The verdict: A derivative thriller that takes the template of '24' and for some reason adds a dash of Wes Craven's 'Scream' franchise. The result lacks originality or freshness, and Al shamelessly phones it in.
The rating: 4/10
I can almost forgive Pacino's his career slump of the last seven years or so. I say 'almost', because I stubbornly believed before watching '88 Minutes' that his temporary streak of stinkers might have come to an end. Sadly, I was wrong, and this movie made me a little angry.
I still forgive Al for this one though, and my willingness to forget these two hours I'll never get back is due to the many many excellent movies Pacino has already made. The 90's were particularly good to Alfredo and his audience, producing - among others - 'The Insider', 'Donnie Brasco', 'Glengarry Glen Ross', 'Carlito's Way' and 'Heat'. (Not a bad few years really... - Ed) This run only makes it all the more baffling to witness Al's choices of the last eight years or so. Anyone else remember 'Two for the Money'? I don't. What about 'Sim0ne'? ... exactly.
If 88 Minutes is remembered at all, it will be as part of the latter category, one of Pacino's forgettable run of movies before he (hopefully) came blistering back into form. But more on Pacino's up-coming movies later.
This one tells the story of Dr. Jack (are all heroes called Jack these days!? - Ed) Gramm, a womanising psychologist who works with the FBI, and who finds himself embroiled in controversy due to testimony given against the 'Seattle Slayer', a certain Jon Forster. Forster is on death row, and publicly claims our Al fabricated his testimony. While the media storm builds around Gramm, Al has a really bad morning. It starts with a police interview, when he finds himself implicated in a murder that looks like the handiwork of the Seattle Slayer... then, before you can say 'it's a fair cop, guv'nor', in the middle of a lecture to his university class, Al receives a call on his cell-phone informing him that he will be killed in 88 minutes... (I think we have the premise - Ed)
Cue a suspicious look around the lecture theatre, where a mysteriously shady figure has just happened to wander in, and then things start happening pretty much in real-time. Al makes phone call after phone call to his secretary, who patches incoming calls back to him, just like Jack Bauer, and he is irresistibly drawn back towards the university campus to find out who has framed him..., just like 'Scream'.
The mildly suspenseful plot unfolds via so many cell-phone calls, this one could have been called '88 Peak Minutes to Friends'. The supporting cast are mostly made up of admiring students of Pacino's character, and this is a serious case of art reflecting life, as Pacino sleepwalks through his scenes alongside a number of doe-eyed starlets who can hardly conceal their excitement at acting alongside, like, Tony frickin' Montana! (That's just, like, so whatever - Ed)
So anyway, Al gets shot at a few times, takes a few more threatening phone calls, and runs around quite a lot, but the suspense never really builds to anything approaching worry about the outcome. Despite the pressure of a deadline, Al just seems to wearily trot towards the paycheck in this one. Pacino's name alone may single-handedly save '88 Minutes' from the 'straight-to-dvd' bucket, but I would strongly advise you to avoid it if it is released in cinemas.
So what next for Pacino? Well, things can only get better. I do have high hopes for his next movie, given that he's signed up to play Salvador Dali in 'Dali & I', but my hopes are tempered by the fact that that movie's director is the same guy who made 'Sim0ne'... I also have high hopes for Pacino's next movie alongside Robert DeNiro, the up-coming 'Righteous Kill', but then, the guy who directed '88 Minutes' is directing that one...
In any case, do yourself a favour and avoid this one. And here's hoping the future's a lot brighter for Pacino. He's certainly better than this...
Monday, June 25, 2007
The verdict: A derivative thriller that takes the template of '24' and for some reason adds a dash of Wes Craven's 'Scream' franchise. The result lacks originality or freshness, and Al shamelessly phones it in.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
The verdict: It's puerile, disgusting, moronic and stupid. On the downside, it's a little short.
The craziness: Full-frontal male nudity, ladyboys, a beer enema, liposuction, fish-hooks, samurai swords and paintball guns.
The rating: 7/10
Mainstream Hollywood comedies have become more skilled in 'grossing-out' audiences of late. Even only since the 90's, Cameron Diaz has used Ben Stiller's little swimmers as hair gel, Jason Biggs has dipped his wick into an apple tart, and Borat has had a large Kazakhstani man's bits in his face, with audiences loving it all. These are just three recent cases, but the three movies I've just mentioned have been all phenomenally successful examples of audiences going to the cinema en masse with the promise of seeing something really disgusting..
