sun and Nuts magazine, and the sight of a woman bending over in a thong causes them to clap their hands in meaty delight. Between farts.

This is how I dismissed The Hangover, based on its trailer with strippers and a convicted rapist (hilarious!) But then a weird thing started to happen. People were recommending it to me. People who weren’t meat fisted, thick-faced morons. Curiosity and a desire for entertainment lead me to watch it, expectations upgraded from “pile of shite” to “unexpected comedy greatness”. Damn you expectations, because armed with the former I would have been very pleasantly surprised.

The Hangover is not the hair-brained turd-stool that you might think. Four friends go off to Vegas for a stag do, and three of them wake up with limited memories, some unexpected guests and a missing groom. It becomes a whodunit mystery as they piece their night back together again. With a writing team who worked on such gems as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and Four Christmases, and a director who brought us Old School and Starsky and Hutch, it’s no wonder this isn’t a hair-brained turd. And every wonder it’s more like a slightly unsatisfying digestive biscuit.

Yes, this has a little more to it than the usual, but it still brings out the old favourites to get a laugh. Naked old people (ha ha, they’re old and flabby!), foreign people (ha ha, they can’t pronounce things!) and bodily fluids (ha ha, it’s spunky!) all get a turn. Then there’s the great void of female characterisation, the main women being either a) a stripper, b) a moany bride to be, or c) a naggy cow, who of course is the one who wears glasses. Not that the men aren’t left out either, our main trio being token hot guy who’s a bad boy who learns to be good, token dweeby guy who learns to be kerr-azy, and token hairy guy who’s a bit weird.

But hey, sometimes all people want is to be entertained, right? And The Hangover can do that, its plot intriguing enough, and dealt with smartly enough, to keep you hooked throughout. Laughs may have been amplified if the trailer hadn’t ruined half the main surprises, or if your reviewer hadn’t watched it in a semi-comatose state with a very irritating person in front who fits the female equivalent of the meat-faced men described above.

So, not half as terrible as at first perceived, but disappointing based on the recommendations, The Hangover jiggles around the ratings and settles on a basic CF0. It’s enjoyable enough without raising the roof, and probably not best to watch it while suffering from the title condition…

8th July 09 - Public Enemies

The pairing of Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, with Michael Mann steering the ship, is surely the stuff of cinema dreams. Throw in a true story of an uber cool bank robber and you’ve got a winner before you ever get past the title screen. You’ve blown up the balloon to its maximum capacity and you’re about to release it, ready to be thrilled as it zooms across the room in a zigzag of fun chaos, complete with silly noises. Alas this was more like those times when you fumble the release and end up with a sputtering disappointment, some spittle in your face, and then a final flop to the ground.

Depp plays John Dillinger, a notorious bank robber (and namesake of metal mathcore band “the Dillinger Escape Plan”, a name that automatically pops into my head every time I say John Dillinger. There – it did it again.) Dillinger is a cheeky chappy, dodging the law and wangling his way out of prison every now and then (hence the band name). Depp nails the cool cheek of the man, dabbles in some deeper shades of emotion, but seems to spend most of the time attempting to squint his eyes and smile with only one half of his mouth. Take it from the expert – you’ve got to have a lifetime of practice before you get that smile right.

Meanwhile Bale plays FBI chap Melvin Purvis, assigned the task of hunting down Dillinger for good. As with Terminator, our Bale doesn’t get to do an awful lot besides running, a bit of shouting, and some moody staring out of windows.

There are some interesting choices in direction, particularly going digital for a night time shoot-out. The ‘digi’ effect wipes the usual sepia focus that covers this time period and gives an immediate feel, making things seem quite real. Either that or difficult to follow and as if filmed on your dad’s holiday camcorder.

What causes the failed balloon effect on this film is the fact that it focused entirely on the wrong guy. Dillinger is made the main man here, a bank robber with a slight weakness for a particular woman, who dodges police. Been there – done that. Bonnie and Clyde got the t-shirt. After 140 minutes, in which a surprisingly small amount of things happen, the usual blurbs appear that let you know what happened to each character next. And without even a bat of an eye Melvin Purvis – Bale’s FBI chap – gets a few sentences which sound infinitely more interesting than what you’ve just seen. Search his name and check out his life story. Now that would have been a good film! That would have given Bale something to get his chops round (and see if the Machinist was just a fluke…) That should have been this film. Not slightly clunky, slightly bland bank robber, cat and mouse type stuff.

For what it is, this is ok. Just ok. For what it could have been just make the noise of a balloon slowly deflating. I know I’m super intelligent, but surely the guys could have taken a few more minutes to check out the better story before ploughing into making this film. For such a stonking mistake, Public Enemies slips down a point and gets a balloon in the face CF-1.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

1st July 09 - Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Back in 2007 Michael Bay played with some big robots and let us watch him for a couple of hours. He created a film Cinemafool described as “bloody enjoyable cheese” and the trailers for the sequel were tantalising awesome. Can Bay serve up some more silly cheese? Or will he leave it out of the tupperware and end up with something hard and a bit of a funny colour?

Well, a bit of both really. Visually this still ticks the right boxes, the effects even more stunning and set pieces even more spectacular. The old cast are back, Shia with his weirdly massive nostrils, Megan Fox pouting like she’s never pouted before and occasionally undressing for no real reason, and the best feature of the first – John Turturro – returning with his usual odd-ball comedy spark. The size and number of bots have increased, including a cool tiger type thing, a monstrous wheeled giant and a super huge bot with a giant sucking mouth. It looks like they’ve been perfecting their CGI too, as the transformers are more expressive, and more interactive with their surroundings than before.

Such combinations of better effects and the same cast gives humour and wows in places, particularly the forest battle scene. But Transformers suffers from sequelitis, in that the pulling power of the first – seeing beloved toys come to life and blow shit up – no longer applies. We’ve been impressed with life-like robots transforming into planes mid-air. What else you got? Unfortunately it’s pretty much more of the same, but for a little bit longer.

