Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bina007's Danny Dyer Memorial List of the Ten Most Piss-Poor Flicks of 2008

Just in case you'd thought I'd gone soft, we return to bitter invective with this year's Trashcan of Shame. To find each nugget of Cinema Redemption your humble servant must crawl through a veritable sewer of lazy, formulaic, badly produced, stinky bilge. Here are the worst of the many offenders, conforming to the usual mix of shameless cash-in genre flicks; politically offensive exploitation flicks and auteurs gone awry.

THE SHAMELESS CASH-INS GENRE FLICKS.

1. P.S. I LOVE YOU. Hilary Swank attempts comedy. The film-makers mistakenly believe you can make a feel-good comedy out of bereavement. Mawkish. Unfunny. And what accent is Gerard Butler going for exactly?

2. MADE OF HONOR. Another offensively lazy, formulaic and charmless romantic comedy - all the more impressive for killing Michelle Monaghan and Patrick Dempsey's natural charm.

3=. 88 MINUTES and RIGHTEOUS KILL. Lo-rent "thrillers" in which Pacino and de Niro live off viewer nostalgia and clip their pension coupons. You know it's gone Pete Tong when Fiddy is far from the worst actor on screen.

HUMOURLESS EXPLOITATION FLICKS.

5. NEVER BACK DOWN. Like Karate Kid without the naive charm, NEVER BACK DOWN was basically misogynistic macho bullshit attracting the same sort of voyeurs who get kicks from happy slapping.

6. WANTED. Again with the misogynistic, macho bullshit. Bored viewers were left to ponder which was more ridiculous: James McAvoy affecting a six-pack or the Loom of Fate?

7. RAMBO. By far the most tragic entry in my trio of macho idiocy because as lurid as FIRST BLOOD was, it at least had a point. How are the mighty fallen.

8. BABYLON A.D. The existential angst of Vin Diesel vanishes in a puff of improbability. Mathieu Kassovitz flushes his art-house rep (LA HAINE) down the toilet with this star-vehicle sci-fi mish-mash. Even Michelle Yeoh as a kick-boxing nun can't save it.

AUTEURS GONE AWRY.

9. W. Liberal intellectuals wanted answers. Oliver Stone gave them a pastiche. 

10. AUSTRALIA. Baz Luhrmann promised us a knowing epic embracing romance, political injustice and war-time melodrama. He gave us a wooden, poorly edited, over-blown vanity project - a failure of monumental proportions.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bina007's most spine-tinglingly awesome moments of 2008 - or why I still enter every movie theatre in joyful hope!

To quote last year's post: "It may be hard to believe when you read an excoriating review, but every time I sit down to watch a movie I do so in joyful hope. I can't explain how much I love cinema. Ever since I was a little girl there seemed to be something magical about a beam of light that transformed a negative into a living and breathing story. So in a rare annual moment of warmth and optimism, here follow those flashes of brilliance that reminded me - amidst the sequels, threequels and hopeless failures - just how wonderful cinema can be. Note that this list is significantly different from my Best Films of 2008 list (found in a drop-down box in the side-bar). Even piss-poor flicks can have moments of inspiration - which is a faintly hopeful thought."

1. When Rambo Strangles The Guy So Hard He Breaks Through His Skin and Blood And Veins and Shit Start Spurting Out. The long-awaited RAMBO flick was clearly piss-poor but among all that irony-free absurdity there was one moment so transcendentally ridiculous it gave me one of the biggest belly-laughs of the year!

2. The Sound-track and Cinematography as Daniel Plainview Rushes to the Oil Platform to Save His Son. A breathtaking moment of pure cinema in THERE WILL BE BLOOD - stunning cinematography, unbearable tension, intense orchestral score. This was cinema at its most visceral and inescapable and audacious. I'm still sore that the soundtrack was disqualified from the Oscars on a technicality. 

3. Michael Pitt Scares the Bejesus Out of the Middle Classes in the Final Frame of FUNNY GAMES. A movie so brilliant Michael Haneke had the arrogance to make it twice, this time with the angelic looking Pitt holding the audience's eyes in the final frame. Are we being warned that we're next or indicted for sado-masochistic voyeurism? Genius.

4. Hrithik Roshan's Dance Routine to Main Aisa Kyun Hoon Establishes Him As the Best Song and Dance Man in Cinema since Gene Kelly. Hrithik Roshan is a hoofer. He knows dance and not in the over-choreographed Michael Jackson c.Thriller style that most Bollywood movies adopt. Pure talent. Pure entertainment. The best traditions of Hindi cinema.

5. When Dawn Slices Off Tobey's Cock With Her Vagina Dentata. Seriously funny. (Probably not if you're a bloke, admittedly). And by far the best reason to watch the teen horror cum political satire, TEETH

6. When The Joker Slams The Droog's Face Into the Pencil. Great horror is not what you're shown but what you imagine. A lightening bolt of pure fright energises an over-long and over-worked Batman sequel.

7. When The Joker Rides Through Gotham Triumphant, His Head Out The Window Of a Moving Car. One of the most spine-chilling images of 2008. Shame Nolan didn't have the balls to end THE DARK KNIGHT on that image, creating a second part finale as powerful as EMPIRE.

8. When The Thief Chases The Cop In JAR CITY. I can't escape why this scene is funny. It doesn't sound funny when I try. Just please try and seek out this superb Icelandic comic thriller. Please.

