Tuesday, 22 March 2011

NOTICE - Slut in job-hunt mode

Okay, so I'm getting a little behind at the moment with the watching and the posting. This is not laziness, it's because I found out a couple of weeks ago that I'm going to lose my job.

Therefore as well as working out my notice I'm spending a lot of my spare time on the hunt for a new job. This could take ages, or could be over quickly. Given the state of the economy and the jobs market - not to mention my highly non-specific career profile - I'm more likely to be in it for the long haul.

Also, in two and a half weeks time I'll be here for a fortnight:

That's Uganda, kids. I'm there for a wedding, and will be well out of reach of both web access and multiplexes.

So, I'm saying: bear with me for the next month or so. I certainly won't be seeing everything, and the reviews will be appearing less frequently for a while. But with any luck normal service should be resuming at some point in May. And it won't be complete radio silence: reviews are forthcoming for Submarine, Fair Game, Unknown and The Adjustment Bureau.

The Slut abides.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Film #30 Hall Pass

In which the Farrelly brothers return with another big screen comedy and attempt to revive the kind of popular success associated with their earlier work, such as Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary. Do they succeed? No. Why not? That's what the review's for, silly - read on:

In another example of the growing "see the trailer, see the movie" phenomenon it hardly seems worth mentioning the plot, but here goes: Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis play middle-class married men entering middle age with little grace (think short-sleeved shirt with tie). Caught out one too many times engaging in sexualised banter and/or perving on younger women, their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) grant them a 'hall pass' - meaning they are both given a week off from marriage and allowed to sleep with as many women as they want, thus getting the sexual frustration out of their system and therefore permitting happy marriage to resume. And, the audience is to hope, hilarity ensues.

But it doesn't - or not really, anyway.  Around twenty minutes in, things become promising with the introduction of a motley crew of mates (including J.B. Smoove - Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm - and the estimable Steven Merchant, bringing a Fishponds brogue to Providence, R.I.). "Hey ho" you think "we'll get some laughs now", and we do - for about twenty minutes, after which, inexplicably, all of the actually funny characters exeunt, leaving us with The Brothers McDull for pretty much the rest of the film. And this is the problem - watching a bunch of slightly useless men doing silly things has a long comedic pedigree and can be very entertaining - but watching two men be pathetic around young women just makes me feel a bit queasy, not mention slightly ashamed at the predictability of the male libido.

And this is very male film, to a depressing degree. Applegate and Fischer gamely do their best with the flat roles they're given, but almost every other woman in the film is T&A on a stick and serves no purpose other than as a sex object. Up to a point, and in the right comedic context (i.e. a knowing one) that can be OK - but Hall Pass is nowhere near funny enough to get away with it. Then we get a half-arsed attempt at genuine emotional depth which fails utterly after all the knockabout silliness earlier on (cf. The Dilemma for an even worse attempt at this).

The cast? Owen Wilson we all know and love and can forgive this kind of bill-paying nonsense in the hope that somewhere down the line we'll get another Royal Tenenbaums. Jason Sudeikis on the other hand is a Saturday Night Live alumnus, one of those terminally unfunny comedy 'stars' that America periodically unleashes on the world, like teenybopper sensations or pre-emptive warfare (and almost as unwelcome).

I've mentioned the support already (and we do get a Stephen Merchant reprise at the end which I won't spoil - but make sure you don't walk out the second the credits start rolling or you'll miss the funniest thing in the whole film), and both they and the two female co-stars are the film's high points. But they can't save it.

It's not the worst film I've seen this year, and some of the gags do work out, but it's nowhere near as funny as it should have been. And it's too long.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Film #29 Rango

Johnny Depp did not have a vintage 2010 - Alice In Wonderland and The Tourist were both critical, if not commercial, flops. With the return of Pirates Of The Caribbean (whose director, Gore Verbinski, helms this too) one could be forgiven for thinking that 2011 might follow suit. This semi-surrealist big-budget animation is an unexpected then - not least because it is very good.