Bay’s biggest problem – thinking we enjoy watching battle scenes as much as he does – hampers this as much as it did in the first film. Bay’s hard-on for helicopters and epic fights can never be matched by Joe-Public. It’s like he’s asked us to go for a run with him. Bay’s sprinting, arms flapping wildly, shouting “weeeeee” all the way. At first we – the audience – run along with him, finding it quite entertaining. But after five minutes Bay is still at it with the same level of enthusiasm, whereas we’ve stopped, out of breath and a little embarrassed to be seen near him. “Ok, that’s enough now” we’ll shout after him, but he won’t hear us. Not for another ten minutes or so. This is what the final battle scene is like – we’re tired and a little bit annoyed while Bay is running round going “weeeeee!”

There were elements of a run with Bay in the first film, but the excitement from the novelty of watching Transformers helped to make it bearable. Unfortunately this time around it’s lost its spark, leaving some enjoyment but also some tiresome battles. The plot is nonsensical as expected, clunkily edited together with some casual stereotyping. You’ll watch most of it with a smile on your face, but there’s a point as you go past the two hour mark where that smile wanes. Disappointing given the awesomeness of the trailers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is still a great summer blockbuster, but could have been so much more. It gets a recommended CF0, but no more.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

17th June 09 - Looking for Eric

Facts I know about Cantona: he’s French, has hefty eyebrows, used to wear his collar up and once kicked someone in the face. Oh and he played football for some team or other. As you can see, I know lots. But it seems not quite enough to truly appreciate Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric. With a greater knowledge about the man I’d probably have found more hilarity from the film, but really my head is so full up with knowledge already about more useful and interesting things, ex-footballers just don’t warrant deleting any of the info to make more brain space.

Anyway, in light of this my enjoyment of this film may have been hampered a little, but not enough to give an “I’m Not There” effect (described as unbaked cake smeared on the wall in Jan 08). Eric (not Cantona) is a postman, struggling with two divorces and two horrible step-sons to look after. His supportive mates try to help lift his spirits, but it turns out a hallucinated Cantona, Eric’s idol, is the best answer to his problems. Or a handy way for Eric to vocalise his back-story, without resorting to him just spouting monologues all the time. Still, it’s fun to see a gruff Cantona playing a hallucinated version of himself, spouting sayings (something I’ve since learnt was his speciality) and saying things in such a thick accent that it’s sometimes too difficult to follow.

Though the trailer suggests this to be a quirky romp with uplifting music from the Coral and lots of fat northern men chuckling away, the film itself is a tad grittier than expected. This is Ken Loach, after all, the chap who brought laugh-a-minute Kes to the screens. Set in Salford, a known shit-hole, Eric’s rough stepsons provide enough drama to muddy the lighter tone of Cantona’s visits and give the film a bit of weight. Steve Evets’ Eric has enough humanity to make you want him to succeed, even if his constant swearing feels slightly forced and unnatural for such a nice chap.

There’s a nice contrast between Eric’s harsh reality and his amusing relationship with Cantona, but a neat and slightly unbelievable finish leaves the film more namby pamby than something truly special. An interesting idea nicely played out, perhaps with a little more weight behind it the points could have climbed higher. As such, Looking for Eric finds itself at a CF1. Worth the effort to look at.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

10th June 09 - Terminator Salvation

Iconic, groundbreaking, terrifying, parodied and referenced to death, the Terminator films are some of the best popular sci-fi films. If you wipe number 3 from the world, of course. Making a fourth in the series with a different cast and the director of Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle wasn’t always the most exciting of news. With Christian Bale signed on, though, there was a glimmer of hope that this wouldn’t be a big pile of robotic shite.

And you know, it’s not actually that bad. Despite having a ridiculous name, director McG notches up a gear, throwing in some interesting tidbits such as the opening helicopter escape, the cameraman somehow hopping into a copter and following the action in a seemingly one-take shot. We have the world post-judgement day, with massive scary robots ruling the world and picking off any remaining survivors, and a strangely organised bunch of army types attempting to settle the score. On the goodies side is the grown up John Connor (Bale), who is heralded as humanity’s saviour, although you’ll be in big trouble if you shine light in his face…

Into the fray also is Sam Worthington, the anti-hero, doing a good job of looking vaguely perplexed most of the time. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag of tokens, with token hot lady who’s supposed to be well hard (Moon Bloodgood – what a name!) and Token rapper-turned-actor (Common – too good for two names). The terminators themselves are suitably nasty, but lack the original fear factor of the lone hunters from the first two films. Transformers-esque uber-bots are pretty cool, but slightly familiar.

In fact, there’s a lot that’s slightly familiar about this futuristic world. A heavy industrial setting, with big factories blowing fire and sparks out of the floor for no real reason. Human survivors who huddle in small groups wearing rags or building Mad Max style weapons. A small child who doesn’t talk but remains remarkably calm in all the chaos. It’s a bit like McG has researched the gig by watching loads of films from the same genre and then packaging them all up into one big fat cliché.

Not that it isn’t an entertaining cliché at least, and there are some fun nods to the originals (some low-key, some bleedin' obvious). But rather than take an ingenious yet simple set up from two insanely popular films and run the plot into new and exciting directions, Salvation just runs ideas into the well worn ground of futuristic chaos. And similarly takes an actor who can bring weight and a silly voice to something amazingly good (Batman), but leaves him to casually bark orders and run about a bit. Bale could have been replaced by any bog-standard actor or token and it would have had the same effect. A bit of a waste, really.

This could very easily have been a big mechanical turd, and it could also have been the revival of an exciting franchise. As it is, Salvation is a reasonably well done version of a familiar genre, but proof that sometimes you should leave some classics where they stand and perhaps try to come up with something brand new. Or just base something on a toy. Terminator Salvation gets a baseline CF0. Good, but not great.

