Monday, 28 February 2011

TV REVIEW: Spartacus: Blood And Sand Season 1

This show should just be called ' In The Arena.'

Part two of my blood and nakedness TV review extravaganza comes in the form of one of truly the most bizarre shows ever to be seen on television. Not in any kind of cool absurdest way, but in a wildly inconsistent, wildly erratic yet somehow sincere and occasionally impactful show. It shamelessly scrapes clean the corpses of superior shows like Deadwood and Lost, and so badly wants to be them it hurts. Its a fucking stupid show, but its got such a bravado and confidence you find yourself being won over anyway and I genuinely don't believe there's a show that's as good at making you not mind about the awful stuff, which always comes thick and fast. In a way its a poster boy for 'bigger picture' storytelling, where you don't sweat the small stuff because something AWESOME is about to happen. As a fan this is OK, but for the writer of a serialized show...Not really that OK.

First up I should say that every line of dialogue that anyone says ever is fucking atrocious, the pilfering of a Deadwood-esque pseudo poetic style only without the skill to make it sound anything other then laughable, combined with REALLY awkward swearing just means every line bombs. In every context. If somebody says something that doesn't make me squirm then it's a great and wonderful day for Spartacus: Blood And Sand. The acting, well holy shit. John Hannah gives the most appallingly hammy performance that should be the highlight of the show but is somehow the worst thing about it in spite of everything else. At times you seriously have to consider if he's taking the piss. The variety of super-buff gladiator types that make up the ludus, are all as wooden as hell, speaking the awkward dialogue even more awkwardly, just to make things more awkward. Only 300's Peter Mensah can act at all, and he can't do anything outside of shout ferociously, although I guess he does that pretty well. Lead Andy Whitfield is probably the most preferable male performance, and does on occasion try to bring dignity to proceedings, but its an uphill battle. The women, believe it or not in a show like this, fare much better. Lucy Lawless makes a decent villainess, although she's a shadow of her Battlestar Galactica character although that mostly worked because you were constantly surprised that it was Lucy Lawless from Xena being that good and I'm adjusted to that now. But its a series probably stolen by the appropriately named Viva Bianca as a manipulative roman socialite. She's the best of a bad bunch by merely being OK.

It's also the most overwrought show I've seen in a very long time, very obnoxious in how it must stay in your face at all times, and it means any time there's a real emotional moment it means nothing because the amp is always set to 11. To be clear I've said the writing is terrible, the acting is terrible and the overall tone is a joke but you still can't help but fall in with this show. It wins you over with sheer relentlessness, and once you've adjusted to the many things wrong with it it can be kind of awesome. Because despite all is difficulties, its a fearless show. Its a show that endeavors to blow your mind, a show that always tries to shock you and a show that always moves forward at a frightening pace. It did in its first 13 episodes what most shows would do in three years, and it has such a sense of ambition that you can forgive its failings in execution. So what if its clearer in their mind, and if you subscribe to the go big or go home philosophy then there's something here. Its certainly not shy of killing characters, nor going where you won't think it will go, you think its building to a reunion with his wife in the final episode. It's not. One particularly effective scene sees them kill a major character without warning or preparation and even a veteran TV death predictor with be caught off guard.

I think this is why it gets the praise it gets, because of this fearlessness. And perhaps because it has a sincerity missing from a number of similar shows, But that's literally all it has. Balls but not brains. For some people that's probably the perfect antidote to the Breaking Bad's and Mad Men's of this world, all full of their psychological bullshit. You get the same sense of darkness, but as seen through the eyes of a horny and bloodthirsty teenager instead of a grown ass man. If anything its secretly a comic book, or perhaps due to its perpetual and unblinking self-seriousness a graphic novel. But that's not enough for me really. I can make peace with it as a ridiculous guilty pleasure, but great TV. Not quite, not until it can master some the basics that it currently has no interest in mastering. I'm reminded of a quote that the creator of The Event said about the premise of his show. He said 'I want The Event to be like Lost and 24, but only the awesome parts.' Replace 24 with Deadwood and that's Spartacus. You don't need character development and intelligence when you've got orgies and decapitations. That's fine for now, but believe me this show has nowhere to go except fast enough that nobody notices its got no brakes.

Rating: 6/10

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Oscar Reaction and ranting (mostly ranting)

This is a a difficult argument to phrase, but I'll give it a shot. A good film won best picture tonight. There are times when that hasn't happened, and I suppose we should be grateful for that. But its that old Oscar problem of rewarding the workmanlike over the flamboyant, the familiar over the revolutionary. It never really seems to go away, and it means that when you look back at their choices, and perhaps more importantly what they didn't choose. They always seem out of touch. Oscar seems to bounce between the stubborn and apologetic and can occasionally come across Larry David-esque in its attempts to rectify situations. Annoyed we didn't nominate The Dark Knight, here's 15 nomination for Avatar! you're happy again right? That film is popular! But the problem was it wasn't ignoring the popular movie, but one of the best ones, that just happened to make 550 million or so. Misinterpreting people's frustrations with Oscar seems to be the worst thing about them, because each year becomes about putting right mistakes of the year before and so forth.

But the most persistent mistake I think is the never-ending embrace of the Biopic. I've made no secret that I find the biopic to be the most mundane and ultimately pointless of film genres. Almost all of them are good, but none of them, or very, very few of them, are extra-ordinary. It takes much less work to make them good and they seem to get much more praise for it, seemingly because they're important, unlike pesky original stories. And for Oscar to reward them with such consistency is to a dis-service to film-making. What use is ambition or the ability to tell a story when you can be a filmed version of a Wikipedia page. It means that era-defining films, particularly the daring ones, are always ignored, something we all just accept at this point. And The King's Speech just seems to me to be yet another one of these films. Proficient, well acted and entirely forgettable. The Social Network is of course also a biopic, but it feels so much less like one out of the factory, one that covers things in the same old way with the same emotional arcs and makes an effort to be a film rather then just a piece of visualized information. Its that film, Inception, Winter's Bone and Toy Story 3 that will be revered long after The King's Speech is a footnote on the Oscar IMDB page. That's fine. You can say the Oscars don't matter and that no-one cares and move on with your day right?