Jackass tapped into this little area of the zeitgeist, and created a show so low-brow, it turned out to be one of MTV's most successful franchises. Essentially, their spin on candid camera was to engage in slapstick pranks that would involve the protagonists getting hurt, embarrassing themselves in public, or more likely vomiting a lot. The first time I clearly remember being 'grossed out' by jackass was the sketch where three people each tried to drink five gallons of milk in one sitting. One had plain milk, one had vanilla and the other chocolate. Things proceed along at a pedestrian enough pace while they start drinking the milk, until the vomiting starts... and keeps going for a full two minutes, with the low-budget, d.i.y. style only making the viewing experience more visceral.
Dirty Sanchez is of the same ilk as Jackass, and came along at the peak of that show's popularity, so it would be easy to think the two shows were identical, but there are differences. The lads are Welsh for a start, but their brand of stunt is more based on pain and humiliation than Jackass' inventions or slapstick set-pieces... I can imagine that this doesn't make Dirty Sanchez sound like a barrel of laughs, but permit me to digress here for a moment. (Make it quick! - Ed)
Everybody knows of a stag night story where the groom-to-be - after inviting his best friends in the world to celebrate - ended up on the receiving end of a particularly evil prank. The fact is, that when men get together to have fun, they generally do it at someone else's expense. If you fall asleep early on a stag night, you may as well say to the others present: "hey lads, please shave off one of my eyebrows." There's some part of a bloke's DNA that just enjoys that sort of thing. But when we tell our girlfriends, we were only really watching someone else do it, and of course, we thought it was terrible, juvenile behaviour.
Dirty Sanchez: The Movie is a sequence of scenes that attempt to tap into that DNA. The movie is a shock-fest and you constantly wonder where it will all end, but to their credit, the four lads - idiots though they are - appear all too aware of their own shortcomings. Even from the very first scene, they display an awareness that they may have to set limits for themselves, or they'll possibly end up dead. This is the extent to which they suffer for their, ahem, art.
The premise - for what it's worth - is that the lads must travel the world and experience the seven deadly sins, which gives them an awful lot of leeway. Oddly, pride turns out to be the most difficult to watch, although they're all pretty disgusting. There is an added edge to prceedings however, and its the relationship between Dainton and Pritchard, which is so typical of two mates who completely know how to wind each other up. The pranks they play on each other are particularly vindictive, and all the funnier for it, with the world record attempt for the highest number of paintball shots taken by one person a very funny sequence indeed.
I would heartily recommend this movie to fans of Borat, Southpark, or Jackass, because it taps into the same responses as those movies. You'll be watching between your fingers at times, you'll be shocked regularly because it does occasionally go too far, but the audience is well prepared for those moments in advance.
Let's be honest, if you've heard of 'Dirty Sanchez', you probably already know whether you'll watch this movie. All I can say is, I watched it after a bellyfull of beers and I laughed my ass off. I didn't learn much from the experience, except possibly to be very careful if I ever find myself drinking with a Welshman. (Most people would know that already though - Ed)
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
The verdict: When Harry met Sally and Hallucinated and Sally went Bananas and Tried to Kill Harry
The craziness: Piano wire, nightmarish hallucinations, dismemberment, decapitation, needles where they shouldn't be and a dead puppy.
The rating: 5/10
Folks, I have to say, this box of Asian DVDs is suddenly throwing out some pretty extreme stuff, and there's only one man to blame: Takashi Miike. I had previously said Ichi the Killer was now the second most extreme movie of my brief viewing career. Well, I spoke to soon, because Audition is a new entry in my all-time-crazy-extreme top five, and it's also directed by Mr. Miike. All I can say is, his parents must be proud.
This dark, nightmarish tale of two perspectives is like a David Lynch-inspired bad trip. There are similar themes in here to Ichi, with childhood traumas triggering violent adult behaviour, and pain being inflicted in copious amounts, but 'Audition' is a very different prospect to the comic-book style ultra-violence of Ichi.
For the first hour, things move along at a pace so pedestrian, you wonder why it's considered a horror movie in the first place. Aoyama's (Ryo Ishibashi) wife has passed away seven years ago, and a passing remark from his teenage son prompts the lonely old middle-aged codger to get back on the wagon and start dating again.
When Aoyama discusses this prospect with a movie producer friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) the buddy thinks it would be a good idea to advertise a non-existent female role in a movie, and use the audition to choose a girl for Aoyama to go out with...
