Thursday, 17 June 2010

My Top Ten Films of the Previous Decade (2000-2009)

So a) I don't usually do this kind of thing and, b) I've technically retired from film journalism but my good old buddy Robert Beames (read his version here) has managed to convince me to write up a top ten list for the last decade. I decided to have no rules (I didn't choose one for each year or decide I had to cover each genre etc.), except one; these films had to really connect with me on a personal level. This was a really hard task, especially since I could only choose ten films but I'm confident that it's reflective of my taste and, by extension, myself. Without further ado, the list (which is in no particular order) is as follows:

1. Control (2007, Anton Corbijn)
I'll admit it; before seeing this film I'd never given Joy Division the attention they so fully deserved and I was unfamiliar with the full extent of front man Ian Curtis' life and history. Control is far more than just a film about an indie band though; it's funny, moving, exquisitely shot and amazingly acted modern masterpiece of British cinema. It's not surprising in the least to find that Corbijn was a world famous photographer before he began directing as his black and white photography in the film is among the best I have ever seen (and adds much to the tone of the film). It had such an enormous impact upon me that upon leaving the cinema I actually couldn't speak for five whole minutes. Can't fault that soundtrack either. ;)

2. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)
Unfortunately I hadn't gotten into David Lynch when this was released in theatres but it's impact wasn't tainted in the least by catching up with it on home video. I'm a massive David Lynch fan in general (but was fairly disappointed with INLAND EMPIRE) and I'd be hard pressed to decide between Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man or this as my favourite of his. Mulholland Drive is, as with most Lynch, a wonderfully stylised head-fuck but it still elicits strong emotional responses from the audience (and a work-out-able narrative structure, so long as you're going along with the common consensus). Lynch's bitter sweet love letter to the movie industry is essential cinema and is up there with the likes of Sunset Blvd. and Vertigo.

3. Hunger (2008, Steve McQueen)
Hunger is another one of those films where I knew next to nothing about the factual events it depicted but one which (just as in Control) doesn't condemn or worship it's morally complex historical figures. Hunger is a harsh film but the music, cinematography and mise-en-scene all combine to create a beautifully haunting atmosphere which had me completely entranced from start to finish. Michael Fassbender, playing the central role of Bobby Sands, is also sublime, especially in the ten minute one-shot heated debate between him and a Catholic priest. As with most films focusing on the IRA or 'troubles' in Ireland it's got a lot of negative things to say about the British but if this film is any indication then I'd don't blame them.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
Gondry's second effort with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (choosing one Kaufman film for this list was also an especially hard task) is one of the few romantic films that I can truly, and I mean truly identify with. It's honest, unashamed and so full of heartfelt affection that it breaks (and mends) my heart each and every time I see it. The film also cleverly plays with ideas of memory and dream states both in it's style and narrative.The striking visual style and post-modern tone felt original and fresh (and still does, for that matter) and it's true brilliance is that in the hands of many other film-makers it could have easily overshadowed the emotional connection between the audience and it's characters. Who knew Jim Carrey could deliver such a devastatingly dramatic performance?

5. Requiem for a Dream (2000, Darren Aronofsky)
Yes I know it's only really saying one thing, that drugs can fuck you up, but since when has that been a bad thing? It's the way in which the film translates this message, and the different circumstances which in which it makes this point (do NOT trust your doctor if he prescribes you diet pills), which really make it stand out. Requiem is a true force of cinematic nature; it starts fairly off-kilter and builds and builds until it violently rapes the majority of your senses during it's final moments (in the best way possible). This is another film which is heavy on style (utilising sound design and editing to create a distinctive atmosphere which is at times exhilarating and others extremely terrifying) but not at the expense of dramatic heft. It also features a score so good it was used in about a million different trailers after it's release and includes a master class in acting from Ellen Burstyn (who was completely and utterly robbed of her Oscar).

6. The Squid & the Whale (2005, Noah Baumbach)
It's very rare that I watch a film and literally feel like someone has just taken my life and put it to celluloid but The Squid & the Whale (along with Nil By Mouth, which was unfortunately released in '97) is one of those films. It chronicles the breakup of husband and wife with the focus squarely on the children. Lies, emotional manipulation and continuous confusion are the order of the day and seldom have I seen these emotions so honestly put to screen. It's not an overly depressing film but neither does it sugar-coat events (don't let the tone of the trailer fool you) and there are also some hilarious moments throughout. Jeff Daniels puts in a career best and it also features Jesse Eisenberg before he got annoyingly typecast.

7. The Virgin Suicides (2000, Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola's debut (although her second film, Lost in Translation, could have easily been on this list) is, put simply, serenely hypnotising. The superb soundtrack by French electro-pop duo Air, narrative pace and stunning cinematography combine to create what I can only describe as the most beautiful yet tainted dream you'll ever not have. Suicides details the suicide of four teenage girls who were living in 1970s suburbia. The film prefers to focus on the smaller details of the girls' coming of age (instead of delivering melodramatic moments at a fast pace) whilst their overprotective, overly religious and old fashioned mother tries to cocoon their innocence. The story is told from the perspective of a group of boys from the neighbourhood who become enamoured with the girls and the way the film conveys their fascination with, awe at, and lack of understanding of the girls is pitch perfect.

8. Elephant (2003, Gus Van Sant)
Again, it was hard to choose between this and Van Sant's later film, Paranoid Park, but the fact that these events (Elephant is essentially a fictional re-telling of the Columbine High School massacre) actually happened make it far more harrowing. Most of the film is spent following around several high school students in what seems to be the average day. Van Sant's depiction of this average high school day is the most realistic and engaging one I have ever seen which makes the final thirty minutes all the more shocking and emotionally affecting. It also helps that, although all unknowns (and this was most definitely a wise casting decision), the actors playing these teenagers are extremely believable in their roles. It's hard to properly describe exactly why I love this film so much but, along with what I've already stated, it just gives off an amazing atmosphere that completely and utterly sucks you in.

9. Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
There's so much bad air surrounding Donnie Darko (the emo associations, the director's cut, the direct-to-DVD sequel and Kelly's subsequently terrible films for starters) that it's easy to forget how brilliant this film really is. Not only is Donnie Darko a really interesting sci-fi mystery (I'll be the first to admit I still don't completely understand the film) but it's also one of the best coming of age films we've seen for a long time. The 80s setting is perfect for this (as is the accompanying soundtrack) as we see Donnie struggle with inner demons, family relations, difficulties at school and lest we forget, first love. It's also a film with a lot to say about suburbia and middle class lifestyles (the fact that he opening scene is highly reminiscent of Blue Velvet's is no mistake) as Donnie encounters all manner of dark secrets hidden underneath the white picket fences which litter his neighbourhood.

10. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuarón)
From the very first scene of Children of Men, you know it's going to pull no punches in it's depiction of a dystopian future in which women can no longer bear children. And and I'm a sucker for dystopian futures. The brilliance of the film is that the future portrayed is a tangible one. No one's running around in flying cars or shooting death rays out of their eyes. It's an ugly, violent, dirty and above all, real world which the audience can relate to. The way the film uses this backdrop to bring up the issues of today (immigration, over population, police corruption and brutality) is scarily on the mark in that you can see it happening. The documentary style employed by Cuarón, in particular the breathtaking long shots, also help to convey this grim sense of what could be and the action sequences are second to none.

So in conclusion it seems I have a massive hard-on for American indie coming of age films set in the suburbs and depressing Brit flicks. Here are some films (not already mentioned) that just missed the cut:

District 9, Memento, You, Me and Everyone We Know, Bloody Sunday, The Woodsman, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Half Nelson, The Royal Tenenbaums, Quiet City, Rachel Getting Married, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Pan’s Labyrinth
and Junebug.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Four Lions (2010)


Plot summary: centres on a group of frustrated Muslim men in Sheffield who're plotting a suicide bomb attack to coincide with the London Marathon.

Chris Morris, writer and director of Four Lions, is best known for his satirical comedy shows, such as The Day Today and Brass Eye, which deftly deconstructed news broadcasting, issues-based and general British televising to hilarious affect. They dealt with a number of controversial subjects ranging from drug use all the way through to paedophilia in such a way as to demonstrate how badly they’d be misrepresented and exaggerated by the media. With Four Lions, a comedy about suicide bombers, Morris presents himself with his biggest challenge yet and I have to admit, I was unsure as to whether even he could pull the concept off in a tasteful and constructive manner. As such, I feel relieved to say that Four Lions is a side-splittingly funny, surprisingly moving and above all, extremely important film.

