Friday, December 28, 2007

War

The Verdict: Bog-standard actioner. Disappointing, considering the promising cast.

The Rating: 4/10

Action movies are really about escapism. Total immersion in a good action movie is a wonderful thing, achieved when your attention is totally focussed on the screen, and your immediate surroundings are temporarily forgotten. Even with the best flicks, this kind of voluntary immersion is dependent on a certain amount of suspension of disbelief (SOD) on the part of the viewer. Hollywood producers take note, PCMR has uncovered a scientific formula to calculate how immersed your audience will be! Yes that’s right fat cats, put down the Cuban cigar for the moment, and stop counting those dollars, this formula may make you even richer! Here it is:

SOD = (O – C)

Or in other words, Suspension Of Disbelief is equal to Originality less Cliché. When SOD is less than zero, tolerance levels drop below critical levels, with punters more likely to move to the lobby for popcorn, or to the pause button and the kettle.

With Statham and Li's previous outing - 'The One' – there was enough originality to keep the SOD factor positive, making what could have been a pretty ridiculous movie thoroughly enjoyable. (And Jet Li fought himself! Dude! – Ed). Unfortunately 'War' hits sub-zero SOD levels very very early.

Essentially, Statham's partner and best friend gets killed and he becomes so obsessed with revenge that his previously idyllic relationship with his wife and child breaks down. (3 cliches already!). He's an FBI agent (4) monitoring the ongoing battle between the warring Triads and Yakuza gangs in San Francisco, while keeping an eye out for the rogue agent who murdered his partner. Throw in a car chase here (5), a motorbike chase there (6), loads of standard shoot-out gun play (... say 10), and nowhere near enough chop-socky fights between Statham and Li (one!) and the impulse to say 'sod it' becomes harder to ignore.

Anything original to report? Well, Jet Li is a bad guy... and that's about it really. Everything else here is formulaic, from the hammy, cardboard cut-out Yakuza and Triad baddies, to the cheesy female characters, and the bizarre CSI-inspired belief that to make characters cool and edgy, shades and a leather jacket will do the trick, no matter what they say and do. With an SOD this low, you'll be itching in your seat, pointing out plot holes and less likely to give a toss about what eventually happens. The ending does attempt valiantly to surprise, but by then it's just too little too late.

Jason Statham should really be aiming higher than this kind of bog-standard fare. And Jet Li came out of retirement for this? Take PCMR's advice: avoid this unoriginal, cliché-riddled movie, and consider it a lucky escape.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

I Am Legend

The Verdict: '28 Days Later' meets 'Cast Away' in this derivative of 'The Omega Man'. Slow-burning, watchable and inoffensive, but not legendary.

The Rating: 6/10

Will Smith has been at the helm of many star vehicles over the course of his career, so it may come as a bit of a surprise that he’s only been in a couple of sci-fi movies. (Unless you count wicky wicky Wild Wild west!? – Ed). Since the execrable 'Independence Day', he’s flogged a couple of franchises to death ('Men In Black' and 'Bad Boys'), made plenty of home-cooked apple-pie family entertainment ('Hitch' and 'The Pursuit Of Happyness') and even had a realistic Oscar shot ('Ali'). My own opinions of the man and the relative quality of these movies aside for a moment, I must doff my cap to the Fresh Prince, for he has quietly and carefully crafted a Hollywood career for himself, and now sits indisputably in the exclusive A-list category.

Big Willy Will's latest star vehicle had a stellar opening weekend, raking in $76 million in U.S. theatres. However, it may be stating the obvious, but box-office success isn't any guarantee of quality: two relevant examples illustrating this point being 'Bad Boys II' and 'The Pursuit of Happyness'. Hollywood marketing is as powerful as any propaganda machine, and if the right sort of internet buzz is also behind a movie, a wide-scale big bang release at the right weekend can generate a huge return before any negative word-of-mouth can spoil the party.

Although more of a slow-burning cruise than a wham-bam roller-coaster ride, I have to admit, I am Legend is a lot better than many of Will Smith's previous big screen outings. Giving a nod, a wink, and masonically baring its nipple to zombie movie classics, and essentially deriving a story outline from 'The Omega Man' (Smith's character shares the name of Charlton Heston's from that movie), the movie starts with the Fresh Willenium as the last man alive in New York. Around a thousand days have passed since some sort of cataclysmic event, and W2K is struggling to survive, hold on to his sanity, and feed his dog.

The opening scenes are very reminiscent of '28 Days Later', and there is one moment that was almost entirely lifted from 'Shaun of The Dead', but the scenes in an abandoned New York, overgrown with tundra, and awash with wild animals are interesting and unique enough to grab the attention of the audience in the opening moments. The pace of the movie is very different to those two however, owing more in terms of inspiration to Tom Hanks’ Castaway, although without the scraggly beard and cries of "Willsooonnn!" to grate on the nerves.

It's a neat script, with a slow-burning opening sequence, a well-timed turning point around half-way through, followed by a neatly packaged ending. Fresh Willy has enough presence to keep the audience's interest and sympathies in the first hour, and the understandably creeping insanity of his character adds a nice edge to his usually syrupy good-guy persona. The fact that he's accompanied by a dog in the first hour of the movie allows for conventional dialogue (man-dog as opposed to man-volleyball - Ed), and these initial scenes, although the slowest of the movie, are in my opinion the strongest. Although gradually, we learn more about the cataclysm and some rather zombie-like survivors eventually surface, the post-reveal scenes are something approaching more conventional Hollywood action fare, and were less exciting for this reviewer.

'I am Legend' has enough quality and production value to make it watchable, and it certainly has its moments. The thing is, in the hands of a less 'bankable' lead actor, perhaps willing to take more genuine risks, the script could have been a little less flat-packed, and perhaps displayed more imagination. The infected, for example, were simply monsters in the dark, and only scary enough to earn this movie a PG-13 rating. I felt more could have been done with this aspect of the film.

As it is, 'I Am Legend' will reward fans of this genre with references to well known apocalypse and zombie movies past, and also be off-beat enough to engage those new to the genre. Fans of the big Willie will see him acting his socks off, and in fairness to him, he delivers a decent performance.

All in all, another good career move for big Will in terms of the high-stakes popularity contest that is Tinseltown. He may not achieve legendary status as a pioneering craftsman of original movies, but he's certainly a bona fide Hollywood star.

I am Legend is in cinemas now.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Capturing the Friedmans

The verdict: Absorbing, devastating real-life story which challenges the viewer to decide who is telling the truth.

The rating: 8/10

Capturing the Friedmans tackles some particularly difficult source material. Arnold Friedman was a school teacher accused of molestation, and this documentary recounts his story and that of his family, as told from the perspective of his wife, kids, brother, the police involved in the investigation and some of the kids he taught.

What makes this movie of particular interest however, is the large amounts genuine home movie footage shot by Friedman's three sons over the course of this ordeal. As their family unravels, they record the chaotic events inside the Friedman house, while the media reports chart events outside, making this a 'reality' story imbued with real emotional turmoil and genuine surreality. All of this footage is supplemented by accounts from the people at the centre of the storm.

The media and police would profer the simple explanation that Friedman plead guilty and was convicted of these crimes, and therefore was a despicable monster, undeserving of any further attention from anyone. The real story, however, is far more nuanced. The Friedmans were a seemingly wealthy middle-class Jewish family. Arnold was a popular teacher, with a successful career and three kids, with whom he had a close relationship, as the Friedman home video footage shows.

However, things start to unravel when Arnold Friedman receives a magazine in the post from the Netherlands, featuring pornographic images of underage boys. The house is searched, and more such magazines are found. As the police investigation continues, whispers of 'inappropriate touching' become fully-fledged abuse allegations, and suddenly the community of Great Neck is in full paedophile alert. To make matters worse for the Friedman family, Arnold's son Jesse is also implicated in the allegations.

This movie uses the accounts of the people involved in this trial, and the Friedman's home video footage, to re-examine the case with the benefit of perspective. As Friedman's past is recounted, and his brother and wife are interviewed, we learn more about the character of the man, and the details of his certainly unconventional upbringing, and early sexual history. As his sons are interviewed, we learn more about the strong family bond that existed between father and sons, but certainly not between mother and the rest of the family.

It is a harrowing movie, revealing detail after detail of the events surrounding the trial in such a way as to challenge the audience's perception of what actually happened. Friedman sr's guilt is not really on trial, but the method of his incarceration is certainly evaluated with a cold eye. As to Friedman jr, the details surrounding his arrest and trial are particularly harrowing, including the bizarre home video footage of the night before his sentencing.