So, this is not a decision loaded with moral fibre, but if it means he doesn't have to go speed-dating or a traffic light ball then it's a winner, right? Well, Takashi Miike doesn't make things quite so clear cut.
When Aoyama sees Asami's application for the part, he instantly falls for her, and even though the letter accompanying her picture makes her sound like a dangerous serial killer, and her references don't check out, he decides to date her. You sense that things might not go well for this guy, and, well, not to spoil things at all, you'd be right. As I mentioned, for the first hour, the proceedings plod along, until the couple decide to go away for a weekend, and suddenly it's 'Twin Peaks', drunk and in a contrary mood.
I have just watched Audition, and have not yet slept, but I will bet money that the final scenes are going to give me nightmares. Quentin Tarantino caused a global scandal by not even showing an ear getting chopped in a torture scene, and then we have this. Let's just say these scenes are in the same ballpark, but if you thought Reservoir Dogs was shocking, then Audition definitely won't be for you.
So the violence will probably shock most, but the hallucinatory dream sequences leave us in some doubt as to whether Aoyama's actions were as pure as we were lead to believe in the first hour. However, the punishment meted out to him in the last fifteen minutes is, well, a little excessive I reckon.
If you're looking to interpret proceedings, Miike is perhaps extolling the virtues of telling the truth, looking after kids in case they grow up as violent killers, and only dating girls whose references check out. However, I found this movie to be too slow at first, then too weird, then too violent. Where Ichi the Killer was fun, in a strange way, this wasn't half as enjoyable.
Recommended for fans of Manga and David Lynch, this won't be suitable for most, and for this reason it does not get a PCMR recommendation. If you're collecting extreme movie experiences, then you might possibly be drawn to watch Audition for sheer curiosity value. However, if you want to get a little more enjoyment from your ultra-extreme movies, I'd suggest you partake in something else, like 'Oldboy', or 'Ichi the Killer'.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
So, in terms of movies, the first half of 2007 has been pretty forgettable so far. With the possible exception of 'Zodiac' (which I still haven't seen, dammit), cinema audiences haven't had much to get excited about yet this year... unless the 'third instalments' on show (Pirates, Shrek, Spiderman, Ocean and later this year the third Rush Hour for bejayzis sake) are doing it for you... But come on, surely the blockbuster production line can do better?
Well fear not folks, for popcorn movie assistance is on its way, with PCMR's preview of some of the big guns to be unleashed on cinema screens in the second half of this year. Yes, that's right, H2'07 baby, it's judgement day!! (Good lord... I'll be in the other room - Ed) Here's five big ones for ye!
The internet's true purpose is currently, and possibly always was, to propagate information on this movie. Hugo Weaving will add to his status of 'Overlord of all Nerds' as he voices Megatron in this mega-budget Michael Bay explosions-and-effects-fest. Autobots take on Decepticons, and we drool into our popcorn as the carnage ensues... ex-cellent! I have to confess though, this trailer does look mighty impressive..
Die Hard 4.0
Why not the american title 'Live Free or Die Hard'? Is that any less ridiculous? Aanyway, so this one sees McClane trying to get his daughter back from terrorists and... well you know the deal... the trailer looks waay over the top, and Bruce even saw fit to go on message boards and tell fans this one is better than the first. Well jeez, that's not saying much is it? The trailer speaks louder than my words though:
This one couldn't have more pedigree, even if it were a thoroughbred racehorse named 'Chum'. Directed by Ridley "you may have heard of me" Scott, written by Stephen "Schindler's List" Zaillian, and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, this one has the weight of expectation to deal with, so lets hope its as good as it promises to be. Telling the tale of gangsters in the 70's and with Denzel as the bad guy, Ridley Scott's Martin Scorcese impression has got to be worth watching.
Are you going to argue with a Russian billionaire!? The stylish and enjoyable 'Nightwatch' is Roman Abramovich's favourite film, so the benevolent baron may even have been involved in funding this, the sequel to Russia's answer to 'Blade' (that's how rumours start - Ed). Given that this is part two of a trilogy, and it's already done a roaring trade in the land of vodka and bread queues, I'll be lining up to see this one... (review coming soon by the way.)
3:10 to Yuma
The fact that Russell Crowe and the always excellent Christian Bale are in this one draws my attention, even though it's my least favourite genre, the western... unless it's a musical western... and okay, so director James Mangold did make Identity, but he also made 'Copland' and 'Walk the Line', so on balance you get those two hours of your life back, see? Also, it's penned by Stuart Beattie, who also wrote 'Collateral', and Tom Cruise would have been in it, but for an unfortunate case of being completely nuts (you mean 'troubled' - Ed).
