Friday, 28 August 2009

REVIEW: The Hurt Locker

Its taken its time, but I think the first good Iraq movie is here (Iraq mark two of course, as Three Kings was a pretty good movie.) Its a simple film I think, and definitely more interested in the action of the situation rather the politics or humanity of it. Which is fine if done well, and for the large part it is here. This is probably thanks to its director Kathryn Bigelow, who is one of the better handlers of on screen action, but has been MIA since the decidedly average K-19 bombed in 2002. This is a great comeback movie, gripping and dripping with testosterone from start to finish, as almost all of Bigelow's films do.

The film follows the trails of a bomb disposal unit, most specifically Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who is a sort of half-crazy lone-wolf type of fighter, terrific at what he does but reckless to the last and in so doing a danger to his men. Its a quality performance by Renner, who has been flirting with success for a while without ever really breaking through. After this though hopefully more doors will be open for him because he's certainly talented. Also on task are Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sgt. Eldridge ( Brian Geraghty) the former a stiff upper lipped by the books kind of soldier, with an underlying resentment cooking away whilst Eldridge is unable to deal with all the death around him and as the bodies pile up he begins to wear thin. Mackie gives a strong performance, unflashy and to the point but that compliments both Renner and the film itself. Geraghty is OK, not great but not particularly noticeable either. There are some fun cameos too, from Dexter alum Christian Camargo as a bookish high ranking officer to Ralph Fiennes briefly turning up as a badass British team commander. Guy Pearce almost steals the film in his one scene early on and there's even a walk on part for Lost's Evangeline Lilly. Although she doesn't really get to say or do anything. Bigelow holds the film together mostly shooting it in a faux documentary style that has become so popular with war films of late, but allowing for the occasional moment of style and a couple of instances of super-slo mo. But few capture action better then Bigelow and as a result the film is entertaining as it is harrowing, which it certainly is at times.

A well-made, tightly written war film with a good eye for the set-piece and a good understanding of its characters. One of the stronger examples of a film of this type in a while.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Spiral568's Greatest Movie Countdown: No#98: Toy Story

Pixar is certainly in an enviable position these days. No other studio perhaps of ever can claim such unwavering critical and popular acclaim. Each movie they release makes at least two hundred million and gets starstruck write-ups from every critic in existence, no matter how elitist or respected. They've allowed a generation to not have to resent going to the cinema with their kids, something the parents of the seventies and eighties will look on at with retrospective scorn, reminded of how they were forced to watch the succession of death rattle pictures from the house of mouse ( a particularly obnoxious label imbued upon Disney.) No, Pixar came and conquered instantaneously and maintained that state of conquering ever since, hitting the track running and never looking back. Sure some are better then others, but what is most admirable is how every film they make values a high standard of quality as much a it values making money and this could be the reason why they are the critical darlings that they are. Its that they elect the way of making good movies, making art almost, when they really don't have to. Pixar could make a film about a talking bucket, a bad film about a talking bucket, and it would make whoever knows how many millions, but the fact that they infuse each project with such attention and heart is testament to their creative nobility. Something every other major studio, to whom profit is the greatest capital and quality is something to be applied when and where it can, really does not live up to in the slightest.

It was a great experience to watch Toy Story again, where it all began for Pixar and arguably the first time a film for the whole family could actually be enjoyed by the whole family, rather then just a select few. Its a film that can remind you why you fell in love with cinema in the first place, or it can introduce you to the sheer potential of what cinema can do when it applies itself, or you can simply be a six year old in your living room enjoying eighty-three minutes of entertainment at its most sublime. Whether your viewing fits into any of these categories or not, its hard to imagine anyone seeing this film and disliking it because like the best children's films it brings out the best things about your inner child (the sense of wonder and the open mindedness) just as the weaker examples bring out the worst (The patronization and the powerlessness.) The narrative of the film is fairly simple, and at its heart its a buddy movie - this may seems like a trivialization of it but believe me its not, Fight Club, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, All The President's men and to some degree Pulp Fiction could also be called this. Its not just for bad movies starring Eddie Murphy anymore - the film is a cinematic riff on that age old hypothetical of hypotheticals 'Do toys come alive when we leave the room' and sees the favorite toy Cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks) act as a sheriff almost to the Toy community of Andy's room. Andy being the barely visible child whose property we send our time with. The first twenty minutes of the film are spent meticulously establishing this setting, from the various supporting characters including a slinky dog, a bo peep doll, a cowardly T-Rex creatively named Rex and a Mr Potato head, awesomely given the role of being the contrary asshole. Its part of what makes the film so great that it deems that Mr Potato Head is the right man to be the Dwayne T Robinson of this universe. The Utopian toy existence is rumbled however when Andy gets a Buzz Lightyear for his birthday, a state of the art spaceman action figure with features and gadgets to the hilt and the belief that he is in fact a spaceman and not a self-aware toy like everyone else. Naturally he displaces Woody as the favorite of both Andy and the toy townsfolk, and the jealous and abandoned Woody schemes to reclaim his crown and in turn starting a series of events that lead to both he and Buzz being lost in the big nothing of the outside world. Their journey home includes their capture by toy-killing neighbor Sid, the befriending of Sid's mutilated and Frankenstein-lite toy collection and the inevitable journey home.

