Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Retrospective Review: Frailty

" May God welcome you, and keep you."

Frailty is a film that crept under my skin over time. At first I remember being very impressed, even taken aback by how good it was, but I had to allow for the fact that I watched it alone at 2AM in otherwise deserted house. So I had to factor in a tired delirium and a favoring atmosphere. But the more I thought about it, the ideas it had played with and how strong the performances were, the film's reputation within the confines of my mind was rising, until I'd has all the mental chinese whispers I could take and watched it again. And do you know what, I'm tempted to call this film the forgotten great of the 2000's, a film so enjoyably rich that despite rough edges, is worth going to the mat for. Maybe because it pushes so many of my movie going buttons, I'm inclined to be a little kinder to it then it possibly deserves, although to be clear it deserves a lot of kindness. A fantastic southern gothic noir fused with a slasher movie, it manages to be a horror story about its characters, that gets you to invest in them and their journey. Violence is present, but its gore is not the point. Its about a family that loves each other, and how violence tears them apart. As far as I'm concerned that's the best kind of horror movie, where the horror serves the story rather then being the point in and of itself. It allows me to forgive whatever roughness around the edges there are in Frailty. And if I'm being honest there are a few, possibly an entire storyline, But if anything deserves to be more then a sum of its parts its Frailty, a film with more balls then most and evidence that Bill ' YOU CAN COUNT ME OUT!' Paxton may be this generation's Charles Laughton.

To explain that obnoxiously obscure reference, Laughton was an enormously successful actor back in the day, most famous for playing Henry VII, when movies were as old people wish they could be forever. The man took one stab at directing, and came out with the dark, southern Gothic masterpiece 'The Night Of The Hunter', A movie I love to the point where it might be inadvisable. Featuring a career best Robert Mitchum as psychopathic preacher, Rev. Harry Powell who pursues two children through the wilderness after killing their mother. It was ahead of its time, made abundantly clear by the way nobody saw it, it was a gigantic flop and Laughton vowed to never make a film again. And he didn't. I'm not quite ready to say that Frailty is as good as that film is, but of the many films that played on it, Frailty comes closest to achieving its success, becoming a dark look at the values of the south, from Religion to family to morally justified violence.

" You're my son, and I love you more than my own life."

Paxton plays single father to two sons, living out an unassuming life in which he's a mechanic and they get C grades from school. But one night, Paxton wakes his kids up and tells them that he's been given a mandate from God, told by the almighty the end is coming and its his job to hunt demons as judgement day approaches. Whilst his younger son Adam buys into this entirely, his older son Fenton begins to think his loving attentive father has gone insane. Horror is often about the break-up of the family unit, but what I love about Frailty is that Paxton's religious mania doesn't take away his positive qualities, in the eyes of the viewer and of his children, he's still the same great man. Just now he kills people. A trick it pulls by placing you in Fenton's shoes, and taking that real life moment of when you realize your parents word isn't gospel, and twisting it to create something horrifying. Taking a safe place and invading it with corruption and dread. But alas, nobody saw it and Bill Paxton fucked off to play a Mormon on HBO's Big Love.

Paxton is an easy actor to mock. There's his endlessly quotable role in Aliens of course, which the world has kind of turned on in the last decade. There's a couple of vapid attempts an leading man in things such as Twister and Vertical Limit, sure. But there's also his terrific, psychopathic vampire Severen in Near Dark, there's his solemn and affecting performance in quote Sam Raimi's best film A Simple Plan unquote. One could even point to True Lies and say he's the best thing about a colossal mess of a movie. He's a much more interesting actor then people realize, and that's never more apparent than his performance in Frailty. Which has no precedence, even if you're a fan of the man's work. It's such a thoughtful take on crazy, a man torn between what he believes and what he loves, and Paxton gives the character such a sense of dignity, of sincerity, that you can't help but empathize with him. If there was a time when Bill Paxton deserves an Oscar nomination was ever at its least ridiculous, then it was here. A word too for Matt O' Leary, who gives a very strong, mature performance in a difficult role as Fenton. Even Reign Of Fire's Matthew McConaughey turns in a good performance, yet again demonstrating if he wasn't such an all purpose paycheck whore he can be a very good actor.

" Are We Superheroes Dad?"

Frailty is not without its flaws though. The film is split up into two narratives, there's the flashback to young Fenton's dilemma, whilst we see the elder, McConaughey shaped Fenton detailing the story to and FBI Agent. I think film would have been stronger if it had entirely ditched the McConaughey stuff. Not because there's anything wrong with him, but because it does take away some of the urgency and claustrophobia out of the film that we can keep cutting away to the FBI Office whenever things get too intense. In a way it shows a lack of conviction, and I'm certain that if this film had been solely about its central narrative, without the need to dress it with a flashback structure or a well-written but entirely superfluous voice-over, it would have been even more effective. Similarly the film has an ending that will certainly polarize, I found it to be effective if a little unnecessary, but I imagine it will ruin the film for some. And that's an understandable response.