Well no, because they have a prestige, a value that all other award shows lust after. They are almost as old as cinema itself, and so they have a legitimacy you can't take away with all your words of scorn and derision. Films can be forgotten or remembered on the basis of this shit. And I know back when I was watching films for the first time, I used the Oscars as a gage of what to see, particularly with older films. So it matters when they make the wrong call and I think this is one of the more egregious examples of that in a while. I was pretty open minded about the winner, I think anything but The Kids are all right, The Fighter or The King's Speech I would have been with. But fuck, yet again we're told the pinnacle of film-making is chronicling figures from history, and if Oscar could just once make it through three years without re-enforcing that message, I'd be a much happier man.

Elsewhere everything went pretty much as expected, the only surprise really being Fincher losing best director to Tom Hooper. I think this is possibly a much greater outrage then the best picture thing, but I'm too burned out on resentment to say anything else at this point.

Friday, 25 February 2011

TV REVIEW: True Blood Season 3

Oh, totally forgot to mention Anna Paquin. She's really bad guys.

Once upon a time there was a new vampire show on HBO. It came from the mind of Oscar winning screenwriter Alan Ball, who had already left an indelible impact on TV with Six Feet Under, was as about as big of a name one could wish to get for TV. It starred a movie star only in her first cycle of fading, and promised to tell a supernatural tale without the content restrictions of network TV, a Buffy The Vampire Slayer where you can say fuck and watch people's heads explode, if you will. It's supporting cast is made up of a wealth of under-appreciated talent, and it came out at a time when Vampires were ablaze in pop culture. It was pre-destined, seemingly, to be that rare ticket of populist and awesome.

Yet here we are three years later, and True Blood is high in the running for worst dramatic cable show, run by people who could give less of a shit, featuring a cast the size of a small country and writing as bad as latter year Heroes. To call True Blood a failure would be unfair to all the shows that swing and miss, shows that have any ambition to tell a story, create characters or do anything other then have overqualified writers lazily sit back and give viewers what they want until nothing means anything, and by the third season finale I'd had all I can stands and I can't stands no more. It's all the more frustrating because somewhere, behind the arrogance and endless exhausting hyperbole, there's a fucking great show scratching at the walls, begging to get out. You see it in an odd scene with Bill, or with Eric. There are characters with stories to be told and actors good enough to hold your attention. But the writing is so eager to undercut itself, so eager to create a world where nothing is taken seriously, and so eager to let you know that it knows that the thing is a basic pile of ridiculousness. My theory is that with writers like Nancy Oliver or Alexander Woo, you've got people who deem themselves too good for this show. Oliver wrote Lars and The Real Girl for fuck's sake. And there's no effort here, everything feels poorly drawn and all over the place. Bad writing will out, and it's torn the life out of True Blood.

I think you can trace the missteps of the show through the character of Bill. In the first season, actor Stephen Moyer gives a good, thoughtful performance. He's a character you engage with, most notably in the fifth episode 'Sparks Fly Out', which sees him speak to a civil war assembly and flashback to how he became a vampire. This is still my favorite episode to this day, because it succeeded at both being a horror story and telling a rich, character driven story. At this point in the series Bill is a mysterious and intriguing presence. But then they seemed to bend over backwards to make him nothing more then a lovesick puppy for Sookie, with all aspects pointing to either being with her or wanting her back. He became a plot device, a device by which people could watch Twilight the TV show with naked people. And his slow morphing from credible entity to Edward cullen clone, is made all the more painful by the occasional scene he gets sans Sookie, where Moyer finds something interesting again. A couple of moments early in this season saw Bill recapture a sliver of that character but, there he goes again pining after Sookie like some fucking teenager. If you relate this to the show, then its something so potentially interesting consumed by its worst instincts at all corners.

In season 3, this shit spread like a virus. Every character was the most bastardized version of themselves, and given that it flat out to refuses to kill any regular cast members, I'd say you've got about 7 characters who add absolutely nothing to the mix. Tara, Sam Merlotte, Arlene, Lafayette, Hoyt, Andy Bellefleur and even fucking Jason. Jason, who used to be one of the stronger aspects of the series, now just seems to get here's my new girlfriend plots. As does Tara. And Lafayette. And Hoyt. And Sam Merlotte's here's my new family plot doesn't much sooth. And to be clear, each one of these dead-eyed, space wasting plots appears in every episode. Meaning True Blood has turned into overcrowded soap where you don'y give a shit about 70% of what's happening. And again, I liked many of these characters at one point. But it's so much more important for the show to be streamlined then for me to check how everyone's doing every week. But all of it's boring, and none of it goes away. Deborah Ann Woll's Jessica, one of the few things the show's done right from start to finish, pretty much becomes an extension of Hoyt's arc, playing a third of his love triangle.

And gradually these plots, all with nowhere to go, accumulate and accumulate until no episode has any identity. The finale, possibly the worst episode the shows ever done. Ends with about six of these characters, getting the most asinine sudden ends. WILL HOYT GET WITH SUMMER OR JESSICA? AND WHAT WILL HIS MOTHER MAKE OF ALL THIS????? TUNE IN NEXT YEAR ON TRUE BLOOD. If I were to compare that to say, the Breaking Bad finale, a fair comparison as far as I'm concerned as people call this shit the best show on TV just far too often, with every shot meant something, every character's story was heartbreaking and its cliff-hanger caused you Physical pain, then this whole thing just feels lazy and crappy. Which it is, as the show's sacrificed its integrity in the name of weakass fan service.