The film's story reminded me a lot of the Defiant Ones, with the mutually loathing heroes forced to band together when the big bad world comes calling. Scenes toward the finale of Woody and Buzz chasing after Andy's car and refusing to abandon each other in the pursuit of it reminded me very directly of that film's climax, but believe me it is a favorable comparison. Its an unusual dynamic for a children's film, most of which serve the purpose of maintaining ignorance in regards to human confrontation, but here their banter and terrific exchange of insults (YOU..ARE..A..TOY!! and you are a sad, strange little man being the most iconic of which.) are as much of a joy as the film's heart-warming side. And its to its credit that it resists easy sentiment, Buzz and Woody's eventual friendship is earned the hard way making the heroic final act that much more sweet upon its arrival. It is also the first in the thankful step away from the musical aspect of children's films Disney perpetuated and took a step toward a higher standard of comedy. Almost every CGI animated film since owes this a huge debt, most notably the Shrek Franchise and even Pixar itself until recently, perhaps Ratatouille onwards, where its films have shifted into a slightly maturer tone. But part of what makes Toy Story such a lasting favorite is how well it manages to cater to both children and adults.

The voice talent, which I can't believe I'm just getting to now, is stellar with Tom Hanks' characterization of Woody perhaps being the most consistently hilarious, set to a permanent state of histrionics without ever getting annoying something that is no mean feat, and this is only one or two films off being my favorite Tom Hanks performance, animation or no. Tim Allen is terrificly oblivious yet condescending as Buzz and does plenty of awesome deadpan deliveries that I've never really seen Tim Allen do in a live action performance. Well except maybe for Galaxy Quest. The rest of the cast is made up of reliable television stars, from John Ratzenberger to Don Rickles all playing their roles awesomely. The animation of the characters also lends a great deal of anthropomorphic humanity to them, all more expressive and realistic then traditional disney animation would allow for, and this gives the audience a much greater bond to the characters. The CGI creation of environments is also fantastically and eagerly realized, from the hell of Sid's bedroom to the wonders of The Pizza Planet restaurant. Every setting is created with such enthusiasm and specificity, but perhaps more impressively, with a real sense of wonder. You really feel like a kid exploring the world for the first time when watching Toy Story and the fact that the film elicits this attitude from someone so cynical and impossible to impress as myself means that for a well adjusted person this film would be nothing short of magical.
To conclude, this is children's cinema at its most exuberant. It gets everything right and amidst that never forgets to entertain, and entertain in large quantities. Its a film that thrives on happiness and positivity but in a way that is intelligent and unique. I really could throw all the superlatives out there I wanted to, but it wouldn't do this film justice. Its something you really need to see if you love cinema.

Monday, 24 August 2009

RANT: Did the Dark Knight ruin the Blockbuster?

So here we are at the end of a summer which can only be described as a slight disappointment. It didn't really have a great movie in it, more like a selection of OK to good ones. Of the Blockbusters I think I'd have to say that Star Trek was the best, but I didn't like that movie as much as this would suggest. Apologies for the unintentional rhyme. The Hangover was refreshing, a comedy that was actually funny with some interesting characterizations (loved Zach Galifinakis), Drag Me to Hell was a horror movie with some personality which set it apart from the droves of sequels and remakes of classic horror movies. The studios approach the horror genre with a conveyor belt mentality of low quality, low budget movies. Its no wonder it never gets taken seriously anymore. The remake of Last House on the Left was passable though I suppose, mostly thanks to a strong performance fro Garret Dillahunt. But this is a digression, because the main point is that the big money pictures really let us down . I guess Watchmen was supposed to be the piece de resistance of this year, but some poor casting and a director with no personal vision led to that movie being as sterile as hell.

The reason for all negativity can be simplified into what I'd like to call in full acknowledgment of my own smugness the Dark Knight effect. Basically, the TDK revealed a laziness in all summer movies that we were either unaware of or had become sub-consciously accustomed to. It is no longer OK for them to hide under the moniker of 'fun'. I don't use this in a negative sense, because a blockbuster that is genuinely entertaining is an awesome thing, but the trick that they pulled was to defend low quality with the term fun, with big movies hiding behind it as an excuse to be shite basically. And people took it, because they didn't know better. But now TDK has shown us how good a blockbuster can be the same plasticated movies just don't cut it anymore. That blockbuster template of a committee of screenwriters making films of no personality, the over-reliance on CGI, that we've seen in full force for ten years or so and thus doesn't pack the same punch as it used to. Its beginning to grow cold. I'm pretty sure critics wouldn't have laid in to Transformers 2 like they did this year two years ago, because that was what the average summer movie was like. But now it won't do. And seemingly the better ones won't do either. Star Trek was good, Terminator Salvation was a valiant misfire, that at least tried to be something. But all I can be is disappointed by these movies now and that is Christopher Nolan's fault entirely. He raised the bar and now more movies fall under it then they used to. Its a sad state of affairs indeed.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds

I'll bank after Pulp Fiction, no-one thought Tarantino's career would go this way. Some OK movies, some misfires and possibly the worst movie ever made by an established director. Kill Bill vol. 1 was the closest he got, to the sheer entertainment and quality of his first two movies. Now he's back with his first real attempt at making a good movie since 2003. And to be clear, its not a masterpiece. Its not even better then Kill Bill really, but what it is is a step in the right direction for Tarantino, a step away from the slight genre over-indulgence and back toward good movies. Because there is some great stuff here and there in the film. Glimpses of a better movie trying to get out, but that's mixed in with some of the trademark Tarantino smugness and bloat.