You may be asking yourself how anything about a group of British jihadists could be considered funny, and rightly so (provided you haven’t seen the film’s trailer of course). In making Four Lions, Morris seems to have taken a leaf out of Charlie Chaplin’s book as he channels the spirit of The Great Dictator thorough the film. He turns fear into laughter, to see these men as fools rather than people to be afraid of, and it works perfectly. There are far more failed attempts at suicide bombing, especially in Britain, than there are successes and Morris himself describes the film as portraying the, “Dad’s Army side to terrorism". In Four Lions our motley crew of would-be bombers are completely and utterly inept and although it doesn’t always feel right to do so their blundering ‘antics’ (planting bombs on crows, running through the streets whilst trying not to drop explosives) will have you laughing from start to finish.

There’s a lot more to the film that just slapstick routines and laughing at buffoons though as it’s not just about what these characters are doing – but why. Barry is a white Muslim terrorist, a funny enough concept as it is, who wants to blow his own faith’s mosques up in order to, “stir shit up”. Waj, who is a little slow to say the least, is simply copying his brother’s behaviour as he shouts hilarious lines such as, “Fuck Mini Babybels!” to join in. Meanwhile Fessal is a part of the group because otherwise he’d be, “eating newspaper instead”. These men (save for the main character, Omar) have no real clue as to what they’re fighting for and why and provide the source of much of the film’s hilarity (not to mention social commentary). These characters would be nothing, however, if it were not for the brilliant cast Morris has assembled to play them. They excel as standalone actors but also share a collective comic timing and ability to play off of one another which becomes one of the films greatest pleasures.

The films portray of various people connected to the bombers (police, politicians, bewildered co-workers and oblivious neighbours) is also one of its comedic strong points. Towards the end of the film this reaches jet-black levels of hilarity as a duo of police snipers argue over the difference between a Wookie and the Honey Monster whilst taking pot-shots at runners in the London Marathon. Thankfully Morris is also careful not to take aim at the underlying ideology or religious beliefs that drive these men (except for a rather funny swipe at their sexist attitudes) and knows exactly when to reign in the laughs to show the horrific consequences of their actions. Four Lions is a surprising film, not just because it manages to make suicide bombers funny, but because it’s also genuinely moving. Morris’s script, and the actors themselves, really sell these characters to you as three-dimensional people, instead of the usual perceived stereotypes of suicide bombers. As a result, while you’re never meant to agree with what they’re doing, you really engage with them on an emotional level.

You’ll care about what happens to these characters and some scenes may actually tug on your heart strings a little. The fact that Morris has shown little capability for human drama on this level in the past, and that he is able to balance it so well with the comedy, makes it all the more impressive. At other times Four Lions is also a downright disturbing film. The scenes of Omar’s home life in particular are some of the weirdest and disturbing moments of cinema this writer has ever witnessed. Whether it be Omar’s son getting excited at the prospect of his father’s ‘martyrdom’ or Omar altering the plot of The Lion King in order to brainwash his child, it’s truly chilling stuff. Omar’s discussions with his wife about his plans might as well be about a family holiday they’re that blasé. Many will undoubtedly misinterpret these scenes as Morris trying to make you feel sorry or side with Omar but it’s the other way around; these moments reveal him to be a thoroughly untrustworthy, manipulative and irresponsible human being.

My only real criticism of the film is that there is slightly too much broad humour present. Whilst there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with slapstick and laughing at moronic characters, I would have liked to have seen a little less of this and slightly more of the intelligent and intellectually challenging comedy Morris is known for. Similarly, a lot of Morris’s humour often came from the visual style of his television work and, save for a few moments, Four Lions is devoid of such techniques. That said, the film differs from his previous work in that focuses on human drama so perhaps a heavier visual style would have undercut this. Despite these minor grievances the film still stands as one of those rare beasts; an independent film with an important message that has mass appeal. Four Lions is brave, entertaining and essential cinema at it's best.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Saturday, 15 May 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)



Plot Summary: A re-imagining of the horror icon Freddy Krueger, a serial-killer who wields a glove with four blades embedded in the fingers and kills people in their dreams, resulting in their real death in reality.

Another month, another horror remake. This time it’s Wes Craven’s turn as his 1984 slasher film, A Nightmare on Elm Street (NOES for short), gets the remake treatment by director Samuel Bayer and Michael Bay’s infamous production company, Platinum Dunes. I have to admit, I’ve never been a massive fan of the NOES franchise. The idea, that a serial killer could appear and kill you in your dreams, is a unique and frightening one but the series’ comedic tone always put me off. Bayer addresses this problem in the 2010 version of NOES, but completely fails in almost every of other aspect of horror film-making. NOES is a boring, over long mess of a film which seems to favour unnecessary gore and swearing over suspense or character development.

NOES’s biggest sin is by far lack of character development. After the initial kill sequence at the beginning of the film we’re introduced to a number of teenage characters during a in such quick succession that it’s almost as if we’re meant to have known them our entire lives. After this scene the film doesn’t properly slow down to flesh out these characters as real people with three-dimensional personalities and a consequence we don’t care whether they live or die. Instead, they’re reduced to stereotypes; the aggressive jock, preppy cheerleader, the arty loser etc. Horror films need to make a connection between the audience and the potential victims on screen because otherwise we can’t see ourselves in their shoes and in turn, feel fearful for them.

This issue is not helped in the slightest by the fact that the script and acting is terrible throughout, sometimes laughably so. The dialogue uttered by the teenagers sounds as if it were written by someone who no longer has any grasp of what it was like being a teenager and instead is content to turn to clichés and an abundance of swearing for inspiration. In one of the more hilarious pieces of dialogue Nancy explains to Quentin why she never went out with him, “I was always so unpopular and you were, you know...” The acting is similarly melodramatic and unconvincing. This is especially true in the case of Kris’s mother, Nora, who’s delivery of lines such as, “It’s ok honey, it’s over” during a funeral is so unenthused you can almost see her reaching for the cheque.

The pacing of NOES is also less than impressive as there are several plot points that go on for far too long and that don’t go anywhere of any consequence. From the beginning of the film you’re meant to believe that Kris is the main character, only for her to be killed off at about forty minutes into the film. Bayer is clearly trying to pull a Psycho on his audience here but it falls flat as Kris is so boring we don’t care what becomes of her. It’s a shameful waste of twenty minutes running time which could have been spent on some much needed character development. Later on there are a couple of scenes in which the two remaining leads decide that they made Freddy’s crimes up, and that they have inadvertently killed an innocent man. Fifteen minutes later they find the scene of Freddy’s crimes and swiftly change their minds. It’s a pointless twist in the story that does nothing but make the film unnecessarily long.

In fact, the best way to utilise this wasted time would have to actually build up a semblance of atmosphere or suspense. NOES runs at such a fast pace (in part due to the ‘micro-naps’ idea) that it doesn’t have time to set up a sense of unease or tension. This results in the film’s ‘horror’ consisting of two things. Firstly jump scares which, yes, do what they say on the tin but don’t provide any lasting impact and get old extremely quickly. Secondly, an over-use of gratuitous violent special effects. Don’t get me wrong, I love gore as much as the next twenty two year-old male, but it has to be built up to in order to be satisfying or even taken remotely seriously. In NOES you can tell this splatter hungry effects are being used as a shortcut to shock rather than horrify.

There is a glimmer of hope, however, in the portrayal of Freddy. Purists may scoff at the idea of anyone other than Robert Englund playing Krueger but the fact is that Jackie Earle Haley makes for an inspired and menacing replacement. We’ve already seen Haley play deranged lunatics before in the likes of Shutter Island and Watchmen but with Krueger he becomes a truly malevolent force to be reckoned with. His voice is just the right side of Christian Bale’s Batman growl and the way he twitches his knife fingers is truly creepy.