Sunday, June 10, 2007
The verdict: Two hours of shock and awe. Takashi Miike is pushing the extreme envelope with Ichi the Killer.
The craziness: Torture, arterial spray, sado-masochism, rape and an assortment of other depravities I'm trying to put out of my mind to be honest.
The rating: 6/10
Right... well, where to start with Ichi the Killer, but with the other movies I've seen that come close in terms of extreme shock value? Irreversible remains the most difficult movie I've ever watched, and Oldboy had previously come a close second. The difference between the two was the level of entertainment to be found in Oldboy, which even managed to include one or two darkly comic moments amidst all the mayhem. Irreversible offered no such respite, and that still remains the most affected I have ever been by a movie, in that it made me feel physically ill.
Takashi Miike's movie sits somewhere between the two of these, and is in the same vein of 'extreme' film. It is ultra-violent and horrific, but not completely devoid of a sense of humour, albeit a very very dark one.
Some of the bloody action sequences are just so over the top that they have the comic value of something like Peter Jackson's 'Braindead' or maybe 'The Story of Ricky'. These scenes include the liberal use of aterial spray and severed limbs, and the rather clever device of initially just following the people who 'clean up' after Ichi has done his killing... these scenes show us Ichi's aftermath, organs and entrails make the floor slippery and give us a sense of foreboding about this mysterious assassin.
The story (for what it's worth!) centers around a bunch of in-fighting Yakuza gangs. When the boss of the Anjo gang goes missing, his number 1, a thoroughly despicable torturer named Kakahari - the man in the poster above - sets about trying to find him, using any means necessary.
We are introduced to Kakahari immediately after seeing the after-effects of Ichi's handiwork for the first time, and while we are wondering what kind of ruthless killer Ichi is going to be, we soon learn that Kakahari enjoys pain. Not just inflicting pain, but having pain inflicted on him. His face is horrifically scarred, and we gradually learn that these marks were inflicted by boss Anjo, and that Kakahari has a bizarre attachment to the boss as a result.
While this maniac tortures other mob bosses to find his own, we learn a little more about Ichi himself. This character is truly bizarre, and will defy explanation, but I'll attempt to do him justice as briefly as I can... Right, so he was bullied as a kid, and witnessed a rape, which he actually enjoyed watching. Now grown up, he is being controlled by an enemy of the gangs - a guy named Jijii - who has somehow programmed Ichi to hate and want to kill the Yakuza bullies. When Jijii sends Ichi into a yakuza apartment to take out the bad guys, he dons his black leather superhero costume, replete with blades in the heels of his boots. When his victims inevitably make the mistake of mickey out of his appearance, Ichi burts into tears, but, Incredible Hulk-style, crying triggers his programming, and he literally tears the bad guys to shreds.
The thing is, Ichi is reluctant to inflict violence, while Kakahari revels in it. In fact, Kakahari is addicted to pain, whether it be the giving or receiving. Ichi meanwhile, is in constant trauma about the violence he is inflicting on others, seemingly without any conscious decision on his part. Their separate paths seem on an inevitable collision course, but what will happen when these two incredibly different insane killers meet?
And that's about the size of it... Ichi is thoroughly extreme and not for the faint-hearted. It's nowhere near as good as Oldboy, but marginally more enjoyable than Irreversible, mainly because Ichi's blood-letting is generally way over the top... apart from a few highly questionable scenes involving women. (Women don't generally do to well out of this movie by the way). Kakahari's scenes are far less enjoyable though, given that they involve rather imaginative and nightmarish torture methods. (Including one scene with a scissors that Robert Rodriguez shamelessly lifted for 'Planet Terror')
The following people will almost certainly enjoy 'Ichi the Killer':
1. Asia extreme collectors
2. Horror movie fans
3. Manga fans
If you're not any of those things, you won't like this movie. If, on the other hand, you partake in one of the three activities mentioned above, you'll find a lot in Ichi that you might not have seen before. At the end of the day, it's pretty much a kooky video nasty that kids and students will use to try and gross out their mates after a few pints. High-brow dramatic art it most certainly ain't, unless I missed something when I was watching from between my fingers...