In the spirit of the methodical, I'll talk about what's good first. The best thing about this movie hands down is both Tarantino's writing and Christophe Waltz portrayal of Hans Landa, or the 'Jewhunter' as he is occasionally called. Truth be told the character belongs in a much better movie, but we'll take what we get and its pretty inspired in places, in particular the terrific opening sequence, full of tension and intelligence both things that vacate the premises for most of the film. The way he holds your attention in that scene and the way the character is put to you gets you very very excited for a film that doesn't ultimately exist. Because once the Americans show up, things become broader and less impressive. Its like the titular basterds exist in in a low-rent WW2 revenge pic thriving on blood, gore and the sense of basking in its own ridiculousness, and Landa exists in a tightly wrought espionage thriller, thriving on tension and double and triple crossings. The movie itself is a bit of both. But I can certainly say that if it weren't for the existence of Landa this movie would be Tarantino's second worst (He'll never make a worse movie then Death Proof) but instead its his third worst, just edging out Kill Bill Vol.2. Other things worth praising, include the relatively successful bar sequence, which like the opening works really well as a pressure cooker scene. And similarly there are some impressive cameo performances from Diane Kruger as a German film star, being infinitely better then I've seen her be before, August Diehl as a particularly perceptive German officer and Daniel Bruhl as the seemingly affable German war hero. Finally I should address the issue of Brad Pitt as the film's lead, which kind of fluctuates between entertaining and caricature. But on the whole he gets a pass I think.

The negatives. The movies plot for one. Even with an open mind you've never seen anything so ridiculous. Tarantino can't keep his love for cinema down and thus there's plentiful discussion of German propagandistic cinema in the thirties. This of course when characters aren't shooting Hitler in the face, scalping dead nazi's or carving swastika's in their foreheads. I'm not one to object against violence in cinema, far from it. But at a certain point its just becomes funny, and if you play that card once to often there's simply an audience disconnect. Which brings me to the more pressing point of, Landa aside, Tarantino failing to fill this film with strong characters something he has always been able to do even in his lesser works. He just hasn't the time for them here and that's a shame. Acting wise the misfires include Eli Roth's Donowitz, who is clearly no actor, Michael Fassbender's British lieutenant and the less said about Mike Myers brief performance the better. Its certainly an entertaining movie, but its a mess both plot wise and structurally and its slight ADD is ultimately what stops it from being great.

Rating: 7/10

REVIEW: Mesrine: Killer Instinct

I'm beginning to think that biopics split into to two parts with each over two hours in length maybe a bad idea. Che potentially had a good movie in there somewhere but got bogged down in its own indulgent bulk. Mesrine is the second recent movie to try its hand at this two par system, and although I've only seen the first part of this so far, I don't think this is set to shape up much better. The same problems are here, although Mesrine tries much harder to be entertaining. And in places it is, but for the most part its a cliched rags to riches Scarface like story of Gangster ascension. It does really nothing that new, and Mesrine the character is one we've definitely seen before in these kinds of movies. It plays everything quite broad and predictable, with decidedly little interest in character or coherency but it handles its moments of shocking violence relatively well and picked the right leading man in Vincent Cassel. He plays Mesrine as the idiotic hard-headed thug that he was, and to be fair the movie isn't entirely on his side. Director Jean-Francois Richet seems to be mostly interested in making an action movie, and revels in both the violence and the gunplay the movie has to offer, sometimes at the expense of the performances and narrative. Cassel is good enough and his performance certainly captures the aggression of the man, Cecile De France's Jeanne is a bit of an afterthought, her character somewhat forced into proceedings and rarely given the chance to be anything more then foil to Cassel. Gerard Depardieu does his criminal fatcat relatively well, but I've not seen him look anything less then bored fifteen years.

The movie is OK, its a functional film to be sure and if you've never seen a gangster movie in your life you'll be amazed. But this story does not warrant four hours of film and it dragged a little even in this first half. A charismatic leading man isn't everything and if this film were in English it wouldn't be given the critical time of day.

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

REVIEW: The Time Traveller's Wife

Time travel is used to such an astronomical level in science fiction it is close to mystifying. As a concept it has always left me cold. There have been good movies about it, The Terminator and Back to the future spring to mind, but for the most part I can take it or leave it. This movie is certainly not one of the greater examples, its OK as saccharine sprawling romances go but its far from electrifying or affecting. But before I get to the main part of this review, I must say a little about Eric Bana, the star of this movie. I am positive that Bana used to be a great actor, and his performance in modern classic Chopper is legendary. But where has that guy gone? Because the Bana I see here is unsure and unconvincing. Struggling with his American accent and generally looking uninvolved. Its not just this movie either, pretty much every Bana outing for the last four years or so has been underwhelming. Maybe he's got the yips or something.