It's the story of a domesticated chameleon (Rango, voiced by Depp) who is accidentally freed as his glass tank falls from the back of a pick up on a two-lane blacktop somewhere in the American West. Narrowly avoiding various perils of the desert he stumbles upon the town of Dirt, populated by a range of anthropomorphic animals (a motley range of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians), ruled over by a suspicious mayor (Ned Beatty, for whom charismatic-yet-sinister animations are becoming a stock-in-trade) who may or may not be behind the Dirt's chronic water shortage. Rango, a coward but also a natural dramatic, convinces the townsfolk he is a badass gunslinger from even further west, unwittingly becoming the leader of a resistance to the conspiracy that cloaks the town.

The references are manifold, with nods (subtle or otherwise) to Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, El Topo, Naked Lunch, Dead Man, the Roadrunner cartoons and myriad westerns. The touchstones, though, are Once Upon A Time In The West and Chinatown. Stylistically, ...West dominates the film, particularly the soundscape (Sergio Leone geeks, a community to which I loosely belong, will be in hog heaven spotting the various elements of the sound design that are borrowed in Rango). And just as Leone himself recreated scenes word-for-word or shot-for-shot from older westerns, so in Rango some scenes are lifted almost directly from Once Upon A Time In The West - albeit acted out by talking snakes and terrapins.

Themes and dialogue from Chinatown are also used liberally, not least the main plot maguffin of who's-dumping-water-in-the-desert-and-why (incidentally, if you haven't seen Chinatown stop reading this review right now, go and get hold of a copy and watch it. Go on. Now) and it's fair to say that Ned Beatty as the mayor is capably channelling John Huston's sinister geniality as Noah Cross, one of the great villains of cinema.

Let's not dwell too long on the nerdy stuff though: this is a very sweet and very funny film. It's obviously a labour of love from Verbinski - no by-the-numbers studio flick has this kind of charm and quirk - and it's as much a love letter to the craft of storytelling as it is a tribute to beloved modern classics. As noted above, there are surrealist leanings in the film, though we're definitely at the poppy, Dali end of the scale - dream sequences of floating wind-up fish and so on, rather than Ernst-ish tableaux of doom.

And let's talk about the cast. Directors seem happy to indulge Johnny Depp these days, but he's under control here and pitches the mixture of cowardice and bravado just right. The stellar support - Abigail Breslin, Ray Winstone, Alfred Molina, Isla Fischer (with a convincing wild-west accent) and Harry Dean Stanton included - all put in perfectly sound performances, as do some of the less well known voice artists. Ned Beatty's solid turn I mentioned earlier, and Bill Nighy does a convincing Henry Fonda as the vicious baddy Rattlesnake Jake.

Last but not least, the animation: it is wonderful. The rendering is pristine (particularly the furry creatures, who don't have a hair out of place) and the effects are marvellous throughout, as you might expect of Industrial Light & Magic first feature-length animation. Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers' cinematographer of choice is credited as cinematography consultant, which no doubt influenced the glorious photorealistic desert shots. However, you wouldn't want to over-credit the well-known industry figure; the unsung heroes are the small legion of artists and animators who have put together the finest-looking CG animation I've yet seen - including anything by the mighty Pixar.

One worry I have about the film is its success, or otherwise. I do like to see good films doing well at the box office, but I'm just not sure this is being pitched right. In the UK at least it seems to be aimed at the kids' market when it is very much a film for adults, and cineliterate adults at that. Also, it's a touch too long (and I'm getting tired of saying that) and, fundamentally, it's a pastiche of a pastiche - very inventive, yes, but I'm not sure if it will have the longest of shelf-lives, and it lacks the universality of other (particularly Pixar and Disney) animated films.

Nevertheless, it's an unexpected delight and therefore gets a fabby:


Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Intermission - Coming To A Screen Near YOU!