The double-feature verdict: Planet Terror is absolutely brilliant fun, and the exploitation trailers are excellent, but Death Proof just ain't that good at all really.
The verdict: A rollicking good laugh. Hugely imaginative, gruesome, funny and unpredictable.
The rating: 8/10
The verdict: Heavy on dialogue, light on action. Not interesting enough by half.
The rating: 5/10
The double-feature rating: 7/10
Perhaps due to poor box-office in the U.S., the European release of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's lo-fi exploitation cinema double feature is being split in two, with Tarantino's 'Death Proof' only being released here on September 21st (say what!? - Ed) and no release date confirmed as yet for Rodriguez's 'Planet Terror'.
I didn't actually think that the distribution travesty of Darren Arronofsky's 'The Fountain' - which still hasn't been released in this country yet - could be topped, but I'm unhappy to say that I was wrong.
You see, Tarantino and Rodriguez specifically made this movie as a double-feature. Grindhouses were the seedy establishments that used to show this type of double-feature movie, and to go see one in a grindhouse would put you in the company of some fairly seedy late-night punters... The two directors tried to re-create that experience by using special effects to give the impression of old, battered prints, by showing trailers for fictitious 'coming attractions' before each feature presentation, and by paying homage to two staples of the exploitation genre: zombies, and killers of pretty girls.
I caught a viewing of the entire double feature last night, and I can safely say that, as a double feature, Grindhouse is a unique movie. From the outset, where we see a trailer for an ultra-violent exploitation movie called 'Machete', the scene is set for a rollicking good laugh, and Robert Rodriguez's 'Planet Terror' is everything you would hope to see in an over-the-top, gorey, tongue-in-cheek homage to the grainy and cheap, but imaginative monster movies of the '70s.
The movie features gratuitous violence, zombie mayhem, gruesome twists, and some cracking dialogue. Freddy Rodriguez is great as the unlikely action hero, but Marley Shelton and Rose McGowan - with the best prosthetic limb ever seen - are the real stars of this segment. Naveen Andrews (Said from Lost) also turns up as the bollock-collecting bad guy, and his first scenes in the movie should have them screaming in the aisles, with popcorn being thrown in the air so people can avert their eyes, smashing stuff.
After the exhilaration of Planet Terror, we are treated to a few more previews of coming attractions: 'Thanksgiving', 'Don't', and the unforgettable 'Werewolf Women of the SS'. These are also excellent, with Nicholas Cage's one line in the movie possibly the best performance he's turned in since 'Raising Arizona'.
But then comes Tarantino's 'Death Proof', which couldn't really be any more different from Planet Terror. It features Kurt Russell as 'Stuntman Mike', and a whole lot of cute girls in shorts. At 80 minutes, this will be a short movie to see in it's own right, but I'd advise steering clear of it, as it's just not that good. After the exhilaration of Planet Terror, Death Proof seemed heavy on dialogue, light on likeable characters, and just plodded along really. The women all talk like they're Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, and they constantly put on songs from jukeboxes and dance to them like they're classics we should be aware of.. far too keen to be cool this one.
Technically, it is well worked, featuring long cuts of dialogue-heavy scenes, and a couple of well-worked car chase sequences, but that doesn't stop it from being quite a turgid ninety minutes.
I'd recommend seeing the entire double feature of 'Grindhouse', but do yourself a favour and buy the Dvd when the region 1 version is released in a couple of weeks. If you wait until September, and only get to see 'Death Proof', you will be very diasppointed.. If on the other hand, you want a great cinema experience, cross your fingers and hope that 'Planet Terror' is eventually released here. Now that's entertainment!
Saturday, June 09, 2007
The verdict: Gripping, relentless and incredibly moving account of an historic event that places you right there in real time as it unfolds. Not to be missed.
The rating: 8/10
There are certain subjects that make you wonder, is this really fodder for entertainment? I recall a time during a summer spent working in Germany, when myself and some friends visited Dachau, one of the largest concentration camps of the second world war. The camp itself is preserved on the outskirts of Dachau village, which happens to be a pleasant, sleepy commuter town on the outskirts of Munich's suburbs. The camp, however, is obviously a different story. After watching a thirty minute film about what the horrors that occurred at Dachau during the war years, we were plunged from the comforting safety of the small cinema, into the actual camp we had just seen on screen. We wandered around the grounds of the camp for around an hour, with the ghosts of the film we had just seen still running through our minds as we moved silently through buildings, dormitories, showers... I'm not sure how to describe just how devastating that experience was, but ultimately it was a formative one, and hugely worthwhile.