The novel this movie is based on is quite renowned and respected but on this evidence here, I can't say I'm interested. Sure there's the blaming of the adaptation process, screw those executives etc. but the bare bones story here doesn't come of that strong. All I can think of is that maybe the book sells the romance slightly better the the movie, because for such supposed star-crossed lovers they shared very little chemistry and thus the connection wasn't quite strong enough to make me forgive the contrivances. I think the main problem of this is probably the performances, Bana has been covered but you expect this from Rachel McAdams at this point seeing as she pretty much plays this essential role in everything she's done. Her enduring popularity is a testament to how much people love the Notebook. Although I couldn't imagine why. The movie is also kind of disinterested in its science fiction elements, which perhaps could have been its saving grace if done right but really its just a long sappy love story with a gimmick.

Rating: 5/10


I was never really one for the straight to video action movie scene, so I've never seen a Jean Claude Van-Damme movie or a Steven Seagal movie for that matter. So I come into this movie perhaps unable to appreciate it in all its heritage, but I get its point, even if some if it may go over my head. But the jist of it sees Van Damme, playing himself, fresh of losing the custody of his daughter, goes into a post office to wire money to his lawyers only for the place to be held up by three criminals, which in turn turns into a hostage situation. The people outside believe Van Damme has gone batshit and is the one committing the crime. And so the hostage situation plays itself out as it has in many other movies lie this, only with a few Van Damme flashbacks put in there to mix it up.

The movie isn't the first into this kind of territory, but its pulls it all off quite well being both stylish and involving. Van Damme himself, is suprisingly good. I was expecting him to be OK, and the movie would try to work around him, but Van Damme holds his shit together and give an impressively world weary performance. Its an impressive epitaph to a career not really built around quality, but the guy knows this and there's quite a lot of self-deprecation going on here. Its certainly an intriguing movie and one that I'm glad that I've seen. Its far from perfect, and there's a couple of moments to induce groans. But on the whole its a clever little movie that will suprise you.

Rating: 6/10

REVIEW: Bandslam

My policy of giving everything a chance certainly bites me in the ass sometimes. And needless to say this was one of those times. This high school musical for indie kids, was everything it was headlined to be. It even retained a cast member from that particular juggernaut, whose success was essentially everyone gorging on their own sense of ironies because I refuse to be so cynical to believe people actually thought it was good. Anyways, Vanessa Hudgens the leading of the most successful trilogy the tween generation has ever had. Turns up here, in a smaller role then advertised. She is OK to be fair, and she can certainly sing. Not as noticeably terrible is I expected but hardly Kate Winslet either. But her presence her is more a marketing ploy then anything, a trick to bring those naive little HSM fans wandering in to the movie. The movie itself is more a rerun of School of Rock but with Jack Black replaced with a self-superior teenage social outcast Gaelen Connell. He goes through the motions of teaching the good indie word to the numb skulls until they eventually play in a battle of the bands like 'Bandslam'. It pretty much follows the template word for word. But it fails to realize the thing that made that movie in anyway good was Black himself, and Connell does not now and will never cut that kind of presence. Lisa Kudrow turns up for a while to show people she still exists and nothing really else merits mentioning. If your a kid under 14 either emo or indie orienatated but not too much, you may get something out of this. But for everyone else, just don't/

Rating: 4/10

REVIEW: A Perfect Getaway

Director David Twohy first return since the grand scale failure that was A Chronicles of Riddick - No worse then any of the Star Wars prequels by the way - and its a mixed bag. Its not a great movie, nor a particularly well written movie and its twist is far from mind-blowing and very predictable to anyone who's ever seen a movie of this type before. But it has some god acting in places and it knows what it is. Twohy thinks he's being clever with all the meta we're in a movie talk but believe me he's not, and he is saved from this being completely unmemorable by his leading men essentially.

The plot basically sees two couples on an Hawaiian island with a further couple of killers, and amidst suspecting each other and talking about how its like their in a movie (just no) very little happens really till the final showdown, which in itself is a little underwhelming. The movie is carried in the early stages by Timothy Olyphant, and in the latter stages by Steve Zahn. Each is much better when we believe that they are the killer, as Twohy seems to struggle to make a non psychopathic character interesting. But both Olyphant and Zahn are deeply under-rated actors always stuck in movies lower then their talents and this isn't about to change here. Elsewhere, Milla Jovovich is a much better actress then her career what testify to, but she's far from astounding and Kiele Sanchez is essentially eye candy and once she begins to feature more prominently her performance seemingly gets worse. Still for the most part it knows what it is and if you're just after a non-consuming thriller you could certainly do worse. You could do better too, but hey.