9. Hellboy and Abe Listening to Barry Manilow's "Can't Cry Without You" closely tied with Johan Krauss kicking Hellboy's ass in the Locker Room. Pure Comedy Gold.

10. JAAACK!!!! The not unattractive and yet infinitely goofy Jean Dujardin as pre-Bond spoof Agent OSS-117. At times, this actor's facility for physical comedy almost touches Sellars in the Clousseau movies. Perhaps the most unexpected belly-laugh of the year - given that Professor007 and I were in an art cinema famed for showing turgid self-righteous foreign language flicks. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

AUSTRALIA - What kind of sick country would kick someone with a giant boot?

AUSTRALIA is a magnificent disaster. A cinematic custard of of such epic proportions it rivals DUNE, WATERWORLD and BATTLEFIELD EARTH.

Australian auteur and king of kitsch, Baz Luhrmann, made two brilliantly inspired, wickedly funny movies - STRICTLY BALLROOM and ROMEO + JULIET. In each flick he took bold chances with genre and text and as luck would have it, everything somehow made sense. I was, however, unimpressed by MOULIN ROUGE! It was as if he'd taken everything that was brilliant in his previous work, injected it with speed and set a match to the celluloid. Everything was bigger, louder, brighter, faster. Watching MOULIN ROUGE! was like being assaulted with a disco-ball. I left the movie numb and disengaged - Luhrmann had crossed the line from loving whimsy and genuine pathos into smart-arse pastiche. Now I admit that I was in the minority in my disappointment with and MOULIN ROUGE! but all those worrying tendencies have expressed themselves even more fully in Luhrmann's disastrous follow-up AUSTRALIA. It's a movie that's so indulgent it comes off as a vanity project pure and simple. It's an orgy - a binge on genre cinema's most fatuous tropes. All this could've been regarded simply as a monumental misjudgment - poor taste at its most extreme. The problem is that AUSTRALIA tackles deadly serious material. Its sins, therefore, rank higher.

Luhrmann had the laudable audacity to try to create an epic history for his country in the manner of GONE WITH THE WIND. He wanted to speak to the Australian settler spirit, the travesty of the treatment of the Aborigines and of the Australian wartime experience. To that end he gives us a movie that combines elements of Westerns, melodramatic romances and war-time epics....Nonetheless, the story is as actually pretty thin given the movie's run-time. Nicole Kidman plays an English aristo who persuades an Australian drover (Hugh Jackman) to drive her cattle to Darwin and outwit an evil cattle manager called Fletcher (David Wenham). (Melodrama, fairy-tale contrast of good and evil, Western). During the long drive, the aristo learns to love the drover, the landscape and the half-Aborigine orphan who helps them with his magical powers. (Superficial attempt to tackle Australian racial politics.) The aristo, drover and boy make a home in Darwin but happiness is seemingly destroyed when the boy is interned by the Aussie authorities and the Japanese bomb Darwin. (Ham-fisted politics and clunky CGI war movie. Shameless manipulation. Ludicrous ending.)

The result is a sickly cocktail of wooden performances, absurd dialogue and furiously heightened visual back-drops topped off with a deeply patronising attitude toward the Aborigines and an insulting fairy-tale ending. AUSTRALIA is shot like a musical without the song and dance numbers; like a fable without the intuitive wisdom; like a romance without heart; like a war-movie without the high stakes and tension. It is without a doubt the worst film I have seen in 2008.

AUSTRALIA is on release in Australia, the USA, South Korea, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Taiwan, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Thailand, the UAE, Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Turkey, the UK, Venezuela and Israel. It opens on January 8th in Argentina, on January 16th in Italy, on January 23rd in Brazil, on January 28th in China; on February 12th in Russia and on February 28th in Japan.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bryan Singer retrospective - X2 (2003)

What comes after a massively commercially successful comic book adaptation? Why, the sequel of course! And basically all my comments regarding Singer's X-MEN go double for X-2. In general, Singer does a fine job in creating a slick, entertaining summer blockbuster movie full of spectacular set pieces. At the same time he remains faithful to the original books. Without the need to do all the character establishment heavy lifting, Singer even has room to develop characters and emotional relationships. The love triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey and Wolverine is developed and Singer sensitively introduces the Jean Grey/Phoenix theme. Singer even gets to probe the intellectual heart of the books with a classic scene in which a teen mutant called Iceman "comes out" to his family. Best of all, the classic conflict between "good" and "bad" mutants is complicated by the insertion of a human arch-villain called William Stryker (Brian Cox) - hell-bent on mutant genocide. Cox is yet another impressive actor added to the roster, and more than makes up for the sub-par performance from Halle Berry and the fact that Cyclops is once again short-changed. The same flaws persist - too many characters, too much material - but it's hard to pin them on Singer. Indeed, despite the proliferation of characters, he does as well as one can imagine in still crafting a coherent movie.

All in all, X-2 was a stylish, entertaining, intelligent comic book movie - a more satisfying feature than the already impressive X-MEN.


X2 went on release in 2003.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bryan Singer retrospective - X-MEN (2000)

After the brilliant USUAL SUSPECTS and the interesting but directorially rather anonymous APT PUPIL, Bryan Singer hired himself out for the first in the X-MEN franchise. The resulting movie was slick, full of spectacular special effects, and had a convincingly dark and brooding look and feel. It established a high water mark for comic book reimaginings that would only be broken by Christopher Nolan's BATMAN BEGINS. To that end, X-MEN represented a return to form, and proof that Singer could handle different types of material - carefully balancing commercial and critical requirements. That said, the movie still had its flaws - namely that the plot is smothered by the need for spectacle and the amount of time it takes to establish the back story of all the different characters. 