'Capturing the Friedmans' is hard-hitting, intelligent and difficult, as it forces the audience to view the facts surrounding an intensely emotional issue with a cold logical eye. As the movie progressed, I found myself questioning who I sympathised with, as well as questioning who was telling the truth, and how much truth they were really revealing.

This is fascinating stuff, and heartily recommended.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Nine Songs

The verdict: Sex, drugs and rock and roll... but it's stultifyingly boring.

The rating: 3/10

I haven't seen many of Michael Winterbottom's movies, bar the two featuring Steve Coogan ('Tristram Shandy' and '24 Hour Party People'), but he is certainly eclectic, and something of an enigma. Considering I enjoyed both movies just mentioned, and given that his new one ('A Mighty Heart') is getting great press, I thought it only fair to take a look at what many reckon to be his worst movie: 'Nine Songs'. (I only watched it for the articles though.)

Nine Songs features a number of popular rock bands playing live, as Winterbottom was granted permission to commit shows from groups such as Primal Scream and Super Furry Animals to celluloid. The plot of the movie (for what it is) centres around the rather dull Matt (incongruously, Kieran O'Brien from the 'Goal' movies!) and the fairly annoying Lisa (Margot Stilley) as they attend some concerts, and have sex afterwards.

Now, this was a controversial movie on it's release, because it features nookie, and lots of it. Yes siree, the two stars of this one certainly got to know each others ins and outs. Ahem. Uglies are bumped pretty much every five minutes in this one, and we see all the bits and pieces normal mainstream movies leave out. Put it this way, if it was an ad for shower gel, we'd see the nipple. In this case, Winterbottom shows us everything you'd expect from a porn movie, although - and this may sound facetious, but it's true - Nine Songs is relatively lacking in character development and believable dialogue. The two main characters begin shagging in this one after just a couple of lines of narrated dialogue, which is pretty impressive, even by porn standards, and at the end of the movie, we hardly know them any better.

This movie gets old pretty fast. The sex scenes become dull and invasive very early on, as we learn little or nothing about this monster with two backs that's huffing and puffing on the screen in front of us. The story is wafer thin, and appears to have been cobbled together with a voiceover and some creative editing. The two main characters are as anonymous at the end of the movie as they were in the beginning, and the ending of the movie is perfunctory and unemotional.

Winterbottom filmed this in the Paul Greengrass 'shaky hand-held' style, but where Greengrass creates immediacy and brings the audience closer to the events on-screen, in nine songs, Winterbottom creates an amateurish, home-movie feel, which makes thing all the more uncomfortable and stifling to watch. Even the concert footage is emotionless and distant, failing to capture any of the excitement of being at any of the gigs featured. I can't imagine the Super Furries or Elbow were too happy with this finished movie after lending their music to it.

An unmitigated failure in my book, the only plus point being the sixty six minute running time. Only that I was watching it at home, I would have walked out. God bless Michael Winterbottom for coming back from this to make 'A Mighty Heart', and this tosh still won't prevent me from seeing that one. But take it from me folks, 'Nine Songs' is rubbish, and more of a cock and bull story than Tristram Shandy. Avoid.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The King of Kong

The verdict: A surprisingly genuine and inspirational story of a man's struggle to be his own man, and be the best in the world... at Donkey Kong.

The rating: 8/10

This is a movie about video games, but I'm not talking about MMORPG's, Nintendo Wiis, Playstations, or even Sega Megadrives. The games featured in this movie pre-date Commodore 64's and possibly even the 2600 from Atari. We're talking arcade games here, and the originals, such as Donkey Kong, Pacman, Q-Bert and Frogger. 'The King of Kong' tracks the origins and development of the people who hold the world records at these classic video games, and how since 1982, the competition to hold one of these records has been as fierce as in any competitive sport - I kid you not.

Since 1982, Billy Mitchell has held the record at Donkey Kong, but this is really someone else's story. I was surprised how involved I got in this tale of Steve Wiebe, (pronounced wee-bee) a normal, honest, hard-working guy who loved his wife and kids, but somehow never lived up to his potential. His father pushed him to be the pitcher for the school baseball team, and expected him to follow in his footsteps, becoming an engineer at Boeing, and work there for the rest of his life. Steve didn't really live up to his old man's expectations however, leaving baseball behind to play the drums with his garage band, and getting laid off from Boeing the day he signed mortgage papers with his wife.

As his wife says in the movie, Steve was 'searching for something', and one day heard of the organisation known as 'Twin Galaxies', established by Walter Day - the self-appointed regulator of all video game world record attempts - back in 1982. Wiebe took it upon himself to go for the top score, and set about trying to beak Billy Mitchell's world record.

Now, I don't want to tell you more about this movie, because it really caught me off-guard. At first, I found myself amused by the nerdy characters involved in the 'Twin Galaxies' crew, but gradually, I was taken in. The story becomes something that Will Ferrell could option for himself, with Billy Mitchell every inch the real life 'Ben Stiller from Dodgeball' of video gaming. Meanwhile, Wiebe is the honest guy just trying to make a mark for himself.

I don't want to spoil it for you, but I heartily recommend this movie. The filmmaker Seth Gordon understands that the people involved can tell the story better than anyone, and wisely stays behind the camera, letting the protagonists play out the drama for us, building slowly towards a guinness world record attempt, and a live showdown between Billy Mitchell (boo!) and Steve Wiebe (hooray!).

The story is strong enough to transcend video games, and could be transposed to any sporting scenario, or situation involving a struggle for glory. All the central characters have given part of their lives to this story, and it is worth hearing as a result. Seek this out, and you won't be disappointed.

No news yet of an Irish release date, but click here for the (rather noisy) official site.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Seraphim Falls

The verdict: A slow-burning western, not without it's charm.

The rating: 6/10

'Seraphim Falls' is very marketable movie: it's a beautiful looking western with a great cast, and it's pretty watchable, if a little on the dull side. However, even when the movie was released in Ireland, the country of origin of the movie's two leading men, there was nary a whisper about it. Were Neeson and Brosnan on the Late Late show, and I missed it perhaps? Who knows, but I remember seeing one poster for this movie, and one review on TV, before it sank into obscurity.

Movie marketing just makes no sense to me. At some point in the mogul hierarchy, a decision is made whether to promote a movie or not, and for some reason, the 'Norbit' gets blanket media coverage for a fortnight, and movies like this, and others, such as 'Thank You For Smoking' must rely on word of mouth and peer recommendation to find an audience.

Ok, rant over. This Western is an old-fashioned slow-burning story in three acts that pits Liam Neeson's posse in pursuit of lone wolf Pierce Brosnan. The odds are stacked against Gideon's survival right from the opening moments of the movie, and he must struggle manfully to stay alive. This western is more 'Apocalypto' than 'Unforgiven', but if Gibson's Mayan pursuit movie was a hundred metre dash, this is more like a Winter Olympic biathlon, with the protagonists travelling long distances before stopping every now and again to shoot at each other.

Gradually, over the course of the chase, we learn of a dark secret that bonds these two men. Brosnan's character - and performance - is the more interesting of the two however, as the script is craftily fashioned to engineer the audience's sympathies for him in the first half of the movie, despite our knowledge that he must have done something wrong to be chased so relentlessly by Liam Neeson. I mean come on, that's Oscar Schindler for chrissakes, you've got to really piss him off to make him want to get a posse together!

As the pursuit progresses, we gradually get to know the two men better, as well as the tragic events that have given rise to Neeson's morbid pursuit. This is not a case of good guy chasing bad, but Neeson's motives for revenge are certainly black and white, while Brosnan's character is a little less cut and dry. Later, in the third act, things get more than a little allegorical and symbolic, with Anjelica Huston's appearance in particular resembling a devil at a crossroads, presenting these two men with choices that will ultimately decide their fate.

It's a beautiful looking film, and Brosnan is great in the lead role, with Neeson an excellent foil, even if he has relatively less to work with. The script is well constructed for the first two thirds, but jars a little when things start getting all surreal. Strangely, this movie's best moments were those when the characters weren't talking at all, and we're left to fill in the blanks. Some of the best scenes feature Brosnan's character using his survival skills, and there is more than a dash of 'First Blood' in some of his early scenes. However, later, when the back story is revealed in particular, my interest certainly waned a little, and the last third plodded a little for me.

