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 clich├ęd, 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.