But Frailty is such an ambitious, bold work that I can forgive some structural woes and wheel-spinning. I can forgive that it got slightly caught up in the early 00's Sixth Sense fueled twist phase, in which gut-punching your audience became more important then telling a coherent story, or the fact that maybe one or two more drafts of the script might not have hurt. As it stands, the execution probably doesn't match the ambition, the ideas perhaps more gripping than what is done with them. But in spite of that, whenever its in that house with that family then it becomes one of the most potent, intelligent horror films simply because the nightmare is set against normalcy and they do everything we do. Its a film that is vastly more concerned with character then scares and thus becomes a unique, disturbing experience exactly because it let it evolve out of something honest. Or just because its awesome.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 28 March 2011

REVIEW: Faster

This shit about to get zero G.

Like The Mechanic, Faster is a throwback to a simple time. When all revenge movies needed was an alpha male star, a hefty body count and guns. Lots of guns. But in a way the tone of it goes even further back, almost to an early 70's type of revenge movie that may have starred Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson. It's pleasingly sincere, and makes an honest attempt to inject some character into the mix, going so far is to almost remove humor from the equation entirely, not allowing Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson his trademark grin nor Billy Bob Thornton is trademark assholisms. It may not always be a plus when something playing in such cliched territory is so insistingly self-serious, but for the most part I dug that aspect of it, and while Fasteris probably a bad movie, its an earnest one and that earns it some points.

The story is almost irrelevant, The Rock is out to avenge his brother and goes through no names one by one, Billy Bob Thornton is the cop on his trail, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen is a hit-man hired to '86 our anti-hero. Cohen's character is probably the most interesting on the page, even if his presence doesn't really make a whole lot of sense within the narrative, a handicapped nerd who sets about beating each challenge life sets him, with the latest task being professional killing, having conquered yoga and the stock-market. Unfortunately Cohen is wooden as the fences, cast for his looks rather then his talent, and it shows. Thornton, who is probably much less appreciated then he should be, gives a good performance in what is probably the most cliched role of the bunch. The Rock isn't at his best, stuttering his very few lines and while certainly looking the part, probably works much better as a charming presence then an intense one. In truth the film is probably stolen in a five minute cameo by Adewale Akkinoye Agbaje, AKA Lost's Mr Eko. Delivering a much more powerful performance then this movie deserves.

Faster's approach is to be pretend its the first revenge movie ever made, one that doesn't linger on logic or specificity, and these things are both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that it doesn't undercut the stakes, melodramatic and crass as they may be, a weakness in that being well-meaning doesn't make you no longer dense, and Faster is a vapid movie, charging through everything, erratically and without consideration so when it comes to its pensive final act, it feels a bit off. Having said that though, I did enjoy this movie. Perhaps pretending it has no predecessors has its benefits, because it makes it hard to hate so naive is it about everything. An action movie that feels almost quaint.

Rating: 5/10

Sunday, 27 March 2011

REVIEW: The Lincoln Lawyer

A moment captured in symmetry and time.

The art of the sensationalist phrase used solely to gather hits and which a subsequent review will spend 100 words toning down is an oft used tool of the independent blogger. So suck on this one. Matthew McConaughey is the most under-rated actor working in hollywood today. I say this not because McConaughey is secretly the best actor in the world, or because he has a body of work so impressive its an injustice so grievous I can stands it no more. I say it because McConaughey has a rap of being the punchline to a one-liner, an actor so dumb and so awful he should surely have a reality show on VH1 by now and stop making us watch his shitty movies. One part of this I agree with, his CV, particularly once he had arrived, is atrocious. Bad romantic comedies and cheesy action movies make up the list, with his minimal cameo in Tropic Thunder his only critically acclaimed role of the decade. McConaughey chose to be a movie star over being a great actor, chose paychecks (or fat stacks) over great work and well, had the consequent career. Showing absolutely no desire to do anything but get paid.

He starred in rom-coms with every actress going in that particular field, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson again. Its a testament to McConaughey's appeal that he's been able to do nothing but phone it in to films, he could give a shit about, for nigh on a decade and still have a job. Everyone else who tries this can find their career in a shallow grave. Ed Burns, James Marsden, John Corbett, Dermot Mulroney. It goes on. Yet here McConaughey still stands, last sellout alive. This is because McConuaghey is awesome to watch on screen, he has an effortless cool about him, a bizarre likability that can withstand any piece of crap thrown at it. He may be the truest movie star of my lifetime, its just he forgot to make any good films. At least in the megastar stage, but if you look at Dazed and Confused, at John Sayles' Lone Star, at Frailty and even the highly populist A View To A Kill. He has it in him.