Afterwards though, I struggled to describe to people why they should go to visit Dachau, given we are so used to describing experiences in terms of straight-forward positives. But "you should go, it's great" isn't really a great way to prepare someone for this kind of experience, or the kind of emotional impact that such an experience provokes.
Paul Greengrass knows this type of subject, and this type of subject matter all too well. His first major film success came with the gritty, realistic 'Bloody Sunday', a story set against the backdrop of one of the most bitterly remembered days in the history of the Northern Ireland troubles.
Bloody Sunday won Greengrass much critical acclaim, not only for it's mature treatment of the emotionally fraught and complex subject matter, but also for the level of realism that he brought to the finished movie, with natural dialogue and shaky hand-held cameras compounding the feeling of actually being there with these characters on that day. This style translated well to more standard Hollywood fare for Greengrass, when he helmed the successful Bourne sequel 'The Bourne Supremacy'.
I have to be honest though folks, when I first heard about United 93, I wasn't all that keen. Given that it was a little soon, and there was the possibility of exploiting the story of 9/11, I wasn't exactly in a rush out to get out to see it. I mean, it tells the story of the September 11th hi-jacks, where the passengers of United flight 93 usurp control of their flight from the hijackers, and ensure that the terrorists' target is missed, but at the ultimate cost to themselves. So... let's just say it's not exactly date movie material.
However in reality, United 93 is an excellent re-telling of the events of that most memorable of days in recent world history, but from the points of view of the main protagonists in the events. Not only the passengers, crew and hi-jackers of United 93, but also the air traffic controllers in New York and Boston who are attempting to comprehend events as they unfold and return some sort of order, and also the military men, whose influence over events was actually very limited relative to the air traffic control centers.
When a story such as this is on the news, it's relatively easy to switch off, to perhaps shed a quick tear for the victims, and then switch over to a good comedy, and quickly put that dark story out of your mind. What Greengrass' movie does so effectively is viscerally put you through the experience of that day. As the passengers of United 93 fasten their seat-belts on screen, the audience should also strap themselves in for the ride, because the hour and three-quarters to follow are going to be a relentless, emotionally draining, but ultimately worthwhile experience.
I'm struggling to find the correct terms in which to recommend United 93, but let me be clear folks, this is not 'Blades of Glory'. For two hours, you will be right there on September the 11th, and for some, this will be too much to handle. However, the manner in which the film is made, the level of research and attention to detail, and the pure tension of the movie, make this deserving of your time. This is not exploitation of human tragedy, far from it. What United 93 does is honour the memories of real people who paid the ultimate cost to prevent what may have been another disaster on the scale of the Twin Towers. In the same way as Dachau, this monument should remain standing, and it deserves to be visited.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
The verdict: Yes it's got battles 'n' bloodshed galore, and superficially, it looks great. Scratch a little below the surface however, and 300 ain't got a lot to offer.
The rating: 6/10
300 may as well be called 1,800, for that is the number of rippling abs you will see on screen (and I'm only counting the Spartans there). This movie, if anything, is a triumph of muscle definition.
Some of my favourite movies' have been book-to-movie translations ('The Godfather', 'Trainspotting', 'A Scanner Darkly'...) but when considering adaptations, there are also the notable failures, where the screen version just couldn't match the expectation of fans of the book ('Bonfire of the Vanities', 'Catch 22' and 'Frankenstein' among others).
Lately movie makers have begun tapping the graphic novel archives as a new source of material to inveigle for their own nefarious purposes. 'V For Vendetta', 'A History of Violence', 'Sin City' were all good movies, and the forthcoming 'Watchmen' is eagerly anticipated. However, it seems that with graphic-novel-to-movie adaptations, too, there can also be failures to refer to, with the former being in the positive column, and 300 being, well, a qualified success at best.
I haven't read the 300 graphic novel, but I have a strong feeling that the medium of the printed page may be a better delivery mechanism than the big screen for a story like this. You see, the problem with '300' is that, although it looks great, there really isn't a whole lot going on under the surface.
It tells the story of Leonidas (Gerard Butler), king of the Spartans, who heroically stood with 300 warriors against the forces of Xerxes, who commanded an army of a million Persian soldiers. So, it's got battles. Sounds cool so far right? Also, it features a little of Spartan legend, and Sparta was a pretty cool place, as far as history goes. All that kids left on mountainsides to fend for themselves, fierce warriors and death before surrender stuff, cracking material for a movie right? Then you have the mystical Persian army, with their assortment of animals, magicians and monsters to throw at the Spartans, that's got to add to the battle scenes, right?
