Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Babel

The Book of Genesis has been crowbarred into a couple of high-profile cinema releases of late. In Darren Aronofsky's 'The Fountain', we were reminded of the story of Adam and Eve, but with an eye on a relatively under-publicised aspect of that story, namely the Tree of Life. In 'Babel', Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's third major feature film, we are reminded of the story of the mythical Tower of Babel.

Just in case you've lived under a large rock all your life, the parable of the tower of babel tells of an ancient time when the peoples of the earth all worked together to build a tower so tall that it would reach the skies, and man could be closer to God. When God saw what man was striving for, he became angry. His punishment for man's endeavour was to scatter the population across the world, and create the barrier of language, so as to divide men, and forever prevent them from working together in such a unified manner again.

Inarritu's movie is different from The Fountain, in that it does not include, or even refer to, to the bible story in question. Rather, the stories being told here relate to the theme of communication difficulties, and the problems faced by people in simply trying to cope with themselves and each other, often against the backdrop of a foreign or alien setting.

Inarritu is a firm believer in the Neapolitan Ice-cream art of film-making. That is, rather than focus on one straight-forward flavour or story, and exploit it to it's fullest, he tends to include three different stories for the delectation of the audience. This is an innovative approach to film-making and a formula that Hollywood has taken to it's collective bosom of late, with 'vignette movies' such as 'Crash' and more recently 'Bobby' rapidly becoming the new vogue in Tinseltown, and proving popular with audiences to boot.

In Inarritu's movies, common themes run through each of the three stories, but there is also a pivotal plot point where the three stories intertwine and influence each other. This plot point is in reality, often quite straight-forward. For example, in 'Amores Perros', the movie that attracted Hollywood to Inarritu's door, the device was dogs. In the (ironically) extremely heavy '21 Grams', the linking point was a heart transplant operation. In 'Babel' it is a rifle. However, even if the linkage device is straight-forward, it is in the exposition of the narrative, and the revelation of this device, where Inarritu employs his full bag of creative tricks.

To labour the Neapolitan metaphor a little, there is a problem with this type of ice cream: everyone has a favourite. The result of this is that the other two flavours become a little devalued, and we wonder why we didn't just buy strawberry ice cream in the first place. Specialise or diversify... it's a difficult one to answer. In 'Babel', the best story for me is the one set in Japan, where Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a hearing-impaired teenager whose mother has recently died. Like any teenager, she's moody, and has problems communicating, but her handicap makes it more difficult to talk to boys her age, and this frustrates her even further. Her story is set against the backdrop of urban Japanese teenagers though, and it's fascinating to look through Inarritu's window into a world that is so foreign to our own. 'Lost in Translation' also played with this device, employing Japanese culture almost as an ominous supporting character in the movie.

The vanilla story - i.e. good, but not the best - is the one with the most recognisable faces. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are a married couple on holiday in Morocco, and their marriage is obviously on the rocks. Meanwhile, a moroccan rural family purchase a rifle with which to keep jackals away from their goat herds, and the two young boys of the family are given responsibility for the weapon. When they test the rifle's range, they manage to hit Cate Blanchett, and this is the trigger moment for the three layers of the story to gradually melt into each other.

Finally, the chocolate story, or the one I would rank the lowest. A child-minder for a wealthy American family (Brad and Cate) is charged with looking after the two kids on her day off, but she also has to attend her son's wedding across the border in Mexico. In what proves to be the first of many bad decisions, she opts to take the kids with her across the border. Essentially, she has a pretty bad day after that, and this story is by a long way the weakest of the three.

Brad Pitt is very good in Babel, portraying his gradually increasing desperation and isolation very well. There are some nice moments where he befriends a Moroccan man, and they find they have quite a lot in common, despite his surroundings appearing so alien to our Brad. Cate Blanchett, unfortunately, is completely wasted in this movie. She has two scenes involving anything other than writhing in pain or screaming in pain, but, as you'd expect, she is excellent for those couple of minutes at least. The effect of the gunshot on the Moroccan family is more dramatic than the effect on Brad and Cate however, and this storyline is also well played out. The younger of the two brothers in particular is a great little character.

However, as with the strawberry part of the Neapolitan, I found that when I was watching my favourite - the Japanese story - I lost interest in the other two sections. Someone made the point to me recently that subtitled movies sometimes gain an extra layer of gravitas, simply thanks to the fact that they are in the foreign language. The character of the fawn in 'Pan's Labyrinth' is a great example of this. Would he be quite as interesting a character, or quite as threatening if he was speaking in English? It's difficult to say, but it's curious to me that the Japanese story the Moroccan family's story in 'Babel' and were the ones that held my attention the most, and both of these were in foreign languages.

Babel is a meandering, expansive tale that in the end, doesn't draw any big, important conclusions. However, it is at least a thought-provoking, well-crafted story, and definitely worthy of two hours of your time. Innaritu's critics may say that with the triple narrative device, he's becoming a one-trick-pony at this stage, but at least in this he has chosen to specialise, and focus on what he does best.

It is worth seeing Babel, because there aren't enough large-scale productions made with this level of thought and ambition. And who knows, come Oscar night it may follow in the footsteps of last year's bg vignette movie, Crash, and pick up the best picture Oscar gong. (Although PCMR's money is on Clint Eastwood's Japanese war movie: 'Letters from Iwo Jima')


The verdict: Intelligent and well-made, with a very self-important title, but no mind-blowing conclusions to draw.
The rating: 7/10

Monday, January 29, 2007

Severance

As the closing credits of 'Severance' rolled on the screen in front of me yesterday evening, I experienced many emotions at once. Wonder, as to how the movie-makers managed to blag their way into a big budget production such as this. Regret, that a mildly promising cast and a half-decent idea had been so appallingly wasted. But the main feeling was one of disgust, and mainly with myself, that I had decided to watch this movie in the first place. Self-loathing is a temporary emotion, however, and quickly gives way to a desire to put the blame on someone else. With this need in mind, I decided to focus on the vaguely worrying feeling that, once again, I had been duped, sideswiped if you will, by the movie marketeers.

Thanks to my middle-class background, and the fact that it was free god-dammit, university, in some shape or form, was always on the cards for me as a teenager. However, with the Leaving Cert exams looming large back in the winter of 1994, I realised I didnt have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. French? Maybe. Psychology? Sure. But to do what, exactly? Difficult questions that I couldn't answer. My career guidance teacher was a big help, and pointed out that many people who didn't have a clue how to do anything often did a business course in university. Plus, if you take the language option, you get an Erasmus year abroad, c'est fantastique! I was sold, promptly applied for a business course with French, and spent two solid years drinking paint-thinner wine and chemically processed beer in northern france. Happy days.

However, amidst all the hazy hangovers and Gallic swearing, there were a few classes to attend. Marketing was my major, so we covered advertising, branding all that stuff, and it was mind-blowing to see the techniques that are used by businesses to get you to think about their products. Marketing is a cousin of propaganda in that the techniques are relatively unscientific, but involve strong methods of persuasion, with the aim of influencing behaviour in the name of economic activities... Strong images are used (brands). Slogans are used. The primary aim is to influence behaviour. The secondary aim is to appear 'good' to the 'consumer'...

So as an embittered ex-marketing student, I now hate most advertising with a passion. However, there is one major exception: I am a sucker for a good movie ad campaign. For example, the trailer for 'Transformers' makes me keen to see the film, and I'm unashamed to admit it. The 'Live Free or Die Hard' trailer appeals to me too, and it's more the packaging of the trailer that has the effect than the expected content of the finished movie. I know this, but the trailer still works on me. I can feel my behaviour being influenced, and I don't let it bother me...

The marketing campaign for 'Severance' was quite strong. The poster was well designed, and the slogan 'another bloody office outing' was memorable enough to remain at 'top of mind'. The trailer was punchy, and it was billed as a smart, escapist modern horror flick. Initial reviews in the British tabloid press were very positive... (Ok, so my case is getting weaker here!)

For whatever the reasons, I did watch Severance, and I have to say that, as both a former marketing student, and as someone who fancies himself as a bit of a cinephile, the marketing is without a doubt the best thing this movie has to offer.

The story, what little there is, involves employees from an arms manufacturing company being dropped in the middle of the Hungarian wilderness on the premise of a team-building weekend. Something's lurking in the bushes though, and it doesn't take long before people are being hacked up.

So it's a horror, but it's also attempting to be a comedy. In fairness, there are a couple of funny moments near the beginning, mostly involving Danny Dyer and the drugs he regularly consumes. Danny Dyer is a very frustrating guy to me. He showed real promise in 'Human Traffic' and has pretty much just made bad films since then. His self-indulgent movie choices seem to hinge on whether or not he'll be embarassed to tell the lads about his character down the boozer after the footie. This character in Severance is no different to the ones he played in 'The Football Factory', 'The Business', 'Mean Machine' etc etc. This cockney wideboy humour is funny for a few minutes, but it just can't carry a movie. Dyer has the best lines and the best moments in the movie, but the occasional chuckle does not a comedy make.

The thing is, comedy/horror is a deceptively difficult genre to effectively capture. James Gunn made a great effort with 'Slither' and the results were more than watchable. However, Gunn's movie was the product of years of immersion in the genre, and the depth of his knowledge for, and love of this type of film was all up there on screen. Conversely, James Moran and Christopher Smith, the two guys behind 'Severance', don't seem to have paid any dues to the basic requirements of a genre movie such as Severance is, like it or not.

