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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

11th Feb 09 - Revolutionary Road

Ah the joys of relationships. The flutter of the heart at the early meetings. The gentle expansion of feelings. The rosey complexion that comes from spending time with the one you love. And the slow decline into seething anger and resentment that makes you not only hate your partner with a fiery passion, but hate yourself and your entire life too.

That’s the picture Revolutionary Road paints for you. As Slumdog has been advertised as a “feel-good hit”, Rev Road could surely be summarised as a “kill-yourself punch”. It is essentially two hours watching people argue, and if you think it’s only the one dysfunctional couple in trouble, there are a few other examples of how miserable your life can become - either through forced and pained ignorance or bitter acceptance.

Of course there’s a little more to it than that. Titanic sweethearts Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio return to the screen together, perhaps showing what might have happened if she didn’t selfishly use all the door for a raft and they’d have been given the chance to be together. They play the feisty Wheelers, a couple who always planned not to get stuck in the family rut and mocked those that did, until several years down the line they realised they were rutted just as much as the next guy. Might I point out that their “rut” involves a nice house, nice neighbourhood, and two “nice” children (nice in the sense that they’re literally never around – seriously, where are their children?!) So this terrible woe they feel and bicker over is purely self indulgent. Boo hoo I’m in a nice house. Boo hoo we have reproduced and can afford to look after them. Boo bloody hoo.

You can sense the reasoning behind some of it, though. Life is, after-all, utterly depressing if you think about it too much. It’s the reason why things like money, houses and children are fairly useful – they’re things to strive for and distract from the thought that life is slowly ticking by. Unfortunately for the Wheelers, the penny has dropped that “this is it” and it has resulted in their relationship imploding. Watching the devastation that follows is both uncomfortable and hilarious, Kate and Leo throwing themselves into the slanging matches with gusto. Being an Oscar aimer, there’s lots and lots of Acting, particularly from Kate who sometimes takes a moment just to stare out the window and have a good ol’ Act for a while, before continuing on. Director Sam Mendes’ static approach makes it feel like you’re watching a play at times, which does work on some aspects (letting the explosive arguments speak for themselves) but creates a starched tone in others, distancing you from the characters.

Though the fire between the two leads is engrossing at times, there are a few niggles with this film. The plot is bone-dry, probably left that way to let lots of Acting in and comments on attitudes towards life etc, but with no real depth given to any of the characters it chunders along and leaves you with a bit of a “so what?” feel (if you can push aside the great feeling of despair it conjures). There is also a ridiculous character – just out of a mental hospital, and therefore happy to speak his mind - shoe-horned in to let the simpler audience members know what’s really going on in our leads minds. And the endless score, seemingly composed of only three piano notes, does start to grate after a while.

Still, superb performances mean it’s often riveting, if not dramatic, and will carry you towards the end with a building sense of dread at what’s to come. But how to score this has posed a problem – though it was finely acted, it’s difficult to recommend a “kill-yourself punch” to someone. Therefore it hits the “good film” jackpot of a CF0, but doesn’t gain any further points as I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend it to anyone, unless I know someone who wants to mock people in relationships.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

4th Feb 09 - Frost/Nixon

It’s sometimes difficult to believe that journalism can be used for anything except pointing out the weight of semi-famous people or making us all panic about how much the public / environment / economy is in trouble and it’s all because of youths / the government / immigrants. But among all the shite, journalism (like this) can have a positive impact on the world, or make some sort of change. And so it can be seen when David Frost, flailing TV host watching his career trickle downhill after a flourish of success, unearthed an apology from Richard Nixon, a jowly president with unusual ideas about the law.

It’s an odd choice to make a film about a TV show that has already been aired, where the seminal moment of success has already been filmed and broadcast and relished. You can’t just replicate what’s already been on TV – why watch someone pretend to do an interview when you can watch the real thing? So Frost/Nixon, based on a play by Peter Morgan who also writes this screenplay, instead takes a look behind the scenes, charting the David/Goliath task ahead and attempting to get into each player’s mindset.

Michael Sheen and Frank Langella do superb jobs at embodying their counterparts, Sheen catching the determination and charm in the face of failure, and Langella mixing sparkling intelligence with crumbling defences. Of course, what the hell would I know – I wasn’t alive when these two went head-to-head. Still, it made for some great cinema, director Ron Howard choosing an almost documentary feel with the solid supporting cast (including the sturdy Sam Rockwell and Kevin Bacon) providing background interviews to set the scene, and in some cases explain what was going on. He also thankfully sidesteps the usual pitfall of stage-to-screen, injecting movement into the piece without losing the crackling dialogue.

You could almost hear Eye of the Tiger rumbling in the background as these two chaps came face to face, the ding-ding of the tape-change allowing their coaches time to pep-talk, and as with all sporting films there’s a training montage, then the baddie pummels the goodie, right up until the last minute epiphany that saves the day.

And yet… we all knew what was coming. Frost gets Nixon to admit everything on air – no spoiler there, it’s fact. And though Sheen does cut an impressive figure as the rogue Frost, how he makes a switch from slightly delusional talkshow host to suddenly getting one over the superiorly intelligent Nixon is barely dealt with, save a wedged in monologue from Nixon and a quick montage of people going to the library. Nixon himself, surely responsible for tremendous death and deception, is elevated to Boris status as a bumbling comic, cracking some of the more amusing lines of the film. Ha ha – he’s racist! And was in charge of America! Really funny.

So though it hooks you with some great performances and a premise that is fascinating and true, Frost/Nixon peters out when we reach the conclusion we already knew with no deep exploration into character, or flourishing finale to cap things off. It could almost be a BBC Saturday drama. One of those good ones, mind – the one-offs, or the three-parters. But a TV drama none-the-less, which is what it all started out as anyway. For its meaty drama Frost/Nixon gains an extra point, but for not really telling us anything we didn’t already know (even us yoofs who weren’t even alive then) it fails to go any higher than a CF1.