Rating: 5/10

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

REVIEW: Whatever Works

Woody Allen certainly has a work ethic. Whilst many directors fifty years his junior release films every three to four years, Allen burns out one a year, sometimes more so. But the more frequent his films become, the more incomplete they feel. Sure there have been some recent exceptions, some would go to bat for Vicky Cristina Barcelona being his best film in twenty years, I feel that all of Allen's recent works share the same attributes, relatively big names, good performances, cynicism through the teeth and underwritten scripts. Sometimes the acting is good enough to make the last in the list matter less, sometimes not. Whatever Works falls into the latter category notching itself up as one of the increasing amount of Allen misfires.

The plot sees Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) a physicist misanthrope who spends his days criticizing anything and everything in regards to politics, the human condition and anything really. He meets Melodie Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young Texas runaway on the street and the inevitable happens, they fall in implausible love. Then Melodie's mother turns up and the film loses its coherency completely. At first the film appears to be about David's character, but pretty much once Patricia Clarkson arrives as Wood's evangelical mother, it becomes inevitable that this film is going to suck. This isn't Clarkson's fault, she s good enough and it may not be her best performance but it is OK. Evan Rachel Wood is also impressive, playing her southern ditz much, much better then Allen wrote her. Credit to her, and if she can find a good lead role she could really establish herself as a next big thing. But the film is most notable for its casting of Larry David, the genius behind Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, who has previously to this has only ever played himself. I think David holds his own here, and prevents the film from being a total disaster. He's a good fit for the cynicism of Woody Allen, and its a shame he didn't turn up in a better film. Because its Allen's script that lets the thing down really. It feels rushed, it feels lazy, and altogether second rate for a man can definitely do better. But when you make films at the speed that Allen does, its is almost pre-destined that a large number are going to be crap. Its a shame, because David deserves better. Anyway Curb Your Enthusiasm series 7 in september, set your Tivo's.

Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Spiral568's Greatest Movie Countdown: No#99: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

My lack of reading is pretty much my greatest cultural faux pas. Does it means I belong to the assembly line of popcorn munching airheads who are only able to absorb fiction in bitesize two hour portions, without the patience or capacity to invest in stories of greater detail and complexity? Am I missing out on worlds that cinema cannot quite put into words? Quite possibly. All the elitists can look down upon me. But of the few books that I have read, Fear and loathing in Las Vegas is certainly one of the best, and it is hard to describe why. This does not bode well for this post, to be sure, but if I were to try it would be something to do with its magnificently raving, unchained narrative style and the sheer amount of hilarity it achieves from two people essentially destroying themselves on drugs. So when it came to the film adaptation, I was skeptical to say the least. Like they were going to take something that was exclusively mine and bastardize it into a form acceptable or the eyes of the average Joe. There was just no way this could be done. But for the most part it was. It may not quite be the masterpiece that Hunter S Thompsons original novel, but its a great movie that is in turn hilarious and terrifying, entertaining and monstrous. The film explores human excess in all its ridiculousness, and seems to enjoy every minute of it. I will get to why the film earned its place on the list - I am willing to admit its a very personal choice - in time, but first a little background on its director.

Terry Gilliam is a film-maker that I really dont know what to make of. He has made some great films, I think most people would agree with this even if they may not agree over which ones they actually are. His films are usually stylish and involving, but often overdone in a visual sense and a narrative one his roots as an animator to me has defined his film career and not always for the better. Films like Time Bandits or The Brothers Grimm, Tideland and even Brazil have some good ideas but are always too sporadic and inconsistent, and the man has only really got it right a couple of times. Ironically one of those times is this, the adaptation of a novel that pretty much turned sporadicism into an art form. I think that Gilliam benefited from dealing with more adult orientated material, as the curse of the fairy tale has hung around his entire resume, and even here to some respect. As the tale of two men who come to the city of bright lights to live their dream has a whiff of the fairy tale, but it exists as some kind of twisted shadow of what it is supposed to be and thus is infinitely more transfixing. And its to Gilliam's credit that he makes this world his own, and as a result of this adaptation he has made one of his best films.

The plot, such as it is, sees doctor of journalism Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his overweight Samoan lawyer Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) drive into Las Vegas in a red sports car with every drug known to man in the boot. They proceed to use them. It fucks them up. This is pretty much the entire plot, so those who believe that every film should be LA Confidential would do well to give this a miss. What it does do though is make us laugh, which is always welcome, show us the lengths of depravity drugs can reduce a human being to, and in many ways show us the fallacy of the philosophy that drugs are the way to enlightenment and freedom as the flower power generation o the sixties believed. Set in 1971, the time when this movement for all intents and purposes came to an end, one could say that this is about the death of the ideal of the sixties, the ideal of the hippie if you will, and once their rebellion and beliefs are repelled all that's left is disillusionment and drugs. Which are taken endlessly in the hope that one day they'll transport you back to a time when your voice mattered. But it never does. All it leaves you with is outrageous behavior, bodily breakdown and mood swings that eat there way through your sense of cohesion. And yes this film mocks the regular straight-laced society, from the gamblers seeking the same excess through the casinos to its valid point about most men living afraid and jealous and being unable to seek the highs that these freaks so. But for the most part we are laughing at them, at Duke and Gonzo for what they reduce themselves to. Its the diary of a self-deprecating drug-user, Duke knows what they make him like, he knows of the downsides to his health and his state of mind, he even knows that his reasoning is weak but he doesn't care. The life led high leaves little time for self-improvement. And for me this is a particularly unique view on drugs, and an impressive thing or Gilliam to retain from the novel and express in his own way.

