Friday, 25 September 2009

REVIEW: The Soloist

As much as I love film, and by this I mean put it before all personal and social development, and do so without believing this to be in any way wrong. There's something about music that affects you in a way nothing else can. It can be both blissfully brainless fun and a complicated, transformative experience that you have entirely no control over. There's no explaining as to the how but it manipulates mood and emotions in ways that no other art form, however precious it may be to me can compete with. For all its flaws, and The Soloist has many, it communicates both the simple and complex power of music in a way few other films, at least that I've seen, have managed to do.

The film tells the story of Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a street dwelling Cellist who's schizophrenia has destroyed everything about who he is except for his love for music. Robert Downey Jr plays a journalist who upon a chance encounter with Nathaniel, begins writing about him in his column, and thus begins a bizarrely tragic and arguably exploitative friendship between the two. First off, the best thing about this movie is a career best performance from Jamie Foxx, stronger then his Oscar winning performance, and sure it may be easier to barnstorm a performance when you playing an insane person. But this isn't just meaningless theatrics, its a complex and deeply moving portrayal that deserved a second Oscar nomination for Foxx. Downey Jr fares less well, and sure you're going to get acted of the screen against a performance this good, but Downey Jr always toes that delicate line between awesome and arrogant. Nine out of times he comes out the right side but this time sadly not. But he'll move on to Iron Man 2 without too many regrets I assume. Catherine Keener does well with limited screen time, a sentence that could describe a ridiculous amount of her performances. Director Joe Wright, who comes to this on the back of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. A huge Keira Knightley double header. He's a little at odds with the material here, and tries to be stylish when he ought not, and pedestrian when he should be stylish. He doesn't ruin the movie, but its noticeable.

The movie works though on the back of Foxx's performance. It really is that good and it makes this film worth slightly more then the discarded bit of Oscar bait it had been labeled as by its studio.

Rating: 7/10

REVIEW: Surrogates

Well it wouldn't be September without a few lame sci-fi action thrillers to pass us by on their way into bottom shelf irrelevancy. First there was Gamer, and now there is Surrogates in which Bruce Willis wears a bad wig and takes your money. There's a few good ideas floating around here and there, but its so determined to be a generic sci-fi action thriller that you eventually make your peace with it and allow it to be what its is. A painfully average and thus boring movie.

Surrogates presents a world in which robotic surrogates (title alert) are used by humans to conduct every day activity, while the humans control them psychicly from the safety of their own homes. Thus you can do all sorts of things that the propensity to get injured and die had previously prevented you from doing. There's a whodunit and a murder involved, but its so generic it doesn't merit precious synoptic space. Willis, who can be a good actor on his day, is not here and is a pitch perfect audience surrogate ( I'm working on a level of humor you couldn't begin to understand) in how uninvolved and bored he looks. Radha Mitchell is a plot device, James Cromwell is wasted as is Ving Rhames. Rosamund Pike has a couple of moments of non blandness I suppose, but I'd go far from calling them good really. Just less bad.

This is what happens when a movie takes a potentially interesting idea and insists on making it into a kids movie. Disappointing and disposable. Jonathan Mostow I can believe you directed Terminator 3.

Rating: 4/10

REVIEW: Creation

If you'll forgive me for allowing my inner pretentiousness the floor for a few seconds, the atheist-theist debate is something brutally under-used both in the context of cinema and of real life pontification. I could go on for hours about this issue but its something no-one ever wants to discuss. Maybe I'm missing a privacy thing here, but it mystifies me. The same goes for film, because it seems to me that this is a subject with enough thematic juice to carry even a crappy film but anyway, I'm sure this is just my inner antagonist talking. Now, with all inner personality traits in the proper upright and locked position I guess I should get to this film. Which yes, does have something to do with my opening paragraph, if only in ways that could be described as marginal.

The film itself is about legendary scientist Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany), and more specifically his writing of 'The origin of species', which in time has come to be known as the book that killed God. In other words by proposing the theory of evolution, it puts to bed the theory of creationism, so to speak. The film isn't really about these ideas, although it does cover them intermittently, and is more about the Darwin the man's inability to deal with the death of his daughter. Its a character piece and a terrificly acted one at that, as all British films like this tend to be. Bettany is a great actor in everything he's in even if its crap, which is the case more often then not, and gives his strongest performance in a while nailing the subtler moments as well as the more award friendly ones, which is always makes a performance more interesting to watch. Kudos too to his off-screen wife Jennifer Connelly, who here playing his on-screen wife Emma, does well with both the accent and the actual acting. In such an under-written role too.

If I have a major complaint it is that it didn't delve into the ideas quite the same way it did the humanity. Character is the most important thing that could contribute to the success of a film and don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise, but this medium can be used as a philosophical tool as well as an emotional one and to me short-changing in this aspect, particularly in the study of a man whose very notoriety rests on ideas, is a little disappointing. Sure this an undeniable personal preference and I should imagine that most people don't want any college boy debate to go with their popcorn but sometimes its justified dammit.

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Belated Emmy Reaction

Good Things:

- Bryan Cranston second win in a row for breaking bad. Deserved beyond belief.

- Michael Emerson finally wins for Lost. I prefer John Locke but this is probably deserved.

- Kristin Chenowith for pushing daisies, its always great when someone wins for a canceled show.