The best part of Haley’s Freddy is that, as previously mentioned, he’s not played for laughs. Sure, he gets plenty of one liners but (for the most part) they’re not overtly comedic as to underplay the horrific tone of the film. Nevertheless there is one fairly troubling trait the screenwriters have brought to their new version of the character, and that’s the handling of his paedophilic tendencies. I’m not against the idea that Freddy was a paedophile instead of a child killer (personally I’d always read that into the character anyway) but it’s his quips towards the end of the film that I take particular issue with. Lines such as, “How's this for a wet dream?” and, “Your mouth says no but your body say yes” boarder on the distasteful.

Some of the nightmare sequences are also well presented and fittingly surreal. The editing between worlds, snowing bedrooms and hallways full of tar all look the part and recall what made the original so brilliantly twisted. That said other scenes, such as when Freddy is coming out of wall or a classroom turning to ash, have been created with some frankly appalling CGI which looks embarrassingly bad. NOES is also a well shot film. Whilst it may not break from the stylistic rule book the film-makers have gone for a grimy, downtrodden look which complements the subject well. In the end though, neither Haley nor a handful of well executed scenes can save NOES from being exactly what it is; a truly sad excuse for a horror film.

Final Verdict: 2/10

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)


Plot Summary: Billionaire Tony Stark must contend with deadly issues involving the government, his own friends, as well as new enemies due to his superhero alter ego Iron Man.

Before 2008, who really knew about one of Marvel’s minor characters, ‘Iron Man’? Who even knew of the director, Jon Favreau? Very few, that’s who. Even Robert Downey Jr. hadn’t broken into the Hollywood big league yet. The release of Iron Man changed all of this, earning almost $600 million at the international box office, as well as being critically lauded and making overnight stars of everyone involved. Although when the inevitable cries for a sequel were heard, things quickly became troubled.

Favreau’s unlikely to return as director, oh no, he’s back. Terrence Howard has been fired; he’s to be replaced by Don Cheadle. Emily Blunt’s been cast, oh wait, she’s off the project. With all the issues over whom gets paid what, production schedules and casting, it’s a minor miracle that Iron Man 2 even saw the light of day at all. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 has come out at the other end of the tunnel retaining all the wit and exuberance of the original and is overall a worthy, if not spectacular, successor to Iron Man.

The film opens with, somewhat strangely, the worst scene in the entire film; the introduction of Vanko tending to his terminally ill father in Russia. This scene is filled with so much over-the-top Russian stereotyping (Vanko drinking vodka from the bottle in a snow drenched, crummy apartment building) and hammy acting (Mickey Rourke’s Darth Vader moment) that it’s embarrassingly bad. After this false start, however, the film picks up its feet and begins proper as we’re dropped headfirst into the Stark Expo along to the blisteringly energetic sounds of AC/DC.

The original Iron Man wouldn’t have been nearly as good if it were not for the characterisation of Stark as a man with an egotistical, eccentric yet brilliant mind and Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect fit to embody such a mind. The enthusiasm and maddening determination Downey brought to Tony Stark made the film and it’s no different this time around. Just as before his performance in Iron Man 2 is ridiculously enjoyable to watch, and this is not meant as a criticism, but so much so that he’s probably responsible for at least half of the films overall entertainment value. That said, the new additions to the cast are themselves particularly impressive.

Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard as Lt. Col. James Rhodes, outdoes his predecessor by miles. Not just because his character is given more narrative prominence but because Cheadle is the all-round better actor; bringing a greater sense of authority and, when needed, comedic charm to the character. Mickey Rourke (save for the aforementioned emotional outburst) brings just the right amount of weird to his villainous Vanko and manages to deliver some of the best lines in the film. Meanwhile Sam Rockwell excels as the tragically comic Hammer, a man desperate to outdo Stark but without the means necessary, and Scarlett Johansson delivers a surprisingly kick-ass (not to mention easy on the eyes) turn as Tony’s new assistant, Natalie Rushman.

Favreau hasn’t lost his knack for fun, kinetic action sequences either. The director has always injected his fight scenes with a sense of humour and these moments elevate IRON MAN 2 from just being men in robot suits smacking one another. It’s the films first outburst of flames, during Stark’s eleventh hour decision to compete at Monaco, which really stands out though. Whiplash enters the course on foot, tearing up race cars left and right with a thoroughly frightening sense of determination, all shot in brilliantly realised slow-motion. It’s during this moment that we most fear for Stark and it’s a truly breathtaking piece of cinema. Scarlett Johansson also gets in on the action later on when she infiltrates Hammer’s facility. We watch as she effortlessly cuts through security guards one by one, like a hot knife through butter. It’s an impressively choreographed and memorable sequence which will surely leave audiences with their jaws resting firmly on the floor.

The special effects are also well worth a mention. The CGI in Iron Man was definitely up to the task but there were a few rough moments which unfortunately took you out of the moment. With Iron Man 2 this is not the case whatsoever. The technical and visual achievements in this sequel are some of best to date and make every scrape, blow and explosion that bit more believable. This is not to say that the film relies solely on its visuals as the script is as sharp as ever. Stark’s witty banter with his detractors continues to be a highlight of the Iron Man franchise as Stark goes toe to toe against Senator Stern and Nick Fury (Sam Jackson gets a lot more screen time round and the film is all the better for it) in two particularly hilarious scenes.

Pacing, on the other hand, is not the films strongest point. The narrative is propelled well to begin with but after Whiplash’s first attack on Stark the film becomes a little muddled, scattershot and dare I say it, boring. At the mid-point in the movie there are several plot points developing simultaneously, none of which are exceptionally interesting or well developed, and it almost feels as if you’re just waiting for the climactic battle sequence to begin. When it does arrive it’s highly enjoyable but, and just like the first film, is over far too quickly.

This leads me to my next criticism; lack of threat. There is one point, and one point only, in which the audience are under any real doubts as to whether Stark will make it out alive and that’s near the beginning. After that the film becomes very predictable as you realise that none of Iron Man’s opponents are going to put him in any tangible danger whatsoever. However, both these issues are forgiveable in the face of the larger picture, that of a fun, amusing and exciting slice of blockbuster superhero cinema.

Final Verdict 8/10

Monday, 26 April 2010

Cemetery Junction (2010)


Plot Summary: In 1970s England, the lives of three friends are forever changed when one of them bumps into his old school sweetheart.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant first made names for themselves with TV shows The Office and Extras, and rightly so. Both were cringe-inducing but hilarious and heartbreaking pieces of television that deserved all the attention they garnered. Putting aside Gervais’s State-side directing gig, The Invention of Lying (Merchant wasn’t creatively involved and it was a pretty poor film), Cemetery Junction sees both making the big move onto cinema screens. Cemetery Junction isn’t quite what you’d expect from the people that brought you characters like David Brent or Andy Millman, but instead sees Gervais and Merchant shifting gears somewhat and delivering a heart warming coming-of-age story set in the 70s. With Cemetery Junction both directors have crafted an astute and beautifully presented début that, despite being slightly too melodramatic and predictable, is as funny as it is moving.

Cemetery Junction creates a believable 1970s without relying too heavily on stereotypes, name-dropping or cultural iconography. Instead the film services its period details on a subtler level; snippets of overheard news reports, trends in fashion and a brilliant soundtrack all give you a sense of the times without shoving it in your face. The film is also beautifully shot; Gervais and Merchant paint a picturesque vision of the British summertime that creates an uplifting tone rarely seen in domestic films dealing with suburban life. Not content in just bringing a beautiful vision of Reading to the screen, the film-makers also leave room for some astute experimentalism with sound and image. A scene later on in the film in which a night out on the town goes horribly wrong features a nicely stylised piece of slow motion as images distort and sound deteriorates piece by piece.

Gervais and Merchant show no signs of losing their eye for character based comedy either. The inter-play between Freddie’s father and grandmother is priceless and the railway cafe owner is hilariously crude in a way only the British can truly appreciate. The laughs on offer here come thick and fast and come in a variety of forms (ranging from broad to contextual humour), but never threaten to overcome the dramatic tone of the film. The central plot of the film, Freddie’s attempt to find meaning in life and escape from his home town, is thoroughly moving and delivers an important, positive and up-lifting message. It’s when Cemetery Junction spends more time on its other characters, however, that it really carries some dramatic weight. Sub-plots focusing on Freddie’s best friend Bruce or his boss’s loveless marriage are handled with grace and are truly heartbreaking. It’s in these moments that the film transcends its funny coming-of-age genre template and becomes something far more emotionally rewarding.

