Monday, October 30, 2006


Hoo-ra. The US Army and Marine corps have been committed to celluloid many times before, most notably in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and also the ubiquitous Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. Even Oliver Stone and Charlie Sheen combined to put together a memorable piece of war-inspired cinema with Platoon. Cinema has always loved the war movie, and Kubrick possibly has two of the best in the genre, with Paths of Glory, often overlooked but also a classic in any terms, and with messages that are still relevant in contemporary times. People may think Mark Hamill never made anything decent outside of his lightsaber-swinging turns as Luke Skywalker, but Sam Fuller's The Big Red One is an excellent, and highly unusual war movie. Even Saving Private Ryan can be considered a modern classic, and is arguably Steven Spielberg's finest hour.

Each of those movies had it's own take on the chaos and futility of war, as well as the experiences of the individual soldiers who find themselves coping with reality in a warzone. All of these movies portray a side of being a soldier that is idiosyncratic to each, and in addition, they tend to age well. They also have their own proprietary iconic cinematic images: the troop of marines singing the mickey mouse club theme at the end of Full Metal Jacket, the russian roulette scenes in The Deer Hunter, Martin Sheen punching the mirror in Apocalypse Now, Willem Dafoe on his knees in his death throes in Platoon... war may be hell, but it's fodder for great movie moments...

For film-makers too, it's great for box office and a ready made context for boiler-plate characters to emerge without too much exposition required: the drill sergeant, the questioning new recruit, the nervous newbie, the unthinking bloodthirsty guy, the reluctant authority figure... Throw in some big stars in uniforms, the odd large-scale battle sequence, and a few boot camp conversations about why we're here really, and the audience can't seem to get enough.

Even in this context, I can safely say that Jarhead is a welcome addition to the genre. However it is probably more readily compared to the excellent Three Kings than any of the war genre movies mentioned above. Indeed, the movie's director Sam Mendes (of American Beauty fame) appears to display a irreverent attitude towards the classic vietnam movies of the 80's. There is an enteraining sequence in Jarhead's opening act where the marines, still in training in the U.S., sit down to watch 'Apocalypse Now', cheering every explosion and singing in unison to 'the March of the Valkyries' as vietnamese villages are pulverised on screen. By the time the third act rolls around and the marines have been stationed in the Kuwaiti desert for months however, the marines' attitude is very different. Apocalypse Now is indirectly referenced once again as a chopper flies overhead playing 'Break on Through' by The Doors. (a sideswipe at Oliver Stone perhaps!?)

Jarhead tackles an interesting twist on the theme of futility, but not only confined to the futility of war. The objective of the U.S. military presence in Kuwait was very different to that of the Vietnam manoeuvres, but had an air of futility all its own. In addition, the marines of Jarhead's corps are trained snipers in a desert war. In a scenario where air strikes win the battles, these guys can't help but feel a little useless, even relative to the other Jarheads stationed there.

The film focuses on the boredom of being a soldier in the desert, and the routine of hydration, boredom, and dehydration is nicely evoked, with Jake Gyllenhall capable enough as Swofford, the main protagonist. His principal comrade, Peter Sarsgaard, is quietly effective, and Jamie Foxx has a nice turn as the staff sergeant, more soft-spoken than R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket perhaps, but still believable as the leader of the crew.

Jarhead is visually spectacular in moments, and the third act in particular is set against desert backdrops that are particularly unreal, albeit familiar from news images of the time. The script is adapted from Swofford's book, detailing his real-life experiences in Kuwait, and it has a reality to it that gives Jarhead its credibility.

So, overall, Jarhead is solid stuff, intelligent and entertaining, but it's in a genre that is well-defined, with some very stiff competition. With a better lead actor Jarhead might have pushed through to join those cinematic legends I mentioned above, but even with that in mind, there's still a lot to love about this one. If you haven't seen it, and are stuck for something to rent, it's one you should certainly give the time of day.

Verdict: War, what's it good for? Solid movies like this! Gyllenhall's good and Sam Mendes is a real talent.
Rating: 6/10

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Departed

When Steve McClaren took over as England football manager recently, he informed the press that he would adopt a different management style to his predecessor, the notorious Sven Goran Ericsson. He would go to the players clubs, he promised, and talk to their respective managers there, with the intention of discovering how the players were managed day to day. McClaren's objective was to replicate the working conditions the players enjoyed at club level, and hopefully, therefore, transfer their club success to the England team. This interesting approach should allow the star players to play to their strengths in the England team, in roles they were used to playing. Also McClaren's approach would mean the players could get the kind of direction that they enjoyed at their clubs, the kind of direction that produced success at club level.

Supplant Martin Scorcese for Steve McClaren for a moment. Now lets have Jack Nicholson in nets, DiCaprio and Damon up front. Wahlberg, Winstone and Anderson in midfield. M. Sheen and A. Baldwin anchor the centre of defence (experience adds half a yard of pace after all) and a couple of familiar character actors at left and right-back.