3rd June 09 - Star Trek

Star Trek is one of those phenomenons that is either insanely popular to the point of hysteria in one subset of the population, or a concept that is utterly alien and unknown in the rest. A bit like the Jonas Brothers. I straddle the gap between fan and non-fan, having been exposed to the various series and films throughout my childhood and enjoying it to a point, but not so far as to dress up and attend a themed event. Well, only the once...

This is a genius pairing of a franchise featuring a plethora of fascinating characters and decade-deep ideas, with a director who’s been behind some mega popular high scale TV shows (Alias, Lost) and the best of the Mission Impossible films (number 3). J J Abrams blasts the Trek into the realms of the popular, making a show that many shy away from or turn their noses up at into something any uninitiated Trekster can actually enjoy. Bursting with big-ass fights between ships in space and peppered with some basic hand-to-hand combat in unusual settings, Abrams packs in the action and doesn’t bore.

Though he’s marked himself as more of a Wars fan in the Star categories, Abrams still manages to litter the film with reference after reference to the good ol’ Trek, adding an extra layer for fans to giggle at without diluting the enjoyment for everyone else. The cast are mostly superb, playing the young versions of the original Enterprise crew without relying too much on straight parody or spoof. Zachary Quinto’s Spock is spot-on, and Karl Urban’s Bones hilarious, with the random choice of Simon Pegg to play Scotty working out as a nice comedy touch. Perhaps the hardest part was Kirk, being under Shatner’s formidable shadow, and though Chris Pine keeps away from any attempt to copy the Shat and try a new rebellious side to the young James T, his character seems to be more annoying than believably captain-like.

With a suitably extravagant baddy (Eric Bana as a Romulan) and some neat plays with time travel, Star Trek is big, brash, fun and thrilling. Sucking new fans into the somewhat marvellous world of the Trek, and pressing the right buttons to please the most die-hard fan, Abrams has struck gold with this one and earns himself a CF3. Kick starting the summer blockbuster season with a bang, let’s see if the others can match this one.

Friday, May 29, 2009

27th May 09 - Synecdoche New York

Last week my brain had regressed to being nine years old, and I’d hoped the damage hadn’t been permanent. It seems that maybe I’ve caused more damage to my intellectual core than I’d at first realised. Synecdoche New York is by one of my favourite screenwriters (Charlie Kaufman). It’s been soaked in the slather of critics' praise, considered by some to be a masterpiece. And I’m never one to admit failure. Or a weakness in my brain. But I have to admit this.

I didn’t understand.

God it feels weird to write that.

Kaufman’s ideas have always astounded and excited me, his audacity to write himself into his own film (Adaptation), or crushing interpretation of relationships (Eternal Sunshine). Even a hole that leads into John Malkovich’s brain makes some sort of sense. But with Synecdoche I failed even at the first hurdle of pronouncing the bloody title. Featuring the ever brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theatre director who… well, loses his mind? Dies? Dreams? Or really does create a replica of New York inside a giant warehouse in order to create a play reflecting real life. God knows.

The trouble is the film plays out its duration without explanation, which is normally fine and dandy. Films that make you go “huh?” until their end reveal are often a joy, because you can then go back over the film with a new understanding and pick up on a heck of a lot more. Synecdoche, however, gives a hazy explanation, possibly hidden in a monologue or two or some reference to the time or whatever. It’s unclear. And being unclear just a little so you can have a ponder and figure stuff out for yourself is all well and good. But being so unclear that you leave without anything to go by at all means you’ve spent the last two hours watching something weird and meaningless. And if I wanted to do that I’d just watch Inland Empire again.

The frustration is there are some lovely moments and ideas in here. The warehouse-within-a-warehouse. The actors playing actors playing the main characters. The therapist. The strange dentist. The speeches, like “we're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't.” This could be a stark exploration of what it means to be alive. It could well be. Or maybe not. But what it definitely is, is confusing.

With a stellar cast (among others there’s Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson) and a superb writer, this film should have been one of the best. It’s been dubbed “ambitious”, which is certainly true. But in adding too many layers and hiding the clues, Kaufman seems to have made it just that bit too difficult. Like a jigsaw puzzle featuring baked beans – the only puzzle my mother has ever given up in her illustrious jigsaw career – there is being tricky enough to test you but cause enjoyment, and being so tricky that it just ends up left in pieces on the table.

In short: though I’m curious to re-watch in order to try and make sense and perhaps gain more enjoyment from the numerous particulars I may have missed first time around, Synecdoche New York is still a disappointment. Tiny pieces of brilliance stirred into some baffling soup. I can’t even fathom what rating it should get, so will stick to a CF0. It doesn’t seem right to mark it lower than 17 Again, but also doesn’t seem right to give it higher marks when it made me admit to not understanding. Let’s hope my higher brain function returns soon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

24th May 09 - Hannah Montana: The Movie

Ok. Let me explain. I never understood what Hannah Montana was, merely hated it from a distance because she was younger than me and smiles lots and seemed to be in that Disney gang of creepy Efron-bred performers. But then one weekend the Disney channel put on a 48-hour marathon of Hannah Montana, and this, combined with a post-alcohol state and the TV already being on the channel after my comrade’s obsession with creepy Efron-bred performers, meant I ended up watching several hours of Hannah Montana. After a while her goofy southern charm started to worm its way into my consciousness, and so it was only natural I would follow her to the cinema screens. In an entirely ironic way of course.

