Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Film #51 Insidious

As with the recent Julia's Eyes, I'm very aware that I don't want to give any spoilers for this new horror movie. Suffice to, it involves a family moving to a new house, which they first assume is haunted, only to find that the source of the disturbances is their son, Josh (this is in the trailer, so not a spoiler). I can't say a great deal more, except to say that it owes a huge debt to Steven Spielberg's Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (and surprisingly little to Saw, director James Wan's notorious brainchild).

The good things - the acting is, on balance, fine and it's always good to see Barbara Hershey getting screen time (she was the best thing about Black Swan, lest we forget). The premise is spooky enough in an unoriginal way and I can't sit here typing away pretending that I didn't jump, beacuse I did (N.B. I jump pretty easily). Also, it's not too long - 100 minutes is just within the limits of acceptability for such popcorn fare.

And not so good? Well, as mentioned above this is not an original plotline, and the film is shot through with the kind of horror cliche that you would've thought Scream had put to bed years ago. And while it does make you jump it's pretty light on genuine suspense or fear - for all my jerking around in the seat (as it were), at no point was I actually scared. In particular, as the mechanics of the hauntings become clear in the second half of the movie the fear factor diminishes considerably.

All that said, it is certainly a very intelligent use of a small budget - a mere $1.5m (on which there has been a return of $70m so far - not bad, given that there's a DVD rake to come too) and it's been getting decent enough word of mouth to have had a run of over a month so far. The frights are efficient, if you're not too desensitised to the scares from watching too many horror flicks (ahem) and while I didn't particularly enjoy it, I'm sure other people will.


Monday, 30 May 2011

Film #50 The Hangover: Part II

A quickie on this, as it's getting acres of reviewage. So, if, like me, you quite enjoyed the first Hangover you might've gone into the theatre thinking "OK, so it'll be more of the same - fair enough, it'll still be funny at least." Well...

The first thing to point out is that the plot is indeed the same, only transposed from Las Vegas to Bangkok. The same gimmicks are given a do-over, though in the attempt to crank up the gross-out factor, the credibility of the story is stretched too far. There's still fun to be had in the idea of the quiet drink with friends that's spiralled out of control, but the gags are just too stupid to be real, and therein lies the problem - it's impossible to relate to the story. I'm out on my stag do this time next year (Paris, thanks for asking) and could well imagine some similar nonsense going down as in the first movie (OK, maybe not the tiger in the bathroom, but y'know) but this follow-up just goes too far in it's silliness.

That said, I did laugh a few times, but this mild humour got lost amid the casual racism, the occasional homophobia and the morally ambiguous (to be very charitable) celebration of Mike Tyson. In terms of performances Bartha, Cooper and Helms are bearable, Galifianakis and Ken Jeong are irritating and overexposed, and poor Paul Giamatti is visibly embarrassed to be involved. The direction is fairly corny, though the soundtrack (as with the first one) is actually pretty good and eclectic: witness the inclusion of Curtis Mayfield, Kanye, Deadmau5 and Jenny Lewis.

Maybe this isn't quite as terrible as the reviews are saying - as mentioned, there are a few laughs - but it is pretty bad. It would be nice if all involved could just put this behind them and move on to better things; needless to say a third instalment is predictably in the planning stages. My money's on Amsterdam.


Friday, 27 May 2011

List #2 Top Five... screen drinking contests

Last Friday I posted a list (top ten westerns of the new millennium), so today I thought, hmmm, let's make this a regular feature. So, this week's list is inspired by the fact that I'm on the wagon at the moment for health reasons (though I may gracefully and briefly dismount for the Champions League final tomorrow evening) - which leads me somewhat clunkily to share my top five cinematic drinking contests. L'chaim!

(N.B. this is actual on-screen drinking contests, not those audience-participation games where you down a pint everytime there's a tremor in The Force or whatever. Just to be clear.)

5. China Seas

To prove this isn't a new thang, Jean Harlow was boozing with the best of them (including Wallace 'no pun intended' Beery) back in 1935.

4. The Social Network

Back to the 21st century, and Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg shows his puckish side with an unorthodox recruitment method involving coding, a baying crowd of students and vast quantities of Jose Cuervo.

3. Tales of Terror

Critical opinion is divided on the most terrifying thing about this film: it's either the bloated Peter Lorre or Vincent Price's ludicrous hamminess. Nonetheless, there is a gem of a wine-drinking contest involved, with some fabulous gurning from the Price.

2. Beerfest

The whole movie is a drinking contest really, but the 'eye of the Jew' giant-boot-quaffing denouement stands out. "Whaddaya think about that, fuckhead?!"

And the winner...

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark

How could it not be? Plucky Marion Ravenwood drinks an enormous sherpa under the table, back in the days when Steven S. wasn't afraid to throw around booze and cuss-words. These days they'd be drinking some kind of diet-cola in fluffy-bunny-land, with CGI gophers winking at the camera in the foreground. Not that I was pissed off about Crystal Skull or anything.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Intermission: 15 Questions Meme

 Spotted on Cinematic Paradox, and originating from Defiant Success, here's a smart wee questionnaire for movie lovers. See whatcha think:
1. Movie you love with a passion.

 I can get boring about a few different films (Big Lebowski, Mulholland Dr., even Star Wars) but I do passionately love Amadeus, a sumptuous, gorgeous chocolate box of a movie.


2. Movie you vow to never watch.

If this was 'never watch again', there'd be a long list. In terms of not seeing something in the first place I'll go for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith. The first prequel disappointed beyond measure; I gave it a second chance with II, which was even worse, if anything. So I won't be watching the third.