Having just gone through a bit of a dry spell in terms of quality cinema (i.e. seven films since the excellent Animal Kingdom, all rating five or less on the Slut-o-meter) I'm turning to the trailers to give me solace on what's due in the pipeline. Based on what I've seen (and there are a fair few films that haven't been trailed on movies that I've watched) I've put these forthcoming movies into a few discrete anticpatory categories. Enjoy...

(N.B. A review of Rango, which I enjoyed immensely, is on the way very soon, so it's not all doom and gloom chez Slut.)


Submarine - if it's shown at my local, that is. Looks great, in a Rushmore-ish way (though I animadvert that I am no fan of director Richard Ayoade's comedy acting).
Fair Game - I heart Naomi Watts.

Look tolerable:

Sucker Punch - cartoonish tough-girl sass that should also pass the Bechdel Test - rare in an action movie
The Resident - might not be great, but horror is usually better on the big screen. Hammer + Swank can't be all bad.
Scream 4 - I enjoyed the first three, and I trust Wes Craven not to cock it up. The trailer is unusual these days in that it's not a precis of the film's plot but gives a flavour of what the film is about without any unnecessary 'reveals'.
The Lincoln Lawyer - straightforward Hollywood legal-thriller stuff, but the cast list - including William H. Macy - looks promising

Not looking forward to:

Hop - animated bunny action, starring the worryingly-ubiquitous Russell Brand.
Arthur - more Brand, this time in a remake (why?) of Dudley Moore's breakout film.
Battle: Los Angeles - alien invasion schlock, looks portentous and boring,
Limitless - I'm not sure whether hunky Bradley Cooper has the wherewithal to hold a movie together
Fast & Furious Vol. 12 (or whatever) - despite the presence of Dwayne Johnson this does not look entertaining
Kung-Fu Panda 2 - fucking Jack Black.
Red Riding Hood - 'on paper' the old fairy tale has a lot of cinematic promise, in an Angela Carter-ish way. However, the cigar-chompers have decided to do it all Twilight, so looks tiresome.
The Roommate - looks like a whole bunch of cheap scares. I jump VERY easily but don't scare very well so tend to find this kind of film irrating.


Your Highness - looks like utter shit from the trailer. Quite how Natalie Portman has got involved in it I don't know.
Rio - I bear this film an extraordinary amount of ill-will, mostly because of the bloody Orange advert that I've now had to sit through over thirty times.

Dark horses (i.e. films that might be better than their trailer/cast/title/premise/etc. would suggest)

Chalet Girl - awful in theory (and the only interest I have in skiing is that fact that it contains two consecutive 'i's), and I was going to put it in the 'Dreading' category but I suspect it may be entertaining in silly, knockabout way.
Cowboys & Aliens - I am deeply unsure about this one. I think the concept may be slightly overwrought, but you can't argue with a cast list containing both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.
Hall Pass - the presence of Stephen Merchant and Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm might redeem this Hangover-ish laddy romp.
Tomorrow, When The War Began - actually a fairly interesting concept (holidaying gap-year types inadvertantly miss enemy invasion, form guerilla resistance), but all depends on the execution.

Films #27 & 28 Never Say Never; Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

Never mind The Rite - I've just attended a double-bill from from the infernal pits of Hell itself...

To be fair, I'm hardly the audience that the producers of Justin Bieber had in mind so even reviewing this for the edification of a tiny (but immensely intelligent, attractive and tasteful) readership seems futile. Thankfully it isn't a dramatic role for young Justin, rather this is a documentary following him around on tour and filmed (unnecessarily) in 3D.

And it has to be said that while the music is pretty awful, (even by the meagre standards of the teenybopper genre) the doc itself is kind-of ok and the lad himself doesn't come across as being the godawful brat you might assume him to be (though someone needs to explain that juts because he's famous, we don't need to hear his views on abortion).

