Thursday 23 December 2010


We have reached a point in mainstream American Cinema in which original thought is now more often than not being looked past for brand recognition. In over 100 years of cinema, there has always been remakes, adaptations, and sequels. However, times have changed and in order to make money (it's called show business for a reason) the Hollywood machine are now really playing it safe. Looking at the top ten grossing movies of this year you will find that only two (Inception and Despicable Me) are based on original ideas. Ten years ago there were five. The change is only slight but still speaks in volumes. I mean just ten years ago there was more of a chance of an original screenplay being put through the machine right?

Well the answer to me is an awkward yes and no. It is more likely for me to get a draft of a 3D, sequel of a reboot optioned in this day and age over say my roman gladiator in space idea. On the flip side of this, are that many people actually going to watch the original ideas that are managing to slip though the cracks? I mean this honestly because we see a lot of big talk on teh tinterwebz from faceless commentators bemoaning the state of movies today. Usually quick to crap on the news of the next remake. Fair enough they can get frustrating. However, it was a bizarre feeling going up to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon with my girlfriend, her friends and my podcast co-host (total of five people) going to watch Whip It and being the only people in the screen. Granted it's primary target market is a particular one but it still didn't stop the film from being one of my hidden gems of the year. It's not just Drew Barrymore debut getting shafted. Here in England there's always talk about how crap (enter u.s film here) but a good search around and you can also see that they didn't really give a shit about the UKFC being scraped either.

It's not as clear cut as the half-baked reasons I've just placed above. When certain films come out they dominate more than one screen, pushing smaller films out the way. Also marketing has a huge hand in the process. Don R Lewis tweeted this about Tron: "The greatest trick the Disney ever played was making you think you ever gave a sh*t about Tron". To point I agree as Tron: Legacy is based on a 28 year old modest hit/cult movie, has no discernible entry point for new viewer with a poor storyline to boot. However with it's $200 Million had to be everywhere as it's not allowed to be an expensive flop. There's also the hilarious factor that most films are being made and targeted at the age of "young uns". But that's another story.

With all this said it is still down to Joe Six-pack to make the choice on what they're going to watch and to me the choice of many is quite simple. When you want to be entertained, are you going to take a risk and increase the chance of disappointment? Or do you go with what you know? So yes while 2010 has brought the amount of remake/reboot/sequel titles to critical amount and we can bitch about the lack of ideas as much as we want, we do enjoy the safety of what we know. We're not waiting for Bond 23 for no reason are we?

Here is my Top Ten Favorite movies of the year which features four adaptations and one semi-remake. Interestingly enough the trends within the ten are ones of fractured mindscapes, unreliable narrators with a couple of anti-heroes thrown in. As with last year, these are personal favorite choices so telling me that I'm wrong is folly as I don't do "best of the year".

Rambling over. Here we go:

Before I saw Inception I considered that this was the finest acting I've seen from DiCaprio. Looking back I still think it is. He is dominant here and it's through his performance he takes us through the wringer. The breakdown of DiCaprio's Teddy is heightened by the gorgeous visuals, deceptive editing and bombastic classical soundtrack. But it's the graceful melding of these elements by Martin Scorsese and his ability to tell a story that did it for me.

An OTT, comical semi-remake of Abel Ferrara grim character study. A subversion of the police procedural which makes full use of its outlandish humor and hallucinogenic imagery. Cage's cartoonish performance becomes hypnotic as you watch to see how just how much of the barrel Lieutenant Terence will scape with his bare hands.

I love Chris Morris' work because he captures the absurdity of our moral panics so accurately. His Brass Eye pedophile special (and the hilarious angry commentators in its aftermath) craftily show how quickly we can take things out of context and propagate our own fears in a blink of an eye. Four Lions is a cinematic extension of this; taking the touchy subject of terrorism and displaying it as the confused and stupid thing it can can. Morris (with help from the peep show writers) not only taps into the alienation and misplaced anger (and not the religious heretic)  that bestows many extremists but also reminds us that our fear-fueling world helps hide how truly random something like suicide bombing can be. It also helps that i found it constantly quotable and consistently funny.

Does it matter if Banksy's film takes you round the houses? It manages to say more about the state of art, be it graffiti, hip-hop or movies themselves than than it should. Toying with the idea of art as identity and how commerce and celebrity can distort such things. I found Banksy's "documentary" holds the same reckless spirit that his street art has.

It's lead performance is a stoic and selfless one from Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays a heroism that needs to be seen more often in female driven movies. The surroundings are barren and the family "community" within it almost make the Texas Chainsaw family look homely but Lawrence's Ree Dolly fights on no matter what the odds in this Ozark mountain based fable. The outcome is much like the films screenplay: sparse, uncomplicated but quietly touching.

I know it's cheating (it's released in the U.K next year) but I had to rebel a bit as this film gave me the most visceral impact this year. The techniques may hint towards the Wrestler but Arononfsky decides to direct things towards psychological horror. The naive performance; perfectly articulated by Natalie Portman leads us into a dark, claustrophobic tale of sexual awaking, social isolation and grueling routine. The early reviews have a touch of the marmite to them, but this film made it hard for me to stand up afterward.

Speaking of Marmite...Not everyone liked this clearly cult, hyper-active, sugar fueled, little upstart of a movie. Hell, it wasn't even caught at the cinema by most people! I however did manage to catch this on the big screen and fell in love with it instantly. Scott Pilgrim's rapid firing dialogue, dazzling visuals and bold ambition bowled me over, while it's game cast had me grinning like a loon without. As a teen comedy, I've seen nothing like it.

Playing out like an absurd, European Clockwork Orange, Dogtooth plays out like a mixture of Haneke and Palahniuk. Thing is...the weirder it got the more absorbing the film became. Hilariously deadpan with some provocative imagery, Dogtooth is one of those off the beaten track movies that I urge those who are into the films that are truly nuts should try and watch once.

The moment Trent Reznor's pulsating soundtrack kicks after an unflinching and brutal break-up, I knew the "facebook" movie wasn't going to be just a flash in the pan product. Fincher's Rashomon-like feature; plays out it's power plays and pride filled arguments with glee, but is ultimately tells the story of how one of the worlds most social web based program built it's foundations out of the blood, sweat and tears of other peoples fractured relationships. The ensemble cast are immense, the screenplay is zippy and the direction of story is as razor sharp as Fincher gets. It doesn't matter how much of it is true as it's damn fine fiction.

So much has been said about this little film that it's worth keeping this as short as possible. I do wonder that in a another world where more original screenplays were given the backing and trust that Nolan gained, would we be ranting an raving over this one? I do believe that we would. It's not just the amount of ideas that flow through the movie that make it so interesting, but also the execution, the visual scope and the general thrill that I (and many others) felt when watching the movie. It's interesting that so much emphasis was placed on how complex the film is. It's not, but it's ability to take themes what could be considered as lofty and make them palatable and enjoyable for a general audience? That's a skill.

Damn Fine Honourable Mentions:
Toy Story 3 

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Review: Tron: Legacy

Year: 2010
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Michael Sheen

Synopsis is here

Tron: Legacy is a quite a vapid feature. One wrapped in it's 28 year old history and brand name to keep it warm. Oh yes there's certain people who will think it's the best thing since sliced bread, but unfortunately some of these people who shout the loudest may have that horrid nostalgia effect playing with their judgment/emotions. Case in point the amusingly biased review from Jay Maynard (A.K.A Tron Guy) whose laments film critics and their reading of the film but has spent 28 years of his programming life waiting for this sequel. I really do not mean to cause offense in any way, that's not my style. However, when a guy who made net fame by making a tron suit states that this movie almost brought him to tears then you know that judgment is tipped in the brands favor.

Brand is the best word to describe Tron: Legacy because that really is the only thing going for it in my point of view. It's a film that really relies on it's name and what you've known before in order to get the most out of it. This is true for many sequels but with a gap between films that is older than myself and with some wondering if Disney are doing their best to hide the original film, we're left at in a bizarre limbo. Tron: Legacy hasn't got much of an entry point for new viewers, with much of the film talking about past events and techno babble as if everyone is on the same page. Unfortunately this is not Harry Potter 7, but a sequel on what is considered a modest hit almost 30 years ago the achieved cult status with the most important word being cult. For a $200 million film looking to make it's money back I was very surprised on the route this movie decided to take.