All of this would of course mean nothing if it were not backed up with credible performances. Thankfully both Gervais and Merchant have assembled a brilliant cast which utilises a great combination of both new and old talent alike. Out of the three younger leads it’s Tom Hughes’s Bruce that stands out; his simmering rage and cocky stride hide a wealth of demons which are perfectly portrayed by the young actor. Elsewhere Gervais does well to cast himself in a small, comedic supporting role (not to mention Merchant’s brief but brilliant cameo) and veteran actor Ralph Fiennes does a terrific job with his self-centred and ruthless corporate boss, Mr. Kendrick. The true stand out performance here though is Emily Watson, playing Mrs. Kendrick. She has few scenes and says and does very little in them but Watson manages to provide the strongest emotional punch just by using her body language to convey a tragic world of isolation and regret.

Even though Cemetery Junction is an assured début, it’s by no means a perfect film. Gervais and Merchant do the best they can to prevent the film from being overly sentimental but a few cheesy moments still slip through. No matter how Felicity Jones delivers lines like, “Throw your heart out in front of you and run ahead to catch it” or “I think I might be in love with you too” (and Freddie’s annoying habit of repeating everything she has to say) they’re still going to sound melodramatic. Cemetery Junction is also extremely predictable as many moments in the film (including the films conclusion) will come as no surprise to anyone watching. All the loose narratives threads are tied up and everyone lives happily ever after. This, of course, comes with the territory but a couple of surprises along the way wouldn’t have hurt. Nevertheless, Cemetery Junction is a fine film from Gervais and Merchant and I wholeheartedly look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Final Verdict: 8/10

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Cop Out (2010)


Plot Summary: A comedy about a veteran NYPD cop whose rare baseball card is stolen. Since it's his only hope to pay for his daughter's upcoming wedding, he recruits his partner to track down the thief, a memorabilia-obsessed gangster.

Let me start my explaining that I’m fully aware Cop Out isn’t released in the UK for another month but I’ve had the pleasure (and I use that term loosely) of catching it early, so consider this an advance review (read: warning). Director of Cop Out, Kevin Smith, has made his name and career by combining crude comedy with heart-felt relationship drama and has had a run of two particularly good films of late (Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno). When Zack and Miri made far less money than expected, however, Smith opted to shoot someone else’s script for the first time and hopefully regain his loses. The resulting film is Cop Out, an almost unforgivably bad comedy/action hybrid starring Tracey Morgan and Bruce Willis.

What is most frustrating about Cop Out is that in parts, it’s actually hilarious. The opening scene in which Morgan’s character interrogates a petty drug dealer only using film quotes is brilliant stuff. Later moments including a ten year-old car thief and banter with another pair of police detectives had me laughing out loud. Both Willis and Morgan are capable comedians and they work well here but it’s Seann William Scott who steals the show. His ecstasy addled, parkour loving house thief only appears in a handful of scenes but Scott brings more enthusiasm to his role than Smith probably did to directing the entire film. The use of licensed tracks from artists such as The Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Cypress Hill in the soundtrack also demonstrates a great taste in rap music which fits the tone of the film well.

The main problem with Cop Out is that the laughs are extremely inconsistent. As stated, there are some standout comedic moments but overall the jokes are usually embarrassingly bad. They either feel stale and outdated or just fall flat on their face and it’s largely down the script. This is, put simply, a badly written film and why Smith didn’t at least rewrite some of it is anyone’s guess. Not only are most of the jokes terrible but there are even characters who are clearly meant to be funny (such as the opposing pair of detectives or the stereotypical Mexican drug dealer) but in reality just aren’t in the slightest. Cop Out is also meant to be an action film but even fails in that department. Smith hasn’t dealt with action scenes on this scale before and it shows like a skid-mark on a pair of bright white undies. The action scenes in Cop Out are so terribly edited together, boring and uninspired that by the final scene I switched off entirely until people started talking to each other again.

Another issue with the film is with the central casting. Morgan and Willis can do comedy but together are an unconvincing pair of lifelong police partners. They don’t have the chemistry of so many great odd-matched actors in the past and it shows. Every time Cop Out gets ‘serious’ and wants us to feel sorry for Willis as he struggles to pay for his daughter’s wedding or Morgan and his marital doubts we don’t care. The casting and writing prevents us from having any sort of empathy for these two men as they’re not convincing enough and the drama isn’t meshed well with the rest of the film. The awkward original soundtrack and the predictable and meandering plot also work against Cop Out.

Apparently, Smith sought to make a film in the 80’s ‘buddy cop’ tradition which is why the plot seems so utterly pointless and the original soundtrack so horribly outdated. The more likely scenario is that Smith was asked to direct a modern comedy/action and then tried to crow-bar in the aforementioned homage and it fails spectacularly. Consequently, and as a lifelong fan of Kevin Smith, it’s sad to say that perhaps he really can only pull off the indie dramedies he’s best known for as Cop Out is all too fitting a title.

Final Verdict: 3/10

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Whip It (2010)


Plot Summary: In Bodeen, Texas, an indie-rock loving misfit finds a way of dealing with her small-town misery after she discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin.

You may be asking yourself why a twenty two year-old male would be interested in a film like Whip It, a coming-of-age story for teenage girls, but I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film for months. Three things in particular stood out for me, first of all being that it stars Ellen Page (who is clearly one of the most attractive actresses around at the moment). It’s also directed by veteran actress Drew Barrymore getting behind the lens for the first time and the trailer and subject matter gave off a really interesting alternative, punk vibe. Both Page and Barrymore are impressive here, and it’s certainly a good film, but what Whip It lacks is anything to truly set it apart from the millions of other coming-of-age films available.

One thing that Whip It cannot be faulted for is its soundtrack which is pitch-perfect from start to finish. Barrymore has chosen an eclectic selection of rock, punk and indie songs from artists such as The Strokes, Radiohead, Peaches and The Ramones which all compliment the ‘alternative’ and energetic atmosphere of the film well. In addition to these licensed tracks The Section Quartet (best known for doing orchestral versions of popular rock songs) provides a fitting original soundtrack which never overdramatizes what’s on screen. The film is also very funny in parts. Whether it be Ellen Page’s Bliss turning up to a beauty pageant with blue hair, or the roller derby celebrating their reputation as losers with the utmost passion, there are some really good lines and comedic moments throughout. The narrative set-up and basic storyline are also fairly unique, I couldn’t name you another film about a teenage girl who joins a roller derby team, and is well portrayed for audiences unfamiliar with the sport.

Scenes of the roller derby matches are exciting , well shot and depicted with a real sense of enthusiasm. In fact Barrymore does a very good job at her first directing gig and rarely makes any of the usual amateur mistakes or awkward directorial missteps. It seems as if all her time around film-makers has paid off because, other than the small scale of the film, nothing about Whip It would lead you to believe that this was someone’s first film. She’s also managed to assemble a highly credible cast for her cinematic début. Ellen Page isn’t exactly stretching herself here but she doesn’t phone it in either and Juliette Lewis looks as if she’s as happy to be acting again as we are to see her doing so. It’s Marcia Gay Harden who gets the stand out role though, her performance as the controlling mum whom slowly grows to understand Bliss’s adolescent angst is portrayed with the perfect combination of wisdom and anxiety.

Where Whip It fails, however, is in terms of the core storytelling. Strip away the ‘alternative’ focus and the roller derby theme and it’s pretty much your cardboard cut-out coming of age story. Bliss is forced into an activity she hates by her mother, rebels and finds a somewhat dangerous new hobby (not to mention boys and alcohol etc.) and grows as person because of it. Shauna Cross, writer of the source novel and screenplay, doesn’t really try and break new ground with the genre and you’re left feeling a little short changed at the end of the day. Additionally, Barrymore and Cross don’t attempt to experiment with form in any context whatsoever which leaves the film feeling a little pedestrian. I’m not asking for Lynchian levels of experimentation here but a little use of style would have gone a long way. Nevertheless, Whip It is a decent rights-of-passage film with an indie twist that will please likeminded audiences who are going through, or have already gone through, this particular moment in their lives.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Blind Side (2010)



Plot Summary: The story of Michael Oher, a homeless and traumatized boy who became an All American football player and first round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family.

