Thursday 28 June 2012

Review: Searching for Sugarman

Year: 2012
Director: Malik Bendjelloul

WARNING: Sorry if this review sounds vague. This film must have certain aspects withheld, least it spoil the film. Short Version: Heart warming celebration to music and a man.

Searching for Sugarman does what a good documentary should. I went in knowing nothing and exited knowing a little bit more about a subject. I also came out thoroughly entertained by a film that at first appears to be a dark thriller before blooming into a small, heart warming tale. Bendjelloul does nothing out of the ordinary with the subject matter in terms of  the film making process. But the simple effective execution of the work  is what makes a film such as this stand out.

We are told of a Detroit musician with a Dylan-esque voice and similar subject material, who produces two albums that is enjoyed by the few who hear it in the U.S and yet sells peanuts. We are told that the young musician is so distraught from his experience, that he kills himself on stage...This is no Cobain or Buckley, and as this musician didn't "make it" his name fades into obscurity...until a copy of the musician's record is brought from America to South Africa during the midsts of the apartheid.

To say any more will ruin the film. In fact I feel that I may have already said too much. The joy of Searching for Sugarman (apart from the music) is that, in an age where films like Prometheus, leak viral clues to into every orifice of a pop culture junkie, to go into the documentary with no knowledge makes it's surprises and outcomes all the more sweeter. 

The film paints a picture of an artist in the truest form. The mystery that is set in place is tightly handled, as we are drip feed information about Rodriguez, an enigmatic musician, whose inner city folk music enriches young liberal South African musicians. His work details a struggle, which strikes a chord so deep that some of his listeners become musicians themselves. Rodriguez' album goes platinum in South Africa and all the while the creator knew nothing.

The plot thickens and we are introduced to two sleuths who do anything to try and find out who Rodriguez was and what actually happened to him. It's easy to get wrapped up in the enthusiasm as we slowly piece together the tale. The film gives us a pantomime villain in Motown Record's Clarence Avant. His money orientated rant and who cares attitude betray the films overwhelming sweetness, but also illustrates the importance of the films plight and message, if although coming off more than a little forced. However, that is how many documentaries come across. The film does have an air of manipulation at times. At it's weakest points, I can't say that I was getting that feeling of the so-called "ecstatic truth" that Herzog reaches for. 

This does not mean that such a heart warming film doesn't have a lot to say. It is worth noting that much of the film talks about a that now distant future before the internet. it reminds us just how small that world wide web has made the world as the revelation that take place within the film could only happen before the days of web 2.0.

It's also worth noting that the film's story takes place before the internet, we realise just how small the www has made the world as something like this could only be happen before the days of digital communication. Despite a few reservations of the slightly manipulative aspects that seeped through, what can't be faked is the reaction and enthusiasm the lies in Rodriguez's music in South Africa. The films final act is a brilliant celebration of a man's work. The contrast of how the likes of Clarence Avant viewed Rodriguez compared to the unbelievably humble way of the musician himself as we discover clues about his past not only display the power of music, but a powerful reflection of what is considered to be an artist.

This is a revealing comparison to a film like Overnight, which deals with an obnoxious nobody becoming a somebody, in such a way you shed a small tear for humanity. Searching for Sugarman shows the other extreme, in which if a man has humility as a basic foundation, he could be considered to some a true artist. 

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Year: 2012
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay: Seth Grahame-Smith
Starring: Benjamin Walker, Anthony Mackie, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell

Synopsis is here:

The name literally says it all, and yet still doesn't do enough to live up to it's pulpy expectations. What could have been a hyperactive, knock around b-movie with an abundance of topical subtext (for those who want that sort of thing) is actually a film that excites in nothing but name only. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter suggests a truck load of thrills, but apart from one or two catchy visuals, the film is a damp squib.

One should have known that their hard earned blue beer tokens, were to be wasted on a lackluster endeavour, when the first montage sprang forth from it's dusty crypt. Why so dusty? For it was a training montage that even the weaker Rocky movies may have jeered at. This for me, was the first sign that the films blend of history and horror myth may have been misguided.

Once again into the breech one goes, to a film that doesn't just trim the fat of it's story, it hacks at the meat. Characters are introduced as somewhat important, before vanishing quicker than the on screen vampires. There are sub-plots, which hint a much more thrilling and enjoyable movie, that are yanked away like ill gotten weeds round a prized plant. What we a left with however, are some malnourished buds struggling to flower.