Don't get me wrong - no normal functioning adult would want to watch this, but if you're forced to attend with some youngsters then you won't be too appalled/offended, and you may even be (very) mildly entertained. On that note, this is by far the queasiest ticket I've had to buy so far (especially as I was all sweaty after a bike-ride to the cinema) but happily the screening was pretty empty and I sat in the corner at the front, which is probably the least paedo-ish seat in the theatre. I still can't pretend I felt comfortable, though.

Big Mommas, on the other hand, is beyond redemption. I'm not sure who the target audience is or what kind of person would find this funny - certainly nobody else in the showing I was at was laughing. The plot-  well, it doesn't matter, suffice to say that is the slimmest of premises to allow Martin Lawrence and Brandon T. Jackson to don 'hilarious' fat suits and take on quasi-offensive stereotypical personae in the name of entertainment. Well, entertaining this is not. It's just utter trash that deserves to die a fast, painful death.

As dreadful and humourless as Just Go With It was, Big Mommas somehow contrives to be even worse: a perfect storm of cinematic awfulness and the worst film of the year so far.

Never Say Never: ****4/10
Big Mommas: 0/10

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Film #26 The Rite

Another year, another exorcism film. Reclaiming exorcism from the Baptists (remember last year's OK-ish The Last Exorcism?) we travel from the US to Rome with hunky young Catholic seminary graduate Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), who despite his wavering faith is learning how to cast out demons the good old-fashioned way (i.e. with a tall priest and a short priest, one of whom should have been a boxer). He is advised to meet veteran Welsh exorcist Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) while in Rome and, on doing so, witnesses the processes of exorcism in practice. However, following a tragic event Father Lucas begins exhibiting signs of posession himself (not a spoiler, by the way, as it's in the trailer), forcing Michael to make some serious decisions about his faith.

Anthony Hopkins is good and surprisingly un-hammy (to begin with at least; the last twenty minutes are purest acorn-fed pata negra from A-Hop). There are some good scares too, though most of the jumps (and I jump embarrasingly easily) result from either VERY LOUD MUSIC or the cinematic contrivance know as the Lewton Bus. It's also nice to see Rutger Hauer getting a little screentime as the undertaker dad and Ciaran Hinds - soon to be appearing as Aberforth Dumbledore in HP7B - is great as Father Xavier, the Vatican's go-to guy for demon extraction.

There are a plethora of flaws though. As well as the usual stuff - hokey dialogue, unoriginality, portentousness, flabby plotting - it seems that director Mikael Hafstrom was trying to work in a theme of religious self-doubt (and God-knows the characters talk about it enough): this fails, as the audience is left in no doubt that, in the universe of The Rite, demons are real, exorcism is real and there is a battle being fought on earth between the servants of the devil and the servants of God.

It also suffers from being too confined within the conventions of the exorcism sub-genre. Fairly early on, Hopkins asks O'Donoghue "What were you expecting? Spinning heads, pea soup?" - a sly nod at the titanic work in whose shadow this film labours. Of course, about five minutes later the head-spinning begins in earnest, along with some other neatly implausible tricks with frogs, mules and iron nails.

I suppose it is moderately entertaining, and there are certainly worse films on release at the moment, but don't expect fireworks (or pea soup).


Film #25 Drive Angry 3D

Okay, let's not dwell too long on this one. As I've said previously, I'm a big fan of Nic Cage - a tough gig, and Drive Angry 3D doesn't make it any easier.

The plot is so ludicrous that it could actually be good - sadly (and predictably) it's not. Cage is John Milton (no, not him), a criminal escapee from Hell (that's actual, biblical Hell, not some grimy project in West Philly) out to kill the man who killed him and his children and save his granddaughter from Satanic ritual sacrifice (yup). He is pursued by an agent of Hell (Willliam Fichtner) and improbably aided by Amber Heard, a chaste-but-ass-kicking waitress.