3. Movie that literally left you speechless.

 Hmmm... literally? The closest would probably be seeing The Matrix at the cinema for the first time without reading any reviews or hearing any hype - incredible, and also the last time I was genuinely impressed by movie special effects.

4. Movie you always recommend.

Aki Kaurismaki's The Man Without A Past.

5. Actor/actress you always watch, no matter how crappy the movie.

Naomi Watts. Used to be Nicholas Cage, but he's pushed it too far.

6. Actor/actress you don't get the appeal for.

Kenneth Branagh. Is that cruel? Maybe Kate Hudson?

7. Actor/actress, living or dead, you'd love to meet.


8. Sexiest actor/actress you've seen. (Picture required!)

Chap-wise, it'll be George Clooney. Lady-wise, it's a three-way [sic] tie between Salma Hayek, Rosario Dawson and Naomi Watts.
9. Dream cast. 

Naomi Watts, Salma Hayek, Rosario Dawson, Nicholas Cage, George Clooney, John Turturro.

10. Favorite actor pairing.

Difficult... De Niro/Pesci maybe?

11. Favorite movie setting.

LA, without a doubt. More on this to come in a dedicated post...

12. Favorite decade for movies.

A toss-up between the 70s and the 90s. Put a gun to my head and I'll say... 90s!

13. Chick flick or action movie?

Action movie. I don't dislike chick flicks on the whole, but the standard is generally lower.

14. Hero, villain or anti-hero?

It should really be the hero, shouldn't it?

15. Black and white or color?

Colour. B&W is fine, but all my favourite movies are in colour.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Film #49 Julia's Eyes (Los Ojos de Julia)

I do try to keep reviews spoiler free, and to even describe the sub-genre of this film would be to give away some of the plot. It's safe to say, though, that it's a horror movie. It's 'presented' (whatever that means) by Guillermo del Toro and is being touted as an "if-you-like-that-you'll-love-this" successor to The Orphanage, with whom it shares a star, Belen Rueda. To be fair, they're not that similar, other than both being smart Spanish horror movies with the same lead actress, but it is safe to say that if you like The Orphanage - and who wouldn't? - you will indeed enjoy this.

To give you an inkling of what's going on, the titular Julia is recently bereaved - her twin sister has mysteriously hanged herself. Julia, like her sister, suffers from a degenerative eye condition that is slowly blinding her (though in a less advanced stage than her completely blind twin). However, as her vision recedes, a sense of being observed by a mysterious presence correspondingly heightens -  as does a belief that this same presence was somehow involved in her sister's death. Her husband (Lluis Homar) and the police are, naturally, sceptical, leaving Julia to investigate alone. However, a series of shocking incidents exacerbate her illness, driving her toward complete blindness as the terror in the dark edges looms ever larger.

Though the performances are good (particularly Rueda, who carries the film), it's the direction and specifically the use of sound and vision that is exceptional. There's a Hitchcockian sensibility at play with much of the cinematography, with the tension expertly built up through shots suggesting a watching presence. As Julia's vision fades, so we the audience are also less able to make out faces and details; sudden sounds (e.g. ringing telephones, slamming doors) are louder and more jarring. It's a fine line that director Guillem Morales has to walk - portraying the experience of blindness in an essentially visual medium while telling a compelling story - but he succeeds with panache.

I'm duty bound as a reviewer surveying any film involving things ocular to make a comparison with Un Chien Andolou. One scene in particular makes the comparison apt, though Iberian eyeball-abuse is really the only shared feature. I should also note at this point that while the film generally scares you with suspense, there is also a fair amount of Cronenberg-ish body-horror; if you are at all squeamish about e.g. knives being pointed at eyes (not a spoiler, it's on the poster) then prepare yourself for plenty of wincing and squirming.

So while it does sag a little in the middle and the plot does not bear a great deal of scrutiny (behind the arthouse exterior there are a fair number of genre cliches at work) Julia's Eyes is, on the whole, an effective and stylishly-executed horror movie.


Monday, 23 May 2011

Film #48 Win Win

Paul Giamatti's third studio release this year (following the good-but-flawed Barney's Version and the by-all-accounts bonkers Ironclad) sees him playing Mike Flaherty, a schlubby but good-natured lawyer in New Jersey, struggling to make ends meet for himself, his wife (Amy Ryan) and their two children while putting hours in as a high-school wrestling coach. Opportunity knocks when he positions himself as salaried guardian of a senile client (Burt Young), subsequently chucking the old coot into a retirement community for minimum hassle. However this cushy situation quickly grows complicated as the old man's sixteen-year-old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) - who, it turns out, has an unusual gift for wrestling - turns up out of the blue, on the lam from his substance-abusing mother.

So it's a classic 'good person makes a bad decision' movie, with a bit of family drama and buddy comedy thrown in. All the performances are great - especially Ryan and Shaffer - and the film really is very funny, with lot of the humour coming from the interaction between Giamatti and his two coaching buddies, eeyorish Vig (Jeffrey Tambor) and gung-ho Terry (Bobby Cannavale). Thomas McCarthy's direction is perhaps functional rather than stylish, but that's OK as it allows the well-crafted story (co-written by McCarthy) to take centre-stage.

Now, I'm not that well-up on any of McCarthy's back catalogue (though The Station Agent is high on my list of have-to-see-soon DVD rentals) so how this holds up against his other work, I'm not sure. As you'll have gathered thus far though, I liked this very much. OK, so it's not a life-changing movie, and it doesn't break any new ground but it was a highly pleasant way to spend 106 minutes. I cared about the characters, the plot made sense and I laughed a lot.

As sweet-natured family dramas go, Win Win is unlikely to be anyone's favourite film - but if you like your movies grown-up and thoughtful as well as funny you will be entertained and touched.