It's clear that the visuals are the main aspect of Tron: Legacy and director Joseph Kosinski has not only replicated the original films settings, but bolstered it to the what can only be considered as the most definitive Tron look. Kosinski who has said he's looked toward architecture to bring about the visuals gives us very interesting scenery to view throughout Tron: Legacy. Areas of the grid have a certain charm and the advancements of CGI have helped give everything the gloss a big budget movie like this needs. The problem for me is I really didn't care enough. If Tron: Legacy had an interesting story with some narrative drive and characters with at least some depth then we'd be in business. Kosinski isn't really using the visuals to tell the story; as they are there to show how pretty everything is. No anything narrative based is down to it's dull screenplay which is full of very uninteresting talk. It doesn't help that most of the film is full of this talk, with less action than one would expect. The lightcycles and flying discs were not my favorite film moments of the year, but were fun enough to provide a much needed distraction from it's "lets go to A to do B" screenplay.

Hints of interesting themes crop up at points, a moment in Flynn's off-grid home suggests that as creator, Flynn is also God. Clu as the creation picks up a sliver apple and thus implicates the idea of him as Adam and obviously original sin. I also liked the idea of Clu as an unknowingly fascist leader programmed to provide perfection but missing the vital fact that imperfection makes us who we are. The idea of lightcycle/discgames being futuristic gladiator-esque arenas is also an interesting element. While all this may sound a tad heavy (read: over thinking it), if Tron fully integrated these aspects into the film properly, I would have found the whole exercise a far more appealing one.

However, Tron: Legacy doesn't have time for such things (despite being 127 minutes long) as it's struggling to find a way to make Sam Flynn (Hedlund) an interesting person. With many films like this if you believe in the character, his stake and his goals, you believe in the world. I had no interest in Sam Flynn, nor his flat relationship with Quorra (Olivia Wilde) which is a shame as this lack of appeal dulls The Grids neon city. It's not really the fault of the actors as they don't have much to work with, however when watching Jeff Bridges and Micheal Sheen in the film who give do their best to illuminate their performances, you do see the gap in talent and experience. Case in point: Sheen is only on screen for around ten minutes and is still more memorable than most things within the movie.

For me Tron: Legacy was quite a forgettable experience all around. Another film that is quick to push CGI and 3D but less willing to provide an interesting storyline, strong dramatic conflict or appealing characters. I have an increasing sense of worry that soon; every December, we will be given a tent-pole, expensive, pretty release which will be marketed to death as it cannot afford to fail. I fret that these features will be hyped as the greatest thing since the last best thing but with only a different colour scheme to provide any difference. The early box office numbers have stated that Tron: Legacy is "on target" in financial terms, but from a personal point of view all I saw was what I can only describe as: Avatar's New Clothing.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Review: Frozen

Year: 2010
Director: Adam Green
Screenplay: Adam Green
Starring: Shaun Ashmore, Emma Bell, Kevin Segers

Synopsis is here

Despite my interest in the genre, I haven't watched many horror films this year. Paranormal Activity 2? Could wait for the DVD. Saw 7? Stopped at Saw 5. A Serbian Film? Just came out in London and not spending that much on a ticket to see it. Despite coming with those half arsed excuses on why I haven't watched these movies; the main answer is clear: I just wasn't interested in that much this year. Some titles have aroused a certain amount of interest (The Ward, Human Centipede etc) but nothing really came out and grabbed me...Well, there was Black Swan but that's another story.

So distanced from the genre was I, that it was quite surprising I even bothered with Adam Green's Frozen. There wasn't anything in particular that made me want to see it other than it looks a bit different from the current slew of remakes and sequels baying for attention. It helps that Green himself appears to be an interesting horror director, with an affection to horror cinema that rivals one Eli Roth.

After the his debut slasher Hatchet, it seems that Green has decided to go in a very different direction for his next feature. A non-supernatural tale of survival horror; Frozen works on an very interesting premise. The idea of getting stuck on a sky-lift may not have crossed too many peoples minds for an idea for a horror film, however, Green pulls it off quite well with a generous amount of dread and likable characters to feel for. How everything comes off is far fetched, but still manages to give a certain amount of plausibility to it's universe.

One of the most interesting things I found about the movie is that; while here in England one of the biggest news stories going on is of course the student protests, Frozen reminded me of the kind of students I remember knowing and that I still see around town. One of the big themes here play on what we've seen before in many a slasher flick, in which know it all students with their casual deceits get more than they bargained for. It works a treat here. Our three leads have enjoyed not having to pay "top dollar" and getting a free ride, but the idea that human error and nature itself doesn't swing to these rules just gives this movie the right amount of cynicism to keep things ticking along. The idea that you shouldn't get anything for free runs not only through the films beginning, but also when the tension reaches peak (pun not intended) later on when pleasantries have turned into bitterness and then grief after the fate of one of the characters is ultimately decided.

Green keeps everything compact, keeping the action with these people and keeping the tension there with you. There's enough worry in the film that when the most outrageous element comes into play (Wolves) I  generally wanted to know what would happen to these people. There's also pivotal moment that had me cringing with glee as it kept the stakes high enough.

I can't say the film stayed with me too long. As you can read, I have had a hard time writing about the feature. It's not something that I could even imagine many horror fans rushing out to watch again straight after their first viewing. But there's was enough in this to give the film a rent and possibly have a talk everything afterward. I enjoyed Ashmore's performance, liked Emma Bell enough and didn't disagree with Kevin Zegers too much. I also enjoyed the effects of the cold on these people as well as the banter (which turns into bitching). The visuals are fine and I can't say at any time I was bored. Full faith restored in horror films...still not seeing a lot on the horizon but with stuff like this coming out, I haven't lost loyalty completely.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Review: Somwhere

Year: 2010
Director: Sophia Coppola
Screenplay: Sophia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elly Fanning, Chris Pointius

Synopsis is here

Somewhere has Stephen Dorff playing an actor broken both physically and mentally. After breaking his wrist in a drunken stumble we find him posing for marketing pictures with his female lead who detests him for his womanizing and partying with his equally immature friends. It's clear from the drinks, hotels and poledancing hotties that this man can pretty much do what he wants, and yet he is incredibly empty inside. We really shouldn't give a damn about a guy like this because he is living the life that we pay to read in those risible celeb rags. However, while it takes a bit to get there, Sophia Coppola manages draw out a certain amount of worth empathy for someone that we really shouldn't like.

Somewhere comes off like a prologue to Lost in Translation with Stephen Dorff's Johnny Marco heading towards the same stages of loneliness that Bill Murray's Bob had in Coppola's Award winning second feature. Marco despite being so popular lives in a life as fractured as his wrist. He gets anonymous texts which spit venom at him, his work life is a blurry haze of flashing lights and portentous questions from foreign journos. Coppola coming from such a life captures this bizarre other world with accuracy that only someone like herself could bring about. Many scenes brilliantly send up how artificial everything has become to Marco, so much so that he can only sit there and take it each day at a time..if he can remember which day it is. Highlights of this include a scene where Marco and his daughter Cleo in an Italian hotel; sit down to watch Friends in countries language.  Neither know the language but it's familiarly gives the comfort. Another scene involves Marco sitting in a plaster cast to get a mold of his face. When the cast is taken off to reveal a mold of Marco as an aged man, his reaction is a Keanu like "whoa!" suggesting that only now he's released that one day his looks will fade. The scene also plays with the idea that Marco is masked and it'll only be at the end of his life he'll release that he's done nothing. Such moments are simple, but effective. Often they hit the mark a become quite touching.

This is all said without the main reason why we get behind Johnny Marco: his 11 year old daughter Cleo. A neatly level headed performance by Elly Fanning (counterbalancing the  Dorff's laid back near adolescent behavior) is one that reminds us of her older sister Dakota. Wise beyond her years but enough childhood nativity and concern to give the movie restrained emotion the film needs. Two wonderfully telling moments include Fanning's Cleo joking with both her father and his friend Sammy and a quietly awkward "fake family" moment involving a disproving Cleo, Marco himself and one of his conquests. Scenes like this also show that Somewhere isn't without humor with scenes often being funnier than they should be.