First off, the heroes need to be believable people, or at least likeable. In Severance, we have a collection of what are at best office stereotypes (the annoying boss, the laddish rebel, the human resources dweeb, the pandering second-in-command, the bullish finance type). At worst, these are simply two-dimensional cardboard cutouts of people. With people like this at the heart of the movie, who cares if they die or not? Second, the monster/bad man needs to have a creepy back-story. In this case, the baddies are soldiers. What's scary about that? Thirdly, if you're going to have gruesome scenes in the movie, then the two previous conditions need to have been met, but mainly, the victims should deserve it. Horror isn't just about slashers killing people, it's about immoral or bad people getting their cumuppance, and the hero winning out in the end... until the twist at least!

But on a more basic level, the plot is meandering, the story seemed to have reached a natural conclusion twice in the first forty-five minutes, and after an hour, I just didn't care any more.

Also, in it's gore levels, I felt 'Severance' went a little over the top at times, and made me think of the nasty, despicable 'Wolf Creek' more than once.

The characters are annoying, the script is awful and it is unsettling to me that a movie audience are supposed to be happy about employees from an arms manufacturing company winning out over a collection of Eastern european soldiers who were fucked over by them in the first place. If there is irony in this plot, then it's lost on me. Congratulations to Severance for receiving the second lowest score ever awarded on PCMR!


The Verdict: Neither scary nor good fun. A half-decent idea, but very poorly executed. Avoid.
The Rating: 4/10

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Half Nelson

Now, it might be a cliche to begin with a cliche, but there's an old axiom which describes the scenario of two opposites coming together: "when an irresistible force meets an immovable object." An illustration of this expression might be, say, Jennifer Connelly meeting Marlon Brando. Put more accurately however, this little epithet sums up a scenario we often face in our individual little insignificant daily struggles, and that is, conflict. People argue all the time. Some because they believe in something, others to play 'devil's advocate', or simply to put forward a view for the purpose of debate to test the strength of the opposite argument.

In 'Half Nelson', Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a high school History teacher who professes that History is the study of change. His view of history, possibly more at home in a University lecture theater than a junior high classroom, states that when conflicting forces collide, events are altered, and History simply records how things turned out. Dunne is also in the process of writing a children's book based on the principle of dialectics, but the book project has fallen by the wayside of late, thanks to his fondness for a bit of crack. (And I don't mean crack in the Irish sense.)

Dialectics is based on the principle that disagreements can be resolved through rational discussion. In other words, when propositions are put forward and met with counter-propositions, the product is either a synthesis of views, or at the very least a change in the direction of the dialogue.

The irony of Dunne's belief in the principle of dialectics is his own inability to change, and to try and vanquish his sincere and profound drug habit. A girlfriend from his past resurfaces towards the beginning of the movie, having successfully come through rehab herself, and with news of her engagement. This news seems to send Dunne into despair at his own inability to change, and he repeatedly goes on missions to get into a narcotic stupor, and on schoolnights to boot.

Dunne is a good teacher, but the effect of these mid-week benders on his professional image is undeniable. Although he is seen as something of a rogue by his colleagues at first, as his inevitable decline progresses, the principal in particular begins to come down hard on him, treating him more like a student than a teacher in some moments. However, he seems to remain popular with his students, and with one student in particular.

Drey is a thirteen-year-old student of Dunne's. Her maturity is evident from early in the movie, a product of her home life, where her parents are divorced, her brother is in jail, and her only paternal influence is a local smack-peddler. She is played by newcomer Shareeka Epps, and her relationship with Dunne is the axis of the movie. What starts as something of a teenage crush develops into a real bond between the pair, as their worlds couldn't be more opposite. However, the real proposition put forward by this movie is whether these two conflicting characters can bring about change in each other.

Half Nelson is a very good movie. I don't feel bad giving away these details of the story, because I can honestly say that there is a whole lot more in this film. Every character has a reality to them that represents a remarkable achievement for the film's writers, the relative newbies Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. This movie has something that Hollywood doesn't often even attempt to tackle: themes! The theme of change and opposing forces is at the heart of this movie, and it is dealt with in a mature, thoughtful and provocative manner.

Ryan Gosling's performance in 'Half Nelson' attracted enough attention so as to garner him an Best Actor Oscar nomination this year, and I have to say, after watching the movie, I can't fault the nomination. His character is complex because he is real. The conflict between his role as a teacher and his sincere drug problem is explored. His relationship with Drey, a thirteen year old student, is only inappropriate in the eyes of others, but their screen time together is very watchable. Considering this movie is punctuated by occasional silences, and most of it is in close up, Gosling's performance is quite an achievement. Unfortunately for him, however, he's up against Peter O'Toole and Forest Whitaker this year, but a respectable third place behind those two is glory in defeat as far as Gosling should be concerned.

Shareeka Epps too, is excellent as Drey. Her stoic expression only occasionally gives way to a smile, but this fits with her character, not giving her emotions away, and puts her at odds with Gosling's character, who wears his heart on his sleeve. Drey's guardian, Frank, begins getting her involved as a runner for his drug deals, and this sends Drey down a path that Gosling's character does his best to get her out of, but who is he to preach? He's a crack-head himself after all.

Half Nelson is a small indie flick, and could possibly be compared to something like the Squid and the Whale in its small scale, and it's intellectual content. However, this is a much better film than The Squid and the Whale. Half Nelson is tightly scripted, extremely well acted, and in parts is very moving. It is grounded in reality though, as the characters that populate it are not black and white in terms of morality. Every character is conflicted, and not defined by their given 'role' - an accurate reflection of reality. Gosling is a teacher, but a drug adddict. Frank (Anthony Mackie) is Drey's guardian, a drug dealer, but he's also got Drey's best interests at heart, for he feels he's the only one looking out for her. Drey, too, is a complex character, specifically in terms of her relationship with her teacher.

So I would urge you to see Half Nelson, and it gets two thumbs up from PCMR for showing exactly how to deal with themes which might be considered 'arty' for some, but in a manner that makes them accessible to a wider audience than for something like, say, 'The Squid and the Whale'. Gosling's performance is worth the admission price, but this film should be applauded for being genuinely full of depth, thought, and populated by real human beings.


The Verdict: Absorbing, thoughtful and entertaining. Ryan Gosling is excellent.
The Rating: 8/10

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Fountain (first viewing)

Bloody typical. You wait all your life for a big budget Hollywood movie about Mayans, and then two come along at once. Mel Gibson's 'Apocalypto' was marketed as being primarily about the fall of the Mayan civilisation, but in reality, it was just an action-packed chase movie set against the backdrop of the Mayan culture. Darren Aronofsky's latest offering - 'The Fountain' - also refers to Mayan culture, and in actual fact, reveals more about the Mayan people. However, whereas Apocalypto attempted to physically drop the audience directly into a Mayan reality, 'The Fountain' looks at Mayan spiritual beliefs, by referring to a particular myth that has commonality with part of the story of Genesis from the Christian Bible: that of the tree of life.

When Adam and Eve ate that apple in the Garden of Eden, they plucked it from the Tree of Knowledge. This angered God, who promptly kicked them out, and without four weeks notice either. (The law would have a different view of that nowadays I can tell you). However, there was another tree referred to in this story, the Tree of Life. Apparently, to eat from the Tree of Life is to be given eternal life. The Mayan people had apparently located this tree on earth, and built a secret temple at it's location. This tree is pretty much the basis of the story in 'The Fountain'.

'The Fountain' is a complex, ambitious tale of love, faith and death. Three threads run in parallel throughout the movie, describing the relationship between Tommy (played by Hugh Jackman) and Izzy (Rachel Weisz). The three stories take place in different time-frames, with one in present day, one set in the 15th century, and one set far into the future, but all describe the love between these two characters over the ages, and their relative quests to uncover the secret of this Tree of Life.

Now, Darren Arronofsky could be fairly described as 'an acquired taste'. This description is a cliche that more accurately be phrased as 'you won't like this at first'. The audience reaction to his movies is visceral, emotive and often polarised. To wit, when 'The Fountain' premiered at Cannes, it was roundly booed. The following night, in the same cinema, it received a standing ovation and rapturous applause.

Aronofsky's offerings are not the cinematic equivalent of fast food. His movies are weighty, ambitious and dark, more like Oysters than a Whopper. They tackle adult themes and deliver messages in ways that allow the audience to interpret much of what they have seen. In addition, they display a characteristic which betrays the scale Aronofsky's ambitions, which is that despite these movies being made in Hollywood, there are no easily digestible morals or formulaic Hollywod endings.

The first time I saw Aronofsky's 'Pi', I was completely blown away, and it remains one of my all-time favourites to this day. Made on a shoestring, 'Pi' tells a very dark, complex story involving the relationship between numbers and the natural world. Max Cohen is a maths genius tortured by headaches and hallucinations, and convinced he is on the verge of discovering the ultimate breakthrough: 'the number of God'... PCMR fondly remembers a party in a former residence which got a little out of hand. The following morning, a number of walking wounded were lodged in various states of hungover stupor in the living room, apparently unwilling to shift. PCMR decided the only thing to unsettle these people was a little dose of Aronofsky, so 'Pi' was put on in it's full surround sound glory. The meek little lambs were awake enough to pay attention to the movie, but blissfully unaware of the assault on their senses that was to follow... Sure enough, when the closing credits began rolling, the bodies looked meekly around the room, nervously rubbing their eyes, attempting to phrase questions their hungover brains couldn't process.. Eventually, they began shambling homewards, whimpering softly as they left.

