Monday, February 26, 2007

And the Oscar goes to...

Well, PCMR may have gambled on Clint Eastwood winning best director, but is never one to pass up an opportunity to say ‘told you so’ – waay back in September, I predicted Scorcese would pick up the gong for the excellent 'The Departed', and the academy have finally invited Marty to the Oscar party, giving him the opportunity to deliver one of the best Oscar acceptance speeches ever to boot.

Your guide to all the major winners are listed below, with links to PCMR’s reviews included for your consideration. You'll find many of the other nominees reviewed here too, just use the navigation bar on the right to browse the titles...

Best Picture
The Departed

Best Director
Martin Scorcese – The Departed

Best Actor
Forest Whitaker – Last King of Scotland

Best Actress
Helen Mirren – The Queen

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin – Little Miss Sunshine

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Hudson – Dreamgirls

Best Adapted Screenplay
William Monahan – The Departed

Best Original Screenplay
Michael Arndt – Little Miss Sunshine

Best Editing
The Departed

Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Make-up
Pan's Labyrinth

Best Documentary Feature and Best Song

An Inconvenient Truth

Best Visual Effects
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower

The verdict: Excellent epic Shakespearian regal tragedy set in Tang Dynasty China... and it's got ninjas, bee-atch!
The rating: 8/10

PCMR's Recipe for Curse of the Golden Flower

Take two cupfuls of 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon', and pan-fry with one-third of 'The Last Emperor' (finely chopped).
Next, add half of Mike Leigh's 'Secrets and Lies', a pinch of 'Eastenders' and bring to the boil.
When the mixture is boiling, add a half-pint of 'Macbeth' and two tablespoonfuls of Battle Spices extracted from 'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'. (Don't worry if you don't have the Lord of the Rings Trilogy to hand, any large-scale battle spices will suffice, 'Braveheart' or 'Troy' for example).
Now would be the time to add two cloves of cleavage from 'Dangerous Liaisons', and then leave to simmer.
When the mix has been simmering for a good hour, add a sprinkling of 'Oldboy', and just a pinch of 'Ran' to flavour.
After two hours, serve on a bed of Chow-Yun Fat and enjoy!

'Curse of the Golden Flower' is the most expensive Chinese movie production ever to hit cinema screens. Starring a trio of Crouching Tiger veterans, Golden Flower is a tragic tale of the emperor and his royal family, set in the time of the Tang Dynasty in ancient China. Chow-Yun Fat is excellent as the emperor, but this is essentially the story of the empress, and Li Gong steals this movie, so excellent is she as the tragic matriarch of this most dysfunctional of royal families. If you saw 'The Queen' recently, and thought the Windsors had a few issues, you ain't seen nothin yet buddy.

The emperor has three sons, the eldest of which is from a previous marriage, and who the emperor believes to be unfit to inherit the throne. For this reason, he is in the process of deciding to make his second son Jai (Jay Chou) the crown prince. Things get dark and complicated very early on, however, as the Empress appears to be infatuated with the eldest of the three sons, the crown prince Wan (Ye Liu) - but don't worry, no blood relation here, so it's not that bad, right? (Hmm - Ed) Ahem... aaanyway, the emperor may or may not have gotten wind of this, but he has decided to poison the empress, by adding a fungus to her daily doses of anemia medicine that will slowly drive her mad.

What follows includes numerous twists and turns, with each character involved in a dense web of intrigue that threatens to literally tear the family apart. The empress, aware of her husbands intention to poison her, busies herself by embroidering numerous chrysanthemums, the titular golden flower, but does she have a plot up her own sleeve, or is she simply going slowly insane?

The scale of this production is really quite breathtaking. The imperial palace is the setting for almost all of the action, and it is a place of vivid colours and dense ritualistic protocol, playing host to countless servants working on behalf of the different family members. In the scenes where we are exposed to palace life, director Yimou Zhang gives the audience the occasional glimpse of just how much manpower goes into, for example, the preparation of the average day in the palace. Sweeping wide shots of thousands of extras, all costumed and made-up to the hilt, are employed to reinforce the scale on which the palace operates, and the lack of CGI effects only serves to make the effect of this portrayal ever more acute. And the cleavage! There's blummin loads of it on show, more than even 'Dangerous Liaisons', I reckon... smashing stuff.

In keeping with the epic spirit of Crouching Tiger, there is also the required dose of large-scale battle action to enjoy. However, where 'House of Flying Daggers' fell down in this regard, Golden Flower succeeds. Rather than overloading the audience with one immense battle after another, the battle scenes in Golden Flower are used sparingly, and so have greater effect when they eventually splash across the screen in vivid colour, and also notably with nothing but real actors on show.

Also, there are ninjas, dude!! The ninja warriors in Golden Flower are mean, dammit, and they certainly mean business. The scenes with these guys will have people like Quentin Tarantino punching the air saying things like "that's what I'm talkin 'bout!", and why not, because they brilliantly executed and exhilarating to watch.

Although the storyline is tragic to the point of being melodramatic, the balance between the large-scale battle sequences, and the assorted personal difficulties of the royal family members is well handled by director Zhang. The battles, when they occur, are not the focus of the picture, but integrate well with the rest of the movie.

Li Gong's performance is truly excellent, and Chow Yun-Fat, once again, delivers a portrayal of a troubled emperor, loaded with regal charm and charisma, and of course replete with the occasional perfectly-timed arched eyebrow or two. ('Troubled emperor' is always a good part to be offered - Ed) The three sons are each played quite well, but Jay Chou is the best of them, and is the hero of the piece.

This movie deserves to be seen on the big screen, as the scale is honestly larger than anything you will have seen before, with the possible exception of 'Metropolis' or something from Akira Kurosawa. PCMR will recommend it as an intelligent, dramatic story, with seriously excellent battle sequences that are worth the admission price alone. The movie borrows heavily from other similar films that have preceded it, and also from Shakespearian plays such as 'Macbeth', but when the finished product is as coherent, sumptuous and exhilarating a cinematic experience as 'Curse of the Golden Flower', PCMR sees absolutely no problem with this. If you're still unsure, then let me go out on a limb here: it's better than 'Crouching Tiger' or 'House of Flying Daggers'. ('nuff said. - Ed)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Before Night Falls

The verdict: a bittersweet, dream-like, impressionistic view of a tortured artist's life. Javier Bardem is excellent.
The rating: 7/10

Set against the backdrop of Revolution-era Cuba in the 1950's and 60's, 'Before Night Falls' is a biopic of Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, documenting his tempestuous life from childhood in rural Cuba in the 1940's, through his career as a novelist in Communist Castro-controlled Cuba in the 1960's and 1970's. Arenas' early literary output attracted positive critical attention while he worked at the Biblioteca Nacional, where he entered various literary competitions. By the late 60's, his published novels and openly gay lifestyle were attracting the wrong sort of attention from the oppressive military forces, and he became known as something of an anti-establishment figure. Arenas was eventually imprisoned for publishing a novel abroad without the consent of the government, and for 'ideological deviation' from the cultural mores espoused by Castro's regime. This movie is the essentially the story of how Arenas survived all these experiences.

Javier Bardem plays the Cuban novelist, and if you are unfamiliar with the Spanish actor, PCMR arches an eyebrow suspiciously in your general direction. This Spanish actor is something of a force of nature, first coming to the attention of PCMR in 'The Sea Inside', an heavyweight performance of the highest order, albeit in a film that some may consider melodramatic. Given that he is a Spanish actor, and not short of talent, he has also turned up in an Almodovar or two, and PCMR also remembers a pretty excellent Bardem performance in 'Live Flesh', a quirky movie, even when measured against Almodovar's own off-beat standards. In 'Before Night Falls', Bardem again delivers an excellent performance, and literally becomes the character, to the point where the audience forgets the actor is performing. Bardem is also playing a character that requires a real physical transformation, as Arenas' demeanour is introverted and, well, quite gay.. but Bardem pulls it off. (Ahem.. I say! More tea, vicar? - Ed) These are just some of the hallmarks of a great performance in my book, and Bardem delivers on both counts.

For novelty value, Johnny Depp also turns up in this movie in a couple of excellent cameos, as too does Sean Penn, but to less effect. Depp play two characters, and his first appearance is gut-bustingly funny, but fans of Jack Sparrow may not want to watch. No spoilers here, but this 'part' has to be seen to be believed!