If there's a saving grace, its a couple of the performances. Alexander Skarsgaard has very much become the Terry O' Quinn of this show, doing the same with his character Eric what O'Quinn did with John Locke in the middle years of Lost. That is, whatever crap they throw at him, however bad his storyline or however ridiculous what is happening. Skarsgaard is just like 'No. Show, you won't take me down. I am awesome, as is my character and through sheer force of personality I will fight your shitness off. Fuck you. A.S' Skarsgaard maintains a dignity in his character that the thing really doesn't deserve. But frankly, the only thing that truly works in season 3 is Denis O' Hare's glorious, immensely OTT performance as vampire king Russell Edgington. Clearly recognizing the ridiculousness around him, he comes in all Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, stealing every scene and becoming a show in and of himself. He's responsible for a rare moment of ascendancy too, where he gives an impromptu newscast after ripping out a news-acnhor's spine on air.

" We'll come for you. Then we'll come for your babies."

But the problem is that we've got to cut away from O' Hare to Sam Merlotte's struggles with his hick family. And that never really goes away. True Blood really could have been something great, and I say this as a fan of the show, at least at the beginning. But it sold its soul at the feet of camp and its own popularity, and now there's truly no reason to give a shit. The thing is, if it committed entirely camp and basically became a Treehouse of Horror Simpsons episode but live action, then I could get behind that. But it doesn't take its horror seriously nor its characters, not its story, yet still expects you to care about who or what is fucking each other this week. Because that's what the fans tune in for. And it makes it somehow condescending and awful at the same time, and if there's a worse combination then that I haven't heard it. One great scene every six episodes isn't enough to tolerate this structureless, truly cowardly mess. I never quit on shows, they have to be consistently bad for the longest time before that happens. But I'm done with this one. And not an ounce of me is going to miss it.

Rating: 4/10

Thursday, 24 February 2011

REVIEW: Drive Angry


Oh God. It's Killers all over again. This movie is meant to be terrible, I'm supposed to make jokes about Nicolas Cage's hair (it looks fucking ridiculous) Amber Heard being the PJ Soles of our generation and a deep examination about what possibly could lead a screenwriter, a director, hundreds of execs and an entire fucking studio to deduce that Drive Angry is a good name for a movie. Because I mean what the fuck. But I'll have to save it for another day, because to spend my whole review ripping the piss would be unfair to a film which is, by and large, a entertaining and appropriately amusing guilty pleasure piece. It's far, far from high art, but what it is it owns, and thus I must live in a world where I have to give Drive Angry a positive review.

I think this is a more successful attempt to do what say, Planet Terror tried to do. With that film, the irony was so effervescent and unavoidable, it choked the life out of the thing. Rodriguez set out to make a shit movie way beneath him, while Patrick Lussier is making the best movie he'll ever make. And while Planet Terror was condescending even to itself, there's an adolescent sense of joy about Drive Angry that all exploitation seems somehow charming. To be clear, its trash by even the loosest definition, but its trash with a personality and that's all it needed to do. It needed not to feel like every other piece of crap that gets dumped out in February, and then I can taken anything it throws at me. If anything, Nicolas Cage gives the subtlest performance in the movie, and is positively restrained. I guess he takes being an action hero seriously. Amber Heard's plays a pretty rote feisty southern ho, but she's got enough about her that she makes you wish she'd played Sookie Stackhouse instead of Paquin. True Blood would still be shit, but less shit. But fucking William Fichtner. Fichtner, whose played detectives, bosses, friends and assholes aplenty, kind of gets his moment here. Playing 'The Accountant' a repo men sent from hell to recapture Cage (don't ask) he's a joy from start to finish, playing one of those antagonist types a movie falls in love with about half way through and so bottle out of killing him. And good, because I think Fichtner is the only thing you could legitimately label as 'good' and not 'guilty pleasure' in Drive Angry. Billy Burke's cult leader villain, showed a side to that guy he's rarely got to show, that he can actually act at all. He's pretty good and this is a long way from Bella Swan's dad in Twilight.

But come on, this is obviously still a piece of crap. Obviously. But the southern setting and the Fichtner lend the film a vibrancy that it goes about its action horror cliches with that make everything somehow OK. And to be clear, this is a movie where Nic Cage has a slow-motion gunfight on top of a naked woman to the sound of The Raveonettes ' You Want The Candy' so, you know. But one gets the sense that this is pretty much the best incarnation of Drive Angry that there could have ever been, and how often can you say that shit.

Rating: 6/10

REVIEW: True Grit

Fill your hand you son of a bitch.

I think in the last 5 years or so, The Coen Brothers have really set out to distinguish themselves as directors. On the face of it, I'm sure that sounds as stupid as fuck, leading to many sudden responses along the lines of... Of course the Coen Brothers are good directors, fucktard. Maybe for your next piece of wondrous insight, you could say Rafael Nadal is good at Tennis, or Julianne Moore is good at being ginger? But what I mean is that before this, even with their best films, all people paid attention to would be the writing. Yet by taking to adaptations, they've shown that they don't rely on their own words to be great film-makers. But with No Country For Old men and now True Grit, they have a great and unique value that goes beyond merely being great screenwriters, which they also undoubtedly are.