So, yes, it's rubbish. Cliched, and even slightly dull - there aren't nearly enough bangs and explosions and chases.  It's fine to be stupid if it's fun, but this isn't fun - and it's a good twenty minutes too long. Were it in 2D I'd give it a three out of ten, but as I've been insulted with a further charge for utterly pointless 3D, it's a:


Film #24 West Is West

I'm sure this caught a lot of people by surprise - twelve years on from the original East is East we get the sequel, the inevitably-entitled West is West. Beginning in 1970s Salford - and picking up a four years after East is East - the youngest of George and Ella Khan's boys, Sajid (Aqib Khan) is going off the rails and rejecting his father's Pakistani heritage. To set him back on the straight and narrow, George (Om Puri) takes Sajid along with him on a trip to Pakistan, ostensibly to find a wife for Sajid's traditionally-minded brother Maneer (Emil Marwa) who is living with George's Pakistani family in the Punjab. However, as George confronts his first wife, Basheera (Ila Arun), long-buried conflicts re-emerge and identities are questioned.

Good points - Om Puri cannot put in a bad performance (and the acting all-round is generally fine), the Punjab (actually India) is beautifully photographed, there are a few decent laughs to be had and the story sort-of manages to hold together under the weight of the writer's wish to work fairly strenuously on 'themes'

Bad points - well, for (presumably) a comedy it veers uncomfortably away from its genre at times; just as the first film went off the rails when the domestic violence started, so the laughter stops here as the scale of the misery wreaked by George becomes clear (and, oddly, we seem to be asked to sympathise with him toward the end, as there is a kind of spurious reconciliation). There is unevenness elsewhere too - Sajid's mentoring in Pakistan by a wise Sufi mystic seems to buy into the same kind of Orientalist chic that is parodied earlier in the film, in Jimi Mistry's cameo as proprietor of a head shop. Oh, and as with Paul there is too much use of swearing for comic effect.

A well-intentioned, occasionally amusing but ultimately problematic film.


Thursday, 3 March 2011

Film #23 Paul

"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

So wrote Charles Mackay, 19th century journalist and author of the legendary Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. He was about 150 years to early for Paul, but no doubt he would have reiterated his sentiment when surrounded by an audience of moviegoers clapping and guffawing at a series of sub-My Family stoner gags as if they were watching Airplane for the very first time.

Ok, so I wasn't keen on this film - but wait: I loved Spaced, enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and still think that Hot Fuzz is the funniest comedy of the last eight or nine years. However unlike Spaced, Shaun and Fuzz, the interplay between Pegg and Frost in Paul seems to be almost pastiche - the pet names, the geeky references and so on - the jokes, as I've said above are not really very funny, the story is lumpy, the characters' relationships feel forced, the jeopardy is artificial and even the premise itself feels unlikely (surely these guys are too old for this sort of thing now?).

but I'm getting ahead of myself. For the uninitiated, Paul is the story of two SF geeks - Clive (Nick Frost) and Graeme (Simon Pegg) - who make the pilgrimage to Comic Con, the San Diego nerdfest and then take a road trip around the western USA in an RV .Along the way they pick up a fugitive alien, Paul, and find themselves hotly pursued by mysterious government agents (shades of Repo Man here) led by Agent Zoil (the impeccable Jason Bateman).

As I've said above, much of the rest of the audience - in a packed screening - seemed to be enjoying the film with some enthusiasm (and speaking of full cinemas, this looks like being a hit already; a reversal of erstwhile Frost/Pegg director Edgar Wright's fortunes with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a good film that flopped). So it's quite possible that I'm missing something vital - but I don't think I am. I'm a mid-level geek myself, and as above I have enjoyed their previous work. In Paul though, the film is hamstrung by waaay too many unfunny jokes that fall flat and a lack of imagination in the recycling of older, funnier shtick (plus you know you're in trouble when a script turns to straightforward swearing to get cheap laughs - like putting up a sign saying RUN OUT OF IDEAS, only much more expensive).