Revolution-era Cuba lends itself well to cinematic represenation, with its latin rhythms, cocktails, fat cigars, and heady atmosphere of sexual revolution providing ample material for the director with a good eye and sufficient talent. Julian Schnabel really captures the moment and the ambience of the era, combining the exhilaration of wild parties with the constant threat provided by the omnipresence of the oppressive military forces.

The style Schnabel adopts is a dream-like, impressionistic view of Arenas' life. There are numerous dream sequences, most often when Arenas is facing difficult moments, but there are many of these, as the guy did not have an easy life, by any means. His character is part Walter Mitty, part Oscar Wilde, and always interesting to watch.

I would recommend 'Before Night Falls', but be warned folks, it's a little 'arthouse'. There are no simple conclusions drawn, and the style adopted by the script leaves a lot to the imagination of the audience, but PCMR would argue that this is no bad thing. The movie is shocking in moments, but generally bittersweet in tone, and it will make you feel better about your own struggles. Relative to what Arenas went through, still coming out the other side with his literary legacy intact, you can't help but compare your problems to potatoes of the smaller variety. Bardem's performance is worth the ticket price alone, and Johnny Depp's cameos are worthy of more than a little novelty value. But above all, this is an impressionistic, dream-like account of a life worth hearing about.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Metropolis (1927)

The Verdict: This is the template, the source and the inspiration, but it also happens to be a great movie.
The Rating: 9/10

PCMR was privileged to partake in a rare movie experience last night. 'Metropolis', Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece was shown in the National Gallery of Ireland, with a new soundtrack commissioned specially for the Dublin International Film Festival, and performed live by eight-piece mini-orchestra 3epkano. Picture, if you will, the setting of a salubrious ballroom, replete with chandeliers and candelabras, expensive oil paintings hanging from the walls betwixt elegant marble pillars, with two sets of immense winding stairs flanking a large cinema screen at the top of the high-ceilinged chamber, and you have an idea of the theatre we attended yesterday evening.

Not entirely familiar with all things classical-music related, PCMR awkwardly applauded the band along with the rest of the crowd as they arrived, and they themselves looked a little nervous, reinforcing the nagging feeling that this experience was a little out of the normal cinematic comfort zone for everyone involved.

Then the movie started, silently at first, instructing us through frames that up to a quarter of the original print has now been lost, and that occasionally there would be gaps in the movie, but these gaps would be filled by explanatory frames. Then, the opening credits ran, and the band began playing…

If you haven’t seen Metropolis, you will have undoubtedly been exposed to images from it over the course of your lifetime, whether or not you are aware of it. Fritz Lang toiled and travailed for years over his labour of love like the mad artist he was, eager to create a lasting masterpiece. The results, strangely, look futuristic even today. Fritz Lang succeeded in demonstrating the wild possibilities offered by this medium, fresh and new at the time.

The movie itself is set in a non-specific future, and man has built a sprawling Metropolis, replete even with a new Tower of Babel. This world has two levels, the thinkers who live above ground level, and the workers who live underground. The workers operate heavy machinery in two ten hour shifts every day, while the thinkers relax in gardens and sport halls above, basking in the fresh air.

Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the son of the president and one of the thinkers, but one day, he witnesses Maria (Brigitte Helm) emerge from the lower level with some of the workers’ children. She is showing them the thinkers, and telling the children that these people are their brothers. Freder is immediately smitten, and when Maria and the children are unceremoniously shooed back down to the lower level, Freder pursues her. His journey to the lower level exposes him to the workers’ daily rituals, and in his first minutes there he witnesses a terrible accident and has a kind of manic vision. He also visits Maria, who acts as a kind of prophet on the lower level, speaking to the workers of the coming of a Mediator who will act as a bridge between the two levels of Metropolis and bring peace to the two peoples.

The main message of Metropolis is that the head (the thinkers) cannot work with the hands (the workers) unless the heart acts as a bridge. This simple parable runs through the heart of the story, and is the last line in the script. However, before this message is fully explained, the epic visual feast that is Metropolis unfolds before our eyes. The scale of this movie is still breathtaking today, and it is difficult to imagine just what kind of impact Metropolis might have had on audiences in 1927. It is at the same time a love story, a dystopic vision of the future, and a contemporary interpretation of a biblical story. It is also a frightening view of mob mentality, ominously warning of the dangers of acting without thinking, some ten years before the rise of the German far right. This movie was brave for its time, and still has much contemporary relevance today.

Although by today’s standards, certain scenes are drawn out and the acting perhaps a little hammy, (Watch out for the brilliantly lusty men toward the end – Ed) the audience can have nothing but respect and admiration for the movie by the time the closing credits roll.

I can’t help thinking that the soundtrack to this movie will have a big impact on the audience’s enjoyment of it, and 3epkano’s interpretation complemented the action brilliantly, especially in the last act of the movie, where the industrial grind of the workers’ routines gave way to dramatic drum rolls, as the workers rise to the upper level and confront the thinkers in a devastating climax. I haven’t been exposed to the other interpretations of the score, which include a version by Giorgio Moroder that sounds interesting enough, but this version worked very well indeed.

Metropolis is more than iconic, and as Roger Ebert pointed out, the images in the movie have achieved an even further elevated status than that of iconic, entering our collective consciousness to be used as a means of interpreting the modern world. The stories told in Metropolis are universal, both grand in their epic scale, and emotive at a human level. This movie may be flawed, but it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

As a movie experience, nothing PCMR has experienced in recent memory has come close to the setting, soundtrack and visual feast provided by this showing of Metropolis. It has taken great restraint on my part not to give this one a ten out of ten rating. I would recommend you seek out a copy of Metropolis at your earliest convenience, and bask in its glory. Near every Hollywood movie of recent years owes it a grand debt, and Fritz Lang managed to demonstrate in 1927 what the cinematic medium was capable of. Many celebrated directors working today will never come close to achieving something like 'Metropolis', and to be honest, few would be capable.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Fast Food Nation

The verdict: Great cast, not so great a script. A ‘Fast Food’ version of the book.
The rating: 6/10

The Book-to-movie adaptation is a unique type of media experience for the audience member. There is a certain idiosyncratic familiarity that can be enjoyed when reading a book over the course of twenty hours or so, allowing the reader to develop an intimate knowledge of characters, situations and plot developments. This type of experience has traditionally been difficult to replicate in a two hour movie. However, translations from printed page to silver screen have had no shortage of successes in the past, and show no sign of letting up in the future. Think the ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy of course, but also a long list including, among many others ‘The Shining’, ‘Schindler’s List’, and, um, ‘The DaVinci Code’. (Hmm… only because it made a shed-load of cash, I’ll allow that last one – Ed).

However, this type of movie adaptation can trigger visceral reactions from fans of the book. A classic example of this was the screen version of ‘American Psycho’, which made an enjoyable dark comedy experience out of a book considered by many to be repulsive at worst, and almost entirely unfilmable at best. The movie ended up more of a companion piece to the book, providing a deeper understanding of the main character’s story, and also produced a fantastic performance from Christian Bale.

'Fast Food Nation' is a curious type of book-to-movie adaptation, and one that most likely would fall into this companion piece category. For the uninitiated, Eric Schlosser's book was a didactic, well-researched account of all that is wrong with the American fast food industry, establishing links between the burger joint production line, and various aspects of the cultural fabric of the United States. From high-powered marketing executives, to cattle ranchers and Mexican slaughterhouse labourers, all the way down the chain to high school kids flipping burgers to earn a few bucks, and the millions of happy customers chowing down on big macs every day, the book is far-reaching and extremely informative. As each chapter draws to a close, the gathering weight of the overall conclusion rolls on relentlessly, and almost operates as a guide to quitting Big Macs, in the same manner as Allen Carr’s ubiquitous guide to quitting smoking. By the time the reader has finished the book, it is unlikely s/he will be rushing into a Mickey D’s or BK in the near future.

In the book, strong links are forged between the product offered by these fast food joints and many insidious cultural problems faced by Average Americans, such as obesity, employment issues and the pervasion of big corporation marketing into schools, with companies such as Burger King and Dr. Pepper sponsoring underprivileged schools to build 'lifelong consumers of the brand'.