The film stilted story, pitches the idea that while America fought a brutal battle with itself, something more ominous lied underneath. The idea that this civil unrest and the fear of the minority "other" helped usher in another odious (yet more mythical) threat to humanity, is an interesting premise. That slavery helped breed actual monsters underneath such a blood stained veil, is a quirk of a concept that the film never gets to grips with. The film talks about slavery, and has yet another thankless supporting role for poor Anthony Mackie to looked pained in as some sort of representation. However; as Hollywood hasn't been particularly good with tackling race in recent years (see the navel gazing Oscar winner Crash), the film keeps well away from truely confronting any of America's complex relations (a metaphor is placed and quickly forgotten about). It does however, have a bunch of uninviting set pieces that tries to bond all the dull plot points together. However, considering the film jumps from pillar to post with no real rhyme or reason, it doesn't matter. Don't go to the loo, or you'll miss Honest Abe jump from lowly shopkeep to President in a blink of an eye. 

For me a big problem is how the more fantastical elements are handled. The mythology of the teen dream vamps of twilight are better explored. At least there we get a better hence of the world those vampires inhabit. Watching the wasted Rufus Sewell do as much as he can with a villain with no palatable threat is no only heartbreaking but revealing. No mewling quim moments here. Despite all the bloodshed, these vampires lack the the bite which make others so memorable. I'd rather be watching the Master when he executed a similar plan in an early episode of Buffy, but that's just me. I do believe however, Abe's rag tag Scooby gang would have the Wheedonverse howling with laughter, such is their paper thin characters. Expected in a film such as this, but still not welcomed. 

This is not to say that director Timur Bekmambetov doesn't bring anything to the table, as his off kilter visual trademarks crop up here as they did in Wanted and the Nightwatch Saga. However, for all Wanted's alterations, and the muddled plot aspects of Nightwatch, both still managed a sense of purpose and consistent tone. The moment of a vampire leaping into a crowd of charging horses, and using them as moving road blocks, is an outlandish one, but it comes few and far between, considering just how po face serious this film takes itself. The glazed over look of relative unknown and lead Benjamin Walker helps sum up that even when something vaguely amazing happens, it's just another day for old Honest Abe

The bothersome thing is that I worry about some of the more gullible viewers in the audience. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is so dull throughout, that they may take the film on board as a horribly inaccurate history lesson. As it seems that Mr Lincoln's b-movie crusades are more interesting in title than execution. 

Note: Those interested in a brilliant melding of vampire thrills and Americana could do worse than picking up the excellent Steakland, which mixes, religion, the old west and bloodsuckers into a modern post-apocalyptic road movie stew.  

Monday 18 June 2012

Review: Arena

Year: 2011 (U.K Release 2012)
Director; Jonah Loop
Screenplay: Tony Giglio
Starring: Kellan Lutz, Samuel L Jackson

Synopsis is here:

Arena reminds me once again; that while Samuel L Jackson can make Quentin words sing, give him the cash and he'll be in damn near anything. Yes, the world's highest grossing actor certainly knows how to pick his movies. One look at his filmography; details a man whose done nearly everything and worked with damn near everyone. Yes, he made it big with Tarantino, but look further back to see him on projects with the likes of Milo Foreman, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Phillip Noyce. Leap past 1993 (Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park) and see the list of notable names continue, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Sodenbergh, William Friedkin to name a few. A true elitist snob may sneer at such a populist line up but to a man whose favourite film is House Party, the list is pretty impressive. So impressive, that it's a shame to see Jackson lend his name  t a film that can't be bothered to name him in the opening credits.

It's not like Arena makes a secret of Jackson's involvement. His face is smugly plastered on the cover of the DVD (or lovefilm download), he's the first famous face you see within the film (first two minutes) and he's certainly credited at the end of the film. But no, the "bad motherfucker" gives away his name sake for Kellan Lutz, as this appear to be a vehicle for him. That's pretty good going, considering Jackson stood firm on his wish for a purple lightsabre. 

I've blathered about Jackson for two reasons, the first being that Jackson's performance is the best thing about Arena. The second reason is quite simply for a man of such considerable talent and presence (his performance as a crack addict in Jungle Fever is really something) I find it astonishing that Jackson is willing to grace his presence in something so tepid. 