Well, all that is well and good, but I would argue that a two hour battle does not alone a movie make. You need to care about what happens first. And this is where '300' ultimately fails. Even early on, we learn that the Spartan soldiers actually welcome an honourable death in battle, laughing at their Athenian counterparts who fear it. So... they're happy to die, should we feel any different about their fate? Apparently not, as Frank Miller's story doesn't really try to encourage you to feel sorry for the Spartans in the least. Even Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headley) seems so emotionally strong and secure, that we're not sure if she's unhappy about Leonidas' crazy quest to lead these warriors to this impossible battle.
So, it's lacking in emotional depth, fair enough, but what am I, a pussy? Surely people aren't watching 300 for soppy reasons of drama and heartfelt emotion? Well, I disagree, and point a finger squarely in the direction of the film that 300 must surely benchmark itself against: 'Gladiator'. In that movie, Russell Crowe's Maximus had many, many good reasons to fight. He cried wholeheartedly at the death of his family, (with snot too - Ed) he strove for revenge against the evil incestuous emperor, he even had Oliver Reed on his side! We connected with him, and we wanted him to win.
Contrast that with Leonidas' steely impenetrable gazes into the middle distance, as the annoying voice-over proclaims how he is duty-bound not to display emotion... then, against Leonidas we have Xerxes, one of the strangest and campest (if that's a word) bad guys in recent movie memory, but certainly not a figure of evil. He just happens to have a larger army than Leonidas... Because of these two main characters, in terms of one side against another, we're never really concerned with who wins or loses. (No, we just want to see a good bloody ruck - Ed)
The action scenes are impressive, and Gerard Butler has surely made a name for himself as something of an action star with this one. However, too many montages, a rather contrived voice-over, not enough connection with the central characters, and an indifference about the outcome of the battle are the main problems I have with 300. That, and and an uncomfortable number of men in speedos. It is action-packed and has a good sense of humour, but it's no classic. Possibly a good one to watch on Dvd after the pub, when the action scenes are all you really care about.
Monday, June 04, 2007
The verdict: Atmospheric and languid in it's telling-style, this one is noble and heartfelt. Although it's ambitious in scope, it hits more targets than it misses. (Pardon the expression)
The rating: 6/10
Pulp Fiction really has a lot to answer for. These days, the 'vignette movie', or the many-plots-with-an-ensemble-cast style of film-making has become ever more popular. Audiences like this type of film because it caters to our zapping natures, we get a quick dose of one story then bang, onto the next, without any commercial break to boot. Actors like them because they get a star billing for fewer days on set (think Ocean's 11, 12, and 13). And least importantly, critics like them because they get to sound all clever by talking about things like 'narrative structures' and 'plot devices'. Everybody's happy.
But folks, I think this has all gone too far. Babel was a good example of the failings of this type of movie, where three average stories linked together by a gunshot. Nice idea in theory, but two of the stories were relatively uninteresting, to the point where I wanted to grab the remote control, and stop the director switching from the film I wanted to watch.
Thankfully, Bobby is a good example of the ensemble piece. It tells the stories of many different characters whose stories are inextricably linked to their movements around the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, a time of huge social and political upheaval throughout the United Sates. Dr. Martin Luther King has just been shot, and the country is at war in Vietnam while preparing to elect their next president.
Many of the characters in 'Bobby' are working at the hotel (Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone, Christian Slater, Freddy Rodriguez, Laurence Fishburne and William H. Macy to name but a few) but others are just using the facilities (Lindsay Lohan, Elijah Wood, Joshua Jackson, Demi Moore, Helen Hunt and even Emilio and his auld fella, himself a former president).
The individual stories are all framed by formative events, a marriage, an extra-marital affair, a reconciliation, a first drug experience to mention just a few, but the audience is not given any real reason to forge any real bond between the separate storylines until the movie is around an hour old.
Traditionally, the first act of a movie sets the scene, but Bobby never really stops this process, with every new all-star episode adding to the ambience and the atmosphere of the piece. The setting of the '60's is very well evoked with subtle touches, such as Heather Graham working in the hotel telephone exchange, manually connecting calls by plugging cables here and there in a manner that makes you wonder how many people actually got through to the right room... Ashton Kutcher, meanwhile, is an acid dealer, using his hotel room as the base of operations. Sharon Stone is helping prepare Lindsay Lohan's nails and Demi Moore's hair in the hotel salon, all the while aware that her husband is having an affair with a hotel employee. Christian Slater, in charge of the kitchens, is surprised to be fired for having racist attitudes. And all this happens in the build-up to Bobby Kennedy's arrival at the hotel that evening.