This is the effect an Aronofsky movie can have on people. 'Requiem For a Dream' was no different in it's unrelenting sensory assailance. Adapted from a Hubert Selby jr. book of the same name, this was never going to be a popcorn movie. To this day, the soundtrack alone is enough to send PCMR into a mild depression, with only a few bars required. Featuring the always fantastic Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto and an absolutely excellent Ellen Burstyn, 'Requiem for a Dream' is a study on addiction in all its forms, and is a tour de force, despite the incongruous presence of a Wayans brother in one of the main roles. PCMR's advice: don't watch Aronofsky's movies if you're hungover, you may just decide to end it all there and then!

I've been eagerly anticipating the release of 'The Fountain' for around a year, as the production has been one of those that Hollywood rather tellingly describes as 'troubled'. Originally, Brad Pitt was cast in the lead role, but he got the hump and shagged off to do 'Babel', so Hugh Jackman was cast in the lead, opposite Rachel Weisz, who as it happens, is Aronofsky's fiance.

I've never had a strong opinion of Hugh Jackman, but I remember him as being pretty much a perfect 'Wolverine' in the X-Men movies, and possibly the kind of guy to turn up in a few romantic comedies that I wouldn't see. However, despite the fact that 'The Fountain' is altogether more cerebral than anything I've seen him in before, Jackman turns in a very impressive performance, and for what it's worth, has gone up hugely in my own estimation as a result. Some of his more emotional moments, including one where he tattoos his finger, are memorable, very moving indeed, and a nice surprise from someone you might not have thought capable beforehand. Weisz too gives a decent performance as Izzy, but her character is not the protagonist, and she acts almost as a symbol of Tommy's love, rather than a real person.

The soundtrack is remarkable enough, in that it is ethereal, other-worldly and vaguely eerie. It plays in the background in a subtly threatening way, never dominating the proceedings until the climactic scenes, where the crescendo complements the action perfectly.

Visually though, 'The Fountain' is particularly amazing. Aronofsky uses almost every shot as an experiment in lighting and cinematography, and the results are vivid, lavish and extremely easy on the eye. The timelines allow him to use different palettes, and this emphasizes the distinction between the parallel storylines, easing the effect of the numerous transitions over the course of the movie. In particular, some of the final shots in the Fountain are immaculately brought to life, and are possibly worth the admission price alone.

The question PCMR would ask, however, is whether audiences will stay with the story until the end. This is an ambitious, demanding story, evaluating the relationship between fate, love and death. The two main characters have a bond that traverses time, and each story involves the 'Tree of Life' from the Garden of Eden. This demands quite a lot from the audience, and will likely turn a lot of people off. As it builds towards the climax of the story, much thematic ground is covered, in particular over the course of the story set in the present day. However, as I said previously, Aronofsky does not make popcorn movies!

To compare the director to anyone else is difficult. Like Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain uses the device of forging connection between three separate stories, so he could possibly be compared to Inarritu, the man behind '21 Grams', 'Amores Perros', and more recently the best picture nominated Babel. However, PCMR would argue that this device is more successfully deployed by Aronofsky. Final judgement will be reserved on that though, until PCMR gets a viewing of 'Babel', coming soon...

In his ambition to maximise the possibilities of cinema as a visual medium, and his laborious attention to detail, a more accurate comparison could inevitably be drawn to Stanley Kubrick, the man behind 'A Clockwork Orange', 'The Shining', and of course '2001'. There are moments in The Fountain that are very reminiscent of '2001', including one signature shot from the storyline set in the future, where a cue-ball bald Hugh Jackman is outlined from the back, sitting mid-air in lotus position, as a star collapses in front of his eyes..

So, Aronofsky is standing on the shoulders of giants here, but are the comparisons fair? Well, PCMR cannot think of a director that is currently working today, whose work I anticipate with more excitement. The Fountain promised to be truly great, and it's ambition is to be applauded. There is so much real talent on screen, from Aronofsky, Ellen Burstyn, and Jackman in particular. The visual effect of the Fountain is truly unique, and the vision of Aronofsky, who also wrote the movie, is very well realised.

However, I felt that there was something missing from The Fountain, something that was present in Aronofsky's two other previous efforts, and I'm finding it hard to put my finger on what it is exactly, hence the 'First Viewing' tag on this post. I will watch this one again though, so perhaps that's an indicator in itself... Perhaps the George Lucas Principle of Movie Expectations at work here though, as I was expecting a lot from this one.

Critics of Aronofsky will call this film pretentious wank. And it is pretentious, in that it is hugely ambitious in its scope, its themes and its targets. However, PCMR is firmly entrenched in the pro-Aronofsky camp, and believes there are not enough people like him working today. Jerry Bruckheimer can tackle the marketing side of Hollywood, and fair play to him, he's doing great things there. However, if we leave the creative side of movie-making in the hands of people like Darren Aronofsky, we can look forward to enjoying visual feasts like the Fountain on a more regular basis. PCMR would argue that this is no bad thing.


The Verdict: Very well acted, beautifully shot and scored, an original and unique vision from a director with a big big future, it's worth a look, but not for fans of '2 Fast 2 Furious'!
The Rating: 7/10

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

When Kate Winslet appeared in 'Extras', she turned in a delightfully wicked performance, but in one of her more despicably prescient observations, she conspiratorially points out to jobbing actor Ricky Gervais that the surest way to win an oscar is to "play a mental." The words of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, however laconic, have a real ring of truth about them. Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for 'My Left Foot', and Dustin Hoffman picked up the gong for 'Rainman' in performances playing disabled characters, and both of these performances garnered almost universally positive critical and audience reaction. Anthony Hopkins could arguably been seen to have played another kind of 'mental' when he picked up the plaudits, and the statuette for playing Lecter in 'the Silence of the Lambs.'

However, the military biopic has thrown up a few eccentric characters of its very own, which one could argure fall into the 'mental' genre. George C. Scott turned in a barnstorming performance in 'Patton', as the legendarily eccentric military genius, and he too won an oscar (even if he neglected to accept it). It seems even playing a despotic tyrant can garner an actor critical praise and endear him/her to a large audience. When 'Der Untergang' or 'Downfall' portrayed Adolf Hitler as a nuanced, human character for the first time ever a in German movie recently, the movie received huge critical acclaim, and picked up numerous awards at ceremonies across the world. And with good reason, for the performance of Bruno Ganz is truly excellent.

These larger-than-life characters provide a rich source of material for a capable actor, but for the actor looking to play Idi Amin, there is a pre-packaged character study of the man available in Barbet Schroeder's Idi Amin Dada, a fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed in the early 1970's. In a misguided attempt to improve his public image, Amin gave unprecedented access to the film crew, and even recorded the soundtrack to the movie on his accordion. Perhaps Amin was trying to show the world the 'real' Idi Amin but, whether the image of the man protrayed in Schroeder's film is representative of the real Amin or not, it is debatable whether this image corresponded with the picture Amin had of himself.

Head of a military dictatorship in Uganda in the 1970's, Idi Amin was responsible for the dispappearance or death of around 300,000 Ugandan people over the course of his time in power. Schroeder's documentary portrays a charismatic and intelligent, yet erratic and unpredictable man, his rule based on the creation of a climate of fear and apprehension of a larger than life leader, in possession of both tremendous power and an all-encompassing paranoia. This is the kind of character that Forest Whitaker is charged with bringing to life in The Last King of Scotland.

Forest Whitaker has been kicking around Hollywood for some time, but my first real memory of him was playing the outspoken military aide to Robin Williams in the memorable 'Good Morning Vietnam'. Although Whitaker played straight to William's funny guy, he displayed an uncanny presence opposite the manic comedian. Roles followed in a sequence of mostly forgettable movies, but Whitaker has popped up every now and again in more high profile movies, and regularly demonstrates an emotional intensity in roles such as the empath in the rather poor 'Species', and in the best movie I've seen him in, Jim Jarmusch's 'Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai'. In 'Ghost Dog', Whitaker really shone, and delivered a memorable performance, showing his chops as a leading man. However, Ghost Dog aside, Whitaker has never really got the role to allow him to play to his strengths, and appearing in possibly the worst ever large scale Hollywood production, a certain 'Battlefield Earth' didn't really help his career much.

In his portrayal of Idi Amin, however, Forest Whitaker has delivered a very powerful performance. Amin is a complex character: personable, charismatic, paranoid and dangerous in equal measures, and real range is required to effectively portray all these elements of the man in a credible way. In my book, however, he pulls it off, and Oprah Winfrey agrees, having recently recommended Whitaker as her favourite for the oscar. Now, you may scoff, but Oprah's influence over the Oscars should not be underestimated. A card-carrying and voting member of the Academy, Winfrey started her career as an actress, and recieved an oscar nomination for a supporting role in 'The Color Purple'. And, lest you forget, Oprah wields an unprecedented level of power in the american entertainment industry, her legions of acolytes regularly bending to her will. When it comes to her book club, a recommendation can mean the difference between obscurity and a best-seller for an author. In terms of movies, and the Oscars in particular, Oprah's recommendation can result in a groundswell of popular opinion, just the kind of platform to lead to more academy votes for a given movie. So fingers crossed for Forest..