I'm boggled why this movie was dropped by the marketing men, as it's got a lot going for it. Also, with '3:10 To Yuma' doing great business, and the Coen Brother's 'No Country for Old Men' being hailed as their best work in years, there could have been a wave of audience interest in Westerns to ride. As it is, this movie will probably sink to the 'straight-to-dvd' shelves, which is a shame, because it's not that bad. I won't lose too much sleep though, because it's not that great either.

Recommended for fans of the Western genre perhaps, and for those interested in Brosnan's post-Bond career-high performances. The man from Navan is really enjoying himself these days.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Shoot Em Up

The verdict: Clive Owen shoots bad guys while doing stuff (and Monica Bellucci) but even if it's intentionally cheesy and shallow, it lacks the genuine quality to make up for that.

The rating: 5/10

Every now and again, a 'laddish' film such as 'Shoot Em Up' is released that separates the critics into two distinct camps. On the one hand, you have the lads mags, the likes of FHM and Loaded calling it "non-stop gung-ho entertainment", and on the other, you have "big papers" like The Guardian using such a movie as an example of how modern cinema is being dumbed down.

At the level of the average movie viewer, this can often mean that such a movie becomes emblematic. For example, to admit to liking such a film is a statement that you know how to enjoy watching movies. Conversely to criticise such a film can leave you open to being seen as a bit of a cultural snob.

Now, before I give you the reasons why I didn’t like this movie, I'll ask you not to get me wrong, because I like my brainless entertainment as much as anyone. However, I'll add a bit of a proviso to that statement. Jason Statham's better movies (I'm thinking of 'Crank' and 'The One', for example) may appear at first glance to be brainless, but in my opinion this is by design rather than by accident. If you scratch a little below the surface of those movies, you'll find genuine creativity – these movies might be based on simple ideas, but they are at least a little original, they are well executed, and display a good sense of humour and enough quality to entertain.

'Shoot em up' is different. The premise of the movie is so contrived, it could have been dreamed up by Awesom-o. Anyway, the premise is thus: take John Woo's 'Hard Boiled' and remove Chow-Yun Fat. Insert Clive Owen, and numerous scenes where he shoots many many bad guys while doing cool stuff (like having sex with Monica Bellucci). Now, the premise isn't so bad, but there are so many scenes in here that are just crowbarred into the script because they sounded 'cool' (in a thoroughly self-conscious way, which of course, isn't that cool).

The action in Shoot em up is mildly entertaining at times, but the script, story and characters are just props, linking the assorted scenes of over the top gunplay. I don't know about you, but if I don't care whether the good guy lives or dies, then I’m not going to get too worried about whether he survives to the end or not.

Monica Bellucci is essentially a prop in this movie, appearing every now and again to explain what's going on to the audience, and provide a bit of agreeable T&A filler material before the next action sequence. Clive Owen isn't bad, but his dry cool one-liners are really terrible. He just doesn't have the comic delivery of an action hero. Paul Giamatti hams it up nicely, but he's working with peanuts here.

I know we should all be down with post-modern ironic entertainment, where movies like 'Grindhouse' and 'Hot Fuzz' have made it legitimate to make intentionally cheesy movies, as long as there is the occasional nod to the audience and of course, the original source material. However, this approach can wander into dangerous territory if it goes too far, and 'Shoot em up' is in the kind of 'Snakes on a Plane' territory. It's knowingly cheesy, but it's still cheesy. The one-liners might be written with the intention of making you groan, but the effect is the same. The action has been constructed to be ridiculous, but at the end of the day, is that going to give the audience real entertainment? This movie effectively steals from John Woo, and doesn't reward him for invoking his iconic image.

If you watch this film with the lads over a few cans, you might get enjoy it. Maybe I was just too damn sober for it. I'm going to give it a five, but not because I'm on a moral crusade against low-brow entertainment. No, this movie gets a five because I just didn't enjoy it that much.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Free Lecture: The Power of Japanese Animation

Nobiyuki Tsugata knows a lot about anime. In fact, he lectures about it in two Japanese universities (Osaka University of Arts and Kyoto Seika University). Also, he has written three books on the subject, which is roughly three more than you or I. Where am I going with this? Well, one more interesting thing about Nobiyuki Tsugata is that he's also coming to Dublin to talk on the subject, and if you want to go and hear what he has to say, you lucky devils get to go for free!

For those of you with an interest in Japanese animation, this promises to add bucketloads to your background knowledge of the subject from a real expert in the area, and all this at a price that can't be beat.

The lecture is in Trinity College, Dublin, in the Jonathan Swift Lecture theatre (ground floor of the Arts building) on Wednesday 3rd October at 18:30.

To register for places, you'll need to contact the Cultural/Information Division in the Embassy of Japan (tel: 01-2028305, or e-mail: cultural@embjp.ie)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Breach

The verdict: Solid, realistic and well acted political thriller, with an excellent script and three decent central performances... but it's a little lukewarm.

The rating: 6/10

You may recognise Chris Cooper's face as the emotionally repressed military father from 'American Beauty', but you there's a good chance you're not familiar with his name. You see, Cooper is one of those jobbing Hollywood actors who at one point or another, was branded as a 'character actor'. The role of the character actor is essentially to deliver capably adequate performances that will support the leading men and women, without showing off too much, and somehow outshining the reason the audience is there in the first place.

Since American Beauty, Cooper has quietly and capably turned in effective performances in some pretty big movies. He was in the first two 'Bourne' movies, 'Capote', 'Syriana' and 'Adaptation', which isn't a bad resume by anyone's standards. 'Breach' is Cooper's just reward for biding his time, and he has managed to land a role that is well suited to his talents.

At one level, this movie is the story of treason inside the CIA. Robert Hanssen (Cooper) may or may not be guilty of feeding inside information to the enemy. Former Catholic schoolboy Eric O'Neil (Ryan Philippe) is given the job of Hanssen's assistant, but this job is just a cover. In reality he is monitoring Hanssen, and reporting his movements to his real boss, Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney).

However, this movie is also a character study, following the effects of O'Neil's immersion in the activities of the CIA, through his encounters with Hanssen, the grizzled twenty-five year veteran who believes he can read people better than a lie detector, and also his immediate boss, who lives a lonely, unconnected life. Whilst in the process of uncovering the truth about Hanssen, O'Neil also comes to learn more about what the sacrifices he'll need to make to get ahead in the CIA as an agent.

I took some enjoyment from this movie, as Cooper in particular is great. Philippe delivers resaonable support, and the two share a few reasonably tense scenes together. The script is well packaged, and build slowly to a crescendo of subtle tension. This movie is based on a true story, and does feel like a slice of life in the CIA, an existence that could be transplanted to any form of corporate life by the looks of it.

The thing is, this movie is good, but it just ain't great. The tension builds slowly, but it never really simmers, and the outcome is relatively predictable. I enjoyed the fact that the good and bad guys in this movie came in shades of grey, but I was never able to warm to the characters. I could relate to the young guy in the office, wondering about how political he needs to be to get ahead, sure, but this is hardly inspiring stuff. All in all, when the end credits rolled, I wasn't really left with any strong feelings about this movie. 'Capable', 'adequate', and 'sufficient' were words that sprang to mind. Perhaps recommended for fans of political intrigue, but this isn't a top-notch thriller by any means.. let's just say if this movie was an actor, it would have a supporting role.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ratatouille

The Verdict: Excellent stuff. If you liked the Incredibles, you'll really like this.

The Rating: 8/10

In sport, as in the entertainment industry, success is often a double-edged sword. Moments of triumph are fleeting for those with that winning mentality, with successes becoming former glories faster than James Cameron can say 'I'm King of the World!!' No sooner has the ink dried on the rave reviews than the sports star or creative artist must pick themselves up and ask "what's next?".

Brad Bird followed his much lauded directorial debut, 'The Iron Giant', with a real gem of an animated feature. 'The Incredibles' won Brad Bird huge critical acclaim for producing an unpatronising piece of family entertainment, and picked up the Oscar for best animated feature. Easy to forget, however, that his script for The Incredibles was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay that year.

Bird was possibly unlucky to be in the same category as Charlie Kaufman's 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' that year, but the nomination is a reflection of his ability to produce family entertainment that has something to offer kids and adults alike. At first glance, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles are straight-forward kids' entertainment, but scratch beneath the surface, as with many kids movies, and there are clear moral messages to be taken away. Thankfully, Bird's 'messages' are subtle enough to often remain implicit to the story, and the two movies I've just mentioned never descend into preaching.