For those who know nothing of Montana, here is a quick overview. Miley Cirus, daughter of Billy Ray (the achey-breaky-heart chap) plays Miley Stewart, a normal girl who also happens to be a mega famous popstar called Hannah Montana. By the clever use of wigs, Miley can keep her normal life and her Hannah popstar life separate. This concept starts to get confusing when her real life dad also plays her on screen dad, called “Bobby Ray”. And the fictional Hannah Montana releases real-life CDs and goes on tour. And real life Miley also releases her own material and goes on tour. And in the film, fictional Miley ALSO creates her own material, which has ALSO been released. It’s as complex and fascinating as The Hills. Make of that what you will…

Anyway, the film deals with vast themes of identity and family. No, really. Montana gets too big for her boots so her daddy sends her back home to rediscover the real Miley. She falls in love with a cute cowboy, rides a horse and saves the town. Go Miley! Obviously this is Disney, and essentially a child’s film, so there’s also stuff like people getting cake on their faces, or non-fatal alligator attacks. Plus a host of songs, although thankfully they’re relatively short and don’t have much of a High School Musical dancey feel to them.

Now, only a month ago I purposefully watched a shit film (17 Again) and happily admitted to it. Montana is a different bag, though. It was actually rather emotional, good fun, made possible by the engaging Cirus, a rising star with already phenomenal success in tween land.

Yes, it was pretty clichéd, reasonably corny, a bit silly, childish… but hell, I enjoyed it anyway. Perhaps the sugar from my pick n’ mix regressed my brain back to being nine years old. Hopefully the damage won’t be permanent and I’ll be back to watching subtitled films in an empty cinema, guffawing at unfunny moments to show everyone how clever I am. For now, Hannah Montana is harmless fun with a star so frighteningly accomplished already that I fear a Britney backlash anytime soon. If 17 Again can do it, so can Miley, and her film also nabs a CF0.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

20th May 09 - X-Men Origins: Wolverine

During the opening ceremony for this year’s Oscars, lovely Hugh Jackman did a sterling performance culminating in a loud proclamation that he was Wolverine. Having played the widely popular character for four films now, it’s no doubt that Jackman is right, the man embodying everything about the character – the guttural growl of fury, the veined muscular arms, the copious hair. Lovely Hugh was the highlight of the three X-Men films, so it’s no wonder they were quick to spin off a prequel.

Origins does exactly what it says on the tin, showing us Wolvy from little ankle-biter to adulthood and with the whole “not dying” thing, his adulthood spans a century or so. Skipping over these bits with an opening titles montage, the film settles on the period where Wolverine meets Stryker, filling in the blanks from X-2 and showing just how Wolvy gets his metal claws, and why he has no memory of it.

The main antagonist is Wolverine’s brother, a fanged and clawed Liev Schreiber, whose dangerous lust for chaos and the kill is marred by some dodgy wire-work and him looking slightly silly. The plot trundles along, throwing up some new mutants for the effects folk to show off (including some cool sword work), a sound of music moment with nice gratuitous topless shot of lovely Hugh, and some good old-fashioned redemption.

Lovely Hugh really puts some welly into it, doing an ace job of super angry Wolverine, grunting his way through fights and flinging himself at helicopters in the stand-out motorbike chase sequence. His co-stars are a mixed bag, either little sparks that are cruelly underused – Ryan Reynolds as a snappy-talking swordsman, and a rather handsome Taylor Kitsch as Gambit – or a bit of a waste of time – Daniel Henney as the blando Agent Zero, and Will I Am popping up in a cowboy hat for no reason at all.

Despite Lovely Hugh’s outstanding portrayal of an ace character, Wolverine doesn’t have the wow-impact it promised, more the impact of a flan hitting a pavement. That is, a thick thud that makes some sort of impression but one that can be easily washed away. It was definitely enjoyable, particularly Lovely Hugh’s naked run through the forest, but worthy of no more than a recommended CF0. I never say no to flan, after all.

Friday, May 15, 2009

6th May 09 - Crank: High Voltage

Ah Crank. The baffling, chaotic bash from 2006 starring Jason Statham as Chev Chelios, a hitman poisoned with a drug that requires adrenaline levels to be kept high, creating a film that I described watching in “dazed amazement”. Given Crank’s ending no one expected a sequel, but the news of Crank: High Voltage certainly sparked excitement for cinemafool. Geddit? “High voltage - sparked”? I’m so clever…

Anyway, in this instalment our Chev has only gone and had his heart stolen and replaced with a mechanical version with a slowly dying battery. Of course. Along the same lines as the first, Chev must stalk the streets in search of the culprits, all the while performing increasingly insane stunts in order to keep his heart ticking. There are some that say Crank is highly unbelievable. To them I smack my forehead and say “well duurrr”. Even the film itself refers to the plot of its predecessor as “highly implausible”.

Crank is the computer game that never was, the resultant nightmare of a teenage boy with attention deficit disorder after gorging on a diet of sherbert, fizzy drinks and Grand Theft Auto. Don’t have Crank 2 on imax screens – you will cause mass eye haemorrhaging. The directing duo of Neveldine and Taylor, responsible for the first instalment, go all out once more, battering your senses with fast edits, booming soundtrack, random imagery, gore, guns, and a heck of a lot of boobs.

If it didn’t openly mock itself or so closely mirror itself to computer games (check out the first-person style shooter shots at the start) then this would be a horrific ball of shit, with a repulsive attitude towards women, gross stereotyping of most races and careless glamorisation of violence. But Crank has its tongue in its cheek, not enough to be a straight spoof, but enough to make everything a good giggle instead of appalling trash. Statham delivers with a straight face, even when wearing an electric dog collar or rubbing up to a granny.

There are so many little touches to the film – the “9 seconds later” cut scene, Statham’s “chicken and broccoli” quip after killing some Chinese men, the nonsensical Godzilla-esque fight – that it would stand repeat viewings despite a paper thin plot that spirals into, um, a reanimated head (seriously).