True Grit, for lack of a better expression, is a fucking movie. It looks stunning, its fantastically performed, and it somehow feels a throwback and a modern work at the same time. If it's not quite in the Coen Brothers Hall Of Fame, its comfortable second tier. Any problems lie with the source material, and perhaps some false advertising on the part of the trailer. Watching that, one would expect the most badass western of badass westerns, but what we have here is a road movie and a character piece. The crux of this movie is people talking to each other, and the chemistry between its three leads, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld. Jeff Bridges, who is probably much more of a chameleon then people give him credit for, inhabits the gruff, alcoholic Rooster Cogburn well, both a believable badass and appropriately pathetic, and gives a performance much more interestng then I was led to believe. But newcomer Hailee Steinfeld undoubtedly walks away with it, taking the Coen-tinged period dialogue and delivering every line with such a precise energy that hearing her say even the most mundane things is entertaining. The strongest scene in the piece is simply her haggling with a business associate of her dead father's, because simply watching Steinfeld talk is the strongest weapon the film has.

I'd also like to credit Damon, who manages to do a lot with a potentially problematic character, and supporting players Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin are also good value. It's not No Country For Old Men though, and the argument against it perhaps is its slightness. There's not a terrible amount of stuff going on here, outside of the revenge motif and the journey. What you see is what you get, and that will disappoint some people. But its an entertaining and intelligent ride with some of the best performances you'll see all year so, if that makes it a lesser Coen Brothers movie then damn. Its still pretty fucking good.

Rating: 8/10

REVIEW: Never Let Me Go

Did anybody notice that the plots of this film and Michael Bay's The Island are shockingly similar?

So this film has been taking a lot of shit for not being as good as the book. now I've not read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel so I'm in no position to speak as to its qualities. But I think in general, films based on books with a good reputation tend to take a lobby of unjustified shit from purists. Blindness for example, was a very well-executed film, given tepid reviews, the main gripe being it wasn't quite as good the book. Honest to god it makes me never want to read another book again in my life, just in case ever comes the day where they make it into a film and there I'll be, with my impossible standards and deeply personal expectations that are sure to be shot down. I'm not saying Never Let Me Go is better then its book, I'm sure its not. What I'm saying is how good the book is shouldn't matter to how you see the movie. It is its own entity, and saying otherwise is being instantly unfair.

Same goes for remakes to be honest. Each film should be given the right to succeed or fail on its own terms, and looked at in that way, Never Let Me Go works more then it doesn't. There's the occasional triteness or simplification, sure. Is Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, necessarily the best guy to write an intimate, expansive tale of inner emotional suffering? Probably not, to be honest, but I think he gives it his best shot. Director Mark Romanek is a guy I've liked in the past, and he does an admirable, realistic job with the material, playing down the histrionics to tell a horribly repressed examination of mortality, one where you have to face your impending and unavoidable demise with politeness and a blind eye. That for me struck something, and while the central love triangle is not executed all that well, I nonetheless felt for at least two of the characters, even if I didn't care about their relationship with each other. Carey Mulligan in particular is fucking heartbreaking in how little she exhibits, living out an existential hell on earth with a stiff upper lip, Mulligan is the youngest of this cast, but her performance is mature beyond her age or anything else her cast-members can muster, I liked her in An Education, but her performance in this is much better, although she'll receive a slither of the plaudits.

Andrew Garfield, whose had quite the breakout year, is similarly very good as the naive, almost child-like Tommy. And while Keira Knightley is almost certainly the weak link amongst the performances, lacking the subtlety and grace of her co-stars and giving a performances that's just way too wired for the tone of the film and the nature of the material, it's not like she's awful. Just emphatically the weak link. But ultimately Never Let Me Go is a moving film, not as a heartbreaking tale of unrequited love, but as a story of the sheer despair human beings go through when death is facing them, and the feeling of weakness that goes with. Perhaps because Garland is more suited to the ominous then the sweet, the romance always comes off a little off-kilter, but that doesn't matter because Garfield and Mulligan bring so much to the equation that they lift the film up with them. A deeply flawed, but an intriguingly quiet study of buttoned-up despair.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, 19 February 2011


The Man Who Fell to Earth.

I don't know quite what it is but something keeps me suspicious of Simon Pegg and his accompanying machine. Maybe its that when you take Pegg out of the auteur type role, where he produces, writes and stars, his turnout is pretty much shit without exception, particularly when he's the lead. How To Lose Friends And Alienate People anyone? how about Run Fat Boy Run. Or Burke and Hare. You really could go on. Even within his comfort zone there's the strong sense of diminishing returns. Hot Fuzz wasn't quite as good as Shaun Of the Dead and Paul isn't quite as good as Hot Fuzz. It feels the most homogenized these guys have been, bottom to top, and while there's still some fun to be had here. It somehow feels much more muted and less vibrant in the past.

I think this is most notably applicable to the performances of Pegg and Frost, both seeming pale imitations of what they've been before and both seeming quite content to allow Seth Rogen's motion captured Alien to steal the show and not even put up a fight. Perhaps the problem is that they are two super broad nerd archetypes, telling way too many gay, fat and Brit jokes and just being heroes for heroes sake. Some of the supporting cast fare better, Rogen is a delight, injecting what otherwise a fairly lifeless movie with some welcome energy. Kristen Wiig is semi-amusing as a tacked on love interest. And while I found it awesome to see Jason Bateman play a quiet badass, part of me suspects that may have been because of my affectation toward Arrested Development, but hey, it was kind of awesome. I think my main gripe, is how contrived everything everything feels, Pegg and Frost's formula seems aged, and perhaps without Edgar Wright's energy behind the camera, something is missing.

Paul is serviceable enough entertainment, and there's the odd laugh to be found. But the perhaps the honeymoon is over for this British film-making team, and of Frost, Pegg and Wright. It's teling that the most talented of the three has moved on different things. Pegg meanwhile, will play Scotty in Star Trek a couple of times over, Frost will recede back onto British TV and director Greg Mottola, who is certainly a filmmaker I like, looks throughly out of place. An attempt to do something different that ended up doing the same old thing for these guys only not as well.

Rating: 6/10

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

REVIEW: Just Go With It

Because this will get me a ton of hits, that's why

Brooklyn Decker looks good in a bikini. So does Jennifer Aniston. Adam Sandler gets paid. I experience profound existential depression and thank god for the scal next to me who has taken to predicting every joke and then celebrating enthusiastically when he predicts a punchline. To Just Go With It. Mate, that's like celebrating predicting that McDonalds will be the most popular fast food restaurant of 2011, or that Miley Cyrus will get her first DUI in 2011, or that anyone in the world will say the word 'and' in 2011. There's a limit to the degree with which you can be impressed with yourself.

Yeah, so I guess I should review Just Go With It. A film that is offensive to the concept of the misunderstanding. And to the concept of comedy. Its the kind of film to make you regret reviewing films on a mass scale, because it inevitably means that you have to write at least 500 words on the tenets on one of the laziest films I've ever seen, that thrives on ugly people, fat people, gay people and foreign people as butts of the joke. Guys, if you're not a middle-class white American, with assured family values, then you're a fucking freak. Just Go With It is yet another film that subtexutally preaches the gospel of the middle-class white guy, almost as if the writer is trying way too hard to assure you that these are the right choices, and as the same writer wrote The Switch, which had a very similar vibe, its getting a little disconcerting. Elsewhere in Just Go With It news, Adam Sandler submits more evidence to the argument that he is the worst actor in the world when he's not being the best, and Aniston may as well be a zombie at this point, her eyes are so glazed over.

But Brooklyn Decker's boobs look real swell in numerous slow-motion bikini walks and shower scenes. And while the notion of her being a teacher is laughable, her reason for being here is obvious. I've yet to mention Nicole Kidman, who shows up to embarrass herself as a former rival of Aniston's, and gives continuing evidence that she is incapable of being funny. Going from Rabbit Hole to this in a week is not helpful for my scale rating of Kidman's abilities that's for sure. Is that enough yet, because I've got an appointment to put several circular rings into my face, something I'm doing solely to counterpoint the relative shitness of this film. With a bit about how that's a preferable experienc etc. Mad commitment.

Rating: 2/10

REVIEW: The Fighter

Not you.

The Fighter is not a bad movie, but it represents as very sad moment for die-hard movie fans. Or perhaps just me. It signifies the moment of David O Russell's selling out. That may mean nothing to you, or it may just not bother you, but for all his inconsistency Russell was a ferocious and original voice, who made films that nobody else had the stones to make. Be it an Iraq War set action/comedy/political drama, or a madcap comedy dealing with philosophy and the meaning of life, Russell was a much more important presence then I think people have given him credit for. Three Kings manages to top the lists of both the most entertaining and most openly political films of the last twenty years, and I Heart Huckabees I'd call a deeply flawed but occasionally ingenious quasi-masterpiece. But both are fiercely original works like no other.

The Fighter meanwhile, is a by the numbers story of a boxer given one last chance to make it big. Its highly accomplished but crushingly familiar award-baiting, right down to a drug-abuse subplot and the central underdog story narrative. I can't call it bad, it features some excellent performances and goes through the cliches with confidence and intermittent exuberance. But. Why is Russell making this movie? As a last ditch ploy for mainstream acceptance, Kevin Smith style. Very possibly, and if that was the game then it sure did work a treat because he was rewarded with his first Oscar nomination, something that makes me happy and sad at the same time. The Fighter is the kind of film that goes by the wayside very quickly, liked in the moment but lost for the long-term. It features a terrific comeback performance by Bale, who has struggled in recent years in picking films that aren't complete bullshit, sans Batman, and delivers a performance of reputation restoring intent here. If he wins an Oscar for this I can deal, as it is a great performance that screams for your consideration throughout every frame. Equally impressive is Melissa Leo, as the matriarchal succubus, sucking the life out of poor Mark Wahlberg's dreams.

Wahlberg himself is a sturdy enough leading man, and Amy Adams manages to make her girlfriend role a little more then it is, still a stupid nomination though. The Fighter is a movie that gives audiences what they want, through and through, and while I don't think that automatically makes it bad, it does make it less interesting to me at least. Assurance is in abounds, but that's because we're watching a movie we've seen a thousand times before, and for all that was wrong with Russell, you could never call him a guy who did that. Sigh. Film's still good though I guess.

Rating: 7/10

REVIEW: Rabbit Hole

Gone baby Gone.

Nicole Kidman is one of the more fascinating actresses, in that at this point no-one could credibly make the argument that she's bad, there's too much evidence to the contrary, too many good performances clocked in, yet she somehow remains impenetrable, an unknowable entity with seemingly no personality at all. Yet partly thanks to that she's able to disappear into roles slightly more effectively then say Angelina Jolie or Reese Witherspoon can. The gift of being fucking boring has allowed her to be the highest profile female chameleon, an actress capable of doing anything but be funny. Because that requires personality see.

But Kidman is arguably at her career best in Rabbit Hole, a subtle, intimate look at a married couple dealing with the loss of a child. Now murdered children make me suspicious of movies, not for any moral reason or nuthin', but because it's too often used as a shortcut to pathos, that is to say movies use it for its dramatic power and no more. But Rabbit Hole shows a genuine interest, almost fascination with exploring the psychological impact of it, thoroughly and intelligently. Which I am fine with. Its when its just an excuse for Sean Penn to lose his shit that I find it cynical. Kidman is fantastic, displaying the despair subtly rather then over-bearingly and manages to to make you feel everything whilst giving you nothing. A deserved Oscar nomination for sure. Aaron Eckhart as her husband is her match, giving a more vulnerable and open performance then I've seen him give before, and seeing that an actor has more about him then I think is always a pleasant surprise. It goes without saying that Dianne Wiest is great, but more notably there's a great supporting performance by relative newcomer Miles Teller as the teen who caused the incident.