However, Whitaker's enigmatic performance in the movie isn't the only element to like about 'Last King of Scotland'. James McAvoy too delivers a very sound performance as Nicholas Larrigan, the young Scottish Doctor who travels to Uganda and befriends Idi Amin, after a chance meeting under unlikely circumstances. McAvoy is the main protagonist of the movie, and befriends Amin principally because of the despot's love for Scotland, but also because the two share a similarly impulsive and outspoken personality.

This unlikely friendship leads to an invitation to become Amin's personal physician, so McAvoy moves to Kampala, and forges closer ties with the charismatic general. However, as the plot develops, Larrigan becomes less and less comfortable with the goings-on under Amin's rule, and begins to realise that he my be in over his head.

McAvoy's performance is quietly effective, for he too has a lot to work with in the movie. His cocksure naivete in the film's opening scenes gradually gives way to an increasing desperation and the young Scot handles the role very well.

The action moves along at a fair pace, and although the plot is at times a little chaotic, the ominous presence of Whitaker is never too far away, and his scenes add exactly the right amount of tension to keep the audience fairly immersed in the plot. Even when not on screen, Whitaker is referred to constantly, effectively building a larger than life image of the character that the real man obviously engendered during his despotic tenure in Uganda's seat of power.

A relatively inexperienced director, Kevin MacDonald had previously helmed the award-winning documentary 'Touching The Void'. However, though his recreation of Idi Amin's Uganda in the 1970's is an entirely different prospect, he makes a very good fist of it, and as the archive footage shown in the closing credits confirms, recreates a picture that was quite close to the reality of the time.

The dialogue is always sharp and intelligent, and allows the two leads a lot of room to demonstrate their capabilities. There are some quite violent scenes in here too, however, and one scene in particular may require sick bags to be provided in cinemas showing this, so be prepared!

So, it's a good story, with two very talented lead actors, and a particularly outstanding performance from Forest Whitaker. Despite the fact that creative liberties were taken with the story (Larrigan's character in particular) and that there are a couple of holes in the plot, notably in the final scenes, 'The Last King of Scotland' is definitely worth a look. Forest may just have inadvertently heeded Kate Winslet's advice, so let's see now if Oprah's recommendation can make a difference to his prospects of picking up the gong come Oscar night. In my book, that's where the smart money's going.


The verdict: Intense and enthralling, with powerful performances from the two leads, Whitaker in particular is excellent.
The rating: 7/10

Friday, January 19, 2007

Rocky Balboa

Movies about sport tend to find it difficult to avoid the realm of the cliche. Football in particular, has been vilified on the big screen, almost without exception. Some of you may remember a recent attempt by Hollywood to capture the Beautiful Game with what was meant to be the first episode of a trilogy: 'Goal: The Dream Begins'. If you need a lesson in sporting cliche, look no further. Goal did not score at the box office, and soon became a trilogy of one. However, there is at least one exception to footie's shameful coverage on the big screen, and that's 'Escape to Victory'. A classic matinee for a dreary afternoon', as The Simpsons might call it, 'Escape to Victory' was directed by John Huston, and featured a host of famous footie stars of the seventies, Pele, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles among others. Bizarrely, but quite brilliantly, starring opposite these giants of the game were two icons of modern cinema: Michael Caine and, the American upstart goalkeeper, Sylvester Stallone.

Stallone's association with the beautiful game was renewed recently, albeit in a slightly less cinematic setting, when he visited Goodison Park to watch Everton draw one all with Reading last week. However, as he paraded the centre circle before the game, holding his Everton scarf aloft and smiling at the crowds, it was interesting to note the warm reaction he received. These are football fans after all, noted for their less than enlightened views, and well documented desire for cheap laughs.. and yet, Stallone was given respect. Whether this was due to the fans' memories of Escape to Victory, or the association with a certain Rocky character is unclear, but the affection was there, no doubt about it.

Sly has had a chequered career, spanning four decades now. Beginning with a few, ahem, bit parts, Sly worked as a jobbing actor in Hollywood for the early part of the seventies, playing Extra #252 in this, 'Man dancing in bar' in that. However, around 1975, he managed to sell a script he had been working on to MGM, on the condition that he be allowed play the lead role, and that script went on to be made into one of the great movies of the 70's. Lest we forget, the first 'Rocky' was nominated for ten academy awards, and Sly became only the third ever actor to be nominated for best screenplay, and best actor in the same year, following in the shoes of Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin! Stallone didn't win either oscar, losing out to one of my all time favourites on both counts (Paddy Chayevsky wrote, and Peter Finch starred in Network), but Rocky won best picture, beating off the stiffest of competition from: 'Network', 'All the President's Men', 'Bound for Glory', and, wait for it... 'Taxi Driver'.

The rest of the seventies didn't smile quite so brightly on Stallone, and he struggled to find a niche in Hollywood, choosing to make a Rocky sequel, which certainly met with less critical acclaim, even if the audience more or less demanded the second episode. Oh, and the third, this time with Mr. T providing the opposition.. Then came the 80's, and the really quite entertaining 'First Blood'. The John Rambo character has permeated the global consciousness so completely by this stage that it seems strange to think his origins were so small in scale. However, in First Blood, Stallone demonstrated a capacity to play the role the 80's would be remembered for: action hero.

Stallone arguably defined two of the greatest cinematic icons of the 80's with two movies in 1985. First came 'Rambo: First Blood Part II', a bloody actioner with a high body count of faceless terrorists, which became a world-wide phenomenon. Then 'Rocky IV', where Sly single-handedly ended the cold war by knocking Dolph Lundgren down. What a guy.

So, the 80's were good to Stallone. However, maintaining a successful run has always been tough for Sly, and, the 90's were something of a bumpy ride. There were highs, including 'Cliffhanger', 'Cop Land', and, um, 'Antz'. But there were also the lows, such as the pretty dreadful 'Daylight', the insultingly bad 'Judge Dredd' and of course the nadir: 'Rocky V'. Stallone may have gotten complacent with the fifth episode of the franchise, or he may simply have wanted rid of the balboa character. Either way, a brain-damaged Rocky, losing fights in the street to local punks was not what audiences wanted, and Rocky V was universally vilified, by audiences and critics alike.

So amid all the amazing highs of his career, Stallone has also had some pretty deep lows to get through. His recent flops include some really desperately poor movies ('Driven', 'Oscar', and unbelievably 'Stop, or my Mom will Shoot') and the 00's have until now, provided only one real role of note for Stallone, in, um.. 'Spy Kids 3'...

So if anything, Stallone has demonstrated an unswerving ability to keep going, to dust himself up after another failure, and attempt once again to reinvent his career. I've said it before, but Hollywood, as well as the cinema audience, loves a good reinvention. And a comeback, well, that's the stuff of romance.

Rocky Balboa is an affectionate addition to the series, possibly Stallone's attempt to exorcise the ghost of his unfortunate previous Rocky outing. What is made clear in the first half of the movie is that Balboa is older now, but wiser. He is coherent, he owns a restaurant, but he has perhaps developed into the unenviable role of 'former champ', telling stories of his former glories to his clients as they dine, and so familiar are his customers with his boxing stories, they say the punchlines with him. (no pun intended).

Balboa junior is grown up now, and making his way in the world. Paulie, played by Burt Young, is older now, and in obvious fear of retirement. And as for Adrian, well, she's no longer on the scene, having passed away some years before.

In 'Rocky Balboa', the current heavyweight champ, Mason Dixon, is unpopular, and the sport of boxing is in decline. A popular sports channel runs a computer simulation of Rocky in his prime, fighting Dixon and winning, putting the idea in Rocky's head that maybe one more fight wouldn't be a bad idea...

I got the feeling that Stallone was putting a lot of himself on screen, finding parallels between Rocky's struggle and his own. Indeed, the larger than life character has been responsible for Stallone's greatest successes. Now, however, Stallone is 60, and facing the prospect of decline. In the first half of the movie, Rocky is pretty much an aging former champ, and a slightly tragic character.

However, you know what's coming in Rocky Balboa. In 'Team America', Trey Parker and Matt Stone presciently pointed out that in movies, when you need to move things along, you need a montage, and no movies can do montages like the Rockies. From the moment Rocky begins training, the audience is on familiar ground. However, I would argue that this is what we want to see.. Rocky deserved a more fitting end than the previous episode, and with Rocky Balboa, Stallone has delivered exactly that.

The fact is, whether you like it or not, Rocky is a true cinematic icon. This movie is a real attempt to move the character on, and when the aging Rocky decides to go fight again, Stallone's script almost manages to make it even seem semi-plausible... (Apart from the licence application hearing, but who's counting that!?)

Rocky's straight-forward message is that no matter how often you get hit, you pick yourself up and you keep going. I can't help thinking that this is representative of what Stallone also believes, given the chequered career, and mixed reaction he has had over its course.