However, Richard Linklater's adaptation - which was co-written with Schlosser - is a dramatisation, foregoing the obvious possibility of a documentary approach for a more character-driven story with a traditional narrative. (He does still talk about the shit in the meat though - Ed)

In what now seems to be the mandatory narrative structure of choice these days, 'Fast Food Nation' is three stories in one, with each separate vignette following the progress of characters involved in the fast food industry, albeit in very different ways.

Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), Sylvia and Coco are Mexican immigrant labourers, risking a hazardous border crossing for the prospect of work. Don Henderson (Greg Kinnear) is a marketing executive for a large – fictitious – fast food chain named Micky’s, and is enjoying unprecedented success with their latest beefy offering: ‘The Big One’. Meanwhile, Amber (Ashley Johnson) is an honest middle-class high-school kid working in her local Micky’s to earn the few bucks to help her get by, and possibly help out her mom, played by Patricia Arquette.

Although you might remember Wilmer Valderrama from ‘That 70’s Show’ (Fez!? Dude, no way! .. ahem – Ed), he’s actually quite good in this, albeit playing an everyman character, but he’s an honest guy with good sense, who just happens to be swallowed up by the meat-packing industry, and does his best to cope. This storyline is the device to allow the camera to poke around the slaughter-house, and although these scenes are the most horrifying in the movie, the characters themselves were a little caricatured for my liking.

Amber’s story takes a turn when she receives a visit from her uncle, played by Ethan Hawke. He encourages her to think twice about working for a company such as Micky’s, and his coherent arguments re-evaluate her choice to work for Micky's, a choice driven simply by the fact that it was the first job she could find.

Greg Kinnear’s story is the most implausible at the outset, and although he’s a great actor, and does well enough with the subject matter, this story is really just a device to allow the corporate side of the fast food industry to be lampooned. He visits a rancher (Kris Kristofferson) and talks to a rep from the meat-packers (played very well by Bruce Willis) and his journey enlightens him as to the type of corporation he’s working for.

As a political piece of work, ‘Fast Food Nation’ is brave, daring even, for it is challenging one of the foundation industries of the United States, and encouraging people to do the unthinkable – think. Amber’s story, the most interesting of the three for me, involves an intense period of learning and questioning for the young girl, and is possibly the only one of the three that produces any kind of positive outcome. Unfortunately, it becomes a little mired in political sensitivities towards the end, with Avril Lavigne’s character in particular providing an unwelcome addition to an otherwise very watchable support cast (including Paul Dano, who you might remember from ‘Little Miss Sunshine’).

So, it may be politically brave, but the ultimate question is, is it a good piece of movie entertainment? Well, unfortunately, it left me a little cold. I felt that, for the most part, the stories explored in the movie were a little lightweight, losing much of the power of the arguments presented in the book of the same name. Also, by presenting this story in an easily digestible package such as this, I felt as if the film was ultimately nothing more than a fast food version of the square meal the book had so capably delivered.

So instead of hanging around to watch Jeremy Thomas get presented with his Volta award after the Dublin Film Festival screening, PCMR decided to head off for a Whopper meal on the way home instead. (Dude, totally sick burn! – Ed)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hot Fuzz

The verdict: smart, funny, a good laugh and a great cast, but a tad long.
The rating: 7/10

Simon Pegg’s star is definitely rising at the moment, and PCMR would argue that this is no bad thing. I remember the short-lived TV series 'Hippies' a lot more than the more successful 'Spaced', but the clearest memory I have of that show is a stand-out performance from that man Pegg and his energetic, earnest comedy routine. He also had a small but memorable enough role in '24 Hour Party People', which PCMR would heartily recommend.

But then came 'Shaun of the Dead', inspired by a short sketch from Spaced, and possibly also from numerous sessions on the couch playing Resident Evil with best mate and co-star Nick Frost. Shaun was a clever, good-humoured pastiche of tributes to well-known zombie movies, and was a massive hit for Pegg, Frost, and director Edgar Wright. Personally, I always felt Shaun of the Dead to be just a tad over-rated, but still a very enjoyable film nonetheless. PCMR’s opinion didn’t stop the movie from being a runaway success on both sides of the Atlantic, however, attracting interest from Hollywood big-shots keen to capitalise on a post-Ricky Gervais wave of affection towards British comedies.

In promotional interviews immediately after making Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg quipped about what he was going to do next, joking that he would fly off to Hollywood and make 'Mission: Impossible 3'… or something. Well, as it turned out, reality sometimes is stranger than fiction. JJ Abrams, the producer of MI:III, counts himself among a legion of American fans of Shaun of the Dead, and he invited Pegg to Hollywood to do exactly that.

So, with a credible internationally acclaimed home-grown hit, and a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster under his belt, the inevitable question had to be asked: what next for Pegg, co-star Frost and director Wright?

Well, the trio have set out to pay homage to a different genre, the buddy-cop movie, and the result is 'Hot Fuzz'. The story is devilishly simple, Nicolas Angel (Pegg) is an over-achieving London copper, is forced to transfer to a quiet rural small town because his exceptional arrest rates are making the other London cops look bad. He arrives in the village of Sandford still tuned in to big city ways, constantly on the look-out for underhanded goings-on, but all that Sandford appears to offer in terms of criminal activity is under-age drinking and.. well… that’s about it really.

But then, people start dying, and the townsfolk appear more than willing to dismiss these events, stating that "accidents happen all the time". Angel starts to become convinced that something sinister is going on under the surface of the quiet town of Sandford, but is this all just a product of his hyper-sensitive London beat cop instincts, or is he quietly going mad at the prospect of his failed career?

Sandford, like most small rural towns, is populated with its fair share of eccentrics, and this is a source for much of the humour in Hot Fuzz. Angel’s partner, played brilliantly by Nick Frost, appears to be a dim-witted, but good-natured simpleton, constantly questioning Angel as to whether he’s jumped through the air while firing a gun, and such and such.. The supporting cast is impressive, however, with Edward Woodward, Jim Broadbent, Bill Bailey and Paddy Considine all enjoying themselves thoroughly on-screen. Special mention must go to Timothy Dalton though, who revels in the role of roguish upper-class jaguar-driving supermarket chief Simon Skinner.

The movie is essentially a comedy, and for the first two thirds, introduces the array of characters, sets the scene, and essentially sets up the third act. In these early scenes, PCMR picked up on more than a passing reference to 'The Wicker Man', and I don’t believe for a moment that Edward Woodward’s casting was an accident!

In the third act, the movie becomes a balls-out homage to the crash-bang-wallop buddy-cop explosion-fests that Nick Frost’s character loves watching on DVD, such as 'Point Break' and 'Bad Boys II' for example. The action is very well put together, and although large amounts of disbelief must be suspended, there are also a fair amount of laughs in this section of the movie.

What Hot Fuzz has in common with Shaun of the Dead is something that many big-budget Hollywood blockbusters lack. At the same time as trying to make the audience laugh, or give them a wave of excitement, the film-makers are aware that the audience has – cough – actually seen other movies! Referring to other movies is not something Wright and Pegg appear to shy away from in their writing. Quite the opposite in fact, and some of the funniest moments for me were when these movies, which have obviously provided the inspiration for Hot Fuzz, were referenced, either directly in the dialogue, or implicitly in the action scenes.

As a comedy, it is a success, and PCMR would venture that it is funnier than Shaun of the Dead, with quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Like Shaun, the comedy almost gives way to action roughly two thirds of the way through, but there is still room in the action sequences of Hot Fuzz for some belly laughs, and these contribute to the relentless pace of the final twenty minutes or so.

My only real quibble of the movie was the running time. At two hours, Hot Fuzz felt a little too long for me. Also, because the first two acts were so long, when the action kicked in, it jarred a little, given that the audience had possibly settled into a nicely paced eccentric comedy. Suddenly there’s all sorts of gun-wielding lunatics, massive explosions and cheesy one-liners to be had. I’m not debating the merits of these things, just that they could probably have shed fifteen minutes or so, and ended up with a leaner, punchier movie as a result.