The film itself is wonderfully low-key, there are few showreel moments so when they come they feel earned, and above all its not reductive with the material, and Rabbit Hole is an insightful and moving meditation on grief. Its certainly the first John Cameron Mitchell film of this quality, and goes to show that if he can lay off the quirk he's a director with an eye for great performances. To be honest there's not enough of this kind of film in Hollywood, an honest, raw yet intelligent character study. You get one of those fuckers rarely indeed.

Rating: 8/10

REVIEW: A Little Bit Of Heaven

So its come to this.

Gael Garcia Bernal is at something of a crossroads. A Little Bit Of Heaven is his second desperately poor-looking rom-com, and it seems Hollywood wants him for his looks and not his talent. Bernal is one of the most interesting and adept actors currently working, and his astounding performances in The Motorcycle Diaries, Bad Education and Amores Perros would speak to that. He's even given more then one great English language performance, from his hyper-active villain in Blindness, to his subtle, perfectly accented work in The King, which I'd cite as one of the overlooked great performances of the last decade. And yet, America seems to be only interested in casting him as romantic foil in its ever-productive rom-com conveyor belt. He's not even the lead in these things, rather just functioning as the 'eye candy'.

And yes feminists, I understand that this happens to actresses all the time, and that it is in fact not on. Actresses of boundless talent forced to play girlfriend after girlfriend, but it happens to the boys so much less often it feels much more of an affront somehow, even though it is actually much less of one. Anyways, Bernal looks utterly lost here, game but clueless and its a very sad sight to see. He gets blown of the screen by Kate Hudson, for christs sake. Hudson is probably the main saving grace of this weepy disguised as a romantic comedy. It suckers you in for the first 40 minutes, and then becomes yet another cancer movie rather then just yet another romanic comedy. The cast features some interesting and talented people, from the ridiculously under-rated Romany Malco to the great Peter Dinklage, who lends the cheapest of jokes some thoroughly undeserved pathos and weight. High in the running for best performance in a terrible role of all time. There's also Rosemary DeWitt and Kathy Bates, and even Lost's Alan Dale shows up. But despite all this talent, pretty much everybody is wasted and with the exception of Dinklage disappear into the worn material.

I didn't hate A Little Bit Of Heaven the way I hated Leap Year say, it had a bit more about it then that, but its still far too rote to make anything resembling a lasting impact. But if this and her stunning performance in The Killer Inside Me are anything to go by, I think I'm being won over to team Kate Hudson, albeit with great, great reservation. The most appeasing thing I can say is if you like your Steel Magnolias and your 27 Dresses, maybe you'll like this but if we're being honest with each other, its kind of crappy

Rating: 4/10

Friday, 11 February 2011

REVIEW: Brighton Rock

Dead man biking.

Arrgh. When vocabulary doesn't provide you with the necessary means to communicate your feelings about a certain issue, sometimes its better for onomatopoeia to take its place. Because frankly I think there is no more succinct, truthful way to describe Brighton Rock then Arrgh. It says what so many words could not, the simpatico shock, disgust and anger that you take out a film that you expect to be good and sucks the big one quite to this extent. There was no reason to expect this, and no reason why this film should have been this bad. There's an interesting story here, some talented actors and it comes from seminal writer Graham Greene, whose cinematic conversion rate stands pretty good right now I would have thought. But Arrgh.

Everything in this film that doesn't relate to surface sheen is so horribly misjudged, to the point that director Rowan Joffe seemed much more concerned with the minutest consideration of framing then say, Sim Riley's entire performance, which stops just short of a joke. Every moment of his performance is so broadly psychopathic with a capital P, that he's taken one of British cinema's most iconic characters and turned them into a CSI villain. Its a breathtakingly immature and simplistic performance that's an insult to the term two-dimensional, and the fact that it comes from Riley an actor I know to have talent, is even more frustrating. Yet I don't want to blame everything on him, because I think that's to do a undeserved kindness to the rest of this truly embarrassing film. Everything is painted in such broad strokes, from the criminal underworld that the film decides to forget around have way through to characterizations, which are all so one-note they may as well be cartoons. Andrea Riseborough is perhaps more a victim of circumstance then anything else, but either way her character is painfully erratic and misjudged, way too broad to communicate the emotional complexity required of the films final act.

The film is a failure very similar to Watchmen in that respect, in which the intellectual source material is present and correct but not understood, and though characters go through the motions and say the words, it feels hollow because the stakes are not there as they should be. Like that film, the visual style of Brighton Rock will win some over. But make no mistake this is a bad film, swimming in waters it is simply to dense to get and this is obvious to the point of blatant. And it's ending is surely to be unchallenged as the most hilarious cinematic moment of 2011. Arrgh.

Rating: 4/10

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

REVIEW: Sanctum

Bitches be seriously crappy cave divers, if you take sanctum at its word.

For a film like Sanctum, there's actually very little it needs to get right to at least be an acceptable waste of time. The one dude dies at a time structure is something that seems to intrinsically suited to cinema, that even the shitty ones are enjoyable in a base sense. You know that if the dialogue sucks, the characters are cutouts and the emotional attachments are non-existent, at least you get the satisfaction of watching these fuckers get killed in gory and creative ways. Its kind of a win win. Yet Sanctum's shitness came very, very close to the line designated 'Taking the Piss'.