With The Departed, Martin Scorcese has heeded the rhetoric of McClaren. Team Departed is a force to be reckoned with for many reasons, but mainly because all the leading players are working to their strengths, doing what they do best, and effortlessly demonstrating to us why they are at the top of their game.

The Aviator whetted my appetite for The Departed, so much so I feared I would be disappointed (the Lucas Principle at work again). I was not. Scorcese had earnestly promised a move away from the Oscar-chasing of 'Gangs of New York' and 'The Aviator', back towards the material he knows best: City Streets, killer soundtracks, gangsters, and groups of guys betraying each other. Back to basics then, which should be music to the ears of fans of 'Goodfellas' and 'Casino'.

Even established Hollywood actors must get a thrill when Martin Scorcese rings to offer them a part in his latest offering, much the same as a club player getting the nod for his country. Not that Leonardo DiCaprio's casting was ever in any doubt after his career-best turn (in my book) in Scorcese's last run-out 'The Aviator'. But I can imagine Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and yes, even Jack himself getting a little excited when Marty called and said "I'm thinking of you for a part in my new cop thriller. Going back to basics on this one, something more like Goodfellas, y'know?" ... what do you say to that!? It would appear that you say 'Yes' for a start, as the super heavyweight cast of the Departed ably demonstrates.

Scorcese is not just a man with a big reputation though, he's also one of the few Hollywood directors capable of reaching a mass audience while also delivering real quality.. some manage to do one of those two things, but few are capable of both.

The Departed is a remake of a Hong Kong actioner called 'Infernal Affairs', and the source material gives the team plenty to work with. DiCaprio is excellent as the undercover cop struggling to make an impression with his suspicious colleagues, and new boss Jack Nicholson. What can you say about Jack that hasn't already been said? He annihilates the screen, and even the Boston accent can't hold him back. Matt Damon is the Jack's plant in the police force, rising steadily through the ranks of Boston's finest, while secretly on Jack's payroll all the time.

The three leads all give great performances, with Matt Damon surprisingly good in a role that's possibly darker than anything he's tackled previously. The supporting cast though.. where do you start?! Martin Sheen is quietly authoritative, while Alec Baldwin is walking testosterone, harking back to his Glengarry Glenross turn in many moments here. Mark Wahlberg, too, is on top form, and this may be the first role since 'Boogie Nights' that he has really engaged with, his character has some of the best lines, and he has a good repartee with Alec Baldwin in particular.

Scorcese definitely had fun making 'The Departed', and though you may be forgiven for forgetting it, all his best movies have comic moments, and The Departed is no different. The dialogue crackles and there are more than a couple of big laughs in here. Given that the principal characters are either Boston Cops or Boston gangsters, the one-liners are sharp, funny and not at all out of place.

However, at it's core, the movie is a dark, tightly crafted, twisting thriller that propels you towards its inevitable bloody climax in a manner as sure-footed and fleet of foot as you would expect from Scorcese.

If The Departed was a football team, it would win world cups. As a film, it may yet win Scorcese his oscar.

Verdict: just go see it, ya mook.
Rating: 9/10

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Aviator

Martin Scorcese would be forgiven for having a chip on his shoulder where the American Motion Picture Academy are concerned. (Not that the lack of an oscar nod should get him down, considering the high level of quality he's managed to maintain over the last twenty years or so.) Despite the lack of oscar gold, his movies seem to grow in popularity year on year, as new audiences discover their dark delights. From his well-documented, and tempestuous working relationship with Robert DeNiro, which arguably produced career highs for both, to the now fledgeling Scorcese-DiCaprio love affair, the director has a knack for connecting with audiences, meaning that the box office is always good to Marty, whether the paperweight statuettes arrive or not.

With 'The Aviator', and 'Gangs of New York' before it, Marty has wholeheartedly tried to curry Oscar favour, but to no avail. Scorcese himself has admitted that he has now decided to shift his focus away from winning the oscar with his new offering 'The Departed' (review coming soon, folks) deciding instead to make a trademark Scorcese crime thriller that mass audiences could relate to... prioritising the audience above the academy if you like. Well, great! However, in advance of going to see 'The Departed' I decided to take a look at 'The Aviator', one I missed out on during its run in theaters.

If Scorcese has left behind the production values and style that make The Aviator such an lavishly entertaining motion picture, then that is perhaps the audience's loss. The production is big, colourful and packed with an all-star cast that dominate the screen. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the notorious Howard Hughes, after whom the film is named. This eccentric character certainly lived an extremely interesting life, and Scorcese has packed a hell of a lot of it into this two and a half hour movie, without ever letting the pace drag noticeably.