So, it’s funny, but it’s also quite violent. However this violence is in the classic tradition of gross-out movies, in that it’s almost cartoony in its shock value. Fly-kicking a granny in the face might not seem like such a funny thing (Eh? – Ed) but it gave PCMR quite a good belly laugh in the context of Hot Fuzz.

Pegg’s performance is really great though. You would expect him to be good in the more comedic sections of the movie, and he doesn’t disappoint there. However, when he gets pissed off and starts kicking ass, Pegg is quite believable as the action copper, and gives a very good account of himself in some fairly stunt-heavy scenes, inevitably delivering the odd cool quip here and there, to great effect.

So, I’d recommend it because it’s smart, funny and will reference other movies you may have seen. The two leads are great, the script is smart, and the supporting cast are terrific. PCMR predicts big things beckoning for this trio of Pegg, Frost and Wright, but in particular, you can expect Simon Pegg to feature in a few Hollywood outings in the not too distant future. And with a performance as good as this, why the hell not?

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Good German

Starring the current Spiderman (Tobey Maguire), a former Batman (George Clooney) and the queen of the elves herself (Cate Blanchett), the heavyweight cast of 'The Good German' may lead you to believe it is a blockbusting 'event movie' of the Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer variety, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, this movie was billed as 'an experiment' for the director, one in which he only used equipment that was available in the 1940's. So, no zoom lenses, only one camera per shot, and hand-held boom microphones. We might be forgiven for asking, as John Stewart put to George Clooney in his Daily Show interview: "why!?".

Well, The Good German is a noir tale of suspense and intrigue, set against the backdrop of conflict-ravaged Berlin and Potsdam in 1945, just as WWII is drawing to a close. So the easy answer to John Stewart's question is really that the style of production just happens to suit the subject matter, and contributes to immersing the audience in the story.

Clooney plays a war-time correspondent for the U.S. forces, stationed in Berlin, with the nefarious Tully (Tobey Maguire) assigned as his driver. Tully is sleeping with Lena, the German referred to in the title, and she turns out to also be an old flame of Clooney's from the his previous Berlin assignment. Lena is played by Cate Blanchett, and her performance is noir femme fatale to a tee, effortlessly mixing the German accent of Marlene Dietrich with the smoking femininity of Lauren Bacall from the days of 'Dark Passage' and 'To Have and Have Not'. Her stand-out performance really out-shines her two super-hero co-stars, and PCMR must stop banging on about this, but she really is one of the best actresses working today. Even large amounts of German dialogue can't repress her ability to deliver each scene as capably as the last.

War-time Berlin was a place where, to put it mildly, many bad things happened. The characters in this movie espouse the belief that, after living in Berlin for a while, nothing surprises you any more. This is the backdrop for this intriguing story, and is also a classic element of many noir tales, detailing a micro-struggle set against the backdrop of a larger conflict. Every noir movie also needs a bar, a smoke-filled sleazy den, housing shady characters, military men, and dangerous women, all with an angle to work and a story to tell. The Good German is no different, and in these scenes, the barman, played by the Scot Tony Curran, has some great lines. His genuine Scottish accent seems a little out of place in war-time Berlin, but this adds to his character, and he has some memorable moments.

It was a strange experience for PCMR, watching this one at 10.30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, but in a strange way, the timing seemed appropriate to the lazy pace of the movie. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, mainly because there is too much detail to cover, but also because every little detail gradually builds the plot, and contributes to the outcome of the story. Like every noir movie should, The Good German twists and turns, with your opinions of characters never allowed to settle as they gradually reveal their cards, and what they have at stake.

The noir tradition was established by Hollywood classics of the 40's and 50's, and is populated by such legends as Peter Lorre, John Huston, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich and the man himself, Humphrey Bogart. Roman Polanski also added a benchmark to the genre in 1974, when he teamed up with screenwriter Robert Towne, Faye Dunaway and a certain Jack Nicholson to produce one of PCMR's all-time top movies 'Chinatown'. (Wasn't John Huston in that too? - Ed). The Coen brothers have even done a noir flick, receiving a more mixed reaction with their slickly shot 'The Man Who Wasn't There'.

The point of this little noir history lesson is that Steven Soderbergh is attempting to move into an illustrious neighbourhood with this movie, and is harking back to an established style that has been well-defined by some of the cinematic greats. Indeed, for much of the movie, Clooney sports stitches in his cheek and a bandage on his ear, in a thinly disguised nod and wink to Jack Nicholson's 'Chinatown' nose plaster. Also, the closing scenes of The Good German, set as they are in a military airfield, are a very obvious reference to the iconic ending of 'Casablanca', with driving rain substituted for the misty setting of - arguably - Bogie's most iconic cinematic moments. Soderbergh and writer Paul Attanasio avoid the temptation to refer directly to Casablanca in the dialogue, but the similarity of these scenes must have been intentional.

The style imposed by the constraints of the equipment used gives the movie a real old-school feel, continually reinforcing the noir atmosphere. Clooney's idiosyncratic charisma is reinforced by the black-and-white film, and he delivers a capable enough performance. Also, Tobey Maguire does a very good job as the dodgy geezer Tully, but Blanchett's performance is the real reference point of the flick. She played Hepburn in 'The Aviator', and her mysterious character in this movie is definitely a little Dietrich. Her femme fatale is the main driver behind Clooney's investigations, which gradually uncover a multi-layered mystery involving the american military, the enemy, and a possible cover-up of something really quite heinous.

It's unfortunate for 'The Good German' that the noir genre is so well-defined, because it's really quite a good movie in it's own right, so to compare it to, say 'Chinatown', is unfair. For me, Soderbergh's 'experiment' is more than that, as the movie is slickly shot, very well acted by the three leads and an excellent troupe of talented support actors - Beau Bridges amongst them. The plot is immersive, and the inter-mixing of stock showreel footage from that era contributes to separating the acts, and also placing the audience in this time and place. The story also has contemporary relevance, relating as it does to Clooney's growing discomfort at the fact that his own military superiors may not be acting with the moral fibre one would expect from people in the seat of power. (Shady politicians? Perish the thought! - Ed)

However, despite all it has going for it, if I was going to pick holes, I felt the pace of the action dragged a little in the denouement (That'd be 'the ending' then.. - Ed), and I wasn't as attached to the outcome of Clooney's story as I was to Cate Blanchett's character. Overall though, it was a very enjoyable way to spend a Saturday morning, and I'm quite surprised that 'The Good German' was pretty much overlooked by Oscar, garnering as it did just the single nomination for music.

The verdict: Immersive, atmospheric and well-acted, but just a tad drawn out in the end.
The rating: 7/10

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

American politics is a strange business, as those fortunate enough to catch 'The Daily Show' on a regular basis will attest to all too readily. Although the contentious U.S. presidential election of 2000 may have affirmed this to a global audience, surely no-one can have felt the effect of this 'democratic' process more keenly than the man on the losing side of the result, Al Gore. Now, put aside pregnant chads, political preferences and opinions of Dubya for a moment. On a basic human level, that's got to hurt. To finish in second place in a political process does not often elicit rewards, but to end up the loser in such a manner, that's going to have a profound effect on your worldview.

An Inconvenient Truth is part environmental lecture, and partly a biographical account of Al Gore's life: the man who was 'once the next president of the United States'. The intention of the biographical elements is to weave together the evolution of the man with the evolution of his mission to deliver this message both before and after that electoral defeat in 2000.

For me, at least, this device works. Gore narrates, describing certain pivotal moments in his life and how they affected him, including his time spent working on his father's tobacco farm as a youngster. These accounts climax with un-narrated press coverage of the 2000 election, and when the narration subsequently resumes, Gore simply describes what he did next. The objective is to reinforce his motivation to travel the world and deliver this 'slideshow' (as he calls it).

When he mentions the fact that he has delivered the presentation over a thousand times, and retraces his movements across the globe, the film is at it's most convincing, and all these moments take place outside the context of the presentation proper. Gore's intention is quite simple: if American citizens - constituents - have the environmental issue on the tip of their tongues, then aspiring politicians will have to react, and tackle the issue. By continually delivering the message to people and convincing one small group at a time, perhaps public opinion on the matter will gradually change. The film itself is just an extension of that, a medium capable of delivering the same presentation in many locations and to many audiences simultaneously, without Gore's physical presence being required.