However, with the success of 'The Incredibles', Bird essentially cranked up the spotlight and pointed it at himself. What next? Well, with 'Ratatouille', in my opinion he has raised the bar. It tells the story of Remy, a rat with highly developed senses of smell and taste, who dreams of more than just living on garbage and stealing food. No, Remy's idol is a chef on the Cookery Channel named Gusteau, the best chef in France, and owner of a prestigious Parisian five-star restaurant, who believed that 'anyone can cook'.

In the first few minutes of the movie, Remy is separated from his family and friends, and is surprised to find that he has been living in Paris all along. He somehow finds his way to Gusteau's restaurant, and manages to befriend an inept chef working there. Together they begin cooking gastronomic masterpieces that begin turning around the fortunes of Gusteau's restaurant, which hasn't been doing so well lately. However, the current chef at Gusteau's suspects something is up (smells a rat? - Ed), and when uber-critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole) gets wind of the new chef at Gusteau's, he decides to sample the wares of the new chef, providing Remy with his greatest challenge yet.

As with all involving stories, it sounds so simple, but the main characters in this movie, especially Remy (pictured above) are excellently drawn and animated. There are a million little touches in the animaton that I imagine will reward the repeated viewings of a million kids and their beleagured parents once this movie is released on DVD.

Ratatouille is a wonderfully paced, entertaining story, and Bird has pitched the moral barometer just about right, delivering his lessons more with a roadmap than a baseball bat. It's funny, immersive, and should have enough to keep kids quiet for a couple of hours, while providing more than a few laughs for the adults to boot. Of particular note for the grown-ups is Peter O'Toole's speech at the end of the movie, in which Bird insightfully describes the role of the restaurant critic, in a delightful reference to the role of any critic (ahem).

So, two hearty thumbs-up for Ratatouille from me. This movie should provide a breath of fresh air to the genre of kid's animated entertainment now that the Shrek franchise has gone more than a little stale.

Ratatouille is released in Irish cinemas on 12th October

Thursday, September 13, 2007

And the winner is...

Well folks, the draw has been made, and Hugh O'Brien is the first name out of the hat, so congrats Hugh, you're won two tickets to the Irish premiere of Death Proof!!

Hugh, please get in touch so I can arrange handover of the moy-chan-dise. (As Fat Tony might say).

I should probably also point out that if Hugh fails to get in touch by four o'clock tomorrow, I'll be obliged to draw another name... so no pressure there Hugh!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Knocked Up

The verdict: Warm, funny and engaging. Don't believe all the hype, but this well written, well acted, romantic slacker comedy shouldn't disappoint.

The rating: 7/10

Judd Apatow's rise to the top of Hollywood's comedy crew has gathered so much momentum of late, you could be forgiven for thinking he came from nowhere, but that's not quite true. He's already produced and/or written a few movies for Jim Carrey and (ahem) Will Ferrell, but he first sharpened his pencil on some quality tv shows, writing for both 'Larry Sanders' and the short-lived but under-rated 'Freaks and Geeks'. However, it was with 'The 40 Year Old Virgin' that Apatow became something of a name that audiences would recognise.

Many of the same crew from that movie - except, save a pretty funny cameo, Steve Carell - are re-united here, and the slacker themes are also revisited. Seth Rogen takes top billing this time, as Ben, a twenty-something bong-smoking Canadian jew, living illegally in the U.S. on the proceeds of an personal injury claim until his fledgling porn website (flesh of the stars.com) is launched. Meanwhile Alison, played by the beautiful Katherine Heigl, is promoted to presenter on the E! Network, and decides to celebrate by going out on the town with her older sister Debbie. In the club, the paths of these two characters cross, one thing leads to another and.. well.. I'm not spoiling anything here am I? I mean it's called 'Knocked Up', but it's not about tennis, you can guess what happens next!

The concept of this movie is so simple, it's amazing that it's any good. Essentially following these characters' efforts to cope with the imminent arrival of a big change in their lives, if the people involved weren't realistic and likeable, this film would be a disaster. Thankfully Apatow's script and an excellent cast make this a fun, enjoyable movie.

Rogen and Heigl are both great in the leads, and Paul Rudd is another familiar face from 'The 40 Year Old Virgin' making a welcome appearance. Rudd and Rogen's trip to Vegas in particular is a memorable sequence, and if you've never heard of 'pink-eye' before, then you may need to see this film.

The sense of humour is part 'The Office', part 'American Pie', but what makes Apatow's comedy so engaging is that each character has an identity, rather than just a 'motivation', or a plot-related reason for being on screen. Even the bit players have a personality, such as the candidate gynaecologists, or Ben's slacker buddies, and these aren't simple stereotypes such as 'the jock' or 'the nerd', each character has idiosyncrasies that make them funny. It's a subtle, but effective approach, and needs a good cast to pull it off. (Fnar fnar! - Ed)

I'm not sure how much more I need to say on this one really folks. If you enjoyed 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' and you're looking for the perfect date movie, read no further, just get out and see this one...

However, be prepared for next year, because Judd Apatow has 'arrived' in Hollywood, and he's cranking up the production line to eleven. Next summer he'll be churning em out for Jack Black ('The Dewey Cox Story'), Will Ferrell ('Step Brothers') and *cough* Adam Sandler ('You Don't Mess With The Zohan'). The jury's out as to the potential quality of any of those (The Will Ferrell one should be good - Ed) but right about now, Apatow is pretty much the guy Hollywood comedians need to work with.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

The verdict: Savvy, slick street-wise comedy actioner with a good sense of humour, this is pretty good fun.

The rating: 6/10

For some reason, I filed 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' in the 'maybe' category when it was released, and so never quite caught up with it. However, more recently I've seen Robert Downey Jr. in the brilliant 'A Scanner Darkly' and the thoroughly great 'Zodiac', and he's considering he's soon to star as the hero in the upcoming 'Iron Man', I figured it'd be remiss of me to let the movie that relaunched his glittering post-rehab career pass me by.

Also of interest is the comparitive lack of success that Val Kilmer has enjoyed since this - critically acclaimed and financially successful - movie was released.. I mean, have you seen him in anything recently? What's that? You mean you didn't see him in 'Ten Commandments: The Musical'? Shame on you reader, shame on you.

Anyhoo, Shane Black wrote and directed this movie, and this guy also wrote 'Lethal Weapon', back when the buddy cop movie was a fresh idea, and the origins of this genre are widely credited to him as it happens. Black also wrote what was so nearly Arnie's greatest moment, 'The Last Action Hero'. Sadly, that movie missed its marks, and was widely hailed as a turkey, but he did pen 'The Last Kiss Goodnight', one of those 'actually not too bad' movies you occasionally catch on d'telly.

It's safe to say that 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' is a better movie than Black's other writing credits, and as writer and director here, he has to take much of the plaudits for this, because it is very well written and looks great. The dialogue is sharp and crackles with wit and energy, delivered effortlessly by Downey Jr., who also plays the role of the self-conscious narrator. Kilmer has some great lines as the gay private detective 'Gay Perry', and Michelle Monaghan is only occasionally annoying as Harmony, the aspiring actress embroiled in the same nefarious Hollywood goings on as Downey Jr., and with a few dark secrets of her own to boot.

It's essentially a mystery suspense thriller type of deal, but so tongue in cheek that it's difficult to get too worried about what happens on screen, with Kilmer and Downey Jr.'s scenes together particularly good fun to watch. Downey also has a good chemistry with Monaghan, and there is a particularly good scene featuring a spider that made me laugh out loud. The story twists and turns with ruthless efficiency, and all builds towards a set-piece finale, with the efficiency of a well-oiled Hollywood machine, at times veering towards pat story-telling, but always with a few dry one-liners to keep the audience smiling.

Black has very obviously been influenced by Guy Ritchie's 'Lock Stock' and 'Snatch', and there were moments here evoking memories of those movies. Someone losing a finger shouldn't make you laugh, for example, but in Shane Black's world, as in Ritchie's, this type of incident seems quite easy for the audience to take on board, and is used as a comedy prop.

I found the whole thing good fun and it trundled along at a nice pace. However it was wrapped up a little too easily in the end with an improbable and jarring action sequence. Also, even though it was set in L.A., against the vacuous backdrop of aspiring actors and actresses, the whole thing just felt a bit lacking in substance. Black has improved his comic delivery, and polished the packaging of his movie to look shiny and new, but at the end of the day, this film is not much more memorable than his previous offerings. That said, it's not a bad dvd choice for a night in, you could definitely do a lot worse.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

28 Weeks Later

The verdict: An admirable attempt at building on Danny Boyle's acclaimed not-a-zombie-movie-but-may-as-well-be: '28 Days Later', this is entertaining stuff, but falls well short of the original.