DiCaprio is not my favourite actor, but I found myself begrudgingly admiring his performance here. The role bears many of the hallmarks of a classic leading man in a Scorcese picture: larger than life character? Check. Noticeable physical transformation? Check. Descent into dark areas of the psyche? Check. Fans of Scorcese will recognize much of his signatures in the main protagonist in the Aviator. And I have to say, Leo does remarkably well in the role. He portrays Hughes as a tortured soul, and wins our sympathies early in the picture. Which is just as well, as he is in almost every scene of the film!

Cate Blanchett plays Katherine Hepburn, the love of Hughes' life, and where DiCaprio is very good, she is simply stunning, and fully deserved the Oscar gong she received for this role.

The support players are heavy weight, and all well cast: Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Jude Law, Kate Beckinsale, Ian Holm... the gang's all here! Even Gwen Stefani appears for a brief moment, prompting the suspicion that anyone might appear from one moment to the next (... and is that Rufus Wainright singing in the night-club?)

While the Aviator is is admittedly no 'Goodfellas', I contend that that ain't no bad thing, and would commend Scorcese for taking a step outside of his comfort zone. (And isn't any comparison with Goodfellas always going to be a little unfair?) Scenes of graphic violence are replaced with lavish special-effects driven moments telling the story of Hughes' aviatiory triumphs. These were no mean feats, and Scorcese ensures the images on screen evoke the grandeur they must have signified to cinema audiences of the day, watching Hughes' latest adventure unfold in newsreels before the main feature.

Hughes' mind was not always reliable however, and his descent from mild eccentricity into real mental illness is very well portrayed by DiCaprio on-screen, in an albeit cosmetic physical transformation, but one which renders him almost unrecognizable. For me though, despite DiCaprio's impressive performance, it is Blanchett who steals the show, and she must now be recognised as one of the best leading ladies working today.

The production is extravagant, lavish and colourful, and the screen is illuminated with real cinematographic skill, almost like Scorcese is saying to us: "look! see what I can do, dammit?! I don't need Joe Pesci!" (Or words to that effect!) However, it wasn't meant to be at the Oscars, and Million Dollar Baby stole the gong that night. In my opinion though 'The Aviator' is a far superior movie.

Fans of Scorcese will find enough to remind them of his more 'gangster' days, but the Aviator's impressive cast, and setting in the romantic heyday of the forties in Hollywood should mean it has reached a wider audience who will find more than his usual grit, dark insights and witty dialogue Scorcese is renowned for purveying. That said, I'm now really looking forward to seeing 'The Departed'!

Verdict: beautifully made story, well told and very well acted, a winner for Scorcese buffs and novices alike.
Rating: 7/10

Sunday, October 08, 2006


First off, Goal is a movie about football (soccer)... still with me? Ok, lost most of you already I'd imagine, but there are examples of good movies involving football... er... honestly.. and Escape to Victory isn't the only one... I'm almost positive...

Let's be honest, movies featuring sport do tend to be woeful, but movies featuring American sports (generally with a recognisable lead actor playing a coach) tend to do rather well at the box office. 'Any Given Sunday' is a classic example of the sports movie boilerplate, with Al Pacino slumming it to put a massive box office hit under his belt. This may have been the driving reason behind the production of this by-the-numbers, cliche-laden story of a footballer dreaming of the big time, but perhaps the film-makers' ambitious plan of conceiving it as the first part of a trilogy have been put on ice since it flopped quite spectaculary at the box office. Will it recoup some of those losses from dvd sales? Hmm...

The thing is, if you watch sports regularly, you'll know that the fantastic tales of overnight heroes, plucked from obscurity, and coming on to score in the last minute of the world cup final on their debut (sic) are really quite rare, actually. And if you watch football, you'll know that for every ninety minutes of exhibition football from a team like Barcelona or Arsenal, the majority rarely conjure up the magic moments that make you love the sport, and Newcastle United definitely fall into the majority. But the thing about being a football supporter is, it's the misery of all the mundane moments that make the special ones worthwhile... and this does not for good cinema make!

So thankfully Goal is not about being a football supporter. It does however, portray the story of Santiago (Kuno Becker) is a hard-working mexican immigrant living in L.A., who is spotted playing for a park team by a holidaying former Newcastle United player named Glenn Foy. Foy uses his connections to get Santiago (or Santy, as he is strangely called throughout the movie) a trial with Newcastle United... will he get a contract? Will he get into the first team? Yadda yadda yadda.