As to the presentation itself, it is almost completely apolitical, with a tone more akin to a scientific presentation, interspersed with occasional moments of light relief, such as a Matt Groening cartoon. Gore presents research from scientists working in all corners of the globe, reinforcing and giving meaning to the phrase 'global warming' in such a way that the audience remembers why this is actually a pretty serious problem. The message builds slowly to a crescendo, and is extremely well-honed and polished. At times it is revelatory and even shocking, but it is not entirely pessimistic. The message we are left with is that, sure, things are bad at the moment, and, ok, they're getting worse right now, but we have the means at our disposal to solve the problem. The only thing that is lacking - in the United States at least - is political will.

In political terms once again, I can only speculate as to how a die-hard Republican would react to 'An Inconvenient Truth', but as Al Gore presented his slideshow principally in universities on his transamerican whistle-stop tour, I can only wonder if he was primarily 'preaching to the converted'. A Republican counter-argument to this movie could be that Gore is simply promoting himself.. why else does a movie about global warming contain auto-biographical segments? Isn't he just a politician cynically trying to gain a platform for re-election?

In all honesty, I don't believe this to be true. The biographical sections work in tandem with the 'green' message, and reinforce the slideshow's salient points. We don't get to know Al Gore's politics any better through the movie, we just gain a deeper understanding of how convinced he is that he is absolutely right on this environmental issue. His presentation is based on facts, but the autobiographical sections commingle with the scientific details to convince you that this man believes what he is saying. This is ultimately where the movie gains added resonance and credibility.

For me, the message of the slideshow is well delivered. Al Gore is not exactly the gregarious extrovert, but his delivery is coolly efficient. Also, the global warming message isn't new, but 'An Inconvenient Truth' succeeds in startling the audience into understanding the real urgency of tackling the problem on a global scale. It might be an old news topic, but the evidence Gore presents is recent, and hits alarmingly close to home at times.

But, lets get back to basics here: as a piece of movie entertainment, how does it hold up? Well, if we judge it as a documentary, then it holds up very well, but 'Bad Boys II' it certainly ain't. (Thank jabus for that - Ed). In all honesty, you could do a lot worse than renting 'An Inconvenient Truth'. It may surprise you, it was certainly a lot better than I expected it to be.

The verdict: Packed with Gore, and shocking in parts, but a very strong message, well-delivered. Better than PCMR thought it was going to be.
The rating: 7/10

Monday, February 12, 2007

LSD: The Beyond Within

The documentary embedded below is a two-part study of LSD, undertaken in 1986 by the BBC Documentary series "Everyman". This refreshingly frank and impartial study of the discovery and development of the notorious hallucinogenic drug is notably free of moral judgemment, and features contributions from such legendary heroes of psychedelia as Albert Hoffman - the Swiss scientist who discovered the drug in 1943 - Aldous Huxley - author of 'The Doors of Perception' - Ken Kesey - author of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' - and a certain Lord Christopher Mayhew (more on his contribution in a moment.

The main question this documentary asks is whether the experiences of LSD users can make legitimate claim to being spiritual in nature, or whether this is just psychedelic delusion. Split into two parts, 'The Rise of LSD' and 'The Fall of LSD', the research starts at the beginning, with Albert Hoffman (pictured above), a Swiss research scientist who discovered the LSD-25 molecule when he accidentally ingested a dose of the drug in his lab. His experience made him think he was either mad or dead and already in hell, and he could think of nothing to do but retreat home and try to suffer through whatever he was experiencing. After a trip lasting around six hours, he returned to his senses, and it became clearer to him the type of discovery he had just made. After a couple of days convalescing, he returned to the lab, and revealed his discovery to his colleagues.

LSD was used in the '50s in number of guises, and it's startling to think of it being routinely prescribed in mental hospitals in the U.K. Although the tests were carried out in safe conditions, and the subjects were aware that they were being dosed with LSD in order to perhaps stimulate the unconscious mind, and aid them to relate blocked memories which may help their recovery, it is unsettling to note the scale on which the drug was used. Thousands of English mental patients were given the drug.

More alarming though, are the methods employed by the CIA to test LSD in the 1950's. Rather than testing on volunteers, the CIA tests were on unwitting subjects, which Hoffman warns of as the most dangerous way to administer the drug. Archive footage shows the effects of LSD on a military unit, as they attempt to march in formation after unwittingly ingesting a dose of LSD.

As the 60's rolled in, the LSD's popularity grew as a recreational drug, and its users identified with the spiritual side of the experience, as a means of getting close to nature, seeing things differently, or as Ken Kesey puts in, 'jarring the mind' into a new way of thinking. Intellectuals and artists such as Aldous Huxley - author of 'Brave New World' - used drugs such as LSD and Mescalin as a source of inspiration, and Huxley even made public his desire for the drug to be consumed on a wider scale. The growth of the 'psychedelic' movement promoted the use of LSD, and it's use continued to spread, among groups such as Timothy Leary's Millbrook movement on the East Coast (Turn on, tune in, drop out - Ed), and Ken Kesey's fun-loving West Coast band of psychedelic misfits.

Huxley's critics disputed the spiritual merit of the drug, pointing to the fact that true spiritual enlightenment cannot be attained 'on the cheap'. However, media and public interest in LSD reached a point in the early 60's that a politician by the name of Christopher Mayhew agreed to undergo an experiment, and for this experiment to be filmed by the BBC. This fascinating experiment involved his taking a dose of Mescalin in the company of a physician, and answerin certain basic brainteasers over the course of his little trip. The footage of his experience is extraordinary, as this eloquent upper-class Mr. Cholmondley-Warner-style aristocrat describes what he is experiencing under the influence of the drug, his eyes wide as saucers. Indeed, the footage proved too controversial for the BBC at the time, and was not shown until this Everyman documentary broadcast it in the 1980's. Interestingly, Mayhew, who in 1986 was a member of the House of Lords, watches the footage, 30 years later, and stands by his description of the experience. "I had an experience in time" he says, and his conviction is apparent.

The mystical side of LSD experiences is referred to constantly in the second half of the documentary. The experiment involving student priests in the U.S. is fascinating, and I will simply say you have to see it to believe it.

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) maded LSD illegal in the U.S., after a wave of negative media attention on the drug. Other countries around the world soon followed, and the psychedelic era didn't last very long once the element of criminality was attached.

Critics of the apparently mystical experiences of LSD point out that although these people thought they were on a journey, discovering new methods of thought, they were actually just dropouts. Hoffman himself has some of the last words in the documentary, claiming that, while he didn't believe his LSD experiences to be spiritual, he did believe that they represented 'another dimension to reality'.

In addition, the 'bad trip' side of LSD is also explored, and users of the drug relate negative experiences suffered while under the influence. These experiences are relayed with such intensity, despite the fact that they are describing pretty mundane events, such as getting a verbal dressing down from a stranger while under the influence, that the effect of such a 'bad trip' will not be under-estimated by the audience.

This is a truly excellent documentary, and I would encourage you to have a look at the link below. It's free, and let's face it, it's better than 'Celebrities Doing Stuff' or whatever pap's on TV this evening.

The verdict: they don't make em like this any more. Chilling, enlightening and thoroughly entertaining.
The rating: 9/10

Here it is, enjoy:

Dublin International Film Festival Preview

Well, it may only be a fledgling film festival, an impudent stripling when compared to the big boys, but the Dublin International Film Festival is growing every year, and there's a bumper crop of new and old Irish and International movies to choose from this year. Here's a quick run-down of the ones PCMR will be watching (reviews of all these will follow after the viewings):

The Good German
Ok, so it's on at half ten on a Saturday morning, but Steven Soderbergh's collaborations with George Clooney have produced some of the best stuff either of these two have done, and their foray into a bit of noir should be at least an interesting way to wake up! It's being touted as 'an experiment' for Soderbergh, and this may be another way of him saying 'don't give me grief if it sucks', but PCMR reckons a little noir first thing on a Saturday morning is no bad thing. (No comment - Ed)

Danny Boyle's sci-fi is apparently a bit of a labour of love for the 'Trainspotting' director. It stars the always good Cillian Murphy though, their first outing together since '28 Days Later', and it's rumoured to have been a colourful production, with the cast locking themselves into a claustrophobic setting for weeks on end, and apparently getting genuinely pissed off with each other in scenes that made the final cut...

Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi masterpiece wrote the book. It is doubtful if another single film has been more influential on the world of cinema in general, and the sci-fi genre in particular. Packed to the gills with iconic imagery, this showing is in the National Gallery and has a live soundtrack. Can't wait for this one.

Fast Food Nation
Richard Linklater's adaptation of Eric Schlosser's ubiquitous anti-burger-and-fries diatribe should be interesting at the very least. If it's as harrowing as the book though, PCMR may just have to comfort eat in Burger King on the way home.

Curse of The Golden Flower
The most expensive Chinese movie production ever. Chow-Yun Fat, Gong Li and many many large scale kick-ass battles, this one should reward those who take the opportunity to watch it on the big screen.

Color Me Kubrick
John Malkovich plays a con-man pretending to be Stanley Kubrick in this off-beat comedy written and directed by close collaborators of the late director. This should be a hoot.

PCMR Would also Recommend:

Letters From Iwo Jima
Clint's japanese companion piece to 'Flags of our Fathers' is rumoured to be the superior of the two Iwo Jima movies he's cobbled together lately, and given that it's up for a Best Picture Oscar, and topped most American critics' picks of 2006 lists last year, it must have something good going for it. (Plus PCMR foolishly has ten euros on it to win the Oscar at 11-1 - Ed)

Half Nelson
Ryan Gosling's performance alone is worth the ticket price for this one. I can't recommend it highly enough. Read PCMR's review if you're still not convinced!

Rescue Dawn
Freed from the shackles of big-budget Hollywood productions such as Batman Begins and The Prestige, Christian Bale should relish the opportunity to flex his acting muscles in this, Werner Herzog's latest. It's an intelligent war movie, and Christian Bale is possibly the most under-rated British actor of his generation... what more do you need to know?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

PCMR Shortlisted for Irish Blog Awards

Well, the shortlists are in for the Irish Blog Awards... and PCMR finds itself up for two categories: 'Best Sports and Recreation' and 'Best Arts and Culture'. Many thanks again to everyone who nominated in the initial round!

As these awards are a democratic process, based a public vote, and given that PCMR has never been one to cow from a shameless act of self-promotion, I would point you in the direction of the links below. Who knows, maybe PCMR can do a 'Ronnie O'Brien'!? (Ah now, don't be knockin the greatest Irish sportsman of all time - Ed)

Here's a complete list of nominees.

And here's where you vote.

Oh yeah, one little thing, please don't vote more than once. If you do, the techies at the irish blog site will come to your house and talk to you about star trek until you weep, and then withdraw your votes, so spamming is a no-no. (If you were thinking of this, I appreciate the thought, but shame on you!)

Friday, February 09, 2007


In Keane, we are introduced to William Keane (Damian Lewis), a man searching for his missing daughter. We form our first impression of Keane as he questions a worker in a train station ticket booth, asking the employee if he remembers selling tickets to his daughter the previous week, as it was the last time he saw his daughter. Keane appears to be grasping at straws in his search, and this initial scene goes some way to preparing the audience for what is to come.

Our involvement in Keane's struggle is immediate, but we are also given many questions to answer from the outset, almost all of them relating to this man's mental health. For example, in this initial scene, we can forgive Keane his insistent questioning of the ticket booth employee, as he is obviously traumatised by the tragedy of his daughter's disappearance. However, as he subsequently questions random passers-by in the same train station, becoming ever more stressed and frantic when they fail to give him satisfactory answers, we begin to get a clearer picutre of Keane's mental state.

From the first moments of this tense, fraught character study of a man caught in the grip of mental illness, we are drawn into Keane's desperation, anguish and loneliness. Director Lodge Kerrigan continually fixes the camera either on Keane's face or over his shoulder, giving the audience the feeling that we are pursuing this character as he drifts around the city in his vain quest. As we follow Keane and events unfold, he sinks ever deeper into despair. He talks to himself, and this quasi-narration is almost the only dialogue in the first half of the movie. He tries to do normal things to make himself feel better, like going to a bar and having a drink for example, but it doesn't quite work out as you would expect. He goes to a night club and meets a girl, but you just know the outcome isn't going to be wine and roses for Keane.

Eventually, just when you are reaching exhaustion with Keane's unrelenting despair, two other characters are introduced. Keane meets a mother and daughter at the hostel where he is staying and befriends them, and a process of osmosis appears to kick in when Keane is around these people. His despair gives way to a sudden calm, especially in the company of the young girl Kira (played by Abigail Breslin). Where he was tense and frantic in public places earlier in the movie, he is now calm and at ease around Kira and her mother, and even demonstrates more than adequate parenting skills in his interactions with Kira.

However, this relationship is at the heart of the questions 'Keane' is asking the audience. Did William really have a daughter, or is Keane's entire identity a product of his mental illness? Is William's interest in the child Kira the innocent protective instinct of a grieving father, or is there a more sinister motive under the surface?

Keane is played by Damian Lewis, and the performance is nothing short of incredible. This is a particularly challenging role, and director Lodge Kerrigan gives Lewis nowhere to hide, fixing the camera on his face for roughly two-thirds of the movie. Lewis' ability to exude anguish makes Keane's suffering palpable to the audience, but when he has his more tender moments with Kira, we can let ourselves believe that he had a daughter, so at ease are his interactions with the young girl. How this performance was not recognised on a wider scale is beyond me, especially given that Steven Soderbergh's name is associated with this picture as an executive producer.

William's soliliquys do not narrate proceedings in the traditional sense, but the effect is of an unreliable narrator, and this device is used to particularly good effect in Keane. The audience is never at ease with William as a character, and as he repeats the important events of his life towards the end of the movie, we are left to wonder, is he restating these events so as to remember them in the face of his mental breakdown, or is he committing them to memory in order to adopt a new identity for some reason? As I said earlier, this is more character study than pat story-telling, and this slice of Keane's troubled, anguish-filled life leaves the audience with more questions than answers as the end credits roll. There is no 'ending' to speak of, Lodge Kerrigan merelty shuts off the camera after ninety minutes.

So, it's not an easy movie, and PCMR would not recommend watching it on a Friday evening as I did, because this film will leave you so unsettled, you may not be able to cope with a night out afterwards! However, the performance from Lewis is as good an acting job as you will see, and Keane is definitely worth seeing. The audience accompanies William Keane on a dark path, and, luckily we come out the other side almost completely intact for the experience.

The verdict: Harrowing, but immersive. Lewis' performance is magnificent.
The rating: 8/10

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond is set in Sierra Leone in 1999, a time when the country was in the midst of a bloody civil war. The R.U.F. (militia rebels) terrorised the country's civilian population, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands, and displacing millions. The cause of the conflict was the rich deposit of diamond reserves held by the poor African country, which under international law, came to be known as 'conflict diamonds'. This same law made it illegal to import diamonds from countries in conflict such as Sierra Leone.

This type of situation attracts opportunists, mercenaries such as Danny Archer (Leonardo Di Caprio) willing to transport the diamonds across the border to neighbouring Liberia, where customs officials can be paid off in order to rubber-stamp the origin of the diamonds as Liberian, which in turn means the gems can be exported to first world nations, and made into nice necklaces, rings and other assorted items of 'bling'.

The thing is, the R.U.F. in civil war Sierra Leone used the country's own people to mine the diamonds. Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is captured by the militia, separated from his family, and sent to work in one of these diamond mines by the rebels. He unearths the titular Blood Diamond - a 100 carat diamond the size of an egg - a milky gem worth a significant fortune. Solomon just about manages to bury the diamond as the camp is attacked by the army, and all non R.U.F. survivors are imprisoned.

Unfortunately for him, Archer too is imprisoned for smuggling diamonds across the Sierra Leone-Liberian border in what can only be described as strange cargo. While in prison, Archer's attention is drawn to Solomon's story, and he takes it upon himself to try and track down this blood diamond, for his own nefarious purposes.