The rating: 5/10

Sometimes, sequels are easy. In the early nineties, James Cameron certainly seemed to think so. Despite Ridley Scott's 'Alien' and his own 'The Terminator' both being recognised by audiences and critics alike as excellent movies, he arguably followed both with better films (in my book anyway). More recently, Paul Greengrass proved it was possible, with each Bourne movie he makes seemingly better than the one that came before, and you might remember the first one wasn't all that bad either.

With '28 Days Later' though, I always felt that it was going to be a tough gig for whoever it was that picked up the reins left slack by the polyvalent Danny Boyle. Boyle seemingly never revisits a genre once he hits his marks, and wasn't interested in making the sequel to '28 Days Later'. That movie was a breath of fresh air for a genre dominated by dull, formulaic remakes ('Land of the Dead', anyone?). It featured the now iconic scenes of Cillian Murphy wandering through a deserted London city centre, and a chilling virus known only as 'the rage'. Nice. It was also a very uncomfortable movie to watch, with the army barracks scenes in particular harbouring genuinely nasty undertones, to the point where you're rooting for the monsters over those creepy soldiers..

The director of 28 Weeks Later is no slouch though, and bizarrely, his movie 'Intacto' provided me with the orignal inspiration for this blog. Apparently I went to see it, but I have absolutely no memory of it, except, ahem, that it was pretty good... (What a review! - Ed). Hence the decision to record each individual reaction, lest I forget another! Anyway, the director also received executive producer Danny Boyle's stamp of approval, and he even borrowed 'Sunshine's Rose Byrne for one of the lead roles.

So, to the question, where do you go from '28 Days Later?', the answer, apparently, is back to London. The virus has apparently disappeared (yeah, right) and the U.S. Military are in to restore order (Fuck Yeah! - Ed) They're doing their best to rebuild, but we know it'll all go horribly wrong, and it quickly does.

If you thought the hand-held cameras in 'The Bourne Ultimatum' were annoying, then I would recommend you stay away from this movie. The jerky hand held makes the chases seem more visceral, and the rage-infected seem more frantic, but jaysis if it doesn't half get a bit tiresome after a while!

The tension is maintained for around an hour or so, but I felt it lost its way towards the end, particularly when a few bad decisions are made. I feel that if I found myself in a horror movie scenario, I wouldn't decide to hide out in a subway station where it was too dark to see anything. But hey, that's just me.

The end is teasingly left wide open for a third instalment, and stranger things have happened. However, with this movie I think we already have a good example of the law of diminishing returns in action, and the horse has been sufficiently flogged in my opinion. It's not by any means an offensive sequel, but the original was way better. Undemanding entertainment with a few good scares, but was possibly always going to be lacking the originality that made the first instalment so special.

Sherrybaby

The verdict: A dark melodramatic tale of family ties and difficult lives, but without an awful lot to say. Maggie Gyllenhall is great, but the movie is mediocre.

The rating: 6/10

Don't get me wrong, I do like a good depressing melodrama every now and again. (Call me old fashioned!). Mike Leigh's 'Secrets and Lies', or possibly Darren Arronofsky's 'Requiem for a Dream' both spring to mind as real gems, but also properly harrowing.

These are not movies to casually throw on after a few pints, because they demand the audience be in the right frame of mind, mainly to avoid being reduced to weeping on the couch in the foetal position within half an hour. 'Sherrybaby' is in certainly in the same ballpark as those I've previously mentioned, but unfortunately doesn't even approach the same level of quality.

Sherry (Maggie Gyllenhall) is released from prison, two and a half years clean of heroin, and attempts to renew contact with a daughter she hardly knows. ... Yes folks, it's that kind of movie. (Jeez, you didn't fancy 'Knocked Up' then!? - Ed).

The plot follows Sherry as she attempts to build her life in the weeks after her release, struggling with addiction, family, and trying to do the right thing. Unfotunately, her background, though it appears rosy from the outside looking in, is anything but, and gradually more details are revealed about Sherry's past that explain why she is in the position she is in today.

Laurie Collyer wrote and directed this one, and the main point of interest in relation to the script is the prevalence of the female perspective in almost every scene. Particularly in her scenes with her daughter (Lexy), and also in the scenes with her sister in law, who has been raising her, I got the impression that the dialogue could not have been crafted by a bloke. There was much more unspoken dialogue than spoken, if that makes sense, and this adds to the realism, a definite plus point.

The thing is though, after sitting through Sherry's tough experiences and difficult times, I'm not really sure what I took away from this movie. In 'Transamerica', another drama told from a female (well, sort of) perspective, I had the impression that, if there was a point to be made, then I might have 'got it'. With Sherrybaby, I was left a little cold. Perhaps Sherry's situation was inevitable all along? Did she learn not to be so selfish and put other people's needs before her own, despite all the horrible stuff she had been through? The evidence on screen is inconclusive at best.

It's well acted, and very well written, but ultimately a standout lead performance does not always a great movie make. There are exceptions of course ('The Last King of Scotland') but Sherrybaby ain't it. I wouldn't run a mile from it, but it's only for die hard Maggie Gyllenhall fans, or possibly only those with a passing interest who just want to see her breasts a few times.

Death Proof Competition

Win two tickets to the Irish Premiere of Quentin Tarantino's 'Death Proof'!

Yes, you could be among the first in Ireland to see Tarantino's GrindHouse pic in the presence of the man himself... The premiere takes place on Friday September 14th in the Savoy cinema, Dublin. (More details here)

Two tickets are up for grabs.. all you have to do is answer three simple movie-related questions. The answers can all be found somewhere on this blog (little tip: use the search bar at the top of the page to help you...)

The Questions
1. Which English premier league football team does Sylvester Stallone (apparently) support?
2. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are starring together in a movie released later this year. Name that movie.
3. Name a Thai movie that features a gay volleyball team (I'm presuming there is only one...)

The rules:
- One entry per person. Multiple entries will be ignored.
- Competition will close for entry on Wednesday 12th September at 17.00.
- Your mail address will not be used for any other purpose than this competition. No mailing lists, I promise.
- The winner will be notified on Thurday 13th September before 17.00.


Answers should be e-mailed here. Good luck!

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

The verdict: A cracking actioner, requiring just the right amount of suspension of disbelief. The Bourne Ultimatum is that rarest of movie entities: a third instalment that improves on the previous two.

The rating: 8/10

The third instalment of the Bourne trilogy trundles along at such a confident, relentless pace, it would almost be easy to dismiss it as a solid action movie... you know, good popcorn entertainment. Well, I'm happy not to describe Ultimatum only in those terms, simply because it provides an absolutely top night at the flicks.

Be prepared though folks, because this movie is a tale of perpetual motion, right from the off. From the amnesiac hero at it's centre, on the run from the CIA and the NSA, to the hand-held camera style favoured by the movie's director, the now surely A-list Paul Greengrass, everbody in this movie is in a hurry to get about their business. Right from the opening scenes, which pick up as the second movie ended, there is an atmosphere of little time to waste: the dialogue comes thick and fast, and the action, set almost in real time pace, is smart, realistic and adrenaline-fuelled.

This movie follows a similar template to the previous instalment: Bourne is trying to re-discover his identity while being pursued by the CIA, who use cutting edge technology to try and catch up with him before he uncovers a number of dark secrets that their top brass would prefer to keep buried. While Bourne jets from one exotic location to the next, the CIA agents pace up and down in ultra-modern offices, using any means necessary to try and dispose of him, and getting quite irritated with each other as they continually fail to do so. Meanwhile, Bourne must follow a lukewarm trail of limited information from one life-threatening situation to the next, and keep literally just one step ahead of his pursuers all the while.

Matt Damon is convincing, and David Srathairn is excellent as the morally questionable chief investigator. Joan Allen reprises her role as chief pacer in the office, and does have a little more to do in this instalment, but the real star of the movie is the action. The set-pieces never feel overly contrived, as they are all deceptively simple. A few car chases, a chase on foot across rooftops in Tangier, a sniper in Waterloo station, every set-piece is filled with tension, close shaves, and unexpected twists, leaving the audience with just enough time to gasp before the next moment of high drama erupts onto the screen.