Somewhere isn't without it's flaws. At first Coppola utilizes early scenes well to mark the frustration of the character and we too absorb the idea that the easy life is hard when the perks are repeated and money is no object. The problem is that Coppola draws out a few of these scenes too long for their own good and while  they wish to be lyrical, they end up being more of an annoyance. It doesn't help that the film feels like it could have ended three times before it actually does. Others have stated a lack of character development within the film, which has an element of truth but also shows Coppola taking something that could have been quite saccharine and taking away the easy answers.

Somewhere has a wry eye on celebrity isolation and manages to crave out a subtly touching tale about someone we wouldn't like in real life losing touch with his own reality. We may not like to hear it but sometimes it's hard having the easy life.

Review: The Tourist

Year: 2010
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenplay: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp

Synopsis is here.

As with many films these days; The Tourist is of course a remake, but as most people haven't even heard of the original film, it manages to get away with all that nasty outrage that a Let me in gets. I find this to be a little unfortunate as this film with it's popular stars and gloss will get less of a drubbing than some of it's more known retreads. I guess it's because I wish for a just world in where if someone is going to bitch at America for it's lack of ideas, I hope they do the research on all the films going and rightly lambaste all the movies and not just the ones they know about and like. They should also remember it goes both ways, and they should really check out some Turkish features. Quite simply, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Shame I found The Tourist to be a bore.

Despite a wealth of writing, acting and directing* talent, much like an adolescent relationship making love for the second time; the whole situation leaves you frustrated and strangely unsatisfied. That's not the best visual metaphor I've used for describing a movie, however if what I said made you crack even the slightest grin then you had more fun then, than I did in the entirety of this movie. It's not for lack of trying as it's clear that Angelina Jolie is using all her feminine charms to give the film some kind of allure, while Johnny Depp does that lower end Depp act he does when he's not bringing out his best work and together it should work.

However, it's hard for them as they are fighting a pointless story. It's bad enough that the direction isn't strong enough to distract me from the naff plot points and the clear Deus Ex Machina moments (Poor Timothy Dalton), but the simple fact that the reasons behind the films whole narrative are so weak makes the whole thing an incredible waste of time. I found myself asking, is that really why we're going round the houses?  It almost makes the shenanigans in Knight and Day seem straightforward and level-headed.

Can the chemistry between main performers take my mind off all of this? Can it fuck. You don't believe in their relationship for one second, mostly because Depp is hilariously miscast. Depp could take many peoples girlfriends away with a wink, so you'd think the film would do it's best to make him the schlub that they wish us to believe. It seems the reaction to that thought is? Why bother? This is a film that just wants two good looking people in exotic places on screen, who needs chemistry to give the make shift story at least feel like it had a chance?

If there is any good points about then film, I will say that the speedboat set piece does what it can to give the illusion of fun and some of the dialogue exchanges aren't bad for what they are. But really, is that all I can take from this movie? Unfortunately yes.

This is for purists only. Fans of the leads who can talk at length about how great Secret Window is, or quote you the entire script of Life or something like it. To others, they may find it more substantial to rewatch the Bourne trilogy again.

Monday 6 December 2010

Review: Monsters

Year: 2010
Director: Garteh Edwards
Screenplay: Garteh Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

Synopsis is here

I know someone, somewhere is whining about Monsters because "there's hardly any monsters!". To that person I say read film reviews. So many people love to gripe about film reviews because "they have their own opinion" However, other than the fact that reading others view can re-enforce your own conceptions and understanding on matters (be it politics or films), they also warn about certain things like THAT TITLE I ALLEGORY AND THAT TRAILER IS LIES! Ahem, sorry.

Yes once again, the trailer of the film is used to try and sell something it's not and those looking for the next Cloverfield may find themselves a little confused. The title is one of those blatant misleads that reminds one of those old twilight zone episodes. Oh yes there are monsters....and they ain't who you think! etc. Such a tactic may be seen a mile off for a disgruntled cynical cinephile; but with that said, Monsters has more to say than a slight nod to old school sci-fi. It is an interesting movie that helps continue this trend of recent sci-fi that not only utilizes it's CGI in an interesting (and cheap) way but presents an thoughtful (although slightly obvious) metaphor about how we view the alien other.

Much has said about the films cost and it's computer graphics so I'll be brief with this. The film not only looks gorgeous but just just as expensive as say War of the Worlds. Monsters cost $500,000 while Spielberg's 2005 feature cost $130 million but at times you'll be hard pressed to see how big that gulf really is. It is quite clear that Visual effects artist-cum Director Gareth Edwards knows what he's doing with CGI, with his digital shots looking better than some of the weaker efforts seen in other films. But what sets Edwards apart is he has a good hold a certain amount of cinematic language. His shots of the (rarely seen) aliens are mostly at night; not only show the capability of his CGI, But to remind us that it's things that bump in the night that still unsettle us the most. His use of location is also well considered. Like District 9 (2007), the film is enhanced by it's setting. It's not a typical urban landscape that we see constantly in films like this, but something that is also still quite alien to those who may or may not watch art-house features which delve into the central Americas more than often.

It is the location that sets up the metaphor splendidly. At a time when certain voices are highlighting that a change in ethnicity may approaching the U.K and the U.S.  It's pretty revealing that Edwards decides that it is in Mexico (where recent troubles have reared their head involving the state of Arizona) that no only the majority of the film takes place but also where we as an audience discover the the conflicting nature of these beings. I won't say any more, but think of it like Solaris (1972 & 2002) where intent to harm collides with communication.

Lets not get this ahead of ourselves however, as in some ways comparing Edwards to Tarkovskiy is extraordinarily naive. But while there films bounce around in a similar ballpark at points, Edwards is a filmmaker who is seemingly more in touch with his contemporaries than anyone else. All this talk about aliens and least we forget that this is really a romantic road movie, with it's use of setting and characters feeling more a mixture Y Tu Mama Tambien and Lost in Translation more than anything else. When Edwards' camera is focused on the smaller moments (a visit to a 400 year old church is nicely put together) these particles of culture and character work extremely well. These creatures no longer cause large impact on the world, they have been assimilated into part of it. These two leads are now finding new parts of themselves within this  background and the combination of the old and new shows the film at it's most watchable.

It's a shame that while these moments stand out Edwards shows that he is more than a little rough around the edges with other aspects. Monsters (mostly improvised) screenplay is full of forced dialogue with one unfortunate moment having the lead spell out much of underlying subtext upon viewing America's new great wall. Also as a romance I can't say that the meandering pace of the love story and the small chit chat make me believe in the central relationship much. This may be because I've been forced fed sickly sweet rom-coms since mainstream cinema gave up on trying to give us anything different, but with all that said, I didn't just truly buy it.

This is not due to the two wide eye performances of the leads with Scoot McNairy being the standout. It is his character that is given the most development and he runs with it well, with the films more emotional moments stemming from him. This is not to say that Whitney Able's role isn't any less important, it is merely more subdued. The two are more than natural in front of the camera it's just together in this vicinity the real life couple are just a tad too restrained when together.

But this doesn't distract Monsters from being a eye-opening opener. It is beautiful to look at and the film's commentary is not only topical but competently placed through out. Edwards has come out alongside Duncan Jones (Moon) as a Brit director whose view on the sci-fi aesthetic is more than the mere superficial. Whether or not or not a mainstream audience can look beyond the title is a different story.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Review: The Next Three Days

Year: 2010
Director: Paul Haggis
Screenplay: Paul Haggis
Starring: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks

Synopsis is here

I have not seen Anything for her (French original of this U.S Remake), however a glimpse of it's running time and the two reviews I quickly read from two national papers reveal more than they suspect. The 96 minute feature is considered by Phillip French (Observer) to be:
"The movie invites the audience to empathise with a decent man driven by despair into dangerous criminal activities and we're on his side from start to finish."
Tim Robey of The Telegraph states:
"The dangers of being out of your depth in criminal dealings give Fred Cavayé's film plenty of pulse and urgency"
So with this knowledge in mind I find it difficult to figure out what was so necessary in the extra 26 minutes that reside within this movie. However, with the films intricate plotting being so incredibly neat (far too neat), I'm guessing the added plotting is to ensure that everything is covered and no questions can be asked. In a thriller like this, such hand holding is a weakness. We know so much that risk is taken from us. Everything is perfect, too perfect. We're wrapped the situation up and have already got our coats on for the car. I may be very wrong, but at no point throughout the The Next Three Days did I find myself feel the stake rise above boiling point. It's all far too controlled.