So, if you have already decided to go and see Rocky, then I can tell you, you probably know what to expect, so you won't be disappointed. If you're thinking twice about it, then perhaps this recommendation won't sway your decision, but you will get an affectionate Rocky sequel for your money, and you'll leave the cinema with a smile on your face. Although it's loaded with cliche, Hollywood-style cheese-laden dialogue, and as predictable a movie as you'll ever see, I found it tough to stay mad at these familiar characters for long, and just enjoyed this pure escapist popcorn flick for the hour and a half's light entertainment it provided. It ain't 'Escape to Victory' folks, but it's sure better than Rocky 5!


The verdict: Yo, adrian! It's Rocky. Don't expect too much!
The rating: 6/10

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith has something in common with Martin Scorcese, a nagging feeling of insecurity in relation to their work. They feel that, even though they are rich and successful beyond their wildest dreams, there is still something for them to prove before they can say: "Hollywood, I've arrived!". That 'something' is a paperweight in the shape of a little golden man named Oscar. Hollywood hands out these gongs each year in a ceremonial ritual of professional back-slapping, unrivalled in its opulence. The glitterati, the illuminati and the papparazzi all gather annually to worship at the red-carpet adorned altar of celebrity, pay due homage to the deserving winners, and quickly forget about the other nominees (unless they make a fashion faux pas that is!)

Scorcese has unashamedly made clear his desire to be an Oscar winner, and anyone who doubts this ambition need only watch 'The Aviator'. It's a Scorcese film, but not as we know it, as if Marty has taken his signature style and tailored it, made the scale a whole lot grander, added more emotional punch, and replacing the contemporary soundtrack with strings and things orchestal. The Aviator is a great movie, but 'The Departed' is more like vintage Scorcese, and arguably all the better for it. Why try to be something you're not? Ironically, in giving up the Oscar-chasing, and reverting to the style and themes with which he made his name, Scorcese has given himself a great chance of actually picking up the best director gong this year.

Will Smith is tired of just being asked 'who are you wearing?' on the red carpet of the Oscars. He longs once again to describe the 'honour' of 'just being nominated' as he strides purposefully towards the auditorium, grinning for the paps. You see, once upon a time, Big Willie suffered the bitter experience of putting his heart and soul into the performance of Muhammad Ali, possibly the world's greatest ever sportsman, and then losing out on Oscar night to Denzel Washington... a tough break, and 'Training Day' was over-rated and over-hyped in my book.. Also 'Ali' was a Michael Mann movie, and a biopic for god's sake, they always win Oscars! The Big Willie may actually have had grounds to feel a little aggrieved.

So what is the Willennium to do? Well, whether it was the tortuous creative process, the physical and emotional strain he suffered under the pressure of the responsibility of portraying Muhammad Ali, or the wounds inflicted by the globally simulcasted Oscar-night bitch-slap, W2K decided to give up acting for a while, choosing instead to 'appear' in 'Men in Black 2', 'Bad Boys 2', 'I, Robot', and as a voice in 'Shark Tale'. (Willie Will's character in Shark Tale was even called 'Oscar'). Anyway you get the point. The Fresh Prince was possibly feeling a little inadequate, and in need of more box-office success to re-establish his credentials. Whether or not this was his main goal, the movies I mentioned above were all box-office hits..

Then came 'Hitch', a combination of huge box-office success, and also, some semblance of acting effort from Will Willy Big 2K, or whatever he's calling himself these days (Snoopy Snoopy Dog Dog?). Hitch was a romantic comedy, and it proved very popular for Mr. Smith. So popular in fact, that he and his agent now believe that he has a viable platform to push for the Oscar...

And so along comes 'The Pursuit of Happyness', an unabashed 'oscar vehicle' to leave all other Oscar-vehicle pretenders in the shade. The Aviator, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, dude, these are your bog-standard Oscar vehicles. 'Happyness' has been on pimp my ride, baby, and may as well quite literally be a letter to the Academy on Will Smith's behalf:


Dear Members of the Academy,

Please find enclosed a biopic of a 'John Everyman' character who starts from nothing, believes in himself, and follows his dream, and all this despite unbelievable odds. He takes care of his kid no matter what, and did I mention that he believes in himself? Even though the odds are stacked against him? Ok, well, anyway, Will Smith would like to draw your attention to the fact that not only does he appear in this movie, but he even acts, and quite well in some parts too.

The Big Willie feels it is only fair that you should give him the Best Actor Oscar ahead of Sacha Baron Cohen, Will Ferrell, and Aaron Eckhart because, let's face it, they were in comedies! You can't give an Oscar to a comedy?! Also, Leonardo diCaprio can't win it, because he played a criminal. I mean, what kind of message does that send?! Plus, The Big Fresh Willenium is waay more Everyman than that guy!

Finally, I would implore you not to give the award to a dictator such as Forest Whitaker. Not only did he play a really bad man, one of his eyes is kind of funny. Is that the kind of Hollywood image we want to project to a billion people? (I'm just saying is all.)

Yours hopefully (fingers crossed!)

Agent to The Big Fresh Willie Willenium W2k Prince.



Ok, I should talk about the movie really.. (*sigh*). Will Smith plays a guy called Chris Gardner, who is in the process of hitting rock-bottom. His wife (Thandie Newton in a particularly annoying role) thinks he is a failure, and, for most of the movie, she has a point. He struggles to make a living and support his kid, played very well, in a kid actor kind of way, by Smith's actual chiseler, Jaden Smith.

So we know the movie is set in the 80's, because Willie plays with a Rubik's cube in about four scenes, and watches Ronald Reagan give a presidential address on TV in the first five minutes of the picture. (For those who are unfamiliar with the idea of a movie, this is called 'setting the scene', people, got that?). Although he is a salesman, Smith has an ambition to be a stock-broker. So he applies for an internship, where one intern out of twenty will be selected for the job. Doesn't that sound like the odds are stacked against him? Doesn't it? Can you guess what might happen? Can you?

Ok, I'm reverting to cynicism here, but despite the paint-by-numbers plot, script and characters, the movie occasionally hits an emotional note or two. Also, Smith does deliver a decent performance, but ... (trying.. to restrain.. cynicism... failing...) isn't that the only part of this film the marketing men wanted us to care about in the first place? Aside from a few good scenes, the movie is inane, predictable, and essentially, two hours of your life. Do you want to invest two hours of your life and ten euros/dollars in Will Smith?

In all honesty, this movie offended me. It has 'target demographics' in its very genes, is a thinly veiled academy showpiece for Will Smith, and insults the intelligence of the audience with its twee pop-psychology, Dr. Phil, cheap seven-step, self-help message of 'believe in yourself and chase your dreams etcetera etcetera.' Hero wins, Music swells, fade out, and I go back to the box-office to ask for a refund.


The Verdict: Has an Oscar vehicle ever been more clearly defined than this? Smith is good, but he won't win. Let me be clear here: look into my eyes: 'doon't gooo seee thiis...'.
The Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Where movies and music are concerned, I have a real soft spot for artists that demonstrate the capacity to improve, to develop and to produce something better each time they make the decision to sit at the drawing-board. There is a reason for this, and it is the fact that this type of artist is taking a risk, leaving their comfort zone, and perhaps attempting to tread on unfamiliar ground. Risk is universal, we all know what is involved. It can be exhilarating and worrisome in equal measures, and the possible outcomes can, in this case, define careers. The downside may be that your creative departure is not accepted by your audience, and your career is set back by a few years. However, the upside could be not only that a whole new audience comes to discover the great new stuff you've been putting together, but also that you get better at what you do! At the end of the day, isn't that the point of creative endeavours?

Hollywood agents would guffaw at this suggestion, but Tinseltown is over-populated with people in creative comfort zones, their decisions depending more on demographics and dollar signs than any artistic instinct. Think of the litany of Jerry Bruckheimer productions over the last ten years, and you can see the level of creative risk involved. Any creative leaps forward in this long list of big-budget multiplex-fests are generally due to the special effects teams involved. I associate Johnny Depp with the category of creative risk-takers, and admire this about him, but even he can succumb to the relaxing creative time-out offered by a Bruckheimer production (or three!).

However, it is a measure of Depp's talent that, in a movie where most 'stars' would get their sushi chefs to telephone in a performance, Depp delivers something iconic to the world of cinema. I would argue, however, that his acting ability is equally due to the risks he has taken over the course of his career and his willingness to try difficult projects, as to any innate talent or simple star charisma. Where Dean Martin had charisma, James Dean also had real acting talent, and there is a difference. Look down through their careers, and you see the vastly different levels of challenge they gave themselves.

Guillermo del Toro demonstrated more than the seeds of real creative talent when he directed the beautiful, but flawed 'El Espinoza del Diablo', or The Devil's Backbone. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this suspenseful tale starts off on a track that makes you think it will be 'The Spanish Sixth Sense', and then careers off wildly along different paths, finally ending up like something a little more from the mind of Robert Rodriguez. However, amid the dense story, there is definitely something there. Comparisons are difficult at best, but 'The Devil's Backbone' defiantly resists being compared to almost anything, with a stubborn mediterranean way all its own. In the uniqueness of its style, it made a name for Guillermo del Toro. And this is satisfying as, prior to this, del Toro was really only known for having helmed a couple of horrors, to mixed critical reaction ('Cronos' good, 'Mimic' baad). But del Toro was all the time gaining experience, both in Hollywood and through his native language in Spain and Mexico.