*******7/10 (seven and a half, if I could give half-marks).

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Film #47 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

A couple of points to get on the table before we begin. Firstly, I saw the first Pirates film way back when and thought it was kind-of OK, if unremarkable. I wasn't interested enough to see the next two (though I didn't miss the appalling reception that the thrid film received) and I wouldn't have seen this one were I not mucking around with this blogging palaver (despite the starring presence of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz). Secondly, and with a few exceptions, I'm generally against sequels, reboots and the like - it's lazy and uncreative; just think what could've been made with the cash from Pirates 2, 3 and 4 (not to mention the already-slated fifth and sixth instalments). The great irony here is that the pushers of this play-it-safe trash are the self-same bean-counters who fought tooth-and-nail against Johnny Depp's off-the-wall performance as Jack Sparrow in the first movie.

So I had pretty low expectations for On Stranger Tides. And, well, it kind of met them - it's not particularly good, nor is it especially bad. The story (which there's little point synopsising, suffice to say that the Depp and Cruz are caught up in the evil Blackbeard's pursuit of the legendary Fountain of Youth; he in turn is pursued by Brits led by Geoffrey Rush as well as a fleet of faceless Spaniards) should satisfy the fans of the franchise, and there's enough whizzing, banging and gurning to divert teen-aged attention for a couple of hours at least.

What's to like: some of the action sequences are imaginatively choreographed, Johnny Depp is fine, if you like him doing this sort of thing, Cruz smoulders figuratively while Ian McShane as Blackbeard smoulders literally. The effects seem perfectly OK (I saw this in two old-fashioned dimensions, so can't comment on the 3D) and Hans Zimmer's score bounces along happily. I also laughed at one point: an in-your-endo missionary gag.

The bad news - well, the plot is a sloppy mess, it's at least half an hour too long, quite a few jokes fall flat, there is absolutely zero emotional engagement to be had and the final sequence shamelessly steals from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (not a good idea, given that Spielberg's trilogy - I don't count the Crystal Skull abomination - is a masterclass of the kind of Saturday-morning-serial-adventure-homage that Pirates aspires, and fails, to be). And on a personal note, much as I love Johnny Depp I can't really be doing with this kind of OTT-style that he turns on from time to time.

So to sum up: it's overwrought and overlong, annoyingly franchisey and not half as funny as it thinks it is - but it's not terrible either, not even the worst film this month. Just watchable trash.


Friday, 20 May 2011

List #1 Top Ten... westerns of the new millennium

I do love a good western - and we've already had two fine entries into the genre this year, with Jon Favreau's Cowboys & Aliens yet to come. With that in mind, I thought I'd share a personal rundown of my favourite western movies since the start of the century. Sadly, Wild Wild West was just a little too early to make the cut...

10. Once Upon A Time In Mexico
Yes, it's a mess - but a gleeful mess! Never mind the stellar cast (Dafoe, Depp, Hayek, Trejo, Banderas, Iglesias, Rourke, Mendes and Marin) - this is just a huge bowl of fun.

9. Brokeback Mountain
Unfairly labelled as 'that gay cowboy movie', this revisionist western proves that Willie Nelson was right: cowboys are secretly frequently fond of each other.

8. True Grit
One of two 2011-ers (in the UK at least) on the list, I've already reviewed it here. Suffice to say that this is a suitably Coen-ish re-imagining of a classic western tale.

7. Appaloosa
Reuniting Ed Harris with Viggo Mortenson post-A History of Violence, this is an underappreciated minor classic of recent years.

 6. The Propostion
And now to the Aussie outback. Startling and impressive, with a tight script from Nick Cave, a lovely score and some fine perfomances, not least from the usually hit-and-miss Ray Winstone.

5. Rango
Reviewed in full here, this is pehaps the most unusual entry on the list - a hallucinogenic animated Western featuring rodents and reptiles? OK...

4. Kill Bill vol. II
Is this really a western? I reckon so, and it's a good one. Tarantino is expected to release a 'proper' western (though he calls it a 'southern'), Django Unchained, in the near future. We waited with baited breath.

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Didn't receive universal critical acclaim, on release (nor commercial success) but I loved it. Great performances from both Brad Pitt and the underrated Casey Affleck.

2. No Country for Old Men
No, it's not number one - but nearly is. Thoroughly deserving of its critical and commercial success, only slightly marred for me by the inconclusive ending

1. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
One of those films that you see without expectations which takes you completely by surprise. And Tommy Lee Jones - who Lord knows has done his fair share of shit - is fabulous behind and in front of the camera.

So, no Open Range, no There Will Be Blood - did I mention that comments are welcome?

Disclaimer: I haven't seen any of the following, hence their absence: The Good, The Bad, The Weird; Sukiyaki Western: Django; Serenity (sorry!); Blueberry; Tears of the Black Tiger and Meek's Cutoff.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Film #46 Something Borrowed

Let's get this one over and done with. The plot's a basic 'man + fiancee + fiancee's best friend' love triangle. Egglesfield is the leading man (and also a living embodiment of the fine American insult 'douchebag'), Kate Hudson is the self-obsessed bride-to-be and Ginnifer Goodwin is our plucky(ish) heroine.

I'm not going to dwell on analysis, suffice to say that it's way too long, it inhabits a suspect moral universe, and it contrives to be utterly cliched whilst not quite conforming to the genre expectations of the romantic comedy (there are a number of loose ends left at the end). There's also the problem of having star-crossed lovers who are pretty unsympathetic, leaving the audience not really caring whether or not they defy the odds and get together in the end.

The performance are fine, I suppose, with a little (intentional) humour injected by John Krasinski as The Kooky Best Friend. but this is a bad film, to be avoided even by romcom devotees. And it's sponsored by Heineken (fuck that shit!)


Film #45 Water for Elephants

So, we're somewhere in the USA, 1931. Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is training to become a vet at Cornell when he finds out that (a) his parents have been killed, and (b) they were massively in debt so the bank have taken the house and he can no longer afford tuition. This being the Great Depression (and in case you weren't paying attention, the fact is noted by one minor character or another roughly every five minutes), the natural option for a jobless, homeless young man is to hop a train, hobo-style. Pattinson, luckily for us, hops a very particular train - a circus train, in fact. He's taken on as a roustabout dogsbody, but before long his veterinary skills are noted by dictatorial circus owner August (Christoph Waltz) and his wife, Lipizzaner-esque horse performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). The film progresses, and Jacob is put in charge of the circus's new star attraction, a scene-stealing elephant called Rosie. However, affection also grows between Jacob and Marlena, beginning a love triangle that could bring down etc. etc. you can guess the rest.

Now here's a switcheroo thought experiment for you: keep pretty much the entire plot, but swap Claude Rains for Waltz, Vivien Leigh for Witherspoon and a young Henry Fonda for Pattinson. Then remove 'Francis Lawrence' from the directors credit and replace it with 'George Cukor' and presto change-o: you've got yourself a fair-to-middling Hollywood Golden Age women's picture.

And a great deal of this film is old-fashioned beyond the plot: Robert Pattinson is a matinee idol of the old school, the film is lovingly shot by Rodrigo Prieto on good old 35mm with deliciously rich colouration, Waltz recalls a classic Hollywood kind of villain and Reese Witherspoon looks exactly like the kind of star that Jack Woltz would have groomed through the old studio system.

It has to be said, though, that for all its classiness it lacks depth, and for all that it's very decently put together I just didn't enjoy it. I'm not really the target audience to be fair (and the theatre was filled with an odd mix of pensioners and Twilight-age teenage girls) but nonetheless I doubt this will be in any end-of-year polls come December-time.

Then there are also the troubling (and ironic) allegations of animal cruelty - though it should be noted that the American Humane Association gave the film their 'no animals were harmed' seal of approval. For what it's worth, I really have a hard time watching animal cruelty even when it's entirely special effect/CGI, and in any case it's kind of a cheap shot in terms of storytelling (George Lucas once noted that emotionally engaging an audience was easy - juts choke a kitten on camera) so having Christoph Waltz prove his devilishness by thwacking an elephant into a bloody mess with a hooked iron rod is an easy way out, from a storytelling perspective.

An unremarkable:


Monday, 16 May 2011

Film #44 Attack The Block

In a nutshell: London, the present. It's bonfire night and young nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is walking home from work. On her way back she is mugged by a gang of youths (who, unbeknownst to either party live in the same titular tower block) led by the taciturn Moses (John Boyega). Immediately after the crime, a meteorite crashes into nearby parked car with a payload of a mysterious multi-fanged alien creature. The gang respond to the creature's aggression in kind, ultimately killing the creature and return triumphantly to the block to hide the carcass in the marijuana hot-house cultivated by good-natured dealer Roy (Nick Frost) and owned by short-fused local gangster Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). However, before long more of the beastly aliens start crashing to earth with aggressive intent, fixed on apparently killing everyone in the block; Sam is thrown together with her muggers (and posh stoner Brewis (Luke Treadaway)) as they are forced to confront the alien threat together.

Verdict? Well, the central conceit - 'outer-space meets inner-city' is a bit of a red herring. Essentially this is a film about class, played out on the backdrop of alien attack. The aliens themselves are purely a force of nature (the exterior peril could just as easily have been wild animals, or zombies, or a tornado) - the real conflict at the heart of the film is played out between the collision of the urban working-class of Moses & his cohorts with the middle class world(s) of Sam and Brewis.

And if the film has a central problem it's that this just isn't enough to carry a feature-length production. It's a slight concept and, given that the aliens exist solely as a threat to life and limb with only incidental motivation the conflict is kind-of resolved part way through with little sense that anything other than the status quo would resume after the credits roll. An interesting contrast is with Alien, which deals with a similar (if less nuanced) class divide among the crew members, but with a vicious xenomorph enemy that is more than just a ball of toothy murderousness - it's want to use our bodies to breed. OK, Alien is much 'harder' SF and it's maybe unfair to hold this debut feature up against a recognised classic but given the quality of the film-making - and this is a solid, entertaining movie - it should be judged against peers.

In terms of the performances, Nick Frost pretty much does the Nick Frost thing (which is fine), Jumayn Hunter purveys madness effectively and Luke Treadaway does what he can with the film's weak link. John Boyega stands out among the debutants with a combination of bravado and vulnerability: it's not easy to be both cinematic hero and low-life criminal in the same breath. Jodie Whittaker as Sam is quietly superb at the centre of things, carrying the weight of being a cipher for (let's be honest) the film's largely white, middle class audience. The rest of the young cast are credible and fun and, as with Peter Mullan's Neds, show the depth of young talent available to British directors at the moment.

A lot's been said about the use of teen slang, particularly in relation to the film getting a US release, and it does take a while for the argot to settle on the ear. For what it's worth I lived for a year or so in a similar kind of area in south London and spent enough time on the top deck of the 159 to get a feel for it - so while the vocabulary is legit, if anything it seems to be over-used. I may well be wrong (and director Joe Cornish commendably spent a lot of time in youth groups etc. consulting with kids to get the dialogue right) but it did seem the intent of the intent of the script to jar the audience, at least at the start (get me?).