Any positives then? Well, an unexpected high note was Seth Rogan as Paul. Voice work, I know, but digitally-created aliens in live action films will always carry The Mark Of Jar-Jar - and the titular Zeta-Reticulan is probably the best thing about the film - he gets all the best lines (or at least swears the most convincingly) and, oddly, isn't too OTT. Paul himself is a convincing creation and much credit is due to the effects team that created him. Also Jeffrey Tambor's vain and rude SF author, 'Adam Shadowchild' rang very true and made me chuckle (though that's my years of dealing with truculent writers showing through - in a previous life I looked after signings in a bookshop).

There's one other thing to mention - there is an embarrassingly ham-fisted shoehorning of an atheist message into the film. Now, I'm an atheist myself and I suppose it's kind-of nice to see it talked about explicitly in a mainstream movie. However, this is not a good advertisement for us rationalist non-believers; as ever, we're smug, insensitive and rude. And it begs the question: is a light-hearted comedy road trip with aliens the place to do this? No, especially when it adds nothing to the story whatsoever. In any case, Hollywood is hardly a nest of evangelism and whilst American cinema has many vices - vacuity, superficiality, excessive violence, greed, banality, venality (to get the ball rolling) - preachiness is not one of them

Paul is by no means the worst film of the year, but it is probably the most disappointing. If I was being cruel, I could say it's Pegg/Frost's own Phantom Menace - soiling their earlier genius with self-indulgence - but that might be a bit too harsh. That said, I probably won't enjoy repeats of Spaced in quite the same way after Paul.


Screening notes:

As mentioned above, I'd say a good 80% of the people watching found this scarily hilarious, with even sporadic clapping in places (once at a joke THAT WAS IN THE TRAILER). If you're interested in this phenomenon of otherwise intelligent people doing stupid things, try reading Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World: A Short History Of Modern Delusions.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Film #22 I Am Number Four

In which Anglo-hunk Alex Pettyfer is an alien in human form with extraordinary powers. He is of only nine such creatures (he is number four, of course) who survived the destruction of their homeworld and were salted away on Earth by their prescient forebears. Now, however, they are being hunted down in numerical order (why numerical order? We'll never know) by the same nasty folk who wiped out their civilization in the first place - one, two and three have bitten the dust and now it's his turn. Where's the best place to hide? In an all-American high school, of course, thus permitting angsty teen romance to blossom (think Buffy, replace the vampires with aliens and remove the pop-cultural smartness).

So the story is as archetypal as they come (nothing wrong with that, of course) and as a deeply cynical and snobby thirty-year-old I am a fair distance from its target demographic of Twilight-ey teenagers. But you know, it's not that bad. Of course, there are any number of problems with it: the dialogue is parody-level stupid and the plot is holier than a king-size packet of Polos, with more extraordinary coincidences and inconsistencies of character and storyline than should be reasonably expected (it's seriously not worth examining it too far - these are Independence Day levels of silliness) and yet somehow these don't really matter.

The point is that there are swoony teens, lots of whizz-bang special-effects and some (but not enough) good action sequences. Also, the villains are very silly and lots of fun - imagine WWE superstars with Maori tattoos and black Once Upon A Time In The West dusters - and they get all of the best lines. In short - it's a genre piece aimed at teens, and it wouldn't be correct to impose the same kind of scrutiny that you might apply to the latest Scorsese flick.

Even so, there are flaws beyond the silliness noted above. For one, it is too long: at eleven minutes short of two hours, it needs a good thirty minutes shaving off it and by the time we reach the big fight at the end we're flagging a little bit. There is a jocks vs. nerds subplot that doesn't quite work and could quite feasibly have been ditched without impacting the main story, and there's some quasi-X-files conspiracy theory nonsense also feels out of place. Finally, the action - there isn't enough of it. We get a bit at the beginning (though the colour wash makes it difficult to make out what's going on) but then there's an awful lot of moping before we get any more serious fighting.

All that being said, it is still quite refreshing to watch something so played utterly straight and free of irony, and when we finally do reach the final battle it's all well choreographed and good fun. It's instantly forgettable and very silly with problems galore, but I can't say I hated it.