Arena looks like it wants to update The Running Man premise in the similar way that the risible Gamer wished to. Now with the Internet so open and uncensored to everyone, the film's main conceit is that an illegal gladiator style combat arena would thrive due to the lack of restriction the Internet has. The idea isn't new, and similar threads can be found in the likes of Hostel, The Hunger Games or the aforementioned Gamer.

The problem with Arena is that it trite, corny, unexciting and not at all interesting in the slightest. Does it want to be a satire? If so then it's not sharp enough. Show masses of people garnered around to watch such death games is one thing, but when the images are so dislocated from the rest of the film, they give no true contribution. Wow, college kids watch graphic content on the Internet. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the film didn't just show us such scenes, for the sake of showing it. It postures and pretends to comment but literally has nothing to say. 

That's fine, so then does the film wish to be a proper vehicle for it's twilight star Lutz? Possibly, but it doesn't show him in a great light. It may be some of the mealy mouthed dialogue that he has to spout, but it could also be due to the fact that Lutz himself doesn't stand out despite being in every scene of the film. Out of the four other films I've seen, in which he featured, he has made little to no impact. I do not remember him in those films and despite his model looks, he does nothing to change my feelings for him as a performer. Jackson tries to carry him but there's only so much energy one can give and scenes continuously fall flat. 

Does the film transpire to just a good old fashioned B-movie actioner? Well it exploits enough women to almost achieve this? Arena is a film in which women are either scheming (often naked) servants to the film's predictable plot/shirtless man, wordless prostitutes or teenage girls who are either hushed (because violence is more interesting) or mocked due to their dislike of graphic violence. The violence itself? Well would you rather watch a repetitive montage set to generic rock? Or would you rather watch The Raid? An action film should excite with it's set pieces despite other flaws, which this does not.

It could be easy to lash out at Arena because it's a video release (no theatrical) but Arena gets no love as it's a toothless bore. Those more versed in such action features will roll their eyes at it's cheesy, on rails plotline and be switched off by it's bog standard action. Every so often, you can find Samuel L "slumming it" in productions like this. But considering the movie star he is, it doesn't particularly matter. He can pick what he want and rake in billions with Marvel, this won't even make it as a footnote of his cinematic achievements.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Review: Prometheus

Year: 2012
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Micheal Fassbender, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce

Synopsis is here

WARNING: As always I don't try and ruin plot to those sensitive to spoilers and the like. However, when talking about a film such as this one, what's nothing to one person could be something to someone else. So those who are worried, just avoid at all costs. Short review: I liked it, but...

A film like Prometheus is the perfect milestone to showcase the evolution of a director. Such a prospect is always appealing to me. It's a chance to see in what ways a filmmaker has progressed from their beginnings. You can take on board what they've learnt and now what they can now bring you and Ridley Scott's Prometheus is no exception. The first thing you witness with Prometheus, 33 years after the release of the film which allows this prequel to exist, is the scope.

Prometheus is a film about scale. The ideas behind it are grand in size. This is not just the visuals, which take you from the vast highlands of Scotland to the dank terraformed crevices of LV-233, but also in themes. Prometheus is about creation and how we perceive the very notion our own being. The question of how we would interact with those who may have made us, and how they would respond to us, is raised often. Like other sci-fi's before it, the film plays with the idea that if someone had created us, we may only be playthings or nuisance's.It's this desolate idea that brings the films anxiousness, even more so than the ozzing and/or the creature features. Prometheus, like another poignant sci-fi, Moon, is quick to tell us our own significance may only significant to ourselves.  The film toys with this through many of the dynamics of the characters. Layered amongst the hi-tech gadgetry and ozzing canisters,  three relationships touch upon basic concepts of how we relate to our own creators, family.

The first half of the film concentrates on such matters and takes it's time with such matters too. Prometheus is gradual with it's building blocks, with Scott trying to place pieces together like a chess strategy. These themes matched with Scott's wonderful visual eye (with some sublime cinematography from Dariusz Wolski) help show that Prometheus is a film that wishes to be warranted with a certain grandeur.

Such grandeur however comes with an unfortunate amount of weight. Despite it's posturing and exclamations from the director himself. Prometheus is still a chip from a larger milestone and there is a baggage it cannot shed for a matter of reasons. One can argue that this is not meant to be an "alien film", however, the film's references and echoes are not only as clear as day, but sometimes come across as clunky as some of the films dialogue and characterisation.

