Robin Hood

•May 18, 2010 • 4 Comments

Rating **

To receive his superpower, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, or genetically modified, depending on who you talk to. As for me, I can’t be sure what event endowed me with the abilities I’m about to disclose. I can’t climb walls or spin webs, but wrap your mind around this, I see films before they happen! Ok more specifically, I get a gut reaction to trailers. I see through the fancy editing and make a judgment that rarely proves to be misplaced… Maybe it’s not really a superpower,  I guess I’m just more like Rorschach. I deliver grumpy, gruff-voiced narcissistic internal monologues as I shuffle out of the auditorium with my hands in my pockets. “This movie is afraid of me. I have seen its true face”

How does this relate to Robin Hood? Well, I knew exactly how I would feel about the film, I just tried to convince myself otherwise. I told friends that I was looking forward to it, but deep down the truth was rotting away in my gut, festering like a rancid onion bhaji soaked in piss. The pedigree of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe has already been called in to question in recent years (A Good Year, Body of Lies), the Gladiator days have long since passed, so maybe American Gangster was just a fluke? Scott can always be counted on scatter some evocative imagery throughout his films. He’s still probably the best visual artist working in modern cinema, I’ll never doubt that. As for Crowe, he’s one of my favourite actors so I don’t relish digging in to him like this. Although, storming out of that recent BBC Radio interview does make him a more legitimate target. How dare we question his accent?! Well, as it turns out…

When this project was announced it was called Nottingham, a fantastic twist would see the story told from the Sheriff’s perspective. The murderous deceitful outlaw “Robin Hood” was to be played by Christian Bale. I was excited to see that, but instead we got Crowe playing the wrong role and sounding as silly as he looks. His accent is simply ludicrous. It fluctuates with every syllable, making Robin’s birthplace harder to pin down than a coked-up python. After five minutes you’ll be craving for Yanky-Doodle Kevin Costner, including his mullet. Very little in this film works, the tone veers from dull to bland via some cheese and cliché. I wasn’t a happy man as the credits rolled. “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings…. and call off Christmas!”

Alice In Wonderland – 3D

•March 5, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Rating – **

This film is aimed at people like me. I’m a lifelong fan of Tim Burton and consider him a genuine “auteur”. I’m a fantasy genre junkie, and I believe that Johnny Depp will ultimately be remembered as one of the all time acting greats. So why did I hate this new take on Alice In Wonderland? … oh, where do I start?

At its core the whole concept is fundamentally flawed. The world and characters that Lewis Caroll created are poorly suited to the cliché archetypes of “The Heroes Journey”. In literary form, Wonderland was mainly a backdrop for a series of ingenious head scratching riddles and logical (or illogical) puzzles which may also lead us to question the rigid rules of our society and the true value of “sanity”. It’s wonderful and unique but not inherently cinematic. Rather than address this issue with cerebral respect, Linda Woolverton (whose previous pedigree screenwriting credits include The Lion King!) merely stripped it all away and reduced the classic characters to quirky window dressing so she could crowbar in a half-baked quasi-sequel disguised as an adventure/destiny parable. In doing so, Wonderland is exposed to unflattering scrutiny. It sure isn’t a fully realised world like Pandora or Middle Earth. Everything in the screenplay is totally interchangeable with other fantasy series. This could just as easily be a Wizard of Oz or Narnia story. With the insanity vibe why not just call it The Chronicles of Banarnia? This is Wonderland in name only… actually it’s not even that, it’s now referred to as Underland.

The lead role is played by relative unknown Mia Wasikowska, she doesn’t do herself any real favours. It’s not like she has any good dialogue to work with, but even so her performance is bland. I imagine she’ll fade into obscurity after this and always be known as “oh yeah, the girl who played Alice” But what really sinks proceedings is Depp, and I never thought I’d say that. I enjoyed him as Willy Wonka and Jack Sparrow, there was much more to those eccentric performances than childish clowning around. Not so with The Mad Hatter, there is just no consistent character to speak of. Depp chucks in random accents and manic laughter but without any restraint of reason. It’s like watching a magician fumble around the stage as doves and playing cards fall out of his sleeves. The nail in the coffin is his “Fudderwack”… yes, that was a sentence. I’ll say no more, but when it happens you’ll know, and you will cringe.

