Wednesday 29 September 2010

Review: Exit through the Gift Shop.

Year: 2010
Director: Banksy
Screenplay: ?
Starring: Banksy, Thierry Guetta

Synopsis is here

Is it real? Is it fake? Is it all a big joke? It doesn't matter in the slightest because Banksy's "documentary" was really quite wonderful to my eyes. So much of it feels a little too "complete" to feel like an accurate documentation. However, in hindsight, that's not really the point, because what Exit wishes do is show street art at humble beginnings. Constantly he runs the line between when art becomes nothing but commerce before teasing the idea that the director is not a sell out...or is he? The film likes to play around with so much of it's content it's at times difficult to pinpoint how far the message turns into ego massaging.

But this is where the fun lies, as a documentary;  it's a consistently watchable feature, charting the rise and peak of not only a niche culture(Graffiti now under the guise of "street art"), but of it's wildly eccentric subject in French Shopkeeper Thierry Guetta. Banksy melds intriguing personality with interesting premise effectively and at face value, what you have is well put together account of a very passionate man. Scratch the surface (or watch a couple of films) and the film is as authentic as the ten pound notes you see halfway through the film. But suddenly we realize that in playing the film out as fiction the message becomes clear.

Bansky's film takes what some considers an artform (graffiti) and not only documents it's craft, it's hazards and controversy (consider an updated style wars maybe) but it shows how the message and reasons behind these images (politics, humour, or just being noticed) can suddenly become lost when the calling of fame and celebrity come calling. In one moment former street artist Shepard Fairey (behind the now iconic Obama "hope" image) states "The more you see of an image, the more power it brings" and Banksy toys with this interesting theme with a layered sequence involving his own L.A installations. As Hollywood's finest stroll amongst the imagery, Banksy is actually at Disneyland inflating a Guantanamo Bay Air model prisoner beside one of the kids rides.  When you are told that the many news presenters are reporting about the fact that a real elephant (covered in pink kid's hand paint) is displayed in a bedroom at the installation. The full stop on these two seemingly unrelated oddball exercises is the date: The anniversary of 9/11.

But it's not all about proverbial/literal elephants in the room, the film is constantly humorous in it's small moments as well. The comment of the old lady who sees Bansky's "murdered telephone" piece is a deceptively obvious yet amusing one, while Guetta's street art video will feel familiar to those who've had to suffer art and experiment video production at university or at least a bad skate video. The juxtaposition of street artists being stopped by cops while an art collector mentions later on that she got everyone to buy a Banksy also provides a knowing smile. 

But the most interesting thing about Banksy film is it's director using a different artform for the first time to demonstrate how when an artform becomes a commodity, it's in danger of losing subjectivity and danger. By the time we reach the unveiling of Guetta's own pet art project "Mr brainwash"  He also demonstrates how not everyone can just become an artist. It's brilliant to use street art as the background for such a them with it's roots in hip-hop, but Banksy's film is so universal in it's telling that comparisons can be utilized not only to hip-hop, but paintings and films themselves.

I've been quite indifferent to Banksy for the most part but in watching this I feel that as an artist i don't think the man has "sold out". I think like many people who get thrust in a public eye for truly doing something that people find interesting is trying to push different messages out in different forms while trying to keep that personality. Exit Through the Gift Shop may be a film but it invokes the same reckless spirit that Banksy's street paintings have.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Review: The Town

Year: 2010
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenplay: Aaron Stockard, Peter Craig, Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper

Synopsis is here

As an actor, Ben Affleck shouldn't star in movies beginning with the letter P (Paycheck, Pearl Harbour, Phantoms all terrible in their own special way). However as a director, he can take whatever he wants right now, as his second feature, The Town, is a solid crime drama with a rounded cast and well crafted set pieces.

The first thing I noticed about the film is it's sense of place, and how grounded everything feels. Affleck's confident direction manages to give us a strong grip of the setting and characters, from it's opening dialogue (detailing the notoriety of Charlestown, Boston), to it's no nonsense heist and chase set-pieces, the film's simply constructed scenes really show us how high the stakes are for those involved. One first glance you feels these characters have near to nothing, but it's that need to hold on to whatever they have that keeps the film interesting. Looks hide secrets, words have the right weight on them to feel loaded. Affleck's direction of the actors to convey these moments show that he clearly picked something up when he was on all those other film sets.