Another important factor to the success of the film is the strength of the two lead performances from Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. Depp, whose career in 1998 was ever slightly entering a rut, as he couldn't make a good film without Tim Burton (with the exception of Jim Jarmuschs Dead Man) but this film showed he could really act, and not just be a pretty boy, which those who paid less attention could reasonably believe him to be at this point. He does the required uglying up, as is the sign of an actor at his most actorly, but gives the performance to match it. The stumbling drug-fried man barely in control of his physicality but retaining his brilliantly gifted and literate mind, just so he can so beautifully chronicle all the acts of repulsiveness he and his attorney commit - that include going through a circus whacked on ether, crashing a drug czars convention stoned of their head, the statutory rape of an under-age christian girl, the intimidation and abuse of a cafe waitress and many many more - the ongoing voice-over, mirroring Thompson and his prose is terrifically delivered by Depp, who so accurately captures the self-deprecating tone of the work, this is one of the stronger voice-overs in the cinematic archive. But Depp is just as good in his performance, purveying the intelligence and self-destructive side necessary to the character. But the film belongs to Del Toro, whose performance is much stronger then it would first seem. On first glance it seems like another Del Toro character bit, a la Usual Suspects, but as the film progresses we gradually get exposed to Gonzo and his inner viciousness and brutality, working all the more because they come in between all the zaniness and wacky activity otherwise going on. Just for a moment we see Gonzo the person rather then Gonzo the drug freak and he is almost more terrifying. To date I have only seen Del Toro turn in better performances then this one or two times, and this will go down as one of the highest peaks of his career. There are a few celebrity cameos scattered about, from Tobey Maguire to Cameron Diaz to Christina Ricci but none really get enough time to do anything and the film really belongs to the leads, and deservedly so. Gilliam, to his credit, mostly restrains his out there visual habits ( Except for the casino set Lizard orgy I guess) and the film benefits from it, Gilliam is stylish in the right places and allows the actors to act in the right places too. He finds a good balance.

To conclude, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a very important film to all concerned. It reignited the career of Johnny Depp, increased the notoriety of Benicio Del Toro and showed the world that Gilliam is capable of making a great movie set in the real world, if you can call this world that. Its a quiet little classic that doesn't get earth shattering levels of acclaim but for me is one of the stronger films of its type. It makes a movie about drugs that has a brain, and explores more then the mere suffering and poverty that is the usual fodder of its genre. Gilliam hasn't made a better film since and in all likeliness never will.

Monday, 10 August 2009

REVIEW: The Brothers Bloom

Rian Johnson's Brick was one of the more interesting indie films of recent years, a hard boiled noir set in the confines of a Los Angeles high school, it made an offbeat star in Joseph Gordon Levitt and an interesting new talent behind the camera in writer/director Rian Johnson. His delayed and at this point belated follow-up is similar both in its strengths and weaknesses to Brick, although it is a very different movie. Whilst that was an ode to the Humphrey Bogart's and Richard Widmark's, this film is more of a homage to the slick caper's of Cary Grant and the ilk. Movies where crime was all glamorous locations, sharp suits and labyrinthine cons. Crime as put by the most die-hard romantic. The Brothers Bloom isn't a great movie, and there's definitely some missteps and flaws involved, but its also a fun movie, one that harks back to films that just aren't made anymore.

The plot follows brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), as they go about conning and lying there way into infamy. But Bloom has grown weary of all the fabrications, and longs to feel something real and so Stephen agrees to cut him loose on the one condition that he helps him nail an eccentric millionairess (Rachel Weisz) or her fortune. And so the double-crossing and narrative two step begins. Johnson's plot weaving skills are perhaps not his strongest attribute, and the succession of cons and after cons aren't quite as impressive as other films that have attempted this kind of thing. But the film gets a pass because whilst it isn't quite as cunning as it should have been, it is definitely as charming. It has all the swagger and cool required, but somewhat refreshingly its also really funny and made me laugh much more then I would have expected going in. Johnson's script rarely passes up the chance for a good joke and if your film is funny then a lot will be forgiven and that's certainly the case here. A lot of that goes down to Johnson who possesses a much stronger wit then one could have known upon seeing Brick. But also down to Rachel Weisz highly affable performance and her creating of a character that wins you over more consistently and effectively then anything else on display here. Weisz has definitely come in to her own in recent years and for the few people that do see her in this you will be only further impressed. She certainly steals this movie. The rest of the cast is not without its perks, Adrien Brody is OK as the straight man of the piece, Mark Ruffalo holds a strong screen presence as Stephen and fills the role more effectively then one might expect. Also an enjoyable performance in mime by Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, who steals many scenes despite saying next to nothing.

Johnson's weakness with plot does threaten to capsize the film a couple of times, but the charm of the film and the strength of its acting and the amount of laughs scored means the movie is saved.

