Thursday, 24 March 2011

Awaydays

**
Awaydays is an adaptation of Kevin Sampson’s noted novel. While the book provided a fascinating look at football hooliganism in 1979, the film offers no such insight. It’s not exactly incoherent, just mind-numbingly simplified. There is little to distinguish each titular awayday from another. The interesting thing about Tranmere Rovers’ crew of hoolies (“The Pack”) is that not only did they have a fearsome reputation but they had loads of style. Their wedge haircuts and Adidas were a striking contrast to the other thugs on the terraces and their lack of interest in anything sartorial. It does get this point across but the scraps all blend into one another. At least you have to hand it to Kevin Sampson, who also wrote the screenplay, for not supplying Basil Exposition voice-over. But the script is poor, leaving much unclear and ambiguous.

What can really raise the game of a low budget feature are good performances. Unfortunately, Awaydays doesn’t have any. The leads, Nicky Bell (Carty) and Liam Boyle (Elvis) have little charisma and/or presence. The closest thing is Stephen Graham’s older hoolie, who certainly looks the part in his sheepskin coat and ‘tache but it’s a minor role.

And this is a personal taste thing, but the dreary late seventies brit pop / indie film soundtrack makes it a contender for one of the worst ever.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Knight and Day

***
Tom Cruise doesn’t really do Average Joes. I never bought him as blue collar in War of the Worlds. He gives so much more value for money when playing alpha (e.g. hotshot lawyer, fighter pilot, special agent). Knight and Day sees him playing the latter to rather good comic effect. His wild-eyed, rogue agent Roy Miller is thrown into a whole load of chaos with a cherry on top, namely Cameron Diaz (June Havens).

The stunts are so outrageous they are somewhat knowingly mocked. The logic being: yes we know this is ridiculous but it looks cool, huh? I do wish action directors would lay off the CGI, though. Even the simplest of stunts that was done for real / in camera were far more exciting than all the special-effects-icised ones (you know what I mean) combined. And hey, who needs special effects when you’ve got Cruise. When it comes to action he’s already extremely effective. Whatever you think of the guy, you cannot deny his dexterity.

I can understand why it was a disappointment at the box office. It just seems a bit “vanilla” for a big summer [2010] film and one that stars Tom Cruise. You expect more from such a “tentpole” movie. Perhaps it’s because the formula does seem a bit tired: a screaming hysteric (her) being dragged into, and then saved from, a number of dangerous situations by a cool professional (him). It brings to mind Bird on a Wire whose routine felt a bit hackneyed back in 1990. Couldn’t we have the woman dragging a pathetic man around for just once?

Diaz doesn’t bring anything that interesting to the barbecue, just some mild kookiness. While not a total disaster (as some have suggested), the chemistry between the two of them is not the greatest. The worldwide weirdness surrounding Cruise doesn’t help when a romance is at the centre of a film. However, it’s good fun and has a lot more life and character than any of the recent soulless output from Michael Bay or James Cameron. 

Monday, 14 March 2011

Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman)

***
The exemplar of not only “cool” but “funny”, Jean-Louis Trintignant (Jean-Louis) falls in love with the disarming and not-unattractive Anouk Aimee (Anne). Well, who wouldn’t? And who, given half a chance, couldn’t? 1966’s Un Homme et une Femme sees these two perfect specimens collide.

She’s a film script supervisor. He’s a race car driver. They couldn’t be any more sexy, stylish (and of course French) but most significantly each of them is a widow/widower. She has a cute little girl and he has a cute little boy who attend the same boarding school. One evening, having visited their children, she misses her train and he offers her a lift. What follows should make even the iciest of viewer's hearts melt. As French as Camembert and yes, it is a bit cheesy. However, that makes it so completely charming. It is very of its time thus something of a time capsule. Youtube the theme tune and I bet you’ll know it. It’s like France distilled.