The soundtrack pulses with just the right amount of intensity when building tension, but daringly, many of the action sequences occur without any musical backing. When Bourne is fighting hand-to hand, we hear every swipe, every grunt of pain, and every bone crunching hit. When Bourne is in mobile pursuit, we hear tyres screeching, sirens wailing, glass smashing, and shouts of passers by. Overall, the sound in this Bourne movie really is second to none, and heightens the impact of the action scenes.

The dialogue is terse and urgent, and as with the action, there is little waste, with everything happening at real pace. However, there is some depth below the surface in the exchanges we see on screen, with the high-powered executive banter in particular displaying a real wit that you're unlikely to see in many actioners. A moment that sticks in my mind is when David Strathairn's character lambasts Joan Allen for criticising real-time judgements from an armchair, and I interpreted this almost as a challenge from the screen writers to the audience, as if they were saying, go on then, what would you do differently in this situation? Because Bourne generally stays one step ahead, and also because of the pace of the action, we never get the opportunity to poke holes in his decisions, and this is a major strength of the movie.

There are no cheesy one-liners, arched eyebrows, invisible cars or signature theme tune here (unless you count that Moby song.. which I don't). Bourne gets hurt and is regularly in mortal danger, but when he has to fight, he can fight. When he needs to drive, he's as comfortable on a scrambler as in a cop car. He capably speaks foreign languages, he knows how to lose a tail and he uses pay as you go mobile phones to avoid surveillance. Nothing in Bourne is beyond the boundaries of possibility, and that's what pulls you into wanting him to win out in the end.

If this movie is overlooked for Oscar next year, it will be a real crime. Direction, sound and script are top notch here and are the definite stars of the piece. Damon, too though, is understated and quietly effective in the lead role, and Strathairn and Allen have a very watchable sparring relationship, with a real undercurrent of tension (thankfully not of the Unresolved Sexual type).

What more can I say folks, go see it, you'll have a blast. You'll need a little suspension of disbelief, but not much, and for a movie that asks for so little, it delivers in spadeloads. I'm not sure if I want them to make a 'Bourne IV' (the door is left wiide open), but as long as Paul Greengrass continues to make movies of anything approaching this quality, then I'm going to be very happy to keep watching.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Disturbia

The verdict: Polished thriller with plenty of smarts that will certainly launch Shia LaBoeuf's career, and provide large audiences with above average multiplex fodder. It's not great though.

The rating: 6/10

Essentially a remake, or perhaps more accurately a 'modern updating' of Hitchcock's masterpiece Rear Window, 'Disturbia' tells the story of troubled teen Kale, played by Shia LaBoeuf. Wheile Jimmy Stewart's broken leg meant he was immobile during a New York City heatwave, Kale is made housebound for the summer with an electronic tag after he punches his Spanish teacher in the face.

The story is similar enough to Rear Window, in that during his forced retreat from the outside world, our protagonist takes to observing his neighbours, and becomes increasingly suspicious of a neighbour who may or may not be a murderer. However, this being a 'fresh' modern updating of the story, our protagonist here is a teen suburban subscriber to X-Box live and iTunes, who takes to watching his extremely hot neighbour Ashley (Sarah Roemer) taking afternoon swims when his subscriptions to said services are withdrawn by his mom.

The movie is better than your average teen schlock fare, with the first hour building nicely and providing a few genuinely tense moments. LaBoeuf is a very capable lead, and if I was the E! Channel, I'd be describing him as 'so hot right now', with 'Transformers' still doing great business for him, and 'Disturbia' already having hit the top spot in the U.S. He's even doing voices for kids' animated movies for chrissakes, and Steven Spielberg has seen fit to cast him alongside Harrison Ford in the next Indiana Jones.... so he's doing alright for himself!

The supporting cast are all likeable, with Aaron Yoo turning in a great performance as Kale's funny mate who, somewhat unfortunately for him, does all the donkey work for his house-bound buddy when the killer's house needs to be investigated. Sarah Roemer fills the screen marvellously well, and is very capable to boot, while Carrie-Anne Moss and David Morse provide more than adequate support as Kale's mom and the suspected slasher respectively. Morse in particular is nicely dark, and adds a sinister atmosphere to proceedings in each of his scenes, without hamming it up too much.

It's well written, and director D.J. Caruso certainly delivers a polished thriller with plenty of frights and tense moments. Unfortunately, in the third act of 'Disturbia', things take a far more macabre and chaotic turn than in hitchcock's movie, where the suggestion of dodgy goings-on was used as a means to create tension, and where we were never permitted entry into the prime suspect's residence. In this version, we are shown all the grisly details, and somehow the movie loses a lot of the tension it had built in the previous hour, where it just becomes a bit of a chase, derivative of 'Scream', and perhaps influenced by 'Saw'.

In terms of what to expect with this movie, think 'Final Destination'. When I saw that one first, I remember thinking, "hey, that isn't a bad idea.." Perhaps because I was surprised to see an idea so good in a film that I expected to be mediocre, I enjoyed that movie all the more. The thing is, the idea in 'Disturbia' isn't original - Hitchcock did it better about forty years ago. Also, the third act lets it down more than a little. It's thoroughly inoffensive, if a little predictable, but it's a lot better than some of the rubbish you'll see in the multiplexes this year.

In short, 'Disturbia' will provide some decent popcorn entertainment, but it certainly won't live long in the memory.

Bridge To Terabithia

The Verdict: A smart, bittersweet little gem of a movie pitched at the perfect level for growing kids and embittered adults alike.

The Rating: 8/10

Despite what the mainstream media might have us believe, not all kids these days are smoking ecstasy pipes while happy-slapping their delinquent friends on YouTube. I'm not talking about very young kids here, those still at the age where copious tears are shed with monotonous regularity ("I scratched my knee", "It's dark and I'm afraid", "There's alligators in the toilet") Hmmm, maybe just me on that last one then... No, I'm talking about the age when your folks get fed up to the back teeth with all this whinging, and start mentioning those terrible words: 'grow up'! That's when independence is forged, and things start getting all too real for kids who shouldn't be behaving like babies any more...

Ah yes, tween angst, that heinous, hormonally unbalanced beast, it's something Disney have been successfully tapping into for years. With 'Bridge to Terabithia', however, they've somehow managed to package it into a subtle, beautifully filmed movie that will surprise most with it's deceptively simple depth and quality.

The story deals with young Jesse, at a twelvish age and feeling a bit left out at school, the poor wee sod. He's interested in running and drawing, but from meagre means, so unable to afford decent trainers or paints. He's the fastest kid in school of his age, but thanks to the bullies, a bit of a loner. However, when Leslie, a quirky new girl starts at his school, and moves in next door to him, they quickly make friends and begin exploring in the forest behind their houses.

It sounds so simple, and it is, but the relationship between the two kids is extremely well written and developed. Both are excluded at school, and through this they bond, finding the means to tackle the bullies and bad kids. Their imaginations, Leslie's in particular, are their escape, and they conspire to imagine a world of their own in the forest, where they make the rules and are in charge.

It's not all happy exploring though. The theme of death is first introduced so subtly, that when it recurs, it is very very shocking indeed. Jess's father (the T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick) keeps a greenhouse, and sells the veg they grow there to supplement his already stretched income. However, he has to lay a trap in the greenhouse for an invading rodent who continually breaks in, and tells the young lad that he'll 'deal with' the intruder when he catches him. When the sound of the trap being sprung wakes Jess early one morning, he sneaks down to the greenhouse and releases the creature, for fear of what was about to happen to it. The scene where the mean dad berates the kid and tells him to 'get his head out of the clouds' is a revealing one, especially considering what comes later in the movie.

I don't want to spoil this movie, but as it's essentially a kids' film that adults can watch, it is important to tell you that it is probably going to be about as harrowing to a kid as, say, Bambi was to you when you first watched it. It's important to remember that most people who watched that movie as kids, never forget it.

In this movie, the themes of death, growing up, and the power of a child-like imagination are all delicately and subtly explored in this movie in a mature and considered manner, but pitched at a level that kids will 'get'.

The two leads are great, and although they are a little 'Disney Club' at times, they are frighteningly capable, the young lad in particular having to deal with some tough material. His music teacher, played by a doe-eyed Zooey Deschanel, also has a nicely understated supporting turn, the script is great, and although there are a few cheesy Disney moments thrown in here, they are acceptably brief, and sort of make sense when they do happen. The man in charge, Gabor Csupo (the real life Dr. Nick Riviera from The Simpsons!) directs with a steady hand, never over-using the unusual special effects, and literally letting the kids do the talking.