The thing about all this is, there are very few surprises with Goal. If he had failed in his trial, the movie wouldn't have quite the same level of interest. However, for all the cliches it employs, (and there are so many on offer here, including, and I quote: 'jumpers for goalposts, oooh, that's what it's all about lad') Goal does a decent job at portraying the action on-field, and these are probably the best moments in the film. Anna Friel also has a half-decent supporting turn as a Geordie nurse (the best kind!) and cameos from Becks, Zizou and Raul add a little pzazz to proceedings. Also, the crew appear to have had pretty much total access to the Newcastle squad, facilities, and stadium, so Kieron Dyer manages to make his big-screen debut here, sending shockwaves around Hollywood I imagine. (sorry, that's a football joke, and a bad one)

So, honestly, there were moments in Goal that, at some fundamental level I enjoyed. Well, let's face it, as a football fan I'm firmly ensconced in the target market for this movie. But wait! Don't for a minute let yourself think that I thought this was a good film! Fans of football may enjoy parts of it, cos Steven Gerrard's in it like, but, almost anyone else should avoid it, because it's very predictable and very very silly.

Verdict: Soppy cliched footie story, although the action is quite well filmed.
Rating: 5/10

Rear Window

Every now and again, it's good to give yourself a nice treat. Thankfully, I don't consider myself such a completionist that I've seen every movie one is supposed to have seen. I say thankfully because, once in a while, the availability of these well recognised classics allows me to take a break from sifting through new or recent releases, and spend a risk-free ninety minutes or so in the company of greatness.

Rear Window is the story of Jeff (James Stewart) confined to quarters in his two-bedroomed New York city apartment for six weeks while his broken leg heals. A plaster cast means he is effectively confined to a wheelchair, almost totally reliant on the regular visits of his nurse, Stella, and his girlfriend, who just happens to be Grace Kelly. Bear in mind, this is 1950's New York, so Jeff doesn't have the availability of the multitudinous time-wasting media currently at our disposal. To pass the time therefore, he takes to keeping an eye on the comings and goings of his neighbours in the apartments opposite his rear window. This being the middle of a citywide heatwave, shades are up and windows wide open, affording Jimmy Stewart, and of course us, a cinematically voyeuristic window into a number of lives, helping kill the hours until his plaster cast can be removed, and he can get back to work.

Warned by his regular female visitors that these hours spent watching the lives of others will only lead him down a dark path, Stewart is stubbornly unconvinced by their sage advice, and his hours spent watching eventually lead him to suspect something sinister is afoot in one of the apartments. But are his convictions the product of an idle mind and five weeks of cabin fever, or is his admittedly circumstantial and obervational evidence really pointing towards a horrible crime happening right under our noses? The skill with which Hitchcock unravels the answers to this question is what makes Rear Window so great to watch.

But there's a lot more going on in this one than a straight-forward murder mystery, or even an is-there-a-murder mystery such as this actually is. For some reason, Stewart is unconvinced that he will marry Grace Kelly, and his observations from his rear window give him a glimpse into the possible outcomes of his decision to get hitched: the newly-wed couple, the lonely widow, the down-trodden husband nagged by his wife, they are all visible to Stewart, and his occasional knowing smiles at each of their respective scnenarios seem to share little insights with the audience of his expectations of what marriage has to offer. (But why would he not want to marry Grace Kelly!?) As his nurse rather presciently points out to him, he would be better off just getting on with marrying someone he is interested in, rather than analysing his situation and applying long-winded psycho-analytical descriptions to his condition... In another sharp and thinly veiled slight to us as the audience, Stella also suggests that rather than simply watching people, he should get on with the business of living, and join in with them.

There is much to enjoy in Rear Window. I'm unsure whether Jimmy Stewart is caricaturing himself in the picture, but his familiar twang is endearing and ensures that even his most sarcastic remarks never seem too harsh. Grace Kelly's screen presence is remarkable, and in the rare moments of the movie where she is exposed to danger, you feel that you might not be quite as worried for her safety as if she was someone less charismatic, like say, Anne Heche.. The story builds slowly to an inevitably dramatic climax, and is never predictable. Hitchcock's regular and sweeping shots of the apartment block vista under Jimmy Stewart's watchful eyes are technically and visually stunning. The soundtrack adds to the ambience, and all the supporting players work well in their roles, particularly the ominous Raymond Burr (yep, Perry Mason) as Mr. Thorwald, and Thelma Ritter as Stella, Stewart's wily nurse.

If you haven't seen Rear Window, I heartily recommend it as one of those movies you really don't need to be in the mood for. If you have an attention span of thirty minutes or more, then I challenge you not to enjoy this film... and don't feel obliged to watch it just because it's a 'classic', rather you should reassure yourself with the knowldege you'll spend an enjoyable couple of hours taking it all in.

Verdict: Great cinema, just watch it.
Rating: 9/10

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Ah, Steven Spielberg, so fundamentally part of the Hollywood establishment, the modern American archetype of the popcorn auteur, delivering cinema with mature themes and challenging our views on important issues, all packaged in box-office vehicles replete with the required levels of Star Power... what happened to the man who made 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' I ask you?! Gone it seems are the ripping yarns and memorable adventures of unlikely heroes such as Dr. Jones, replaced instead with conflicted concentration camp managers, gore-spattered soldiers storming beaches, and most recently, the existentially motivated, emotionally complicated political assassins of 'Munich'...