The story is quite conventional but the style has a French New Wave sensibility. For example, there are cut-aways and crash edits aplenty. The mixture of black & white, colour and sepia film stocks also proves it’s a little more “out there” than your average love story. The direction from Claude Lelouch is exceedingly ahem, adroit. He is deftly skilled in both the technical and the emotional and it’s not hard to see why he went on to make some forty films after this.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The King’s Speech

****
It’ll be hard to say anything new or original about The King’s Speech but I’ll have a bash…

What struck me was how cinematic it was. A major problem with the UK film industry is that a lot of our films look like telly. This has a lot to do with the fact that many of those involved have a television background. Director Tom Hooper is just one of those people, a TV veteran of work diverse as Byker Grove (stop laughing at the back, please) to Prime Suspect. Hooper rubbishes this theory - the man (along with cinematographer, Danny Cohen) really gave this film a look, and he directed the hell out of it. Some of the awkward, ceremonial, elephant-in-the-room moments even feel a bit Kubrick. It smartly captures the weirdness of being a royal.

Correct me if I’m wrong (feel free to email or leave comments below), but I can’t think of any montages in period drama and it was great to see one – this kind of direction shook things up a bit. You don’t see that in Merchant Ivory. This is reflective of the film, and its wonderful irreverence, in general. Rocky watch your back…

You can see why the Academy liked it, with it involving the following: a debilitating speech impediment, the whole triumph-over-adversity thing, and English posh-ness. Let this not take anything away from the film, though. It totally delivered the goods. Big words regarding the baggage it brings - namely its heaving trophy cabinet. Hearty congratulations to all four winners at the Oscars. Tom Hooper: you made what could have been dull scintillating. Septuagenarian David Seidler (oldest ever winner of a Best Original Screenplay Oscar): fine work for provoking laughter and tears in equal measure. The Film Itself: as much as I loved The Fighter, it was a worthy win. And Colin Firth: you broke my heart.


Saturday, 12 March 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

**
For a film with Los Angeles in its title there’s not a lot made of the unique qualities of that particular city. The titular metropolis is so vaguely drawn that it could have quite have easily been Battle: Any American City. One can only assume it was out of sheer laziness that Columbia Pictures decided to set the film in their own backyard.

The earth is under attack from an alien race hell bent on wiping out the population for the water supply. It is seen from the point of view of a squad of US Marines. (I can just imagine the pitch: “It’s War of the Worlds meets Private Ryan”.) As the title suggests, this is a tale of soldiers in a combat zone. It is very much a war film and the shaky docu-style lends itself well to the subject matter. However, $100 million budget aside, it feels like a first feature (i.e. the director finding their feet and, while the film's far from perfect, you can see their potential). For a film with so much going on – in terms of crashes, bangs and wallops – it’s peculiarly un-engaging. This is because director Jonathan Liebesman pulls punches throughout. Just as each action set-piece gets under way it fizzles out. A big problem is the script. It’s half-baked and has a distinct lack of polish. The characters are paper thin. It also wants to be taken seriously as a war film but it’s a popcorn flick about an alien attack. The glum tone takes all the fun out of it. My view is there’s not enough cheese. Some talk of whooping ET’s ass wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Aaron Eckhart – as always - delivers the goods and he’s well cast as the dependable Staff Sergeant. There’s nothing wrong with any of the cast. It’s just a shame about the words coming out of their mouths.


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Town

****
Following his deftly-handled directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone Ben Affleck is back all guns blazing (big, loud automatic ones, that is).

I have always had a soft spot for Affleck since I first saw him providing measured, understated support in Good Will Hunting. It stung a bit when the press released all hell on the guy. Basically, he married a woman he loved and made a bad film with her. He’s hardly Fatty Arbuckle. So it’s good to see him bounce back from an experience that appears to have only made him stronger. He’s also back in front of the camera playing Doug MacRay, the leader of a tough crew of armed robbers. The story is set in Charlestown (hence The Town) in Boston, Massachusetts – a neighbourhood, according to the opening blurb, more densely populated with bank robbers than there are tobacco workers in Havana. Possessing sharply honed skills passed down through generations they are something of a crack team. And boy, it’s great to watch them in action. The logistical workings of a heist have always appealed to me and here we see those details in abundance. While the characters are given time to grow three dimensions, there’s not a lot of hanging around. This is a thriller with an emphasis on thrills. While it’s nothing especially original, it is wildly entertaining.

So many US cities have been done to death in cinema that film-makers can rely on lazy shorthand: a well-known landmark here, a well-worn cliché there… But Boston (at least to this reviewer) is relatively unknown, thus fresh and exciting. It proves itself to be a location rich in character, and that accent is amazing. It always brings to mind Roy Scheider’s gentle ribbing of the Massachusetts natives in Jaws, “They're in the yaard, not too faar from the caar”.