Which somewhat belatedly brings me to The Lincoln Lawyer. A film that has by the numbers installed deep in its DNA, the kind of film a studio makes to bide time through the dark spring months until summer's here, where it can unleash all hell upon us. A courtroom drama, dealing in the same John Grisham-esque broad and hysterical shenanigans involving serial killers and impossible cases and unfeasable feats of law-bending etc. The film I was very much reminded of when seeing this was Fracture, a film I highly doubt anyone remembers, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. It too dealt in these waters. And it too leaned on a charismatic lead performance to carry it through. There it was Anthony Hopkins, and here it was unsuprisingly McConaughey. Looking excited, comfortable and truly at home, McConaughey gives as close to a tour de force as the limitations of the Lincoln Lawyer will allow, playing his unscrupulous lawyer with a relaxed confidence and cool that most actors couldn't get close to. It's ridiculous how much I enjoyed his performance in what otherwise was a feebly mediocre film, going from beat to beat in a manor both familiar and predictable.

Ryan Phillipe, despite his role being irritatingly marginalized gives a performance that rediscovers some of the yuppie smarm that he came from, and he's serviceable as he always is. Bigshots after a paycheck come and go, William H Macy, Marisa Tomei and even Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston pop their head in the door. But truthfully everyone looks bored but McConaughey, because they know this is a money picture. But for McConaughey, its the best movie he's made in years, and he knows it. Which is a good thing, because without his performance, I'd have almost nothing to say about such an average thing.

Rating: 5/10

REVIEW: Fair Game

Did I mention I was married to Madonna? Dumped the bitch.

Sean Penn is undoubtedly a talented man. I do not begrudge him his success nor his fame. What I do begrudge is that he's allowed his ego and colossal arrogance make him a less interesting presence on screen. I could give a shit how any movie star acts in real life because its not my problem, but I'm pretty sure Sean Penn should have been the Marlon Brando of the 90's and 00's, and while there's a scattering of that, his work in the assassination of Richard Nixon and maybe Sweet and Lowdown, he's made a series of safe, predictable choices that don't test him, challenge him or show much of variety on that same Mystic River performance. For someone who is called and based on talent alone probably is the best actor since heaven spat out the earth, he's become an almost cowardly actor, albeit one with talent to burn. Its just, he's burning it and not using it.

In that sense then, its a shame because Fair Game is surprisingly abrupt with its politics, being quite literal in its portrayal of the white house as the bad guy and is overtly critical of the Bush administration. Yet even with a two year cushion, American audiences have taken an out of mind, out of sight policy to recent political malpractice, as if people stop mentioning it then it will cease to be true. So nobody will see Fair Game. Which is a shame, because despite its urgency to turn thing into a simplified good vs evil story, and perhaps an unconvincing central relationship, which I'm going to blame more on Penn then Naomi Watts. She's not at her best here, but she gives a solid, committed performance, but Penn almost turns off in any scene that doesn't expressly deal with politics. His speeches about political corruption are captivating, yet he just looks bored any time he has to communicate emotion, as if it were part of the job he has to get through in order to be in a film he ideologically agrees with. I mean that's great for him, but its kind of frustrating for me.

Elsewhere there's some nice supporting turns from Noah Emmerich and Michael Kelly, and the plot moves swiftly and is engaging, even if a little all over the place. But I can't help but feel this film would have been stronger if as much energy had been devoted to making my care as much about the central marriage as it did about white house corruption. Then it could have been great. Because honestly I love films that wear their politics on their sleeve and strongly believe there should be more of them, but I know they can be slightly better then this OK but ultimately underwhelming film

Rating: 6/10

Sunday, 20 March 2011

REVIEW: The Company Men

Death of a salesman...........BOOM.

It's a notable in trend in recent years to see the shunning of political movies in Hollywood. Particularly those dealing with headline problems rather then the social dilemmas of thirty years ago. So a film dealing with race or gay rights can be warmly accepted, but a film dealing with say The Iraq War in any political sense, or the political strife of the last ten years gets dealt with in a strict manor of denial. People of our generation it seems don't want go to the movies and see their life. they want to fuck off to Pandora and pretend this life doesn't exist for a while. Its a shame, because I found The Company Men to be an intelligent humanist drama, that is exactly the kind of film people should see. It explores the issue of the financial crisis in a way that isn't preachy or patronizing, yet doesn't duck away from it either. Its not perfect by any means, but its mature, relevant film-making.