Following the Devil's Backbone, del Toro took up residence in Hollywood, and promptly gave us the over-rated 'Blade 2' and the criminally under-rated 'Hellboy'. Blade 2 felt like an experiment in special effects for me, and while there was much to like in terms of new ideas, the movie itself didn't really grab me, possibly because I was looking for something a little less fantasy, and a little more gritty, like the first Blade movie, but there you go. With 'Hellboy' on the other hand, we have a franchise that Del Toro can make his own, and he is well and truly on the case, with a sequel entitled 'Hellboy 2 - The Golden Army' out next year. Possibly for fans of the comic-book genre only, Hellboy is a tongue-in-cheek actioner, that lovingly recreates a character as portrayed in the comic book.. something that Hollywood repeatedly gets wrong.. (I'm still quite bitter about 'Judge Dredd', that should have been a good movie dammit)

Before I reveal any more of my own nerd credentials, I'll get on to Pan's Labyrinth. I don't want to give anything important away about the plot, because I'm going to recommend you go and see it. However, I will say that del Toro, who wrote, directed and produced 'El Labyrinto del Fauno', has taken a real creative leap forward with this movie.

The visual style he has developed with his Hollywood special effects fests is used to great effect here, and certain scenes are like little else seen on screen before, resembling Tim Burton's style, but with an extra dash of horror added to give the audience a real nervous edge. This is not only wondrously beautiful, it is vaguely threatening, and in the more fantastic scenes the audience is never allowed to relax.

You will have probably heard that the movie is essentially a fairy tale, but this is definitely not a kid's movie folks! The story is very much targeted at adults, even though the central character is a young girl. The 'Alice in Wonderland' fantasy feel to her part in the first half of the film is offset by the real-life struggles of her mother and the actions of her newly adopted father in reality. In Ofelia's newly adopted father, or 'El Capitan', as he is called throughout the movie, del Toro may just have created a truly iconic bad guy to add to the cinematic annals. He is very much 'the bad man' of the piece, and Sergi Lopez delivers a performance that is chillingly restrained, and very frightening.

I should point out that the film is at times unflinchingly violent, and this may turn some people off. Personally, I feel that screen violence should never be taken out of context, and that it's difficult to pin down what makes certain scenes more difficult to watch than others. The 'Reservioir Dogs' ear chopping scene never really bothered me for example, whereas the gritty torture scene in 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' left me officially traumatised. There are scenes in Pan's Labyrinth that may horrify, but there was only one scene where I felt it was slightly excessive, reminiscent of one of those 'Goodfellas' style beatings. It is more the threat of impending violence that really chilled me in Pan's Labyrinth, especially from the relentlessly wicked El Capitan.

Like 'Devil's Backbone', 'Pan's Labyrinth' is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia, the main character, is a young girl whose father has died recently. Her mother has now re-married - unfortunately for both of them - to a certain fascist Capitan Vidal and they relocate to Vidal's country manor, which is also a fascist command centre, tackling the problem of the resistance. Ofelia is a reader, and takes refuge in her many fairy-tale books to avoid the painful reality she is faced with. Immediately after arriving in the countryside she begins discovering strange, magical things..

'Pan's Labyrinth' is tightly written, well performed, and beautfiully brought to life on screen. The themes it tackles are universal - art reflecting life, fantasy versus reality, children's relationships with adults - but the story is so timeless it is difficult to believe that del Toro has written it himself. Like hearing a really great song for the first time, you have this nagging feeling you've heard it before.

So, as a football commentator might say, all credit to del Toro, for he has without a doubt produced his best work to date. And it is not an easy piece of cinema by any means, either in terms of production, or indeed in terms of an experience for the audience. However, a simple rule of investment states that, the greater the risk, the greater the potential return. In this case, del Toro has gone out on a limb, and taken a creative risk. I recommend you take a risk, and go see Pan's Labyrinth, because the returns are generous.


The Verdict: It is at times frightening, tense, violent and sad, but overall, Pan's Labyrinth is a beautiful story, exceptionally well told.
The Rating: 9/10

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Shock new James Bond!!

In a break with tradition, and in advance of the Pan's Labyrinth review, PCMR has felt compelled to make a posting without even a hint of a movie review... the reason for this? Well, who would have thought it, but it appears Daniel Craig has been replaced as James Bond... you have to say though, his replacement looks more than capable...



Kudos to the folks at Obsessed With Film for finding this little gem.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Apocalypto

Over the last couple of years, we've seen extensive media coverage of a number of quite public celebrity meltdowns. The Tom Cruise Is Nuts website was in existence long before the man jumped up and down on Oprah's couch, but that episode prompted worldwide questioning of whether Cruise really was a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. His subsequent media tour to promote 'War of the Worlds' ironically ended up alienating him from Steven Spielberg, due to his irrepressible desire to hold forth on such topics as the relevance of scientology, and, even more bizarrely, Brooke Shields' post-natal depression.

The manner of Cruise's marriage to Katie Holmes, and also the subsequent mysterious birth of their baby, has done little to dim the media spotlights surrounding the Cruiser. In fact, although he was dropped by his studio following his fallout with Spielberg, he has since been appointed at the reins of a large Hollywood production company, and PCMR would argue that he is now even more famous than ever before. (Incidentally, now that Cruise has been bestowed with the power of the green-light, what price on the imminent development of 'Battlefield Earth 2'? We live in fear!)

Mel Gibson, too, has had a very public meltdown recently. Driving under the inflence, escaping from police officers on foot, a rather comprehensively loopy anti-semitic rant, and the now legendary 'sugar tits' remark added up to a story the National Enquirer couldn't have invented in their wildest dreams. In one of it's more prescient moments, SouthPark pre-empted this episode of lunacy with one of their own, lampooning Gibson for being completely bonkers after the success of 'The Passion of the Christ'. In the sensitively titled episode 'The Passion of the Jew', Gibson appears in Braveheart make-up dressed only in his underwear, ranting and babbling to the four mountain town kids after they demand their seven dollars admission fee back. Stan, shocked, declares that "this guy is crazy." PCMR could be wrong on this call, but believes that this episode was made before the whole sugar tits debacle... possibly following either Trey Parker or Matt Stone running into Gibson in some Hollywood get-together.

That's not to say that being crazy is necessarily bad for the potential of Gibson's artistic output. I would argue that his decision to limit his appearances in front of the camera in favour of working behind it, is actually evidence of a rational mind. His more recent forays as an actor ('Conspiracy Theory', 'The Patriot', 'We Were Soldiers') have generally been in awful movies. 'Signs' wasn't all that bad, but you get the impression his acting career would soon be in need of the potential box office jolt provided by Lethal Weapon 5, god help us..

His career behind the camera, however, has been an entirely different matter. After cutting his teeth with 'The Man Without a Face', Gibson made a giant creative leap forward with 'Braveheart' two years later, and promptly picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Possibly due to the difficulty of following up such a career-defining project, Gibson waited some ten years before making his next directorial venture, the ubiquitous 'Passion of the Christ'. Vilified and adored in equal measure, 'The Passion' provoked extreme reaction from zealots and pagans alike, proof that religious themes will not lose their controversial edge for some time to come. Despite the personal and professional vilification Gibson endured with the Passion, it went on to rake in cash hand over fist at the box office, and was probably the biggest hit of 2005, considering it's relatively meagre $30 million budget.

And so, we come to Gibson's difficult decision to follow up what will most likely be the biggest success of his career. With the creative and financial freedom afforded by one of the biggest movies of 2005, Mel announces... Apocalypto, a film about the implosion of the Mayan people, without a single recognisable Hollywood name, and shot entirely in the ancient Mayan language... PCMR can only conclude that Mel is straddling the line between complete lunacy and cinematic genius here, but after seeing the trailer a few months ago, I was definitely keen to evaluate the results of Gibson's potential folly... Now, finally, the results are in. PCMR has survived a viewing of 'Apocalpyto'... so what's it to be: depraved lunatic or misunderstood genius?

Well, the idea of making a movie like Apocalypto, depicting the demise of the ancient Mayan people, was probably considered to be lunacy in Hollywood. I'm sure the critics that Gibson attracted with both 'the Passion' and his D.U.I. episode were rubbing their hands with glee at the the likely imminence of Mel's career implosion. However, the fact that Gibson even managed to get the movie made, and with a budget of $40 million dollars to boot, must be a reflection of his strength of conviction in the movie's worth and relevance. So at this stage of proceedings, the jury is out on Gibson's sanity, and they're out probably out watching the movie before they deliver their verdict.

The movie is essentially a great piece of cinematic entertainment, and I wouldn't hesitate to compare it with Braveheart or even Gladiator, in terms of its affectionate, pain-staking reconstruction of an ancient culture. Gibson obviously has a lot of love for the Mayan culture, and from very early on in the picture, we see these tribespeople as individuals and can understand them, despite the obvious disparities between this culture and ours. For example, the tribesmen work together, they play pranks on each other, they are family-oriented, and they gather round camp-fires for a good story and a bit of a dance... these are basic versions of activities we still enjoy today... although the influence of technology has changed the appearance, fundamentally, it's the same thing.

Apocalypto is the story of Jaguar Paw and his tribe. Their peaceful tribal life is disrupted when a nomad neighbouring tribe passses through their hunting grounds in the first minutes of the movie. This tribe do not have aggressive intentions, however, but make it clear to Jaguar Paw that their lands and people were ravaged, and they need somewhere new to settle.