- Tina Fey not winning best actress. I can live with Alec Baldwin but she's really not that good.

Bad things;

- I can't stress how much 30 Rock doesn't deserve this kind of praise. Three years in a row...what.

- Jon Cryer for Two and a half men. LOL

- Mad Men winning again. We get it.

The Emmy's is ever reducing its relevancy by being a continuing industry popularity contest. It deserves such a painfully under-written post

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Spiral568's Greatest Movie Countdown: No#97: Heathers

Of all the films and all the decades that will be represented in this countdown, I think its safe to say that the one you'll be seeing the least of is the eighties. There's just something about the ambiance of that particular time period that was just garish to the point of insanity, infecting near everything that came out of it, from the music to the styles to the films it has all dated to fossilization long before its time. OK maybe that's a bit dramatic, but the point stands, just to a lesser degree. If you watch films like the Breakfast Club or Repo Man or even The Terminator, you'll enjoy them or even think they're good, but the fact that they are of their time is something now to be tolerated rather then embraced, and that's certainly not the same for the sixties or seventies. But, amidst all this eighties hate quality is something that can not be contained and even if it has to fight its way through shoulder pads, through synth soundtracks and through turns of phrase like 'What's your damage', if its there, if it is a work that is as innovative, hilarious and delightfully twisted as Heathers is, then its worth all the unpleasant nostalgia. See in the hundred or so years that film-making has existed, I honestly can't think of film that did what Heathers did here to quite the same extent. It was and is now a true original, a movie that really showed people what a black comedy could do and may be to this day the best that admittedly quite specific sub-genre has to offer. And its a high school movie no less.

The plot sees Veronica (Winona Ryder), a too-smart-for-life kind of teenager as a reluctant member of high school royalty, accompanied by Heather Chandler, a sociopathically cruel alpha-bitch who enjoys humiliating a fat girl she's eloquently renamed Martha Dumptruck and going to parties with older boys, along with her two best gal pals, also named Heather (Imagine an unanesthetized mean Girls, in which the girls are allowed to say fuck) The thing is, Veronica meets a dreamy loner called JD (Christian Slater) with whom she makes an instant connection, and through him she puts her previously impotent thoughts of killing Heather to make high school a better place into a more realistic setting. Of course, they don't want to go to jail, so they fix it up as if it were a suicide and get off scot free. The thing is Heather's suicide, complete with Veronica and JD' s forged note, leads the town to elevate the deceased to near messianic level, people who hated her now love her, and JD upon seeing this reaction, is far from finished.

I'm of no doubt that teen suicide is not the first thing one would call upon in order to score laughs, but this movie addresses the issue in a way that is both honest and satiric. What this movie calls out is that the simple act of dying does not make someone more sensitive, more tolerant or more important. Its making the quite daring claim that teen suicide is not something that's tragic, rather its pathetic and deserves to be laughed at. It does not tolerate the self-pity of teenagers in a way that most films even approaching similar subject matter have done either out of earnestness or out of moral panic, but either a way this is a fresh perspective and if these kids choose to treat life so shabbily why should they be indulged and treated like saints? It calls out the hypocrisy of the legions of students who although they could give a shit about the person who did the dying, suddenly their distraught and life is barely worth living. Death is the great unifier it seems, and Heathers has a lot of fun with that, but an asshole is still an asshole even if he's six feet under and death does not absolve him or her of that. Even if we'd like it too. And this is something that I'd never seen a movie confront in such an honest way. In the same context it also mocks the apathy of the modern teenager toward death, as at the funerals of the various deceased, with JD and Veronica sitting at the back cracking wise about the various eulogies and familial reactions ( The darkest and arguably most funny of which is the hick father of one of the jocks of whom JD and Veronica kill and frame to make it look as though it was a homosexual suicide pact, who overcomes his intolerance to declare ' I love my dead gay son!' to the whole room. Perhaps this movies most singular moment of genius.)

Similarly the issues of high school life and society, and his Veronica observes in regards to killing the head cheerleader, ' You can kill her but someone else will just take her place tomorrow'. See the popular kids will ostracize the freaks they deem to be beneath them forever, whoever many you kill, and the freaks will be filled with self-doubt and loathing forever. There's also the use of the idea that suicide begins to become the thing to do in this town, because all the cool kids are doing it. The afore-mentioned Martha walks in front of a bus after she spills Diet Coke on herself, a fellow cheerleader tries to overdose after her friends hear her call a self-help program on the radio. This twisted idea is terrific in its simplicity, but also in that we see that above all high school is the beginning of the end in terms of thinking for yourself. Its when the world begins to tell you what to do and what to say. And you can't do anything to change this because its damn near Darwinian, the fittest and the system will survive and that's just that. You can accept or deny it but that's the way it will be. JD denies this, while Veronica slowly begins to accept it. Veronica is an interesting character in that she's possible the most direct audience surrogate in movie history. She's not so bound by morality as our usual heroines, but what she is is almost a sponge. Existing to make snarky comments and by shepherded by someone else's world view. First there's Heather, who she follows in high school bitchiness reluctance, then there's JD, who she follows in a violent and deadly form of social commentary with a similar reluctance. She complains about her situations but gets swept along with them regardless, only at the climax showing some real personal forcefulness. JD I sense though is the real voice of the piece, as the villain often is, and a lot of what he says and does is valid from a sociological perspective, its just has the downside of being insane.

