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, na├»ve 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!