But of course I could feel that. From what I've seen, Paul Haggis as a director doesn't seem to be one to rock the boat. Crash did as much as possible to open and shut cans before a worm even saw a light of day. In casting Russell Crowe, Haggis makes what could be considered quite a large error to some. Not because Crowe is a bad actor (I'm a fan) but because he's safe hands. At what point do you feel any trouble when your wrapped up tight in the hands of Maximus Decimus Meridius?

Crowe is a great actor to show a determined man. From Gladiator to Proof of Life, to L.A Confidential and even in this; Crowe is brilliant at showing a man whose willing to do anything for his cause. The problem however is this performance is lopsided. We're treated by lots of Maximus from a character who is supposed be a vulnerable English teacher. Crowe channels much of his strongest roles into this character but forgets that we are meant to be watching someone who is a reluctant hero. Once that steely purpose begins to burn in his eyes, we know that everything is going to be fine. Trouble is that fire was started far too early on.

Knowing that Crowe isn't going let that burden bother any of us also hinders Elizabeth Banks role (it doesn't help that she still looks too good to be in prison) as all her performance is shoved to the latter half of the movie. This is also is a plot issue, however once Crowe's John has become an Internet Macgyver (thanks youtube) there isn't too much for her to do. This is a shame as one pivotal revelation (or red herring) shows her ability to switch emotions naturally with ease.

Lack of conviction aside, there's some well directed moments within the movie that hold interest. Haggis' latter third runs at such a frantic pace that a bravura car sequence leaves one a little breathless and makes you wonder why Haggis felt the need to puncture the scene with such an unfortunate broad moment of humor. Not that The Next Three Days has to be that somber as Haggis' dialogue has enough wit early on to provide an above average lead in during the films earlier stages.

The Next Three Days is competent in it's creation and will be a passable diversion to many. However there may be other people looking for a thriller for a little more bite. This may not be the feature for them.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Review: Unstoppable

Year: 2010
Director: Tony Scott
Screenplay: Mark Bomback
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson

Synopsis is here 

I know that when you write reviews you should be totally unbiased (impossible* but as much as you can be) but after catching the trailer for Unstoppable I felt that straight away I was heading for a bad time. I was unimpressed with Tony Scott's uneven remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 and this not only looked like more of the same, but with a runaway train no doubt. Of course with a podcast to record and a co-host whose wish for us to sit through nonsense is far too strong I braved the British chill and headed to the cinema to brave Scott action overkill.

Or so I thought. It turns out that despite Unstoppable having one of those silly titles that has nearly all reviewers claiming false advertising (see also some cases of The Never Ending Story), the film itself is a good fun watch. I feel this is mostly because Scott; who's seemingly been on a quest to melt peoples eyeballs since 2004's Man on fire, tones down some of the visual tics (minus crash zooms and slow motion) to focus on the films premise. The outcome of this moderation is a tightly wound genre piece. The threat is set up quickly and efficiently, the set pieces seem sparse but they have more than enough punch and this is all combined with a likable and enjoyable cast that have fun with their quite generic character molds.

It's pretty safe to say that there's no surprises within the film. I won't lie to you and say there's something within the film that pulls the rug from you. But when you buy a ticket for a film like Unstoppable what do you want? Yes, so much of the movie has been done to death and yet Scott's direction of the material and the charm of the whole cast, keeps everything ticking over nicely.

While Unstoppable clearly shows signs of Scott "chilling out" a bit in terms of visual glitz, for some reason, the veteran director has decided to channel this extra energy into unnecessary exposition as told by countless news reporters reiterating story points in more layman terms as if your didn't understand that the train needs to stop. The theme of media coverage has poked it's head in his work before (Domino) but here it merely appears on screen as padding to help the film reach the 90 minute mark.

This is not to say that the film outstays it's welcome, as the pace is what you expect, racing to it's anticipated but fun finish. By the time this movie reaches it's destination it was hard not to throw a punch of pleasure to it's two heroes. But that's what I wanted from a film which has two leads bouncing off each other with as much ease as the two here. Denzel Washington makes sure that his experienced pro driver is seasoned as opposed to surly while Chris Pine is frustrated as opposed to cocky. This may not seem like much but it certainly helps us get on the side of these guys as typical as their backgrounds are. Their chemistry plays out well, as does Rosario Dawson's determined Connie who once again reminds us that Dawson should really have more lead roles. The rest of the cast is played by a handful of character actors you've liked (but may not have remembered their name) in a bunch of other movies (Please stand up Kevin Corrigan, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Dunn). Like I mentioned before, it's a fine mix and I could find anything to dislike in any of them. 

If you've had a problem with the U.K tubes/trains as of late, it may be wise to check out Unstoppable and see the large amount of issues the U.S have with their railroads. It's best not to think this film inspired by true events is sparked so easily by an hilarious comedy of errors. I do hope that the art didn't immediate life and that this almost tragic event is down to an extremely lazy gentleman who was more interesting in his gut than his job. But like me watching this films naff trailer and ending up enjoying this ride, stranger things have happened. 

*Impossible is the sense that as a viewer you never go into any film completely clean. Your past viewings, experiences, peers et all will always shape your viewings of course. 

Review: London Boulevard

Year: 2010
Director: William Monahan
Screenplay: William Monahan
Starring: Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis, Anna Friel,

Synopsis is here

The reviews I've found for William Monahan's directional debut have not been kind at all. In fact it's obtained some particularly bad ones. It's understandable, the film has a few problems that do frustrate. Even I found myself questioning certain aspects of the movie due to the very disjointed feel to the whole thing. This shouldn't be a bad thing, as many great films want you to ask more questions then you answer. The issue seems to be that at times London Boulevard doesn't ask the right questions, and when it does, it doesn't truly care about the answers. Many characters are lumbered within scenes with almost no real point at all, scenes don't truly build and accumulate the way they should or how we think they should. The whole thing doesn't "blend" right.

However, with all this said the films flaws didn't distract me from the pulpy vibe I gained from it. While there's a certain amount of disconnect, individual scenes and moments bring a certain amount of interest to proceedings. This may not be enough for a proper recommendation, but it's safe to say that there was enough elements of this off-kilter piece for me not to hate it.

For me one of the things that stood out for me was brought up from one of the favorable reviews I found from Mark Kermode (this weeks Radio 5 Live), who brought up the fact that elements of the story (and it's title) is a riff on Billy Wilders Sunset Boulevard, with both films having a centralized relationship with an a closed off, disturbed celebrity.What I found appealing is not only how the film flips this aspect (Norma Desmond craves the attention, Charlotte is doing everything to deflect it) but how film comments on the negative aspect of the showbiz lifestyle. There's a few scenes with Keria Knightly as the distressed, strung out star, that bring out a nasty claustrophobic feel to proceedings. It is a shame that this isn't placed through enough of the film. London Boulevard would work better if Farrell's Mitchell shared the same feelings of entrapment as it would make their curiously flat relationship stronger. It would certainly help bring about those parallels between this and Nicolas Roeg's Performance. 