After getting bailed out, Archer stumbles across Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) an American journalist reporting on the conflict in Sierra Leone. These two characters quickly come to represent an interesting reflection of the conflicting outsider views towards the internal struggles of African peoples. Maddy is conscientious, a lefty journalist, who believes that simply by being there and reporting to the latte-drinking, interest-rate-discussing people back home, she may be able to make a difference. By contrast, Archer is a grizzled former soldier from Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as he insists on calling it. After fleeing Rhodesia, he joined the South African army, and fought in Angola. He claims to have seen it all before, and is uninterested in making a difference to the outcome of the conflict, only taking what he can from it before it all explodes.

Solomon's wish to be reunited with his family is Archer's leverage to get to the diamond, but at the same time, Solomon believes he can use Archer to track down his son, now a soldier with the militia. When the militia's marching forces invade Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, the two are forced together, Solomon needing this soldier's survival skills, and Archer only thinking of the diamond. Maddy, on the other hand is drawn into their story as a covert means of transport to the diamond mine, in return for a tell-all story from Archer on the people behind the diamond trade.

In a telling scene, Maddy describes her efforts at describing the carnage she is seeing. She admits her reportage may be pointless, that severed limbs, displaced families, and burning African villages simply has no impact on first world readers any more. The phrase is not used, but she is referring to the first world audience and their 'compassion fatigue' when it comes to African struggles. If they are not like-minded with her, in other words, if they think like Archer, how can she convince them of the damage being done in this country? And even if the're willing to make a difference, what can they do anyway? This movie valiantly attempts to explore whether there are in fact answers to these difficult questions.

Blood Diamond is beautifully shot, set against the backdrop of a collection of colourful African rural and urban landscapes. Coastal villages are bathed in sunlight, the dark jungles loaded with shapeless threats, the night-time flame-lit parties in the militia bases ominous and fraught with tension, but the many treks through the countryside are framed by breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery, all captured with real verve by cinematographer Edoardo Serra, and director Edward Zwick.

The three leads are impressive, and Charles Leavitt's script weaves the contrasting beliefs of this trio of characters, and their developing relationships with each other on two levels. At the basic level of the story, they are drawn together through their links to Solomon's diamond, and this yarn is interesting enough in and of itself. However, each lead character acts as a symbol of either Africa or of how Africa is percieved by the outside world, and this layer is subtly transposed onto proceedings in a way that never dominates the action.

The action scenes too, are tense, exciting and on a large scale. Director Ed Zwick is an old hand at directing the thick of battleground action, having taken the helm of 'Glory', 'Courage Under Fire' and 'The Last Samurai'. The shoot-outs are immediate and realistic, and the main players are forced into a physical involvement in the action that immerses the viewer.

Although diamonds were the catalyst for the war in Sierra Leone, and the blood diamond the trigger for the events in the movie, the more viscerally explored theme of the film relates to child soldiers. As the old Mende teacher (played all too briefly by Winston Ntshona) explains in the movie, infantry means 'child soldier', and many child soldiers were used in the war in Sierra Leone. The 'recruitment' methods of the militia are explored on screen, and these scenes are among the most emotive of the movie. These children are separated from their families and become brainwashed into fighting for - and most likely dying for - the cause of the rebels.

'The Last King of Scotland' touched on themes of African political instability, and portrayed events from Idi Amin's perspective, or at least from the perspective of the cossetted bosom of the presidential palace. Blood Diamond, by contrast, plunges us deep into the real madness, and we are there at ground level, witnessing all the bloody carnage.

Put aside your unreasonable dislike of Leo, he doesn't deserve it. DiCaprio is maturing as an actor with every new outing, and this role is another step forward for him, and better than his turn in 'The Departed'. Even from behind the constraint of a Zim accent (pretty much Sith Ifrican here) he delivers a powerful, rounded and mature peformance, and is believable as the hard-hearted refugee, who has become so cold and cynical to African events, that when he witnesses another tragic event that is difficult to comprehend, he simply shrugs and says 'T.I.A.', or 'this is Africa'. (In 'Saving Private Ryan', the same device was employed, only it was FUBAR - Ed).

Jennifer Connelly must surely now be recognised not only as the most beautiful actress of our generation, but as a genuine talent with a lot more to offer than just a pretty face. Her role is the most difficult to pull off, as she is intended to be the antidote to DiCaprio's deep-seated cynicism, but on a more basic level, it is understandable that she might be able to defrost DiCaprio's heart.

And Djimon Hounsou, who most of you will remember from 'Gladiator', is brilliant. His performance varies from being subtly played, in particular the scenes with his son, to the more outward displays of emotion he directs at DiCaprio, but he manages to make it all believable. In particular, PCMR will remember his 'berserker' moment towards the end, where I was sure I saw the fires of hell in his eyes. Excellent stuff.

I would have given this a higher rating, but unfortunately, the last five minutes of the movie had to go and let it down, but only slightly. It may have been a concession made by the film-makers considering how much else they got to show on-screen, but the formulaic last scenes jarred slightly with me, no matter how much I liked the characters involved by then.

So, it's a true gem of a movie this one, and unfortunately Blood Diamond could very easily be buried in the hype surrounding the other oscar nominated movies, such as Babel, Last King of Scotland or The Queen. However, I would argue that - even purely on the level of entertainment - this one would give any of those three a run for their money. In PCMR's book, Blood Diamond is well worth a look.

The verdict: Visceral, powerful, entertaining and emotive. This is proper cinema. Go see it.
The rating: 8/10

Monday, February 05, 2007


Dreamgirls is a musical. Stick with me though, lads, Beyonce's in it!! Ah, lost most of ye already I'd imagine... That's the problem with musicals, they just don't tend to pack the lads into the cinemas, unless they're dragged by a focussed and determined girlfriend, keen not to get stuck watching another 'Apocalypto' or some such.

The thing is, to blindly rule out an entire genre can mean missing out on the occasional gem. Hollywood has a long-standing tradition of churning out musical feature films that showcase genuinely talented people performing at the top of their game. Fair enough, the term 'chick-flick' is a facile label to apply to some of these, but more recently, the Hollywood musical has attempted to attract a more broad audience. While 'Chicago', 'Rent' and (choke) 'Moulin Rouge' were more or less targeted at 'burds', other recent musical releases such as '8 Mile', 'Hustle and Flow', 'The Producers' and even 'Team America' and 'SouthPark' (one of PCMR's all-time favourites) can be described as appealing to the lads just as much as the ladies. (possibly more so with the last two - Ed)

'Dreamgirls' is slightly more difficult to categorise in these terms. Eddie Murphy's turn as an aging soul singer will appeal to male audiences, as will Beyonce's doe-eyed presence. However, the real star of the movie, Jennifer Hudson, will probably appeal more to the female audience members, giving this movie a broader audience than a straight-forward chick-flick.

There are two great performances in this movie, but Jennifer Hudson's is pretty much a revelation. This is a girl who entered American Idol, a 'Popstars'-style audition show in the U.S., and made it to the final six before getting booted off. An inauspicious beginning to a showbiz career, you might think, and you'd be right. However, when Hudson won the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls, she was chosen ahead of hundreds of other hopefuls, including the eventual winner of that show. Progress perhaps. Well, after watching this movie, I can't help thinking that Hudson misrepresented herself on that American Idol, because she literally owns this movie. Her voice is soulful, powerful and mature, and she has most of the lead numbers. Rightfully so, because she is by a mile the best singer of the ensemble group.

The story charts the rise of Effie's (Hudson's) group, 'The Dreamettes' from beginning as backing singers to James "Thunder" Early, (Eddie Murphy) to being the biggest thing in the pop charts in the 60's and 70's. (It's strongly implied that this is the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, but names have been changed to protect the innocent - Ed) Although Effie is universally recognised as being the best singer of the group, she is eventually asked to take a backseat to allow Deena Jones (Beyonce) take the lead of the group. It is perhaps art reflecting life, but when the girls' manager (Jamie Foxx) reveals to Beyonce's character that he chose her for lead vocals because her voice was 'bland' and had more cross-over appeal to a pop audience, this rings quite true to reality. Compared to Hudson's vocal power and range, Beyonce really is put in the shade as a vocalist. She only gets one opportunity to shine with a musical number, and she does a very good job, but by that stage in the movie, Hudson has already well and truly stolen the show, run away with it, and is smugly sitting in her dressing room waiting for the awards to roll in.