Each story is a straight-forward perspective of life in the 60's: the kids trying acid, the married couples having difficulties, the repressed black man struggling with his anger. The philanthropic message is delivered in subtle enough manners though, with only Anthony Hopkins once becoming a kind of a moral navigator for us. There is a bad moment with a chess game, but this moment is thankfully one of few where we given explicit moral education by the movie. Put it this way, it could've been worse, Aunt May could have turned up...
There is a 'device' linking the stories together at the end, but by then the message linking all these people together is clear enough for us to 'get it', without banging on too much about it. Which is just as well, because the message at the heart of 'Bobby' is a worthy, heartfelt plea for people to just, sort of, don't be angry, and if we all work at it, we can all get along, y'know?
There are stand-out performances in here, from Sharon Stone in particular, but also very surprisingly from Lindsay Lohan, who is genuinely watchable. (Say what!? - Ed). Demi Moore too is surprisingly good, and her scene with Sharon Stone is great.
The success of Bobby mainly depends on your willingness to buy into an ideological view of the world that cynics may view as romantic. However, given that this message is delivered via the voice Bobby Kennedy, with a few of his speeches given to us as in voice-over at various moments throughout the film, you may just be convinced. (Kennedy is still running for the presidential primaries as the events of the movie begin to unfold). These speeches are genuinely interesting, moving, and quite atypical of the common perception most of us would have about today's American leaders, so I reckon this part of the movie is convincing.
So, overall, I enjoyed it and would recommend it, albeit with certain reservations. (Mainly because I'm a cynic at heart.) The all-star cast makes it watchable though, and what little schmaltz there is is reconciled by the fairly shocking ending.
Friday, June 01, 2007
The verdict: Too long, too slow, too self-indulgent. It might just give you arachnophobia.
The rating: 5/10
In this review I'm going to do something this film failed at: I'll try and keep it brief. Spiderman 3 follows the first two slickly imaginative popcorn flicks in the Peter Parker franchise with a tale that weaves a web with important moral messages to deliver around important choices and controlling the ego. This is ironic because Sam Raimi has succumbed to his own ego with this overblown production, and made many questionable choices in its realisation. The result is a semi-coherent puzzle of a big-budget stinker that entertains in fits and starts, creating a mood of impatience rather than exhilaration.
Chief among my problems with this episode are: the dance sequence, the completely superfluous Stan Lee cameo, the excessive use of kids (including one who says 'way cool') and the melodramatic, poorly written character of Mary-Jane, whose behaviour is so inscrutable, most of the audience will have fallen out of love with her long before the end of the movie. Even Bruce Campbell's cameo feels out of place, and it misses the mark in terms of comedy, jarring as it does with Peter and Mary-Jane's first moment of Greco-Roman tragedy.
There are bits and pieces to like about this movie though. Topher Grace is a welcome addition, and he revels in the material he is given. Thomas Haden Church (who PCMR thought was great in Sideways) is also good as the Sandman, and the scene where he takes his first steps is the best in the movie.
The thing is, this movie has ambitions far above its station as a popcorn flick. It’s trying to be a love story, a love triangle story, a moral tale about power and ego, betrayal and making the right choices… which is all very well, but it just feels so cobbled together between the action sequences, and although the action is typically top-notch, the dialogue is truly awful and the characters difficult to relate to as a result. The character of Aunt May, in particular, feels out of place, appearing every now and again to move along the moral message with all the subtlety of Roy Chubby Brown at a Glasgow dockers' Christmas party.
The venom character is good, but when Peter Parker has the dark suit on you just want to make it stop… I mean.. he dances! My eyes!!
Overall, Spiderman 3 looks like it's going to join the ranks of episode 3's that just weren't trying hard enough: Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End, Ocean's 13, Return of the Jedi, Alien 3, Terminator 3, Rush Hour 3… to name but a few. There may be a Spiderman 4, but my money would be on Tobey Maguire making a quick exit from this sinking ship. If Sam Raimi is allowed make another one, and he has any humility, he'll try a lot harder next time, because this franchise is headed for its very own 'Batman and Robin.'