To quote my review of LAST STAND: the basic idea "is that there are a bunch of people in the world who are mutants, with special psychic or physical abilities. The world of "normal" people is understandably nervous at having such powerful people in its midst. The mutants react to this fear in one of two ways. The "good guys" try to control their powers and use them only in ethical ways. They are led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). But another group, led by Magneto, take a more Werner Herzog view of the world. They believe that the natural order of human-mutant relations is aggression and cruelty. The conflict between these two camps forms the back-bone of every X-MEN movie, usually triggered by some half-assed action on the part of bigoted "normal" humans." In this film, the half-assed bigoted action is requiring all mutants to register with the state - a move that spooks Magneto (Ian McKellan) - who lost his family in the Holocaust. In turn, Magneto decides to abduct Rogue (Anna Paquin)- a teen mutant who can leach other's powers - and use her in a bid to turn all the world's leaders mutant, thus rendering their discriminatory policies unthinkable.

Bryan Singer was brave to take on this movie. X-MEN books are some of the biggest selling of all time, which means that there's a vocal and rabid fan-base just waiting for you to trip up. BUT you have to balance the fan-base's desire for accurate details with the demands of the non-fans who still need to understand and engage with "another" summer blockbuster with spectacular action set-pieces. A second challenge - and certainly a bigger challenge than re-imagining BATMAN or SUPERMAN, is that X-MEN has an unwieldy cast of characters, each with their own particular back story that needs to be fleshed out, underneath the wider umbrella mythos. And a third challenge is that X-MEN is intellectually richer than most comics - explicitly discussing bigotry, political accountability and - and that doesn't always sit well with the special effects set-pieces and compressed run-time of your typical summer blockbuster.

Given these triple challenges how did Bryan Singer fare? Well, on the first call, the movie garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success. He pleased fans by remaining loyal to the original books - characters made it to the screen largely in tact and the screen-writers mined the rich history of the books for plot lines. The movie went on to spawn two sequels and rumours of an X-4 and WOLVERINE spin-off. To that extent, Singer established the franchise against all odds. The second challenge was to fill in the back story of the book and make all the characters intelligible to the non-fans looking for summer thrills. Here, I'd say that Singer only half succeeded. He successfully established the basic idea of the X-MEN but establishing the back stories to all the significant X-MEN takes forever and they are more or less short-changed by a cramped script. Only Wolverine comes out with anything like the appropriate screen time. As to the third challenge, the intellectual substance of the book has little room to play out given the pressures of establishing character and still fitting in a spectacular end-sequence. Nonetheless, it's clear that we are dealing with issues of prejudice and McCarthyism and than Magneto and Xavier present two reactions to that - broadly speaking an activist/passive stance that some have likened to the difference between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Singer wasn't fully successful on this count either but had at least succeeded in setting up an interesting debate between both sides of the argument.

X-MEN was released in 2000.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bryan Singer retrospective - APT PUPIL (1998)

After the award ceremonies and the commercial success of THE USUAL SUSPECTS everyone was waiting to see what director Bryan Singer would do next. The weight of expectation bore down heavily on his 1998 flick APT PUPIL, which is a tremendous shame, because while it's no pantheon movie, it looks weaker than it objectively is in comparison to THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

The movie is based on a novella by Stephen King in which an intelligent teenager called Todd (Brad Renfro) realises that an old man called Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellan) in his neighbourhood is actually a Nazi war criminal in hiding. Rather than shop the old man to the cops, Todd decides to exploit the him, trading silence in exchange for lurid stories of concentration camps. Todd thinks he's the dominant partner in this twisted relationship, trying to humiliate Kurt by making him wear an SS uniform while he drills him. But as Todd's fetish grows, Kurt becomes the dominant partner, as he can choose to feed the addiction or not. Moreover, Kurt is now posing as Todd's grandfather, covering for Todd at school as his grades are now suffering. The power game is reversed.

All of this makes for an intelligent and frightening psychological thriller. The problem comes in the final reels when the two-handed character study is shoe-horned into a lurid and somewhat unnecessary ending. It's as if the film-makers thought that the movie needed some action - some sort of genre conformist ending. The only other thing I would say about APT PUPIL is that what makes it still worth viewing are the two central performances and the original conceit by Stephen King. I was disappointed then and now by the fact that Bryan Singer hadn't given the material a particular visual style or indeed any other kind of directorial thumb-print. APT PUPIL struck me as a movie made by a director-for-hire rather than an auteur.

APT PUPIL played Venice and Toronto 1997 and was released in 1998 and 1999.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bryan Singer retrospective - THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1994)

Bryan Singer's latest movie - VALKYRIE - will be released in the UK next month - an opportune moment to review his previous movies. I haven't written about any of Singer's movies before despite the fact that his 1994 flick THE USUAL SUSPECTS is one of my favourite films of all time and one of the few movies that I own on DVD. I love THE USUAL SUSPECTS because it proved that it was still possible to make slippery, haunting thrillers in the manner of those 1940s classics - full of real men, complex heists, bent cops and ambiguous loyalties. The script was intelligent and gripping, with just enough allusion to the supernatural to be frightening but still credible. The visual style was bold and captivating. The acting was superlative - and better still for introducing us to the soon to be iconic Benicio del Toro and reintroducing us to great character actors such as Gabriel Byrne and Chazz Palminteri. What was even more astounding was that the movie had been directed and written by a team of relative unknowns - Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie - collaborating again on their second flick - both still in their twenties.