Screening notes:

I am a magnetic, charismatic individual. Your mum loves me. Your girlfriend loves me. So does your boyfriend. And your kids. How else can I explain the fact that - regardless of how empty the cinema is, how bad my view is (and believe me, I've been driven to sitting in the furthest recesses of the theatre), or even how much of a sweat I've worked up from cycling to the cinema - fellow moviegoers are queuing up (sometimes literally) to sit next to me, behind me, in front of me or on one occasion, either side of me?

Sorry to rant, but this is an ongoing issue that I simply cannot explain and short of dowsing myself in castor oil I don't know what to do.

On the plus side though, I got into the screen about ten minutes before the ads rolled and was treated to a selection of late-Disney show tunes (e.g. 'A Whole New World', 'You Got A Friend In Me') which got me in a very positive mood.

Film #21 Animal Kingdom

I've been looking forward to this one - so much so that I took a trip to a different multiplex (albeit part of the same chain as my local) to see it. What you need to know:

1. It's an Australian production, set in Melbourne
2. It's about criminals
3. It has been hotly anticipated by critics
4. It's director David Michod's first feature-film
5. It's got Guy Pearce in it

More? OK - subtitled 'A Crime Story', it's really a family story in which the family happen to be criminals. Set in more-or-less the present, it centres on the induction of Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) into his bank-robbing family following the death of his mother by heroin overdose. Taking him in are his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver, Oscar-nominated) and her dangerous sons including loose cannon Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and sociopath Pope (Ben Mendelsohn, brilliant). As the family undergoes a series of upheavals and J gets pulled deeper into the criminality he finds himself torn between family and morality. As noted above, Guy Pearce co-stars as the good-hearted detective Leckie, valiantly attempting to bring balance to J's life.

Well, this is good. Really good. Excellent in fact, maybe even brilliant. The story itself - rooted in truth but mostly fictional - is superbly judged. The pacing is perfect (testament to both the script and the editing) and the dialogue is realistic, often horrifying, often funny (and how many gangster films name-check Muttiah Muralitharan?) but always necessary - it's a Robert McKee-esque masterclass in screenwriting.

The acting, too, is fab. It seems unfair to single out individual performers, but as has been noted elsewhere, Ben Mendelsohn's turn is particularly good as a kind of anti-Joe Pesci or low-key Don Logan: genuinely believable as a dangerous sociopath in spite of his slovenly appearance and small stature. I also especially liked Daniel Wyllie as sleazeball lawyer Ezra. Moustachioed Guy Pearce is typically fine, Jacki Weaver thoroughly deserves her Academy Award nomination and James Frecheville is now no doubt bound for glory.

From the start, J is a blank canvas, with a glazed expression that is two-parts gormless teenager to one part banjo-hammering Deliverance savant. As he joins the troubled family, they lose a settling superego-like presence, leaving the animalistic id - in the form of Pope - free to reign supreme. Michod is asking some timeless questions here about loyalty, blood being thicker than water (for some family members, that depends entirely on the circumstances) and the limits of forgiveness. It's more atavistic than omerta - this is real family business.

Another key theme is the mundanity of evil. Crime is not glamorous here (it barely even pays), rather it is grubby, seedy, violent, stupid and desparate. We get a good look at the impact that these criminals can have on unsuspecting civilians, indeed all of the violence is cleverly given just the right amount of context in order that the audience genuinely feels its impact too.

The score is elegaic and sinister, contrasting with the frivolous honky-rock that anyone who's travelled with Australians will know is horrifyingly ubiquitous down under. Michod uses it sparingly, often only leaving diagetic sound at significant moments, underlying the seriousness and refusing to give the criminal activities any kind of Godfather-style operatic connotations. No Cavelleria Rusticana for these mobsters - their wrongdoing is more likely sountracked by Deal or No Deal on the TV in the background.