Anyone that regularly reads this blog will probably be aware that I’m not a huge fan of feel good movies. Neither am I particularly interested in sports, or sport movies. Then why did I choose to review The Blind Side, a feel good movie about American football? The truth is I love a feel good film as much as the next person; I just hate the extremely cheesy and formulaic ones. As for sport films, as long as the sport in question doesn’t completely dominate the narrative then I’m fine with it. For example I love films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Raging Bull, Amélie and The Wrestler. The Blind Side, directed by John Lee Hancock, was a massive success in the US and Sandra Bullock even managed to bag an Oscar for best actress from it so I decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, after having seen the film, almost all my suspicions about the film were proven right; it’s a boring, sugar coated and thoroughly predicable cinematic affair.

However, The Blind Side is by no means a terrible film and it’d be an unfair statement to suggest so. The acting is good, if not quite Oscar worthy, throughout. Sandra Bullock (playing Leigh Anne Tuohy) does a really good job at portraying a headstrong, wealthy Southern woman who has managed to find a healthy balance between work and family. Likewise Quinton Aaron delivers a solid performance as the introverted and troubled Michael and Tim McGraw (playing Leigh’s husband) plays his part with truth and honesty. The aforementioned balance between sport and drama is also handled really well.

The perfect amount of screen time is spent watching the football training and matches while the majority of the film focuses on the main characters’ lives. The story itself, which is based on true events, is also rather uplifting and positive; we want to see Michael succeed and when he does it’s undeniably satisfying. The look of the film may be rather bland but The Blind Side has clearly been shot by people who know what they’re doing and there a couple of standout moments to relish (the opening scene which utilises still images is well put together and later a muted, slow motion calm-before-the-storm moment is also quite effective).

This is all and well but The Blind Side is ultimately let-down by its refusal to challenge the audience; it’s altogether far too safe. For a film dealing with such heavy issues (homeless teenagers, drug addicted parents etc.) it shies away from the heavy stuff far too much. Instead it’s content to spend most of the film showing how great Michael’s new white, wealthy life is and lacks the courage of its convictions. There are flashbacks to Michael’s unsettling past but they’re extremely short and rare and whenever he or Leigh visits his old neighbourhood it’s portrayed with a lack of menace typical of a Disney movie. There’s also a severe lack of dramatic threat or tension within the film. There a couple of difficulties for characters to face, Michael’s past life and a law suit suggesting that Leigh’s family have groomed Michael to join a particular college, but they never really pose any real danger as they’re dealt with easily and soon resolved.

The film is also rather cheesy and predictable. Michael of course goes from strength to strength throughout the film and achieves everything he sets out to do, no matter how difficult or unlikely these ambitions may be. We’re treated to training montages, over-the-top displays of family affection and the triumph against all odds conclusion; there’s no narrative surprises in store for audiences whatsoever and it’s all been done countless times before. The Blind Side is also extremely formulaic in how it’s shot and presented, there are almost no interesting visual choices made whatever. The two tackiest moments in the film have to be when the family pose for a Christmas card and when Michael takes a picture of himself for a driver’s license; they both magically transform into the actual photos, while exhibiting the amount of finesse you’d expect from a children’s program.

Additionally, Sandra Bullock’s character Leigh is annoying perfect (not to mention her son, SJ, who is just plain annoying). She’s so confident, so controlling, that you want to see her slip up at least once and hopefully learn from it. Aside from a brief moment of reflection following the law suit she never does and it’s rather infuriating. However, this is not what the majority of people care about. Most people just want to be entertained and leave the cinema in a good mood. The Blind Side will most likely provide this experience for many but it’s not a film for anyone who has a low tolerance for sentimentality and is looking for originality, depth or realism.

Final Verdict: 5/10

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Kick-Ass (2010)


Plot Summary: Dave Lizewski is an unnoticed high school student and comic book fan who one day decides to become a super-hero, even though he has no powers, training or meaningful reason to do so.

Over the last decade it has become an industry standard for studios to release at least one superhero film as a tent-pole release for their summer schedule. More recently, starting with Sin City, a new trend in releasing smaller budgeted, more violent comic book adaptations in March has surfaced. Films such as 300 and Watchmen aren’t particularly suitable for summertime, in which cinemas are dominated by mass-appeal blockbusters, and stand more of a chance in an earlier part of the year. New entry in this strategic release model, Kick-Ass, is based upon Mark Miller’s extremely violent comic book of the same name and is directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust). Kick-Ass does exactly what it says on the tin and, although it’s let down by a few tonal missteps, is best summed up as a wildly entertaining synthesis of Spider-Man and Kill Bill.

Make no mistake, Kick-Ass is tremendously violent and it doesn’t give a damn if it offends you. Bullets fly, legs are severed and, in one of the film’s most splatter-hungry moments, a man is blown up in an industrial microwave. To make matters worse (read: better) a lot of the time the pain is being dealt out by a twelve year-old girl, uttering profanity ridden punch lines such as, “OK you c*nts, let's see what you can do now”. The film then, is clearly not one to take grandma to see on the Sunday matinee. The ensuing fight scenes are some of the best I’ve seen in years; inventive, cool and funnier than a Bugs Bunny Saturday morning cartoon. The two stand-out scenes would have to be the first involving ‘Hit-Girl’ (the previously mentioned twelve year old, played by Chloe Moretz) which is hilariously abrupt and highly visceral and the slick and satisfying one-take attack by ‘Big Daddy’ (Hit-Girl’s father and partner in crime, played by Nicolas Cage) upon a warehouse full of gangsters.

The film is more than a collection of Tarantino worthy action set-pieces however, as most of the story focuses on Dave’s (Aaron Johnson) adolescent trials and tribulations. They aren’t, as you might expect, riddled with Peter Parkeresque clichés and outdated morality struggles as the story attempts to take a more modern and humorous look at today’s teenagers. Dave isn’t a loner or a complete loser but isn’t exactly one of the popular kids either, marking a refreshing twist in genre conventions. The insertion of pop-culture references such as YouTube and MySpace, as well as a sub-plot which sees Dave pretend to be gay in order to get close to the girl of his dreams, also make the film much more culturally relevant. Kick-Ass also works very well as an amusing parody of superhero films, beginning as it means to go on with a false-start involving an Armenian teenager testing out his Icarus-inspired costume whom plunges head first into a taxi rather than soaring into the skies.

In fact Vaughn has so much to pack into Kick-Ass that it could have easily become an overly long mess of ideas. The director pulls it off though, employing a swift and energetic pace that manages to keep almost the entire narrative intact in less than two hours; an achievement in of itself. The soundtrack is similarly energetic and fun, comprising of a selection of modern licensed tracks which give the film an extra sheen of cool. The film is also impressive from a technical standpoint, taking most of its stylistic cues from the medium it’s adapting. Caption cards reading “Meanwhile” and “Six months later” laid over the screen, a bright and bold colour pallet, as well as a gorgeously animated flashback, all aid in creating the look of a comic book come to life. The acting on display is first class and you can tell everyone involved had a blast making the thing. Aaron Johnson does a good job of making Dave’s somewhat senseless actions seem empathetic and Chloe Moretz seems an actress wise beyond her years; she makes you truly believe a twelve year-old girl could kick that much ass. Nicolas Cage is also on rare comedic top form here with a perfect deadpan delivery and brilliant parody of Adam West’s Batman.

For the most part, Kick-Ass is a very faithful adaptation of the comic book and for that alone it should be praised. Most of the films pitfalls, however, occur when it chooses to stray too far from the source material. Notable changes to the relationship between Dave and his love interest, Big Daddy’s back story and the ending of the story only make the film cheesier and more fantastical than it needed be. For a film seemingly so intent on creating a semi-realistic world in which real people try to be superheroes, additions such as a jet-pack with mini-guns attached just seem unnecessary (even if they are fun in their own way). Additionally, the conclusion of the Dave’s romantic aspirations clashed with the overall tone of the film and here is also a slight awkwardness to some moments in which tragedy and comedy are blended together. Nevertheless, Kick-Ass is the most invigorating and exciting comic book adaptation to come along for a long time and is certainly not to be missed.

Final Verdict: 8/10

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)


Plot Summary: Swedish thriller based on Stieg Larsson's novel about a journalist and a young female hacker.

