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.