Tuesday, March 27, 2007


The verdict: Looks great, sounds amazing, and loaded with adrenaline-fueled action. An excellent addition to the science fiction genre, fans will enjoy the knowing nods, and newbies will likely be blown away.

The rating: 7/10

So PCMR managed to attend my first ever premiere last night, at which there were even a few stars present, and paparazzi to boot! Well, there were a few shifty looking geezers with zoom lenses hanging around outside the IFI in Dublin, but their invasive lenses were more likely reserved for a glimpse of Cillian Murphy’s arrival than that of your favourite semi-anonymous internet movie critic. (Don't they know who you are!? – Ed). Danny Boyle was also there, along with the deceptively named science advisor for the movie, a certain Brian Cox.

Putting aside my initial disappointment at the lack of a red carpet, (Temple Bar not quite being Cannes after all - Ed) I gradually got excited about the prospect of this movie. Danny Boyle's second film since '28 Days Later', 'Sunshine' is a science-fiction epic three years in the making and written by the same geezer who wrote the aforementioned zombie-genre reboot - Alex Garland. As the hum of anticipation grew in the IFI lobby, I realised I was really looking forward to this one.

Danny Boyle has helmed two of my all-time favourite movies, namely 'Trainspotting' and '28 Days Later'. I was a student at the time Trainspotting was released, and so part of the film's target audience, but the finished film was undeniably a revelation, exhilarating, exciting and intelligent, while at the same time managing to have an appeal broad enough to drag bums into seats in cinemas. These traits seem to have become trademarks of Danny Boyle's recent career, and are really quite rare in mainstream big studio output. '28 Days Later' was a properly huge international success for Boyle however, and also launched Cillian Murphy’s now burgeoning movie career with a bang. Apart from these two, Boyle has delivered a few qualified successes ('Millions', 'The Beach') and also – cough – 'A Life Less Ordinary'.

Boyle's decision to delve into the science fiction genre with 'Sunshine' is not one he has taken lightly. In the Q&A session after the premiere (.. show-off - Ed), he referred to feeling like Stanley Kubrick was a real presence in his mind while making this movie, watching over Boyle’s shoulder as he agonised over the minutiae of production design. This influence should not be lost on the viewer as 'Sunshine' opens with a panoramic external view of a CGI spaceship, immediately evoking Kubrick’s monolithic star-fest.

As well as '2001', Boyle has also been heavily influenced by what he perceives as the two other biggest successes of the genre, namely Tarkovsky’s 'Solyaris' and 'Alien', with a dash of 'Das Boot' to, um, boot. This should give you a flavour of the kind of atmosphere to expect from Sunshine, dark, brooding, and claustrophobic, with an element of horror to add to the mix.

In fact, Sunshine resembles Alien more closely than 2001, in that it is an ensemble cast, with no obvious star to play the hero we all expect to be the last man standing. The template of the hopeless space mission to save the earth has been done to death before, of course, with many notable failures - or popcorn movies at best - ably demonstrating how not to do sci-fi. The two that spring most readily to my mind are the deplorable, life-threatening 'Sphere' – the only movie I have come close to walking out of in a cinema – and 'Event Horizon', which by contrast was really quite good, although it didn't entirely live up to its promise.

So Sunshine works from the boiler-plate of these movies, and attempts to salvage some originality from the confines of their collective legacy. I have to say, in PCMR's humble opinion, Boyle has managed to rise above the drek, and produce an original and entertaining science fiction movie with 'Sunshine.'

So to get the plot synopsis out of the way, it's 2057, and the crew of the aptly named 'Icarus' are travelling towards our now dying sun. Their mission is to reignite the fading star with their massive payload, namely a disc-shaped bomb the size of Manhattan. The earth is dying as a result of the sun's fatigue, so essentially the success of this mission will mean the crew are (drum roll please).... yep, they're saving the world.