Both its opening and ending sequences are painfully amateur. The acting, well its almost an affront to the word laughable to call it laughable, most notably Ioan Gruffudd and lead Rhys Wakefield. Gruffudd is not an entirely shit actor, but he really can't do an American accent, and when he tries it just ends up very close to embarrassing. This is no exception, and in fact may be the worst he's ever been or ever will be, coming of hammy and horribly off-key in way too many moments. Not the strongest moment for the former Mr Fantastic. That said, lead Rhys Wakefield somehow manages to be a less charismatic Alex Pettyfer, and anyone who's seen a Pettyfer performance will know that seems like a ridiculous statement, but believe me its valid. Wakefield got this part because of his gym membership and truly nothing else. Its the worst kind of performance as far I'm concerned, bad and bland. If you're gonna be shit, you may as well be Gruffudd shit and at least make an impression. The father-son dynamic is painfully forced and phony, as is just about everything else in this film.

Granted some of the underwater photography is impressive, the mid-section features some moderate to OK survival-horror sequences and there is a good no-frills performance by Richard Roxburgh, who through sheer will of personality makes the shitty words he's saying seem credible. Sanctum is the classic case of what can happen when you make a film with technology in mind, and forget the ultimately you are trying to tell a story. Which inevitably feels like an afterthought, put together in twenty minutes in between underwater stock tests. Sanctum may give me things that I've never seen before and if so, then good for it, but I'm tired of 3D being an excuse to not give a shit about anything else and have that be OK. Sanctum could have been a fun little movie, if only it had invested a modicum more of an effort into its story. Shit doesn't have to be Shakespeare, and you can even lean on archetypes. Just not this half-assed crap.

Rating: 3/10

Saturday, 5 February 2011

REVIEW: The Mechanic

" I'm so sick of irony and sarcasm, I could Kill." Ben Foster

I have been mercilessly mocked more then once my liking of Ben Foster. People be hating, always like that guy is ridiculous. Telling me about how he's awful in Alpha Dog, about how he is the male lead in Get Over It. About how he got out-acted in Pandorum by Cam Gidanget. To you I say, yes, Ben Foster may be all of these things, but there's one thing he also is that makes everything else wonderfully irrelevant. Fucking awesome. He's an actor so entirely balls out in everything he does, and granted a lot of it is kind of shite, but there's such a commitment there, such a refusal to be out of the moment, that he is never boring to watch. I almost look forward more to a new variation on Psycho Ben Foster then I do any other actor, or performance or entire films. Take from that what you will, I suppose.

And for me the presence of Psycho Ben Foster made The Mechanic a kind of enjoyable piece of crap instead of yet another disposable actioner starring the alter-ego of Lee Christmas. I have some time for Statham. He can be an enjoyably deadpan presence in action movies, and he's a better actor then is the standard for the usual action hero, but his role here was the worst kind of bland killing machine you could imagine Steven Seagal playing. The thing goes through some very familiar motions, hitman betrayed enough to go sick on his former employers and all that, and that's fine. The arrival of Foster makes things pop a bit more though, and seeing the guy psycho his way through a couple of brutally captured action scenes, this is the director of Con Air after all, lent the film a slightly darker hew, and instead of feeling like a straight to video action film somehow in cinemas, it begins to feel a little more subversive and interesting. Not in any grand way of course, but in moments and scenes. Like its batshit ending, or a fairly awesome fight scene between Foster and a gay hitman. Now Steve McKenna isn't quite hall of fame Psycho Ben Foster, that's still Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma, but he's a character that certainly has no place in this film, and that kind of made it more awesome.

Perhaps Foster is an acquired taste, but with so many bland, barely noticeable actors out there, I have time for an actor of the manner of Foster. And sure, he may keep making awful films that make the argument harder to make. But whatever. One day he'll get his John Hawkes moment. The role he knocks so far out the fucking park I'm going to so have an I told you so status on my facebook page. But for now, I wait.

Rating: 5/10

REVIEW: Tangled


Now I didn't entirely dislike Tangled, so bear with me. But isn't this basically Shrek only without the handsome prince being replaced by an Ogre joke. AKA, the idea that spawned a decade of irony-seeping, one eye winking intolerable kiddie flicks. Isn't this that, only not even that? I guess the Flynn Ryder character here is a bit more of a douchebag, but you know, this is some slight stuff. Tangled encompasses the lazily anachronistic tone of the many beloved Dreamworks animations, mining fairy tale mythology yet again and well, feeling very, very rote. You saw the musical numbers right?

Yet Tangled is kind of fun in spite of its repeated efforts to be itself, the casting of Zachary Levi helps a great deal, the man otherwise known as Chuck Bartowski was a good move, the guy is kind of effortlessly winning and perhaps is always going to be more naturally amusing then say, Mandy Moore is going to be. Ms Moore, who has always been mildly likeable, mildly amusing and mildly talented, gives a mildly impressive performance in the lead role of Rapunzel (A fact I kept forgetting, because the film only really wanted to mine the Rapunzel for its proclivity for jokes about really long hair.) She made me smile a couple of times, though I have to ask am I just naturally setting Mandy Moore a lower standard, and any time she manages to be a mildly enjoyable presence I'm inclined to misinterpret the mildness for being better then it is. Its a question I may never answer. Perhaps because there is no answer, and the whole circle of Mandy Moore will go on and on until people don't care any more.

Anyways, Tangled. It had an enjoyably airy and light tone, it skipped along going exactly where you expect it to go, from its cheap and easy mocking of fairy tale conventions to its entirely sackless conclusion. And its created yet more bad press for step-parenting. Hollywood, make a movie about a step-parent saving a kid from a horrible family. I dare you.