I also didn't mind the performances (save Farrell's Cock-er-ney accent) which I found had a varying amount of weight behind them. Standout's include David Thewlis and Ben Chaplin who chew away at the Ealing scenery with glee. Ray Winstone is sleepwalking though his part, but you wouldn't really want anyone else to give off that big bad moody gangster that only he can give. There's also loads of little parts for some good British character actors (Stephan Graham, Eddie Marsden, Anna Friel) but while they do fine with so little, there's a feeling that these people are cast because Monahan (An American) is familiar with them more than anything else. There's nothing particularly wrong with Knightly and Farrell either other than you just don't truly believe in the romance but for me this is due to the screenplay and it's dubious dialogue (some of it sounds very scripted) over anything else.
Despite it's flaws, I didn't find myself bored, which could be easy in a film such as this one. The theme of gangster as celebrity (when the film focus' on it), the performances and Monahan clean, matter of fact visual direction of it all sparked more than enough time investment for me. The thing is about London Boulevard is that it clearly has that sense that it's made by an American and what he feels LAN-DEN gangsters are all about and that does become an issue here an there (the film also feels a tad too long). However, as a fan of Danny Cannon's The Young Americans (1993), John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday (1980) and Matt Vaughn's Layer Cake (2004) I found the film to have the right amount of rough edges to be a enjoyable slice of British thug life.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Review; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Year: 2010
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Steve Kloves
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and every other British actor working today it seems.

Synopsis is here

Close friends know I'm not the biggest Potter fan. I tried to read the first book three times and really couldn't get on with it. The book was thrown across the room and I went on and continued wit my "grown up" books. The films came out and I still couldn't get a great handle on this phenomenon. I've watched the films frustrated by the one-note flatness of the lead character, the wooden acting by the main actors, the boarding school class elitism and the bland storytelling. Fans of course will tell me I'm very VERY wrong, but there only so many of the same approach to the hero's journey I can take.

It took the sixth film however, to finally bring forth something I connected with*. A change in the arc of the character that gave me reason to invest time into these people and franchise. It wasn't perfect but it was something to hold on to. Deathly Hallows also realizes this; and while this film has it's issues, there is something about the film that makes watching it worthwhile.

While I feel I had to trudge through so much crap in order to get to the good stuff, it is quite rewarding to see how all these aspects from the other films come together. The return of characters like Dobby for instance is an interesting one, particularly due to the part he plays within the film. This doesn't excuse how mediocre I feel some of the other films have been, but it has placed the story as a whole into a more appealing light.

This isn't to say that there isn't problems with the piece. I can't say I know exactly whats going at any point and the film (kinda rightly) doesn't sit down to feed you the information. However, not being a fan leaves me at a disadvantage. Why are they going here? What's that? They're doing that why? These questions ran through my head often throughout the films noticeably long run time. I say noticeably because despite the fact that the previous film was longer, time really does seem to drag here. Deathly Hallow suffers from the same inflictions as Watchmen in that if you don't know the source well, then you may feel that for lengthy periods of time not only you don't know what's going on but also you may also feel indifferent about it. The Potter films like many book to film adaptations have had to tread that horrible tightrope of garnering new interest and maintaining fan base finickiness and this one clearly owes to those who have spent cold midnights waiting for the books to open on the impending launch day.

But who am I to argue, really? I mean now that narrative has finally raised the stakes and have these characters truly looking at their own mortality, the series has finally becoming an entertaining one. The impending sense of dread and dark times ahead flow throughout and ramp up the involvement. You know feel that anything could happen to these characters and everyone is expendable. Also from a spectacle point of view; the set pieces are some of the strongest, mostly because they're not quidditch games. The visuals are impressive with one of the most entertaining moments being delightfully Owellian. The scenes within the Ministry of Magic are not only inspired by Terry Gilliams Brazil (which of course alludes to 1984) but also perked up my interest with their subtext; mainly the fear interracial relationships. Suddenly all that elitism and class divides that I had detested before, morphs into something far more interesting: that this world of wizards has become allegory for our very own changing Britain. It's daring stuff for a family film but well worth it.  To cap it off there's even a moment which invokes Romero's Dawn of the dead. Great Stuff.

With all the doom and gloom that lies within the film, Deathly Hallows keeps us entertained with sweet moments of humor and the fact that while these characters have always been flat, they've always been likable. Another one of the films strongest moments comes from a quietly moving dance sequence between Harry and Hermione that subtly reminding us that even with the weight of the world on top of them, these characters remember that it's their closeness that has got them through so much.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1 doesn't have what one would call a true climax, but it is an effective build up to what could be an entertaining and satisfying conclusion to what some would feel is now a British institution (lets not talk about all that Warner Brothers money hey?). It's taken a long time to get to where we are and it's still not done yet, but even this cynical blogger is waiting patiently to see how this all plays out.

*Do note that my open paragraphs for Half Blood prince states pretty much that same shtick as here. Sorry for the rehash.

Monday 15 November 2010

Review: Skyline

Year: 2010
Director: The Strause Brothers
Screenplay: Liam O'Donnell, Joshua Cordes
Starring: Donald Faison, Eric Balfour, David Zayas, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel

Synopsis is here

Skyline in my eyes is either one of the funniest movies of the year or one of the worst. Take your pick. This expensive Sy-Fi channel piece of trash had me laughing almost as much as some this years comedies I sat through this year. The problem is the po-faced acting and the (admittedly) grand-standing effects; suggest that it actually wants to be taken quite seriously.

Unfortunately, when your film is ridden with trite horror film cliches, poor logic and naff homages nabbed from other films by better film makers (stand up War of the worlds, District 9, Cloverfield) I'm not going join you on your plight. This is a film in which poorly developed lead characters are quick to dismiss the choices of their significant others before turning tail and having the same characters stating a moment later "I'LL NEVER LEAVE YOU BEHIND!" Seriously? As if your 20 minutes of bitching didn't happen? Ok then.

The Strause Brothers (also behind tonally imbalanced AvP2) have once again brought about a film that relies on belief over a half baked premise over anything that comes near decent storytelling. It's great that they can create effects like that for so little money, but their lack of giving us anything that approaches interesting characters or entertaining set pieces reminded me where a cluster of modern mainstream Hollywood films are going. Skyline is all premise first, little else second with almost nothing to keep someone like myself interested in apart from it's patchy narrative turns had me cackling in the screen louder than one of the Macbeth witches. By the time L.A is nuked in a bid to destroy the aliens with their fishing line lights and their reaver like features, I was past giving a damn.

It also seems that these FX masters don't give a damn about directing their T.V actors. Now there's nothing wrong with T.V actors but when you are in a film where you really mean nothing compared to the effects on show then you in trouble. It doesn't help when your state of the art of effects don't even compare to the likes of Cloverfield or District 9. Hell even the back to basic feel of Splice works better, mostly because Vincenzo Natali wishes to make a movie based on know; interesting themes, story and stuff. But like I said, there's plenty to laugh about with the biggest giggles coming with the nuke set piece and the ending of the film which despite what it involves comes across as very brainless.

It's very obvious that Independence Day is a clear influence on this film, and as a fan of that movie (even with it's overt patriotism and cheese) I can see what it wishes to do. The problem is quite simple is there is no feeling of fun with this movie. Watching ID4 I always sense that I'm laughing WITH Roland Emmerich. I spent far too much time laughing AT Skyline and there lies the difference.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Review: Due Date

Year: 2010
Director; Todd Phillips
Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Adam Sztykiel, Alan Freedland, Alan R. Cohen
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx

It's taken me ages to write up my thoughts about Due date for the simple reason it's one of those annoyingly frustrating middling movies that fill up many a viewers film file. While everything you watch can't be masterpieces; there's nothing worse than a middling film. When a movie gives you an extreme reaction good or bad at least you know how to feel about it. Films like Due Date are more agitating as their mediocre moments can sometimes leave you emptier. Your asked what your thought afterward and you can hardly be bothered to answer: "it was ok". At least when a bad film has pissed you off your angry about it.

Due Date plays like Planes, Trains and Automobiles' miserable younger brother. Whereas John Hughes' 1987 comedy is zany, slapstick and yet warm. Due Date plays out like a misguided adolescent who wants to rebel. It's ruder than anything Hughes would ever do and yet at times still wants to be loved the same way. A few reviewers have mentioned that film is quite mean in moments (nearly every conversation Robert Downley Junior's douchy Peter has is needlessly confrontational) and while I agree I'm not too bothered about such things (big fan of Kenny Powers here). What I am bothered about is the Jekyll and Hyde aspect that comes out because of this. A scene involves Peter gut punching an annoying kid gave the nasty side in me a bit of a giggle. However, with the knowledge that this man is trying to get home for the birth of his own child it makes you fear for the unborn slightly. The same goes for Zack Galifianakis' Ethan who is clearly the Doofus to Peter's straight man. Why do we have an awkward scene where the Ethan nearly humiliates Peter for not truly knowing his Dad? This is particularity troublesome when the film wishes us to feel for Ethan for losing his own father. The cake is on the table and Due Date is mighty hungry.