If you don’t approach this with the right attitude, you’ll probably be offended within five minutes or have some sort of seizure at the vibrant opening credits. But take Crank how it’s intended – an insane discharge of entertaining nonsense – and you’ll no doubt love it. It lacks the unexpected charm of the original, but still gains a nice CF0. I can’t wait to see what the new Crank / Transporter vehicle will be for Statham. Here’s hoping it involves more flapping hospital gowns.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

29th April 09 - 17 Again

It’s time for my quarterly dose of purposefully watching a shit film (see January’s Bride Wars) in an effort to get into the mindset of the general public pleb in order to try and extend the audience catchment area of this site. Granted, calling everyone a pleb might have just hindered my plans, but let’s be honest – anyone who watches this shite on purpose probably can’t read anyway.

So, after successfully insulting everyone let’s get down to it. 17 Again is the offspring of Big and Freaky Friday, the lazy-bods in Disney having the brain wave of making the guy younger instead of older – genius! We await 17 going on 70, when Dame Judi Dench wakes up to find she’s now Miley Cirus. God that’d be a good film.

The main draw of this film is Zac Efron. This is the guy all the kids have been going on about, the star of the rampage-inducing High School Musical series, who is now reaching an age where it’s morally acceptable to like him for us older ‘kids’. People seem to love Zac because of his dreamlike eyes, perfect hair, cheeky charm and slender yet muscular frame. This is just what I’ve read, anyway. It’s easy to see why he’s popular, the lad carrying this film happily enough, with smart little replications of his older-self’s mannerisms (Matthew Perry, looking like a haggard crab in comparison to his younger star, and thus probably wanting to kill himself by the end of the shoot).

Zac seems almost too perfect, though, the product of some sort of Disney breeding programme which is spawning hundreds of mini-Zacs and Zacettes (the trailers showed us what to expect in the future – hundreds of mini-Zacs singing and dancing and smiling at you. For ever. And ever.) It’s slightly disconcerting, but also intriguing – will our Zac steer his career like DiCaprio, swapping pretty-boy for pretty-damn-amazing film choices? Or will he head the way of Britney, damaged and distorted by the press? Although let’s be honest – he’s a guy, so the press aren’t going to make fun of him being too fat or too thin, or wait around to get shots up his trousers (there’s an idea for them…)

Efron is in fact upstaged by nerdy adult best mate Ned (Thomas Lennon) who steals the majority of laughs, or “smirks” as they more often were. Some amusingly cringey and weird moments aside (young Zac + old wife, or more worryingly, young Zac + daughter) 17 Again is largely unremarkable but not wholly unpleasant, made bearable by the antics of Ned and Efron’s effortless charm. A few gratuitous slo-mo shots of him without a top on seem to sweeten the deal. With a good message for the kids (stop being such a whiney-pants about screwing up your life, and don’t have unprotected sex or you’ll turn into a whiney-pants who’s screwed up his life) this is reasonable, but sits below the superior original Big and the ultimately more fun 13 going on 30. It just about sneaks in to a CF0 on the strength of its cast. And because it didn’t have a song in it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

22nd April 09 - In the Loop

Usually a comedy with more than a couple of writers suggests once of those that have required extensive rewriting and extra fart gags just to fill the naff joke quota. But In The Loop’s writing team is an obscure-comedy fan’s wet dream, featuring those involved with genius like Partridge (Armando Iannucci – also the director of In the Loop), Peep Show (Jesse Armstrong), The Armstrong & Miller Show (Simon Blackwell), and the TV-parent of this film The Thick Of It (Ian Martin & Tony Roche, as well as everyone else already mentioned).

Such writing delights make for a dialogue-snappy film, sparkling with diamond-sharp insults and eloquent put-downs dripping in sarcasm (the “willy-banjo” a particular favourite). The plot is at first sprawling, with various characters colliding with each other in a seemingly directionless manner, until the plot threads are suddenly and swiftly tied together in a blunt and bold attack on one of the biggest government lies in the last decade.

The characters are too numerous to go through, but the big favourite has to be Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a Scottish powerhouse of cunning anger and superfluous swearing, dodging the simple “angry sweary man” label through some excellent acting from Capaldi when we spy a few cracks in his tough hide. The rest of the cast are equally excellent and each get their turn to shine, including James Soprano, sorry, Gandolfini, who has the best angry-breathing ever.

With Iannucci’s laid-back direction and unfolding plot development, In the Loop feels more like a feature-length BBC3 comedy than a multiplex dweller, but compared to the rest of mostly tosh out in the cinema at the moment, there’s no harm in watching a TV comedy on a massive screen surrounded by strangers. Funny, sharp, intelligent and ever so slightly depressing, In the Loop is a proud example of Britain’s writing talent, and a withering reminder of how crap politics can be. It easily makes a CF2.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

15th April 09 - Let the Right One In

Last week I challenged the fictional film world to try and live up to the high marks the last two documentaries have gained. It seems they heard me over in Sweden.

Let the Right One In is a lovely tale of a young boy in 80s Sweden whose human interaction consists of dodging bullies and being ignored by his parents. Lucky for him there’s a new next door neighbour, a girl around his age. Although she’s only out at night, doesn’t feel the cold and is partial to some human haemoglobin. Bless. It’s just how I imagine Angel rip-off Twilight to be, if the characters were 12 year old Swedish kids instead of hormone fuelled preeners.

This film avoids the leather jacket cliché and instead puts vampires back to being creatures, preying on humans with an animalistic lust for blood, growling and pouncing – unusual when on the outside this beast is a 12 year old girl. Eli, played by Lina Leandersson, is superb, being only 14 in real life and yet evoking such age and experience in her eyes when playing the older vampire, with a sorrow bedded in her eyes at the lonelier aspects of her existence. Her human counterpart, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), sporting possibly the most stereotypically Swedish hair-do ever, is equally good, a fact confirmed by my Swedish correspondent.