No question about it though folks, if you have kids, this movie will make them cry! However, I recommend it as it thoroughly surprised me with its intelligence, subtlety and respect for the ability of its target audience to handle the drama that's unfolding on screen in front of them. Plenty in here for adults as well though, and it may be unfair to compare it to a movie as good as 'Pans Labyrinth', but Terabithia is perhaps a less grown-up version of a similarly themed story, and has many of the same qualities that made Pans Labyrinth so watchable.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The 11th Hour: Preview

There was a typically insightful, albeit slightly cynical moment, in the opening minutes of the Simpsons movie, where Greenday, after playing for two and a half hours, request a minute of the Springfield audience's time to deliver a quick message about the environment... now, at the risk of meeting the same fate as those lads, I'd like to briefly interrupt this blog-cast to bring you a wee message... (see trailer below)

Now, it would be all too easy to dismiss Leonardo DiCaprio's movie about global warming. After all, he's a super-rich Hollywood bigshot, what business does he have telling us how to live, I ask you!? Well, don't scramble the angry mob just yet folks, as it appears that DiCaprio's movie is a well researched piece from the list of contributing scientists at least, but more importantly, it is a cinematic movie, featuring some beautiful shots in the trailer at least.

While Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth focussed rightly on getting across the message of a real and genuine crisis with regard to climate change, times and the global political landscape have progressed since that film was released. By contrast, DiCaprio's two cents (more than that I'd imagine - Ed) begins with acceptance that the global climate is in crisis. Taking that as read, the movie tries to spotlight what can be done to turn this around.

No news yet on Irish release dates, but check out the trailer below, see what you think. And actually, if you do take the time to watch the trailer, please let me know if you'll be interested in seeing the movie, just as a straw poll... maybe another documentary about the environment is one too many? See if the trailer tickles your fancy anyway...


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The verdict: Very obviously inspiration for Monty Python, Michel Gondry, Stanley Kubrick and, no doubt, countless others.

This is a funny, accessible dream-like satire featuring deceptively serious themes of mortality and purpose.

The rating: 8/10

Although I had vague memories of watching 'Belle de Jour' many moons ago, I was a little wary of what to expect from my first Luis Bunuel movie as an adult, especially one with a title as wacky as this one. It turns out that the title is strangely descriptive though, as the movie is essentially a gentle satire of upper class habits and customs.

I felt on safe ground almost immediately as the opening scenes of this movie developed. It centers around the movements of a group of three wealthy French couples, who are constantly meeting for dinner, or at least, attempting to meet for dinner. Every time they meet, something seems to scupper their plans, be it a simple mix-up with dates in the beginning of the movie, or the frustrating fact that the entire meeting was dreamed by one of the group, as happens later in the movie when things get a little more involved.

The group of well-heeled couples are versed in etiquette and proper behaviour, and espouse decorum at all times. Behind this layer of politeness however, lurks a significant amount of dark secrets. The male characters are up to no good right from the get-go, with Fernando Rey (you might remember him as the bad guy from 'The French Connection') proving to be a softly spoken, well mannered cocaine smuggler.

The relationships and dialogue between the three couples reminded me of the dinner party scene in 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life', when Eric Idle's salmon accidentally killed herself and all her guests. Oh bother. This scene from Monty Python was most definitely inspired from scenes in Bunuel's movie, where absurd politeness also happens to sit alongside the imminent approach of death. Just as death played a role in the Monty Python movie, so it does here. In one of many dream sequences, a young boy is visited by the ghost of his mother. After catching a glimpse of her in a mirror, he begins writing on a mirror in red lipstick in a subtly frightening scene, a single shot that instantly reminded me of 'The Shining'. When his mother appears the second time, she speaks without moving her lips, and this too is more than a little unnerving. However, the kid is happy to see her, and hasquickly grown more comfortable with his dead visitor.

Dream sequences play a large part in this movie, and a single shot, repeated three times, may be designed to have the audience question whether these characters are actually alive at all. At three separate moments, we see six main characters alone on a country road, walking towards the distance without speaking to each another. Is this a dream of one of the characters? Or is it merely designed to signal to the audience that the real lives of these characters is the pointless journey? Open to interpretation that one.

The dream sequences are complex, but never get too out of hand. The satire is gentle, and sometimes bombastic - such as when the military batallion interrupt one of the dinner parties - but it never goes over the top. There is a sense of madcap humour about this movie that is infectious however, and even some elements of farce - such as when the local bishop becomes a gardener to one of the couples - but this is explained, and makes a crazy sort of sense, in the context of the movie.

Bunuel collaborated with the prolific Jean Claude Carriere on six movies, all made consecutively, and this one was made in 1972. It's awesome to think just what a source of inspiration it has been to film-makers over the years, and how original it must have seemed at the time it was released.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and am now looking forward to the prospect of getting through my Bunuel box set: this one is heartily recommended as a jaunty little madcap diversion from the mainstream. It's a little surreal, but then again, so was 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', and how good was that?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

The verdict: A safe, predictable and somewhat irrelevant cinematic debut for the ubiquitous yellow animated clan.

The rating: 6/10

The American tv show 'Happy Days' inadvertently coined an unfortunate phrase for the moment when an entertainment franchise runs out of gas. That moment when, collectively, the audience decides that there might be something better on the other channel.

The phrase originates from a moment when Fonzie decided to jump a shark through an ingenious set-piece involving a speedboat, a ramp and some rather shoddy special effects. From that moment, the ratings for Happy Days, previously a cornerstone of American tv viewing, dropped dramatically. Thus, to 'jump the shark' is, like Fonzie did that fateful day, to reveal to your audience that you've run out of ideas.

For example, the Wachowski Brothers jumped the shark with the third matrix movie. George Lucas jumped the shark with Jar Jar and Episode I. More often than not these days, television series are conceived with a lifespan in mind, a seven year cycle that will bring it to a logical conclusion. The objective? Avoid jumping the shark.

For seven or eight years, 'The Simpsons' was light years ahead of most of what television, and american television in particular, had to offer. Even Matt Groening could never have imagined the kind of global cultural impact this cartoon family could have had, starting as they did from such humble beginnings as crudely drawn short interludes on The Tracey Ullman show. However, increasingly, audiences are beginning to notice that the quality of Springfield's output has hit a sort of creative plateau.

Fast forward to 2007, and the Simpsons has become a staple of the Fox Network's schedule, on air now for almost twenty years, and soon to become the longest running tv show in the history of the world, ever. The list of guest voices on the show reads like a who's who of popular culture: Spinal Tap, Tony Blair, Stephen Hawking, U2, The Rolling Stones. More recently, Ricky Gervais wrote an episode and, now in the movie, Green Day make an appearance.

The Simpsons is an institution, as iconic as it is possible to be in popular entertainment. However, its best moments are most definitely behind it, and the movie only reinforces this.

The critical buzz from the Simpsons movie goes something like: "yes it's just like an episode of the Simpsons on the big screen, but is that such a bad thing?". Well, this reviewer humbly argues that the movie is about twelve years behind its time, and that to compare a movie to a current episode of the Simpsons makes me not want to pay ten euros to go and see it.

Harsh words perhaps? Well, in my defence, allow me to consider a far superior tv-to-movie jump from an animated series. The 'Southpark' movie was a ballsy, intelligent comedy that used the format of the musical to expose the franchise to a whole new audience, and deservedly received huge critical acclaim. By comparison, the Simpsons movie attempts nothing fresh or new. Also, the quality of the Simpsons TV series has been in steady decline for about ten years. Now, it could be argued that the average episode is still of a decent enough quality, but the point of a movie transition should be to expand the franchise somehow, to perhaps take a creative risk. With the Simpsons movie, we have a plot based around recycled moments from episodes we've already seen, packaged with better anumation and a few new gags.

A telling moment from the Simpsons movie occurs as the closing credits are rolling. Maggie finally says her first word, and it is 'sequel'. As the family disappointedly trudged off screen, I feared that this was the moment. Yes folks, this was the moment when I feared that the Simpsons may have jumped the shark.

It's not a bad movie. I mean, after all, it's 'the Simpsons', like a familiar blanket you can wrap yourself in when you're tired after work, eating your dinner, or waiting for 'Heroes' or 'Prison Break' to start of a midweek evening. It's just that the movie offers neither Simpsons fans nor newbies alike, anyhing new, at least, nothing that the tv show hasn't been doing for years and years.