What makes this the classic that is though, is the constant streams of jet black humor that is there throughout. A few examples:

" Jesus God in heaven, why did you have to kill such hot snatch?" ( A jock in response to the death of Heather.)

" I Shop therefore I am" ( Heather's philosophy)

" Save the speeches for Malcolm X, I just want to get laid" ( Some guy)

" Our love is God. Let's go get a slushee." ( JD in regard to life.)

And many more. Its kind of like Diablo Cody only more prescient. It presents all the tragedies of teenage life a some sort of twisted joke that we all will play out again and again way after its over. Which is in many ways a more cutting truth then we'd like from high school movie. But that's how Heather's works. It starts of like your regular teen movie, maybe a bit quicker and smarter and goes to places you'd never think it would dare to go and in that respect the success of this movie is most attributed to its screen-writer Daniel Waters, who never came close to anything this good again. Its such an individual work of insightfulness, of wit, of satire and in many ways of the form itself, its shows how much you can do on the page before the camera even enters the equation. In terms of really having something to say and sheer ambition, it would be one of the best screenplays I've ever seen on film. The actors play their part too though, particularly Winona Ryder who fits the self-superior Veronica like a dream, relishing Waters very quotable dialogue. with the viewer clearly being in on the joke as she takes joy in every enunciation. This is long before she appeared as Spock's mum of course. Christian Slater in a career making performance essentially plays the role as a Jack Nicholson impression, but somehow still manages to be awesome. Both of them give a performance to show why they hung around at the top for another ten years or so. Director Michael Lehmann relatively underplays it, which is certainly a good idea given how extravagant the script is, and that is something to be commended.

To put a final point on it, this is something close to the ultimate black comedy. It takes cliche's and tropes of every high school movie you've ever seen and turns them into something horrific yet hilarious. You'll laugh at the worst travesties that young life has to offer even if you don't want to. Its a masterpiece of cynicism, a tone heard in cinema without condemnation just far too rarely and this movie, if nothing else is evidence to why that standard is something that we don't want let alone need.

What's your damage.

REVIEW: Away We Go

September is notorious in the US for being the dumping ground for summer movies that didn't quite make the cut. Second-rate action movies and lame comedies and inspirational hip-hop dance movies starring white people fill it from beginning to end. It truly is a cinematic dead zone. But here in the UK its something different. We get all the high quality smaller movies released earlier in the US not quite big enough too demand an instantaneous release. So just in the last couple of the weeks we've had Adventureland, The Hurt Locker, District 9 and now Away We Go, the latest film from Brit director Sam Mendes.

This is a bit of a change of tack for him, after the awards season's neglecting of his Revolutionary Road, a film built for the sole purpose of awards recognition. Here he makes a smaller movie, a comedy of sorts but not without its more dramatic moments, but its more introspective and more in tone with the only great movie he has made so far, his debut American Beauty. It lacks that films darkness, but not its sense of humor and genuineness and thus Mendes, by lowering the scale of his vision has made his best movie in a while. The plot follows soon to be expecting couple Burt and and Verona ( Why do women in indie comedies always have to have such ridiculous names. Its something I will never understand) who travel the country looking for their new home, and meeting with various eccentric acquaintances and relatives along the way. The film, and all films like this really, lives or dies on the strength of the performances and the chemistry, whatever that word means, between the two leads. And here John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph come through in spades. Rudolph in particular, who I have never seen in a film before and has been most successful on Saturday Night Live, is particularly surprising in how good she is, not only in the comedy but the more serious stuff as well. The role is written slightly aloof but she makes it work. Krasinski, who is now beginning to really break into films on the back of his success in the American version of the Office, which seemingly goes from strength to strength. He is terrificly affable here, in a goof ball role that suits him like a glove.

The supporting cast, although mostly limited to cameos, certainly add something to the mix, as Alison Janney, Chris Messina, Paul Schneider, Catherine O Hara and Jeff Daniels all turn in great performances. My favorite though was probably Maggie Gyllenhaal's ghoulish hippie. I have to say sometimes the film leaned on the eccentricities of the supporting cast too much, and some of them perhaps didn;t work as well as others, but the two central performances were strong enough that the occasionally lazy writing didn't matter. Although to be fair, its a consistently funny and effecting movie, and a step in the right direction for Mendes who it turns out made his best film of the decade when he stopped trying to win an Oscar.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, 17 September 2009

REVIEW: Fish Tank

I don't know what the reason is for it, but I've always kept this kind of British kitchen sink drama at arm's length. Maybe its because I might be the most middle class person who ever lived and the sound of a regional accent sends a subconscious shiver down my spine. I certainly hope not. Maybe its because that on the whole my deal with cinema is based around escapism, and tales about working class poverty might break the wonderful illusion I have created for myself. Who knows. But what I do know is that it something I wished to break as soon as possible, hence my seeing of this film, an extremely well reviewed but limitedly released drama about a brash 15 year old girl from a rundown Essex council estate, who dreams of being a dancer. Things change however when her mother's new boyfriend and brings some happiness into their deeply torrid and resentful family life.