The ensemble cast play well off each other, unsurprisingly since Boyle insisted they all live together for a fortnight before filming started. Chris Evans in particular is strong as Mace, the Alpha male of the crew. Also, Cliff Curtis, as the psych officer, gives a chillingly effective and ambiguous performance. Rose Byrne too is doe-eyed and innocent, and a perfect foil to Evans. Cillian Murphy is not playing to type here, as his character is quiet and something of an outsider to the main group, but as the chief physicist on board the Icarus, his expertise will ultimately determine whether the mission will succeed or fail.

The movie differs from, say, 'Armageddon' in that we are never given glimpses of anxious family members on Earth waiting for news of the crew. (Awww… let’s hope it’s at least a little like 'Lost in Space' though – Ed) The movie is set entirely inside and around the Icarus, and this claustrophobia adds to the realism of the proceedings on-screen. Like 'Alien', the pace is quietly relentless, starting quite slowly, but gradually building to a breathless, exhilarating climax.

The visual effects employed, a genuine technical headache for a sci-fi director to deal with, are distinctive and truly stunning in this movie. The sun has never looked like this on celluloid before, and the vivid yellows and oranges of our nearest star are contrasted with the blues and grays of Icarus' interior, the greens of the ship's Arboritum, and of course the darkness, both of space outside the ship, and also inside when the lights go out, but that’s another story…

The movie sounds fantastic, thanks to an atmospheric electronic soundtrack constructed by Underworld, bolstered by Orchestral contributions from John Murphy. The sound itself is remarkable too, and the crispness and power of the sound quality contributes to the more dramatic moments of the adrenaline-fueled third act.

There is an element of horror in the movie too, no doubt inspired by 'Alien', but although these parts are creepy and in parts a little gory, the horror never overtakes the action and ultimately adds to the mystical nature of the crew's mission, especially in the third act of the movie.

PCMR would recommend Sunshine as an action-packed visual treat of a cinematic experience, and although it won't be the best film you'll ever see, perhaps even the best film you see this year, it has enough quality, excitement and above all, unpatronising action and dialogue to keep even the most confirmed anti-sci-fi fan amused. If you're still unconvinced about the sci-fi element of Sunshine, perhaps cast your mind back to your impression of zombie movies before you saw '28 Days Later'…

Fans of science fiction will appreciate the homage paid to Stanley Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Ridley & Ripley, but Boyle manages to sprinkle enough originality into proceedings to make Sunshine a more than welcome addition to the genre. (Plus you get to do an impression of Noel Gallagher every time you say the title - Ed)

In short, it looks and sounds great, it's well scripted and well-acted and the plot builds towards a dramatic, if a little chaotic, climax. I'm reluctant to only recommend it to fans of science fiction, because it is a very good representation of some of the best elements of the genre. When a film has this much going for it, why deny yourself the experience? It won't be a waste of your time.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Illusionist

The verdict: A visual treat, well-acted and beautifully scored. Quality film-making and a great yarn.

The rating: 7/10

As is often the case with the Hollywood production engine, two movies are often released in close proximity to each other, despite treating similar themes, even the same subject matter. For every 'Troy' there's an 'Alexander'. For every 'Capote', there's an 'Infamous'. For 'The Prestige' (coming soon to PCMR), it seems there is also Neil Burger's 'The Illusionist.' (At least there was only one bloody 'Titanic' - Ed)

Burger's screenplay for 'The Illusionist' is based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, and Burger also directs. The setting is Vienna at the turn of the century where Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) is working on behalf of the dastardly crown prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) to keep a watchful eye on the movements of Sophie (Jessica Biel), the woman who may one day be princess - for her own protection of course. Uhl is also given the responsibility of investigating Eisenheim (Ed Norton), a mysteriously talented magician perceived by the prince as a threat to his own authority. As it transpires, Eisenheim had a childhood relationship with Sophie, and their connection only drives the determination of Leopold to have Eisenheim arrested.

Oh, but the plot thickens folks, and while the yarn is being spun, the technicians behind the cameras contrive to create an immersive atmosphere with this movie. Philip Glass' orchestral soundtrack is subtle and haunting, and Dick Pope's Oscar-nominated cinematography, more traditionally at home in the stark English suburbs of Mike Leigh, illuminates the mysterious theatre stages of Vienna in a feast for the eyes. For most of the movie, the audience is placed in the theatre with Eisenheim's performance, illuminated by flickering candle-light and ready to be entertained.