The violence in this film is stark yet unflashy, at times surprisingly brutal (acid + face = youch) but sometimes almost comically so, particularly in the beautifully composed swimming pool scene. Cringy CGI cats aside, the film is visually solid, the icy Swedish backdrop clashing nicely with the warmth of the two lead’s developing friendship. It tests your morality somewhat, and that’s part of its charm. On the one side a heart-warming tale of friendship where it’s most needed, on the other a dark glimpse into a potentially destructive and violent relationship.

Let the Right One In takes a couple of old formulas (vampire mythology plus child befriending non-human – see ET) and melds them into something captivating, beautiful and slightly disconcerting. Always nice to get a film with such varying tones, this soars to a CF3, and claws back another victory for the world of fiction. Go on. Let the right film in.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

8th April 09 - Religulous

Ah religion. Like the whole football idea last week, religion is another concept to have escaped my understanding. As a child I prayed to god that I’d stop having bad dreams, and when I discovered this didn’t work I came to the realisation that it was all a bit made up and silly. This was a nine year-old’s conclusion. The fact that fully grown adults – millions of them – still cling to religion is baffling, and it seems comedian Bill Maher agrees as he heads up this documentary on just why people still practice religion, and the harm it can do to the human race.

Maher embarks on his journey with a bemused fascination with beliefs, asking the obvious questions that aren’t asked often enough and at times highlighting the corrupt and hypocritical nature of those who preach. He uncovers some characters who are ridiculous enough to cause hilarity – the self proclaimed “reincarnation of Jesus” (who makes money via a tv show), the man who plays Jesus in a Christian theme park in Florida, a gay man who married a lesbian and now refuses to believe that “gay” exists, and the creator of the first creationist museum. But alongside such people – we’ll call them “mentals” – Maher adds his own humour, be it smirking asides or cheeky add-ons in the form of subtitles or clips of popular culture to emphasise his point. Or just make fun.

And this isn’t just a Jesus-bashing, as Maher covers a variety of religions (albeit with a heavy focus on Christianity and a lighter touch on others, although since criticism of others can land you with death threats it’s no wonder why he steps more carefully). His overall point – that we need to stop this nonsense and concentrate on more important things like not destroying the earth and each other – is an important point to make, and makes you wish this film was made available to a wider audience rather than a small cinema screen full of guffawing pretentioles like me.

Though at times it seems the focus runs off course in favour of interviewing mentals for laughs, Religulous is still a funny and important documentary, enraging as it enlightens and making a point that’s so bloody obvious it’s painful – painful when you know not nearly enough people realise it already. I demand you find a partial believer and trick them into seeing this film, perhaps under the guise that it’s “The Passion – part two”. If we can get the casual believer on to the rational side, perhaps there’ll be enough of us to tackle such nonsensical ideas like having religious politicians.

Religulous scores an impressive CF3, another high score for another documentary (see Anvil). Come on “fictional” films – can you keep up with real life?

Monday, March 30, 2009

30th March 09 - The Damned United

The lure of football bypassed me at birth. Becoming emotionally affected to the point of violence, tears or shouting at the telly is a foreign concept to me when it comes to football. I’m bemused by people who are totally obsessed with something that ultimately has no real physical impact on their lives (unless you are actually a footballer or stand to have monetary gain from a team winning). I can understand it, though – a sense of solidarity and probable fun. It’s a concept that’s sullied by the knob-heads who use it as ways to be general knob-heads, but I suspect they’d exploit any popular activity they set their sights on. Cos they’re knob-heads.

Anyway, the purpose of my intro, aside from a way of using the term “knob-head” 3 times (now 4) because it’s a great insult used too rarely at the moment, is to give you some context into how I approach this film. I have no interest in football, and subsequently no knowledge. If a “sport-movie” was to make a big deal about its sport in a big huffy serious manner then I’m not interested, unless it’s a crazy sport like, um, pig racing. I’d watch a film about that. Definitely. Otherwise, a “sport-movie” needs to have something else – character, perhaps – that’ll swing it.

So Damned United sweeps in with a vibrant character to take the lead – Brian Clough – a chap who took on Leeds United and was promptly sacked 44 days later. Brian is an arrogant son-of-a-gun, mouthing off to the media, two fingers to the stuffy club chairs, gaining startling success by bringing up naff Derby and then stonking failure with dirty Leeds. His pride and ambition drive him, sometimes bringing triumph, sometimes costing him more than just some points on the table. With a focus on Clough rather than the game, Damned United nicely avoids stuffy sport territory, the only footie shots featuring my favourite parts (dirty fouls…) and it even handily explains things VERY CLEARLY for those finding football leagues hard to follow.

Michael Sheen steps into Clough’s shoes with cheeky gusto, at times nailing him perfectly (I know this as they showed the real Clough at the end – handy) but other times slipping into a bit of a Frostier direction. His supporting cast are sturdy (Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent) and director Tom Hooper blends 70s grime into the screen for a nostalgic fuzzy glow. But for such a lively character the film at times felt flat, the crackle between Clough and rival manager Don Revie could have been electric, but instead felt a little subdued, and the overall impression was solid TV drama rather than engaging cinema fodder.

Though my perception may be marred by a lack of enthusiasm for the overall subject matter, and by the knob-heads in the cinema who decided to discuss the film through-out (and should have known better, being married adults) I still can’t get too excited about this. It wasn’t a flop by any means, and engaged enough on a non-sport level, but fails to gain anything more than a general recommended CF0.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

21st March 09 - Watchmen

Let’s be honest. Does the world of cinema really need another graphic novel adaptation? Even if it’s supposedly “the greatest graphic novel ever in the world ever, like, ever” as it seems to have been labelled. Do we really need to see more slow-mo visuals, laced with technology that’s already impressed a few times over? Do we need to see a big glowing blue-man’s schlong?

The answer, it appears, is hell yes.