The best thing about this film for me was how well writer-director Andrea Arnold and her actors communicate things without them being said, which is a very difficult thing to do, or at least to do well. But what Arnold and her actors, particularly newcomer Katie Jarvis, who is in fact acting in her first film ever, do is portray all the depth and subtleties of the story and characters wordlessly, as dialogue takes a perfunctory role and is a distant second to the smaller moments. I was very impressed by this with the non-reliance on show reel like verbal emotional out pours that is the bread and butter of the more mainstream films, everything important remains unsaid and its all the more powerful for it. Or maybe I'm saying this because I saw this movie right after seeing Gamer. Which is a distinct possibility. It features a terrific performance from Jarvis who should get some award recognition for this, but also features a great performance from Michael Fassbender, whom you may recognize from Inglourious Basterds, who's every bit as likable and charming as he's supposed to be in a deceptively complex role which goes to show that nice guys aren't even that nice.

Its also terrificly filmed, and is another example of why low budget doesn't have to mean visually pedestrian. Arnold captures the ordinary in all its working class glory, but she also has plenty of moments when she's really finding the beauty in the ordinary and thus this film looks a treat. Even when it had no right to. Its not perfect and has a couple of more broad characterizations in regards to chav's and chav like behaviour. But on the whole this is a very interesting, very ambitious and very moving little film. Worth hunting down.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


I've decided that Neveldine/Taylor, as they like to credit themselves, are two deeply stupid film-makers with very big imaginations. As anyone who's seen Crank will know they're films kind of gravitate toward a moronic excess. Taking high-concept ideas and running at such a speed with them that people are too caught up in the testosterone to realize they are watching a very bad movie. Gamer is worth less then their debut because it takes it self seriously far too often, and these guys just don't have the talent to make a movie like this work as anything else but a pure-blood action movie, which is what the movie descends into as the duo get bored with the sci-fi of it. It is not totally worthless, and it takes an adolescent like joy in killing of things, where many movies like this just seem to be going through the motions.

The plot, such as it was, see Kable (Gerard Butler) the best of band of death row inmates who compete in Slayers, in which they are controlled mind and body by gamers and go about killing each other. This is designed by billionaire evil genius Ken Castle (Michael C Hall) and while a separatist resistance group known as 'Humanz' try to bring him down, Kable makes a play for freedom. It all plays out just like you think it would really, with Butler being suitably action heroey whilst being a complete personality vacuum. Ludacris turns up for a while, as does for some bizarre reason Drag Me To Hell's Alison Lohman clearly slumming it a little. The only real performance to enjoy is Dexter's Michael C Hall's , who when not leading twenty mind-controlled prison inmates in a chorus of 'I've got you under my skin' adds a real energy to a somewhat lame Bond Villain type character. After watching him deadpan through three seasons of Dexter its pleasing to see him cut loose a little. But at its soul this movie is about necks being turned to a 270 degree angle, heads being blown off and faces being smashed in with a rock. If this sounds like fun then you will enjoy this movie, but even if you like mindless action movies, be warned that this is one of the more mindless examples.

Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

TV REVIEW: True Blood Season 2

What I was going to do with TV reviews was do things the way things are done by the real people, which is to review every episode of every TV show that I watch ever. Then I realized that apart from the inevitable carpel tunnel, I'm far too lazy to accomplish something as largely scaled as that, so the compromise which my sloth came up with was to simply done one lump sum review at the end of each series. Allowing my time to be spent in otherwise useful capacities (to be named later.)

So True Blood. I saw the first season a while ago and while I wasn't entirely blown away, there was a lot to like. There were some good performances, albeit sporadically, there was occasionally good writing and it had Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball as its show-runner. That particular show was at its best as strong as anything else on television and while Ball rarely reaches that level of quality in this show, there are rare moments where you can tell the same talent is involved. The first season ended strongly after a slightly shaky start, but its safe to say that this second year did the complete opposite, beginning very strongly and becoming lazier and more contrived as the series progressed. The show has been described by someone with more deftness then me as ' Twilight without the abstinence' and while I may have put up an argument against that last year, where the show at least tried to be about something. But now it seems prescient, because its become a show that revels in its own ridiculousness, an 18 rated supernatural soap. Every time it attempts to be something more, it feels contrived and falls short. The only time the show really feels at home is when it drops its ambitions and stays true to what it is. A piece of common denominator escapism for smart people. Or in more eloquent phrasing, a guilty pleasure for the culturally aware. Which is a shame.

Before getting into the season I'll explain some about the characters and the general ethos of this show. At its center is Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) , a waitress/telepath who works at a bar in Bon Temps, a remote town in the deep south. She's in love with a 100 and something vampire named Bill ( Stephen Moyer). Oh and there's Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) , a shape-shifting bar-tender. Jason (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie's brother is powerless supernaturally speaking but is a giant ho, there's Eric, a 1000 year old Scandinavian vampire who essentially just pouts around being an asshole and many many more. Its difficult to summarize any show more mythically inclined without making it sound like just about the worst thing ever, and often that's unfair to the show. Anyways this second season saw the arrival of Maryann (Michelle Forbes), who casts a bizarre spell on the residents of Bon temps which forces them to be at their most decadent. It sees Sookie, Bill and Eric make the pilgrimage to Dallas in search of missing vampire Godric (Allan Hyde) and Jason embraces his intolerant side, joining the vampire-hating religious sect The Fellowship of the Sun. Well that's the gist of the story lines anyway, there's more convolutions to it but if I go any further this will be more of a description then a review.

