Monday, 30 May 2011

The Departed

****
It’s not Goodfellas or Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but it’s still a superior film. And if I saw Marty’s little face drop one more time at the Academy Awards - as someone else’s name is read out - I might have to have blown my brains out. If Scorsese had won the Oscar for directing Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure I would still have heartily joined in the celebrations and wished him well because at last, justice had been done. Thankfully though, he won it for making something decent.


It’s an exemplary thriller. Having seen it initially when it came out, on the second viewing it was even better. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is Bostonian undercover cop looking constantly as if he’s about to implode. Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is the big boss he’s trying to take down with Mr French (Ray Winstone) as his henchman. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is bullshit artiste extraordinaire and rotten apple in the police department. And Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg almost steal the film even though they are barely in it.

It’s not the sexiest of crime flicks. Here Jack Nicholson must be the worst dressed gangster ever committed to celluloid. Look, I know this is a taught thriller with the emphasis on plot and tension but in the name of the fashion police, it is painfully apparent that the styling of everyone involved is, frankly, appalling. This appears to be the price you have to pay for authenticity, which I’m sure is faultless.

Scorsese and Nicholson is a marriage made in heaven but the film is distinctly lacking a killer Nicholson scene. If you’ve seen the film, think about it – what’s the classic Nicholson scene? Answer: there isn’t one. Which is a damn shame and the blame has to lie with writer, William Monahan. While we’re quibbling, the inescapable soundtrack is quite a distraction. There are a number of scenes where the drama is completely sucked out due to wall-to-wall music. Blimey, this is what it’s come to. This narcissistic blogger is now offering advice to Scorsese. In my defence, we all have to start somewhere. (By the way if anyone in the industry is reading, I have just polished my spec script for Christmas Vacation 3D: Cousin Eddie’s Revenge.)


Saturday, 28 May 2011

Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

**
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a daft 22-year-old who plays in a daft band. If there’s one thing the film does do well, it captures the lack of maturity we possess in our twenties, while seemingly all grown-up and independent. He meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who, we are unsubtly and repeatedly told, is really cool. When Scott starts to date her it is revealed that he must fight her seven evil exes. “Juvenile” doesn’t even begin to describe the film.

While I know it is much-loved by fans, for me the tone, the subject matter, the characters, the references you can safely say all did nothing for me. (Other than make my hand edge towards the remote to make it stop.) The constant sledgehammering of special effects is truly horrible. Phones will literally RING RING RING in big letters across the screen and doorbells will DING DONG. Every moment of this film is annoying.

The likes of Spaced and Shaun… are fine celebrations of geekdom. Their characters were likeable but never cool (at least not in the traditional sense) and it made them all the more entertaining. Scott Pilgrim’s dizzying fight skills attempt to sell him as cool. Michael Cera – ironically, at his most pathetic - apropos of nothing has superhuman fighting ability. In a nutshell, it’s all a bit try-hard. Even the most fantastic of fantasies has to be grounded by some kind of reality for it to create any sense of drama. This has no such thing.

Technically, there is much to admire here. Edgar Wright flexes some serious directorial muscle making something quite ground-breaking. It is is quite a spectacle and has great flair. And the editing is brilliant. [Great work Amos but sorry, I told you it wasn’t for me.]

Sometimes the public get it right. This was a bona fide box office disaster. At cinemas it failed to recoup its $60milion (estimated) production budget. It will no doubt have some effect, but I sincerely hope it doesn’t damage the career of the talent that is Edgar Wright.


Easy A

***
This is an ably directed and well written teen comedy. I just shouldn’t have watched it. I’m not saying I’m entirely against teen flicks. They just have to be really good for this 38-year-old male to join in. (I know, I’m not exactly the target audience.)  But here I took the advice of my esteemed colleagues - the ones with erm, actual paid, reviewing jobs - and added Easy A to my Lovefilm list. Whereas they were pleasantly surprised by a film they expected nothing from, I sought it out for my viewing pleasure and actually paid to see it. (Not bitterness, I assure you. Just a simple fact, Jack.) Basically, it’s good but not that good and it’s just not for me.

Olive (Emma Stone) is a teenager who tells a tall tale about losing her virginity. The lie escalates into rumour at her high school and suddenly everything changes for her. Initially, for the better.

The film supplies some good laughs. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are particularly comical as her way-liberal parents. Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow also feature, albeit in more dramatic mode but to good effect. Nice to see all these distinguished actors unafraid to put in a performance in a minor role. Of course, it may actually be down to necessity (except for Lisa Kudrow who I imagine still has gazillions for her work on Friends), who knows. Their presence also makes up for the hit-and-miss performances of the younger cast.