Spielberg's segue into cinema of artistic merit is to be applauded, there's no doubt about that. The man is obviously keen to leave behind him a body of work containing more than juvenile fantasies, adolescent adventures and a robotic shark. I have every respect for this change of direction, and Spielberg's own sincere attempt to raise his personal creative bar. However, as movie-goers, we can only evaluate his success based on what we see on-screen.

Schindler's List was very dramatic, but had its flaws. Saving Private Ryan was a great cinematic experience, and probably Spielberg's best movie in the last fifteen years. However, in terms of a movie experience, Munich may have set the bar a little too high for Mr. S.

It is set in the aftermath of the Munich 1972 Olympics, when Palestinian terrorist group 'Black September' orchestrated events resulting in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes, as well as many of the Black September activists involved in the operation. The event was extensively covered by the world's media, and watched by a global audience - even the terrorists themselves as the German authorities surround the Olympic enclosure in the midst of the siege.

Israel reacts to the tragedy by organising a hit squad of Mossad agents, charged with eliminating the 11 Black September members who pulled the strings behind the disaster. Avner (Eric Bana) is given the undercover mission, with apparently unlimited resources from the Israeli government to aid him in his task. Working for him are an unlikely team, including an inexperienced bomb-maker, an antiques dealer, a member of the ANC (Daniel Craig) and a more mysterious team member, who is evidently more experienced in these matters than the others.

Bana is selected as he has no prior experience of field operations, but has European roots and is good with languages. The Israeli authorities choose him for these reasons, not only because the mission will be based in Europe, but also because he will ideally be able slip in under radar, and track down the Black September members without fear of being identified as a known activist, at least not straight away. So, he leaves behind Israel, his home, and a heavily pregnant wife and travels to Switzerland, to return home when all targets have been eliminated.

However, Bana is a sensitive soul. As his mission progresses, he becomes more and more disillusioned with the knowledge that killing Palestinians only galvanises the supposed enemy, and renews their will to fight for what is their ultimate goal, a homeland. It seems also that as the Black September targets are eliminated, they are replaced in their positions with characters of more violent disposition, prolonging the war even further.

Eric Bana works very well with this role, and is exceptional in the middle third of Munich, for me the most effective section of the film. The supporting players, in particular CiarĂ n Hinds and a menacing Daniel Craig, are also well above average, and their interactions and reflections on their mission add impetus to the change in Bana's mental state, which becomes visible before too long. Michael Lonsdale also has a curiously ambiguous supporting role, and adds a welcome, interesting tangent to proceedings.

Munich is a sumptuous film to look at. Speilberg is obviously enjoying himself back in Europe, and although in every country he visits, he seems to delight in displaying national stereotypes to set the scene (garlic in France, canals and bicycles in Holland etc) he makes the most of the locations, and represents them beautifully on screen.

The political side of Munich is handled gently, and never dominates proceedings. Spielberg could have been a lot more heavy-handed in this, but appears to have made an effort to be balanced at every turn. The Palestinians in Munich are not all two-dimensional monsters, like the Nazis from Schindler's List. They are real people who explain their actions, and when Bana is exposed to this, his troubles increase. His personal struggle to complete his mission and return home is pitted against the Palestinian desire for a country of their own to call home, and this contributes to Bana's growing malaise with his grisly project.

There is much to enjoy in Munich, and I hope I've managed to put that across. The thing is, I think Spielberg has slightly overextended the scope of his ambitions for a project obviously very close to his heart. At two hours and forty minutes, the runtime will give you an idea of how much there is in the movie for the audience to digest. With a more ruthless editor, much of the excess weight could have been shed from the story, and the important messages delivered more coherently.

In addition, Spielberg has imprinted some moments of Munich with his more juvenile trademarks, and at times, this jars with what the characters are actually doing. The bomb-maker character uses various gadgets to plant his murderous wares, and the scenes where he unveils his creations evoke moments from more tongue-in-cheek action flicks. These seem genuinely out of place in a context where the central characters are struggling to justify killing in the name of their country.

So is it worth seeing? Well, I wouldn't slate the film, it definitely has a lot going for it. Eric Bana is really staking his claim as a great leading man - at times I could have sworn it was Liam Neeson up there on screen. (I don't know if it's that they're both around seven feet tall, or is it Bana's Israeli accent hitting my ears in some unusal brogue, but there is definitely a likeness!) Daniel Craig, too, is impressive as a threatening henchman, and has a physical presence that will definitely reassure Bond fans of his ability to do well with the role. Also, as a film with political themes at its core, the message in Munich is not gift-wrapped - the script ain't half bad. To be honest though, I was ultimately left a little cold by the last hour of the film, where the pace really lets it down.