These performances are needed as they distracted me from the films story as unfortunately it is not the freshest thing on these years menu. It's one last job plot is a safe and rigid bet but it's also one that really doesn't say anything different. It's a safe rigid structure that isn't a bad thing but does little to sway me from other films that I own in my collection. A quick glance on the net before writing this had people uttering Heat in the same vicinity and while that's high praise indeed, quite simply that particular film has more to say. If there's a negative thing I have say about The Town, it's that until the final moments, it feels like it's on rails.

Unoriginal doesn't mean you cannot enjoy it, and The Town works by having a more than enough entertaining scenes. The opening heist has all the confusion and aggression of a bank robbery but also subtlety introduces us to certain aspects of the characters personalities. Two small (but well thought of) moments within that scene involve Affleck cutting from the action being seen in "real time" POV and switching to grainy black and white CCTV only allowing the quiet hiss of the recording keep us safe before jumping back into the visceral sequence taking place. Another scene features Jon Hamm's FBI Agent Frawley and Blake Lively's drugged out ex-girlfriend Krista playing out like a guy picking up a girl and ending up to be something else entirely. One of the strongest moments is a scene in which a moment of light conversation quickly ripples with tension due to the appearance of a tattoo. When elements like this play out, the film is really in it's element.

The ensemble cast is accurately chosen, and deliver the performances needed for a film like this. Veteran's such as Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite give small but pivotal moments, while Jon Hamm and Blake Lively give watchable and fresh introductory performances for those who don't watch Mad Men or Gossip Girl respectively. Jeremy Renner once again shows his talents as the live wire Jem. This is a performance that in the wrong hands would have been an attention seeking display of OTT cheese but here, he places the right amount of damper on the trigger happy character to make sure that the danger is shown and not the hammy. Rebecca Hall has the right amount of vulnerability and honestly to care for her, while Affleck in the lead as the reluctant thief struggles slightly with some of the extended monologues, but gives an impressive presence which is not only imposing but also has ability to pull off a sense of calm.

The Town has a lot going for it. It's action gives a rush that was missing from one or two of the summer movies, the character moments work well the pace of the film build well and I was never bored. The film's ending however leaves me conflicted. as I'm not sure as if it's a cop out or not. It doesn't really ring true, this may be however due to the amount of sympathy related to our lead character. Affleck almost overreaches here trying to get me to feel for something that I don't think it's lead deserves.On another day I may have found it a complex conclusion as it strays slightly from what I expected. However looking back the final moments I found myself just a a little bit frustrated. Don't let that or it's relatively safe story sway you though, Affleck is a competent director and The Town is a well executed, adult, crime drama worth your notes for a ticket.

Monday 20 September 2010

Review: The Other Guys

Year: 2010
Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Adam Mckay, Chris Henchy
Starring: Will Farrell, Mark Wahlberg, Samuel L Jackson, Dwayne Johnson, Eva Mendes, Steve Coogan, Micheal Keaton.

Synopsis is here

Much like Monty Python, the comic styling of Mckay and Farrell are an acquired taste at the best of times. The improv oneliners and oddball acts of randomness sometimes feel like the two have just thrown everything at a wall to see what sticks. However in The Other Guys, with it's deconstruction of buddy cop plots and almost mature touches of commentary (constantly hinting at the average joe being stiffed by the big guys), the film feels much more complete; and less like a bunch of random skits.

It's capitalist crime job which is the underlying plot for the comic weirdness feels a little too on point, but also appears to rip on the 80's and 90's cop actioners excess not only in movies (the beginning would make Don Simpson raise from the grave.) but white collar excess and blindsiding in general. A prime example would be Coogan's criminal character using sports/theatre tickets to bribe our "other guys". It's amusing enough, and is helped along by the feeling that the gag feels topical.

But it also helps that while appearing quite sly with certain digs, it has Marky Mark at the forefront slapping me round the face with his comic chops. I've never been the biggest fan of Wahlberg, however here, I found his display funnier than Farrells usual shtick. Wahlberg's angry little man-dances and vacant expression to me where a constant riot. His short man syndrome had me constantly cracking up. Farrell has his moments (the "gator" backstory is a tad overused but giggle worthy), but I found myself constantly wanting to see the wannabe macho Wahlberg flare up again.

But it's not just machismo and physical humor that had me going but was also smaller things in the direction and writing (I know, in a Will Farrell feature!). Mckay's constant digging at the the genre was a great source of humor to me. Example? Watch the over edited, green-screened beginning and compare it to the last set-piece that actually allows you to see the action. While it doesn't skewer the genre as well as Edgar Wright's forever watchable Hot Fuzz, there are moments in The Other Guy that show it has its head in the right direction.