The main trouble with the film is Olive’s self-aggrandising voice-over, which is told to webcam. For a young woman going through a turbulent emotional time she is a little too cocksure. While there are occasional glimpses of vulnerability, it’s mostly about her savvy social nous – which has only ever been witnessed before in teenagers in Dawson’s Creek. As a result, it’s rather grating.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The A-Team

***
The A-Team was always about the personalities: John "Hannibal" Smith, Templeton “Face” Peck, “Howling Mad” Murdoch and Bosco Albert Baracus (that's "BA" or Bad Attitude"). It’s fairly obvious from the names alone that these are caricatures and not authentic war veterans in the mould of Travis Bickle. So it comes as some surprise that Liam Neeson was cast as ranking officer (and man with the plan) to lead this larger-than-life squad of caricatures onto celluloid. He may be a good actor but, let’s face it, he’s never been the most interesting and here he looks uncomfortable. For knockabout fun like this you need someone with an easy charm and a rogue-ish glint in their eye. It was most likely unsubstantiated rumour but, speaking as a badge-wearing member of his fan club, I was still disappointed when it turned out George Clooney wasn’t playing Smith. Actually, Bradley Cooper is superbly cast as charmer Templeton “Face” Peck, and Sharlto Copley makes an appropriately nuts “Howling Mad” Murdoch but the other two are not great: Neeson we’ve touched upon, and hey, there’s never going to be anyone quite like Mr T. 

Neeson’s casting is reflective of the film in general. It’s all a bit unexciting. Amazing really, how so much can be happening (i.e. ‘splosions) and it is described thus. But if you don’t care about the characters it’s hard to care about what’s exploding. It does, however, have some entertainment value - there are some very creative action set-pieces, and there are a few laughs to be had. It’s a little more grounded in reality than its cartoonish TV incarnation but maybe that takes the fun out of it. The action is transposed to Iraq but the titular team are still accused of a crime they didn’t commit.

Joe Carnahan showed startling promise with his debut, Narc. He switched gears for his next feature four years later, with the lighter Smokin’ Aces. With a gap of four years since he last directed, he is swiftly becoming the Terence Malick of action cinema. (That’s an attempt at humour, by the way.)


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Attack the Block

***
Although it comes from the same production team (with Edgar Wright taking an Exec-Producer credit) this is not Shaun of the Dead with aliens. Although comically-inclined, the onus is more on the action than the comedy. Citing the likes of Critters and Gremlins as inspiration, writer and director Joe Cornish wondered, growing up in the eighties, where all the British creature films were. He has a point because there weren’t any.

It’s bonfire night and a South London tower block is being attacked by alien invaders. Mankind’s only hope is a gang of rude boy teens.

The young cast is impressive and most of them first-time actors. John Boyega gives good value for money as brooding antihero and leader-of-the-pack, Moses. Joe Cornish must be praised for a script that is fearlessly uncompromising when it comes to the term “antihero”. There’s nothing cuddly about these kids. The biggest laughs come from the smaller kids who dub themselves the unlikely monikers of Probs and Mayhem.

There’s nothing really wrong with Attack the Block. The story is told competently and it’s cinematic. It all works perfectly well, but for me it’s missing a secret ingredient. It’s good but it could have been delicious. I understand there are budgetary constraints so I wasn’t expecting Independence Day. Budget isn’t everything. On this scale of film-making inventiveness is key, especially with such ambition. But the set-pieces are a little lacking in imagination. It is sporadically amusing but generally the comedy is a bit flat.

Still, it’s a good debut for Joe Cornish. I wish the film well and sincerely hope it finds an audience. (Especially with teenagers. They’ll love it.) With unprecedented high percentages on rottentomatoes.com and a great response at SXSW I’m sure it will.

By the way, the editing is AMAZING. (Awright Amos.)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Away We Go

**** 
Following the heavy main course that was 2008’s Revolutionary Road this is Sam Mendes’s light dessert from 2009. Away We Go is a feel good tale of a couple in their thirties (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) travelling around North America looking for somewhere to put down roots. Here’s the kicker: she is six months pregnant with their first child. They visit friends and family in different locales, searching for inspiration as to where to raise a family. Rudolph and Krasinski make a cute couple but their nearest and dearest (mostly) turn out to be vile. The results are comical but the film does possess a strong dramatic bent. It manages to entertain (chiefly through laughs) while maintaining realism and authenticity.

Real life couple (Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers) have written a warm and funny first script and it’s a splendid debut. Sam Mendes displays further versatility as a director. (To emphasise this point, next up for him: Bond 23!) He shows a playfulness we’ve not yet seen him reveal. (While American Beauty is funny it does have an ever-present sense of impending doom.) He also has a very good eye – every shot is thoughtfully worked out and there are some very attractive visuals of that most cinematic of countries.

It’s a perfect film to watch curled up on the sofa with someone you love (as I did with the fragrant Ms. G). It’s also an easy film for both him and her to agree on watching. So put aside Death Commandos 2: Munitions Boogaloo, and there’s always another time to watch Failure to Launch a Wedding Planner in Ten Days. The message here is togetherness so follow its lead and watch it together.