Prometheus almost threatens to fall apart in the second half of the film. There's a distinct sloppiness, that allows character inconsistencies, outlandishness and rushed revelations to take over. One example comes from an individual who provides two oddly placed, but stark, bait and switch moments, that just do not come naturally from the character themselves. One moment is a turn of heroism which sits awkwardly with moments we've seen.  A handful of characters are not integral to the plot, and are written in any particular way, making their outcomes feel quite necessary. Scott stated that there was only strands within the films DNA, but the films hectic climax seems all too hasty to tell us what universe this is all in.

It's been argued that the main characters are hard to care for. I don't think so, but I do feel that the film installs a coldness about them. Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw is not Ellen and isn't meant to be. However, the resilience of Ripley is replaced with a grating "true believer" who appears quick to distress and given a relationship that could have been given more depth. Other prominent roles from Charlize Theron (icy and determined), Idris Elba (cool captain) and Sean Harris (getting slightly typecast) are sketchy in terms of their writing, but are given more heft due to their performances. A creepy performance which stands out stems from Micheal Fassbender as David, who becomes the glue which tries to gel many of the pieces together despite his own schizophrenic actions within the film.

Flaws aside, Prometheus is at it's best when it does it's own thing. The film with it's talk of ancient gods, is really all abut the genes. One of the stronger threads is one the film shares with the Alien series, that the female of our species is quite simply the most vital and important link of our being is at times wonderfully explored as a visual metaphor. When the film ponders on the questions that we wish to ask our own "engineers" it excels. It's a shame that when the film captures symbolic moments, we're given the laymen's dialogue for the so called "slower" viewers of the audience.

Despite it's clear wish for grand gestures, Prometheus, does remind me just how tight and taut Alien was, whether it wanted to or not. This is not the horror, sci-fi hybrid many may expect, but it does strive for something intriguing. It doesn't go for out and out scares, but give out manage to bring forth a certain foreboding, and quiet distress around its pontificating (although it needs more Geiger). For now (until the directors cut raises it's head) Prometheus is an sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating artefact which is clearly ready to take some strides in it's own direction. It may just have to get rid of the facehugger snapping at it's heels.

Friday 1 June 2012

Review: Men in Black 3

Year: 2012
Director: Barry Sonnigfield
Screenplay: Etan Cohen
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Emma Thompson, Michael Stuhlbarg

Synopsis is here

For a film that went into fillming without a finished script, MIB3 almost manages to hang together. It seems it does this due to a lot of heart, a time travel plot that freshens things up a bit despite feel like a futrarama episode, a relatively decent villain, and some killer Tommy Lee Jones mimicry from Jeff Brolin. Is it wrong that if there has to be another entry (if the moneys good, they'll probably all be there) I'd like to see this partnership team up again and jump through a different decade a la quantum leap? I certainly can see that more than anything continuing with Jones.

Jones, a man I once lambasted or being on rails in William Friedkin's The Hunted is far worse here. That film, released almost ten years ago (much like the last MIB film) had a monosyllabic Tommy Lee slowly tracking down Benico Del Toro. But I can possibly forgive the film for what it was trying to do. Here Jones (like the most of the films comedy and a sleepwalking Smith) is firing on no cylinders.

Jones' older K, takes up most of the first act and oddly unlike the first film, none of his time together with Smith's J is worthwhile. He doesn't seem interested, but then neither does the script which is uneven and practically devoid of jokes. The film only gets going when Smith enters the sixties. A scene in Warhol's Factory raises an eyebrow, while the small moment involving Smith's Jay experiencing racism in old timey New York is handled well enough to raise a smile. But a smile is all. There's an edge that's missing from MIB3, that many could well remember from The Addams Family.

There is, however, a certain amount of pluck within the film. It lies in the character of Griffin. While the character is a complete basil exposition, Griffin shines brighter than he should, due to an energetic child-like display from A serious man's Michael Stuhlbarg.  A well cast and nearly wasted Emma Thompson, does well with the antics and gives us slightly tender moment that hints at a sub-plot should have been handled better. Josh Brolin also gives a climatic scene way more heft than expected, all of which reminds us of some of the smaller aspects which made the first film (and not the awful second) appealing. It also helps that the meat of the clue seeking aspect of the plot within the second act does enough to grab some attention.

The main problem is that for a comedy adventure, it is sub-par. The action may not be much to tattle about, but it just about does the job. With this said, I could have done with some yuks. But then again, maybe if they finished the script before filming, they would have had time to work on the jokes.