Eddie Murphy's performance is worthy of a mention too, for the pleasant surprise of its brilliance. He has always been a more than capable singer, a James Brown riff forming a big part of his early stand-up routines. Consequently, he is genuinely good in the three or four numbers he tackles in this movie, and his acting performance is the strongest in the film, undoubtedly the best he has turned in for years, decades even. (Shrek doesn't count!). His character is the most interesting in the piece, and although it is steeped in music lore and cliche, his story is an excellent couterbalance to the meteoric rise of the band who used to be his backing singers. (He also has the best song, 'Patience', worthy of download even, and up for the Oscar - Ed).

Jamie Foxx is in his comfort zone in this one, and didn't really stand out for me, but he was competent enough I suppose. Beyonce's musical performances were excellent as you would expect, but she's not quite an actress yet. Her wide-eyed, honey-voiced turn in 'Goldmember' was great for novelty value, but she seems like a rabbit caught in the camera's headlights in certain scenes in Dreamgirls, mostly the ones involving her dialogue. This is only her first serious acting role though, so let's not be too harsh, because her stage performances are top stuff.

And it is in these performance pieces where Dreamgirls really cranks up the Hollywood glitz, the stagey razzamatazz, as 'Chicago' referred to. The staging of the musical numbers is engaging and showy enough to appeal to the MTV generation as much as fans of, oh I don't know, Cats or something. (Philistine - Ed). But for fans of Motown, 70's funk, Curtis Mayfield, and Disco, there is a great range of musical numbers on show here, all smartly choreographed and expertly performed. Also, there is not so much of that annoying feature of some Hollywood musicals, where the characters simply sing their dialogue to each other.. this device always smarts with me, and thankfully there's not too much of that sort of thing in Dreamgirls.

Although Oscar traditionally doesn't reward comedies, musicals are an entirely different matter. 'Ray', 'Walk the Line' and 'Chicago' have picked up Oscars in recent years, (for Jamie Foxx, Reese Witherspoon and Catherine Zeta-Jones) and PCMR predicts with confidence that of the 8 oscar nominations that Dreamgirls has received, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are water-tight no-brainer shoe-ins, and the movie will pick up at least two more for art and music direction, and also best song (where it has no less than three chances to win).

If you don't like musicals, I shake my head disapprovingly at you and urge you to reconsider this unfair prejudice. There are enough recent examples ('Walk the Line' dammit!?) to make a strong case for the movie musical as a potentially cracking piece of entertainment. Put it this way, when the wife/girlfriend 'suggests' you go see 'Dreamgirls' together, rest assured in the knowledge that you can go along, secretly really enjoy it, and also earn the required brownie point credits to go see something like 'Apocalypto' the following week. The perfect crime...

The verdict: A musical, but a very very good one. This is Hollywood razzamatazz at it's glitzy glamorous best, and Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are excellent.
The rating: 8/10

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Queen

Although movies like 'The Queen' might not normally be one's cup of tea, so to speak, this particular biopic is of interest not only because of the unprecedented amount of publicity it is receiving of late, but also because most of the characters portrayed on screen are alive, and still in power. Centering around the appointment of Tony Blair as prime minister, and the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, the movie portrays such movers and shakers as the current queen of england, the current british prime minister and his wife, and of course the delightful Alistair Campbell.

Now, biopic etiquette traditionally waits for a death to trigger the production of such a movie, but 'The Queen' has twisted this rule to its own nefarious advantage. The death of Lady Di resulted in a massive shift of public opinion in relation to the british royal family, and of course in relation to the new prime minister, a certain Mr. Tony "I know Noel Gallagher" Blair. The fact that these people are still alive and moreover, still in power, makes this movie more of a daring undertaking, and adds a little spice to proceedings.

'The Queen' is essentially a window into the operation of a dysfunctional family. However, the Windsors are not being lambasted or lampooned in this movie, with the possible exception of Charles. This portrayal of Elizabeth is affectionate, with the Queen demonstrating human characteristics behind the duty to the crown, stiff upper lip and all that. Helen Mirren's performance is excellent, no question, and she manages to be both stoic and emotional at the same time, something few actors are capable of.

One scene in particular is memorable for me. In an unprecedented move engineered by Blair, the Queen agrees to make a public appearance at Buckingham Palace to visit the memorials being laid by the public for Diana. As she reads the sympathy cards, she numerous remarks directed at the other members of the royal family, and how Diana was "too good for them", or that "they should have gone first." As the Queen reads these cards, a tangible manifestation of the almost total erosion of public affection towards her and her family, she is visibly wounded. However, she is also duty-bound to repeatedly turn and face the crowds of on-lookers and press, smile, and demonstrate her solidarity with the people at this time of their mutual grief. This conflict between public opinion and private emotions of the monarch is at the heart of this movie.

Were it not for Helen Mirren, this character could be quite difficult to relate to. However, Mirren's physical transformation is quite remarkable. We see her walking in a number of scenes, and her very posture is regal, with an emphasis on restraint and control. Tom Cruise employed this kind of technique to play his coiled spring of a hitman in 'Collateral', and his results were also successful. Helen Mirren's physical transformation becomes part of the mask, part of the character, and after the first few minutes of the movie, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually recognise the Helen Mirren we know.

Hollywood loves this kind of acting, time and time again rewarding actors who play characters that are far removed from themselves. Think 'Forrest Gump' (Tom Hanks), 'Ray' (Jamie Foxx), 'Walk the Line' (Reese Witherspoon), 'Rainman' (Dustin Hoffman), 'My Left Foot' (Daniel Day Lewis), and 'The Aviator' (Cate Blanchett). These roles allow actors to show that they are really acting. Contrast with this a performance such as Ryan Gosling's in 'Half Nelson', which is anchored in reality and subtly executed. Gosling has no chance of an Oscar this year, but PCMR now believes that, unless Meryl Streep works some kind of Hollywood voodoo, Helen Mirren is an absolute banker for Best Actress.

However, Mirren's regina is not the only remarkable aspect of this movie. (Careful, Ed) The excellent script by Peter Morgan, who has had a truly remarkable year in 2006 (he also wrote the 'Last King of Scotland') allows Mirren and the supporting cast room to manoeuvre, despite the shackles of these characters. This could so easily have been a collection of impersonations or celebrity caricatures, but the depth of the script makes these people believable as humans in their own right, even despite the looky-likey baggage that they bring with them.

Michael Sheen, in particular gives an excellent performance as the man who would be prime minister. This Blair character has a unique relationship with the Queen, engineered primarily by his duty as a representative of the public at the time of Diana's death. His job is to change Royal tradition, to modernise them at a time when this type of unsolicited change - involving the most change-resistant family that can exist - may just preserve the existence of the British monarchy. Sheen's resemblance to Blair is uncanny, with his little 'you know's and 'sort of's adding to the impression that this is Tony Blair on screen. He very effectively portrays a character in over his head, but coping, and learning as he goes, and his scenes with Helen Mirren are warm and engaging.

James Cromwell crops up as the notorious Prince Phillip, and he has some decent lines, comparing the british people to a crowd of zulus at one point in a thoroughly non-PC remark, echoing some of his more 'colourful' outbursts. However, Cromwell is not in the same league as Mirren and Sheen here, despite his character's pure novelty value, he is literally outshone.

The production of the Queen lovingly recreates Buckingham Palace, Balmoral and sets the scene immaculately. Stephen Frears is already an incredibly accomplished director , with thoroughly solid and memorable movies such as 'My Beautiful Launderette', 'The Grifters', and 'Dangerous Liaisons' to his name. But with 'The Queen', Frears has garnered huge international critical and industry acclaim, and is almost certain to finally pick up at least a Bafta for his troubles. (Plus he's also head of this year's jury at Cannes, so maybe he can engineer a Palme d'Or for himself! Ed)

As I said at the outset, PCMR did not expect 'The Queen' to be one's cup of tea at all. However, there is genuinely a lot to recommend about it. Well acted, well written and well directed, it's a window into a private world, and a believable portrayal of a figurehead who would normally shun this sort of limelight. Helen Mirren's regina is truly impressive. (Last one. Ed)., the Irish gambling site, has her at 33-1 on to pick up the Oscar, and after seeing the Queen, PCMR thinks they might have a point there.

The verdict: Tightly scripted, extremely well acted. An interesting, daring biopic, and worth a gamble.
The rating: 7/10

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