The final shot of the movie should leave the audience with little doubt of Spielberg's wish to be relevant, ambitious and politically aware with 'Munich'. He has definitely convinced me of this, I just think that, on balance, he could have made a better movie.

Verdict: confident, well executed, flawed film-making. Political, weighty and a little sluggish. Great performance from Bana.
Rating: 6/10

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Descent

Now this is one I really wish I had seen in the cinema! Great fun from start to finish, 'The Descent' is a gruesomely effective chiller about a group of thrill-seeking girls who learn (too late) that sometimes it's best not to go potholing in mysterious caves... Ok, so this may be advice most of us could have given these ladies before they set out, but sometimes it takes a movie like this to really get the message across. I can only hope that if enough people see this film, then the mistake will never be repeated... (unless there's a sequel that is!) To illustrate the point, I have decided to definitively never, ever go pot-holing (or spelunking, as some people strangely call it) under any conditions whatsoever, no sir, thank you very much. Any questioning of my manhood as a result of this decision will be moot as far as I'm concerned, because if you have seen 'The Descent', you'll understand.

Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) is an adrenaline junkie, but has been through rough times lately, so her mate Juno (the sultry Natalie Mendoza) organizes a trip to the mountains with a group of like-minded lasses for a spot of pot-holing, the idea being to take Sarah's mind off her recent troubles. However, the trip begins with a few bad omens. As with all good horrors, these are portents of very bad things to come. First, there are crows. Crows are always a bad sign. Second, Juno leaves the map behind. Now, Juno, that wasn't how to increase the thrills, that was just silly. This is a horror dammit! Last of the bad omens, it's a big dark cave!!! You really fear for the worst for these girls, and from very early on.

Once the group gets down into the cave, we're right there with them in the dark, wondering where the first fright is going to come from... Even the flares they use to illuminate the caves in swathes of red light give us a clue that they should be turning back, going home, and looking for kicks elsewhere, but the skill with which Neil Marshal has put the Descent together means you want them to keep going, just to see what's actually down there!

Now, I wasn't a big fan of Dog Soldiers, (Marshall's previous effort) and despite the internet buzz around 'the Descent' when it first went on release, I missed it in the cinema, but I can tell you that this is honestly worth a look on DVD. The characters are faced with limited choices in those claustrophobic caves, but are never dim-witted. The story is dark, claustrophobic, unpredictable, and extremely gruesome. The sudden 'jumps' are exactly that, and there are many of them. There are enough gross-out moments to keep even die-hard horror fans happy, and should be dramatic and pacy enough to even keep non-horror fans interested. Best of all, and in a refreshing trend that I hope can be repeated more often in movies like this, there are no cheesy one-liners in The Descent. No 'see you in hell, you freak!', no 'chew on this, caveboy!', and it's all the better for it.

I suppose the natural comparison in terms of the atmosphere of the Descent would be with 28 Days Later, but that would be harsh on both films, as they're unique enough to exist on their own merits. Not sure if I can give higher praise than that!

So go watch The Descent. Just promise me, no spelunking.

Verdict: Great fun, will make you jump! Worth a look.
Result: 8/10

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A History of Violence

Until about a week ago, my exposure to the world of 'graphic novels' was limited to a single solitary viewing of the excellent 'Sin City'. Recently however, it seems any film I watch has a chance of being adapted from this shady source material... now, I may have been generalising in my 'V for Vendetta' review when I claimed that graphic novels were weightier than comic books, with more adult themes of emotional resonance, but after a viewing of 'A History of Violence', also sourced from a graphic novel, I'm not going to be changing my mind any time soon!

Laden with strong performances from all the central players, and some excellent supporting turns from Ed Harris and William Hurt, 'A History of Violence' is a tale of a man's identity, and his struggle with the truth of his origins. It asks important questions: "is a person defined by their past?" "can people change?" "is the truth always important?" "is it better to fight or flee?". This is not the stuff of Superman Returns...

Viggo Mortensen is believable as Tom Stall, the mild-mannered owner of a small town diner, who's family life is literally turned upside down by a random encounter with a couple of 'the bad men'. This encounter has a dramatic effect on Tom, and while Mortensen does okay with the very meaty role, I get the feeling that a better actor would have really devoured the material. This means that the real star turn in this one is from Maria Bello, playing Tom's serenely settled wife. Her world suddenly shifts and she is plunged into insecurity and doubt, but Bello manages to portray this transformation from peaceful calm to emotional turmoil in confident manner. One to watch.

Ed Harris is truly menacing in this one, and William Hurt has never been this evil! But that's the power of David Cronenberg, the man who wrote 'Videodrome' and directed 'Crash', (not the Sandra Bullock version) 'The Fly' and 'The Dead Zone'. This man has a body of work that could make you shiver, but he should not be mistaken simply for a purveyor of schlock monster movies - 'Existenz' alone should be evidence of this. If more evidence was needed however, it is on display in 'A History of Violence'.