 




Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Passenger (1975)

***
Director Michelangelo Antonioni made a challenging film. With its sparse dialogue and pared down action there’s nothing spoon fed to you here.

Disillusioned TV journalist, David Locke (Jack Nicholson) assumes the identity of a dead man in North Africa. As he travels back to, and through, Europe it transpires that the dead man was a gun runner. This also proves to be something of a pay cheque.

For such lurid subject matter it is often a bit dull. And while there are glimmers of genius in the direction some of it is downright clunky. While I understand the meaning (i.e. man’s desire to escape from himself) I don’t understand the behaviour. For example, why in Christ’s name does Locke carry on with his scam when he realises he’s posing as an arms dealer. The associates of this type are likely to be armed. They have the means to kill you very easily. The first whiff of that and I’d have pulled the ripcord. But hey, dramatic cinema would be so much duller were it populated by cowards like me.

This is the recently-departed Maria Schneider’s “other” film, in that it’s really the only other film of note in her career. (The other one being Last Tango in Paris.) She is completely beguiling in the role and shows maturity way beyond her years. (She was only twenty-two.) It’s a tragedy she was such a troubled soul and a shame for us that we never saw her fulfil her potential.

By no means least, fans of Nicholson will get a kick out of seeing him arguably at his peak. If you’ll allow me to turn into a drooling fan for a moment, it’s an impressive package. The wolfish grin is backed up by the flat stomach he used to have and he rocks an understated (but kickass-all-the-same) wardrobe. The Passenger is, by the way, a delectable seventies time capsule. 

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Hanna

****
The precocious talent that is Saoirse (pronounced Sersha) Ronan plays the eponymous heroine. Hanna is a lean, teen killing machine trained secretly from birth in the wilds of Finland by her rogue CIA-op father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana). Now the Bureau wants her and the hunt ensues. Chief Baddie is the deliciously icy Agent Wiegler (Cate Blanchett).

While the film doesn’t entirely subvert the action genre it is a breath of fresh air. First time feature writers, Seth Lochead and David Farr have come up with an original take on the 21st Century actioner, led by a very different kind of protagonist. While it is likely to be enjoyed by the demographic, it doesn’t appear to be aimed solely at that all-important 16 to 25-year-old male market.

No one can accuse director, Joe Wright of making films that look like telly. The spectacle, as in all his work, is a thing of beauty and best enjoyed on the big screen. However, making it all look good isn’t everything when it comes to action. Although he makes a pretty good fist of the action set-pieces he still has a lot to learn. He papers over the cracks with a lot of sound and fury (i.e. abundant quick edits combined with crash, bang, walloping beats from The Chemical Brothers, who expertly scored the film). But respect is due to the director of Pride and Prejudice, for throwing himself headfirst into yet another genre and really delivering the goods. It is an exhilarating watch, and further affirmation that Wright is a powerhouse of international cinema.

Notable mention to Eric Bana. He’s a big man but he’s in excellent shape. He handles his action scenes well and is proving to be a formidable physical presence on screen.

Annoyingly, a lot of the accents are faintly ridiculous and something of a distraction. A pet hate of this reviewer is actors speaking English but with an accent to suggest they are speaking in a foreign language. Speaking in your own voice is far more honest and effective. Watch, and learn from, Sean Connery, I say. It never did him or his audience any harm.

Quick word on the surprising 12A certificate awarded by our ever-liberal BBFC. I wouldn’t recommend this to any children under 12. There’s a steady stream of nastiness throughout and it’s far-from-comic-book violence.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Submarine

**** 
Submarine is a smartly-observed coming-of-age tale that really captures the essence of teendom - namely that, as a teen, you’re a bit of an idiot. This isn’t to say the film is disrespectful of youth. It heartily celebrates it and does so with panache and a great deal of humour.

Richard Ayoade has adapted Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel for his captivating directorial debut. It tells the story of 15-year-old Oliver (Craig Roberts) and his first tastes of romance and the responsibilities that life heaps upon him. He convinces Jordana (Yasmin Paige) to go out with him and they enjoy setting things on fire. Meanwhile, his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) are having marital problems which are not helped by the presence of clownish New Age guru, Graham (Paddy Considine).

It’s a neat trick Ayoade pulls with his lead man. Oliver is something of an oddball and, more notably, not hugely likeable but you do still care about him. And maybe because he is, in his own way, kinda cool. In this respect, he reminds me a little of Bud Cort in 1971’s Harold and Maude (if you haven’t seen it then give yourself a treat). There have been a few unfair accusations of rip-offery made with The Royal Tenanbaums but while there may have been a little inspiration by osmosis, Submarine stands alone as an original film. It has style in droves, is packed with laughs, and is uniquely British.

NB: Alex Turner wrote five songs specifically for the film which is a treat and sets a very particular mood.

And to my American friends, this is due for release in the States on June 3rd. Hope it makes it to a theater [sic] near you…

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