What went right this year? Well the performances maybe got a little better. Alexander Skarsgaard as Eric pretty much steals every scene he's in and his combination of omniscience and petulance is a joy, particularly in comparison to some of the stick in the mud characters there are on this show. Michelle Forbes actually gives a good performance as Maryann, but the problem is she gets absorbed into one sucky storyline. It starts out promising and for 4 episodes or so there's a strong sense of tension being built up, but then once we know what's going on it pretty much all goes to shit. This kind of drags her character down with it, which is certainly a waste. The show's only real score in terms of narrative would probably be the Godric stuff, because not only is there a terrific guest performance from Allan Hyde, who despite only featuring prominently in two episodes comes very close to displacing Eric as the best thing about the show. But it also adds a real pathos to the going's on, and briefly stops the show from drowning in its own sense of camp. Similarly some of the smaller characters are much stronger, with Deborah Ann Woll as an erratic teenage vampire (Not at all a rip off of Claudia in Interview With A Vampire, see she's a redhead) Chris Bauer's OTT alcoholic detective is pretty awesome, as is Nelsan Ellis' drug and blood dealing chef.

What went wrong? Well as I already mentioned the Mary-Ann story-line crashed and burned, as they only really had a half a year of story and the rest was just dragged out. Any fans of Lost will know that the automatic response to this is to yell Fuck You loudly at the TV screen before switching over to Heroes. Which FYI is also crap. The Fellowship of the sun story, which had the potential to be interesting ended up a misfire because it was put together too broadly, with Ball just about stopping short of filling the screen with the words, 'Guys, religious extremism = bad news'. The controlling force of it, Reverend Steve Newlin and wife Sarah Newlin are such painful caricatures that it decapitates the thing from the start. Ryan Kwanten does his absolute best to make it work, but it wouldn't. Because the writers couldn't resist turning it into a cartoon. Ironically the wrap-up to it is very strong, but mostly because its intertwined with the introduction of Godric. The central relationship of Sookie and Bill is an epic fail just for how relentlessly dull it is. Oscar Winner Paquin's performance is all shrieky hysteria, and plays the thing like a scream queen from a 70's horror movie. Which is either good or bad depending on whether the show is being serious or not. Stephen Moyer's Bill has more potential then what were given here and his character definitely has a weak season. But that's nothing compared To Sam Trammell's year which was to run away from Mary Ann. From June to September. Thank you Sam.

In the end though, there's the sense that the show never takes it self seriously, almost like the show believes that its too good for itself. But by doing this it makes it half the show it could be and so it becomes Twilight without the abstinence, when it could have been so much more. But as a spectacle of big budget television pulp fiction, it could be worse.

Best Episode: 8, Timebomb

Rating: 6/10

REVIEW: Julie & Julia

As a passing thought before I review a two hour plus film about cooking, I would estimate that of the thirty people in my screening I was the only one below the age of say, 45. This is no criticism but it gives you an idea of the type of film this is, and more importantly who its audience is. AKA not me. But for what is and who its for its OK, and I should imagine to anyone who takes delight in all things culinary this movie would be a treat as food takes on a near reverential presence here.

The film is a two part biography I suppose, one covering chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in 50's Paris struggling to get her cookbook off the ground, whilst Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a struggling writer who starts a blog cataloging her attempt to cook through Child's cookbook in one year. Hilarity ensues. Although not really, seeing as this film is more concerned in dealing in warmth then laughs, Whether that's a good thing is entirely dependent on your own personal level of cynicism. I have to say that Nora Ephron's film has one of the kindest portrayal's of men in cinematic history. According to her, men are supportive, faithful, loving and earnest. As both husband's of our leading ladies, one played by the under-rated Stanley Tucci and the other by Six Feet Under's Chris Messina are nothing short of saints. Now I know how women feel when they see the countless number of summer movies in which their gender is relegated to the saint like supportive role.

Performance wise, Streep certainly cranks the OTT meter here, but apparently its an accurate portrayal so I can't get in her face too much, but lets say that she may be an acquired taste in this film. Amy Adams, has a more down to earth role and arguably is the more amenable of the two. But look for Streep to get the Oscar nomination. A passable film for what it is and certainly shows progression for Ephron as a film-maker since bewitched. But its far from a mind-bending piece of work

Rating: 6/10

Saturday, 12 September 2009

REVIEW: The Final Destination

well what is there to say. The car wash scene was a jip. That's about it.

Rating: 2/10

Friday, 11 September 2009

REVIEW: Adventureland

Superbad is maybe the most successful movie in history, in which the director got absolutely no credit at all for its quality. People were in such a rush to blow smoke up Judd Apatow that they basically ignored Greg Mottola, the film's actual director. I actually preferred that to Apatow's own Knocked Up, as it was definitely the funnier of the two, and without the pretension of pertaining to be a real movie. Anyway, Mottola's follow-up to that film's huge success is this, a semi-autobiographical indie Rom-com set in a rundown theme park. And its a success, balancing the comedy and the more serious stuff quite delicately for the most part. Its a bit cliched and other films have certainly covered this kind of stuff this decade, but its fun and surprisingly well-written, with Mottola's screen-writing abilities being a little bit more refined and witty then those of Apatow and co. who are more about going for the jugular. This is a different kind of movie, more in tune with films like Rocket Science.