My issue with the film is quite simple: there is no warmth. Planes, Trains and Automobiles worked because the two people you were watching are likable people. Yes, it's Steve Martin and John Candy but the enjoyment is in the character. Due Date has two one-note, ignorant, self-involved travellers that annoy each other (and sometimes the audience) and yet want us to state that all is forgiven because the reason for their travels are noble. It sometimes takes more that just dropping sympathetic scenes within a movie to make me give a damn. If you want to make us care about Peter's plight, why don't you give him and his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) an actual relationship? Bland chat over the phone is something I can do with far away family members.

There is humor if you search for it. The wish to have those"edgy" gags that all comedies post-Farrelly/Smith/Apatow (delete where appropriate) gives us an amusing Danny Mcbride cameo, a surreal, throwaway Malcom X joke I rather enjoyed and a few Galifianakis that aren't two bad (despite the fact that the film tries to gain humor from the fact that he's simply portly and bearded). To add to this, Robert Downley Jr can do a great douchebag on que. But despite the hyperbole the ads have lavished upon Due Date, the real outcome is merely some post Hangover outtakes and some tirades between two not very pleasant people. Todd Phillips can and has done better.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Review: Let Me In

Year: 2010
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Matt Reeves
Starring: Chloe Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins

Synopsis is here:

It's very interesting that David Cronenberg gets no shit for his remake of The Fly. In fact when you ask some people, they probably don't even know it's a remake due to the fact that Cronenberg did such a great job with his version. For many his film is the one to be celebrated. The same could be said (depending on who you speak to) for Christopher Nolan and Insomnia (remake from a 1997 Scandinavian feature). I do believe John Carpenter gets almost nothing but props for his remake of The Thing from Another World (1951). The Thing is considered one of his best movies. And as for Invasion of the body snatchers, well you can take your pick of the four different versions of the material (1956, 1978, 1993, 2007).

Yes, when it comes to remakes we do get fussy don't we? These days our horses are never higher then when we hear of a film being redone, remixed, reimagined or rebooted. I was pretty much told that I was wrong to enjoy The Departed over Infernal Affairs, while those who know me know never to mention The Omen 666 within close proximity to me. We love those original ideas the way they were, and who the hell are Hollywood to be stealing ideas and gussying them up? Well considering that the first remake was The Great Train Robbery (1903) they're only doing what the medium has been doing since the beginning.

Which brings me on to Let Me In. A remake of the very successful Let The Right One In (2008), Let me in was quickly pushed into development much to the outrage of many fans of the Swedish vampire flick. I can see why many are so angry. The issue with remakes these day are of course time, volume and knowledge. If Let the Right One in was a little known 50's film from New Zealand then no one would give a damn. Unfortunately it's not. It's a critically revered vampire drama released not even two years ago as I write this. Because of such a short turnaround, a high volume of material being remade and so many people knowing (and liking) the original, this makes Let Me In feel more than a tad unnecessary.

The dirty little secret is however, Let Me In is quite good. In fact there are certain changes within the film that are accomplished better than the original film. One is a stunning, one shot, car crash set piece that not only replaces a botched changing room incident but does so with terrific aplomb. Another is how Matt Reeves displayed the strained relationship between Mother and Son within the film. Reeves use of long shorts, opaque glass and generally obscuring the mothers face in conversations with Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) enhances the isolation the character feels within the film. That strained relationship is of course within the original film, however it's not as strongly implemented.

Such moments hit harder as Let Me In is a more slightly more aggressive film than it's counterpart. However films need balance and the films more "bombastic" aspects sway the movie slightly. Let The Right One In is a film of poetic beauty with much of it's power coming from being so understated. Let Me In reminds you that American movies (particularly now) are more about reference and clarification than anything else. The opening segments involving Owen seem to evoke Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960), while the singular scene involving Owen's father is no longer a quiet meeting but a telephone conversation with dialogue to push the development. If there's one thing that Let the Right One in does well it's tell the story with it's visuals. Let Me In is a "louder" affair with it's overwrought score, extra dialogue and more explicit violence. It's filling in the holes, telling you a little more than you need and taking away the ambiguity.

This reaffirms something that I believe some American features suffer from; which is, lack of faith in the audience. It's very slight but the aforementioned elements shows a reluctance from Reeves to just run with things.  He has two brilliant child actors to work with (Smit-McPhee and Moretz are grounded and believable and intensely watchable here) and both have these wonderfully evocative faces to utilize, and for the most part he uses them well. However in the need to make the film it's own entity, Let Me In simplifies it's narrative (the bullies are harsher, but no cryptic crotch shots) to make everything feel more palatable. There's also certain choices that help morph the film into more of a "thriller" than the coming of age drama, vampire hybrid Let The Right One In happily straddles. 

But lets make things clear here. Reeves coming off Cloverfield (a film I consider an extraordinarily well done genre piece) has made a beautifully shot and entertaining film which despite a few side steps still manages to maintain that emotional core relationship and does not offend the source material. What it lacks in subtly it makes up in balls. I did not have that same rush I felt after watching Let The Right One In but I did find myself more than satisfied with the end product. I will suggest you watch the original film but there is nothing wrong with this film being a noisier cousin.

Note: I stated in my original review of Let The Right One in that the movies score was obtrusive. After a second viewing this week and watching this I can safely say I was wrong.

Monday 1 November 2010

Review: Burke and Hare

Year: 2010
Director: John Landis
Screenplay: Nick Moorcroft, Piers Ashworth
Starring: Andy Serkis, Simon Pegg, Isla Fisher

Synopsis is here

To describe Burke and Hare? Jaunty. It's a very silly mish-mash of Ealing-lite themes and efficient Landis direction that brought a smile to my face and a lovely feeling in my heart knowing that although this is no way near the best the filmmaker has brought us (where do we start?), he can still pull something out of the hat to tickle in the right place.

This is not to say that every joke works as well as it could, for every big laugh there's a few more titters. While it doesn't feel like that much of a hodge-podge, it's clear to see that every so often that Landis' film somehow slips into a more "American style". Don't ask me how, if you've read more than one of my rambling posts it clearly shows that I'm a mere mortal in front of gods (I urge you to watch Trading Places). But there are moments in structure and gags through out that just feel not so much out of place, but...odd. This is despite the fact that the screenwriters hail from these isles. There's a feeling that with someone else the film could be darker, more gruesome, more British, more....Ealing.

 This however does nothing to ruin Landis' enthusiasm to the piece(s), there's some nice moments that give that Ealing vibe (many stem through that wonderfully expressive Serkis face) while you can why the dastardly duo appeal to Landis who doesn't mind nearly portraying them as less musical but just as entrepreneurial blues brothers. If those guys were sent from Heaven then Burke and Hare must have been from the other place. Landis still manages to enthuse his trademark energy into certain sequences which while some don't completly pop, they still manage to crackle/cackle (delete where appropriate).

The cast are clearly game also. It should get tiresome of saying that Andy Serkis is great to watch (it doesn't) while Simon Pegg isn't brilliant with accents but not too shabby with giving his character enough humanity to allow us to latch on to this wicked twosome. A weak link unfortunately is a very underused Isla Fisher while Jessica Haynes (nee Stevenson) can easily do more but has fun with whats given. There's also nice small roles for Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry and Ronnie Corbett who don't stretch too far but don't have to. There's also a truck load of silly little giggle-some cameos.

I won't say you couldn't do more with Burke and Hare. The trailer says 'orrible and gruesome but the outcome is a slightly more tame than one could imagine. There's also a tiny issue of the film's final act not coming together as well as it could have, with the final outcome aiming for quite a bit of bittersweet emotion, but missing the mark. Burke and Hare looks almost set to obtain middling reviews (see Robbie Collins or Boyd and Floyd on the BBC radio five podcast) but for myself I enjoy it more than enough to warrant another look when it crops up on television.