The Company Men comes TV legend John Wells, responsible for ER, latter years of the West Wing and much of the TV landscape of the last decade. All of his work is smart and to the point, and eschews sentimentality in lieu of of tight and insightful character drama, and its this that makes The Company Men appealing. Its not the platform sob-story it could have been instead showing a much more practical approach to exploring the fallout of the recession through three characters at varying positions in a company. It follows the perspectives of three characters from the D-Day onwards, Ben Affleck's laid off salesman, Tommy Lee Jones' executive with a conscience and Chris Cooper's relic from a past era, and slowly watches their lives unravel. I think this is one of Affleck's best performances in years, the eternal problem of his douchiness fitting much more naturally within the character and allowing the most convincing Affleck everyman I have ever seen. Tommy Lee Jones brings his familiar crabby soulfulness, but just as he did in No Country For Old Men, lends it a soulfulness that deepens the character immensely and shows why he's quite possibly the most intelligent actor currently working. Cooper does a lot with a little, his role is a little marginilized in comparison with the other two. But he gets a couple of scenes that really hit home, particularly a moment where he is advised to leave his service in Vietnam of his resume because it shows his age.

The script is an impressive, considered work that shows a side of the financial crisis we don't get to see, and watching the rich get humbled be the even richer isn't as satisfying as one might expect. Thoughtfulness is a rare commodity at the movies these days, and in that sense The Company Men works as a refreshingly frank chronicle of the cost of greed. I get that people don't like things too close to home, which could explain the near burial of this film, but its one worth seeking out.

Rating: 7/10

REVIEW: Unknown

I still remember how to kill you........asshole.

Unknown is a movie that's probably going to get better reviews then it deserves, particularly from older critics longing for the bad films of their youth. Unknown feels like one of the weaker later Hitchcock movies, only with 50 years of dilution to make it extra redundant. And yet because this kind of pot-boiling spy thriller hasn't been around much lately, so it seems all is forgiven. Just because this isn't the genericism of choice for my generation, we preferring CGI mock-ups of Aliens and the such, I guess this must feel positively fresh in comparison. But Unknown is every bit as cliched and hackneyed as something like Doom or Battle: LA. Just in a style that is old-fashioned.

Thankfully the film has put together a decent enough cast, to allow the thing to be engaging in spite of its simplicity and sheer familiarity. Liam Neeson's resurgence as an action star is something that's kind of awesome, and while I don't think that its exactly Neeson's home turf. He delivers much of the expository dialogue awkwardly just as he did in Taken, except here its probably worse and the opening fifteen minutes are sort of painful, particularly because it featured January Jones prominently, who is a graduate of the Angelina Jolie school of acting, in which you give nobody nothing at any point in time. Her icy expression barely breaks, and in a way that's much more suited to subtler fare then Unknown, in which she is needlessly opaque. Things get better though, once Neeson gets into action man mode in which he's surprisingly convincing. Bruno Ganz lends some appreciated thoughtful support as an ex-Stazi ally of Neeson's and Frank Langella is also a welcome presence upon his late arrival. But the thing is just so depressingly predictable, even going so far as to lean its twist on amnesia the worst thriller cliche in the book.

Yet Unknown was a quantifiable success with viewers and critics. Its a fair enough in-flight movie, something you can moderately enjoy and then entirely expel by the time of landing. In that sense it works. But to end this review, I'd like to take older critics aside for a moment. Guys, I get it. I know you hate what we've done to you. All this CGI, all the ADD and all the franchises and sequels. I'm sure you blame us for Spider-Man 3 and Transformers 2. As you should. But you can't make it so every time a film breaks our direct influence, any time a movie doesn't have soulless set-piece action, MTV visuals or 1D characters, you can't just say its great simply because its not that. Unknown is like a bad movie from the 70's sure, but its still a bad movie and y'all can't just ignore that out of nostalgia. Because the egg is on your face when Unknown sits at a comfortable 7.2 on IMDB. Assholes.

Rating: 4/10

Monday, 14 March 2011

Rant: Does A Great Film Need To Be A Masculine Fantasy In Order To Be Great? : Male Feminist Panic

Being a man, feminist issues are inevitably a catch-22. Particularly a middle-class, twentysomething male. Either You're a sackless traitor or an ignorant chauvinist and often both. I think for many of the men who would call themselves feminists, it can be a pose. It can be pretending to be dissatisfied with the privileged position us men hold, in which everything from movies to literature to everything else is geared to our taste, in which our opinion carries more weight and the world works to our convenience. We can say we resent it, we can say we'd rather things were equal, but there's as much truth in that as the lottery winner who says he wishes he could share his winnings with everyone who bought a ticket. Its hard to a fight a broken system when it favors you, and when a more equal system would mean you'd have to work for a living, metaphorically speaking. Its certainly not the Darwinian thing to do, to throw away advantages in the name of altruistic fairness. I think women should be suspicious of men crying feminist because the truth of that statement relies entirely on one's better nature conquering one's impulses. And how does that fight usually go?