An extraordinary achievement then, and all the more extraordinary for being a debut (though it has to be said that Michod is hardly a greenhorn, being both a film school graduate and a former editor of Australia's trade journal Inside Film). It will inevitably be compared to films like City of God and Mean Streets, though it is as good as the former and better than the latter.

Best film of the year so far:


Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Films #18, 19, 20 - Tangled, Yogi Bear, Gnomeo & Juliet

Yes, half-term's over and I've been watching the kiddies' films so you don't have to. Aside from feeling like one of those weird old men that hang around the swimming baths - and getting some funny looks from mums ("stay away from the man, lovie") - it wasn't quite as painful as it could have been. 

Tangled is the latest Disney movie, based (loosely) on the story of Rapunzel - you know, the lass with the long hair and that. We're back to CG after the hand-drawn departure that was The Princess and The Frog, though still very much in the Disney fairy-tale tradition. Ultimately it's a minor Disney, but for all its safety it's pretty solid fun (for boys, girls and parents too) with pleasing musical interludes and some half-decent gags (I liked the horse). The 3D, as is the way, is largely superfluous, but the film as a whole is well-crafted and worth a watch.

If Tangled had an air of craftsmanship, Yogi Bear has a strong whiff of desperation about it. It's a mixture of live action and CG that might have been impressive fifteen years ago but kids these days won't bat an eyelid. Poor Dan Ackroyd struggles as the voice of Yogi, and one wonders how Justin Timberlake was convinced to take the part of Boo Boo - quite a comedown after his excellent turn in The Social Network. The plot is a load of eco-balls that serves only to frame a series of prehistoric and unfunny gags. Yogi himself is an abomination, and the film is an affront to a cartoon that frankly wasn't that good anyway. All basket and no picnic, I'm afraid - it's a stinker.

And finally the peculiarity that is David Furnish's Gnomeo & Juliet. As can be reasonably assumed from the title, it's Romeo & Juliet - sans tragic ending - set in an animated world of garden gnomes (and allied trades). Oh, and with lots of Elton John songs, naturally. Given this, plus the enormous cast of British acting luminaries involved (I doubt whether Ozzy Osbourne and Dame Maggie Smith have ever shared credits before) this is theoretically charming. Sadly, it doesn't quite work; the story, of course, is timeless, but the world isn't quite hermetic enough to be believable, many jokes fall flat and the matey knowingness will be lost on the youngsters and irritate the parents. Still, it's always nice to see Shakespeare getting a writing credit, and you can imagine that Billy Bard himself - a master of balancing populism with artistic intergrity - would look kindly on the idea, if not the execution.

Tangled ******6/10
Yogi Bear **2/10
Gnomeo & Juliet ****4/10

Intermission: Oscar prediction audit

As racing tipsters are traditionally required to publish a yearly audit, so I too will go over my predictions for the Academy Award (TM etc. etc.) winners. I didn't do too badly, with the following correct:

Best Picture (King's Speech)
Best Actress (Natalie Portman) - though I did hedge on this with Jennifer Lawrence, so half marks.
Best Actor (Colin Firth)
Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale)
Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler)
Best Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin)
Best Animation (Toy Story 3)
Best Original Song (Randy Newman)
Best Documentary Feature (Inside Job)
Best Film Editing (The Social Network)
Best Visual Effects (Inception)
Best Make-up (The Wolfman)

Of the twenty four categories I made predictions in twenty - so eleven and a half out of twenty isn't too bad for a rookie.

On the awards themselves, I was happy to see wins for Melissa Leo, Colin Firth, Randy Newman (especially), Toy Story 3 and Aaron Sorkin. Also good on Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for winning Best Original Score.

I was less happy with Alice In Wonderland - an utter travesty of a film - winning two statuettes, and while I don't begrudge Tom Hooper his Best Director gong, I would've liked to have seen it go David Fincher. It's a shame that Roger Deakins is still waiting for his Best Cinematography award after five nominations, and it would have been nice to see True Grit pick something up in a least one or two categories.

Sadly not valid for the best live-action short award was this Brightonian opus: