Monday, 25 January 2010

Movies This week...

Changling (2008) ****
Duplicity (2009)***
Exous (1960) ***
In Bruges (2008) ***

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Movies This week...

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) **
The Cell (2000) *
Crank 2: High Voltage (2009) *
Scanners (1981) **
The Tuxedo (2002) **
Wild Wild West (1999) **

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes (12A)

Like many people, I had only a fleeting familiarity with the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective. Having never read a page of his exploits or watched a single film adaptation, I garnered much of my knowledge from the heavily influenced Basil, The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Nevertheless, there has always existed within popular consciousness a quintessential ideal of the Sherlock Holmes character as an elderly and polite British gentleman with a pipe in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. Hardly surprising then that this new 21st Century re-imagining was at first greeted with cries of outrage as our beloved literary icon was transformed into a brawling action hero - played by a bloody yank no less! Blasphemy! And with gangsta-lovin’ cockney hardman Guy Ritchie behind the helm, I naturally expected the worst. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In retrospect, much of the ill feeling associated with Sherlock Holmes could probably be traced back to its original trailer which resembled more of a Jackie Chan and (place comedian here) vehicle than a 19th century detective story. The reality, however, is that although it may not be as faithful as one may have hoped, Holmes still retains the traditional elements whilst applying a refreshingly modern approach. Much of the credit must go to Robert Downey Jr who, in full-on Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow mode, does a remarkable job of fashioning a truly unique alter ego that’s entirely his own. His is not a foppish ladies man but a tortured genius, a brilliant but obsessive sociopath whose only satisfaction comes from outsmarting the world around him. It’s a truly bemusing performance, at once both comical and intense and once again confirms Downey as one of the finest character actors around. 

In fact, the entire cast in uniformly strong: Jude Law finally expresses some talent as grounded sidekick Dr. Watson with an understated delivery that plays brilliantly off his mentor’s wild antics and the villainous Blackwood is performed with a zealous theatricality too good for pantomime. Rachel McAdams is perhaps the weakest link, although this is less an error on her part than that of the filmmakers who towards the films climax, unnecessarily transform this femme fatale character into a romantic endeavour.

Richie manages to distance himself from his Lock, Stock roots and directs with great aplomb. His trademark flashy camerawork remains intact but never at the risk of conveying style over substance and actually lends a great deal of sophistication to the grimy London setting which is fantastically brought to life with CG architecture. One minor problem is his handling of fight sequences, which like Batman Begins (2005) are often shot up-close and in an altered frame rate, both of which dramatically disorientate the viewer. Thankfully, the action is never excessive, often relevant, and could be said to take a backseat to all the detective work, which is essentially what this film is all about. The story is complex and engaging and the dialogue is beautifully layered with scientific discourse and poetic refinement. The final denouement may be a bit too expositional as Holmes reveals the villains nefarious crimes in a manner unbefitting of the films deeply subtle clues, but this is a minor chink in an otherwise solid structure. A success? The answer is elementary. 


Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Worst of 2009

No.1 - Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (12A)

I once recall reading an issue of Empire magazine in which Michael Bay was interviewed on the set of his latest action blockbuster. Admittedly not the most engrossing read, it would have been exiled to the desolate regions of my unconscious had it not been for one particular quote; when asked about his influences, Mr Bay cited the late Stanley Kubrick, and at once a smile rose upon my face as I wondered if, were the great man still alive today, he would return the compliment. My inner film snob’s response? Doubtful.

In analogous terms, Bay is to filmmaking what Busted was to music. Of course, Busted at least had the good grace to split up. No such luck with our dear Mr Bay who, after the runaway success of 2007’s bulky CG goliath Transformers, was called back to helm the inevitable sequel. Detractors of his previous efforts are unlikely to look favourably upon this overblown follow-up; a bastardised amalgam of How To Make A Blockbuster post-it notes, most likely stolen from (executive producer) Spielberg’s wastebasket and delivered with about as much delicacy as an atom bomb.

Like its predecessor, Revenge of the Fallen is light on logic. The insultingly simple albeit ludicrous plotline merely provides the backdrop against which the eponymously named extraterrestrials may knock seven shades of sheet metal out of each other, the mandatory landmarks never too far away – suspiciously, the devastating attack upon Tokyo during the movie’s opening apparently goes undetected by the world’s media. Such blatant disregard towards any semblance of realism is symptomatic of a story seemingly scribbled by a pre-schooler whose incessant liberty-taking only serves to reveal the plots innumerable flaws and the largest assortment of anomalies this side of a black hole. Detailing each of these irregularities would be a rather superfluous enterprise, but one in particular deserves a special mention: the parents of our dreary hero, having been abducted in Paris in the film’s first half, return only as a bargaining chip during the frenetic climax, fulfilling their purpose almost as an afterthought on behalf of the writers. Their attempt to reign in the sheer absurdity of the premise reach an unsurpassable low when John Tuturro’s disgraced secret agent, in an effort to bring the audience up to speed, actually recaps the story thus far. Admittedly, expositional dialogue is not necessarily indicative of a screenplay’s quality, but Transformers is a strong candidate, the difference in this instance being that the aforementioned character recites the plot entirely to himself.

Some may say ROTF is merely mindless escapism and therefore free from serious dissection, but such a hollow argument is ill-founded. Firstly, for all its crash-bang-wallop-ery, Transformers clearly strives to be taken seriously: Army officers proffer such philosophical nuggets as “if God made us in his own image, who made them?” (giggle), while Shia Labeouf breaks cringe-ometer records, screaming ‘Optimus Prime’ with all the dramatic emphasis of a Shakespearean tragedy. The second obstruction to the ‘leave your brain at home’ outlook is that Transformers isn’t actually that much fun. Attempting to distinguish between Autobots and the equally daft Decepticons during the many protracted fight sequences requires almost God-like stamina, an issue which is further enhanced by a cocaine-addled editing style best avoided by the epileptic crowd. The nauseatingly excessive action scenes are far too frequent due to Bay’s unwillingness to adhere to the Hitchcockian rules of tension building, instead bypassing thematic foreplay just to shoot his load on a messy climax.

As inappropriate as this sexual innuendo may seem, it does at least provide a convenient segue onto the topic of Megan Fox. Her performance is hardly Keira Knightley bad, but there’s no denying her feminine wiles feature more prominently than her acting skills. With each new scene comes an even skimpier costume, revealing more flesh than a cannibal buffet and a slightly perverse agenda on behalf of the filmmakers. As enjoyable as her cleavage may be, if I’d wanted to experience an erection, I could have sat at home in tight pants. Both Fox and Labeouf unfortunately remain consistent in maintaining their unlikely relationship, devoid of all chemistry and sparking about as much interest as a depleted bank account. Not that this features very highly on Transformers agenda. And why should it? Expecting drama from a Michael Bay picture is akin to browsing for racially sensitive material in a copy of The Daily Mail. The one saving grace? I watched it for free.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Movies This week...

Clerks (1994) ***
The Hurt Locker (2009) ****
King Solomon's Mines (1985) **
The Mouse That Roared (1959) **
Sherlock Holmes (2009) ****
Sunset Boulevard (1950) ****
The Waiting Room (2007) **

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Avatar (12A)

People often accuse me of being overly critical and deliberately anti-conformist, views which I’m sure will only be strengthened after reading the following review. Yes, I’m afraid I have countered public opinion yet again with a less than favourable outlook on James Cameron’s latest: for while Avatar, much like Cheryl Cole, is undeniably pretty, it lacks any real substance.

First off, allow me to praise Cameron’s technical proficiency. The extent to which mo-cap has been utilised for this film is nothing short of mind-boggling. The characters are by and large impressive and believable, and although they don’t quite match the textured complexity and sophistication of Disney’s Davy Jones, they come awfully close. The world of Pandora also is beautifully crafted, with a cinematographer taking full advantage of the digitally crafted scenery to truly inspire awe, particularly in the epic finale. To have employed so many steadicam sequences in a film as multifaceted as this one is no mean feat, a testament to how far cinema has come in the past decade. Of course the 3D glasses add an extra layer of depth, but it is hardly the deal-breaker, faring nowhere near as well as Cameron evangelists would have you believe, and it certainly doesn’t usurp A Christmas Carol (2009)’s dominance within the realm of three dimensions.

However, its real problems lie buried beneath this rather showy exterior. For all the visual dexterity erupting across the screen, Avatar is, at its core, a rather dull experience. Strip away the flamboyance and what remains is nothing more than a bogstandard piece of Hollywood entertainment masquerading as a revolution. Once the CG novelty has worn off, the film becomes an overly long re-hash of Pocahontas (1995),
The Last Samurai (2003) and a dozen other features in which the hero aligns himself with the much misunderstood enemy; a concept which District 9 (2009) executed in a far more original and downright entertaining way.

As it reaches the midway point in which overrated man of the moment Sam Worthington becomes friendly with the natives, it falls into a depression from which it never really recovers. The bonding between these two worlds is nowhere near as interesting as it should be and the entire section seems largely irrelevant in regards to the story as a whole. Is it about different cultures or the profits of war? The two themes needn’t be mutually exclusive, but must they be executed so joylessly?

Essentially, Cameron wants to have his cake and eat it. Create a modern wartime allegory which doubles as a sci-fi actioner. The two seem jarringly at odds, although his political ideals are unashamedly clear, drawing up yet another Vietnam/Iraqi war analogy long after it stopped being fashionable to do so. And like a true leftist, Cameron goes all out in painting his tableaux with anti-American-cum-politically correct propaganda, courtesy of barbarous US militants and Islamic fundamentalists-turned-peace-loving victims. The former are two dimensional capitalists with zero believability, the latter acting like drug addled hippies so infuriatingly serious that their new-age spiritualism makes Mormonism look exciting by comparison.

Alongside such 80’s-esque lines as “I didn’t sign up for this shit”, each character is nothing more than a cardboard cut-out of a familiar archetype and with no one to root for it’s difficult to care about the ending, whether it looks good or not. As a technical demonstration, it’s outstanding. But changing cinema? We’re not quite there yet.


Monday, 4 January 2010

Movies This week...

3:10 to Yuma (2007) ***
The Big Easy (1986) ***
Crossfire (1947) ***
End of Days (1999) ***
The Good Shepherd (2007) ***
High Anxiety (1977) **
The Princess and the Frog (2009) ****
Return to Neverland (2002) **

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The Princess and the Frog (U)

For nearly a decade I have awaited Disney’s long overdue return to quality filmmaking. After 1999’s Tarzan, the absent-minded Eisner and his army of suits tightened their hold on the already troubled company for which, much like a certain boy wizard, dark times most certainly lay ahead. In subsequent years top-notch flicks such as Fantasia 2000 (2000) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) proved Disney hadn’t completely lost the proverbial plot, but the ever diminishing box office receipts had the final word; for every Lilo & Stitch (2002) there was a Brother Bear (2003), a Home on the Range (2004) and (shudder) Chicken Little (2005). With the big turnaround in 2006, a magnificent reformation occurred and piece by piece each division was restored to its former glory. Each division, that is, except the one that really counted. Until now. So after years of prematurely exclaiming that “Disney’s back!”, I can finally say with absolute confidence that this time, they truly are.

Ask any animation fanatic about The Princess and the Frog and he’ll undoubtedly wax lyrical about the similarities between this and The Little Mermaid (1989), a sort of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) redux that helped usher in the second golden era of animation. On the surface it may appear to be nothing more than fanboy rhetoric, but on closer inspection the parallels become uncanny. If The Black Cauldron (1985) was The Foul-Up of that particular decade, the noughties should bestow Chicken Little with the same title. Meet The Robinsons (2007) showed a sliver of hope just as Basil, the Great Mouse Detective (1986) had two decades previous and by the time both animal friendly Oliver & Company (1988) and the underrated Bolt (2008) made their appearance, the studio appeared to regain its heart. The Princess and the Frog then, like The Little Mermaid before it, reveals a charm and warmth largely absent in modern ‘toons and while neither are overly ostentatious, they do exhibit all the necessary ingredients of a classic Disney recipe.

In regards to TPATF, it’s genius lies in the way in which it embraces tradition, yet simultaneously usurps it. The Prince is a bankrupt womaniser, the Princess not really a Princess. It’s not Shrek –like cynicism we’re dealing with here, but neither is it Sleeping Beauty (1959). The beautiful and head-strong Tiana, arguably one of Disney’s most endearing leading ladies voiced pitch-perfectly by Anita Rose, dreams of getting her restaurant, not Prince Charming, while the latter (in this case the genuinely likeable Prince Naveen) cares only for snagging a rich Royal to line his empty pockets. Needless to say, this mismatched pair is brought together by that fateful kiss and the ensuing adventure demonstrates a refreshingly deft and mature chemistry between the two leads.

The surprisingly endearing firefly Ray and his cute but forgettable crocodile chum fulfil the role of the obligatory sidekicks, although they lack the appeal of a Timon and Pumbaa. Dr Facilier also is somewhat of a letdown, a villain who lacks the dramatic presence of previous baddies and falls short of his potential – which is unfortunate, as his character design is flawless. Invoking the spirit of Jafar and the like, Facilier has that classic look which children should come to both love and fear: a face, in other words, destined for merchandise. Of course, much the same can be said of every character. The gorgeously animated world is simple but elegant, the characters flowing upon the screen with natural finesse. It’s a subtler style than the norm, but it’s the right one. There are no 3D glasses or dazzling CG effects, just plain old-fashioned drawings which, when combined with the heart-warming score, instil in the viewer a sensation not felt since childhood. Randy Newman’s upbeat and infectiously catchy tunes fit the New Orleans milieu like a glass slipper and if the songs fall short of classic status, they’re still more than worthy of restoring faith in musical animation.

Is it a perfect film? Not quite. A late appearance by the underused Madam Odie – a sort of black Fairy Godmother if you will - fails to make the impact she so thoroughly deserves and the third act is a tad(pole) sluggish, with the pace letting up considerably. However, such criticisms come as provisos of the glass half empty crowd, whom, if asked whether or not TPATF is a success, would still respond with a resounding "yes!" Once upon a time the Disney brand was the greatest name in entertainment; in the end it seems wishing upon a star has finally brought it back.


Saturday, 2 January 2010

Worst of 2009

No.2 - Lesbian Vampire Killers

Like a wet weekend version of Shaun of the Dead (2004), Lesbian Vampire Killers is the unwanted middle child, the Stephen to Alec Baldwin or more fittingly, the Cordon and Horne to Pegg and Frost. Those unfamiliar with the dismal duo from such shows as the woefully bland Gavin and Stacey are unlikely to remember their faces barely an hour after the credits. The reason? They’re not funny.

While the good looking straight-man is so unidentifiable he’d make Ralph Ellison jealous, the fat one hams it up (pun most definitely intended) as the overacting and blindingly unfunny sidekick. Clearly believing himself to be a comedic messiah despite having no credentials as a writer, this overblown Ricky Gervais knock-off shouts his way through the film, perhaps due to some misguided belief that volume equals hilarity. It doesn’t. And he might well remember this the next time he feels the need to place expletives between each preposition and pronoun like some drunken oaf using the f-word to impress his Neanderthal friends. To say I have a bit of an issue with this young thespian is evidently clear as by the end of the feature I wished the only killer to be HIS coronary.

Of course, the script doesn’t exactly give them much to work with. The jokes are rushed, half-written brain farts dripping in schoolboy humour and demonstrating about as much wit as a Jordan biography. Even the gore feels blasé, barely coming close to the imaginatively gruesome maiming of Hot Fuzz (2007) et al. With little in the way of story, the limited cast spend much of their time wandering around in directionless circles, repeating the same gags that failed to spark a laugh the first time and no doubt questioning whether or not the scenery would look any less tacky if it were covered in burberry. Few acts make the successful transition from TV to film, and these two are no exception; let’s just pray they’re the last.