From the outside Watchmen could be either just another Sin City, all style-no-substance flop, or another ensemble superhero waste, treading over ground now well-covered by Marvel and the like. The opening fight is visually stunning, albeit suggesting this could be just two hours of slow-mo-fight porn. But the title sequence should convince you otherwise, the complex back-story of this alternative reality (Nixon’s still in power) shown in a series of spectacular snap-shots, backed up by a soundtrack from Dylan and stamping down a foot that says “actually, this is not just another superhero film”.

And though the bare bones of it is, the overall tone really, really isn’t. The world is edging closer and closer to nuclear destruction, an amplification of the cold war only with America having a big blue god on their side, and masked vigilantes are outlawed. Probably a good thing as some of them are murdering, sadistic bastards. But the murder of one serves to kick the rest back into the world to investigate, and to allow for various regressions so we can see their actions back in the day.

Visually this film is as fabulous as you’d suspect from Zack Snyder, the guy who brought us 300 (CF reviewed in March 07 as “a crash, bang wallop. In leather thongs.”) The violence is stark and brutal, sometimes causing giggles (buzz saw + arms) but often causing a shocked pause (gun + pregnant lady…) This is rated 18 for a reason, and its sweeping finale goes some way to match that in terms of tone. Don’t let the kiddies watch this unless you want them to be miserable for the rest of their lives.

Standing at a mighty 162 minutes, Watchmen sacrifices bottom-comfort for a bit more depth to the story, yet still missing out on certain aspects from the source material (an even longer director’s cut is set for DVD) or changing other aspects as to be honest they sounded rather silly. Though Synder can be applauded for not just stripping the story down to another bland (and what would have been more confusing) super-hero-arma, it does feel that time could have been trimmed a little further without losing the subtleties of the story.

With a mature and complex plot, twisted and intriguing characters, wowing visual punch and a kick-ass soundtrack, Watchmen certainly proves why it’s based on such a beloved piece of work, and Snyder’s impressive handling proves that amazing visuals can just add to, rather than be the whole film experience. Perhaps a time trim could help it be even slicker, but for now Watchmen impressed enough to warrant a CF3 rating. Ooo!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

11th March 09 - Gran Torino

“The second Eastwood film of the year” isn’t a phrase I’d usually type with relish, given his directed films are often slightly hyperinflated, what with critics forming a plug while attempting to kiss his arse. Despite being 20 minutes too long, Changeling wasn’t actually half bad, and Gran Torino is marked as the last film to feature Eastwood in front of the camera. He’s about 102 years old, so it’s fairly understanding.

Gran Torino is angry Clint – grumpy Clint – basically, Hulk Clint. He is moments from grunting “Clint bash” during a tempter tantrum, has a Batman-esque perma-gravel to his voice, and sometimes displays such a comedy-level of anger that you wouldn’t be surprised if jets of steam were shown shooting out of his ears. At times he looks so weirdly old and angry that his face mirrors that of the moments in the two newest Hulk films where they are in transition between real person and Hulk – a sort of CGI face that looks like the actor but is a bit odd and veiny.

Anyway, Gran Torino is this comedy-style angry Clint fighting neighbourhood gangs, providing a father figure, and just generally being quite racist. If you’ve seen the trailer then it’s fairly obvious of the entire story arc, and to be honest even if you haven’t it’s still reasonably paint-by-numbers. That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining, Clint’s grumpy man bristling against his bratty children and an over-enthusiastic priest being particularly amusing.

Still you can’t help but feel this comedy grump act is oddly juxtaposed with some horrific violent acts – almost as if it’s actually not too bad because it’s a “non-American” being attacked. And the continuous reliance on weapons makes you wonder if it’s sponsored by the National Rifle Association. Need to solve a dispute? Whip out a gun! It’s fun – with a ‘g’. I should sell that tag-line.

Anyway, this is very much a Clint vehicle, with some strikingly poor supporting acting in some places, and you’d wonder if it would be half as popular without the leading man. Still, he gets to close his final film as an actor with a nice Jesus comparison (check out the pose) which I’m sure critics will clamour to agree with. Many are recommending this purely because it is his last. I don’t see why this should be the sole reason to watch it, and its weak plot (feels like a film that was made in the 90s – don’t ask me why) doesn’t give any further points. The only reason would be to chuckle at angry Clint, but if you watch the trailer you’ve pretty much covered it. Therefore Gran Torino gets a slightly underwhelming CF-1. Sorry Clint. Don’t bash me. Or shoot me…

Saturday, February 28, 2009

28th Feb 09 - The International

The International has been described as a mix between Bond and Bourne. I can concur with this in a way. It is a mix of the talky bits in Bond that act as fillers between the fight scenes, and the bits in Bourne where they show shots of different European cities. The rest of the mix is filled with shit.

Too blunt? Ok, let me paint this picture. The International starts as a dark little thriller. It’s about a corrupt bank – ooo pertinent to today’s troubled times – and features lots of investigations and cover ups and people getting offed left, right and centre for being involved. Sounds pretty good. Trouble is, though it starts with the hook of “what on earth’s going on here, then?” this soon disintegrates into “this scene is a bit familiar to any other investigatory spy type thriller” (snipers, corridors, walking quickly for long periods of time, cases being turned down by ‘them in charge’) before slowly drifting into “I’ve stopped listened to the characters talk”.

It doesn’t help when the lead characters are bone chillingly transparent, Clive Owen sulking his way through as a man who starts off a bit rubbish and ends up like super assassin Leon, whose back-story is pretty much explained by his co-star saying “hey, I’ve got your file here. With your back-story. How about I read it out loud while we walk?” Said co-star is Naomi Watts, the unbelievable investigator type woman who clings to humanity by having one shot of her family life, before being reduced to “woman on the phone with the information that helps story along”, although granted she does get in on the walking and a tiny bit of action (the bit where Clive Owen out-runs a vehicle…) before being jettisoned from the story altogether, reduced to a name check at the end like we really give a damn about her insignificant presence.