Affleck is backed by, and draws intense performances from, a high calibre cast: Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper to name just a few. Jon Hamm (of Mad Men fame) is a revelation. I always suspected he may be a one trick pony but I’m happy to admit, his performance as the determined G-man proves me completely wrong.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Role Models

***
Role Models is an, at times, breathtakingly un-PC comedy in which Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play a pair of unlikely guidance coaches for two kids, namely Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse and newcomer, Bobb’e J Thompson.

Scott has little range but who cares. He’s does what he does and does it right on the money. If you need someone to play drunk/high/horny/dim, he’s the go-to guy. His carer, Wheeler ticks all of these boxes with great effect. In contrast, the talented Rudd can offer a bit more diversity. But if I’m completely honest he disappoints as the pithy Danny who has pretty much given up on life. What was needed was say, John Cusack giving it full throttle suicidal or Bill Murray at his most misanthropic. Rudd is better suited to upbeat characters. The kids are excellent. Mintz-Plasse, while also proving he doesn’t have a whole lot of range, provides his shtick with workman-like precision. The younger Bobb’e J Thompson is a mini force of nature. Many of the laughs come from him berating his carer with black on white racism and accusations of sexual abuse, and Scott is a brilliant foil for all his torture.

Quibbles aside, it’s a very funny film. I’m amazed at how far some of the jokes go, considering they nearly always involve children. It’s kind of like a more adult version of Uncle Buck. It has its heart in the right place, mocking all the right things (like institutionalised stupidity, for example). In this way it also brings to mind Roald Dahl at his most anarchic. Furthermore, the film manages to provide a feel-good finale without inducing any vomit.


Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Biutiful

**
If dead children aren’t enough for you, then how about a terminally ill Javier Bardem? In an adult nappy. Misery Week continues with Biutiful. This was one of those times where I sat in the cinema thinking, “I wish I was at home watching The Wild Bunch”.

It’s something of a tragedy that director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu has parted company with long time collaborator, writer Guillermo Arriaga, with whom he made the superior Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Arriaga also scripted one of this reviewer’s favourites (and the directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. In relation to all the aforementioned ingeniously-crafted scripts, Biutiful is an uncomfortable reminder that something is absent from this story: namely “story”.

We ramble through a scuzzy-looking Barcelona with Javier Bardem who plays Uxbal, a low-level criminal involved in people trafficking and other scummy pursuits. He is also dying. (Well, boo hoo.) Call me shallow but what we don’t see is anything particularly exhilarating or exciting in this seamy Spanish underworld. Is it too much to ask, for just a few visceral thrills?

I suspect Barcelona’s tourist board are not fans of the film. This trail through the mean streets of Barcelona is made to look highly dangerous and all the interiors look spectacularly toxic. The director even manages to make Gaudi’s cathedral look like somewhere you’d wish to avoid.


[Amendment 08/03/11]
As an admittedly smug footnote this was included in the "Top Ten Most Boring Films of All Time" in The Sunday Times Culture section Sunday 6th March.

Rabbit Hole

***
If there's one death-of-a-child film you should see this year then look no further. This one really is misery porn. There's not much you can do to make this kind of tale positive or life-affirming but writer David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting from his play of the same name) takes a pretty good stab at it. And his script, quite boldly, doesn't shy away from humour. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are the deceased couple, coping differently with the loss of their little boy. She befriends the teenage driver of the car that killed him. Howie, on the other hand, gets a bit too close to the also deceased Gaby (Sandra Oh).

Kidman gives good misery but there's something about her that's a bit fake for someone in suburbia. Perhaps it’s the Hollywood baggage. Perhaps it’s the bleaching and botox. It’s just hard at times to buy her otherworldliness as normal. The same could be said of Aaron Eckhart. At one point he takes off his shirt to reveal a very un-normal, Hollywood-ised physique. Well, they’ve each appeared in at least one Batman film. That’s not going to encourage the pursuit of normality.

Dianne Wiest lends solid support as Becca’s mother. Newcomer, Miles Teller holds his own as the startled young adult forced to grow up so suddenly. His naturalistic performance is quite heart-breaking. The direction is simple but effective from John Cameron-Mitchell (known for slightly more “out there” fare such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch) - an inspired choice from producer Kidman, for this her pet project.

While the film has no simple solutions to the horrors, it does offer a certain poetic simplicity: that things will never be the same but life must go on.


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