As a disclaimer to this review I’d like to outwardly admit that I don’t particularly like detective/crime mystery films (for the most part). As a consequence I’m obviously going to have enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo far less than someone who does; so feel free to add an extra mark onto my final verdict if you’re one of these people. Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish film which adapts the first in a series of bestsellers called ‘The Millennium Trilogy’. After the release in its native country last year it was box office smash and it’s now being released widely throughout Europe. The film itself is somewhat of a contemporary or ‘alternative’ take on the murder mystery genre due its depiction of sexual violence, the striking female lead and her reliance on computers and the internet. It’s a well made thriller which makes some interesting choices but overall feels like it’s missing something.

As mentioned, the main selling point of Dragon Tattoo is the two main characters who both band together (professionally and later, sexually) in order to solve a forty year-old murder case. Mikael (played by Michael Nyqvist) is a writer for a communist magazine, disgraced and heading to prison since losing a libel case against corrupt businessman. He’s not exactly Dick Van Dyke. It’s really Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), though, who stands out here for several reasons. First of all, her goth/alternative look is extremely striking; piercings, tattoos and of course, primarily black clothing dominate. Her feminist attitude and resolve is demonstrated in a variety of different scenes throughout the film, combined with her troubled past and general mystique, make her a thoroughly compelling character. Both roles are very well written and acted and as a result it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that they make the film.

Dragon Tattoo is also well, if not particularly interestingly, shot from start to finish and does a good job of creating a dramatic and mysterious set-up for the murder case. The film is also rather uncompromising in its depiction and critique of the general male population. Not all men are portrayed as evil or perverted and it’s not quite a true ‘feminist film’ but as the original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, suggests the film-makers clearly have things to say about the male dominated society we all live in. This appears in the film in truly harsh and gritty scenes in which Lisbeth is assaulted in full view of the public by a group of drunk men at a train station, sexual assaulted by her probation officer and finally in the murderous exploits of the Vanger clan. Not that Lisbeth takes it lying down, she fights back at her male oppressors with full force; in one particularly hard to watch scene she even drugs, ties up and rapes a man with a dildo.

The violent direction taken by the film-makers is an interesting, if not exactly enjoyable, decision which adds some much needed dramatic weight and realism to events. Even with these unique elements present in the film, Dragon Tattoo still ends up feeling fairly formulaic. The identity of the killer and the whereabouts of the victim will be obvious to most keen-eyed viewers and nothing in particular really stands out and grabs the audience. Dragon Tattoo also has a rather long running time which some may find trying. The first hour of the film takes far too long establishing the characters and plot and there appears to be about four endings. The main ending itself also felt uncharacteristically upbeat and felt off with the rest of the film. However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a well made film and is a fairly different take on the murder mystery film which fans of the genre are bound to enjoy.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Shutter Island (2010)


Plot Summary: Drama is set in 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is investigating the disappearance of a murderess that escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane and is presumed to be hiding on the remote Shutter Island.

A new film release from legendary film director Martin Scorsese (director of such classics as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas) is always going to be a big deal and Shutter Island is no exception. His follow up to 2006’s The Departed has been a long time coming, not least because it was delayed for four months, but it’s now gracing screens across the country. Based upon Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name Shutter Island is an interesting mystery come thriller which borrows heavily from the likes of Val Lewton and Alfred Hitchcock throughout. It feels almost needless to say, this is Scorsese we’re dealing with here, but the film really is expertly put together. Considering this and the potential of the set-up of the story, Shutter Island could have been one of the director’s best but it is unfortunately held back by its misguided pacing and a somewhat weak conclusion.

As mentioned, and from the very first shot of a ferryboat emerging from ominous misty seas, the film-making pedigree on display here is as spellbinding as you’d expect. Scorsese and his crew really push themselves and the result is a joy to witness. Shutter Island is beautifully photographed and the imagery captured in decaying ruins, gothic architecture and surreal dream sequences could easily stand alone outside of the film. The sound design and editing also deserve a mention here as both are used in unconventional and surprising ways to further bring the audience into Teddy’s emotionally complex mindset. Jump cuts, would-be continuity errors, mismatched lip synch and layers of sound all work together to express the fractured state of our central character’s mind.

The acting, ranging from relative newcomers to experienced veterans of the screen, is thoroughly convincing and is typical of the calibre of film-making on display. Scorsese does a brilliant job of setting up the secretive and questionable nature of the titular Shutter Island; creating a truly living environment and a very involving and mysterious tone. The story that unravels on the island is a compelling throwback detective thriller and will keep you guessing as to what is going on in the institution and indeed, Teddy’s mind. Shutter Island isn’t a horror film (the closest it comes is during the scenes in the illusive ‘Ward C’) but certainly draws upon the genre and produces a strangely compelling eerie atmosphere. This is aided by the selection of modern classical pieces supervised by Robbie Robertson which really convey the haunted feel of the film.

Not all, however, is well on Shutter Island. The film makes many twists and turns and many possible outcomes are hinted at but the final reveal is a very disappointing one. You know when you guess an ending early on and think, “No, it can’t be that easy to figure out”. Well guess what? With Shutter Island, it really is. This is a shame as the film is better than that and could have done something much more interesting with the story. This is, on the other hand, saved slightly by a very powerful final line which poses many more questions than it answers. There is also a slight pacing issue present as the third act struggles to keep up the momentum it has so carefully built up and it becomes a bit dull until the aforementioned reveal. Shutter Island is very well made film from a man who clearly knows what he’s doing and is certainly an enjoyable experience overall, but it could have done with a much more intellectually rewarding ending and a shorter running time.

Final Verdict: 7/10

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Exit through the Gift Shop (2010)



Plot Summary: The story of how an eccentric French shop keeper and amateur film maker attempted to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner with spectacular results.

Graffiti artist Banksy is most certainly a divisive pop-culture phenomenon; some see him as a counter-culture legend, others see him as a sell-out who uses style over substance and others would just rather see him in jail. Personally I try not to get too caught up in any supposed meaning or political motives behind his works and simply enjoy them for their amusing, and sometimes beautiful, imagery. In an interesting move he has now turned his attention to film-making with his pseudo-documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop, having first premièred at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The resulting film is not merely a film about Banksy but is also a documentation of the general graffiti community, a unique character study and an interesting critique of the art world.

Exit first starts as a documentary about graffiti artists from around the world but mostly focusing on LA. It’s highly interesting to watch as it’s a subject not often tackled in film and is also an important one as graffiti art is, by nature, only temporary. Watching these artists go out at midnight, scale all manner of buildings (all the while trying to do it undetected by the authorities) and create their pieces is exciting and fascinating to watch. The work on show here ranges from the amusing to the spectacular but is never less than inspiring. Their slip-ups and encounters with the police are also very funny while simultaneously reminding us that they too are human; ensuring they are not raised to superhuman levels of admiration. These moments are filmed by Thierry Guetta a French immigrant living in LA who, in an interesting twist, becomes the focus of the story.

This is where the film gets really complex as Thierry is a weird, interesting and above all, hilarious character that's legitimacy is dubious. Is he such a large personality, such a blundering buffoon, that it’s hard to believe he’s a real person and not an actor playing a role in a mockumentary. The uncertain intent of the film-makers is undoubtedly going to divide audiences but, whether or not Thierry is a real personality or a character made up by Banksy, the artistic questions and issues his character raises are still valid. After Thierry has a chance meeting with Banksy and befriends him, Banksy tells him that he should do some of his own work and put on a show. This is where Exit gets really interesting and something more than an amusing look at the graffiti art world. Thierry (now operating under his new moniker, ‘Mr Brainwash’) does as he is instructed and begins to make extremely derivative and unoriginal artwork and plans an over-the-top, extravagant art show to garner as much publicity as humanly possible.

I say ‘make’ in the loosest sense of the word as his work process boils down to finding popular images in books and commanding a team of paid artists to do the hard work for him. He uses his famous friends within the graffiti community to promote his show and during its production he is more likely to be seen taking interviews than hanging up paintings. To the audiences’ surprise, his show is a massive hit and he makes more than a million dollars from it. This is where a lot of Exit's best laughs come from as so-called art critics walk around his exhibition stating how great his work is, when it is clear that his work is artistically worthless. This sudden rise to undeserved fame brings up many criticisms of the art world and asks; what does it take to be considered an artist? These art critics seem more interested in not looking stupid than in actually stating how they feel about Thierry’s work and are more than eager to spend amazing amounts of money on it just because it’s fashionable.