Friday 29 October 2010

Review: Catfish

Year: 2010
Director: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
Starring: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Nev Schulman

WARNING: I don't mention explicit plot moments, however, my review may reveal more than one may like to know about the movie.  

An old work colleague passed away last year, and a friend asked me and others who knew her to change our facebook profile picture to the last one she had in her memory. It's a small action, but an affectionate one and many of us obliged. A few days into this I received a facebook message from an American who lets just say, wanted to "get to know me better". It doesn't help that my first name is Leslie despite the masculine spelling and my middle name being Byron. A brief e-mail exchange soon had the horny youngster was back on his way. Possibly off to look for more "sexi gals" or whatever.

Now if my mindset was a more dubious one, I could have easily seen how deep the rabbit hole could have been. I mean, my privacy status on FB is high so I could have easily toyed with this guy by merely sending messages pretending to be a girl.

This leads me to the main aspect of Catfish, a film in which a privileged New York photographer (Nev) develops a correspondence with an 8 year old girl (Abby) on facebook. She likes one of his photos and asks if she can paint it. As odd as this sounds right now, it's ok because Nev is also contacted by Abby's mum Angela. Nev accepts and pretty soon he begins a pleasant and harmless internet relationship which evolves around their respected artforms. Nev is then introduced over facebook to Abby's older sister Megan and a more intimate relationship develops. However, they have yet to meet...

Catfish was the most talked about documentary at Sundance and it's misleading trailer hints that the films final 40 minutes are something much more sinister. The outcome however, is a much more heartfelt affair. The deceptive marketing actually works towards Catfish's advantage, as does all the "is it real" talk that some more disapproving critics have been landing at it. While I can accept certain moments have a certain "unauthentic" feel, and the frightening amount of tech that should reveal the truth much quicker than it takes, like my aforementioned story in the first paragraph it becomes clear that the dream over comes the reality. Like joining a cult, we believe we're far too intelligent to fall for anything like that and forget that we are actually more susceptible. I do wonder how many people will be quick to debunk this but not look at their favorite reality shows with the same amount of skepticism.

For me Catfish is all about the story itself and whether or not the film is "true" it manages to encompass the fears and worries that social media has brought, and tells us in an disturbing, funny and heart felt manner.  The Social Network tells us that one of the most powerful tools to impact our social landscape since the telephone was conceived by someone deeply unsociable. Catfish expands on this showing us in it's low-fi approach how slippery our "second personalities" have now become. We can connect to people far easier than ever and these personas not only allow to do and say things we'd never dream of in reality but we do so with an alarming disconnect. The final scenes show us two people who would probably never speak to each other in other circumstances coming together and remind us of how important and powerful face to face talking can be. 

Note: The screening I went had a Q&A session with Henry Joost. I asked the question on if he values human connections even more. He responded with "Definitely, this is what the film is all about". It's also important to know that while many who have been using the internet are aware of many elements within Catfish. The film clearly notes with it's constant zippy CGI imagery that now more people use the internet and with the tech growing rapidly and those still in the dark are not that likely to look as smugly as our net savvy counterparts. Think of it like all those mothers who are still sending people chain mail.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Review: Black Swan

Year: 2010
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey

Synopsis is here

They are usually naive, sometimes obsessive and often talented; Darren Aronofsky's characters are self-assassinating creatures. We feel pity for them as they constantly cry out for help; be it drugs, fatherhood, or even the very source of life itself. The problem is their reclusive characters and obstructive behavior not only block us from helping them, but keeps them on the path of destruction.  Aronofsky has explored such people from low budget gritty dramas to high end sci-fi but never before in a horror film setting. Black Swan is his first and for me it may well be his opus.

Once again using the single camera, documentary style utilized before in The Wrestler, the visuals not only detail the brutal and tough preparation that goes into ballet, but the evocative close ups; constantly hint and suggest worry that we can't put our finger on. Aronofsky's lingering close ups of Nina's (Portman) exhausted and fretful face not only highlight the pressure that is placed on her, but also adds tension as Aronofsky encloses the space around Nina. We don't visit that many locations in Black Swan (Nina's strict routine regulates us mostly to her bedroom and the studio) but it's easy to forget this as the film wraps everything so tightly around Nina. Not only do we think that Nina is trapped in her own world but Aronofsky's camera makes sure that we feel the walls are craving in. Of course, these walls are metaphorical. Nina; whose bedroom's is covered in pink wallpaper and cuddly toys, shies away from sexual talk, and is acutely aware of the sexuality of others and doesn't appear to have any friends within the company. She is socially awkward and despite being in her twenties, one is not surprised at her mothers watchful eye over her at all times.

I felt with Nina throughout the entire film; experiencing very punishing routine, stretched muscle and tight joint. But it's not just the claustrophobic cinematography that keeps you close, but also Portman's mesmerizing performance. From when we first see her, it already looks she's on the verge of burnout. A little girl trapped inside the body of a woman. A compelling performance due Portman's ability to balance Nina's drive with her immaturity. Throughout Portman holds a fearful, childlike gaze to everyone she encounters. Answers back are mumbled while childish outbursts slip out by outside stimulus. This encapsulated world is clearly created by a domineering mother (a perfectly cast Barbara "The Enity" Hershey) and Nina's newly gained promotion installs a fight against her, she never felt she had. The relationship between the two; to me, feel very reminiscent of Carrie and Aronofsky's direction carefully teases the psychosexual aspects in many scenes. Portman is also spot on with the films later scenes as psychical pain breaks down into psychological. A good performance becomes a great one as the melding of sexual awaking, social isolation and grueling routine explode into a dazzling, liberating, final display as Swan Lake is preformed.

It is the films final, unbelievably tense third where everything comes together brilliantly. The sound design ramps up and the music becomes thunderous,  the visuals that only tricked you slightly in earlier sections come at you in full force to assault you. There are horror tropes that have been used throughout that would come across as cliche in lesser films, but are extraordinarily manipulated here. Arononfsky understands that the best horror comes from very simple and primal things, breaking Nina's natural order with exhaustion, further isolation and of course fear of the other. With all this said; I still haven't mentioned Mila Kunis' sultry performance as Lilly, which illustrates a fear of sex that Nina cannot understand. Nor have I spoke about the devilishly sleazy Thomas Leroy. Cassell clearly relishes a role like this and once again like so many of his displays, plays it pitch perfect. 

Stunningly shot and unbelievably tense, I was completely bowled over with Black Swan. Early reviews have mentioned it's audacity and ambition and it's those very things that make it stand out. It's not cookie cutter, it breaks the machine.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Review; The American

Year: 2010
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenplay: Rowan Joffé
Starring: George Clooney

Synopsis is here

Place the idea of The American into the hands of the next Micheal Bay wannabe and you'd most likely get yet another loud, flashy affair, with little substance and mounds of over the top violence. That's fine an all, but with your Knight and Days, Takers, A-Teams and other wise; it's great to see something like this.

When I say something like this; I mean adult. The American has enough guns and girls for a guy like me, but it has one crucial thing that so many shoot em ups often miss: conscience. It's remarkable at the difference such a thing makes to a film like this. The moment the chilly cold open finishes and you glimpse at the first, unflinching, heavy look on Clooney's face afterwards, you realize, that Anton Corbijn's film wishes to say more than merely "guns kill". The film isn't slapdash with what it wants to say and doesn't care how "long" it has to say it. Some have complained about the pace of the movie, I however was never bothered in the slightest. Mostly, it was due to the fact that I found myself absorbed by this character and his journey.

At it's core, The American has a quite typical "one last job" story that has featured quite heavily in many of the films I've seen this year. The last film with a similar aspects I saw of this ilk was the glossy but vapid Takers (replace one assassin with group of robbers), so one wouldn't be too surprised that I may have had slight reservations. However, what made The American a worthwhile viewing is once again the idea of consequence. The conflict within this hitman as he slowly gains an element of morality within such an amoral space is quietly compelling and admirably handled by Clooney, whose stoic performance is one of his strongest. It's one that's brilliantly at odds with the charming rouge we saw in Up in the air. Once again Clooney looks deeper within himself (see Solaris) to bring out a display that finds meaning in tiny inflictions instead of utilizing his Hollywood smile. His looks and glances does what the sparse dialogue doesn't.  The man has range and he shows it once more here.