'Spider pig' was funny, as was Homer's chainsaw impression. The rest, well, I just got the feeling I'd seen it all before on the smaller screen. Yes, I chuckled through a lot of it, but, like the average gag on 'Family Guy', this movie won't live long in the memory. Kids will love it, but followers of the tv series will have seen most of this before. The simpsons isn't jumping the shark in terms of its global audience, but for me, from now on, I'll be having a look to see what else is on.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Zodiac

The verdict: Immersive, lovingly created psychological drama that focuses on a small group of people obsessed with catching an elusive killer.

The rating: 8/10

Now this is a movie. Right from the languid opening moments, when the camera trawls slowly over a night-time vista of a fireworks display, and the soothing, late seventies soundtrack caresses the eardrums, the audience should be in no doubt. The message, right from the off, is to sit back, strap yourself in, and enjoy the journey.

In those first scenes, where a young couple foolishly decide to head to a lonely late night make-out spot (first rule of horror films people, keep your kit on! - Ed), the uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that this is another teen slasher movie in the vein of something like 'Road Kill' or 'The Hitcher'. Luckily however, this movie was crafted by David Fincher, so we are in for an entirely different kind of journey.

Fincher has had an interesting career, even by Hollywood standards. He started out as a miniature artist on small movies like (*cough*) 'Return of The Jedi' and (*cough*) 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'. Next, perhaps emulating Martin Scorcese, he cut his directorial eye teeth with a concert movie. However, like so many other directors currently making the big bucks in Hollywood, he really gained notoriety as a music video director, churning out pop promos for small-time musical acts such as Sting ('Englishman in New York'), Michael Jackson ('Who is it') and Madonna (would you believe it: 'Vogue'!).

His big break came with a franchise instalment, but unfortunately, 'Alien 3' was a stylish failure, allowing Fincher room to demonstrate his technical expertise, but possibly at the expense of a decent story. However, treading in the footsteps of Ridley Scott and James Cameron is no easy thing to do.. (but I'll be honest with ya folks, I've always had a soft spot for Alien 3). The rest, you probably know already. After all, this is the guy behind 'Fight Club' and 'Seven', unquestionably two modern classics, but also 'The Game', an oft-overlooked little gem featuring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, and a wickedly mind-bending story.

With 'Zodiac', Fincher has brought a labour of love to the screen. Based on the book by Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle in the seventies and eighties, it tells the story of 'The Zodiac', a serial killer who loomed large in San Francisco in the late 70's. With a craving for media attention and a love of puzzles, this killer captured the attention of the public for half a decade. This guy was never cuaght, and taunted the media and the police with clues as to his identity, sending them letters, and even ringing in to televised talkshows to talk of his exploits.

Jake Gyllenhall plays Robert Graysmith, and he is instinctively drawn to the case right from moment the Zodiac's first letter is received at his office. Crime Correspondent Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is charged with reporting on the case, but he picks up on Graysmith's intuition as to why the killer is sending puzzles, and together they work on cracking the case. Meanwhile, the police investigation is headed by Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner, played by Anthony Edwards (the Goose man! - Ed).

The story follows the timeline of the case, and tracks the effect this investigation has on the people most closely involved with it. At first, Toschi is the man obsessed, and he comes painfully close to an arrest at one point. However, the physical evidence simply isn't on his side, so his suspect goes free. Avery (Downey) for his part, angers the Zodiac by referring to him as a latent homosexual, and for a time his life appears to be at risk, which only fuels Avery's problems with alcohol.. and the rest.

As the years pass since the Zodiac's last killing, Avery's career goes on a downward spiral. Possibly in an attempt to help his friend, but also possibly out of self-interest, Graysmith offers to help Avery write a book on the Zodiac, but Avery isn't interested. And so begins Graysmith's obsession with the case.

The central performances in this movie are all strong, and are as close to perfect casting as you will see. Gyllenhall's character is moody and weird, Downey's is a fully-functioning alcoholic, and Ruffalo - although almost unrecognisable compared to his character in 'Eternal Sunshine' - is a driven, ambitous and emotional cop. The supporting cast, are all great too, with Brian Cox seemingly omnipresent lately, but the screen is full of recognisable, talented faces, all adding to the atomsphere of the drama.

In terms of atmosphere, the most ready comparison I could make would be with Spike Lee's excellent 'Summer of Sam', but Zodiac is a better movie, if a slightly different animal.

The movie looks and sounds absolutely great, and will be a dream for any HD LCD or Plasma TV owner. Every scene is framed beautifully, and this is a much more colourful film than most of Fincher's previous work, synonymous as it is with either darkness ('Seven') or monochrome colours ('Panic Room'). The soundtrack is atmospheric and seamlessly works with the action, adding to the feeling of being placed in the 70's.

Part police procedural drama, part ensemble mystery story, one criticism I would have of Zodiac is that it is a little long. However, this is not to say that there are any vacuous moments in the movie, it's just that there really is a lot of detail up there on screen.

However, the central performances are all outstanding, the direction and script are top notch and the story is definitely one worth hearing. For these reasons I'd heartily recommend 'Zodiac', and reckon it's easily one of the best movies I've seen this year so far.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Bourne Supremacy

The verdict: Gritty, action-packed and, unbelievably, it's believable! Bond should look to Bourne for ideas, because this is what a spy thriller should be. Roll on Bourne 3!

The rating: 7/10

I don't know, there just seemed to be no end of fuss and hype about 'Casino Royale'. Fair enough, Daniel Craig delivered a great performance as Bond, and the script and action were the best we've seen from the franchise in years, but when you watch 'The Bourne Supremacy', you begin to realise the failings of the british franchise. The problem with Bond, as Daniel Craig found out so viscerally, is all the bloody baggage that comes with it. Everybody has expectations of who Bond should be, what he should say, what fecking car he should drive.. For film-makers to take on the Bond franchise, they have the weight of expectation around this larger than life character that has an off-screen identity all his own.

Bourne has no such baggage. The first movie was a pacy actioner in which Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) awakes from a spell of amnesia to find that he's a highly trained super-spy, and his life is in danger. Instantly, the rules of the game become fluid. We aren't sure what to expect from Bourne because he doesn't know what's going to happen next himself.

The first movie, with its understated and dangerous hero, managed to relaunch the flagging career of Matt Damon, and luckily there were two more Robert Ludlum books to mine for sequel material. Now, of course we have the franchise, with the third movie 'The Bourne Ultimatum' due out this summer, and featuring Paddy Considine in a lead role, good work, fella!

In an inspired piece of delegation for this, the second episode, the reins were handed to United 93's helmsman Paul Greengrass, and this has injected a dose of grittier, more realistic action to proceedings. Bourne has no catchphrase, and there are no invisible cars on show in this spy thriller.

Right from the opening moments, 'The Bourne Supremacy' sets the ball rolling for a fraught, tense and realistic thriller that is definitely worth the admission price. Greengrass brings an immediacy to proceedings, and the action moves at a real-time pace, with Bourne literally living moment to moment, but always a pace or two ahead of his pursuers.

The supporting cast adds the required level of gravitas to proceedings, with Brian Cox delivering a pretty good turn as the veteran of operation Treadstone, Bourne's training mission. Julia Stiles also shows up, and has a nice few scenes with Damon, where she genuinely looks like she's fearing for her life. Bless.

Crucial to your enjoyment of a movie like this though, is whether you can believe what's unfolding in front of you. To his credit, Greengrass manages the pace of the action very well, and although at times events happen very quickly, the movie never gets ahead of itself. When gadgets are employed, they are sufficiently low-tech in appearance, portable, and conspicuously free of brand names to make them look like they might actually do what Bourne is trying to make them do. One criticism might be that even in the quieter moments of the movie, his characteristic jerky hand-held camera style seems a little at odds with what's happening on screen, but this is a small quibble compared to the positives.

Damon is convincing as the amnesiac hero, and has sufficiently increased in bulk to make you believe he's hold his own in a ruck with a russian mole, or whatever. As I said previously though, Greengrass has foregone the dry cool wit of the action hero, so Damon has no killer line to speak of, of the "Bourne, Jason Bourne" variety. (How about: "I'm Bourne. You're dead." Eh? ... No?... - Ed).. However, given the situations he's dealing with, you'd forgive him for not having the time to throw a witty remark over his shoulder..

I have to say, I was impressed with this one, and am now really looking forward to the third instalment, which will also be direted by Greengrass. In any case, this one is well worth a look on Dvd if you missed it in the flicks...

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