This is most probably not just about Thierry’s work, but also seems to be an examination of how Banksy’s own work has been commodified and had external interpretations thrust upon it. Banksy does, in fact, appear during the film in person (albeit with his face covered and his voice altered) and when he does he comes across as a very down to earth, humorous and level-headed individual. Likewise Rhys Ifans, who often seems like a rather annoying personality, provides a particularly restrained and low key narration for the events unfolding. The soundtrack, supervised by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, also does a good job of accompanying the images with a variety of good quality hip-hop tracks. There are, however, a couple of ill-conceived moments during the film. The scene giving some exposition on Banksy verges slightly too close to hero worshipping and a back story about Thierry’s lose of his mother is completely unnecessary. Nevertheless Exit through the Gift Shop is an exciting, unique and highly amusing tale that has some very important things to say about art and art culture.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Crazies (2010)


Plot Summary: About the inhabitants of a small Iowa town suddenly plagued by insanity and then death after a mysterious toxin contaminates their water supply.

The horror genre has been plagued by a trend in remakes for the last ten years, some of which have been good, many of which have been terrible. This time it’s zombie film-making legend George A. Romero’s turn as his 1973 film, also entitled The Crazies, has been given the remake treatment. The common consensus is that remakes usually work best when the original film had a good concept but was let down by its delivery. If this is true then The Crazies is a perfect candidate for a remake as Romero’s film had an original and politically edgy set-up but was given a minuscule budget and was, quite frankly, rather poorly directed. Thankfully Breck Eisner’s update was given a much higher budget and ends up being better than its predecessor in almost every way, providing a solid, if not outstanding, horror experience.

The film begins, rather bravely, on an image of the town in ruin. This bleak opener lets the audience know what they’re in for as the film slowly builds up the tension until all hell breaks loose. This is one thing that The Crazies does very well in much of its later scenes (especially in comparison with the original); building up tension and then providing an unflinching and gory finish. Eisner knows just how long to hold back the action, creating a creepy and tense atmosphere, and when he lets rip the resulting carnage is never less than satisfying. The cinematography, along with a suitably eerie score, compliments these scenes well, tingeing the images with a dark and gritty spectrum of greens. The Crazies also does a good job of making its audience respect its two core characters, a job too often neglected by similar genre offerings.

Married couple David and Judy are not idiots, they’re trained professionals (a police officer and doctor, respectfully) who won’t have you shouting at the screen in disbelief. It helps then, that both Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell also deliver solid performances which do their roles justice throughout. The main appeal of The Crazies is of course, the core concept. There is a virus loose in your hometown and it’s turning everyone you know into the murderous ‘crazies’ of the title. Not only this, but the government, aided by the military, must contain the virus by any means necessary before it goes global. The scenes of containment, its failure and the attempted clean-up involving the military are indeed genuinely shocking as families are separated without explanation, shot down in cold blood and eventually victims of mass burnings in an attempt to contain the biological hazard (provoking comparisons in one’s mind to many a historical incident).

This is, however, also where the film falls short. Since the release of Romero’s original in 1973 countless horror films have depicted ruthless states of martial law (28 Weeks Later standing as one of the better recent examples) which leaves The Crazies with little new to say. Additionally, even though this is the superior version, the original dealt with this subject matter with much more depth. Other, unrelated, problems also pervade the film. For all its tension building The Crazies is often host to many obvious jump scares, and also a number of false scares that at times it verges on the ridiculous. These techniques are overused in the genre and are rather tired. There are a number of glaring plot holes throughout the film (how did David get back to the police station? Do you die that quickly from being hung?) and the ending is also particularly underwhelming. Nevertheless, The Crazies is a surprisingly good remake and one of the more enjoyable horror films to grace the screen in recent months.

Final Verdict: 6/10

Micmacs (2010)


Plot Summary: A man and his friends come up with an intricate and original plan to destroy two big weapons manufacturers.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet makes films of the Marmite variety; you’ll either love them or hate them (and I’ll admit outright - I fall into the former category). His quirky French tales continue to divide audiences due to his preoccupation with oddball characters, distinctive sense of humour and unconventional cinematic style. However, as opposed to someone such as Tim Burton, Jeunet has not yet become a caricature of himself due to his somewhat meagre output over the last eighteen years. Micmacs, his first film in five, is being billed as somewhat of a comeback and has been described as a synthesis of his first film, Delicatessen, and his breakout hit; Amélie. Herein lies the problem with the film; while it’s certainly solid filmmaking and highly enjoyable, Micmacs feels a little like Jeunet’s very own Sleepy Hollow.

Micmacs feels as if it’s missing something, that original spark which made his earlier films such a joy to watch. The previously mentioned comparison is very telling for the film is neither as darkly twisted as Delicatessen, nor nearly as touching as Amélie. Micmacs once again tackles the old theme of outsiders fighting for justice, scenes detailing the minute details of individuals’ habits; even the end credit sequence is lifted straight from Delicatessen. There is, however, much to love about the film. Micmacs is beautifully shot in Jeunet’s signature gold hue throughout which really brings the screen to life and aptly conveys the fantastical world of the narrative. The weird and wonderful characters all have their own, distinctive qualities and are all likeable to the extent that you wish you knew them in real life. Their schemes and inventions are all highly creative, making a lot of the scenes feel like watching something in between a circus show and an art exhibition. All the while a playful, typically French sounding orchestral soundtrack perfectly complements these eccentric characters and their exploits.

The actors themselves do a wonderful job, with Danny Boon (playing the main character, Bazil) giving the standout performance. Boon is apparently a major comedic actor in France but has not since found fame outside of the country which is a shame. His mannerisms, miming and general screen presence provides a lot of the film's laughs and as such Boon becomes of the best things about the film. Micmacs is also very clever in its delivery and comedic tone; more than several scenes had me laughing out loud. The story of corrupt weapons dealers, however unconventionally portrayed, is an important one which has many parallels to contemporary French (and worldwide, for that matter) politics even if it is rather predictable in its conclusion. All in all Micmacs is a very amusing and heart warming film but, in drawing a little too much from his previous work, Jeunet falls just short of brilliance.

Final Verdict: 7/10.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Lovely Bones (2010)



Plot Summary: The film centres on a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family - and her killer - from heaven. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal.

At this stage in the game, with eleven days until the Oscar winners are announced, it’s hard to believe that The Lovely Bones was ever mooted as a heavyweight contender for the awards season. Alice Sebold’s novel was always going to be a tough piece to adapt but many believed, based on his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, that Peter Jackson was up to it. However, since its release State-side the film has been savagely ripped to pieces by film critics and the general public alike and barely features among the final list of Oscar nominees. While The Lovely Bones does indulge Jackson’s weaknesses as a storyteller it is not the spectacular cinematic failure many will have you believe.

The film is set in the set in the early 70’s and the period details give a good sense of the times. Technology, clothes, hair and even colour scheme all combine to create a believable 1970’s for the events to unfold in. Jackson does not jump straight into the action either; an adequate amount of film is spent at the beginning of the film establishing Susie Salmon as a real person with whom the audience can identify with. These achievements would mean nothing, of course, if the acting were not up to scratch but thankfully each cast member brings to the table a credible performance. Relative unknown Saoirse Ronan does a good job (if at times a little overplayed) with a difficult role at such an early age and Susan Sarandon is a joy to watch, bringing some much-needed comedic relief to proceedings. Even Mark Wahlberg (who too often fails to convince) is decent as the obsessed father, unable to let go and grieve his loss.

It is, however, Stanley Tucci, as the calm and collected yet highly dangerous paedophile George Harvey, who ultimately steals the show. The afterlife sections, while sometimes slightly too obvious in their symbolism, are brilliantly rendered and really make the film look unique. When Susie is indulging her fantasies the images are shot in a spectrum of beautifully bright colours and are full of wonder. Two of the films best scenes, though, occur when Susie’s purgatory turns darker; a shocking revelation in a bloodied bathroom and later, a Gondryesque walk through the crime scenes of Harvey’s previous victims display touches of brilliance. At times, The Lovely Bones is also highly suspenseful. The scene in which Susie is captured by Harvey and when Susie’s sister sneaks into his home are both hair raisingly tense, and show a masterful command of the screen by Jackson (the former would most definitely not be improved, as many have suggested, by a more explicit depiction of her demise).