The lead performances are quite strong, although the period drama accents are a little difficult to place, but this is never grating, as can be the case with many Hollywood period pieces - for an example of this, see 'Troy' above or, rather, don't. (Where is that pseudo-British accent supposed to be from anyway!? - Ed).

With the exception of the quite excellent '25th Hour', Norton may have been accused of phoning it in for some of his recent cinematic outings ('The Italian Job', anyone?). Considering the capabilities he demonstrated with 'American History X' and 'Fight Club', poor old Ed could make a fair claim to the question of 'where was I supposed to go from there?'. He has wisely moved on from the angry characters, however, and his performance in the Illusionist is nicely understated and suits the tone of the movie and character very well. Giamatti too, is reserved, but quietly effective, and Rufus Sewell does a nice job as the dastardly crown prince, despite bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jude Law, except with the addition of decent acting. (Zing! - Ed). Biel is also quite good as the woman who may be betrothed to Leopold, but who really loves the mysterious Eisenheim...

The real star of the movie is the story though. Like an old-fashioned mystery yarn, it unravels slowly and delicately, but unlike an old-fashioned stage magician, it actually reveals some of its secrets towards the end. The movie is beautifully crafted though, and were it not for the fact that the excellent 'Pan's Labyrinth' won the Cinematography Oscar over 'The Illusionist' this year, PCMR might be mildly peeved at the injustice of it all.

So, PCMR would recommend 'The Illusionist' as a solid night at the movies, being the type of well-told tale that should hold a wide appeal. It might be a little heavy on technical craft, but it's still a good story with enough smoke, mirrors and more importantly, plot to hold the interest of the audience right till the ending.

So, what odds now for Jerry Bruckheimer producing 'Paul Daniels: the movie' in 2008? (Now that would be magic. Giamatti to play Paul Daniels, Helen Mirren for Debbie Magee!? - Ed)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Harsh Times

The verdict: Gritty, dark, drama, that ends up being unnecessarily bleak for PCMR's taste, although Freddy Rodriguez is very good, and Christian Bale is frightening.

The rating: 6/10

David Ayer first attracted Hollywood attention on a large scale with his script for Training Day, the over-rated gritty cop drama that won Denzel Washington an Oscar. PCMR struggles sometimes to determine why some movies gain more critical praise than others, and Training Day is a case in point. I couldn't see what much of the critical furore was about with this movie. Despite two strong lead performances from Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, the movie itself was unsatisfying, and the last half hour in particular left me a little cold.

Aanyway, since when has PCMR’s voice influenced the machinations of Hollywood eh? Since Training Day, Ayer has written the excellent and criminally under-rated 'Dark Blue' (featuring one of PCMR’s favourites, 'Grindhouse' star Kurt Russell), and (ahem) the Colin Farrell auto-pilot vehicle 'S.W.A.T.'. But everyone needs a paycheck movie now and again right? Oh, did I mention that, before Training Day, Ayer also 'wrote' the screenplay for 'The Fast and the Furious'? Hmmm, perhaps Ayer’s resume means his box-office credentials are unshakable, but his soul may well reside in hell when judgement day comes. (Yikes! A little harsh, no? – Ed)

For his first foray into directing, Ayer helmed Harsh Times, a movie he also scripted, and with three big names filling the principal roles. Set in Los Angeles, Christian Bale plays Jim Davis, an Afghanistan war veteram with a desire to join the police force, and a pretty bad attitude. Also soon to star in Grindhouse, Freddy Rodriguez plays Mike Alonzo, Jim’s best mate, and a web designer who is also looking for work. Desperate Housewives' Eva Longoria plays love interest #1, Mike’s Lawyer girlfriend, who is supplying him with lunch money while he looks for a job.

We learn a lot about Bale’s character, Jim in the opening two scenes. He has been traumatized by his war experiences, is in love with his Mexican girlfriend and wants to join the police force so he can marry her and settle down. However, it becomes clear from early on that Jim has some 'unresolved issues' as Dr. Phil might say. Put another way, he’s basically a complete mentalist.