And yet at the same time, its something I have always tried to be. I call movies out a lot for crimes of sexism and misogyny, often at the expense of reviewing a movie in a credible journalistic manor. Saying that Transformers 2's plot derailed because the camera was distracted by Megan Fox's boobs or the rampant self-hating misogyny of a Piranha 3D say, in which women are for looking at and ogling, but if they get to close to actually touch you, better kill them horribly because Don't let them take your masculine purity because that shit is sacred and you will BURN IN HELL. Or something like that. These thoughts I reckon kept the apologist feminist in me happy, and meant I could watch Die Hard in absolution. But these days I'm beginning to think my attitude to movie sexism mirrors that of a movie studio's attitude to quality. Just enough to get by and to keep the 'critics' off your back. And I don't think this is just my problem. Sure its to be obvious to say that guilty pleasure cinema has and always will be about male fantasy, tales of adventure and glorified violence that practicality and morality don't allow for. What man doesn't pray for the day he can use righteous violence to solve his problems, the day he can kill something and not have to take the horror and guilt of the act into account, That's what Die Hard, Rambo, Point Blank, The Dirty Dozen, The Big Sleep and The Adventures Of Robin Hood do, they allow us to play this out in a way that removes consequence and we love them for it. Hey, its called guilty pleasure cinema, what else do you want from it. But I don't think it necessarily stops there.

If you look at what the mass voice calls the best movies all time, particularly in regards to mainstream taste, then the one thing that links many of the greatest films of all time is that they are still some rendition of the same masculine fantasy. The kicker being they're self aware. They examine it, call it out. Say how terrible it is, all whilst still fundamentally playing it out. The Godfather for example, is for all its commentary on The American dream and break-up of the American family, still about an innocent man turning to violence to solve his problems, and emerging victorious. We the viewer are meant to see it as tragic, but yet are still encouraged to enjoy the ride, so to speak. Citizen Kane is about a man finding success through the ultimate masculine body, capitalism. Again it points out how tragic it is but not before enjoying Kane's rise. Fight Club is explicitly about a man finding his identity in violence, There Will Be Blood is about the consequences of greed and furious competitiveness, again the male fantasy of crushing one's opposition. You could go on. Its called having your cake and eating it storytelling, in which you justify your transgressions by condemning them. But at the center of all these films is the masculine ID. What we deem to be interesting, what we deem to be fascinating and what we deem to be quality seems to depend on how much something skews male.

Amongst my favorite films are Fight Club, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Pulp Fiction, Platoon, City Of God, Apocalypse Now, The Big Lebowski and Vertigo to name some at random and without exception they have a male lead, and I'd say a good 80% of those film push a world where no women exist at all, at least not in any real capacity. And I think its fair to say these films would be in many people's lists and they are universally deemed to be quality. Yet every one is an examination of male fantasy. It gets to the point, Perhaps because criticism is not entirely an intellectual exercise, and many times it can be simply verbalizing gut reactions to things. But this implies that instinctually, I find the male experience more interesting then the female one.

And I don't agree with these findings, intellectually anyway. And deciding whether something is good or not has to leave base subjectivity at some point otherwise it nullifies the whole process. Traditionally men react to situations with force and women with consideration. Even with this simplified, reductive view of both sexes This makes women much more interesting characters, at least on screen and because I am more familiar with male experience, I should find female characters more interesting, more mysterious and more fascinating. To my mind they are the unknown, and thus more worthy of exploring. Yet cinema and even television tells me the most fascinating characters are those who push masculinity to its limits in any context. Why isn't Volver or Heathers on this list, why not Breakfast At Tiffany's, Spirited Away or Heavenly Creatures. I could barely fault these films (Well, I guess excepting Tiffany's racism toward the Japanese) and yet they don't connect with me in quite the same way. It seems that Intellectual consideration can't compete with gut reaction, and as great as something could be, if it doesn't fulfill that particular ID, that kid who wants to play cops and robbers and annihilate Goldeneye on the N64 and fervently believed that girls had cooties, if he doesn't get what he wants then it can't be mind-blowing in quite the same way. Is that kid secretly in charge of every reaction I have, what I decide is great or awful. Is the only role I perform to justify his likes with long words and an amusingly cynical world view? I'd like to say no.

If only it were just me, but the fact that this is so frequently the case implies that this is everyone. Every male viewer is going to partial to the have its cake and eat films because the service both the boy and the man, whereas Antonia's Line can only ever serve the man. The proto-feminist can fight as hard as he wants, but he is a lie, an imaginary creation made of nothing but air and good intentions. I guess there's the hope that you repeat a lie enough eventually it comes true, that if you keep telling yourself you believe something enough times eventually you'll cave and suddenly Boys Don't Cry will be the best film of the 1990's. But alas, me and the rest of the world of the Y chromosome are probably destined to be biased forever.