The movie grips you from the opening scene - a harbour at night - a match flares showing the face of a battered, dying man, who voices enmity for a man with the unusual name of Keyser. The gasoline barrels on the ship catch fire - dramatically silhouetted against the sky. The central mystery has been established with admirable efficiency and style - who is Keyser - and what crime has been perpetrated here?

We cut to contemporary New York. "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) begins his voice-over. He will be our narrator - fashioning our understanding of this tale. But we know he's a con-man - and that colours our belief in what he is saying. We see our group of suspects rounded up by New York's finest and interrogated, but it's clear they're innocent of this particular crime. Nonetheless, the personalities and the pecking order are established. Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) - the man we have just seen dying - is the alpha male. He's suave - he's was evidently trying to charm himself into a new legitimate life as a restauranteur. Trying and failing in the great tradition of movie mafiosi. Next comes Kevin Pollack as Todd Hockney - foul-mouthed, angry, clearly good at what he does and under no illusions about it. Then we have Stephen Baldwin - an unpredictable live-wire - as Michael McManus, clearly a partner in many senses of Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro stealing every scene with his unintelligible accent.) All four have professional respect for each other as crims. Verbal Kint is the patsy - frightened - out of his depth.

Again, with remarkable economy we switch to intensive care where a cop is interrogating the survivor of the explosion on the ship - he's petrified and screams the name "Keyser Soze" again and again in heavily accented English. It's a truly frightening moment thanks partly to the exotic name, partly to the bandages. Either way, the film-makers have established a true sense of urgency and that the stakes are high.

And now we're into the meat of the story and we're hooked. Chazz Palminteri plays cocksure Officer Kujan, throwing every form of intimidation at Verbal Kint as he tries to work out what went down. In flashbacks, Kint tells his side of the story. It's a battle of wits - but three-way - between Kujon, Kint and the audience. Kint's telling us a tale of a heist gone wrong, a mysterious man named Kobayashi, murder and deceit. He's mixing it up with seemingly absurd details about barber shops quartets and suchlike. And he alternates between fear and arrogance. It's a bravura performance from Kevin Spacey, who won an Oscar for it.

Verbal: Where's your head, Agent Kujan? Where do you think the pressure's coming from? Keyser Soze - or whatever you want to call him - knows where I am right now. He's got the front burner under' your ass to let me go so he can scoop me up ten minutes later. Immunity was just to deal with you assholes. I got a whole new problem when I post bail.
Dave Kujan: So why play into his hands? We can protect you.
Verbal: Gee, thanks, Dave. Bang-up job so far. Extortion, coercion. You'll pardon me if I ask you to kiss my pucker. The same fuckers that rounded us up and sank us into this mess are telling me They'll bail me out? Fuck you. You think you can catch Keyser Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting fingered and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything, it will be to get rid of me. After that, my guess is you'll never hear from him again.

Kint's story ends without resolution for Kujan, who later discovers the true identity of Keyser Soze - surely one of the best twist endings in cinema. The brilliance of the script is that once you know the ending you can see the clues - it's not just willfully obscure. Moreover, my enjoyment of the film has not been diminished by knowing the twist at the end. Rather, every time I watch it I marvel at the ingenuity of the plot and I revel in the genuine feeling of menace and peril. To that end, THE USUAL SUSPECTS is the perfect marriage of style and substance. The movie looks great and feels eerie and has a cool ending but underneath all that it has a logical and whip-tight structure and fascinating power relationships - between the members of the gang and between the gang and the rozzers. All in all, a modern classic.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS played Sundance and premiered Cannes 1995. It opened in 1995 and 1996. Christopher McQuarrie won Best Original Screenplay and Kevin Spacey won Best Supporting Actor at the 1996 Academy Awards,

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 5 - JULIA

JULIA is an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful art-house flick from writer director Erick Zonca (THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS). It features a brilliant central performance from Tilda Swinton as the eponymous middle-aged alcoholic. Julia is loud, brash, sleeps with random guys, can't hold down a job and desperately needs cash. The opening half hour shows us a typical night out, morning after, recriminations and defiance. The scene was set for a brutal and engrossing character study. Unfortunately the movie veers off course with an implausible plot that takes us not nearly convincingly enough into surreal territory. Julia meets an unhinged Mexican woman called Elena (Kate del Castillo) who convinces Julia to help her kidnap her young son and blackmail her rich father in law. Julia decides to kidnap the boy on her own and keep the money. The resulting events are absurd, especially when Erick Zonca decides to take the third act into Mexico, and have the young boy and Julia form a bond that seems just plain unlikely given everything that's happened before. A less lurid script - less forced character development - would've left this movie stronger and leaner. As it is, it soon descends into an over-blown, over-long mess.