It's not all great. The film runs out of stream in the last third, and like many Farrell films; if you don't know the obscure pop culture references then you can be left stranded. It's also coming apparent that Farrell's exposure since Anchorman has been so high that his appeal is starting to wane. But still, the rhythm of the randomness hits that sweet spot more often than not, while the supporting players are not only game but use their time to shine well. Add an Angry Wahlberg and some pot shots at the genre that hit hard than Kevin Smith's plodding Cop Out and you got yourself a good giggle.

Friday 17 September 2010

Review: Devil

Year: 2010
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Screenplay: Brian Nelson
Starring: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O'Hara, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend

Synopsis is here

To say that M Night Shyamalan's recent releases have not been critical darlings is a tiny bit of an understatement. Have a quick root around Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic or IMDB and you will see The Last Airbender obtaining some of the worst reviews of not only of the year, of the man's whole career. It's getting tough for the man who was in consideration to become the so-called "next Spielberg". Things have gotten so awkward that Universal removed the filmmakers name off his producer credited film; Devil. To make matter worse, Devil has not had advance screenings to critics. The interesting thing I find about this is, that while many yell that critics mean nothing to anyone, they obviously have enough of a voice to make it seem to a studio that it's squeaky bum time.

I don't see why the studio were so worried, as it seems that M Night has finally done what many have hoped for: Come up with the idea and let other people set about the writing and directing of it. Devil has Shyamalan well ingrained into it's DNA, however by placing someone in those seats that M Night loves keeping warm, what we get is a neat, nicely paced morality tale which while flawed, still manages to be an enjoyable waste of 80 minutes.

It's important to note the films running time as it is the trimming of the fat that has been sorely missing from M Night's films. Features like The Village and The Happening, spent too much time padding out their thin narrative with portentous posturing. Constantly pretending that they were better than their twilight zone plots. Devil wastes no time in trying to raise it's head above it's B movie trappings and is all the better for it. The film is well paced and feels more focused on it's characters and the situation at hand. It helps that the writer (Brian Nelson) and Director (John Erick Dowdle) are known more for their genre filmmaking more than anything. It helps here, with the two managing to create a sufficient amount of tension and unease throughout.

This is not to say that the film hasn't got it's flaws. There is no need for the films naive narration, which like The Last Airbender, points out the obvious to the audience despite the fact that the viewers can clearly see what's happening/about to happen. Also, one of the things that M Night can do well is make sure that the actors have a certain amount of restraint in their acting. I understand that what we have is B-movie, genre territory, but by not reigning in some of the performances, the acting suffers slightly.

However with this said it is in no way bad enough to make me dislike the film in it's entirety. Like Signs, the films main theme is faith and how we respond to it in the modern world. The film handles this well and like signs, it's executed in a way that helped me forgive some of the flaws I had with the film, although someone could have turned down the bombastic musical cues.

Devil ran at a tight pace, had enough mystery to have me doubt the outcome (although I did stick to my original guess and was correct.) and ending on a wonderfully satisfying and hopeful note that really threw me. There's some interesting visuals (for a film mostly set in a lift) and all in all I left the cinema relatively happy. Then I stuck my headphones in and forgot about it. That's the problem with junk food cinema, it never lasts.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Review: Dinner for Schmucks

Year: 2010
Director: Jay Roach
Screenplay: David Guion, Michael Handelman
Starring: Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell

Synopsis is here

We're a cruel race. Just purely awful at times. Far too often we are quick to revel in schadenfreude. I doubt anyone would I'm that wrong in saying this. I mean there isn't failblog for nothing is there? We particularity enjoy laughing at those who we feel are below us. How often do you hear people talk about how they can't wait for the next season of x-factor so they can watch and laugh at the guys at the start before it gets bogged down in the actual singers. We LOVE that stuff.

It comes to no surprise that our love for imbeciles rears it's head often on the big screen. From the man child comedies of Farrell and Sandler, the box office successes of such hits as Dumb and Dumber or Wayne's World. Mainstream audiences greatly enjoy the idea of laughing at simpletons. Dinner for Schmucks is no exception.

However, as I have mentioned before with the above mentioned examples, there is usually something within the film other than "stupidity" that gives the film a certain amount of enjoyment. I have not seen Le Dîner de Cons (the french original of this film) but I wouldn't be surprised if there is a strong social/moral element that you get very often with the french affair. I mean even their action films have to have a slight subtext it seems.

The point I'm making in the worst round about way is many of these films do their best to take away that schadenfreude element. Be it the likability of the characters, or a certain satirical, social or otherwise, there is something we can get behind to make sure it's not just a viral of a fat guy falling over. Dinner for Schmucks however, is an irritatingly tedious, board comedy with an uneven tone and grating characters. Paul Rudd and Steve Carell in a film and not doing enough to lift the material? Yep, for me, it was that bad.