I think this is a critical version of survivor's guilt, perhaps because I get what I want whilst women get to tell so few of the amazing stories I have no doubt they could tell, so I'll turn and thrash until my conscience is satiated and then go back to cheering on Commander John Matrix. One can dream.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

REVIEW: Battle: LA

Because I'm a marine I see Uh-Rah at all the key moments in my life.

It is a real shame that Battle: LA wasn't based on a computer game, because this would probably be the best adaptation ever. As it stands, its a serviceable enough actioner that wears its gaming influences on its sleeve. From the slightness of story to the painful expository dialogue, to telegraphing motivations and character types from a mile away. Its only a terrible movie when people are talking, but when they're not it can be an enjoyable enough braindead first-person shooter. Of course the 12A rating betrays even that principle, but whatever. I'd be lying if I didn't get a kick out of the Aliens/Saving Private Ryan mash-up, but at the same time a movie this stupid can only be cut so much slack.

The opening 15 minutes is pretty much embarrassing, as we go from cliched and rushed backstory to cliched and rushed backstory, as the movie makes a feeble effort to pretend that these guys aren't just canon fodder. Its very much 'two days from retirement' type stuff, from the soldier with the pregnant wife to the soldier with the impending engagement, to the soldier with emotional baggage to the soldier with a dark past etc. Perhaps the worst thing about this is that its so false on the movie's part. If you want to be an adrenaline rush first-person shooter then be that, just don't pretend you're a real movie about real people, particularly when you have no intention of being one once you get started. But once the shooting starts I guess things pick up, with some nicely staged action sequences against a mostly unseen alien enemy. The thing is, with better writing, something like this could really work. I love Aliens as much as the next guy, and I even like many of its inferior rip-offs, but computer game influences can be damning as well as liberating, because while it frees things up to be more action orientated, it also brings with the same level of bastardized story-telling, of functional characters and of sheer emotional disposability.

Its attempts to not be a cardboard cut-out of a movie fail to the extent, that the fact that they've pimped that cardboard out with bitchin M-16's and masculine bravado doesn't matter as much as it should. Battle LA is almost the quintessential studio movie in that its high level of technical accomplishment and adeptness at providing cheap thrills is matched by a half-assed, lazy attempt to be creatively rewarding. Battle LA probably is very much a sign of things to come, the kind of ADD movie with enough cool shots to put together a nifty trailer ( which suckered me in, I'll admit) but as a whole, as a cinematic experience and as a story. Its just empty. Its a movie for the wrong kind of nerd.

Rating: 5/10

Thursday, 10 March 2011

REVIEW: The Adjustment Bureau

So in conclusion Ms Blunt, this is why the world will end if you don't sleep with me. Plus I'm Matt Damon.

Philip K. Dick has pretty much become the Shakespeare of Sci-Fi as far as cinema is concerned. Adaptations of his work have a credibility going in that often they don't deserve, sure Blade Runner is a classic, A Scanner Darkly is weirdly effective and Minority Report is a ride, but fuck. Have any of you guys seen Screamers? How about Next? Paycheck? Expecting a classic every time of a Dick adaptation is to be unfair. What makes his work so movie friendly is that its concept heavy and content light, often short stories lasting no more then 50 pages, he presents the idea and film-makers choose what to do with it. Ridley Scott creates a poetic Orwellian nightmare, Linklater creates a freaky yet insightful exploration of character and Spielberg makes a fast-paced blockbuster. Dick's work seems to be merely a template, whether its good or not depends on the talents of the film-maker in question.

In this case screenwriter Goerge Nolfi tries his hand at directing, fresh of Bourne Ultimatum credbility.And right of the bat, Nolfi's world is notably dry, liking the visual excitement or even interest when perhaps there could have been. The Adjustment Bureau isn't a terrible movie, containing some neat execution of the ideas and some good performances. But it feels somehow much blander then it had to be, much more of a run of the mill thriller then was necessary. The central thesis, which is basically if God has A Plan, then how is there such a thing as free will? Of course for fear of alienating and angering, God becomes ' the Chairman' and everything is made suitably secular. There's not a lot to any character really, all are simply types. Nolfi relies on the innate likability of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt to get him by, and generally that pays off. Flabbergasted protagonist Damon isn't my favorite kind of Damon but he does it fine. And Blunt is simply required to be pretty and charming. Fairing better are the various members of the bureau, from an awesome Anthony Mackie performance in a role that feels as if its written for John Turturro or something, to Roger Sterling as a sci-fi bad man courtesy of John Slattery, which admittedly was pretty awesome. Terence Stamp's calm and commanding presence is welcome though, when it arrives.