In contrast, Helena Bonham Carter was born to play the Red Queen. She relishes every bratty tantrum tinged moment. So what if the whole thing is basically ripped off from Miranda Richardson’s classic portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in Blackadder II, it works. What also works is the outstanding production and character design. I’m excluding The Mad Hatter from this, a hideous combination of Madonna, Elijah Wood and Marylyn Manson! The supporting cast of quality British thesps all benefit from the polished visuals as their work is mainly limited to voicing digital characters. Alan Rickman and Matt Lucas are perfectly suited to their roles, while Steven Fry’s Cheshire Cat is a glorious extension of his beloved QI persona. I can’t fault these aspects of the film, but they can’t save it from narrative hell either. I expect most people will enjoy the experience enough to merit the cost of their ticket, but that’s probably all. Maybe I was expecting too much, but then again, why shouldn’t I? It seems everyone involved in the production thought “We’ve got Depp and Burton, what can go wrong? Let them do whatever random shit they fancy, it always pays off”. Despite their best efforts I think the only time I really smiled was hearing Crispin Glover say the word “Bandersnatch”, for some reason it just made me giggle.

I’m not being a “Mad Hater” (see what I did there?) and I didn’t set out to call this review “Malice In Blunderland”. Contrary to the general consensus on some of his recent work,  I’ve enjoyed everything Tim Burton has ever done, only Planet of the Apes left me cold. Burton claims he was looking for a way to make the surreal elements relevant to Alice’s psyche. Since he has failed I suggest you look no further than Del Torro’s modern masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth instead. It will also help you forget about this frustrating and poorly conceived waste of talent.

Oh also, since I’ve once again fallen behind with my other reviews – Mic Macs is great, Jeff Bridges deserves his inevitable Oscar for Crazy Heart, and From Paris With Love is pretty shit with the exception of Travolta’s one liners.

A Single Man/The Lovely Bones

•February 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Rating – A Single Man ***1/2 The Lovely Bones ***

Here’s a fun-filled double-bill for you, two very different tales of death and grieving in retro US settings. Both films look beautiful and feature excellent performances… but there can only be one winner. So, “Letssssss get ready to rumbleeeeeee!”

Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man does indeed resemble a Calvin Klein commercial, as many critics have pointed out. Is that an issue? Not really. The only times I found it a distraction involve some unintentionally giggle-worthy model-like posing from the young male characters who take an interest in Collin Firth. Grieving after his gay lover was killed in a car crash, Firth is every bit as excellent as his Oscar nomination suggests. Sombre in tone with an excellent supporting cast, it would be wrong to declare this as anything but an accomplished drama. Ford uses an interesting technique throughout the film. As Firth’s suicidal protagonist encounters other characters throughout the course of his day, the colour palate becomes temporarily saturated. As he sinks back in to his private despair, the world once again becomes muted and grey. It’s a simple trick, effective as it is subtle.

In contrast, Peter Jackson’s use of CGI throughout his supernatural thriller is reckless and frustratingly ludicrous. I say this as a big fan of not just his previous work, but other parts of the film in question, The Lovely Bones. After her brutal murder, fourteen year old Susie Salmon inhabits a dreamy “in-between” world until her killer is caught and she can enter heaven. For some reason that involves walking through a day-glow cornfield, dancing with giant butterflies, and flying over ice ravines with a pointless Chinese sidekick in a dogsled drawn by pugs! It’s all sphincter-clenchingly misjudged and poorly executed. The visual effects are not only unnecessary but actually pretty shoddy. The exception to this is a scene inter cut with Mark Walberg’s grieving father as he smashes his homemade collection of bottled ships. In Susie’s world this is illustrated by full scale vessels encapsulated in impossibly vast glass bottles. They crash unrelentingly into the cliffs and the rocky beach where she is walking. Personally I thought this scene was impressive, a reminder of Jackson’s usual showmanship and skilled execution of Weta’s technological arsenal. However none of this overrides the sad truth that the whole notion of visualising this “in-between heaven” world is inherently shit and tacky. It eats up valuable screen time which should have been used to flesh out the thriller/criminal investigation aspects. Susie’s supernatural presence should have been tastefully confined to her voiceover and nothing else.

Much of the film is excellent though, the aforementioned CG monstrosities are just the cement shoes dragging it all down a peg (or two). Take the first act of the film, before any of the heaven bullshit comes in to the equation. It’s atmospheric, nuanced, and gripping. As an audience we already know the terrible fate awaiting Susie and as it drew near I became genuinely sad for her. Stanley Tucci is really brilliant in his role as the murderous paedophile, as is Saoirse Ronan as his tragic victim. The other acting across the board is strong and Jackson’s typically skilled camerawork is a joy. When I said this film looks beautiful, it was down to this, not the CG. The suspense scenes are genuinely gripping too. It seems only fair to point out all these great aspects to the film. Despite my scathing reaction to core elements of The Lovely Bones I still recommend it. For much of it’s baggy running time (typical PJ) this is strong filmmaking. Some muddled and underdeveloped subplots are all symptoms of the decision to put the afterlife on full view.