It's not really the fault of the actors, for me it's a screenplay issue. This is a film that has difficulty with it's lovable loser character. It's obvious that the film wants a nice board everyone appeal. Unfortunately it's decided to tie this up with someone who seems to be having real, troubled mental issues. So bad does the film miss the mark with the character of Barry, that some of the later so called "punchlines" that the film tries land sound more likened to a Todd Solondz feature than anything else. Not that I dislike Solondz but he doesn't try and shoehorn unnecessary darkness in corners for a 12a film that clearly wants to be goofy. The character of Barry is so troubling because he is the person that the whole film is weighed upon. We're just been laughing AT him and his problems, then we need give a sentimental toss at a flick of a switch as if we weren't just giggling at this guy for all the wrong reason. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed Observe and Report so much more, it's tone is dark but it doesn't suddenly try and fool you that it's dark tone was a clever rouse to get you to learn that the world is a better place if we "all get along". If you want to make clearly emotionally unpleasant jokes about finding the clitoris it works better if the rest of the film follows suit.

Add to this the fact that the film feels uniformly lazy in it's approach, Roach does nothing with the material to make this feel like a comedy worth watching. It goes from A to B at a tiresome pace, throwing in "comedic" elements that we've seen in better movies and wasting a Paul Rudd whose character in Friends (or maybe Halloween 6) had more to do than here. Lets not talk about the other comics in smaller roles because once again, you've seen them do better is other movies.

It is movies with stapled ending, simplistic humor and oddly smug overtones is why many have issues when Hollywood takes source material from overseas. I'm sure many haven't seen the French original but the backslapping, arrogant "we've clearly done it better" stench that emits from this stinker seems to say them "add it to your lovefilm".

Thursday 2 September 2010

Review: Survival of the Dead

Year: 2010
Director: George A Romero
Screenplay: George A Romero
Starring: Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick

Synopsis is here

His "modern" trio of movies are difficult to place not just in continuity (Land feels like a true continuation, Diary a modern day offshoot, Survival even more removed) but also in tone and feel. Romero seems like he still has an axe to grind socially, but the world has changed, and with the almost constant slew of zombie movies being churned out, many share similar or even more interesting commentary on the world since. Nowadays Romero can construct a dead head explosion (despite using more CGI) but when many entries like Pontypool*, 28 Days later*, Rec and others have entered the genre pool and played in the waters in recent time (with extremely interesting results, there's a feeling that the master of them all should hang up his boomsticks and look at pastures new.

It's hard for many to see their idols fall, which is why when I heard some of the terrible reviews placed on George A Romero and his latest feature, Survival of the Dead I feared the worst. Many hating it's amateur feel, lack of atmosphere and general not-being-as-good-as-his-first-three-ness. Unfortunately I too, feel the same about the film. It is nowhere close to replicating the same amount of tension and fear set the original trilogy. Most of this stems from the fact that Romero doesn't feel the need to give us interesting people to follow anymore. Many lamented the drab teens of Diary but compared to the bland army men and farm folk of this entry, it makes the Diary guys look more animated than Woody and Buzz. Romero's idea of characterization for a lesbian army soldier is merely to have a shot of her touching herself and pepper her dialogue with "tough-speak". This is the most effort placed on any of the characters, and if you found those traits a little tired, you may not stand for some of the other "personalities" on display.

What's more disturbing is the complete lack of a meaty social commentary to get to grips with. So while Rec blended faux-documentary (a very go to thing these days) with hints of religion and science, and Pontypool utilize the very use of language against us (with a nice amount of skill) Survival goes over the well trodden theme of zombies gaining memory back, and a poorly executed idea of two bickering families with differing zombie ideologies. In all honest it was done so much better in 78 when Romero hint at these aspects before in Dawn.

Instead of working on making these ideas appealing, we are given very board humor (with none of the satirical edge seen in past films, a distinct lack of conflict (these warring families spend much of the movie apart.) and oddball dialogue. All this with a nagging feeling throughout that Romero probably wants to do something else with his filmmaking.

Romero gets it's hard because of his standing in horror. he pretty much laid the grounding. so now with this his sixth dead it's frustrating to see a talent bring up something so plain. There's not much to say about this sixth offering, other than there's a lot of headshots and this is the weakest of the dead films. I remember listening to the creative screenwriting podcast and listening to Romero talk about an horror idea involving lucid dreaming. It featured no zombies and the idea sounded great. Let's hope it comes to fruition.