One final issue to be addressed regards the positioning of the film, which is being marketed to the Shaun of the Dead audience. So though it is produced by Nira Park and shares some visual sensibilities with Edgar Wright's work, it's very different kind of film: despite references galore (Tremors, Gremlins, La Haine, Lock Stock..., City of God, and even J.G. Ballard's novel High Rise), the film itself is played with a straight bat, rather than being the kind of merry homage-to-genre that Pegg/Frost fans might be expecting.

As with the recent Source Code, I'm being overly-critical of a film I enjoyed because its director deserves to be held to a very high standard. Cornish - whose promise and flair could be seen over a decade ago with his & Adam Buxton's cuddly-toy remakes - shows a restraint and focus that is unusual for a debut director, particularly on a debut with as reasonably-sized a budget as here. The smooth editing, the intelligent use of music, the McKee-prescribed pacing and structure of the story all display a rare assurance. We can expect bigger and better things in future - but as an entertainment rather than a heavyweight piece of cinema Attack the Block is perfectly fine. Clocks in at a Slut-friendly 90 minutes too, therefore:


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Film #43 Priest 3D

A quickie - Priest 3D.

A comic-book adap (N.B. not to be confused with DC Comics' far superior Preacher), the titular Priest (Paul Bettany) is a vampire-slaying all-action kinda cleric in a future apocalyptic Earth who must do battle with said undead to retrieve his kidnapped niece (shades of The Searchers).

Like its spiritual brother, Season of the Witch, it's not completely awful: the cast - which includes Christopher Plummer, Karl Urban and former Twin Peaks starlet Madchen Amick - at least seem to be having some fun, and it's a decent length (hurrah!). But the 3D is pointless (yet again), the effects are ho-hum, the premise is unoriginal and the story is lumpy and unforgivably dull (with a ludicrous denouement). To be fair, I should animadvert that I am no fan of vampire movies, particularly of the all-action Underworld variety in which tradition Priest 3D sits. But even objectively this is no-brainer trash.


Friday, 13 May 2011

Intermission: Forthcoming attractions (blockbuster edition)

Summer blockbuster season is upon us, as evidenced by its outrider, Thor. It really kicks off in earnest on 20th May with a contender for biggest film of the year: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; at least one big-tent studio release will follow every week from then until the end of August. So let's break it down...

The Good (i.e. would probably have seen these anyway, regardless of silly self-imposed blogging commitments)

  • Bridesmaids - OK, so maybe not the best on the list but at the very least it's nice to have a gross-out comedy that's not just for the lads.
  • Cars 2 - So maybe I wouldn't have seen this without the blog, but it's Pixar so surely can't be all bad. Also will feature a Toy Story short pre-credits!
  • X-Men: First Class - Will hopefully recapture the spirit of the first wave of Marvel movies.
  • Cowboys & Aliens - John Favreau banked a lot of credibility from Swingers, but has only come close a couple of times since then. Interesting cast & premise for this one, but could go either way.
  • Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II - For me HP7A was the best of the series; hopefully the final installment will be even better. I'd say more, but *spoilers*...

The Bad (or at least 'not particularly looking forward to')

  • Hangover II - The first was admittedly funny, though morally questionable for a number of reasons. I'm expecting to laugh and then to feel ashamed of myself.
  • Super 8 - somewhat mendaciously being touted as a Steven Spielberg film (he produces), it's actually a J.J. Abrams film. I'm one of the few people who didn't care for Cloverfield, so I doubt this will be for me.
  • Green Lantern - Another comic book adaptation. Just what the world needs.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger - And another. I was half-tempted to put this in 'The Good', but after the slurry that was Thor it's been demoted - surely just another Avengers prequel.
  • Horrible Bosses - Jennifer Aniston has such a poisonous track record in the movies that I can't look forward to this - though it does also feature Kevin Spacey, Jason Bateman and Jamie Foxx, so who knows?
  • Friends With Benefits - didn't we already have this earlier in the year with No Strings Attached? Sorry, not interested.
  • Crazy, Stupid Love - So-so-looking Steve Carrell light comedy vehicle.
  • 30 Minutes or Less - Danny McBride (bad) + Jesse Eisenberg (good) = unknown quantity. And I'm just going to sidestep the whole 'less vs. fewer' debate.
  • Conan the Barbarian - Did this really need to happen. Why not just flash the words "RUN OUT OF IDEAS" onto the screen for two hours? It would've cost a lot less.
  • Fright Night - Yet another remake/reboot. Yawn.
  • One Day - From David 'Starter for Ten' Nicholls's novel, and scripted by him too. The other half read the book and didn't enjoy it.

The Ugly (Ludovico technique territory)
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Enough already, stop it!
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Please, stop!
  • Final Destination 5 - Seriously now, that's enough.
  • Spy Kids 4 - OK, they really aren't going to stop, are they?
  • Zookeeper - It's a Kevin James film.
  • The Smurfs - The smurfs hit New York! Honestly, are you looking forward to it?
  • The Change-Up - Everything about this film looks awful - the name, the cast, the poster, the fact that it's 'brought to you by the same people who gave you Wedding Crashers'...
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes - I secretly still have a tiny bit of hope in me that this might be OK, but c'mon...
And anything else? Well, here are a few non-blockbuster films I'm hoping will see a release at my local:

  • The Tree of Life - I'm not actually expecting too much from this (I didn't care for The Thin Red Line) but a new Terence Malik film is always an event.
  • The Inbetweeners - If it's anything like the sitcom should be excellent and very funny.
  • Senna - When I was a nipper Ayrton Senna was my absolute sporting idol (though I don't watch motorsport anymore) - this documentary surely can't be bad.
  • Apocalypse Now - Yes, it's another director's cut or remastered print or something. It's just worth going to see it on the big screen.
  • Another Earth - Smart SF movie that might just be this year's Moon.
  • Apollo 18 - A smart, original horror film in 2011? A slut can dream...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Film #42 13 Assassins

It's the cinematic equivalent of the vegetable gardener's 'hungry gap' at the moment, post-Easter but not quite into the Summer blockbuster season. Hence the appearance of this at my non-more-mainstream Cineworld: a rare chance to catch a Takashi Miike film at your local multiplex.

But before I begin, it's confession time: I come to this film with a couple of cinematic blind spots. Firstly and more specifically for Takashi Miike. Of his 80+ films, I'd seen only one: the horror/shocker Audition. Secondly, my acquaintance with Japanese cinema as a whole is fairly limited. Beyond the film-geek standard of Kurosawa and the obvious recent horror films I'm essentially illiterate: an Ozu here, a Mizoguchi there, a couple of Miyazaki animations and a few half-forgotten Toho movies - I know enough to know how little I know. So doing the standard review thing of setting the film within both its creator's oeuvre and its wider cultural context will be tricky.

But anyway - the film. Based loosely on a true event, we're in 1840s Japan and the Shogun's brother, sadistic Lord Naritsugu (pop star Goro Inagaki, perfectly blank and listless), has been going too far, murdering, raping and generally abusing his power in horrific ways. Therefore, a plot to assassinate him is hatched and veteran samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) is tasked with building a crack team to execute the plan. Recruiting a further eleven archetypal warriors (and meeting a mysterious thirteenth along the way) they fortify a small town and prepare an ambush for Naritsugu and his 200-strong armed escort.

So, while the set-up is intriguing and well-played (if overlong), the real payoff comes after an hour or so when the proper fighting begins. I would struggle to think of a better choreographed (or more violent) mass-battle in recent years; some of the sequences are breathtaking, particularly one involving a courtyard mysteriously filled with swords and fire.

An obvious touchstone is Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, a film with which it shares numerous similarities of plot and tone (though 13 Assassins is actually a remake of a 1963 film with the same name). It also put me in mind, oddly enough, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly The Two Towers in its few-against-many central set-piece, careful use of CGI (burning cattle as a weapon of war!) and blood-spattered, visceral combat (maybe this isn't that surprising: both Miike and Peter Jackson have a strong horror background). The samurai code of honour - of which this film could be seen as a critique - gives the film a moral backbone; the violence may be excessive but it is not mindless. Some moments betray Miike's guts-'n'-gore past: one scene that will stay with me involves a peasant girl whose arms, legs and tongue have been mutilated by Naritsugu. A cheap shot really, in terms of 'look what a bad man the villain is' but it's highly effective.

There are flaws: it could've been about twenty minutes shorter (though the Japanese cut is twenty minutes longer), and a fair bit of the lengthy setup is a tricky to follow. Also there seemed to be inconsistencies in the quality of the film stock and the sound volume, though this may be an issue with the projection or well-travelled prints. Clearly the relentless bloody action will not be everyone's cup of tea either. All that said though, I really enjoyed this, certainly more than any other action film this year. Highly recommended.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Film #41 Hanna

It's an intriguing prospect, a kind of Bourne-meets-girl story. Essentially a chase movie, 17-year-old Hanna (Soairse Ronan) has been raised by her rogue ex-CIA father (Eric Bana) in northern Finland(!) to be an ever-ready assassin/all-round hard nut. However, the spooks in Langley (led by red-headed Cate Blanchett) get wind of their location and go all out - with the assistance of a camp German hitman-cum-cabaret-owner (Tom Hollander) - to capture or kill them both.

But it doesn't really work. Some of its problems are common to many post-Bourne Identity/Casino Royale action movies that take themselves very seriously: the too-silly premise, ludicrous dialogue, needlessly complex plot, sledgehammer-subtle 'themes', excessive location-use, unnecessary length and so on.

In the case of Hanna, you can also chuck in a few other issues that are fundamentally flaws of direction. Joe Wright - who did a good job on Atonement - has little to be proud of here. He throws the kitchen sink at the screen, shamelessy - and jarringly - using dozens of visual cliches without thought for the overall composure and feel of the piece. The tone of the film is all over the place too, and that's before we get onto the bizarre interlude involving an insufferably irritating family of British hippies (presumably included as some sort of in-joke).

And just as his film lurches between extremes so has Wright in his press interviews gone from disingenuous (ranting at the sexualisation of young female characters in Hollywood yet inserting some A ma soeur!-ish soft focus shots of his mid-teen stars in bikinis; boasting of a European sensibility yet taking a holiday-brochure approach to the exotic locales) to delusional (comparisons with David Lynch). He is certainly a director of some promise, but like a wild-eyed young novelist trying to get every idea in their onto the page, he needs the firm hand of a good editor.

There are a few redeeming features, however. Tom Hollander understands the high-camp of his lemon-tracksuited henchman (20% Omar Little, 40% eighties football hooligan, 20% Joel Grey from Cabaret and 20% Funny Games thug) and unleashes the comic anarchy he hinted at as 'The Fucker' in The Thick of It. The Chemical Brothers soundtrack - featuring the second Grieg-vs-techno mashup of recent months (see The Social Network) - is perfectly decent and the actual action sequences are generally fine, if suffering from the classic one-at-a-time-now-lads syndrome. And it's worth mentioning that Soairse Ronan really does a very good job of carrying this film; all the more extraordinary given that she was only fifteen when shooting began.

Nevertheless, a poor film.


Film #40 Source Code

In which military man Colter Stevens (dreamy Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on train heading for Chicago, only to find that, Quantum Leap-like, he isn't the person he thought he was. Literally. He is mysteriously inhabiting the body of another man, being chatted to by a strange women (Michelle Monaghan) who clearly knows him... and on this goes for a seven minutes or so until the train is ripped apart by a terrorist bomb - and Gyllenhaal wakes up in a strange military pod, able to communicate only with a desk-bound officer (Vera Farmiga) who explains in frustratingly uncontextualised terms that he must relive the same amount of time again - the titular 'source code' - and find the person who planted the bomb.

Plot-wise, the touchstones are Groundhog Day (in terms of premise, the tone is completely different), TV serials like the above-mentioned Quantum Leap (which is not-so-coyly referenced both with a Scott Bakula cameo and a 'that's-not-me-in-the-mirror!' shot) and The Twilight Zone, plus a strong pinch of Philip K. Dick. And it shares a problem quite common to Dick's stories in that, while the central idea is very interesting and (superficially) profound, it is underpinned by a Swiss-cheese-like logic that really doesn't bear too much thinking about. This isn't necessarily a huge problem (and this film is preferable to, for example, the more comprehensively conceived but tortuously overwrought Inception), but don't make the mistake of taking this film too seriously.

Indeed, much of the tension in the film is artificial and illogical in the context of the story - a short but clear brief to Stevens would have saved the multiple re-entries into the source code that drive the plot forward. Further, a problem shared by many movies in the 'puzzle-film' subgenre (on which more at a later date): where human relationships take a back seat against the primacy of plot, the film can become less compelling. Many whizz-bang blockbusters like Robocop, Terminator II or even Starship Troopers have a great deal more to say about the human condition than Inception/The Adjustment Bureau/Source Code/etc.

One other negative of note: amid a cast who turn in performances that are generally fine (Vera Farmiga) or very fine (Gyllenhaal, a Michael Douglas de nos jours in the best possible sense), Jeffrey Wright sounds a bum note as the grandstanding mad-scientist type, grating every time he opens his mouth (or wiggles his eyebrows). That said, it is nice to see that the producers opted for the Lynch/Forman school of casting, using interesting-looking and characterful players in minor roles.

If it seems like I'm being overly critical, it's because there's a helluva yardstick. Director Duncan Jones - brought onto this project at Gyllenhaal's suggestion - released one of the most promising and thought-provoking debut films of the last decade in 2009: Moon. Source Code  does share some themes with Moon, (though I can't really go much further without potentially spoiling both movies) and in many ways it's a natural progression for Jones, though it clearly wasn't 'his' project in quite the same sense. Nevertheless, while it's safe to say that Source Code is the lesser film for the reasons outlined above, it's also a highly enjoyable and moderately intelligent film.

The direction really does lift this film above the average. Shots are lovingly put together and Jones's visual sense is highly developed, almost Kubrick-like in the immaculate composure of mise-en-scene (and in the opening credits, which echo The Shining). He has a greater sense of humanity than Kubrick though and understands how to balance (though he would've done well to reign in Wright's aforementioned scenery chewing). So while this is emphatically not the film in which Jones fulfils the great potential shown in Moon it does show a welcome flexibility and ability to unobtrusively stamp an autuer-ish hallmark on mainstream fodder and certainly represents more than just marking time (and speaking of time, extra kudos is awarded for clocking in at the almost-perfect length of 93 minutes)

Especial credit is also due to the film's composer Chris P. Bacon [sic] whose Hermannesque score sets the tone perfectly; to DP Don Burgess, for whom this is a career-best production; and to producers Mark Gordon and co. who clearly trusted their director to create an unusual yet commercially viable film.

To sum up, an unexceptional story produced, directed and performed with verve and panache . Therefore:


Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Intermission: Forgotten Pleasures of the Multiplex (with apologies to Sight & Sound)

The June edition of the fabulous Sight & Sound magazine has a rather intriguing cover story. Entitled 'Forgotten Pleasures of the Multiplex', it corrals prominent critics and insiders - universally tasteful and high-of-brow - and asks a simple question of each of them: which mainstream film of the last three decades, a critical and/or commercial failure on release, would you rescue for critical re-evaluation? All of this is, of course, just a smart re-working of every film student's stock conversation: "which films do you love that everyone else hates?", though framing it over the last thirty years does give a bit more structure to the debate.

It's a little insight into the world of the average S&S contributor that 'mainstream' is interpreted to include such Megaplex-fodder as Spartan, Une chambre en ville and L'Ete meurtrier; to my knowledge none of these troubled the Doncaster Odeon. There are also a few that, as far as I was aware, are already held in popular and critical esteem (Bound, Menace II Society).

But it's a fascinating selection nonetheless. Some are predictable: The Godfather Part III (surely the cinematic counterpart to The Stone Roses' Second Coming in terms of critical reappraisal) A.I. Artificial Intelligence and even Alien 3 have long had their defenders. The Last Starfighter can legitimately be considered a cult film and it takes a very hard heart indeed to pick on Footloose.

There are also a few that I very much agree with and for whom critical re-evaluation is overdue: I was delighted to spot The Devil Wears Prada, The Craft, and The Runaways, all films that I enjoyed very much - and not in a 'guilty pleasure' sense, either. A very female trio, you'll note; while I am far from qualified to discuss the film industry's bizarre and somewhat diseased attitude to women, suffice to say here that this list of 75 underappreciated films does tilt somewhat toward the feminine.

Of course, this leads the reader to fill in the blanks themselves - for me, this list would include Dune, the Hollywood remake of The Ring, American Pie, Beerfest and A Knight's Tale. I would also heartily disinclude The Love Guru, The Switch and Final Destination 3, but I suppose that's just the nature of the beast.

I urge anyone reading this to pick up a copy - it's a really fascinating leading article composed to the usual high S&S standard. However, for the sake of completeness and for those who can't get their hands on one, here's the full list in alphabetical order:
A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Alien 3, All the Marbles, The Arrival, Avalon, Boogie Boy, Bound, The Bounty, The Box, Breakdown, The Butterfly Effect, Un chambre en ville, Contact, Contact High, The Craft, Deep Cover, De l'autre cote du lit, The Devil Wears Prada, The Entity, L'Ete meurtrier, Excalibur, The Falcon and the Snowman, Femme Fatale, Final Destination 3, Footloose, Galaxy Quest, The Godfather Part III, Gregiore Moulin contre l'humanite, Hangin' with the Homeboys, Henry V, Hudson Hawk, Hustle & Flow, The Icicle Thief, Impulse, Isn't She Great, Jennifer's Body, Joan Lui - Ma un giorno nel paese arrivo io di lunedi, Keeping Mum, The King, Knowing, The Last Starfighter, The Love Guru, The Man in the Moon, Menace II Society, Midnight Run, O.C. and Stiggs, One True Thing, Palmetto, A Perfect Getaway, Pineapple Express, The Razor's Edge, Return to Oz, Ronin, The Runaways, Session 9, Seven Minutes in Heaven, The Signal, Spartan, Static, Streets of Fire, The Sure Thing, The Switch, That Thing You Do!, Tin Cup, Tombstone, Trespass, Two Idiots in Hollywood, Unlawful Entry, Victor Victoria, The Village, The Wisdom of Crocodiles, Women of the Night, Working Girl, Year One.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Film #38 & #39 Fast & Furious 5; Rio

An unlikely pairing, this, though with a few key shared characteristics:

1. Both are catnip for multiplex cinemas - the hi-def 3D kids movie and the brainless actioner - and will retain long runs
2. Both make extensive and creative use of a certain iconic Brazilian city
3. Both are very slickly made and conform completely to the rules of their genre without particularly excelling.

Of the two, Rio is the more accomplished. The animation is lovely (but don't we take that for granted these days?), the voice work is fine and the plot is well-crafted, if formulaic. And while it's hardly Pixar territory, a couple of things do lift this slightly above average - one is the presence of Jemaine Clement as an evil cockatoo (getting all the best lines), the other is the creative use of the setting itself. Hollywood venturing overseas generally means stereotypes, hokey accents and borderline racism but here, presumably because the director himself is a Carioca, we're spared the usual guff. OK, Carlos Saldanha's Rio is somewhat sanitised - this is a kids film, after all - and almost everyone speaks English but it's still a noteworthy effort.

On to Fast & Furious 5 (or Fast 5 outside the UK). After being bukkaked with knowingness and meta-narrative recently (courtesy of Scream 4, Cedar Rapids, Thor and others) it's quite refreshing to watch a car-chase heist movie that is simply... a car chase heist movie. No more, no less. If you want guns, muscles, bikini babes, fast cars, explosions and elaborate action set pieces without having to worry too much about a plot: this is the film for you.

It's utter nonsense, of course, and the acting ranges from the merely satisfactory (Sung Kang, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) to the unbelievably wooden (Greg-Wallace-a-like Vin Diesel, who is shown up in the muscle-man stakes by Dwayne Johnson). The moral universe is palaeolithic - guns, money, cars and pussy - and honour amongst thieves does not extend here to A-Team style sparing of henchman/coppers: there's a pretty high bodycount (though only a 12A quantity of blood). There's also the perennial problem of jeopardy - if you don't care a flying fig for the characters involved, then there can be no suspense. You'll certainly have no qualms about going for a pee half way through.

Incidentally, ratings are superfluous for these films; they're already comfortably number one and number two in the global box office for 2011.

Fast & Furious 5 ****4/10
Rio ******6/10

Monday, 2 May 2011

Film #37 Cedar Rapids

In which director Miguel Arteta attempts to fuse Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson (and fails).

Apparently one of the most hotly tipped scripts of recent years, the story runs thus: Tim Lippe (Ed 'Hangover' Helms) is a simple man with simple tastes and ambitions; living in a small mid-western town he works as a low-level agent in a local insurance firm, his only distraction being weekly liaisons with his old schoolteacher (Sigourney Weaver, delicious). Then, as is the way with such folk in the movies, he is thrust into challenging circumstances: in this case he is asked by his boss to secure a prestigious industry award by giving a whizz-bang presentation at an insurance conference (hosted in the titular Iowa city). Falling in with a more worldy crowd, he has a range of experiences involving sex, drugs, booze and karaoke, all of which together transform the Panglossian Lippe into a tougher, yet still guileless, character.

Sadly, the film doesn't really work - and the main issue is, oddly, the story itself. It just doesn't quite scan - Lippe is just too gauche to be credible, and premise is too obviously wilfully-quirky and knowing. As I mentioned earlier, the film tries to hit the broad comedy notes of The 40 Year Old Virgin while keeping the artsy integrity and celebration-of-the-naive of Rushmore/Royal Tenenbaums/Etc. Few films can walk this kind of line and genuinely work (American Beauty springs to mind).

It's not a complete dead-loss. The acting is fine throughout, with standout performances from Stephen Root as Lippe's boss and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire's Senator Clay Davis). Anne Heche is quite delightful too, Alia Shawkat is underused as tart-with-a-heart Bree and it's always a pleasure to see Kurtwood Smith (Clarence 'bitches leave' Boddicker off of Robocop). It's also fundamentally a good-natured film and gets a few genuine laughs, mostly coming from the ever-reliable John C. Reilly and Isiah Whitlock's running in-joke about Omar Little. Still, another one to stick on the pile marked 'noble failure'.