Rating: 5/10

Friday, 4 February 2011

REVIEW: Biutiful


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu should probably be up there with people you cite as the best directors working today. His films had a intelligence and a rawness that few films have matched, and even if he inspired a thousand terrible indie films about people in cities being unexpectedly poignant ways set to soft montages to the music of John Mayer, his films have a vitality that few have matched, before a since. Particularly Amores Perros, a film I'd still consider his best purely for the lack of Sean Penn in it. Biutiful is simultaneously a step back to basics and a radical departure. The Hollywood grandiosity that skirted the edges of his American ventures is gone, as is his trademark multi-protagonist structure, but the grittiness is back in full force, and perhaps for the first time a more personal, sincerely emotional side.

Biutiful is an intimate film by a director known entirely for his sense of scope. There are problems here as a consequence of that, the occasional flirtation with expressionism feels out of place, a subplot dealing with some Chinese immigrant workers hits and misses, and one could argue the melodrama is laid on a little thick, from the poverty to the single dad stuff, to the cancer etc. Inarritu lays it on thick. But there's a sincerity here, a truthfulness that allows the film to work in spite of all this. Well that and the phenomenal central performance by Javier Bardem. This shouldn't be all that surprising, and nobody is going to take much exception to the notion of Bardem's awesomeness, but there's something about Spanish language Bardem that doesn't quite translate to his English speaking roles, perhaps because the English language appears obviously difficult to him and outside of Anton Chigurh, where the unease became an incredible asset, he's very much the Gerard Depardieu of our generation. But if you see Before Night Falls or The Sea Inside or now Biutiful. The sheer force of his presence is very much like no other. He communicates a great raw power, as well as a great intelligence and his performance here reminded me very much of early Robert De Niro, only perhaps with less self-consciousness. Either way his performance here is very much an ascendant one, that overwhelms any weaknesses the film possesses, and suffice to say that blind-siding Oscar nomination was fully warranted.

Ultimately, Biutiful is a bold, moving and sincere film. Its also erratic, over-long and melodramatic. I suppose it's up to you whether what's right makes what;s wrong not matter or the other way around. But for me it is truly refreshing to see a film this genuine. It's an increasingly rare thing.

Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

REVIEW: Barney's Version

The film in which Paul Giamatti gets to make out with Rosamund Pike, Rachelle Lefevre and Minnie Driver. Why did he take this role again?

I apologise for the cold open, Paul Giamatti is awesome and should be shown respect, and aspersions should not be cast on his reasons for taking a given role when so clearly he took it for reasons relating to artistic integrity. And Barney's Version is nothing if not a showcase for Giamatti to do just about everything, a challenge the guy rises to. One could say that elsewhere the film is a fairly generic life story bit, that doesn't really go anywhere new, that there's way too much beatnik for the sensitive palettes of modern audiences and you'd be right. But Barney's Version is one of those films made viable by performances, even if the film in and of itself is sort of average in that indie kind of way. You can't help but enjoy yourself when watching an actor like Giamatti, and to be fair, Dustin Hoffman puts in a good shift as his dad.

The Citizen Kane model though is looking a little worn around the edges these days, and the problem with films that span 50 or so years like this is that everything becomes generalities, story moments and themes don't get the layering they need so urgent is the need to move to the next period in time, and for example, Giamatti's relationship with first wife Lefevre plays too lazily in bohemian stereotypes and is beyond skeletal. If anything I would have preferred the whole film to be about his relationship with Ms. Pike, because that had the potential to grow into something different. If the story suffers though, its only Giamatti's gain as he is thusly relied on to carry every fucking thing, from the emotional core of the film to the comic relief to anything else you can think of. But the problem with that is that Barney's Version isn't a film, It's a showcase.

There's enough talent here to sort of make that OK, Hoffman is great in a role that almost has no place in the story, but is more interesting then about 75% of the things that are actually in the story, which kind of brings me to my closing point. The film tries to do way too much, not thematically, but in terms of sheer quantity, and this simply hurts what does work, such as the bulk of the latter half when it focuses in on his last marriage with Pike. Story-telling ambition is best measured in thematic scope rather then a literal equivalent, and considering that faux-biopics are consumed by their own intent. Shit got real a bit there, so I'll appropriately end the review with a cheap joke to clarify. As James Cameron would say, sometimes less is more guys.

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

REVIEW: Hereafter

A supernatural tale with no imagination. See I could write for the Sun. Tell your friends.

Warning signs were there. Viewed purely in the context of its IMDB page, Hereafter is some serious Oscar bait. Directed by perennial favourite Clint Eastwood, who usually just has to turn up to get a nomination, Matt Damon of course and then Peter Morgan, everyone favourite documenter of recent history. Morgan's an interesting one, because he seems the kind of writer to let his research to the talking, and although people loved this when it came to The Queen, Frost/Nixon or The Last King Of Scotland, his work exclusively in biopics had me a little suspicious.

Apparently with reason, because Hereafter is an aimless, joyless over-long mess. Connected by generalities and broad protestations of supernatural meaning, Morgan has tried to make an adult supernatural drama, away from the usual colourful tropes usually associated, an idea I'm not entirely opposed to, but created something too self-indulgent and rote to have any value to anyone other then him. We spend too long with dull characters and a story that literally goes nowhere, and while there were moments of Matt Damon's performance I liked, and it's awesome to see Switchblade Romance's Cecile De France show up in such a prominent role, it's a sinking ship and there's not much to be done about that. Equally too melodramatic and too dour, with an ending that emphatically makes one feel one has wasted one's time. Not that you really needed much more evidence to be convinced of that point of view.

Still, I like Eastwood's attempt to do something different, only maybe read the script a little more carefully next time. Morgan meanwhile, seemed to struggle without the weight history lends. When he had to build and construct world's of his own and make it viable, well. Didn't seem to work all that well. I wouldn't quite say it's an embarrassing misstep, but that is certainly how it will be perceived.

Rating: 4/10