Ayer has set his movie in Los Angeles, and PCMR got the feeling that the film was based on the Cypress Hill song 'Insane in the Brain'. That song starts with a little sample of what sounds like a Hispanic gangster saying "who you tryin’ to get crazy with, ese? Don’t you know I’m loco!?" This quote essentially sums up Christian Bale in 'Harsh Times', and is an indication of the style of dialogue in the movie, set as it is in a principally Hispanic and crime-ridden area of Los Angeles.

This movie is from the 'Training Day' boilerplate, essentially two guys driving round a city with bad things happening. The premise is of Bale driving Rodriguez around while they look for work. Unfortunately, Bale gets refused from the police force quite early on in the movie, and the moment this news is revealed to him turns out to be his first moment of red mist. His response to this news is to 'get fucked up', so the two boys score some weed, get high, and then try to pull some birds. (Shouldn’t that be: "score some bee-atches, puto?" Ahem – Ed) Unfortunately, the very bad things start happening fairly early on in proceedings.

Christian Bale is excellent, as ever, in this movie. Unfortunately, rather than becoming a career-high performance, as Denzel enjoyed from Training Day, Bale’s character is really just an angry young man. We don’t learn too much about this guy before he went to the war, except from one friend who says he 'used to be mellow'. Rodriguez’s character, and performance are possibly more interesting however. All through the movie, Bale’s more easy-going companion marshals him and watches out for him, and the relationship is the core of this movie. Bale’s performance may attract the plaudits from this movie, but Rodriguez is genuinely good as well, in a more under-stated way. One could even argue that playing a psycho freaking out is easier than playing his buddy in the passenger seat, concerned for his friend’s mental health.

The movie is dark and gritty, set as it is on the streets of Los Angeles. However, it is a little bleak for me, and the last act in particular crosses the line into unreal territory that jars a little with the street realism that comes before. The two male leads are excellent however, and PCMR would argue that Bale has the presence and charisma to become one of the best in the very near future. Rodriguez too, makes a great claim for himself as a support player, and 'Grindhouse' should send him into the big leagues. Eva Longoria plays supportive girlfriend #1, and this role won’t exactly endear her to any feminist fans she may have gathered from Desperate Housewives. (Ummm… you haven’t seen the show then? – Ed)

Of note also is a great little supporting turn from Terry Crews, who also turned up in 'Idiocracy', playing the future president of the United States. Crews has a nice few minutes on-screen, and was excellent in 'Idiocracy' to boot. PCMR predicts big things for this guy, who you will most likely recognize as the father from 'Everybody Hates Chris'.

So, 'Harsh Times' is, well, a little harsh. I found it unnecessarily bleak, but thought the two leads were excellent. If you like your cop dramas dark, unsettling, and are a fan of A-list actors playing nut-jobs a la DeNiro in 'Taxi Driver', then Harsh Times may be for you. However, most of the audience may be a little unsettled by it’s misogyny, glib outlook on life, and hollow acts of senseless violence to consider it anything more than big-budget trashy entertainment. Christian Bale may have to choose his roles a little more carefully if he wants to leave behind a body of work to merit the investment he makes in his roles. (Although he got a lot back from this one, being the executive producer and all – Ed)


The Verdict: Mike Judge's future-shock view of American Idiots, good but not great.

The Rating: 6/10

It's a crazy world we live in, folks. I don't watch much television, but I've seen the trailer for Eddie Murphy's 'Norbit' on tv at least twice now, an indication of the kind of promotion budget this movie has garnered. A spectacularly brainless exercise in boiler-plate movie-making, almost completely devoid of any creative intelligence, Norbit has ingredients lifted from 'The Nutty Professor' (multiple characters all played by Eddie Murphy), but its essentially a rip-off of the detestable Martin Lawrence fat-suit car-crash that was 'Big Mommas' House' (or possibly the imaginatively titled sequel - 'Big Momma's House 2' - Ed). Meanwhile, 'Idiocracy' is struggling to survive, having slinked onto American cinema screens last September without so much as the existence of a poster or trailer. It tanked, but the lack of promotion budget can be explained quite simply after viewing the movie, which lampoons big corporations such as Fox Television quite excellently. (Hmmm - Ed)

The writer and director of Idiocracy, Mike Judge, is essentially a satirist, possibly best known as creator of 'Beavis and Butthead', or the far superior King of the Hill. However, he has also directed a great movie comedy, 'Office Space'. This little gem suffered the same distribution purgatory story as Idiocracy, but has since attained a real cult status on Dvd.