The performances are a pleasant surprise too, with most being more sardonic and underplayed. The only big performance here is Bill Hader as the theme park manager, and he is funny so its OK. Kudos too to Kristen Wiig, who in a role so under-used it basically consists of reacting to Hader, manages to draw laughs out of it. I enjoyed Martin Starr too, of Party Down fame, who may be one of the best actors around when it comes to expressionless sarcasm. His delivery makes even the lesser lines sound awesome. Ryan Reynolds turns up in what on the whole is a straight role, but imbues it with a surprising amount of depth. He really is a much better actor then people give him credit for. As for the leads, Jesse Eisenberg was an original presence in a role that was anything but, and Kristen Stewart, who is an actress destined to be absorbed by the Twilight universe, gives a performance that anyone who'd seen her pre Bella Swan knows she can give. In ten years, once Twilight is done I could see her becoming one of the stronger actresses around, but for now one has to mock for being partied to one of the most unintentionally hilarious franchises in movie history.

The film is far from unique, but its a warm, droll small movie with good acting that I'd definately recommend.

Rating: 7/10

REVIEW: Whiteout

This is one of those movies that is painfully hard to write about. Its not terrible, so you can't get excited about tearing it to pieces, but its very far from good either. A film so average in every aspect that all your left with upon its end is a feeling of passive disappointment.

The plot, sees US Marshal Kate Beckinsale (Introduced with one of the most unashamedly gratuitous shower scenes ever you''ll ever see) stationed in the ice, which is a dummy job until someone begins killing people with an ice-pick. Its a really lame story, a tired mystery which really is no mystery at all. but the setting sets it apart I suppose and the Antarctic is a very visually impressive thing to see. Even in a bad movie. Beckinsale, who is developed quite a niche in playing two-dimensional, indistinguishable cyphers who exist solely to move along whatever plot they are tied to. Its hard to know if she is a good actress or not because she seems to be so terminally drawn to undemanding characters. I'd lean toward the not on the evidence I've seen so far. The Spirit's Gabriel Macht turns up and gives a lifeless and dull performance as a federal suit. There really isn't much else to say about this. It may divert you and some of the action is relatively well put together, but a stock September release if I ever saw one.

Rating: 4/10

Thursday, 10 September 2009

REVIEW: Dorian Gray

Called it. Although to be fair I should admit that this is slightly better then I thought it would be. It's still shit though, leaving The Picture of Dorian Gray to rise ever higher in that list of great books that make crap films. Imdb counts 19 adaptations none with a rating higher then 6.3 out of ten. Even the Twilight series has better stats then that. What's really frustrating about this film is that there's clearly a good film in there somewhere, Its a terrific concept on paper and the novel is revered to the extent that it is for a reason. But its just far too crass in most of its execution.

In the spirit of breeding positive energy I'll count the good things first. There's a relatively good performance from Colin Firth here, even if he is playing in very safe territory with a role he's played probably thirty times in one form or another. Still he seems very comfortable with the Oscar Wilde dialogue, more then anyone else here anyway. The film doesn't look cheap either and whatever the merit of it its a British film that doesn't look like an extended episode of The Bill, which in itself is something to celebrate. Otherwise, this is an overwrought mis-step. The story itself is a subtle one, but the film overplays every aspect of it into caricature. There's a clear process of modification for accessibility going on here and its visible in every frame. From the cheap and lame attempt of trying to get scares via violin screech, to the condensing of Dorian's descent into decadence via a few PG-13 sex-montages. Which leads to the next major failing in that it only deals with the material on its most basic level, ignoring the smarter aspects of the idea or at least dumbing them down to mere exposition. In many ways this film tells the story of Narcissus rather then Dorian Gray, and while the two are certainly similar Narcissus was a prisoner of his own reflection, a person who without is beauty is nothing and thus a victim of his own biology. The novelized Dorian was a much more active participant in his own downfall, being someone who elected that lifestyle and much more of a master of his own destiny then the dude we see here, who basically is some harmless boy who falls victim to his own looks and the manipulations of Firth's Henry Wotton. The film comes very close to abdicating his responsibility and that is of no use to anyone, and it cheapens the strength of the story.

Performance wise Ben Barnes isn't quite the wooden Orlando Bloom redux I thought he'd be. He's not great really, but not bone chillingly awful so fair play. I won't rag on him too much. I will say he doesn't quite have the range for this role, even if he does look the part. But that's it. Rebecca Hall of Vicky Cristina Barcelona fame turns up for a bit in a tacked on role, and isn't particularly impressive. But she's a good actress and she'll be back. There isn't really anybody else worth mentioning and its through sheer lack of competition that Firth steals the movie. Director Oliver Parker, having adapted two previous Oscar Wilde works, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest is far from comfortable in these darker areas and as a consequence overdoes everything. From the poverty-stricken Victorian streets that look more like something from a bad horror movie, to the way the film is shot, which reeks of trying too hard at every turn. The guy has no idea how to make a good horror movie and as a consequence the movie's fate is set.