Now that they are filmmaking buddies it’s tempting to draw parallels between Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. If Lord of the Rings was his Indiana Jones in spirit and scale, The Lovely Bones is the thematic equivalent of Spielberg’s Always… what do you mean you don’t remember Always?

Gake No Ue No Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea)

•February 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Rating – ***1/2

I’ve been pretty lazy on the reviews front lately. Maybe it’s the numbing effect of awards-season shoving so many over hyped  “important” films down our throats. Sure, Up in the Air and Invictus etc have merit. I just can’t be arsed to write much about them. Although I did enjoy watching Morgan Freeman play a president without any impending asteroids to worry about. As for Precious, I’m in no rush to see it. I can smell the manipulated emotions a mile away. 

Anyway, all of that goes out the window with the long awaited UK release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo. It would be easy to believe that this timeless film was actually a lost Miyazaki relic from decades ago. There are no signs that this old master of Japanese animation has been tainted by (or even acknowledges) his comparatively recent commercial success with Western audiences. He continues to craft effortless fairytales without any obnoxious CG sidekicks in sight.

The leisurely pace and gentle tone could easily be dismissed or overlooked, but for me every frame oozed charm, shrewd observation, and a deep understanding of children and nature. There are also moments of delirious visual wonder which match CG behemoths like Avatar in their artistry and impact. I never get tired of traditional cell animation, it resonates so deeply both emotional and intellectually. Understanding the technical process only magnifies the sense of wonder. It’s similar to the joy of watching speckled stop motion thumbprints dance across Gromit’s plasticine nose. But in this case, painting tidal waves by hand is NOT easy. Yet every single one of them moves flawlessly, pulsing with shoals of bioluminescent fish while smashing into cliff tops as a little girl sprints across them. I actually did get watery eyes a few times. Not because these are sad moments, it’s just so thrilling to witness this phenomenal art form unfolding on the screen at the highest level of excellence.

The plot is undoubtedly slight but it allows the characters to shine. If you must know, Ponyo is all about a goldfish who escapes to the surface, meets a little boy and develops a love for ham, then ultimately transforms into a human…. no, really! The film possesses some qualities you can only find in masterpieces like ET, Pans Labyrinth, and Miyazki’s own back catalogue. Anybody who appreciates My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and of course, Spirited Away, should leave the cinema with a smile and a warm contented glow.

The Road/The Book of Eli

•January 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

Rating – The Road * The Book of Eli ***

I saw both of these post apocalyptic road movies in the same week, so it was hard to avoid the comparison. One is a critically acclaimed adaptation of an equally “beloved” novel, the other is centred around an even more influential work of fiction, “THE good book”.

Firstly, The Road. Other than an admirable central performance by Viggo Mortensen, the remaining elements are as barren and torturous as the landscape he must navigate. This is a dying world where even the trees are doomed, and they sure let the audience know it. With no narrative drive or original insight, this is simply an exercise is watching two characters suffer repeatedly. Worst of all the film feels self important, as if we should be grateful for the opportunity to witness it’s majesty… you’re highly likely to doze off from time to time. I wish I could evaluate it more specifically but the film is devoid of anything memorable. I find the mainstream critical hype truly baffling.

The Book of Eli has far more going for it. Partly reminiscent of films from the other end of the spectrum (Mad Max, Waterworld, Blade) it has moments which can only be described as genuinely “cool”. In a genre still very much in the shadow of the original Matrix, it takes something special in fight choreography to register as impressive. These moments are fleeting, but The Book of Eli contains a couple of real gems. Then there’s Garry Oldman, apparently on a quest to make his classic performance in Leon look restrained. I love seeing Oldman play eccentric evil nutters, it just works. On this level, the film is undeniably entertaining. Throw in Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, and a cameo by Malcolm MacDowell and you’ve been compensated for the price of your ticket.

However, this is also a film with an ambitious, but regrettably, deeply flawed concept. Set just 30 years after an unspecified apocalypse we are supposed to believe that this world has lost all memory of religion. People trade small trinkets, remnants of western culture such as KFC napkins and cigarette lighters, but nobody has ever heard of The Bible. Well, nobody other than Denzel Washington and Garry Oldman, who will do anything for the last copy in existence. It’s a decent idea, and frankly a world without religion sounds like bliss. However, when copies of The Da Vinci Code have survived (visible in one scene) it’s laughable that a book previously found in every hotel and home in America has been reduced to a single copy. As good as Washington is at portraying a humble “warrior monk” his blind devotion to this book makes it hard to side with him. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help thinking that his agenda is the last thing the world needs. If he succeeds they’ll be back to Sarah Palin rallies or protesting Darwinism in no time! Throw in a twist ending which doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny, and the early promise of the film goes unfulfilled. The pacing is odd too. Several scenes are nothing but characters walking in slow motion with sunglasses. Therefore The Book of Eli ranks as a curiosity. It may miss most of its targets, but the ones it hits make it enjoyable enough.