Idiocracy is a very different egg to 'Office Space', however. Set in the future, it's a comedy about an army officer named Joe - your average everyman, played by Luke Wilson - who agrees to undergo an experiment. Together with a female civilian from 'the private sector' - a hooker named Rita - the two are cryogenically frozen, with the intention being to defrost them after a year. However, the experiment goes awry, Futurama-style, and the pair wake in the year 2505.

The main premise of the movie is that the evolution of America is favouring the dumb. While the idiots conspire to totally neglect family planning, and conceive offspring at a frightening rate, the intelligentsia consider the decision to have kids interminably, and often end up not having any kids at all. The result of this syndrome? Greater numbers of idiots, and ever decreasing numbers of smart people. Mike Judge's simple premise provides a fair few laughs in this alternative vision of the future, quite different from the usual sci-fi fare where the world is either a post-apocalyptic charred hulk, an advanced industrial dystopia, or a culturally elevated, technologically advanced utopia.

In Judge's vision of the future, the idiots, quite literally, rule. Language has devolved into a hybrid of street vernacular, valley girl slang, and grunts. Corporations own government departments, the most popular tv show is called 'Ow, My Balls', and the big Oscar-winning movie in the year 2505 is called 'Ass'. Guess what, it's an 80-minute close-up of a bum, which farts occasionally... Somehow, Judge managed to include the brands of existing large corporations, such as Fox themselves, as well as 'Starbucks' and 'Fuddruckers' (an American fast-food chain), although his vision of how these corporations will manifest themselves in society in the future is possibly a little close to the bone of how they actually behave today... Although I'm not sure if Starbucks are offering 'Adult Lattes' just yet.. (I think I see why Fox wouldn't promote this movie - Ed)

Judge is satirising the Jackass-style dumbing-down of the world, and he hits a few sweet notes in this movie. The production design is far larger in scale than 'Office Space', with the use of CGI effects in a number of wide shots to emphasize the state of the nation in 2505, after the idiots have taken over. Luke Wilson's character is imprisoned for 'talking faggy', and his compulsory IQ test on admittance proves him to be the smartest man in the world, but what will he choose to do with this new-found - albeit relative - intelligence?

Wilson is amiable enough in the lead role, and Dax Shephard is also quite good as Wilson's guide, one of the future-shock idiots who happens to be Wilson's lawyer. (You may remember this guy from 'Punk'd', Ashton Kutcher's MTV show). Maya Rudolph is capable enough as Rita, the hooker who is convinced her pimp is still going to find her, even though she's 500 years into the future!

The movie itself is a pastiche of great ideas, and Judge's satire of the outcome of the dumbing down of American culture hits the mark. He makes his point quite well, and from quite early in proceedings, the main premise is simply reinforced by a large collection of visual gags, of which there are enough to hold the interest of the audience. Unfortunately though, there aren't that many belly laughs to speak of.

Also, I got the impression the plot was a little light on, well, character, exposition and resolution... There is a plot with a beginning middle and end, and there are three main characters, each with their own story, but the events of the story are pretty much used as vehicle for Judge to portray another satirical idea on screen.

All told, it's intelligent in it's satire, but a little lacking as a coherent piece of movie entertainment. It's quite ironic that Fox has decided not to promote this movie, however, as it contains an ominous picture of what the world will look like after 500 years of movies like 'Norbit'. (Yeah yeah! Ummm... that movie sucked! Or something.. mm hm, he he mm he! - Ed)

/** Amazon Affiliates code /** Google Analytics Code