Rating: 5/10

Friday, 4 September 2009

REVIEW: 500 Days Of Summer

I read somewhere online that this film was ' 27 Dresses for people who prefer The Smiths to Bryan Adams.' I liked this line, for one because it made me laugh and for a second it sort of has a point. The Indie romance has been cut too much slack in general, as usually they perpetuate the same sort of agenda of cliche only with a hipper soundtrack. This movie is something different in places, and at times its clever and unique but at then again there's a lot of self-conscious quirk at work here too. Such as the pre-teen sister doling out relationship advice, the false-note omniscient voice-over which was clearly shooting after a similar trick played in Magnolia, but comes off more like the voice over from Pushing Daisies (Another steal on my part, apologies.) and the use of not one but two Regina Spektor songs. Not saying she's bad but once someone's been used in Grey's Anatomy maybe films should lay off them for a year or two. Its a shame because if it had kept some of the whimsy in its pants this would have been a very very good film.

The story follows Tom ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a naive young man who believes very strongly in the concept of romantic love and the idea of ' the one' and all that stuff. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is slightly more cynical, believing that love is a fantasy and that life is for living and having fun and being free etc.. and that labels are for Hallmark cards and don't apply to reality. (Incidentally, Tom's job is a greeting card writer) So while the inevitable happens, Tom falls head over heels for her, and while she reciprocates affection she insists on it being casual and on occasion keeps him at an Icy distance. What follows is in many ways a film about the effect of expectations have on any relationship, and that even the most idyllic human interaction is beat down by thought of what it could be rather then it is. This is best illustrated in an absolutely crushing scene, where Tom meets Summer at a party and in split-screen we see how things play out in his expectations and how things play out in reality. The film isn't cynical, and clearly believes in the concept of love, but it does so on a realistic level and a large part of the film sees Tom's life essentially destroyed by the fact that he believed in the altruistic kind of love as sold by romantic comedies and pop songs and greetings cards and went in defenses down against someone who really didn't feel the same way. Burn. The central pair of Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are both impressive, he giving a performance of real every-man relatability and her fluctuating nicely in between charming free spirit and ice-queen hid behind a disarming smile. Its to its credit that it didn't demonize Summer entirely, which it could've done.

See the bulk of the film is very good. Its insightful, the main characters are credible its well written and well acted. But what hinders it is the padding, the smaller touches to the film which belong to a film with less intelligence, such as all the stuff mentioned in the first paragraph. Its like writer Scott Neudstadter almost didn't trust the main story he was telling, and in doing added a superfluous layer of Indie cliche to make it more accessible. Without it, he would have made possibly the best movie of its type in 10 years, instead its just a very good movie. Which I enjoyed much more then I expected, given the trailer and the opening credit sequence of home movie type montage, which had me concerned. It pulled through.

Ratig: 8/10

REVIEW: District 9

Science Fiction seems to be more credible when there's allegory involved. It shouldn't really, because nothing has less to do with why a film is good then subtext, but in this particular genre it undoubtedly does. Aliens is more then a movie about shooting sneaky green slimy things, because its secretly about Vietnam, with a clueless military hunting a near invisible foe. The Matrix isn't just a film about kicking things in slow motion. See, what it really is is a Jesus story, with a chosen one sent to save humanity from themselves, only to die for their sins. And be resurrected to ultimate badass level, much like Jesus was if you believe that kind of thing. There's also a whole bit with Cypher as Judas, selling out the chosen one for his 30 pieces of silver. But this is a digression.

District 9 is at its most obvious level an allegory for illegal immigrants, but also for the racism that was so rampant in South Africa, the nation where this film takes place, throughout the 20th century. Here the alien refugees who arrive in an abandoned alien ship, are duly segregated and forced to live of scraps and the whim of gangs who also take up in the area. Our main character, the awesomely named Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) , is a pen-pushing employee for the MNU, a mercenary type corporate entity charged with evicting the aliens from their current slum to a place much further from the twitchy humans. Wikus is very much the company man performing his duty with little concern, and even laughingly refers to the sound of Alien eggs being torched as sounding like popcorn. He even harbors a little racism, calling the creatures 'Prawns' and doing so without thought. This is until he is exposed to an Alien liquid and begins a slow and torturous metamorphosis, he is turned on by his friends and colleagues and in turn flees to District 9 where he has his reservations challenged.

The film is very much in two parts.the first being a documentary style, day in the life of the MNU, with Wikus as our guide. And the second is a full on action movie with a message of tolerance and overcoming your prejudices there for good measure. Each is good in its own way, but I probably preferred the first half, because it was definitely the smarter and more original of the two, with its elaborate establishment of the overall hell that is district 9. The second felt a little more familiar - and a little like Halo in a way, particularly in the way director Neil Blomkamp delights in alien weaponry that explodes humans upon impact. If I were to guess, I'd say maybe 25 people died this way much to the delight of the audience I was watching with - its a more streamlined heroic journey, but still entertaining and contains some highly quality action scenes. What holds the film together is Sharlto Copley's central performance which is much better then it had any right to be, given Blomkamp's obvious disinterest in the quality of the film's other performances. Given how important the character becomes to the film, if that performance had been a little shakier the film may have imploded, but the dude holds it together.