Rating: 6/10

Friday, 7 August 2009

REVIEW: Orphan

As studio horror movies go, this one has been met with slightly less venom then most, and with good reason. Its not Shakespeare but its creepy, keeps the ridiculousness to a manageable dose and contains some good performances. Always welcome in a horror film. Its the kind of low-key horror that studios should do more often, as it even follows formula but still entertains.

The plot sees relatively normal parents Kate and John, who seek to adopt a child after they lose their third baby in childbirth. So naturally they choose Esther, a smart charming little girl and start the happy life together. But given that isn't a family movie starring Kate Hudson, of course Esther turns out to be one evil motherfucker. To its credit, the film does not skimp on Esther's character making her more of a sociopath then a psychopath. Meaning she is a hell of a strategist to go with all her crazy. This is definitely more interesting to watch as a viewer then the usual standard of brainless killing machine. Orphan though, is another in the long line of movies dealing with the idea of home intrusion, or if you will the corruption of the family unit. Like the Omen, or the Exorcist, the film deals with the idea of a malovent force consuming the family from the inside out. Except the villainy here is all too human. This film does not compare to those in quality though, and though it certainly has its moments and at times delves into the realm of the fucked up, its still relatively predictable and falls victim to that post-2000 horror film craze of the outlandish twist in the last reel (Fuck you M Night Shyamalan). It was unnecessary and in many ways a cop out. Similarly the ending is certainly a little hackneyed, just basically another housebound stalk and slash and arguably this movie deserved better. Director Jaume-Collet-Serra overdoes the jump musical cues and then some, and couldn't keep his visual trigger finger in check, meaning many sequences suffer from visual overkill. The best thing about the movie though is the acting. Or more specifically the one performance. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard are fine enough as the parents. But the movie belongs to 12 year old Isabelle Fuhrman, who makes Esther a more menacing threat then one could have imagined from the trailer. Its a career making performance, or at least it should be. And for the record, this is what a good performance from a child looks like fans of Harry Potter. It can be done.

So, come for the creepy kid. Whose one of the more memorable creepy kids of recent cinematic history. And given the amount there has been that is saying something.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, 6 August 2009

REVIEW: GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra

When you go into a film entitled GI Joe: The rise of cobra, your hopes are limited. Your not really expecting Tarkovsky, hell your not really expecting anything at all. But I think its safe to say that this is close to the best this movie could be. Its still pretty crap, but its watchable crap. Which coincidentally is what could be written on Stephen Sommers' business card. Yes, the director of the Mummy is back. That is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies to this day, its a ride of a movie, gross entertaining and scary in equal measure. Fun is the operative word. The he made Van Helsing and detonated all the good will he earned. Because that movie was so crap. But here we are now, at the Sommers rejuvenation. The second movie of the summer based on an 80's toy franchise no less, and while I went postal on the other one, I'm not going to do that to GI Joe because what's the point. You know everything I could say without me having to say it. Yes its cheesy. Yes not all the acting is up to snuff. Yes the plot is as ridiculous as it is possible to be, complete with high-tech battle stations under the arctic and nanobots that eat through metal. But I had a small amount of fun. Sommers is relatively skilled visually, but not much of Stuart Beattie's (Collateral) and co screenplay is worth much and given the ensemble nature of this movie with five heroes and five villains apiece, no character gets a real look in in the way they should. The best performance of the thing is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Doctor, who entirely disappears into the role of the villainous and hideously scarred mad scientist (Yes its that kind of movie) and almost dares to create a character. Sienna Miller is pretty much awful as the evil baroness, Christopher Ecclestone is forgotten as the main villain of the piece, essentially displaced by Levitt as the film progresses. Channing Tatum is kind of like the new Sylvestor Stallone, the same tough guy build and almost the same style of speaking. He's ok. Marlon Wayans overacts and annoys as 'ripcord'. Dennis Quaid, Said Taghmahoui and Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje turn up for paycheck's. And Brendan Fraser cameos so very briefly.

Its big, loud and dumb, but if your under fifteen you'll dig it.

Rating: 4/10

REVIEW: Coco Before Chanel

I think cinema may be the one area of life I don't obey petty gender rules. My bedroom is blue, my footwear are trainers and my hobbies are manly sports involving physical confrontation. But with movies seemingly anything goes, tragic love story about two gay cowboys. There. Romantic comedies starring Meg Ryan. On it. A two hour movie about one of the twentieth century's most renowned fashion designers. Lets do this. And do you know what? it was good, and I enjoyed it. Because in film quality shines through all genres and sociological inhibitions. Ironically this has very little to do with this film, because its mostly about character and not really at all about fashion, but I didn't know that going in and this opening amused me so there you go.