JULIA played Berlin 2008 and opened earlier this year in France, Belgium, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Kuwait and the UK.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 4 - TASHAN / STYLE

TASHAN means "style" in Hindi, and that's a perfect description of this slick, flashy, wannabe Tarantino movie from director Vijay Krishna Acharya - the guy who wrote the similarly slick but vacuous DHOOM flicks. As in the DHOOM movies, his prime concerns are hot chicks, cool criminals and convoluted heists. But where DHOOM had careful plotting and fitted firmly in the action genre, TASHAN is balls-out ridiculous. The lurid colours, absurd characters, anarchic and absurd plot all make for a movie that is more an experience than a convincing narrative. Acharya may be aiming for Tarantino but he lands firmly in kitsch.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on a narcissistic ladies man called Jimmy Cliff, played by a smarmy Saif Ali Khan sporting the campest handle bar moustache seen in cinema. He's lured by a hot chick called Pooja (Kareena Kapoor) to teach English to her social aspirant mob boss Bhaiyyaji (Anil Kapoor in superb scene-chewing form.) Pooja and Jimmy get it on, and decide to rob Bhaiyyaji, after which the movie basically descends into a road movie as Bhaiyyaji sends Bachchan Pandey (Akshay Kumar) to retrieve his phat cash. The rest of the movie unfolds in a series of lurid song and dance numbers, declarations of love, betrayal and general chaos. Akshay Kumar comes off best - playing his typical louder than life, working class miscreant with a heart of gold character. The other actors all seem to be having a good time. My mind started to wander after the first hour.

TASHAN was released in April 2008.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 3 - SHOOTOUT AT LOKHANDWALA

SHOOTOUT AT LOKHANDWALA is a sensationalist movie made by writer-director Apoorva Lakhia and loosely based on the real-life stand-off between Mumbai coppers and mafiosi in 1991. The film is structured as an extended oddly sepia-tinted flashback. An apparently antagonistic lawyer (Amitabh Bachchan) interrogates the police chiefs that sanctioned the bloody shoot-out. Sanjay Datt and Sunil Shetty play the rozzers justifying their brutal actions. Vivek Oberoi plays the head of the Mumbai mob, eager to become independent of his Dubai-based boss. The first part of the movie shows cops and gangsters face off against each other and fleshes out their failed marriages and relationships. The second half focuses on the actual shoot out and its ramifications. Any attempt to craft a serious character study is undercut by the lurid shooting style and glorification of the gangster lifestyle in the big song and dance numbers. Worse still, the big item number is a complete rip-off of "Beedi" from OMKARA - down to the item girl's outfit to Vivek's dance style to the actual melody! As for political message - the movie may start out as critical of collateral damage but at the same time it's depiction of violence is pure exploitation cinema. (And let's not even get started on the fascist overtones of Amitabh's closing speech).

SHOOTOUT AT LOKHANDWALA was released in Spring 2007 and is available on DVD.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 2 - CRY-BABY

CRY-BABY sees the legendary John Waters - champion of freaks and exploitation cinema - creating a far softer, more warm-hearted film. Instead of shocking vulgarity, we get a loving pastiche of 1950s teen movies, filled with song-and-dance numbers, and the uplifting idea that true love conquers all! An unreasonably beautiful Johnny Depp spoofs his own teen-idol image as the unreasonably beautiful juvenile delinquent, "Cry-Baby". As the movie opens, Cry-Baby and his leather-jacket wearing Drapes meet the school Squares and Johnny locks eyes with preppy Allison (Amy Locane). They fall in love, her obnoxious square boyfriend and prudish aunt object, but Amy and Cry-Baby sneak out together anyways. Cry-Baby is arrested and imprisoned Jailhouse Rock stylee, but even the law can't keep them apart! The movie is witty, audacious, and desperately good fun. This is one of those classic movies - like THE PRINCESS BRIDE or THE GOONIES - that you can watch time and again, always sporting a broad smile.

CRY-BABY was released in 1990.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Random DVD Round-Up 1 - ABSENCE OF MALICE

ABSENCE OF MALICE is a rather soupy middle-aged romance labouring under its aspirations to be an intelligent discourse about journalistic integrity. Sally Fields plays a grotesquely naive and sloppy writer for a local Miami newspaper. She's suckered into writing an ill-researched piece that accuses a local businessman (Paul Newman) of being involved in the disappearance of labour leader. Newman's character spends the rest of the movie asserting his innocence - despite his shady connections he's so transparently innocent there's not much tension. And to make things even more ludicrous, Sally Field's character even starts an affair with Paul Newman's character. Clearly, director Sydney Pollack and screen-writer (and ex-journo) Kurt Luedtke want to say something deep and meaningful about the sad state of journalism. What they actually end up with is a third-rate romance. Avoid at all costs despite the high-powered cast. BROADCAST NEWS runs rings round this flick.

ABSENCE OF MALICE played Berlin 1982 and opened in 1981 and 1982. Melinda Dillon, Kurt Luedtke and Paul Newman were nominated for Oscars but lost out to Maureen Stapleton (REDS), Colin Welland (CHARIOTS OF FIRE) and Henry Fonda (ON GOLDEN POND) respectively.

Friday, December 19, 2008

TWILIGHT - sugar-free gum

Where to begin? Maybe with the commercially successfully but critically more equivocally received teen novels from Stephenie Meyer. TWILIGHT is the first in a series of novels that spice up the typical SWEET VALLEY HIGH obsessions of teen dating and who's going to take who to the Prom with a hint of vampiricism. And boy is it merely a hint. Instead of lashings of sex and death and sexy death and death-inducing sex, we get a lot of holding hands and big declarations of love but precious little rumpy-pumpy. Frankly, instead of all the narcissistic angst I would've far preferred the heroes to go and have some healthy sex and get over themselves. But that, my friends, kills the goose that laid the golden royalty cheques.