This episode has a profound impact on Jaguar Paw, played with ferocious intensity by Rudy Youngblood. His father sees the impact on him immediately, and advises his son how important it is not to let the disease of fear into his blood, for it pollutes, and is contagious. However, Jaguar Paw can't shake the feeling, and it proves to be portentous.

Apocalypto has received much critical press describing the level of on-screen violence, and the degree to which the director really shows us what is actually happening in the more violent scenes. I have to say however, and perhaps I was prepared to be shocked, but I didn't see any violent scenes that shocked me. There is one rather prolonged battle scene, but the evocative moments are not from the violence on screen, rather from the visceral emotions that the battle engenders. Families separated, loved ones being captured or killed, this was more traumatic to me than the actual violence, which to be honest, fit quite well with the story. There is one scene reminiscent of Wallace's torture in Braveheart, but the scene in Apocalytpo is far milder than that, for example, and PCMR doesn't recall hearing such a critical revulsion to the violence in Braveheart when it was released.

While the first act is set against the backdrop of tribal life in the jungle, the middle of the movie is the most visually stunning. This section of the movie sees Jaguar Paw travel to the stone-built centre of the Mayan people, where thousands toil on the construction of a huge stone city, and human sacrifices are offered to the gods before the eyes of a thronging city centre. These scenes are incredibly well put together and beautifully shot, and make this part of the movie quite immersive, as you're paying so much attention to the level of detail on show, it becomes quite difficult to predict what direction the story will take.

The scale of these scenes, too, is reminiscent of Gladiator. Wide shots reveal the thronging crowds, thirsty for entertainment and blood, under the guise of offering a sacrifice to their gods. This is Gibson contrasting the depraved Mayan cities with the peaceful tribes, and is a metaphor for any number of contemporary themes, none of which PCMR is going to venture!

The action in Apocalypto is very well shot, and there is a chase scene which surely will go down in the cinematic annals as one of the best. This chase is not 'The French Connection' however, for it is on foot, through the jungle. This is a signature of Mel Gibson's movies: running. Riggs had a running moment in every Lethal Weapon picture, the Scots did loads of bloody running in Braveheart, and now this! I'll forgive him this one though, for the chase scene is great, and for the third half of the movie, there really is little or no dialogue to speak of, and the action does most of the talking.

Thus, the director is the star of this movie, and the production design is the supporting actor. The script is strongest in the first third of the movie, the dialogue is so limited from then on, the action could quite easily have been shot from a story-board from about half way through. There are obvious enough weaknesses in the plot, however, such as the timescale of the action, which means Jaguar Paw experiences a couple of days that normally only reserved for the likes of Jack Bauer in '24'. That's not a major complaint however, because this is essentially an action movie after all. However, one plot point that rankled with me was in the transtion from the second to third act, where Jaguar Paw's escape becomes the chase. It felt a little forced for me, but the counter-weight is that the action continues to flow at a furious pace. The chase is quite intense, as the pursuers are never more than a few metres behind, and the jungle tends to throw up regular surprises from the flora!

Overall, Apocalypto is a great piece of entertainment, and is unique and original enough to stand proudly astride the line between genius and lunacy. It's no cinematic classic, but it is visually memorable enough to be considered a real success for Mel Gibson. I'd recommend seeing it in the cinema, but not if you're squeamish. If Gladiator was a little violent for you, then you won't like this one.

Who needs a 'Mel Gibson is Nuts' website anyway?! If he's going to continue making entertaining, visionary movies like Apocalypto, I personally couldn't care less if he was crazy.


The Verdict: Memorable, action-packed, visually amazing. Violent, but not in a gratuitous way. Worth a look, sugar tits.
The Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Squid and the Whale

Jeff Daniels is what Hollywood would refer to as a 'character actor'. In other words, he's a recognisable face, and reliable enough to turn in a decent performance, but perhaps not equipped with the adequate charisma to be a leading man, the star name top of the billing in a big-budget, flagship movie release. This label has little to do with acting ability, in common with the majority of casting decisions made in Tinseltown, but his career has certainly demonstrated an ability to tread softly and comfortably in the shadow of brighter stars. He was Keanu Reeves' partner in 'Speed', he coped admirably well opposite Jim Carrey in 'Dumb and Dumber', and he was the head of the family in 'Arachnophobia', to name but a few. The thing is, while leading men come and go, and tend to have tenuous relationships with their viewing public, the character actor's lot is altogether more secure. Indeed, Jeff Daniels has been working since the 80's amid a distinct lack of controversy, and has quietly built up an impressive resume.

In 2005, Daniels was a busy man, appearing in both the excellent 'Good Night and Good Luck' in yet another supporting turn, this time opposite George Clooney, but also in 'The Squid and the Whale' - shock! - as the leading actor. Oh wait a minute, it's a small indie flick, I get it now!

The Squid and the Whale is an austere drama about the fragmentation of a family, set against the backdrop of Brooklyn in the 80's. Daniels plays a formerly successful author, whose publishing run appears to have stalled, and is now teaching for a living. He is an intellectual snob, and disdainful of pretty much everyone without a Phd, whom he refers to as 'philistines' without a hint of irony.

Daniels' marriage to wife Joan (played by Laura Linney) has been on the rocks for some time, and finally splinters beyond repair in the first act of the movie. The break-up is complicated by the fact that Joan is now an author in her own right, and is beginning to be recognised as a serious writer, this recognition coincinding with Daniels' own downward career trajectory to the detriment of the relationship.

Unfortunately, the couple do not seem at all concerned with the effect of their break-up on their two sons, Frank and Walt. In true intellectual style, they discuss the terms of their new custody-sharing arrangements with the two boys in a rational, dignified manner, and when the young Frank, only a boy, breaks into tears, there is little tenderness shown to the boy from either parent. This theme continues throughout the picture, and Daniels' character displays a level of self-absorption and detachment from his kids that is really pretty despicable. The more time they spend in his company, the more his negative influence can be seen on their behaviour, and it's not long before things hit rock bottom for the whole family, and for the two boys in particular.

Noah Baumbach wrote 'The Squid and the Whale' as an autobiographical account of the break-up of his parents' marriage, and in my opinion, he has written a smart account of proceedings, but one that is fundamentally flawed. Daniels' character is pretty much the bad guy of the piece, and because PCMR would prefer to avoid employing pop psychology terminology in movie reviews, I'll simply say that Baumbach's parental issues have made an average movie, but not a great one.

Daniels' performance as Bernie, the downtrodden literary failure who perceives himself as superior to everyone else, and anyone who doesn't understand him as 'difficult', is quite good in the lead role. Laura Linney too, turns in half-decent support as ex-wife Joan. Of the two chips off the old block, Jesse Eisenberg is particularly good as the older of the two sons, Walt, and is the most interesting character in the movie. He viscerally experiences the break-up of his parents as an outsider to their relationship, and bears the brunt of his father's self-pity and anger at his wife, emotions which rub off on the boy, to the detriment of his relationship with his mother.

For some reason, perhaps it was the style so similar to something Wes Anderson would make (he has a 'producer' credit), I expected a Wilson brother to show up at any moment... William Baldwin has a look of Luke Wilson about him in this movie, and maybe that was the trigger for the thought.. Baldwin was pretty terrible in the role of the tennis instructor (obviously second choice when Wilson Brother II wasn't available).

So, overall, I wasn't particularly enamoured with this one. The script was smart and intellectual, sure, but like Walt in the movie, it had an air of pretentiousness about it. Also, the realistic style employed didn't sit too well with me when the younger of the two boys was suffering through a few bad moments from the psychological trauma of the break-up. There were a few scenes in the movie involving the young lad that were very difficult to watch, and I found it tough to reconcile their presence on-screen with the story as it progressed. Certainly, there was very little resolution offered, and these scenes, when they are eventually related to the boy's parents, appear to have little effect on them.

If The Squid and the Whale is a cautionary tale, it has a very obvious message: don't fuck up your kids. However, I think the real message in this movie is from Noah Baumbach, successful screen-writer, to his dad, failed author. This is the main reason I didn't really enjoy it all that much.


The verdict: Poignant in moments, great performance from Jesse Eisenberg, and a smart script, but ultimately, a little hollow for me.
The rating: 6/10

Transamerica

Change can be a painful experience. For those of you reading this in the U.K. and Ireland, you may be familiar with a show on Sky Sports on Saturday mornings named Soccer a.m. For those who may be unfamiliar, the show is essentially about football, but amid the football news and interviews, there are a number of regular sketches, one of which is a mickey-take of the Yorkshire News. Every week, a simulated newscast is transmitted from a 70's style studio, with retro effects, and of course, heavy Yorkshire accents. The point of all the stories is to mock the Yorkshiremen for their resistance to modernisation, or as the newscaster often puts it, "the ways of southerners". The refrain at the end of each bulletin is the same every week, as the newscaster winds up the story, he says "yet again ladies and gentlemen, another reminder, that change... is not good."

This spot is a jibe at stubborn males' resistance to change, but the refrain of the newscaster can be heard to be repeated in choral form by all the cast and crew members each week, almost all of them blokes, and always with a little laugh afterwards.

The mantra is popular for a good reason though, change is not easy, this is a universal truth. Humans are creatures of habit and while we like to break up our old routines every now and again, in the main, we like to be in control of any changes we encounter.