Anyway, the film explores the life of Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou) before she became the legendary fashion entrepreneur whose perfume is advertised by Nicole Kidman. The film is mostly set in the mansion of French millionaire Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), whose home Coco pretty much crashes at at the beginning because she has nowhere else to go. The film follows the unsociable, distant Coco's relationship with both Balsan and his English business associate Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola) and how this affects her cold, detached view of the world. To begin with Tautou is terrific as she is in most films (except The Da Vinci Code) and its a performance of real elegance and subtlety. At first glance it would seem difficult to effectively portray a character so inside herself as Coco is here, but Tautou manages it with ease. I doubt they'll be many better leading lady performances this year, and if all is fair she should get an Oscar nomination. Nivola certainly handles the accent and the French dialect, but as with many of his roles, Junebug in particular springs to mind, he primarily acts as foil for someone giving a much better performance and that happens again here. He pulls of the stoicism well enough. Poelvoorde (of Man bites dog!) fares better, lending his character a real sadness behind all the energy and partying. But considering its such a dense, character driven film, there is little to be done to prevent Tautou from simply walking off with the picture. Visually its restrained, but director Anne Fontaine has her moments of flourish, with a particularly stylish ending coming to mind.

All in all a solid, well made biopic with strong acting. Its pretty much the standard for these things though and the reality of what it is prevents it from being anything original.

Rating: 7/10

REVIEW: The Ugly Truth

The summer's other big studio romantic comedy, next to last week's The Proposal which made a preposterous 150 million at the US box office. The Ugly Truth didn't make those numbers, but it will in all likeliness bottom out at about 75 million which is certainly a cool take for an R rated romantic comedy with B list names. Although maybe, after this, Katherine Heigl must now be called a bankable movie star with her three films post Grey's Anatomy all making 60 mil plus. Heigl gets a lot of hate on the internet as she trash talks co-stars, complains about work hours, smokes infront of children, kidnaps and kills babies ect.. But, going on her movies alone, there are certainly worse leading lady's out there, and given the fact that her two stand-alone films so far have pretty much both been shite and she still is retaining her draw, there's something about her at least.

Because The Ugly Truth is by and large a shite movie. It pertains to be a romantic comedy for adults, but it still follows the childlike formula that has seemingly become biblical in its influence on movie-makers. It just throws a few fucks and bullshits around to throw you off the scent. Which actually does make it a little better, but it can't hide its true face for too long. The plot, which sees Neanderthal, misogynist TV host Mike (Gerard Butler) take a job under the principled feminist, control-freak producer Abby (Heigl) and teach her the value of relationship nihilism, T &A and the over-ratedness of self-respect. The sheer amount of screenplay's written by men that don't understand the female character is astronomical, but here we get a rare example of the shoe being on the other foot. Mike is very much the misogynist from the female perspective, in that he still has a heart and is capable of falling in love. He's just been hurt before. This is close to being the romantic comedy's version of the horror movie's ' he was abused as a child so its ok' attitude to serial killers. They don't really get into the real reasons why people are this way, which maybe they shouldn't considering its light genre, but still skimping on it ain't no excuse either. Abby is pretty much your standard beautiful but neurotic leading lady, which Heigl pulls off relatively well. She is certainly better than Sandra Bullock was in The Proposal. Butler certainly has a charisma about him, and while many online media outlets are of the opinion he should stick to action movies, I think he can do this kind of thing but maybe pick his projects a little better.

Of the supporting cast, Eric Winter turns up as some eye candy. Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines turns up for maybe 5 minutes of screentime, and entourage's Kevin Connolly is in one scene, huge WTF on that one. But believe me this is 27 dresses with the occasional fuck you.


REVIEW: Land of the Lost

Remember when Will Ferrell was huge. Fresh from Old School, Anchorman and Stranger then fiction, the dude made us laugh and more importantly he was making the money. Now we've had Talledega Nights, we've had Semi-Pro, we've had Step-Brothers and his act is beginning to wear a little thin. And I like the guy. I don't imagine what his haters are saying a this point, not much of it would be too complimentary I'm sure. So, Land of the Lost. Is it another scatter shot, effects heavy summer comedy? Pretty much.

The plot is half assed beyond belief, so in that spirit I will sum it up accordingly. Ferrell is this scientist who believes in multiple dimensions, with no real evidence. After going on talk show and looking ridiculous in front of Matt Lauer, he, token female Anna Friel and random redneck Danny McBride get transported into a parallel dimension with super-smart T-Rex's, Alien warlords and zombie lizard slaves with two sets of teeth. The real problem here is that the film doesn't really know what it wants to be. On one hand it kind of wants to be another one of Ferrell's adolescent frat-boy comedies, with plenty of both bawdy and toilet humor. There are also elements of a more PG-rated, family friendly adventure. It wants perhaps to be both but ends up being neither. This isn't the fault of the actors, more the script which reeks of studio interference and a committee written lack of focus. Ferrell does what he does, we've seen him play this character before and in better, funnier movies but fans of his will get their money's worth. Anna Friel lets loose her northern accent, this is northern england for cross-continental readers, which is distracting in a way it perhaps shouldn't be. Besides her character seems to exist solely to be the girl, and there's little point analyzing her performance here. McBride is probably the best in the movie, bringing back memories of him in Pineapple express, stealing the film from Seth Rogen and James Franco. He's not outstanding here but he gets some laughs so he gets a pass. There's also a monkey named Chaka who is just embarrassing. Monkeys should never be given large roles in movies. It always ends badly.

So anyways, its mildly amusing but inconsistent and beyond all over the place. The laziness pretty much provides the lethal blow though, and you can see why this movie was such a bomb.

Rating: 5/10