Review of 2009

•January 8, 2010 • 4 Comments

Right, while I’m in a list-making mood, here’s my take on 2009. This last twelve months and I, as Christian Bale would say, “professionally, we’re f***ing done!”

I should point out that I missed a few key candidates like The White Ribbon and even more frustratingly Me & Orson Welles (considering my name is on the damn credits) Ultimately though, 2009 stands as a very strong year for horror and science fiction. As usual a number of very high profile films end up occupying that forgetful middle ground, and so, don’t appear on either the best or worst lists. For me that includes Harry Potter (decent but patchy) and GI Joe (actually quite entertaining and nowhere near as bad as expected!) Release dates are also confusing. The awards season heavy weights are often held back for a UK release. So films like Slumdog Millionaire and Benjamin Button (technically 2008 releases) only made it to the UK in early 2009. Ah who cares, I didn’t actually review some of them in the first place… what a shoddy blog this is! To quote the poet Bale once again, “f***ing amateur!” Anyway, for me this top ten is essentially a Blu-ray shopping list. Those not already in my collection, will be soon.

2009 Top 10

1 Inglourious Basterds – “You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece”

2 Avatar – Spellbinding work from the master of modern epics

3 Let den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In) – The perfect antidote to Twi-Shite. Beautiful

4 Watchmen – Surreal, brutal, thought provoking, and visually stunning… just like the book

5 Drag Me to Hell – Hilarious and terrifying, pure joyous entertainment

6 Moon – An instant science fiction classic

7 District 9 – see above

8 Up – “Squirrel!”

9 L’instinct de mort (Mesrine: Killer Instinct) – Gripping portrait of a man who lived life to the full

10 Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs – A delicious banquet of animated awesome-sauce

Honourable Mention

Coraline, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, An Education, Frost Nixon, The Hurt Locker, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Nowhere Boy, Pour Elle (Anything For Her), Public Enemies, A Serious Man, Slumdog Millionaire, Where The Wild Things Are

As for the bad films, I steered clear of the really notorious stinkers (as any sane person would). So this is simply a list of the worst that I foolishly went to see. It’s hard to choose what repulsed me more, the penis/scissor interaction of Antichrist, or the robot hick twins of Transformers II. I think Bay just about gets the “top” spot. Quite an achievement, never has so much money been fruitlessly pissed away… and yes, I’m aware of what bankers have been getting up to lately. But Michael Bay was even more irresponsible with his millions.

The Worst of 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – Not a single scene worthy of any merit. Heartless and in a way, evil 

Antichrist – Boring yet deeply repulsive

Knowing – Just wait for the flaming moose!

Synecdoche New York – Kaufman crawls up his own pretentious arse

Angels & Demons – A Vatican priest jumps from an exploding helicopter… seriously 

X Men Origins: Wolverine – Embarrassingly shoddy

Terminator Salvation – What did you expect from McG?

Surrogates – So very, very, boring

Fantastic Mr Fox – Misguided and smug, making the title ironic

2012 – What starts of brainless Emerich fun, soon outstays its welcome

Sherlock Holmes

•January 8, 2010 • 2 Comments

Rating – **

Today a friend asked me if I’d seen Sherlock Holmes, I said no. A few seconds went by then I corrected myself, I had indeed seen Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes less than a week ago. The fact that it faded from memory so fast is either a damning indictment of my hippocampus or a sign that the film isn’t so great. I’m going with the latter. However, Sherlock Holmes is not exactly the train wreck I was expecting. All the trailers and posters hinted at something to rival The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Van Helsing in the turkey stakes……. “Mmmm turkey steaks”

 The worst part of the film sees Ritchie falling back into old habits. What was fresh (and actually relevant to the plot) in Snatch, seems completely tacked on in Sherlock. I refer to the slow motion bare knuckle boxing. There is no pay off later in the story, it’s just a scene with no stylistic correlation to the rest of the film. With Holmes already established as a scatter-brained but quick witted, refined, and “quirky” rogue (basically just Jack Sparrow in London) it seems out of character for him to be beating the shit out of musclemen in a grimy boxing arena.

 Most of the film is harmless enough yet never very engaging as a mystery. I honestly have no recollection of the twists and turns and “oh so ingenious” clues. Lord Blackwood came back from the dead, some random people died, a ship yard was destroyed….. I can’t really remember why.  To be fair all the performances are strong (especially Jude Law), Guy Ritchie has always known how to shoot with style, and the score is something fresh. A refined sequel set in this newly established world might not be a bad idea. If they throw in a combination of Jonathan Creek-like intrigue and some set pieces worthy of Indiana Jones, it could be a winner.