A friend of PCMR recently pointed out something that had been registering faintly with me of late, namely a trend in the type of movie reviewed on this site. Comedies and action movies, he said, is that all you watch? I attempted to defend myself, but I realised in the course of the argument that perhaps it was time for a little change in my watching habits. Time to get out of the comfort zone, and watch something a little more challenging. So, reader, you encounter PCMR in the process of change that started with 'The Wind That Shakes The Barley'... let's see how it goes!

When we are introduced to Bree (Felicity Huffman's character) in Transamerica, she is in the process of what must be the most radical change a human being can endure. In the first scene of the movie, she is being interviewed by a doctor to assess whether she is ready for the final surgical step in her gender change operation. (Yes, folks, this is a long long way from Crank!). In these first, quite moving scenes we are introduced to the Bree, and almost straight away the movies two main themes are introduced, namely personal change, and the coping mechanisms we use to deal with these changes.

Almost immediately after returning home from the hospital in these early scenes, Bree receives a phone call asking for Stanley, and she quickly responds that Stanley doesn't live at this address any more. The caller tells her that Stanley's son is in jail in New York, and needs to be bailed out. This news causes Bree some distress, and we quickly fill in the gaps. Bree is, or rather was, Stanley, and was unaware of the existence of her son.

Her psychiatrist acutely observes that Bree needs to deal with this news, and deal with it before the psychiatrist can agree to let Bree go through with the op, so Bree agrees to travel to New York to bail out her son from jail. But she is very obviously still uncomfortable in her own skin, her movements and gestures are exaggeratedly female, and still exude a practiced, somewhat alien air. Her face, too is feminine, but with elements of masculinity there also, around the jaw-line and the mouth mostly. When a small child asks Bree "are you a boy or a girl", Bree breaks down, still fragile to the telling eyes of the people she meets.

When faced with the decision to tell Toby, her son, that she is in fact his father, Bree procrastinates, pretending to be a missionary from the church instead. However, the young kid is desperately in need of help, hustling as he is on the streets of New York, so Bree offers to take him to Los Angeles, hoping to deposit him at his step-father's place in Kentucky along the way.

And so begins the transamerican journey. As with all good road movies, we learn much about both the characters through the people they meet along their way, some of them ghosts from either Toby's or Bree's past, and eventually their shared origins are revealed, through Bree's family.

Huffman's performance in Transamerica is remarkable for its courage. For a glamorous actress best known for work on a show such as Desperate Housewives to simply take on such a complex, challenging role is laudable. However, for an actor or actress to deliver a performance as total as this is really quite rare. Christian Bale recently underwent a physical transformation to play an emaciated sleep-deprived factory worker in 'The Machinist', and Robert DeNiro famously piled on the extra weight to play the overweight Jake LaMotta towards the end of 'Raging Bull', but in the case of those transformations, the person you were seeing on screen was essentially the same, only with a different physical size. In Transamerica, Huffman's physical transformation is such that you actually begin to question her femininity. This is a massively brave move for an actress to take. And we're not talking Gene Hackman wearing a dress and lippy in 'The Birdcage' or Kevin Kline dancing to Y.M.C.A. in 'In or Out' here. This change is not cosmetic, Huffman literally appears to be what she is portrayed as, a trans-gender male.

In the week she spends on the road, Bree gets to know her son, albeit incognito, and also encounters her parents for the first time in god knows how long. And in this, the second act of the movie, we learn a little of why Bree is the way she is. Because family, eh? Can't choose em, can't live with em!

But all the characters in Transamerica have their problems, their secrets and their issues to deal with. In a similar manner to 'Little Miss Sunshine', the coping mechanisms employed by each character vary, as do each of their degrees of acceptance of their various problems.

The characters in the movie are all believable people, constantly in the process of getting to know themselves and each other. The script is rewarding, moving, at times funny, but always bittersweet, and the dialogue is intelligent and subtle. And Huffman's performance is heart-rendingly brilliant.

So the characters go through change in the movie, and achieve varying degrees of acceptance with their own problems, as well as each others. And after watching Transamerica, indeed after writing this review, I'd have to agree with the sentiment offered by the Yorkshire Newscaster, change is painful. But it's a fact of life, and to not accept change, be it in ourselves or in those close to us, leads to pain, secrets and generally, things that are really... not good.


The verdict: A serious, intelligent, and poignant road movie. Huffman's performance is outstanding.
The rating: 8/10

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Slither

From time to time, people can be honestly seen to 'surf' the internet. The Arctic Monkeys are riding on the crest of a wave that was in part made possible from their Myspace page. The ubiquitous 'Numa Numa' kid's popularity ballooned so rapidly from a three minute internet spot he recorded miming to a europop tune, that he was eventually offered an appearance on Jay Leno. More and more companies are using viral commercials, or downloadable e-mailable versions of ads that would never air on tv, and these too have a tendency to spread like wildfire throughout office inboxes all over the world.

All these examples are variations on a theme, a commodity held in the holiest of sacred regards by movie-makers: 'internet buzz'. This is another way of referring to the interminable claptrap spouted by 'bloggers' like me, a member of a community that regards itself as slightly less inferior to the dreaded 'message-boarders'. Once the ripple of buzz is picked up on a topic, you will see forum postings, message boards abound with variations on a theme such as 'dude, OMG, like, I can't wait for this one', or 'is SOAP gona be better than LOTR???!?!' The classic example of this buzz getting out of control was prior to the release of 'Snakes on a Plane'. Now, I haven't seen the movie, so I can't comment on its quality, but the impression I got from seeing Sam Jackson talk it up on The Daily Show is that it's a b-movie, trying to be intentionally tongue-in-cheek, but that the idea sounded, well, pretty boring.. Why, then, did the message-boarding fanboys and bloggers embrace 'Snakes on a Plane' so fondly, giving it that most loving of internet fanboy thumbs-ups, an abbreviation (SOAP) and generating all sorts of excitement in advance of its release? Who knows folks, for the internet is a strange place. What's stranger to me though, is that a movie like Slither, which provides all the laughs and grisly enjoyment that Snakes on a Plane promised, never generated a single ripple of internet 'buzz', at least none that registered on my, um, sonar.

Slither is an irreverent comedy horror in the same vein as Sam Raimi's 'Evil Dead' trilogy, or perhaps Peter Jackson's 'Braindead'. It's a monster movie, of the genre that Troma studios have been churning out for years. For Troma movies, think 'Redneck Zombies' or 'The Toxic Avenger' and you get the idea of the tongue-in-cheek approach that they take to entertainment of this type. Slither borrows a lot from the Troma style, and indeed, one of the movie's characters is relaxing at home watching a Troma movie before she meets the monster of the piece.

Essentially, Slither doesn't take itself too seriously, and is all the more enjoyable for it. The self-awareness displayed by writer-director James Gunn probably comes from his own experience as a writer/director on Troma movies. Although he debuted with the not so memorable 'Tromeo and Juliet', Gunn did go on to bigger things, penning the script for the 1994 remake of George Romero's 'Dawn of the Dead', which was a big box-office success. He also provided a bit of bankability for himself by penning the two live action 'Scooby-Doo' movies, work of a more mercenary nature perhaps, but of the type that allows you more freedom in Hollywood, freedom to do your own thing.

And with this freedom, Gunn has put together a creditable addition to the comedy-horror genre. Slither is a pastiche of homages to many well-known monster movies, with throwback scenes to movies such as Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead', 'Halloween', 'The Toxic Avenger', '28 Days Later' even, all the movies Gunn obviously has affection for.

The movie is set in a backwater southern u.s. town named 'Wheelsy', where the residents pretty much all look like zombies even before they get infected by the mutant space monster that's on the prowl. The town is policed by Bill Pardy, played by Nathan Fillion, who you might recognise from the under-rated 'Serenity', and who is soon to be seen in the questionable sequel 'White Noise: The Light'. Fillion seems to be cultivating a reputation for himself as a bit of a b-movie icon, but he gives a good account of himself in Slither.

The monster effects on display (and lets face it, they may as well be a cast member) are very good, and there are also a few genuine moments of suspense and horror amidst all the tongue-in-cheek sarcastic humour.

The story trundles along at a decent pace, and from the get-go, you're never more than a couple of minutes away from something gross! Speaking of which, the monster of the piece, the unfortunately named Grant Grant, is played by Michael Rooker, one of those Troy McLure type supporting actors you will recognise, but be unable to place from anywhere specific. He plays the role well though, even if he becomes unrecognisable about a third of the way into the movie!

I'm painfully aware though, that even if I sing this movie's praises, it's going to be difficult to convince you to see it if you're not a fan of the horror genre. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why Slither tanked at the box office, despite its obvious quality. It seems surprising to me that it didn't generate any kind of internet buzz, however, as it is one of those movies that would seriously benefit from good word of mouth..

So here's my contribution to hopefully starting a wave of DvD interest for Slither. It deserves it, mainly because it's a funny, entertaining way to spend ninety minutes. The gore is extreme, the monsters are frightening, the jokes are funny, and the victims, for the most part, deserve what they get! If these characteristics do not a good monster movie make, then my name's Freddy Krueger.


The Verdict: for fans of monster horror, this is great fun.
The rating: 7/10

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