Nonetheless, The Lovely Bones does have its fair share of flaws. Probably the most apparent problem is that there is simply too much going on in the film that it never really does any of the plot strands justice. The movie is a cocktail of suspense thriller, fantasy, police procedural, family drama and serial killer film and while each of the different ingredients are dealt with well, they’re poorly edited together and never fleshed out enough. This problem goes hand in hand with Jackson’s previously mentioned directorial weakness; lack of control in terms of sentimentality and running time. These two issues threatened to ruin both Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and King Kong but with The Lovely Bones he has finally gone overboard and the film suffers for it. The ending to the film is highly drawn out, with an excruciatingly cheesy moment in which Susie is allowed back to Earth so she can finally receive her first kiss and a completely unnecessary epilogue in which Harvey meets his fate in the form of a falling icicle.

Other, unrelated failings are also present in The Lovely Bones. The film spends a good amount of time setting up the Salmon family unit that once Susie is dead its depiction of their grief is sorely lacking in comparison. Sure, the audience are giving a few fleeting moments in which we see family members crying and holding each other but we never really get a full sense of the emotional trauma that the loss of a family member can inflict. This is not helped by the sudden introduction of Grandma Lynn which, while still entertaining in itself, infringes on our emotional response to Susie’s death and seems totally off with the tone of the film up to that point. Despite these problems The Lovely Bones is still a solid and enjoyable experience; it’s just a shame Jackson couldn’t have reigned it in a little as the film we’re left with is somewhat of a missed opportunity rather than the Oscar worthy achievement it had the potential to be.

Final Verdict: 6/10.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Tony (2010)



Plot Summary: A thriller centred on a serial killer in a rundown London suburb.

A great film can be many things but, for me at least, the best films display either; a masterful level of artistry on a grand scale (Goodfellas, Seven Samurai) or an ability to get under my skin and truly move me (Control, The Haunting). Tony falls squarely into the latter category and has to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that most people have even heard of the film at all. It’s a low-budget British film that had a very limited release earlier in the month and, in what is becoming somewhat of a trend amongst similar films, went onto be released on DVD a mere three days later. This is a crying shame because Tony is a highly affecting film on the subject, the likes of which have not been seen since indie classics such as Deranged or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Tony perfectly subverts the standard serial killer clichés in a number of ways. The audience are given no ‘normal man goes crazy’ first act, there are no police hot on Tony’s tracks and in a final stroke of brilliance he is not arrested or killed, but merely seen wandering the streets of London in solitude as the credits roll over the screen. The film is closer in tone to a kitchen-sink drama than Silence of the Lambs; a lot of the time we simply follow Tony walking around a drab looking Hackney or sitting around in his squalid flat in a council estate. The murders, and subsequent attempts to conceal the evidence, are shot in a documentary style while Tony goes through the motions in a calm and methodical manner. You’ll find no over-stylisation here; instead of glamorising these acts the film-makers have taken a more sobering, realistic approach which gives the film a highly disturbing feel. The film never becomes tedious however, as the tension is always taut and several red-herrings keep you guessing.

The central performance by relative newcomer Peter Ferdinando is outstanding and it would come as no surprise to me if we begin to see more of him in future productions. Ferdinando brings to Tony a fragile, lonely side which by no means makes the audience feel sorry for him but adds depth to a character that could easily have been one-dimensional and derivative. As the film progresses one begins to get a sense of his mental state, without it edging into pop-psychology territory. Tony wanders the streets of London talking openly to strangers, hanging out with drug addicts and going to a prostitute for company. Tony doesn’t kill because his Daddy sexually abused him; he’s a social outcast in a highly hostile and alienating environment who doesn’t know how to deal with it. Similarities to real-life murderer Dennis Nilsen are apparent but never overplayed and bring to the film a further sense of horrifying realism. Tony is most definitely not a sunny character-study but black humour runs throughout the film and keeps it from taking itself too seriously.

The camerawork and cinematography are particularly affecting and add much to the almost sickening atmosphere prevalent throughout the film. As mentioned, the film mostly employs modern documentary camerawork, but moments such as a long take of Tony’s ‘waste’ sinking to the bottom of a pitch-black canal or Tony’s figure shrouded in darkness waiting for the lift doors to close really enhance the feeling of his warped world. One extremely clever piece of camerawork starts as what simply appears to be a shot from behind a partially closed door, but quickly it becomes apparent, when a hand reaches out, that it’s actually a trapped victim’s point-of-view. Additionally, the soundtrack provided by British band ‘The The’ is aptly sinister, dark and moving.

Complaints could be levelled at Tony’s reliance on cultural stereotyping within the working classes but these characters (aggressive chavs, heartless dole officers and strung-out druggies) are extremely convincing and add to the general feel of moral depravity underlining the film. Others would protest that the film adds very little to the genre, especially since it bares many similarities to the previously mentioned Henry, but those films are now dreadfully dated and few are set in inner-city London or told in such a direct manner. My only grievance is that the film is too short; coming in at just under an hour and twenty minutes long. I could have happily watched a three hour version of Tony and did, admittedly, feel a little short-changed. Nevertheless, and while clearly not for everyone, Tony is a highly gripping and uncompromisingly bleak film and one that will stay with you for days, if not weeks, after it has finished.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ponyo on the Cliff (2010)


Plot Summary: An animated adventure centred on a 5-year-old boy and his relationship with a goldfish princess who longs to become human.

Since the terrible miss-fire that was Tales from Earthsea (directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro) Studio Ghibli has had a lot to answer for. Thankfully Ponyo, which was released way back in 2008 in Japan, is a strong return to form and is a timely reminder of the magical animation the studio is capable of. Many critics would have you believe that this is a merely ‘kid’s film’, but that is to miss the point entirely. Hayao Miyazaki has oft been quoted as stating that his films are not exclusively for children, but also for the child inside of adults. Taken on these terms Ponyo reveals itself to audiences, child and adult alike, as a beautiful display of the human capability for creativity and imagination.

Story-wise, Ponyo is essentially The Little Mermaid by way of Miyazaki. Unlike the Disney version however, and as standard for the director, there is little threat from an antagonist and the film moves at a much slower, relaxed pace. This slow pace allows the audience to really connect with the two main characters. For example one prolonged scene (which also happens to be one of the films finest) simply depicts a meal on a rainy evening but helps to create real, rounded representations of children and their interaction with each other. The film is highly entertaining from start to finish due to its lovable characters, uniquely enjoyable moments and striking visuals. In terms of themes, the familiar Miyazaki trademarks centred on the environment and the nature of family unites are present and correct but never threaten to overthrow the concise but thoroughly touching narrative.

What really makes Ponyo stand out is its breathtaking animation. In designing the look of the film Miyazaki seemingly took inspiration from another Studio Ghibli film, My Neighbors the Yamadas, in terms of its pastel colours and sketch-like character design. This results in a visual style which fits the aquatic theme and the more playful and relaxed tone of the film. Technically, the animation is outstanding. Two scenes spring to mind which actually shocked me in terms of their attention to detail (an early underwater scene in which literally hundreds of individually animated species of fish roam the ocean) and sense of movement and fluidity (a later scene in which Ponyo runs in and out of a raging sea storm of giant fish).

The images on display here really help to capture a true sense of childlike wonder and innocence rarely seen in contemporary animation. If I have any gripe about Ponyo, it would be that although I enjoyed the tone of the film, it still feels a little too lightweight. Even My Neighbor Totoro, which most closely resembles Ponyo in terms of its childlike outlook and atmosphere, dealt with a difficult subject underneath the surface (a father that works away from home hardly compares to dealing with the loss of your mother). Additionally, even though Ghibli films are notorious for having unconventional narrative structures, the ending to Ponyo felt a little melodramatic and awkward in comparison to the rest of the film. Nevertheless, Ponyo is a great addition to the Ghibli cannon and is highly recommended to anyone who is willing to tap into their childhood imagination and relish a time before taxes and housework.

Final Verdict: 8/10