What this is really is an action move with a brain. Its a summer movie that gives the audience enough credit to be able to blend issues and ideas with entertainment and for the most part it manages to uphold quite a high standard throughout. Its a little hackneyed in places, and sometimes the action is put before logical thought, but this is without a doubt the best action movie of the summer. But then again this summer contained GI Joe, Wolverine, Transformers 2, Angels and Demons and Terminator: Salvation.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, 3 September 2009

REVIEW: Broken Embraces

Truth be told Pedro Almodovar goes over my head. The beloved director of every guardian film critic, every subscriber of Sight and Sound and I should imagine a fair percentage of whoever is left in the cinematic community. But something has never quite clicked for me. I appreciate the dude is a talented visual film-maker , and he's a great director of actors given that most of his films contain at least one spellbinding performance. But I submit that he is infinitely better director then he is a writer, because for me close to all of his films feature on over-reliance on melodrama and soap-like story lines. Characters are often thinly drawn, to me at least, and are saved by his strength at drawing out good performances. As a consequence of this most of his body of work ends up as a sumptuously filmed and impeccably acted episode of Dynasty or Melrose Place with a bit of sexual deviousness and self-referential homage to cinema thrown in.

His film previous to this, Volver, was a bit different and seemed to break that pattern a little, being a genuinely heart-felt movie with characters to care for and more importantly very little of the soap like family hysterics that run throughout most of his work, and are present here. What made that film stronger was the fact that the characters felt a little more human and a little less cypher-like; a little less like Chess pieces reciting false emotion. I should be clear before I go any further that this is not a bad movie per say, its just a bit run of the mill for this guy. All the familiar touches are here. The colorful look of both the sets and the cinematography, several lust-stricken characters driven to darkness by obsessive sexuality; Penelope Cruz, forever entwined to the director who made her credible. The noir leanings and several family moments of catharsis - to use the words of the subtitled translation - Almodovar has been here and done that, and we've seen it already. He's become almost like the melodramatic Hitchcock, making the same film again and again with a few minor tweaks. What's kept him so adored is that he is one of the most stylish yet subtle visual directors around. He's developed a style that is uniquely his, and his films all bear a strong signature.

Acting wise, the film probably belongs to Lluis Homar playing a blind screenwriter, with plenty of vibrancy and credibility. He gave a similarly effective performance in Almodovar's Bad Education, and his humanity is what perhaps prevents the film from drowning in its own falsehood. As for Cruz, she's OK. Good even, but she's been better and truth be told the role is a bit of a weak one. She certainly looks the part though, looking every inch the fifties matinee idol that Almodovar aspires to, as seen by the pictures of starlets that litter the walls of Homar's office and apartment. But no performance here really blasts of the screen the way Cruz did in Volver, or Gael Garcia Bernal did in Bad Education, and that almost certainly means its amongst his second tier.

But there's really little new for me to say, and he'll get a widespread critical respect few others will ever achieve, hell maybe something is beyond my comprehension but you take away the name and the pedigree of this film, does it still get the same kind of respect. I couldn't think why.

Rating: 6/10 (The harshest 6/10 review ever, but its not like anyone else is criticizing the guy around here.)

I think Dorian Gray is going to suck.

Just Saying.

REVIEW: Funny People

Its hard to know what to make of this, which would be 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up director Judd Apatow's shot at mainstream critical respect, maybe even the Oscars. And in doing so he may have made his worst movie yet. But the thing is that its a film I really don't want to criticize with too much venom, because for all its faults it desperately tries to be something. It has ambition certainly, with something to say on the pitfalls of fame and even has an honest shot at saying something about humanity. The problem is the film certainly isn't funny, or at least not as funny as his previous films have been. And for a film set in the world of comedy about a comedian by the most successful comedy director of the last decade this is a pretty unforgivable oversight. And yes its a a different kind of movie with a more serious tone, but believe me it tried to have the best of both worlds, comedically and dramatically speaking, but ended up with neither. Sometimes if you shoot above your station it pays off in boatloads, but other times it blows up in your face. And that's sort of what happened here.

The film's widespread negative critical and public response from the US is certainly interesting. Apatow was in a position of great strength when it came to sheer numbers, but they turned on him. Why, well in a way he turned his back on his most common viewer, which is essentially the character Seth Rogen plays in all his movies. The loutish, under-achieving late twenty/early thirty something. He gave the a voice, and they paid him back in tickets, but the thing is Apatow went after a more mature audience here, and his old fanbase got left out in the cold and in turn they left him out in the cold in terms of box office. The lesson here? Creative growth as a film-maker will leave you fucked with nowhere to go.

The film itself has a few things going for it, but probably more going in the opposite direction. There's a very good central performance from Adam Sandler, proving to those who haven't seen Punch Drunk Love that he is actually is capable of good acting when he's not making I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry. He captures the darkness of the character very well, and the first half of the film where this is the focal point of the film's attention is definitely the stronger, before it detours quite detrimentally into Sandler chasing an ex-girlfriend in spite of her husband and kids. And at this point I should mention that this film is obscenely long for what it is, it felt longer then it is and it's pretty fucking long at 146 minutes. That's just short of two hours and a half for the less mathematically inclined. Aside from Sandler there isn't a great performance here really. I enjoyed Eric Bana's Clark, who is for all intents and purposes an Australian stereotype, but Bana is funny and that's good to see given how underwhelming he has been of late. Jason Schwartzman is amusing as a sitcom star and Jonah Hill does what he does in all Apatow movies. Its probably the weakest Seth Rogen performance I've seen yet and Leslie Mann hits the wrong side of shrill for a character who was very important to the back half of this movie.

Its ambitious that Apatow went after a movie that did more then just make us laugh, but this has got to go down as an admirable failure. All good intention and not enough end product.

Rating: 6/10