Then we get to the movie. Now, I suspect that the movie will be super-popular with the target demographic because it stays very faithful to the book. (And yes, I did read the novel. It's slight - takes around 3 hours - not well-written - but it's fairly engaging. Most disturbing, every one of my tween nieces had a copy.) Our heroine Bella Swan moves from sunny Phoenix to gloomy Forks to stay with her dad when her mum remarries. Soon all the local boys are asking her out, but she only has eyes for a moody but dazzlingly good-looking boy called Edward Cullen - a member of a family of vampires who choose not to hunt humans and fight against their monstrous nature.  The book spends a while going through the "does he like me or doesn't he" angst but the film admirably compresses this material. On the plus side we get right to the action, wherein some less enlightened vampire trackers decide to devour Bella and incite Edward into the mother of all fights, but a big negative is that we miss/skip over one of the nicest scenes in the book, where Edward tests how far he can be intimate with Bella and not be overcome by his desire to suck out her blood. If anything there is less intimacy in the film than in the book! 

Arguing the merits of the film to the fanbase is quite simply a waste of time, judging by the oohs and aaghs than greeted the title card! But for the parental units suckered into a viewing (I was designated driver for eight hormonally charged tweens) what hope is there? Not much I have to say. The direction, from Catherine Hardwicke, is pretty ham-fisted, closer to the abysmal THE NATIVITY STORY than the brilliantly scabrous THIRTEEN. She clearly can't direct action, her camera swoops where it should be still, and the CGI effects - notably Edward's dazzling skin in sunlight and the rapid running - are all very low-rent. The acting is similarly clunky. The lead actors are devoid of charisma and depict angst as constipation. Hardwicke does herself no favours by casting natural brunettes and then bleaching them to within an inch of their lives - it just looks cheap and unnatural. And, frankly, the vampire family are meant to look stunningly beautiful, and these actors don't. IMDB says the role of Edward was originally going to Henry Cavill till he was deemed too old. True, but at least he has the requisite classical beauty. 

Other than the problems with the individual nuts and bolts, my big problem remains that this is a vampire movie that lacks any passion. And so, you're just left with a really dull movie about self-obsessed moody teens. It left me hankering for the vampire movies of my youth - movies with passion, comedy and peril - movies like THE LOST BOYS. Apparently I wasn't the only one. The DVD store next to the movie theatre was sold out, having had a run on copies and requests for more from disgruntled olds!

TWILIGHT is on release in the US, Canada, Italy, Mexico, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malaysia, the UAE, Estonia, Latvia, Thailand, Indonesia, the UK, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Portugal, Iceland, Poland, Spain, South Korea, Australia, Russia, Lithuania, Taiwan, Vietnam, Finland, Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, Brazil, the UK and Venezuela. It opens next week in Croatia and New Zealand. It opens on New Years Day in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Finland, Romania and South Africa. It opens on January 8th in France, Switzerland, Greece, Norway and Poland. It opens on January 15th in Germany, Slovakia, Austria and Bulgaria. It opens on January 5th in Turkey, Denmark and Ecuador and on April 4th in Japan.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

YES MAN - lukewarm funny Jim Carrey rom-com

From the guys who directed THE BREAK UP and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL comes a luke-warm funny, but rather sweet romantic-comedy starring Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel.

Critics have unfairly dubbed YES MAN a shameless remake of Carrey's earlier hit LIAR LIAR, maybe because both contain a "high concept" about a man constrained to change his personality. In LIAR LIAR, a sleazebag lawyer is cursed to tell the truth for a whole day, resulting in lots of the trademark Carrey physical comedy as the lawyer's body rebels against his brain. By contrast, in YES MAN, Carrey voluntarily decides to say "yes" to life and shake-off the shy insularity that has imprisoned him post-divorce. As a result, we have a lot less physical comedy and the performance is much smaller than some fans might expect. I actually really liked Carrey in this new-found acting style - he works really well as a slightly goofy rom-com hero, and he has real chemistry with Zooey Deschanel.

The nascent romance between Carey and Deschanel provides the backbone of the movie, but the real humour is provided by the supporting cast. Danny Masterson (THAT 70s SHOW) is funny but under-used as best-friend Rooney and Fionnula Flanagan has a poor-taste but very funny cameo as a vampish grandma. But the guy who really steals the show is Rhys Darby, of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS fame, who plays a David-Brent-esque boss. Comedy gold.

Overall, YES MAN isn't going to set the world on fire, but if you take it for what it is, it's a perfectly pleasant way to spend ninety minutes. Perhaps more of a DVD and pizza night movie than a trip to the cinema, though.