His performance is enhanced by Corbijn's beautiful use of setting and Martin Ruhe's gorgeous cinematography. They use the Italian landscape with it's vast countryside and tight, enclosed alleyways to capture the conflict that plays out within Clooney. It really is something to watch...if your into that sort of thing.

Those who want more bloodshed and carnage may find themselves frustrated with all the navel gazing, however when the quick and sharp action plays out, it does make an impact. In fact in a cinematic world where we are getting assaulted more and more with such quick fire action set pieces, the film manages to make it's violence gives more of an effect than some of the more shiny affair this year.

The American is a steadily paced story of a crisis of consequence, which teasingly does with not only with very familiar tropes (one last job assassin, tart with a heart love interest, knowing vicar) but does so and in a wonderfully grown up and precise manner. It's a movie where good and bad are merely words and decisions not only matter, they linger in the mind.

Monday 18 October 2010

Review: Never let me go

Year: 2010
Director: Mark Romanek
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley

Synopsis is here

Never let me go has the issue that I feel most avid book reader fear. Despite being proficient from a technical viewpoint (with a lovely use of muted colours), and having a strong cast that really holds it's own with the delicate material, Never let me go is missing something. I haven't read the book but it feels obvious to me that some of the nuances that Kazuo Ishiguro are missed somewhat. Maybe the films reveal is a bit too quick. perhaps the performances just don't tug on the heartstrings, or the grand themes are all a tad too subtle on screen, I'm not sure.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy in this taut and restrained piece. Like other good sci-fi, Never let me go is as much about the human condition as well as the tropes of the genre. As we gradually learn more about these characters way of life, we're not only slightly unnerved but we begin to feel for these people. Their character is drained from early in life and as the emotions inside them began to stir, so did my hope for them. There's moments within the film that are quietly heartbreaking. In many love stories, we cheer because the characters rebel against the social norms placed upon them. Their fight for love is what we go for.  In Never let me go, we lament because the fight has been taken out before these young people can even acknowledge what they're feeling. This gives the film such a fresh and unique feel from so many dramas.

And yet still something in Garland's adaptation stops me from truly falling for this movie. After a quick read of the novels synopsis I realise that there's been small changes to the narrative that dull an already muted plot, and lessen the impact one of the films more powerful scenes. The films restraint; while welcoming also causes slight problems in finding warmth within the films characters. There are moments that truly call out for it, but the mood is so subdued it may only be those who are really connected to Ishiguro's prose who can get the most out of it. 

There are three solid performances to enjoy however, with Mulligan, Knightly and Garfield all getting into the right brain space for the immature and naive players. Garfield especially rounds off a great year with a performance that almost taps into that emotion that bubbles under the surface. Kudos must also go out to the child casting as the kids not only look like their older counterparts, but give solid, watchable performances.

I've said before that is the film gets me interested enough in the book then it's done it's job. Never Let Me Go does enough to warrant my interest into heading to Waterstones and purchasing a copy of the novel. The problem however, will be that the books prose will be be rich enough for me to really get into the piece.

Review: Rec 2

Year: 2009 (UK Release 2010)
Director: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Screenplay: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, Manu Díez
Starring: Jonathan Mellor, Óscar Zafra, Alejandro Casaseca, Ariel Casas

Synopsis is here

Other reviews have said it more eloquently so I'll also jump on the bandwagon in saying that Rec 2 is the Aliens to Rec Alien. Like James Cameron's arguably superior (to some) sequel. This film concentrates on bulking up the action and expending the universe. Not a terrible thing in a world where sequels usually try and mimic the original and add nothing new (See also certain remakes). The issue with this in Rec 2 however is,  you suddenly realise that less is more. By the time the film springs it's big surprise, you won't be bitching to Toto about Kansas. In fact, screw Oz for that matter, as Rec 2 goes into a brave new world of bonkers. Some of it's inventive, a lot of it is visceral but nothing compares to how bloody barmy the whole thing is.

As I said before in my review for Survival of the dead. The zombie sub-genre doesn't need to look to Romero for interesting commentary anymore. Rec's combination of hand-held immediacy, quarantined setting and vague religious codec was a heady blend which ended on a perfect note. It also remembered that less is more, especially when it comes to found footage. Even Cloverfield knew it had to hide it's monster for as long as possible.

Rec 2 feels that it needs to fill the gaps by utilizing many, many references to various other horror flicks and some awkward (read: silly) plot moments. As it explains what the virus is and what these new characters have to do in order to survive/cure the virus. The thing is, Rec had our imagination do the hard work and the fun was in not knowing. Rec 2's quasi-exorcist shenanigans and cornball plot twists do their best to show how deep the rabbit hole goes, however, not only do they take away some of the mood (the last third becomes very jarring) but they also help expose the fact that the screenwriters had to create an uber twist to justify the films very existence. Added to this a much weaker cast (with no character development in sight) and once again you have a lesser horror sequel.

There are good points however. The films first third brings back some of the claustrophobic tension that made the first film so memorable. The films setting is still brilliantly handled at times and the use of lighting and sound really brings together that "bump in the night" feeling. There is also one or two well executed jump scares and action set pieces that help capture that familiar kinetic energy.

Rec 2's wish to expand the situation really plays havoc with what made the original what it was. One must remember that, while the first film isn't an in-depth character study, but it did have people we wanted to watch. This added to the tension that the setting and situation brought. The insistence of adding more to the films streamlined narrative really screws with the chi. With Rec 3 and 4 on the way there's a good chance that this franchise will be running on fumes very soon.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Review: Winter's Bone

Year: 2010
Director: Debra Granik
Screenplay: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence,  John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan

Synopsis is here

There's a small but telling moment in Debra Granik's Winter Bone, in which the films protagonist peeks into one of the classrooms she used study, and spies a group of children learning how to look after babies. The look on her face is a knowing one. While the kids hug their dolls and enjoy the make believe, Ree Dolly (a towering performance from Jennifer Lawrence) has already faced the reality. She's not at all envious. She just knows that what's going on in the classroom isn't her life anymore.

Like Andrea Arnold's wonderful Fish Tank, Winter's Bone is a film about strong young women. Both are willing to make tough choices, accept their mistakes, and fight against their harsh realities to realise their individuality. With Julia Roberts gaining some "less than inviting" reviews, it's once again refreshing to find a film in which has women finding themselves through their moral choices and inner strength rather than shoes and chisel jawed hunk accessories. So while other teens are debating over Team Edward and Jacob, girls like Ree Dolly  are; to steal a term from The Road: carrying the fire.

Flames are unfortunately; the last thing you will find in this films harsh winter setting. Captured beautifully by Michael McDonough (the look alone makes you feel cold in the auditorium); the films grim backdrop, parallels the bitterness of the characters Ree encounters. Granik and Rosellini's screenplay highlight this with their sparse uncomplicated script. Watching the piercing glares from the so-called "family" that Ree tussles with, you realise that it's what is not said, that gives the film such an unsettling vibe. The ruined landscape only helps enhance the foreboding atmosphere and heightens the mystery surrounding her missing father.The plot of the film also has a scant feel to it, but this only makes the film even more provocative, as we watch the characters way of life, their false truths and the antagonists damaged sense of honor provide a huge amount of emotional weight.

In the center of this, is a mesmerizing display by Jennifer Lawrence who plays a girl whose clearly had to rise three people before the age of consent and will do anything to keep the family whole. Lawrence gives Ree a steely selflessness stoic heroism that cuts through the cold surroundings and is hard to ignore. Much has been said about Lawrence, but something also has to be said about the stunning display by John Hawkes whose makes sure that it's the expressions that make the impressions. There's an amazing scene involving Hawkes and a police sheriff that shows that the ice doesn't just rest on the ground.

There's true heroism within the film, displayed by a character needing to do right in order to survive. You see her fear and worry but her spirit and will to fight through the family secrets is remarkable to watch. Winter's Bone was a joy to watch from it's quiet opening moments, to it's subtly optimistic ending. Great Viewing.