Although I have a sneaky suspicion that directors adapt graphic novels because it saves them from boring storyboarding sessions, every shot in 'A History of Violence' is visually arresting. Vivid colours are used to great effect in this one, emphasizing the emotions on display in each scene, and at times effectively isolating the central character, reinforcing his predicament. Cronenberg has to take some credit for these techniques. Also, he manages to elicit performances from his cast which are generally quite balanced, and in many cases, exceptional.

I should also point out that in the midst of this soberly dramatic tale of a man struggling with his own identity, and coping with his wife and kids in the process, Cronenberg has stamped a 'A History of Violence' with some of his trademarks, which I would associate more readily with his earlier works. The violence, when it assaults the screen, is shocking and extreme. We are left in no doubt as to the trauma inflicted on it's victims, be they the ones on the receiving end, or simply witnesses, like ourselves. In addition, there are a number of sex scenes which by Hollywood standards would have to be called 'graphic'... and a couple of which, by anyone's standards, would be called 'kinky'! (I never saw a scene like that in Calvin and Hobbes)

On balance, 'A History of Violence' is worth watching. It looks great, it's a well acted story with a beginning, middle and an end. The characters are believable and the pace of the action, while at times sluggish, is generally well managed by Cronenberg. I imagine that this movie has raised his stock no end (enough to win him a Palme d'Or nomination) and it's going to be very interesting to see what he'll do next.

Verdict: Quality film-making. Above average, but not mind-blowing.
Result: 7/10

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Silent Hill

There is a direct relationship between your level of expectation of a movie, and how much you actually enjoy the experience of watching it. Consider, if you will, the Star Wars prequels, and the level of excitement that greeted their release - you can picture the uber-nerds in Chewbacca costumes and sleeping bags, queueing impatiently on sidewalks outside theaters in Hicksburg, U.S.A., shivering in the cold six weeks before release of Star Wars Episode I.. Even the guy in the Boba Fett outfit at the top of that queue couldn't help but be a little disappointed when he eventually got to see the actual movie.. I mean, it wasn't a bad film, but it wasn't, well it wasn't really all he hoped it would be...

Lessons can be learned from such experiences, and no matter how nerdy, they contain a lesson for us all.. Behold, the Lucas Principle of Movie Expectations: "expect not, and ye shall not be disappointed!"

The Lucas Principle should be adopted liberally for anyone who decides to subject themselves to "Silent Hill". How low are your expectations? Really? That low? Well... you'd better think again... lower now... looower...

I'll be candid with you for a moment, I have dabbled with the odd video game in my murky past (it was in college! I never once inhaled though). The video game of Silent Hill is a creepy and atmospheric horror adventure, in which you play a character looking for his lost daughter in a mysteriously abandoned misty town covered with a pall of mist. At various points during the game, an alarm sounds, and the surroundings of Silent Hill metamorphose from a mildly sinister daytime environment into a dark claustrophobic mirror landscape, this one populated with a maze of rusting fences, shambling headless zombies and a fright literally around every corner.

Now, I'm fully aware that the history of game-to-movie conversions is littered with hard luck stories. (Super Mario Brothers, anyone!?) However, I enjoyed the game of Silent Hill so much, that when I heard a movie version was in the works, I found myself curious to see how the movie would look, and also found myself anticipating its release. Calm yourself, I would say in my best Obi-Wan impression (Alec Guinness that is) "use the Lucas Principle, keep those expectations looooow."

Now, there are certain things that the movie version of Silent Hill does extremely well. It is very faithful to the look and feel of the game, and the moments where the town morphs to and from the hellish demon-infested nightmare are special effects tours de force. Also, the town itself just is the same place from the game. The production design on this one did a really bang up job, with every set and location slickly put together, evoking memories from the game at every scene, at least in the first act.

The 'baddies' (yes it's that type of film, folks) in this one are also pretty nasty. One guy in particular (see the image I've copied in above) is really not very agreeable, and I suspect wasn't hugged as a child. He should take up squash or something, deal with his aggression in a more constructive way. However, the darkly constructed imagery of these 'bad guys' is at times quite effective.

On the downside, the plot bears all the hallmarks of a game to movie translation. Dialogue is used to either express high emotion, or move the story along. At no point do we feel like the characters in Silent Hill are anything more than agents of the story, accompanying us from the beginning to the end, but without ever revealing much about themselves. This makes it quite difficult to care about what type of fate eventually befalls them.

Also, and let's be honest here, you should probably only watch Silent Hill if you are a fan of horror movies, the scares in Silent Hill are very different from the traditional monster/slasher type you might expect. Rather than threatening us with glimpses of what horrors Silent Hill might have to offer, and revealing them to us gradually, we are instead thrown head first into the madness. As a result, we are exposed to the horrors of Silent Hill en masse, and by the time the film reaches it's bloody conclusion (admittedly an impressively nasty set piece) the audience will probably be a little de-sensitized to be genuinely frightened, and will most likely just be eager for the story to be resolved.