What has got my goat here is that The International starts off with an air of importance. Some stark violence and a gritty plot gave it the edge, the assumption that it might be something more than your usual investigatory thriller piece. And after fudging attempts at making this style work in a way that is enjoyable to watch, it shoe-horns in the most preposterous shoot-up I have ever seen. Initially I thought it was finally getting exciting, until I started to wonder that for a film so intent on being all serious and clever, where all these dispensable henchmen were suddenly coming from and why the lead had turned into Rambo.

After that nonsense the film spiralled into a sea of who-cares, launching characters in willy nilly and churning the plot into indecipherable mulsh. Wholly disappointing, unfulfilling and inferior to most that have gone before it, The International sinks to a paltry CF-2. No wonder Clive looks so miserable – it’s the lowest scoring film of the year so far. Cheer up Clive, worse things could happen. You could be sharing the screen with Julia Roberts next. Oh…

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

25th February 09 - Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Although its title sounds like a Norwegian cartoon about a small Viking man on a quest for a golden coin, Anvil: The Story of Anvil is probably the best film to grace Cinemafool’s vision so far this year. Although to be fair the crop has been mostly “pretty good” thus far, so it’s easy for something to shine.

Anvil were a band back in the 80’s big enough to play alongside Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and other back-comb friendly rock acts. They’re now 50-something and still making music, albeit without making money. At first glance this documentary seems to echo the spectacular mockumentary Spinal Tap, almost as if Christopher Guest and co had time travelled forwards, seen this doc, then gone back to parody it first.

As a band, Anvil match Tap for crazy hilarity, sometimes trumping it. Where the Tap used a violin to play the guitar, Anvil used a dildo, and the song “Thumb Hang”, based on a torture method from the Spanish inquisition that they’d read about in school, could easily be a Tap creation. When Anvil attempt a reunion tour, the resulting mishaps (missed trains, insane venues, getting lost) are comedy gold.

But Anvil isn’t just a real life Tap. Though it’s undeniably funny, lead singer Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner melt humanity into the mix. Their strive to continue to do what makes them happy, debt and failure be damned, is both uplifting and heart wrenching at the same time. You chuckle at the half empty bar they’re having to play in, but your heart is also breaking on their behalf. Eccentric, weird, nutters – whatever you want to label them at first – once their quest is stripped to the nub it resonates with all, and suddenly these are just guys wanting to make their lives mean something.

Director Sacha Gervasi crafts this documentary perfectly, throwing out the belly laughs early, pulling you into the heart of the story, then building you up to the grand finale. Though at times some aspects are so bizarre you just have to question their authenticity (drummer’s painting of a poo in a toilet – “my wife won’t let me show it in the living room”) and there must be an element of manipulation to create a story with such a well formed arc. But still, Anvil: The Story of Anvil is the funniest, most touching piece seen so far this year, with reality and a bottom-pleasing running time firmly on its side. It rocks in with a CF2, and will sit neatly next to the Tap on anyone’s DVD collection, although their proximity may cause a rift in reality that destroys us all. Small price to pay.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

18th Feb 09 - Doubt

The Oscars loom so everything is very Important right now, and everyone is Acting lots and lots. A film adapted from a play about churchy folk and child fiddling seems to tick many Oscar boxes, which often suggests a film is about to be either long, depressing, self indulgent, serious or overinflated nonsense. Amazingly Doubt trots over all such preconceptions and emerges fresh, riveting, amusing and thoroughly enjoyable.

Bringing in a whopping 4 actor-related Oscar noms, Doubt could have been a blank backdrop allowing people to act away while sacrificing a bit of the entertainment factor (see Revolutionary Road…) But its cast powerfully drive the story, a compelling tale of “who dunnit”, or rather “did he dunnit…” when a priest is suspected of messing with an altar boy’s holy vestibule.

Chief investigator is headmistress nun Meryl Streep (up for best actress) who cuts a terrifying figure of authority, channelling her Devil Wears Prada performance into something harsher yet warmer at the same time. Her character delivers the majority of the laughs, her crushing bluntness and devout determination to prove she is right being the central spike to the tale. It’s a perfect role for her to play, but she doesn’t completely steal the limelight. Ever brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman (up for best actor) plays the priest in the spotlight, superbly mixing creepy (he definitely did it…) with sympathetic distress (he definitely didn’t do it…) The myriad of emotions crossing his large face could indicate any of the two outcomes, and you’ll have as much fun as Streep’s character in trying to decide if he’s telling the truth. Well, as much fun as you can have in investigating such dodgy things.

Taking up the supporting reigns is angel-faced Amy Adams (up for best supporting actress) whose naivety is beautiful, particularly when it cracks, and Viola Davis (also up for best supporting) playing the boy in question’s mother, and probably displaying the best bit of acting snot I have ever seen.

Though adapted from the stage, Doubt sidesteps the usual pitfalls (no one is trying to project across the stalls) but original playwright John Patrick Shanley (nommed for best screenplay) steps up to adapt and direct and perhaps takes some of his stage techniques a little too far. The inclusion of visual analogies is at times so blatant he may as well have had a character carry a load of heavy bags, then exclaim “oh woe is me, I have so much emotional baggage”. The crazy weather and unreliable light bulbs cut into the drama just a little too much, detracting from the already formidable subject matter which is filled with enough subtext to not need any more slathered on the screen.

Still, quibbles aside this was a fully enjoyable film, with superb performances and a simple yet completely effective plot. Points for mashing entertainment with potent drama, and extra points for letting me watch Streep and Hoffman size each other up. Doubt slinks in with a CF2, the first of the year. And check it out – I didn’t even make one single doubt-related pun. But I did mention a child’s holy vestibule. I’m not sure which is worse.