But Bureau isn't one of the better Dick adaptations. Nolfi focuses too much on making it a piece of entertainment then exploring the cerebral aspects, which is fine, but as a piece of entertainment it only works up to a point. And it is perhaps a little too lifeless to really be anything other then an acceptable divergence for a couple of hours. This comes down to Nolfi being a fairly average film-maker, I think because I've no doubt an astounding movie could be made out of the same material. With Philip K. Dick it seems, it depends almost fatally on whose hands its in.

Rating: 5/10

Saturday, 5 March 2011


Hawaiian shirt. Cactus.

A complaint often leveled at non-pixar animated fare is that too many films have no personality, and don't create a living, breathing universe. Too many prefer to lean on irony, make a thousand references to be deemed meaningless by 18 months of time and well. Just generally being kind of shit. There's exceptions of course, but that sense of them telling the same jokes over and over is probably the main thing, that every animated film not by Pixar seems to be a spiritual remake of Shrek. Rango's greatest strength is that it is certainly unique. A lovingly made world, with a story told with intent and passion. Its a kids movie here not because Kids movies buy a lot of cake, but because its a project that meant a lot to someone. And that joy shows on screen, and thankfully its pretty infectious.

I suppose you could say that Rango is in its own way a series of homages too though, just not the same tired old ones. The film is a loving ode to all things Leone, from Hans Zimmer's pseudo Morricone score to more literal references such as the spirit of the west looking like an aged Clint Eastwood (Voiced in a pretty airtight impression by Timothy Olyphant), while the western town is loivngly realized and I think Rango might be one of the most spectacular looking animated films I've seen in a while, capturing the dryness and grime of a traditional western town, complete with its affects on the various anthropomorphic animals that inhabit it. Everything is captured with a detail that is mesmerizing in places, and its western iconography makes a pleasing change from fairy tales. I'm not one to care how things look usually, but this is standout work. More problematic is the story, which meanders, goes to some interesting places and some less interesting ones. Johnny Depp makes a solid anchor, but the characters alternates between annoying and entertaining. I got a lot more out of Bill Nighy's ridiculously awesome villain Rattlesnake Jake and Isla Fisher's love interest, named Beans for some reason. Depp was a little too self-conscious whilst those two committed to creating awesome characters.

The film's improvisational style both hurts and hinders it. There are times I'm glad it doesn't follow anything resembling a structure, it allows for cool one off scenes and inspired moments of visual creativity, but then we spend about half an hour on some aimless quest for water while the film figures out what do with itself. Rango's got a lot of charm, and a lot of earnestness which is good to see, but narratively its kind of a mess. I found myself being won over anyway.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, 3 March 2011

REVIEW: I Am Number Four

Playing high-school football doesn't automatically make you a monster or an idiot.

Picture a boardroom. In it are many white men, a long table, the box office figures for the Twilight Franchise and a plan. They know I Am Number Four is not a particularly good movie, but one young particularly insightful executive from Euclid, Ohio points out with a clear head and a full heart that like Twilight, this stars a goofily attractive Brit nobody has ever heard of doing a bad American accent. Like Twilight it features an inter-species romance, where no one points out the slight ickiness of that, as we just role with the alien on hot chick from Glee action. And like Twilight, its set in a small town where nothing happens full of trees. And like Twilight the all powerful alpha-being pointlessly goes to high school. You could go on. So together, with the spiritual connectedness of the hive mind from Dead Space, they conclude that in every interview, soundbite and clip. People will say is this the new Twilight?

The answer is of course emphatically no. This is by all accounts a boy movie, and any girls suckered into seeing it with the promise of smouldering and awkward near-kisses will leave unsatisfied. There's a little of that shit here, but mostly its about discovering rad Alien powers, hot chicks with powers in leather, cool weapons and villains that look about the most generic sub-Voldemort humanoid you could come up with. Make no mistake though, this is about a generic thing of its type as they come. And Alex Pettyfer looks too much like a coked up psychopath to be winning in any kind of conventional romantic way. I don't think he's terrible, and he acquits well in the action scenes, but when faced with the black hole of bland attractiveness that is Glee's Dianna Agron and asked to spark chemistry with her, he just looks like he'd be rather beating shit up. Thankfully there's a couple of redeeming features. A rock steady turn from the painfully cool Timothy Olyphant as Pettyfer's guardian/protector and a movie-stealing, stealthily bonkers performance by Kevin Durand as unnamed Alien Bad Guy. At first the movies villains seemed borderline pathetic, driving around in a truck while they park they spaceship presumably somewhere they couldn't find it. Then Durand started saying stuff, and it quickly became obvious that he was the best part of the movie. Its the kind of hammy, awesome performance somebody gives when they know they're in something shit. And it brought me some happiness.