So it follows then that in a movie like this, the story needs to be strong. Unfortunately, although it's a half-decent yarn, in parts it's simply quite silly, resembling a ghost story written by an adolescent. This kind of tale might do well in Junior Certificate English (although the writer may be packed off to therapy!) but in the context of a movie for mature, (well, grown-up) people, it's not strong enough to justify spending the guts of a tenner to see it unfold.

Sadly, even applying the Lucas Principle of Movie Expectations couldn't help me enjoy this one. Be stronger than I, young padowan, and give Silent Hill a wide berth.

Verdict: Polished but silly. Excellent special effects can't make up for the weak story.
Result: 3/10

Primer (first viewing)

Every time I read or hear a movie review or recommendation, I find it important to vet the source. I know certain people who only need say "that's worth seeing" and that's enough for me.

When I'm the one passing on a movie recommendation though, I usually like to know who I'm recommending it to, which is quite straight-forward down the pub. Unfortunately, the blogosphere doesn't offer that level of security, so it's with a certain trepidation that I'm reviewing a real rough diamond of a movie: 'Primer'.

So many films are churned out by Hollywood that are just not worth two hours of your life. Not much more than a two-second pitch made to Harvey Weinstein as he chomps on a fat cigar, many movies can literally be judged by their cover. I imagine Harvey sitting at the chair of a large, Dr. Evil style boardroom meeting, going round the table full of execs, each of them pitching a movie idea in turn, and Harvey just saying "next" until they stumble upon something they can sell: (Studio executive #16 looks quietly confident as his turn to pitch approaches. Number 15's pitch is rejected, it's his turn! He looks to Harvey and says: "Ok, Harvey.. how about... Bruce Willis... lifeguards!?" Harvey looks at #16, still chomping on his cigar. He stares directly at #16, and for a long tumbleweed moment the only sounds in the room are made by Weinstein, chewing his cud. Eventually he speaks: "Really? We haven't already made that!?". Before you can say 'Baywatch', the wheels of a $50 million dollar actioner are in motion... with "Coastguard" eventually described as "explosive" in "The Sun" and raking in a cool $200 million worldwide)

This may be a cynical view, but I also believe that there are more than enough good movies made for all the right reasons. (and a lot of these come from Hollywood too!). A good idea, well executed, will always triumph over hollywood veneer and marketing budgets. The movies that live longest in my memory are not the no-brainer actioners (although, let's be honest, I'm a sucker for a good one). No, for me, I need to engage with a film to the level of.. and stay with me here, this revelation may shock you... thinking about it afterwards!!

I'll always remember how I felt after watching "Twelve Monkeys" for the first time. I knew I loved the film, that wasn't in any doubt, but I also had the urgent need to understand what I had just seen. Much discussion followed my first viewing of Twelve Monkeys, and the decision was eventually made to watch it a second time. Primer is the first movie I've seen since then that has produced the same reaction... This movie requires your attention, that you think and listen while you watch.. and ultimately, demands that you watch it a second time. Not everyone enjoys this feeling however, and if you fit into that category, then you should definitely avoid this film.

Essentially, the story revolves around two guys who invent a device that allows them to travel backwards in time. They live through the day once, watching the stock market's ups and downs, and then travel back in time to 9 a.m. that same day, armed with the prescience of events to come. However, the act of sending yourself back in time is not a pleasant one, and there are rules. For example, temporal paradoxes, such as meeting yourself, should be avoided at all costs, as you may change events which, from your perspective, have already happened... still with me!?

However, the device splits the two men. Their ideas of how to use such a powerful machine form an ever-growing rift between them that becomes more and more obvious as the film progresses to each mind-bending plot twist.

Although Primer is a low-budget, poorly lit science fiction movie with no stars and below average acting. I'm still going to recommend it though, simply because despite all those things it still manages to be smart, gripping and entertaining, which is no mean feat!

The reason why I have 'first viewing' in the header of this post, is down to the fact that I know I will need to watch Primer a second time to fully understand it. Shane Carruth (writer, director, star, sound engineer, and apparently caterer) has crafted a real labour of love with this film. It moves confidently and at a relentless pace, leaving the audience trailing in its wake, and more than a little confused at times.

So you get the point, it's clever. But is it any good? Well, the short answer is that it's very good indeed. There are zero special effects in this film, all the trickery is in the script... and much trickery there is, oh yes... I imagine Carruth is tormented by people on a daily basis, asking him to explain each twist in this movie... and it serves him right, the smartarse!!

Verdict: clever sci-fi thriller, keeps you guessing, demands a second viewing
Result: 7/10

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