YES MAN is on release in Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the US. It's released next week in the UK, Portugal, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Poland. It's released on New Year's Day in Belgium, Australia and Greece and on January 8th in Egypt, Croatia, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Switzerland. It's released on January 15th in Argentina, Russia and Estonia and on January 22nd in Israel, Austria and Turkey. It's released on January 30th in Brazil; on February 12th in Hong Kong; on February 19th in Germany and on March 20th in Japan.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX - less than the sum of its parts

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is a rather wilted new children's animated feature based on the popular modern fairy-tale from writer Kate DiCamillo. It has been brought to the screen by directors Robert Stevenhagen and Sam Fell, who was behind the brilliantly funny and fast-paced FLUSHED AWAY. And the screen-writers worked on the similarly engaging ANGUS THONGS AND PERFECT SNOGGING. The voice cast is superb. The fairy-tale is narrated by Sigourney Weaver and our hero is voiced by Matthew Broderick. The Princess is none other than Emma "Hermione" Watson and in smaller roles we have character actors of such calibre as Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins, Robbie Coltrane and William H Macy. The animation is stunning - everything looks hand-drawn, like a medieval fable come to life. And the movie is filled with the best of intentions. The message is that honesty, sympathy, courage and forgiveness are the keys to a happy life.

Why then does this film fall so flat? Why then is it such a painfully slow watch? Maybe it's because there's simply too much story to get through? Maybe it's because it is too careful to be politically correct and spends too little time on good old-fashioned action-adventure? Maybe it's because it's basically a rather trivial story - as acknowledged in the narrator's epilogue. It's the story of a rat called Roscuro who falls into a Queen's soup by mistake, causing her to die of shock. The King, grieving, bans soups and rats and his kingdom falls into darkness. The Princess, longs for sunlight and in her anger upsets Roscuro who has come to apologise. She also upsets her servant Miggery. So Miggery and Roscuro allow the rats to capture the princess, though they regret it almost immediately. Which is when a courageous little mouse called Despereaux saves the day! Kind of. What really happens is that the Princess forgives Roscuro, Roscuro forgives the Princess, Miggery forgives the Princess and the people forgive the King. Phew! Everyone gets soup, the mice learn not be cowards, and Miggery finds her dad. Aah!

I think you get the drift of how hard it must have been for the directors to balance all this material, and how Despereaux sometimes gets lost in the muddle. It's a shame, but there it is. This movie is so jumbled that it's less than the sum of its parts.

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is on release in the UK, US, Spain and Hong Kong. It goes on release in Hungary, Russia, Australia and Norway on Christmas Day. It opens in Chile, Croatia and Estonia on New Years Day. It opens in Brazil and Sweden on January 16th; in Turkey on January 23rd; in the Netherlands and Argentina on February 4th; in France on February 11th; in Belgium and Egypt on February 18th; in Denmark on March 6th; in Singapore and Finland on March 12th and in Germany on March 19th.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

INKHEART - disappointingly dull

Bookish Mortimer Folchart (Brendan Fraser) and his teenage daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) have a rare gift. They are "Silvertongues". When they read a book aloud the characters come to life. Indeed, they can be "read out" into the real world. The only catch is that someone from the real world has to be "read in" to take their place. Ten years ago, Mortimer discovered this gift when he read a rare book called Inkheart. By mistake, he read out a thug called Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and read in his wife (Sienna Guillory). Now a confrontation beckons. Capricorn wants Mortimer to read out The Shadow - an evil power who will help Capricorn dominate the world: meanwhile Mortimer wants to read out his wife......

Thus we have the perfect set-up for a children's adventure story full of magic, wonder, peril, daring escapes and true love. But INKHEART feels heavy and lacks momentum. Instead of Matthew Vaughn's dazzling colour, wit and pace in STARDUST, Iain Softley's direction is as turgid as his grey brown colour palette. Moreover, the narrative structure has too much scampering about Italy after things or people that could easily have been condensed. But clunky direction aside, the fundamental problem is that the narrative is far more concerned with ideas than action - and action is subordinated to making a point. Author Cornelia Funke asks us whether, to quote Thomas Hardy, "character is fate"? If an author has written a character as a self-interested, callow man, can he triumph over this? 

So, in this film, a relatively straightforward rescue narrative becomes a rather back-and-forth affair. We get to Capricorn's castle early on and are set for a big show-down. But a fascinating character called Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) throws the movie off track with a petty, self-interested and all too human evasion. Dustfinger wants to be read back into the book, and he desperately wants to prove to the author of Inkheart (Jim Broadbent) that he can be better than his written character. Bettany's performance is heart-breaking and stands in sharp contrast to the leaden performances from Fraser (whom I normally love) and the camp performances from Serkis, Mirren and Broadbent.The problem is that this very cerebral, very philosophical sub-plot leeches energy from the main storyline and distracts attention. Worse still, it raises expectations that it cannot satisfy given the constraints of the genre.

I am rather disappointed in this movie. Softley has directed movies with real panache and intellectual bite - notably THE WINGS OF THE DOVE. I very much enjoyed THE THIEF LORD - another Cornelia Funke adaptation. And I also very much like Brendan Fraser in his family adventure movies. But Fraser is done a disservice by material that is fundamentally not about adventure at all, but about self-reflection.

INKHEART is on release in Germany and the UK. It opens in Brazil on Christmas Day. It opens in Italy on January 9th and in Taiwan, Turkey and the US on January 23rd and in France on January 28th It opens in Argentina on February 5th, in the Netherlands on February 12th, in Russia on March 19th and in Finland on April 3rd.

Monday, December 15, 2008

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: Keanu screws Klaatu

I'll admit a conflict here. I'm a big fan of the original 1951 THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. I'm not alone of course, as you'll see if you click on the link, the original movie is #199 on the IMDB Top 250 movies of all time. 