The rest of I Am Number Four though is almost soul-suckingly humorless, the feeblest of action-fantasies where details are the enemy, the backstory we're given is handled in about 5 minutes, despite the high-school shit getting forty minutes. Aliens vs maths class, what is objectively more interesting DJ Caruso. Caruso is traditionally one of the sturdier directors for hire, usually knocking out solid 5/6 out of ten stuff, but this is probably a below average outing for him. I think it should have been about Timothy Olyphant's character vs Durand's villain and this rating would be at least two grades higher. As its stands, churned out crap and everybody knows it.

Rating: 4/10

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

REVIEW: Animal Kingdom

Granny will fuck you up.

Animal Kingdom is a film I feel quite conflicted about, so my advance apologies if this review is a rambling series of contradictions that add up to no coherent whole. Although in fairness it would be in keeping with the general standard here so. It's both a concise, mostly well acted version of a classic family crime movie and a superficially stylized, deceptively familiar series of cliches set against a realist backdrop, with only shaky-cam and Australian accents away from being Pride and Glory (The shitty Colin Farrell one.) I liked what I saw but felt that the film's style, particular the numerous slow-motion shots of people walking became a hindrance after a while, distracting from the simple but occasionally powerful story it was telling.

I think judged on a pure narrative level, there isn't much new to Animal Kingdom. Family crime dramas tend to always follow that Godfather path, of seeing the good one slowly getting corrupted and seduced by the world. But Animal Kingdom's mostly realistic and character orientated sheen made some of the material work. There's a couple of strong, arresting sequences and strong supporting performances that add up to an uneven but engaging whole. Guy Pearce, as always these days, does good work in a potentially thin role and makes a sympathetic antagonist/voice of reason. For the longest time I was a bit up in the air about Jacki Weaver's Oscar nomination. She doesn't get much to do for the first hour or so, but then you start to get it, as Weaver begins to reveal the monster behind the world's best grandma exterior that grew a bit thin. Its perhaps a little too much of a high concept performance, but an effective one just the same. Lead James Frecheville is a blank slate, I think intentionally so, but it does limit how much you can invest in his story. My main problem though I think is with Ben Mendelsohn's Andrew, A character too broad and weakly acted to be such a crux to the story, the film is it at its strongest in the back half once the character disappears from view.

Animal Kingdom is one of those films that too often tries to convince you of its importance, and that does lead on occasion to have a distancing effect. Its a slight dilemma to criticize a movie for thinking its better then it is when it is actually quite good but still. You gots to be honest. See it for an adult, subtle if familiar take on classic genre material and for the fact that the bad certainly is outweighed by the good. Mature films such as this are hard to come by these days.

Rating: 7/10

REVIEW: No Strings Attached

Can best friends be sex friends? Can I get a worst tagline ever?

So mainstream release rom-coms hit probably a rock-bottom in 2009, and seem to be in some capacity on the road to recovery. The short term solution being just allowing people to say fuck, and for some reason this does help with one aspect of the rom-com rut. The horrible synthetic greeting card reality where not a even a breath would feel genuine. And somehow, the ability to say fuck does help with that a little bit, as just a semblance of naturalism goes a long way here. And like Going The Distance before it, its still quite a bland story, but it has enough of a life force not to be a complete travesty. Still not great though.

I guess the main pitch for No Strings Attached is that it subverts the usual rom-com tradition of the man being the asshole, the woman being the saint and him gradually being won over by her awesomeness. Here Natalie Portman is the asshole and Ashton Kutcher is the saint, she terrified of commitment and he the full-blooded romantic. Ladies and gentleman pieces of brain are to be found on the floor because that twist on convention has just blown your minds. In truth 500 days of Summer did this to a much higher quality, but I guess an obvious twist is better then no twist at all and Portman certainly has fun playing the closed-off one. She's only intermittently good though, too often giving the impression of trying too hard to be likable. Portman has never really been very good at playing the every woman, although she has her moments here. Kutcher, in seemingly the only role he ever plays these days, does what he always does. He's OK, I don't mind him all that much as a romantic comedy lead, but thats probably all he has the capacity to be. The supporting cast fares better, there's a particularly winning performance by Lake Bell as Kutcher's uber-neurotic work companion, and its cool to see Greta Gerwig out of indie-land. Ludacris is also in this movie. For some reason. That sounds mean, I actually don't mind Ludacris as rapper to actor converts go, and he was in an episode of Robot Chicken so.

No Strings Attached deserves to be called average I guess, which is a marked improvement on what could have been, and what the romantic comedy has lead me to expect of it lately. I just can't wait until the genre recovers enough that you can call a film like this bad, but I suppose its stale water compared to drought. You kind have to just take what you can get.

Rating: 5/10