Of course, there's a reason for that. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) was an incredibly brave piece of cinema, coming as it did at the height of McCarthyism - challenging the rabid suspicion of outsiders and the dogma of the nuclear arms race. 

Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his indestructible robot Gort come to earth to deliver a message of cooperation and peace to world leaders. Yet, immediately as he steps out of his spacecraft, Klaatu is shot, taken into custody, and branded everything from Angel of Death to evil communist. Yet he escapes, is helped by a kindly widow named Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), her son Bobby (Billy Gray) and a well known scientist, Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe).

Finally, he delivers his message outside of his spacecraft, which is worth re-printing in full:

"I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. 

We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is, we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war. Free to pursue more... profitable enterprises. 

Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."

This speech has been debated and poured over since the film's release. Was it a stab at the toothless U.N. before it became fashionable to call it toothless? Was it an attack on the arms race and space race, being fought at the time against the Soviets? Was Klaatu actually meant to represent a religious figure - are there parallels to the Christian message?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it was certainly not pointlessly moralising, nor did it descend into feel-good shmaltz. The message was simple: "You guys are violent assholes. If you stop being violent, you can prosper and be happy. But if you turn your violence out into space towards us, our robot pigdogs will fuck you up."

The same cannot be said of the pointless modern remake. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (2008) lurches between paint-by-numbers Hollywood moralising about the environment and how we're screwing it up, to ridiculous levels of shmaltziness near the end. The message of this movie seems to be that humans have a soft and squidgy side that will come out in a crisis and that this will somehow manage to save us (from ourselves). This is despite copious evidence to the contrary played out in front of us throughout the film.

Now, don't get me wrong. One might well imagine that the (poorly acted and awfully scripted) love between a mother (Jennifer Connelly) and her unnecessarily black son (Jaden Smith) might convince Klaatu (Keanu Reaves) that human beings are worth saving. But surely it wouldn't convince him that we can save ourselves?! Not after the (equally poorly scripted) US Secretary of State (Kathy Bates) has unleashed seven shades of shit, torture and sidewinders on him and his unoffending robot for no good logical reason.

Talking about bad acting, let the record show that Reeves showcases the full repetoire of his monotonal potential in this flick. The scene with a catastrophically underused Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) is a case in point. Cleese (the only competant actor in the film) looks like he's doing a bluescreen dress rehearsal next to a piece of wood. He delivers his lines as if he were trying to wake Reeves up, or at least trying to awake some extremely well hidden talent in him.

Mind you, Keanu doesn't have much to work with. He agreed to perform an (unintentionally) hilarious, monosyllabic script so as not to stretch himself - setting low standards that he consistently fails to live up to. The plot is similarly dire. Rather than perfectly pitching the low-key anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s - it goes for the catastrophism of the execrable I AM LEGEND and the similarly fecal modern remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS.  

All this adds up to a totally unnecessary money-spinning remake, arrogantly self-justified as some sort of environmentalist crusade. If you love cinema, love the original, or indeed have any of the human emotions that Reeves so conspicuously fails to imitate on screen, I would advise you to steer well clear of this garbage.

Cheers 

Maximus

Sunday, December 14, 2008

LAKEVIEW TERRACE - Neil LaBute drops the ball

The hero's name is Maleekwa, and he's a descendant from the black tribe that established the first society on the planet, while all you European motherfuckers were still hiding in caves and shit, all terrified of the sun.

It begins as a brilliantly nuanced, slow-burning thriller. Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson play a mixed race couple who move into a house next door to Samuel L Jackson's racist cop. He objects to their mixed-race marriage but writer/director Neil LaBute is careful to make it hard for us to judge him. Maybe the cop is simply being admirably honest.  After all, the couple both admit to difficulties with each other's families - the forced declarations of how much his family love her - her father quizzing him on how he'll keep their mixed-race children safe.  Their families are politically correct on the surface but racist underneath. Maybe outright condemnation is the most honest response? And isn't the racist cop right to object to the couple having sex in their pool where his kids can see them? Isn't he right to object to the husband throwing his fag ends into his yard?

The tension builds. The racist cop is clearly going after the couple. The husband responds by being cowardly and childishly aggressive by turns. The wife gets pregnant accidentally on purpose and then gets mad when her husband isn't ecstatic. All is not well. 

The problem is that Neil LaBute takes the easy way out. Just like the wildfires that are encroaching upon their houses, the movie ends in a conflagration. The racist cop is given a convenient prosaic excuse for his racism that has nothing to do with racism at all, really, and the couple get a convenient reconciliation. It's all just too neat and too ad hominem. I wanted LaBute to tell us something about the reality of mixed-race relationships. Instead he exploited a hot-button social issue as an unusual backdrop to a rather mundane thriller with a lollipop ending.

I loved IN THE COMPANY OF MEN. But recently I've found Neil LaBute's work to be rather lazy. In his recent London play FAT PIG and again in LAKEVIEW TERRACE he flirts with big social issues and then collapses into easy solutions. Poor show.

LAKEVIEW TERRACE was released earlier this year in the US, Canada, France, Argentina, Russia, Sweden, Venezuela, the Philippines, Singapore, Italy, Spain, Egypt, Denmark, Mexico, Romania and Greece. It is currently on release in the UK and opens next week in Belgium. It opens on December 18th in Germany and Portugal and opens in Australia on January 29th.